Sheltering: Zan Romanoff Takes on the Myth of Bluebeard
The Author of Look Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Zan Romanoff talks to Maris Kreizman about her new novel, Look, a coming-of-age story about a young woman in Los Angeles dealing with the spotlight of social-media, and the Internet’s facades of intimacy. Romanoff talks about missing out on giving a talk at her undergrad alma-mater, studying fairy tales, and what’s getting her through quarantine (it’s mainly frozen brownies). Romanoff’s local indie is Skylight Bookstore in Los Angeles; please order Look through their website or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I am here-ish with Zan Romanoff. Her new book came out last week in March, and it is a joy. I’m so glad you’re here!
Zan Romanoff: Thank you so much! I am so glad to be here.
Maris: The loaded question: how are you doing?
Zan: I’m fine. I would say physically I’m fine, and the rest of it varies, depending on the day. But very grateful to be fine and be able to sit here and talk about books. It can’t all be bad.
Maris: Tell us a little bit about Look.
Zan: Look is about a girl named Lulu who is low-key famous on a social media app called Flash, in part because she’s just a cute, private-school girl living in Los Angeles, and in part because she is dating the son of a Rockstar. When she accidentally puts a video on Flash of herself cheating on that boyfriend with a girl, she both destroys her relationship and accidentally outs herself as bisexual. The book is about this life she’s been putting out there and that’s been her reputation and her calling card—falls apart, and the aftermath of this. It’s about her trying to figure out what parts of that life were good and that she wants to put back together, and what parts of that life maybe weren’t that good for her and she’s ready to leave behind.
Maris: Flash is like a combination of Snapchat and Instagram, would you say?
Zan: Yeah, whatever social media platform is allowing young women to post attractive images of themselves.
Maris: Yes. Yes yes.
Zan: My second book is about fandom and a lot about Tumblr, and very text-specific, and I spent a ton of time trying to decide exactly what platform to give it. Is it Snapchat? Is it Instagram stories? For this one I was like, I’m just going to make my own, and then it can just be what it is.
Maris: There you go. I would wear a T-shirt—there are so many things we could do.
Zan: I had fun with it.
Maris: It’s an extra interesting time to think about how we present ourselves on social media, particularly now, because our curation levels have changed.
Zan: I was thinking about this the other day, that when I have a book coming out, I think a lot about, what am I going to wear? I buy outfits, I get a haircut, all this stuff. As you can see, I have not gotten a haircut in some time.
Maris: Your bangs look great!
Zan: I trimmed them myself. I’m sitting in my room, where there are just piles of things everywhere, which is how I live. Normally when I’m talking about my book, no one sees this. It’s a time when I’m most like, “Look at me, I’m an author.” And now I’m like, “My bedroom—my life’s a catastrophe.” I miss a tiny bit more online curation.
Maris: Tell me about what your tour might have looked like. We share a literary agent who we both adore, and I’m very sad we are not going to be able to go to her home for a party for you.
Zan: I know, I was looking forward to that. I’ve always done a launch party here in Los Angeles, which is where I live.
Maris: What’s your local indie?
Zan: Skylight Books. I love it so much. It is a true community hub for me. Skylight Books, if you’re looking to give some business to my favorite indie, though I’m sure everyone watching this has theirs. So yeah, it would’ve been a launch at Skylight. I was going to go—this is something I’ve been fantasizing about forever—I was going to go back to Yale, which is where I went to undergrad, and give a talk there to students, and be like, “I made it!”
Maris: “I’m an author!”
Zan: Obviously no. A party in New York, an event at Porter Square Books in Boston. And then I was going to go down to D.C. and do events at One More Page and Hooray for Books. I was going to stay with friends, I was going to see babies, I was going to pet puppies. It was going to be really fun. It’s fun to stay alive, so that’s what we’re doing now.
Maris: It is its own kind of fun. What kinds of questions were you hoping to get from the Yale audience about the book specifically? Do you think they’ve read it?
Zan: They probably wouldn’t have read it. I would’ve been there on the second, and the book came out on the 31st. But I would’ve loved to talk to them about the book because it is specifically about private school students and about coming of age in these rarefied, hot-house environments, and the language of power you learn to speak, unconsciously. You don’t necessarily realize you’re learning. I would have been very curious to hear some of their reactions to that and how they’re thinking about it, because it’s certainly something that took me a long time to learn and to understand. I’m still learning and understanding. No one just totally understands. No one’s like, “I got it!”
Maris: I love that a big central point of your book focuses on the Bluebeard myth, and how that story is told and in what contexts. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Zan: It’s funny actually that we were just talking about college because I must have read the myth when I was a kid, but it came back into my life when I had to take an Intro to Literature course when I was a freshman, one of those 101 things, and we read fairytales. That had been sitting in my mind for a long time. it’s one of those things that you don’t realize is there. But I had been playing around with the idea of writing about it for a long time. I’d been thinking about it forever, and it was only when I started writing that I was like, oh. I don’t know why. It was unclear to me why that seemed important and interesting, so it was interesting to work that out and think about ways we tell stories of violence against women, but also about women’s curiosity. There are a lot of questions around that story, and one of the big ones is, is it mean to be a warning to women? Is the moral actually, “Don’t be so curious”?
Maris: “Don’t open that door!”
Zan: Yeah, follow you husband’s rules and then you get to live a peaceful life in a castle. That was really interesting to me, how we tell these stories, and then we have different messages encoded for different groups in them. A woman hearing that story could both learn don’t be so curious, but it’s also a story about a woman who survives. Bluebeard is not the hero of the story, so how does he get to be the one who sets the moral? It felt like there were a lot of loose ends there.
