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In Karolina Waclawiak’s novel Life Events and Zan Romanoff’s YA novel Look, their protagonists are women in search of themselves. Waclawiak’s Evelyn is in her late 30s, ending her marriage, trying to figure out what she wants next, and becoming fascinated with grief and death in the process. Romanoff’s Lulu is a 17-year-old who is very popular on social media—but her online self is very far from the person she feels she is on the inside. We were excited to pair these two writers to talk about how they put their characters in painful situations, why no one understands Los Angeles, the complicated power dynamics of white women, and how to avoid the easy way out in order to walk a path that feels true to who you are.
-Aminatou and Ann
It’s a strange time to be releasing a book into the world. Well, it’s a strange time to be doing just about anything. But as we prepare to publish our first book, one thing we had been looking forward to was connecting with other authors in person.
Earlier this year, Mailchimp asked us to curate a group of writers for a track at the Decatur Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. The plan was to pair the authors for conversations at events throughout the festival, and then have a great time together over the weekend.
Then, of course, Covid-19 hit. We don’t get to be in the same room as a group of writers we admire. But we still get the pleasure of pairing them up for deep conversations about each other’s work. On this site, you’ll be able to read edited transcripts of those conversations.
We relished the opportunity to choose writers we admire and couple them up to discuss their work. We can’t wait to read these authors’ conversations. And we are excited to promote all of their books—most of which have been released, like ours, during these strange days of the pandemic.
If you’ve read some of these books already, we hope the conversations will take you deeper into them and provide some fresh context. If any of these titles or authors are new to you, all the better. We hope their conversations spark your interest, and that you decide you want to read these books. Enjoy reading this summer.
-Aminatou & Ann
June 18, 2020
This is fun. We work together from time to time so it’s fun to talk about our respective books together too.
We spend so much time on very nonfictional things.
I was thinking about how your nonfiction feels so complementary to this book—that was exciting to see.
Both of our books are about women in search of themselves, but obviously there’s a big age gap between Lulu and Evelyn. How do you think this searching experience is different for them, and how is it similar?
It was interesting, I was thinking about this because YA is funny. If you ask people to actually define what it is, it’s books about teenagers. What does that mean? And there are books about teenagers that are not really considered YA novels. Really, the definition is it’s a coming-of-age story.
And I did feel while reading Life Events, this is also a coming-of-age story, just coming of a very different age.
Yeah, totally. I completely agree.
Lulu is trying to sort of figure herself out and define herself on her own terms for the first time, because she’s 17 and living in a culture where young women are often told, “No, no, no, everyone else will tell you what you are. Don’t worry about it.” And Evelyn is getting to this place in her life where she’s a little more understanding of what’s going on around her and the consequences and the stakes of that journey, of deciding to be anything at all. And how scary that can be.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I almost felt like both of them are moving into a new phase of their lives and so it definitely felt like coming of age… and bucking against what everyone has told them life should be. It’s like I could see Lulu’s moving into adulthood as a real precursor to Evelyn’s own phase. And they’re interesting in that they’re both fighting against societal norms and thinking that these are the things they should be doing, but why does it feel so bad and weird? What if there’s an alternative to this life that everybody says you should do? Lulu has the boyfriend and then it’s actually, “I don’t want to go down this path and I’m searching for another sense of self,” which I found really interesting.
Yeah, what really struck me in your book is this refrain that comes up again and again how do you avoid pain? Which is a question I think a lot of us are asking ourselves all the time. It’s a huge question for Lulu. She doesn’t know who she wants to be, and also has a rubric in her life for facing up to difficult things. She has so far been able to get away with avoiding them as much as is humanly possible and, in her case, putting it on social media. So that confrontation also felt really relevant across both of these books—the question of “We have nothing but narcotics in various forms in our lives and how do you do the hard thing when you kind of don’t have to?”
