Earlier this week, we published Robyn Jefferson’s excerpt from Calling Out, which won our 2022 Novel Excerpt Contest, as chosen by Charmaine Craig. Make sure to check out the excerpt, or read through it again, before digging into our interview with the winner!
First, congratulations again on winning the 2022 Novel Excerpt Contest. I was really excited that we’d get to work with you on publishing this excerpt because it’s so different from what we normally get submitted, both in voice and in focus. This is an intensely close dissection of “internet culture,” I guess I’d call it, an excerpt that’s critical of but also aware of the ways in which it’s indebted to that same space. The ways Beth and Alice communicate, how Beth is able to deconstruct Alice’s crafted-casual messages, and how Beth recognizes her own constructed personalities in these spaces. It’s as impressive and self-aware as it is funny. I suppose this is all building up to somewhat of an obvious question, but: What sparked your interest in exploring these relationships, this space?
Thank you so much for saying that! And it might be an obvious question but it’s an interesting one, too—in fact you’ve already highlighted something that factors into my answer, which is that my representation of the online spaces and subcultures into which Beth allows herself to become subsumed is in many ways critical but it’s crucially quite fond as well. I find that a lot of contemporary writers who attempt to write about social media assume a kind of woefully outdated, bemused-seeming outsider perspective that generally lacks verisimilitude and at worst can come across quite condescending. That’s not to say that no one is writing interestingly about internet culture (Patricia Lockwood, Yomi Adegoke, Eliza Clark! Bo Burnham, even!) but on the whole I don’t know if we’ve entirely moved beyond the notion of social media as an intrinsically shallow and superficial thing, with an altogether negative effect on its users and their ability to communicate, empathize, be human. There’s a disservice in it that frustrates me. It isn’t that I feel compelled to defend social media against its detractors—let it not be said that I’m a simp for websites—but rather that I think there’s so much that is evidently fascinating about it that it feels wholly unimaginative to dismiss it out of hand as something vapid and meaningless, and, at the same time, equally unimaginative to attempt to combat any critique by extolling the virtues of social media as some kind of futuristic tool for enabling interpersonal connection without acknowledging the ways in which it can be genuinely quite awful. Then of course there’s the personal element, too; for me there’s nothing that so neatly encompasses the entire spectrum of human emotion as the toxic and homoerotic relationship between girl besties who met in the trenches of fandom Tumblr as awful teens with mushily incomplete frontal lobes and whose every falling-out is conducted via the lens of political praxis. It amazes me that there’s a tendency to dismiss these kinds of relationships as insipid and uninteresting when five minutes in a friendship circle like that would kill an Ancient Greek philosopher stone dead. In the end I suppose I can’t completely avoid giving the obvious answer to the obvious question; I’m interested in exploring those spaces because I’m very much a part of them and I’m captivated by them, and certainly I owe a lot of my own evolution—both as a writer and as a person—to them as well.
I’m interested in the ways that Beth’s online presence and persona seep into her physical reality. She seems to see her world in the context of tweets and content: the graffiti she sees behind the Wonderwall-bongoer she immediately imagines as a tweet (“all caps, no punctuation, fewer than 280 characters”), and the statue of Queen Victoria is captured as content and becomes an image with a funny caption for her Instagram. Even through her processing of her breakup with Alice, she can’t help but reduce things to internet catchphrases (“L + ratio + you’re a dick, Alice”). It seems to me that Beth has two options ahead of her—she can listen to Silver and log off, or she can lean into her comfort zones and risk losing more of her reality to this constructed echo-chamber of sorts. If you can answer this question without giving away too much of the novel, which way might Beth lean? Or is there another option I’m overlooking?
The thing about Beth being as hopelessly, obnoxiously, chronically online as she is is that it’s not at all incidental to who she is as a person; she’s a fat woman who does online sex work, which is hinted at but not quite made textually explicit within the scope of this excerpt. Like most women she’s very conscious of her body and the space (both figurative and literal) it occupies within a patriarchal society, and that awareness is very much amplified by her deviation from the beauty standard and her engagement with sex work, things which force her to contemplate desirability and body politics more than any perfectly sane person would probably want to. And then on top of that she’s naturally quite timid, very self-conscious, very internal. The result of it all put together is that she isn’t especially comfortable in the physical space or with the physical reality of who she is in the world, and to escape from that she immerses herself into the abstract, the formless, the ephemeral: she logs on, as Silver would put it. Of course it has a negative effect on her—as you’ve pointed out the line between her physical and online realities has become somewhat nebulous and indistinct, but also she’s a character so used to defining herself primarily by the identity signifiers one might put in their Tumblr bio (white, cis, bisexual, fat, etc.) and by the collective thoughts and opinions of her online cadre that in many ways she’s quite unaware of who she is outside of that. It’s difficult for her to even contemplate how to extricate herself from it because she doesn’t feel fully formed as a person. She’s basically a fetus in a womb made of tweets. Anyway, the tension between what we all know she ought to do and what she actually does is certainly a conflict that pervades across much of the novel, but I’d argue it’s also one the vast majority of us are intimately familiar with, particularly with regards to the concept of “self-care” in the wake of a pandemic that completely disrupted and reshaped the habitual rhythm of our lives—like, I know I should get dressed and go for a nice walk and buy some groceries instead of festering on the sofa in food-stained sweats and getting takeout for the twenty-seventh time this week, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to! And there actually is something of a secret third option as well; I can’t reveal exactly what it is yet (sorry!) except to say that, just as in real life, sometimes one’s solipsistic personal journey is completely overturned by plot getting in the way.
