Writer Mortimer Smith, Jr. once said, “All writing is [autobiographical], in my opinion.” But in trading emails with author Liska Jacobs about her debut novel Catalina (paperback, Kindle), she noted that while she does have some connections to her book’s protagonist, she’s not as much of a “beautiful mess” as our hero.
To begin, what is Catalina about?
I’ll give you the elevator pitch. It’s been awhile, let’s see if I can still do it: Catalina centers around Elsa, a woman in her early thirties who’s lost her job at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. She comes back to Los Angeles where she regroups with an old group of friends — which includes her best friend and ex-husband — and they set sail for Catalina Island where there’s lots of drugs and sex and alcohol and everything spins out of control.
Phew. Still got it!
Where did you get the original idea for it, and how different is the finished book from that initial concept?
Well, after I left the Getty Research Institute, where I had been working as a Special Collections Library Assistant for five years, I sat down and Elsa’s voice sort of came tumbling out of me.
Let me back up. I started at the G.R.I. right out of school. I was young and enthusiastic and thought The Getty was the most beautiful place in the world, filled with art, and such exciting energy. But of course, a job is just a job, and after five years I left pretty disillusioned. So I knew I wanted Elsa to at the very least start at that level of embitterment.
It’s actually pretty close to the initial concept. I would say the only big difference is Elsa is fleshed out more. Originally, I wrote it as a novella, and then went back and built it out. I wanted to know about her, why she was hurting, why she was coping the way that she was.
So how often, after telling your friends what Catalina was about, did they ask you, “It’s about you, right? You’re supposed to be Elsa? Honey, if you need help, I’m here for you.”?
Ha! I think most of my friends — and family, too — know Elsa is not me. Or if they don’t, let this be a PSA: I am not Elsa!
But in all seriousness, Catalina is chockfull of my own observations about my generation, how I see Los Angeles, relationships, womanhood…. There is a certain amount of personal truth in it. I think it’s that way in any novel though. We write fiction to get to a truth, right?
Yeah. But are you now thinking you need better friends?
Ha! No, my friends are wonderful. It’s unfortunate when people confuse you with your work. It’s probably my own fault. Until this novel I had primarily only published essays, so I can see how the line is blurred.
Now, Catalina is your first novel, but you’ve written short stories before. You kind of already touched on this, but did you sit down to write this story, and in doing so realize it needed to be a novel, or did you sit down to write a novel, and this is the story you came up with?
Almost simultaneously with finding Elsa’s voice I developed her friends, too. Her best friend Charly and her husband Jared, Elsa’s ex-husband Robby and his new girlfriend Jane, and the wealthy interloper Tom — they were all there from the beginning. With that kind of crew — plus knowing I wanted half the action to be on the mainland, half on the island — I had a pretty good idea a short story couldn’t contain it all.
So what was it about this story that you felt needed to be a novel, as opposed to a short story? Or even a novella?
That’s a good question, because even with a big cast of characters I probably could have written a Fitzgerald style short story and been done with it. I think it was Elsa: who she is, why she acts the way she does. I think a lot of women are like her: smart, hurting, and angry about what the world has to offer them. And that woman deserved a novel.
Are there any writers, or specific novels, that you feel had a big impact on Catalina?
Oh, yes. Elsa comes from a long line of literary fuck-ups. A friend called them “beautiful messes,” and I think that’s a perfect description. [Joan] Didion’s Maria Wyeth [Play It As It Lays], [Sylvia] Plath’s Esther Greenwood [The Bell Jar], Anais Nin’s Sabina [A Spy In The House Of Love], just to name a few. All of them are hurting and pissed off and spiraling.
But I think Jean Rhys is probably my biggest influence. Really any of her protagonists, but Catalina owes a lot to Good Morning Midnight. In it, Sasha arrives in Paris after a long period away and proceeds to drink her pain away, trying — and failing —to make human connections.
It’s funny, when I started writing Catalina, I wanted to do sort of an updated re-telling of the “beautiful mess” character. I mean Rhys and Didion and Plath and Nin — that was a long time ago. Times have changed, I thought. I wanted to believe a woman could fuck up and not be punished. But what I realized as I wrote and rewrote the ending was women still don’t have that luxury. There is no “girls will be girls,” and there’s a price for misbehaving.
What about non-literary influences like movies or TV shows? Did any of those have an influence on Catalina, in terms of both what you wrote about and how you wrote it?
I’m an L.A. native, and I come from a post-production family, so I’m sure cinema influences how I write, but I don’t think there’s any one movie or TV show.
Music played a large role though. There’s one song I listened to every time I sat down to write Catalina: Grizzly Bear and Feist’s “Service Bell” [from the album Dark Was The Night]. I felt it captured Elsa’s headspace: all the rage and sex and drugs. I also had an array of albums I’d listen too while writing — The National, Phantogram, The Antlers, Emily Wells, Blur — plus a few movie soundtracks, too. Like the ones for Marie Antoinette and The Guest. It’s a pretty eclectic and moody playlist.
Catalina has been compared to Bret Easton Ellis [Less Than Zero] and Patricia Highsmith [Strangers On A Train], while Gina Frangello [A Life In Men] said it was like, “…a love child of Joan Didion and Kate Braverman [Lithium For Medea].” But do you think people who’ve enjoyed novels by Ellis, Highsmith, Didion, and Braverman — and not just the ones I mentioned — would enjoy Catalina?
I’m still floored that those are my comparisons. I think yes, if you like their writing, you’ll probably like mine. But it’s tricky, you know? We want to label things to make it easier: if you like X than you’ll like Y. When I’m not sure it’s that simple. Each of one of those writers you mentioned has such a distinct voice. There’s no mistaking Didion with Highsmith, or Ellis with Braverman, or vice versa. It makes me a little a worried. I mean, if I want Apple Pan but get In-N-Out because someone says it’s just as good, what are the chances I’ll be disappointed?
None because while Apple Pan is better than In-N-Out, it’s still a good burger. Though I prefer Golden State on Fairfax. But I digress. So has there been any interesting in turning Catalina into a movie or a TV show?
There has been interest for both film and TV. But nothing to announce just yet…
If Catalina was to be adapted into a movie or show, who would you like to see them cast as Elsa, Charlotte, and the rest?
I love this question, because I’ve given it a lot of thought. All the ages are off, but this fantasy! Ready?
Elsa: I always imagined Kirsten Dunst. But Emma Stone or Margot Robbie could do it, too.
Charly: Michelle Williams or Ginnifer Goodwin.
Jane: Zoe Saldana or Jessica Biel.
Jared: James Franco or Chris Pratt.
Robby: Joseph Gordon Levitt or John Cho.
Tom: Alexander Skarsgard or I think [James] Franco could pull this one off too.
Good list. Finally, if someone enjoys Catalina, what would you suggest they read next, and why that?
I love Maritta Wolff’s Sudden Rain, which I recently got to reread. It follows different women across the city as they drink and smoke and navigate love and relationships. It takes place in the 1970s, so there’s this feeling of just-beginning nihilism; of a city on the brink of change.
Or, if you’re looking for more hard-boiled literature: Richard Lange’s Dead Boys. It hits that sweet spot between fiction and human truth.