Sex, Politics, and Coming of Age in the Clinton Years
Taylor Larsen and Annie DeWitt on Fitting Fiction into the News
To stand in a moment that feels like a transition to a new era—not only does the world bubble with anticipation, but our emotions feel amplified, intense, more closely observed. The time leading to the recent election was one such moment for many, and two novelists, Annie DeWitt and Taylor Larsen, found themselves looking ahead to what they expected to be a shift—though not entirely sure what kind—while reflecting on the recent past—the 1990s—when they came of age and were very conscious of being in the midst of a world that was rapidly becoming something different, something new.
Both writers had debut novels this year that dealt with transformations, personal and societal, and the anxieties that come with them: anxieties, one might say, that move with legs of exhilaration. Given the overlapping preoccupations of their novels—the complicated, wondrous lives of young women; the ways family transform under pressures from within and challenges from without; how desire limits and liberates our choices; the wonder and frustrations that accompany the secrets we keep and reveal; the sparkle of sensuality and its relationship to innocence; and the illusory nature of surfaces—it makes sense for us to listen in on their conversation and be reminded of innocence lost and found. Annie and Taylor remind us that our families and eras stamp us, and their meanings are to be found in our yearnings and quests—and, yes, frustrations.
–Garnette Cadogan, Contributing Editor, Lit Hub
Taylor Larsen: I discovered my sexuality in the mid-1990s guided by angry, sexy music from Hole and Nine Inch Nails, as well as occasionally misogynistic gangster rap that all the affluent teens in the DC suburbs blasted, oblivious to the lyrics and engrossed in the beat. Kurt Cobain, a sex god to me and my friends, shot himself in the head. I sobbed for days after that. For me, sexual power was linked to pain and anger.
Despite what seemed like a prosperous financial future during the Clinton era, and the fact I grew up in beautiful, safe surroundings in suburban Maryland, the music was a backdrop for my anxiety and confusion over my sexuality—that a young girl was murdered at a girl’s boarding school nearby one day, tied to a tree, and left to die after a sexual assault didn’t help matters any. The juxtaposition of danger and tranquility, and of certainty and unpredictable tragedy have made their way into my fiction.
Part of what I admire about White Nights in Split Town City is its clearly defined setting, also distinctly 90s, and its themes of coming of age, of freedom verses domesticity, in the pre-Internet era. We watch Jean, the protagonist, discover her sexuality during a very specific time and in a very specific place, which is grounding. The powerlines run down the back of the mountain and the landscape has a certain wildness, an isolation that is about to begin to disappear with the advent of the technological boom. As Jean describes, “The next year, with the birth of the World Wide Web, Internet access would be as slow as boiling water . . . for now, the three of us lost ourselves in a session of King’s Quest unawares of the greater world around us.”
Were you conscious of wanting to set it in the 90s or did it just sort of emerge as you wrote? Did you feel that era was pregnant with seething contradictions and at the same time a special time, right before the birth of cell phones and the internet took away from direct human contact? You describe so beautifully the “bodies coming home from the Gulf whose names were announced on the news” right after describing a pony buried from a bizarre sickness and how easily he had been broken in: “He was an old pony that Shetland. I remember how easily he’d taken it in the mouth” in reference to “gumming the metal.” The result is a beautiful mix of war, conquest, paranoia, and so much of your writing has deep sexual evocations, linking witnessed events to Jean’s confusion and piecing together what it means to be a woman. Jean’s coming of age is mixed with so many moments where danger seems to be lurking on the edges of the scene, and this struck a deep chord in me; your portrayal of a teenage girl coming into her sexual power while trying to fend off danger is extremely authentic.
