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Outside of the Box: Lilibet Snellings on Her New Book, “Box Girl: My Part-Time Job as an Art Installation”
“Isn’t this crazy? Can you believe we’re doing this interview?” My dear friend Lilibet Snellings looks at me expectantly from across a table at LACMA’s tiny C+M café. I’ve known her for years but all of a sudden she could be a brand new acquaintance: she is no longer Lilibet, the cocktail waitress/Masters candidate/non-fiction writer extraordinaire; she is Lilibet, the author. (Any writer knows that such a distinction is a game changer). “No, I can’t believe we’re doing this,” I start, “except that I can, because I’m not surprised in the slightest that your book has gotten published.”
It’s not even a personal bias—don’t get me wrong, I think she’s insanely talented—but even in our time in the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, it was always clear that Lilibet (who had already found success at outlets like Flaunt and Anthem) was destined for greatness. Lo and behold, her manuscript for Box Girl: My Part-Time Job as an Art Installation was scooped up and has since been released (Soft Skull Press, $15, paperback), and what good is it knowing someone in the magazine industry if they can’t publicly brag about your awesomeness?
Ostensibly, Snellings’ new collection of essays is a witty amalgam of moments from her turn as a Box Girl at West Hollywood’s branch of The Standard hotel. Dig deeper and you’ll find it’s a wry, sincere, provocative recasting of the traditional coming-of-age story, one that’s only too familiar to Angelenos wildly chasing down a dream. Here she talks a bit about the book’s genesis, a day in the life of a Box Girl, and what it really takes for an unemployed writer to make it in L.A.
Talk a little about the book and how you came up with the concept of turning this life experience into a memoir.
As soon as I took the job at The Standard, I knew that it was a strange enough situation that I should be writing about it. I was working as a freelance writer at the time, and that’s one of the reasons that I took the job. I thought, ‘This will be a really interesting experiment,’ kind of like being that animal at the zoo and getting to document from inside this fabricated reality. I was always jotting down notes, writing observations about people I saw, things I overheard, what I was doing inside there, how I was feeling. I finally turned all those little snippets into a short essay. Before [getting my Masters] at USC I did a UCLA extension class with Carolyn Kellogg, the books editor at the Times, and we workshopped the essay. I took that with me to USC, and it eventually became the basis for my thesis, which then morphed into my manuscript.
The story of the Box Girl has been written before. It was covered by the Times as far back as 2001. What makes your book stand out?
The book is about being a Box Girl, but it’s also very much about being a “slash;” You know, coming to L.A. and wanting to be one thing, but you end up being five things at once. I thought I was going to get a job at a magazine. That didn’t work out. Then I became a waitress/commercial actress/caterer/extra in Smirnoff Ice commercials/leg model for Nike/hair model—I cut all my hair off for $250 and then I had to stand in front of a Jumbotron of my "before" picture at the Staples Center. I was doing all of these hilarious, ridiculous things. What would hopefully make this book stand out is that it’s not just about working at The Standard. It’s all these silly little things that lots of men and women do when trying to make it in L.A. It’s about growing up and figuring out who you are.
Any young writer looking at you—a self-proclaimed “Slash” turned author—would think that you’ve arrived. Do you feel that way?
I feel like a fraud. You know what, I don’t, because my thesis advisor Dinah Lenney is always like, “You created this. You made this. This isn’t a fluke.”
Let’s go back to the fabricated reality that you were talking about for a second. What were you expected to do in the Box?
The Box is supposed to be a human art installation, so the basic concept is that there’s this giant glass box behind the concierge at The Standard West Hollywood. It’s about 15 feet wide, four feet tall, and five feet deep. The only thing inside is a mattress with sheets and a pillow. Each night a different girl gets paid to sit inside the Box, and she can do whatever she wants. She can read, sleep—it’s so funny that I was even able to sleep sometimes—talk on the phone, there’s WiFi, the whole thing. The only rule is that she’s not allowed to make eye contact with anyone outside the Box. It’s supposed to seem like this creature has no idea there’s anyone out there looking in. It’s very voyeuristic, this girl just going about her business.
