A Young Woman’s Formative Queer Affair With a Married Lover

In Michelle Hart's debut novel, "We Do What We Do In The Dark," secrets and loneliness are shared, but the fallout is suffered alone

Photo by Jon Tyson via Unsplash

Many of us know Michelle Hart from her wonderful work highlighting queer writers when she was the assistant books editor at O, the Oprah Magazine. Now, she has her own novel to add to the fold: We Do What We Do In The Dark, an exquisitely written, intimately affecting novel about Mallory, a college freshman, who begins an affair with a married professor twice her age, who is only ever referred to as “the woman,” giving her a perpetual air of mystery and power. Despite their age difference, the two women connect over their shared loneliness and grief: Mallory recently lost her mother to cancer, and the woman recently lost her twin sister to lupus. For Mallory, her relationship with the woman helps her see and define herself, even as she gets older. 

We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart

The book begins with the affair, then flashes back to Mallory’s youth, detailing her mother’s illness and Mallory’s close friendship with a neighbor girl and eventually that girl’s mother, then it moves forward to show Mallory reuniting with the woman after many years, then it moves forward five years after that, showing Mallory in a new relationship where she tells her girlfriend about her affair with the woman, stating “…the me that’s next to you right now is only here because of my relationship with her,” showing the profound and continued sense of self the woman gave to Mallory.

I was lucky enough to hear Hart read a snippet from the beginning of We Do What We Do In The Dark at a reading series long before its release and as soon as I heard it, I was like GIVE ME THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW. I was truly elated to be able to read the novel early and speak with Hart about it via Zoom.

Celia Laskey: I wanted to start with how you were such an incredible champion for queer books when you worked at O. How does it feel to be on the other side now, as one of the queer writers you used to champion?

Michelle Hart: It’s kind of surreal. I got the hardback copies of my book the other day, and I put one on my shelf and I slotted it in between Melissa Febos and Garth Greenwell, and I was like, Michelle Hart, what’s she doing there? While I was working as the editor, I often had the thought that I could do this; I want to have a book in the world. The way that I revere and want to talk to certain authors—I want to be the author that somebody wants to talk to.

It’s really exciting. But on the other hand, it’s imposter syndrome run amok. I spent four years covering books by some of my absolute favorite writers. And some of them blurbed my book!

CL: Oh my god, you got the best blurbs. That’s when you know the imposter syndrome is not real at all! So when the book opens, we’re told that the woman is twice Mallory’s age when they start their affair. And I just kept thinking about if the woman had been a man, how much more disturbing I would have found that dynamic. Do you think the usual power dynamics in younger/older relationships are different when it’s two women? 

MH: Yeah, absolutely. While I don’t want to make any grand claim about queer relationships, I do think that for these specific characters, they both came of age in times of immense loneliness and their formative sexual romantic experiences were secretive, you know? A lot of queer people’s first brush with love and lust is in the shadows, right? I think that is especially true of queer women because women are always taught to hide our lust. So I think this relationship makes sense for these two characters. You could certainly make the argument that the relationship is toxic, and certainly elements of it are. But you also can’t deny the amount of solace that it gives these two people. 

CL: It’s also interesting, because despite being the younger, more inexperienced one, Mallory is the one who pursues the woman: she follows her into the restroom at the book event, she emails her, she visits her office, etc. Why did you decide to make Mallory the pursuer instead of the woman? Was it to play with that typical power dynamic?

MH: Yeah, it’s actually something the woman brings up later in the book, sort of as a way of saying “not my fault,” you know? So yeah, on one hand, it was to complicate the usual dynamic, to make the woman not the pursuer and throw in more ambiguity around the circumstances of this relationship, which are certainly questionable. But it was also to make the character [of Mallory] less passive and more interesting to me as a person. She wants something to happen. So how does she instigate that? 

CL: The woman writes children’s books and teaches children’s literature at the college despite not having kids. Was her career and her childlessness very intentional choices you made, considering her affair with the much-younger Mallory?

A lot of queer people’s first brush with love and lust is in the shadows. I think that is especially true of queer women because women are always taught to hide our lust.

MH: It was probably ​​more intentional than not. The woman had been a children’s book author from the very beginning, because I thought that was interesting—what kind of person would be drawn to writing about children when she herself didn’t have any?

When I was writing [the book], I read this profile in The New Yorker of Maurice Sendak, and I never realized he was gay, and he was childless, too. He describes his childhood as being very lonely and sort of a constant reaching out for his own mother. I thought that was so interesting, somebody who even in adulthood needs to recreate a time where they don’t feel they lived it correctly.

