Elsa Fisher is headed for rock bottom. At least, that’s her plan. She has just been fired from MoMA on the heels of an affair with her married boss, and she retreats to Los Angeles to blow her severance package on whatever it takes to numb the pain. Her abandoned crew of college friends (childhood friend Charlotte and her wayward husband, Jared; and Elsa’s ex-husband, Robby) receive her with open arms, and, thinking she’s on vacation, a plan to celebrate their reunion on a booze-soaked...
My Own California Book
Rachel Khong & Liska Jacobs
Writers Rachel Khong and Liska Jacobs both grew up in Southern California and share a similar affection for its people and produce trucks, its sprawling desert towns and its oceanside highways. They also share a fascination with its duality. “California is beautiful, but also sort of threating,” Jacobs says. For both of them, the opportunity to write about Southern California, or rather, to write “my own California book,” inspired their decision to set their first novels in the region. “The things people think about California are almost at odds with the way I feel about it,” Khong says.
In Rachel Khong’s Goodbye Vitamin, thirty-year-old Ruth moves home to Southern California after a bad breakup, ostensibly to assist with the care of her father, who has dementia. Being back home, and reckoning her complicated relationship with her father, sends Ruth in a year-long spin-out and pushes her to reconsider how to be a person, and the often painful, awkward, or otherwise inadequate ways people express love.
Liska Jacobs’ Catalina follows Elsa Fisher as she flees New York City after being fired from the job of her dreams at the Museum of Modern Art and the sudden, blunt ending of an affair with her boss. She agrees to take a trip to Catalina Island with some old friends, including her ex-husband Robby and his new girlfriend. A string of boozy nights, copious pills, and resurfaced desires sends Elsa into a rage-fueled bender that she has no intention of stopping.
Khong and Jacobs recently chatted via Skype. In addition to California, they discussed female rage, the unwavering male gaze, fucking up in your thirties, and more.
“That’s what I love about California. It’s beautiful but also sort of weirdly threatening, dangerous in some way. ”
Rachel Khong: Something we have in common—and it felt like a reason we were match-made—is that both of our books are set in California. They both have these female protagonists at their center, and the California weather and the California mood is kind of at odds with the way they feel on the inside, and what they’re going through. Why California? Why Southern California, specifically?
Liska Jacobs: I’m from Southern California, but I’m a native to Los Angeles, so I’ve spent most of my life here. I think that had a huge part in why I set it here. I loved California, I think especially Southern California—there’s sort of this duality that happens here. Part of it is because you have Hollywood right in the middle of it. You have this industry that creates fantasy inside a huge sprawling city. But at the same time you have Griffith Park, you have the Los Angeles National Forest, and you have Santa Monica Bay . . . That’s what I love about California. It’s beautiful but also sort of weirdly threatening, dangerous in some way.
RK: I also love the way you really captured the feeling of the California beaches, especially the Southern California beaches. Everybody is just, you know, with a dog, kind of speeding past you on various wheels.
LJ: There’s something funny about the Southern California beaches, because it’s a tourist destination, it’s definitely one of those places that perpetuates its own image. Elsa is struggling with her own identity crisis there; she has this façade about herself that’s crashing down while she’s there. I don’t know, I thought it was kind of perfect for that—miserable on a beach.
RK: Yeah, exactly. So I’m also from Southern California, outside of it. I never lived in Los Angeles proper, but my family was in a suburb, much like Ruth, and we moved around a lot of desert towns. And I think that was something I sort of had in mind as well, that the things people think about California are almost at odds with the way I feel about it, because I grew up here.
LJ: What a lot of people don’t understand about Southern California is that Los Angeles sort of sprawls everywhere, and even if you’re from the suburbs or the Valley, if you’re anywhere in the vicinity—even if you’re from the desert—it plays a huge role in who you are. So it’s not really if you’re from Los Angeles, it’s like, you’re from Southern California. It’s an identity thing.
