Like in her excellent debut novel Catalina, the main character in Liska Jacob’s new novel The Worst Kind Of Want (hardcover, Kindle) is a woman who doesn’t want to follow your…rules. But as she says in the following email interview — in which she discusses what inspired and influenced this story — just don’t call her main character a “girl gone wild.”
To begin, what is The Worst Kind Of Want about?
Ah yes, the pitch: It’s about a forty-three-year-old woman who travels to Italy to watch over her wayward teenage niece, her late sister’s only daughter. Only she’s seduced by the scenery, the lifestyle, and it brings up complicated memories that fuel her increasingly reckless decisions. A flirtation with a teenage boy threatens to bring everything to a crisis.
Where did you get the idea for The Worst Kind Of Want and how did it evolve as you wrote it?
So while working on Catalina I had the idea of writing a gender swapped Lolita. The hubris, I know. But it’s not a simple 1:1. Cilla, my main character, is no Hubert Hubert. She’s not that kind of predator. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of underage hanky panky, but once I started to explore why an adult woman would pursue a teenager, the book became more about aging, sisterhood, death, and sex.
And is there a particular reason why you set The Worst Kind Of Want in Italy as opposed to France or Spain or New Jersey?
Oh absolutely! The book really started coming together once I figured out where it would take place. I truly believe we’re products of our environment. Setting is everything. With Cilla she needed somewhere that would elicit a certain heedlessness. Italy has that in spades.
And I wanted it to already occupy the imagination, conjure up thoughts of the romantic, of self-discovery à la Eat Pray Love or Under The Tuscan Sun. Cilla comes from a Hollywood family, so films like these would be at the forefront of her mind. For her, Rome, with its bustling energy and ancient ruins, would feel like walking onto a set. Nothing would feel real. It would be profoundly discombobulating, which sets up her unraveling.
As for why Puglia [a region of Southern Italy], it was somewhere that felt remote, off the beaten path. I fell in love with the rocky cliffs, the sea, the wildness of the land. In many ways it’s the antithesis of Rome. There’s just more room to breathe, and in Cilla’s case, indulge.
So while you were writing The Worst Kind Of Want, did you go to Italy? And if so, how often did you try to weasel free drinks or dinner by saying, “I’m a famous American writer, and I’m writing a novel about Italy…”?
Ha! It never occurred to me that I might be able to get free drinks. Do you think that would have worked? Damn it. I’ll have to try it next time…
I’m very lucky, I did get to go to Rome and Puglia. I’ve been a few times now and loved every trip. The families we stayed with have become very dear to me. They each knew I was working on a book and were excited to answer questions about language or culture. They were very patient with me. It must be odd to have someone ask random questions about school boys and Italian slang. I think when I first went I was worried they might think I was a nosy pervert — so when Catalina came out in 2016, I was quick to mail copies to be like, “See! I’m legit I swear.” But I think that was probably my own hang-up. They were nothing but welcoming and kind.
Speaking of Catalina, are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Worst Kind Of Want but not on Catalina?
That’s an interesting question. Hmmm…actually a few books really influenced me that hadn’t influenced Catalina. Well, besides, Nabokov’s Lolita, which I already mentioned. Marguerite Duras’ The Ravishing Of Lol Stein; Maude Hutchins’s Victorine; and Lily King’s Euphoria. In each lust and desire are so prevalent on the page. It’s not just something in the room to navigate around. It propels the story. I guess I tried to do something similar.
How about movies, TV shows, or other non-literary influences; did any of them have a big influence on The Worst Kind Of Want?
After you write a draft and have friends read it you get a bunch of book and movie recommendations. So there were three films I watched specifically after they were suggested. Two of them are adaptations of novels but let’s count them here because — I’m ashamed to say — I haven’t read them!
The 2013 film Adore staring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, based on Doris Lessing’s novella The Grandmothers. It’s about two women who have illicit affairs with each other’s sons (!). I took note of how the film handled motherhood and a woman’s sexuality.
Call Me By Your Name, an adaptation of André Aciman’s acclaimed novel of the same name. It takes place in Italy and is about a romance between a man and a teenage boy. I really liked how the sense of place heightened the sensuality of the film.
