On Sunday morning April 12th post the 2015 AWP conference in Minneapolis, hung over and famished at some Ecuadorian restaurant, I interviewed Catie Disabato about her debut novel The Ghost Network. The story involves the disappearance of famed pop star Molly Metropolis. When Molly goes missing, her personal assistant and a journalist join forces to determine if Molly’s been kidnapped, gone into hiding, or worse. Using Molly’s journals and song lyrics to uncover clues to her whereabouts, the women find themselves up against an obscure intellectual sect with subterranean headquarters hidden within an underground subway system in Chicago.
Chicago also happens to be both Catie’s and my hometown. Our similarities don’t stop there. We each moved in Los Angeles as writers, were housemates at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop last summer, share several acquaintances, and in fact, met through another author I also interviewed for this publication, Edan Lepucki. Maybe because Catie and I are such good friends or maybe because this was the most informal interview I ever conducted, I was able to obtain particulars about the author and her work that might blow your mind.
In addition to being a caring, gifted and hilarious person, Catie is also a columnist for Full Stop and has written criticism and commentary for This Recording, The Millions, and The Rumpus, and her short fiction was recently featured on Joyland. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and currently works in public relations. Over plantain pancakes and eggs, I, along with our generally silent but often brilliant third party, Nicky Loomis, impelled Catie to discuss inventing this completely original suspense novel regarding the pop music industry.
Catie Disabato. You wrote The Ghost Network. How did you come to the story?
I wanted to write about a pop star that disappeared at the height of her fame and power and what that would mean to the world. The story narrowed as I started writing it. The book is less about what it means for the world than what it means for a couple very important people in her life and using them as stand-ins for the whole world’s reaction to her disappearance. It also turned into a more of suspenseful thriller than I had originally anticipated.
On whom is Molly Metropolis’s character based?
Molly is an amalgamation of a lot of different people. She’s also completely her own character. I did a big revamp of the pop star character as one of the last revisions of the book. By the time I was writing the lyrics for her songs, developing her fashion looks and what she was interested in aesthetically in terms of her presentation, and her brand and her identity in the public sphere, I had already figured out all the mystery elements of what happened to her. So then, I was able to shape her aesthetic around the story. I also really love pop stars and Top 40 music, pop music especially. I love Ke$ha. I love Janelle Monáe. I love Selena Gomez. For a while I was thinking of Molly as a small person, with a round face like Selena Gomez’s but with Ke$ha’s wild mane of hair. As I developed Molly, I realized her hair isn’t as messy as Ke$ha’s. She takes care of herself a little bit better. She would never wear a messy, ratty weave. Lady Gaga was a big influence on Molly as well, especially the performance aspects of Molly’s personality and her interest in high art.
Why are you so into the details of the pop world?
I’m interested in the psychology of pop stars. Basically, when you’re a pop star you are building an idea of a person and performing the idea of that person. I’m really interested in the process of that. It’s as much of a conceptual art project as anything that conceptual artists do. It is an incredibly long-term project. Pop stars come up with these alternative identities; like Beyoncé had her I am…Sasha Fierce phase. I think when you perform yourself you naturally emphasize certain aspects of your personality and leave certain things behind. Then you start missing those things and want to revisit them. I think Sasha Fierce embodies facets of Beyoncé’s personality that didn’t fit into “Beyoncé” so she had to create another person to perform as. Avril Lavigne, Mariah Carey and Taylor Swift, and I’m sure there are others, all have music videos where they play two characters, both themself and their own primary antagonist. I think it’s how they try to be a full person while also performing a version of them that is sculpted to be consumable and something people can buy.
At AWP15, did you have any strange encounters with fans?
No, but I don’t have quite as many fans as Molly — yet!
(We pause to order breakfast. Catie asks for a beer called Pacifico.)
You wrote the story as Catie writing about another journalist who was writing the story about Molly, so it’s a three-person story.
If you’ve ever read Frankenstein (we confirm that sadly I have not), you know it’s written as a found journal. I was influenced by the structure of that novel. I’m interested in found texts and lost books. I think you can tell that in reading The Ghost Network. When I started writing it, I wanted it to feel like a nonfiction book from another world. This could be a pop star from our world but it’s not. Some of my early readers said they were Googling things in the book to see what was real, and I loved that. That is my jam! That is the vibe that I want. I’m interested in a subjective reading experience. People can bring as much or as little outside information into the book as possible.