Annie DeWitt: I’ve thought a lot recently about what it means for a woman, and particularly a young rural woman to be engaged with the “news.” The invocation of the 90s at the start of White Nights was something I thought long and hard about. Did I want this to function as an allegorical novel whose themes of surveillance, voyeurism, and transgression could fit in any time period (interestingly several people have said the prose itself feels reminiscent of a much older age—Faulkner, or even the 30s dust bowl), or did I want the backdrop of 90s America at the time to play a role? A review of White Nights came out in The New York Times this weekend—a thrill and a joy and something utterly unexpected given that this is a small press book operating without a publicist. However, the opening line of the review interested me most: “DeWitt’s novel set in the summer of 1990 opens with a checklist of milestones [. . .] which is odd considering that it’s central character, a rural farm girl named Jean, still experiences the outside world almost exclusively through television and adult whispers.”
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about penning an essay about reviewers discussing the role of “national politics” in fiction by women. The idea came about when I first read a review of Lorrie Moore’s 2014 collection Bark by Jason Diamond for Flavorwire. I know Jason and respect his work. However, I found this section of his review interesting:
Moore covers 9/11, the economic downturn, a “No Hillary no way” bumper sticker in “The Juniper Tree,” and the war in Iraq. I get the feeling that Moore attempted to synthesize the major issues of our time, but I have trouble finding the overarching meaning in her approach. Alec MacGillis, in his review of the book for The New Republic, called the allusions “superficial,” writing that Moore utilizes “references with which a talented writer can adorn her tales of domestic anxiety—without even bothering to check whether those references are remotely plausible.”
To his credit, Diamond counters:
I’m not sure I agree with that. Writers like Moore write without concern for plausibility. They write what they know, and they write what they see. Throughout BarkL, I never once get the feeling that Moore is trying to play on the largely liberal sensibilities of her readers. People are lonely in real life; couples break up; people grieve over the loss of somebody they knew; these are things that happen, and those are the things Lorrie Moore is more interested in as a writer. Yet as a reader, I do want to know what I should be paying attention to beyond all that, to glimpse some deeper truth.
It fascinated me that female reviewers of the same book rightly noted that Moore’s characters absorb the conflict around them, both national and familial. Her characters, writes Halimah Marcus for Electric Literature, are “pro-nuke pacifists, selfish do-gooders, over-indulgers, poor wedding guests, and mortally offended by rat-kings.”
In other words Moore’s characters are not just defined by their relation to others, or by the nexus of their family drama, but by their relation to the larger world around them.
Women have always been viewed as strictly relational. I decided I wanted White Nights to push back against that in say the way Darcey Steinke’s novel Sister Golden Hair did in her depiction of the 70s. If Rick Moody could do it in The Icestorm, why couldn’t I? I was a young women who grew up on the last unpaved road in a rural town watching our national struggles in the Gulf emerge on the television screen. There was a sense that America was on the brink of some great change then—the internet, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the USSR. Even as a young child, I watched the nightly news with my parents and was acutely aware of these conflicts. They pressed on our lives.
I think there is a sense that Jean is isolated by her Mother’s abandonment of the family—she looks to the exterior world for some sense of recognition of her self. This reminded me of a passage in your novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, where the father, Michael, a man grappling with identity and masculinity and suffering deeply to keep his life together, is observing his wife, Nancy, getting her son Max—who suffers from severe asthma—ready for school. You write: “The two of them were so separate from him in these moments they might as well have been aliens. He found their separateness special, and it somehow freed him from his constant disapproval of Nancy. Seeing her there, as a complete person, sitting with her child, mysterious and silent, he wanted to reach out to her but resisted.”
I wondered if you might talk about this sense of alienation in the household that defines your novel and what drew you to these feelings of “otherness” and obsession?
TL: I find it fascinating that so many upper-middle class households, now and back in the 1990s, contained inhabitants with their own quarters, in with everyone engaged in their own activities. The father is in his study with a glass of scotch going over work, the son is in his gigantic bedroom on his Gameboy, the wife is out on the deck with a glass of wine, and the daughter is locked away in her room on the phone. It is easier to avoid interaction and true intimacy in a larger house where everyone has his or her own secret quadrant. In my novel, Michael has carefully honed rituals and habits, some of them unconscious, and they are enacted to avoid having to interact directly with the other people in his household. He cloisters himself away, trying to figure out what is “wrong” with himself. His daughter begins to mimic his patterns as she comes of age and tests out her sexual powers on others, such as the parent of her childhood friend. All the characters long for connection yet feel utterly helpless about how to interact with and relate to one another.
