Bringing the Fun Back: Talking with Andrea Lawlor
Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, was released November 2017 from Rescue Press to widespread acclaim, including a starred review from Kirkus. Maggie Nelson calls the novel, set in the early-1990s, a “spot-on portrait of an era, scene, and soundtrack” and says Lawlor’s writing is “as rare as it is contagious, not to mention hot.” Paul tells the story of Paul Polydoris, a twenty-two-year-old able to change his appearance and gender at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco. A 2018 finalist for the Lambda Literary and CLMP Firecrackers Awards, the novel has been re-released by Vintage Books, and released in the UK at the same time through Picador.
Lawlor teaches writing, edits fiction for Fence magazine, and has been awarded fellowships by Lambda Literary and Radar Labs. In addition to Paul, they have also written a chapbook, Position Papers (Factory Hollow Press, 2016).
Paul was on a list of books a friend and I wanted to read together. When I pulled my copy from the shelves at Green Apple Books, in San Francisco, I skimmed enthusiastic blurbs from Maggie Nelson, Michelle Tea, and Eileen Myles. I shared a photo of the book on Instagram when I got home to see if anyone else I knew had read it; a few had. “Lawlor is amazing,” one said. Then another, “It gets graphic fast!”
I talked with Lawlor via Skype about picaresque novels, sex, money, pop culture, and bringing the fun back, even in times of crisis.
The Rumpus: The structure of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is episodic. Brian Blanchfield, in Bookforum, describes the book as a “modern picaresque.” Can you talk about what influenced your decision to tell the story this way? What authors were important to you?
Andrea Lawlor: In terms of structure, John Rechy’s Numbers and City of Night, but especially Numbers, were huge for me. There’s an homage to Rechy in Paul. I must have read Numbers when I was eighteen or nineteen. I got it at A Different Light in New York. It’s about this guy, Johnny Rico, who’s counting the number of guys he picks up and I guess there’s a quest narrative but it’s extremely picaresque. John Rechy was thinking about sex through fiction, and that was interesting to me. And there were writers like Samuel Delany and Jane DeLynn and Sarah Schulman who were writing about queer sex. Dorothy Allison. Lots of people who were super important to me in terms of realizing that sex is a big part of human life, or it can be, and that writers might take up queer sex in particular as a literary subject.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of sex in this book, but it doesn’t feel like sex is given disproportionate gravity or emotional weight. What’s your criteria, if any, for writing a sex scene?
Lawlor: For me, a sex scene should tell the reader something about the characters and be crucial to the development of the story. It’s like any other scene or any action or dialogue. It’s either got to tell us something about the characters or the world, or it’s got to move the plot along. Of course, those are pretty wide parameters.
Rumpus: Did you cut many sex scenes?
Lawlor: Yes! I think so. I’m trying to remember. I was a little anxious about having so many sex scenes. People in various workshops or people who read early drafts would count the sex scenes. And I would be like, what? It’s just life. People go to work, they have sex, they sleep, they eat. What are the things people do, and what are the things twenty-three-year-olds do? Sex is connection, it’s exploration of identity, it’s repression of feelings, it’s avoidance, it’s pleasure. Sex is a lot of different things to different people and to the same person at different times in their life. Sometimes it’s dependent on the person or people you’re having sex with, sometimes not. I think the scenes I cut, the outtakes, were doing work other scenes were already doing.
Two of my favorite things to read about are sex and work, which I think has to do with an interest in process.
Rumpus: I’m glad you bring up work, because I wanted to talk about work and money. Something that stood out to me are the long internal monologues where Paul’s calculating what he can afford or how he’ll pay rent. They went on for longer than I expected, and I loved that.
Lawlor: Many different people told me “You gotta cut this section where he’s calculating!” But those sections were important to me. I don’t even feel like it’s ugly, the math. Not everything has to be some sentence-y line. Could it also just be a person having really boring, repetitive, freaked out math thoughts? I still walk around thinking about things like, how am I going to deal with this debt? How am I going to move this credit card balance, or deal with student loan payments or childcare? Those structures of thought haven’t entirely changed for me, though my situation has changed.
