'I’m not immune to bad movies' Art critic turned novelist Zoe Pilger talks feminism
Between writing about art for The Independent and working on a PhD, Zoe Pilger has found time to complete her first novel, Eat My Heart Out. Overturning all the conventions of your modern rom-com, this anarchic debut confronts the current state of culture and feminism head on. Here Pilger talks Girls, Kathy Acker and the rise of a new wave of feminism...
How would you describe Eat My Heart Out?
I wanted to find a way of looking at feminist ideas in fiction without being dogmatic. It's very surreal and dark and hopefully there aren't any answers to the questions I'm asking. It's a comedy and a coming-of-age novel, spanning roughly a week in London following 23-year-old Ann-Marie, who has just failed her university finals. She becomes a protégé of a second-wave feminist icon called Stephanie Haight and the book is about the relationship between them, representing different generations of feminism and the conflicts that arise.
How did the book take shape?
I was interested in questioning this idea of romantic love, which is sold to us in romantic comedies and women's magazines. They suggest that it is the ultimate goal of a woman's life instead of being one among others. Eventually I started a PhD, researching links between romantic love and power, particularly sadomasochistic relationships in the work of the artist Sophie Calle. That research feeds into the novel. Stephanie Haight's writings are a kind of deranged version of my thesis.
You are an art critic for The Independent - how difficult did you find the change from writing journalism to writing fiction?
The discipline of reviewing exhibitions is very much about describing something that is visual: great training for writing fiction. I've never done a creative writing degree, so that was part of my fiction apprenticeship. I enjoy writing in lots of different registers at once and each of them feed into one another. There is quite a lot about art in the novel – some characters are aspiring performance or video artists.
What was it like getting it off the ground with your publisher?
It's been a great privilege to have been given the creative freedom I have by Serpent's Tail, something I think is really rare in publishing today, especially for fiction by women. It is very often pigeonholed into ‘chick lit' or has to be commercially viable in some kind of pre-established category.
Eat My Heart Out is bitingly funny at points. Why did you decide to use comedy to address the issues in the book?
I think I'm just incapable of writing fiction with no jokes in it. I've written short stories over the last year that are different in theme but all have this slightly sinister, surreal humour. I've only really started thinking recently about what comedy and satire are, and why I write comedy, since I've started to be interviewed for the book.
Throughout the novel you reference so-called feminist culture such as Sex and the City and Fifty Shades of Grey. Are you trying to subvert the idea that they're portraying liberated women?
I don't have a political message I'm trying to put across. I just wanted to open up the space of talking about feminism in a way that was accessible. A lot of academic feminist ideas can be very intense and impenetrable, which is a shame because feminism is about people's real lives and is something all men and women need. As for Sex and the City, part of the reason I started my PhD on romantic love and read studies of Fifty Shades and SATC was because I'm a complete sucker for romantic comedies as well. I'm not immune to the manipulative emotional power of a really terrible saccharine movie; while intellectually I know what it's doing and I know the image of womanhood that it's presenting is regressive. I was really interested in that disjunction between what I knew critically and intelligently to be wrong and what still had this emotional effect. It's that tension and contradiction that I have explored in the novel and in my PhD. Ann-Marie and Stephanie are the two sides of that tension; Ann-Marie is obsessed with Beyoncé and desperately wants to fall in love, whereas Stephanie is determined to re-educate, to undo the brainwashing that has taken place, albeit through her own form of brainwashing (which is equally destructive).
Were you in anyway trying to address what you see as complacency among young people today about feminism?
No. I think it comes out of my own frustration with the way culture seems to have become more regressive in its attitudes towards and representation of women. I do think that frustration is very in tune with a lot of other young men and women who are dissatisfied but who, as yet, don't know exactly how to express that. It is building and I'm so happy that there does seem to be a new wave of feminism coming. When I first started writing this novel, at the end of 2010, that hadn't really taken off yet. Feminism still seemed in the shadows and wasn't something young women seemed to particularly aspire to. It should be a badge of honour, not denigrated.
You feel there is a sea change going on?
I really do. I'm certainly not the only person to point this out but across different fields and in different ways there's something happening with young women, across activism, Internet feminism and the arts. It's quite mysterious how these things suddenly pick up. There's a zeitgeist at the moment, it is really exciting.
Beyond the principle issue of gender inequality in the book you seem to be satirising narcissism among twenty-somethings today. Is that a fair assertion?
