What Women Talk About When Men Aren’t in the Room
Miranda Popkey, author of "Topics of Conversation," on women’s anger and power imbalances in relationships
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Miranda Popkey’s compact, powerful novel Topics of Conversation begins when its narrator is 21and spans nearly two decades, revolving around the conversations she has with those around her. These conversations, mostly with women—friends (or frenemies), mothers (the narrator’s own, plus the ones she encounters), and strangers (on the screen and in the ocean)—span a range of topics, of secrets, of fears and of desires.
“There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current… This is the natural outcome of disclosure, for to disclose is to reveal, to bring out into the open what was previously hidden,” reflects the narrator as she listens to another woman tell the story about her marriage’s end. The women of Popkey’s novel are searching, skeptical, and hyperaware. They are spiked with equal doses of hurt and want.
I had the chance to talk with Popkey over the phone about her book, as well as women’s anger, power dynamics in relationships, how desire is formed by the stories to which we’re exposed, and the ways narrative functions in our lives.
Alexandra Chang: You write that you believe a writer shoves into her first novel “more or less everything she has ever thought, seen, read, loved, hated, experienced.” In your book, you do tackle so many topics—desire, power dynamics, class, art, motherhood, anger, friendship, storytelling, and more. What was your entry point? How did you navigate fitting all of this into the novel?
Miranda Popkey: One entry point was that I had wanted, and I’d been trying for some time, to write about a particular relationship dynamic that I have experienced, which is exaggerated in the story that the narrator tells when she is at a new moms’ group. She talks about having an affair with a professor. I, to be clear, never had an affair with any of my professors. But I have been in relationships where the power dynamic was unequal in a way that was both appealing and, in retrospect, damaging. I was interested in trying to write a story about that somehow. I tried for a while and it wasn’t working for whatever reason.
The most obvious thing to say is that what happened in the fall of 2017, the allegations about Harvey Weinstein—sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape—all of those started coming out. Suddenly there was much more of a conversation about these kinds of relationships in which someone has much more power than the other person, and the conversation expanded so that it was possible to also talk about situations where the power dynamic was more equal, but still troubling. I worked in publishing for a long time and there was quite a spirited discussion about various people who had potentially been sexual harassers or had been otherwise inappropriate. I don’t know why, but that was a way that things got unlocked. It certainly played a role—just having that be in the air and having women’s anger be a topic of news, and not in a negative way. We were talking about good reasons that women might be angry.
AC: The voice of this novel, with the narrator especially, there’s such a strong sense of ambivalence, which I really loved because, at least for me, ambivalence is a really productive state for inquiry. I was wondering if you, especially in depicting these relationships with older men, could talk about how ambivalence played a role in your writing.
MP: I do want to answer this question but I’m not totally sure exactly what you’re getting at.
AC: Several of the women who appear in the book talk about having relationships with older men, and to me, I guess there’s a strong ambivalence toward that. The women almost enjoy the relationships because the power dynamics are very clear. And then there are women who, some of them the same women, sabotage their relationships with “kind” men, as the narrator does. So there’s both a sense of ambivalence toward relationships, and of not being able to trust one’s own desires as a woman.
MP: Okay. Totally. In my mind this is very much a novel about being socialized as a woman in a particular moment. The novel is not meant to speak for all women. My particular experience is quite narrow—middle class, white, cis, straight. But I don’t think I was the only woman who was surrounded by images of a certain kind of dynamic in popular culture in heterosexual relationships. It’s inevitable that you are absorbing, especially when you’re younger and you’re not thinking as critically, all of these models without really knowing how influential they might end up being.
What is appealing about the power dynamic that you described is—and you sort of hit it right on the head of as you were expanding on the question—the power dynamic in that situation, older man with power, younger woman with less power, is quite clear. I think that’s appealing because that is a model that we have seen. Though it is also a model that is coming to be challenged more and more.
I didn’t watch the second season of Fleabag until after I finished writing, but it’s the moment where she’s in the confessional and she asks the hot priest, Tell me what to do. I think it’s very hard to be a person in the world right now. It’s quite appealing to consider, what if I just ceded control to someone else? That’s especially appealing to women because it is a paradigm that’s been so available and that, in fact, has been presented as the right paradigm, the model. That’s where that ambivalence comes from. There were not a lot of models that I saw growing up, when all of these ideas were solidifying in my mind, of women who were seeking sexual or romantic partnership on their own terms.
AC: What I found so interesting, too, is that a lot of the women in your book when they’re talking about those kinds of relationships, there’s this awareness that the dynamic is not great, but because of the socialization and the stories you’re talking about, they’re still drawn to it.
MP: Yeah, that’s the particular bind of being alive in this moment. When you know it’s bad for you, but you’ve been told you want it for so long. And it’s hard for those two things to coexist. I think that there are lots of different reasons why stories written by women, stories written by queer people and people of color and trans people and nonbinary people, are important to tell. One reason is that there are a lot of people whose understanding of sexuality, of their own sexuality, would be so much more expansive if the cultural offerings were broader or had been broader when they were growing up. This is very true of myself. And part of writing the book was trying to go back and figure out, what’s my damage? What the hell is going on with my brain, that this is the kind of thing I have at times wanted?
