I recently got the chance to talk with Alisson Wood about her incredible memoir Being Lolita (Flatiron Books, 2020). The book maps her journey from being a high school student struggling with her mental health to being a victim of grooming to being a woman ready to rewrite her own narrative. During high school Alisson takes refuge in her writing and her English teacher, Mr. North, offers to mentor her. Instead of building a student-teacher relationship built on care and support, Mr. North goes on to exploit her. One of his tactics is to give her a copy of Lolita, framing it as the ultimate love story rivaled only by theirs. In the years after the abusive spiral of their “relationship”, Wood learns to see the truth of both her story and the story of Dolores Haze. Being Lolita is a must-read memoir of redemption, survival, and breaking free of dangerous narratives. 

In addition to Being Lolita Wood’s writing can be found in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Check out her Instagram, Twitter, and website to learn more.

Author’s Note: This interview has been edited, and some conversational threads have been re-organized for clarity. 

Memoir writing is an incredibly vulnerable art form, especially when it involves the topics you address in Being Lolita such as grooming and misogyny. How did you decide you were ready to write and publish this book? 

Memoir is, in my opinion, the most vulnerable art form. So many other mediums such as sculpture, fine art, theater, and music involve working with an object outside of yourself. Writing is intrinsically an attempt at making the internal external. Memoir is particularly vulnerable because it is explicitly centering oneself. When a memoir is circling trauma, or some sort of traumatic experience, that can be really tricky.

My number one recommendation is if you are thinking about or in the midst of a project that involves trauma, is to find a good therapist. Because this sort of work is difficult. It’s not only difficult on a craft level, because just like writing a novel, there are all these things that you need to be working with like plot, theory, dialogue, scene setting. You need to do all of those things, all of that same craft work,  while you are also navigating your own emotional experience, your past, your present, even your future, in a memoir. 

It wasn’t like I decided to write Being Lolita. It didn’t feel optional. This was the book I needed to write. Which I was not thrilled about. I did not enjoy the process of writing this book. I did not experience the writing of this book as an act of catharsis or as any sort of healing experience. A lot of times people expect that. They’ll ask questions in interviews like, Do you feel healed now? And it’s like fuck no. No, writing out my trauma in detail on a page for an audience of strangers has not made anything better. I do think that that sort of question comes from a place of care and from sort of a place of hope. Someone reads my book, and it’s pretty awful at times, and they sort of hope like, oh, this helped, right? I read this awful thing, but you’re better now. Right?  I am better, but that had nothing to do with the book. Writing this book did not change what happened to me. It did nothing to change my trauma. However, work in therapy has done a lot of that. 

Publishing is always a choice. I’m very proud of the book, and I’m very glad that I published it. But there was a lot that I did to prepare myself for publication like therapy, talking and getting support from close friends, and connecting with family. When the book came out I spent about six months talking about my trauma over and over again in readings and on podcasts and in interviews and then in a documentary. So it was something that I had to prepare myself for. Which, again, is why I always recommend therapy. 

Can you share a bit about the recollection and writing process that went into Being Lolita? Was there anything that surprised you when you revisited the memories and archives of your younger self? 

Your own memory can be fallible. There was a very explicit crossing of the line from this man being my teacher to this man making sexual advances to a seventeen-year-old year old girl. There was this moment where my teacher was talking about the size of his penis in a note to me in study hall. In my memory that had happened towards the end of the school year, it had happened like in May or something. I remembered it being close to when I graduated, when I was already eighteen. But when I was going through my high school journals I found an entry referencing it. The entry was from November, so I had known him for at most two months. It was really shocking to me when I realized that my memory was not accurate, in a way that only made things worse. That just underscored how quickly the relationship had escalated from a teacher paying attention and giving me support with my writing to grooming and sexual abuse. 

I still have a box of photographs and receipts from our “relationship”.  As an aside, it frustrates me that there’s no word for what happened between he and I. That just feels like a reflection of the misogyny in our language. He wasn’t my boyfriend. I would prefer not to use the word relationship, but that’s all that we got. But anyways, in the process I kept having to confront the fact that this was actually much worse than I remembered. I had been sort of lying to myself about the severity of how quickly things escalated. There was one experience where I was in the school play. He was directing it and I remembered this moment of him taking a photograph of me backstage in my costume. I remember how it felt to have that photo taken, how I felt sexy and powerful. I was like, look at me, a cute little Lolita, just like you want. Then when I was writing the book I found the picture. I looked so young I could have been fourteen or fifteen. I looked so young and so sad. It wasn’t sexy. I wasn’t some seventeen-year-old girl who looked much older. I was a young girl who looked really sad. That reckoning was hard. 

 My experience of going through my archives, including my high school journals, was both incredibly painful and helpful to the project. I was expecting moments of, Oh, I thought this happened. Oh, that’s not actually what happened. Instead, I found myself more disturbed by people remembering what actually had happened. I was expecting to hear from people from my high school, from my past, from his friends who would push back on my memories. Instead people reached out to me, saying things like Oh, my God! He was so creepy! or I tried to talk to another teacher about this because I was worried, but no one cared or I was a teacher then and I didn’t know what to do or, most awfully, this happened to me too. I also found out that my teacher was still teaching. Until very recently he was still teaching high school. That was particularly difficult, but it also wasn’t surprising. 

I’ve had to read Lolita many times for my own project and noticed a narrative structure similar to your memoir. Can you talk a bit about the structural choices you made and how it does and doesn’t mirror Lolita? 

I very explicitly mirror the structure of my book to the structure of Lolita. Part one in both books is sort of the escalation of this “relationship”, this escalation of the grooming and the abuse. Part two of these books are these kind of extended road trips, trying to not get caught. Then part three is the aftermath, which is where I separate from Nabokov’s structure. Dolores Haze is dead, and her story ends. But unlike Dolores Haze, I am not dead. I get to keep going, which is very nice. 

