Anything That Moves is a memoir circling around sex from Xiu Xiu’s founder Jamie Stewart. It was published in April 2023 by And Other Stories. Here they are in conversation with fellow artist, writer and musician Johanna Hedva, who is the author of Your Love Is Not Good and, like Jamie Stewart, was born and raised in LA and is now based in Berlin.
Thank god I found Xiu Xiu when I did. It was 2008 and I was a very weird and queer design student at UCLA with no friends, wearing Commes de Garçons perfume and see-through turtlenecks with no bra and liking the typography in the New Yorker too much. I rented a claustrophobic closet of a room in the attic of a ruined Victorian in Echo Park, and at night I’d watch Criterion Collection DVDs on a foam mattress on the floor. Every morning, I’d drive two hours west on Sunset Blvd to school, aiming my tiny dented Toyota in the direction of the ocean, and then I’d drive the two hours home at the end of the day. On this interminable drive, I’d blast Xiu Xiu. Women as Lovers had just come out. I had it and The Air Force and Knife Play on my iPod(!), and I’d listen and listen. I’d look at the LA skyline. I’d feel afraid about life but awake to it too. Inside my ribcage, I’d feel how Jamie Stewart’s voice sounded—like the amount of ache in it would eat the solar system. You can imagine my glee at getting to talk to them about their astonishing new book Anything That Moves all these years later. We spoke when he was in a car, driving in LA. Sometimes the signal would drop out, but then his voice would come back, saying, “Hello? Are you there?” – Johanna Hedva, Los Angeles
HEDVA: I think your book is literally one of the best books I’ve ever read.
JAMIE: Oh, gosh. Wow.
HEDVA: Your book is about sex and desire and all the ways that coupling—however momentary or fleeting—can happen between people. It’s about attraction almost as a physical force in the universe that draws people together. But it made me want to hear about fights that you’ve been in. I want to know how and why you fight. Because there are moments where, yes, ostensibly it’s about people coming together, but what gives the book so much dimensionality is all of the ruptures or breaks or ways that those couplings fail.
So, do you want to tell me about some of your fights? They don’t have to be the ones with fists.
JAMIE: That’s a really interesting question. Only particularly because I grew up in a household where everybody fought all of the time. Both of my parents were manic-depressive, so that they were literally insane. This is going to sound like an exaggeration but it’s not, but there was probably a screaming fight when I grew up between some member of my household every single day until I moved out. My family situation now is much better, thank God.
So fighting for me—it’s not a healthy way to live, but it’s a very natural reaction to things. And I know that that’s not the case with 90% of people. They try to avoid fights or fights stress them out. It’s been a consistent problem with every relationship I’ve ever been in. Through therapy and just sort of through living longer, I’m like, “Oh, this is not really how the world should work.” I don’t like it. But it’s my natural response because it’s how my brain was formed. It’s caused problems with band members and friendships and basically anybody that I’ve been close to.
On top of naturally fighting about everything all the time, the other side of growing up in that situation is you’re extraordinarily sensitive because you’re ready to be attacked all the time. So almost anything anybody says you take, or I take, the hardest wrongest way, or I just assume somebody is being a dick even if they’re not. And again, this is something that as life goes on, I’ve been a little better about it and working on. I fight about getting my feelings hurt. I fight about thinking that people aren’t being considerate. I fight about thinking that people aren’t pulling enough of their own weight. I fight about people’s politics. I fight about dumb haircuts. Really, fucking everything bothers me. I don’t want to be this way, but part of getting past this, I can’t live the rest of my life like this or else somebody’s going to murder me eventually. It’s just being a little bit more aware of it. It’s not a difficult thing to have a fight with me. It’s not something that I want to do, but it’s close to the surface.
No one’s ever asked me that before.
