The Queer Slacker Pizza Delivery Novel We’ve Been Waiting For
Jean Kyoung Frazier on writing against the idea that aimlessly fucking around is a specifically male thing
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The anti-heroine of Pizza Girl—pregnant and 18 with an I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude—reminded me of a younger sister I wanted to grab by the shoulders, shout, “Stop it, you’re ruining your life!” only for her to respond by slinking away. She reminded me of a younger sister I trailed furtively behind through the palm-tree lined streets of Los Angeles, where this story takes place, in order to find out what she was really up to—but when I glimpsed, in these private moments, her loneliness and pain, my heart broke for her.
That’s the kind of protagonist Jean Kyoung Frazier—whom I first met when we were fiction students at Columbia—has crafted in her tender, sharply observed debut, lauded by authors such as National Book Award Finalist Julia Phillips, and listed in Electric Lit, LitHub, and Poets & Writers’ “Most Anticipated Debuts of 2020.”
Specifically, our narrator’s world is disrupted when she receives an intriguing phone call from a customer at work, where her job is to deliver pizzas. “Have you ever had the kind of week where every afternoon seems to last for hours?” the stranger asks. It’s the kind of question that pierces our narrator, who feels suffocated by her mother and boyfriend, and the grief she won’t admit about her alcoholic father who’s recently passed away. Pepperoni-and-pickles pizza in hand, the narrator meets Jenny Hauser. Jenny is whimsical, refreshingly honest, and married with a kid. Our narrator quickly falls in love—or obsession—with her. Through the lens of a young, queer, biracial woman of color, Pizza Girl explores what it looks like to feel lost and desperately long to escape from your own life, as well as the idea that what you see is not always what you get.
Daphne Palasi Andreades: One aspect I thought you captured so beautifully was how the narrator uses fantasy as a way to cope with the painful parts of her life—her dissatisfaction, rage, and, above all, her loneliness. Her fantasies are full of longing and lighthearted until, over the course of the story, they grow more destructive and veer into delusion. This idea of escaping into fantasy also resonated with me; as a fiction writer, imaginary worlds are our fucking playground. What role would you say fantasy plays in your book, as well as in your own process?
Jean Kyoung Frazier: What I love about the word “fantasy,” is that its weight and shape varies person by person. Some might fill their days with fantasies of grandeur, conjuring lives greater than their own, while others might only do it passingly, the height of fantasy to them is sitting down somewhere, alone, eating a medium rare burger and a Coke, i.e., what’s sexy to you may not be sexy to me.
In writing Pizza Girl, I was thinking a lot about when fantasy can go wrong. Especially as a writer, I have to believe it’s possible to have a healthy relationship to fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with a day-dreaming or even trying to find concrete ways to make your fantasies into realities. That being said, what’s the line? How do you know when you’re just being delusional and seeing what you want to see? When does fantasizing become harmful? I wanted to explore that weird line within my novel.
DPA: Pizza Girl falls into the so-called genre of “slacker fiction.” I’m thinking of novels like My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The narrator avoids facing her problems and doesn’t necessarily know what she wants to do with her life. Instead, she copes by choosing not to deal. I adore slacker narrators because they don’t give two shits about social norms and, through their inaction, critique received notions of how we’ve been taught to exist in the world. Also, narrators who don’t give a damn, like in Pizza Girl, are hilarious and insightful. How did this character and this world come into being for you? And why was it integral to have a “slacker” narrator tell this story?
JKF: Gosh, I just really fucking love that there even exists a genre called, “slacker fiction,” and that my novel is a part of it.
So, slackers have existed since the dawn of time (I like to imagine a Cro-Magnon cave bro telling his buddy, “Eh, I don’t really want to hunt and gather today, yafeel?”), but I do think there’s something unique about being a slacker in the 2010’s, particularly a teenage one. There’s social media feeding our natural inclination to judge and compare combined with conventional views of the progression your life is supposed to take—get good grades in high school so you can go to a good college and get more good grades so you can graduate and get a good job where you can make good money and just keep being good, so good, until you die, hopefully before then marrying a good person so you can produce good babies who will begin the cycle anew—it’s enough to make anyone a little crazy, especially those who don’t or just can’t follow this one-size-fits-all life instruction manual.
Even the term “slacker” is often used a little reductively since its connotation is negative and used synonymously with laziness. I think it’s more like, for whatever reason, slackers just can’t bring themselves to care about what they’re being told to care about. While sometimes that reason is founded in laziness, it’s usually more complicated than that. Slackers slack because something or many somethings have happened to them that’ve made them believe their efforts won’t produce anything of value or yield a better life situation.
For Pizza Girl, having the narrator be a slacker was key since so often in stories with teen pregnancy there’s a lamentation about what the young woman is losing out on by choosing to have a baby at that age. However, I wanted it to be clear that even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant, her life would still be a mess. She’s an adult only by the simple fact of her eighteen years. She’s still really just a child whose emotional wounds and upbringing have made it difficult for her to gain a sense of self or to plan.
