Zan Romanoff | Longreads | February 2020 | 17 minutes (4,459 words)
“What I’m trying to say,” the narrator explains midway through Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, Topics of Conversation, “the theorem that must be accepted as a premise if any of my behavior is going to make sense, is that I have been, that I continue to be, best at being a vessel for the desire of others.”
Indeed, this nameless narrator spends much of the novel relating other people’s stories about their lives: repeating a conversation with a friend’s mother about an affair she had in her 20s, or describing a YouTube video of a woman recounting a party at which she almost witnessed the writer Norman Mailer stabbing his wife. (The stabbing is real; the video, fictional.)
But she also, more and less incidentally, reveals herself as her own life unfolds in short story-like sections that cover the period from 2000 to 2017: her ambivalence about all of the stories she’s hearing, and the way that they shape her actions and her perception of her self.
I’ve known Miranda since we were teenagers: we met in a dining hall our freshman year of college. (Ask her about it, she loves to tell this story, which begins with me being unable to work a hot water dispenser.) Over the course of the fifteen years we’ve known each other, we’ve talked endlessly about the topics her novel covers: about narrative and its pitfalls, desire and its darknesses, whether it’s possible to ever really be sure of what you feel, or think, or want. So of course I had to get her on the record for Longreads, to talk to her about how all of that talking — with me and with everyone else in her life — had finally led her to this book.
Miranda had done a different interview earlier in the day, which is why we start out discussing questions others have asked her. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So when women write fiction, people’s response, often, is “Well, how autobiographical is this?” Has there been that, or have people been making the mistake of being like, “Tell me about your ex-husband,” and you have to be like… “No!”
That has not happened — mmmm, I think maybe that’s happened once. The question was about how much coincidence there is between my life and the book’s narrative.
I told the truth, which is that none of the things in the book happened, at least not in the way that they are described. But every feeling in the book is a feeling that I have had. Which, in a way, is much more revealing, and grosser.
Mostly the people who have interviewed me have not been, thankfully, interested in trying to figure out how close the narrator is to me. Which, I understand why that is an interesting game to play — it is a game I have played in my own head! — but I don’t think it’s a fruitful question to ask in an interview.
I think the more interesting question is, what did the process of fictionalizing your own feelings feel like? How did you go about that? That’s something you and I have talked about a lot, that for both of us, learning to write fiction was the process of learning to take a real feeling and find the right fictional situation to put it in. That you had to translate, you couldn’t just transcribe.
I think the biggest difference between the two of us as writers is that you are very good at plot. Reading your books I have always felt a kind of suspense, and that, to me, is completely baffling. How could you possibly ever do that?
The structure of the book is in many ways how I got around it, because a thing I do know how to do is tell a story about what happened to me. All I had to do then was figure out stories that would work for the bigger story I wanted to tell, and if I could just tell them as stories, then it was easy.
I mean not easy, but if I could just tell them as stories and not have to plot them out, and have to think about what happens in this scene, have we stayed too long with this character, do we need to move to a different location, does there need to be action —
I spend half my time writing wondering, what the fuck do people do all day? What should my characters be doing right now?
Ben Marcus, when he came to Wash U [where Popkey did her MFA], talked about when he started moving closer to more traditional storytelling style, it was extremely difficult for him. I specifically remember him being like, how do I get this person out of a chair? How do I get them out of a chair, and out of the room? ‘He put his hand down on the arm rest, he put both palms on the armrest, and then he pushed himself up off of the chair—’ These are the things I find totally impossible to do.
I’m a writer who is very wary of revealing too much, and is very guarded, and tries to protect her vulnerability pretty aggressively.
It’s true that you don’t move people around much, but they gesture constantly. They sip drinks, they smoke cigarettes, they make indeterminate gestures with their hands, they fiddle with clothing — there’s a lot of gestural in-scene description. It’s not like you can’t move bodies at all.
I think you’ve seen me talk in person before, and I think you know that I’m a hand-talker. But also, I was wary of having people monologue for so long that you forgot where they were in space.
I also wanted to build in pauses, I guess for dramatic effect, but also because people don’t speak with the same pace, at the same rhythm, as they’re telling a story. I wanted the reader to have the sense of someone constructing a story as they went along.
I had no illusions about creating true verisimilitude, but I did want enough — James Woods has the thing about how fiction works when you have just enough realism. You don’t have to describe every thing that’s in a room; the reader’s brain will fill in the rest. I wanted there to be enough of a sort of hiccups and interruptions in a conversation, as many as there would be in a real conversation.
So when I read the book, the structure made a lot of sense to me because I know how you feel about narrative. Can you tell other people how you feel about narrative and its pitfalls?