And I think you can also say that about your life path, too. There’s the easy life path that doesn’t necessarily have friction to it, and it definitely feels like Evelyn was going down that road. And it just felt so wrong. And her attempts to get married and to be in a relationship that didn’t feel right was really her misguided way of avoiding pain, but it caused her so much pain. I definitely feel the same for Lulu and the choices we make that we think will be an easier path but actually aren’t so at all.
One thing that’s clear in both of our books, too, is power dynamics between men and women. I’m obsessed with those power dynamics. I would say it’s run through all three of my books. Who has the power in relationships? Who gets to have the power? I don’t really think about those power dynamics for Lulu’s age group, but it really sets the stage for how you navigate power through your whole life.
It’s definitely something that I was not aware of on a conscious level when I started writing, but I think that it’s something I am also totally obsessed with. In this case, it’s far and away the most explicit exploration of it that I’ve done. When the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were happening, I was very foolishly trying to do a late round of revisions with the hearings on in the background. Listening to him talk, I could hear the echoes of these guys I had grown up with, and the way that at 16 they had that exact same sense of their own total power and dominance in the world. Like Lulu, I went to a high-power, big-city private school. I had grown myself around them and just been like, “Yeah, ok. I’m not going to argue with you. It’s just not worth it.” That sense of masculine self-certainty felt unbreakable to me for a long time. I realized that Look was something that I had been trying to say since I was 16. Because I think a lot of people don’t think about power dynamics between boys and girls, men and women in that way. And then if you don’t have the vocabulary for it, you’re like, “Maybe this is a real thing, I don’t know.”
I also think that one of the things that Lulu doesn’t realize yet is that her power is really complicated; she is ultimately kind of a wealthy white girl. She has a lot of power in the world. And she’s also attractive. One of the things that I love in your books is that you write about women like Lulu, realizing that “I’m attractive and that is kind of a power. I have to figure out what to do about that.” And Evelyn is getting to this place where she’s like, “Am I attractive? How do I navigate my place in the world if men don’t want to sleep with me?” I mean, they do, mostly, in the book. [Laughter] And they should!
But it is a question of how to effectively wield that power in a way that feels nourishing rather than destructive. I think that she came out of her marriage feeling powerless and stripped of any sense of self. And through this journey, basically walking through the world of helping people die and trying to navigate how they lived their lives, she’s really trying to figure out where her power lies and how she wants to use it. I had written in the book when she’s in marriage counseling with her husband she gets dinged by the question, “Do you see your relationship through the lens of love or the lens of power?” She answers, “Obviously, power.” That’s not that healthy if you’re always thinking of each relationship that you’re in, especially with men, as a chess game.
Exactly. It’s a danger if you start thinking about your life only in terms of men versus women, you can get into this place where, “You have power over me and that’s bad and how dare you.” One of the things that I think I unconsciously wanted to do with Look was write a relationship that Lulu has with Owen, her ex-boyfriend, who is figuring out his power and is more conscious and thoughtful about how he uses it. There’s a lot more give-and-take there where it’s two people trying to interact with each other outside the structures of power that they’ve been given and not just be like, “This is all there is.”
The interesting contrast here is Lulu’s relationships with Cass and Bea, and even Kiley, trying to navigate her place in the world of women, too. It isn’t just men versus women. Lulu and all these girls are at the height of their power as teen girls. They’re marketed to.
Right, the larger culture here is like, “This is the most powerful you’ll ever be. You’re so young and fuckable.” And that is devastating for young women. You get to be 18 years old and you think it’s over for you.
Right, and then Evelyn at 37 is like, “I’m on the wane. This is my phaseout. How am I supposed to rebuild my life now?”—which I think feels particularly devastating when you’re in a long-term relationship and then you come out of it in your late ‘30s. I think in my book copy, my editor called Evelyn middle-aged, and I was like, “I’m sorry, what? She’s only 37.” That is horrific.
