Interview with Marlowe Granados

Interview by Emma Cohen

Oysters, a bouquet of lilies, bright silk. Beautiful things usually invoke a class status. But acquiring these things through roundabout means—a dinner invitation, a slip into an exclusive party, a thank you gift—allow their consumer to see these objects for what they are, divorced from the magic-crushing effect of commercial value. Instead, they appear as they are meant to—and most importantly to writer and filmmaker Marlowe Granados—as something to decorate a life with.

Granados’ debut novel Happy Hour, out this fall from Flying Books and next August with Verso, is a bildungsroman for and by the party girl. Which means it’s a book for anyone interested in marriages between cleverness and coyness, etiquette and recklessness, very low budgets and very high expectations. Released during quarantine, the book offers us a service of vicarious libidinal escapism while we teeter between total lockdowns. It’s an especially delightful novel to read when a concern for public safety kills any sort of mystery or spontaneity that a night unplanned provides.

The diary-keeper and narrator of this story is Isa, a girl who knows the pleasure in being seen, in landing the right charismatic line. Her ambition is not so much about developing the consistency or material acquisition of a life, but rather a life out of the repeating circumstance of never-repeating circumstances. Isa and her best friend Gala’s practical search for pleasure takes them, indiscriminately, from circles of stuffy writers kvetching over whiskey, to penthouses, leisure-class lofts, nude modelling for live drawing classes, the harrowing Hamptons, and back to their own overpriced and underused sublet bedroom to fill up on hot dogs. Intimacy, practicality, and glamour: Isa and Marlowe both understand that when you only have $20 between you and your best friend, it’s important to share the same taste. French 75s and cab fare home take top billing. 

Emma Cohen: A premise you touch on in the novel is that if you have a level of money or power, certain kinds of adventure are more available to you. You’re more likely to be whisked away by external factors because of your access. Your characters don’t have money or power in this way, but are still able to create an environment for adventure. How does this work?

Marlowe Granados: Isa and Gala see time differently than the people they’re surrounded with because they don’t have typical markers. They don’t have nine-to-fives, for them every 24 hours can be a new room, a new party. Creating their narrative is an important part of their world. You can see that in the way Isa speaks, in a hyperbole that creates rules for her life.

I think it demonstrates reality as malleable—not in the sense that they’re deluded, but rather the opposite, that they are able to access something exciting, perhaps more real, through the way they create their experience.

They’re very much curators. Isa picks out different points of an event—what the room looks like, certain lines and phrases people say to her, the social setting everyone’s in. She’s very good at walking into a room and accurately reading the atmosphere. How she and Gala perceive people is generous. They’re very open. People who have power and money often take their circumstances for granted because they’re not in pursuit of the moment they’re in, which these girls are. They don’t have that typical professional ambition, their ambition is to enjoy life and have fun. That’s their driving force.

Their behaviour makes a case for the redistribution of pleasure. When we talk about wealth redistribution, that conversation is often focused on distribution of survival necessities. I know part of your ethos is the idea that pleasure needs to be accessible to everyone. Isa and Gala occupy an interesting space where they are pursuing something that isn’t tied to capital, which is the most common narrative we’re presented with in terms of how to structure our lives and what to aspire for. 

When I first started writing the book I thought of it as picaresque. A picara character moves horizontally through space instead of vertically. I’ve always socialized in circles where I’ve been surprised when someone would say something like, “My parents are getting me on the property ladder,” and I’d think, “But wait, I thought you were like me!” There is a misconception around young women who dress a certain way or like certain aesthetics that they must come from a monied background, as if those aesthetics should only be accessible to people with money. As a result, Isa and Gala feel like they’re getting away with something by being in certain elite spaces. 

They don’t prioritize the things that people around them prioritize. That gives them their own advantage, because if you don’t care about someone name-dropping, it loses its power. And you can’t ruin your reputation if you’re not trying to build one in the first place.

The girls are 21. We generally are told that as you get older you get wiser, but I wonder if that’s not necessarily true.

When you’re younger you’re a lot more open. What’s unfortunate in the way people talk about negative life experiences is that it often results in a hardening. Anything I write is against that hardening. The girls come from backgrounds of sad stories. When you have that particular background and you grow up with it, it’s something you want to move away from. A lot of the dominant discourse around young women really infantilizes them. As I got older people would say to me, “When you were young you didn’t know that you had no power, but you had no power.” Suddenly I had this completely different sheen on my experiences. I didn’t feel like that in the moment, I felt in charge, or at least I felt very myself. 

What I want is to show that Isa and Gala have so much agency, they’re like little sharks that just move forward. Everything just falls off them. They feel things in the moment, they’ll have a cry or they’ll get upset, but it’s part of the way that they handle things. And that’s the way that I’ve always felt like women—the friends that I have—are like. You laugh about how you were crying. 

