In her debut novel A Touch of Jen, Beth Morgan lets her wry sense of humor and penchant for the absurd shine.
The cover copy describes her novel as “Ottessa Moshfegh meets David Cronenberg,” and it’s an apt description. Her protagonists Remy and Alicia are thirty-something New Yorkers who work service jobs and have no clear idea of what they want to do with their lives. They’ve developed a rather unhealthy obsession with Remy’s former coworker, Jen: they pore over her Instagram and enact elaborate sexual fantasies in which Alicia becomes Jen. When they accidentally meet the woman they are obsessed with and get themselves invited on a surfing getaway to the Hamptons with her, the trip begets a crazy chain of events that includes a murder attempt, an actual murder, an accidental death, communication with the dead via a text messaging service, and an appearance of a monster from a parallel world. I turned over the last fifty or so pages, laughing nervously, not having a clue as to what might arrive next, as the author defied my expectations at every plot point.
Beth and I met in April 2020 after I had been accepted into the MFA in Fiction program at Brooklyn College. At that time, she was in the midst of finishing her first year, and, after having spoken to her, I decided that I wanted to be part of the program, too. Beth was the only writer in her cohort to have a deal with a major publisher, and even her teachers had been impressed. When the galleys of her book became available, I jumped at the chance to read it.
I was delighted to chat with Beth about her process of writing A Touch of Jen, the financial freedom the book deal gave her, and why it’s more fun for her to use her imagination rather than to take things from real life.
The Rumpus: Let me start by saying that I was totally unprepared for how A Touch of Jen ended. The novel begins as psychological realist fiction, continues in that vein for a long time, then evolves into something that operates on a completely different plane of reality. How did you come up with the ending? Is there a specific way that the reader is supposed to understand it?
Beth Morgan: I always try to write something that will allow the reader to have as much space as possible for their own emotional response. My early readers had very different reactions to the ending and different interpretations of it, and that was great. I wouldn’t say that there’s a prescribed way to experience it. I was just really excited by the idea of starting the book in everyday reality and taking it into this realm of fantasy, because books and movies that I really like take risks and go somewhere you’re really not expecting them to go. Towards the end of the book, one of the characters becomes fixated on what they see as their destiny, and it didn’t feel right to keep that in this reality.
The idea of destiny or even of a personal journey is itself a fantasy, a self-serving story about our individual desires, and you can’t trust a story like that because it shapes our perception of reality. I think it might have been my desire to portray the absurdity and self-absorption of the personal journey or the hero’s journey that made me decide that the ending should take place in this absurd, fantastical register. The ending actually went through a pretty major revision after the first draft. All the fantastical elements were in place, but I had to revise the entire last fourth of the book to make the cosmology cohere—logistically and emotionally.
Rumpus: Did you revise because you felt the ending wasn’t working? Or was that decision based on feedback from someone else?
Morgan: I had a great teacher, Tony Tulathimutte. He has an eight-week workshop called CRIT that he runs in Brooklyn. I was part of that workshop at one time, and he read early versions of the novel and liked it a lot. When I finished it, I hired him to edit it. At that time, I knew that the ending wasn’t quite landing, and I’m really glad that he was very honest with me and said that it wasn’t working. He didn’t tell me what I needed to do—he just voiced his emotional reaction. I ruminated on it for maybe two or three months. I was in a funk about it because I wasn’t sure what to do and was getting tired of the book. Then I did some mushrooms and the next day brainstormed a lot of things and eventually came up with something that I liked. I wouldn’t say that because I did drugs, I came up with a good ending. I just put myself into a place where I was open to new ideas.
Rumpus: I’ve read a couple of your short stories, and I suppose that everything you write could be called speculative fiction. Do you have any idea why you’re drawn to that genre?
Morgan: What will happen is that often I’ll start writing something that feels realistic and discover that the options that are available to me within this plane of reality are kind of boring and are not going to challenge the characters enough. Also, it probably has to do with my love of science fiction and horror movies. When I combine realistic elements with speculative aspects, it creates a more accessible sense of instability, and I’m drawn to that because my experience of reality does feel very unstable. I don’t feel that I can trust my own sense of reality, and when I try to get at this feeling, that’s inevitably where I go.
