The author of The Death of Francis Bacon on “big, canonical problematic figures,” questioning artificiality, and creepy doll furniture.
Talking to the author of Beautiful World, Where Are You about not creating characters from a place of moral superiority, authors as celebrities, and the great stakes of love and friendship.
Talking to the author of Future Feeling about letting characters carry on in literary reality, counterbalancing angst and humor, and the interconnectedness of queer relationships.
Future Feeling (Soft Skull Press), Joss Lake’s debut novel, is a delightfully queer book. Penfield R. Henderson, the novel’s narrator, is a trans man living in a near-future Brooklyn in which social media is still a powerful force but also cellphones have hologram capability and New York City’s subway cars scan their passengers’ cumulative emotional state and change colors accordingly, like a public mood ring. Pen is in a lull in his life at the start of the narrative: he’s a dog-walker for those wealthier than him, he’s got a casual sex thing going on with a minor celebrity, and he has a love-hate parasocial relationship with Aiden, a trans social media influencer with perfect pecs and a seemingly serene soul. When the hate part of the love-hate gets a bit too overwhelming, Pen enlists his roommates—one a witch, the other a hacker—and attempts to hex Aiden. Instead, the hex ends up affecting a total stranger, Blithe, a transracially adopted trans man in California, who plummets into a sudden, deep depression. In this near-future world, queers in distress aren’t left to their own devices; they’re assisted, in more or less direct ways, by a kind of queer caretaking body, the Rhiz (pronounced like the word rise), whose name gestures at “mycorrhiza,” the mutual symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants—a kind of mutual aid, if you will. The Rhiz sees fit to direct Pen and Aiden to figure out, together, how to help Blithe. But this is, as I said, a very queer book, and these characters’ trajectories aren’t particularly linear or predictable, making Future Feeling all the more fun to read as its surprises, anxieties, and hilarities unfold alongside each other unexpectedly. I spoke to Joss Lake over Zoom about the novel’s structure, world, and incredible narrative voice. This interview has been edited and condensed. Ilana Masad: About halfway through the novel I realized that even though Pen, our narrator, is in his early thirties, he narrative is a kind of coming of age. In fact, that’s the case for all three of the trans men whose lives Future Feeling focuses on. What interested you about this post-transition, post-coming out time in Pen, Aiden and Blithe’s lives? Joss Lake: I think what interested me was the way that Pen had transitioned but was still in this very teenage, angsty mindset. And I was interested in this queer non-linearity of life phases. He's at a point in time where maybe some of his cis “well-adjusted” friends are having children or moving up in their careers, but he's sort of moving through puberty and then getting to a point where he's like, What is it that I actually want? [I was] playing around with disrupting these developmental milestones, with [the question of], like, what does help people move through these stages? How do you hold yourself together when maybe you're doing things out of order? Maybe you know, intellectually, that you can do something at any age, but emotionally it feels very much like, Oh, I'm stuck, I'm behind, but also I'm just getting a chance to do X, Y, and Z. For Blithe—because of the hex, but potentially this could have happened anyway—he’s just starting to confront all of this emotional turmoil and trauma for the first time. So his career was in a good place, but he’s now sort of stepping off onto another path. And then we have Aiden who is coming to terms with the limitations of his role as an influencer and is trying to conform to some social messaging and find some sense of security. One of your blurbers, Jordy Rosenberg, wrote that this book “accomplishes that rare and difficult goal: the conversion of anxiety into laughter.” Your narrator, Pen, is an extremely anxious person. He’s not always likeable—although he’s often extremely relatable, TBH—and he messes up plenty. But he’s also hilarious, and he’s able to poke fun at himself and his anxiety. How did you develop Pen’s beautifully unique voice? It was a long process, and originally, in earlier drafts, I didn't necessarily know that he would evolve [as a character]. I'd taken this class in grad school on the hysterical male and I kind of hated most of what we read. It felt like you're sort of trapped inside these very fragile cis male narrators, and there's no movement—you're just supposed to either find humor in their fumbling around or identify with them if there's something about them that's relatable, but there's no particular movement. At first, I thought I could create a hysterical trans masculine narrator, and that would be subversive in itself. It was fun to do that, but I was like, This feels very limiting. And I don't think it's actually that subversive to have a white trans hysterical narrator just spinning off in his head. I don't know that I would really care to read that, after a certain point. So I started to think, what if this narrator has all this fragility and this messy way of relating to people, and I also send him on a journey? I also wanted to have other characters give him feedback and elevate other voices; I didn't want people to be trapped in his consciousness. I wanted them to have all these ways of relating to other characters and other characters’ perspectives rubbing up against his so that he's not our elevated, picaresque hero. In some ways he is, but he has all these other elements and people that can balance him out. There was this question of what does move someone out of deep angst and [out of] taking themselves too seriously when they are stuck in a dark place? One thing that very organically arose was humor. Because the more he dug into, like, my life is horrible, I live in this whatever apartment in Ridgewood and I just walk people's dogs, the more heavy it felt. So there was a lot of counterbalancing: I'm going to counterbalance this heavy angst with humor, I'm going to counterbalance zooming in too far on him with other people coming in to add some breathing room. I think another factor was that I wrote a fairly serious, experimental, historical fiction novel, and then a memoir in the third person about transitioning, and it was very dark. I couldn't get them published. And then I started doing The Artist's Way [practice] where you write three pages every morning without thinking and what came out was basically Pen's narrative voice. I was sort of surprised that that was spinning around inside of me, but it was pragmatic to go with it. I wasn't thinking very intellectually about it—it was just some part of me that I hadn't really thought about or explored. Would you tell me a bit about how you arrived at the concept of the Rhiz—this officialization of the unofficial queer underground network that anyone who's queer has (hopefully) had some kind of contact with? It came out of a blend of personal experience and sort of imagining new possibilities. [In terms of] personal experience, just thinking about the interconnectedness of queer relationships, and using the internet in relating to queer folks, and the way you can find housing and all sorts of things just from knowing different people, and that being a kind of alternate structure—with its own problems—to capitalist, hierarchical ways of maneuvering. The Rhiz also came out of trying to come to terms with the internet and feeling, myself, very depleted by the internet and social media, but also wanting to approach it neutrally. The internet can obviously have really negative effects and can also have positive effects, so [I was] thinking about it more generatively as a structure that is linking things together and imagining an underground structure that is parallel to the internet and is very relational. Because [the book] is set in the near future, and there are a lot of futuristic technological factors, I wanted—and I didn't have a ton of space to do this—but I wanted to gesture at the queer past, so that it wasn't like these characters are existing in a vacuum. I did want there to be a sense—or at least a way to mark—that generations of queer folks have been working together for various forms of liberation. I also wanted to build in a sense of vastness, so it wasn't like Pen’s life or Blithe’s or Aiden’s is the end all, be all of queer existence. I did have a lot of fun building out the Rhiz. At first I wanted it to be a little more nefarious, like maybe there’s something sinister about it. But in a way it felt more subversive to have elements of a sort of utopia, because, to me, it's very easy to imagine a dystopia. The world that the book is set in is just far enough in the future to include some technology we don't have, but it's near enough that it's very recognizably our own late-stage capitalism, social media influencer, climate disaster-filled world. So I was wondering what did setting the book a bit in the future allow you to achieve? Did it feel hopeful or bleakly realistic to preserve many of our contemporary social anxieties and ruptures in this future space? I think putting it in the future helped me get a little imaginative distance. Setting it in the present, I would have felt more of a pressure to make things more recognizable. I mean, obviously you could set something in the present and still have these imaginative flourishes, but setting it in the near future just felt more spacious. It also gave me space to write towards something. In my immediate present, as a person and as a writer, things just felt very stuck. And so I think the future—not even in terms of following our present socio-political reality a little bit further, but the future in a more expansive way—allowed me to be able to move around in some possibilities. I think originally, the idea was that by setting them in the future, I can take all these aspects of the present and turn up the volume on them so that the characters feel extra tense and squashed by these mediating elements, and then as I was writing and changing internally, it felt like I had some agency over determining what the future could be. So, again, not thinking in the way that we're receiving information from the media about what the future will be in ten years, but just as a writer—maybe I can decide in this narrative space what a future could be. Maybe the characters—in relation with each other, in relation to the Rhiz—maybe there is a way that they can evolve in some sense. I did think a lot about how to modulate this so it's not a sort of uncomplicated happy ending. I was sort of afraid that by making any gesture toward things not being hopeless, that people would just scoff at it, like, Oh, that’s so naïve, who gives their characters a happy ending? Your characters should remain unlikable and suffer until the end. But who does that literature serve? I want to talk about the structure of the book a little bit. It has a kind of prologue, and then three parts or chapters, and then we catch up to where the prologue left off. It also has these stories-within-the-story sections, where Pen is telling a story or putting together other people’s stories. Events bleed into one another at times, and the narrative focus allows itself to shift around. In other words, the structure of the book itself feels very queer to me, very much eschewing the familiarity of simple linearity. How did the structure of the book develop and what was your vision for what it would feel like to read? I really wanted the prologue to be a kind of flash forward. The way that Pen opens [the novel], with the hex and his frame of mine—I wanted the reader to be cued that he wasn’t going to remain the same from the beginning to the end. I was sort of afraid that opening with him hexing [Aiden] would signal that maybe the book is very much about social media, which to me was the starting point, but then I wasn’t particularly interested in delving too far into that. So I wanted to mark the complexity and the layers by having this sort of signpost at the beginning—we’re building up to something and this character and the plot of the novel is going to change a lot from the beginning to the end. In terms of the narrative structures—one generative way I was thinking about social media and the Rhiz is like: Okay, if social media companies have so much data about people, then in this sort of tilted world [of the novel], maybe there's a way that characters could use all the data to understand each other and to put together these narrative packages. How can we take surveillance culture and reshape it so that characters are taking on the role of writers? Part of Pen’s process of evolving is working through stories: the stories he tells about himself, the way that he's encountering other people's stories, the way he's relating to Aiden and what that's telling him about himself. So I definitely wanted room for there to be narrative play. Having written this more experimental historical fiction novel and this memoir, I really was thinking more about the reader and wanting them to feel like they're in this heightened or different or exaggerated world, but there's a layer of generosity in the humor and how characters are relating to each other. I wanted [the book] to be inviting, through color and language and things moving around. And I did want there to be a lot of narrative elements, not to overly complicate things, but just to keep shading in complexities. One of the novel’s main themes, I’d say, is the ways in which people—all people, mostly likely—project narratives onto people. This happens with the parasocial relationship Pen has with Aiden and the way he first gets to know Blithe through his data. But even as Pen learns more about who these people actually are (as opposed to his stories about them), there’s a sense that he can only go so far into their experiences. How did you decide how far to go into the various other characters’ stories and experiences, and what held you back from exploring some of them further? It was a really interesting tension for me, knowing that I didn't want to completely keep us close to Pen and also wanting to model not going too far into someone else's experience—which is not a hard and fast rule, but it felt, at the time, like an ethical decision to stay in Pen and gesture at the complexity of other people's lived experiences without trying to narrate them too far. Especially, I think, with Blithe, giving him in dialogue and plot a lot of room to be taking his own space—going off and looking at his past and his ties to the culture of his family of origin—without me narrating that too closely. So [I was] trying to gesture at Pen's own limitations, because he can access other people’s experience in some ways, but there's also this gulf. I think he's anxious enough that he would love to just find a way to close the gulf; in some fantasy, there'd be no tension if he could just understand everything and wouldn't have to deal with the messiness of other people's experiences. But I wanted to show that there are some things that Blithe has to do internally, or with people who are not Pen, that Pen just doesn't have access to. And that's just how I imagined a sort of ethics of having Pen work through different people's experiences and how he relates to them. My last question, fittingly, has to do with resolution. At one point in the book, Pen spends time reading crime novels because he “longed for every loose end of a story to get tied up.” (216) There are narrative threads that are resolved in this book, and there are threads that are clearly deliberately not. How do you feel, as a writer and a reader, about leaving loose ends of a story dangling and free? Maybe it’s just my TV watching habits but I do love these really tight structures, like in procedural crime shows where there’s a problem and then things happen and then it's tied up at the end. But in my actual writing and my way of experiencing reality, I wanted to have so many threads unspooling in the book that it would feel sort of artificial to have to neatly tie them up. So instead of looking at the end as Okay, how do I resolve everything that I opened up in the earlier sections, it was more like where can the characters end up that represents a new phase for them? Maybe in the new phase they don't necessarily get to wrap up all these other elements of their life. I wanted it to feel like they were continuing on in literary reality and that the place where the reader left them at the end was just starting the next part of their lives.
A calculated veneer of identity is our most valuable modern resource.
1. The Story The Story is a small book, 4.75 by 7.5 inches to be exact, not much bigger than a smartphone. It’s clothbound in a maroon cover that has the rough texture I associate with libraries. When I removed my copy from a cardboard mailer branded by the film company A24 with the somewhat spoiler-y excerpt; “Florida? Murder? U have the wrong number!” my wife, a book designer, asked, “No jacket?” She’s right, the book looks like it should have a jacket, shiny from lamination. The jacket’s adhesive should peel from age and anxious picking. It should display a cover image telling you explicitly what you’ll find inside. You shouldn’t be able to help but nervously unsheath that jacket to reveal the plain roughness of the binding underneath. There you’ll uncover details hidden by the bookmakers, like The Story’s embossed jewel-toned turquoise foil text and metallic gilded edges. The title page of The Story informs us that it is by A’Ziah King, clarifying that #TheStory was written in 150 tweets between 9:32 p.m. and 11:57 p.m., October 27, 2015, by @ _zolarmoon. On the upper left corner of each verso page of the book, next to the page number, that handle is repeated in all caps, the online equivalent of shouting: @_ZOLARMOON. So, King is the author of this book, and @ _zolarmoon is the author of the original tweets. King and @ _zolarmoon are the same person; the name she gave her character in #TheStory is Zola (as in “Don’t be a hoe like her Zola!!”). @zola is the name of the 2021 film that is based on #TheStory, distributed by A24 with a screenplay by Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo. The # and @ symbols are doing a lot of auteurism work here, separating the person from the persona, the protagonist from the memoirist, the medium from the message. In the book trailer, King introduces herself as “The Real Zola.” Wearing three different looks in less than a minute, including an ombré blue wig and deadly looking gold nails, she holds up The Story, referring to it as “my new book… also known as the Thotyssey.” The Story contains some metatext from King, an Afterword from Bravo, and an intro by cultural critic and noted Twitter user Roxane Gay. Mostly the book consists of King’s unedited, if re-contextualized, words. The publicity materials for the book declare that this is the moment #TheStory “officially enters the literary canon.” There is a suggestion, in this project of respectability, that our new age of digital oral history can gain literary value by virtue of commercial publication. The Story is a nonfiction book, adapting, or maybe the better word is preserving, King’s viral thread about a highly eventful few days of sex work. It’s not the first book collecting someone’s tweets: Justin Vivian Bond has one, and so does a recent American president. But this is probably the first book that translates a complete narrative arc created as user-generated content on a social media platform into a physical medium that may outlast digital screenshots. @zola is definitely the first time a story created using Twitter has been adapted into a mainstream feature film. A24 has produced a number of promotional zines and screenplay coffee table books for their offbeat movies, which they sell on their website along with branded shirts and bags. So The Story is also technically merchandise for a movie based on tweets which are based on a true story. The original text, @ _zolarmoon’s thread from 2015, is one of the most infamous in Twitter’s history. Zola goes on a road trip from Michigan to Florida following the promise of making exceptional money working in Tampa strip clubs. She’s along for a ride with her very new friend Jess, Jess’s boyfriend Jarrett, and their “roommate” Z. In Tampa, Jess agrees to trap (have sex for money) with clients Z sends to their hotel room. Zola refuses to personally entertain the clients, but when she sees how little Z is charging for Jess’s services, she takes over managing the operation with both sympathy and savvy. Things get pulpier from there. Jarrett is cuckolded. Jess is kidnapped. Chekhov’s handgun goes off. All of these events are narrated with a livid incredulity by King. The criminal adventure kept the live audience of Twitter users enraptured, but King’s voice is what made her #Story a phenomenon. She displays a potent commitment to something we all share: the instinct to make ourselves the funniest, smartest, most powerful person in any life event we recount. Zola always makes the right choice, always says the thing you wish you’d said in any conflict. When Jess assures her that Z isn’t going to force her to trap: “i said ‘OH BITCH I KNOW HE NOT I WILL DEAD ASS KILL Y’ALL,’” adding, “verbatim” as if the act of reassuring you she said exactly that is all the verification we need. The minute she gets her hands on a plane ticket home, she stares down a scene in which Jarrett is begging Z to allow a sorely beat up Jess to leave the situation, too. “WELL IM READY!” she reminds them (I like to imagine her standing in the doorway with her bags, sardonically tapping an invisible wristwatch). As Jess asks if they can still be friends, Zola looks at her “like she wasn’t speaking English” and replies, “im not gon beat yo ass rn bcus u already in bad shape. But I better not ever see or hear from you again.” As gripping as Zola’s saga was, King’s life over the past six years has had just as many twists and turns. During her “hoe trip,” Zola navigated fraud, coercion, isolation, violence, and betrayal. Since then, she’s fought to maintain authorship of her work in the mainstream film industry, which one might argue is just as full of predatory exploitation as the Florida underworld she survived (James Franco was the first to option the adaptation rights). I spoke with King over the phone in late June 2021, the day before her movie went into wide release in the US. She sounded tired but happy. In the following days, her Instagram and Twitter would unspool a series of @zola movie premier fashion choices as maximalist as her voice—a black mesh fascinator as she signed copies of The Story on an LA rooftop, a pastel overcoat at a Fort Greene outdoor screening, hand-shaped pasties at an afterparty in Atlanta. @zola the movie diffuses King’s authorship, not just in the screenplay adaptation by Harris and Bravo (who also directed). The film also cites as a source a Rolling Stone article called "Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted" by David Kushner, a (white male) reporter who investigated the veracity of King’s story shortly after she posted it. All this makes her credit as the author of The Story all the more significant. As King herself told me, “In order for [stories about sex work] to mean something, it needs to be told from our perspective. Me being a Black woman who is a sex worker, my voice is purposely faded to the background. I’ve always been the been the type of person to scream louder.” The most groundbreaking thing about #TheStory in 2015 was that it was nonfiction about sex work, told by a sex worker. There were no gatekeepers, no editors, no producers, no directors, no publishers, no publicists. No code switching, no compromises, no translations, no explanation, no concessions, no watering or dumbing down, no pandering. And people fucking loved it. They loved it for the lurid voyeurism and the subjectivity. They loved it for the salacious drama and the lyrical style. The danger and the compassion. They loved it because it was unbelievable and they loved it because it was real. Even when it wasn’t the truth. 