Sketchtasy’s narrator isn’t unreliable as much as she is inconsistent. Undependable. Frustrating, even. She’ll give you a timeline all broken up, hopping from corner to corner to center left chunk as she haphazardly pieces it all back together. She’s late, she’s early, and, when she’s on time, she’s almost too on time, if that’s even a thing. In short, she’s pretty difficult to follow. Then again, if she weren’t, she probably wouldn’t be telling this story in the first place.
The novel—author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s follow-up to her 2013 memoir The End of San Francisco—follows Alexa, a 21-year-old queen* living five-to-nine in Boston’s gay club culture of 1995, longing for a better world with no clue how to make it happen. Her narration is intimate, though not always close, losing minutes, hours, even days to drug spirals, trauma flashbacks, and whatever random thought pops into her head. Hers is an uncompromising voice, one that can be hard to follow, at times, though worth sticking with through to the end. She’s like her creator in that way. Across three novels, a memoir, and five nonfiction anthologies, Bernstein Sycamore has refused to compromise her views on gentrification, pinkwashing, and the corporate co-option of white gay America, often to her professional detriment.
“I’ve been told many, many, many times by editors and agents, ‘Oh, I really love this voice and your writing is unlike anyone else’s, but I think it needs a stronger narrative structure to take it to the next level,’” says Bernstein Sycamore. “I always find that criticism of my work interesting, because that’s precisely the kind of narrative structure I’m resisting!”
The author told me more about her writing, her views on the publishing industry, resisting nostalgia, and rejecting palatability in a phone interview conducted in October. Our conversation has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.
JEZEBEL: There’s something you said about nostalgia being “violent” during our last interview about the corporatization of Pride that really stuck with me. You said, “as long as we’re nostalgic for an age that never really existed, we’ll never create that golden age now.” So, why did you set Sketchtasy in the ‘90s? That’s kind of prime nostalgia-mining real estate.
MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: Definitely. Well, I started out writing my own stories about the glamor and hypocrisy of Boston’s gay club culture of the mid ‘90s from when I lived there at the time, but something shifted very fast. I think it was the trauma coming through: the trauma of living in Boston, a city that’s rabidly afraid of difference; the trauma of existing in a gay culture that magnifies all the worst aspects of straight normalcy, so racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, AIDS phobia, femmephobia, etc.; and then also the trauma of that particular moment. It’s 1995. The characters in the book are mostly in their late teens and early twenties, and they’ve all come of age with AIDS defusing their desires and no way to imagine a way out of that.
I hadn’t expected to write about that, but how can you write about 1995 without writing about that? For us, you know, looking back from our current moment, we know that something was about to change. There are medications that will make HIV a manageable condition just around the corner, but there’s no way for anyone in the book to possibly imagine that. They are stuck in their moment, just as we are stuck in ours.
For me, that’s what resisting nostalgia is about—actually expressing the nuance and the layers, the complications, and the places where we’re completely trapped instead of creating a kind of glossy product that’s ready for consumption like we see with a lot of the packaging of the 1990s right now. The opposite of nostalgia is truth, so that’s what I’m reaching for with this book.
Are you familiar with this new song by Charli XCX called “1999"?
No, tell me about it.
It’s called “1999,” and the lyrics are like “I wish I could go back, back to 1999, it was so much better,” and the music video has all these references to ‘90s pop culture and toys and fashion, except most of those references aren’t from 1999, so it’s not even done well? I don’t know. Maybe don’t google it.
I’ll take a look at it. Should we watch it together?
Don’t make me watch it again!!
OK! OK! I won’t! I think that’s what nostalgia creates. Nostalgia creates this conglomeration of lies all arranged on top of one another, and then those lies are packaged as truth. We swallow them thinking we might feel a rush of satisfaction, but they suffocate us instead, preventing us from actually imagining any kind of intervention in the past, present, or future.
You’re chasing a familiar rush, or an imagined idea of a familiar rush. Would you say that’s tied to the role drugs and drinking play in the book?
Yes. In Sketchtasy, drugs are how community is formed, so obviously there are a lot of problems with that. For the queens at the epicenter of the book, drugs offer an excape—an escape from the violence they experience every day from homophobic straight men on the street who want to kill them, from gay men who imagine that the only path to success involves worshipping a narrow middle-class masculinity. Drugs also offer them an alternate way of living. Instead of a nine-to-five schedule, most of these queens are on a five-to-nine schedule: you leave the house at 5 p.m. and go home at 9 a.m. Drugs offer them an alternate way of living, an alternate reality that can be lived in the present day, but that escape is a temporary one. When the drugs fade away, what do you have left? That’s the reality that the characters in the book are living over and over and over again.
Alexa, the narrator, has a radical queer analysis but is unable to find a way to actualize that in her everyday experience. The pageantry of club culture appeals to her and the way it provides a transitory intimacy or sense of family. She’s trying to actualize her dreams of challenging the violence of gay or straight normalcy, but she’s trying to do it in a world that doesn’t really allow that. The gay club culture she’s in is an alternative to the status quo, but it’s also enacting some of the same exclusionary and hypocritical values.
Or like when she goes to AA meetings to escape from the world of the clubs and then goes back to the clubs to escape from the world of AA meetings.
