Author Spotlight: Sarah Crossan, ‘Hey, Zoey’

    When Dolores discovers Zoey, a sex doll, in her garage, her first instinct isn’t to throw her husband, David, out of the house. Instead, it’s to reflect — to think back on her history with him, and her family dynamics with her step-brother Gavin. What could she have done better? Is she the problem? The doll, which Dolores ends up talking to — sarcastically then intimately — brings up an unavoidable question about what David wished for during their relationship. Was he secretly wishing Dolores was more like Zoey, inert and unresponsive? Or is it just a sexual fantasy he separated from the love he has for his wife?

    In any case, David leaves, ashamed, and Dolores is left to pick up the pieces of their fractured relationship. She’s a schoolteacher keeping an eye on a student who might have a secret affair with a much older teacher, but her sister pulls her back to New York City for support after a miscarriage. All the while, she tries to get rid of Zoey, while meeting with Gavin, thinking about their encounters in the past, and trying to get the full picture of who she herself is as a person. Hey, Zoey’s ability to provoke feelings throughout and past the novel is ambitious and edgy, making it another intense and intelligent work from Irish novelist Sarah Crossan, who plays with human emotions and language in a deeply memorable and idiosyncratic way. There aren’t many books — or authors — that prompt you to inquire within yourself after the last words have left the page.

    Our Culture sat down with Sarah Crossan to talk about sex dolls, unlikeable narrators, and the ways in which abuse and love are intertwined.

    Congratulations on your new novel! How does it feel for it to be close to being out in the US?

    It’s always really nerve wracking! It’s totally out of your control. I’ve done the bit I can do, and it’s up to publishers and readers to decide what it’s about. But I know I’ve done the best that I can do, so the bit within my power is completed. I feel proud of myself, and we’ll see what happens now. 

    You’ve written countless young adult novels, a dystopian series, edited anthologies, and now, with Hey, Zoey, have two adult books under your name. What’s been the evolution of your writing like, and how do you decide what stories to tell?

    I did a masters’ in creative writing, so I was writing for adults first, then I was writing a novel. You know these writers — I was one of them — who was writing the same novel for ten years. I was just learning my craft through writing this novel, then I was teaching in New Jersey, in Hoboken, and I was trying to get my grade six students to read. I found Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, which is a verse novel, it won the Newbery Medal in the nineties. Somebody gave it to me, said ‘You should read it and give it to your grade sixers.’ I thought there was no way they would want to read poetry, but they did! I was, like, ‘Oh, that’s not a huge thing in the UK.’ I thought I could try it, so I did, and I got an agent almost immediately. I had never sent out to agents before. I became known as the UK and Ireland as the trailblazer in terms of verse novels, but actually, I had stolen this form! I thought about whether I could make it work for an adult novel, so I tried with Here Is the Beehive, and it worked. With Zoey, I wanted to do something different, and it wasn’t going to work in verse; I tried short prose. I love experimenting with writing — I’m so lucky to have a publisher who lets me do what I want. That’s the best gift, creatively, is just to be given freedom. And so many authors don’t; they have a brand they have to fulfill. And maybe in a way it’s problematic since no one really knows me or what I do because I’m always doing different things. But that’s what being an artist is about — it’s not about your commercial branding, but doing the thing that you love. I’m lucky I’m able to do that. 

    Hey, Zoey is a product of our AI fascination and fear — Dolores’ life comes apart when she finds out her husband, David, is hiding a sex doll in the garage. What inspired that?

    I just saw an article, after COVID, that said there was a rise in synthetic sex dolls. And you can get AI versions, which are more sophisticated than the robotics, which were way behind. And these dolls, they can’t stand up and walk around or anything, but I was wondering what would motivate someone to want one of these. Then I wondered about the partner of someone who would have one of these. It’s obviously about this disconnect in the relationship, and your communication with other human beings. I wanted to write about misogyny, about internalized misogyny, abuse, love, how those things connect. I had this idea for a story, and I wondered if I could find a way to write about these things through this story. When I said it to my agent, that I wanted to write about abuse and women, and I sent her the opening, and she said ‘This is horrendous. How are you going to make that work without it feeling really tacky?’ But she said I should try, so I did.

    After initial reluctance, Dolores begins to talk to Zoey, who is calm, helpful, and knows just about everything. What was it like writing these conversations between a human and non-human?