Did you know it was going to have this Vanity Fair magazine article feel to it when you began writing your book?
It was always going to play with the idea of truth. I wanted it to have this sense of not realism exactly, but where the line of what’s real and what’s fake is crossed. The first idea was to write it from Taer’s perspective but memoir. I wrote five thousand words in first-person. Kind of in the way that Ellen Willis writes. She’s one of the first female pop music critics the New Yorker ever had. She’s amazing! There is a little renaissance of her work happening right now that her daughter is spearheading. So the idea going in was that this was going to be written like pop criticism being told from this one perspective. And that wasn’t working. I hit a wall very fast. I realized that it needed to be somebody else writing about this person Caitlin Taer. If the book has one central figure she is the one. Also, she was the first character that I made up and that I grew. Then, I had to figure out that if it was going to be a book-length work and if Taer wasn’t writing it, then who was? That’s how the character of Cyrus Archer came about.
How much of the story did you research and how much did you make up? How much did you use about the real life Situationists and how much came from your head?
(Catie pauses to pour half her beer into a frosted glass. “This is the hair of the dog,” she says.)
Researching the Situationists was the most research I did for the book. If you’re not familiar, the Situationists were an avant-garde political group that formed in the sixties. They had members all over Europe but they are considered very French because the most famous key member was a French man named Guy Debord. The part of their history I dealt with was their early years. This was what I consider their aesthetic period. I don’t know as much about the time period when they turned into a more overtly political action group. They were always political, but early on they were very interested in aesthetic and psychological ideas of the city. In Europe, the recovery from the war was very different than in America because there was so much bombing going on and buildings destroyed. There was a lot of rebuilding. Around the fifties and sixties there was a strong architectural movement about functionality over aesthetics. People cared a lot about traffic flow and congestion and making block-like rigid sturdy buildings that had function and purpose. Every person was supposed to just move from one little block to another and from where you do your work down a roadway to where you live. And the Situationists didn’t like that.
Nicky chimes in to ask/clarify: “At what point did your imagination start to overtake the research?”
I wanted to have a good grasp of what they were about and the history of the group so that I could deviate from it at will. And I did. Almost every single aspect of the book that is researched has also been fictionalized to fit the book. I read about the history of the Chicago train system and then completely deviated from it when writing just so the narrative was more fun and stronger. I don’t remember what was fact and what was fictional because I’ve written and rewritten those sections so many times. Having straight facts was not that important to me. In this alternate world to ours everything is a little bit different. That freed me up. The research was the foundation and I deviated whenever I wanted to kick up the story and make it stronger thematically. Sometimes I didn’t want to look up a fact so I just made it up.
How did you make the fiction seem as real as the facts as you were filtering it through the narrative?
The entire book is written as a nonfiction book so everything that I was communicating was in this voice of researched fact. For the Christopher Columbus section, I did the most basic Wikipedia research. I figured out when his second voyage took place and the names of the ships. I tried to get a sense of the time and what roles certain people had on the ships, what they would need and how many cartographers were on board. Once I had that basis I made up an entirely fictional story. I used what Columbus did as a very basic structure to deviate from.
(A plate of potato croquets with cheese is placed on the table.)
Why did you decide to make the relationship between Taer and Nix a love relationship?
(This is also where I say that I “got déjà vu” and ask: Is it the alcohol leaving my body or were we all here in our past lives? “We are spiritual kinsmen,” says Nicky. Catie is busy chewing.)
I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. I was an even bigger fan in college and I started writing this book right after college. One of the things that annoy me about his books, based in what I’m interested in reading, is that he writes about men searching for women who have disappeared. I always wanted the women to be the ones searching. An early idea of mine was to flip the Murakami narrative. And then, instead of flipping it and having a woman searching for a man, because I also wanted to write about a pop star that disappeared, I thought to have a woman search for a woman. (Catie’s chorizo and scramble arrives. She says, “This looks really amazing.”) Ultimately the relationship between the people who search for Molly and Molly herself is not romantic or sexual, though I’m sure there is some element of Taer having a celebrity crush on Molly. On some level. A woman searching for a woman felt a lot “queer-er” than Murakami, so it was very natural to have one of the primary relationships in the book to be a romance between women, a lesbian relationship. I also think of Berliner and his relationship with his girlfriend Kraus, although it’s a heterosexual relationship, as a little queer just because their sex life is so weird and different.
