Novelist Katy Hays on What Tarot Tells Us About Ourselves
Jane Ciabattari Talks to the Author of The Cloisters
Dwindling daylight set the stage for The Cloisters, Katy Hays’s gothic first novel, which explores dark academia, tarot cards and betrayals among friends and colleagues. It’s a November B&N Book Club and Read with Jenna pick. (“Leo, the gardener at the Cloisters, reminds me of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights,” noted Jenna Hager Bush.)
Hays traces her literary lineage back to Daphne du Maurier. “Around the age of twelve, my aunt gifted me three of her novels—Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and The Scapegoat. I can still remember how she wrapped them. Those three books made me want to be a writer.”
These days her taste for the gothic has evolved into a fascination with noir, she notes. “I’m particularly interested to writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, alongside contemporary writers like Attica Locke and Megan Abbott. So much of Gillian Flynn’s pre-Gone Girl writing felt deeply noir. I’m drawn to writers that can create atmosphere with incredible economy, and no one understands that better than a writer working in noir.
“I probably also love classic noir for all its California navel gazing. So, it’s no surprise that writers who spend a lot of energy on the state are some of my favorites—Rufi Thorpe, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Edan Lepucki, Anna Dorn, Claire Vaye Watkins, Tod Goldberg, Oakley Hall, I could go on and on. I’m a sucker for a good California novel. Bonus points if it’s not set in LA or the Bay Area.
“Also. Everything Christopher Bollen is writing. I’ve never seen such perfect novels.”
Our conversation by email took place on California time.
Jane Ciabattari: How have you fared during this uncertain and troublesome past three years?
Kathy Hays: On a personal level, I feel incredibly lucky. We live in Truckee, a small, mountain community where, initially, very little changed. We were still able to go outside and see friends in a safe way, we were able to keep working. We were healthy. For a while, everything felt almost magical—quiet, crystalline, tight-knit. I feel bad saying that, but it was true.What would it take for someone to begin to believe that a deck of cards could really tell the future?
But then, of course, things changed quickly. Our town became a “zoom boom town,” and we watched dozens of friends get displaced by tech workers. Some moved into their cars, one slept on our couch, others left entirely. Our county had never planned for affordable housing, so there were very few solutions available. It transformed our community, which might have always happened, but it might have taken twenty years, not two. So much of the weird was erased with this demographic shift, and I’m still mourning that. I might always be mourning that.
In terms of work, it’s been a mixed bag. Writing-wise, I found an agent and sold a book. I also had a manuscript die on submission, lest you think my publishing journey has been unrealistically halcyon! I’ve also spent nearly a decade as an adjunct community college professor, and teaching has changed dramatically since the start of the pandemic. Since many of my students don’t live within commuting distance to campus, I was already well versed in teaching online, but our course sizes collapsed. They have since rebounded, but I think anyone teaching today will tell you that the landscape has shifted in unexpected ways. I think I’m still adjusting to the idea that it may never go back, that this is the new normal.
JC: What inspired your first novel, The Cloisters?
KH: I’m particularly drawn to the question: what are we capable of believing? It’s easy to draw up a list of things rational people have been talked into: astrology, Heaven’s Gate, manifesting, transubstantiation, ghosts, Mormonism. And I don’t say this to be derogatory to religion, new age or otherwise. I was raised Episcopalian and have an abiding respect for faith, whatever its form. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by what people can talk themselves into given the right (often extreme) circumstances.
In the case of The Cloisters, I wanted to ask that question around a practice that seems to have a lot cultural currency today—tarot. What would it take for someone to begin to believe that a deck of cards could really tell the future? How would it shape the way they thought about free will? About fate? And as I began to research the book, I was particularly interested in the historical discourse around fate—the way it was both feared and venerated—and how that discourse might fit into the concept of tarot, both as card play and divinatory device.
JC: You live in California, “in the shadow of the Sierra,” as you put it. What drew you to use The Cloisters in New York City, with its medieval art collection and lush gardens, as a setting?
KH: My first novel, the novel that died on submission, was an extremely California novel. When that novel didn’t sell, I think I wanted to spend time somewhere else. I was physically stuck in California—the pandemic was still preventing travel and I had recently broken my leg and was confined to our kitchen table—that made me desperate for a place that felt foreign. In some ways, I don’t feel like I consciously chose The Cloisters as a setting. It was just always there, from the beginning, as the cornerstone of the book. I realize that sounds a little woo woo (even unhinged), but it’s true. The Cloisters appeared and it sucked me in.
JC: Your narrator, Ann, who is eager to pursue an academic career, has been hired as a curatorial associate at the Metropolitan Museum, but at the last moment is switched uptown to The Cloisters. Ann relocates from a small town in Washington to New York City, a major shift in everything from the hot humid summer weather to how to navigate the politics of a major cultural institution and a scholarly field filled with ambitious over achievers. Have you had similar experiences? How have you navigated the shifts?
KH: I should begin by saying that I’m actually a big fan of Walla Walla, Washington where Ann is from, and as such would like to apologize to Walla Walla enthusiasts. But the truth is, Ann’s experience is not my own. Yes, I initially moved to the East Coast for graduate school. Yes, to an institution filled with ambitious over achievers. Yes, there were politics. But the atmosphere was collaborative and welcoming.
