Ugly Girls is Lindsay Hunter’s first novel—her first two books, Daddy’s (Featherproof, 2010) and Don’t Kiss Me (FSG, 2013) were kind of short stories that punch you in the mouth and then peace the fuck out. I was interested in seeing if the prowess in her stories held in a longer work. Fortunately, the chapters in Ugly Girls are as brisk as her stories, with most ending in a way that forces the reader into the next and the next.
In the Publisher’s Weekly review the plot of Ugly Girls was described as “depressing,” “relentlessly bleak” and “intolerable,” which seems, to me, to point to exactly why this book is valuable. If much of contemporary literary fiction feels like cocktail banter, Ugly Girls feels a lot more like puking red wine on the host’s white carpet—beautiful and savage in its ugly glory.
This interview was conducted over a series of emails. Hunter and I both took an impolite amount of time to return each other’s emails, which felt both comfortable and fitting.
THE BELIEVER: Maybe this is for selfish reasons (being someone who writes short fiction who would someday like to write longer work), but I was wondering about the technical aspects of how you wrote this book. Did you have to outline at all? What was the scariest part?
LINDSAY HUNTER: I really struggled, for a long time, trying to figure out how I, would write a novel. It’s a pretty daunting proposition! Would I get bored? Would I be able to maintain the way I like to write in such a long form? Would it be interesting to ANYONE? I decided the only way I could write a novel was to sit down and write the way I knew how, which was to give myself a daily word count goal, and to treat each “chapter” like a flash fiction piece. That’s what I set out to do. I told myself to write 2,000-2,500 words a day, and each chapter would be from the point of view of one of the five main characters. That way, I had a very clear end in sight for each day I wrote. I had a concrete goal. That is very important for me. I don’t work well when I think of the whole thing at once. I need to take it one day at a time.
I think I outlined as I went. So, I started out wanting to write a fairy tale about a girl who couldn’t feel fear. That girl ended up being Perry, but as I wrote Baby Girl, and Myra, and Jim, and even Jamey started seeming like minds I wanted to dip into, and that’s how it went from a first-person narrative to the omniscient kind of thing it is now. I would write my day’s chunk of words, and then, to remind myself, I’d outline on a scratch sheet of paper what I wanted to work on the following day. Or I’d write notes about why I’d planted a seed here, what I wanted it to blossom into later. I’d also write the word count I started the day with, and then I’d draw an arrow and write the word count I wanted to end the day with. It all felt pretty satisfying when I viewed it in achievable tasks like that. Beep boop, I am a robot.
The scariest part is ongoing. Have I done my best work? Will people like it? Why do I care so much about being liked? And all the existential horror that comes after those thoughts.
BLVR: I was also wondering why you chose the story of Baby Girl and Perry over any other story. From what I know about you, it seems like you don’t have that much in common with them. What is true for you that was also true for these girls?
LH: Well, like I said, I wanted to write a fairy tale about a girl who couldn’t feel fear. Perry kind of sprung up from there, as did the rest of the characters. It seems odd to me that people want to make the connection between my characters and my life. Wouldn’t you feel cheated if all I was doing was retelling stories from my life but just changing the names and calling it fiction? That being said. I don’t really talk all that much about what my teenage life was actually like. I have memories that make me shudder, smile, shake my head. I think anyone who survived teenagehood has stories, and can relate to Perry and Baby Girl because of it.
I think I identify most with Baby Girl’s constant search for her identity. For control of her identity. Just when she thinks she’s nailed it down, something happens that rocks her world. Her disappointment in herself, her anger at the world for believing she’s the person she’s created.
BLVR: Baby Girl and Perry’s troubles—both the kind they are given and the kind they make—seem specific to gender, but they mostly seem specific to class. It seems like there’s a lot of talk about oppression in terms of gender or sexual orientation or race, yet we don’t focus that much on class. Sometimes class can be the most oppressive and deciding force of all. Were you thinking about this when you wrote the book? Does this have anything to do with your choice to not name the town that the girls were living in (i.e. were you thinking that it didn’t matter exactly where they lived, as long as it was somewhere with mobile homes and a prison that was along an interstate)?
LH: I don’t know exactly why I’m drawn to this “class” of people time and again. They seem very similar to the people I grew up around, I guess. Or the people I was most interested in. I think you’re right, going without can feel like a stranglehold. Over and over, I find myself writing people who are desperate. Desperate because they’re lonely, or out of options, both. What they do to stop feeling desperate or lonely, that’s always been what’s fascinated me the most about being a person. I guess it goes back to the old Biblical construct of free will. Now, my child, if you do that, you know there will be consequences. I DON’T CARE, GODLY DAD, I AM TIRED OF HURTING. Blam, then you have a story. Or a novel.
I didn’t name the town because I didn’t and don’t want people trying to compare every scene to the reality of the town I would have chosen. Naming a place hasn’t ever been all that important to me. I feel that the place where the novel is set is an amalgam of many places, both real and psychic. So naming it, even giving it a fictional name, feels wrong to me.
I do want to say something about gender. It was and is important to me that this was a realistic portrayal of friendship between teenage girls. I’m not saying we all hated our best friends, or did terrible things with them. But the constant inner monologue of “Am I good enough?” “Is she good enough?” “Fuck her!” “I love her.” That’s what I was going for. It was also important to me to allow my characters to be ugly mentally, emotionally, and physically. I wanted it to be about two real girls who ran the gamut of ugliness. Who traded ugly back and forth like a friendship bracelet. Who were unlikable but interesting.