Nabokov really sneaks in the violence of the book in so many ways. Starting from the first line, readers have the point of view of Humbert: this is love, and so on. But before then we have the opening from the doctor and the criminal charges Humbert is facing. It is just tucked in there that Dolores ends up dead – they use her married name. And the thing is, that’s all at the beginning of the book. Nobody knows who this person is. We haven’t been introduced to this character. We don’t even know that her name is Dolores Haze for quite a bit. Unless someone goes back to the beginning and carefully reads through that opening again, they will miss it. They do not know that she ends up dead in childbirth. She never even gets to complete her life cycle. Her moving from girlhood to womanhood (where she becomes a mother and is no longer a child) is where she dies. I think this is just so reflective of the book as a whole. Those most vital pieces are hidden and hidden in plain sight. That’s very frustrating to me. 

 Mirroring the structure of my book to Lolita was a choice that I made in the editing process, not something I decided at the very beginning. At first I was just writing the scenes that were the clearest in my head. I began with the scenes that were the hottest, and I don’t mean hot like sexy, I mean hot emotionally – the ones that are the most emotionally packed. I made the structural decision later, when it revealed itself in later stages of the book

On the topic of structure, particularly memoir structure, I believe that if you’re going to make some sort of interesting craft choice, like making your memoir non-chronological or from the second person, I deeply believe that you need to have a reason for doing that. Why is this non-chronological? Why should this be the way the story has to be told? There needs to be a good reason, because I really believe that chronology can create empathy. We all love to follow a hero’s journey. To see something happen from the start to the end. And I think that, especially in memoir, it really helps an audience follow the main character to the end of an experience. 

I’m also a big believer in a really strong beginning. A hard truth is that unless you are in an MFA or other writing workshop, no one has to read your book. No one has to read your essay. No one has to read your short story. That can be a big shift for people exiting a writing program. You have to earn your reader’s trust. You have to earn their time. You have to earn their attention. 

The opening of my book is, “The first time he kissed me wasn’t on the mouth.” This was both instinctual and a craft choice: the opening line allows readers to get right into the story. There’s immediately questions. Who is he? If he didn’t kiss you on the mouth, where did he kiss you? What is the context here? Who are you? Opening with questions isn’t always the right choice for a book, but I felt like it was the right choice for mine. The diner scene immediately (hopefully) brings in curiosity and stakes. In the short space of that chapter – it is under 2,000 words – I tried to establish what was important: I’m in high school. This is my teacher. We’re meeting secretly. Lolita is important. Writing is important. There’s also a few moments where there’s this innate reference to violence present, with the slamming of the lockers, with the ink bleeding. 

You spend a lot of your memoir unpacking Lolita, especially when it comes to cultural legacy and the role that it had on your own story. What do you wish was more commonly understood about Lolita, both as a novel and also as a cultural touchstone? 

I wish people took Lolita seriously, in a way. Far too many people see Lolita as a piece of satire, and undercut what is actually happening on the page. Now, I don’t think Lolita should be banned, or anything like that. Books are made to be read, and should be. However, I do think that Lolita needs to be read in context, both in cultural context and in literary context. Lolita has to be read with a very critical eye. Culturally, people don’t think of Lolita as a victim of rape as a child who was kidnapped. We think about Lolita as a shade of lipstick or a makeup line. We think of Lolita as in Lolita fashion: short little frilly skirts and low-cut tops and ribbons in your hair. Lolita is in place of sexy: she’s such a Lolita. Culturally, we don’t acknowledge the reality of Lolita. 

After the first time Dolores Haze is raped, they stop at a gas station. Humbert has this laundry list of things that he picks up for her: magazines, lollipops, candy, and so on. And right in the middle, just snuck in there, are menstrual pads. If you’re not a careful, critical reader, you just gloss over that when the reality is she needed menstrual pads because was bleeding from violent rape. She had a physical injury from it. That’s something that’s hard for readers to acknowledge. It’s much easier to think of Lolita as if she’s a little Jezebel, like some sexy thing. That’s also linked to the fact that, due to patriarchy and misogyny, women are primarily valued on their looks and younger is considered better. There’s all this power linked to being a young, sexy girl. In many ways Lolita is both a reflection of that point of view in our culture and part of the problem. 

Lolita was in my own story from the beginning. Everything in the book connects in some way to Lolita. My teacher gave me Lolita. He read Lolita to me. His favorite drink was one that he made up called the Humbert Humbert. It was gin, and whatever it is that Humbert drinks. He gave me a stamp collection that was all Nabokov butterflies. Even the sections about fairy tales or Greek myths. That’s the kind of stuff that Nabokov loves.

Now, as a professor, I teach an excerpt from Lolita in my course, the opening. But Lolita is always the last thing we read. I found that when we read Lolita in the beginning of the semester, before weeks of practicing critical thinking about literature, people often got swept up in the romance and the lyricism and the beauty of the prose. Contrarily, by the end of the semester, we’ve talked about poetic devices. We’ve talked about choices and point of view. We’ve talked about narrative. We’ve talk about all these things. So they are ready to do the work of critical thinking and come to the text ready to ask questions. That’s the way Lolita should be read. Lolita is a beautiful book. I mean, it is a little bit masturbatory in its excess. Nabakov famously hated editors. I think the book could be shorter, honestly. But there’s a lot of beauty, and a lot  hat is worth reading and talking about. I think that it’s the lack of critical eye and cultural context that lets down Lolita, and lets down women.

–Gen Greer, Blog Co-Editor