Maris: “Be careful who you marry.”
Zan: Yeah, be very careful who you marry. Don’t marry someone who has a reputation for his wives disappearing.
Maris: Speaking of college, I think that’s when I first encountered Angela Carter and really studied the ways that feminist speech can change.
Zan: That I didn’t get to in college. In college I was too cool. I was like, “Feminism is very serious. I’m not that serious. I’m like a fun girl.” Credit where credit is due actually, Emily Gould—after I graduated, we met and she asked me to write something for Emily Books, and particularly gave me Ellen Willis to read. Ellen Willis is one of the first real, actual feminist texts that I read. I was like, “Oh, this is fascinating, this is way smarter—I am not the smart one here.” It helped me start bringing a feminist cast and a feminist eye to the stuff I was interacting with. Part of the book really is about those moments when you—and the texts that help you realize—not only are you a feminist, but you want to know more about this. There’s a whole history of scholarship that exists. One of the things I did when I was writing the book was read a bunch of retellings of the Bluebeard story, Angela Carter’s among them, and that was—anytime you can read instead of writing, it’s a good day.
Maris: How much other research did you do for this book? I assume the social media-ish space is something you know very well, but how teenagers use it is kind of a different thing. Or is it?
Zan: It’s interesting. I read a lot of Taylor Lorenz, as should we all, and her writing about the internet. I read a lot of Kaitlyn Tiffany’s work. I try and read those things. But I’m not calling teens because it changes so much. There’s a great Taylor Lorenz piece about how teens are using Google Docs as social media. It changes so fast, you could never get it. If you try to be 100 percent accurate to the technical aspect of it, book publishing takes too long, it’s not going to happen. So instead, I try to think about the spirit of it. it’s funny, I did not have any of this stuff when I was in high school, but what we did have was LiveJournal. Very proto social media. That was the first time I was online trying to make myself seem cool. A lot of it was calling back to being that age and sitting with my first digital camera in my parents’ house taking what we literally did not know then to call selfies. We didn’t have that word. And being like okay, imagine that but instead of five people reading your LiveJournal, that would be the people who are following this online.
Maris: Even just navigating a high school party with all of the tools that teens now have seems terrifying.
Zan: Yeah, there’s a scene that got cut out of the book. It just ultimately didn’t make sense. One of the characters Ryan was filming people falling asleep at a party, and he was filming all these people passed out, which was supposed to also indicate his villainy, and ultimately I was like, I think we indicated his villainy enough.
Maris: He’s already recorded a few other things.
Zan: Yeah. It was meant to be foreshadowing, and I was like, this is not foreshadowing as much as telling people this is what he does. There was a little bit of access to that stuff when I was younger and when I was that age. We were just stupid enough, honestly. We didn’t understand that grownups could also use the internet, and we published all kinds of stuff on our LiveJournals that now I’m like, oh my god!
Maris: Tell me what else you’ve been doing in your home—reading, watching TV, working, whatever you want to talk about.
Zan: I actually was on a writing retreat in northern California when things started to go from “this might be bad” to “this is definitely going to be bad.” I left the retreat a couple of days early, and it was sort of a lucky thing because by the time I drove down, I passed through San Francisco and stayed with a friend, and San Francisco had just started a shelter in place. I was trying to write, I was trying to start on a new book project. That is on hold for now. In part because I just don’t have the mental bandwidth for it, but I think also in part because my books tend to be pretty modern and pretty rooted in what’s going on right now, and I need to understand more about what’s happening.
Maris: We don’t.
Zan: Yeah, exactly. We just don’t know, and I can’t begin to make it up. But I am a fulltime freelance writer, so doing some book reviews, doing some interviews with people who have books coming out, trying to support other authors. I just talked to Rufi Thorpe, whose book The Knockout Queen is coming out soon, which I loved.
Maris: It’s amazing. It’s really amazing.
Zan: It’s so good. She’s so good, and it’s so good. Trying to read galleys and get author interviews out there. And I don’t know, watching—no TV I would recommend. Oh! what I would recommend however, important, is the Himbo Trilogy, which is Magic Mike XXL, Everybody Wants Some, the Linklater film about baseball players, and I don’t know if this is for everyone, but One Direction’s This Is Us, if you are like me a One Direction fan, is just full of idiots dancing.
Maris: The Himbo Trilogy! I’ll have to try it.
Zan: I found it extraordinarily comforting in these trying times.
Maris: That’s amazing. And Zan, what have you been eating?
Zan: Oh my god. Maris, I have been eating everything, number one. One of my first jobs out of college was in the food world. I am someone who lives to eat and thank god likes to cook, so I’ve been doing some experiments. I have been doing homemade pasta with no equipment of any kind.
Zan: It’s pretty good. I wouldn’t feed it to anyone but myself, but I’m enjoying it. I did a little sourdough like everyone else on planet Earth. But honestly, I’ve been making a batch of brownies every week and putting them in the freezer, and then I have a frozen brownie whenever I want, and that’s what’s keeping me going.
Maris: That seems pretty core. Well, thank you so much. I’m sad I can’t hug you, but this has been great. Everybody read Look. [holds up book]
Zan: I don’t have my copy with me, it’s somewhere here in the disaster that I live in. But thank you so much for having me and thank you for continuing to do this. It’s so nice to talk about books a little bit.