We’re jumping the gun on Liska Jacob’s debut Catalina, which isn’t out til early November, because we’re excited about it – and we’re not the only ones. Our review is right here; below is our interview – wayyy ahead of Liska’s in-store visit November 10. We just couldn’t wait. Like when you have a plate of cookies on the table – or in this case, a beautiful, double-shot martini, sitting right there – zero willpower. Here she is, with Mackenzie Kiera…
Mackenzie Kiera – Who are you? Where are you from?
Liska Jacobs – I come from a long line of Angelinos, which is probably why Catalina takes place primarily in California. I wanted to write a book that shows how a local sees Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. There’s a very particular type of ennui that happens here, and I think that’s what Elsa and her friends suffer from. They all want more–but living here, in paradise, what else could they possibly want?
MK – How long did it take you to write this novel?
LJ – From finding Elsa’s voice to when the book comes out on Nov 7th it will have been five long years.
MK – Any inspirations? Books or people.
LJ – In the book Elsa was just fired from her executive assistant job at the Museum of Modern Art. When I started writing Catalina I had just left The Getty Research Institute where I was a Special Collections Assistant for five years. So I think a lot of what I experienced there inspired me. I was struck by how removed The Getty is from the city, perched up there on that hill. It sort of mirrors the act of looking at art, how it creates that distance between yourself and whatever it is you’re viewing. You and the other. Elsa is always the other because she is beautiful, intriguing—and this makes her very alone.
I was also very much influenced by Jean Rhys, I adore all her books but Good Morning Midnight is my favorite. I wanted to write a character similar to her protagonist Sasha, who returns to Paris after a crisis and immediately begins to spiral out of control. In the early days of writing Catalina, I really wanted to believe that if a woman acted out (casual sex, drugs, alcohol), she wouldn’t have to be punished in the same way Sasha is. It’s been nearly a hundred years since Good Morning Midnight was published, so I thought things must have changed. It was pretty depressing to realize that no, if a woman is angry, if she is self-destructive, she cannot have a happy ending.
MK – What was the writing process like for you?
LJ – I’m a regimented person (although you wouldn’t know that looking at my desk!). When I left the Getty it was to focus on writing so I make a point to work every day. That doesn’t mean I’m always typing away though. Sometimes I’m researching for essays, or reading, or going to a museum/hike/etc. I’m happiest though when I’m on a deadline. Then it’s “butt in the chair” time, and I’ll work as long as it takes.
MK – What I loved about this book was the anti-hero. It’s like Holden Caulfield met up with Hunter S. Thompson and partied. Tell me about how you created this ‘pro’ tagonist?
LJ – Thank you! I love Elsa too. I was inspired by all those female characters that male protagonists pine for—you know, Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises—Lady Brett is a big one, I always thought how exhausting it must have been for her to be continually idolized by Jake. So often women are treated in literature as muse or villain, the root cause of the man’s story. I wanted to know the interior of that woman.
But Elsa also comes from a long line of women on the edge. So any Jean Rhys heroine, Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood, Joan Didion’s Maria Wythe. And then there’s the nonfiction ladies like Eve Babitz and Chris Kraus. They’ve all been huge influences.
MK – The spiral, was that always your drive? To write a story that was destructive in nature?
LJ – Yes! Always the intention. There’s a kind of chaos that comes from people normalizing drug or alcohol use. Elsa is the one popping pills and calling room service to see if she can get one of the busboys in the restaurant to sell her cocaine, but her friends are “on vacation” which they think gives them license to drink as much as they want. With any spiral eventually the façade slips because the pretense can’t be sustained. Something has to give, or someone has to break.
MK – You spent a lot of time with Elsa. Was it difficult to get into her head or are you similar?
LJ – Her voice came pretty easy because we’re angry about similar things, but no we’re not the same person. Thank God! Sometimes though her voice would seep too much into me and my poor husband would come home and I’d have bought a pack of cigarettes and made myself a martini!
In all seriousness though, I can see myself in Charly, and Jane—sometimes even Tom too. I had hoped to write characters that feel real—in a way they’re all terrible people, but all I’m doing is holding up a mirror to myself and everyone around me. I try to be a good person, but I’m not a totally benevolent human being. Show me someone who is.
MK – Was this a difficult book to write or did it flow?
LJ – The hardest part about writing the book was continuing to believe in it. Five years is a long time to work on something, and I had to really keep pushing myself. It helped that I had a wonderful program behind me. I came in with a novella version of Catalina and came out with a novel and an awesome agent.
MK – The voice is incredible and a solid driver to the story. Tell me how that came about. Did Elsa take some crafting or was she always fully formed?
LJ – Thank you! And a great question. Hmmm…I pretty much sat down and her voice tumbled out. But I didn’t know what to do with her. She was sassy, and pissed off, and hurting—really I just kept writing to figure out why. What happened to make her so disillusioned? And once the other characters came in, it was how they bounced off each other. I never wanted there to be a traditional “foil character” for Elsa. Because what I hoped to do was show that these people are trapped by just being human.
MK – Best and most favorite books forever?
LJ – Oh this is hard. It’s always changing! How about a top five?
Voyage in the Dark, Jean Rhys
Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
Things I Don’t Want to Know, Deborah Levy
Ask The Dust, John Fante
The Fox, D. H. Lawrence
MK – Where can we find you? Anyone you would like to thank?
LJ – I’m on all the usual social media sites. Or if you mean in real life—home, or at a bar. Musso and Frank’s, Everson and Royce–I’m a sucker for a good hotel bar too. I thanked a lot of people in the book, but I didn’t do a proper shout out to my friends and husband. Just to give you an idea of what they’ve had to put up with these last five years, they call me “Doomie (doom and gloom) Jacobs”. So a huge THANK YOU to them! <3
MK – What is the one classic literature book you cannot stand, or, one you have yet to read, and know you should?
LJ – I have a hard time with James Joyce, and David Foster Wallace. I know I should just sit down and commit to reading them, maybe next year.
MK – What was your favorite part of writing Catalina?
LJ – Ouuu that’s a good one too! It was important that I nail the atmosphere, to depict my California. It’s romanticized a bit, it can be hard and ugly, tourist filled, but it’s so gorgeous here, and so vibrant. Those June gloom days, or how the sea lions in the bay can glide through the water without making a sound—and Catalina the island itself. I made a point to go over a few times while writing the book. It’s such a weird and magical place. One side is rugged and natural, and the other is this plastic tourist trap. Again, two sides, right? Which is California? The same can be said about Elsa. Is she this nihilistic beauty hell bent on destruction, or just a woman struggling against the confines of her gender? I don’t know, can she be both?
MK – Thanks very much, Liska for your time. Remember you can find Liska Jacobs on facebook and twitter. Her book Catalina comes out November 7th.