RK: Did you take trips to Catalina Island, as a kid? I remember that as a field trip.
LJ: Yeah, I did. I really like the idea of going to the place that you’re writing about. When I started [writing the book] I was living in Mar Vista, so I could see Catalina. But I had actually never been to Two Harbors before, I had only ever been to Avalon. So we took a boat over there, and it was gorgeous and rural, and I thought, this is perfect. It’s sort of like this compact symbol for California—on one hand there’s all that nature, on the other hand there’s the tourist trap city of Avalon. Every time I went, there would be something I would overhear or see, and I would think, this has got to go in the book.
“I didn’t want anything too exciting to happen... I think I wanted to make a record of things that were almost frivolous. That’s the way memory works.”
RK: On that note, about observation—that’s something both our narrators have in common. There are a lot of details that go into our books that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot.
LJ: Yeah, there’s sort of an observational reporting that happens. I really like that. Both of our protagonists are going through a breakup, and sort of re-examining their whole worlds. When you go through that, it lets you have a moment outside of yourself. Part of it is you can start to think about what you may look like to [other] people. But also I think there’s a lot of searching for other interactions or other human connections.
RK: For Elsa, it was interesting. She would notice something or there would be some strangers doing something near her, and she would seem unaffected. But I think that each one sort of builds up and chips away at that. I thought that was really great, and well done.
LJ: I was invited to a Catholic high school to read the book, or just to have the girls—
RK: Oh my goodness.
LJ: I know, right? I was like, do you know anything about the book? Is there even a section that’s suitable to read? From the opening page, she’s ordering a pitcher of Bloody Marys for herself. It doesn’t get better from there.
RK: Bloody Mary, Virgin Mary. Just change it to Virgin Mary.
LJ: Yeah, right. But the reason she’s doing all that is to numb these feelings. And the more she’s around people, observing them, the more it does chip away at her.
RK: My book is in this fragmented form, a log of the days that pass. And I knew that I wanted the book to not be a traditionally plotted book.
LJ: Me, too.
RK: I didn’t want anything too exciting to happen. Which is a fine goal, but also makes it a bit of a challenge in terms of how to make someone want to keep reading.
LJ: I hear you. I couldn’t just keep writing, you know, scenes of Elsa getting high. (Laughs.)
RK: Yeah! I wanted to include in the book these records of the ephemera, the stuff that happens day-to-day that normally gets left out when you narrate your life’s events. When you’re telling somebody your life story, you don’t say, “and then I sat on a park bench and like, saw this pigeon do this,” you know? That’s not something somebody would ever narrate in a plot.
LJ: In your book, there’s so much about memory in there, right, that Ruth is just trying to grasp on to. Not like she’s trying to record all of it, just the important parts.
RK: I wanted to make a record of things that were almost frivolous. That’s the way that memory works, and sometimes you just have to remember, like, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” and like not, you know, your best friend’s birthday! (Laughs.)
LJ: That’s totally true! Memory plays a big part in both of our books, actually.
“But I realized that’s not really how our culture works. They still want the bad girl to, you know, fill her pockets with rocks and walk out into Santa Monica Bay. ”
RK: Earlier we were talking about women, men, power. You were talking about the book, how you started it five years ago, and it’s now unfortunately timely.
LJ: I started at the Getty Research Institute, right after my undergraduate degree, and I worked there for five years as a special collections library assistant. But one of the things I realized while working there is when you’re looking at an art object, there’s a difference created between you and that piece of art. And I realized women are almost always treated that way, as an art object, or as something to look at. It makes women very lonely. Elsa sort of came from that.
RK: Yeah, that’s so true.
LJ: That’s why I think #MeToo is important, because it’s really a cultural thing. These are toxic dynamics we create in society all the time. Like Robby, Elsa’s ex-husband, he sees himself as a good guy, as a sort of savior. He puts Elsa in a box marked “damsel,” but Elsa’s never going to let somebody treat her like that.
