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An Interview With Laura Barcella, Editor of Madonna and Me

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Most women of a certain generation or two remember the time when their consciousness first lit upon Madonna. I was 23 -- an arrested development 23, a 23-year-old waitress, floundering for a future -- when I first became aware of Madonna. I immediately liked everything about her -- the bracelets, the voice, the is-it-ironic-or-is-it-just-hot confusion, the certainty she instilled in me that any arena she entered she'd leave victorious. There's this moment in Desperately Seeking Susan which instantly became iconic in my mind: the Susan/Madonna character walks along a crowded Lower East Side sidewalk sensually eating her way through a bag of Cheetos. It was like she was this crazy, sexy female Id, taking whatever pleasure and success she wanted. It was like she didn't know how to apologize or accommodate. It was like she was everything I was not.

Whether you liked Madonna or despised her, she affected us. And that impact is clear in the essay collection, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, new to bookstores this week. I heard about this collection first through my friend and co-editor of Dear John, I Love Jane, Laura Andre, whose essay "And I Feel" is in Madonna & Me . And to be honest, my first reaction upon hearing of the book was, "That is such a good idea! Why didn't I think of that?" It's that crazy, sexy female Id talking. I got to talk to Laura Barcella, the woman who did think of the idea for the collection, and here's what she had to say.

Theo Pauline Nestor: How did you get the idea for this anthology? What motivated you to compile these essays exploring the impact of Madonna on women's lives?

Laura Barcella: The idea for Madonna & Me literally came to me in the middle of the night. It was one of those mystical things you always hear about -- those crazy sparks of inspiration that always seem to happen to other writers. Something like that had never happened to me and I certainly didn't expect it to. Anyway, I woke up in the middle of the night with this urgent question at the forefront of my mind: did an all-female anthology about Madonna exist? If not, why? I wrote down the idea to be sure I'd remember it in the morning.

As far as why I believed so strongly that an anthology like this needed to exist -- that was partly for personal reasons and partly for broader ones. Growing up, Madonna had been such a massive, driving influence in my life; she had directly impacted my views on women, gender, sex, power, self-identity, feminism... the list goes on. And I knew from talking to other women that she'd had a similar effect on their lives


Theo Pauline Nestor: What was the process for selling this anthology to a publisher like? Did you have the writers lined up first? Had you edited similar anthologies in the past?

Barcella: This was the first anthology I've edited. My agent loved my idea, but she thought it wouldn't sell unless we included a batch of excellent sample essays in my proposal. So, as I was working on the proposal, I directly approached a few writers I hoped to include. I also posted the call for submissions all over the Internet. It took a little while, but eventually I secured about eight strong essays for the proposal. Frustratingly enough, though, it took more than a year for the book to sell. By that point I was very discouraged and was trying to prepare myself for the reality that this project I was so passionate about might never see the light of day. But finally, thankfully, the project did sell to one of my favorite indie publishers, Soft Skull Press.

Theo Pauline Nestor: What did you learn about the role of Madonna in women's lives from these essays? Anything surprising?

Laura Barcella:: I didn't learn anything especially shocking, necessarily, but the hundreds of submissions I received did confirm what I already believed -- that Madonna was a hugely powerful force in the lives of thousands of women who grew up in the '80s. She was a role model for lots of women like me, but she was also (obviously) very controversial, and not all women admired her or connected with her. For that reason, I wanted to include a variety of perspectives in the book; I didn't want it to be all Madonna-worship, all the time. I wanted some critical pieces, too. And I found some good ones!

Theo Pauline Nestor: Could you tell us about a couple of the essays?

Laura Barcella:: One of my favorite pieces is called "Mad Mensch," by the wonderful, hilarious writer Wendy Shanker. As a little experiment, Shanker signed up on J-Date to create a faux Internet-dating profile for Madonna -- then she searched for matches and tried to find a suitable man (a mensch, obviously) for Madge. It was all done in good fun, and the results were hysterical.

Another favorite is by Marisela Huerta, a new writer in Los Angeles (her essay, "Immaterial Girl," is her first published work). It, too, is one of the book's funnier pieces. It describes how Huerta, a longtime Madonna fan who works for the GRAMMY Awards, showed up for a GRAMMYs dress rehearsal with the intention of seeing Madonna perform her sound-check. Of course, this was the year Madonna "sang" with the weird animated cartoon band Gorillaz; hence, Huerta didn't get to see a real, live, breathing Madonna perform -- she got to see a Madonna hologram perform (though at first she couldn't tell the difference, which only made the whole thing even more entertaining).

Anyway, I'm not doing either essay justice -- you should buy the book and find out for yourself.

Theo Pauline Nestor: What sort of reaction from readers has the book been getting so far?

Laura Barcella: The book just came out, so I haven't received a ton of reader feedback yet. Soon, I hope! But HuffPost Women recently reprinted my essay from the book, and the range of reader response to that was really eye-opening. People's thoughts and feelings tended to run the usual gamut regarding whether Madonna is a healthy role model for young women; whether she's just a big old slut who screwed her way to fame, whether she's a natural-born star or a talentless hack, etc. Pretty predictable! Some of the comments did get under my skin a little, but as a whole they only served to prove to me that Madonna's still got it. She's still relevant and still powerful enough to stir intense debate and strong emotions. So she's clearly doing something right.

Read more of my author interviews at WritingIsMyDrink.com.