“Was it possible to live and narrate a story at once without sacrificing one or the other to censorship?” – Nazli Koca, The Applicant
To be honest, the way I found your novel was someone emailed me to ask if they could review it. I said yes, having never heard of the book. When he sent me the review, it was pretty negative, critical, but the parts he quoted, that he was critical of, made me want to read it. (Something about doing ketamine and working a shit job and Sylvia Plath, haha.) I went to Amazon and read the opening to the novel and bought it and messaged you on both Twitter and Instagram as I already knew I wanted to interview you once I read it. Now I am reading it and writing these questions for you as I read. I am conflicted about the review because I want to put things on Hobart I don’t agree with but I also don’t want to offend you because already I am in love with your voice on the page and with this book so I am unsure what to do about the review. (Also, to be honest, it felt a little like “every man” being judgmental of “every woman,” the review, so I was insulted with you, as a female writer.) (Then, again, the review, critical or not, made me want to read the book, led me to purchase it, and to message you, so even a negative review can be of value to a writer, and therefore, should not be silenced, or even thought of, necessarily, as “negative”?) Either way**, thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me. How do you feel about reviews, positive or negative, do you read them? do they affect you as an artist, as a writer, as how you feel about your writing, your work?
I like this story! It reminds me of The Lying Life of Adults by Ferrante, a novel set in Italy in the 90s, about a girl who overhears her educated, sophisticated, leftist father tell the mother that their daughter is becoming ugly like his estranged sister. When the girl wants to meet her aunt, the father warns her that she is ugly, crazy, immoral. But all this only makes the girl more curious to meet her.
I read all the reviews of my book. They do affect me as an artist, writer, and human because I’m all those three always. When I read a positive review, I feel unbelievably happy and lucky for writing and publishing a book that made other people feel alive and seen. When I read a negative review, I feel a little sad, a little angry, and then I move on. But reviews—positive, negative, or mixed—don’t affect the way I feel about my work. I don’t need my work to be loved and validated by people who think it needed to be something it’s not to match their aesthetic or moral standards.
My book, Leyla, me—we’re not perfect and we never tried or claimed to be. And I think that’s why The Applicant got more positive reviews than negative ones so far.
I’m only a couple chapters in and already riveted, already realizing you may be living my life in reverse. Thinking about how I’ve been whining about my career being ruined by my big mouth, by things I say that are “controversial” while in other countries people are killed or exiled or imprisoned for saying and writing controversial things. But still I am unable now to make a living through my writing due to things I’ve said – no agent or editor will reply to my emails; I cannot sell a book – and I am running out of money and will likely have to take shit jobs at an age many people in America retire (and because I am choosing my art, again, over a man; selfish, selfish, selfish, “bitch,” “bitch,” “bitch”!!), clean other people’s houses or whatever. But I will be able to write and live in America so what’s there to complain about, really?* Your novel is already inspiring me to stop whining and already inspiring me to keep writing, with the passion and energy you have on the page. And by these lines I just read, “There’s something about a male body that puts me to sleep like no other downer. Heidi says it’s hormones. I think it’s because I’ve lost all hope that any man can tell me anything that I would want to stay awake to listen to.” I realize this is your novel’s protagonist talking but is it something you yourself have thought/think? Perhaps the same could be said of a female body, of anything a woman could say in that moment, coming down from drugs, also?
I agree that the speaker’s gender is secondary to whatever has been said by Leyla’s one night stand and the other men she’s referring to. Or in most relationships, scenes or waves or schools of thought or writing.
We all feel like we’ve seen, heard, read it all at some point in our lives. Or that the whole world is talking about the same thing as we drift into sleep. These near-intellectual-death experiences are part of being alive. The trick is to know when to wake up.
