Mona Awad (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
Mona Awad’s first novel, the prismatic and devastating 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, started working its way into me by the end of the second chapter. I’d been feeling awful for the protagonist, Lizzie—it’s hard not to. She seemed, to me, so vulnerable, so unaware, so needy. But then, a sharp shift happens: Lizzie suddenly seemed fully aware of her vulnerability’s pull, and starts using it, inverting and playing the power dynamic, making a fool of the drunken, failed musician who falsely believes he’s the center of her world. I broke out in a grin and thought, “This seems quite impish.” It’s one of the few times that book made me smile—the pedicure scene made me sob, and the ending is wonderfully mysterious and lonely.
Transformations, inversions, and longing are Awad’s specialty, and in her new novel, Bunny, the impish quality is turned on in full. Samantha Heather Mackey (what a name!) is the archetypal outsider at an exclusive east coast M.F.A. program. The program’s mean girl clique is cloying, referring to themselves and each other as “Bunny” (how perfect in its layers of meaning—cutesy and pagan at once), while they critique Sam’s work as being “in love with its own outsiderness.” Sam gets an invitation to join the Bunnies’ off-campus salon-style workshops. She drags her feet, but, of course, she can’t resist. The workshops quickly reveal themselves as literal magical coven meetings. In the name of their artistic “practice,” the women conjure broken humanoid men (who look sort of like “pre-TB Keats” or Tim Riggins or Dracula or James Dean)—pseudo boyfriends who they refer to as “drafts.” The Bunnies themselves are rendered in a hilarious mix of self-seriousness and cluelessness, giving and withholding pep talks throughout:
Bunny, we know you sometimes get depressed that your sister is this incredible neurologist in training or whatever … But then the day came when you went into your mother’s room and dragged her diamond ring across her vanity mirror … etching messages from the goddess of Wisdom … That was the day you started giving your special gift of you to the world. Sure your sister saves lives, Bunny, but you save souls with your diamond proems. And how many people can say that?
The first part of Bunny is a shifting, gleeful collage of cultural references and stereotypes. Then, the novel breaks and reforms its own logic, going deeper into the nature of creation, friendship, community, and the boundaries between reality and perception. The ending, which I won’t give away, has some achingly sad, and very real moments.
Mona and I met at a reading last March. After gushing a little at her, I asked if she’d like to do an interview over email.
Did you do research for Bunny? The Workshop meetings are, structurally, so much like what I’ve read of those horrible “eye-witness accounts” of witches’ sabbaths in the Middle Ages—but a candy-coated version. A pink sabbath!
I love the idea of a pink sabbath. Very creepy and very apt. I was definitely trying to evoke a coven atmosphere with the Workshops, both the on- and off-campus ones. But I wanted it to be playful and absurd, too, because, you know, bunnies. These are writing students trying their hand at the occult for the purposes of creating hot guys, a process they describe as high art. So it couldn’t take itself too seriously. But so much about creativity is mysterious that it felt right to go down that road. It’s no accident, I think, that people in the writing and M.F.A. communities sometimes reference magic and the occult. I’ve also done some ritual work, but those experiences didn’t really inform my approach. If I’m being honest, mostly I just thought of a combination of Carrie’s telekinetic powers and a child’s idea of a séance. Definitely the movie The Craft played its role, too. Teen witches with great outfits. Can’t go wrong.
I love the comparison of M.F.A. programs to teenage, slumber-party séances—it’s such a great, scathing setup. When did that comparison really start to click for you? What was the process of writing Bunny?
Oh, the comparison started to click pretty soon after I started. It just felt true, graduate students acting like teenagers. It was funnier that way, and it intensified the horror and anxiety around romance. There is also just something very not-adult about grad school, no matter how old you are when you go. It’s a sheltered, insular environment that has its own language, its own very particular sense of time and space, and I think it can really reinforce all the dynamics of teen drama and junior high. The writing process was actually pretty fluid because of that inherent connection between those two worlds—I had permission to go full teen movie so long as I continued to amp up the rarified grad school setting, the M.F.A.-isms.
