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"The idea was that I would write a YA supernatural romance with a plot involving time travel and Vikings which would correct the problematic tropes of Twilight," says Lisa Locascio of her first published novel, Open Me.
This is very different from what you read if you pick up the book today. It joins Roxana Olsen the summer after graduating high school, where she plans to spend the summer on an idealistic trip to Paris and ends up in Copenhagen instead. There she meets an intriguing guide a decade her senior, a person who will ultimately invite her to accompany him to a small town in Denmark to spend the summer. Their budding romance grows complicated as the season dwells on (and when Roxana meets another man who is seeking refuge from the Balkan War). Mysterious, erotic, and complex do not even begin to describe this stunning debut.
Locascio opened up to us about the process of writing the novel, some of her thoughts of the use of the term "eroticism", and the importance of writing complicated characters and narratives (even if they take you in directions you did not originally plan). The complete interview can be found below.
Open Me is your first novel, but your short fiction has been published in a number of literary journals and anthologies. How did you find the process of writing and publishing a novel different from your other work?
Open Me is actually my second or third book, depending on how you count; I finished one novel-in-stories shortly after completing my MFA in 2009, and a collection of short stories a few years before Open Me sold to Grove. But this is my first published book, and it is the first book I conceived as one continuous narrative. Figuring out how to make time work in the novel confounded me. I kept getting caught up on the minutiae of my protagonist's daily life; how could I skip over all the tiny moments to get to the important stuff? This task was especially difficult because one of the inspirations for my book was the idea that quotidian acts contain within them grace and wonder — that the simple act of living is meaningful and worthy of artistic exploration, observation, and aestheticization. It took me a long time to get the narrative perch and depth of observation right.
That's the main way in which the writing differed — other than that I had never spent seven years on one project before. I worked on many other things at the same time (short stories, poems, essays, the critical dissertation for my PhD) but the novel was my ride or die for almost a decade. The publishing was different because I had never published a book before, only pieces in journals. In 2015, after I had been working on the book for about five years and was trying to reach a zen acceptance that it might not be my debut, the agent Marya Spence reached out to me to express her interest in my work. We spent about eighteen months revising the manuscript together, and then she sold it to Grove Atlantic in October 2016. Around the same time — the second half of 2016 — I edited Golden State 2017: Best New Writing from California, an anthology for Outpost19, a San Francisco publishing house, and took the book on tour, which was a great experience and prepared me for the bigger scale of the Open Me tour.
The editorial process with Grove took most of 2017 and was more intense than any I had ever participated in before. I did two passes on the manuscript, and then completed a third and final round comprised of ten days in which my editor Katie Raissian and I spent four to five hours on the phone a day, going through it line by line. It was wild! I'm so grateful to have had so much support in achieving my vision for Open Me, which is the product of a collaboration between many different remarkable women: Katie, Marya, my publicist Justina Batchelor, and many others.
What inspired you to write Open Me? How did you come to write the book?
Open Me began in 2010 as a hilariously ambitious project. The idea was that I would write a YA supernatural romance with a plot involving time travel and Vikings which would correct the problematic tropes of Twilight. It had an epic, vaguely Outlander-esque plot in which a young woman from contemporary America is thrown back in time involuntarily, Octavia Butler's Kindred-style, and comes under the protection of a landowning Viking woman whose son is the product of a relationship with a skraeling — an indigenous American — during her time in Vinland, which we now call Newfoundland. It was an endlessly complex idea for a book; just to make it more difficult, I decided I would write it in six months and sell it for a million dollars, so that I could be on to my next book before the third year of my PhD.
Well, you can imagine how that all went. I really struggled to force myself to get to the moment of time travel — I kept writing obsessively about the details of my protagonist's ordinary life in a suburb of Chicago, freshly graduated from high school and dealing with her parents' divorce. I did about a year of research on Vikings, but even after I forced myself to write the shift in time I didn't feel confident with the tiny details of the time period. Like: what did they do when they got up in the morning? What was the dishwashing routine like in 1000 AD Denmark? The writing immediately became less subtle, too. I am endlessly grateful to my mentor Aimee Bender, who suggested, "What if the magic you're seeking is internal rather than external? What if the transformation you're imagining is metaphysical rather than literal?"
I was frustrated, because I didn't want to reimagine the novel, but of course I had to. The idea of the book underwent a tectonic shift. I allowed myself to invest in my protagonist's daily life, and I still sent her overseas, but I kept her in the present — a present that was at first vague and then became, specifically, 2010. My purpose became more politically focused as I reflected on my experiences visiting Denmark, a beautiful country that seems on the surface to have it all figured out, with a remarkably strong social welfare system. As an American, however, I was struck by the dissonant, contradictory stances that Danes sometimes took on the topics of immigration and national identity. Those ideas — and many of the experiences I had in Denmark — also gave shape to the novel.
The last thing I'll mention in regard to the genesis of the novel is the very real fact that, if you write something over a long period of time, it changes as your life changes. The book is not autobiographical — in fact, it is the least autobiographical thing I have ever written — but it was absolutely informed by my changing ideas of who I was and what my writing meant over the course of the near-decade it took to complete and publish it.
