A Serial Online Novel Journeys Through a Queer, Eerie NYC During Shut Down
Speaking with Author Carley Moore and Artist Neeti Banerji
Carley Moore’s serialized online novel, Panpocalypse—illustrated by Neeti Banerji—tells the story of Orpheus, a queer disabled woman who rides her bike through New York City amid the coronavirus pandemic to find her ex-girlfriend, Eurydice. In a city where physical contact is largely restricted, can Orpheus reconnect with her sense of touch, a sensation that has defined so much of her identity?
Literary Hub: The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of Greek mythology’s more enchanting tragic tales. Carley, why did you decide to adapt it to pandemic-era New York City? What are you—or what is Orpheus—looking back at?
Carley Moore: As a writer who works a lot with autobiographical material and historical time periods (my debut novel, The Not Wives, is partially set during Occupy Wall Street), I wanted to continue to combine those elements in my second novel, Panpocalypse. As NYC began to lockdown and quarantine in order to flatten the curve, I was struck by how eerie and empty the city had become. When I got a bike, mostly so I could have more mobility and ride to Brooklyn to see friends from a distance, it just clicked into place. I’m going to write about the city now during COVID, as a kind of diseased, disabled, and queer space.
As for Orpheus and Eurydice, I’ve always loved that myth and how unfair it is. I mean, the gods are always so cruel and ridiculous, but the fact that Orpheus can have Eurydice back from Hades if he promises not to look back as they leave, and that he can’t do it because he loves her so, feels so epic and queer to me. I am a queer person who looks back a lot and wonders why so much hasn’t worked out, and I have an epic first love who I can’t be with, so that resonates for me.
Like Orpheus, I will sing and use language to seduce.
LH: Of course, you’ve got me fixated on the bike. I can’t help but think of Charon taking his punt across the River Styx, Icarus fashioning wings to escape Crete, Odysseus taking his new boat to leave Calypso on Ogygia… Am I onto something, or getting colder?
CM: Oh, I love all of this and I definitely want you to be thinking of the bike this way! I suppose Orpheus most resembles Icarus in this book because she is essentially stuck in the city because of the pandemic and so her riding is kind of a big loop. Like she can’t ever escape the maze or grid of Manhattan and the cyclical, no time-ness of quarantine.
I’m also really partial to Persephone and her chariot that takes her to live with Hades to begin winter. The city as an underground or Hades or morgue or ruins built on top of ruins is a theme of the novel and so this also speaks to the Persephone story. My protagonist and all of these mythological figures share the hero’s journey or quest.“I like books that play with real time events, and I wanted to make something that people stuck at home could read in something close to real time.”
Orpheus is trying to understand her world and herself as a lonely queer woman, and to consider touch or lack of touch as a way of being. She’s also trying to return to this woman who she pretty much can’t have and it all feels extra painful to her because of solitude. Her quest is to return “home” to some kind of mythical queer community, which honestly as a bi/pan woman she’s never really experienced.
LH: What appeals to you all about the serialized online novel? Is it any more challenging than some of the more conventional forms you’ve worked in?
CM: I write essays, poetry, and novels and they all have unique challenges, but the sheer world building, plot, and quantity of decisions you have to make as a novelist to keep the reader engaged and to keep yourself writing, make novels hardest for me. I like books that play with real time events, and I wanted to make something that people stuck at home could read in something close to real time. Like, I’m making it and you’re reading it not long after. That’s an exciting thing to me about serialization.
I also wanted to come up with a novel hack for myself, a way to make myself keep writing, and I think this is working. I made a deal with Feminist Press and readers and so I have to keep going.
Neeti Banerji: The challenge with illustrating a conventional novel has been capturing the whole spirit of the text in a single illustration—the cover. Maybe there are a couple of spot illustrations for each chapter if you get lucky. Plus it’s not as collaborative, I end up with the text once it’s final.
With Panpocalypse I’ve had freedom to explore a new illustration every week, something the text really calls for, given how it plays with real time events. There’s a good dose of lighter nostalgic moments mixed in with the weighty current events—pre-pandemic NYC with BLM and abolition protests—and serialization means I can explore both in equal measure over different weeks, experimenting with styles. Also the fact that it’s online presents new possibilities—like the GIF for Week 3. What better way to capture a New York hailstorm than by animating it?
LH: How have you two been collaborating at a distance? Have you been staring into the face of the Zoom mirror, that “bitter queen”?
CM: No zoom for us. Lucia Brown, the External Relations Manager at Feminist Press is our go between, and kind of the fairy godmother of this project. Lauren Hook is my editor. Lucia sends chapters ahead to Neeti and then Neeti makes illustrations and sends them to Lucia and then Lucia to me. I may have a couple of notes and Neeti revises a little. Very few notes though because Neeti just gets the project and makes beautiful drawings that I just stare at in awe.
