Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Literature

Proust Questionnaire: Jessa Crispin


The Proust Questionnaire dates back to the parlor room fad of the “confession album,” popularized in late-nineteenth-century England, in which individuals, families, strangers, and the occasional ill-mannered first date answered a series of questions, which inevitably revealed a bevy of his/her/their aspirations, fantasies, and personal tastes. Earning its current moniker via the series of sophisticated (and yes, Proustian) responses provided by the author in two recorded versions (dated 1885/86 and 1890/91, respectively), the mental survey accrued further cultural currency when it was included as form of celebrity confessional in the back pages of the American magazine Vanity Fair. To celebrate the debut of her first book The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries, we asked writer and editor Jessa Crispin to let us crawl along with her to the recesses of her mind to give you a taste of what makes her tick and let you know why she’s one of the sharpest interlocutors of contemporary art and lit around today. Not playing favorites or anything, but you can read Proust’s—and for fun and karmic restitution, Norman Mailer’s—responses via hyperlink. Read Crispin’s in full below.


Your favorite virtue:

I have been using the Minchiate tarot for a while, and for a while almost every day I was drawing the virtue card “Faith” as my card for the day. And man, I hated her, with her dreamy, delusional, silly oh everything is sure to get better vibe. I don’t like to be challenged on my “everything is fucking terrible” point of view. But she’s growing on me.

Your favorite qualities in a man:



Your favorite qualities in a woman:

Her sins.

Your chief characteristic:

My nose.

What you appreciate the most in your friends:

I’ve been crazy blessed with friends. Brilliant fuckers, all of them. I am constantly inspired by all of them, and most everything I write starts as a conversation with one of them. But beyond their brilliance, they are all compassionate, warm people, and I don’t know what I did to deserve so many of them and of such high quality.

Your main fault:

My appetites are enormous.

Your favorite occupation:

The love of my life, Honeybee, makes candy. (Whimsical candy! It is delicious and available online!) Her kitchen was four blocks from my apartment in Chicago, so she would bring over rejected candy. Nougat that was too soft, scraps from caramel, marshmallows that didn’t set properly. She thinks of ways to make people feel like kids again, basically. She has a good job.

Your idea of happiness:

Baby elephant gifs and the sounds that camels make.

A friend just texted me my answer, though: “opera tickets for tomorrow night in a foreign city.” And this is also true.

Your idea of misery:

An unmoving train or plane.

If not yourself, who would you be?

I am quite enjoying being myself. I don’t think I would trade it in. Unless I could be a baby elephant.

Where would you like to live?

Oh babe, if I had an answer to this question, it would be a very different life I’d be leading.

Your favorite color and flower:

I am growing a collection of poisonous plants in my garden right now, so let’s say Foxglove, Datura, and Belladonna. They are awfully pretty and they will definitely kill you.

I am an adult, though, and so I do not have a favorite color.

Your favorite bird (NB addition, c. 1891):

The one specific blackbird who lived in the birch tree outside my Berlin apartment.

He’s probably dead by now, though. I don’t know the lifespan of the average urban blackbird.

Your favorite prose authors:

Oh my jesus god. The thought of answering this question exhausts me, I have to go lie under the rug now. Okay, my report from under the rug: Henry James will always be my spinster king. My love for him will always be fiercer than for anyone else. But also, all the writers in my book, plus Helen Garner, Rebecca Brown, Kathryn Davis, James Baldwin, Shalom Auslander, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, JG Farrell, oh look I found a quarter under here.

Your favorite poets:

Lately I’ve been reading Rachel Wetzsteon a lot. Also recently discovered June Jordan, and wow. But also: Anne Carson, Hoa Nguyen, Alice Notley, Daphne Gottlieb. It would seem pretentious to say Ovid, but his exile poems are beautiful.

Your favorite heroes in fiction:

All the disappointments to their families, the guys who couldn’t get the girl, the men who couldn’t find their hero’s journey, the men who died of TB before really accomplishing anything.

Your favorite heroines in fiction:

Catherine Sloper and all the other spinsters.

Your favorite painters and composers:







Your heroes in real life:

Michael Servetus, Giordano Bruno, and all of the other heretics. Basically if the State ever set you on fire, I am on your side.

Your favorite heroines in real life:

The women who led the Ferguson protests and #blacklivesmatter. The women who were at the Stonewall riots. The lesbians who took care of the dying men during the AIDS crisis. The women I worked with at pro-choice organizations in Texas who worked hard to make sure women who wanted and needed an abortion had access. Basically every goddamn woman who just continues to do the work that needs to be done, even when they’re forgotten, spoken over, and written out of history.

What characters in history do you most dislike:

Most of the men, really.

Your heroines in world history:

Rosa Luxemburg, Joan of Arc, Louise Michel, Boudica, and all the other women who just got fed up and started setting shit on fire.

Your favorite food and drink:

Oysters and dry martinis.

Your favorite names:

I made up the name Jessa when I was 11 or 12, because I hated my birth name. But, you should know that the list of possible names that I gave full and serious consideration to were Jessa, Crystal, and Sierra. So.

What I hate the most:

My downstairs neighbors’ record collection.

World history characters I hate the most:

The imperial British.

The military event I admire the most:

The moment in the Romanian revolution where the army stopped shooting at protesters and started shooting at the government buildings.

The reform I admire the most:

Whatever reform it was that made crows capable of making and using tools.

The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with:

I wish I had been able to play an instrument, but I was terrible. My hands are like paws, absolutely no articulation or independence of movement. I was forced to try to play the clarinet, but I squawked and squeaked until they asked me to please stop. Plus, how would a person ever choose one instrument to learn and perfect? Out of all possible, how could you ever limit yourself to one? What if twenty years in you realize you chose wrong? Or maybe the instrument chooses you? I admire really good bassoon players, what must their world be like? I think Stravinsky must have, too, he always wrote good parts for bassoons.

How I wish to die:

Did you know that Isak Dinesen died because near the end of her life she refused to eat anything other than white grapes, oysters, and champagne? What a way to go.

What is your present state of mind:



For what fault have you most toleration?


Your favorite motto:

I always thought the idea of “live like each day is your last” is a stupid, selfish way to look at life. Same with, “Follow your bliss.” Your bliss is built on the oppression of others, 98% of the time. Maybe no mottoes. Maybe stop trying to simplify this terrible, amazing, idiotic, beautiful world we live in. Maybe accept the terror of not understanding, of not knowing. Maybe that’s a good place to work from.

christina_astonishing(this is not an actual author photo of Jessa Crispin, but a woodcut of
Saint Christina the Astonishing)

To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.

To visit the Bookslut and Spolia, click here and here, respectively.