2. The Book The other kind of book The Story’s design is meant to emulate, of course, is the Bible. For some people, a Bible is an object associated with a certain omniscient truth. Personally, I think of a Bible more as an amusing artifact in the side drawer of a hotel room, the spot where you stash the lube. On top of a Bible: condoms, a vibrator, poppers, gloves, the things you need to grab quick. These are the kinds of Bibles you find in the backs of pews during worship, right? Not the big heavy ones that lie open at the pulpit. The kind for the response, not the call. Utility Bibles. The word “Bible” appears in The Story, as it appeared in #TheStory and in a fourth-wall-breaking moment of the movie, too. It’s one sentence. “Bible.” In context, it means: “What I am about to tell you is the truth.” King then proceeds to describe one of the story’s most melodramatic moments, one involving attempted suicide. A moment that she admitted to Rolling Stone she made up ”for entertainment value.” So, in this case, “Bible” actually means: “Not the whole truth, but the embellishment the moment called for, wouldn’t you agree?” And we do. King says the formal constraints of Twitter (140 characters at the time) and the excitement of live storytelling informed how she originally composed the bars. “I would type in all caps. I would need everyone to understand the emphasis on yelling. Those take up two pages in the book.” (A spread on pages 68 and 69 reads “I WAS LIKE YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”) She says she had creative influence over many details of how each tweet was interpreted for its literary incarnation. The book’s narrative flow doesn’t stick to one tweet per page. There are line breaks in the form of those ouroboros of arrows representing Retweets and the valentine heart representing Likes, along with the number of people who had performed each of these actions by the time the tweets were screenshot. The book’s pagination stands in for the suspense between each tweet. For example, on page 80: Bitch… I ran so got damn fast I couldn’t even see straight. I was OUT!!! Fuck that (end tweet) I run out And (page turn) THE CAR IS GONE!!! In 2015, these pauses between tweets were the equivalent of waiting seven days to find out what happens on a network television show. At the speed of the internet, a few seconds is a long time to hold your breath. The book maintains that tension. There’s a single illustration in the book, a digital portrait of the author by her friend Sarah Nicole François. In it, King is rendered as a digital avatar, intentionally Bimbo-fied, emphasizing her camp femme adornment with a glean of wet plastic shine. Her flat hair reaches all the way to the bottom of her stiletto platform heels. Glitchy fishnets wind their way up her squatting spread legs to a perfunctory bikini. Her nails are as long as pencils, her gaze both assertive and blank. The image has, in King’s words, blow-up vibes. “The way I told this story was my personality amplified,” she explains. “It was me on Level 10. My personality at its highest extent.” She wanted her author picture to have the same exaggerated effect. In the context of the calculated classiness of the rest of the book design, King’s choice of portrait elevates The Story beyond the all-too-easy novelty of contrasting a civilized exterior with the seedy content contained within. François’s approach complicates the project of respectability, a trope with which sex workers are all too familiar. We often find that in order to tell our own stories and be our own advocates, we must demonstrate some form of redemption. That we are safe guides for you into the underworld, because we once descended into darkness but “left the life” or were “rescued.” Yet one of the links in the still active @ _zolarmoon Twitter profile is for her OnlyFans, where you can subscribe to her adult content for $25.99 per month. By commissioning this portrait of herself, King takes control of how the world sees her; the way she wants to be seen is embellished. 3. The Tweets Ariel Wolf, a retired stripper, is a community researcher. She is a co-author, with the collective Hacking//Hustling, of Posting Into The Void, a paper studying the impact of shadowbanning on sex workers and activists. Shadowbanning is a process of content moderation used by social media platforms in which algorithms make “high risk” posts more difficult for users to discover. The author of the offending post is given no notice that their content has been suppressed. The way sex workers have been increasingly targeted for such platform policing “aid(s) in the disruption of movement work, the flow of capital, and further chilling speech,” the paper tells us. This is true whether sex workers are posting ads and previews related to their work or using social media for the multitude of things we all use it for; networking, organizing, education, distraction, connecting, fun, entertainment, and storytelling. The experience of being shadowbanned differs psychologically from having an account blocked or deleted, which a user may contest and which allows them to understand the reason their online engagement has changed. It is a form of structural gaslighting, because platforms can officially deny that it’s happening. According to Hacking//Hustling; “When platforms deny something like shadowbanning and users feel the impact of it, it creates an environment in which the shadowbanned user is made to feel crazy, as their reality is being denied publicly and repetitively by the platform.” Wolf tells me that, though it was only six years ago, the era of Zola’s original tweets, 2015, “was a very different time for sex workers sharing stories on social media.” Back then, Wolf says, she could connect with a global community of fellow strippers. “We shared tips on everything from safety, to dance moves, auditions, pictures of our cats, hustle techniques and work stories.” Social media is where she found her people. But in 2018, the bills known as FOSTA-SESTA were signed into federal law in the United States by noted Twitter user Donald Trump. The law expands both federal and civil liability for online platforms for “knowingly facilitating sex trafficking.” This basically means that companies like Twitter that host third-party user-generated content are more legally accountable for what their users post. Framed by its Congressional authors as an aid in the fight against child exploitation, the law has increased surveillance and policing of all forms of online sexual expression, including Craigslist Missed Connections and Tumblr’s NSFW content. A June 2021 US Government Accountability Office report revealed that “criminal restitution has not been sought and civil damages have not been awarded” using FOSTA-SESTA. In other words, there is no evidence that the law has helped the people its supporters claimed it would. Meanwhile, it has had a profound effect on the landscape of online sex work. In the wake of the new law, Wolf watched her online community disappear. “Things started to get sanitized,” she says. And it wasn’t just about having a harder time connecting with friends; although camaraderie is crucial for a stigmatized community who are treated like criminals even when they’re connecting over legalized work such as stripping or porn-making. It’s also about limited access to education and safety resources: client black lists and harm reduction information got swept up in the purge. The tech corps protect themselves from civil liability by building sexual language suppression into their functionality. So, would #TheStory have been shadowbanned if it came out in 2021? King’s experiences demonstrate just how “messy,” in Wolf’s words, it can be to differentiate between legal labor and forced labor, entertainment and reality. Yet the thread itself contains words that Twitter’s algorithm may flag as a sign of soliciting prostitution. Wolf suspects that, today, those flagged terms “would stop it from going viral at the same speed.” In other words, the very thing that made #TheStory a phenomenon worthy of a film and book—its pleasure rush of popularity, the sense that everyone was paying attention to it in the same shared moment—is the reason that content moderation strategies might now ensure it was seen by less people. Social media is like a casino in that way: when you get hot, systems activate to start nudging you away from your good fortune. And the house always wins. For those who do not believe in the inherent value of adult entertainment, and do not believe the rights of those who do this work deserve protection, the limitations of online sexual expression are worth their (often misinformed) perception that children are being saved from sexual slavery. King’s words are part of what we lose to FOSTA-SESTA, and that matters. Her point of view illustrates why anyone might make those decisions in that situation. Committing a crime is not as simple as choosing to do something illegal in pursuit of money, or thrills, or revenge. As Wolf points out, when we lose these stories, we don’t just lose entertainment; although the importance of an entertaining story, how it generates unity and empathy, cannot be overstated. Misrepresentation of sex work leads to ideological fallacies that influence lawmakers, who then pass regulations like FOSTA-SESTA. It influences financial companies to seize the funds of those they perceive to be doing sex work. It leads platforms to shroud self-expression in insidious secrecy. Just as The Social Network (2010) dramatized the founding of Facebook as that company’s cultural significance was changing dramatically, @zola depicts a bygone era of Twitter. The film commercializes a story originally told on a tech platform on which, because of sex censorship, it’s not possible to tell stories like this one anymore. 4. The Film Unlike The Social Network, @zola is not about the Internet. The Internet is more like the raw material of which it’s made. @zola is one of a slew of anticipated films finally released in theaters following fifteen some odd months where it was not advisable to sit in a windowless room with a bunch of people stuffing their faces with snacks. For many people I know, viewing @zola was their first time at the movies after being vaccinated for COVID-19. I loved a lot about @zola. It has backstage scenes that belong in a pantheon of cinematic dressing rooms along with Magic Mike and Showgirls. I loved a shot of dehydrated piss as character development. And Bravo gets some things about sex work absolutely right. After arriving in Tampa, we see Taylour Paige (in the titular role!) on the pole, feeling herself, lost in her own zone. We’ve seen her dancing alone in her apartment, and at work she’s creating a bubble for herself where only the dancing exists, only the dancing matters. There are similar scenes in the film Hustlers, where we are introduced to Ramona’s megawatt showmanship and agility as she strips to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and in the television show P-Valley, as the music drops out and we hear athletic grunts as if this is track and field, which it might as well be. There’s an ingenious sound design trick in the @zola strip club, too. A customer leans forward and, as he bestows Zola with a single dollar, mutters that she “looks like Whoopi Goldberg.” With all due respect to the 1990 Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress, this is not meant as a compliment. It’s a power trip, and the background noise turns on a dime to match Zola’s internal reaction: all of a sudden we’re not consumed by music, but the mundane clanks of a commercial kitchen deep fryer, the whirr of an ATM, bouncers chuckling in the lobby. It’s a profound opportunity for audience empathy with Zola’s subjective experience of this attempt at degradation. More than the novelty of texts read aloud or cell phone beeps, more than the obvious moments of terror, this moment recreates what it’s like to be Zola, a woman at work. My least favorite part of the film, however, almost ruined the entire thing for me. It’s a scene that is not a part of #TheStory but is a part of almost every story told about sex work by people who themselves are not sex workers. In the film’s climax, attempting to get out of a difficult situation, Z uses Zola’s body as a distraction. He coaxes a threatening pimp to put his hand on her genitals before gruesomely shooting the other man in the neck. In #TheStory, Zola’s survival instincts kick in before she even gets into that room. She’s already set herself up as a “madame,” as Z calls her. She runs as fast as she can away from Jess’s kidnappers, realizes the cops will make things worse. She stays out of sight as Z negotiates for Jess’s release. Even if the true story of what happened went down closer to the way Bravo and O’Harris shaped it, the most important thing is that King chose to characterize herself as someone sailing through the experience without this kind of violation. When it comes to stories like this, I value the emotional coping strategies of sex workers over an agenda valued by non-sex workers. Especially when you consider the overabundance of literary classics in which prostitutes are used as metaphors for some social tragedy the author wants to explore, from Les Misérables to Les Cloches de Bale to Nana by, um, the other literary Zola. @zola takes a lot of cues from another adaptation of a story about real life crime: Goodfellas. In both films, stylish camerawork creates a heightened understanding that we’re watching a movie, and are therefore not complicit in the violence or deception inherent in informal economies, whether it’s truck hijacking or trapping. This makes me wish Bravo had pushed beyond the aesthetics and into the thematics, the energy not just of the camera’s relationship to the story but the characters’ relationship to the politics. What Zola and Henry Hill have in common is the naturalized zeal with which they dive, at first at least, into not only crime but telling you about crime. Scorsese glorifies mob life even as he lays bare its horrors and tragedies. Hill’s lowest lows of murder and spousal abuse and strung-out chases never ever undermine how fucking cool he is. I wanted the version of @zola that begins, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a stripper.” On page 55 of The Story, Zola excuses herself from Jess and Jarrett’s interpersonal drama to chill out by the pool (“I mean, i am in Florida!” is just one example of the levity she brings to heavy situations). In the New York Times’ video series “Anatomy of a Scene,” Bravo narrates the techniques she used to imagine Z visiting Zola by the poolside, an encounter that also doesn’t happen in the tweets. Echoing the kind of language used by the advocates of FOSTA-SESTA, Bravo describes Zola’s situation as “being sold into a sex slavery of sorts.” Bravo explicitly states that she wanted to portray Z as taking control away from Zola. “A portion of the movie, you really feel like Zola is in charge of her own story,” Bravo says. “Our relationship to sex work, sex slavery, we have the privilege of experiencing at an arm’s length.” Here she makes work and slavery synonymous, while also establishing that she does not imagine her audience as sex workers, or sex trafficking survivors, themselves. But we have Zola’s own words describing how she reacted when Z told her he wanted her to manage Jess’s clients for another night: “I was like cool. I gotchu. Especially for another $500.” Bravo believes Z takes Zola’s voice, but King never allowed that to happen in her own telling. @zola’s dramatization chooses to taint her, but she chose not to punish herself. King and Kushner, the Rolling Stone reporter, both have executive producer and writing credits in the film: “based on the tweets by” and “based on the article by,” respectively. Kushner, writing in the grammar of a magazine style guide, with an editorial department who answer to Wenner Media, represents the exact kind of gatekeepers, code-switchers, and defamation standards that did not stand in King’s way. In order to connect with an audience who proved the cultural impact and engagement data that made the story valuable to Hollywood, she had to circumvent all respectability. In order to verify the legitimacy of that adaptation, the film project needed to restore that respectability. This is why The Story, the book, is such an important project. It canonizes King’s voice and what she wants to tell you about what happened. The motivation to draft and send a tweet is the same as the motivation to write and publish a book. Making sense of experience, grafting humor and ego onto the most interesting, sometimes worst moments of our lives. 5. The Canon In @zola, the protagonist gazes at herself in the mirror as she prepares for a shift at the strip club, the job she traveled sixteen hours to do. She asks her reflection, “Who do you want to be tonight, Zola?” Her glamour becomes her agency. King the author and voice, Zola the persona and character, and @_zolarmoon the handle all understand that a calculated veneer of identity is our most valuable modern resource. On social media, and in sexuality, you may choose to control your narrative, because there is virtually no escaping someone else capitalizing on and consuming your personhood. For this reason alone, The Story deserves its self-hype canonization as a defining narrative of the 21st century. The Story and @zola will always have the context of King telling us her version herself in the original text. She used the tool of Twitter just as Zola uses the tool of the pole. Anyone can describe social media or the strip club as inherently exploitative. For many of us, it’s not an option to remain “pure” by opting out, logging off; instead, we figure out how creatively we can maintain control. Owning our narrative does not make us invulnerable to fraud, coercion, violence, violation. But King navigated danger, survived, told her version of the story, and leveraged the resonance of that story to further struggle and further survive. ”People in the sex industry rarely get to tell their own stories, and as a result most peoples’ impressions of what sex work is like is based on the storytelling of people who have never lived it and don't view it favorably or fairly,” Wolf says. “But everyone is curious. Everyone always leans in at parties and asks a million questions if you reveal that you've done this work, for better or worse.” On every level, King’s story is a triumphant one. Zola survived her trip to Florida, even if afterwards she explained to her boyfriend, “Neither of us r the same.” She told her story her way, experiencing not only vindication for what she’d been put through but also what we all look to social media for: as posting online goes, it must have been one of the all-time greatest dopamine rushes. She managed to leverage the popularity of her thread into a hard-won executive producer credit, and in the end she didn’t have to pander to white male celebrities in order to do it. And now we have a fascinating and well-received movie, made by Black filmmakers about Black life. And another sex work literary memoir in the canon, even if it’s at least partially embellished (as all nonfiction is). King’s dedication in her book is eight pages long. In it, she says, “Shout out to my sex workers, my dancers, my sexually fluid beings, my straight forward but with a cherry on top communicators…” I wanted to know what the term sex work meant to her. King tells me, “On my 18th birthday, I went to the strip club, auditioned, and got the job the same day. From that point, it’s where I’ve felt most comfortable. When I started dancing, every day it was a new energy. I could really express myself, not just sexually, from my makeup, to my hair, outfits, and my dancing. Through that experience I really came out of my shell. I found my self, my confidence, my voice, my sense of community. In those conversations at the club, I was listened to. Not just because I had something to say, but because I had the experience.”
The author of The Death of Francis Bacon on “big, canonical problematic figures,” questioning artificiality, and creepy doll furniture.