Why did you make their sex life weird slash different?
I’m just a weirdo. [Laughs] That just felt right. With Kraus and Berliner, I wanted to sexualize their relationship with architecture for two reasons. First, to connect them to the Situationists. Second, because I wanted them to seem meant for each other, like how lucky is it that each one of them found someone who was really into the very unusual thing the other was into? I wanted their love to feel rare and special on every level, including the sexual one. As for Nix and Tear, it felt very natural for them to be lesbians. I’m a bisexual woman. I’m a queer person. I’m interested in writing about queer women because they reflect my experience. We are always doing that when we’re writing. We are always drawing from our own experiences in various ways.
(We stop again to eat. Catie asks if Nicky and I would mind taking the butter off the shared pancakes. Nicky and I say we would not.)
Another thing we have in common is that we are both Chicago girls born and raised. What was it like writing about your hometown? Did it help that you no longer lived there while writing about it?
When I started the book in December 2008, I had just moved to Los Angeles. Now I feel like I’m a LA girl, but I love Chicago. Chicago will always be my city. I still call it The City. At the time I didn’t know Los Angeles at all. The city that was most familiar to me was Chicago. I’m a lot more interested in the history of Chicago than the history of LA. I also knew this was going to be a difficult time in Taer’s life and she was going to have to be out on the streets a lot, so I knew I wanted the story to take place in the winter. Chicago has the worst winters. Sometimes it’s so cold it’s like you’re being punished for being outside. Taer spends a great deal of time walking around outside in February looking for Berliner. I wanted her intensity and fervor to be so strong that it would send her outside during the dead of winter in unforgiving conditions. That’s how important it was to her to figure this out.
Do you think you would have been able to see Chicago in the same way had you been living there? Is this expat literature?
It’s totally expat literature. It took me a while to acclimate to Los Angeles and I didn’t really love it at first. During the first three years of writing this book I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay. Writing Chicago was like getting to be there because I was thinking about it all the time. I was looking at maps of Chicago. There is a building on Racine my characters go to and that was a location of office building that used to house this now defunct music magazine called Venus Zine. It was at the corner of Armitage and Racine, and I interned for them one summer when I was in college. In a way, not being in Chicago made Chicago a little bit more magical and exciting. There is a mystery to a city that you’re not in and my book has secret tunnels and train stations and hidden buildings. Everything feels secret and hidden like that when you’re yearning a city and writing about it but not actually in that city.
I think your readers will want to know — why all the tunnels?
It’s sexual. A hundred percent sexual. [Laughs] I’m joking. Don’t write that. It didn’t come off. It was a bad joke. You didn’t laugh.
I didn’t hear it as jokey. I took it by surprise and what you saw was my puritanical nature coming through on my face.
So let me ask you a question. You’re so puritanical. How did you deal wit all the weird sex stuff in The Ghost Network? I’m not talking about the lesbian sex. I’m talking about Berliner and Kraus and their weird architectural fetishes.
I’m not really that puritanical. Maybe I am. I sort of am. But I wasn’t offended at all. I wanted more sex between Taer and Nix because I wanted to have the full queer experience as a reader.
It’s hard in nonfiction to do a whole sex scene. That is not the thing you generally read about in nonfiction outside of the memoir, right? If it had been a different book there would have been a lot more sex. Probably. But I should also mention at this juncture that Andrea wears a lot of see-through shirts, so I was really making fun of her for being puritanical than really believing that she was some great Puritan.
Anyway. Chicago is also known for its architecture, which is a critical aspect of the novel.
Berliner is into architecture and the Situationists were into beautiful structures. Psychogeography, which is their thing, is a melding of a subjective experience of the city with the objective buildings. Los Angeles is known for its architecture too but this is not an art deco novel. LA has beautiful buildings I’ve come to appreciate. But I was living in the Pico/Robertson area of LA while writing this and that immediate area is ugly. The people I was writing about wouldn’t have wanted to live amongst those ugly strip malls. Chicago’s gigantic towering skyscrapers and the more typical “skyline” aspect of the visuals of the city were essential to the novel.
My favorite characters are Ali and Peaches. Are they a tribute to LA?
What do you mean by that?
I think they’re valley girls.