Yes. I wanted the book to be beyond good and evil, for there to be no real sense of comfortable redemption or sense of conscience or guilt for the characters' actions. While I was satirising that narcissistic, hipster culture I didn't want to be judgemental at the same time - they don't really get their comeuppance. But definitely, it's very ripe for satire that whole thing. To put it in a more serious way, what I was trying to critique was this culture of hedonism and entitlement among young people, which is not grounded in anything. What is amazing about this new wave of feminism is that there is a new earnestness that has returned to young people and youth culture, which I think was missing a few years ago. I guess I'm trying to critique that sense of nihilism, not really caring about anything and the cruelty implied in that.
You've been compared to Girls creator Lena Dunham. Is that an observation you can understand?
That's mainly because my book is about the same demographic: people in their early 20s who've just graduated - or in Ann-Marie's case failed to graduate - who are trying to enter the real world but don't really know what they're doing. But my book is very different to Girls, it is a lot darker and more surreal, and not intended to be realistic exactly. I think Lena Dunham is really talented. Tiny Furniture and the first series of Girls in particular were really brilliant and I admire her as a female writing comedy, which is still a rare thing. I'm very happy and flattered with that comparison. The other female comedy writers who I really love are Julia Davis, who wrote and starred in Nighty Night, which I absolutely love and Muriel Sparks, particularly her darkly comic novel The Driver's Seat. It's very rare that you get women exploring these uncomfortable areas through humour - something that I tried to do with this book.
Why did you choose to engage with the subjects you have in a novel on top of your academic work?
I'm always looking at things in terms of their fictional possibilities, and it was always my intention to be a novelist. I started working on the character of Ann-Marie with Hannah, my editor at Serpent's Tail, when I was 23, long before I started my PhD, so it's had a very long genesis.
Did the novel allow you to confront the subjects of your research in a different way?
Definitely. There are conventions of storytelling and, though my novel is written in quite a raw way, it is carefully structured (it went through four drafts and took about two and a half years to write). Within those rules, however, there is this amazing freedom that you don't have in life. You have complete license to do anything, that's what I find so exciting about writing fiction. It's using the kind of ‘what if?' faculty of your imagination - a relatively normal situation, for example, a one-night stand or a visit to your friend's uncle's flat, can spiral in a way that becomes quite detached from reality.
You mention Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School in the novel. Has Acker had a particularly strong influence on you?
I first read Blood and Guts in High School when I was about 25. She is formally experimental; she uses William Burroughs' cut-up technique, and often references other texts (she wrote a novel called Great Expectations). Her raw energy, rage and pace are things that I really admire. It's not polite, obedient or safe; it's trying to take a risk. When I'm writing, I actually scare myself to death; I'm not just sitting there, blasé, typing out completely deranged and dark imaginings. It's tricky, actually. I'm aware of it as transgressive, but am wary of that term because I don't want to shock or be provocative for the sake of it. A lot of thought and research went into the novel - but at the same time I do like that Kathy Acker style of fiction that shakes you up a bit.
Which other writers would you count as influences?
I'm particularly obsessed with women writers like Margeurite Duras and I recently read Heroines by Kate Zambreno, which is really good. Also Eat My Heart Out, in terms of its genre, is influenced by books like Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, a comic coming-of-age novel set in New York in the early 80s. I love that book, I've read it about three times since I was a teenager. Similarly, it is about a condensed period of time in the protagonist's life where everything seems to be in crisis, which is of course a great catalyst for humour or a kind of tragicomedy. I also love Catcher in the Rye, again set over a short period of time and which involves a crisis: a nervous breakdown. Both those are male writers with male protagonists, but they also had a big effect on me.
Lastly, have you any plans to write another novel anytime soon?
Yes, I went to Paris for Christmas and started to have some new ideas, then wrote a first few chapters. This one seems even darker than the last, though it shares similar themes. It's about a female romance writer who gets locked in a mental asylum because she starts pushing against the boundaries of and stepping outside the genre. It really comes from this whole period leading up to the publication of Eat My Heart Out where I've become more acutely aware of how fixed a lot of these genre boundaries for writing by women really are. It's interesting what happens when you produce something that has some of the same motifs and ideas as a romantic comedy but doesn't conform to what a romantic comedy should be, and how people struggle.
Eat My Heart Out is published by Serpent's Tail on 30 Jan
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