Stories We Tell Ourselves: A Conversation with Miranda Popkey
Miranda Popkey’s debut novel Topics of Conversation, out next week from Knopf, explores the moral and emotional complexities of modern love and sex through a series of conversations between mothers and daughters, old friends, new friends, and strangers. It begins in the narrator’s twenty second year, when she shares an intimate scene with her friend’s mother, and ends in her late thirties, after she’s grappled with an array of relationships.
The narrator, along with the characters that populate her life, weave their experiences into narratives, attempting to make sense of themselves as they share their stories with each other. Through her prose, Popkey reminds the reader of the fluid nature of a person’s identity and how we futilely try to mold it into something fixed. The structure of the novel allows for the misinterpretations, the little white lies, and the emotional charge that make up our everyday intimate conversations and influence the way we see ourselves and one another.
I spoke recently with Popkey about the delicate nature of storytelling and the conversations, both public and private, about relationships that shaped her novel.
The Rumpus: What was the origin of Topics of Conversation?
Miranda Popkey: I really didn’t write any of this until the summer between my first and second year of my MFA; there’s some stuff that I salvaged from my first year, which ended up in a very different form in the novel itself. I wrote it in a bit of a rush, late summer and fall and then into winter of 2017 and 2018. There were a couple things that coincided and contributed to shaping the novel.
First of all, I’ve been trying for a long time to write about a certain kind of relationship that I have experienced, that I think a lot of women have experienced, where there is a power imbalance that at first seems appealing and then later, perhaps in retrospect, perhaps later in the relationship while it is still occurring, ends up feeling uncomfortable or something other than desirable. The other thing is that for the stories I had been writing in my first year, I had been getting some great, generous feedback, but the thing that kept coming up was that there wasn’t a ton of emotion in my stories. They were very cold and guarded and remote.
I really wanted to put anger in these stories; I had been feeling a lot of anger, and for some reason it just wasn’t coming through for my readers. And then, of course, toward the end of 2017, that was when the Harvey Weinstein allegations of sexual assault and rape and sexual harassment started coming out. I don’t know exactly why but it seemed to open up a space for conversations about power dynamics. And it seemed that the conversations that I had been having with myself or with friends, those conversations were becoming really public. And for whatever reason, around this time, I was able to tap into a narrative voice, the voice of my narrator in the novel, which was able to communicate anger.
Rumpus: Something that ran through my mind while reading your novel was the concept of morality in sexual harassment cases or relationships with strong power dynamics. Your novel doesn’t take a fixed stance, or if it does, it allows for each situation to be individual in its complexities. What was your research process for writing such a well-informed novel about this complicated topic?
Popkey: As I said, I wrote it in a bit of a rush. Start to finish on the first draft was maybe seven months. These are things I had been thinking about for probably fifteen years, but I did write it quite quickly. So, apart from the Norman Mailer section, which is based in historical fact (though the character who tells the story is not based on anyone and is my own invention entirely), there wasn’t a ton of research except for the reading I was doing about all of the allegations about very powerful men in media and all of these actions of truly upsetting harassment that they had allegedly committed. I didn’t really consider it research; it was just what everyone was talking about and thinking about at the time, and so it was what I was reading. It was just so front of mind for months, at the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018.
But in terms of the morality, I think for each of the characters in my novel, the situation that they are in is very specific and the details of that situation really affect the way that they interpret the moral implications. And also their interpretations are going to change based on where they are in their lives. You know the narrator has this relationship with her professor. And she has a different understanding of what that relationship meant, and whether any lines were crossed, when she is twenty-two, at the beginning of the novel, than she does when she is thirty-nine, at the end of the novel.
Rumpus: You mentioned Norman Mailer to be the nonfictional character you researched into. In particular, what drew you to include Norman Mailer’s story and what was your research process like while writing about him?
Popkey: I read Adele Mailer’s memoir The Last Party: Scenes from My Life With Norman Mailer, and I read articles from around the time that he was arrested for assaulting his wife. I read part of Mailer: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn, and I watched a documentary called Norman Mailer: The American that provided some interesting details. Those were the primary sources, but I spent a lot of time on Google Books, looking at archival newspaper coverage from around the time that he stabbed his wife. As for why I became interested in him, in the #MeToo movement the most dramatic revelations happened in Hollywood, in part just because it is a bigger space. But I used to work in publishing and there were conversations that were happening in publishing, too. You know, Mailer almost got away with murder. If you read an account of the stabbing, he did come quite close to murdering her and he may or may not have asked her to lie and say that she fell on broken glass and he certainly suffered very few consequences. He ended up being convicted of, I think, third degree assault, and assigned hundreds of hours of community service.
Rumpus: What I liked about the inclusion of Normal Mailer as opposed to a Hollywood figure is that we often enjoy work—and this is in regard to artists of all kinds and not just actors and authors—we enjoy their music and paintings and books without thinking about the artists themselves. I think we should be paying more attention to the biographies of the artists that we appreciate. And I think with authors, specifically, we’re reading what’s coming out of their minds and straight from their heart. And if that person, if we think of them as an immoral person, why are we appreciating the work that they put into the world?
Popkey: Yeah, I think for Norman Mailer, his misogyny and sense of self-importance is all over his work. He wrote a lot of nonfiction that you can understand a lot better if you know that he was a person who stabbed his wife at a party that was supposed to be the launch of his mayoral campaign. That is important context. We lose some things when we try to separate the art from the artist, not only because the biography of an artist is part of the context from which their work emerges, but because I think it’s helpful in general for people to see other people in the whole.