HEDVA: The reason I ask is because I kind of knew that about you from reading your book. And I think the reason why is because I’m the same way. There was a lot in your book, the biographical stuff with your family specifically, that is the same that I had. Even though this book is about desire and attraction, it’s also really alive with a certain kind of antagonism, being ready to go up against other people. I understood it in my body when I was reading it, something about what compels you forward in the world.
Maybe the difference between you and me is that I’ve been socialized as a woman, even though I don’t identify as one. Which means that as a young person it was absolutely not an option for me to be so angry and antagonistic all the time, like it was not socially acceptable for me to get in fights. One of the things I’ve found as I get older is that I try to fight more, and this feels like a kind of healing. It’s that I try to build fighting into my daily life in a more conscious way, rather than repressing it, or thinking that such an impulse is something I need to get rid of or to be afraid of. And not just in life, but the more loud and raw I can let my work become, the better I feel on any given day.
With my novel, Your Love Is Not Good, the joke is that I spent nine years googling “what is a plot” and I still don’t know. But one of the things I read about plot that was useful was some advice that, in the three-part dramatic structure of a story, you need to have three battles. In the first two, the hero needs to lose, and in the final one, they win. I was like, “Okay, my three battles are going to be sex scenes,” because it’s interesting to think about how you could win or lose a sex scene.
I was thinking about this battle framework a lot while reading your book because there are quite a lot of sex scenes where you definitely lose. There’s a kind of abject surrender into what could be humiliating or icky or bad, and which does turn into that more often than not. Even though that can feel like the opposite of a fighting spirit, there is, to me, something in the voice, something in the words you’re choosing, that I thought, “Yeah, this person gets in a lot of fights. They fuck a lot, but they’re fighting too.”
JAMIE: That’s remarkably insightful.
HEDVA: In a lot of the cases in the book, you explain how you met the person, but sometimes there’s a magical realism that creeps in, where they seem to appear in your life via some fantastical magic.
JAMIE: A lot of it is completely fantastical, totally imaginary. I don’t know if it qualifies as magical realism, but it’s certainly inspired by that. Many of the things are completely made up and weird just for following the impulse of the lower brainstem. Other than one person, I didn’t meet anybody using an app that’s in the book.
HEDVA: I was going to ask who didn’t make it into the book.
JAMIE: The book started because a while ago the editor Samuel Nicholson asked me if I wanted to work on a book at all, and we talked about what it could be about. Initially I made a list of every single person—from the time I was a child until a little before I started writing—I had ever had any sort of sexual encounter with. Probably half the people aren’t in the book, because nothing happened with them that was interesting or funny. It was just a normal sort of forgettable thing. In a couple cases, it’s people that I genuinely had a positive romantic relationship with. I didn’t put any of that in there. There were things that I wanted to keep private, and then also they’re just not very interesting stories. I feel very grateful that I’ve had a couple of positive romantic relationships in my life, but aside from wanting to keep them private, they’re kind of boring.
HEDVA: One of the things that’s going on in your book is just the sheer quantity of these encounters, like, “This other scenario, person, place, situation. Threesome here, these toys here.” There’s a kaleidoscopic feeling to the storytelling. What were you thinking about in terms of telling these as stories, like structurally, thematically, vibes?
JAMIE: I didn’t think consciously, “Okay, I want to try to write a book that does this.” As it was coming together, I thought, “I mostly want this to be funny, but also not sad, but maybe depressing.” I think maybe a quarter of it is depressing and three quarters of it is hopefully funny. It’s being marketed as a memoir, and I guess technically that’s what it is, but I didn’t really think of it so much as a memoir in so far as I’m not trying to tell “my” story. I’m just trying to tell some stories, and that it happened to me as an individual, I think, is irrelevant.
They are things that happened that may or may not have some kind of thread, or may or may not have some kind of meaning. I’d probably say this is generally true about any time that I’ll make a record too. The “why” behind it is an unconscious thing. For me, tapping into why can be counterproductive. I think becoming too analytical or analytical at all prevents some sort of forward creative motion.