One way to describe Max Porter’s new novel, The Death of Francis Bacon (Strange Light), is wet. Wet with paint, wine, raw meat, coughs, and cum. By the author’s own admission, the novel is an experiment to be shared with the reader—something less concrete than the conventional realist novel, more open to the reader sticking their own fingers in and swirling around the dark colours and seeing what images come forth. Set in the final days of the great Irish-born painter Francis Bacon’s death in Spain, Porter stages these hours in the narrow space between mortal terror and ecstatic joy. The tiny book is divided into seven “written pictures” (dimensions and numeric titles are given), in which Bacon and his taciturn nurse narrate an oblique shuffle off this mortal coil, portraying—to the degree that Bacon portrayed—instances of joy, pain, remorse, and visceral bodily life. As the follow-up to his Booker-longlisted novel Lanny, and his first novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (which was adapted by Enda Walsh into a 2019 play starring Cillian Murphy), Porter explains that The Death of Francis Bacon is an avoidant project—a consciously made small thing, purposely uneasy with itself and the world it will be read in. Fresh off of summer vacation, I spoke to Porter from his home office in Bath, aptly filled with vintage doll furniture and a flawless Swedish Lundby dollhouse. Naomi Skwarna: Welcome to my kitchen. It’s where I get the best Wi-Fi. Max Porter: Welcome to my weird little office where my son is just playing Fortnite right there. I told him he can’t talk but you might occasionally hear him being like, you know, whatever they say on Fortnite, some nasty shit. Right off the bat, why did you write this book now and how did you begin? My Canadian publisher Strange Light provide an answer to that in and of themselves. They’ve created this space within the corporate publishing environment for experimentation. There was a degree of, as there is on everybody, pressure, to make my “next big project,” after my last novel. I have been resisting that in almost every way. I resisted living the publicity circus to the second book, and I was always keen to collaborate with people on stage, I was keen to share the space with other writers or other disciplines. I’ve been very, very busy, collaborating with people, musicians and theatremakers and filmmakers this year, all I think in an attempt to avoid fixation on the single product, and the author as sole promoter of that product. The whole thing started to give me heebie-jeebies, so actually I wrote this book in a very private space in a very private, intellectual mode in lockdown. I probably would have been happy to put it in a magazine or a pamphlet with a small indie press, or give it as a gift, basically, which is kind of my mentality. I mean, I’m in the gift economy! I like to think of the work like that. The fact that it is less commercial or exists in a slightly oblique way in relation to other art historical or biographical or fictional projects, I thought that’s actually okay. I like that about it, it might be a generative thing. Also I like that there might be times in my life when I do little books, little strange books that will only interest a sliver of the people and will certainly not please even a sliver of that sliver. But I hope it’s interesting work that extends the kind of monologues we’re all having with ourselves about the meaning of fiction, the function of the novel, critical analysis, all those sorts of things. So, that’s where it came from; addressing my own interest in Bacon’s work, and how we write about art and the failings of art history and whether fiction is a useful tool to deepen engagement with the work. What about Francis Bacon and his work that made you want to imagine the moments before his death? It’s a kind of engagement with myself as teenage art fan. Bacon was the first painter with whom I had a visceral shocking encounter; where I was sort of blown away by the power of the work and needed to read—and started to really understand scale. I love unpacking big canonical problematic figures, like I have this temptation to ruffle the baggage a bit, especially of someone that curated their own myth in the way that Bacon did. You said that he was the first artist that you had a visceral reaction to. What was the context for that? Was it a particular painting of Bacon’s? It was actually a school project. 1998. It was at the Hayward gallery. I thought it was the most extraordinary work and I came back and I chose to do it, you know, for my end-of-year project or whatever this was, I guess it was maybe my GCSE coursework or something? I tried to paint like Bacon and found I couldn’t. It coincided with my interest, in retrospect, you don’t know it when you’re 17 or 16, but looking back, it was my political awakening. I was suddenly discovering activism and the anti-war movement; I was reading about the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition and British colonial atrocities. Bacon suddenly rose up out of the world of what was available to me as a student. Bacon is very juvenile in his obsession with meat and sex and violence in a way that I felt was really compelling. It chimed with me, discovering that human beings were these killing machines, and being preoccupied with meat and the human form and the kind of artifice of figurative painting in the history of the West—thinking, Bacon is getting somewhere, pushing past that. Peeling the skin off things. Now it’s years later, I’ve had children and thought about different modes of writing. Really, as far away from Bacon as you could get, like ‘70s minimalism and psychoanalysis and feminism and performance art, but then finding myself coming back around to Bacon. I started asking myself almost in the analytical sense: who were you as a teenage boy? What were you frightened of, what was your privilege, what was the privileged position that you were looking at art with, what was the institutional setup of your encounter with these paintings? So I suppose that’s how the setup came about, the nurse-slash-critic-slash-analyst, and the painter-slash-victim-slash-person on the deathbed. So you were asking, why did I want to kill him? Well, yes! I know it’s a novel, but it does feel a bit like a play in terms of it being a monologue, having little directions and such. To me it felt like you were staging his death, and then he’s dead at the end, which feels very ritualistic and cathartic— I wanted to stage it purely in the Beckettian sense of “let’s put these two people on the stage.” I have erased the idea of character completely, so in a way they’re taking turns to play the idea of Bacon. If this were a stage play, which it looks like it might be, I hope that there would never be an 80-year-old man that looks like Francis Bacon playing this part. I’m hoping it would be played by a child; by a person of color; by anybody! Anyone can take their turn at playing the part of Francis Bacon or the part of the nurse, and they might even be interchangeable. It’s a representational game, and the most boring thing would be if it were purely illustration. It’s an effort away from the literal; to try and deepen the questions around the idea of someone like Bacon and his sense of self. I’m interested in plays and I’m interested in that directness of encounter. I’m interested in the kind of artificiality of the novel that we forget about because of the conventions of the social realist novel, where we just accept the third-person realist setup as normal, highly artificial and phony in many ways. There might be gimmicks and strategies we can employ to question artificiality; to be much more collaborative with the reader. Speaking more about the theatrical framing of this novel—that makes a lot of sense. Can you tell me a bit more about how you see it in performance? The starting principle for me to turn it into a play was the iconic book of interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester. It’s so fascinating—he admitted in his foreword to taking thousands of hours of muddled, drunk, endless, chopped, and collapsed ranting and tidying it up into these interviews. Sometimes he had to create a question [after the fact] that Bacon would then answer. The concision and coherence of those things is a total fabrication. I thought about translating this book, which is like a play, into a play that I hope is somewhat like a book. Really scramble the conversations and have it much more like a fragmentary or fractured state of consciousness. It’s a requiem of someone dying, and now knowing what we know of neuroscience and the way the brain works, that would involve a scrambling of everything. No longer just art, but also feeling and thought and music and politics and everything in there. But to do this, regarding tidying up as I go from book to stage, I felt I needed to have the structural coherence of the triptych. [Holds up drawing of stage layout] So there are three blank canvases, that’s a chair, that’s a bed, that’s an umbrella, and in the stage directions the characters move in front of each canvas. I was interested in trying to get some of the strategies of visual art into the novel, and now some of the strategies of a novel into a play. It seems to me that there’s good and interesting work to be done by my collaborators in that as well. I’m not an actor, but I hope that each of those people, whether it becomes a real thing, would enjoy that rearrangement; that drastic rehabilitation of each of these things in a new space. Yeah, well, I mean, you seem like a very tactile writer! Even seeing your dollhouse and all the doll furniture on your windowsill— My creepy doll furniture! —No! Not creepy. And knowing that with your previous books, you made sketches as you were writing. I start with drawings, yes. Your process seems to involve some back-and-forth between one medium and another, and also now it seems like you’re moving into a live dimension with this book as well, working in time versus drawing, which is, I guess, at its endpoint, somewhat static. What I like about Bacon is that paint was such an obsession of his and he had, like, a lifelong reckoning with the medium. I’m not saying as the writer, I’m a visual artist or anything like that, but my reckoning is with the medium. With this book, I’m asking myself, is it possible to smear and smudge language in the way that you might smear and smudge a painted figure so you can’t tell whether it’s a figure or a carcass or shadow or a snarling dog crouching on a figure, right? Is that possible in a sentence? Painters have possibly a different leash, with regards to gimmickry. Or maybe there’s a shorter one. As a novelist, I’m not going to alienate my reader immediately so that they leave me thinking it’s nonsense. I don’t want to suggest an indulgence on my part about the reader, but I hope that in this collaborative effort between reader and text, that might be somewhere in between poetry and prose, as you say something to do with, with space and time and texture, that is interesting to both of us. And never finished! And maybe providing a kind of aesthetic experience, rather than a complete one? I think that’s exactly right. I come from the oral tradition into writing. I’m not a great master of plot and the conceptual side of things. I come from the heartbeat, drum banging side of things. I want musicality, I want movement and energy in the prose that relates to sound as well as to meaning. I think fundamentally I’m that type of writer, which is why I break lines; it’s why I’m interested in hybridity. I’m sort of seeking out energy from it, more than seeking out intellectual brilliance. I feel other people are always going to do that better. Maybe this is related to a certain disillusionment on my part with the linguistic moment that we’re all in—finding things to be quite argumentative and flat and embittered. Do you see that in fiction, or…where are you locating that flatness? Quite evasively I’d say “oh, just in the discourse.” But what I mean is Twitter, right? I’m also a heartbroken English person, watching my country, my culture, and our relationship with the continent being severed and hijacked by a bunch of zombified criminals. Culture is going to be a victim in that war. The Bacon book represents a kind of yell against the sterile, urbane, bitter, tetchy mode that we’re in, and speaks of Europe and painting and the transmission of ideas. It speaks of a kind of high camp, celebratory time, when we talked about art and ideas flamboyantly. I suppose a little tiny bit of me just romanticizes that generation. I suppose to stage the death of that type of conversation with that type of artist is possibly just a purely romantic gesture on my part. You described the writing as being sort of smeared. The experience of reading it internally is—I had to sort of smear my inner vision to read it as well. It really does kind of bring you into it that way. I wanted to write about painting, but I didn’t want to do that, like, “He puts the brush in the paint.” I needed to do it through reference to red currant jelly and pheasant, and cum and liquor and waking up in the taxi and being shocked, still in a taxi! And, you know, drugs and cigarettes and peppermint oil. I hope it’s a sort of a clarion call for us to use more than just the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, politically on-the-point language of the novel. There are other realms of experience that are relevant—and possibly even juicy. I’m talking as if the history of Western art, which was Bacon’s preoccupation more than mine, is like a supermarket full of bodies and the supermarket’s failed attempts to describe the body. In his dying seconds, Bacon is suddenly able to describe—or feel—what the body was in relation to representation, and that should be a preoccupation of novelists, right? It shouldn’t just be cool, calm people meeting at dinner parties or in sophisticated intellectual environments on campus and having razor sharp conversations with one another about the ideas within the work. It might also include the shit, piss, cum, and the screaming and the pain—of being creative! And the constant failure to it, the constant yawning gulf of what we were trying to do and what we actually achieved, and that being directly related to masculinity as a tragic project. It’s a vicious, violent, flawed undertaking that we are just carcasses, belching and lurching our way quite quickly to the grave. It’s a pretty tragic portrait, one that doesn’t need a thousand pages! So I hope the shortness of the book, that as you say sort of smears your mind’s eye, is somehow closer to the person—more like Bacon’s genius in paint. I hope I’ve been painterly in my novel writing. Because of that smeared reading experience, you can’t really cling to it the way you can a more conventional text. Yeah, and I don’t think it even needs to be for excellence’s sake. I don’t think it needs to always be a razzle dazzle affair. I think it can sometimes be a quiet escape, relating more to the inner voice. It can sometimes be a deeply held, silent conviction between you as writer and you as reader. That’s why it’s so futile to stress out when people have bad or negative reactions to the work. Like, it’s so far beyond the writer’s control that it’s almost hilarious that people go hunting, responding to their critics or saying “you haven’t experienced it right.” What a desperately crap piece of art it would be if everyone experienced it the same way every time. Which relates to that kind of flatness that you were talking about in so much of, like, online discourse, Twitter— You experience it? The flatness. I do, yeah. I think flatness is the perfect way of putting it, because there isn’t much of a way in. It makes it seem like that’s choice. It’s tyrannical, in the way it’s made it seem like freedom but is in fact a tiny sad prism. I suppose it’s particularly like this to me because I don’t want to fight. I’m not a fighting person. I’m more of a heartbroken person, and I’m trying to reconcile my heartbroken base position—at that the scale of injustice in the world and the sadness that is out there—with my fundamentally joyful relationship with art and language. And I suppose the Bacon book was the result—to come back to your first question and give you a sensible answer—it was a symptom of me trying to reconcile those two positions with my children here in house trying to learn, and living in this strange Zoom box, but also living in this strange miniature toy shop, and trying to map where I’m at, I suppose, in my fascination with representation and language. It seems like Bacon, your problematic famous English man, is a good person to have fun with. We can’t let these sleeping dogs lie! We’ve got to keep poking them and see what they yield.
Talking to the author of Beautiful World, Where Are You about not creating characters from a place of moral superiority, authors as celebrities, and the great stakes of love and friendship.
Sally Rooney’s new novel is deceptively easy to summarize: it is about four youngish Irish people and the relationships between them. Alice is a writer, Eileen is an editorial assistant at a literary magazine, Felix is a warehouse worker, and Simon works in the Irish parliament. Alice and Eileen have been best friends since university, and the novel’s narrative sections are interspersed with their emails to each other. Alice and Felix meet and start dating as the novel begins, while Eileen and Simon have known and loved each other forever. Alice and Felix live in Mayo, while Simon and Eileen live in Dublin. Like all Irish people, they spend a lot of time discussing the logistics involved in visiting each other, having many long chats about what is in reality a short and convenient car ride. They talk also about their work, their families, their feelings for each other, and about the way they understand the world. They are very funny and often perceptive, although not always about themselves. Like Rooney’s previous novels, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Knopf Canada) is preoccupied with the problem of not being able to look inside someone else’s brain, even if you share a marked affinity or have known and loved them all your life. Her protagonists do not appear to have resigned themselves to this reality, and are constantly repositioning themselves in an effort to see each other more clearly. Unlike Conversations With Friends and Normal People, though, the narrative perspective of Beautiful World, Where Are You reflects this preoccupation. In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, we are told what Frances thinks or what Connell feels; in Beautiful World, Where Are You we are told only what the characters say and do, so that ascribing motive and intent becomes part of the reading experience. Doing this is much less hard work than it sounds—we all spend our days trying to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, one way or another, and anyway the lucidity of Rooney’s prose means it mostly happens without noticing. It is worth drawing attention to, though, because of what it says about the questions and convictions that drive her work as a whole. She is always interrogating what it means to live in the world with other people, what we owe each other, why we behave so oddly so much of the time, and what it means to mostly fail in our efforts to understand each other but to keep trying anyway. Beautiful World, Where Are You returns again and again to the question of perspective: where we stand in relation to each other, and where our individual little worries and heartbreaks stand in relation to a world that is getting uglier all the time. Because Rooney is so widely read, and because her novels are so frequently described as providing the definitive account of “the millennial experience,” as if there’s a common one, it has become possible to overlook how much of these conversations her work itself has driven and been responsible for, and not simply been a reflection of or reaction to. There is no one else who writes like her, and Beautiful World, Where are You is full of the observations her work is so celebrated for. It is her best book yet: radiantly intelligent, funny, sad, and evidently in love with the world, beautiful or not. I spoke to her about it over email this August. Rosa Lyster: I wanted to start at the very beginning, because it’s my sense that all of the major preoccupations of this novel are present from the first page. Alice and Felix meet for the first time in a bar, and their interaction is described with this very striking sense of narrative objectivity: “The woman at the table tapped her fingers on a beermat, waiting. Her outward attitude had become more alert and lively since the man had entered the room. She looked outside now at the sunset as if it were of interest to her, though she hadn’t paid any attention to it before.” How did you arrive at the decision to begin the novel from this vantage point? What does this initial sense of narrative impersonality allow you to do or say?Sally Rooney: That decision did take some time. After I first conceived of the four principal characters and the relationships between them, I struggled for a relatively long period (maybe nine or ten months) with the question of perspective. The novel does not have one particular central character, and I wanted to find a balance between the different narrative strands of the book without imposing a hierarchy of significance. My problem was that any time I drew close enough to the protagonists to begin narrating their inner thoughts or feelings, I found myself getting bored and irritated with my own voice. Like: “great, here comes the author again, telling us exactly how everyone feels and thinks.” In my real life, obviously, there is no one to tell me how other people think and feel, and I barely even know what I think myself. So the more I tried to insist on my closeness to the characters by presenting their interiority in the narrative, the further away from them I actually felt, because their interiority did not resemble anything at all from my real experience of living.After various failed experiments along these lines, I had to try and find another approach. In essence, I wanted to allow the novel’s characters to go about their lives without any apparent authorial judgement or commentary. And I gradually began to find that I didn’t need to present what is generally called ‘interiority’ in order to accomplish this. I could just impartially observe and describe the characters saying and doing things, without needing to speculate on what they secretly thought or felt. This decision does impose a certain distance between the reader and the novel’s protagonists, but it’s a distance that makes sense to me—basically the same distance that prevents us from reading the minds of other people in our real lives. And actually, the more time I spent writing from this perspective, the closer I felt to the characters, and the easier it was for me to observe (which is to say invent) their words and actions.Almost all the narrative sections of the book are written in this style, or something similar (I can think of at least one exception, which we can talk about if you like!). But alongside these narrative sections, the novel also includes email correspondence between the two female protagonists. In a way, the emails were easier to write, maybe because they’re just written straightforwardly in the voices of the characters themselves. The only passages that survive from those early months of narrative experiment are in the emails. Many horrible draft chapters came and went… But some emails lived on. Why was this important to you, to allow the novel's characters to go about their lives without authorial judgment or commentary (and I wonder if you thought of this as a moral choice first, or an aesthetic one, or both)?It didn’t strike me at the time as a moral choice at all. I was just bored of my own judgement and commentary. And the prose felt very flat and lifeless every time I tried to write from that perspective—“he thought,” “it reminded her,” and so on. Partly it might have been because I had recently finished writing a novel in which the perspective did switch back and forth between two protagonists in the third person. And they were always thinking and feeling things, and I was always telling the reader what they thought and felt. So I had kind of exhausted that narrative technique for myself, at least temporarily. I didn’t want to write that novel over again. I had to [do] something that to me felt sufficiently different. There are a lot of things I won’t or can’t do in my work, so the number of things I will or can do is therefore necessarily constrained. And the effects of that constraint may as well be called “style.” But I don’t consider myself a talented stylist by any means. Like any writer, I have an aversion to anything that feels false or boring in my work, and the authorial commentary I was producing on these characters felt both false and boring, which eventually led me to develop the narrative technique we’re talking about.So the decision was as purely aesthetic as possible, at the time. But now looking back at the whole process, I think there was, if not a moral aspect, maybe a “philosophical” aspect to the development of this technique. I am interested philosophically in the degree to which we can know other people, and ourselves. In life, obviously, we have to get to know people without ever having any direct insight into their internal thoughts. The novel as a form typically gives us more privileged access to the inner lives of others than we get in real life. But novels don’t by definition have to do that. And as I went along, I found that I actively wanted to write a novel in which the characters were revealed through their outward behaviours, their actions and words, rather than their inner thoughts and feelings—the way other people are revealed to us in real life. In this novel, we still have privileged access to the characters in many ways, because we can observe how they behave in intimate situations, and we can read private correspondence between them, and so on. But nothing more than that. I was interested in the question of whether, by the end of the book, we “know” these characters less well than if we had been told directly what they were thinking and feeling. My intuition is that we get to know them just as well without that—but then, I invented them, so it’s hard for me to judge. It seems like the way you wrote this novel was to conceive of the characters first and then set about observing/inventing what they were saying and doing. What is it about these characters that made this novel possible?Yes, I conceived of the characters first, and then I got stuck for a little while. Two of the central characters, Simon and Eileen, have known each other for almost thirty years. Two others, Eileen and Alice, have known each other for about ten or eleven years. And another two, Alice and Felix, have just met. So from the outset, I had no idea “when” the novel started. Some of the most interesting and exciting scenes seemed to have happened many years previously—when Eileen was a child, or when Alice was in university. Did the novel begin all the way back then, and skip forward to the present? Or did it begin in the present, and incorporate scenes from the past? I knew the three narrative strands were all interconnected—the story of Eileen and Alice’s friendship did somehow “involve” their respective relationships with Simon and Felix—but the interconnections were not immediately obvious.So from the start, the idea was basically three linked relationships, spread out over the course of thirty years or so, happening in various cities and towns in Ireland and elsewhere. The task of turning this idea into a novel was challenging for me—my last two books were easier to fit into the shape of novels, I think. But the day-to-day writing process was the same. I imagined my characters in various different little scenarios, and typed out the scenarios on my laptop. While I was typing, I had the mental image of my characters before me, doing whatever it was that the scene required—walking around, eating dinner, talking on the phone, or whatever. And more often than not, nothing really interesting would happen. The character would finish having dinner, or talking on the phone, and that would be it, and the scene would end up in a “deleted work” file on my computer. But sometimes, a character would do or say something interesting or revealing, that seemed to signal some shift in their relationship with another character, and the scene would take on a new quality. This is the only way I know how to write a novel, or any kind of fiction. I have to write two or three scenes for every one that makes it into the book. But I tell myself the process is worthwhile because it teaches me about my characters and deepens my understanding of the work. (Whether that’s true or just a consolation I don’t know—it might be true!)You ask another question here—what was it about these characters that made the novel possible? And one answer is: their relationships with one another were sufficiently interesting to me. I wanted to understand Simon’s feelings for Eileen, and her feelings for him; and Alice’s for Felix, and his for her. And I wanted to get to know the two women and their friendship, which struck me as complicated. The novel seemed to have a lot of moving parts, in terms of the dynamics between the characters, and how one dynamic affected all the others. And that made it more difficult to write, but also more enjoyable in a way—it felt closer to the inter-connectedness of life. But another answer to the question would be: I loved the characters. And when I’m writing about characters I love, I’m motivated to write about them at great length, and to continue writing even when there's seemingly no plot and nothing is working and I have no idea what I’m doing. So that was a necessary ingredient in the writing of this book, and in everything else I’ve written too. What do you love about these characters? The idea of loving a fictional character is something that gets discussed a little bit in the novel itself. It's an interesting idea for me, partly because all my life I've loved fictional characters very much, and in a way that has felt meaningful to me, almost like loving a real person. What does it mean to love a person who doesn't exist? And relatedly: what does it mean to love a person who does? One thing that strikes me is that loving someone is very different from liking them. The four protagonists of this novel have an array of different attitudes toward religion—but to draw briefly on the Christian perspective, Jesus did not teach us to “like” our enemies. If we liked them, I don't think they would be our enemies. They can still be enemies if we love them, because love is more complicated and difficult—capable of extending to everyone, without losing meaning or exhausting itself. With that in mind, I certainly can't say I love these characters because of their likeable personality traits. In the course of the novel, we have an opportunity to see them all at their worst—at their most unreasonable, cold, aggressive, bitter, selfish. Many readers will doubtless find some or all of them “unlikeable.” That's okay. I wasn't trying to create characters I approved of or looked up to—but equally I wasn't interested in writing about people I considered morally beneath me. We also have some glimpses of the protagonists at their best, and they can be very caring, very thoughtful, and so on. The reader may feel superior to the characters, but I don't. If I did, I wouldn't have written the book. I might be crossing into moral terrain now, which is probably a bad idea. But I believe that, while not everyone is “likeable,” everyone is loveable. Part of what motivates me as a novelist is the challenge implicit in this belief. I want to depict my characters with enough complexity, and enough depth of feeling, that a reader can find a way to love them without liking them. Or even like and love them despite everything—as I do. I love these characters too, especially Alice and Eileen. At times, their relationship seems like the most intense one in the novel, or at least the one with the most at stake. There's this description early on of how they see each other: “Alice said that Eileen was a genius and a pearl beyond price, and that even the people who really appreciated her still didn't appreciate her enough. Eileen said that Alice was an iconoclast and a true original, and that she was ahead of her time." This is as sufficient an explanation for why they love each other so much as anyone could ask for, but I still wanted to ask you: why do they love each other so much? I agree there's a lot at stake between them. It actually reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my own best friends when I was writing my first book—I told her I was worried that the drama was too “low-stakes,” and she replied: “What could be higher-stakes than love and friendship?” It's a great question! And for me, the answer is literally nothing. There have never been any stakes higher than love and friendship, in my life. For other people, in different circumstances, the answer might obviously be different. But for me, and generally speaking for the characters I write about, love and friendship are supremely important. As to why Eileen and Alice love one another so much—I think there are a lot of different reasons. In some ways, they're drawn together by the things they have in common: their inability to “fit in,” their distrust of what is popular, their analytical tendencies, their senses of humour. And in other ways, they're brought closer by their differences from one another. Alice admires what she sees as Eileen's more serious intellect, her ability to be thorough and “do the reading,” and also her attractiveness—her physical beauty, her elegance, her charm. And Eileen admires what she sees as Alice's extreme self-assurance, her indifference to the opinions of others, her uncompromising personality, and her accomplishments. Each sometimes sees the other as a reflection of herself, and then at other times as an image of everything she is not. But those are more like the reasons why they like each other. And