La Dolce Vita, the classic Fellini film. Which you have to watch if you’re going to set anything in Rome and have a character with a film background.
And I’ll add one more: The Piano Teacher, which came out in 2001. It’s based on a book by Elfriede Jelinek and it’s about a middle-aged piano teacher who carries on an affair with one of her students. It’s been years since I’ve seen it but I often thought of one scene in particular — when Isabelle Huppert, who’s playing the piano teacher, and the student first consummate their relationship in a public bathroom.
What about music? In our previous interview about Catalina [which you can read here], you said you listened to the same bunch of albums while you were writing that novel. Did you do the same while writing The Worst Kind Of Want?
Each book has its own playlist. No songs overlap, that would defeat the purpose! For The Worst Kind of Want I really had two playlists in one. I needed a certain vibe for Rome and a different one for Puglia.
Puglia was a lot of Warpaint, Cigarettes After Sex, Emily Wells, Teebs, and some Blouse.
And I also had a whole section devoted specifically to Italian music: Dalida, Milva, Patty Pravo, Raffaella Carrà, Caterina Caselli, Mina. You’ll laugh, but the song that I most associate with this book is Cilla Black’s “You’re My World.” It’s a 1960s love ballad, but there’s something about the string section that is deeply unsettling.
No, that didn’t make me laugh. Saying Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” would’ve made me laugh. But anyway, both Catalina and The Worst Kind Of Want are about women cutting loose. What is about girls going wild that you like writing about so much?
Oh I hate that phrase, “girls gone wild.” Boo-hiss. Why is a woman acting on her desires “going wild”? We’re human too. I know we’re the ones driving the car, that the world turns on whether or not mom gets up in the morning, but come onnnnnn. If anything I’m exposing that when a woman messes up, everything comes crashing down. Which is just ridiculous when you think about it. Hubert had zero repercussions in Lolita. Sure he ends up in jail, but for murdering a man who’s as guilty as he is of abusing Dolores (a.k.a. Lolita).
Well, I was trying to make you laugh. But you were saying….
Having to navigate why a woman would act the way Cilla does was distressing for so many reasons. Mostly because a woman has to have reasons. Why does she go after a seventeen-year-old? For X, Y, Z. And also A thru W. Hubert just wants a pre-pubescent fuck doll and the reader goes that makes sense because OF COURSE HE DOES YOUNG GIRLS ARE HOT.
Going back to our previous interview again, when asked if there had been any interest in adapting Catalina into a movie or TV show, you said there had been some interest but had, “nothing to announce just yet…” Is that still the case?
Still nothing to announce. I’m keeping my fingers-crossed that things move forward soon…
And has there been any interest in making a movie or show out of The Worst Kind Of Want?
I do have a wonderful film agent working on it, and there’s been interest. Hopefully something will come together. As for which would work best, show or film, that’s a good question. Streaming is doing such phenomenal things right now. I think a limited series would be my dream.
You also said in that previous interview about Catalina that you’d given a lot of thought to who you’d like them to cast in the movie or TV show of that book. Is that true for The Worst Kind Of Want as well?
It’s funny, I haven’t given too much thought this time around. An older Emily Blunt would make a good Cilla. So would Chloë Sevigny [Big Love] or Maggie Gyllenhaal [The Deuce]. As for Donato — my male version of Lolita — well, Timothée Chalamet [Lady Bird] of course. He’s uncomfortably attractive, which is what you’d want for the part. But really any actor who has good hair and a full, boyish smile.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Worst Kind Of Want, they’ll probably check out Catalina. But after they’ve read that, what would you suggest they read next, and why that?
Definitely check out anything by Marguerite Duras. Her writing is sexually charged and mysterious. The Ravishing Of Lol Stein and The Lover are two favorites. If you want more Italy I’d recommend Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves. And I’ll mention two other books because they’ve stayed with me and I don’t want to only suggest dead writers. Both are translations from Spanish. Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream, it’s claustrophobic and surreal and just fantastic. And Gabriela Wiener’s Sexographies, which is a collection of essays that revolve around the female body, a favorite topic of mine.