Laura Bogart’s debut novel, Don’t You Know I Love You, begins with a crash that alters protagonist Angelina’s reality. One minute she’s at a stop sign, the next her wrist is shattered in the impact with a texting driver. Losing her service industry job and with no other options, she’s forced to move back in with her parents, where violent dynamics lurk beneath a thin veneer. This story of survival in a reality tipped into chaos, infested with past demons, is eerily apropos of 2020.
Released in mid-March, as quarantine mandates halted the country, it’s a book that comes at the best time for readers in search of light on the page, and at perhaps the worst time to be an emerging novelist. I’ve been anticipating Bogart’s first book for years, after falling in love with her pop culture essays that examine media from a fat, feminist perspective. Her fiction, I was delighted to find, was just as rich and unflinching as her most searing essays.
I spoke recently with Laura about the process of writing her first novel, building realistic characters, finding alternative creative outlets, and more.
The Rumpus: You began your novel in your MFA program, as a series of short stories. Can you talk about that process? Did the stories emerge as disparate pieces, or did you imagine a connection between them right away?
Laura Bogart: I’d say that they initially started as disparate stories; I actually first wrote one from the point of view of the father, Jack, and found that the daughter, Angelina, this character who demanded a reckoning of him, she was very insistent that she get her say—and I loved writing her, in all her messiness and anger and intelligence and ferocity and warmth. As I kept cycling through short stories about her, I realized that there was a bigger story to tell. I’ll be honest; I was terrified that I didn’t know how to write a novel.
I was used to writing essays and the occasional short story, where one has a finite space to complete a thought. I was so worried that I couldn’t tackle anything as detailed or sprawling as a novel. But I remember one of the finest pieces of writing advice I ever got—which is that every story has a central animating question to be answered (and, of course, a number of satellite questions) and creating a longer form work is a matter of answering that question—and I thought that the central question of the stories I was assembling was whether Angelina was going to turn into her father, or whether she was going to find another, more loving way of life. That question demanded a longer, more sustained format, so I figured I would set about the work of writing a novel.
Rumpus: How did you “learn” to write a novel? Where did you turn for guidance on the process, and whose work served as your most helpful references?
Bogart: Honestly, I turned to writers who crafted the kinds of books I love, and the kind of story I wanted to tell here—which is an intimate, character-driven drama with more internal stakes. I read a lot of them, to make me feel like it was possible to do those kinds of stories in deeply compelling ways and to see how, exactly, those authors put those stories together. I would look at books like White Oleander by Janet Fitch, Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman, Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, and Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. What I learned from these books is that you can propel characters along through the power of their thoughts and feelings—you don’t need a big, poppin’ plot to send things forward (I was so worried about the intricacies of plotting!) and to get your reader to really care about your characters. The reader’s emotions, that’s really the ultimate stake. I also found that, if you just let your characters act in ways that feel organic, and just plain right, to them, you’ll be so immersed and engrossed in your own story that you’ll want to keep going.
Rumpus: You, like your main character Angelina, are also a visual artist. How did the act of drawing and painting influence your work on the novel? Were you practicing this art while you were writing?
Bogart: I would say that the intuitive aspects of making visual art—knowing, very clearly, that you’ll probably have a very specific image in your head about what that drawing and painting will look like, especially if, like me, you do figurative or representational pieces, and that very often, what will come out in the work is probably going to be different, but may be more interesting or compelling than what you’d originally envisioned—was really helpful to me as I began to work on the novel. I allowed things to come to me in the process: for instance, what I’d originally envisioned as Angelina’s core artwork, the work that helps sustain her emotionally and creatively and expresses what she’s been feeling throughout this process, didn’t end up appearing in the final version. Her art came to me as I started writing a scene where she was making art, and it was so perfect in the moment that I just included it as it came to me. Visual art has taught me flexibility. Am I doing it now? Not as much as I want to, or should, and I’m going to try and remedy that. I have dreams of taking another life drawing class someday, or a sculpture class.
Rumpus: I think we all need alternate creative outlets, especially now in the midst of quarantine. What has been working for you? How do you feed and care for yourself when the process is getting to you, especially when the world’s on fire?
Bogart: I’m not going to lie; the answer is, I’ve been trying mostly to keep my head above water for the first part of it, so in terms of being creative and practicing self-care and all that good, productive stuff—well, I haven’t. I suppose what I can say is that I’ve become more okay with the fact that I can’t be ceaselessly productive, that nobody should have to be, and especially in times like these. What I have done is go back and watch some movies I always wanted to see but never had a chance to, like High Life and Neon Demon and Fast Color and Honey Boy. I’ve spent a lot of time just daydreaming and listening to music and sitting in the bathtub.
Rumpus: You’ve had the unique experience of having a novel released in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Has this affected your perspectives of the publishing industry, of literature’s necessity, of how we connect with our readers?
Bogart: Honestly, I’m incredibly grateful to the literary community for really rallying behind those of us who have had books come out, especially those of us with debuts. There have been so many opportunities, and I am so profoundly appreciative of them all. In truth, I’ve probably been able to do more events than I would have if I were on an in-person tour, because I would’ve had to pay travel fees. I do really feel like, in some ways, the reliance on virtual events has helped give some of us debut writers exposure to events we never would have been able to participate in otherwise, and I do hope this practice of staging virtual readings and panels and talks continues into the future.
Rumpus: The novel shifts viewpoints between the three family members: Angelina, her mother, and her father. We see this attempted often in fiction, but not as successfully as you’ve managed in your book. You authentically capture the motivations and emotions of these characters to make them sympathetic, but you don’t pull punches or make excuses for them. At what point did you decide to incorporate this structure into the novel? How did the personalities of these characters emerge for you?