their feelings really go far beyond that. In fact their love for one another is probably close to unconditional. That might seem to imply that nothing is really at stake between them, because they are going to love each no matter what happens—but as we see in the novel, a loving and admiring relationship can also accommodate a lot of resentment, anger, disappointment, pain, and so on. I suppose we are never really in doubt about the intensity of their feelings for each other. But we do probably doubt at times whether they can go on being friends, or at least I did. I want to ask you about Alice, whose career and public profile resembles your own. At one point she says, “the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world ... And we can care once again, as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together—if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything. My own work, it goes without saying, is the worst culprit in this regard.” What's your own relationship to this idea? I think the back-and-forth structure of the email exchange was really important for me in this regard. When I wrote that passage from Alice's perspective, I did strongly agree with what she was saying—I felt immersed in her life and her experiences, and I was persuaded by the critique that she had developed from those experiences. I still definitely think she has a point about the novel as a genre. But in the next email, we hear from Eileen, who offers a contrary perspective, not from the point of view of a writer, but from the point of view of a critic and reader. Writing her emails, I felt equally immersed in her personality and experiences, and I was brought around to her perspective instead. So although the protagonists were disagreeing with one another, I was able to agree with both of them—which meant the emails became something other than a compilation of my own opinions (I hope). But I am still interested in Alice's critique of the novel as a form. In a time of gigantic historical crisis, maybe we should try to fixate less on the tiny details of our own emotional lives, and maybe our cultural forms should try to reflect that shift—away from individuals and relationships, towards the biosphere and global power structures. Intellectually, that makes sense to me. But it's very hard, as Eileen argues in her next email, to make that shift sincerely in our own personal lives. Almost nobody can really care about (e.g.) bees as much as they care about (e.g.) their own spouse. Many people do sincerely care a lot about bees, but almost everyone cares more about their spouse. And the novel is not a didactic form by nature. For the most part it reflects or tries to reflect the psychological and cultural realities that predominate in the real world. There are doubtless novels out there that manage to place bees on a par with spouses, and that is certainly a worthwhile challenge for a writer. But it's not something I could with any sincerity attempt myself. There is also the argument that novels about relatively wealthy Westerners are the equivalent of television shows about royalty or aristocracy. These forms of story-telling present a world in which luxury is the predominant way of life for most people—the existence of poverty is acknowledged, but mostly kept off-screen. At the absolute most we get the impression that the world is divided pretty equally between rich and poor. And of course we know that in real life, the rich—even if we extend that to include the fairly ordinary Europeans who populate my novels—make up a tiny percentage of the world population. They take casual international flights, they drink takeaway coffee, they stream high-resolution TV shows on their laptops, and so on—all completely anomalous behaviours for most human beings on earth. People like Felix and Eileen are certainly not “rich” by Irish standards, but by global standards they are. This is not to blame them, or to blame myself, for the good fortune of being born in a wealthy Western nation in the 1990s—especially since Ireland is not a former colonial power, but a former (and partly current) colonial subject. But the fact is that the lives of people in Ireland today are simply not representative of the lives of most people on earth. That is a problem Alice cannot solve. I tried in this book at least to articulate that problem in some way, but whether I managed that, I don't know. Now I want to ask you about Eileen, who also often says and does things that seem likely to lead readers to draw parallels with her creator. I’m thinking specifically about this bit: “When I first started going around talking about Marxism, people laughed at me. Now it's everyone's thing. And to all these people trying to make communism cool, I would just like to say, welcome aboard, comrades. No hard feelings.” A lot of critical discussion about your work focuses on your going around talking about Marxism, and I think this will inevitably be interpreted as your directly addressing that. Did you have any doubts about including something like this, or was it an easy decision? If it is permissible to admit this, I personally find Eileen's petulance about Marxism in this scene quite funny. Eileen did not invent Marxist economic or social analysis, and she obviously was not the only person “going around talking about Marxism” in 2010 or whenever. In that sense, a completely ridiculous claim, and for that reason kind of funny, at least to me. But on the other hand, I'm sure she did meet people in university and elsewhere who laughed at her opinions, and who now put out tweets about “smashing capitalism” or whatever. You know, Marxist critique has gotten a lot more popular online, and for good reason. Eileen both welcomes and slightly resents this development. I guess I would say that in her case, the welcome is political, whereas the resentment is personal. Whether I share in those feelings, I couldn't possibly say. I think all four of the protagonists of this book probably agree at least to some extent with Marxist analyses of capitalism. And so do I, and so do a lot of people I know. My parents are lifelong socialists. My mother grew up in social housing and worked in the local arts centre until she retired, and my father was a technician for the national telecoms company. So I don't come from a very wealthy background—which has probably informed my worldview just as much as my reading of Marx has. But part of the discussion Eileen is having in this scene is about what constitutes the “working class” in Western liberal democracies now. Does it include, for example, people like Felix? Almost certainly yes. People like Eileen? Maybe not. They both work for a living, and neither of them make much money, but the term “working class” is now tied up with a lot of other things, to do with education and cultural capital rather than work and income. I'm interested in that argument not only intellectually, but probably also because it touches on questions about my own identity and my own life. I didn't mean to address my critics directly, however, because I don't really read my critics and have only the faintest idea what they are saying about me. That's not to say that their criticism isn't worth my time. I'm sure it would be worth my time if I could bear to read it, but I can't, so I don't. I remember reading one piece about Normal People—it was a review by Helen Charman, published on the White Review website. It was really quite critical of the novel in places, but I thought it was an excellent piece, full of insight. I admire Charman as a critic. But I don't have the inner tranquillity required to read criticism of my work most of the time. Quite early on, Alice writes an email where she says: “If I had bad manners and was personally unpleasant and spoke with an irritating accent, which in my opinion is probably the case, would it have anything to do with my novels? Of course not. The work would be the same, no different. And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing. So why, why is it done this way?” Does the arranging of literary discourse entirely around the figure of the author feel to you like a new development, or do you think it's always been like this? I don't feel qualified to comment on the literary discourse of the past. In fact, I'm not even really qualified to comment on it at present, since I almost never read author interviews or profiles of other writers (or, obviously, of myself). I'm not sure if I've ever read a straightforward biography of a novelist, or even a literary memoir. I'm a big fan of books, and there are many writers whose work I would say with complete sincerity has changed my life. But I don't generally care to know anything about their personal lives, especially if they're alive today. I might be wrong, but I suspect this is something I have in common with most readers of novels. Generally speaking, the readers I know and meet through my work are interested in the fictional inhabitants of a novel's interior world—not in the real-life personalities of writers. So why is the figure of the novelist so prominent in media coverage of books? I don't know. Partly I think it's because there's a readymade template for arranging media coverage around a particular central personality, and that template is “celebrity.” We seem to be stuck with that. There is no real reason why anyone should want writers of literary fiction to be presented in the media as minor celebrities—with profile pieces and photo shoots and so on. But because press coverage of novels is so exclusively focused on the figure of the author, writers are required (usually by contract) to engage with the paradigm to some extent. It seems like it would be better if we could do it another way. Why am I doing this interview, then?? I suppose I don't take the point that far. I think the conversation we're having now is about my work rather than me, even if it can be tricky at times to separate the two completely. And I do enjoy talking about my writing, if there's anyone interested to listen. I have friends who are writers, and I always enjoy talking to them about their work too. I think there's something to be said for people in any field discussing how they do whatever it is that they do. But I can't accept the idea that my personality should become an object of public discourse just because I've written a few books. I get the impression that Alice, a fictional character who has also written a few books, finds this even harder to accept than I do. Back to your answer to the first question, and the decision to impose a certain authorial distance. You've said that almost all the narrative sections of the book are written in this style, with one notable exception. Can you talk a bit about the wedding section? Close to the start of the book, we learn that Eileen's sister Lola is preparing to get married, so from early on I knew the novel would have to include a “wedding scene.” I thought this would present some nice dramatic opportunities, because other significant characters would be there—Simon, his parents, Eileen's parents—in combinations that might otherwise be unlikely. But when it came time to write this section, I found myself doing something different. Instead of presenting a scene or series of scenes through dialogue and dramatic action, I was trying to present a kind of sensory experience—a series of images and memories and moods. This allowed me to steal a glimpse at the inner lives of some of the novel's “minor” characters, like Lola, and Eileen's parents, who I loved. And it also allowed me to present—in a kind of loose fragmentary way—the thoughts and memories of two of the novel's principal characters, Simon and Eileen. I've talked a little bit already about the challenge of writing about a relationship of such long duration. Simon has known Eileen since she was born (and Lola even longer). How could I condense a lifetime of changing feelings into the space of this novel, especially without the use of traditional interiority? The question seemed to present itself with renewed force at the wedding, because Lola had been so intricately entangled in the dynamic between Simon and Eileen as children. I even wondered whether their relationship might have echoes in the dynamic between Simon, Eileen, and Alice later on. But if I'd tried to present this story conventionally using dramatic scenes, it probably would have run to the length of a novel on its own. I had to find a way to compress the depth of feeling between the characters into a much smaller space, using different techniques. And Lola's wedding seemed to provide circumstances of special pressure and intensity for the characters to remember and re-experience one another in a new way. In the months before I wrote that scene, I had also attended a couple of weddings myself, and I'd found them very moving and beautiful. I don't know if other writers feel this way, but I think it can be much easier to convey disillusionment, alienation, and ugliness in fiction than it is to convey love, happiness, and beauty. Some people might conclude from this observation that life is “really” alienating and ugly, and that love and happiness are illusory. But I don't think so. And in the wedding chapter maybe I was trying to suggest in some very small way the beauty of life. Finally, I want to ask you about the title, and the Schiller poem it's derived from, in relation to what you've just said. To me there's this interesting balance in the novel between the suggestion that we are living through a uniquely shattering period of historical crisis and that the world is uglier than it has ever been, and the suggestion that people have always felt like this, that a beautiful world is lost or vanished. Maybe an easier way of asking this is: what made you choose a bit of a Schiller poem for a title? I think the balance that you identify here is exactly right. In the early stages of writing the novel, I became kind of fascinated with what is called the “ubi sunt” motif in literature—meditations on decay, ruin, and the transience of beauty. In Latin poetry, in the writings of the Anglo-Saxons, in the literature of industrial-era Europe, there is this recurrent sense of a beautiful world passing away. Writing in the eighteenth century, in what is now Germany, Friedrich Schiller locates the beautiful world in Ancient Greece. But it seems to me that it can be located in almost any particular civilization as long as it is definitively gone forever. Our present sense of a beautiful world passing away can feel quite new and unprecedented, because of our political moment and because of the climate crisis. But our cultural terminology for this experience long pre-exists our present circumstances. Obviously that isn't to compare contemporary climate anxiety to (e.g.) medieval apocalypticism. The ability of our planet to support human life is very genuinely in serious danger. What interests me is that we have to find some way to express this anxiety using (at least to some extent) our existing vocabulary and cultural forms. In The Gods of Greece, of course, as in the “ubi sunt” tradition more generally, Schiller has already located the beautiful world in a specific place and time. I don't do that in the novel. And out of context, the title of the book might even sound vaguely hopeful and forward-looking, as if the beautiful world might be right around the next corner. It's probably not. But while the characters in this book are certainly disillusioned, maybe even embittered, they haven't entirely lost hope. And most of the time, neither have I.
Talking to the author of Stone Fruit on queer child care, the importance of breakups, and the peach-walnut dichotomy.
Our relationships are different now. They’re careful, scheduled, six feet apart, and nothing like the ones in the opening scene of Stone Fruit (Diamond Comic Distributors). Three monsters—two adults and a child—tear through dense forest, chasing a white dog with wild, dangerous glee. Nothing holds them back as they roar and sing, covered in mud and grinning. There is much to love in this graphic novel but—if for no other reason than that it reminds its readers of a time less troubled, less full of worry—these first moments of Stone Fruit are a gift. But the two adult monsters, Ray and Bron, are on the verge of breaking up. The only thing keeping them together is their biweekly play date with Ray’s niece Nessie. When the situation becomes untenable—not helped by Ray’s sister Amanda’s hostility—Bron leaves to reconnect with her family. Beautiful blue-gray tones give life to the relationships Ray and Bron hold dear, even as they change, or grow, or end. Immediate and melancholy, it’s those relationships that form the heart of the story. They are undoubtedly messy, but they are real and whole and—after many months of quarantine—they have been missed. What a joy, then, to get to meet with Lee in person, perched on a sun-warmed fire escape. Meeting someone new, talking and laughing in a moment of shared companionship: that, too, is a gift. Alyssa Favreau: A big part of the story is this idea of queer family, of chosen family, and how it plays out in Ray and Bron’s relationship. Why was this the story you wanted to tell? Lee Lai: Well, I am a homosexual in my twenties [laughs]. Something most of us tend to talk about a lot is the idea of chosen family: the idea that bio families tend to reject queer and trans people and so they go and find their own. But, at least in the stage of life that I’m in, people talk about it idealistically and with a lot of vigour and energy, and then end up struggling with what that actually looks like in practice. Ray particularly is very energized by the idea of hustling forth from what wasn’t satisfying about her biological family and creating that with Bron. I wanted to do [chosen family] in a way that doesn’t just shoot it to shit, because I don’t think it’s a useless idea, but I think it’s more complicated and difficult than me or my friends initially thought it was. The book focuses so perfectly on all the different relationships: Bron and Ray, each of their relationships with Nessie and with Amanda, Bron with her parents and with her sister Gracie. They’re all complicated, regardless of whether they’re biological or chosen, and I’m interested to know more about why you never privileged one type of relationship over another and refused the easy answers. I don’t think I’ve found easy answers yet. Maybe when I become an old person—if I’m so lucky—I’ll have some easy answers. Five or ten years ago I would have been more interested in the answer as a means of getting to where I want to be, but ultimately I make comics and I’m surrounded by homos and I’m so pleased with that. I’m essentially where I wanted to be. It’s more complicated than I ever could have imagined in terms of creating and maintaining healthy community and healthy relationships, and I imagine it only gets more complicated, but hopefully we get more skilled. I don’t know how you manage to be both bleak and hopeful. I feel very hopeful! I really believe in all these things, and the mess is part of what makes me believe in it. I have a rule for when I’m writing characters, which is “no villains, only messes.” No one can actually be a full villain and, if we’re willing to focus in enough, everyone’s bullshit and everyone’s mess is something that can be empathized with. It’s a bold move to have the central couple of your story spend most of the book apart. Is that always how you imagined it? Yes. I wanted to write a story about a breakup. Initially, it only followed Ray after that part, but I showed the first two chapters to Eli [Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch] and they were like, “What happens to Bron? I’m interested. It’s weird that you just drop this character off into the suburban WASP-y wilderness and we don’t see her until she comes back.” The structure that became this split, parallel situation didn’t happen until later. And it became much more satisfying when it did. For me to write, anyway. And to read. The way the two narratives work together is one of my favourite parts. It was a challenge [laughs]. I often find that, when I’m thrown into a couple’s story at a point where they’re having problems, there’s not enough there to make me invested. I end up thinking, “All I’ve seen is the problem. You should just break up.” But, with Bron and Ray, I immediately believed that they had been good for each other and that I should be rooting for them. I’m not sure how you did that, but maybe you can reveal some of your magician’s secrets. How did you decide how much of their relationship to show? I did, for my own purposes of what I wanted to figure out emotionally, want to show a breakup in which both people really care about each other—that’s not a question. They really love each other, and that’s not enough for them to figure out their problems and stay together. I’m also a big supporter of breakups. For the sake of growth and for the sake of people changing and thriving. Breakups can be really important. I wanted to show a breakup that isn’t about the relief of getting rid of someone. That people aren’t dispensable after the romance is gone but that sometimes, especially when people are bringing a lot of trauma to the table, things can’t work out in that way. But I feel like I’m rooting for those two. They both really care and I want them to both be okay. But that comes first before the relationship does. Fine. I mean you’re right [laughs]. At one point it’s Ray’s sister Amanda who says that it’s “foolish to put all your belonging into any one person.” Who do you think is most guilty of that? It depends what timeline you’re looking at. In my understanding, Amanda did it very intensely in her relationship with [her ex-husband] Dave, who’s not in the story but his presence is felt. It definitely comes through in the way she reacts to Ray and Bron’s relationship. Yeah, her prickliness, her assumptions about the other relationship. And she does it in a way that is less relatable to me: the very heteronormative, nuclear, two-parents-and-a-child vibe. But I think everyone has their own separate reasons for putting a lot of hopes into one other person. I think that’s also Nessie. She’s bearing some of that weight between Bron and Ray—the ways in which they’re kind of relying on those play dates to feel something, to feel some levity. I think they’re kind of all leaning on each other in different ways because they all have completely different needs for it. I don’t think they’re comparable. The intergenerational relationship with Nessie is a real highlight. She is such a beautiful presence in these characters’ lives and, because of that, it was so frustrating to see Amanda’s queerphobia manifest in such a “What about the children?” kind of way. How did that find its way into the story? Amanda, at the beginning of the story, when I started writing it, was more detestable than she became. I think I started liking her much more as I got into the later chapters and she and Ray started spending more time together. The fact that she’s somewhat jealous of the magic and the fun that Bron and Ray can have together was not what I wrote into the story initially. My friend Tommi [Parrish] gave that suggestion, [that] as a burnt-out single mom, it would be a kind of obvious step from there, and that that would be informing some of the ways in which she’s bitter and nasty. It felt very realistic. It helped to soften the character a bit and make her less of a villain. I was more interested in having her go from hateful and judgmental, and somewhat homophobic, to having more empathy and understanding for Bron. But I didn’t understand what her motivations were until they broke up. I don’t love showing homophobia and transphobia in stories. I don’t want that to be what it’s about, and I don’t plan on doing that much in the future, but I think I did want to show the softer side of what that can look like when it still is wearing someone down. There’s the more extreme version of Bron’s family, which I tried to show less even though it’s implied, but I think the ways it plays out in someone like Amanda is more familiar to my life, and harder to argue with. Or it’s got its claws more tangled up in interpersonal difficulty rather than it being about homophobia in a more flat way. And even though there’s a lot of concern about Nessie and how she’s dealing with the turmoil around her, she had a little cameo in a New Yorker comic that you drew, and she seems fine. Full of life and questions. That was the first version of those characters, actually. That was just when I wanted to write about aunties and a gay kid. Or a weird kid, I guess. Maybe she’s gay. I’m pretty sure she’s gay. She’s got good influences. But I wanted to write her because I wanted to show queers hanging out with kids more. Some serious wish fulfillment. I want to talk about the characters’ monster personas. They’re such a visceral, visual element of the story when Nessie, Bron, and Ray go to this “feral and screamy” place. Was that an element you had in mind from the beginning? Yeah, that was my effort to try and draw more freely and have a bit more fun while drawing. I found it really hard to draw the monsters and make it feel natural in my hand, but I didn’t know how to draw those play scenes without doing that, without creating monsters. It would have been so easy to have this couple bonding over a child in a way that’s nurturing in a settled, domestic way, but instead, you see Bron and Ray become wilder, access less controlled parts of themselves. Where does that come from? Why does Nessie in particular make them freer? I forget how to be a child. I think I was a very fun kid, but I grew into much more of a serious adult. And I miss that. Queers in general are really good at accessing play as a way of pushing out of the parts of their lives that are heavier. I think queers tend to make great carers for children, because they’re often able to interact with children in a way that isn’t condescending, by thinking about the ways they would want to be interacted with if they were a child, remembering what it was like to be a strange beast of a child. Children are fucking weird. [Laughs.] They’re so weird! I think it helps to have mindsets in which you’re not projecting assumptions onto children. And I think folks who don’t want to have assumptions projected onto them tend to be better at handling and encouraging the strangeness of children, and also enjoying that. Imaginative play is pretty consistently present throughout. You have it in the play dates but you also see it in Amanda and Ray adopting happier personas to help process grief. And queer family-making also is this act of radical imagination, a way of manifesting something that didn’t previously exist. It seems like that line between the real and the imagined is always in flux. Was that kind of magic realism something that particularly spoke to you? I tend towards wanting to make work in order to process feelings. I was just chewing on these heavy ideas of trauma and conflict in relationships. Those things are interesting and meaty and therapeutic to figure out in comics, but I want there to be some levity. I want the story to have energy and momentum, for there to be play. I think back on some of the heaviest points of my life and those were also times in which I was laughing so hard I was crying. I think there’s a point where, when someone’s under pressure, everything becomes hilarious and ridiculous. I want those two things to be blurry in stories because they are in real life. I initially read this as a self-published first chapter. What was it like to see the project cross the finish line? I got really lucky because the first version was just a script. I’ve never done that before. I’ve mostly just written bursts of dialogue and pencilled them out in tandem. This was the first time I’d planned it quite laboriously beforehand. It still did not go to plan. It never does apparently. I wrote it in a scriptwriting class, and it was horrifying because it was the first time I’ve not had pictures to support the writing. There were a bunch of people workshopping the script, reading it, and telling me that all these characters sound the same, and they don’t know what’s actually happening, and maybe this bit is boring. Which is great! It’s so helpful getting edits. I need a lot of eyes on a project and so it was really great throughout the process to have people weighing in. Mostly I just want people to feel whatever they want to feel for this book. As long as they’re feeling something and they get from the first page to the last page, then it’s done its job. One thing that was kind of a breakthrough was seeing every single project as enabling the next. As a practice for the next thing. What allowed me to finish this was to not think about it as a product. It’s very cool that it’s being published and I’m very excited. Now I have an agent! But if I had known that from the beginning, I never would have finished it. It would have psyched me out intensely. It was a really good experiment and exercise in long-form, and it’s taught me enough to do it again. What more can you ask for? It’s very exciting. I don’t have a sister, so I’m curious to know why you chose to foreground that type of relationship. I have a sister; we’re very close. We shared a room our entire childhood and were completely at war the entire time, but grew into very close friends. I did not realize the book was going to be about the characters going off and connecting with their own siblings, but when it did it gained a lot of momentum, because it was something that I started realizing I could write a lot about and had a lot of feelings about. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, but it’s been cool having this example of someone you haven’t chosen who is just automatically there and will always be there, regardless of how much shit you have between you. It’s an interesting way of thinking about indispensability. It seems like a type of relationship that can be so close but also so fraught. It’s interesting to see Ray rebuilding with her sibling whereas, with Bron, that relationship just isn’t quite there yet. But you do feel that there’s potential for it. I hope that the book ends in a place where there’s lots of potential for all the different kinds of relationships. I think [Ray and Bron] would be friends, and I think there’s an effort to try and project that a little bit in the conversation they have around whether Bron can still be an auntie at the end. Ray needs some time, but I’d be surprised if not. Bron and Gracie are the most ambiguous. They end on a bit of a sour point, but I just can’t see any of those relationships actually falling flat at that point. I want to show relationships in which people are having a messy time and just continuously trying, and picking up again, and trying it from a different angle. And not having a rosy time about it, the entire time. [Laughs.] I really appreciate effort. It’s hard when, for Ray and Bron, there is that concerted effort at communication, but it doesn’t work. Which is true to life: it doesn’t always work. Do you agree with Ray when she says that there’s “no amount of storytelling or sharing or talking that would close the gap”? I don’t know if it’s as simple as there being a gap to close. It’s maybe rethinking the gap. One of the things that I wanted to show in their relationship is this idea that Ray is a bit scared of Bron, or fears the things that might not serve the relationship. And then those things bubble over anyway. If there’s going to be any kind of sustainability, those short-term efforts to create compatibility just won’t work. You can’t cut it to make it fit. Maybe the gap needs to exist. Bron in particular really struggles with being not just looked at, but seen. Why is that kind of recognition so important to her? It’s painful and alienating to be just looked at. I don’t think people can get much done, in terms of thriving, from that place. But I also think that, if someone has not felt seen, it becomes hard to know how to get seen. If someone has always been othered, it becomes hard to create relationships where you can trust that you can open yourself up enough to feel something. That’s definitely and obviously a very real thing for trans folks, and there’s also the thing of growing up thinking you don’t exist. That is a very difficult way to become an adult. Being seen is just being in connection [in a way] that is real and whole, and I don’t think anyone has an easy time with that part, regardless of who they are. But it’s essential for survival. I think she’s just an example of how difficult it can be for someone. Final question: Why have the peach as a metaphor? Is it just go-to queer symbolism in a post-Call Me by Your Name world? I forgot about the fucking of the peach! Oh god, it probably is, yeah. Like most people, I just love a good metaphor. I don’t like binaries or categories but use them just as much as everybody else to play with ideas. We all seem to love horoscopes even though they are definitive in ways that are not particularly helpful. [Laughs] Agreed. I still love talking about them. I’m the most Taurus. I’m a Taurus moon! I’m a Scorpio moon, I feel a lot of feelings inside. I love that for you. One of the metaphors that I was enjoying talking about with friends while I was writing—as a way of nerding out about feelings and modes of connection—was this idea of the peach and the walnut as different ways of doing vulnerability. The idea that someone has this Cancer crab outer shell where they’re really spiky and impenetrable, but then they’re just this fucking ocean of soft feelings and vulnerability inside once someone has proven themselves to be trustworthy. And then there’s the peach person whose defences and coping mechanisms look like being really agreeable and friendly and soft on the outside, but then if someone actually starts connecting with them, they realize that there’s quite an inner wall. I think it can actually be kind of disastrous when two people connect without realizing that they’re different in that way. And so they’re bringing preconceived ideas around trust into that way of connecting. It can be hazardous. Well, I’m down for that being the next astrology, or the next love languages. [Laughs] The peach and the walnut! I’m definitely a peach.