The novel begins with the protagonist, Roxana, heading off on a study abroad program. Do you think that study abroad has certain connotations or expectations, especially for American students, and if so, did that influence the development of your story?
When I was an undergraduate at NYU, I went out of my way to apply directly to be a visiting student at the University of Edinburgh rather than studying abroad at one of NYU's many impressive campuses. I did this, and chose to spend my time abroad in an English speaking country, because of the frankly negative impression I had of study abroad — that it was a way college students wasted a semester partying in a foreign city and taking cheap flights across Europe to get trashed at Oktoberfest and be nuisances at sites of historical importance. Thirteen years later, I recognize mine as a fairly acid take, and I wonder where it came from. I suppose I had observed and seen evidence of this culture of anti-immersion, which seemed to me to be a repudiation of the purpose of higher education and travel — a waste of money and time. Despite the ardent hedonism at the core of my ambitions and pursuits, I've always been a somewhat contrarian outsider, if only in stance — I didn't want to have that kind of a good time. I had visited Paris and met NYU students studying there who professed total ignorance about "where French people hang out." So instead I went to Scotland and spent most of my time in the university library basement, reading about early modern British female diarists. It was the most academically rigorous semester of my undergraduate education, and it was dreamy, too; I was there with my boyfriend, who had family friends who lived in a three-hundred-year-old manor house, and we would go and stay with them and have these incredible weekends in the country with their wonderful children, eating pureed soups by a wood stove.
Despite the academic rigor and local friends and the presence of my boyfriend, I was desperately homesick. I moped around a lot. I remember him telling me that I was going to miss those months, the places we spent our time. You were right, Axel! So I was simultaneously engaged and delighted by the intellectual and cultural exploration I was undertaking and powerless against the tidal emotions that shaped my daily reality. Scotland had this massive architecture and landscape, and by November the sun was going down at about two-thirty in the afternoon. My months there had an indelibility, and I am grateful for them. In my own way, of course, I did what I so disdained, pouting and drinking across Europe. But I still teach those early modern female diarists — shoutout to Lady Anne Clifford and Lady Margaret Hoby! — and Axel and I are still dear friends and creative collaborators. And I haven't thought about the impact of any of that on my novel before you asked this question, so thank you for that.
I think Open Me absolutely reflects the miasmic, contradictory impulses and desires that send young Americans abroad. Roxana wants to have an experience, but she is in no way prepared for what that will mean. She is entitled to her adventure and her exploration, and what she discovers deepens her, makes her more fully herself.
Roxana finds herself in Copenhagen rather than Paris as she had planned. What was your knowledge of the city and Denmark as a whole, and were there any challenges in writing about it?
I was lucky to take several long trips to Denmark between 2010 and 2015. I've spent a fair amount of time in Copenhagen, but most of my time visiting the country was spent in Jutland, in the region known as Vesthimmerland — the western side of northern Jutland, in the towns of Farsø and Hobro. I was fascinated by Jutland, a place that feels remote in a country small enough to drive across in five hours, which contains the great cities of Aalborg and Århus as well as Copenhagen, its capital. Observing life in Denmark can make an American despair about the state of her home country. The social welfare network makes sure that no one goes bankrupt from paying their medical or educational bills, and Danes have a remarkable sense of being part of a collective; everyone I met took for granted that caring for one another was a prerequisite of civic life. And yet there is a blackout of these values around immigrants, refugees, asylees, and second-generation Danes whose parents were born elsewhere. Danish xenophobia--aligned with, but not exactly coequal to, those we now associate with the emergent white ethnonationalist political groups that have gained prominence across Europe — was both offensive to my American sensibilities and somewhat surreal, because Danes revere the American Civil Rights movement and are quick to decry racism in the United States. But they don't connect those ideas to their treatment of those they deem other — a situation that, as this recent New York Times article shows, is only getting worse.
That being said, I want to take the opportunity here to say what I've said at my book events, which is that the Danes I knew well and considered part of my family were not xenophobes; they were kind, incredibly welcoming and thoughtful people who did me the huge honor of introducing me to their lovely and complex country, including its refugee resettlement centers, which play a significant part in the plot of Open Me. By no means do I wish to portray all Danes as xenophobes; rather, as an American who has frankly always idealized Scandinavia, I was fascinated to see how these familiar issues played out in a completely different context from the one in which I am rooted. The kindness and openness of the Danes I knew well made my novel possible, and I am very grateful to them.
Roxana and Søren, her love interest, have a complex, intense relationship. What did you enjoy in writing about these characters?
I wanted to write a book in which a woman's interiority was the plot. And I wanted to write about that feeling of playing house that is so transgressive and sweet at the same time, the first time you do it--the way you can fool yourself into thinking you're basically all the way grown up because you wash dishes and do laundry with someone. I wanted to make visible the pleasures and terrors of the domestic space shared by two people who don't know each other very well. It was important to me that Søren be both lovable and desirable as well as somewhat frightening. I didn't want him to be a cold villain; he is even more tortured by his depression and antipathy towards the very young woman he impulsively brings home than she is. And in Roxana, I wanted to give voice to the impulses, dreams, lusts, and bodily experiences lived by young women everywhere but so rarely portrayed in art. I wanted to make a character in whom nothing was censored, nothing turned away from — to celebrate her body in its animal nature, its femaleness, its innate strength.