But there are such connotations to what a middle-aged woman is supposed to be and what that phase of life looks like. In both our books, both characters have such vivid inner lives that don’t necessarily match up with what they show externally. What do you allow out in the world and what are you trying to hide and tease out and figure out for yourself?
And to what extent do you allow yourself to be seen in situations that are vulnerable? Which is Lulu’s full Achilles’ heel.
Yeah, and Evelyn’s, too. I feel like they’re both so against anyone seeing any vulnerability, which is a sign of weakness for both of them, and it’s keeping them from living fully and having deeper relationships.
Then we chose to give them each some kind of release and a happyish ending. And to me that felt very important in part because I just put Lulu through hell. And especially writing for teenagers—and I don’t write primarily for teenagers—I certainly don’t want them to walk away being like, “Ok, so being a girl is just a nightmare. Nothing good is ever going to come of this.”
I always want to suggest that there is happiness and there is worth coming through difficult situations and allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
It’s like the saying, “The only way out is through.” I felt very much the same as you did, which is I truly put Evelyn through hell and made her be so vulnerable to the reader even if she couldn’t be vulnerable externally. And so for that work, I did want to give her a sense of hope at the end, like you have this whole life that you can lead, even though for much of the book she’s trapped and ruled by her fears, by anxiety, and with the future-tripping of “What’s going to happen? Everything’s going to be bad and everything is a looming catastrophe.”
I think her world is so claustrophobic and so much of the book is claustrophobic in her head, but the moments where she’s able to drive and be out in the western landscape is a sense of freedom—a sense that there’s another world out there and a big open sky and space to be yourself and figure out where you are in the world. And that levity and hope is necessary because otherwise you have a bleak, sad book. And that’s also not what life is, so it wouldn’t even feel authentic if it was just doom, doom, doom.
When I got the galley for Life Events, it was at the beginning of the pandemic and I saw the flap copy and I was like, “I just don’t know that I’m ready to read about death right now.” And then I actually picked it up and it was a real relief to read someone on the page just being like, “I’m so scared of when my parents die—that I have sort of turtled my way inside of myself. This fear is kind of running my life.” I feel that way often and it was a relief to get to spend time with someone who is honestly very scared and to see those fears written out on the page, as opposed to ignoring them. To spend some time with them because that is the way to get through them.
It’s funny because I’ve been in such a state of panic, like who’s going to read about death right now? But this pandemic has been such a leveling experience, it’s the first time I can remember that it’s worldwide, we all are gripped with fear of who’s going to get sick. The only other great leveler is death.
I noticed people really starting to talk about health directives in a way that we don’t want to talk about in American culture, where I feel like death is just sort of set aside. It was a totally new experience. Especially people our age saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen and I haven’t even thought about what I want to happen when I die. Do I want to be cremated or buried? Do I want to be intubated or not?”
I’ve spent the last 6 years thinking about those questions and then it became very acute this year.
Yes. For me, it felt good to be in conversation with those 6 years of thought. I think something that Lulu and Evelyn have in common is that they have spent a lot of time trying not to name their fears because if they name them then they’re real. But when you do sit down with the checklist and you’re like, “Ok, what quality of life do I want?”—then it’s a conversation you can have. And once you start having the conversation it becomes less this sort of abstract monster and becomes something you can actually handle.
I think the idea of having a conversation about death and having a relationship to death and thinking about what you want to do and how you want to spend your life before that happens is somehow a way to defang it.
Defang, that’s a good way to put it.
We’re sitting here in Los Angeles right now. Both of our books are set in and around Los Angeles, and reading this reminded me so much of reading your first book, How to Get Into the Twin Palms, and your ability to channel the feral, wild, apocalyptic nature of California.