RK: Yeah. On the one hand, she doesn’t want to take shit from anybody. But on the other hand, there are the forces at work that are, you know, society, basically, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
LJ: Yeah. You know, one of the initial influences for the book was Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight. When I started writing Catalina I thought I would just do an updated version of that book: Sasha’s beautiful mess. I thought, it’s been almost a hundred years since Jean Rhys wrote that book, maybe my protagonist can have a happy ending. It was so depressing to realize she couldn’t. If a woman is angry, and self-destructive, she has to be punished. That was what I learned from writing this book. I really thought, maybe she’ll have some liberating moment at the end. But I realized that’s not really how our culture works. They still want the bad girl to, you know, fill her pockets with rocks and walk out into Santa Monica Bay.
“For some reason there are still different guidelines and rules for women, especially young women, and if they’re beautiful—all of a sudden we have to protect our young men against that gorgeous woman, she might do something crazy. ”
RK: You know how Joan Didion has that girl in the white dress that inspired Play It As It Lays? Was there a person who inspired this for you? Did this story start with the character of Elsa?
LJ: One of the things I thought of a lot was when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, when you’re just learning that people are looking at you, and maybe starting to wear makeup or something. I had this girlfriend and we went to the mall. And on the way back, we accepted some rides from some older guys. But there were two different cars, so I went in the car behind her. We stopped at a light and she stuck her head out of the passenger window and looked back at us, sort of smiled and waved—I’m probably remembering this all wrong—but it was very windy and sunny, and her hair was all over the place, but all of a sudden she looked gorgeous to me. You know, I had never really thought of her that way. But I realized, oh my gosh, that’s one of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen in my life, my friend is really very pretty. But the guy next to me just said, “Damn, your friend’s hot.”
LJ: Right. I was like, my poor friend is just going to be “hot?” I felt so bad for her. I had this sinking sensation that my silly, goofy, complicated girlfriend—who was a normal girl like any of us—was going to have to work against that. That was her new identity: that girl’s “hot,” she’s fuckable. And I was so bummed for her. I think I thought about that quite often writing Elsa’s character.
RK: Yeah. So . . . let’s talk about female rage!
LJ: Yes! We should! I don’t know if I figured it out in my own book; how do you write female anger without your character immediately being labeled unlikeable? Because I think that’s what happens—a woman’s angry, and “bitch” gets assigned to her very quickly.
RK: I think that’s something that has to change in our culture too, right? You know, why is it fine for a male author to write an angry male character? That’s totally okay.
LJ: I’ve been asked a few times now, “Was it always your intention to have an unlikeable narrator?” I want to immediately throw it back in their face and say, “Would you say the same thing if it was a male character?” Like, if you had a male character who was drinking and doing drugs and sleeping with whomever, would you just call it casual sex? For some reason there are still different guidelines and rules for women, especially young women, and if they’re beautiful—all of a sudden we have to protect our young men against that gorgeous woman, she might do something crazy.
One of the other influences for Elsa was The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. I always felt bad for Lady Brett Ashley. Everything that happens to Jake, it’s all because of her beauty and how intriguing she is. I thought, God, that must be so lonely. She must have her own kind of rage.
But I think women have a hard time showing their anger. We don’t know what to do with it. It’s the reason Elsa’s taking pills: she’s just trying to quiet that inner ringing, which is her own anger. I’m not even sure how we can change that, in society. Give us more outlets to fight things? Or, I don’t know, punch more things?
RK: Ruth has feelings that she wants to suppress. She’s not quite down the drugs and alcohol path like Elsa, but that happens on occasion. I think that she does keep the reader at arm’s length, and her own emotions at arm’s length, and she’s never quite ready to talk about how she really feels.