It was also very intentional to not have the woman be a mother, because maybe that would be weirder? An alternate title for this book certainly could be “mommy Issues,” and I think it would probably be too on the nose to have [the woman] be maternal, even though she does scratch some maternal itches for Mallory. I think it actually makes the woman a little bit more sympathetic in some ways, too.  

CL: Unless I missed it, the word love is never mentioned in relation to Mallory and the woman, but did you have the sense that Mallory was in fact in love with her? And that the woman was not in love with Mallory?

MH: You could argue that they were both in love with the idea of each other rather than the people themselves. I think Mallory certainly loves the woman. Whether she’s in love with the woman? I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful distinction to make. But I think the two of them undoubtedly feel affection for one another. It’s not simply this transactional, cold, emotionless relationship. Maybe that goes back to your first question about relationship dynamics being different between women. I know it’s a cliché that that women can’t have emotionless sex, but that cliché is true to some extent. And I think it’s especially true with people who feel the world so strongly as these two artists do.

CL: In the past section, while Mallory’s mother is very sick, she strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Allard, a neighbor who’s the mother of a girl Mallory used to be best friends with. It’s a platonic but also very intimate relationship kind of similar to her relationship with the woman, which begins shortly after Mallory’s mother dies. How did you come up with the character of Mrs. Allard, and what commentary were you trying to make throughout the book about the relationship between mothers and lovers, especially for queer women? 

For so long our stories have been limited to what the people in power deemed palatable. We come out or we die. Sometimes, we come out and then we die.

MH: When my mom died, I was Mallory’s age, and as an only child, and as a girl who was mostly friends with boys, when my mom died, I sort of lost my connection to womanhood. Like, I didn’t know how to do it and I felt stranded in some weird female purgatory where the person who’s the best to teach you all that stuff just isn’t there anymore. And I think that on the biggest level, that’s what Mrs. Allard represents, this mother stand-in and mentorship. It’s also an escape for Mallory, to have this secretive friendship with somebody she knows is weird to have a friendship with. She leans into that weirdness and it’s proto-romantic, you know? Somebody asked me a while ago whether I had ever considered something happening between the two of them. And my answer was just flat out no. 

CL: We as readers might think that with time and distance, Mallory would see her affair with the woman in a more negative light, but she never does. As she says to the woman during their final meeting, “I don’t remember any of it being bad.” Why do you think Mallory sees their relationship so positively, and do you think the woman felt differently?

MH: For Mallory, it’s really hard for her to imagine a version of herself that didn’t have the woman in it, you know? And how can you not be grateful for that? Even as problematic as some elements of the relationship were. The woman basically stoked in Mallory this sense of creativity, this sense of sensuality. I think the biggest reason why Mallory is attracted to the woman is that the woman seems like somebody who could shape her life, and that’s ultimately what happens. The woman does shape her life. So the woman represented enough positive that it was hard for Mallory to look back in anger, as the Oasis song goes. 

CL: There’s this tweet of yours I always think about: “I will of course read (and probably really enjoy) your novel about an ‘intense female friendship’ but also just know that I will be rolling my eyes and wondering the entire time why the characters can’t just bone it out.” Like, YES. In your opinion, which “intense female friendship” novel is the most sapphic, either intentionally or not?

The queer books being published today reflect the multiplicity of queer life.

MH: Probably My Brilliant Friend, and all the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. Every time I see the marketing image of the new TV season, I’m like, is that a gay movie I haven’t seen yet? 

CL: Oh my god, yes, the gay baiting going on in that image! 

MH: In 2017 [when I worked at O], I can distinctly remember publicists pitching me books by couching the queer language, saying that it’s about an “intense female friendship.” And like halfway through the book, they would make out or something, you know? Thankfully, in the time right before I left, publicists were just messaging me and being like, “This is gay, just read it. You’ll love it.” 

CL: Speaking of that, we have so many queer books being published per year now. So do you have any general thoughts about the state of LGBTQIA+ lit right now? Like what we might need more of? Where you think the genre is heading? I know that’s a really big question.

MH: Weirdly, it feels like queer fiction is in its infancy. Obviously, this is not at all the case; we’ve been here and queer for a while. But for so long our stories have been limited to what the people in power deemed palatable. We come out or we die. Sometimes, we come out and then we die. Before about five years ago, books that weren’t burying gays or yanking them out of the closet were the exception to the rule. And those exceptions came mostly from indie presses. (I should also mention here that YA and romance have seemed way ahead of the curve). When I survey the literary landscape today, it looks so wonderfully different and diverse: stories of gay moms like Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth; trans blockbusters like Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby and Akweake Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji; nonbinary romcoms like Anita Kelly’s Love and Other Disasters. The queer books being published today—many of them now coming from the “Big 5” in addition to the indie stalwarts—reflect the multiplicity of queer life. Of course, there could and should be more, but it’s hard not to be encouraged.  

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