AC: So when you were trying to figure that out, were you re-watching these movies and going back to other source material?
MP: Yes. One that was really important was LA Confidential, which is a movie I watched once a month for a year when I was like 12 or 13. I was obsessed with that movie. Have you seen that movie?
AC: No, I haven’t.
MP: I’m not going to recommend it. It certainly did a number on me. But the central romance of that movie, set in the 50s in Los Angeles, is between a cop who is obsessed with wife beaters, and who is himself quite violent towards them because his father beat his mother, and a high-class call girl who is styled to look like Veronica Lake. The central romance is between these two characters, a very angry man and the sex worker who unwillingly falls in love with him, so that was a movie that, in retrospect, I don’t think I should have been watching.
I mean, honestly, the Veronica Lake look-alike character was so much less important to me than the fury that is contained within the angry cop. He’s played by Russell Crowe, and he’s a ball of fury, and the movie presented it as tantalizing. The idea that he could at any moment snap. And he does at one point hit her. Anyway, it’s a really sad movie. But I was like, okay, yes, I see what I like. My dumb little adolescent brain was like, Yes. You are a cold woman. You have sex for money, but an angry man comes and he sweeps you off your feet. Yes, this is correct.
That one was a real trip to watch for a second time or for, I mean, a 200th time.
AC: That’s related to the long “Works (Not) Cited” section in the back of your book. Your novel is, like most works of art, in dialogue with a lot of other texts, including books, but also movies, TV shows, podcasts. I liked that you made it explicit in that section. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about how you understand that dialogue taking place, and how these other texts shaped your book.
MP: The book owes a really obvious debt to Rachel Cusk. Reading Outline broadened my understanding of the ways in which a novel could be structured. Also, I had read in my MFA, Rings of Saturn, the Sebald novel. There’s a thing that he does, I think more than once, where the narrator of a section will change mid-sentence. You’ll sort of continue reading a couple pages and realize you’re not sure who’s speaking, and you go back and you try and find the moment of the handoff, and it was in the middle of a sentence. I just thought that was so cool. It didn’t occur to me that you were allowed to do that.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler has a list of works that influenced the novel at the back. I loved it, because it gave such a clear picture of the places that her mind had drawn from. And it also gave you more things to read. I don’t think of myself as a very creative person. I don’t think of myself as someone with a great imagination. For that reason, it was important to me not to present this novel as a work that had sprung fully formed, or even formed at all from my brain. Of course, it did come from my brain, but my brain is a soup with all this other stuff. It felt really important to me to acknowledge that.
Once I’d seen someone else do it, and once I decided I really can’t publish a book that does these things and not credit Rachel Cusk and not credit Sebald, then it became a real pleasure to think about where all this was coming from and do some of that exploration and rediscovery. I would keep adding to that list forever.
Also, I had a lot of fun admitting to myself and to the reader some of the garbage that I was inhaling as I was writing. Like, I literally watched 11 seasons of Frasier in the space of a couple of months.
AC: That’s pretty amazing.
MP: It’s something, yeah. One stands amazed before such an accomplishment. But at its core, I just really, really wanted people to know, this isn’t all mine. It comes from so many other places. My fondest hope is that my book gets dropped into the soup of someone else’s brain and that some writer at some point in the future is thinking about it when they write.
AC: The act of storytelling in the book is so important. There’s one chapter where the narrator is with the group of new single mothers and asks them to tell the story of how they got there. “There,” being single motherhood. Another woman calls her out and says life is just a series of accidents and coincidences and demographics, and that there’s no point in understanding the why and the how. There’s no reason. The narrator later, alone, counters that take. I was curious about your own thoughts on the function of narrative in our lives.
MP: I find it impossible to think of life as other than a narrative. And I recognize that tendency in myself and I try and be quite careful not to try and build a narrative out of my life. If, retrospectively, it helps to see a story, to understand why things happen, I think that’s fine. The thing that I really have tried, as I’ve gotten older to avoid is what the narrator says casually, early on in the book, about wanting or looking for the better story. I think that there is a kind of fatalism or determinism there that helps her feel absolved of certain kinds of responsibility that she should actually be bearing the full burden of. If you think that once you’ve put certain plot points in motion, that you can see the end of the narrative, it sort of absolves you of responsibility for the further choices that lead you closer to what you’ve decided is the end point. I think that is the kind of thinking that leads her to make some of the more damaging decisions in her life.
Like I said, though, I can’t think of my life other than as a narrative. I was once involved with a person who told me that they did not think of their life as a narrative. I truly did not know what to do with this information. This seemed so psychotic to me, that you could actually look back at your life and not try to make a story out of it. But there are those people out there. And perhaps they are more well-adjusted, they are living more fulfilled lives, because they don’t have that urge to complete the narrative.