Author Spotlight: Alexandra Tanner, ‘Worry’

    It’s 2019, and Jules Gold is just about to get her life together, find fulfillment in her writing career, pen an essay about Jewish-American assimilation, when her sister Poppy arrives at her doorstep, covered in hives, and stays for the foreseeable future. Poppy and Jules bicker — about a paper towel on the floor, about art being dead, about SodaStream’s involvement with Israel apartheid — against a backdrop of insufferable art students, mommy bloggers, the upcoming election, job insecurity that threaten to erupt Jules’ sense of self. Even with the adoption of a three-legged dog named Amy Klobuchar, the girls’ MLM-involved mother threatens to keep them apart, and the girls start to wonder if their confinement is really better for their relationship in the long term.

    A hilarious, realistic novel for fans of the shameless desperation and horrors of being alive for fans of HBO’s Girls and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Alexandra Tanner’s relevant, deeply online and shockingly human debut is one whose style will be praised, imitated, and thought about for years to come.

    Our Culture caught up with Alexandra Tanner to talk about writing internet realism, being a hater, and sibling dynamics.

    Congratulations on the fantastic Worry! How does it feel to have your debut novel out?

    Scary! Very scary, very fun. I’m excited. [Early readers] always say something different, which makes it feel like it’s a Rorschach test for what the book is actually about, what things are activated for different people. That’s really cool and gratifying, because that’s what I was trying to do with it.

    The novel is so in tune with how it feels to be alive today — the narrative flits from dating mishaps, texting etiquette, political emails, doomsday preppers, and watching videos where people hide mini plastic babies around their school. What was the process like adapting real-life content to a novelistic form?

    Great question. I dunno, that was kind of the project of this book when I set out to write it. I wanted it to feel as moment-to-moment as I could. I wanted it to feel like you just dropped into someone’s life and you’re just along with them for a year or so. I wanted to write a book that was some sort of internet diary, just a log of what I did all day, and that was what I was playing around with before I started writing Worry. Then I was like, ‘Maybe I should write a novel with plot and characters and structure instead of just a log of my Instagram activity.’ But going in with that mindset, wanting it to be as steeped as possible in the drudgery of the day-to-day, especially on the internet and when you’re sharing a space that’s feeling more and more uncomfortable, when you’re up against someone who knows you really well and exploring the contours of that.

    That’s interesting about the internet diary — was it hard to put yourself away from the page? Step back, leave Jules there, and be a real person?

    Yeah! I’ve been thinking about this for several months now, because when I finally wrapped up the editorial process last spring and I was done revising, when the book was set, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I did this method act-y thing where I was so in it, and I was thinking through her so much.’ She is close to me, in a lot of ways. I think that’s a path to writing something that feels really true, to put yourself on the page. But you can’t! It’s an impossible task. So I wound up in this weird liminal space, thinking more like her, but trying to make her think more like me… It did get really blurry. I don’t want to say, ‘I’ve been in character for three years!’ That’s not the situation at all. But she’s so reactionary and angry and much more doom-pilled than I am. I think I took a little bit of that on, and have been trying to have ten minutes a day where I sit and think about that.

    I feel that one of the novel’s unspoken themes is the idea that it’s so funny to be a person right now. There’s so many conflicting viewpoints trying to grab our attention, and now that we can pay attention to everything at once, it blurs together in this bizarre soup. Did you find it easy or hard to condense everything into satirical writing?

    I don’t know if it’s so much about ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ so much as, what do you pay attention to? Getting an email one minute that’s like, ‘Fund abortion, get swag!’ and the next minute, you’re getting a call from your parent or sibling who’s in crisis, and your work is harassing you about a minor detail that makes you defensive. I think it was painting that picture of when everything collides in on you, what does it create in the moment, and what does it create in the long-term? How is the texture of what a day for a normal person looks like now — eroding our senses of self, our ability to concentrate, do deep, attentive work in any part of our lives, relationships, professional lives, creative lives. It is all just soup, and we’re drowning in soup. I often have the feeling where I can’t get to a point of peace or quiet or stillness; it’s getting harder and harder.