DPA: These are all such great points. I loved that you turned the teenage pregnancy narrative on its head, too—with or without the baby, the narrator would have still been just as lost.
But your novel does a ton of things differently. For instance, slacker fiction often features men—specifically, straight white men. Conversely, Asians and Asian Americans have been depicted in contemporary literature, TV, and movies, as the nerd, the programmer, the doctor—all tropes of the “model minority.” However, what’s interesting in Pizza Girl is that the narrator doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories or stereotypes. What, in your view, is the value in resisting these tropes and stereotypes?
JKF: In conceiving Pizza Girl’s voice and character, I was thinking a lot about what you brought up—slacker fiction being dominated by the white, straight, cis-male. Let me assure you, as a queer, bi-racial woman, I have wasted countless hours slouching away from responsibility. If being a fuckhead was an Olympic sport, nothing but gold would be hanging from my neck. DM me for references.
I’m being funny, but resisting stereotypes and tropes matters, even when it’s for something as inconsequential seeming as who is being shown slacking in fiction. It may seem like no big deal, but by having slacker fiction be male-dominated, it’s perpetuating the idea that aimlessly fucking around is a specifically male thing. Even if it’s not outright saying it, what it translates to is that women are held to different standards—they exist to watch men fuck around.
When Asian people are portrayed in books or on the screen so sparingly and rigidly, as a kind of punchline, an entire group of people is made to feel small, told that they can only be relevant by acting a very specific way.
Unfortunately, for a lot of people, stereotypes and tropes are the only references they have. As a regular-ass person, this bothers me. As a writer, this motivates me to both tell stories that challenge people to think beyond what they’ve been accepting as the reality/norm and also, to make those who’ve felt lonely, a little less so.
DPA: Early on, we learn the narrator’s mom immigrated from Korea to Illinois when she was 17, met a white American Midwestern dude, fell in love with him, and had a daughter—our narrator. I thought it was a cool choice to show that, although immigration and the narrator being a mixed-race kid, as well as queer, are parts of her identity, her sexuality and her racial/ethnic background aren’t central conflicts in the story that she wrestles with. Instead, her sexuality and ethnicity are textures that enrich her character and this world.
Because of this choice, I felt Pizza Girl expanded representation for marginalized groups in art and fiction: not all POC, mixed-race, and/or queer characters have to be conflicted about their identity—they can just be. Just like how POC and queer authors can simply be. What are your thoughts on this?
JKF: Well, first off, thank you. That’s very generous of you to say and, as someone who is both queer and half-Korean, that means a lot to me.
While it’s obviously incredibly important and valuable to have fiction where racial, ethnic, and sexual identity are central conflicts, I do also think there’s value to be had in casualness, to, as you put it, let things just be, and explore the issues POC and queer people have beyond the ones that stem from their race and sexuality.
Basically, if you want to write a coming-out story, if you want to write about the unavoidable difficulties of being a POC, do it! Fuck yeah! There’s always more of that needed. But if you also don’t want to do either of those things, that’s awesome too. Just be cool and kind and write good shit.
DPA: But why, exactly, do you think there’s “value to be had” in casualness? In people who are POC and queer who choose to write about characters that extend beyond grappling with identity?
JKF: I just remember the many years I spent in the closet, feeling sick with shame about myself, wishing I could just be “normal.” I put normal in quotes because obviously I am normal, among other things—beautiful, awesome, cool, kick-ass, worthy of love, etc.—but I didn’t always feel that way and I wonder if a lot of that’s because for so long, mainstream media made me feel like queerness was only acceptable and digestible in very specific ways, and even then, even if I was palatable to the heteronormative masses, I would still be viewed as other, my queerness my defining characteristic.
While casualness in writing doesn’t erase, nor is it meant to, the struggles that come with sexual and racial identity, I do think it can serve as a kind of gentle reminder that you are more than just those struggles—you are a person, who like most everyone else, is just doing their best.
DPA: Let’s talk about the family dynamics in the story. As the novel progresses, we see the narrator’s increasing reliance on alcohol to cope with her problems. We learn about her father’s addiction to alcohol, and we piece together that a huge part of her despises her dad precisely because she sees so much of him in herself. I found your handling of difficult, heavy topics like addiction to be so powerful. You show how trauma, pain, and ways of coping are passed down in families. How did you approach writing about these challenging motifs?
JKF: I just approached it with honesty and with a determination to not make any character a villain. Generally, no one wakes up one morning thinking, “How am I going to ruin the people I love?” yet they still find unique and fucked up ways to do so. The children of those people would never want to make someone, particularly their own child, feel the way they were made to feel, yet, children of addicts and abusers are at increased risk to become ones themselves.