I love that. I didn’t think of them that way but I think you’re totally spot-on with how they function in the narrative and what they are. They are kind of valley girls! Like I said, when I first moved to LA I didn’t love it but now I’m a total ride or die LA babe, and I’m sure that crept into my work. I love that that came through with those two characters that were just so fun to write.
You also work in public relations. Did your day job affect the story?
So little of what the story covers is about the industry side or the PR side. I think working in PR means you are backstage. I was doing PR for a below-the-line agency that represents cinematographers, and it was on the outskirts of the Hollywood scene. The work itself didn’t influence the story but maybe the attitude toward celebrity or view of their lives influenced the story a little bit. But that was minor.
I met you though a lovely mutual friend named Edan. How did you meet her and can you talk to your working relationship with Edan Lepucki?
Edan Lepucki went to Oberlin College a couple years before I did, and we worked with the same writing professor there named Dan Chaon. When I moved to Los Angeles, Dan told me to look up Edan. I did, and Edan and I got dinner. It just so happened that I had just started this novel. She founded and runs a writing school in LA called Writing Workshops Los Angeles. It is the Los Angeles equivalent of Sackett Street in New York. And she said, “If you have twenty-five pages you can join my writing class.” I did not have twenty-five pages, but I had a month before the class started so I signed up for the workshop, wrote twenty-five pages, and I started writing the novel in this workshop. There are still some people that I met in that workshop that are still my friends that still read all of my work. My workshop group is so important to me. It’s such a valuable resource.
I worked with the same teacher for almost six years. Someone other than Edan. We brought scenes to the room, but most of The Ghost Network, while there are scenes, is written entirely in exposition. So what was your experience workshopping this novel?
Edan was so open to work that wasn’t traditional in scene and dialogue. She facilitated very healthy conversations. She would guide the conversation so that when we were talking about my work we were talking less about scenes, show don’t tell, and whether this was vivid, and really more about whether the class could tell what I was trying to do and if I was succeeding. I think that’s the core of any workshop conversation. The way they had to talk about my pages was very different than the way they had to talk about other peoples’ pages. Everybody was so open to a different kind of discussion. I think we realized together that it wasn’t actually that different than the conversations we were having about other peoples’ work.
You happen to be the third person I’ve interviewed for The Nervous Breakdown who studied with Dan Chaon. The two others being Kate Axelrod and Edan Lepucki. I’ve never even met Mr. Chaon, but I keep giving him shout-outs and kudos. I’m dying to know, and I asked Kate this question, what is the magic behind the curtain? What is his secret that other writing teachers need to know in order to help students create great books?
I can’t speak for Kate or Edan, obviously, but for me, he gave me the room to stretch out. He never tried to make me do anything other than what I was already doing. He just tried to make that thing better. He wasn’t trying to get me to write like anyone else. I think there was at least one teacher at Oberlin who just didn’t like what I was doing. Dan said what I was doing was great but that I just had to learn to do it better. The other thing is, and this is similar to Edan, he requires a level of seriousness from his writers. You have to come at it like you are going to be a professional writer — not a hobbyist. If you go into his class with the attitude that you are going to make writing your life, he respects that. And he will then help you not just learn to write but to be a writer. That was an important thing for me.
(Catie asks the waitress for the check.)
Your publisher is Melville House. How did you decide to go with them and what was that process like for you? (Catie spoke about this process on a panel at AWP15.) What have you learned along the way about publishing?
Edan Lepucki had a relationship with Kirsten Reach who is an editor with Melville House. She talked up my book to Kirsten. I spent five years in writing workshops with Edan writing this book, and she pushed me really hard to finish it. I found out later it was because she had been talking to Kirsten on my behalf. Kirsten had started following me on social media and she liked my Tumblr. She read a short story of mine that was published in Joyland and really liked that. And this was all happening behind my back. I didn’t know about it. By the time I was done writing Edan had begin talking to me about Kirsten. To kick me in the ass, she told me there was an editor who was interested. So I have to give all credit where credit is due to Edan. She is both the grandmother and the midwife to this book. She got it out there.
When I had a draft ready to send out, I received an email from Kirsten asking to look at it. Before that, I thought I was going to send it to agents. Instead, I formed this connection with Kirsten. I liked her right away. She liked the book, and sent it around to other people at Melville House and they liked it as well. However, there was a big issue with the novel at that stage which prevented Melville House from picking it up right away.