As it gets closer to this book coming out, there’s probably two people who are in it who I think might read it, and it’s making me feel very nervous. I don’t want them to feel bad. Gross and weird things happened between us, but we’re just messy, insane people. I’m not worried that I’m going to get sued or something like that, but they’re humans and I don’t want them to feel bad or embarrassed. I mean, I obscured things enough that there’s certainly plausible deniability as to who they are, but if they think really hard about it, they’ll probably recognize themselves. So the why behind it is becoming more difficult for me to answer. I’m like, “Why did I put something out in the world that could potentially make somebody feel really terrible,” which didn’t occur to me until maybe a couple weeks ago, or it didn’t start to bother me until a couple weeks ago, which is sort of crazy. I guess it never occurs to me that it would really happen or be out in the world.
HEDVA: It makes me think of a quote from a writer, Donald Antrim, about his memoir One Friday in April. In an event for the book, he said something like, “Finishing a book will tell you more about yourself than writing it.” For me, I always feel like, by the time the world gets there, I’m done with whatever it is that I’ve been making, so it’s weird to have to account for myself to the world at that point.
JAMIE: I know exactly what you’re asking. It’s been odd and not what I expected, but I don’t know that I really expected anything.
Anytime we’re working on a record, I don’t necessarily feel cleansed for having done it, or I don’t feel like any bad feelings have been erased. They just have been reorganized in a way that I can deal with. But after this, all of the things that happened in it were very present in my consciousness. In a way that I had never experienced with doing records, after having written it, I felt like, I don’t know, washed. Not washed clean, but I didn’t really think about them anymore. Not that they didn’t necessarily bother me, but when I opened my eyes in the morning, none of them were thoughts that floated through my head.
This book ends when I’m about 40 and I’m 45 now, and I comport myself very differently over the last five years than I had throughout the book. I don’t think having written it made me necessarily learn that I wanted to behave in a different way, but I look back and realize that I treated a lot of people really badly. I mean, I was a jerk, an incredible asshole to a lot of people, and I don’t feel that awesome about it.
HEDVA: There is something to the voice that emerges on the page where, for me, I thought there were a lot of moments where he could be way more of an asshole. Where he continues sort of passively into a situation that already feels terrible because he makes the justification that he didn’t want to make the other person feel bad. There are a lot of these moments where the narrator’s moral calculus, if we could even call it that, keeps him there, doesn’t let him stop. He’s in this awful thing but thinks, “I didn’t want them to be embarrassed, so I just did it anyway, or I did what they wanted.” That’s one of the ways that there’s a feeling of tragedy in the book. There are so many moments where it feels like maybe this should have stopped, should not have gone further, and then it does.
JAMIE: “Maybe this should not have gone further, but then it does,” definitely describes the majority of my sex life. Part of it was definitely trying to just uncomfortably, for lack of a better word, be empathetic to the situation and feel like, “Okay, I don’t really like myself very much anymore. I don’t mind putting myself in crappy situations.” Part of it also is just a morbid curiosity. A mix of sort of self-hatred and morbid curiosity I think is a lot of what made those things, allowed me to go through those things.
HEDVA: The pathos of the book, the tragic parts of it, feel like these moments where there is almost too much empathy in the narrator. I think I’m trying to say that empathy can fail at doing the right thing, even if the attempt is there. You know what I mean?
JAMIE: Yeah, definitely.
HEDVA: But that’s what I think is compelling about it. The desire that’s happening, the desire that’s circulating in any of these encounters, doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s coming from a place of I really care about this person, even if you are invested in them not feeling bad or being embarrassed. Is it something else, like: I’m curious, or This is an adventure and I’m going to see how it unfolds?
JAMIE: My 20s to my mid-30s were an incredibly unhappy time. I mean, just the material aspects of my life were really awful. And not to exaggerate, but it was pretty desperate. Maybe curiosity is the wrong word, but I needed something to happen. It was like a rapid kind of distraction driving things as much as anything else.
