I have literally always made zines, an interview with: Molly Young

In which the critic pursues a passion project about murder

I have to pee and Molly Young, literary critic for New York magazine, has to deal with an anti-Semitic roofer. We’re on a Google hangout to discuss her newest zine—Sleepy Hollow Motor Inn—when we’re interrupted by my bladder and her doorbell, respectively. 

“I feel like I just rambled at you,” Molly apologizes. I wish she had rambled more. 

It was while rambling around the Massachusetts village of Woods Hole that her inquisitive nature beat a path for a project. “This is when I came upon the ghost,” she writes in the book spawned from walking daily past the eponymous motel and its haunted memory. 

To call Sleepy Hollow Motor Inn a zine about murder would be to sell it short. It’s more accurately a taxonomy of a small town that just happens to be the site of a grizzly familicide. Molly’s main topic, like a shotgun blast, ripples out into a buckshot of inquiries. Topics explored, but are not limited to: the history of hemophilia, Woods Hole’s standing in the marine biology community, the difference between murder by proxy and suicide by proxy, and the RMS Titanic.   

It’s a lot less grim and a lot more interesting than one might suppose. It’s weird; it’s short. You’ll learn, you’ll laugh (Molly’s known for her voicey newsletter on books), you’ll wonder, “How could somebody do that?” But, before I ramble too much, let’s get to the interview. 

Me: You seem like an incredibly curious person so it seems like the zine started off out of your own curiosity. Is that true? 

Molly: You’re 100 percent correct. I’ve always been someone who has these pet obsessions in a very single-minded way. I will focus on certain things and research certain things until I feel like I have a handle on them. Often, those projects will start in one place and then branch off into a million different other places. My brain turns into this chaotic wall of string from a TV show about a murderer. The only way I can stop thinking about something is if I plunge headlong into it. The zines just turned out to be a good way to do that because most of my obsessions do not have a news peg or are not pitchable—or, if they were pitchable, they would be edited into a form that was not pleasing for anyone to read. 

Me: At what point did you realize the Sleepy Hollow Motor Inn was going to be more than just an internet Wikipedia wormhole? 

Molly: When I started dreaming about it. Once something penetrates to that level of my subconscious, it’s a sign that I should probably do something with it. Like a lot of writers, I have two modes: One is input, where I’m just reading a lot, taking a lot of information in, or talking to a lot of people, reporting a lot; and then the other mode is output, where I’m just sitting and writing. And I weirdly cannot do both at the same time. 

I’m either in one phase or the other. With Sleepy Hollow, I was in constant input mode (in part, because during the pandemic, my workload disappeared). I didn’t have many writing assignments, so I had all this time to get obsessed with something, and then it was almost like when you’re eating a bowl of food and suddenly you feel full and you’re like, “OK, I’m done.” At some point in the research, I felt like I was satisfied and then the next step became the output portion.

The way I write anything is I take notes. The reason I take notes is because I have a really bad memory. I take notes on everything I read and everything I research and then make little observations or ask questions or come up with ideas or whatever. I add them to a very messy Google doc and then I’ll look at that doc and if it seems like it could be shaped into something that other people would like to read, then I’ll do that. Most often, it’s very clear that it’s not shapeable into something that anyone wants to read, but at least I scratched the itch. 

Me: So do you have a lot of other Google docs that are not quite zine-ready ideas?

Molly: Yeah, my Google docs situation is out of control. I have one Google doc that is just called “Ongoing Research” and it’s like 50,000 words long. In that document, there’s this whole section on toxoplasmosis, which is cat-lady syndrome. It’s the disease they get when they catch a parasite from their cat. What else is in there? There’s a huge block of text about virtual reality, there’s a huge block of text about grain farming, like pre-agrarian lifestyles. It’s just the most random shit possible. It’s the solution to any moment of boredom because I can always go into that folder and poke around and find something to tickle my brain cells. 

Me: How do these things usually begin? 