One of the things that the book is interested in, both in structure and content, is the idea that narratives are limiting, and maybe dangerous. It can be useful in the psychoanalytic sense to look at certain events and try to understand why you behaved in certain ways, and try to understand how things fit together.
But there have been moments in my life when I became attached to a particular narrative about myself, and that led me in some directions that were not the best directions — that felt inevitable in ways that were, one, not true, and two, not healthy.
The other thing about narrative is that a lot of the things that happen in the traditional realist novel I find sometimes boring to read, but almost always just so boring to write.
Part of it is that I want every sentence to be doing work, and I never want that work to just be functional. That makes it really hard to write anything.
I so admire people who can do this, but I can’t describe nature, basically. There are many novels with very beautiful descriptions of what a tree is doing, or a flower or something, and I just, I can’t think of a reason why it would be in my work, because I don’t think about those things.
Mir, you know the book opens with a fairly poetic description of the ocean, right?
Yes, I realize that. That, to me, was basic setting. I think the one well-observed moment of nature is something I can do — to create a single setting, to be like, this is how I’m seeing this in my head; I want to give you enough so that you can see the most important parts of it.
But when someone is describing branches through a window in very minute detail — I had this interesting experience reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, because so much of that book is about interacting with nature, and understanding the land and the natural world around you. Ethically, morally, politically, I think that is the correct thing to do. But as a person I just don’t give a fuck about trees.
But it’s not that you’re totally disinterested in this stuff — it’s just that you’re only interested in a specific way. There’s also a long description later in the book of light on the ocean, when the narrator is drunk and swimming at night.
I guess describing the natural world feels like a kind of luxury that I’m not interested in. And part of it — I love the water, the water is maybe an exception for me. It feels like a transcendent place, specifically being in the ocean.
But also, I think the fact that she’s drunk: she’s letting herself experience beauty in a way that she’s not otherwise interested in. And in the same way I said before that all of the feelings in the book are feelings I have had, that’s true of this feeling, too.
But so actually the reason I asked about narrative is because I have this advantage over most people, in that I read earlier drafts of it, so I know that the book has a more traditional narrative structure now then it did in the early stages. The stories are now in chronological order, and, as much as it’s off-screen, there’s a recovery arc to the narrator’s story that wasn’t always there. So I’m curious about how it felt to take the story and push it in a slightly more traditional direction.
I was so attached to it being out of order for so long. When she was editing it, my editor, Jordan Pavlin, gave me two copies of the manuscript. One copy was marked with her line edits and some queries, and one copy was just in chronological order. She was like, just look at it. Just take a look at it, and see if you think it might work.
And I read it and I was like, I’m a dummy.
I think this is a side effect — and no one at Wash U is to blame — but it is a side effect of the MFA. If you put writers together in a small community, the natural desire to impress each other is part of it. Basically I wanted it to be a little trickier than it needed to be, because in a program with writers who were writing formally truly inventive stuff, and I wanted to be able to do some of that also. It turned out that I was attached to the idea of it being formally inventive — I was more attached to it than it was useful.
I was also attached to the idea of the narrator being opaque. Part of it was the Rachel Cusk influence — her narrator is often visible only through observations, so you’re trying to piece her together based on the kind of things she’s interested in, and the kind of things she’s observed. That was something I was interested in doing, in part because I was so impressed by it.
Something I did learn writing this book is that being impressed by something doesn’t mean you should try and do it.
But also, I thought being too revealing was cheap: it was a shortcut to a reader’s emotions. And what I ended up deciding is, I’m a writer who is very wary of revealing too much, and is very guarded, and tries to protect her vulnerability pretty aggressively. And ultimately, [being so opaque] was a way of letting myself off the hook.
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Speaking of vulnerability! A lot of people — strangers — are going to read this book soon. How are you feeling about that?
I’ve gotten more and more used to the idea that people are going to read it, I think because people have read it and they’ve said nice things. I think a lot of the fear was not knowing how people would react. I was specifically afraid of some misreadings that I thought were possible, and the more I see that people are engaging with the book that I wrote, with the stuff that I’m interested in, the less I worry.
I did send a copy to each of my parents, and the thing that I wrote on the inside was, “I will not be answering questions about this book.”
Do you feel like having that generous and thoughtful reception has made it easier — does it make it feel possible to write different, even more vulnerable things going forward?
I don’t know! I think primarily what’s happened is that the closer this gets to being published, the more possible it feels that I will write fiction again.
There was a long time after I finished the first draft of this book that I thought to myself, well, it seems like I’ve said all of the things I wish to say. And seeing people engage with it has been gratifying, but also reminded me that there’s other stuff I want to tell people about. Or in a crasser, more direct way, it’s been evidence that there is a market, however small, for the things that I might want to write.