Talking to the author of Something New Under the Sun about realist novels, writing as an archaeological excavation, and taking for granted fitting into the world.
Alexandra Kleeman published her first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, in 2015. It’s a strange, affecting, and exacting satire about food and beauty and contemporary culture. What especially set it apart, for me, was its depth of emotional resonance. Kleeman cares about the human results of the targets of her acute eye. Reading her debut gave me a sense that I was encountering a major writer at the beginning of her career. Her follow-up, the story collection Intimations, stoked those embers of promise by expanding her narrative scope. The stories vary wildly in tone and style, and yet the book as a whole is deliberately structured to mirror the arc of life. Kleeman, as an artist, can unify disparate material through her unique sensibility. She’s a literary wrangler. Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth), her long-awaited second novel, more than fulfills the potential of her first. It represents a leap forward for her as a writer. The language is exquisite and inventive and full of rhythmic poise. I found myself reading numerous sentences aloud, basking in their bracing eloquence. Here’s an example, from the opening chapter: [The city] resembles an old photograph, faded in color, with a swath of flat gray rooftops close to the highway, a sea of smaller homes and buildings with reddish, quirkily tiled roofs in the middle ground. Neighborhoods pool at the base of the brown hills in the distance; tiny modernist structures stud the slops and peaks, swaddled by smog. It looks like a diorama, three different strips of cardboard painted and stood upright to form a realistic landscape, each successive piece rendered a little hazier than the one before, articulating how vast the distance is between where they had been and where they are going. The novel is set in the near future, and it focuses on Patrick Hamlin, a writer whose autobiographical novel is being adapted into a film starring a scandalous young Hollywood actress named Cassidy Carter, the former child star of the popular show Kassi Keene: Kid Detective. As an East Coaster, Patrick’s completely out of his element in the Los Angeles of the future: the film production has little use for him; wildfires rage everywhere; the city’s water has been privatized in the form of a mega corporation called WAT-R, which manufactures endless variations of faux-water with names like WAT-R Basic, WAT-R Pure, and WAT-R Energy Surge Plus. Meanwhile, Patrick’s wife, Allison, has opted not to come to California, and has instead taken their daughter Nora to a new age nature retreat called Earthbridge in upstate New York. Isolated, away from his family, and in unfamiliar territory, Patrick finds himself enmeshed in a Pynchonian conspiracy that might involve the film’s inscrutable producers and a neurological disorder known as Random Onset Advanced Dementia (ROAD). It’s a wild, funny, and brilliantly observed satire. I spoke to Kleeman over Zoom, but as her social media seemed to show her in numerous locations, I began by asking… Jonathan Russell Clark: Where are you located now? Alexandra Kleeman: I am in Colorado right now. But my head’s sort of spinning because I came back last week from Italy, and I had to go to California immediately. And I came here—and every place has been very different, obviously—but they've all had their own particular kind of unusual heat that's going on. So the different feels of that on my body have me feeling very, like, fish out of water. On hot, hot ground. It was intense. The heat in the air felt like a wall, like you were concretely moving through. And even as it was dry, the sort of pressure from the heat was just a different sensation on my body and a different sensation even from previous times I've been in the desert in the summer. So maybe it's also that I'm reading, you know, about mussels cooking on the British Columbian coast at the same time. But it's definitely a weird time to have a body. Maybe as always. But right now does feel particularly dire. Yeah, it does. But also, we're so good at acclimatizing to the new particular form of dire. It's as though the world has to keep generating new versions of dire to make us feel that feeling. And it does, and we do. And then we go make a grilled cheese sandwich or something. I wanted to talk about your language in the book, which I just found so gorgeous. There’s a line where you refer to a grouping of trees as a “sarcastic smattering.” You employ such defamiliarizing usage. That means so much to me. I think as readers we all recognize it in a book, like when we find the description, and it's written in a way that feels both totally apt, and also doesn't feel like any of the things you'd reach for first. That's partly why my metaphor for writing, or what it feels like I'm doing when I'm writing, is often like I'm digging with a trowel, with a shovel, never with anything great like a backhoe or powerful equipment. But just digging past what's on the surface and digging until you find a thing that you can pull out. And in the extended metaphor—I think I have one of the characters using it, too—I think a lot about writing a novel as a sort of archaeological excavation. You know your site, sort of, and then you aren't sure exactly what you're going to find. You know where to dig, you start seeing pieces of it. And the pieces are a surprise at first, and then it becomes a game of arranging properly and arranging carefully, like, in the same way that you don't want to put, you know, the Apatosaurus head on the Tyrannosaurus skeleton and think you created your new species. You go from being the discoverer to being the analyst or something. So for you it’s about uncovering rather than building, revealing rather than building up and constructing. Yeah, I mean, for better or for worse, I've never been a person who's good at feeling entirely in control or good at operating in the mode of being in control. I always have to feel like I'm in a space where I know some things and I don't know other things—to have a pleasurable balance between having agency, being able to move around, being able to uncover and do things, and also beingable to be surprised, because if I weren't surprised, I would just be rehearsing what I already knew about this world or about the story. The novel is set in Los Angeles in the near future, and Patrick, the protagonist, a writer from the East Coast, feels out of sorts there, which I completely understand. Whenever I’m in LA, I feel like I’m unsure of how they do things. I really love that you had some of the same feelings moving around LA as me. I lived there for a while when I was a kid, and I've been back for longer and shorter periods of time. But there is often this interesting feeling that I think sometimes is rarer and rarer these days, but this feeling that like, Oh, I've suddenly stepped out of my element and out of sync. I don't know how this all works. This seems to be an ordinary thing, but I don't know what it is or how to use it—like, yeah, the surreal experience I had writing this was I had already decided on water and the name for it and things like that. And I went to Los Angeles on the trip, and as I was driving around Silver Lake, that neighborhood, I saw these water stores, which is exactly what I was working on building. They seemed to specialize more in a slightly alkaline water, because this is supposed to be good for your body—you could buy it in large amounts, refilling your own containers, or smaller amounts just come in a bottle. And I saw what it was—I understood the text, but I didn't understand who it was for or how to use it or how you asked for it or whether I needed it. Just these ordinary things that, you know, you couldn't find out about a place and you can’t preadjust yourself for unless you go there. It's disorienting when that happens, which is interesting, but it's also sort of a precious thing, because I think we live in a world where so, so much is expected to be standardized, so we can move around it smoothly. Like, when I drive—while around Colorado, where I'm from, or between Colorado and the West Coast or the East Coast—I sometimes feel like my path along the highway is smooth in this way that's supposed to make me feel like, Don't worry, you haven't really gone anywhere, you're still in the same place, it's just been stretched all across from the left to the right of this block of land. And you can pay in the same way. Every place takes your variety of credit card. And so to be reminded that there is such a thing as place, and that you're crossing distance, and as you're crossing habitat, and that different kinds of ecological systems actually work very differently… seems like a useful kind of jarring experience. Something New Under the Sun is futuristic, satirical, and even could be classified as postmodern, which is funny to me because I felt while reading it that it also felt almost old-fashioned—a novel with big political ideas and characters with names like Horseshoe and the Arm, who speak in depth about philosophical ideas. The realist novel, I think, was one of those things for me, because there were many I enjoyed reading, but there wasn't a lot of space where I could see myself operating in that mode. I felt like what characterizes a realist novel is: character-centered, maybe human-centered, maybe maintaining a proper and aesthetic proportion between, you know, what's relevant and what's in the background—like, a foreground/background relationship. Like, here's what's important, here's the stuff that reminds you there's a whole world, so don't worry about it. But recently, as I've gotten more interested in writing one—like, I think of this as roughly my realist novel, where that foreground/background distinction kind of collapses—I've been wondering about how the realist novel directs our attention to some parts of reality and not others. Reality is this vastly entangled thing with billions of people, technology, and climatic factors, nonhuman players that we never know, a million anthills that we never ever write about, all these different things, and we cut this path through it that makes the world seem on the whole more stable and more tidy than I think that it is, and that tightness helps us focus in on the characters and feel for them in this intense, interlocked, and involving fashion. But increasingly, I feel like the emotions that I have as a person supposedly living in reality have a lot to do with the outside and with the unexpectedness of things that I realize are going on that unsettled my idea of what I should be paying attention to, and what is going on in my life—it pushes into the frame. And my life, a lot of times in the past few years, has felt less like a thing that, well, how should I say, is less like a house that I live in [in] my life, and more like just a space that people are constantly walking through. I've never used that metaphor before. I'm not sure it works. But something like that. Your first novel focused a lot on the body and food, and this new one also concerns itself with the things we put in our bodies, here in the form of WAT-R, the fabricated, corporatized water. What is it about the body that interests you? To me, the body feels like a journey into unknown space as well. It's a journey into the external space that's inside us. Because there’s such an interesting and varied way in which we relate to our body. I think when you cast your eyes over your body, from the eye—I want to evoke a video game term, like the first-person-shooter perspective. You pass your eyes over your body and you feel a different level of recognition of acceptance of identification with each different part. Some part looks the same, some part looks a little different—you wonder if that's because you're getting older or because you've been spending more time in the sun or you've been doing exercise, whatever it is. It's a constant effort, I think, to sweep all these different parts into some sense of belonging and identity; there are times when it happens naturally, and then there are times when you're doing work to pull that body together. And on the inside, too, I feel like the feelings [of] identification get even more entangled, especially. We're at a point of high self-knowledge about the mechanics of the body and what's in it and how it works, and yet I think we still don't necessarily know that much more about how to care for our bodies—like, what's the right way to eat? Is it this paleo extreme diet? Or this raw food diet? Or this Mediterranean diet? Or this? You know? How do we not just know our body, but how do we, like, love it and care for it—and, in doing that, care for ourselves? There's something about the body that always remains for an evening, as we always try to make it our own. And the Earth is a body, too. And we certainly don’t know how to correctly take care of that. Your use of water in the book is pretty apt in that sense. It’s the connective tissue between all of life; it runs through everything. In writing this, I tried to think a lot about the different ways in which I was taught where water was. And I think one of the most common ways was in chemistry, when you learn water is a special substance—it's made up of these molecules, and some of the special properties it has, [the energy it takes] to heat one gram of water one degree, that it will freeze and will evaporate—and in the middle of those two extremes we live and we take advantage of its plasticity and its properties to make all of our life processes possible. But when you think of water, when you learn about water, as this list of features and abilities and qualities, it becomes possible to think, well, there could be something else that ticks off almost all those boxes, and some of those boxes are important. Some of them are ancillary. So we can create a substitute, you know, and when you atomize something, it becomes possible to think of recreating and replicating it, remaking it. But there are so many other ways to understand water, too, and to understand its social function, its ecological function—to understand the way that it in its specific volume and presence in an environment makes it possible for this type of life to exist around, it makes it possible for a certain number of animals or species to gather there. Our history of water management has been one of atomization. What were the first seeds of Something New Under the Sun? One of the first ideas was doing an exploration of water in a second book that would parallel an exploration of food [in the first book]. And food and water have some similarities, especially in the way that they enter the body and the connection that they have to survival. For some reason, I'm almost fixated on survival, and what elements of the survival relationship you can see in in the corners and crevices of a life that is comfortable and does not seem to be about survival. I feel like our lives are arranged so that we think about success, or progress, or perfecting ourselves, or maybe improving ourselves, healing ourselves, whatever it is. But beneath that, there's this heartbeat of survival, your basic material connection to the world. And so I was planning on doing the second book on another survival material, water, and then this third one that I'm working on is about money, which may or may not be a necessity of survival. So I wanted to do something about water. And I grew up in a state that has similar water issues as California. So in Colorado, we're currently in another big drought. We’re in a summer of record heat following another summer of record heat. And last summer, when I was in Colorado, they had three of the ten biggest wildfires in Colorado history, all within one year, and we had the first and second biggest two. So many records were broken. And it marked a sort of categorical shift in how I experienced the weather in Colorado, because I'd always heard of wildfires, or sometimes you could see a wildfire—growing up in California I saw wildfires semi-regularly, usually smaller ones that would be, you know, on the hill as you're driving past Fry's Electronics about to take another exit on to a different highway to go back home. It was just something in the background, and you could pay attention to it or you could not pay attention to it. But last summer, it was impossible not to notice all the time that there was a wildfire going on someplace, because it just changed the transparency of the air. It eliminated the mountains from view on a lot of days, it turned the sun red. Also, in a way that was more difficult to pin down, it changed the feeling of your body, of your lungs, how the air felt going in, the temperature it seemed to be, whether you felt well breathing outside—sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in very extreme ways. Most of the people I knew living in Colorado bought air filtration systems. Characters in the novel suffer from a neurological disorder called ROAD (Random Onset Acute Dementia), a result of drinking WAT-R. Where did that idea come from? I spent some years working in aphasia research. So I was in cognitive science in the language processing lab, and we spent time making language processing experiments for both college student types [with] unimpaired language function, and then also with aphasics in the New England area who would do the same language tasks. And in the delays that it took to do them, or in the breakdown in the ability to come up with a correct response to a question, you can identify sort of how the language system has been bruised or broken by damage in these in particular areas of the brain. The history of how people have treated people with aphasia, or with brain damage, language loss, or impairment otherwise, is a sad and dark one. Because, you know, humans often get talked about as the language animal—the thing that sets us apart from other animals. Obviously, animals have language systems of their own, to varying degrees, but it seems true throughout human history as a whole that when someone loses the ability to speak language, or when they go and speak language the way you want them to, if they're a foreigner, if they don't speak properly, it is an excuse to dehumanize them. In both dementia and in aphasia, it's this loss of fit with the world that I'm really interested in. And something that I feel we aren't grateful enough for most of the time—that most of us fit the world so well, which lets you do basic things like ordering food in a restaurant, talking on the phone, setting up a medical appointment. There are different obstacles in different places where you feel that lack of fit, like being uninsured, and being unable to take care of a simple thing with your body, you know? The world is made so that even if you feel like you move through fluidly a lot of the time, sometimes you get kicked into this zone of non-fit and you feel your vulnerability and your specificity there so intensely. So I think what I was interested in with Random Onset Acute Dementia (ROAD) is thinking about, like, we have a certain fit with reality, and it lets us have a consensus reality with other people and share—share our experiences, more or less, even argue about our experiences when I see them differently. But to lose that, and to no longer have access to a form of reality that lets you share space and time with people is a really scary idea to me. And, you know, not to be too dramatic about it, but I think that there have been sometimes recently where you can have a conversation with someone sitting next to you on a plane or with a family member and really feel like we do not share a consensus view of reality. It's this jarring feeling. And in it, you know, you think that you're probably the one with a better version of reality, but you know that you don't seem that way to the other person. And it feels sort of like you could slide right off the face of reality.
The author of Lost in Summerland on marriage, Virginia Woolf and the hermeneutics of suspicion.
