Interview: TCR Talks with Liska Jacobs
by Leanne Phillips
Early 2020 found author Liska Jacobs in Pasadena, California, hard at work on her third novel, a story about a group of people confined to the Beverly Hills Hotel amid unprecedented wildfires and social unrest. She’s been called a method writer—Jacobs normally travels to the locations where her books take place to soak in the settings and immerse herself in her characters’ lives. But for this book, she thought she’d be able to stay home. “It’s a Los Angeles story that takes place at a hotel, and I’ve lived here all my life, so it was pretty easy to kind of take it apart from my apartment,” she said.
But then, life began to imitate art. A global pandemic broke out, George Floyd’s murder sparked worldwide protests, and California’s annual wildfires burned longer, hotter, and closer to home than ever before. “This last spring, there was a fire that was burning the Pasadena Hills for about a month,” Jacobs recalls. “And then the unrest happened in the city, and [my husband] Jordan and I were going to protest, and everything seemed like it was spiraling out of control.” For the first time, Jacobs had to leave the location where her book was set. “It was wild seeing it playing out on the computer as I wrote and then playing out in real life,” she said. “I had to leave to get some perspective about what this means. So we moved to Mexico. Clarity was needed, for sure.”
Jacobs is back home in Los Angeles now. She returned to the United States this summer for the paperback release of The Worst Kind of Want. “We were in Mexico for about five or six months, and then we went to Colombia, and then we came back. We were supposed to go to Peru and some other places, but it’s very hard to launch a book when you don’t have an address. Maybe there are famous writers who can do that. I’m sure Jhumpa Lahiri or somebody could probably get away with that, but I can’t.” [Laughs]
I recently caught up with Liska Jacobs over videoconference. We talked about readers confusing her with Elsa, the protagonist in her debut novel, Catalina; the ways in which her second novel, The Worst Kind of Want, far exceeds readers’ expectations of a fun and sexy beach read; and the state of mourning that follows finishing a book, a state she’s currently experiencing after recently finishing her third novel, The Pink Hotel, which is due out next summer. I already knew Jacobs to be warm, friendly, and down to earth. As we talked about topics like sisterhood and the experience of aging, I was also stricken by her generosity, her willingness to be vulnerable, and her passion not only for her craft but also for what is happening in the world around her.
TCR: Your novels take place away from home—in hotels, on an island, in another country. Can you talk about how travel, place, and setting work in your stories?
LISKA JACOBS: I feel like, when we go on vacation, or we do something that disrupts our nine-to-five schedule, we tend to see the cracks in the veneer. It’s very easy to get swept up in whatever it is that we do on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s work or school. And when something disrupts that, it forces you to look at your life in a different way, see what’s fitting, what’s not fitting. It makes us grapple with the choices we’ve made or haven’t made. So, I always like to set books away from home. It jumpstarts conflict at the get-go. But I also do it for myself. My writing style is a little stark and very psychologically intense. I’ve heard it described as claustrophobic. [Laughs] And I feel that way when I’m writing, especially with Elsa and Cilla. When I was thinking about where I wanted to set Catalina and The Worst Kind of Want, I wanted to set them somewhere beautiful—something that could be in contrast to that claustrophobic, dark feeling. Italy and Catalina Island were perfect.
TCR: In Catalina, you write: “Deciding whether something is beautiful or hideous … it is such a fine line.” I think this is something at the heart of your stories, the perception of what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is right or what is wrong. And how that can be in the eye of the observer, to some extent.
LJ: Yes, it’s definitely a theme that runs through both my novels. It’s probably going to be a theme I work with forever because I do find it interesting that it’s in the eye of the beholder. And I ask readers to grapple with where that line is when it comes to womanhood. What they think a woman should be, how they should behave in society, what rules do they follow if they’re a mother, an aunt, or a wife. And when they stray, when exactly is the moment they become ugly or ‘unlikeable’—a term I hate, by the way. We never really talk about likeability when it comes to male characters. I was thinking the other day that the character from Seinfeld, he’s pretty unlikeable, but we would never call him that. It’s just the antics he gets up to because he is who he is. But women, I feel, have to live this by-the-book existence. And when I talk about the line between beauty and ugliness, it is a very fine line, what women can and can’t do to still be considered beautiful or ugly, accepted or rejected. Also, you can’t have one without the other, right? They exist in contrast. There is no beauty without ugliness. There’s no ugliness without beauty. The line you quoted was inspired by an alt-J song. I can’t remember the actual lyric, but it was something about knowing when the fruit was ripe or rotten. And I thought, that is the same thing when it comes to beauty. Beauty as this transient thing that can’t exist forever. It is, in its nature, doomed.
TCR: Something that is interesting to me is the way you use objects in your novels. They’re almost talismans or potions. Can you talk a little about the importance of objects and the rituals of food and drink to your stories?
