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Cesca Waterfield Interview

Cesca Waterfield, 
author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad

By Lova Borjeson

I met Cesca in Manhattan, in a hostel on 20th Street and 8th Ave.
In our fourth floor dorm, she was friendly but quiet.
Most mornings, she would hoist up a hard shell

guitar case and head off. But each afternoon, she’d return,
and carry the Fender acoustic to the outdoor plaza.

Strumming at first while singing softly, her sweet introversion
would soon work loose and she’d sing full-out, reaching into the consciousness of anyone standing on 20
th St. up a few floors to the rooftop that glimpsed the Twin Towers.
The first night we hung out, she sneaked me into the green room of
 the Knitting Factory. We filled ourselves on catered food and flirted
with the Italian headliners. She told me she’d been in New York for eight
weeks; half that time in Harlem, the rest at the Chelsea
hostel where we’d met. The hostel had a three-week limit, and she’d
reached it two days earlier. I let her bunk with me; it was one way
around the limit.  
Cesca had a knack for finding some of Manhattan’s most original happy hours. One place in the West Village 
exchanged three dollars for a glass of wine and a plate of tapas. That bistro became our evening meeting place. We would share our day’s only meal and launch the night’s agenda.   

One evening Cesca showed up with a Dutch drug counselor named Herbie – who was shitfaced – and took us to a
happy hour in Chelsea where drinks were priced between a quarter and one dollar – whatever price each guest scratched from the lottery ticket handed her with each drink. After calling up a Japanese student she’d recently met, she led a small group to a nearby club for its nightly, onstage S/M spectacle.

The next afternoon, bleary-eyed at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I descended later than usual onto the hostel
plaza, and made myself comfortable for Cesca’s acoustic show. As minutes passed, I finally looked around and discovered what I’d missed other days, mesmerized as I’d been by her seemingly spontaneous performances: Cesca had timed these evening gigs with check-in; settling onto the cement makeshift stage at the hour she knew there would be plenty in attendance. My reserved friend had never been more mysterious or exposed.

Just before I boarded a jet home to Stockholm, Cesca hugged me into a cab. She was on her way to catch a bus to
Memphis, she said, “Cause I wanna hear some blues.” For a few months, I sent letters to a Virginia address she’d given me. I received two postcards from Tennessee. Neither indicated if she’d received or read my letters.

Then for my 29th birthday, I received a gift bottle of a perfume I’d introduced her to in New York
City. An enclosed note said she had finally landed at the address she’d given me so many months ago.
We’ve been in touch since.
Of the people you could have asked, why did you ask me to do this interview?

You have a cool name. 

Back at you. So how did you become a writer?

Even before I could actually physically write, I narrated stories to my mom, who would write them in shorthand.
I don’t think I ever said, “I want to be a writer.” In school, I aced any kind of written report. I’d drag in on test day praying for essay questions. Senior year of high school, my English teacher recommended that I study journalism in college. I had no interest in that. I wanted to be onstage. I mean, I’d written poetry since I was young and always had my face in
a book. The reason I wanted to go into theatre was because I loved plays - O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Beckett, even Ibsen and Strindberg. At some point, I became curious about writing plays. I began some attempts in absolute secrecy, and slowly, the desire to write took over. I didn’t know how playwrights or poets in Virginia could make a living, so while I was still playing music pretty heavily, I interned at an alt-weekly. I’ve been a working journalist ever since.

Is writing your calling?

Years ago I took a workshop with Gregory Orr at UVA and he asked me, “Do you love to write?” My answer surprised
me, it was spontaneous: “Not so much.” [laughs] It’s a need more than joy. Don’t get me wrong. I love to write.
But even when I hate it, I do it. Maybe it’s compulsive. But I don’t think I can quit now.


What inspired you to write Bartab?

The impetus came after I’d been in Richmond for a little
more than a year. I was no longer waiting tables and had some time to actually
reflect. I came to a realization that I would have dodged if I’d seen it
coming. There descended some kind of awareness that for a certain number of
years, I hadn’t really been making decisions that determined the course of my
life. That realization made me curious: Well, if I wasn’t overtly choosing what
was happening, what was at work? There was this one direction – a clear
current on the surface. I wanted to get at the undercurrent, the force or
dynamic that had been more powerfully manifest.

Then what is it that you’re exploring in Bartab? 
Artistic passion and a sort of blindness that resulted form the conditions of 
poverty and codependence - all that cheery stuff. But also exhilaration, romance, 
sexual chemistry, love; something good keeps you going in that ruck of hopeless 
ambition and vice. We knew we were poor, obviously, but it didn’t always feel like 
it because we were overjoyed to be doing what we loved, something we weren’t too 
bad at. You know, for a while, you hang out with college friends who bought the SUV, 
three kids and two-car garage, and you feel sort of smug. At least I did. 

Then I started to question the value of what I was doing, of my relationship.
Especially when I would see the guy or girl who last year I let crash on my couch on
tour with rock star du jour. It was like, What am I not doing?

Did you want to be a rock star du jour? 

Sure, when I was a teenager. Then I grew up and was happy to do the hard work of 
being a musician. I just wanted to play shows every night and live modestly, and to be able to see a doctor
occasionally. It’s a simple ambition but one that’s rendered hopeless when
other things pollute the mix.  

Bartab has an authenticity that only a musician could have written. 

Thank you. At least there’s that. [laughs] 

Do you rank your stories or poems?

What do you think is the most integral quality to developing as a writer?

Probably curiosity. Certainly tenacity. Read a lot.

Do you read a great deal?
Not nearly what I’d like to, but I read a lot. I have a dreadful attention span. 

Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?

Denis Johnson, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Leonard Gardner. Among poets, the list is long. 
I’d start with Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Charles Simic, Gregory Orr, Mark Doty, Stephen Dobyns, Kim Addonizio, Ai.
I could go on.

What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?

I don’t get that many interviews, Lova.

What is the most tiresome question that you hear? 

“Is that story/poem/song about you?”

Do you have a lot of work in progress?
Always. I believe very much in revision. I do not believe in the brilliance
or purity of one’s first thoughts or impulses. If you’re William Blake, or John
Cage or Patti Smith, perhaps. But I revise. And consequently, I am always
working on things.  
Do you have the whole story or book figured out before you write it?
If I have an intuitive “ghost map,” I don’t have it fully structured. And I have pieces I feel very good about that began with
little more than a spirit, an energy, and pen to paper or fingers on the keys. So I’m not entirely afraid of writing into
the unknown. I’ve been rewarded with some of my better pieces by just leaping into space. But it still…I have to screw
up the courage, I’ll put it that way. I still feel safer with some kind of map, even if it’s vague.

What tips could you give a book club in discussing Bartab?

I actually worked pretty hard on a study guide and brief list of resources that finishes the book.  

If you could have written one book in history, what book would it be?

Winesburg, Ohio. I read it at least once a year. It continues to reveal the most obscure yet somehow universal peculiarities of humanity. David Lynch in 1920. 


I know you are a Lynch fan. Would you want to see David Lynch make a film of Winesburg, Ohio?


Has he ever mentioned Winesburg, Ohio? If he loves the book, I guess I’d trust him. [laughs] Would he make it too grotesque? I don’t know.

What would you be doing for a living if you weren’t a writer?

Maybe a chef with dreams of being a writer. Perpetual backpacker.


Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad is available May 2010