Sasha Frere-Jones’s ‘Earlier’ Is Not About One Thing

On the publication of his new memoir, the writer speaks to Ariana Reines about grief, the challenges of criticism and the desire to write truthfully

BY Sasha Frere-Jones AND Ariana Reines in Books , Interviews | 03 NOV 23

Ariana Reines Earlier feels like a New York school of poetry memoir, if such a thing exists. In that the ‘I-do-this, I-do-that’ style that Frank O’Hara really innovated is very much present in the book. It’s such a book of New York in that sense, but it also operates with an understanding of the way that songs and records work. Songs, like poems, are these discrete units of intensity or energy; that force is visible in the character of the memoir, which is paratactic rather than offering a more conventional sense of a narrative that builds towards, ‘this is how I became’.

Sasha Frere-Jones I love Earlier being part of the New York school! The book is an attempt to represent consciousness. It’s not about one thing. It’s appropriate when people call it a New York memoir or a sobriety memoir or a grief memoir. All of that is in there. Knowing that, at the level of having made this particular sausage, makes reviewing a book feel even more perilous. Doing criticism well is almost impossible. I’ve maybe gotten it right five times. It’s so hard to not do some kind of violence to the work itself.

AR One of your gifts as a writer is describing very beautifully what you hear and see. Very few writers have any capacity in description. It’s a completely lost art. You’re very comfortable and self-assured saying what is happening. That makes for an interesting memoir. I feel like learning how to talk about myself is something I’ve professionally been forced to do because it’s become my beat, as it were, but I never would’ve wanted that, and it was an extremely uncomfortable process for me.

SF-J Well, you’re good at it.

AR Thank you.

Sasha Frere-Jones, Earlier, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

SF-J My frustration with music writing started in the 1980s. As a musician, reading critics who didn’t have any concept of how records were made, I was having trouble. Let’s put it that way. I was especially frustrated because book critics seemed to be book writers (as far as I could tell) and were in touch with how books are made.

It’s not that complicated, how recordings happen, but, especially in the early days of rap, writers were getting things wrong (about sampling, most egregiously). I had no desire to be a critic. I was just frustrated with the inaccuracy. And I needed a job.

We have a phrase in AA: experience, strength and hope. Even before I got into the programme, I felt the same way about criticism. I have the ability to report what I can verify as factual and then add, ‘Here’s what I think the music is doing’. You want to read about the music! You don’t give a shit about me; you want to know about this Lee Perry boxset. How much is going on in there? The describing tendency really came out of fear. I don’t want to say anything that isn’t true. I can say, ‘This person was born here, and this sounds like electric sand to me’.

Portrait of Sasha Frere-Jones. Courtesy: Sasha Frere-Jones and Semiotext(e)

AR I want to ask about the composition of the memoir. How did that work for you? How did you assemble it and come upon the form?

SF-J Deborah, the mother of my kids, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on her 57th birthday: 31 July 2020. She knew that she didn’t have long, and she was very stoic about the whole thing. (If you’re imagining someone being somehow weakened by illness, you’re not imagining Deborah. She was tough as shit and only got more beautiful and dignified through the whole process.) We didn’t see each other one-on-one before she died. She thought it would be too difficult, a decision I’m haunted by. Maybe I should have insisted we see each other? But she was dying. I think the person who’s dying gets to choose.

A couple of months went by – it was maybe August of 2020. We were on the phone, and I asked her, ‘Can I write something for you?’ I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t an idea I was walking around with. She sounded genuinely surprised and said, ‘Sure, why don’t you finish that memoir I always wanted to read?’

She was incredibly supportive of my writing, but she never thought music criticism was all that important. She wanted me to write about something real, and she was right in many ways. I went into action like a crazy person. The whole thing ended up taking about six weeks. I got Scott Ponik to help design it, and we got it printed. It was the last book she read.

It is still just a memoir. What people are reading now is the second version, which came into focus two years after she died. The book is not really about grieving, though people will find that and whatever else they want – which is great.

The real beginning of the memoir was in 2010. I came up with the title and wrote one small poetic thing I kept, but the rest of it was garbage. I was trying to make my life more glamorous than it was. As I started working on it in earnest, I kept asking myself, ‘Am I embellishing the truth? Am I making myself sound wiser or cooler?’ It’s hard to write something true to the moment but that was the assignment.

The book works like a piece of music. The rhythm determines how it feels, and once that was put in place by the first version, I had to obey that pattern. It made me a little nervous because I didn’t want people to think the form was difficult or that I was trying to hide something. It’s a book about someone’s life. It’s not complicated. Sometimes you try telling a story and it gets worse the more you say, which is why some stories in the book are one sentence long. Sometimes the stories become less true when you add context. I wanted to engage with people and make a readable thing. The form of it is not supposed to be experimental or impressive. Earlier represents what it feels like to be in my head and think about my life.

Sasha Frere-Jones’s Earlier is now available from Semiotext(e).

Main image: Sasha Frere-Jones, Earlier (detail), 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was just published by Semiotext(e).

Ariana Reines is a poet and Obie-winning playwright. Her most recent book is A Sand Book, winner of the 2020 Kingsley Tufts Prize.