HEDVA: It feels like a kind of romanticism that fails or deflates, that it’s this reach into, or throw towards, a bigger thing, but it’s not necessarily landing in that place. It’s just one after the other of these chapters, and as they pile up and accumulate, it’s like, “Damn.” This is the tragedy of human attempts at things and how they fail.
I’ve thought a lot about tragedy as a form because with my novel, I was very explicitly trying to write one. I tried to do it according to one of my favorite definitions of tragedy, which is that it’s where you watch characters make the wrong choice because they have no other choice. I feel like that’s the tragedy of your book too. It feels like there are not a lot of other choices that could have been made.
JAMIE: There’s this famous Tracy Chapman song “Fast Car” that somehow was a top 40 hit. And the narrative of the song is just a bad thing happens, and then another bad thing happens, and another bad thing happens, and that’s the end of the song. When we (Xiu Xiu) started, not to self-mythologize, but I mean, that’s really just what our lives were like. We kept trying to make it better, and it was just always getting worse. That song was inspirational for us. I mean, you hear that song in a grocery store, and feel, that’s just what life is. When you talk about what a plot is, that it’s two failures and a success—but a plot is used in fiction and not in life.
HEDVA: Yes. What I found interesting with that idea of plot was that one could argue that my big final battlefield scene that’s supposed to be the victory is a total dismal failure. Because the compelling thing for me was also about subverting the way that stories ought to be told.
One of the reasons why I really liked your book is that it doesn’t have this arc toward a good ending. It does have a cathartic note of the final thing with your dad’s suicide, which I thought was interesting as an ending, to have that be the final chapter. Was that a chronological thing or was it also something that you were thinking about as a cathartic end?
JAMIE: Oh, no. Probably stuff happens in the book maybe even 15 years after that. I think it was more just to try to put the other instances of the book into some kind of context. Then also, even though it doesn’t obviously have anything to do with sex, I mean, it’s just another way that a relationship thoroughly did not work out. I don’t know. It’s hard to put into words, but just in an almost physical way, it felt like it made sense or felt like it was connected to everything. It was a huge chunk of my life, so it was connected to everything, but it seemed like maybe it made the rest of the vignettes make more sense.
HEDVA: I’m curious to know about other books or records or movies that were influences. Either, “I want my book to be like that,” or the opposite, “I want it to not be that.”
JAMIE: I certainly don’t consider myself a writer, but there are writers who I would model things on in it. In the structure of the book, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, because it is short vignettes and you can read any of those by themselves. They’re not really a short story, but they all connect, but it’s not a linear narrative. Even though they’re about totally different things, and our life stories are totally different. But just that she’s also very, very direct and detailed in talking about the complex parts about being a person.
On the totally opposite side of that, Boyd McDonald. In the ’70s and ’80s he had this publishing project called Straight To Hell, where he collected sex stories. People would write to him and say, “I met this guy at a movie theater and we did this and this and this and it was great.” He would put those into books. But nothing bad happens in them, like “and then the cops came, and then I learned to be a good straight guy and have kids.” None of them are tragic. They’re all kind of hot, but also wacky. They all use incredibly direct language.
And then John Fante in so far as how straight-ahead his narrative is. And on the other side of that, alluding to the attempts at magical realism, not that I write like him in any way, but Cormac McCarthy. There’ll be the main narrative and then some incredibly overworked, hyper-detailed, but really weird turn of phrase. I always thought was really interesting about his writing. I wanted to try to do that a couple of times. So, those four people.
HEDVA: That’s a nice little constellation. I must say, I always feel cheated if I read a book and I don’t have to look up a word I don’t know.
JAMIE: I like that.
HEDVA: In your book, I had to look up “lagomorphic,” for a scene where you describe starting to fuck, and “getting to work” in a lagomorphic way. It was great to Google that and come up with rabbits.
Following the Boyd McDonald thread, I wanted to ask about your favorite sex scenes in books or movies. And Other Stories asked me to put together a list of five books that are in some sort of relationship to my book—maybe you had to do this too?—and for mine I tried to think of abject sex scenes.
