Locascio has said that she set out to write a book in which a woman’s interiority was the plot. The resulting novel—set in Denmark but with an American eighteen-year-old, Roxana, as the narrator—is engrossing and compelling. It’s a story that asks questions about romance, secrecy, sex, xenophobia, and adventure. The characters are complicated, flawed, and human. Roxana’s internal life drives the book forward; we want to know what will happen to her, but more importantly we want to know what kind of person she’ll become.
I first heard lines from Open Me in the downstairs of San Francisco’s Armory Club, where Lisa Locascio read to a packed room of listeners. Soon after, I spent a weekend holed up with Locascio’s debut novel, pausing every few hours to eat or take a walk when I became too embroiled in the emotional dynamics of the book’s characters and needed to re-anchor myself in the present, physical world.
Lisa Locascio is the co-publisher of Joyland and editor of its West section, as well as the Executive Director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She writes fiction and nonfiction and her work has appeared in magazines including The Believer, Tin House, n+1, and Bookforum.
Locascio and I spoke over video-chat in late September. We discussed writing about sexuality; the importance of a feminine scatology and letting women be gross; and the role of highly flawed, but not evil, characters.
The Rumpus: So, Roxana is in an early phase of her life that I imagine you were not in when writing the book. She experiences an awakening around her sexuality and also her sexual agency, in some respects. It really took me back there, to that time when you’re just so impressed with your own power and pleasure, but simultaneously, there’s no context for it yet because it’s so new. I think that feeling can be hard to remember after you’ve been more active in your sexuality for many years and from a craft perspective, I was curious how you were able to write about that so accurately.
Lisa Locascio: This book has been described as a coming-of-age story and as a bildungsroman. I like those designations, but I have to say I wasn’t thinking about either of those when I was writing it. I did want to represent this unhappy, female-bodied longing for intimacy because I didn’t see that represented anywhere. The decision to make her eighteen honestly partially dates to the original draft when it was a really different book. But when I moved away from that original version, I still had Roxana as a fully-formed character and I wasn’t going to make her older.
Some of my writing is fairly autobiographical and I also write a lot of nonfiction, but the plot of this book is the least autobiographical thing I’ve ever written. I was way too much of a wuss when I was eighteen to do anything like what Roxana does. But that’s a really well-posed question, and the way you asked it rises in me some memories that honestly I don’t even know if I was consciously accessing when I was writing it.
Unlike Roxana, I didn’t lose my virginity when I was eighteen, I lost my virginity really young at fourteen, and I was super into it. I do remember that clearly; it’s something that I think about a lot because I think a lot about how the sexuality of teenage girls is portrayed.
The older I get, the more I’m like, whoa I was really young when I lost my virginity, and I’m also glad I had that experience when I did. That was a galvanizing time in my life. Immediately preceding my own sexual awakening, I’d been through an awful period where I was the target of this coordinated bullying. That didn’t have anything to do with my sexuality but I felt very hungry for deeper experience and romance. So for me, getting into high school and immediately having my first relationship and losing my virginity was really, really liberating. It was also an experience I was grateful I had then, because I was sexually assaulted when I was fifteen. I thought a lot about the fact that if I hadn’t had those positive experiences before that happened to me, I think my relationship with sex would be different, and probably more troubled.
I never consciously thought about all that when I was writing Roxana but I see now the connection, with this question.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing about girls and sex, obviously. It was important to me that the container of the novel could be used to pressure cook together these two different experiences. I think for a lot of women they’re separated by more than three weeks, but in Roxana’s life that’s how close together they are. One is the beauty and the joy of a real, assured sexual relationship with an equally interested and engaged person, and the other thing is the opposite of that—the failure of someone else’s desire.
I didn’t think a lot about the novel as a construct. The plot felt very intuitive to me. But looking at it in retrospect, what I was interested in doing was having a high stakes narrative that was about desire and about the experience of discovery that’s connected to another person. I’m a big fan of masturbation and fantasy life, but the reality is there are sexual experiences that are unique to partnered sex. I wanted to represent this state of desire which I think is kind of ageless. And often women are deprived authority over their desiring selves.
We have a narrative that has recently been re-upped recently by figures like Jordan Peterson and the incels that makes it this huge tragedy for men not to have access to sex with the women who they believe they deserve sex with. What I think is sad about that narrative is that there is a deep humanistic truth that people need intimate contact and when they’re deprived of it bad things happen, emotionally, physically, and in communities. But because that complaint has been so voiced in the language of virulent misogynist violence and hatred, we can’t have an open conversation about it.