Rumpus: When you write a novel, do you consciously try to communicate certain ideas to the reader?
Morgan: I try to interrogate certain themes that, hopefully, will give the reader enough space to have their own interpretation of them. The filmmaker Mike Leigh is someone who is a huge influence on me. He makes movies that often don’t have direct plots, and he works with his actors to create certain characters. Then he just makes the story happen by making these characters interact with each other. Usually, there are themes that he’s clearly interested in exploring, and eventually his film will pursue those themes. I really appreciate his approach. I’m not sure that I always pull it off, but that’s always the goal for me.
Rumpus: The first three-fourths of the novel read as a satire of contemporary society that drives people to become self-centered—I got a sense that you’re passionate about this topic!
Morgan: I think that there’s this highly individualistic social mandate that all of us feel. We’re led to believe that our futures are dependent on our own individual actions and our ability to improve ourselves, which I think is a very fraudulent, or at least a misleading, way to look at the world. The entire burden to have a stable life shouldn’t be put just on yourself, because it’s obviously not realistic. Many people I know are trying to improve their lives and to get to a different place, and they are struggling so much. We all feel this pressure to be productive, to work hard, and we all experience a sense of frustration and failure because there’s only so much that you can do individually. That is, I guess, the main idea of my book, that when you focus so much on this highly individualistic form of self-realization, that can come at a cost to other people.
Rumpus: How did you become a writer?
Morgan: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t actually say that I wanted it because being a writer just didn’t seem to be very fun. When I was younger, I wasn’t encountering fiction that felt like something that I wanted to write, and I had this idea that being a writer meant that you had to be very solitary and write very serious books about very serious topics. That was unappealing to me. For a long time, I told everyone who asked that I wanted to work in radio.
Rumpus: When did things change?
Morgan: When I was fourteen or fifteen, I read The Shipping News, and that was a shift. That novel’s main character is basically this loser who isn’t very bright or attractive. That book blew my mind because I went to church with guys like that. It just seemed like a totally different way of writing fiction. I think that I got serious about writing when I went to college. At Sarah Lawrence, as an undergraduate, I took a lot of writing classes and was introduced to a much wider variety of literary fiction. I took a class with David Hollander which was a lot of fun. We read funny fiction, playful fiction, experimental fiction, and it really expanded my ideas of how I could be a writer on my own terms.
Rumpus: Why did you decide to get an MFA?
Morgan: The first year I applied, I was waitlisted at Brooklyn College, but I didn’t get in. I decided to apply again in a year because my experience of talking to Josh [Henkin, the MFA in Fiction program director at Brooklyn College] was totally different from my experience of going to other programs’ open houses where they treat you like a supplicant and it can be really demoralizing, especially when these schools are asking you to be honored to spend six figures on a two-year program. It’s just ludicrous. That first year, I got into NYU off the waitlist, but it would’ve cost me a huge amount of money, and I decided not to go. When I applied to NYU again the next year, I asked in my cover letter if they could give me more money, and they just turned me down immediately. But Brooklyn College accepted me, and I was very happy. Of course, if you want to be a writer, you don’t have to get an MFA—there are lots of courses that you can take. What I think MFAs do is they help you to meet other writer friends. They also create a sense of momentum and a sense that you’re improving, which can be really helpful.
Rumpus: We all know how hard it is to publish a book. You sold your novel when you were just a few months into the MFA program at Brooklyn College. Do you feel that you’ve made it, that you’re successful—and that the struggle paid off?
Morgan: I feel very lucky. I went to Sarah Lawrence for my undergraduate degree, and I had wonderful teachers there. Then I took a class with Tony, and he helped introduce me to my agent. But success is so precarious! I feel proud of my novel, but right now I’m in the middle of writing another one and feel very frustrated by what I’m doing with it. Also, to get to where I am now took me a long time. I’ve been in New York for over ten years, and it’s been really tough. I was dog-walking for a while, and I worked horrible jobs. The biggest change for me was the financial security that selling this book allowed me—it’s a huge relief. I’ve been broke for a really long time, and it’s amazing to go to the grocery store and buy what I want. I feel very grateful for that. I worked really hard for it, but I was also lucky to meet the right people at the right time. And I’m incredibly grateful to my partner David, who’d helped me edit the book before anybody else saw it.