Your witches, the Bunnies, feel adolescent. My Little Ponies, cupcakes, prom dances, declarations of love, and high school crushes replace the blood, goats, and murderous orgies of more traditional witches. I felt much more disturbed by the cutesy stuff—it reinforces a narrative of essential feminine sweetness that can range from annoying to downright oppressive. Samantha is in opposition to this, but she still feels a real pull to join them. How did you approach that balance? I feel like these adolescent imprints linger a lot longer—way, way into and past your twenties—than a lot of people are comfortable admitting.
Oh, for sure those adolescent imprints linger longer! I still have them and I’m forty. The girl clique versus outsider dynamic is very childish, but you can find yourself in it at any age. It’s like wanting to be invited to that party you have no desire to go to. You still want to be invited. It’s human nature to want to belong. For all the romanticism attached to it, being an outsider is actually a very lonely thing. It would be so much easier for Samantha if she could love the Bunnies, love all the cutesy stuff. I think the draw for her stems from a vulnerability that’s tied to her insecurity, and maybe it does appeal to her childhood self. I myself am terrified of cutesy stuff, but I’m also deeply drawn to it. It’s pretty, it’s shiny, it’s fuzzy, it’s smiling. I distrust its unholy power over me. It is like a spell. There’s a great article I read called “Monstrous/Cute” by Maja Brzozowska-Brywczynska, which is all about how cuteness can be a legitimate and complex form of monstrousness. All monsters are seductive and Samantha’s not immune.
The Drafts are not there for sexual gratification—though that’s the initial idea. The pleasure the Bunnies get from them is in being observed and validated. They rub the Bunnies’ feet, shower them with praise, insult their other female competitors. For example, a draft named Beowulf says to Samantha, “Your beauty is nuanced and labyrinthine like a sentence by Proust,” while another draft, Blake, adds “Melanie Shingler is a whore compared to you … Pidgeon-toed. Bad eyeliner.” But they never get to have sex! It’s all talk. Can you talk more about the role they play?
I see the Drafts as the Bunnies’ boy-toys, their pets. The Drafts are also a manifestation of the Bunnies’ desires and fears around romance and creativity. The Bunnies want dates, yes, but they want dates they can orchestrate, control. Because they’re writers, there’s obviously a metaphor there about creative work and the dangers of trying to control your material. George Saunders has this incredible video talk about bad writing called “On Story.” He likens a bad story to a date where you plan out everything you’re going to say in advance. “7:05: Compliment her outfit,” “7:10: Ask about the mother.” The date’s going to go terribly and you’re going to sound like an automaton. So why do that? Because, he says, “it’s scary to be on a date.” Bad writing comes from trying to control the outcome because you’re afraid of not knowing. That’s where the Drafts come in. They’re the Bunnies’ bad writing. Hence their dicklessness. Sam’s creations, on the other hand, can’t be controlled. She doesn’t have or exert that kind of power or mastery over her material. To a fault. As a result, her creations are more human, but her problem is that the creative act is so unconscious that she can’t distinguish between reality and art.
Do you feel like you come at writing first drafts from a place of too much control or not enough?
The unconscious is a tricky thing to trust—it can definitely reveal our intentions in ways that we don’t intend. As a writer, that’s exciting and scary. It’s incredible to me when you write, just how much you end up unconsciously planting into the story. Stuff that is useful for the story and stuff from your own soul that may or may not serve the story at all. When I’m writing, I have a lot of faith in the unconscious but it can, and has, led me astray. That said, I’m also very wary of control. I try not to mess too much with my sentences. I try not to force the plot, but to imagine where the characters might lead themselves. I think striking a balance between unconscious play and control is important. Sam and the Bunnies are at opposite ends of that spectrum. My hope is to be somewhere in the middle, but I’ve erred in both directions.