Rumpus: I’d like to talk about the structure of Topic of Conversation. Your novel makes me think of the Alice in Wonderland quote, “What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversation?” You managed to give all the context and background the reader desired through almost entirely conversation and inner monologue. As a writer, what have you discovered about the power of conversation in storytelling?
Popkey: Conversation is one of the most important things to me. The things that you choose to focus on can really work to shape your life. The stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell our friends, do end up determining the ways in which we behave. And this is something that the narrator discovers in the novel, that she has become too attached to a certain kind of story about herself. Because if you tell a story, the heart of which is “I’ve done enough bad things that I am a bad person,” it excuses you from taking further responsibility for change. If you’re already a bad person, there’s no point in trying to be any better. Certainly, there have been times in my life when the stories I was telling about myself, to myself and to other people, were really unhelpful and they were not helping me move forward.
Rumpus: Unreliable narration isn’t always a product of the narrator deliberately hiding a part of his or herself. We are all unreliable narrators, in a way, because the past changes with our memories and our path changes as we make decisions. And like you mentioned, we get fixed on telling our stories in a certain way that might not be true. How much autonomy does your protagonist have in the telling of her story?
Popkey: I think one of the things she struggles with is understanding the ways in which she doesn’t have autonomy. She uses that as an excuse to not take responsibility of the parts of her life where she does have autonomy. A lot of the thinking behind the book came from my reckoning with the ways that I was socialized as a woman, the kinds of culture that I consumed, and the kinds of relationships that that culture modelled. There’s not full autonomy when it comes to how someone is socialized, especially when you’re socialized quite young.
You’re absorbing culture in a way that is uncritical, and unconscious, and not necessarily chosen. So, there are certain things about her perspective and the shape of her desires, and the particular way that her mind works, I think she is fighting against some of the models that she has absorbed. But those models are in there. I think that’s just something you don’t necessarily have control over. She uses that very true fact to tell herself a story about how there is no way to escape that trap. I hope by the end of the novel she understands that that is not true, that there is a way that you can try to tell yourself a different story and you can look for different kinds of stories and in that way, you can reshape the default that your brain is set on. At the end of the novel, I think she wants to take advantage of the autonomy that she realizes she does have.
Rumpus: Voyeurism comes up in the novel often, and what’s interesting is that the characters take sexual pleasure not from watching sexual acts but in the intimacy involved in watching someone closely. The narrator’s mother even talked about the pleasure in having her therapist watch her. How did this theme emerge in your novel? What is the importance of seeing and watching in regard to desire, lust, and relationships?
Popkey: There’s something so powerful about being seen. We spend so much time, and by “we” I mean Americans in this particular technological moment. We spend a lot of time not looking at each other. I don’t necessarily mean that it’s bad or good. It’s just a fact. It’s possible to drive to the grocery store and get money from an ATM and get your grocery items and use the self-check out and drive home and not interact with the single person. And there are days that I’m so grateful for that, but I think the rareness of looking at people makes it more prized than it would be usually. I also think that most people are very bad liars, and the eyes are a real tell. If you really look at someone and they’re really looking at you, there is a lot that can be communicated nonverbally. Some of the most terrifying and thrilling experiences of my life have been those moments when you’re at a party or a crowded room and there is a person across the room, maybe someone you’re attracted to, or someone you have a thing with or want to have a thing with, and you see them looking at you. That’s so thrilling.
Rumpus: A quote that stuck with me: “Pay attention to enough men and you will begin to think of yourself as one.” Something you do so well in this novel is turn the cliché of women talking about men on its head. This cliché, so embedded in our culture that we’ve developed the Bechdel test in order to counter it, is explored in your novel in a new way, with the women reclaiming the narrative. Of course we talk about men because love and sex is a major part of our lives. For heterosexual women, it is inevitable. But we can do it in a way that keeps us, the women, at the center. Could you talk a little about how women reclaim the narrative in this story, and perhaps in contemporary literature at large?
Popkey: Even when women try to reclaim their own narrative, they’re working within templates that have been developed by men. So that’s something women in this novel struggle with and have a variety of approaches to. Sometimes I do find myself frustrated with when women are told to act more like men in salary negotiations or to be more assertive in general. Even if we try to center people who are not the classic Western man, there is still this sense that the traits we associate with the classic white guy are the traits that everyone should be attempting to emulate. I think that beyond women reclaiming the narrative, and re-centering themselves in the narrative—and not just women but everyone who is not white or straight or a man—I think the point of that is not that everyone starts acting like a white guy.
A lot of the behavior that we associate with women are traits that men should learn: the empathy, the caring. Being a little too deferential, being soft and sensitive, knowing how to express an emotion, and knowing how to comfort someone and care for someone are obviously not traits that all women share, but they are things we have classically socialized women to have and be and do. We expect this from women. I would like for people, instead of shifting towards “well everyone gets to act like a man,” to rethink the kinds of things that we value. Because I think a lot of the things we value are based on the narratives that have centered around white men. And my hope is that, by centering stories around people who are not white men, the shape of narrative will also have to change. And that’s exciting, but it’s also very scary because I adapted very well to the male discourse.
Rumpus: But at the same time you took what you learned by reading this canon and you created your own voice and your own structure in this novel, which is a step in the right direction.
Popkey: Thank you, but I did lift a few of my structural ideas from Rachel Cusk. I think she was moving in the right direction, too. I think it’s a really exciting moment; we’re moving in the direction of telling stories that are going to not sound “correct” to people who are steeped in a certain type of narrative. I’m at a certain stage of my life where I’m so aware of how much there is to read and watch and learn and I truly find the process of learning new ways to tell stories really exciting.
Photograph of Miranda Popkey by Elena Seibert.