I ran into Hermione Hoby recently at a studio party in an old Greenwich Village brownstone. It was the last party before the occupants had to move out, the building already sold to its new owner. The windows were open to the January air, prosecco sloshed in plastic cups, everyone kept getting too hot so they’d go out to stand in the hallway. People seemed a little sad, a little manic, after a strange winter. There had been a vintage-clothing sale earlier that day, the unsold stock still in the studio. Hoby disappeared to try on a green silk dress in the bathroom. She emerged in the dress, looking uncertain—there was no full-length mirror, she said, so she didn’t know how it looked. We told her the dress looked great. I don’t know if Hoby did, in fact, get the green dress, but the party—someone trying on someone else’s silk dress, a strange elegiac ripple in the air—felt like a scene from Hoby’s own novel, a kind of New York night that seems to happen less and less often the longer you stay here. There are so many moments like that in Neon in Daylight, so many acutely observed interactions that kept reminding me of the dizzying stretch of time after I first moved to the city—how the streets, familiar to me only from movies, seemed to call forth a strange self-consciousness, how every interaction was colored with an intensity that was almost physically exhausting. Hoby is acutely aware of the way lives and desires overlap in this city, how selves are tried on and discarded, and she tracks the minutest shifts of feeling and mood with intelligence and hypersensitivity. Her novel follows Kate, a grad student newly arrived from England, and her relationships with Bill, a washed-up writer still coasting on the success of his first book, and his daughter, Inez, a brash nineteen-year-old who hustles odd jobs off the miscellaneous-romance section of Craigslist. It takes place over the summer and fall of 2012, though the passing of time, as filtered through the consciousness of Kate, takes on the quality of a fever. Life in the city is a kind of welcome sickness.
This interview took place over email.
I was thinking, while reading your book, of the ways living in a city feels like a performance—the city as backdrop, sometimes a cruel and indifferent backdrop. As when Kate, newly arrived in New York, craves cigarettes as a kind of prop and keeps changing her hair. The three main characters—Bill, his daughter, Inez, and Kate—circle around each other, performing their various selves. Kate and Inez meet by chance—Kate is mistaken for someone else, and that first mistake seems to allow Kate to consider what it would be to actually become someone else. In what ways does the city make their particular relationships possible? Cities are good for that reinvention, the sense of selfhood as performance.
I’m always interested in how much I’m narrativizing my own life, by which I mean constructing myself through some sort of half-conscious inner storytelling. This is perhaps more a feature of being young, when our stories about ourselves are still meandering around—tributaries feeding a trickle that becomes a river. Selfhood is contingent, and so it’s a condition that becomes even more interesting in a situation of contingency and constant reinvention, and New York does that more than any other place I’ve been. You’re right, too, to use the word chance because the other, more pedestrian—uh-oh, bad pun—answer to how the city makes their relationships possible is that New York is a walking city and Manhattan is a condensed, circumscribed area in which millions of people really do brush against each other on the streets each day. That, to me, seemed both a romantic and reasonable idea, that you could walk down the street and meet a person who might alter the course of your life.
In terms of performance, though, I was also conscious that New York itself is one of the most fictionally depicted places on Earth. Any newcomer’s view of the place is colored by every film or music video or book they’ve watched or read featuring the Manhattan skyline. For one weird summer, when I was sick and quite lost, I lived alone in the West Village apartment of a kind friend. I remember seeing Sarah Jessica Parker walking down the street all the time, paces from the brownstone that Carrie, her character in Sex and the City, lives in. It induced a kind of psychosis in me, a sort of slippage of reality—and of course Carrie and SJP are muddled up enough as it is. That panicky feeling was compounded by the fact that the street I was living on looked like a movie set and, in fact, was a movie set most of the time. I’d always be shuffling past film crews. For Kate, I don’t think that overlay of fiction and the reality is distressing—as I said, it was a weird, sick summer—in fact, I think it refracts and magnifies her experience. I wanted her to feel as though she and the city were engaged in some sort of mutual creation. She has this sense, for example, that the city is showing off as she witnesses an egregious sunset, as if the city is aware of its own past iterations, its image.
The title, Neon in Daylight, is a line from a Frank O’Hara poem—I’m wondering whether you had the title in mind as you were writing, or what relationship the poem had to the novel? What other chroniclers of city life were you in conversation with, other books or authors?
