I Can’t Help It, I’m a Gemini
Anna Dorn’s novel "Exalted" explores astrology, social media, desire, and the illusion of perfection
Astrology is having a moment, thanks to the phenomenon of Astro Poets, Chani Nicholas, and Jeanna Kadlec. Some of us use it to understand ourselves and our habits, or to make sense of other people and who we might be compatible with. We can look to the stars for the optimal timing for life changes or simply find entertainment in reading about our crushes’ tendencies. Whether we fully believe in its validity or not, it can arguably be a fun distraction—especially when it’s combined with social media. (Hello, memes!)
Emily Forrest, the mastermind behind @Exalted, a popular astrology Instagram account, isn’t sure she believes in astrology anymore. She spends the little money she makes “lying to people online” on lap dances from women. But when she does a reading for Beau Rubidoux, whose chart reveals all his planets are in the signs they’re exalted in, she’s convinced he could be the love of her life. She stalks his Instagram account and begins following him around Los Angeles.
After 48-year-old Dawn Webster is dumped by her girlfriend in Riverside, she’s forced to return to waiting tables. She tips back cheap champagne and scrolls through @Exalted, searching for validation about who she is. After noticing her son’s biological father on the street one day, she becomes determined to track him down.
Told from both Emily and Dawn’s points of view, Anna Dorn’s novel Exalted is a fun, fast paced, and hilarious examination of the projection of love that deals with astrology, social media, and the illusion of perfection.
Rachel León: I apologize if it’s corny to ask, but I’m wondering: what’s your sign?
Anna Dorn: I’m a Virgo. What’s yours?
RL: Gemini. Dawn is a Leo and Emily is a Scorpio. How did you decide their signs?
AD: I go through phases of romanticizing certain signs and demonizing others. I had a phase of romanticizing Gemini and Scorpios. While I was writing this book, I related to Scorpios, and felt like I understood them, so I wanted to play a Scorpio for a while. And with Dawn being a Leo? She was really into her hair, very proud, and had rage issues when it involved loved ones, so Leo made sense.
RL: Dawn and Emily often use their signs’ traits as an excuse for their bad behavior. Do you think astrology is popular because it offers us an explanation for who we are, while justifying our asshole tendencies?
AD: It can be an excuse to hide behind your bad behavior, but it can also be a way to boost your self-esteem. It gives people a reason to love themselves. Virgo isn’t a cool sign, and I was embarrassed about it for a while, but then I found out I was a Leo rising. I started to like myself more, even though nothing about me changed.
Another reason I think people are into astrology is because life is random, and it gives a framework for understanding people and imposing order onto a chaotic world. I use it that way. Since I wrote the book, I’ve been on a journey to think about astrology less. But I find myself explaining people’s behavior based on their birth chart, which obviously that’s not the reason they’re acting that way—or maybe it is, I don’t know—but it’s a way to impose a system for understanding people when there isn’t one.
RL: I relate to that because I also had a bad relationship with my sun sign due to how it’s perceived and once I learned my rising sign I felt different about myself.
AD: Geminis are demonized, but I don’t get it. I love the signs that other people hate—Geminis, Scorpios, Aquarians, Leos. I think people are mean about these signs because they’re threatened by them. It’s like how a book doesn’t get like a bad review unless it’s extremely popular. Nobody’s going to write a mean review about a book that’s mediocre and nobody read. It has to reach a level of fame for somebody to touch it, and I feel it’s like that with the signs. The reason those signs are attacked and demonized is because they’re kind of threatening. Like Scorpios can see everything and nobody really wants to be seen.
Emily and I have really different feelings on the signs. There’s a lot of Libra hate in the book, but I love Libras. And I don’t like Aries, but Aries are exalted, so I had to pretend. That was the hardest part of the book to inhabit a character that glorifies Aries.
RL: Emily makes astrology memes and believes they’re popular because they give people an outlet for their rage, allowing us to hate without feeling like bad people. I found that insight really fascinating since often the things that go viral tend to have a negative or mean streak to them. Do you think that’s the trick to virality—something that allows us to feel morally superior?
AD: I wish I knew the trick to virality. I tried to be Instagram-famous many times. I’ve finally given up, but I once had an astrology meme account and even a Kendall Jenner fan account. I’ve attempted to make memes, but I’m not good at it. Maybe that’s partially why I did this character—to live vicariously through her.
Actually, a friend of mine had a subletter who was a meme maker for a famous astrology account and didn’t believe in astrology. She said astrology memes were the easiest to make and it was an easy way to get followers. She never really left her room and would smoke weed all day. I only met her once, but hearing about her sparked the whole novel.
