Liska Jacobs Knows a Hot Mess When She Sees One

The author of ‘Catalina’ on her favorite messed-up women, friendships, and romance

Postcard of Santa Catalina island
Photo by jasonwoodhead23 on flickr

Get ready to know Liska Jacobs’s name. Her debut novel, Catalina — the first of two from MCD Books, FSG’s new experimental venture — is the kind of drunken, mascara-smeared bender that inspires thinkpieces, fandom, and heated arguments at cocktail parties. Jacobs’s heroine begins the novel on the edge of disaster, and she never looks back. Dumped by her married boss/boyfriend, Elsa snatches a purse full of pills and heads out to do some damage while she licks her wounds. Through the breakups of both friends and lovers, Jacobs explores the art world’s influence, the fantasy of southern California, and how we think about wanting.

Elsa’s voice has echoes of the strong, tragically beautiful protagonists of literature who’ve come before her, but Jacobs’s work stands alone, an insightful and sexy glimpse into the tragedies of aging and the misconceptions of youth. Jacobs and I caught up over email recently about self-destructive characters trapped in their messy identities, and the most enthralling fuck ups in literature.

Heather Scott Partington: You have done such a beautiful job weaving art and museum work into the narrative. What do you remember most about your time at The Getty? What do you think most people would be surprised to know about that world?

Liska Jacobs: Thank you! I worked at the Getty Research Institute as a Special Collections Library Assistant for five years, beginning as a work-study student while finishing up my undergraduate degree. I was very lucky, this was in 2008, right at the beginning of the recession.

The Getty is such a gorgeous place, perched up on a hill, overlooking West Los Angeles and the 405. What I remember most was that on a clear day you could see the sun reflecting on the swells in the Santa Monica Bay — you could see Catalina too. But because it’s so removed I also remember a feeling of isolation, of loneliness. It’s where I first realized that when you look at something beautiful, a distance is created between what it is you’re viewing and yourself. In Catalina, Elsa is a lot like the Getty, or one of the art pieces in the galleries. She’s beautiful and that makes her something to look at, something to project onto, but also makes her very alone.

What I eventually found to be surprising was that working at the Getty was a job like any other. When I started there I was very young, I thought the Getty was going to be it for me. A place I could work until retiring — just surrounded by art and beauty and like-minded people. But the reality was timecards, and sick days, and cutbacks, and end of month reports. It was important in Catalina to show Elsa coming to terms with that same kind of disillusionment — that fantasy never quite matches the reality.

HSP: What was it about Catalina that made you want to set your novel there?

LJ: Today it was triple digits in Pasadena, where I live, so I retreated to the west side. I’m working from the LMU library, which is on a hill facing the bay and the mountains. I can see Catalina from here. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been able to make out that island from somewhere in Los Angeles. It’s always there, on the horizon, this funny little lump of land just off the coast. Half of it is this classic California tourist trap, selling the idea of “paradise,” and the other half is this rugged natural landscape.

You really can’t ask for a better setting than one that can reflect that kind of duality, and the tension created by it.

I felt like it was this perfect compact version of Los Angeles. At the heart of the city you have Hollywood, which perpetuates this fantasy world, how relationships should be, what we should want, and surrounding us is the Santa Monica Mountains, the Los Angeles National Forest, and the Santa Monica Bay — the real Southern California. In the book, you have a group of friends who haven’t seen each other in five years. They’re all different people now, they have contrasting wants and needs — but they’re still pretending nothing has changed. You really can’t ask for a better setting than one that can reflect that kind of duality, and the tension created by it.

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HSP: Elsa follows a long tradition of protagonists who make bad decisions, and she’s a beautiful mess. Who are your favorite literary fuckups?

LJ: Such a great question. My favorite literary fuckups have to be Joan Didion’s Maria Wyeth, Elena Ferrante’s Olga, and Deborah Levy’s Kitty Finch. Oh! And of course Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood.