Speaking to one of your earlier points, I felt the setting of the 90s was perfect for displaying the beginnings of isolation and pre-technological obsession, and yet I feel like you do. I don’t think my book (or yours) is an homage to the 90s, and reviewers have said it feels almost retro or timeless. So, while I felt cozy setting this in the 90s because that is when I came of age myself, I also think the time period contained a certain anger in popular culture housed in a sense of indestructibility and wealth that was the perfect backdrop for my novel. And I think it is worth noting that perhaps people are not used to women writers making direct statements on politics or putting a direct spin on an era, as you noted in your discussion of your own review and Lorrie Moore.
I love how you brought The Ice Storm into the discussion, because even in the era of the 70s, all the characters do their darnedest to avoid having to interact too directly with one another. They don’t have the luxury of living in gigantic houses per se, but they escape to each other’s houses or bury themselves in their work. A movie that very much influenced my notion of setting as well as the themes in my novel is Todd Hayne’s Far From Heaven, which is firmly and effectively rooted in 1950s culture: the perfect housewife, Cathy, is utterly isolated in her household, her husband is secretly gay, and she becomes enamored with a man of another race, which is seen as ludicrous in her affluent Connecticut neighborhood. This movie strikes me as a meditation on shame, as connected to sexuality, identity, class, and notions of femininity and masculinity. I found your book to be a glorious exploration of masculinity and femininity and found many instances where men in particular feel shame at being emasculated by the events of their lives, such as their wives leaving them or the way other men in town treat them. This quote, which is a description of some of the boys in the town, struck me: “The elder Steelhead boys had nothing of Fender’s wit or charm. Tall and dark-haired, there was a shiftiness to them I distrusted, a raw meanness that comes from experiencing some rupture in human dignity.” Your insights are so keen as to how this type of gendered shame creates desperate actions for affirmation. Can you speak more as to how you were able to capture these insights so beautifully?
AD: I too spent the second half of my young adulthood coming of age in suburbia. My parents sold our horses, bought two Saabs, and moved us into a development. This was a particularly painful time for me. We left our rural unpaved road and, in turn, shed that identity, much of which I reclaimed in this book. My first act of protest was to lie on the floor of my mother’s minivan on the drive to the new house. I kept my body limp and refused to move. They were forced to carry me into the newly constructed home. My first comment upon being set down was, “Where do they keep the help?” I think I have always been a kind of quiet rebel—a bit of a tomboy in that way. (I’m sure that word has gone out of fashion.) I’ve always been wary of society’s allegiance to the direct performance of gender. My first love was with an openly bisexual man who was gender non-conforming. Our names were next to each other in the alphabet. We grew up in high school doing the AP circuit together, dissecting frogs in biology. (To this day, we’re both vegetarians.) Tuesday evenings we drove into Boston with a group of friends to a drag club on Landsdown to dance and hear Misery spin. I lived with my ex after college, through a move to New York, a time spent abroad, the death of his father to early cancer, and ultimately his own addictions. I remember walking down the streets of New York together hand-in-hand and getting called names. One of the characters in my second novel-in-progress—Beneficio—is about this time.
There is a similar sense of the rural world encroaching on your novel’s characters, who live in a wealthy outcropping of Rhode Island near Providence called the Peninsula. There is this sense of nature existing just on the outskirts, just out of sight. You say, “Michael was always struck by how silent his land was, as if it were waiting with held breath, waiting for some turn of events to take place. Sometimes he would see the place he lived as if it were viewing in relation to a gigantic map of the country. The Peninsula would appear as nothing more than a tiny hair sticking out from the right side of the massive continent.” How did you go about conceiving of the psychological and physical remove of this place? It threatens to encroach on this family with its wildness, its permeability.
