“A Love Letter to Music and Collaboration”: Carrie Brownstein on Her Memoir ‘Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl’

Carrie Brownstein recently published her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl on Riverhead books. It’s a deftly woven narrative of its author’s early life and how it informed her work in the seminal PacNW punk rock band Sleater-Kinney. The focus is narrowed to the people, places, and events that were influential to the band, omitting superfluous or overly sentimental details. A brisk and fascinating work, it reads like an extended feature in a high-minded literary magazine, which may just be what she was going for.

We called Brownstein at her hotel in New York, where she was knee-deep in the rounds of press for Hunger‘s release, to talk about the reanimation of Sleater-Kinney, the slog of writing, and the site specificity of performance. The conversation is below, edited for brevity and clarity, with a bonus audio clip at the end from her self-narrated audiobook.

Flavorwire: You’ve said that weren’t comfortable sharing more than just the music with your fans. Your visibility has never really been higher than it is right now, so what made you decide to open up more with this book?

Carrie Brownstein: Well, I think there’s a real deliberate narrative arc in this book. I chose stories and vignettes that serve that arc and it necessitated a… sense of openness that included them. If they were superfluous and seemed overly sentimental, then I omitted them. It was a very intentional creative endeavor. At the same time, I was inspired by books like Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, which is a very specific story of his journey from childhood and with the circus in Disneyland, up until the point that he did Saturday Night Live. I kind of liked that he ends at the beginning that people know who he is, and structurally, I felt comfortable with that same story. As a container it was a better place for that story to fit.

So that’s why you chose to omit much of your acting career from the book, to focus on this very specific Sleater-Kinney-driven narrative?

That’s exactly why. It served the theme of the book, and to me Portlandia is very much in subtext of the book in terms of the experience in Olympia, in indie rock. Those are the seeds of Portlandia. But yes, structurally, that story… going from disembodied to embodied, seeking belonging, feeling marginalized, like that was better served through Sleater-Kinney.

You’ve also said that you started this before Sleater-Kinney got back together, but how do you think this book would be different if that reunion never happened? Or you think that they’re inexorably tied together?

That’s an interesting question, because from my own perspective, it did almost feel like exhuming a corpse. Because it felt like through writing the book, I was reanimating this band and this collaboration. Of course for a while, that was only in my head, and on the page, and then strangely and eventually, [it became] real life. So I’m not sure, nor do I care to imagine how the book would have been different if we hadn’t gotten back together. But it presented me with an epilogue.

I’ve also read that you’re hyper-conscious of how the book was going to be received by your bandmates, and you really wanted them to be cool with what you wrote. And you dedicated this to them. Who else did you feel like you kind of had to clear some of these biographical details with, and what was that process like?

I really only cleared it with bandmates. I believe it’s not a pervasive book, it’s very much a love letter to music and collaboration. It wasn’t the kind of story that I felt needed, or necessitated, a sit-down with people. At the same time, I also was aware that I was writing with my own perspective, that it wasn’t the definitive biography of Sleater-Kinney, there was subjectivity inherent within, so I think most people in the book are aware of that, that it’s one person’s take on a set of events.

How did your parents react? What were their thoughts the first time you shared it with them? It seems that your obviously very personal details about them ultimately served to tell the story of you and then the band, but it’s always different to know that and then to see it in print. Was any awkwardness for them there?

I think my father realizes that these experiences are who made me, and that’s how I see them too, so we share that perspective. Though some of the childhood may have been painful or disruptive or unsettling that it help, or me, turned me into the person I am today. And that through those experiences, I sought out performance and creativity.

What would you say is the hardest part about this whole process? The most challenging aspect of putting a book like this together?

There’s no shortcut for writing a book. You must know this as a writer, there’s nothing magic about it, where you have an idea or concept in your head and it just magically appears on the page. You have to sit down and write, and the rigorous discipline of obsessing and completing and trudging through the task at hand, was the most difficult. Most of my projects or collaborations, I’m used to being carried along and augmented, with talents and brains and inspiration of other people, and I didn’t have that in this case. So, the most difficult was just waking up and doing it, and not allowing distractions or procrastination.

Who was your editor on this book, and what was the editing process like?

Geoff Kloske, the head of Riverhead Books, he’s my editor. I had him, and then I had one specific reader, one my oldest friends [Chelsey Johnson]. She’s a keen editor of my work. Geoff would write back with questions to make sure that everything was illuminated… he would bring up issues, [things] that didn’t have enough clarity to them, the big questions. My friend would help with structure: “What if you moved this section here?”, things like that. I would write and then send large chunks off to them for feedback.

So now that you’ve got the memoir in the can, do you have plans to write another book? if so, what would it be about?

I’d like to write more nonfiction, I think something non-autobiographical. The next thing I’m working on will be not in book form. But definitely more writing in general.

Can you give us a hint, or share what you’re thinking of for your next project?

I can’t right now, but honestly, in the near future, I [will] be focusing on the rest of the Sleater-Kinney tours and then going back to Transparent and Portlandia. I think the healthiest thing I could say, is that I’m going to not do work for a while in December.

Speaking of December, tell me a little about this mini-tour of small club dates in New York that Sleater-Kinney’s got coming up. What was thought process behind it? You guys obviously can play bigger rooms than Irving Plaza and Market Hotel.

Yeah, it’s called a “Vanishing” tour, and essentially what we’re doing is starting out playing big venues in New York, and each night, the venues get increasingly smaller. I think instead of doing a traditional stand somewhere, which of course, is doing a series of shows in just one venue, we wanted to change the setting. Something I love about David Byrne’s book, How Music Works, he talks so much about the site-specificity of performance and how that changes the nature of what’s happening on stage and the interactions between the performers and the audience… each setting is unique. I think we wanted to play with that and create different context for the shows, in hopes that they would change the perception and reception of the music. We will be do something a little bit different each night, I hope to have different guests for each show. But I really love playing small venues as much as you relish the bigger stages. So I think it will be fun to end up in a small sweaty club with two or three hundred people. That’s a great way to end a year, I think for some reason.

For sure. Market Hotel, even in its short history, has got a lot of great memories.

I’m really excited for it.

Brownstein  recorded the narration for the audio version of her book, available now from Penguin Random House. You can listen to a clip from the book’s prologue below; the setting is Europe, 2006, and Sleater-Kinney are struggling through the tour that would mark the beginning of their (temporary) end.