When I first encountered Barrett Swanson’s essay “Lost in Summerland”—a reported piece about a road trip to a Spiritualist convention taken in the wake of his older brother’s traumatic brain injury and its resultant (possible) psychic powers—I couldn’t stop sharing or talking about it. Credit to my friend Chelsea, who passed me the story in the first place. Or maybe she tweeted it out? I can’t remember. This was in the old world, at the end of 2019. I was still technically on Twitter then, though my attachment was frayed: I’d recently downgraded from a smart phone to something less interested in knowing me, and I’d put a block on my computer to prevent access to the site most of the week. I say all this so you’ll understand that it was a moment of real coincidence—not just an algorithmic belch passing as synchronicity—when Swanson, who is not on social media at all, came across an essay I’d written three years earlier and sent me an email just days after I’d appointed myself a proselytizer for his work. We struck up a sort of low-key pen pal-ship. Swanson’s debut collection of non-fiction, also Lost in Summerland (Counterpoint), is a blend of empathetic reporting and incisive thinking that takes the reader on a guided tour of America’s wild, imaginative, and sometimes dangerous myths. Follow him into a mouldering futurist’s Floridian swamp-palace; down the rabbit hole of true crime conspiracies haunting the economically fragile Midwest; into the literal rubble of a Disney-inflected FEMA disaster simulation training centre. In a book about the power and limitations of narrative, Swanson’s essays search out older, maybe kinder ways to say new things. Lost in Summerland reminds us that a good and well-told story can, sometimes quite literally, save a person’s life. In keeping with our pre-existing correspondence, Swanson answered my questions by email. Suzannah Showler: Is it cheating if I start by asking you about something we’ve talked about a little bit before? A number of the essays in Lost in Summerland are dispatched from communities and subcultures that you have some kind of affinity with or para-relationship to but are not all the way inside of (psychics; anti-war veterans-turned-farmers; a men’s group/corporatized toxic masculinity recovery retreat; West Wing cos-players, etc.). I was wondering if you could start by saying something about that insider-outsider thing, and how it works for you both when you’re immersing yourself in something in the first place and when you’re writing about your experience after the fact? Barrett Swanson: Oh, god. Where to start. I suppose the insider-outsider thing begins for me with the very scenario of writing longform magazine pieces, in part because I'm trained as a fiction writer and so most of my instincts are utterly different than those of a quote-unquote real journalist. (I would gasp for want of breath if I mentioned all the times when my inexperience or lack of training made me look like an absolute lummox with editors; I remember very distinctly, for instance, having to look up the term “nut graf” after receiving an editorial note during my first time writing a magazine piece). Setting aside the clinical levels of shame and imposter syndrome I'm apt to feel in such moments, I’m inclined to think that my inexperience—my outsider status in the magazine world—has served me well, because I tend to come at a place or a subject with an infant-like blankness in terms of what I’m “supposed” to do with the topic. All my writerly antennae are instead tuned to the emotional voltage of the situation as opposed to whatever would supposedly make for a “good” piece of magazine journalism. I guess this goes some way toward explaining my approach when it comes to entering into these subcultures. Basically, I'm trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the intellectual and emotional frequencies of the experience. My whole goal, at least for the first few hours (or days or weeks, depending upon the extent of the reporting), is to disappear. Joan Didion has this great thing about how her slightness physically causes people to forget that she’s in the room and makes them more likely to reveal themselves. I guess I try to do a similar thing, at least dispositionally. I want to be so open and receptive to the people I’m meeting that I’m basically a mirror, so that they take me as one of their own. Possibly that sounds Iago-ish, or something, particularly because so many of the groups I cover are zany or a little out-there, maybe, but as you mentioned, I almost always choose topics that intersect in some way with my own life. I wrote about anti-war veterans because I teach a lot of people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, which made me think about the debts I might owe them. I wrote about psychics and mediums because after my brother had a traumatic brain injury, he started having paranormal experiences. If there’s one thing I think I’m halfway decent at as a reporter, it’s my ability to chameleon myself onto the psychic ambiance of the situation. Sometimes this can be physically and spiritually exhausting—the men’s retreat piece, for instance, was a veritable Iliad of emotions—but I think there’s a deeper dimension to this, because this effort, at least for me, is born of the impulse to consider how I’m implicated in the topic I’m writing about. One thing of things that I found really exhausting as a graduate student was that we were constantly encouraged to read texts “suspiciously”—or with what gets called “the hermeneutics of suspicion”—which assumes that the text contains biases and subterranean arguments that a reader must unearth and bring to light. One assumes that the author is the enemy and so we must constantly bloodhound around, looking for signs of contradiction or symptoms of bad faith. While this critical stance has much to recommend it, I can’t help noticing how this suspicion has infiltrated the larger culture and has become our default mode of interacting not only with texts, but also other people and the outside world. This seems particularly prevalent in a lot of non-fiction writing, where the whole aim and objective is to eviscerate one’s subject in ways that flatter social media algorithms and rack up a lot of retweets. I am sick to death of this kind of writing—the dunks and pile-ons, the takedowns and hot-takes. Such mercilessness seems so easy and is so utterly antithetical to what I take to be the artistic imagination. And so, I have turned to a different mode of critical reading to inform my headspace when reporting. One of my friends, the essayist Jon Baskin, has written about how the philosopher Stanley Cavell practices a type of interpretation where the hermeneutics of suspicion are trained not on the text but on the reader themself. Cavell wants us to ask, “How is the book implicating me? How is it exposing aspects of myself that I normally keep hidden?” For me, the act of reporting functions as a similar form of introspection. What does this subculture expose about me that I don’t want to confront? How am I culpable or complicit? Which is another way of saying: how is the reader complicit? If a piece isn’t asking this question, I’m not interested in reading it. It is laughably easy to point and sneer—far harder (and more artistically daring) to acknowledge one’s own place in all this. I’m very much with you on all of this! And that’s more or less where your book starts, right? The opening essay is about a moment when you run up against the limits of that mode of suspicious interpretation and it provokes a kind of crisis of narrative. Or a life crisis within narrative. I read the rest of the book with that “end stages of suspicion” feeling in mind—I saw it as being as much about its subjects as it is about re-building a relationship to narrative. Since you mention the kind of writing you’re sick of—what are you not sick of? What are you loving, or wish you saw more of? Also, kind of a left-field question, but what did you love reading as a kid, or before your brain was colonized by suspicion? In terms of contemporary essayists, I really love the work of Elif Batuman, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Elisa Gabbert. While I admire all of her work, Batuman’s recent essay about Zoom versions of Greek tragedies during the COVID pandemic was easily the best thing written in the past year, which is why I’ve become a diehard evangelist for that piece; so much so that my students have to tell me “enough about Elif Batuman already.” Ghansah and Gabbert I love for similar reasons—all three are committed to tunneling into their experiences alongside whatever subject they’re covering in a way that ensures that they almost always have skin in the game. They are almost always risking something either emotionally or intellectually. I’m also a diehard fan of Sheila Heti, whose last two books—How Should a Person Be and Motherhood—I have begun to interpret as a strain of spiritual writing, inasmuch as this is a writer who’s willing to take the moral decisions in her life seriously and without embarrassment. I aspire to that kind of unswerving candor, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. I also teach Virginia Woolf for school, and because she is my heart’s true friend, I never get sick of her stuff. My students make fun of me for it, but I get pretty worked up whenever I get to the Septimus section of Mrs. Dalloway, or when Clarissa finds a way to forgive Miss Kilman, the religious woman, who’s stealing the attention of her daughter. Here’s one of my favourite passages, where Clarissa’s thoughts swerve from hate to sympathy: “Odd it was, as Miss Kilman stood there (and stand she did, with the power and taciturnity of some prehistoric monster armoured for primeval warfare), how, second by second, the idea of her diminished, how hatred (which was for ideas, not people) crumbled, how she lost her malignity, her size, became second by second merely Miss Kilman, in a mackintosh, whom Heaven knows Clarissa would have liked to help.” How many of us suffer from a similar misapprehension, mistaking people for ideas—and ideas for people? Reading-wise, as a kid, I was pretty into Stephen King. I think the first truly “adult” book I read at age 11 or so was It, which for about thirteen different reasons—not least among them my innate sensitivity and anxiety—was a mistake. Even now as an adult, whenever I hear the pipe organ intermezzos of your standard carnival music, I’m apt to suffer PTSD-grade flashbacks from that early encounter with Pennywise. What else? I was a pretty committed athlete as a little guy, so I remember inhaling lots of sports biographies, alongside the journals of Kurt Cobain (was I ever so young?), and then whatever teachers got me into from school—Ethan Frome, The Red Badge of Courage, and Edgar Allan Poe. Pretty morbid stuff for a middle schooler, to be honest. When I was reading Lost in Summerland, I found myself repeatedly cross-referencing any mention of your age against historical time markers and trying to suss out if we’re born the same year. Even as I was doing this, though, I was like: why does this matter so much to me? Partly I am just an annoyingly self-interested reader, and I was looking to have the sense of generational recognition I felt coming through in these essays affirmed. But I wondered whether you might resist being read as a generational writer when so many of these essays are, in one way or another, about complicating grouping people according to type (which is maybe another way of mistaking people for ideas, ideas for people). Also, follow-up before you’ve even answered: if we are the same age or proximate, can I ask you my new favourite thing to ask people our age? Do you think of yourself more as an old young person, or a young middle-aged person? Or are both totally unappealing and/or not of interest? Maybe not everyone is quite as obsessed with parsing degrees of aging as I am. It’s funny because as I was reading your (incredibly brilliant) poetry collection, Thing Is, I had a similar hunch that we were about the same age. As you rightly suspect, the generational thing is tricky for me, not least because I’m wary of being seen as a gold-star-earning millennial, but also because I’m interested in the way that so many of our social issues have been radically de-historicized. Many of the essays try to suggest that whatever we might see as our unique or “unprecedented” social problems (pandemics, cataclysms, the evaporation of truth and consensus) actually have both ancient and modern precursors that might be useful and instructive. (For instance, part of the reason I decided to teach Mrs. Dalloway again this semester is that it’s fundamentally a pandemic novel; that first line—about Clarissa “buying the flowers herself”—suggests this is the first errand she’s undertaken since being bedridden with the influenza virus). Possibly the most salient example of this in the collection is the note about how spiritualism—what with its seances and table-tipping—roughly coincided with the death of God and the birth of capitalism, two phenomena that torpedoed most of the reigning assumptions that Americans had about reality. I try to make the case that this mirrors our own present culture’s interest in astrology and New Ageism, which is an attempt to find order and meaning in the wake of Trump and post-truthism. And about the aging thing. Oh, god, Suzannah. I don’t know. I teach four classes a semester at a Midwestern university, so mostly I just feel old. For a while, I used to pride myself on being the hip young professor, but this year especially I have fallen so behind on the argot and lingo that I essentially feel like a senior citizen. Because we are holding online classes for the pandemic, the students tend to use the chat feature a lot during our web conferences, and they might as well be typing Sanskrit. Plus, when you go bald in your early twenties, as I did, you’re forced to reckon with the questions of aging at a breakneck velocity. While your friends head to the liquor store to grab provisions for a party, you’re traipsing over to Walgreens for a fresh bottle of Rogaine. More seriously, though, if there’s an extent to which I feel “young,” it’s owing to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to afford some of the major assets we might otherwise associate with one’s entrance into middle-age. There was a great piece in n+1 maybe like ten years ago about how all the complaints regarding millennials’ arrested development ignored the extent to which student loan debt has skyrocketed across the last half century, and the idea of financial solvency before the age of 40 was either a matter of extreme class privilege or an out-and-out pipe dream. Speaking of the hallmarks of “adulthood” (scare quotes necessary), I want to ask you about the role marriage plays in the book. Your wife is in a lot of these essays, providing little glosses and tethers. And then marriage as a concept is more explicitly explored in the last essay, “A Church Not Made with Hands,” which I’m really trying not to spoil right now. I happen to really love being married a weird and identity-making amount, and I often feel like a huge square about it. But you seem to be arguing for coupling as a kind of ethical practice (in a way that reminded me of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, actually, which you bring up when describing Sheila Heti’s work). I was wondering if you could say more about what you’re up to here? (And can you tell me that it’s cool to like marriage?) I’m roaring with laughter at this question because I, too, feel like a huge square about my love for being married. Kierkegaard was very much on my mind throughout “Church Not Made with Hands”—not only Either/Or but also Works of Love, particularly his stuff about how to treat one’s “neighbour.” As it happens, I’m currently writing a piece about marriage and the screwball comedies from the 1930s and ’40s (think: His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth; think: My Favorite Wife and Adam’s Rib), which my wife and I have been re-watching during this last phase of the pandemic. Not only do these movies make me revere, afresh, directors like Leo McCarey and George Cukor, but I am also just endlessly dazzled by Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn, whose wit and on-screen voltage is so pyrotechnically compelling. Anyways, Stanley Cavell (who is increasingly becoming a really important thinker for me) wrote about these films in an insufficiently celebrated book called Pursuits of Happiness, where he characterizes them as “comedies of remarriage,” in which the spouses divorce or separate at the beginning of the movie but, via a maze of side-splitting circumstances, come back together in the end. For Cavell, the salient feature of these films is how the spouses eschew new experiences for new ways of apprehending their experiences—i.e. rather than trading old lovers for new ones, they learn to reanimate their marriages through heroic leaps of perception, little dramas of “forgiveness,” which he describes as a forfeiture of revenge. He (somewhat provocatively) argues that the calisthenics of intellect and emotion that are necessary for marriage are the same ones required of us in the operations of a democratic society. More broadly, though, I think I find marriage intellectually compelling because it can function as the central narrative of our lives, one whose success depends upon our continual re-enchantment. In this way, its habits of mind resemble those of religion—elsewhere, I’ve described marriage as “the theology of us”—where the survival of the relationship depends on a shared interpretation of experience, a hermeneutics of affection. And I guess if we apply Cavell’s logic to this end, it would seem to suggest that sometimes failures of relationships can be the result of bad storytelling—bad interpretation. And maybe certain moments in my book suggest that the social contract—like that of marriage—can fail because of similar narrative deficits. Now that your book is entering the world, is there anything new you’re working on now that you can tell us about? And what, whether writing-wise or other, are you looking forward to this summer? I have a piece in Harper’s about a long weekend I spent inside a TikTok collab house, which was upsetting for about eleven different reasons. And I also have another essay that will run in Lit Hub about my experiences in a professional singing and dancing group when I was kid (long story). But apart from the aforementioned piece on the comedies of remarriage, I’m currently writing a long essay about forgiveness, and I’d like to do a reported piece on elephants, assuming anyone will let me write it. I’m also taking a stab at writing fiction again. Mainly, though, I’m trying to figure out how to preserve a sense of self that is not beholden to algorithms and to regard myself and the members of my community with imagination and patience.
Talking to the author of The Turnout about why The Nutcracker is important for young girls, writing about the body, and the great noir trope of the insurance investigator.
“They were dancers,” begins Megan Abbott’s sure-footed new novel The Turnout (G.P. Putnam's Sons), describing adult siblings Dara and Marie Durant via their shared and lifelong vocation and obsession. Drilled as children by their maître de ballet mother, the sisters have long since taken over the family business, molding cycles of young girls as they had themselves been molded, exhorting their charges to literally follow in a lineage of bruised, bleeding, perilously equilibrious footsteps. Although it takes the outer shape of a thriller—a form of which Abbott remains a reigning adept some ten novels into her run—The Turnout is most compelling in its vision of dance as a kind of existential choreography. The narrative traces vicious circles like pirouettes around and through the wracked physiques and fragile psyches of its characters. Noir is in Abbott’s bones: there is, inevitably, a crime scene, a body, a bloody weapon, and a list of suspects. But these things are almost incidental to the effects that the writer is striving for this time out, and which she achieves. The central mystery here is primal: nothing more (or less) than the question of whether getting older and growing up are actually or at all the same thing. Childhood looms large in The Turnout. We learn early on in the story that the Durants’ main meal ticket is their academy’s annual and elaborate production of The Nutcracker, a ballet whose status as a wholesome holiday perennial belies its unsettling origins and subtext. E.T.A. Hoffman’s original 19th-century fable concerns a young girl in thrall to a handsome military doll and brainwashed in her dreams by an evil rat king—a plot given a considerably more whimsical (and sanitized) spin as the show was revamped and commercialized in the 1950s. The show’s protagonist is named Marie, and Abbott isn’t mincing metaphors (or messing around) by having her own Marie fall under the spell of a malevolent, nocturnal creature—Derek, the shady, middle-aged contractor contacted to repair the school’s interior after a devastating (and ostensibly accidental) flash fire. That the thick-waisted, heavy-booted Derek ends up doing his own sexual renovations on Marie—much to the horror of Dara and her crippled childhood-sweetheart (and ex-dancer) husband Charlie—is in keeping with The Nutcracker’s barely submerged themes of innocence initiated swiftly into experience, while the gaggle of younger, tutu-clad girls infesting the premises are like sugar plum fairies, imps recklessly rubbernecking at the scandals and messes of the adult world. At this point in her career, Abbott’s hard-boiled style has grown refined without becoming rarified; she writes precisely without making a fetish of precision (that kind of pathology is left to her characters). The Turnout unfolds in shapely clusters of subjectivity, informationally dense—i.e. everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the collateral damage of dancing ballet but were afraid to ask—yet emotionally transparent. The narrative is filtered through Dara, a watchful, controlling, but fundamentally passive woman whose horror at having her space—and the makeshift, quasi-incestuous three’s-company family unit she’s set up with Marie and Charlie—invaded by somebody whose business is remodelling is made palpable and contagious. The tension of Derek’s comings and goings evoke a sort of irrational B-movie horror (or maybe an episode of Property Brothers from Hell). The Turnout is never better than in these early, Derek-heavy, scene-setting passages, which bristle with anxiety, embarrassment, and an illicit eroticism that seems to come as much from Dara’s subconscious as her newly oversexed sister’s breathless, increasingly guilt-free reports from the field. Skepticism, speculation, protectiveness, competitiveness—Abbott conveys furtive, squirrelly sensations in a way that gets under our skin. She also manages the plot’s machinery like a pro, perhaps not to the point of fully disguising its grind—one big twist is telegraphed politely in advance—but so that there’s pleasure in the gears themselves (the aforementioned bloody murder weapon is worthy of inclusion in Clue). It’s rare to encounter a work of genre fiction that doesn’t throw its back out trying to pluck a few thorny ideas here and there, and rarer still that those ideas actually draw blood; by the end, the splayed, weary, marrow-deep ache evoked by Abbott’s prose gets transferred onto the reader. It hurts so good, and when it’s over, you’ll still feel it tomorrow. Adam Nayman: Do you remember the first time that you saw The Nutcracker? Megan Abbott: It was definitely a big part of my childhood. I mean, I was a terrible dancer. I did not last more than two years in ballet before I attempted tap instead, and you could imagine how successful that was. But every year we would go to see The Nutcracker in downtown Detroit, and it was just so magical. It's such a strange fairy-tale and so transfixing; as kids you like weird things, you like dark things, and you specially like it when it's supposed to be for you and it has all that dark stuff in it. It's also one of the two go-to titles you'd use if you were trying to convey an archetype of popular, enduring ballet. The other one is Swan Lake, which is more grown up, at least superficially. As you say, The Nutcracker seems innocuous, but one thing that The Turnout deals with is how kinky and sexualized it is under the surface, and the charge that it is. I looked a little into the history because apparently it was not a big deal until [George] Balanchine mounted a new version of it in the early 1950s and it became a Christmas special. He sort of turned it into this annual Christmas pageant for the whole family, and [did] not present it as a super-creepy story, but of course all the other things still get smuggled in. That's a phrase I love; Martin Scorsese uses it in his documentary My Personal Journey Through American Cinema, where he talks about B-movie directors smuggling things into their movies—subversive ideas, coded implications of sex, darker views of American institutions. Anyway, weirdly I feel like Swan Lake would actually be less damaging to give to young girls in childhood because it doesn't encourage you to become friends with your paedophilic uncle. (Can I add something here to indicate that I was kidding? E.g., “That’s a joke! I actually think The Nutcracker is important for young girls because they get to be the hero in that ballet, and also that children do like dark things. It’s a way of figuring out the world and its mysteries.”) Dara's understanding of The Nutcracker is very sophisticated: she understands it as narrative and as metaphor; she knows how to dance the parts and how to teach others to dance them; she directs the show and makes money from it. But she's still very much inside the story, unconsciously in her own life. Knowing how to do the magic trick doesn't mean you can't fall for it; it's like she's still the little girl watching The Nutcracker for the first time, still hypnotized by itall those years later. Yes! You kind of fall into these things when you're writing, whether it's conscious or not. It's true, though, for Dara that The Nutcracker became the template for her life without her knowing it, in that classic Freudian way where you have to keep repeating and repeating until you can break the cycle and release yourself. She's not able to do that, and so it becomes a trap. She's a very controlling person, and somewhat difficult, or at least that’s what some early readers told me. But I find her very moving because while all the characters in this book are trapped, she's the only one who doesn't know it, which seems like a greater tragedy. Ballet strikes me as a form where being trapped is part of the process, because there isn't necessarily freedom of expression. It's all very to the millimetre. It's restrictive, and whatever comes out isn't coming out of you. It's more about hitting your marks. The