After the death of her father, burgeoning academic Ann Stillwell flees her hometown to work in curation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but with the position no longer available, she instead finds herself working at the Cloisters, a Gothic museum and garden dedicated to medieval art and botany. There, she is drawn into the study of divination, and finds herself at the centre of a web of deception, seduction and ambition that quickly yields dire consequences, blurring the lines between past and present – and reality and fantasy. The Cloisters is the debut novel by Katy Hays, an art historian in California.
You are a professor in art history. How did your academic background inform the novel?
You might expect that I’m a medievalist, but in truth, I’m a modernist. So while my immediate field of study didn’t influence the novel, certainly my experience in academia did. Additionally, I think graduate work in the humanities is excellent training for the aspiring novelist – both require you to love the work and weather criticism along the way.
The Cloisters shares common themes with novels like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and ML Rio’s If We Were Villains, sometimes termed “dark academia”. Do you see it as part of this or any other literary tradition?
Jenn Jordan, librarian and PhD in medieval history, once said to me: “Dark academia is redundant.” Naturally, I found this hilarious (and true). Which is to say that those who have enjoyed time in academia know the reality is already plenty dark! Effectively, “dark academia” is an excellent shorthand for describing campus novels with teeth, and I’d like to believe that The Cloisters is a campus novel that has a strong bite.
Is there any inherent danger in building a life around academia – especially the humanities – which has spent years under ideological and economic attack, making jobs increasingly competitive?
These days, I think my answer, sadly, is yes. Tenure track jobs are becoming increasingly scarce across all departments, and humanities departments have been particularly devastated by budget cuts and culture wars. Academia is more tenuous than ever. But then, I’m not sure academia has ever been a wholly egalitarian or accessible profession.
Does forging a successful life rely on having some kind of belief system, if only self-belief?
Perhaps. On the most basic level, isn’t a daily routine a kind of belief system? I need coffee before email before a run before my day can begin? Isn’t a simple superstition – putting on a left shoe first – a belief system? That said, I’m not sure a belief system is a guarantor of a successful life. More of an apotropaic way to ward off that which we cannot see or would rather not name. Maybe that’s a hedging answer, but I think humans are drawn inexorably to routines and practices and, yes, beliefs that enable us to make sense of the world in a personal way.
Ann begins the narrative a sceptic but is fully converted to belief in fate by its end. Do academics inevitably filter the world through their research interests?
I want to say no, if only because I’d like to hold onto the idea that academics are also people outside of their work. But yes, I think in some ways it’s impossible to leave your research interests at the door. I still remember walking home from a party with a friend one night, an Americanist, who exclaimed as we passed an illuminated Starbucks: “Look, it’s a contemporary Edward Hopper.” Perhaps that says it all.
Did the arc of the narrative come to you fully formed, like the fate Ann comes to believe in, or, like Rachel, did the ending elude you until you reached it?
I never know where a novel is going when I start it. In fact, I’m a deeply inefficient writer. I’ll write two or three first drafts before I find the true outline of the story. Often, I’m just trying to write my way in. In the case of The Cloisters I didn’t know what would happen until I reached the final page. It’s one of my favourite parts of writing – listening to the story tell you what it wants to be.
Relationships between parents (or parental figures) and children runs through the novel. Is parentage the most powerful kind of fate?
This is a complicated question, because I see so much of my parents in myself and I know my own parentage and family have deeply informed my life choices in both conscious and subconscious ways. But I also have friends who have been estranged since infancy from one of their parents and they don’t necessarily feel like part of them is missing. I want to make space for the idea that family is something you are free to recast or remake in a way that better serves you alongside a more traditional idea of your family is your fate.
Money acts as a protective blanket in the novel as in life. Could the same story have been told in a more equitable world?
Ambition is like a drug in America. What fuels the eponymous American Dream if not ambition? In other words, in a more equitable world, ambition loses much of its power, much of its vitality. After all, then the struggle becomes more about comfort and luxury and less about survival. If it’s not necessary to desperately claw your way up the ladder, can there be characters like Ann? I’m not sure there could be.
Men in the novel are credited with women’s achievements, but also blamed for their wrongdoings. Does women’s invisibility harm those around them as much as themselves?
In the world of The Cloisters, I think the female characters use that invisibility to their advantage, which is perhaps a very old technique. To that end, my answer to this question is a bit of a reframing. I think men should be afraid when the women around them are forced into (or choose) invisibility. Because that means they’re plotting.
Ann is a polyglot – a skillset that informs the course of her life. How far does language shape the stories we tell and the lives we lead?
Joan Didion famously (and rightly) said “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”, and while I think she may have meant that we need a sense of narrative, a sense of fiction in order to survive the reality of our world, we necessarily need language to tell those stories. And perhaps those stories only become richer as we gain fluency in both our native and foreign tongues.