    What I did in order to write the book, is when I had ideas, I’d talk to Siri, Alexa, and Google. They’re all gonna talk to me now, since I said their names. ChatGPT wasn’t quite developed then, because I probably would have been chatting to it too. I also had an app that was called, I think, ‘iGirlfriend,’ and I’d talk to her as well. I was having conversations with lots of AIs at the same time, and I amalgamated them in order to create Zoey’s responses. Those were the most fun scenes to write because I was doing it in real life. It’s just interesting the way different AI systems respond in different ways. And even in the writing of it, they became more compassionate and more responsible in the way they responded. I noticed that I was writing, since it took about three years in total. It was interesting to see how AI was progressing in terms of its ability to sound human. Kind of frightening how quickly it changed.

    There’s this emotional and devastating undercurrent that runs through your adult novels — in this and Here Is The Beehive, the narrators are so sharp and astute. People so many times sanitize their narrators, and I respect and love that you don’t. Where do you think this kind of style comes from?

    Yeah, it was so interesting when I wrote the second book, because I knew Ana in Here Is the Beehive would be unlikeable to so many people, just because she’s a woman having an affair. She’s particularly unlikeable to married women, and I had a lot of married women not wanting to read the book. It was abhorrent to them on a moral level. It was interesting, but I could get it — I had been married. My editor said that she was a bit sharp-edged, could we soften her a bit? And I said, ‘Oh my goodness, she says half of what I think!’ Not even close to being unlikeable, in terms of the worst things that go through my head. We all have these awful thoughts. Someone walks into a room and we’re scanning them, the things we think about people when we meet them and the ideas we have about ourselves and what we like vs what we know is socially acceptable. We’re all a lot kinder and we’re all a lot darker than we’d ever admit to ourselves. It was surprising to me that it was her reaction. I mean, I think I could get much closer to the bone. I’m writing a book at the moment, and thinking, ‘Can I go this close?’ We’ll see.

    There’s a scene in Hey, Zoey where she describes the sex doll pornography she’s watching, and that was a huge scene, so much in that was real! I had looked, like, what is it in this pornography, what do these men do to these dolls? And it was horrific. And my editor said we can’t have it, it’s just too horrific to read. It’s cold on the page. There were loads of moments that I had to cut because it was really unpalatable. When I read the audiobook aloud, the engineer said, ‘Oh, this sounds fun, I’m looking forward to doing this with you.’ By the end, he’s like, 

    ‘[heavy breathing]… That was tough.’ I think you have to be aware of that as well. There are certain movies you can enjoy, but wouldn’t watch again. In literature, you have to make sure the person wants to pick it up again.

    While Dolores is talking to her sister and friends about what to do with David and Zoey, there’s this parallel storyline at her school between a teacher and a student that gets into dangerous territory — even Dolores gets involved and invites the student to her house under false pretenses. Why did you want to explore this storyline? 

    Dolores wants to know what men want, and what boys want. She wants to understand at what age boys become men, and boys become culpable. There’s also the scene where the boy is being expelled; he’s in the meeting with the headteacher and the social worker. She’s thinking, ‘Oh, we can hold him responsible for his actions at 14.’ Oliver is a very good boy, [Dolores] thinks he might be having sex with a teacher but she’s not sure. Part of her wants to protect him and get in the way of that relationship, and she also wants to see how he reacts to Zoey, what his feelings are about this doll, and whether David’s reaction is natural. Her question is, ‘What do men want, and what’s my value beyond a body, beyond being a sleep and people doing what they want with me?’ Out of all the characters, Oliver is the one who shows her that’s not what men want. I was really careful. A lot of readers might assume something untoward will happen between them, that she’ll do something she regrets, and I wanted to subvert that. He was useful in a lot of ways. I really like Oliver. I don’t usually like my characters, but there’s just something so honest and vulnerable about him.

    Through talking with Zoey, Dolores’ past resurfaces through her memories of her stepbrother, Gavin, and the story takes on a much darker, intense tone. What was it like writing those scenes, and why did you want to include these ideas in the book?

    That’s why she’s so disturbed by the doll. It’s not that it’s a sex toy, she says at one point she has her own, even though the battery’s gone. Her moral objection is not to the doll. Her question is, ‘Did David want me to be asleep? Did David not want me to speak, to be more doll-like?’

