July 07, 2016

Liz Kay

Exploring the raw messiness of love
Interview by

Poet Liz Kay talks about messy characters, the romance of Gone Girl (yes, really) and the reason she feels sorry for Gwyneth Paltrow.

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Poet Liz Kay makes her fiction debut with the darkly funny Monsters: A Love Story. Nebraska poet Stacey Lane and Hollywood bad boy Tommy DeMarco launch a whirlwind romance when he options her poetry collection for his latest film project, but their story is no fairy tale. Both Tommy and Stacey have hot tempers, sharp tongues and plenty of baggage, but Kay manages to make readers root for them even when their flaws aren't especially lovable. In a Q&A, Kay talks about messy characters, the romance of Gone Girl (yes, really) and the reason she feels sorry for Gwyneth Paltrow.

Monsters is an unusual choice for the title of a love story. Can you tell us the story behind how it was chosen?
Well, I have to admit that Monsters was a working title. I assumed someone along the way was going to make me change it so I didn’t dwell on the title as I might have otherwise. I did want a title that would give readers a clear sense of what to expect or at least that they should definitely not expect a typical love story. Like the monster in Stacey’s book of poetry, Tommy and Stacey are beautiful on the outside, and their story, told in brief might read beautifully too, but scratch that glamorous surface and the raw mess that comes with being human bubbles up. 

On the surface, the story of an ordinary woman falling in love with a Hollywood star sounds like a fairy tale, but Monsters is actually a very realistic look at a relationship between two adults. Why were you drawn to writing this type of romance?
I’ve really always been drawn toward messier characters and stories. I have never, that I can remember, rooted for a plucky heroine, so it was especially important to me that Stacey be real in ways that might challenge us. As a culture, we seem to like our female characters flawed, but only in superficial ways, only in ways that make them more relatable—an extra few pounds around the middle, a little clumsy on her feet. That’s just not that interesting to me. I am more interested, ultimately, in readers’ reactions to the characters than anything, and I didn’t want characters that went down too easily. 

"I didn’t want characters that went down too easily."

A few years ago, I was reading Animal Farm to my sons (I know it’s not a children’s story, but like Tommy, I don’t have the best boundaries), and the youngest was really upset with Napoleon. He just hated him, hated what he was doing to the other characters. The middle kid, who takes after me, said, “Well they can’t just sit around drinking tea all the time. That wouldn’t be a good story at all.” I think he was 11, but this captures my aesthetic pretty accurately.

The behind-the-scenes stuff in the movie industry really rings true. How did you research this part of the book?
I read a lot about the specifics of adaptation and the process of making a movie start to finish. I wanted to get the vocabulary right, and I wanted to have enough reference points for that world to feel solid, but the fact that Stacey, the narrator, is new to all of it gave me a good bit of leeway. I particularly liked reading interviews, and most of them quickly confirmed what I’d already suspected, which is that artists are pretty typical across the board. Whatever medium they’re working in, they’re plagued with the same peculiar mix of ego and insecurity and bravado. For me, the focus was always the characters, even the minor ones like Joe, the screenwriter. As a reader, if I believe in the characters, I believe in the world they introduce me to. 

How does your background as a poet inform your fiction writing?
I felt a lot of freedom writing Monsters, in part because I had zero expectations going into it. It was really self-indulgent in a lot of ways—I was head-over-heels in love with these characters and I just wanted to be with them and to see what happened to them, and I didn’t actually care if it was any good. I haven’t written a word of fiction since a short story class maybe my sophomore year of college, so failure seemed not just possible, but inevitable. I think once you’ve embraced failure as the most likely outcome, you can approach the work with a level of enthusiasm and almost recklessness that’s really energizing. 

That said, I still write very much like a poet—line by line. I count syllables and read it aloud to listen for rhythm. I can’t really move on from a scene until it’s perfect, so I polish every page, every paragraph, every sentence as I go. I’m also pretty discerning about description, and having a poet for a narrator allowed me to exploit that. If Stacey sees something, it matters. I wanted every image she bothers to tell you about to carry a lot of weight.

The banter in this book is topnotch. How did you manage to make your dialogue crackle? 
Thank you! Maybe the dialogue picked up some energy because I loved writing it so much. Dialogue is something I don’t use at all in poetry, so it was one part of the novel that really felt like the opposite of work. It’s definitely not something I’ve ever studied in the novels I’ve read, but I always perk up when I come across dialogue that sounds real. If it doesn’t sound like something a living person would say, I’m not that interested in reading it. The best preparation for me is probably the fact that I’ve surrounded myself with smart, funny, slightly profane friends, and because many of my friends are either artists or academics our conversations can shift rapidly across subjects and levels of import much like Tommy’s and Stacey’s. 

If Monsters were turned into a Hollywood film, who would you pick to star as Stacey and Tommy?
It took me all of about a tenth of a second to settle on who would be Stacey. Gwyneth Paltrow obviously doesn’t match the physical descriptions of Stacey, but what I love about Gwyneth Paltrow is that she captures the catch-22 for women. She does everything right. She really works at doing and being all the things we demand of her (and all women), and then we hate her even more for it. Be very, very thin, we say, and then Gwyneth makes her kale smoothies and doesn’t give her children Cheetos and we’re all like Jesus Christ, lighten up. Eat a cheeseburger. She, or at least her public persona, captures the fact that in a culture that’s still as deeply misogynistic as ours, it’s just impossible to win at being a woman. 

"[I]n a culture that’s still as deeply misogynistic as ours, it’s just impossible to win at being a woman."

Tommy was much harder to figure out. He’s such an amalgamation of things. Maybe he has James Franco’s literary interests and Leonardo DiCaprio’s dating habits and George Clooney’s fame. But ultimately, whoever it was I was imagining, their public persona would start to get in the way. In any case, I did stumble upon an answer, which is Tom Hardy. And it works for me primarily because I don’t know that much about him. I certainly didn’t have him in mind in writing the book and so he works as kind of a blank slate. Physically, he’s a good fit—a little pretty, a little scruffed up. He looks mean in a lot of the pictures I’ve seen, so that works. 

Do you have a favorite love story?
In recent years, I’d have to say Gone Girl, which I know no one else reads as a love story so that likely tells you a good deal about me. I’m also just a huge Jane Austen fan, and I love how she’s able to communicate so much about the dynamics of attraction in these very careful, polite exchanges. 

What are you working on next?
I have a couple of projects in the works, but I’m probably most interested in a novel that’s examining how comfortable the patriarchy can be for the women at the top. I’m really interested in critiquing not just the culture itself but the ways that we’re all complicit in it. Moments when our ideals come into conflict with our desires tend to give off the most spark for me, so that’s the project I keep coming back to these days.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Monsters.

Get the Book

Monsters: A Love Story

Monsters: A Love Story

By Liz Kay
ISBN 9781101982471

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