Karolina Waclawiak is the author of Emily Books pick How To Get Into The Twin Palms and, most recently, the awesome and acclaimed new novel The Invaders. We thought she’d be the perfect person to interview two-time Emily Books featured author Paula Bomer about her latest book, the collection Inside Madeleine. And she was!!
KW: The stories in this collection largely follow young girls finding their sexual agency, which doesn’t show up in fiction very often, at least not so unapologetically. What drew you to write about young women?
PB: This collection was one I wrote on and off over the years while writing other books, but I kept going back to it, adding new stuff, re-arranging the order or shape of it. I remember when I first started it, with the novella Inside Madeleine, I was writing specifically a book to and for my younger self. I think it’s the only time I consciously wrote with a target audience in mind- young women. That said, I hope it appeals to a broader audience. My editor loved it! And he’s a man in his thirties! Having been a young woman once, I think that while I enjoyed Judy Blume, it didn’t explore the darker, fucked up side experiences that, truly unfortunately, many young girls and women experience. I wanted to speak to those girls and young women and let them know they are not alone. And also, that maybe they’ll be OK, as OK as they can be. Finding our sexual agency is oftentimes not a pretty thing. But it doesn’t have to stay ugly, either.
KW: I definitely think it has a wider appeal than just young women. I found myself being thrust back into those uncomfortable years of trying to locate my sexual agency while reading. It’s definitely not a pretty thing, but I love how you move beyond shame here. It’s not ugly, it’s messy, yes. But not ugly. That being said, how you deal with shame is rather unique. You’re not layering on judgments. We’re along for the ride while these women figure out their sense of self and I think that’s why the stories work so well. It’s up to the reader to accept or deny your characters’ agency, but what they choose is on them and speaks to their issues and problems not that of your characters. It’s so interesting and freeing. Who are your influences? Who were you reading (or watching) when you were writing the stories?
PB: Because I wrote the book so slowly over so much time, the influences changed as the book progressed. When I wrote the novella, I was reading (and rereading, something I do) Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. Also, at that time, I read A LOT. Like, two books a week. As I’ve gotten older, I read less, but pay a lot of attention when I do. It’s always a bit embarrassing to talk about “influences” because even if I’m obsessed with a certain writer, it doesn’t mean that I write like them, but rather, that they spoke to me in a way that made me want to write. Anyway, later I read the entire collected stories of Richard Yates and all of his novels and a biography of him and also the collected stories of Patricia Highsmith. I read Flannery O’Connor on a regular basis. She’s a touchstone.
KW: There’s a focus on the body in each story, a deep, visceral, hypnotic ritual for turning into a sexual being—perfuming and preparing—but it always seems like these young women are preparing themselves for men who kind of suck. It made me think about growing up and being a teenage girl and fretting over losers. It almost felt like the ritual of getting hot and sexy was more fun than the letdown of relationships that followed. It was all about the performance of being a wanted creature. Have you always been comfortable with writing about the body? What attracts you to it?
PB: I like your expression “the performance of being a wanted creature” very much. As far as fretting over losers, I would say that I was even obsessed with them. Writing about the body is necessary to me. I have a very intense relationship to mine and so I’m going to write about that. It’s the one thing we only have the one time- our bodies. We live in them, we try to control them, we abuse them, we let others use them. And eventually they decay. It’s just an endlessly fascinating and central part of being alive.
KW: It is endlessly fascinating! So many of your characters are molding their bodies and really, it’s such an intense way of having control over something, when everything is so out of control. I think, and maybe I’m totally wrong, that the reason so many girls have eating disorders, something you definitely delve into in the book, is more about control than anything else. We are so pliable! Everything around us is often so nuts, but we can do something about it by doing something to ourselves. It’s almost a matter of revolt, especially with Madeleine and her circumstances. You begin and end with girls wasting away, was that a conscious choice when you were assembling the collection? I feel as though you took us on a journey just to bring us back to where we started, giving us context all along the way.
PB: The circular aspect to the collection was very intentional, and shaping collections is something I enjoy (unlike writing, which can be tortuous) and am very deliberate about. I absolutely agree that eating disorders are about control way more than photos in magazines of models. And yes, doing something to ourselves in a world where so much is done TO US feels like control. As far as girls wasting away, that reminds me of a two or three star Amazon review that was in many ways, my favorite. Because it said I overuse symbolism with all these empty vaginas and empty stomachs and the trying to fill them. So, I think I was trying a bit too hard to write about the void in all of us. I also feel the need to mention Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce- she explores similar territory brilliantly. God, that book is so good.