Almost a year has passed since you initially submitted this excerpt to our contest; in that time, Twitter has changed pretty dramatically. (I’m going to hang onto that name and avoid that other name as much as I can.) Have you thought at all about how Beth might react to those changes? Are you thinking of incorporating any of those shifts into the novel?
Well, in writing the novel I tried to be very deliberate about situating it in a particular temporal context without situating it in an overly particular temporal context, by which I mean it’s clearly a very 2020s narrative but I don’t really want the reader to be able to pinpoint it precisely to any specific moment in time. I’ve discovered that when you’re writing about the internet this is in some ways easier to pull off—memes tend to have a lifespan of about two minutes so it probably doesn’t fully scan for “fajita wife” to be sharing space with a joke about Castiel from the TV show Supernatural, for example, and that really only adds to the vibe I’m trying to create. It’s meant to feel ever-so-slightly off in the way that time does when you spend too much of it online. Everything blurs together—a wildly rich and out-of-touch celebrity has been cancelled for saying something wildly rich and out-of-touch, someone’s become Twitter’s main character of the day over the most unfathomably bad take anyone’s ever seen, another police officer has injured themselves falling out of a slide for children in Boston: the details might be different but in essence it’s all very much the same thing over and over again, etc. ad nauseum. There’s something postmodernist about it, almost, this abnegation of the ageing physical body in favor of plugging the mind into the constant and unchanging Online, and the notion that everything is simply doomed to repeat, that periods of major innovation and change belong to the past and what we’re left with now is a kind of endlessly accumulating predictability. It’s quite comically absurd but there’s a bleakness to it too—the bleakness of late-stage capitalism, of expecting all world news to be bad, of gradually watching climate change become more and more inevitable while the people who could stop it choose for their own ends not to. And then at the center of this dreary eternally indifferent landscape: people making posts! The stagnating atmosphere, the juxtaposition of the existential and the absurd; it’s very much key to the feel of the book as well as serving as something of an externalization of Beth’s mental state but in order to amplify that sense of almost dreamlike inertia I chose not to tie the narrative to any particular event that might anchor it too strongly to linear reality—like, say, a global pandemic, or a deeply divorced billionaire buying and destroying Twitter. Those things are present only in the vaguest, most abstract terms, insofar as they might add context to the reader’s impression of the world as Beth experiences it. Also there’s the fact that if I had to unironically type a sentence like “Beth pulled out her phone and made a post on X” I think I would be immediately compelled to delete the entire draft out of sheer mortification.
What other social media does Beth use?
This is probably where I’ve been the least imaginative and just ripped entirely from my own knowledge and experience. I envision her as someone who probably debuted on MySpace and Bebo back in the day, so there’s Twitter, obviously, and then to a lesser extent Tumblr, and there’s kind of a line between her personal and professional use of both of those websites that gets explored in more depth later on in the story. Then Instagram, because I imagine she’s quite into the obsessive curation of her own image, and probably Facebook in the way that most people of our generation use Facebook (to grudgingly compare ourselves with people we went to school with who are far more conventionally successful than we are and to make sure none of our relatives have died without us noticing). I don’t think she’s normie enough for Reddit or edgy enough for 4Chan, and she probably feels a little too old for TikTok. Maybe she’s a “Bring back Vine!” girl. On the whole I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that one should write exclusively what they know but also I don’t think there’s anything worse than trying to write about a type of social media that you don’t use and failing miserably; it’s very “How do you do, fellow kids?” I genuinely can’t imagine anything more embarrassing than an impossibly cool TikTok teen reading my book and going “Ew, no.”
Through a lot of this excerpt, but particularly in Beth’s conversations with Silver, you’re engaging with cultural theory. Are these ideas you often explore in your writing?
Absolutely yes, although I think perhaps it’s rare for me to do so as explicitly as I have here. I find myself most often inclined to write about a particular type of young woman; opinionated and intelligent, probably queer, probably not conventionally beautiful, very much a part of the contemporary moment, very socially conscious (if not necessarily the most socially adept). I think a waft of cultural theory tends to make its way in even if it isn’t overtly acknowledged because it’s impossible to write truthfully about bodies or womanhood or sexuality without implicitly responding to the socio-political context. But then with this book I’ve found it quite difficult to write the scenes where Beth and Silver actually talk about anything resembling capital-D Discourse; the conversation they have in this excerpt is probably the most written and rewritten part of the entire novel, purely because when you’re writing intellectual debate about inane Twitter talking points that only the abominably online care about it’s very easy to make characters sound like authorial mouthpieces rather than people, and then you have something juvenile and moralistic and didactic that is a complete and utter slog to read. In early drafts I found that I was anticipating every possible critique that people might make of either Beth or Silver’s point of view and including counters to those imagined criticisms within the text, as if it were my own personal opinions that were coming under fire. It was garbage! And it was very silly, because what they’re talking about in those conversations isn’t the point at all—it’s there to illuminate the characters themselves and how they as individuals are inclined to respond to the world they inhabit, not to convince the reader of anything or wade into the interminable culture wars. Once I managed to unclench about it and properly internalize that I was writing fiction in which people are allowed to say things that are stupid and wrong rather than a polemical screed I might be called upon to defend in court the whole process started going a lot more smoothly.