For so long the book was just a malingering Google Doc, a private shame, with the pathetic title of “novel”—like that, lower case and with a full stop. I don’t know why there was a full stop after the word. Just extra bathos, I guess. It’s a terribly embarrassing thing, to write a novel. Anyway, I was desperately grasping for titles, and, as happens whenever you desperately grasp for anything, none of them worked. I was reading Lunch Poems just as sort of spiritual maintenance—they have an incidental quality that I love so much, they feel so rich with humility, as though O’Hara is simply allowing the world to present itself to him, rather than trying to hammer perception into some grand edifice, an extension of his own ego. Halfway through “A Step Away from Them” I came across that line, “Neon in daylight is a great pleasure,” and the words just sort of lit up in front of me like, well, neon. It’s funny the way that, retroactively, we can so confidently attribute meaning to things, but here goes. The neon and the daylight came to feel like the two forces with which I wanted the book to be charged, the artificial, flashy, thrilling, totemic and the natural, subdued, everyday. It’s a novel about intoxications, literal ones as well as the less tangible intoxications of desire, or of a desire for desire. But life is also a lot of plain daylight. The bathos of a full stop after that very grand word novel. There are probably great novels that are all neon, by which I mean mighty flashes and reverberations of revelation, but I knew that I had to write one that was daylight, too, as in one that included all the small, confused, disappointing, unpoetic things. It’s not that the neon is any less true than the daylight, they’re just different forms of illumination.
I also just have a dorky etymological obsession with the word neon. It means new, of course, and yet neon in New York is now almost quaint. They’re dying out, a sign—literally, figuratively—of an older New York, the seventies and eighties. That seemed to speak to the simultaneous newness of New York, in its endless reinventions and revisions that we talked about earlier, and the way in which old New York and new New York are layered over each other. And for Bill, that layering is one of personal history.
Bill is someone who had a stretch of success when he was younger, which he’s essentially coasted on the rest of his life—a character defined by the past. I kept thinking, while reading your book, of how New York seems to make achievement or lack thereof so starkly visible. How did you see his character existing in relation to the city? It’s also a place that’s in such flux, always shifting and expanding, and he seems to have been left behind, trying to navigate a place whose rules have already changed. What does Kate offer him?
Bill uses the word tourist for Kate, and it’s acrimonious—an insult. Native New Yorkers love to scoff at tourists. Nonetheless, I think what he sees and envies in her is her very tourism, by which I mean the fact that she is seeing this place with the eyes of a newly arrived stranger. To her, all of it is new. This makes her both vulnerable—she’s clueless to the social codes—but enviable, in that wonder is more readily available to her. Much like a neon sign, Bill is a sort of extant past glory, a person, as you say, defined by his past. The rules have indeed changed, and Bill, as an intelligent, self-identified liberal, would seek to apprise himself of them, while also resenting having to catch up. And even if he could catch up intellectually, our righteous, abstract ideals so often fail to perfectly align with our personal lives. The mess of human relations tends to refute rectitude.
Inez makes money attending to “perverts” she finds on the Internet—men who want to watch a woman put on makeup, men who want a woman to berate them while purchasing luxury goods. It’s an interesting subject for the ways it brings together intimacy and commerce—I thought of Mary Gaitskill and other authors who take on the more modern iterations, like Problems by Jade Sharma or Catherine Lacey’s The Answers. The Internet has opened up these strange corners of human experience. What interested me about Inez was that, in some very real way, she doesn’t need to do this. “Here’s what she realized: she wasn’t doing it for the money, but for something about the money—the alchemy of the thing.” What is the currency she’s after, if not money? Experience? The “alchemy” of strangers turning their desires inside out for her?
I’m so glad “perverts” is in quotation marks here! I don’t believe in the term, at least not in its falsely moralizing sense. Deviancy is just that, deviating from a norm, and a norm is only consensus. There is no intrinsic moral freight in consensus, it just presents like one, often with the fatuousness of that phrase “most people.” What’s interesting to me about sexuality is also what’s interesting to me about human beings—the extraordinary, endless specificity. It seemed beautiful to me that a person could have a dizzyingly specific fetish, something which to other people was non-erotic and innocuous to the point of ridiculous—watching someone apply makeup, for example—and even more beautiful that this need could be transmitted out into a potentially endless virtual world, and then answered, enacted by a human being. This, I know, is a utopian attitude, because, as you point out, these are transactional pairings in which intimacy is very much complicated by the asymmetry of the exchange. You say “currency” and that’s the perfect word, I think. Inez, like most teenage girls, is testing out her power in the world. We’re all of us dealing in different currencies, all of the time, and I think for most women one of them is their own sexuality. We become aware of that at a very young age and it can be both intoxicating and oppressive; to use it is to feel complicit, in some way, in a sexist world which objectifies female bodies, yet at the same time every woman has a right to enjoy her own sexuality. It’s something you do so deftly in The Girls. I think all of the time about the scene in which Evie gives Russell a blowjob, and the way that “gives” isn’t even the right verb! It’s such a terrifyingly murky moment in terms of his power and hers. It so adroitly sets up all that’s to come.