LJ: Elsa, too, is hot off of her own breakup. It’s what happens when someone gets under your skin. Like, they teach you, or you look at life a different way because of them. There’s a beautiful part at the end [of Goodbye Vitamin] where Ruth realizes that she and Joel have a different memory about one instance. Does that mean she misremembered everything? And what does that mean? Elsa’s doing the same thing throughout Catalina. She’s like, “Did I imagine this whole relationship? Where did I go wrong, what’s going on?” It makes her very vulnerable, and it makes her angry, because she feels blindsided.
RK: I mean, I think that women are strong, you know? I think that what we’ve been talking about—having to second guess our narrators, how likeable or unlikeable they are, whether or not they’re being bitches, whether or not they’re complaining too much. I think it’s completely unfair, that we’ve had to think about things in these terms. At the same time, maybe this makes us better writers, having to contend with this.
“I mean, I’m not gonna compare myself to like, John Steinbeck, or whatever. It’s just been easier to try to forge my own thing. My own California book. ”
LJ: With your book, some very classic California writers come to my mind: Steinbeck, Kerouac, Didion, of course. How do you feel about writing California literature? Because I feel like there’s so much out there, right, there’s sort of a lot to work against.
RK: I think it is crippling to think about yourself in those terms, so I think I’ve mostly avoided it. I mean, I’m not gonna compare myself to like, John Steinbeck, or whatever, you know. I think it’s just been easier to try to forge my own . . . thing?
LJ: Your own California truth.
RK: My own thing, my own California book. Although at the same time, those were definitely books that I read growing up. Didion especially had an outsize impact on me and who I am as a writer. At the same time, it feels like those people were not who I am, as an individual, as a woman, as an immigrant. So it wasn’t really like, how will I distinguish myself among the California greats.
LJ: In your book especially, I got the sense that it definitely was your California. And I think that’s really the most we can ask for out of literature, writing our own experiences, our own ways that we look at the places we live.
“I just think there’s a feeling, now more than ever, of—fuck it, the world’s on fire, let’s take a sailboat to Catalina and do lots of drugs, and drink…”
LJ: One of the things I realized when I was looking back over both our books was the generation that we’re talking about. Bonnie’s an artist, but she’s cutting hair. Ruth’s in a job she doesn’t really want to be doing. All of the characters that are around her age are sort of dealing with the same thing. And that’s also happening in Catalina: Elsa just lost her job. Charly’s a failed actress. Jane’s running a restaurant, but trying to find excitement doing other things. So what is it, do you think, that’s going on with this generation?
RK: Well, I think it’s a combination of being dealt an interesting economic hand, and, I don’t know, being told we could . . . do whatever we wanted. I think the period of not quite knowing what you want to do, of “finding your calling,” has been prolonged, or extended, whereas before we were supposed to figure shit out earlier, and now it’s—
LJ: One of the things I wanted to capture in Catalina was these people in their thirties who just want more. They just feel . . . well, they’re getting want and need confused. They feel they need more, but really they just want a whole lot more, and nothing’s really satiating them. In your thirties I think you start to realize that . . . not that you have to settle, but—
RK: I did think it was refreshing to read a book that was about thirty-somethings who did not have their shit together, who were binge-drinking and taking drugs indiscriminately.
LJ: I started this book five years ago, and it was already weird then, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell me Donald Trump would be president today. I would’ve said you were full of lies. It’s such a kooky time to be a young adult, I think. We are still young adults, right?
RK: I don’t know, I think about young adult fiction, and then I’m like—
LJ: Maybe we’re actual adults. Dammit!
RK: We’re actual adults.
LJ: So weird to be an adult. It really is. I saw a picture the other day of all five living presidents, there’s like an official picture of them with Lady Gaga—
RK: Oh my god.
LJ: And I was just like, this is such a weird time to be—
RK: Is that real? That’s not Photoshopped?
LJ: It’s a real picture.
LJ: I just think there’s a feeling, now more than ever, there’s a feeling of—fuck it, the world’s on fire, let’s take a sailboat to Catalina and do lots of drugs, and drink…
RK: And hope we’re still alive at the end of it.