Q&A with Tyler Mendelsohn, local author of memoir, “Laurel”

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What you’ll notice first about non-binary Baltimore writer Tyler Mendelsohn is what they notice. Their writing has an innocence, a freshness to it–as if they’ve landed from another planet and are taking notes. Their eye lingers on things we take for granted, like the way words sound like other words, the literal meaning of clichés, the psychological acuteness of the syntax of their three-year-old niece. They love to trace the connections formed by coincidence, or what we earthlings call coincidence, as when they read two books and in both there is a pet named Karenin, or how the number 8 is the symbol for infinity and turns up in infinite contexts.

“I have made religions that are based in words, have had strong beliefs grounded in absurdity,” Tyler writes. As they track down the meaning in the ostensibly meaningless, Tyler is both grave and funny, and frequently both at once. And as the child of two psychoanalysts, Tyler is well aware that a hat is rarely just a hat.

Their new memoir Laurel is a series of short meditative essays, composed of short paragraphs. It begins with an essay titled “Lore,” in which they remember a time when they were thinking about their grandmother Lorelle, who died in 2016, and just then a song called “Lorelei” by the Cocteau Twins came on. From there, the essay is a little about their grief for Lorelle, a little about the Cocteau Twins’ drumlines, a little about the myth of temptress Lorelei, and a little about rocks. This all happens in two and a half pages.

Another major topic of the book is sobriety, as this passage explains:

I have a mentor who said recovery memoirs are never as good as stories of excess. When I told her my animal allergies severely diminished when I quit drinking, to the point that I can now happily live with animals, she said, “Now THAT is a good sobriety story. It’s so unusual.” I’ve heard many people say sobriety transformed their lives, but I’ve never heard anyone say their allergies disappeared or they got better at basketball.

It’s become a joke between me and the people closest to me that I attribute everything to sobriety: “I can read faster now that I’m sober;” “I think I’m better at board games since I quit drinking.”

I quit drinking and now I can teleport.

These sober stories are unusual. But something like, “I remember everything I did and said last night” isn’t exciting for people to hear about or read. After almost three years, though, it’s still exciting for me to write.

Mendelsohn answered a few questions about their book for the Baltimore Fishbowl.

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I think I was the mentor who dissed recovery memoirs, but I was moved by the paragraphs I quoted above. Do you think sobriety has changed your writing? How?

You were right though; it’s hard to make a recovery memoir exciting!

I wrote the last piece that was included in the book almost a year ago, so now I’m just about four years sober. Something cool about the timeline for Laurel is that I was newly sober when we started envisioning the project, and gained more long-term sobriety as I worked on it. I feel like I learned something about the changes in my brain through writing this book.

Sobriety has completely transformed the way I see the world. It’s a cliché that addiction makes your world smaller, but I’ve found it to be true. Some of the things I write about are similar to before I got sober—gender, family, finding connections and coincidences, etc.—but the lens through which I see these topics is broader. I’m also more comfortable experimenting now. Before, everything always felt so chaotic and out of my control; if I tried to get a little weird and tangential with it, I felt like I would lose the through-lines. I have more faith in my ability to bring it all back around now. 

Your book does talk about your top surgery but not much about your gender definition. What is your gender now? Can you tell us about when and how you decided to use “they” for your pronoun? 

Sure! I’m non-binary. That means different things to everyone. For me it means that if gender and gender presentation is a spectrum, I’m pretty much in the middle of masculinity and femininity.

I’ve identified as non-binary for over ten years, but I’ve been slowly working out what that means to me. For a long time, I didn’t ask anyone to change pronouns for me, but about half the people in my life were calling me by “they” pronouns and half were using “she”. That split has been like a case study on how different pronouns feel. I always thought that because “she” doesn’t feel terrible like it might for someone else, it was fine to have people use it for me. But within the last few years I’ve realized that whenever someone uses “she” for me, I feel like they’re talking about someone else. It feels like the person is speaking behind the auditory equivalent of a fog machine. When people use “they”, on the other hand, it feels incredible.

There are two “gurus” in your book, your grandmother Lorelle and your niece, Stella. Tell us a little about what you learned from each of them.

Lorelle was really strong in her love. She divorced a man who wasn’t good for her in the early 60’s, when women mostly weren’t doing that because of stigma. She ended up marrying my Poppa, who she would then be with for the next 50 years. When she died, my sister Chelsey and I came to the realization that we’d both always thought we were her favorite grandchild. Probably all of my cousins thought they were too. She made everyone feel like her favorite, because she loved each person for the very idiosyncratic things about them.

Both Lorelle and Stella have taught me how to understand my feelings. When I was in college, Lorelle started having dementia-like qualities that I believe were the result of mini-strokes. Even as she was changing, she stayed emotionally aware. Stella’s so nuanced for a four-year-old in her expression of emotions. I talk in the book about how she identifies her feelings with a lot more ease than I do mine. She also—along with my other niece Juliet who is now a year and a half—has taught me how to be more present.

Who made the drawings in your book? Can you tell us a little about them?

Amanda McCormick of Ink Press Productions created them; she also did the handmade cover. They’re inspired by a tree’s root system, which starts in the ground and expands outward. A lot of the book starts in my personal experience and ends up diving into all these other weird facts and stories and myths, while being interconnected. Amanda had this in mind when she made the images. 

You and Amanda are both graduates of the MFA program at University of Baltimore, as is Tracy Dimond, also part of Ink Press. How does Laurel reflect that background?

This was the first time Ink Press published a book where the content hadn’t been written yet. So there was the collaborative aspect that was so central to the UB MFA program. I would send Amanda and Tracy work; they’d point out what they saw in it and say, “Okay, now write a part two or three.” Coming into UB, I thought it might have some of the same cut-throat competitiveness I’d heard about in other MFA programs. But in my experience it was a supportive, collaborative environment, where people challenged each other in constructive ways. Same with this project.

Also, Ink Press specializes in handmade books. They see the physical book as its own art form. The UB MFA program is so much about teaching students how to pair written and visual work.

What are the plans for your book launch?

The book release party is August 1st at The Undercroft in Remington (2629 Huntingdon Ave, 21211) from 7-10 pm. August 1st is also my four-year soberversary, so it’s going to feel extra celebratory to me. Instead of a typical reading, it’ll be performances from me and seven other people. I chose the performers, but I actually won’t know what anyone else is doing until they go on stage that night. Everyone is incredibly creative, smart and dynamic—and artistically different from each other—so I can’t wait to see what they come up with!

The performers are Sharea Harris, Liz Clayton Scofield, Lynne Price, Mary Adelle Walters, Steph Joyal, Michal Roxie Johnson, Tyler Vile, and me.

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik


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