JAMIE: That’s an incredibly good question. I’ve over-referenced David Lynch in any creative pursuit I’ve ever made. But in Lost Highway, the Bill Pullman character is having sex with the Patricia Arquette character, and he comes real quick, and then in slow motion they show her pat him on the chest like, “It’s okay, big guy.” But it was in slow motion. It was so rough. Then she goes off and becomes this super villain after that. That one’s pretty amazing.
HEDVA: David Lynch has a lot of good ones.
JAMIE: They’re incredible.
HEDVA: I have two witchy questions to end with.
In my little document here, it just says, “also, ghosts?”
JAMIE: Oh, yeah.
HEDVA: There’s something about this book that feels like there’s a hauntedness or a kind of atmospheric heaviness. Part of this is the magical realism moments; like, the girl who is so beautiful and who explodes into a million hummingbirds. One of the things I think that magical realism can do is explode reality in this way of questioning what could ever possibly feel real and why. Because they happen frequently in your book, there is this feeling of some other, I don’t know, place, dimension, vibe, realm, that is present around the very mundane details of each scene.
JAMIE: I didn’t consciously do that, but it’s a huge part of my personal reality.
HEDVA: I think I’m trying to say that it felt like there’s a porousness between reality and some other thing in your subjectivity.
JAMIE: I think that’s accurate and fair. The answer is yes.
HEDVA: In a way that’s not just like you’re drunk or something, which you are a lot in this book. You know what I mean?
JAMIE: Oh, yeah. I totally know what you mean because I think I just, without trying to be witchy, do feel that way.
HEDVA: My second witchy question is your astrology. I have to say, you’re born on my mother’s birthday, which freaked me out a little. (This is incidentally also Cookie Mueller’s birthday.) There were some weird parallels. Like, I wrote my novel to try to heal my relationship with my mother, and then she died while I was writing it.
JAMIE: Oh, wow.
HEDVA: I don’t want to sound too crazy, but in your astrology, I would say you have a few signatures that I have seen in the charts of mystics. I’m not saying that means you’re spiritual, per se. For me, a mystic or the mystical has a capacity, and even a desire that eclipses all else, to get right up into this paradox of feeling the edges of oneself as they’re being obliterated.
There was this quality for me in your book, this porous leakiness that is almost like a cloud that things move in and out of, without boundaries or even intentionality. When I saw your chart, I was like, “Oh, I get it. Jamie Stewart is a mystic.” Take that for what it’s worth, but one of the signatures you have is also what Simone Weil had, and what another musician who I classify as a mystic (and have written way too much about), Robin Finck, has. I think generally mystics have a hard time in reality. It’s their primary ontological problem, that they can’t handle walking around with gravity and linear time and material consequence, and so they reach for ways to nebulize or dissolve.
JAMIE: Well, that’s why they live alone inside of a tree.
HEDVA: Exactly. I guess that’s the last note to end on, that even though this book is about all the ways that you are interconnected with these people, however fleetingly, it’s a very lonely, solitary book in the end.
JAMIE: That does describe my preferential social situation. I don’t know. I set myself up for it, but I mean, what I need socially and my reaction to it, there’s just no way to win. I’ve figured out functional ways to do it at this point in my life. Very fortunately, my closest friend is my band mate, Angela. She’s very social, but never forces me into social situations. She totally understands that I want to go to a party with her for about 10 minutes, and I’m going to say hi to the people I know, and then quietly split, and I’ll meet up with her at home later. It’s part of where our friendship works. I’m glad that she stays there until 4:00 AM and she’s having a good time, and she’s perfectly accepting of the fact that I need to see some people to stave off a certain amount of inherent loneliness that I feel, but also I need to get the fuck out of there because I can’t stand hanging out with people. It sounds completely ridiculous. I don’t like hanging out with people but I feel lonely all the fucking time.