My two notes have been a wish to make Orpheus a bit more chubby because that’s who she is and also to make a bathtub look a lot shittier because NYC tubs are not always so nice. Neeti, I will be curious to hear from you about your process.
NB: Thanks Carley! Honestly I expect a bunch of notes every time I send off sketches given our different frames of references. I grew up in India in the 2000s and lived in New York for a brief 6 months post-college. So I look back at the city through rose-colored glasses—earnest, fresh out of college, ready to take on the world. Which is probably why the bathtub wasn’t nearly as shitty as it should be. Lack of Zoom interaction has meant that I’ve had to scroll through your Insta a couple of times to reference your lockdown mullet, but other than that, email interaction has gone surprisingly smoothly.
CM: My lockdown mullet! I feel so seen by you Neeti, thank you!
LH: Neeti, your vibrant, pastel-toned illustrations made me at once happy and a bit down, I think because they remind me so much of the lives we’re not able to fully enjoy right now. What moods did you want to capture?
NB: As I mentioned before, I have a soft spot for New York. I lived there for six months back in 2018 when I was 22 and haven’t been back since, so whenever I think of it now there’s a heavy dose of nostalgia. All the shiny sparkly bits of the city. NYC residents are in the same boat now, longing for a different, pre-pandemic city.
For inspiration I looked to genre films a lot. Panpocalypse sounds like one of those 1980s disaster films titles—all caps, loud colors, splashed across the poster—so that was what I referenced for type. 1980s and 90s rom-coms were another source of inspiration for their color palettes. Orpheus cites Desperately Seeking Susan as one of her favorite films; But I’m a Cheerleader is one of mine. When I think of nostalgia I think of growing up with these queer nostalgic visuals.
I wanted to create that safe space in the illustrations for Panpocalypse. The challenge has come in using that frame of reference when illustrating weightier subjects like abolition and BLM. The palette gets a bit darker to give the art the weight these subjects have. It’s been a task finding a style that suits all the different threads Panpocalypse explores, but that’s what keeps the work interesting!
CM: I didn’t know all of this and it’s so wonderful to hear about your process! I also love But I’m a Cheerleader!
LH: Projects like Panpocalypse and The Decameron Project that The New York Times recently curated make me wonder whether a collaborative ethos will be one of the defining characteristics of this first wave of “pandemic lit.” Do you buy that?
CM: I hadn’t seen this project, but now I’m excited to take a look. So many of my favorite writers there! I think artists are very lonely right now and so collaboration makes total sense. I haven’t thought much about what “pandemic lit” will be, but I know I felt big resistance to folks on Twitter saying we can’t possibly write about this moment until it has passed. i kind of took this on as a challenge to that. I also think technologies like Zoom are forcing us to think more creatively about community and readings and teaching, though I have to say I still hate Zoom and want it to die as a capitalist productivity engine.
LH: There has been reporting about the ways in which the pandemic has threatened queer-friendly spaces and support networks. And yet to me Panpocalypse suggests that there is something queer about “pandemic time” itself. Some things are still negotiable and open. If you’re lucky, you can turn on your bike instead of always being bound by the loop. Outside of writing and illustrating, are you all finding ways to queer this timeless time?
CM: Most queers I know, myself included, are really struggling. Our spaces are so important to us, whether it’s a bar or for me, it’s the LGBT Center’s bookstore in Manhattan, The Queer Bureau, or just being able to date and see people casually, the loss of that has really made it hard for me to function.
Watching Trump and Republicans attack trans people, and seeing J.K. Rowling use her enormous platform for hate and transphobia has just sucked. If it weren’t for my kid, who is an amazing tween, and a couple of close friends, I would have no touch at all, and I’ve been lucky in this way. I know queer people who haven’t been touched for months and it’s very inhumane and it’s all our government’s fault.
I’m very interested in the new germ bubbles or pods people are creating and though I don’t have one in NYC or my efforts to make one have failed utterly, I think there’s some hope here. Queer people are always inventing new ways to adapt.
NB: For the last couple of years my queer community has been a virtual one. When I graduated art school and returned home I kept in touch with all my friends, a fair amount of which remained in Providence. I haven’t been able to build the same sort of community here in Delhi as it’s somewhat scattered. Pre-pandemic we video chatted about once a month at best, but now, time difference be damned, we’re all stuck at home so we chat a lot more.
I’ve also found that folks have become a lot less uninhibited on apps—who knows when we’ll meet so might as well bear our souls online. So while we’ve been physically even further distanced the online connection feels a lot stronger. There’s no substitute for touch though and I’ve seen a lot of friends tackling it in their own ways. Rhode Island hasn’t been hit as hard as other states so I have heard of friends in polyamorous relationships successfully forming germ bubbles.
Good news: after its serial run, Panpocalypse will eventually be released as a book.
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