I’m fascinated by how your novel is depicting a world I knew nothing about – immigrants making a living, with multiple jobs, school, to stay in a country, doing anything to stay in a country, for the opportunities provided by that country, Germany or the U.S.; I am realizing we Americans never experience this, this want or need to live somewhere else, to do anything to live somewhere else, we are spoiled by being born here, living here, and maybe that retards us, in a way, artistically and emotionally – but at the same time I am thinking about how it says you got your MFA in the U.S. and how that likely led to your book deal (Grove Press) and I wonder if now that is the only way to a “big book deal,” through an MFA program, much like emigrating to attain a new life, freedom, etc. Is the MFA program, getting in one, figuring out a way to pay for one, necessary to attain the kind of life most writers want, need, to survive as writers? Like moving to Germany or the United States? Do you see what I’m saying, what I’m asking? Could you have gotten this book deal, do you think, without the MFA program? Just with the manuscript? How imperative is having an MFA to making a living at being a writer in America today? To being seen and reviewed and interviewed and talked about? To sell books? How necessary are the connections the MFA program/university provide for you, the writer, to monetary and publishing “success”? is this how one must *buy* one’s way into big publishing, to an extent? And is this not a form of capitalism? A form of government most writers today claim to be against? Yet take part in? what are your thoughts on all of this?
What is not a form of capitalism? Is there a way to write and publish a manuscript without participating in capitalism?
Before I came to the US I made zines. Some I sold and some I gave away. Some had my name on it, some are still out there in the world with no name attached. I still had to work other jobs, participate in capitalism otherwise, and I was barely surviving. So I Googled what to do, asked for application fee waivers, and moved to South Bend, Indiana.
My MFA was fully funded (meaning no-one paid tuition and we all got a living stipend). I studied with an undocumented immigrant, a son of a truck driver, and, of course, a lot of very upper-middle class kids (some of whom had gone through life experiences beyond many working-class immigrant’s worst nightmares). Would I, or the undocumented immigrant who walked into this country through the desert, be more honorable if we’d never left our countries or worked for another capitalist here under the table? No. We would just be more miserable.
Would my bio sound more honorable if it said I’d left modern society and lived alone in the middle of nowhere? Well, I have a book and an MFA, but I still don’t have enough money to build a cabin in the woods.
But I’m not more virtuous than anyone who’s paid for their MFAs because I got a fellowship from a university. Notre Dame sent Amy Coney Barrett off to the Supreme Court with pride the spring I graduated.
We’re all part of the same exploitative system that couldn’t care less about the moral choices or judgments we think we make in between our sad little lives and deaths.
The best I can do, I’ve come to realize, is to care for myself and others. Not be a selfish asshole. To be as brave as I can. If I see injustice I speak up. Pour my friends wine and let them speak about their shifts at the post office, courthouse, power plant.
I’m interested in these conversations more than anything else, moments in which we care for and about each other in a world that says nothing’s more important than self-care after a productive day at work, where we’re constantly pit against each other, forced to compete with our peers to earn and preserve the right to exist.
One thing I loved right away about this novel, about your voice, is how honest it feels. Leyla always questioning herself, her every thought, reexamining it for truth, for self-deception… “So maybe this is the real reason I won’t apply for asylum” – she had just told us the reason was altruistic, that it was to not take away from trans people or a journalist who truly need asylum, but now confesses it might be because she wouldn’t be able to return to see her family in her home country, Turkey, if she does – “And maybe I don’t really care about others.” The honesty on the page feels very liberating. Did you feel liberated writing it? Was it a conscious choice?
The Applicant started as my own diary. Once I decided to turn it into a novel, I turned it all into fiction, over to Leyla. But I kept a strict journaling routine for myself, Nazli, while working on the book. The more I wrote in my own journal, the more space I could offer Leyla to think through her life on her own terms. So I entered this narrative path unconsciously, but I was conscious when I guided Leyla toward it in her diary so she too could find the antidote against the paralyzing effects of words like altruism or liberation.
I don’t think worrying about not being able to visit one’s home country to see their family is any less profound than worrying about taking another person’s place on the asylum applicant pool. None of us should have to justify our right to live the lives we want against anybody elses.
“I fear words. I’m afraid of what the world could do to me for putting one word next to the other… But I’m more afraid of being normal.”
Pg 40 fear of her words on the page but even more fear of being normal. What is normal? Do you still have fear when writing? Did you while writing this novel? Who did you fear? Did you edit anything out due to fear?
Maybe normal is something you only ever are not, easy to believe you aren’t if who you are, who you might want to be are at odds with the norms of the people who are governing your life. I still have fear when I’m writing and I think this is normal and I hate it.