BLVR: I like what you said about the novel originally being a fairy tale. Now that the book is all finished, do you still feel like it is a fairy tale? What makes a fairy tale a fairy tale? Do any fairy tales—either classic or more contemporary or loosely defined—haunt you in a way that infiltrates your life or written work?
LH: What I really like about fairy tales is the way they remind you they’re fairy tales in some disconcerting way, usually at the end. You go along and think things will turn out in some way but then you remember shit, this is a fairy tale, and the reality you expected is not what happens at all. But because of that uncomfortable reminder, it somehow brings you closer to life. The living part of life. Maybe it makes you more jumpy, or more able to live in the moment. I wanted a fairy-tale-esque trauma to occur. I wanted to write a book that made good on its threats. I remember listening to the Pissed Jeans song “False Jesii Part 2” and thinking I wanted a novel that felt like that song. The chorus is “No to everything” and it feels like each character in Ugly Girls says no in all the wrong ways. Classic fairy tale mistakes. I wanted to write a book that felt above a moral, which, despite their reputation, I truly believe fairy tales are. Again, this is what I wanted. These were my intentions. I can’t say whether I was successful or not.
BLVR: Sometimes I think what the author finds flawed in their own work is more telling than what they like about it. Have you jumped into the future in your brain and imagined criticism that reviewers/readers will say about the book?
LH: Always. I am always trying to prepare myself by anticipating. I forget all the heart and work and agonizing that went into the book and I start thinking people will scoff at best, vomit at worst, after reading anything I’ve written. For a long time I didn’t think I deserved to call myself a writer. It felt like something I hadn’t attained yet. I finally don’t feel that way anymore, but I have that same self-consciousness when it comes to calling myself a novelist. I read a lot of novels, and all of them are better than mine. All of them! Why do I get to be published by FSG? I think it’s good to remind yourself that you’re not worthy. Keeps you honest.
I haven’t read much of the canon and so my writing can seem amateur or half-baked, I rely too much on bodily functions and fluids, Ugly Girls is a fun read but ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things, my characters are ugly and deeply flawed and thus it’s hard to care about them.
BLVR: It’s interesting that you would view your reliance on talking about bodily fluids and functions as a weakness, because I find this to be one of your strengths. I think it’s challenging to read about stinky, sweaty, snotty women, in a way that is productive, or at least confrontational in a way that I like, on both an artistic and social level. Why do you think this is something that comes up in your work so often? Do you think it has any overlap with your desire to write about desperate people?
LH: These are just things I’ve heard people say, things I worry they will say. But I’ve had that same worry since I wrote the first story in Daddy’s. And you can’t let that inform what you write! It’s quite obvious when someone is writing what they think they should, or trying to write around what they actually want to write about, because that’s the kind of writing it’s impossible to feel anything about.
If I’m quite honest with myself, I think I’ve been trying to prove that women are equal to men in all ways. Prove it to myself. I think that comes out in how I write as well as how I approach the world. It can be aggressive. Not can be. It is aggressive. I am making peace with that as we speak.
I feel and I’ve always felt this impatience, like, let’s cut the crap, let’s say what we mean, let’s be who we are, in total, the good, the bad, the ugly, the farts, the desire, the plain naked desire. The desperation. That is definitely something I work out in my writing. Again and again. And I’m tired of viewing a character’s or a set of characters’ problems in ways we’ve used and read and examined over and over. Ways we feel comfortable with, because we know how to approach them critically, we know how to say things that seem smart about them, there is closure, there is nothing new or frightening or jagged or raw or ugly. I’m tired of the same stories being told in the same ways. So I try to write it all. I don’t ignore the ugly. I embrace it wholly. Some days it feels like a noble endeavor. Some days it just feels hacky.
BLVR: Of all the mistakes you’ve made in life, what do you most hope your son Parker will grow up to repeat?
LH: All my life I wanted to be an actress. I wanted it so bad my teeth would ache. Like it was something I could bite into. I wanted to make people feel. When I was twenty I went to The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York to study the method. I had taken time off from college to do it. It was the first time in my life at that point that I dropped everything to focus on this thing I had inside of me saying I should be acting. But at the end of my time there I had come to face the realization that I did not like acting at all, nor was I any good at it. I did a lot of brow-beating, back-lashing, tortured thinking. Why had I come all this way; how could I have not known? What about acting drew me? I realized it was that I wanted to make people feel. I was writing a lot while I was there; I’d been writing all my life, in fact, and I finally decided I’d focus on writing, instead. I could make people feel through writing.
Going to NYC was a mistake in that it cost me a lot of money (and my parents, too), and by the end I was kind of mentally bereft, and I was mugged on the subway, and all in all I had to face that I’d been an idiot. But it was a passion I was pursuing, and I firmly believe that’s kind of what saved me in my teenage years. Believing in a future built around expressing these things inside me. My senior year English teacher wrote in my yearbook, “You’re going to be a great writer one day.” And I bitterly thought, “You mean actress.” The mistake of NYC made me face the truth: that I was and am actually a writer.
I want Parker to have a passion, and things in his heart he can’t understand, and a belief that there is something out there even if no one else is talking about it. Something beyond even what I can talk to him about. I realize this might be the opposite of saying, “I hope my son is happy.” I hope that, too. But if he has any part of me in him, I hope it’s the capacity to make a grand mistake, and learn from it.