Kirsten asked if I’d be willing to do a top-to-bottom revision. I knew if I did so, the nature of the novel would change. I told Kirsten I was open to changing it, but that if I didn’t like it that changed way, I wouldn’t send it back to her. There was no expectation that they would even like it with those changes. Even if I liked the result, they might not have. I was writing blind. The first month was a crisis. I was upset and mourning the death of the book I wanted to write. A version of the book did die, and I stand by my emotional crisis. I had to spend that month letting go.
Then, I had another eight months of rewriting. During that time, the new elements really started clicking, and I fell in love with the new version of the book. I was very excited about it and sent it back to Kirsten. I was happy about it and knew I could send it to agents if Melville didn’t like it, but they did and bought it!
Did you have a say in your awesome cover?
I had absolutely no say. They presented it to me fully done. I wouldn’t have had anything to say even if they asked me if I liked it. I think they knew I was going to love it because by then they knew my aesthetic. They have an awesome book and brand designer named Adly Elewa. He also designed the cover of The Marriage Plot, which I think is such a cool cover. He also designed a few covers by McKenzie Wark who writes about the Situationists. Having Adly design my cover felt very kismet.
You wrote a story for Joyland. How do you conceive short fiction versus novels?
I’m actually not much of a short fiction writer. I will get an idea for something and as I’m teasing it out in my mind I will realize it’s not novel length. (Catie thinks she is going to sneeze but doesn’t.) I thought I was going to sneeze but I didn’t. I’m not a big reader of short fiction. I really respect the genre. I will occasionally read a short story that blows the socks off of me, but the way that my brain thinks of stories is in the novel.
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
No. [Laughs] I’ve started something new but it’s so early, so fresh, that I don’t trust it not to change dramatically. I am writing another novel.
(We exit the Ecuadorian restaurant and wait outside for an Uber. At this time, Nicky asks Catie, “If you were the love child of two pop stars whom would your parents be and why?” Catie and I both agree this is a great question.)
I’m not much of a performer. I’m an introvert. Pop stars are extroverts. I think I would be the love child of Ke$ha and who is a pop star that has a lot of anxiety?
(Nicky suggests that Kanye West might be a pop star with anxiety.)
Yes! I’m Kanye and Ke$ha!
Why do all writers have anxiety?
I can’t answer for all writers. For me, my anxiety is diminished when I feel a sense of control over my environment and you’re never more in control then when you are literally the God of a small world you are inventing and creating. In writing a book, you are technically in control of every element of fiction. Maybe people with anxiety are drawn to that kind of control.
(Our Uber arrives. Catie leans in the window and tells the driver that we are going to the Hilton.)
Besides pop stars, what do you think about all the time?
Sex. Green juice. Andrea.
(I may have encouraged her to say that last part. At this point, we are in the car and the radio is playing music very loud. Eventually, we ask the driver to turn it down and continue recording.)
How important is it for young authors to attend conferences like AWP and why?
So important. Besides the drinking and mingling with famous authors like Nick Flynn and asking him if he dropped something on the ground, or getting hugs from Stephen Elliott — these two things happened to Andrea the previous evening — the reason to go to AWP is to feel like you are part of the community before you publish your first work. That can be very helpful. Also, to get to know new presses, especially regional small presses that you might not otherwise hear about. I bought a book from a small press in Austin called The Strange Object. I look forward to reading the collection of stories I bought from them. And The Dorothy Project. I hadn’t heard about them until I got here. Also, in attending you can learn about journals that might take your short fiction submissions. All of these things recharge your batteries. If you’re feeling lethargic about getting pages written, going to conferences will turn you up to ten. I’m leaving AWP feeling inspired by the other writers and what they are doing. By Andrea specifically. Another part of it is that I’m a competitive person and I met people who are publishing their second and third books, so I feel like I got to get with it!
What is your advice to emerging authors?
The thing people will respect about you is writing a good book. My advice would be to put the majority of your energy into creating something really strong. That will be your calling card. The second piece of advice is not to rush it. I sold this book in the sixth year I was writing it. There were so many times I was ready to send it out because I was just so tired. It was so hard wanting to be in the literary community and to want to have readers and to be part of the conversation, but you have to do the work. But waiting and making my book amazing before I sent it out, making it the strongest it could be, and taking the additional time to do that proved so valuable. It’s worth all the years I spent suffering and wishing.