precision is so intense, and many dancers I read about have a lot of mental tricks of the trade to help them get past certain, very legitimate fears. I wrote a book about gymnasts, and it's a very similar discipline because they know you risk your life if you're a millimetre off. But I get why ballet dancers don't really like any cultural representations of their art form, because it tends to emphasize the pain of it above everything else. But it's also true that, historically, ballet requires you to transform your body in these very “unnatural” ways, and that torture is built into it. There’s been a strong push in recent years to move away from that, saying it doesn't have to be that way, and there's more talk now about different body types for male and female dancers, but that's not how it's been for most of the last century. Instead, the deal was you had to make your body do things it wasn't built to do: you have these children who aren't developed yet risking permanent changes to their body—things they can't undo. They're doing it for the art, and as lovers of art, this is what we love—to see people throw themselves into it like that, so fully. But, of course, we’re seeing it from a distance, bearing none of the risk ourselves. In both gymnastics and ballet, the masochism is inescapable but it also has to be disguised or denied, at least to the observer. I think about Swan Lake and the old metaphor of the swan who's beautiful and perfect above the surface but churning away furiously below. Nobody is supposed to see that part. As with anything that requires that kind of complete devotion, you have to believe that it's worth it. Because otherwise, what is it all for? With ballet, more than gymnastics, it's tied to notions of femininity and what we consider “female”—you know, girls aren't really supposed to sweat. Historically, the female ballet dancer is meant to be nearly doll-like, a performance of femininity. At times the book reads like an inventory of injuries; all these welts and cuts and bruises. It's like body horror. I tend to write about bodies a lot, maybe because I've never had the ability to be artful or successful with my body. And I'm fascinated by the toll, by injuries. Somebody told me I have scars in all my books, so I guess it's a fixation, and I'm drawn to subjects that let me pursue it. I'm writing something now about a pregnant woman, so more body horror to come. The Turnout observes Dara and Marie's ballet academy as a kind of ecosystem, with all these different levels and stratifications. There's a definite pecking order or food chain amongst the girls. All of the practice and preparation creates these obsessive relationships and rivalries, these needs to please and to be validated. It's a very pressurized environment. For me, it's at the ages of eleven and twelve that girls are at the most vicious, and that viciousness gets channelled in this space. For me and everybody I knew, [dance] was very cutthroat, and we all fed off that energy. Everybody wants to be Clara in The Nutcracker, and to be at the centre of the story, even though she doesn't actually do anything in the second half of the show; the Sugar Plum Fairy is the star, if there is any “star.” It's hard not to see these rituals as a metaphor for things that are yet to come in life. I feel like for Dara and Marie, there's something punitive about teaching ballet to these kids, almost like they're inflicting it on them. Or because they went through this grinder once upon a time now there's a catharsis in seeing others broken down. Like, “this is going to hurt, this is going to tear, this is going to bruise, and that's the way it is.” That experience of pain sets Marie up to embark on a pretty self-destructive relationship. She's used to being knocked around, in one way or another; that's been life for her and her sister from the beginning. Knocked around by ballet, knocked around by their mother; Marie is knocked around by a sister who bosses her around. And then that gets tied to her experience of sexuality and her notions of pleasure, and that's where it gets really complicated. There are a lot of dichotomies in The Turnabout. Pain and pleasure is one for sure, but it's also there in terms of character types. Dara's husband Charlie is this very beautiful, smooth, frail and fragile man-child—he's broken—and Derek, Marie's lover, is not only physically solid and powerful but, as described by Dara, he's this dripping, Rabelaisian figure. He's masculine in a slovenly, erotic way, totally undisciplined, this big, swinging-dick guy, and his appearances, especially at first, are totally startling. I was having a fun conversation with myself about this very thing a little while ago because I'm adapting the book for TV, and it's very true that on the page we're not supposed to know if Derek really is that disgusting, as disgusting as Dara describes him. He’s not, probably, but you still have to figure out how to do it in terms of point of view, which is a benefit that the novel has. For Dara, he represents everything that's chaotic, and so he has to be repulsive in every way, like a symphony of horror. She's restricted herself from wanting or getting anything outside of her small world, and here comes a guy who takes, takes, takes. That taking is why Marie is drawn to him, because he's so opposite to the life she's been leading. For Dara, that makes this guy the Devil. You're billed as a crime writer, and The Turnabout does have a crime in it, but it's buried pretty far into the narrative, and a lot of what's interesting in the themes and characters exists totally outside of a genre framework. I wonder how self-conscious those delay tactics are for you at this point. I want to be in a dance with the reader; that's the pleasure of it for me. I love those sorts of books, where you feel like you're being let in on something, like a whisper over the shoulder or peeking into the keyhole. But it's also a question of how long you can do that until it starts becoming annoying. In a crime novel, it can be frustrating where things are written like everybody is a suspect, and while there's certain value in those kinds of mysteries and they're really fun, they're not the kind I write. In my books, I want it to almost be like I'm talking with someone about two people we know and about what happened to them, and I want it to draw them closer and closer. But you didn't just want to write a novel about these strange people who do ballet for a living. You also wanted there to be violence and a crime scene. I can only really conceive of a story if it's around a crime! Sometimes they happen sooner, sometimes they happen later, but usually it's well into the story because I want you to care about everybody and understand them first. I've been asked if I'll ever write a novel without a crime in it—some people really want that—but I'm like, “it gives you your plot engine!” Everybody can relate to situations where your back is against the wall, or when your defences are down and your unconscious just spills forth. It's in the midst of sex and death that that stuff comes out. As a very lapsed Catholic, those are the only two things [I’m] interested in anyway, so it all fits with the presence of crime. I can't remember the last crime novel that's also partially about contracting and construction. It's so perfect because you have two sets of professionals in one space, big guys clomping in dirty boots through pristine spaces populated by delicate little girls in tutus, and everybody is getting on everybody else's nerves. Lots of moments where space is being invaded. I'm trying to think of a few movies that have played with that. There's Pacific Heights! Sure, there's Pacific Heights. It's a situation where you have a stranger coming into your space. If you're someone who's very controlling about those things—like if you're running a dance studio, which is already an arena focused on control, and which is the source of your economic survival—it creates a pressure cooker. The other appeal of making the intruder a contractor was it meant I could bring insurance issues into it all. It’s a great noir trope. One of the main reasons I first started writing crime fiction was because of Double Indemnity: I love any time there's an insurance angle within a story, and in the novel of Double Indemnity there's a great bit about insurance salesmen and this great big roulette wheel, and that they are the ones who know that when you gamble, the house [is] going to win, and you're going to lose. There's something I love about that. It's so noir. The insurance investigator is a great archetype because it's hard to make them into heroes. You can do it with cops, or even with crooks or sociopaths, but insurance adjusters are like the reality principle in noir. They're the ones asking the banal, boring, potentially destabilizing questions. You have a wonderful insurance agent character in The Turnout, who seems to have wandered in from some other novel, maybe the hardboiled novel in her head where she takes this old-school idea of what her job should be about. Absolutely. She's deeply committed to her job, just like Edward G. Robinson is in Double Indemnity. I wanted her to really care, to be a seeker of truth. My brother is a prosecutor, so I know about all the different realities that go into police investigation, and whether there will be the time or budget to prosecute. But an insurance agent doesn't need to prove anything to a jury. They just want to stop you from gaming the system. It’s about the payout, the money, and there's something unstoppable about the power of money in America. It always sort of pushes forward. The police may lose interest in a case and decide there's nothing to chase even if things look suspect, but if there's an insurance payout to be had... Speaking of the link between violence and money in America, I love the cheque stabber that Dara and Charlie use to spear their bills. It's so out of time, and so funny—each bill from the contractor gets impaled on this gleaming sharp edge. Yeah, it's definitely symbolic, but even if you know it's symbolic, you don't necessarily see that it's a bit of foreshadowing as well. I had a letter opener in another one of my books as well. That's where my noir side comes into play; these objects are sort of archaic. They don't really belong in our time. In my books I guess I try to avoid things like texting and social media use, not because I think people should avoid them in writing, but I want a timeless quality. And it works here because the sisters are in this old, falling-apart house and of course there are old things in it, things that somebody forgot to throw out, anything their mother touched, their whole family history told through forgotten objects. Recursiveness is a big thing in this book; you talked about Dara being trapped in The Nutcracker, and reliving all these old performances and productions while time moves forwards. Backstage dramas are all about this tension, about people trying to make each performance feel new for an audience even though the only way to do that is to know it all to the point of redundancy. It's exhausting. There is always a relentless quality when you say, “the show must go on.” It means, “this is going to happen.” It's sort of fatalistic, in a way. It's not going to stop, this is never going to stop. The other thing that feels eternal is the idea of children rubbernecking at the adult world, whether it's the students getting these little hints that untoward things are happening just out of sight in the studio space or the sisters' memories of seeing their parents fighting. There's other, even more intense flashback stuff that of course I won't spoil here, but I kept thinking of the line from Into the Woods, which plays with some of the same archetypes as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in a different form: “children will listen.” There are moments where you see how complicated the adult world can be, how somebody can be crying but they're actually laughing and vice versa. The ability of kids to understand and access what's really going on is very real, and they're always getting lessons on how or how not to behave. Those first encounters with grown-up things, with ideas about masculinity and femininity, they never go away. And because Dara and Marie are in the same space as when they were kids, it keeps replaying, in this very Grey Gardens or Flowers in the Attic sort of way. With Marie, it's like she tries to fuck her way out of it, while Dara keeps doing the same things she did before. We're all stuck with ourselves, and again that's very noir. You can only change yourself so much.
The author of Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology on body horror, revisiting old LiveJournals and high school Latin teachers.
In the introduction of her new essay collection Women and Other Monsters (Beacon Press), Jess Zimmerman quotes a tweet that I find embarrassingly relatable: “ok horse girls definitely had an energy but lets talk about the real powerhouses of middle school weird girls: the ancient mythology stans.” I was a teenage ancient Greek mythology stan. In high school, I could rattle off the names of Zeus’ mistresses and their children, and knew the story of Odysseus as well as the love triangles on The OC. In my senior year of high school, I was part of a four-person team that competed in Certamen, a Jeopardy-style quiz competition that covered riveting subjects such as Latin derivatives, mythology, and Roman daily life. My team wore laurels in our hair and called ourselves the Vestal Virgins, the priestesses of the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta, who took a 30-year vow of celibacy and protected the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta. (Even at the time, I knew this was a deeply uncool namesake.) All of this to say, I was very excited to read Women and Other Monsters. In her essay collection, the Brooklyn-based writer applies personal stories and sharp cultural analysis to some of Greek mythology’s greatest female monsters, like the man-eating whirlpool, Charybdis; the seductive half-bird half-woman, Sirens; and the Furies, the three goddesses of vengeance who prowled earth to torture sinners. Zimmerman unpacks the lasting influence of these myths on western culture, dissecting monster-by-monster the way they’ve shaped our views around femininity, morality, hunger, sex, and motherhood. She rehabilitates these monsters, showing how their devious and grotesque traits are actually their greatest strengths—and also qualities that would be revered in male heroes. Although Zimmerman read the great Greek storytellers of Ovid, Homer, and Sophocles in college and post-grad, her entry point was as a pre-schooler reading the illustrated children’s book D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. But her essays will appeal to a much wider cross-section than mythology buffs. Zimmerman shows how these monsters have shaped tropes in pop culture, and expertly weaves in candid personal stories about fatness and beauty, her ex-husband, toxic old relationships, and female friendships. I don’t think I’ve ever read something that so breezily connects the Furies to Social Justice Warriors, or segues from an I spoke with Zimmerman over the phone—we both agreed that in Zoom calls we end up thinking too much about how we look—about the evolving transformation of Medusa, making readers feel pain, and why Greek mythology is popping up in home décor trends. Samantha Edwards: I'm excited to talk to you today because I was also a bit of a mythology stan back in the day. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was your first entry point to Greek mythology, and, I’m wondering, what made you so captivated by this book? Jess Zimmerman: It’s hard to answer that just because that was many decades ago at this point. I was literally in preschool when I got my copy. It still exists, but minus both covers and a bunch of pages, and it’s got my marker scribblings in it. It’s hard to get back into that mindset, but I was attracted to things that had a sort of epic, fantasy adventure quality, which is typical for little kids. You don't realize at that time who was allowed to have the epic adventures, who is waiting at home fighting off suitors or being the monster that's being hunted and defeated. I think until you get old enough to think about it, you don't realize what kind of messages are being Trojan Horsed, as it were, into those stories. You just get caught up in the adventure aspect of it. I got into Greek mythology later on in high school when I was taking Latin and classical civilization history classes, which I know sounds like I went to a really fancy private school. In reality, I grew up in a small town in Ontario and my high school was in the boonies. We just happened to have one teacher who was really into Latin, so I think they just let her teach these courses. I also took Latin in high school, and I went to a public school, and I think it was just because my teacher was like 100 years old and had just been there since Latin was a normal thing to teach in high school and they couldn't make him leave. Ok great, so we’re in the same boat where we went to public schools that for some reason had Latin. And it’s always pushed by some weirdo who just, like, can't be made to not have a Latin class. Our Latin teacher would actually send us older students to the Grade 9 classes when they were picking their courses for the next year and get us to try to recruit kids to sign up for Latin because the school needed enough students to justify a class. The Latin Agenda. Yes, totally! While studying Greek mythology, I never really thought about the monsters in the stories. I was always focused on the gods and goddesses. Why did you decide to focus on monsters, and why did you want to bring new cultural analysis to these stories? Was this a concept that you had been thinking about for a while? Before it was a book, I did some short versions of several of these essays on Catapult. I tried to sell it as a book and people weren't interested. So, I was like, “OK, well, maybe it's an essay series.” Then an agent reached out to me, and I was like, “See! One person agrees that this is a book.” Before I started writing the book proper, I had been thinking about these extended metaphors for a couple of years, and during that time, actually, is when Circe came out. There were a few other things too, like the Medusa with the Head of Perseus statue, that were going around during #MeToo. There were a few little things that made me think that we were ready to go back to these stories and think about what we had learned from them. Why do you think that people are more interested in these old stories now? You mentioned Circe by Madeline Miller coming out, which is super popular, but I’m also seeing mythology pop up in other ways too, whether it's a line drawing of Aphrodite on a throw pillow or, like, Greek column plant stands. Why do you think people seem to be more interested in Greek mythology? I think it's two related phenomena, one of which is that these stories have an extreme hold over Western culture, and Western culture has been like a wild cultural juggernaut that has just been steamrolling everybody else's culture for a very long time. So, part of it is just as simple as that: this is the culture that has declared itself to be the best and the most important and has at times violently enforced that. And so, of course, these are stories that we know and that still exist in our literature and our art, because it replicates itself like a little virus. Once those images are in the arts, then that becomes what art looks like. And then part of it is that we're continuing [to] roll back that over-influence of Western culture [to] try to make space for other ideas. We’re ready to analyze and question it, and find some other way to tell stories in a way that we haven't always been [doing]. I think that the reason those images persist and the reason that people are now interested in questioning these stories are basically the same reason, which is that it has been just this massive cultural boot on everyone's face. I think most people have a clear idea of what Medusa looks like, but for those reading this interview who aren’t mythology stans, can you give us the CliffsNotes version of her backstory—or rather the D’Aulaires’ Notes version—and how that story has progressed and been warped by pop culture? So, the backstory that's in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is that she used to be very, very beautiful, and, in particular, she had very beautiful hair. She caught the eye of Poseidon, who was the God of the sea. Throughout all the stories in Metamorphoses, it is never a good idea if you're a woman—or if you're coded female or feminine—to catch the eye of a God, because that almost invariably means that you're going to be assaulted. That's what happens in this story. He catches up with her in the Temple of Athena and rapes her. Athena takes that personally, because it's her temple, and takes it out on Medusa. Essentially, Medusa can turn you to stone if she looks at you, she has snakes for hair, and she has a hideous visage. All of is this is revenge that Athena takes on her for essentially being victimized in her temple. I really liked Athena when I was a kid, but she is not a sympathetic character in a lot of these stories. What's interesting about the way that Medusa’s image has shifted, is that culturally she has sort of snuck back into being very beautiful. The book opens with this little but perfect exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago, which was about Medusa and all these other female monsters, specifically focusing on the ways that these more monstrous forms have had their edges sanded off and become more and more approachable and more and more beautiful. What that does is give the impression that any woman could be a secret monster, because they all look normal until you see the one thing. In the very ancient images of Medusa, she's got tusks, she's got a beard, she's intended to have a very frightening visage, and people would put this image outside of their homes for protection. Over time she's become the image that I think we often think of, which is where she has a very beautiful, very feminine, and often white face—and also happens to have very beautiful snake hair. Another monster you write about is Scylla, a nymph who is turned into a sea monster by a jealous Circe. After she walks into a pond that Circe has cursed, her lower half turns into rabid dogs. The story of Scylla reminded me of the genre of body horror. During the pandemic, I watched the David Cronenberg film The Brood for the first time. Have you seen it? I've not seen that one. But I've seen a lot of other Cronenberg movies. So, in the movie, a woman transforms in these really grotesque ways after she undergoes a controversial therapy that makes you expel suppressed emotions through physiological changes. Apparently, the book was inspired by Cronenberg’s divorce, which makes you think like, wow, that must have been a very bad divorce. I wonder if Cronenberg is missing the trick there. Like, obviously, I am fairly unfazed by a lot of weird body stuff. I do like going to anatomical museums. I have a lot of animal skulls and some human teeth [laughs]. I have a deep creepy streak. What tips it over to horror for me is when you really think about the fact that it’s something that could exist within your personal body. The idea of othering the horrible things that are happening really makes it toothless. Not to say I’m unaffected by Cronenberg, but I would be more affected by a movie that specifically uses the uterus or things that I know I have. That’s part of why I look at that and say, “Oh, this guy's working through some shit,” because when somebody is creating horror that is specifically about someone else’s anatomy, that's not horror. That’s a kind of violence you're inflicting on someone else. Right, like how the story of Scylla is so scary because when she tries to flee from the dogs, she realizes they’re a part of her body and there's no escape. That’s a chilling moment to me. And it's something that I think all of us feel occasionally about our body. That’s where the true body horror comes from. It is a part of you. The story with Scylla is that she walks into enchanted water, and then she looks down and she sees, essentially, her lower half has turned into dogs. In the image we use on the book cover, she also has tentacles, because in Homer she has these horrible, dangling legs, and very long necks. But Ovid describes her standing on dogs gone mad. That makes the hair of my neck go up. I think that's probably why they say don’t look in a mirror if you’re on mushrooms or hallucinogens. Yeah, absolutely. You write pretty candidly about your body and relationships with exes. How do you approach writing about things that have caused you pain or trauma? At this point, I’ve been writing about body stuff for long enough that it lives in an intellectual space in my brain. We already have such a visceral attachment to the body, so being able to elevate that is actually pretty useful. And in terms of writing about relationships, I still have the instincts to intellectualize, but it doesn't necessarily serve the piece to stand outside the relationship and try to analyze it in a way where you don’t actually feel it again. And so that’s more of a struggle. There's one chapter in the book that I wrote the best I could—and then I read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House. She is a real master of bringing her feelings into your body. You really experience them. That book is upsetting. It is nauseating. It is so beautiful. It's also very, very intellectual. It elevates everything. I think it's partly because she's a wonderful fiction writer, so she creates these scenes that you can really see. She's a very precise observer. So, I read that and I went back to this chapter and I was like, “This has to hurt more.” This has to suck more for me, so it can suck a little bit more for the reader in a way that feels real. I don't have her memory for details, so I ended up having to go back to like, my LiveJournal and old emails, and literally quote things that show what I was going through because I was searching for something that would convey that experience in a way that wasn't purely cerebral. Is the chapter you’re referring to the one with the professor? Because in that essay, I really felt it. I really felt your pain. And it made me think a lot about past relationships, and honestly, it was painful! So, good job? [Laughs] I credit Carmen for that. She doesn't know she did it, but I do credit her. Going back and re-reading LiveJournals, diaries, and old emails can be such a nauseating experience, especially if you’ve ever been in relationships where there’s been huge power imbalances. But it also brings about this weird secondhand embarrassment too. Oh, totally. It's mortifying. But I do try to replace the embarrassment with compassion for myself.