KW: You focus in on friendships between young women and the intense power dynamics that are associated with those friendships. Linda, the narrator of “Pussies”, is us, really. Not of a trust fund, an unsophisticated visitor in a fabulous world. She’s kind of embarrassing, actually. You cringe for her and also for her friend Lise, who gets to be whoever she wants to be. You capture shame, but you’ve also been able to bottle that intense intimacy and out-of-whack power dynamic usually found in female friendships. Were you a Linda or a Lise? To me, it seems like you’re born one or the other.
PB: I was a full on Linda. “Pussies” is one my most autobiographical stories, unlike the novella, for instance. I’m not sure if Lindas are born or made or a bit of both, but we’re many, we’re everywhere, and yet it’s a very lonely way to be in the world. I guess I think some people are lonelier than others. And some women’s roads in life are bumpier than others. And some of us will perpetually, or at least at length, struggle to find our places in the world, find solid friendships, find love. And yes, Linda is embarrassing. And isn’t it sad that we let people shit on us, that we’re so easily impressed? But there it is.
KW: I was definitely a Linda trying to break away from being a Linda my whole life. Some women just have it, that undeniable confidence and sense of self, seemingly right out of the womb, while the rest of us are trying to collect it, like stardust. What I love about your characters is their sense of loneliness. They’re so alien in their worlds, but trying to not be. It’s endearing as much as it’s unsettling to watch. As someone who is in her late 30s, I think about how much I struggled to find a sense of self in my teens and early 20s. I often feel like people want to turn away from these truths. Do you find people have a resistance to these truths as you present them in your writing or have you found a way to not give a fuck anymore?
PB: Ha- trying to collect stardust is so beautiful. I think we should always be trying, or at least, I want to always being trying to do that. It’s the opposite of the daily grind of life, the getting through the day, the opposite of drudgery. Uncertainty of identity is the anti- Donald Trump- it’s what keeps us human.
I think all people resist scary truths from time to time, some people more that others, clearly, and everyone has their ways- drugs, food, work, sex, religion. The ways of resisting are probably endless and endlessly fascinating. There’s a somewhat new to me saying, often describing women, or so it seems to me- as “gives zero fucks”. I’m going to label it a third wave feminist saying. Like bra burning was to second wave feminism or something. There’s so much shit we’re supposed to care about. In the end, I care about love, kindness, loyalty- and I work on forgiveness. But really, it’s all about love- the other things come from that. I was talking to a friend who is very ill, dying really, and I said, every day of life is such a gift- I’m prone to saying that, as cliche as it is- and that everything else is gravy. And he said, the closer you get to the end, you realize it’s really about the gravy. So that’s an interesting perspective. I think he was just saying what I said, but in a different way. I do believe life is a miracle.
KW: It also struck me that you write about class and it’s not often you see class spoken about in contemporary novels. The characters you root for feel like interlopers in wealthy worlds. They don’t belong, but they’re trying to belong. It made me uncomfortable, in a good way, to think about the ways I tried to pull off being “rich” when I was younger. Is class something you were aware of when you were writing or was it an unconscious layer?
PB: I very much consciously write about class in all of my books to an extent. Jean Rhys, one of my literary heroes, wrote wonderfully about class, and class in America is a real thing. OK, we’re not England, but man, it’s for real. I guess it’s also an unconscious aspect of my work, too, if I can contradict myself, in that I feel I can’t help but write about class. It would be like a big elephant in a story if I didn’t address it. It’s so there.
KW: It is so there and you capture it right when a person starts to realize their class barriers, whether it be in boarding schools like some of your characters or college. I think class is super interesting for women too. Depending on looks and how well you can pass, it’s so possible for some women to jump class (by marrying up, especially). I think it needs to be talked about more. I was so taken by how you handled it.
PB: Women have always had to use their sexuality as currency. We have to use whatever we have and use it hard. It’s fun to explore the subtle and not so subtle ways women try to get what they want and retain dignity or give up on dignity because they give zero fucks and just try to grab on to whatever they can. It’s like we’re all life thieves, holding onto whatever we can as long as we can. I can’t imagine a world where women’s sexuality doesn’t have incredible power over men of all ages. I think I used to try to imagine such a world when I was younger and less experienced.
KW: I was also really taken with how well you write about sex. I have read so much bad sex in books. Unintentionally embarrassing sexual encounters, really. Madeleine, the character who inhabits the novella for which the collection is named for is excellent at and known for fucking. She’s insatiable and you spare no detail. How do you do it? How do you make it urgent and titillating?
PB: I think regarding sex the important thing for me is to just stick to the facts as much as possible. No sugarcoating, not really a lot of metaphor. Sex is such a strong thing it doesn’t need embellishment. It speaks for itself.