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[Interview] With Liska Jacobs

The inimitable Liska Jacobs—thank you for letting me interview you again. I got the galley a few weeks before the pub date and it was worth the wait because I got the real deal hardcover. So, thank your publisher, MCD x FSG on my behalf. It’s beautiful. I intend to go live with the interview on pub day, and have cooked up some questions I think our readers will be interested in. And on a personal note, I loved the book. You write toward my style—I love tragedies, literary noir, and characters misbehaving (if that’s what you would call it).

[Kelp Journal] Last time we did an interview, you later reported to me that we caused a bit of a stir. It was shortly after the release of the incredible Catalina, a novel that details, in sharp literary wit and prosaic acuity, the Xanax- and alcohol-fueled tailspin of our protagonist, Elsa. I loved that story for many of the same reasons that I enjoyed the upcoming novel, The Worst Kind of Want. Let’s begin with the title since it has a sort of long history. Can you briefly tell us how it came to fruition?

[Liska Jacobs] Ha! Yes, we did cause a bit of a ruckus, didn’t we? I had conceptualized The Worst Kind of Want as a sort of gender-swapped Lolita, so I started with the name of my male-Lolita, which is Donato, as the title. And for the longest time—drafts and drafts—I referred to the book as “Donato.” But then the book changed, as they do, and the title didn’t work anymore. We went through lists of possible titles and nothing was clicking. Then my editor read our last interview, where I said I wanted to name Catalina, The Worst Kind of Want, and thought it was perfect. I was a little upset at first. It's a line from Catalina—Tom says it to Elsa—and I didn’t want readers to think I intended for the books to be linked. But I write about our desires, which are infinite and relentless, so it’s no wonder it fits for either book. I was also worried that the assumption with a title like that would be that I was referring to sex, and that might turn off some readers right out of the gate. Because that’s not what I’m saying. We want because something must make up for the fact that at some point death renders everything meaningless. It’s the search that I’m talking about. That search to fill the void. Writing, procreating, owning property, a nice car, doing good in the world—whatever it is, something has to give our lives meaning. Otherwise why else are we here? So we go on searching; we go on wanting. And that’s the worst kind of want because nothing will ever be enough.

[KJ] I’m always interested in the writing life. In our last interview (Catalina Interview) we talked about how, when you got into your illustrious MFA program at UC Riverside, you quit your job and dedicated your life to writing. The “witch lines” to keep the cockroaches away from your writing space were such a powerful image to me then and still are today. How has your writing life changed, if any?

[LJ] Those witch lines haunt me, too. *shiver* My writing life hasn’t changed much since graduating. I try to work every day. I get up, I swim or walk, and then I get to it. If I’m not working on a big project like a novel, then I’m crafting a pitch or working on an essay. There’s a lot of tea and sparkling water involved, and at the end of the day, usually a martini—but that’s if I’ve had a good day writing. A bad day ends in a cigarette.

[KJ] Second novels can be particularly tough, from my understanding. How was that process for you? Do you feel that this novel was harder than the first?

[LJ] I’ve heard that, but for me it wasn’t true. It was a lot of hard work though. Imagine taking all the energy you spent over five years on your first novel and cramming it into two years. The deadlines were intense, and I spent a lot of time in compression socks and wrist guards. There were some ice baths, too.

[KJ] The cover is so beautiful; I want to hang it up in my office as an art piece. How was that process? Did you get a lot of mock-ups? Good ones, bad ones?

[LJ] The cover is gorgeous! I could not be any happier with it. We went through a lot of mock-ups to get there. Part of it again was how to package this book which is sexy and erotic but also incredibly dark. And with a title like The Worst Kind of Want, the reader is already thinking “sex.” If we used a classic nude statue or a photo of a boy’s biceps (which we tried), it felt too heavy in one direction. My publisher, MCD, was wonderful though. They wanted to get it right. I was very lucky with how patient and dedicated they were.