Bogart: I think originally starting out, conceptually at least, as a cycle of short stories helped me conceive of everyone’s point of view and helped me know that I wanted to include all of these perspectives. I sort of saw the family dysfunction as this multifaceted diamond, and I wanted to catch the light from all sides of it.
I think, in terms of wanting to share Jack’s point of view, well, we live in a culture that valorizes men like Jack, that shows them as brooding and sexy; however, we never actually get inside the heads of these men and see their vulnerability, the hollowness of their anger, or their overall limitations as people. I wanted to do that. I thought a lot about the way Marlon Brando approached Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, where he was able to show how coarse and irredeemably ugly the man was while also showing a canny knowledge of why we think of people like Stanley (or, in my own novel, like Jack) as being so charismatic and powerful.
As for Marie, I thought that it would be compelling to include the voice of the more passive figure in the family, the person who enables the abuse even though she knows how terrible it is; I was intrigued by the idea of the woman who knows, on some molecular level, that the kind of violence her husband is inflicting is so very wrong, but can’t help touching that live wire. Angelina in many ways sees her mother as the sort of equal and opposite reaction to her father, and I wanted Marie to have a greater depth of character so we, as the reader, could understand her, even if we condemn her.
Rumpus: That’s another phenomenon of fiction that I’ve been in awe of: the appearance of characters and their presence in a writer’s consciousness. I think it’s amazing how novelists like yourself craft these breathing people out of thin air, and then infect the reader with that same possession. Have any of the characters lingered for you beyond the book’s completion?
Bogart: I was so very invested in these characters for such a long time, that they linger on, but now, it’s more in a casual way, like friends that I was really close to and now think of very fondly. I still love them, especially Angelina, and I do wonder what they’d be up to now, but I don’t think of them in such an immediate way anymore.
Rumpus: The exacting sadness and grief in your detailed writing made a huge impression on me while I was reading, and even after setting the book down. I can’t get the line out of my head from the mother, where she was so certain that everything would be okay with her family if she could just sit them down for a nice piece of coconut cake. It’s this tiny, tender moment that is so understandable, especially while we’re all sidelined by this quarantine mess, and is not unlike Angelina at the book’s start, being T-boned by a texting driver and forced to move back in with her parents. We sometimes want the simplest, most ridiculous thing to fix a mountain of what’s wrong. Are there any particular details that stand out to you as important or evocative that you included?
Bogart: There’s a moment where Angelina is really angry and she wants to throw her phone, but she has to toss it on the bed, to some pillows, because she knows if she breaks it, she can’t afford to replace it. I wanted this book to be realistic about what it means to be a working artist who has to work, which often means living with varying and often great degrees of economic uncertainty. I feel like so much of the way artists are rendered in literature and pop culture is not true to lived reality (all due respect to GIRLS, but damn, a writer ain’t gonna live in those apartments on freelancing alone). It was very important to me to be realistic in that regard, so there are a lot of little details that speak to Angelina working day jobs and dealing with money.
Rumpus: Yes! This was so real. The way you described Angelina’s office, I could smell the cheap carpeting and particleboard stained with coffee. It seems like pop culture is in love with telling the stories of artists’ lives, but fails to show the struggles and frustrations that even perceived success often brings. Are there any depictions of artists in recent literature or media that you’re particularly fond of? That put that level of effort you dedicated into showing what it’s actually like, and how quickly it can fall apart?
Bogart: Well, I mean, the recent adaptation of Little Women did the damn thing. It felt so contemporary in the way it talked about pursuing one’s passions while also trying to make a living. What I love about it is that Jo is headstrong and passionate and brilliant, but she also has to navigate, and negotiate with, editors. I saw that movie months before my own book came out and let me tell you, that end sequence, where Jo is holding her book and clearly, on her face, there’s the memory and thought of all she had to do and experience and sacrifice to get it there, in her hands, in the world—I was sobbing. Like, full-on ugly crying. That movie means a lot to me as a woman and as an artist.
Rumpus: The anger and violence that connects this family is alarming but terribly common. And Angelina’s experience as a “victim,” and her resistance to that label and role, is something we’ve seen played out quite often in pop and celebrity culture, especially with the most recent iteration of the Me Too movement.
We’re actually friends because of your pop culture writing—I fell in love with your essays a hundred million Twitter years ago. Did the pop culture that you cover and interpret influence your depiction of domestic violence, and/or Angelina’s reaction to it?
Bogart: That love was quite mutual! Oh, the pop culture references were many and abundant. There was certainly A Streetcar Named Desire, and to some degree, I did also conceive of Angelina as a kind of proto-Brando/Dean wounded hero, but, y’know, as a girl. These are heroes who can’t clearly articulate their feelings, and get to be deeply hurt and messy and even quite cruel, but we never doubt that, at their core, they’re good people who need to be given a chance to heal before they can be the person that the people who love them really want them to be.
Rumpus: Between Angelina and Jack, anger spreads like a contagion. It feels like a microcosm of our current political and social climate, the way rage infects everything, justified or not. There is a steady-handed optimism in your book that Angelina can step out of this cycle and chart her own path. Her loving, supportive, #goals relationship with Janet is the strongest indicator of this hope. Do you see any similar opportunities to help reconcile America’s rage problem?
Bogart: Oh wow, damn, I wish I had something profoundly intelligent to say, other than I think it has to happen at an individual level, and so much of it involves changing the ways we conceive of power—just that the biggest, meanest, most puffed-up asshole is inherently the most powerful (this is exactly how we got Trump). Goddess knows, I’ve had to do a lot of getting away from that very internalized mentality myself—it’s been so very hard. But I think it’s what we have to do, on a personal level, before it can fully permeate at the collective level.
Photograph of Laura Bogart by Allyson Washington.