I’ve been doing a lot of walking around the neighborhood during the pandemic and going on streets that I have never been on, and my favorite pastime is just staring into people’s windows and wondering what their life is like and what my life would be like if I lived in that house, which is a very fun activity. I do think LA specifically does feel so wild. I do a lot of night hiking in Griffith Park so I’m around coyotes and owls and I feel like it’s such a special city because there’s so much wildlife here and wildness. To me, The Hotel in your book feels like a place where a pack of wild coyotes could be in the empty pool. You show a very specific kind of LA that is wealthy kids and the worlds they inhabit and the sense of freedom that they have. The houses they’re in are palatial homes where the parents are absent and they are in complete control of their destiny in a way that feels very white, upper-class Los Angeles.
Yeah, or they believe they’re in control of their destiny in a way that is really toxic for a lot of them. One of the things that I come back to again and again when I’m trying to write about Los Angeles is the freedom that you can feel here. It’s just a big, sprawling city and there can be these moments where you’re like, “No one is looking at me. No one knows where I am. I get to be exactly where I am and no one else knows.” And how powerful that can be, especially when you’re a teenager and you have been, depending on your parents, kind of surveilled your whole life. Your parents have always known exactly where you are and for the first time you can get in a car, turn the corner and be like, “I’m going over to so-and-so’s house,” and instead you just go get a taco. It doesn’t even have to be that you’re doing anything bad. I remember the way it felt to be 16 and just slipping into the city and being like, “Ok, I can do whatever I want and I can be maybe a new kind of person.”
I feel like one of my big maxims as a human being is no one really understands Los Angeles. I certainly include myself.
Not anyone at the New York Times.
I include myself in that but certainly people who don’t live here, truly have absolutely no idea what this place is like. So that’s one of the things that’s always important to me. I want people to have some really tactile sense of at least a tiny sliver of it—to be able to show you this handful. And if you understand this handful maybe: A, that will be good, but B, it will help you start to understand how many handfuls you’re not holding.
Living here for much of my adult life—I spent five years in New York but otherwise since I was 18 have been in LA—I also feel like my project is getting this city right in a book. And in many books, basically, showing different aspects of what it means to live here and in southern California and beyond.
I love that. But it is true that when people picture a California girl, they do picture, to a certain extent, women like Lulu and like Evelyn. White ladies with caftans and crystals.
It’s interesting to be in a position where I am both like, Los Angeles is so poorly understood that even writing about a white girl exploring it, I think does hopefully open up some new territory, and also, it’s not radical in any way. There’s so much more really unexplored, really misunderstood territory. To a certain extent, it’s just not mine to cover and try to figure out where to sit in that tension.
I also think in the way the city is depicted, not just in books by white authors, but also in film and TV, it does feel like for a long time a very samey depiction of the city and there were so many parts that were left out. That authenticity of the city needs to capture so many more experiences than white, affluent women and men who hold all the power in the city. There’s so much more here and I’m hoping the depictions of Los Angeles continue to evolve because this city has so much.
Yeah. It’s taken me a long time to get here because I’ll say “I’m born and raised in Los Angeles,” and people say “Oh, wow, an LA native. There are none of those.” And I’m always like, “Well, you’re talking to one. Who did I go to elementary school with? No one?” But I also have learned over time, it’s not just that. If you’ve never met anyone who’s from Los Angeles, you are telling on yourself and what you’re telling is that you only have white friends. And you only have friends who work in the movie industry and you think that’s what the city is. Every time you say Los Angeles has no history… first of all, it has tons of history, but it does not have that long a history of white people being here.
What’s been painful for me to watch is the Los Angeles that I’ve known for so long start to disappear and be gentrified and these terrible developments where everything looks the same and every time I see a 1970s apartment building disappear and be made into a horrible condo complex I want to cry. I really wanted to show in my book the different places people live that feel so specific to the city—the named apartment buildings, those valley stucco multilevel things. To me, that is the fabric of the city, too, of how people live and where they live. And getting a way in there felt important to me.
I’ve lived here most of my life and you start to see the city stacked on top of itself. You’re driving different places and being like, “Oh, that used to be that. This neighborhood used to be so different.”