Rumpus: How was the process of getting A Touch of Jen published? Were there extensive edits?
Morgan: By the time my manuscript got to the publishing house, it had already been edited a lot. So, the editing process was very short, but still incredibly helpful. I worked with Jean Garnett, who is just amazing, and she was the perfect person to edit the book. It was obvious that she really saw what the book was trying to do, and every one of her suggestions made the novel better. A lot of it was just cutting scenes or rephrasing sentences. There were a few scenes where she said, “I don’t buy that this character would say this,” or “This feels inconsistent.” Obviously, people in real life are inconsistent, but if it feels too inconsistent, that’s a problem.
Rumpus: Do any of your characters have real-life prototypes?
Morgan: No. Usually, when I notice that my life is seeping into my fiction, I know that if I tried a little bit harder, I could come up with something that serves the characters better and that is more fun for me to write. For me, the whole fun of fiction is that you get to escape your own life. I have to be myself every single day, so it’s more interesting for me to see what I can do with my imagination. The things that I’m most proud of in my book are things that have absolutely no basis in reality.
Rumpus: Themes of money and class interest you very much, it seems, but your fiction isn’t trying to make a statement about that.
Morgan: It’s difficult to use fiction to make a statement. I feel that, the second you have an agenda, most readers pick up on it, and you lose your credibility with them. I think that the best way to go about it is to select what you decide to portray in a very strategic way, to portray these things as accurately and realistically as possible, and to allow people to have their own response. You have to be very careful when you’re trying to overtly state your opinion in fiction. I trust that my own perspective is just going to automatically transfer into my books.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Morgan: I’m working on a novel called The Shit-Your-Pants-Button. It’s different from A Touch of Jen in a lot of ways. I haven’t yet figured out how to say what it’s about because it’s about a lot of things, and I’m still in the midst of working on it. I’m almost finished with the first draft, but I think that the rewrite is going to be extensive. On a very superficial level, it’s about a podcaster who has a button on her thigh that, when she pushes it, can make anybody she wants shit their pants. On another level, it’s about all the different forms of violence in American life and the way that violence disguises itself. Who knows, though; by the time it comes out it might be about something else altogether.
Rumpus: What’s your writing process like?
Morgan: You know that Josh is really into writing three hours every day, and I’ve sort of adopted that practice. What has been useful about that is that whenever I write, I set a timer so that I know how much I’m writing. It’s easy to not know how much actual writing you’re doing. I normally try and write at least three hours every morning. It’s also been really important for me not to fetishize my process too much, not to have any special rituals around it or only specific hours. I just try to be as flexible as possible because I feel that, once you get superstitious, it’s harder to be playful. Some of the best writing that I’ve done was on a Megabus next to a stinky bathroom. It’s good to be able to write well even when you’re not comfortable. I don’t try to wait for the perfect circumstances—they may never happen. So, I write even when I’m hungover or feeling badly.
Rumpus: In the MFA program, did you mostly work on your second novel? Or did you write short stories, too?
Morgan: I wrote a lot of stories, but they are really hard for me. I feel that there’s very little you can do in a short story, and I often write very long ones. I’m trying to figure out how to write the type of short story that works for me. The traditional American short story template is something that I never have fun with, and I find that it’s confining in a way that isn’t productive for me. Reading any short story that isn’t American is great because you realize that you don’t have to take that kind of rigid approach, and that’s something that I’m thinking about all the time. But I feel that I can work on my short stories for years. I have a lot of drafts that aren’t finished. I can write a novel in a year and a half, but it’ll take me years to finish a short story because it’s just so difficult. It bugs me that after all this time, it’s still something that I can’t do. I’m definitely going to be trying, though. I have stories that I feel very attached to, and I can tell that there’s something there, but that it just hasn’t clicked yet.
Photograph of Beth Morgan by Vita Burn.