I fear for others, mostly. I fear causing them pain. But it’s highly likely this is an excuse for a more self-centered fear.
Fear stood in the way of writing some of the best parts of my novel for a long time. But in the last two years of writing it, I overcame each of those fears one by one, and once I confronted them on the page, I knew I couldn’t edit them out.
-chiefly, when reading anything, a book, a short story, an essay, a poem: my number one criteria for judging it and continuing to read is the absence of boredom (in me), or, I guess you could say, sustained interest. The second thing is the feeling, while reading, of wanting to be friends with the author. Both held true for me while reading The Applicant. I was continually interested/not bored, and I more and more wanted to be friends with you as the book progressed.
So can we be? And do you feel this way abt books you love too? Abt the author, if living? Do you seek the author out after? Attempt friendship? As I am doing now…
Yes! Please come to Denver soon so we can smoke cigarettes and listen to Depeche Mode together.
If I love a book, I seek out the author by Googling them for days and reading everything they ever wrote. Sometimes, I even put their books on my literary family shelf between Bolaño and Acker.
OMG, we ARE going to be besties! (or hate each other as we are too much alike!) Pg 157, “She sent me a selfie she took using a glass-framed Nan Goldin self-portrait in the Getty as a mirror and wrote, ‘She makes me think of you!’”
Nan Goldin is my favorite/reminds me of me!!! Haha what are your thoughts on Nan Goldin and how Leyla and/or you might relate to her as an artist and as a woman?
The first time I saw a Nan Goldin photograph (Nan and Brian in bed, New York City), I immediately knew I was looking at myself through it, and felt the way Mona made Leyla feel: boundless, ageless, nationless.
I didn’t realize this until recently but 2017, the year Leyla begins to write her diary entries, is also the year that Nan Goldin stopped taking OxyContin which she got addicted to while living in Berlin. She’d left the US when Bush became president, feeling guilty for not dying of AIDS with her friends.
If these are the only things you know about Goldin, and if you only saw a couple of her photos of friends partying, you may mistake her for a selfish, narcissistic artist. But there’s so much more to her story, the way there’s always so much more to each of her photographs, like the art she made in response to the AIDS crisis, or the huge protests she initiated after she got clean in 2017 against the Sackler family. I can’t wait to see what she does next!
Abt ¾ way thru the book, Leyla decides to join her friend Mona in sex work. They take a photo together naked and end up fucking (tho they refuse to fuck each other for $$$/a man’s pleasure) for $$$ the lead singer of a Russian band (or so he says), and Leyla reflects on this exchange/interaction, “The idea that we could take back the money men made by exploiting us just like that was intoxicating, as if I were finding out that magic was real.”
Having in recent years found myself and a good friend of mine, um, in love with/in a relationship w, with a man/men who….sort of lead double lives w sex workers… I read this passage as also a way for a woman/women to take back the self-respect men take by exploiting/lying to women they claim to love and with whom they claim to want monogamy…
Subsequent pages go on to talk about capitalism and sex work and feminism in a way that sort of made my head spin as I tried to keep up intellectually with what all Leyla (and you) was claiming/saying…about women….but all the while I was wondering what it all says of men, of the men who pay for sex, they seemed to be getting off (haha pun) Scott free as usual….
Whether a man pays for sex work or doesn’t, there seems to be no moral difference. In the way society views a man/men. Society/we are only interested in viewing the woman/women, whether or not they will have sex for $$$...
But the men my friend and I loved who paid for sex without our knowledge (while we sat at home not getting fucked by anyone) … what does capitalism make them?
“In Turkey, I explained to Mona, most ppl viewed sex workers as fallen women whose lives had been irrevocably ruined by sins…”
But what I wanted to ask Leyla, what I wanted Mona and Leyla to discuss, was not the women who took $$$ for sex, but the men who paid women $$$ to fuck them! how did ppl in Turkey (and elsewhere: Germany, Russia, the U.S.) view the men who paid women to fuck them?!!! is there no moral/philosophical discussion to be had regarding the men who pay for sex? Are they indistinguishable morally from their male peers who don’t pay women to have sex w them? (I ask as someone who doesn’t really believe in “morality” but who is interested in how others view it, and in this book, specifically, since it does discuss all of this – capitalism, sex work, other physical labor/work, wealth, poverty, men and women and the various romantic and sexual relationships and interactions between them - through a lens of morality and ethics.)
