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Writer Rax King on her favorite book, 'Dancing Queen' by Lisa Carver

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

One of my favorite parts of hosting the show is the fact that we get the opportunity to talk with creators of all kinds about the work that they make. Rax King wrote "Tacky: Love Letters To The Worst Culture We Have To Offer." It's a celebration, but also a defense of the things we love - like, say, The Cheesecake Factory - that may be considered low culture by some other people. King's essay collection was one of my favorite things that I read last year. And she joins us to share one of her favorite books, one she not only teaches from, but also a book that she returns to for the joy of it again and again. Rax King, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RAX KING: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So just to sort of set the stage here, my co-hosts and I are ringing up some of the authors that we love and we're asking them to tell us about just one book that they love. So, Rax, the floor is yours. What book did you bring us?

KING: I brought "Dancing Queen" by Lisa Carver. Its subtitle, "A Lusty Look At The American Dream." Similar to "Tacky," actually, it's an essay collection that's sort of a hybrid beast of part personal writing, part pop culture writing. Yeah. It's probably my favorite book of all time. I can't even count how many times I've read it.

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh. OK. I'm really excited about this conversation because this is a book that I haven't read before. And it's an author that I don't know well. Tell us a little bit about why you wanted to shine the spotlight on this book.

KING: Basically, aside from it being my favorite book, I also think that it's a really smart and unusual take on the personal essay. I mean, I teach essays from this book because I think that Lisa Carver has - I'm going to use the word warped, but I think that has a negative connotation and I mean it very positively - she has a really warped view of pop culture and the world. And it really opens your mind to read her. And it's also just so much fun. I mean, it doesn't even feel like you're learning.

SUMMERS: So for people who may not be familiar, can you just tell us a little bit about Lisa Carver? Like, who is she? And what kind of sticks out to you in her writing that you love so much?

KING: Sure. Lisa Carver came into writing through the world of zines, zine creation, like in the '90s, and as well as through performance art. She used to be a performer. I think she might still do performances sometimes, but I think that those two non-traditional entry points into traditional publishing have given her just a really fresh viewpoint and a really fresh voice. Her writing is very voicey and very lively and just in every way an absolute pleasure to consume.

SUMMERS: I'm curious. Do you remember when you first picked up this book, like what period of your life you were in and what kind of brought you to it?

KING: I remember exactly. I was still in college, just had a really bad breakup. And I was kind of moping around thinking that the world was over and I was never going to fall in love again. You know how it goes. And I first found her sex diary, which she published on the website Nerve back in the day. And it was very similar in terms of its voice. And it made me want to know everything about this writer, not just because I liked her writing, but because I sensed that she could teach me a whole new way to look at the world and a way to make hurtful things into beautiful things.

SUMMERS: Are there different things that you take away from "Dancing Queen" now, years removed from that first experience of reading it and using it as an authoritative text to teach from even? What do you take away today?

KING: I guess, to me, "Dancing Queen" is a really great object lesson in how great it can be to break all the rules. Like, it's really not what, quote-unquote, "serious cultural critique" is supposed to be like. It's more to my mind, like, you know how they make that bright pink amoxicillin for kids so that they'll drink it. They make it taste really good. And reading "Dancing Queen" and absorbing the cultural criticism of it is like drinking that delicious amoxicillin. And you don't even know that you're treating yourself, you're treating your viewpoint and you're cracking open your perspective. And that's what I think makes it such a good and unexpected authority. It's an authority that doesn't command that you respect it. It's just an authority that wants to show you something cool and maybe you will like it.

SUMMERS: What did Lisa Carver teach you about coming to understand your own voice?

KING: I think that, as I said, she gives you as a writer permission to break the rules, to use a lot of exclamation points because you're just that excited and to, you know, tell, not show, if that's what you think is important to do. Like, it's not rules-forward writing. And, of course, she has her own rules. And she's a very crafty and intelligent writer. But her rules just aren't the ones that you hear in every single writing workshop. And I think that that's a big part of voice is, yes, you should learn the way the masters have done things, but that's not the only thing you have to learn. You also have to learn who you are.

SUMMERS: Do you have a favorite essay in that collection?

KING: Oh, I think the last one, "The Manifest Destiny Of Anna Nicole Smith," is a really great one, written before...

SUMMERS: You've got to tell us about that.

KING: Yeah, it was written before Anna Nicole was lost. And I just think she gets so much of the the Anna Nicole experience so spot on. I mean, she was writing this at a time when Anna Nicole Smith was like the No. 1 joke in America. You know, in the days before people started saying we were so cruel to Britney Spears, we were so cruel to Lindsay Lohan, like, she was there in the moment, identifying the cruelty that was happening to Anna Nicole Smith and deconstructing it and painting a different portrait of this woman that so many people loved to hate.

SUMMERS: Can you read a few lines from that essay?

KING: Well, sure. Just a second. OK.

(Reading) Anna Nicole is my hero. Her personality matches her larger-than-life figure. She's a real take charge type of person. She wasn't born an heiress, so she made herself one. No one marries 89-year-olds anymore, no one but ANS. Anna Nicole is the only role model available to Dover, N.H., youth too antsy to do data processing at the Navy Yard and too lacking in social skills to be a cosmetician. Stripper, heiress, addict, mother - most people can only manage one or two or at most three of those in their lifetime. Not our Anna. She can do all that at once and more.

SUMMERS: I love that passage because not - I mean, you can't make it up. Not anyone marries 89-year-olds anymore. And then the fact that she's our Anna. It's so interesting that she's taking ownership. Like, there's some kinship there.

KING: Right. Like, her whole voice is like that. That's why I always teach her as the paragon of voicey writing. She's not afraid to do things like insinuate you into a secret society with Anna Nicole Smith. Like, she talks to you like she's your big sister relaying some gossip at a slumber party. I think it's just wonderful.

SUMMERS: That is the author Rax King talking to us about one of her favorite books, "Dancing Queen: The Bawdy Adventures Of Lisa Crystal Carver." Rax, it was so good to talk with you.

KING: Thank you so much again for having me. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.