When Cyborg Daughters Become Giant Octopus Mothers
Janice Lee interviewed by Maxi Kim.
3:AM: What is the genesis of your second novel, Daughter?
Janice Lee: The novel started out as a kernel of an idea. I know I wanted to do something about the lack of an archetype for the “daughter” figure. We seem to have many archetypes in mythology and psychology for fathers, mothers, sons, but not really for daughters. I don’t count Freud’s because it seems like sort of a cop-out, carbon-copy of the son’s dilemma, in reverse. I also knew I wanted to investigate the identity crisis a god might have, and in some way, I wrote this novel partially backwards. I knew where it would end, and I sort of knew where it would begin, a daughter wandering in the desert finding the body of a giant octopus, which becomes the body of a dead god.
3:AM: How right would it be to read Daughter as a sequel to your first book Kerotakis?
JL: In terms of Daughter being a sequel to Kerotakis, sure, I think all of my writing is connected. I’m always coming back to the same themes, though I’m reading different things while I’m writing. The “daughter,” in some ways is sort of like G.I.L.L. the cyborg, in Kerotakis, but also different. They both have mother issues. But I think the daughter has a strange sort of relationship with herself and with god, that G.I.L.L. doesn’t have. I’m working on a new novel, tentatively titled Singularity, looking at the technological singularity that everyone’s been talking about, but in relation to the coming rapture that many others are talking about. It’s also a novel about god, and daughters, and consciousness, and language, so maybe it is also a sequel to both Kerotakis and Daughter.
3:AM: What I found especially charming about your first book were all of the hand-drawn illustrations. Can we expect the same in Daughter?
JL: No. I thought I was going to do drawings, but I met some obstacles along the way. But perhaps more exciting, the book is going to feature some amazingly beautiful photographs by Rochelle Ritchie Spencer.
3:AM: The other exciting aspect of Daughter is the original soundtrack to the novel made by Resident Anti-Hero. How did this come about?
JL: Jaded Ibis approaches books in kind of an all-encompassing manner, so that all their books live textually, visually and musically. Debra Di Blasi, the editor, and I were brainstorming possible music artists for Daughter‘s soundtrack and I mentally ran through the list of my musically talented friends. I thought that Resident Anti-Hero’s style might be an interesting juxtaposition to the style of the book. Debra loved their music and got the whole deal set up right away. And of course this was the result. I’m super thrilled by it.
3:AM: Throughout Daughter, the text itself asks questions about the memory of parental figures and gets an existential sense of a particular mother. In parts it almost felt as if the text was mourning the illusion of familial integrity. How right would it be to read this literally as being about your own mother? How did the sudden death of your mother influence the final draft of Daughter?
JL: You’re right, in all those senses, that the text explores the disconnectedness but all-too-closeness between mother and daughter, and the dissolution that is a physical and psychological one. The strange thing is the final draft of Daughter was finished months before my mother’s death. My mother and I have had a difficult relationship in the past, that often didn’t function at all, though there was a period of time during my teenage years when she was suddenly and very sick, and I was ready for the end. My hormones probably had a lot to do with that. But, in the months before my mother’s death our relationship was the best it had ever been.
3:AM: Was your mother a religious woman? I ask because in both Kerotakis and Daughter, you seem to have a preternatural understanding of theology. I know from our talks in the past that you’re not overtly religious, but were you brought up Christian? Do you consider yourself an atheist?
JL: I tell this story often about how once when I was very little, my mother walked into my room and dropped the Holy Bible onto my desk. She told me to read and make up my own mind. So to answer the question, my mother was not a religious woman, no, but she did grow up in South Korea, where as you know, religion is a part of the culture. She had a tremendous distrust of the church though, and never practiced. My father considers himself an uneducated agnostic. As for myself, I did indeed read the Bible cover to cover, and admired the book greatly, but didn’t “believe” per se in the tales. I’ve read so much neuroscience and neurotheology, that yes, I have to consider myself a pretty hardline atheist, in terms of really believing in the physical neurology behind religion and god beliefs. Though, I still maintain an awe and enthusiasm for religious language (i.e. in chants and prayers), rituals, and Christian mythology.
3:AM: There is a wild, fantastic dimension to your prose that reminds me of Grace Krilanovich, but unlike her, there’s clearly this hard fascination with theory that shines through. In the past we’ve talked about your interest in Camus, Donna Haraway, Julian Jaynes. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with theory?
JL: I think there is often this distinction between the creative and the critical, a false one I think, as I think some of the best writing has at its core really theoretical ideas. I’m thinking of what one can glean about perception and memory and consciousness and especially phenomenology from writers like Proust, Beckett, Kafka, Dostoevsky. As a writer, I feel a more apt label is thinker, that really writing fiction for me is not all that different than writing critically, and everything I read – literary theory, mythology, philosophy, psychology, etc, – informs the way I read and the way I view and perceive the world.
3:AM: You came out of California Institute of the Arts’ MFA program, and you now teach there. In the past you’ve curated and organized many readings and conceptual writing events in Los Angeles. How has your perception of the L.A. writing scene changed over the years?
JL: The L.A. literary scene, is indeed, in a way a bit schizophrenic. Though there are some distinct pockets that are more easily recognizable than others, there are also a lot of overlaps or niches much harder to pin down or label. I don’t really know any writers that just belong to a single “niche,” but rather wander around. There are really tons of things going on here, and I find out about new things everyday. Les Figues Press is doing a lot of cool things, and this last year they launched a series or projects at LACE. There’s a lot of cross traffic with CalArts faculty and alums, but not a distinct “CalArts Mafia” like many might say. Matt Timmons and Harold Abramowitz run the literary cabaret series Late Night Snack. There’s Machine Project, of course. Laura Vena and I are starting this new interdisciplinary series called Novum. And so many more collaborations, projects, events, series, constantly going on. I see familiar faces sometimes, but also many new ones.
3:AM: While reading Chad Harbach’s essay on how America now has two distinct literary cultures, ‘MFA vs. NYC’, I couldn’t help but think about Los Angeles’ contradictory, sometimes schizophrenic, relationship with “creative writing” programs and the role of the institution. As you see it, who are the winners and losers in the current debate?
JL: Just this past December I met Anthony Seidman, an L.A. poet I had never heard of met before. Will Alexander introduced me to him, who is another great L.A. poet but also one who is so wonderfully unaffiliated. Which is all a long-winded way of saying there’s a wonderfully diverse community here, a community that’s growing all the time, a community that’s got wide-reaching tentacles in all parts of town, collaborating with artists and musicians, sometimes connected to an institution like CalArts, sometimes not. Winners, losers – that might be an irrelevant division, but I do believe it’s important for writers to get out there and interact with the community at large. Vanessa Place will say that’s simply part of the job: showing up. And there are a lot of people who don’t show up but still expect to get paid. And I do believe that people need to continually branch out, not get too comfortable or surround themselves with just the same voices. That’s one of the goals of Novum, is to try and bring people from different disciplines together, people from different parts of town together, etc. people who might not otherwise meet but definitely have common interests in art and writing and science and history and philosophy and culture and music and the convergences between all these.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011.