It’s interesting, because in the press surrounding the book, not too many people have had questions about this element of the book. What I wanted to do was write a book where the majority of the time the main character is like, “Please, fuck me!” and not as a funny thing, because I think woman’s desire is often portrayed to be funny. Otherwise the portrayals are about how men want it, and how men suffer when they don’t get it.
Rumpus: Regarding the actual sex scenes in the book, were those naturally easy to write?
Locascio: I don’t know that it would be necessarily possible to be natural as a sex writer, but I realize there’s a big difference, maybe, between me and other people, which is that I’ve always been frustrated by erasures of sex and by what I just think is bad writing about sex, particularly regarding women. We’ve been spoon-fed by the shovelful tripe about sex.
I actually have a lot of affection for books I’ve never been able to read because I just find their prose stultifying, like Fifty Shades and Twilight. I think it’s great that those books made lots and lots of, largely, women—although I’m sure there were some very eager male readers as well—get down with themselves and feel their sexuality. I just also think that women deserve better. At times in my life when I felt most alone, most adrift, I’ve turned to literature and literature has fed me and helped me in so many ways, but the successful portrayals of sex in literature are still few and far between.
I think people are afraid of sex, and the power of sex is upsetting to them. It’s one of those spaces that’s interesting to write about because deep, serious, weird shit happens there. That’s true if the sex is good; that’s true if the sex is bad.
Like many writers, the short stories I wrote when I was writing this book also reflect a lot of these concerns, so I certainly was practicing it. At some point in the book, Roxana says, “I’m going to do this without flinching.” And that was also very much my objective. I wanted to write about it without flinching. It felt good to be honest about that stuff.
There are vested interests that benefit from keeping us in a benighted and shamed dialectic of sexuality and I’m not here for that. If you want to read my book because it does it for you in a sexual way then that’s fine; that’s a sacred honor as well. One thing that I’ve found moving though is I’ve had just as many conversations with people about the book where it’s not about it being sexy or explicit or visceral, it’s just about it being honest and not looking away. That’s what was important to me, in addition to the sexual honesty.
Rumpus: Related to unflinching honesty, you let Roxana be quite gross at times. There are a lot of cultural forces at play trying to get women to not be or seem gross, and I think one of the more relieving parts of reading the book as a woman is just to see one’s own grossness reflected in this character. For instance, she’s not only letting herself be rank, she’s enjoying it. I was wondering if you had to fight to keep her that way, either in the writing or editing process?
Locascio: I think the amazing thing about literature is that it allows us to turn our vision inward and examine our experiences. I was interested in that unwashed, unseen, undesired body. There’s a way that you present your body to another person and there’s a way that you present your body to yourself. I missed the frank, science-y focus of those puberty books which are written about in the book, which I think we could all use a little bit more of.
People who stood behind this book got into its bodily-ness, its interest in being a little unwashed and a little gleefully gross. It was definitely edited a lot; I think a lot of my poop prose was edited out. I mourn one sentence very much, where Roxana is thinking about how she drinks coffee that causes her to have these explosive bowel movements every day. I believe some poor soul removed the descriptor “while everything fell out of me like a bucket full of keys.” Which I still just like. While I was writing that, Ottessa Moshfegh was also writing Eileen which has way, way more toilet stuff than I was even up to the task of creating. So I think there is a little bit of the zeitgeist-y feel of puncturing this veil that surrounds women and their bodies.
I always remember this story I was told about a relative whose husband had never seen her without her makeup on. Now, I haven’t lived under that and I don’t think that’s representative of a lot of women’s lives. But I think we do have real intimacies with our bodies that are often erased or silenced.
It’s funny because scatology has always kind of pressed on a sensitivity for me that sexuality hasn’t. But I sought out to write a feminine scatology because I did not find one in literature and I wanted to devote some serious time and attention to it. And to period blood, and to the experience of menstruation. I think we’re in a moment of beautiful flowering of this topic. I have read so many Bukowski poems about hangover pooping and I have read so many descriptions of semen and male masturbation and I’m into all of that, it’s not an “either/or” for me, it’s a “yes, and.” So I wanted to usher the reader into that level of familiarity with Roxana.
I think it’s sad that those bodily experiences are so verboten and whispered about. They have the power to unify us and help us see our beautiful fragility.
Rumpus: I was wondering about Roxana’s sense of isolation, her divorced parents, and the way Sylvie, her best friend, doesn’t come to help her. Did you choose to push Roxena into alienation from the onset, or did those narrative developments organically transpire during the writing process?