But I’m probably most influenced by Jean Rhys’s protagonists. Specifically, for this book, Sasha Jensen in Good Morning Midnight. Like Sasha, Elsa is self-destructive and spiraling. When I first started writing Catalina I thought maybe I would do an updated version of Sasha’s story. I had thought times have changed, Elsa could have a happy ending, or at least a liberating moment. But as I wrote and rewrote the ending I had to accept that female characters like Elsa, like Sasha — women who are pissed off and calamitous, who are labeled “unlikeable” — get punished. Maybe it’s a societal or cultural thing, I don’t know. But it was a pretty depressing realization. I mean Good Morning Midnight came out in 1939, and nothing’s changed? Women still don’t have the luxury to fuck up, there’s no girls will be girls for us. What a bummer.

I had to accept that female characters like Elsa, like Sasha — women who are pissed off and calamitous, who are labeled “unlikeable” — get punished.

HSP: Elsa hits rock bottom early, and then spends some time down there. How did you keep narrative tension when a character began the story at such a desperate point? How did you maintain a sense of forward propulsion?

LJ: Ha! You’re right. From the first sentence Elsa is ordering up a pitcher of Bloody Marys just for herself, and it doesn’t take long for her to start popping pills. Part of it is knowing nothing good can come from this — someone drinking and doing drugs and having sex will have to hit rock bottom.

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But that’s only a fraction of the tension. It really comes down to the other characters. There’s history between Elsa and all of them. With Charly, they’re old friends — best friends — and upon reconnecting Elsa almost immediately sees a crack in Charly’s perfect world. Same with Robby, who is Elsa’s ex-husband. That word is so charged in and of itself. Then add in his new girlfriend Jane, who’s a fitness fanatic and know-it-all, and smiles a bit too much at Tom (the new factor in the “old-friends” equation) — and it becomes a powder keg. Elsa is on a private bender, and she will inevitably be the spark. I think it’s sort of like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You can’t look away.

HSP: Catalina captures the push-pull of young marriage, and the way that young relationships don’t necessarily grow with us. Elsa tells herself, “Drink and be content. This can be enough for you, too… Give it time, just wait.” Can you talk about how you worked this into Catalina? How it shaped Elsa?

LJ: Poor Elsa and Robby. They really aren’t suited. In many ways the roles we have for men are just as unfair as the ones we give women. Robby, who thinks of himself as a savior, a good guy, sees Elsa and fits her into the box of damsel. But Elsa is no damsel (or she sure as hell will not let anyone treat her as one). It’s a recipe for disaster! For them both. When we’re young we try on certain identities as a way of finding ourselves. It puts any relationships — romantic or otherwise — in peril from the start. And it’s hard to write that kind of truth without bleeding into melodrama, or to be tempted into clichés.

When we’re young we try on certain identities as a way of finding ourselves. It puts any relationships — romantic or otherwise — in peril from the start.

Really, Catalina came about because of Elsa. I wanted to write a female character who was pissed off and disillusioned. After leaving the Getty I sat down and her voice sort of tumbled out. I kept writing to find out why she was hurting.

HSP: It’s not just romantic relationships from Elsa’s past that needle her. Catalina is one of the more frank examinations of female friendship, of the way we can outgrow each other and change without knowing what to do. Elsa says, “I think over our friendship. Back in the beginning, in those dusty orchard days, I’d swear we were on the same page…” What drew you to exploring these relationships and breakups?

LJ: Recently I was talking with a friend about why some break-ups hurt more than others, and we agreed that when someone teaches you something they sort of become part of your identity, which makes it a much harder break-up. This is what’s happening with Elsa, she’s reeling after an affair ends with her boss, Eric, who is an intellectual and well-known curator. He’s really gotten under her skin.

And this is where female friendships come in: they start under the skin, and only go deeper from there. Which makes them such dangerous and precious things. When they go wrong they are profoundly painful, and writing about it requires a tremendous amount of honesty, mostly about yourself. I have a twin sister and a little sister, and we’re close. But if you look at the span of our relationship there are dark spots that all three of us pretend aren’t there. I think we’re starting to see more realistic portrayals of female friendship — Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels come to mind. Hopefully we’ll see more.