    It’s also about the way in which love and abuse can intersect. It can be very confusing. There are a lot of people I’ve spoken to who have these complicated relationships to abusers — whether it’s a family member, someone they’re in a relationship with. Oftentimes people become complicit in that abuse, and they’re not sure if it was abuse or not, whether it was their fault. In that #MeToo movement, it felt very black and white, whether someone did something wrong or not. Dolores doesn’t think that way, and I don’t think I think that way; so many relationships are complicated and there’s a question mark. I don’t think there is one with Gavin, but I think there can be. She talks, for example, about a man she dated who said that one of the ways she lures him is by saying, ‘These are the things this other guy made me do.’ And he says, ‘You can only do these things if you really love them.’ So there’s a coercive part to that relationship. All of those gray areas, I was interested in. But I only touch on them because the goal in some ways is to have the reader think about their own lives, their own interactions or sexual encounters, or other encounters that are discomforting for other reasons. Just think about it, there’s no answer.

    Completely. For me, it really takes a turn once the reader links in their head the similarities between Zoey, this responsive but unconscious doll used for sex, and a sleeping human. Was this parallel the one you envisioned?

    Yeah, what I want for the reader is that they’re laughing, they’re thinking it’s a bit of a romp, and then you’re confronted by your own laughter, or your ease in reading it. A lot of people are reading it, and it’s not until they get to the end where they feel they’ve been hit by a bus. If anyone ever had the energy or audacity to re-read it, you could do so in a completely different way. 

    I think [sexual education and communication] is a lot better now, for young people, in some ways, and in other ways, it’s more difficult. We have pornography educating everyone about what it means to be intimate. I think it’s a much bigger problem than what anyone is prepared to admit. If you talk about it, say, look, ‘Is it a problem that pornography makes choking, spitting, slapping, all of those things seen as a normal part of a sexual relationship, is that a problem? Am I anti-feminist? Not sex-positive?’ Well, no, not really, I’m just asking questions. I think this easy access to pornography is pornography is probably really dangerous for everyone, in terms of the power dynamic, in heterosexual porn, women being the subjects, the ones getting destroyed or slammed. But again, it’s difficult to talk about it, because then you admit you have some knowledge about it. No one wants to admit it. But you also don’t want to act like you’re not a sex-positive person. ‘No, I’m cool!’ It’s such a hard thing to talk about. It’s a difficult thing to bridge in civil society.

    You wrote an interesting tweet recently that says it’s tough to speak about a book’s themes because “I write fiction because finding a straight line through ideas is my problem and story writing is my solution.” Maybe this antithetical to what you wrote, but do you want to expand on that idea of how you approach a thorny idea through fiction?

    It’s so much easier! Because it’s a story, and someone can reach their own conclusions. Story writing is about creating empathy with one person, and seeing the world through their eyes. I was asked by my publishers in both the US and the UK to do op-eds and articles. I just can’t. I don’t know how to talk about these things in a nonfiction way, where I don’t wrap myself into knots where I don’t say the wrong thing. I don’t think in fiction I can say the wrong thing. I can just tell a story. I really admire journalists and anyone who does nonfiction writing, because you need a thesis and to be able to write in some kind of straight line. With this novel, I didn’t; it’s quite spiky, and it could bloom outwards. The piece that speaks to you, you can hold onto, and the rest, you can let go, in a way. 

    Totally — I liked how Hey, Zoey doesn’t end on a definitive note, with a solid moral compass on everything you discussed.

    I don’t know about you, but I’m so fickle in my ideas. I have an idea now, and then in three years someone will say something and it’ll change my mind. I don’t know what my view is. I’m 46, and I still have no handle on what I really think is true. I think that’s a decent place to be; I’m open to people influencing me. Nonfiction doesn’t allow for that, and this stuff stays online forever. And if it’s narrative nonfiction about your own life you could hurt people, but I can disguise things and create characters and I’m not betraying their privacy. There’s so many benefits to writing fiction.

    Finally, what’s next? You said you’re working on another book, can you say anything about its themes?

    I’m working on my next adult book, and tinkering with ideas for young adults. I think the next thing I’m gonna write about is grief. My mom passed away a couple of years ago, and it was a really strange experience, and I didn’t know how to write about it, again, without invading privacy or getting sued. But I want to write about the pain of losing someone and being shut out in those last moments. I think I’ll stick to prose for it — I like the short-form scenes. I can miss out quite a few boring bits when I do that.

    Hey, Zoey is available now.

    Arts in one place.

    All our content is free to read; if you want to subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date, click the button below.

    People are Reading