“The Swede must be waiting for me at the airport, feeling all sorts of naïve and pure emotions.”
Does the existence of “sex work” – be it the man paying a woman to have sex or the woman taking $$$ to fuck a man – does either truly counter the “pure emotions” of either the women who remain monogamous and loving to the man (paying) or of the man remaining monogamous and loving the woman (fucking for $$$)?
WHATEVER “PURE EMOTIONS” ARE!!
Is there even such a thing as purity? Or is this just another human invention? An idea that exists only in our heads but isn’t real like race or even morality? Does it actually matter if anyone is monogamous or fucks for $$$ or pays someone to fuck them? why do we all seem to care so much abt any of this? It’s as tho “the Swede” (me and my friend) are less intellectual or less…yes, thinking, in some ways because we are not either paying for sex or taking $$$ for sex. Purity, then, is equal to intellectual retardation. Whatever purity is.
“Or was Mona texting me today of all days a sign – a reminder from Cassandra that no man is worthy of sharing my true self or emotions?”
But is this not perhaps what the man paying for sex is saying to himself also? If we equate, again, sex work w a lack of purity? A lack of purity allegedly prohibiting a sharing of one’s “true” self (whatever that is!) or emotions (ditto! What even are “true emotions”??). Again, I take offense at this notion seeming to say “the Swede”, my friend and I, are sharing our “true” selves and emotions simply because we are monogamous. Or are presumed to be so. Or that we are all somehow less complex (ppl) because of our (presumed) disinvolvement with sex as commodity. The Swede is probably no more or less virtuous or pure or giving of himself and his emotions than anyone else, than the lead singer of the Russian band who paid Leyla and Mona to fuck him, than Mona and Leyla, than my friend and I, than the men my friend and I believed ourselves to be in monogamous relationships with, than anybody reading this novel or interview.
We can only and always catch glimpses of what doesn’t need to be said, what can’t be said, what is, in fact, being screamed at us by way of its absence, in the tension between a story and its characters.
Each love story or “casual encounter” can be narrated in at least two different ways by each party, and the difference is often the “real story.” The way we share different parts of ourselves with our families, friends, partners.
It is really concerning that modern society pushes people into a place where they feel they can only have certain kinds of human interaction by paying a service worker, a sex worker, a therapist, and end up feeling these interactions were not real because they paid for them.
But we can’t expect the worker to justify such concerns for us. It is not their job to think of or for us outside the terms of their work contracts.
Whether money’s involved or not, it's our job to learn to accept each other the way we are if we want to be ourselves around each other, which is, yes, not a pure way to look at relationships, but the notion of purity is nothing but a tool for discrimination and oppression of people like us.
What are you reading currently? Do you still read books in Turkish?
I still read books in Turkish but less so when I’m not in Turkey. Currently I’m reading Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault in English, translated by Richard Howard. It is insanely good.
I already miss you and Leyla (or Leyla and you) now that I am done reading The Applicant! L
Can you please transfer to the University of Michigan or get hired here so we can be friends irl and meet up every other day or so to drink wine, smoke cigs & talk abt capitalism, feminism, (Kathy)Ackerism, all the horrible and wonderful isms?***
** I have decided to run the review on the same day as I run this interview.
*reassessing my words, [prosecutor asking q’s], I wonder if that is true, and if it is, if “cleaning houses” will only make my “art” more intriguing, my persona more marketable, than it is/was as a financially independent woman, if my failures will finally save me, finally make me seem vulnerable and like someone an onlooker might feel like championing rather than a cold bitch who needs no one/nothing (even if that too is only a persona, perception, not actually the truth), if being “poor” (again! As I was the first thirty-seven years of my life) will finally absolve me of my sins (the sinlessness of my impoverished youth!), and what that says about us, our humanity, our view of art and the artist; I think a lot of your novel is addressing all these questions in a very interesting way rarely discussed or voiced.
***rhetorical question (thank you, Nazli!!)