Rumpus: Is that why you think people asked you to cut the scenes, because they weren’t relatable?
Lawlor: I don’t know. They were boring or too much math or something. What did you like about them?
Rumpus: There’s so much stress and anxiety associated with money, and it’s easy to feel alone with that anxiety, so reading Paul’s obsessive calculations made me feel less alone. I don’t really see that kind of space given to the specifics of managing money in a lot of the books I read.
Lawlor: Yeah, it’s weird, right? Why don’t people have jobs in books? Can we just all talk about it? I have been working since I was fourteen. I like working. A lot of interesting stuff happens at work that’s not about the job or the paycheck. But also work itself is a huge part of people’s lives, of my life. It has to be. In spite of the fact that I worked the entire time I was in school, I have $100,000 of student loan debt. That fucking blows and that shapes my life. But I also have had other support, not family money but a partner who’s had a full-time job for a long time, which for me has been a condition of possibility for making work.
Rumpus: Maybe it’s too stressful, like somehow thinking about money interferes with art-making? Do you find it stressful to write about money? Or even cathartic?
Lawlor: Oh, no, no. You know what’s cathartic is, like, getting some fucking money. There have been these interviews recently on Medium—there was one with Carmen Machado—where people are talking about how they got money while they were writing their books. And I just think that’s the kind of stuff we should all be talking about.
Rumpus: There’s a wonderful passage where Paul laments the unfairness of job-hunting in a new city. The passage ends with, “Paul felt an incisive critique of capitalism coming on and ordered an expensive latte as a distraction.” So, Paul distracts himself from a critique of capitalism by participating in capitalism. What’s this impulse about?
Lawlor: Yeah, I don’t know. Is that self-care? Kay Gabriel wrote this beautiful review in The Believer on economics in Paul. She’s such an amazing genius poet and thinker, and after I read her review I thought, Thank you for helping me think about this. Paul’s not a Marxist revolutionary. What does it even mean to have radical politics? I am on the side of workers and also as a worker I sometimes need an expensive latte. I’m drinking one right now.
Rumpus: Paul does its own curating of art in the ‘90s. Some of the pop-culture passages even read like mini-essays. I’m thinking specifically about Paul’s riff on cover songs early in the book. Can you talk about how these sections came about in your writing process?
Lawlor: That passage on cover songs originally had been a footnote. I had a bunch of footnotes originally. A couple places where workshop mates and editors pushed me had to do with footnotes. And I realized that a lot of the footnotes made no sense. I ultimately left one footnote, even though on some level it makes no sense to have only one footnote. I was like, fine, it makes no sense. I’m leaving it. But the bit with the cover songs, I think it was my girlfriend who suggested it could be something Paul said, and it just clicked into place for me, because it’s also very much located in an early ‘90s understanding of gender and music. I realized I needed to keep to this constraint of what would be possible for Paul to think or know or say, in the language it would be possible for him to have at that moment in time, in his historical subjectivity. It’s not necessarily what I would write today. But there was certainly a moment where I was having fun pretending to be a music critic. Who doesn’t have that fantasy of being a music critic?
Rumpus: How much do we owe the reader when we make references to pop culture? Does it matter that they know who, say, The Slits are?
Lawlor: It doesn’t matter so much to me. Well, maybe it does matter to me that people know who the Slits are! And the Raincoats! So good. I think of a book as a voice in a larger conversation made up of many voices. I’m not thinking about this book as a book for the ages. I don’t need this book to be in the canon. Who knows if anybody’s even going to want to read this book in five years, let alone fifty.
I definitely had people in workshops over the years say things like, Well, I felt left out. I didn’t get the references. And I was like, Well, that’s okay with me. I don’t need to explain everything to you. Who am I writing for? Ultimately, the door is open. Anybody who wants in is in. Am I maybe a little bit writing for a Gen X queer person who is happy to complain about how all the good music isn’t on Spotify? Maybe I am; maybe I am writing for that person.