HSP: Catalina switches point of view several times, which has the effect of Elsa seeing outside of herself. When she writes of her proposal, the propulsion toward marriage, she says, “You’re in the passenger seat and there’s traffic and he slips the ring on your finger and you betray yourself. You say yes, believing you love him because you want to love him.” Can you talk a little bit about your approach to point of view and narration?

LJ: I’m so glad you asked this. Elsa is going through an identity crisis. It’s why she gives a false name to the hotel bellboy Rex, why she gives another to the television producer Rafa — and why she can imagine that there’s a version of herself still in New York.

But her crisis is also about memory, which works two-fold. Elsa will replay a memory and judge what she said or did, or if the memory is painful it’s easier for her to put distance between herself and the incident. It’s something I think we all do. So in Catalina, Elsa slips into second-person when she’s uncomfortable, but also because she’s searching for the true version of herself. Is she unlikeable? Is she a whore? Is she at fault, or the victim? Because this is a first-person and a voice-driven novel, I thought it was important to have this reflected in the writing. I also think memory is murky at best, somewhere between truth and fiction, and switching to second-person blurred that line even more.

I also think memory is murky at best, somewhere between truth and fiction.

HSP: My favorite line in the novel comes at the end of a sad story Tom shares, and he says, “That’s just how it is, baby… The worst kind of want is to survive, and we all have that.” What does this mean to you?

LJ: In Catalina all the characters want things. Really it’s a whole book about wanting. What I think Tom is saying is that the worst kind of want is the kind that makes us stay in impossible situations. I don’t know if it’s cultural or a human thing, but we always want more and are willing to give up so many things to get it.

Charly and Jared, Robby and Jane, and Tom too — they were all there from the beginning. It was important that none of them feel like the villain or the classic foil character. What I wanted to do was write a story where the tragedy wasn’t just because of one person’s actions — each one of them is trapped by the identity they’re ascribing to, and what they think they want.

HSP: Was this novel something you workshopped during your time at UC Riverside’s MFA? If so, how did you retain so much of your own voice and perspective? This novel doesn’t feel over-workshopped.

LJ: I’m so glad you think so! I came into the UCRPD program with Catalina as a novella, and showed it to Mary Otis in my first workshop. I hadn’t shown it to anyone up until then, and honestly if she had said there was nothing there I would have been so discouraged I would probably have chucked it. That’s something I really appreciate about the UCRPD program, every single professor I worked with treated me and my work with respect. When you have that kind of support as a writer you can really cut loose. I felt I could push Elsa and the other characters further and further, eventually fleshing out the novel. I owe that program a hell of a lot.

I think part of the reason I was able to retain my voice is because the story is so voice-driven. I know who Elsa is, what she would and wouldn’t do, and I know the other characters just as well. Half the fun was getting all them into a room and seeing what happened. It’s probably why I stuck them on a boat!

HSP: Catalina is the first in a series, correct? Can you talk about how it’s been different to write the second book? Is that something you’ve started already?

LJ: I think the main difference is time. With this next book there are set deadlines which I’m required to meet, but I think that actually energizes me. It helps that I’m really excited about this next book. I’ve even managed to bang out a first draft!

With Catalina I had all the time in the world. From novella to when Catalina comes out Nov 7th, it will have been five years. This next book isn’t a sequel per se, but I think anyone who loves Catalina will love it too.

HSP: What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?

LJ: Oh, this is a tough one. I’ve been reading a lot, mostly for essays and lists to accompany the publication of Catalina. How about I name two? I was floored by Richard Lange’s short story collection Dead Boys. He hits the right note between hardboiled Los Angeles and real human truth. And Rachel Khong’s Goodbye Vitamin, which I think should be a California classic. Her descriptions of traveling the length of the state are understated and gorgeous.

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