I actually would like if you could tell the story of how this got written — because it wasn’t initially clear to you that you were writing a book.
The first thing is that I was interested in telling a story about a kind of relationship that I had been in — a certain kind of power dynamic in a relationship. I’d been trying to write about it unsuccessfully my whole first year at Wash U. The thing my very kind, very generous, very helpful workshop colleagues kept referring to was that my work was cold; there was an absence of emotion. And I meanwhile thought I was writing very — I thought my work was quite angry. That was not coming through.
In the fall of my second year, right around when I was starting to work on the first few sections that I wrote, all the Harvey Weinstein stuff started breaking. In a certain way it seems obvious: it was a conversation everyone was having, and then it seemed more possible to write about it because a door had been opened.
But I think part of it was also there was a conversation happening in publishing, and I had worked in publishing, and I was not in New York where the conversation was happening. Writing was a way to have a conversation with myself about what I was thinking.
The moment it becomes a novel is sort of a funny story. Ben Marcus came as our visiting professor, and one of the things a visiting professor does is read bits of all the fiction writers’ work. I had given him two sections, and I had written specifically for him the Ann Arbor section.
I was going to the critique with him, and I had twenty-five second of free time on the way in so what did I do? I checked Twitter. It was the day Al Franken was accused of sexual misconduct. That one hit me pretty hard — I was just like, are you fucking kidding me? This is so frustrating. Is no one able to keep their goddamn hands to themselves?
I just remember knocking on the door, and Ben Marcus came down, and I think the first thing I said to him was, “Well, Al Franken is a sex criminal.”
He asked what had happened, and I explained what I had gathered from Twitter, and we kept talking and at some point I said, ‘I feel like now every time I meet a man I now have to ask him, ‘Have you sexually harassed anyone?’’
We were both silent. And then we moved to my work.
And he was wonderfully encouraging, and he asked if it was a novel. I was like… No, and he was like, maybe it should be. And so that’s when it became a novel.
It is hilarious that this book is a book largely because — not that it wouldn’t have happened in some other way eventually — but a man gave me permission to write this book and I was like, ‘Mmm, good idea!’
How hard was it then to adjust to the idea of, this is going to be a book? Did having someone say it explicitly scare you?
It was terrifying. The way that I worked around it was that I kept writing short stories, basically, and that was absolutely a way to avoid the pressure of having to craft a whole narrative, and to hang character development on the spine of a plot.
It’s funny, the first few stories, I wrote them and it didn’t feel like I was making anything up. But especially the later ones I was like ‘Okay, I need another story. I need another conversation. How do I maneuver my character into an encounter with someone who’s in some way different from the people she’s had conversations with before? How can the conversation she has be illuminating in a way that conversations previous have not been?’
I know that is basically what writing is, but it felt wrong! The bits that I wrote latest, to me they’re so clearly serving a purpose. There are parts of the book that feel pure because I didn’t think about them when I was writing them, and then there are parts that are me as a writer working really hard to get things to happen, and because I can see myself behind the scenes doing all the work, it just is so sweaty.
But then one of the sections I felt was the weakest, my editor was like, ’Oh that was one of my favorites,’ and I was like, huh, okay, interesting. Maybe I’m not the best judge of my writing?
Writing was a way to have a conversation with myself about what I was thinking.
That’s always such a weird dynamic, trying to figure out how much you can trust other people’s praise and critiques of your work, and to what extent you’re allowed to just ignore them, and trust your own judgment.
I think I know what’s wrong with the book, and I think that’s helpful. I have read minor critiques that I disagree with, and it bothers me less because I think, okay, well you’re just wrong about this.
I also had a full year of writing shit that I find just so embarrassing now. I mean, who knows, maybe there’s stuff in there I’ll use later. I do feel like I’m a writer who writes so painfully and infrequently that eventually I’m going to have to compost everything and somehow turn it into something if I want to keep having a career as someone who writes fiction.
But I know the feeling of walking into workshop with something that you are not totally proud of. Walking into workshop with the pieces of this novel, the feeling was, Help me out. I’ve gone as far as I can. I need to make this better, and I trust all of you, as opposed to, I’m so sorry I inflicted this piece of crap on you. I’m going to be shredding this as soon as I get home, and throwing my computer into the trash.
Speaking of the pace at which you work, I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about choosing to have a day job, and balancing that work with your writing.