What does your writing process look like in general?
Oh, it’s awful. Really just the worst. I think if I’m being kind to myself I would call it “haphazard;” I write in fits and starts but if I try to impose any real sense of discipline over it I find that my brain tends to shut down completely, presumably out of pure spite. I have conditioned myself to write most days but it’s definitely been a slow process that involved overcoming a lot (a lot) of self-doubt; for me it’s always been a battle between a) trying and potentially failing and b) not trying at all, and unfortunately throughout the first half of my twenties the latter option consistently won out. Having my first few short stories published helped, as did being shortlisted for the Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Award last year. And of course winning this competition! Entering it was a really pivotal decision for me—I was actually on the verge of abandoning the novel completely and starting over from scratch because I’d become so self-critical about it I couldn’t even glance at the manuscript without having a Category 10 Mental Health Moment but I’d invested enough time and effort into it by that point that I figured I’d give the competition a shot and the outcome would be the thing that would decide whether or not I’d pursue it. As it turned out the outcome was pretty good, and now the novel’s almost finished. Which is basically proof never to listen to your inner hater; actually you should probably pull her out of there and beat her to death with sticks. Anyway, besides that, the thing that helps most is reading; I read voraciously and finding something in someone else’s work that moves me is probably what makes me most excited to sit down and put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper. Unless it’s too good, in which case it makes me want to hurl my laptop and then myself out of the nearest window, but c’est la vie I suppose.
Who are you reading these days?
This is absolutely the question I’m going to struggle to answer concisely. Always and forever: Elena Ferrante, Annie Proulx, James Baldwin, Patricia Lockwood, Donna Tartt. I came late to Hilary Mantel—I only read Wolf Hall this year so clearly my finger is not on the pulse at all but now I’m obsessed with her. Newer voices whose works I’ve really enjoyed include Catie Disabato, Raven Leilani, Alison Rumfitt, Kiley Reid, and most recently Nicola Dinan. Ottessa Moshfegh is a consistently interesting writer in the sense that I don’t know if I always like her books but they never fail to elicit some kind of intellectual or emotional response in me; ditto Sayaka Murata. Conversely I’ve never read a Miriam Toews book that I haven’t wholeheartedly adored. I’ve been reading a lot of James Dickey lately, poetry and prose; his language is so beautiful and precise and his themes so deftly articulated that it makes even the horny machismo tolerable. Other poets I love are Mark Doty and Hera Lindsay Bird—in voice and style they couldn’t be further apart but they’re both amazing. In the genre space I think Tamsyn Muir is doing incredibly interesting and innovative things in sci-fi/fantasy, and Tana French is the undisputed queen of the literary crime procedural (to me, anyway!). I’ve been trying to read more of the classics which has unfortunately turned me into the kind of person who wanders around telling people about how good Lolita is as if no one else has ever realized that before. I’m also very privileged to be party to the burgeoning careers of my up-and-coming writer friends that a lot of people won’t have been fortunate enough to read yet; Rue Baldry, who was one of the regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize this year and is the closest thing I have to a literary mentor, Charlin McIsaac, who won the Bridport Short Story Prize in 2021, and Sennen Cork, recently shortlisted for HarperFiction’s inaugural (Re)Presenting Romance Award. And for several months now I’ve been chipping away very slowly at The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which is wonderful and also contains easily the best line I’ve encountered in a long time—of Sir Bors he writes: “Unfortunately he was a misogynist, and, like most people of that sort, he had the female failing of indiscretion.” What an absolutely bonkers sentence. I love it.
What else can you tell us about the novel?
Hmmm. Well, I can say that it probably goes in a direction that one mightn’t expect from this excerpt alone. I personally love navel-gazey solipsistic literary fiction about terrible young women with bad personalities but I know a lot of people find it quite stultifying and plotless so I’m glad to be able to say that things do actually happen in the book outside of a) Twitter and b) Beth’s mind. There are French people, and skeletons in closets—metaphorically, but also perhaps literally—and the creeping rise of fascism (woohoo!). It’s my debut novel so it’s obviously a moving exploration of trauma and identity even though I didn’t initially set out to write it that way; unfortunately I think it’s actually impossible to write a debut novel that isn’t a moving exploration of trauma and identity, but I can safely say my prose isn’t “lyrical and haunting” so I’ve managed to avoid some clichés at least. Small mercies!
Interviewed by Cole Meyer