    So many weird things are happening in the world right now, and then yesterday, I got an email that was an interview opportunity about a tennis fashionista. It’s like, ‘read the room!’

    Tennis fashionista! It’s very bizarre. Everyone needs to have a brand statement on everything.  Compared with people who are like, ‘My book launch is today’ or ‘I have a story out in this magazine.’ It’s this whole economy. Because I’m plugged into ‘Literary Twitter’ or whatever — people have to promote themselves, people have to do the legwork of turning yourself into a character. But what is your persona, and how is it slotting into the horrors of the world, which are now on our screens 24 hours a day?

    The first piece I ever read from you was your Jewish Currents essay, where you describe your ‘mommies’ on Instagram, who promote anti-Semetic theories, protest the 2020 lockdowns, all while next to beautiful photos promoting chunky scarves for fall. I’m so happy the themes of this essay made its way into the novel, as Jules is similarly obsessed with her anti-vax mommies. Talk a little bit about integrating this nonfiction work in the book.

    I started writing this book in late 2019, and I had been seeing some mommies online, late 2019, early 2020. It was all a laugh. When I was writing further and further into the novel and making them a part of it, it was no longer this cute thing, this funny plot device — it was suddenly this huge part of my consciousness everyday. I couldn’t put the brakes on and be like, ‘I’ve seen enough for today. I’m gonna put this down.’ Between trying to turn it into a fictive narrative, I became really frustrated and felt like I had to write something right now, about what this is doing to my brain. There’s no fact anymore, which I feel is a very 2017 statement to even make, that we’re post-fact, but the more it becomes an accessory to that, to consumerism, to ‘buy my chunky scarf, also, the Holocaust didn’t happen.’ We’re not built to respond to that! It was a wild time, and I had to get it out to a nonfiction form. And writing the essay and seeing that it got a big response and people were interested in a way that felt… ‘Is everyone not doing this all day, every day? Am I one of a small contingent?’ I definitely am not the only person doing that all day during 2020, but it still felt rare in some way, and now it feels a little less rare.

    It’s also so horrifying that it’s near-impossible to look away from. You can get into some dark corners of the internet where you just can’t believe humans act this way, and, as a result, all you want to hear is what they’ll say next. It really warps your perception. You always have to see who the next annoying person is.

    Well, it feels so good to hate. It feels so good to share with your friends.

    It does!

    It feels so easy to have a thread with your friend where you’re just sending the worst posts, back and forth, forever, because it’s so accessible. What’s harder to access is that there’s no solution. Instagram is part of a large corporation that has a monopoly on our time. As soon as we put our phone down, it sends us a notification, ‘Here’s what you might have missed.’ There’s no answer. 

    I was also curious about the decision to set the book in 2019. The sole thing that seems to tie the novel back to that era is their dog, named Amy Klobuchar. Why did you decide to put the plot there?

    I think in 2019, there were these little shockwaves of insanity that became so much bigger post-2020 and especially now — I hesitate to say we’re at the peak because I think we’re only gonna keep going up and up. But 2019 felt like I could do this narrative thing where Jules is a little bit of a Cassandra [in Greek myth] in a way, where she sees it happening and can’t predict how much worse things are going to get. Because 2019, I remember looking at election stuff, looking at people’s real desperation for something good to happen. Some kind of, ‘We had a crazy few years, and now we’re back on track!’ And realizing, of course, that wasn’t going to happen. Then Super Tuesday happened, and Covid was here… we were just off the rails for good. It was that last bastion of things maybe being okay. But I think the characters in Worry sense that it won’t happen. Which probably isn’t fair — I don’t know I had that sense in 2019. But now that we’re on the other side of history, they do, a little bit.

    The book hinges around this messy and chaotic relationship between two sisters, Jules and Poppy, who find themselves living together in New York for a year. How did these two characters start to form in your mind?

    I think it’s so based on my relationship with my younger sibling, it was just this dramatic exercise in pulling us towards these extremes. What if my personality was completely amplified, and what if my sibling’s personality was completely amplified. Of course, doing that thought exercise and trying to put it on a page… it sounds so corny, and writerly, and dumb, but they do take on lives of their own, and they start moving in ways that are unpredictable. You flesh out the bounds of what these two characters can do for each other.