[KJ] I love that your work includes destinations. I think setting is so pivotal to the enjoyment and success of a work. How do you choose your settings? Can you tell me how you went about researching and writing this project which takes place in Italy?

[LJ] I absolutely agree. Setting is everything. If the setting doesn’t work, the conflict feels flat to me. I knew I wanted the story to take place in Europe, and at first, I thought England or Portugal, but neither of those felt right. Then I happened to nab one of those cheap promotional flights to Rome, a city I’d never been to, and I thought maybe this was kismet. I did some research into holiday areas outside of Rome, somewhere Cilla and her family could visit, and I came across Puglia, which at that time was still somewhat undiscovered. I remembered when I picked up my rental car at the airport in Bari, the agent warned me of marauders on the roads. I thought that was perfect! Somewhere a little bit untamed where Cilla could really lose herself.

[KJ] These characters, Cilla and Donato, have lingered in my mind, as great characters do. Cilla is in her early forties and Donato is seventeen. They become romantically entangled despite her better judgment and her niece also falling in love with Donato. How did you land on the exact age gap?

[LJ] When I began thinking about a gender swap of Lolita, I quickly realized the ages wouldn’t work. To have a middle-aged woman seduce a twelve-year-old boy—it just wasn’t very believable. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. You see occasional cases in the news. But the main problem was the believability of Cilla’s lust for someone that young. Ages had to be adjusted. I settled on seventeen because in many ways a boy that age is still very immature, but his body is on the cusp of manhood. And I wanted to play with that line—of when a boy stops being someone’s son and starts being an object of female desire. This plays into Cilla’s age. It was important that she be right on the edge of change, too. Not yet “old,” but standing there, faced with the abyss of her impending invisibility.

[KJ] Although the novel takes place in Italy, our point of view character, Cilla, is from Los Angeles. In fact, she comes from a Hollywood family, and there seems to be a theme of the façade, the falseness of LA and show business throughout the work. Do you think this colors Cilla’s view of Italy, her relationships, and life in general?

[LJ] Absolutely. I come from a film and television family, and whenever I travel, I’m constantly trying to convince myself that what I’m looking at is real and not something from a set. But I don’t think you have to be from a Hollywood family to experience this. We’re so bombarded with content—movies, TV shows, etc., etc.—that certain places feel known to us before having ever been there. Rome is one of those places. As for affecting Cilla’s relationships, I think that’s the case, too. She often feels like she’s playing a role rather than being seen for who she is.

[KJ] Cilla recounts her own experience dating a much older man as a teenager, as seems commonplace in Hollywood. Does this past play into her decision to engage with a younger man? Change her view of the world?

[LJ] I’m not sure I have room to adequately address this question here—it’s a complicated one. I don’t think she’s sexually abusing Donato because she herself was sexually abused. But I also don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Her past trauma of course plays into her state of mind—how could it not? Guy has been her primary sexual experience for much of her life. It’s played into how she views herself, her desirability—especially as she gets older. So, I think her affair with Donato is more about Cilla exploring her own sexual desires, which is something she has never really done before. And this has such a devastating consequence, because women like Cilla are the ones we rely on to keep the plates spinning. They’re the reliable aunt, the dutiful daughter. The ones we count on to show up when we call. They can’t stop being that woman, otherwise everything comes crashing down.

* Liska Jacobs is the author of Catalina, and her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and The Hairpin, among other publications. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside.

*David M. Olsen grew up on a small and largely unprofitable farm in California's San Joaquin Valley. He is an alumnus of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a book of poetry. David is a former fiction editor at The Coachella Review and is currently editor-in-chief at Kelp Journal.  His work has appeared in Close to the Bone (UK), The RumpusScheherazadeThe Coachella Review, and elsewhere. In a past life, David won awards as a chef and brewer. He is a cicerone, sommelier, and a certified pizzaiolo trained by 11-time world champion Tony Gemignani. He resides on California's central coast where he surfs daily.


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