Molly: Sleepy Hollow just began because I was actually walking past the hotel grounds every single day and I’ve always had this interest in really understanding where I’m living. Usually, I live in Brooklyn. But my husband and I moved to Cape Cod during the pandemic and lived in a house there for more than a year. I moved around a lot as a kid and I was always very interested in mapping the terrain and figuring out who lives here. “What are the local customs?” and “What is the ecosystem?”; “Who are the local characters?” and just figuring out the territory so that I could then discern what my place in it would be. Part of doing that in the town where we were was figuring out the details of this terrible thing that [had] happened, that I’d always wondered about, but didn’t know about. 

Me: Is it as important to you to learn this stuff as it is to share it? 

Molly: I think it’s more important for me to learn it and to know it for myself. I never purely write things for myself. I’m always trying to write something that’s entertaining for other people. Maybe that makes me sound like a hack because it’s not a “pure artistic expression of my consciousness,” or whatever. I really do want to write things that are legible and entertaining and interesting and make people feel different things. And so, when I encountered the Sleepy Hollow thing it just seemed to tap into so many themes that people I knew were thinking about. Like illness and the fragility of the body and family (a lot of people were quarantining with their families) and isolation and I thought, “If I could somehow weave them together, it might be as entertaining [for others] as [it was] for myself.” But most of the shit in my Google doc of ongoing research is irrelevant. Nobody needs to see it except me. It’s just my private little acorn stash. 

Me: Kurt Vonnegut always said he wrote with his sister in mind. [Ed: He called her his “ideal reader.”] When I write, I write for myself most, but in the editing process, I feel like I have to go through and be like, “Am I using this word because I just learned it from James Joyce or am I using this word because it is actually the right word to use? Am I showing off or am I being readable?” 

Molly: Yes, yes. That’s a quality I really prize in other people: that kind of basic legibility–if I can sense in someone the urge to communicate rather than to showboat. Although, sometimes, it’s fun to see people showboat, depending on who it is. But I do respond well to that kind of writing. Always have. 

Me: Is this type of work inspired by anyone?

Molly: Inspirations…I mean, I have literally always made zines. When I was six years old, I was making little booklets at school and bringing them home to my parents. As a teenager growing up in the Bay Area, I was into the local music scene and going to Berkeley and to this all-ages club called [924] Gillman Street and seeing different bands. There was a very wholesome DIY ethos that was anchored in music that also involved a lot of written material (zines, fliers, that kind of thing). So it’s always been a format that I’ve liked. I think I like it because it’s small and it’s contained and it’s designed to be a vehicle for a single person’s consciousness (or multiple people sometimes), but it’s not designed for a mass audience. It’s designed to be read by maybe a few interested people and maybe shared and passed along as a kind of gift economy. And that always appeals to me. Especially now because I feel like media is in such a weird tailspin. There’s so much ugliness and it’s just bad vibes. But I like it as an alternative to that. 

There’s nothing that guarantees that a writer will produce bad work than that writer producing work for a “general audience.” Universality is always located in specificity. 

Whenever I write a zine, it doesn’t get edited by an editor and I’m sure it’s worse off in many, many ways for that, but there’s something about the format that invites people to acknowledge those flaws. What it might lack in polish or spelling consistency, it might make up for in weirdness. And, ultimately, weirdness is what I’m attracted to in writers. It’s why newsletters are also a really good format. You can let your freak flag fly, write about what you’re interested in, you can do poems and critical essays. You can do whatever the fuck you want. I get a lot of Substacks. It’s the thing I look most forward to in my inbox. I’m much more likely to read five of these emails containing long-form pieces than I am to go to name-your-media-outlet. com and browse the homepage. I just don’t do that anymore. 

Me: I’m curious to know whose writing makes you excited. You obviously are a prolific reader. What are some things that have been of interest to you? 

Molly: I really love the writer Mark Greif who is a kind of cultural critic who has a very dark philosophical bent. Whenever I read his essays, I feel like I’m being something-pilled. Not red-pilled, not black-pilled, but something else. I also really love Mark Fisher.

Oh, you know who I’m obsessed with is this author named William Ian Miller. He’s a law professor at the University of Michigan law school, which apparently is a great law school. He teaches law but he also writes these absolutely freakish books. He wrote one called Anatomy of Disgust and it’s just a scholarly tome on the topic of disgust. What things are disgusting, why they’re disgusting, when we overlook the disgustingness of other people, why we’re ashamed of our own disgustingness. Amazing. He’s also written a book called Humiliation, which is also a study of humiliation. And then the last one I read by him is called Faking It and it’s about imposter syndrome. So he’s just a classic example of somebody who is a genius and a freak who writes books that are based on his pet obsessions. Right now, I’m just really tunneling deep into this mind to the point where I feel like I’ve melded with him. Maybe that’s not healthy, but I’m enjoying it. 