Sex and desire are handled so well in the book—you are so good at unpacking all the strange dynamics at work, the character’s self-deceptions and narratives, the feints of power and projection. In an essay for LitHub, you wrote about rendering ambivalence in sex. “This sort of ambivalence is the opposite of a cop-out: it’s generative, rather than reductive, and it comes from time, on the writer’s part, dwelling in uncertainty.” Could you speak a little more to that ambivalence, how you thought about it while writing these characters and relationships?
I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in making the ambivalence in my book generative, but I certainly spent time dwelling in uncertainty! It just seemed so much more interesting to me that characters should be both drawn to and intermittently repelled by one another, that their feelings could be confused and contingent. That just seemed to offer more dynamism and honesty than say, some great, all-consuming mutual passion. I tend to cringe at the sort of novel that can be described as “a heartbreaking tale of love and loss.” That and “sweeping.” I was going to say that love stories are boring and embarrassing to me, but then one of my favorite novels of all time, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, is a love story. So perhaps the real answer is just that I can’t write love, or at least not yet. I think I’m such a believer in it, at both the romantic and platonic level, that it would just come out as unwitting comedy, for its hopeless earnestness. I think we tend to write about the things we can’t quite understand, rather than those things we wholeheartedly hold to be true and important.
The gap in age between Inez and Kate—nineteen and twenty-five, respectively—seemed to present an interesting dynamic, and I wondered how you chose those particular ages. Six years doesn’t feel like a lot, later in life, but a nineteen-year-old’s concerns are so different than a twenty-five-year-old’s. But there’s some crossover, a way that being new to a city, like Kate is, brings up the concerns of a young person, actively constructing a self. I’m also curious how you saw their relationship. It’s a friendship, but also a mutual performance, a willingness to buy into the story the other person wants to tell about themselves. There’s real affection there, but they seem, in some way, to never truly see the other person.
Yes, absolutely. Kate, being so afflicted with self-consciousness, is drawn to this girl because she’s heedless, so lacking in uncertainty and introspection. I’ve known girls like this, highly embodied girls, and I know the bizarre magnetism they have. We care so much about girls who don’t care, or at least don’t seem to care. You do this so brilliantly with Suzanne in The Girls. There’s also that brief, delusional confidence, that sense of infallibility that tends to come around the age of eighteen or nineteen. It means that by the time you get a little older, say twenty-five, you realize how much you don’t know and you feel, perversely, so much younger than you did at nineteen. I think Inez and Kate remain fascinated, perplexed, horrified, and sometimes delighted by each other, but yes, they don’t quite make it past those feelings and into friendship.
You wrote a sort of postcard series for The Awl, Stranger of the Week. I loved the pieces for how true they are to the experience of New York, that strange trick of a city that both surrounds you with people and keeps them at a remove. Inez says the city is “dense with lives.” While reading your book, I kept thinking of that Olivia Laing book, The Lonely City. “The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.” How much does that “uneasy combination” of New York work on these characters? For Kate especially, the city seems to call out a self-consciousness. “She was catastrophically unheld, and at the same time, terribly conspicuous. That, maybe, was the worst part about being lost: everyone could see you.”
Oh, I love Olivia and her book—I can’t quite remember where my reading of The Lonely City came in the long, inefficient process of writing this novel, but I know it was influential. “Separation and exposure” is exactly what Kate feels. At the same time, being catastrophically unheld is just a knife edge away from feeling exultantly free. I remember one married friend of mine with two kids, telling another unhappily single friend living in New York that she could go anywhere! She could travel! She was free! The married friend, of course, was longing to be an independent agent, and the single friend was, of course, longing for a partner and kids. I’m not sure there are any uncompromised forms of happiness.