    As someone with a Jewish mother, I completely found a home with Jules and Poppy’s. But their mother is so overbearing, and usually pits the two girls against each other, even saying that the sisters living together will never work out. What did you want to explore with this character?

    I think it’s a little bit of their psychology at work — it’s almost not about their mom specifically, but about their feeling of being untethered and unsafe in the world and wanting someone who can comfort you and tell you what to do, and they’re clearly not getting that from their mother, who I think is on a different planet. I think some of that is satire, when you leave home, for a lot of people, when you come to New York and you find a different set of priorities and politics and rhythm of life, you start to feel like the place you left is kind of… is it in the same plane of reality I am? Are these people in this wormhole? I wanted to play that up, and their mother reflects their great insecurities about the limitations of having a relationship with someone in your family that can grow and change. 

    The girls have an awful Thanksgiving at their parents’ Floridian house, where Poppy calls one of her mother’s friends a Nazi after she starts talking about the ‘deep state.’ Why do you think being around their family sets the girls on edge so much?

    I think any holiday is… [laughs] I dunno, I love the holidays with my family, but you’re bringing together people who haven’t been together in a really long time, and I think over the last few years, there’s been a sense of… ‘These gatherings are a moment for us to call each other in… Talk to your uncle, get him to accept that human life has value…’ I think carrying the weight of that into an interaction with people who have no interest in doing that is a failed project. It’s partly that, and it’s partly just… When you look at your parents’ choices, and who they form alliances with in your absence, it can be baffling. I think [the siblings] are hurt and angry and they feel the pressure to make a statement at Thanksgiving.

    We’ve spoken about this on Twitter, but I absolutely loved the parallels between Worry and other well-written hyperreal shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls. The bickering between the two sisters is especially reminiscent. Did this series inspire parts of the novel, and what other media shaped how you wanted to write it?

    This is a book that’s really informed by television, and I’m really drawn to it. The first time I saw Girls, I was in my early 20s, and I just moved to New York, and I was like, ‘This isn’t what my life or my friends’ lives look like at all.’ Then I rewatched it last year, and was like, ‘That’s exactly what our lives were like.’ It captured our lives so completely that we didn’t even see it, when we were in it. I really respect that. It unleashed so much, it brought in these characters… When Hannah stabs her eardrum, and has to stab the other one, for balance, I think about that once a week. To see dysfunction like that, on television, it was really groundbreaking. But Curb Your Enthusiasm was also huge, in terms of thinking about social irritation and frustration. And these existential questions of why we behave like this and why we hold each other to niceties that are eroding our souls and getting into these little moments of frustration in order to look at larger patterns of how we fuck each other up. Curb was huge for that.

    Jules is first employed at BookSmarts, a study guide service, then Starlab, where she writes quippy internet-ready astrological horoscopes. There’s this great paragraph where she hates leaving her apartment every day to go to the office, which I thought had a great parallel to recent sentiment around remote work. Why do you think she gravitates towards jobs that are sort of leisurely, where she can write but not think too hard about what she’s doing?

    I think that’s what she wants. I think she comes from a place of extreme privilege and has been taught that the height of luxury is to do nothing, sit back and let the world come to you. It’s hard for her to recognize that, ‘Oh, if I did something, if I cared about something, it might be easier on a day-to-day basis to perform at my job, or to nurture my friendships.’ I think the work she does, and that search for something she can blow off more and more of, it’s this form of self-destruction and shuttering the opportunities available for her.

    So finally, what’s next for you? Do you want to continue writing fiction or go with more nonfiction work?

    I wanna write everything! I love writing novels, but in the run-up to this, I’m writing some stories, which I haven’t done in five or six years, I’m writing some essays. I really wanna get good at writing the essay. The essay, to me, is the purest, more exciting form. Every time I read a really good essay, I’m like, ‘I’ll never be able to do that, I’m not enough of an intellectual.’ So I want to become more of an intellectual.

    Worry is available now.

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