That makes me think of a part of the novel, where Isa is speaking with Noel, a man she’s been lightly romantically involved with. She says, “All I want is to be treated right and have pleasure. Or for you does tenderness only come when there’s plenty at stake?” This made me think about a certain kind of pattern in romance where people (though I might argue particularly cis straight men) have a hard time in these inbetween types of romances, where it’s not specifically a casual hook up interaction, but it’s also not a committed relationship. And in that in between there’s this holding back of emotion. Why can’t there be nuance to it, why can’t you share a lovely experience that includes tenderness or importance without having the weight of commitment attached to it? The holding back of male emotion or tenderness is a similar myth to the myth of capitalism, that we have to be stingy because there’s only so much to go around. 

In the dalliances Isa has, men often don’t want to give in to her, and she’s often rebuffed. They’re always speaking totally different languages. She approaches these things by saying, “I’m on the same level as you, let’s just partake in this tryst together.” Often in dynamics with men, they don’t like that kind of leveling out, they want to be in control or have the upperhand. 

Men often confuse commitment with respect—I have to be nice to you? You’re asking so much of me! Or practicing safe sex with different partners and trying to communicate that in a balanced way—these are very normal things to ask of someone. But the language around these kinds of non-relationship relationships is so convoluted. I return to that passage sometimes and think, “Oh god, it’s so sad,” but on the upside she’s able to say what she wants. To be able to understand and verbalize that as a young woman is really important, I don’t think it matters if the relationship is successful or not, especially at that age.

I want to ask you about maximalism. There’s a definite trend of contemporary minimalist writing, clean prose that relies on the reader to infer a lot of subtext. It can be a literary trend but isn’t necessarily a value system the way we’re taught it is in some literary spaces. With the picara as a framework for the novel, it has a careening nature which I think is more maximalist. Does a maximalist style of fashion and visuals relate to your style of writing?

I find uber minimalism a little void of personality. I just don’t think people really are so clean. There is a part later on in the novel where a fiction writer says to Isa, “You speak in such a decorative manner, I hope that that’s not how you write.” 

With regards to textiles and art and colour, it’s important in the novel—these girls have outfits, it’s very much something they spend time on. They have an understanding of material. The couch they’re sitting on being pink velvet—they notice that, and it’s a way of living. It’s very much like French Decadence (Isa is given a copy of À rebours to read)—the appreciation of food and flavours, colours. I wrote it in a very filmic way. It’s episodic. I picture it very visually, based on what they can touch, smell, what they’re eating. When you don’t grow up with these things you don’t take them for granted. You notice when a room smells like roses. When the girls go into The Plaza the smell of lilies is so strong, it’s rich with lilies, and that becomes a part of the decoration of their world. The sky changing colour, the smell of a room, the taste of something arriving at a table—when you live such a precarious life, you have to have something to live for and this is what they live for, these are their comforts. 

Your novel isn’t about one relationship Isa goes through or one experience that gives her knowledge. I’ve been thinking a lot about the essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” by Ursula Le Guin. She uses the metaphor of hunting to describe the typical singular, conquering plot. She speaks of her own approach to fiction writing in contrast to this, as a process of gathering, which I think is a more maximalist approach. All of these cinematic moments and sensory experiences are what are important for your characters—it’s an accumulation. How did the diary form become the one you chose to write in? 

The way I structured it, I thought of Isa’s voice—the lilting of it and the rhythm was quite modernist. Long sentences. My editors are always saying I have an insane use of commas. The diary made sense to me for this character. The first thing I wrote for her was a monologue. The idea of someone presenting themselves, like a performance, worked for Isa. Not a fake or artificial performance, but more so like, “I’m going to tell you what to think about me and I’m in control of that, and that will make me feel better or safe, or that I have more power in the situation.” Sometimes, as the reader, the girls are in situations where they don’t admonish people as much as you want them to, you wish that they’d say something more cutting. But the diary is where they get to say everything they want to, keep a record of how they move through the world. Isa’s inscribing herself, this is her relic, document, final word. 

I just don’t see relationships to be the be all and end all of how women learn about themselves, and so I didn’t centre the novel around a relationship. There are small romantic situations peppered throughout, but it’s more about the adventure. In the way me and my friends are, we often don’t learn anything from a relationship! We’re happy to repeat the same patterns until we’re sick of them.

The book touches on things that the girls have suffered through in their pasts, but their suffering is not made to be the central part of the novel, it’s not really even part of the arc. In your Toronto Star profile the writer notes that an editor passed on the novel because they say they felt like “the girls were going to be fine.” Why does the idea of girls not being fine make a novel, following this perspective, more worthy or important?

A lot of industry people said when reading the novel that there wasn’t enough for them to latch onto, there wasn’t a lot of plot, they didn’t feel very much for the girls. I found that very interesting because it is very gendered. That’s exactly what’s happening to the girls in the book—no one really takes them seriously. When I wrote it I knew that was going to be a problem, I knew that people would want something concrete to happen to them so that they could learn. There is a very traditional way we speak about young women’s experiences, especially party girls. Will they have addiction problems, will one of them get pregnant, will there be sexual violence? And for me, the reason why I wanted to write about these girls was the fact that I didn’t want to punish them for anything. There’s obviously so many coming-of-age novels about men where they just get to have adventures and that is the arc that people grab onto. I would hope that people are seeing that there is a radical nature in not having Isa and Gala be punished.