The weather, however, was miserable. That might be the aspect of my own experience that made it into the book. The shock of the summer humidity.
JC: Ann’s workmate Rachel seems her opposite—a wealthy orphaned heiress with personal ties to some of the most powerful scholars and museum leaders in the country. An old hand at the cutthroat politics of the scholarly realm. Rachel befriends Ann, takes her under her wing, so to speak, but Ann always has a skeptical, watchful response. How did you go about creating a character like Rachel who befriends and betrays? And a character like Ann, who is naïve in ways but senses what is going on?
KH: I find the dynamics of female friendship fascinating. They are often more involved and complex than romantic relationships, and they frequently skirt around—or dip in and out of—the romantic arena, too. They can be extremely obsessive, secretive, and possessive, but simultaneously deeply nourishing, caring, and life-affirming. Female friendships can span the entire emotional register in one conversation. To my mind, that complexity has so much narrative potential; it’s both explosive and transformative. In the novel, I always wanted to think about the dualities in female friendships and their potential to delight, overwhelm, and disappoint—all at once.I always wanted to think about the dualities in female friendships and their potential to delight, overwhelm, and disappoint—all at once.
To that end, the dynamic between Ann and Rachel is less about their differences—Ann’s naivety, Rachel’s worldliness—and more about how women in friendships can find themselves locked in a power struggle, always trying to assess their position. I wanted to think about those aspects—necessity, jealousy, obligation—that can make these relationships deeply complicated.
JC: The scholarly work in play at The Cloisters, and the heart of this novel, is the discovery of a hitherto hidden deck of Tarot cards that seems to prove the use of Tarot for divination in Renaissance times. When did you first encounter Tarot? How did you go about researching Tarot in that time? Why do you think Tarot is of interest to readers today?
KH: I first encountered tarot at a roadside fortune telling kiosk in Colfax, a small town off highway 80. For years, there was a fluorescent sign that flashed “tarot” at every car that drove by. That was the extent of my tarot experience until a few years ago, when suddenly it seemed like tarot was everywhere—on social media, in my friends’ homes, at bookstores.
But the research itself—around fifteenth-century tarot—was fairly difficult to pull together. There wasn’t a big cache of scholarly material, as I had perhaps foolishly expected there to be. That said, there were some significant resources and I was also interested in histories outside of tarot—cartomancy, astrology, divination. Because, to my mind, tarot really occupies this strange space—it’s an artwork, an object of game play, and a site of occultist anxieties and aspirations.I think, between the spells and crystals and tarot cards there’s a very real desire to connect with something larger than ourselves.
These days, so many of those original uses have been stripped away, and in their place, tarot has emerged as a personal practice that spans everything from a creative tool to individualized fortune telling. All of this seems to be coming into contact with and bouncing off of wellness/new spirituality culture. Maybe it’s a response to an increasingly secularized America, maybe it’s a desire for the unknown in a world where everything seems to be a Google search away? I’m not sure. But I think, between the spells and crystals and tarot cards there’s a very real desire to connect with something larger than ourselves.
JC: Your descriptions of The Cloisters—the gardens, the landscape, the interior, the darkness—and of the Morgan library, where there is a scholarly symposium on Art and the Occult that Patrick, head of The Cloisters, aspires to participate in, are beautifully crafted. How did you go about doing research for these settings?
KH: I had been lucky enough to visit The Cloisters in 2016, but I wasn’t looking at the museum as a potential setting for a novel at that time. Then, when I began working on the book—at the end of 2020/early 2021—people still weren’t traveling yet. The Met may have just reopened, but I certainly wasn’t going to visit with the pandemic still making recreational travel ethically questionable. And it didn’t really matter, I was stuck at home, on crutches. So, the only way to research these settings was digitally. I relied heavily on google street view, YouTube, and the institutions’ own websites. I scoured hashtags on Instagram and Twitter. I was particularly obsessive about watching friends’ stories who worked at those institutions. I pulled together as much visual information as I could and then relied on my own experience in the city and the east coast during the summer.
In some ways, I think this forced distance made some narrative decisions easier. The Cloisters in the novel is very much a real place, but I needed to spin some fiction into the building as well. For example, I ultimately decided to change the location of the library to make it more central. I’m not sure those decisions would have been as easy were I able to visit the museum while I was writing the book.
JC: There is a murder in this book, with multiple suspects; how did you set up plot so there are multiple suspects and surprises at every turn?
KH: Perhaps this is a terrible answer, but in my experience, the book shows you what it wants to be through the writing of it. I don’t sit down with a sense of who my suspects will be or what surprises need to happen in order to produce a book-like thing. I sit down and keep drafting until I start to see the outlines of the story. With every round of revisions, I feel like I’m getting closer to the structure the book needs. The reveals and motivations come with the writing, they come through the writing. They don’t exist before the draft. To that end, there’s no “setting up the plot,” but god, I wish I could set up a plot. Do you know how much time that would save me? Writers who outline, please teach me your ways.
JC: What are you working on next?
KH: I’m very superstitious when it comes to talking about projects that are in-process, because as I mentioned above, I’m a very iterative (i.e., inefficient) writer. I often write entire 80,000 word drafts that I fully abandon when I’m working my way into a story. So the draft I’m working through now may ultimately have no resemblance to the thing I’m actually working on next.
The Cloisters by Katy Hays is available from Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.