Locascio: In the writing of the book, it didn’t feel like a choice, it felt like this imperative that Roxana would somehow be alone and largely dependent on her own wits to get out of it. I’m also reminded of a piece Elif Batuman wrote for the New Yorker about Gone Girl; she writes that Gone Girl capitalizes on the way that marriage is after a fashion a certain type of abduction, where the woman is taken from her family. I thought about that, although it’s not a book about marriage, the idea that Roxana had to be alone. So I spent a lot of time, like an embarrassingly long amount of time, trying to figure out the logistics of the whole thing.
I wanted the book to be about that failure of categories that so many of us experience in young adulthood, when things are not as we thought they would be. I have had friendships where, after years of devoted closeness, someone just bows out in a way that still, years after the fact, I’m trying to figure out what the fuck happened and why that was okay for that person to do that. And you don’t ever actually get an answer to that question, you know? In the case of the experience that maybe most informed Sylvie and Roxana’s split, I actually did try, several times, to get an explanation. What was offered never rang true to me, which says as much about me as it does about my former friend.
People do this all the time—especially teenagers who are about to go to college and want to differentiate themselves and make new lives—at a moment when they could be compassionate and extend themselves, they do the opposite.
All of it was necessary for Roxana to be what I wanted her to be, which was an adventurer. Her experience is not uncommon for young women but it’s less represented. There’s a lot of pearl clutching from some readers of this book, saying that she’s really stupid, or asking where are her parents? I think it’s interesting, because we could also celebrate her bravery for going out into the world and having this experience, instead of punishing her for not… what? Being a stay-at-home daughter? I think what she does is valorous and brave and very adult, which is what most eighteen-year-olds seek to be. Those reactions tell me so much about the expectations of paternalism.
Rumpus: In another interview, you mentioned that your ex-husband is Danish, and you’ve also said explicitly that the story itself isn’t autobiographical. For other people who are writing fiction that isn’t autobiographical but still incorporates elements of real experience that readers could project or transpose onto, I’m curious what you could share about your process for melding the “real” with the fictional?
Locascio: I’m happy to talk about that. The question and ambiguity of what is real and what is not, how much is me and how much is not, is something that for the most part I’ve really enjoyed in a kind of contrarian way. I’ve felt like I have the opportunity to titillate and grab the attention of the reader through activating and challenging that perceived distance, or lack thereof. That being said, during press for the book, when people say, “Why Denmark?” Or, “Have you been to Denmark?” It’s hard to describe where these experiences come from. Of course, there’s no reason you’d know about me that I was married for seven years to a Danish man who immigrated to the US so that we could be together. The writing of the book lasted almost exactly the span of our relationship and at the end of the writing of the book, I went through a really painful separation and divorce.
Was I a tourist or was I living there? It’s kind of hard to say. I spent a lot of time there and my experience there was very different from the experiences I’ve had visiting countries where I wasn’t married to a citizen of the country and staying with his parents. That’s an experience I’ve had only once. My ex-husband gave me the freedom to express myself as I saw fit in my work. There were times when it caused friction between us but it’s not why we were divorced and it’s not why our relationship had problems that ultimately led to its demise.
How can you not write about your experiences? How can you not write about who you are and how the people you know impact you? I also think within that frightening and hot-to-handle responsibility is the answer, because all of your characters are you, no matter what you do. I’ve only realized more and more the degree to which that’s true. Any writer knows it’s all a primordial soup from which we take ladlefuls and pour them into models that meet our needs.
Someone said to me recently that Geden is the most “me” of any of the characters in the book which is certainly flattering. I also think an apt Goodreads comment, that was also echoed in Julie Buntin’s New York Times review, was that maybe Geden is a little too good to be true. I was conscious of that when I was writing him to a certain point and then I wasn’t conscious at all. He came fully formed out of this book in which I’d fought hard to have these two people—Roxana and Søren. I attribute my ex-husband with the spark of creation for Geden because I was talking to him about the book and he said, “Two is a little boring. What if it was a triangle? What if there was a mysterious local hermit called The Goat?” And he had experiences with Bosnian Muslim refugees who were his friends when he was a kid.
There are elements of the book that were highly collaborative; that’s a big part of why the book is “to” not “for” him. He’s given the ultimate acknowledgement in the back of the book because it wouldn’t exist without him and our relationship.
I don’t think it’s possible not to draw from your life. I know that I’m lucky because my family has always been supportive, my ex-husband was supportive when we were together and has remained supportive since our separation. I’ve been able to draw strength from that, whereas I think it’s much more objectively terrifying and painful for a lot of writers.
For me, writing has always been about taking control of the narrative. When I have the reader’s attention, I get to show them the world as I see it, which is a rare experience. Most of the time, I’m navigating many other versions of reality. I think you have to be quite fearless because if you hold yourself back from writing about something, it can fester and grow until it becomes really the only thing you can write about.