Do they have Boxes at all The Standard hotels?
No, only in L.A., and only in West Hollywood.
What did you have to wear?
In chapter two, I include the actual list of Box Girl rules that was sent to us by hotel management, saying what time to arrive, what to wear, and says the uniform is a white tank top and white boy shorts. It specifically says boy shorts—meaning, you know, shorty shorts. It also says no alterations are acceptable. One time, though, I took a real Box Girl fashion risk and—I don’t know what possessed me to do this—I wore a white bodysuit from American Apparel. But it was a tube top, so it was basically just a tube top with a crotch. I was going through my hipster phase big time, and I thought it was a good look.
Did you ever get reprimanded for anything?
Once, for having too much stuff in the Box The concierge came in and said, “Could you tidy it up a bit? You’re not supposed to have so much stuff in here.” I had my laptop, multiple notebooks, pens, my phone, headphones, hand cream, a nail file, my electricity bill—really, a stack of bills I was paying—I was just going about my business. I would always bring stuff to get done, because you’re stuck in there for seven hours. I wasn’t in there doodling.
Artists are given turns creating murals or landscapes in the Box. What was yours designed like? Do you remember?
I was inside of many Boxes—that sounds really gross—throughout the years. I even got to design one once. It was called “Diary of a Box Girl.” I filled the Box with all these crumbled pieces of paper, and things I had written while inside the Box were tacked up to the wall. It was really intimidating because I’m definitely not an artist. But it was cool.
When you were working on this manuscript, did you have that moment where you thought, ‘This could be a legitimate thing’?
Yes and no. Probably no more than yes. It’s just so, so hard to get things published, especially if you’re not in any way established. I hoped something would happen, but of course you always have this fear that you work so hard on something and then it’s just going to die a slow death in the drawer of your desk/on the desktop of your computer.
Some essays in your book are only a paragraph long. Others are multiple pages. What inspired the format?
The format was very intentional. I’m drawn to short, little packages of prose. In the last few years, I’ve been interested in hybrid forms and this idea of not just the content but the container it’s in, too—the way words are presented on the page. I wanted to keep the pieces fragmented because it seemed truer to my writing habits in there. I was very much writing in fits and starts; I wasn’t in there writing 20 pages essays. I also thought it would be really fun to bring in actual e-mails from hotel management, e-mails that I wrote, and things like lists.
Does The Standard know you published this book?
They do. Initially we were hoping they would embrace it and sell it in their gift shop, but they kept saying, “We’re still reviewing it internally,” which leads me to believe that they’re not happy about it. But the thing is, I really do not say anything disparaging about The Standard. I loved the experience. This isn’t some tirade about I felt degraded, or I felt discriminated against. It’s just me talking about my experiences.
What doors are you hoping this will open for you?
Some interesting doors that it has opened already are that we’ve been approached by a few people about the book being optioned for film and T.V. Should I turn it into the Girls of L.A., for instance? I would be very interested in being a part of that project because I think that we could really use a women-based show that depicts the realities of trying to make it in L.A., whether you’re an actor or writer or anything. Shows like The Hills, though they are “reality shows,” are completely unrealistic. We’re not all going to clubs every night in bandage dresses. I think showing that grittier starving artist side—like what Girls does with New York—I think there’s a space for that.
Do you feel like you understand yourself better having written this very personal book?
I was 29 years old when I finished the book. I couldn’t tie it all up in a pretty little bow because I was still growing as a human being and as a writer. I end the book on a question, and my reason for doing that is because I don’t know all the answers. I certainly knew a lot more by 30 than I did at 20, but I don’t know it all. I didn’t then and I don’t now. I read somewhere that memoirs answer questions and essays ask questions, so I like to refer to this as a collection of essays and not a memoir, because really—what the hell does a 29 year old know?
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Box Girl: My Part-Time Job as an Art Installation will be for sale at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where Snellings will participate on a panel Sunday, April 13 at 10:30a.m.