Choosing to have a day job is in part because I cannot make enough money from my writing. I write slowly; I can basically only write things I’m interested in, and I’m interested in spending, I don’t know, three to four months thinking about a single book, and then reading around it, maybe watching a movie that is related to it, and turning in 3500 words. That is a kind of career that a certain kind of writer could have twenty or thirty years ago, it’s not really a career anymore. So I don’t have that career.
The other half of my answer to your question is that I really, really struggle with the idea of only writing — both because I have a hard time with it, and because I feel a responsibility, as someone who has the privilege to choose what kind of work she does, to be involved in work that I feel is more broadly useful.
So right now I have a part-time job working at a non-profit. I don’t have a Masters in social work, but the things that I am doing are classically social work-y — a lot of my work is trying to find childcare for low-income parents. I do some casework as well, which is trying to connect people to services they can use, and, at least the way that I do it, is also just talking to people, and figuring out how they’re doing, and trying to be emotionally present with them.
That job is really emotionally draining, and I have been thinking about how to reconfigure the balance, because right now it’s very difficult for me to set time aside for writing.
To return to the book: the narrator is a little bit of a bitch — she says so, at various points. But not only is she a bitch, she’s smart and educated in a way that some readers might find off-putting. I really don’t want to say the phrase “unlikeable narrator,” and I think it’s actually more than likeable vs. unlikeable — there are jokes in there that certain readers won’t get, this specific vocabulary of literary theory that she’s studied, and that we’ve both studied. Were you afraid of that specificity at all, of it being alienating?
I didn’t want to pretend that some other person, whose vocabulary was slightly more colloquial, or who isn’t the kind of person who makes lit theory jokes — I didn’t want to pretend that that person wrote this novel. Because she didn’t!
But also I didn’t want the reader to feel like, this person doesn’t know how she comes off, because she does.
That is something that is often frustrating to me about portraits of quote-unquote intelligent people, is that they’re uniformly condescending, in a way that indicates they have no understanding of how other people are perceiving them. If you’re a woman, especially if you’re a woman who is intelligent, you are constantly monitoring other people for their impressions of you, and constantly trying to make people feel less bad about the fact that they’re not as smart as you. It felt right for this character to be extremely aware of how she could be perceived, and more and less interested in different moments in trying to mitigate that.
The book is a lot about sexual and power dynamics between men and women, but it’s also a lot about relationships between groups or pairs of women. It really struck me that, as much as the narrator is seduced by these narratives about herself and her relationship to men, she has to very minutely deconstruct moments between herself and other women, because there is no narrative shorthand for them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my feelings about women as a gender, and I think one of the things the narrator is struggling with is there’s such a shorthand, as you said, for a heterosexual woman when it comes to describing relationships with men. It’s just so easy to explain, categorize, understand — I mean, it’s obviously not easy to understand feelings, but there’s a whole conversation you can engage in.
And I think you really, even twenty years ago, you had to look to find examples of queerness in popular culture. And that meant that there was a whole dimension of same-sex feelings that were not examined, unless you felt yourself truly pushed — as I know many people did — to seek those examples out.
So for someone who’s been socialized as a heterosexual woman, it’s possible to have a lot of complicated feelings about another woman that are and are not, that may or may not be at all linked to queer desire — but because we never talk about these things, are very difficult to articulate.
And this is the thing she’s having trouble sorting through, is that she doesn’t think of herself as someone who’s attracted to women, so it’s not a sexual desire, but she feels this pull, and she doesn’t have another word for it. She’s in a moment of questioning a lot of the assumptions that she’s carrying with her, and I think she’s questioning some of the assumptions that she’s carried with her also about what relationships between women can or should look like.
It’s very easy to characterize a straight woman’s desire for intimacy with a man: we call that wanting to bone. But how do you characterize a straight woman’s desire for intimacy with another woman?
It’s this very specific intimacy, too — she wants, at certain points, to have a relationship that no one else has with one or another woman in her life, to be exchanging looks across the party. She wants to know she has access to an intimacy she’s not affording other people.
Exactly. What do you call a desire for that kind of intimacy? And at what point should you actually be thinking, maybe this intimacy is not merely platonic? Maybe there is another dimension to this.
In a certain way it’s the necessary flip side: if you’re going to ask all of these questions about, as a heterosexual woman, what’s my relationship to the men in my life, and how much have they been informed by cultural narratives? It’s the necessary corollary to be like, ‘If I have been asking myself the wrong questions — or perhaps no questions at all — about men, haven’t I been doing the same thing about women?’
Once you start questioning your relationship, a certain kind of relationship, I think it does throw all of your relationships into question.
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Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer and the author of the novels A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER, out now, as well as LOOK, which is forthcoming from Dial Books for Young Readers in spring 2020. She lives and writes in LA.
Editor: Dana Snitzky