The author of Finding the Raga on teachers, poetry, and performance.
In the summer of 2020, my Inbox fired news of scientific and literary worlds in equal proportions. A non-fiction book was to published in Spring 2021 by an Indian writer and musician, whom I’d never heard of. It was about the raga, a subject I also knew almost nothing about. But I was interested in the form, which I’d admired for its improvisational quality, its mind-blowing creativity, its beauty. Though one of the roots of the Sanskrit word raga is related to colour, there is no translation for it into Western music traditions. Roughly speaking, it is a set of melodic structures, subject to both rules and improvisation (akin to a “non-constructible set” in human language), and must be discovered by an artist through live performance. Its presence in Indian music is mentioned as early as in the Upanishads, just before the start of the common era. I spent the next few days that summer devouring every bit of Amit Chaudhuri’s writing and all the interviews I could find. He talked about the role of improvisation in writing and how none of his fiction was memoir (even though in his latest novel, the main character shares his name, city, age, and profession). When I found a video of his raga-infused 2019 performance of Gershwin’s “Summertime” at the Institute for Ideas and Imagination at Columbia University, I wanted more of his “bent notes,” his “always transmitting,” his “double hearing.” Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music (New York Review of Books) is an exposition of the raga, but also a poetic exploration of life, the imagination, inspiration, and creativity. I had a one-hour exchange with Chaudhuri about the book over Zoom on March 23, 2021. But that was a failed recording (it wouldn’t “convert”). Thankfully, the art of raga itself allows for mistakes to be integrated into performance. It can even be seen as part of its tradition of having a long introduction (called the “alaap”). Chaudhuri explains it in his book: “The initial delineation of the raga, before the vilambit or slow composition starts to the tabla’s accompaniment . . . the singer ascends reluctantly from the lower to the upper tonic, subjecting the notes and the identifying phrases to repeated reinterpretation . . . through a progression of glissandos . . . and can take up to half an hour or more, depending on the singer’s inventiveness or obduracy.” My second interview attempt on March 24 was more focused and refined, ready. “From alaap we move to drut, fast-tempo segments.” Dim evening light and the hum of a ceiling fan accompanied Chaudhuri’s voice from a guest house he was staying at in Shantiniketan—a city north of Kolkata founded by the Tagore family and where poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote many of his works—and created a breeze that I noticed moved the hair slightly at his forehead. Canadian birdsong and a spring breeze through my Guelph morning window were also impossible to ignore. Madhur Anand: I confess that everything I wanted to know about the book is already in the book. And everything I want to know about you is also in the book, since it’s part memoir. I don’t want to ask questions that are outside of the book, because I sense the outside world is already interwoven into your writing, and into you, the way you describe raga itself to be. You write, “The raga is not about the world: it’s of it. Once you know the raga, the world and it can’t be independent of each other . . . in contrast to how we experience music in a concert hall, a significant leakage in both directions is allowed: the raga’s into the world and the world’s into the raga. For this reason, every sound—birdcall; a car horn; a cough—is continuous with its textuality and texture.” Nevertheless, let’s proceed. You start the book with reproducing an interview from 1991 of famous Indian classical performer Kishori Amonkar. Can I start by asking you one of the same questions that person asked her? What are you searching for in your music? She answered, “Ananda” (bliss), but how would you answer the question? Amit Chaudhuri: I’m still discovering this music: things to do with the alaap; the unexpectedness of this exploration; the basic tranquility with which it is undertaken; the subtlety needed to make it true. I’m still discovering these processes, what it is that makes it beautiful and important, when there are no pre-given, pre-fabricated answers to this question of what makes it important, what it is. Was your question what are you discovering through your music? No, but that’s how you are answering it (which is fine!). It was: What are you searching for? I’m searching for the answer to this question: what is it that makes it so deeply important? The already given answers, even if they make complete sense and come from people I deeply admire, don’t do it for me. Because, they are words. You talk about your “thwarted desire to become a country and western singer” before you introduced your raga-infused original composition Country Hustle at your performance at the Institute of Ideas and Imagination in 2019. Why that desire in the first place? In fact, I first wanted to be a Canadian singer-songwriter, because I was listening to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. You talk about your mother’s influence on your awakening and entry into raga, and while you describe her quite a bit in the section entitled “Ananda” in your book, in our interview yesterday you said a few things about her that aren’t in the book. Could you elaborate? Yes, that only occurred to me yesterday. A kind of change was happening when I was around 16 when I discovered Indian classical music. I was beginning to withdraw from my friends, my contemporaries, and from college. Initially my mother was cautious about me getting into Indian classical music because of the impact she thought the hours of practice would have on my heart murmur. But then doctors said that surgery could wait, and my parents relaxed. They wanted me to do what I wanted to do. That’s all in the book. But I also began to discover my mother. She’d never been a friend of mine. The relationship had been fractious. She was very strict with me in some ways. She was an amazing singer, but [at] the age of 16, I realized she was an ally. An intellectual and artistic ally. We both disliked the same things. We also were bored by the same things, whether it was to do with music or people. And we also discovered that we valued the same kinds of things in the arts, in music, and in people. She of course, as the wife of my father, had to play a social role to some extent. I began to play less and less of a social role. My mother was in sympathy with this. This all increased our closeness. Just as I listened to her closely, she listened to me very closely. And having a listener like her remained very important to me right until the end of her life. Poetry comes up so much in the book. You describe the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s definition of poetry as “a delay between listening and looking.” You also quote T.S. Eliot: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” What’s the relationship between raga and poetry? I am happy that you make the defining rubric for the kind of writer I am as “poet.” The excitement of writing lies for me in estrangement, transformation through the act of imagination, not so much narrative. Improvisation in modulation in raga is deferral. You are not only demonstrating a form and structure, but you are showing how to defer that demonstration, defer the immediate delineation of that form, to come from different perspectives, to arrive at it, but arrive at it through a series of delays, and then further development accompanied by further delays. Delay, in fact defining development, is another word for embellishment in improvisation and creativity. Creativity dies when the form is given just like that, straight away. That’s not the point of khayal. It’s only to do with individual approaches and individual ideas of hinting, suggestion and prevarication, that something has been gestured at. That’s where invention takes place. Poetry is so much determined by what’s not said and what’s left out. Deferral plays a part in determining the form of the poem. I would say the same for my novel. It proceeds in a series of improvisations which are different ways of delaying the matter of giving out something. There is that connection, there. I think the other connection, as musician and composer, between the two has to do with soundscapes. Everything is soundscape to me. I use the sound of a country and western song to write a country and western song which only could have been written by someone who could never have been a country and western singer. I do that because I am approaching the country and western song not as a thing to cover or to reproduce, but as a soundscape. I’m interested in all kinds of sounds, whether it’s the slide guitar or the sound of a ceiling fan, or the sound of a train in the Berlin underground beginning to move and covering an octave, or the sound of car horns outside. That, [those sounds,] I’m interested in as a human being, as a writer. Sounds excite the imagination so much, partly because they are synecdoche: they stand for something you cannot see. They are the invisible in your life. A difference [between writing and performing the raga] is the huge amount of time you need to put in practicing, daily. It’s a boring, tedious discipline that one has to follow. One cannot afford not to. There is a tension with being prepared for that art which is very different from writing, which is more about a state of receptivity, and knowing when and how to be receptive. Let’s talk about jet lag. Something none of us is experiencing these days, except, perhaps, through intercontinental Zoom calls, and indeed, as you argue, through the experience of raga itself. “A raga that’s sung at a time of day it’s not meant for is subjected, in the critic Raghava Menon’s words, to ‘jet lag.’ The metaphor of intercontinental travel emphasizes the textuality of Northern Indian classical music. When I practice morning raga Todi in Oxford, I feel an incompatibility. This is because the morning in Oxford is not only a different reality; it’s a different language. The problem of making a Todi fit is a translational one.” To what extent does one need to understand the Indian landscape/culture/language to understand raga? Can one have an empathetic experience of other places/times/cultures through the raga? I don’t like to think of the ragas as being rooted in the Indian landscape. And, certainly, once you begin to grasp their form and the tradition’s rhythmic and musical intricacies, they’d be a wonder to any musician, whatever their tradition, to listen to. But what I’m interested in is the music’s unique relationship to the world—not narrative, not representational, not mimetic, not even ritualistic. It’s another way of understanding how the imagination can be of a place without a rhetoric to do with locality or nation. Please tell us more about the relationship between artistic practice and instruction. How do you find your teacher? My teacher’s son said to me, not very long ago: “You and my father used to sing at the same key. You both had high-pitched voices. You sang at the E or the F scale. And I on the other hand at C-sharp or D, and my father used to tease me about it. You sang so much like him.” There was a commonality in voice, pitch, and key, and a commonality about what one wanted out of art, even when I was just beginning to discover what I wanted out of art, which was subtlety, texture, obliqueness, not over-emphasis, not convention. I could easily have encountered Indian classical music in the form that it’s usually encountered in a teacher, which is the form of convention, of rules, and the foundational aspects of how to begin. Instead, I encountered somebody who wasn’t consciously or unconsciously interested in coming to me in that way, but [in] unfolding the raga with the presupposition that the texture and the nuance would be audible to this person. That is, [to] me. And that was a great relief that that happened. And that his voice and approach were characterized primarily by texture, by that kind of subtlety. Otherwise I may not have been interested in learning from him. Then, the other thing is that his father was the greatest composer of khayal in the 20th century. These compositions are very difficult for people learning Indian classical music afresh—I mean beginners—to master. They are difficult in terms of knowledge of the time cycle but also the complexity of notes that you are supposed to be producing with your voice, so they are virtuosic, and yet they are not exhibitionist. They are intellectual and artistic as well. It’s primarily very beautiful, despite being very difficult. It kind of brings home the idea that difficulty need not be a kind of characteristic of virtuosity. That difficulty can be beautiful, and it can be beautiful in a very unostentatious way. That is without drawing attention to itself. That I think again matches with what my temperament thinks is true. A degree of difficulty is interesting, but not for its own sake. It can have its own beauty and even simplicity. I don’t think they are in two different compartments, simplicity and beauty on the one hand and difficulty and virtuosity in the other. I don’t buy that. In the book, you describe Bharata’s theory that the seven notes of the raga come from seven animal sounds (peacock, ox, goat, demoiselle crane, cuckoo, horse, elephant). What are ragas of the past like to experience as both a singer but also a listener in contemporary times, vis-à-vis environmental changes? I don’t think of ragas as ragas of the past, because it’s a form that is always developing. Khayal itself is a quite modern form. It seems to come to you as a kind of immemorial form. The figure of the ustad, the singer, as someone elaborating on a phrase for hours, seems like a stock/cliché of Indian classical music, and yet part of it is very modern. What we hear today, that expansiveness, comes from a recent modernism. I see the raga as an old thing but also a very contemporary thing. It operates according to contemporary creative ideas, such as “found material.” The raga is not authored by anyone. It is found; it is interpreted in various ways. The raga is an elevation of various materials: some of it is folk tunes, some of it chants. It’s been turned into something secular and put in a new context. I see it as a language. I see the monsoons as language. I see the ragas about the monsoons (the Malhars), or even paintings of the monsoons, as part of that same language. It’s difficult to say that one is a natural phenomenon, and the other is a reflection of the natural phenomenon. They are part of a natural linguistic fabric of which the air and the clouds are also a part. The fabric begins to break down now, in our times. There’s a rent in one part of the fabric where the monsoons don’t happen, they come late, or they seem misshapen somehow, not reaching their full forms of monsoon. Then you begin to think of a time when there may be no monsoons, or the monsoons may occur in December instead of June. So, we are talking about a breakdown of language over here. That will have an impact on the raga, how we understand that raga. Will it be seen as a vestige of dead language? What will happen to it? I didn’t ask this yesterday because I was too shy but I will today: do you like to dance? [Laughing] I like dance. I love it as a form. I love Indian dance. I like the cosmology of the figures, the old Buddhist paintings. The Indian figure in classical dance also has a kind of constellation from the head to the toes. That, I like. But I don’t dance myself. I’ve never danced. Never? Not even at a wedding? Never. I’m just too shy. I can never get rid of this crippling self-consciousness. And now it’s too late. Maybe . . . No, I don’t think so.
Talking to the author of Abundance about what’s lacking from literature centring low-income characters, the delicate act of revealing race, and the social utility of fiction.
Money is a taboo topic of conversation in our culture, and that silence often extends into literature. Portraits of poverty abound, but relatively few novels discuss money in an explicit or logistical way. In Jakob Guanzon’s debut novel, Abundance (Graywolf Press), money is impossible to ignore. Each chapter begins not with a title, but with the amount of money in the protagonist’s pocket. The first chapter, titled “$89.34,” opens at a McDonald’s where Henry, the protagonist, is trying to stretch every dollar while celebrating his son Junior’s birthday. We see Henry before the value menu, quietly calculating how to optimize his calorie-to-dollar ratio. He washes himself in the bathroom and stuffs a handful of ketchup packets in his pocket, something to tide him over before his big job interview the next day. Newly evicted and living out of his truck, Henry tries to square his shoulders against the indignities of being houseless and unemployed while trying to overcome a checkered past and care for Junior. I recently spoke to Guanzon about portraying the psychological effects of poverty, writing a story shaped by financial constraints, and how he makes it work financially as a writer. Connor Goodwin: It’s uncommon to read books that discuss money so explicitly, and money is impossible to ignore in this book. Why did you want to center money in this way, and why do you think it’s not addressed more often in literature? Jakob Guanzon: I don’t necessarily agree that poverty or people going through tough times financially is new or unique to the canon. I think of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, a lot of Toni Morrison’s work, up to Shuggie Bain winning the Booker last year. The one thing I thought was lacking from literature that centers low-income characters—as well as film and TV—is explicit discussion of their actual budgets. We hear characters are broke, or they’re going through tough times, and they might say he’s got twenty dollars in his pocket, but we don’t get the actual logistics very often, if at all, about a character’s financial situation, which is very indicative of our culture. We’re not supposed to ask our coworkers how much they earn, which completely benefits our employers rather than establishing some sense of solidarity. So that was something I really wanted to bring forth, because it seemed to be a very relevant and prominent feature of the experience of both poverty and living paycheck to paycheck. The last stat I checked, sixty-three percent of the United States is living paycheck to paycheck. Those are pandemic numbers. I don’t know where it was before, but I can’t imagine they were all that much lower just considering the broader economics of this country. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck—which I was up until the pandemic, ironically enough; I’m of the privileged group that was able to keep their job to work remotely, but I’m very aware of that experience of always knowing my budget down to the cent—your spending power is a very specific figure of your human worth in a capitalist society. I really wanted that to be up front and play an active role in shaping this story in the same way that financial constraints dictate a person’s decisions in real life. You offer some physical descriptions of poverty, but it manifests more strongly in a psychological way—the constant calculations, feelings of shame, endless budgeting. How did you allow readers to inhabit that psychological outlook? I’m really glad you raised that. I think it’s a very important observation specific to the social utility of fiction of being able to inhabit a character’s thought processes in a way that you’re unable to do in film and other narrative forms. I really wanted readers to be in the head of a character who’s living through these kinds of situations that readers might have seen on film, but have never had access to their thought processes and to how they’re understanding their surroundings. When we hear about poverty porn, one of the trope depictions of lower-income people is this kind of impetuous, rebellious type who holds a lot of disdain and spite toward anyone at a higher rung of the social or economic ladder, rather than a much more common and truer experience of shame and a sense of inadequacy that comes from feeling totally irrelevant when you’re stripped of the agency to participate in the economy in any real or legitimate sense. That is absolutely dehumanizing and it’s something I wanted to bring to the forefront of how Henry experienced his own little world and how he understood himself. Reading this, I felt like Henry, in addition to budgeting groceries, gas, and so on, is also budgeting his dreams, ambitions, and emotions—he has to keep these in check at all times. Is that something you also hoped to convey? Very much so. I don’t want to go into the chicken or the egg of assessing the way Henry processes his personal life versus his financial life in terms of budgeting and calculations, I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant. But I do think they’re totally inextricable when money is really the primary way we assess and ascribe worth and meaning in our culture. Internalizing that into how we conduct ourselves felt really essential. There's a real denial of vulnerability and intimacy that goes into organizing one’s personal interiority in that way. There seem to be two major emotional poles in this novel, one of which is shame, which we’ve already discussed, and the other is something like pride or dignity. Can you talk about Henry’s relationship to those two emotions? I think it’d be helpful to discuss them as two separate parts really briefly. Starting with dignity— it’s not a huge request for an individual in the richest nation on earth to have an expectation for and consider dignity a right. I don’t think that’s a tall order. And yet, because of Henry’s social location and circumstances, he’s denied that in almost every minute of his day. He has to stoop to such debasing labor—the labor isn’t necessarily debasing in of itself, but the exploitative nature of how little he can expect to yield from his hours and efforts is—let alone all the interactions he has where he’s constantly feeling inadequate. When it comes to pride, that really draws from the Filipino component of his identity. The love within a Filipino family goes without saying. You’ve got your loyalty to family, you respect them—that all goes without saying. However, a child really needs to earn a parent’s pride. That’s a huge motivator, but also a huge obstacle for Henry. You hint at Henry’s Filipino background throughout the novel, but it’s not made explicit until later. Why did you choose to withhold that information? Revealing a character’s race is a delicate task. The expectation is that non-white characters need to be labeled, whereas white characters can just be assumed by default. So I’m always looking for ways of acknowledging a character’s race without including that in the three qualifiers of like, “He was tall, handsome, and Black." It’s just a bit banal to do that in such a forthright manner. Just as I want to make my prose stylistically as sharp as possible, there’s also an element of how to most artfully divulge demographic factors of characters in a way that doesn’t just sound like the census. Why did you choose to chop up the narrative the way you did? When I first started this project, I didn’t think I had the chops to handle a novel, but I did want to write something where a character’s budget was the heading sections of a short story. I had originally conceived of this as a short story within a 24-hour period. That 24-hour arc was what I really focused on writing in the first draft. About 40 pages in, I realized: 1) this definitely has potential to be a novel, but 2) because I’ve established this particular framework [of monetary headings], if I do suddenly drop the [cash] figure to something that doesn’t make sense, the attentive reader is going to pick up on that. So it made sense to include fragmented flashbacks to explain how exactly Henry got into the situation we find him in in the 24-hour track. One thing splicing up the narrative accomplishes is painting Henry’s character in many different lights—there were times where he earned my sympathy and respect, and other times where I’m like, “Dude, why would you do that?!” What enabled you to complicate Henry’s character in all these ways? Understanding how desperate and volatile both the situation Henry was in and also how a person is going to respond to this immense pressure and panic in the 24-hour-track storyline, I thought it would’ve been a missed opportunity to not depict that component of his character in other settings where you see him struggling against his own recklessness as a teenager. His immature passion for Michelle as a teenager, the way he conflates infatuation with love, and obsession with addiction. I wanted to have a wide array of examples that are still within the limits of plausibility for his character, but that really show how variegated his emotional spectrum was, to begin with. Given the subject of this book, I’d be curious to know, and I’m sure our readers would too, how you’ve made it work financially as a writer. It’s been hard. Unless your parents are bankrolling you, you have to grind like hell. I didn’t decide to pursue writing until my mid-20s. It was always this dream I had, but I had to feed myself. I went to school in Minnesota and graduated in 2011 at the peak of the financial crisis. I couldn’t find a day job, so I was still working as a landscaper, which I had been doing since I was 16. It was hard. All I wanted was a job with air conditioning, and I couldn’t get that with my college degree. I moved to Spain, was an English teacher out there for five years. I made very little, but learned how to budget and take care of myself. That’s when I was like: you know what, I’m gonna take the plunge. Lived off of boiled eggs and bananas through grad school and, once I graduated, it took about four months to find a nine-to-five job at a big company. Quitting that isn’t happening anytime soon, so I dedicate my weekends to fiction.