Samantha feels like a descendent of Veronica from the film Heathers, a perfect insider/outsider. The Workshop instructor is nicknamed Fosco after a villain in the gothic novel The Woman in White, Ava and Samantha listen to The Cure and Joy Division, Ava is described as looking like David Bowie. These references feel very careful, like there’s a lot about lineage, transformation, and tradition going on. How do you choose which pop culture references to include?
Well, a lot of that is just having fun with what I love. I love gothic novels, I love The Cure, Joy Division, and New Order. I wanted to write a book that evoked those worlds while still being its own thing. Veronica from Heathers is one of my favorite characters because she’s so dynamic and unpredictable. There’s a lot of opportunity for surprise, for betrayal, for peril and transformation, for conflicting desires and fears to come up and manifest. The outsider is one of the most relatable characters. We’ve all been inside and we’ve all been outside at different times in our lives.
Do you have a favorite outsider from antiquity?
This isn’t really from antiquity, but I do love all of Jean Rhys’s protagonists. They’re all misfits and Jean Rhys is so good at capturing a sense of profound alienation from the world around them. But her characters are also very much in the world as well, and they bear the scars of it. I also love Sara Shaw from The Torn Skirt by Rebecca Godfrey. She’s a high school student who ends up committing a crime. The narrator is so angsty and alive but there’s a sorrow and a raw vulnerability there, too.
There’s an eerie line between projections and reality in the book. Do you think perceiving reality is a kind of magical act? Do you think making work—writing music, film, pop culture, et cetera—is a kind of conjuring?
I actually do. Looking as a kind of conjuring is something I was very interested in exploring in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl and I’m definitely exploring it in Bunny. To what degree do loneliness, desire, and fear actually conjure a kind of reality, whether wondrous or horrific? Samantha is a very unreliable narrator so there’s a real tension in whether her experiences of the world are supernatural or the product of her imagination. But we’re all unreliable narrators. We’re all either inside or outside a moment and both produce a kind of blindness that then creates an experience of reality.
As for art as conjuring, definitely. I’m sure you have a perspective on this, too, and I’d love to hear it. I’m a big believer in discipline and regularly showing up for a number of hours every day because that is the only way I’ve ever been able to get any real writing done and the only way I know how to finish a book. But I can’t deny the mystery of the process either because there are really times when it feels like channeling, when it feels like there’s a helping hand or voice in the room, pushing you forward and it’s exhilarating. That was how it felt writing the first draft of Bunny. I was exhilarated for most of it. And then that feeling would leave me and I would feel shut out and empty inside. Whether that’s just chemicals in the brain or magic, I don’t know. But it feels like magic.
I can’t tell if I think making work is conjuring, or really good sleight of hand. I love those writing days when it feels like the steps are all laid out, like I’m experiencing the scene in real time. But, the craft part, the correcting, editing, is a sleight-of-hand style of magic. It’s all about creating an illusion, for sure. On that note—what’s your take on MFA programs? Do you think writing can be taught, or is the community the asset? Bunny is very cheeky about both of those notions.
I think the skepticism and critique of higher learning and the institutionalization of art making are important. Humans are funny and flawed and all of our systems and communities are going to unintentionally reveal that in some way—the writing community and M.F.A. programs are no exception. But I’ve also come through them and benefitted immensely from these systems. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to be able to focus on a project exclusively for a couple of years and to have generous and intelligent readers and, hopefully, financial support. It’s how I finished my first novel. A community can be a wonderful thing, especially if you’ve been writing on your own for a long time. But I don’t know if an M.F.A. program can really teach you how to write. What you said about experiencing a scene in real time when you’re writing—that really is the best when that happens and I’m not sure that such experiences can be taught so much as tuned in to. I do think workshops can make you more aware of what you’re putting on the page, of what’s important to you, of what you really want to say and they can also encourage you when you need it. But Bunny is definitely cheeky about it all, too, because it should be. A degree of irreverence is healthy and necessary in the arts. And a sense of humor. You don’t want to take it all too seriously or you’ll take it all to heart.
Halle Butler is a Granta Best Young American Novelist and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree. She is the author of the novels Jillian and The New Me .
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