Photo Credit: Michael Chylinski
Refinery29 named the book one of the "best erotic romance novels" of the summer. What is your understanding of this label? Do you consider the novel erotic?
There can be no confusion about the fact that there is certainly plenty of sex in the novel, but I've been surprised by my own reactions to the label of "erotic." I used to joke that I worried about my books being marketed as "chick lit," which is a term we don't see much anymore, both because of its poor optics, I think, and the reality that literature whose readership is primarily female is in large part what keeps publishing afloat, and thus should perhaps be celebrated rather than demeaned. There are no cartoony engagement rings on the cover of my book, but much of the coverage of the book has labeled it "erotic"; I think, but I'm not sure, that Refinery29 was the only venue that added the rejoinder "romance."
What do I think about this? I think my own aversion to the term suggests that I have more learned misogyny to process than I might think I do as a self-identified feminist. I think that books which pay attention to women's interiority, sexuality, embodied experiences, and relationships are often labeled in a way we understand as diminishing because our literary culture still operates under the pretense of a gendered dichotomy which sorts books by and about men as public, important, and political, and books by and about women as private, quiet, and domestic. Things are changing, maybe, but they have not yet fully changed.
A primary goal of mine in writing Open Me was to be honest about sex and to give voice to a woman's unstinting desire for sexual intimacy. I was so tired of seeing the state of sexual longing written as belonging only to men. And many books that are held up as shocking in their depiction of female sexuality are, to me, dull reiterations of patriarchal conceptions of women's relationships to their bodies and the bodies of their lovers, to say nothing of the imposition of tired moralities and the censorship of bodily reality. I wanted to create a feminine scatology, one that paid witness to--and celebrated! — the realities of living in a woman's body, which as far more often heady, rich, and sexy than they they are difficult and gross. All of which is to say that the way I have come to feel about the "erotic" label is that if it impels a curious reader to my book, I do not think they will be disappointed.
I feel like teenage sexuality is always linked to some idea of "coming of age". Did you think about this at all when exploring Roxana's sexuality?
To be honest, I didn't think about the book as a coming of age story, although the book does chronicle Roxana's coming-into-herself. I like the term "erotic bildungsroman", which I've seen used in a few reviews, although, again: do I just like that because it pairs a fancy German lit crit word with the more suspect feminized descriptor? I chose to make Roxana eighteen years old because I was writing in my late twenties and wanted to make sure I had appropriate distance from and purchase on where she was at that point in her life. And because I thought it was important to create a story of daring, danger, desire, and adventure with a young woman at its center. I've seen some handwringing on Goodreads about how "stupid" Roxana is; one commenter wrote that if they were Roxana's parent, they would lock her in their basement. I humbly suggest those who read about Roxana's experiences and respond with fear and judgment are caught in the gendered dichotomy described above. What if instead of fearing for and condemning her, we celebrated Roxana — and the countless other real young women who have had similar experiences — as brave? Such a shift in perception would require a significant recalibration in the generosity and empathy we extend to the sexual quests undertaken by young women, one long overdue.
Later in the novel, Roxana meets a character who is refugee from the Balkan War. Why did you want to include this historical element in the novel?
One of the books I most admire is Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. I was in awe of how she braids many concurrent moments from the 1970s into an exciting plot, one that anchors and foregrounds the journeys undertaken by her unforgettable protagonist Reno. Early on, my novel was completely focused on the domestic space that Roxana and Søren share, the folie à deux of their relationship. It was actually my ex-husband, a Dane and at the time my first reader, who suggested and helped invent Geden. "Just the two lovers is a little dull," he said. "Why not a triangle?" He had shared with me stories of the Balkan refugees he had known and befriended as a child in Jutland, and Geden came together somewhat magically as a result of our conversations, his memories, and my research. I thought it important to provide a grounded counterpoint to Roxana and Søren's largely theoretical conversations about prejudice and otherness, and Geden gave me an opportunity to portray a different kind of life led by a different kind of Dane, to make flesh in a character my ardent belief that diversity of experience and background is a necessary element of thriving communities.
The last decade has seen the popular discussion of whether or not the novel is "dead", but books (especially those penned by women) have continued to excite the arts and culture world. What do you think about the future of literature, particularly female-written literature?
I think that reports of the death of the novel, of books, of story are wildly over-reported and sold by people who haven't read anything they loved recently, or ever. As a teacher I seek to valorize the many different types of storytelling and self-writing in which we engage on a daily basis, many of which have nothing to do with books. I think the hunger for stories told by people and from places previously barred from speaking their truths is and will remain the best we have to offer as a society: the strongest weapon against the forces that seek to subjugate, silence, and sell us. I'm honored to be among their ranks.
Follow Lisa Locascio on Twitter and Instagram. Open Me is available now from Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.