TL: My main character Michael is very much in his head, and he thrives out in the wilderness where he is finally able to access deeper parts of himself and find true joy in moments. I felt this type of setting—civilized expensive homes set on a wild strip of land where nature is very present and active, the ocean crashing against the shore—seemed the perfect backdrop to showcase Michael’s main issues: he is stuck in analyzing the world and craves access to the wilder parts of himself that house his deeper desires—desires which frighten his mind, particularly in reference to his sexual instincts, of which he is ashamed.
The two main characters in my novel struggle with gender, with trying to grapple with the pressures adhering to being masculine or feminine. I love what you said about your background, how you were a tomboy and didn’t want to follow the straight and narrow with the expectations of your gender, how your first love was a bisexual man. I was the same—back then, Taylor was a boy’s name (though now it is common for either gender), and I always felt pride in having a boy’s name, as if I had both genders inside me somehow. I went through a phase where I dressed like a boy with my hair cut short and wore guy’s clothes in my late teens. I wanted to see if I could pass for male at times. Since I was so thin back then, I succeeded in looking androgynous for a while. I am not exactly sure what I was trying to achieve, but it somehow felt vital to play around with gender expectations and not just adhere to them. I felt perhaps that I was gay or bisexual as a young woman because heterosexuality was confusing and felt dangerous in a way I could not pinpoint. That is part of why I connected with your character Jean so much. She is so sensitive to feeling out the safety or danger in the energy fields of the people around her, and yet in many ways she breaks restrictions of what a young girl is supposed to do and experiments sexually, defies boundaries, and takes risks. I can really connect with that, on a personal level, and also as a reader who only wants to read authentic characters.
AD: As I sit in my Catskills home on the eve of election night, the polls are rolling in. I don’t own a television so I am projecting the results on an old video screen. CNN is going to call the first states in an hour. I haven’t been able to sleep well for days. Last night I had the pleasure of holing up before the election with a group of rock star women in a new “bed and bar” in the Catskills called The Spruceton Inn, run by a local female writer and entrepreneur. She had invited a group of us there on her off night to gather for a writers’ retreat. There was whiskey. There was wine. But mostly there was a lot of discussion. And a rising sense in me of empowerment. We were all chatting casually about our careers and what it means to put your passion first. The kind of dangers and risk being a woman and an artist exposes you to. In a laid-back way we began crowdsourcing ideas about agents, brainstorming plot lines for scripts we would write, TV shows we’d watch, books we’re working on. The owner of the establishment was sitting behind the wooden bar in a Hillary T-shirt.
I woke in a lovely white motel room early this morning and drove through my rural town—for weeks it had been laden with Trump signs. I counted one Hillary sign on Route 28. It reminded me that we, as women, are still the minority. Indeed, this is the first time I have voted in a distinctly red county. After voting, I came home to pictures of my female friends in pantsuits populating my social media feeds in staggering numbers. All day I’ve been alternating between cheering, crying, and wringing my hands. I see posts of new moms with an “I voted” sticker on their chests while nursing their babies with captions about voting for a better future for their children, one in which everyone has a voice and place. I feel incredibly anxious knowing that this election holds the power to retract basic human rights—a woman’s right to choose and the protection of LGBT marriages. It will also dictate the future of climate change, green energy, and the environment. Americans are poised on the edge of their seats. For weeks, I’ve seen friends posting that, depending on the outcome of this presidency, they fear for their lives. I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of narratives of sexual abuse that have been triggered by Trump’s rhetoric. As a woman who commutes twelve hours a week to teach five classes at three universities this semester, and hustles as hard as I can, all while knowing that I make $.75 on the male dollar, I too know what it is to feel disempowered.
I’m fascinated even now by how gender somehow has to be performed. The rise of the pantsuit and the pussy bow. The idea that somehow we have to identify as “nasty women.” I am not a nasty woman. Nor does my pussy grab people. I am a woman—a smart, independent, hardworking one. The minutes are ticking . . . I hope, as I always do, that tomorrow I wake up in a better world and that opportunity comes knocking.