How Periel Aschenbrand wrote a memoir from her knees

The author opens up about casual sex, why she wishes she slept her way to the top, and the importance of taking risks.

In her new comedic memoir, On My Knees, Periel Aschenbrand struggles to survive the first relationship apocalypse of her adult life. We find her hunkered down in her deceased grandmother's rent-controlled apartment, living on a stockpile of cigarettes and frozen pizzas. Instead of embracing her single-hood and embarking on a Sex in the City inspired date-a-thon that takes readers on a glitzy tour of New York City, she becomes a shut in, learning life lessons from reruns of Law & Order. Aside from a few attempted hook-ups, one of which reinforces the wisdom her grandmother had in covering the sofa in plastic, only a handful of characters penetrate Periel's world. This includes a nagging Jewish mother and a best friend who uses Craigslist as a dating site. When she flies to Tel Aviv for a wedding, Periel finds herself romantically drawn to her best guy friend's best guy friend, Guy. The second half of the book follows the author's attempts to cross the distance between the past and this new relationship. When I caught up with Periel she was very pregnant as a result of the life she discovered after living for a brief time, on her knees.

In the first few pages of On My Knees, you mention how you masturbated wildly as a toddler. However, this compulsion is absent from the rest of the book though it would have seemingly gone hand-in-hand with the months you spent on your couch. Did you really not masturbate during this time? Or did you think describing your masturbation wouldn't be an effective device for reinforcing how alone you felt or revealing what your fantasy life was like when single?

I honestly don't remember. But I don't think people masturbate when they're searingly depressed. Nor am I of the opinion that masturbation is indicative of "feeling alone" (or lonely). That said, it is also entirely possible that I did masturbate during that time period and simply don't remember. It is, after all, a hobby I quite enjoy.

Your cardinal rule about casual hookups is to never sleep over. What is it about sleeping over that is more intimate than sex? Is it simply a conscious effort to avoid the "pair bonding" effects of oxytocin that fills our blood after sex?

First of all, sleeping in someone's bed entails spending 8+ hours of time with a person you barely know while you are in the most vulnerable state possible i.e., asleep. Moreover, I think by sleeping together and snuggling, we start to form potentially delusional bonds with people we barely know. Then you wake up, and you are forced, due to circumstance, to have awkward small talk. It's just much cleaner to get in and get out. My decisions to have a conversation with someone are based on very different criteria than to have casual sex with someone.

click to enlarge How Periel Aschenbrand wrote a memoir from her knees - Michael Webber
Michael Webber
How Periel Aschenbrand wrote a memoir from her knees
  • Michael Webber

When meeting with your editor and literary agent to discuss early drafts of this book, did any of their criticism feel like they were critiquing you and your life choices?

Is this a trick question?

What were some of their suggestions for modifying your character or your character's actions?

They didn't have any. Everyone agrees that my character is sublime.

When bragging to your mother about how you met Philip Roth, you said you regretted not sleeping with him; that you were not above sleeping your way to the top. Other than Nico, who offers you a job at the book's end, have you slept with anyone who has actually helped your career?

No. And it's a decision I deeply regret.

In this same section you also mention how notoriety and success are often synonymous in the literary world. Out of all the women in New York writing about being single in the city, you were one of the few who succeeded in getting her memoir published. In your mind, what distinguishes your work? How did you cultivate some notoriety to help build your author platform?

I've never thought about it like this. I'm just me. I don't think about any of those things when I'm writing or, really, ever. I work hard and I love what I do and I feel very fortunate that I'm able to share it. There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than making people laugh. (Except maybe masturbating.)

Did you rename your ex-boyfriend's character, Noam, after Noam Chomsky?

Yes, and may the Lord bless you for being the only person to pick up on this. For starters, I'm a big fan. But my ex was the one who introduced me to Chomsky and he's probably, in some way, equally as brilliant. Plus, when I was writing my first book, I emailed Chomsky to see if he would write the forward and he said no, but he emailed me back the sweetest email. So it's kind of an homage. A "shout out," if you will.

On page 100, you write: "In my mind, not taking risks has always been a bigger risk than taking them." What are the three biggest risks you've taken in your life?

I think every time you go into unchartered water, you are taking a risk. Every time you do something that scares you and every time you do something where you may fail and/or there is no guaranteed outcome constitutes taking a risk. It doesn't have to be some major thing. But in this case, to answer your question—writing this book was a risk, going to Tel Aviv was a risk, staying another few days hanging out with Guy was a risk. The list goes on.

You became instantly enamored with the book's main love interest, Guy, until you talked to him for the first time. You were so turned off by how boring he was that you left to makeout with an entertaining buffoon. What is it about a boring personality that overrides so many other good characteristics in a partner?

A boring personality overrides ALL other qualities. There is nothing more tedious than boredom. Luckily for him (and for me), he's actually one of the most interesting people I've ever met. He was just really shy. I think I made him nervous.

Near the book's conclusion, you spend the summer visiting Guy and writing in Tel Aviv. Were you working on this book when you were there? If so, at that point did you have any idea what the story arc would be?

I wrote the whole book except for the ending in Tel Aviv and I didn't know how it would end up then, of course. Parts of the book and stories from it existed already as I had written like 500 pages while living at my grandmother's, but I pretty much set that whole manuscript on fire and then just stole from myself the best parts of it.

Why do so many comedic stories conclude with marriage? Is marriage a natural end point, or are the conflicts leading up to marriage more entertaining than married life? If a story is about conflict, do you fear that being in a stable relationship will yield fewer stories for you to write about?

I wasn't aware that so many comedic stories end in marriage. I don't know if marriage is "natural" in any way, quite frankly. Are we meant to be with one person for the rest of our lives? I have no idea. And who ever said there aren't conflicts between married couples? Also, I'm not sure I'm in a stable relationship. Guy is out of his fucking mind and according to him so am I. Plus, when I tell him he's crazy, he's always like, "If I weren't crazy, I probably wouldn't have married you."


Buy On My Knees: A Memoir and read more from Aschenbrand at her homepage: perielaschenbrand.com. Also, follow her on Twitter @MissPeriel and Facebook.

Follow Alfie on Twitter, Facebook, or at shawnalff.com

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