If part of my project is for people to understand that Los Angeles has a history, at least we can understand its most recent history in the last 10 years because it has changed so much.
I feel like my book is obviously so much about grief—grief of different versions of your life. There’s a scene where Evelyn’s driving through LA and remembering what she was doing in certain places as she’s driving. The ghosts of previous lives in a city are so interesting to me, too, especially when those landmarks are gone and it’s changed. I have a deep sense of grief about Los Angeles and its changes, too. And what’s being erased and how nothing feels permanent here anymore. It feels really precarious in a way that makes me sad because… I know I wasn’t born here, but I feel a sense of ownership. I feel like after 17 years, can I call myself an Angeleno now, Zan?
Yes, I officially give you permission.
We’ve worked together in a nonfiction capacity, but I think when you’re writing about technology in books—and that’s something I was thinking about as I was talking about Reddit threads and all that stuff—it’s so hard to write about contemporary life without it feeling dated. And especially thinking about culture and pop culture. I’m curious, I know some of it, but what is pop culture that you consume and how did you feel like it informed your book?
A big part of the seed of this book was spending a lot of time watching the Kardashians on Snapchat. Particularly Kylie Jenner, actually. Just being transfixed by the idea of being 17 years old and so beautiful that no one else cares at all what else is going on with you. And that you think maybe you’re not supposed to care at all what else is going on with you.
Also, right around that time there were a couple of articles, particularly one in New York magazine called “The Prom Queen of Instagram,” about a girl who was very popular, just sort of a normal teenage girl but she had this huge Instagram following. So thinking about those forces in the culture—because you’re totally right that in the same way a book about LA can get dated in about 10 minutes, a book about technology gets dated in 30 seconds.
I was thinking Snapchat 2 years ago was a much bigger force than it is now.
Frankly, if I were writing the book today, Lulu would be doing kind of different stuff with her Flash.
It would be on TikTok?
Flash would be more TikTok-like than Snapchat. That’s why I created a fake social media platform, because at least people can’t point at it and be like, that’s the wrong name.
I think a lot about this. The technology changes, but what is the more timeless or universal theme that I can pull out of the technology? Looking at these Instagrams and Snapchats reminded me of when I was in my teenage years and I had a LiveJournal. We’d post these very early, shitty digital camera selfies, and how badly I wanted people to think I was attractive when I did that. And how it felt like if I could post the right picture online then maybe I would be the right person inside. That’s a thread that I can see in my life and in these teenagers’ lives—and then hopefully it will continue to be relevant as the platforms change. But I try to immerse myself as much as possible in reading about what teenagers are actually doing with the internet and pop culture. I try and be surrounded by it at all times.
Hard on the old brainpan.
It’s insidious how social media really shapes your sense of worth. It feels like Brave New World to think about what you are putting out into the world and what you’re consuming. The fact that Evelyn spends so much time on boards where people are really pouring their worst moments out for her to consume also feels weirdly voyeuristic. She’s not creepy but it’s a creepy act sometimes.
Aren’t we all a little creepy? Especially on the internet, we’re all creeps.
Yeah, we’re all creeps. Our creep habits on the internet, the rabbit holes we go down in the privacy of our own homes.
This is where we are now. In our own homes, being internet creeps.
Or walking around neighborhoods and being creeps outside.
I interviewed Rufi Thorpe a while ago and we also talked about walking around the neighborhood looking in people’s houses. Being like, “What would my life be like in there?”—I think this is a common novelist topic.
You can really grab interesting characters if you capture exactly the right scene as you’re walking down the street.
Thank you for having this conversation with me. This was so lovely, especially in this time when I don’t get to talk to people that often.
I know, it was really fun and it was fun talking about LA and how our characters navigate the city.
I love reading about LA and I’m very picky about my LA books, but I loved yours.
Thank you. I loved yours as well.
Thank you. Mutual admiration society.