“For years I kept blogs, and there was always a line of privacy I did not cross,” says Jessa Crispin, the founder and editor in chief of Bookslut.com. “Nobody I ever dated got acknowledged, and half the time I was super cagey about where in the world I was—like if I was traveling, I would never mention I was traveling. I’m incredibly private, so it was an arm’s-length kind of thing.”
Crispin’s debut memoir fearlessly breaks down those barriers—beginning mid-crisis when a Chicago cop is called to her apartment to interrupt a supposed suicide attempt. In an intimately dark opening chapter that illuminates the genesis of The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Ex-Pats, and Ex-Countries, Crispin denies any real desire to physically act on her suicidal impulses; her life change would take the form of a writing-travel project. She writes, “It was the dead I wanted to talk to. The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night: I needed to know how they did it. I’d always been attracted to the unloosed, the wandering souls who were willing to scrape their lives clean and start again elsewhere… Maybe now that I was nearing the end, an end, maybe the dead would talk back.”
Feeling like her life was no longer sustainable and she lacked the possibility of movement in Chicago, Crispin packed a marginally functional wardrobe, a laptop and a few books, and exiled herself to Europe. After conducting extensive research on the biographies of potential “dead” subjects, she culled a list of 10 artists and set out to commune with her kindred spirits. Immersed in foreign cities while trying to make sense of her own disarrayed life, Crispin also struggled to find her place in the writing world.
“I had never done travel writing before I did this book, so I was trying to figure out all of this stuff as I was actually writing the book and doing the travel….What kind of travel writer—am I even a travel writer?” Crispin says. “Each place I was in for at least a month because I knew I didn’t want to be that guy who goes to a place for three days and then has things to say about the country. I was very conscious about wanting to go into each place having done a ton of research as to the history of the country, so that I wasn’t looking up stuff on Wikipedia to figure it out.”
Crispin embarks each pilgrimage with well-informed historical context, sharp cultural observations, and witty insights about what she may or may not glean from the lives of wavering artists. First she stops in Berlin, where she finds professional inspiration through exploring William James’ early floundering career. As the shadow of Crispin’s married lover overcasts her journey, she hops a train to Trieste to seek solace in Nora Barnacle, the extremely patient wife of James Joyce.
However, with each enlightened step of the journey, Crispin does not always delight in what she discovers. “It’s not always a good idea to go sniffing around in your favorite writers’ underwear drawer,” she says of such disappointing discoveries like Jean Rhys, whom Crispin decides is a despicable social climber when she traces the writer’s life in London.
On the surface, gallivanting around Europe for a year and a half, drinking white wine, and eating calamari and panna cotta sounds like a dream, but Crispin’s fierce candor demystifies the process of soul-searching as a lonely, sore back, insomnia-inducing, bank account-reducing affair. “The thing that kept me going were these dead people, and being able to have conversations with them, and being able to break my life down—this life that wasn’t working—and look at each part. To have these people, who like William James, and to be able to see his life, for a lot of it, did not make sense to him, and so it’s okay if my life does not make sense to me because he goes through it and maybe I will,” she explains.
“We have these ideas about what a writer’s life should be, what an artist’s life should be, what anybody’s life should be, and it never lines up with the reality, and it also never lines up with our life… .All these expectations, there’s just no need, and if you live without those things for long enough then you figure out you don’t need them, then you can forgive yourself for not matching up with the thing in your head.”Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her first book of poetry, What Is Not Missing Is Light, was released last fall.