Writer Jessa Crispin, founder of the influential blog Bookslut, left the United States for a life as an expat in 2009. Now, she has a new book about artists who did the same.

By Molly McArdle
November 12, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press (left); Courtesy of Jessa Crispin(right)

Jessa Crispin, founder of Bookslut (one of the Internet's first book blogs), has lived abroad since 2009. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, follows some of Crispin's favorite expats to the places of their exile, from American philosopher William James (Berlin) to Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (Geneva), and French photographer and writer Claude Cahun (the Island of Jersey). Though they are not all ladies, her subjects took part in what could be called the creative life, whether they made, published, or fed great works of art. Crispin's book mixes criticism, memoir, and travel writing into a collection of essays that is brutal and empathetic, languorous and impatient, smart and, well, smart.

In The Dead Ladies Project, Crispin asks as much of her readers as she does of herself. While she was on her book tour in Berlin, Crispin shared her insight on travel writing with T+L.

What was your favorite city to visit? Least favorite?

"It's hard to have a favorite, because each one was a wholly different experience. It's like trying to pick a favorite lover from my past. They each had their own good qualities and their own bad, weird moments. The one I feel the most likely to revisit is Trieste. About two years after I was there for the book, I was boarding a train from Florence to Rome, and saw that the train originated in Trieste. I felt this strong jolt, a desperate need to be in the city again, like I was likely to start screaming, TURN THE TRAIN AROUND WE HAVE TO GO BACK. But I sat down and behaved myself. The city I had the hardest time with was definitely Belgrade. I felt this strange feeling of not being safe—not unsafe physically, there was no real threat to my body or possessions. Just, existentially. It's hard to describe. I stayed the whole scheduled time, but I did not leave my sublet very often. Only to buy more vodka, really."

Who was your favorite artist to follow?

"William James is someone I have spent the last ten or twelve years reading—his work or about his life—so he would probably be my favorite. I find him fascinating. And reading his work or reading about him is a bit like being in his presence, sitting at his feet and listening to him tell stories. But that made him actually really difficult to write about, because my attachment to him is so personal and so overwhelming. To sit down and explain that and not sound like an unhinged lunatic was hard. I'm not convinced I was successful. So oddly, he was also my least favorite to profile."

What are the responsibilities of a travel writer? How do they differ from the responsibilities of a traveler? Do travelers have any responsibilities at all?

"Of course travelers have responsibilities! You have the responsibility not to be an asshole! Not to see this country as being laid out on a platter for your taking. You are a guest—you have to respect that this place has nothing to do with you. Too often you see travelers looking at a landscape and asking, "What can I take from this?" Even the obnoxious dudes who make a big deal about the difference between the "traveler" and the "tourist." Travel writers have an even greater responsibility, because then they are telling stories about this place that has nothing to do with them, and there is a very long history of travel writers doing and saying terrible things. Acting like colonialists, lying about what happened, trying to make themselves look like the conquering hero, bringing their home land's assumptions and value systems to a place where they don't belong. Just for example, Paul Theroux scanned all of Asia and only found sexually available, complacent, totally submissive women (shocker) in an essay he wrote called "China Dolls." Or, that guy who claimed he discovered Machu Picchu even though people were living right by there! So as a contemporary travel writer, it is your job to know the sins of your fathers and carry them and not repeat them."

How did you come to your perfectly planned suitcase, "carefully considered so that I can lift the bag over my head without assistance, no matter how sick or hung over I might be"? Was there any trial and error?

"Things got thrown out all of the time. Trips almost always ended up with my suitcase lighter than where we started, just because I would realize, this is a stupid thing to carry on your body, it is a burden, throw it out. And they'd go to charity shops or hotel lobbies or left in cafes—books, items of clothing, whatever. I used to travel with a big (although really, pretty standard sized) suitcase, but actually carrying it around teaches you super fast what is necessary and what is superfluous. Especially if you have terrible upper body strength like I do. So I got down to a carry-on. But I'm actually on the road right now, and I am back up to a larger suitcase, because the carry-on finally died after countless trains, airport baggage carriers, and being dragged around on strange surfaces. The integrity of the suitcase failed. And being with a larger suitcase has sparked a lot of grumbling—I kick it every time I have to pick the damn thing up."

Why is travel important?

"It is important to prove yourself wrong. We are born, or raised, into certain assumptions, mostly about how the world is supposed to be. How we are supposed to be. How, if you're a woman, a woman is supposed to be. And so it's important to go to places and see that there are other options available. Otherwise, you can just gaze from afar and judge them for doing it wrong. It's important to go and see and participate and understand that there's no binary, there's no yes or no, right or wrong, that there is a glorious, beautiful spectrum for everything, and that if you choose just one small spot and jealously guard it, then, well, you're missing out on a lot."

Where are you going next?

"Right now I am in Berlin, where I used to live. And after this I am either going to Spain, or I am going to go to Geneva and then Spain. I really love Geneva. People said, "Oh, it's so boring, so clean, you'll hate it." But that place, you can really feel that they burned witches and heretics there. It is really satisfying to stand there as a deviant, to reclaim our heretic kin. And then Spain, to write about mystics and nuns and saints. I can't wait."