Yes, exactly. We tend to think of addiction and recovery as opposing. I wanted the book to show that maybe they’re two sides of the same coin. Even though a lot of catastrophes happen in the book because of drugs, more catastrophes happen just because of living in this world, you know? They have to live in this violent, hypocritical world, so choosing drugs is a way of choosing a kind of freedom for them. Recovery is similar. It gives the characters another way out of living that isn’t guided by addiction and terrible decision-making, but it also creates a mentality that doesn’t really unlearn anything. It’s just learning a new formula without unlearning the behaviors. I wanted to show the problems with both and allow the reader to decide for themsleves, you know?
Someone asked me in an interview, “What is the message of your novel, Sketchtasy?” I said, “A novel is not a message!” [laughs] The point of writing a novel is to show all of the complications, to show all of the messiness, to show all of the failure. All of the characters have their own hypocrisy, and hypocrisy, rather than being something that keeps you out of their lives, is something that brings you in. There’s this one character, Avery. I started out writing her as a flat representative of all the most warped aspects of gay Boston culture. But in writing her hypocrisies—her loyalties, her contradictions, her craving and obsession with crass consumerism, her espousing upper-class values without having that actual access—she became a fuller character to me, and I ended up making her a love interest for Alexa. That’s one of the fun things about writing a novel, at least the way I write, which is…I just write. I don’t have any intention as I’m writing it, and then something comes through. One of the things that came through this time is that in order to write characters in all of their fullness you have to consider their hypocrisies and what’s behind that hypocrisy.
That came through a lot in the narration style, too. It felt very fitting for a book that was written from the perspective of a character who’s dealing with so much trauma and PTSD, hopping from moment to moment then suddenly thrust into the past and then back to the present again. How did you keep track of a character who’s weaving in and out of moment, sometimes against her will?
The most important thing for me when writing fiction is voice. I edit anything out that gets in the way of voice. It’s kind of the opposite of how we’re told to write fiction. You’re supposed to write an outline and then fill everything in. I don’t do that. My books are never guided by plot because plot takes away from the actual experience. None of our lives have plots, you know? Not until you’re dead and someone’s flying over in a helicopter, looking down. Then, they can spot it.
Alexa is constantly surviving trauma. One of the ways she’s done that is by creating this scathing analysis and a persona that doesn’t allow the outside world to penetrate. That’s how she’s able to survive. So, you know, if someone’s screaming at her on the subway and saying they want to kill her, she deserves to die, she just pretends that it’s not even happening because the most important thing to her is to make sure that they don’t know that they’ve hurt her. This is how she survives. The issue with a lot of the characters in the book is that, in order to survive, they have to appear invulnerable, and, as a result, they’re not able to feel the fullness of their experience. With Alexa, that comes in with her reading books like Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body and David Wojnarowicz’s Memories That Smell Like Gasoline. Those books offer her more of a window into how she feels in the present than the present does. There’s a kinship that’s created throughout these texts that she isn’t able to access in her daily life.It was very fraught for me to write that character because she’s always on, right? She’s like [unintelligible word blur]. The past comes into the present, the present goes into the past. It’s all flooding and shifting. Drugs change the language. Trauma changes the language. In a way, the book is about trying not to feel in order to survive, but writing it in the way I did allowed, I think, for it to be more emotionally accessible.
That constant shifting made it impossible to predict what would come next or how the book would end. I think there was some part of my brain that kept expecting some sort of, like, “redemption arc” or something at the end. Was that something you were working against?
I always work against that. So many novels are ruined by that redemption arc, which is only there because the publishing industry wants it there. The center of publishing is considered straight, middle-class, Christian, white, and male—maybe some straight white women can be at the center, too—so when you’re writing about characters who deviate from that center, you’re told, either directly or by implication, that we have to explicate our lives. You have to tell the reader why the characters matter and why it’s important to read about them. You’re supposed to say, “Here’s how they got to this dark, degraded, desperate, tragic place, and here is how they escape.” Where do they escape? To your world, “your” meaning straight, white, middle-class, Christian male. If you’re not that, then you have to be redeemed. You can also fit them into a tragic narrative where you just kill them off, a classic narrative for most queer characters through literary history. They just have them die at the end. [laughs] Just like, “Oh, this is a pretty interesting book—DEAD!!!!”
I’ll always write against that. The reader has to enter the book on the terms of the narrator and nothing else. You may be confused if it’s not your life, but hello! Welcome to the rest of the world! I mean, how many of us are bored to death reading another fucking straight, white, Christian, male story—packaged in any variety? Now we have those narratives packaged from the point of view of straight women or queer people or people of color but it’s the same narrative, you know? They’ll let queer work be in the mainstream, but they’ll desexualize it, make it justify its own existence, make it explain itself constantly. When there’s an exception, it’s because the work followed the right formula or its author had the right pedigree—the right MFA program, the right residency, the right literary agent. It’s almost never that an editor just happened to find this brilliant, challenging work and decided they needed to publish it immediately. In order to create something authentic or challenging, we need to reject those terms entirely. Doing that marginalizes our work, but the cost is worth it. Otherwise, you’re writing something hypocritical and damaging. What’s the point of writing that?
* Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore discusses Alexa’s identity and the way that language and identity shift over time in an interview with The Los Angeles Times.