DPA: Pizza Girl shows how people, in the end, really don’t know each other as well as they think they do. For instance, there are characters who the narrator thinks she knows and proceeds to write off, and characters who she swears she understands, but are really people whom she projects her desires onto, like a Rorschach inkblot. Through this first-person narrator, you show the limitations of our own perceptions, and how our perceptions can change dramatically if we view people from a different angle, a different context. Were these dynamics ones you were always interested in exploring when you started the book or did they come about organically? Why did you choose to write from the first-person point-of-view?
JKF: It’s something that I’ve always thought about and still continue to think about—how difficult it is to know anyone.
At the last bartending job I had, I remember there was this couple that came in all the time that my co-workers and I adored—they were hot, charming, and tipped well. One day, I was cleaning underneath the bar and I overheard her ask him, “Where does your wife think you are right now?”
It was shocking to hear this, but also not, since ultimately, what did I really know about these two people other than their drink orders? We’re always saying things like, “They seem like a good person,” “I like their vibe,” “I trust my gut,” but it’s easy to be your best, most charming self for two to five minute increments.
With all this in mind, writing Pizza Girl in first-person seemed only natural. I wanted the reader to firmly see everything through her eyes, to like, drown in her POV so that even when you had a sense that things weren’t as they seemed, you still understood her and where her delusion was coming from.
DPA: Why did you choose to set the novel in Los Angeles?
Personally, I felt Los Angeles most viscerally in moments when the narrator is driving in her car, going on secret, midnight drives to clear her head or sneak off to catch a glimpse of Jenny, in addition to delivering pizzas for work. Something about seeing that car culture really reminded me of Los Angeles, in particular. Not to mention the narrator’s laid-back and chill attitude. I’m curious to know if and how Los Angeles, as a city, with its particular culture and sensibility, made its way into your novel.
JKF: I wanted it to Los Angeles to be this constant, but subtle presence, felt even when it wasn’t being talked about.
Like I love that the city came alive to you in the car scenes. Driving really is so inherent to living in Los Angeles since it’s just so huge, all sprawl, an urban planning nightmare. I’ve always loved that it’s not a typical city, that the very fact of its layout, the lack of a sensible one, showcases the surprise of its development—no one pictured it becoming as big or as populated as it did.
This sort of car culture made it the perfect city to set a pizza delivery novel in. Since you’re driving everywhere, you cover ground quickly (if traffic is chill.) Neighborhoods blend and transform in what can feel like the blink of an eye. Add to the fact that the weather is near perfect year round, it can feel like you’re driving through a surreal, dreamscape.
DPA: I don’t know if you remember but, a few months after you sold your novel, you and I went out to dinner in Morningside Heights. We got Thai and caught-up, and you told me about the night you finished your novel, sending it out to your soon-to-be agent the next morning. Do you mind telling that story?
JKF: Of course I remember! It was a lovely dinner!
So, I’d finished most of novel’s last pages on my mom’s couch over the holiday break (Mom, thanks for those two weeks, sorry I ate all your Hot Pockets). It was my first night back in NYC, though. It was 2:00 AM and I was a little delirious—I couldn’t bear to look at my manuscript anymore so I guessed it was done. I poured myself a glass of this Johnnie Walker Blue I’d been saving for the occasion. My roommate, Evan, came back from a night out. We chatted—“Dude, my novel’s done,” “Dude, that’s sick,” “Yeah,” “Okay, goodnight.” I listened to him pee. I went to bed. The next day, I woke to a dead fly in my unsipped glass of whiskey, ignored the bad omen vibe of that, sent my novel out to a few agents, immediately regretted it. My agent later told me it was one of the worst query letters he’s ever read. Luckily, he still read my novel and even more improbably, liked it.
DPA: I love this crazy, hilarious origin story. But what stands out to me is how Pizza Girl was written with a real urgency, a real fire. Where did urgency come from? Do you think that sense of urgency is important for writers?
JKF: I think it’s important to feel like whatever you’re writing about is urgent in a kind of “I need to talk about this. Can I talk to you about it?” way. But I think, at least for me, it was easy to confuse that pure urgency for the story itself with selfish urgency, a desire to just be published and read ASAP.
I had this misguided goal to sell my first book no later than the age of 25 and it’s almost like I bullied myself—hurry up, you dumb fuck, why isn’t this done yet, why did you even think this was something you could do, you dumb fucking fuck—into completing Pizza Girl. The novel was sold a couple months before my 26th birthday.
While I think my novel would’ve felt urgent regardless of the amount of pressure I put on myself to finish it since I did and still do genuinely care about the subject matter, I do wish I had been kinder to myself. I don’t know if it would’ve made my novel better, but I don’t think it would’ve made it worse, and I would’ve just felt a lot better day to day. I’m doing my best to practice what I preach as I work on my second novel, and it’s mostly working.