RL: What about the endless scrolling? Research has shown decreasing our social media usage can have a positive effect on our mental health and yet it’s tough to disconnect.
AD: Scrolling feels like one of my more harmless vices but maybe I’m deluded. I mostly look at photos of lizards. Emily doesn’t take Instagram seriously at all; she just sees it as a vehicle to make a living. Dawn just uses it to post pictures of herself in turquoise bathing suits and look for memes about Leos. I don’t think I’m trying to say anything too serious about mental health and technology in my writing. I think I’m just trying to reflect the fact that we’re all living mostly online. I don’t doubt the research regarding social media and its negative impact on mental health, but I’m not sure I could or would try to say anything in that arena that hasn’t already been said. I genuinely love the internet. I’ll spend hours looking at photos of Kate Moss modeling for Prada in the ’90s or rainforest tree frogs and it feels amazing, and maybe it’s not healthy, but I feel like it’s healthier than binge drinking or eating processed foods or getting plastic surgery? I think the characters I write about would have the same issues without the internet. The internet probably just heightens them, the way the internet heightens everything.
RL: Let’s talk about the word “queer.” Dawn hates the word and Prue in Vagablonde also didn’t like it, so I wanted to hear your own feelings on the word and having your work labeled that way.
AD: I used to identify as “queer” because I had serious relationships with men in my early 20s, and then I had a serious relationship with a woman, and didn’t want to trivialize my earlier relationships I’d had by saying I was a lesbian. It felt like saying my past relationships were a sham, and they weren’t—I really was in love—and I thought “queer” was able to fit my experience. It also has ties to academia, which spoke to me in my 20s. And now, eight years later, I’m definitely a lesbian.
When I wrote the first draft Vagablonde, I identified as queer and the queer parts in the book were sincere. And in the editing process, I started to make fun of it because at that point I thought “queer” was an obnoxious way to identify. I don’t have the best association with the term. I’m obsessed with lesbian erasure and I think the over-abundance of the word “queer” is a form of lesbian erasure. There’s this trend of creating the illusion that of having a non-conforming sexuality when all evidence points to heterosexuality. I recognize some people have legitimate fluid sexuality because I think my sexuality has been fluid—as are my opinions on the word “queer.”
RL: Speaking of Vagablonde, there are characters that overlap in both your novels. The novels are entirely separate and readers don’t need to read one to enjoy the other, but it’s pretty delightful for those who do. I’d love to hear about your decision to let some of the characters appear in both novels.
AD: I don’t like him so much now, but Bret Easton Ellis was a big influence for me when I started writing because his books are cinematic and take place in Southern California and felt hip in a way a lot of books didn’t. He has these overlapping characters like Patrick Bateman and Clay. Alison Poole is actually a character from one of Jay McInerney’s novels. I like that idea of not writing a series, but still creating a world. Actually, fun fact: I wrote an entire novel from the perspective of Wyatt Walcott, who is in Vagablonde. That was the first book I wrote and it didn’t sell. When I was writing Vagablonde, I was thinking it would be cool to put her in. Beau in Exalted is also in Vagablonde.
RL: Emily is enamored by his chart and essentially decides Beau is perfect. It seems like social media can play a role in the projection of perfection.
AD: Yeah, I’m interested in the way that the internet speeds up everything. Pre-internet, those narratives we’re creating would happen six months into knowing somebody, but they’re now happening before even meeting because you have all this digital communication. I was interested in Emily creating an entire narrative about a person that’s completely false. Originally, the other perspective wasn’t Dawn, it was Beau to show how everything Emily thought about him was completely untrue. But my agent said I’m not good at writing straight men.
RL: Emily says she likes how astrology transcends gender, class, and race, allowing us to “skip the bullshit and dive right into the mess of the human condition.” On the flip side, social media is pretty much about tidying up the human condition, or at least not showing things as they actually are. I thought we could wrap up by talking about the convergence of social media and astrology.
AD: I think they’re well matched because the astrological descriptions are so vague, you can pick and choose and create a narrative to your liking. Like me finding out I’m a Leo rising—I’m able to have a new perception of myself that’s probably totally fake. It glosses over the nuances of a person by glomming onto these adjectives.
I want to distinguish the astrology that I’m writing about in the book and the astrology of a legitimate astrologer who really understands the planets. But internet astrology is well-suited to memes and creating a particular suited to your liking or demonizing other people. If you have an ex who’s a Sagittarius, you can find a million memes like how awful Sagittarians are, or if you have a crush who’s a Pisces, you can find a million memes saying how great Pisces are. So it actually kind of goes hand-in-hand.