Rumpus: I want to ask you a question Paul asks himself. “How do you know if you like something because the corporate radio brainwashers want you to like it or because it’s actually good and you have an internal sense of what’s good, which is a sign of your essential worth as a person?”
Lawlor: I don’t know! Something that bugs me is the listicle titling convention. “12 Books You Should Have Already Read by Now & If You Haven’t You’re a Bad Person.” I just feel like for the love of all that is holy can we bring the fun back? Can we bring the curiosity back and just discover because it feels good? I’m delighted when people teach my book. It’s wonderful, but I also feel like you shouldn’t read it if you don’t want to. I don’t love the idea of stuff being required or canonical or people having to “get” things.
Rumpus: I feel like a lot of people consider Paul to be a fun book. Most reviews I read in preparation for this interview describe it that way. What does it mean for you for a novel to be fun?
Lawlor: In Paul, I write a lot about things that fall under the sign of fun, like fashion and music and partying and sex. And people are like, It’s fun! But also, people were dying, right? And yet in the ‘90s we were still having fun, so there’s that. That’s a weird thing about fun—it happens even now, when we’re in a moment of devastating global climate change. We can still have fun, can’t we?
Rumpus: I think so. I hope so.
Lawlor: I have a five-year-old—I hope so, too. You know what I think is fun? I think a really gripping, tightly constructed plot is fun. I think witty banter is fun. I just read that Sally Rooney book Conversations with Friends. I just found that book to be so pleasurable. I’m teaching Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars. There’s so much pleasure in that book. I mean, there’s pain and there’s rage and there’s trauma and there’s grief, but there’s so much pleasure too. And joy. And there’s a playfulness. I think attention to pleasure is fun.
Rumpus: The novel’s been out for about a year and a half. What are some of the memorable responses you’ve had from readers so far?
Lawlor: I had a professor at UMass, this cool, straight cis married guy, and he read the earliest draft of the manuscript and was so supportive and had such helpful feedback for me. One thing he said stuck with me. After he read a full draft, he said “I was looking around and I was like, ‘Oh God, that’s so boring and heterosexual!’” And I was like, Success! I’m not trying to make people feel bad about their lives or anything, but I like the idea that queer pleasure or queer culture, even just one moment of one kind of queer culture—this book is not all queer cultures, it’s not all queer pleasures—but some queer pleasure or some queer culture could be the default, at least for these three hundred pages.
Rumpus: I love that anecdote. As a straight guy, I totally relate.
Lawlor: Oh my god. That’s so cool. I didn’t know you were straight. That’s awesome. That delights me because I don’t want to police this stuff. This shit is so fluid. You know, I had a student when I started teaching at UMass who was probably seventeen, right out at Eastern Mass, who showed up with this long hair and was kind of quiet and the next semester they had this crew cut and a Sleater-Kinney t-shirt. And I was like, Sleater-Kinney broke up before you were born! Awesome. Who are you? You’re a throwback. I love you! I feel like I want to hang out with people who want to hang out with me. And that’s how I feel about the book. I guess that’s that omnivorous thing.
Rumpus: I know you have a chapbook out as well. Aside from gearing up for the re-release of Paul, what else are you working on?
Lawlor: As I was finishing the draft of Paul that was my MFA thesis at UMass, I started writing poetry for the first time since college. I loved that I could write something and just finish it, sometimes in an hour! I began to write this series of prose poems in which I articulate my positions on various questions such as cell phones, or cars, or the police. After I’d written a number of these, all called Position Papers, I realized I was building a world, a near-future seceded queer anarchist Western Mass. I now have some reason to suspect that these prose poems are the beginning of a novel, but I guess we’ll see.
Photograph of Andrea Lawlor by Steve Dillon. Book cover designed by Strick & Williams.