Published on May 2nd, 2013 | by Elizabeth Coleman0
Ali Liebegott on Road Trips, Addiction and Queer Life
When I spoke to author Ali Liebegott on the phone, she was sitting in the back of the van of the legendary traveling spoken word performance group Sister Spit, hurtling down Interstate 5 toward Pasadena for a show. Liebegott, known for her work with Sister Spit and her novels, The Beautifully Worthless and The IHOP Papers, is something of a San Francisco literary kingpin in alternative circles.
Her latest book, Cha-Ching! is a raw, rollercoaster of a story about a queer girl’s attempt to redefine herself by moving from San Francisco to New York, struggling with her addictions to gambling, drugs, alcohol and love for a librarian named Marisol.
Liebegott herself is refreshingly honest and funny. When I asked her if she had a thing for librarians (having noticed that librarians pop up quite often in her writing), she just laughed, denying that she did.
“I just really like libraries,” she said. “Libraries were the place you went before the internet to find yourself. They’ve always been a special place for me.”
Liebegott took the time to speak to Art Animal about the importance of unisex bathrooms, oxytocin, and people’s attempts to reinvent themselves by moving to a new city.
AA: In Cha Ching!, your portrayal of gambling addiction felt very real. Do you have personal experience with gambling?
Ali Liebegott: When I was young, my grandparents moved to Las Vegas, so I spent a lot of time around casinos, and my uncle was a blackjack dealer. I also lived in Providence, Rhode Island for three years, teaching at a community college that was directly across from a dog track and casino.
Gambling used to be the fastest growing addiction in America. And when all the Indian casinos popped up, it became even more prevalent because they were more accessible than places like Reno or Las Vegas. There are all these studies about how gambling affects the same part of your brain as heroin. When you hit the slot machine button, you get a release of dopamine.
AA: Gambling is often glorified leading people to believe that it is all glitz and glamour. In Cha-Ching!, you place heavier emphasis on the things you stand to lose through gambling.
AL: Exactly. You don’t want to think about the bad side: the grandmas in their adult diapers so they don’t have to get up to pee, gambling away their social security paychecks.
AA: It also seemed like love acted as a different type of addiction in the book.
AL: Totally. Theo kind of believes Marisol will solve everything. People think that if they just meet the right person, then their life will change and everything will be all right. But after six months, the oxytocin wears off, and you are back to feeling how you felt before.
AA: Why do you think there is a lack of female roadtrip stories?
AL: I actually don’t feel like there is a lack of them. I feel like there is a lack of people publishing them. Or if they do get published, they are never reviewed or talked about. I think it has to do with the fact that men, especially white men, have the freedom to travel anywhere while women do not. When a female character takes a roadtrip, there are all these things you have to think about. Take Thelma and Louise, for example. There is going to be some sort of sexual assault or sexual harassment on the road. When you write, you have to keep those things in the back of your head at all times. Your character has to navigate through the world in her body.
AA: I was so shocked by a particular scene in Cha-Ching! when Theo’s friend gives her a wig to wear into the bathroom while traveling through the Midwest so she would’t get harassed. I didn’t even realize that was something people had to deal with.
AL: We are in the van right now and were just discussing where to go to the bathroom. We often stop at Starbucks because navigating bathrooms can be tricky and theirs is unisex so it makes everything easier. I mean, some people won’t drink anything all day in the van because they don’t want to deal with going to the bathroom.
AA: That must be really difficult. I mean, going to the bathroom is kind of an important life function.
AL: I know, right? Like, I just want to take a fucking piss, like everyone else at Disneyland!
AA: Do you think people can reinvent themselves by moving? Or are they always going to be haunted and influenced by things in the past?
AL: In Cha-Ching! Theo is trying to start her life over by moving. But you kind of know when you read the book that it’s not going to be like roses when she gets to New York. That idea that you can just start your life over doesn’t really work like that. You are still the same person, just in a different space. There is that saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I think people can reinvent themselves, but I think some sort of other epiphany has to happen. Like in Cha-Ching!, with the ending, it was my intention to have this sort of questionable ending whether or not Theo and Marisol are going to be on a different road.
AA: It definitely has an ambiguous, bittersweet ending. All Theo and Marisol could do was keep moving forward, knowing that they have these demons inside them that might throw them off their path. I think a lot of people, myself included, have these sort of self-destructive demons inside them.
AL: There is always that moment where you have to choose whether you remain where you are or more forward. I wanted it to be a moment of them moving forward, even if it didn’t last. I mean, they’re a fucking trainwreck, so who knows.
AA: Do you have a different self that you manifest when you write?
AL: Well, you’re a writer, so you understand this. But sometimes you write things that you don’t even recognize when you read over it later. Like I will read something from Cha-Ching! and have no memory of having written it. It’s a bit disturbing. But I do think you get into this different zone accessing all these different philosophies and ideas. I knew I wanted to write about addiction, and wanted to capture some of the neighborhoods that are now gentrified in New York. Sometimes things don’t take the form you thought they would. I didn’t think the focus would end up on a love story.