An offbeat tale of friendship and love between the prickly Paulina and the milder natured Fran, from American writer and artist Rachel B Glaser, Paulina & Fran (Granta, £12.99) follows the pair as they leave the comfort of their New England art school and navigate adulthood.
In many ways the novel is very modern but also timeless, with no clear date, an absence of cultural markers for the present day, and a use of traditional names and language. Was this intentional or did you have a time period firmly in mind?
I imagined the story beginning in the late 1990s or early 2000s, but I wanted it to feel timeless and tried to perpetuate that feeling. I like thinking of a love triangle as one of the original human narratives, like from caveman times.
Did you set out to write a love triangle and why did you decide to turn the traditional model – of women fighting over a man – on its head?
Yes. From the first paragraph I ever wrote of it, the story that inspired the novel was always based on a love triangle. From the beginning, Julian was a point between my two main characters. He gave them something in common, and became a sort of property they were both trying to stake out. As I wrote more, the connection between Paulina & Fran grew more powerful and Julian became a way for them to communicate with each other. I think when two people are fighting for something, the prize is sometimes irrelevant. One can get wrapped up in the fighting and once they’ve won, find the prize unsatisfying and long for the fighting again.
Many of the characters’ actions contradict what they outwardly say. Is that a symptom of youth or of artists?
I think it’s a symptom of characters and people. People wander through their days with ever-changing moods and desires, but often they aren’t doing exactly what they want or saying exactly what they feel. Many people keep romantic or sexual feelings a secret until they are sure the feelings are accepted or shared. Sometimes these are secrets one keeps from others, but these can also be secrets one keeps from oneself. But, yes, I think young art students are aware of the image they are giving off, and thrive in the grey area between what they say and what they mean, and what they say and what they do. They are living outside of their families in a very accepting, free-form society. Anything can be a painting, anything can be a statement, and this freedom challenges previous assumptions of how one must act.
How did you ensure that your characters, particularly Paulina, remained compelling despite being unlikable much of the time?
I am drawn to flamboyant, expressive characters, and what many readers consider unlikable, I consider funny, real, and narratively delicious. I think showing Paulina in vulnerable moments of despair and jealousy helped the balance between compelling and unlikable, but only for some readers. Other readers felt affronted/disgusted/unsympathetic to her jealousy and despair. Everyone has a completely different experience when they read a book. Many people prefer a more clear-cut hero and more clear-cut villain, but I liked writing characters that mixed those.
Have your own studies of visual art informed your writing?
Yes, very much. Years of studying and creating visual art improved my work ethic and helped make experimenting an intrinsic part of my process. Before art school I went to an arts camp called Buck’s Rock, and that’s where I started seriously writing and painting. It was a camp that, like RISD, believed in self-directed learning. You give yourself an assignment and complete it. It’s the same process through one’s lifetime. A rhythm of starting and completing projects takes the fear and preciousness out of it. Also, I think visual arts are often taught in a more open way. Even third grade art students know there are no rules when making a painting. But in high school and college, young writers often box themselves in with rules or strategies. Where is the rising action etc? I think my visual arts background inspired a kind of creative freedom in me, but writing and reading poems helped too.
The narration switches between point of views fluidly. Did you grapple with that at all or experiment with more common devices like switching between characters with chapters?
The point of view switching was something my editor Cal Morgan and I grappled with in the editing stage, but I never wished to organise the points of view by chapter. In 2009, I read and admired Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Her point of view switches are unpredictable and give the reader an exhilarating experience of flying mind to mind. Granting the reader access to the inner worlds and outer worlds of characters is one of my favorite aspects of writing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about daily – that every being in this life has their own point of view – visually and also emotionally, and also (and I don’t have a word for this), the visual combined with the emotional, combined with a worldview and sense of self. Everyone is in their own reality, and this thought is so exciting and terrifying and lonely and wonderful to me.
Many female authors are out-performing male writers in sales and popularity but their books are still struggling for column inches or being dismissed by critics as unliterary. What’s it like to release your debut novel at a time when these debates are in the spotlight?
I actually don’t pay much attention to that debate (re: critics/attention), but I do think a lot about women characters being under-represented/marginalised /stereotyped/simplified in books, television and movies. Of these mediums, books are the most balanced and least problematic (in my opinion and experience). When writing Paulina & Fran, it was cathartic to write about two female main characters that, at times, objectify male characters. I think it’s a fun time narratively for women and the LGBTQIA community. I’ve been watching the TV shows Broad City and Transparent, and both are showing experiences that I’ve never watched on screen before. It’s truly exciting and makes me feel victorious. There are so many writers writing amazingly unique female characters that are doing new things and saying new things and acting new ways. I enjoyed the horrifying Eileen written by Ottessa Moshfegh, and the more upbeat and out of control The First Bad Man by Miranda July, among other great books this year.