Jenny X and Nadia Orsini are polar opposites. Why does so much of your fiction employ this theme, of opposites and doubling?
As I kid, I loved to watch the television program, Batman. I was too young to get that it was a comedy; for me, it was as absorbing and serious as Greek mythology. The female characters struck me as incredibly glamorous and dashing, and I vowed to model myself after Cat Woman and Bat Girl. We never saw Cat Woman without her mask; the villains had no “good” side. But I was fascinated by the notion of a hidden self. By day, Bat Girl is a cute, prim young single lady with glasses and hair in a bun. By night, like certain nocturnal creatures, she’d go out on the prowl. She’d literally let her hair down and transform into a cool chick in black leather riding a motorbike. The idea of a secret identity is one that has appealed to me from the time I was three years old.
Do you have a secret identity?
I do. By day, I am an ordinary person who works in an office. I do public relations for a museum; I wear heels, jewelry and a suit. But I have this other side – the artist. People I work with are often rather surprised to discover how dark and sinister some of my work is.
Well. I’m interested in bad things – bad choices, criminal acts, amoral people, dangerous men, violent women and weirdos. I specialize in those.
I’ve always adored monsters. It all goes back to being a strange, lonely little girl watching horror movies and studying comic book characters.
This is very pop culture. You’re not sounding terribly sophisticated. Do you have any literary influences, or do you just watch old movies on Netflix?
I do watch old films; I’m a film freak. The Autobiography of Jenny X began as an homage to Highsmith and Hitchcock. I obsessively read and re-read – and watched and re-watched – Strangers on a Train. Highsmith, too, was intrigued by superheroes; she’d apparently worked on comic books in her youth. What I love about Strangers on a Train – the novel is much more twisted and creepy than the movie, by the way – is how the villain and the hero are linked; on some level they are two halves of a whole. The Ripley books also hinge on this good-guy, bad-guy duality, except that Ripley is both Dr. Jeykll, in a nice house and garden, and Mr. Hyde, the cold-hearted sociopath and murderer. I began to construct a character with an ugly past, Nadia Orsini, who, on the surface, led a respectable life.
Is she a murderer?
She’s done something criminal that she hides. She owns a grand Victorian mansion in Pennsylvania (the house described in the book is the home of my friend, the talented writer Nora Eisenberg) and when she counts her blessings, she’s aware of her material wealth. She is pleased with herself: she has acquired signs of affluence – diamonds, designer clothing, matching plates, fine china, crystal glasses, all that crap that makes people feel good about themselves, the talismans of America’s upper middle class. That she owns property, an indoor swimming pool, antique furniture and rugs – this is of huge importance to her. Why? Because she started out in life in a tenement, impoverished, illegitimate and ashamed. Poverty is humiliating. It makes you crave money – it makes you detest the people who have wealth, even as you yearn to be among them. This is the story of a girl who decides to out-do her tormentor. By the end of the novel, they have traded places. She becomes a woman with a stock portfolio who possesses valuable real estate and other assets. Once a privileged young man lording it over everyone from his Fifth Avenue duplex, her former boyfriend has sunk to the bottom of society. In the course of the story, Christopher Benedict becomes an ex-con, homeless and destitute. He shows up on Nadia’s doorstep like a beggar. She has done this to him: this is her revenge, her victory. But she loves him and she’s destroyed him.
What about the radical politics?
The Weather Underground was on my mind. I’ve often believed that America, as a country, has a split personality. It is not just Nadia – or her real-life equivalents who were anti-war activists adopting violent tactics out of desperation and craziness – but the entire nation that has a buried past. I have reason to believe that criminal businesses and legitimate businesses are closely intertwined. I like to write about that.
Did you ever experience poverty?
I did. As a kid.
Christopher Benedict is the ne’er-do-well son of a powerful U.S. Senator. Was this character based on a real person?
One inspiration for Christopher Benedict was John Moynihan, the fiendishly beautiful son of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. John Moynihan had killer bone structure and the willowy, lanky body of a rock star. I fell in love with him when I was eighteen, which does not mean that I exchanged more than three words with him. I remember the words very well: “How’s it going?” Moynihan was smoking a cigarette. What I remember about him most was his eyeliner. He wore black eye liner. He had an aura of utter decadence about him that I realize with hindsight must have been arrived at deliberately. He died young, and sadly.
Wasn’t there someone in your life that you were thinking of when you began this book?
The novel could be called The Book of Ex-Boyfriends. It is based on every boyfriend I ever had. I fell for one guy. Later on, I encountered him accidently. He’d changed drastically. The man I’d pined for had deteriorated. It was this bitter moment of sorrow and, shamefully, of victory. These feelings – vengeance, cruelty, passion, desire that curdles into loathing – are the source of drama. So when I feel something intensely, I pay attention. I use myself as the guinea pig.
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