Me: Were you reading the Mark Greif book [Against Everything] while you were writing Sleepy Hollow Motor Inn because I can almost see a similarity? Like Mark Greif strikes me as someone who is really curious and then he’ll just choose one random topic like rap music and look at it from all these angles that I hadn’t thought of before. 

Molly: I wasn’t reading it at the same time, but I’ve read his book so many times that I’ve probably just internalized that and am probably unconsciously plagiarizing his mind in some way. I suppose that’s always the case with the books that we love. 

Me: What’s your MO when you’re reading? Harold Bloom said that reading is an art. I think that he’s wrong about a lot of things, but he’s right about that. 

Molly: I love Harold Bloom. I mean complicated guy, but really brilliant. My MO in reading is I approach everything like a puzzle because I love doing puzzles. Love escape rooms, love crosswords puzzles. Sometimes I’ll be reading a book and I don’t necessarily like it but I also don’t know why I don’t like it. I don’t allow myself to stop reading until I know exactly why I don’t like it. And that requires asking, “What is the author trying to do?” A and B “Are they accomplishing that?” Until I can answer both of those questions, I’m not allowed to stop reading a book. Because otherwise, I’d never read difficult books. I’d never read The Sound and the Fury, or whatever. 

But then, sometimes, I pick up a book and I know what the intention is on page two and by page 10 I’m like “This fuckin’ sucks” and then I’m allowed to stop. That’s kind of my MO and once I know what the author’s intention is I’ll continue reading if I think it’s interesting. If I think it’s an interesting path of inquiry. 

Me: What’s your rate of success? How often do you stop reading a book? 

Molly: I like so few books. I like 1 in 100 books. So picky. 

Me: I rarely, if ever, stop reading a book. 

Molly: Huh, that’s so fascinating. Even if it’s really bad? 

Me: Well, I feel like my vetting process for whether I’m gonna buy a book is strong enough that I don’t encounter too many books where I’m like “This is just plain awful.” Reading a book is (sometimes) like watching a movie except it’s more arduous to do. You know sometimes you finish a movie and you get out of the theater and your friend’s like, “What did you think of that?” And you’re like “I fucking hated it. It was so miserable.” And then a week later you’re like still thinking about that movie and you’re like, “You know what? Maybe this is Stockholm syndrome, maybe this is remove, but I’m still thinking about that movie so it couldn’t have been so bad.” I want to give myself that distance so I almost always finish what I start. I think your method is better. I don’t think you should force yourself to read stuff that you hate. But I do find sometimes that it’s gratifying to 

Molly: For me, it’s almost a time management thing because I’m lucky enough to be in the position where publishers are constantly sending me books. I get so many books in the mail because they want to be featured in the newsletter or they want me to write about them that I need some method of processing all that information. I want to at least start everything and give everything a chance, but I also need a method where if a book is toilet paper, I can move onto the next one. 

A lot of them are from authors where it’s their first book or I’ve never heard of them. I don’t know anything about them and there are no reviews out so I know nothing about the book. I’m just coming to it blind, which is great. I think it’s probably how it should be and sometimes I think that all books should just come with blank white covers so that you can’t even judge them. 

Me: What do you think of criticism these days?

Molly: I have people that I love to read. I love reading Christian Lorentzen. I think he’s excellent. I love Wesley Yang. I love Patricia Lockwood’s writing for the London Review of Books. There’s probably a million others I’m forgetting. There definitely are.

It’s funny. Sometimes I’ll get an email from someone and they’ll be unhappy with something I wrote and they’ll say, “It’s just your opinion. Why should it matter?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the point of criticism. It’s the ultimate subjective exercise.” You don’t have to read it if you’re not interested in my opinion. I’m not holding a gun to your head. The critics who I like the most are the ones who have a very well-defined subjectivity that they then are able to seamlessly translate to the page. And that’s uncommon.