In your LitHub essay, you also wrote about how the short story “Cat Person” had been reduced almost to a propaganda piece in the context of the political moment, and how that misses the mark about the project of fiction. You write, “The underlying notion, that literature is in service to the zeitgeist, or even that a story’s value resides in how loudly and righteously it speaks to the prevailing political wind, is a troubling fallacy.” I wondered how it’s been for you having this book come out at this particular moment—whether there’s been pressure to somehow make the book politically legible or offer up some kind of thesis, or how you might push back against that prescriptive read? In my own experience, I’ve often resented how female writers or writers of color are asked to speak to the broad concerns of their entire demographic, instead of allowing their fiction to be about specific characters and specific concerns. We don’t ask male writers to “educate” us about all men.
Yes, I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about Bill and Kate in terms of this Wein-stained moment. I decided early on not to read any press. Disclaimer, I did read Parul Sehgal’s review mainly because my editor told me I had to, but also because I always read Parul—reading her is like inhaling illumination. But the interviews I’ve done so far have been pleasant experiences in which I haven’t detected any imposed narratives of “cultural relevance.” I feel very lucky in that regard. I think a person writes a book because there are questions that he or she can’t answer. So yes, it’s something of an irony to be then required, after the book is published, to offer intelligible, relatable answers to the same questions.
I’ve worked as a cultural journalist for almost a decade, and I’m now remembering the time that one high-ranking editor, a white guy, of course, asked me to write a piece about what the Weeknd meant for “the black American male.” I was kind of speechless. The Weeknd is Canadian, for one thing! But more to the point, he’s just a guy making music, not some kind of integer of maleness or blackness. And then, most egregious of all, why should a white, female British person take up column space with speculations on blackness and maleness? It would be wonderful if more male writers—more men!—felt compelled to interrogate their own maleness, just as it would be wonderful if more white writers—white people!—examined their own whiteness. I’m interested to read Sam Graham-Felsen’s Green, which is, I understand, a story of both, a novel about a young white kid in a mostly black school. We still hold these things—maleness, whiteness—as default settings. I hope that’s changing. I’m so proud to be published by Catapult, who is committed to diversity in both who they employ and who they publish.
I define myself as a woman interested in female lives, so it’s funny to me that the novel I’m writing now is in a male voice. I didn’t choose him, he just presented himself, in one of those welcome auditory hallucinations late one night. And then he just kept going, he had so much to say, as young men tend to do. One of my best friends, a gay guy, with whom I share writing, read some and said to me, Oh this is you unleashing your full intelligence, as a man. And that was flattering, perhaps, but also sad, for the implication that to be writing in a female voice is in some way hampering, that even an intelligent female character can’t get past the widespread lie that tells her that she will never have the intellectual authority of a man.
There’s a way that the book is about experience, the prioritizing of the absolutely personal for these characters above all else. I thought of that line from a Didion essay, describing people in New York in their twenties, “engagé only about our most private lives.” I’m wondering about what is elided in the novel—specifically, how it ends right before Hurricane Sandy actually makes landfall. What do you think the literary effect is, to plant the seeds for an event that never comes? I like ending it there, where the characters don’t feel the full force of the outside world, even when a historic storm is on the horizon. I guess this is another way of asking about consequence, how you thought about it with these characters. It would have been easy to turn this into a morality play of some kind, ending with the catastrophe of a storm, but you didn’t do that.
Yes, ouf—that Didion line. Two paragraphs earlier, she writes, “You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there.” That’s certainly Kate’s situation. And this is why it’s a kind of dereliction to fully live as a solo tourist—life is indeed real and, even more urgently, people other than ourselves are real. I don’t think that’s something most of us grasp, and that failure of empathy threatens both a personal and collective disaster. I finished the book long before the catastrophic, historic storm that was the unspeakable joke of the election, but it certainly made me think about these characters in an anxious new way. I’d always known that the three of them were self-involved, but solipsism seems even more terrible a crime in a time of political disaster. I had, like so many people, a bit of an existential time of it. There were two knots of questions that I found indigestible. One, how to create fiction now that the American landscape was more hysterical and less real than any hysterical realism. It’s cold comfort that this question was being asked by Philip Roth in the sixties, or Richard Ford in 2007. I got over that one, partly because I don’t write fiction that burlesques our time. But the second question was how to justify an immersion in a made-up world when the real one called urgently for action. I remember being on deadline with final copy edits for this book when the travel ban happened in January of last year and I felt this sort of vertigo, this moment of crisis, and then I abandoned my laptop and basically ran to JFK with my husband, to be a body in a crowd of shouting bodies. This may be idealistic, but writing fiction and joining a protest don’t strike me as antithetical. I think they can be part of the same overarching project of being a better citizen.
Emma Cline is the author of The Girls and the recipient of The Paris Review’s 2014 Plimpton Prize. In 2017, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.
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