LJ: Well, the easiest answer is that it’s a way to have the characters work outside of themselves. When you’re writing in first person, it’s nice to not be so locked inside of the character’s head. There’s something there that you can work off of. It’s not just a person. It’s pills or whatever. But I feel like, also, we tend to use objects in an interesting way. We kind of give them a life of their own. For instance, the objects on my desk, there’s nothing that special about them. I didn’t find them anywhere interesting. No one gave them to me. But I’ve imbued them with a sense of comfort. And I think we tend to do that with certain things. We give them a hierarchy or a special place in our room. The book I just finished writing, The Pink Hotel, is rife with objects because it’s a way to poke around the character, build out the world. With Cilla and Elsa, they’re both such challenging characters that it was a way to humanize them and give them moments of clarity or humanity or frailty too. Both those characters, especially Elsa, come off like such badasses. If you were to read the book from another perspective, you’d be like, “Wow, Elsa is a cold bitch.” But when you give her these little moments with objects, like having the Vicodin bottle sound like a tambourine in her purse, it gives her a moment of softness and almost tragedy that I don’t think you would get otherwise.
TCR: I notice, too, when men take certain actions in your novels, it’s not earth-shattering. But when the tables are turned, when it’s a woman taking those same actions, it can be tragic.
LJ: Absolutely. And I get attached to these characters as I’m writing them. I don’t want their actions to have such stark repercussions because I don’t want it to be true. I want to live in a world where women can fuck up and not pay dearly just because they’re women. When I was writing Catalina, I was doing sort of an homage to Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. I wanted to do an updated retelling with a similar sort of wandering-ness to it. But I wanted the ending to be different because that book came out nearly one hundred years ago! Women can fuck up now and not be condemned, right? I remember writing around the ending constantly, and I had to come to terms with the fact that there are still repercussions. Not much has changed in the court of public opinion. How we judge women for what they do and what we consider to be wrong or right. It’s so frustrating! I don’t know if that’s ever going to change. Take the Britney Spears conservatorship. Think of all the male actors who have completely lost their minds in public—Charlie Sheen or Mel Gibson. Robert Downey, Jr., wasn’t doing too hot for a while. And they’re in control of their own finances and careers. All is forgiven for them. With Cilla in The Worst Kind of Want, I thought, in regard to the ending, “No, no, it can’t be that dark,” but the difference between Cilla and Elsa is that Cilla is older. As women age, we have more responsibilities. We have to care for more people. We’re responsible for more lives. And so I realized that if she takes her hand off the wheel, more has to happen. There has to be significant fallout. So I struggled with what happens to her and to Donato. It’s a dark book. It’s absolutely racy and sexy too, but I think it has a lot more to do with sisterhood and how women behave with each other than it does sex and sensuality.
TCR: You mentioned sisterhood. Can you talk about that? Why do you think relationships between sisters, between women, are so complicated?
LJ: Going back to the court of public opinion, I feel women tend to be harsher critics. If I have a reader who is upset with Elsa or Cilla for being promiscuous, it tends to be a female reader. And I used to wonder why, but I get it. We know what’s expected of us. We’re all supposed to be living under the same rules. I’m a twin, actually, and I also have a younger sister. I was raised in a matriarchal family. My mother has a sister, and they’re exactly one year apart. And then my grandmother and my great aunt are very close. So I was raised with these groups of sisters. They’re all still alive, so they’re still very much part of my life. And I see how they are constantly within each other’s orbs, but also constantly at odds with each other. Sisters are often compared to one another. Most women are. We’re bred to be competitive in that way. And I’ve seen what kind of animosities come from that. I think at one point, I describe Cilla and her sister as being vines that have grown intertwined and become a gnarled mess.
TCR: You write from a first-person point of view in both novels. And it is interesting to me that, even though you’re in this first-person point of view, there still seems to be a distance. Would you agree?
LJ: With Catalina, Elsa’s popping so many pills and snorting cocaine, so there had to be a kind of dissociation. She doesn’t want to be there and the text needed to reflect that. In The Worst Kind of Want, Cilla is ignoring a huge part of herself, which creates a distance between the self and her desires. It makes her kind of mechanical and methodical in everything she does, up until when she meets Donato. The novel I just finished writing is in third person, but it still has that sort of distance that you’re talking about. Maybe it’s because it allows me to remove myself from the page. When I start writing a character, I put a little piece of myself in there just to try to get to know them. So I understand their motivations. And then I try to give them … it sounds so hokey, but I try to give them space on the page to be themselves. I’m not trying to push them where I want them to go or anything like that. A couple of times, Cilla surprised me completely, where I’d be like, “Oh, we’re gonna do that here? Okay, well, let’s see how that changes things.” So I guess it’s also a way for me to remove myself from the book. First person can be difficult. And writing first-person characters who are women when you’re a woman is a quagmire. Everyone decides you’re that character. Elsa was difficult because it was my debut novel, and she was close to my age, so I heard a lot of, “Oh, so this happened to you?” And then with Cilla—Christ, my grandmother thought I had an affair with a seventeen-year-old Italian boy! She actually apologized to my husband. She said, “I’m so sorry Liska treats you like this.” So it’s also kind of, I guess, maybe self-preservation to give myself a little distance. To be like, “Nope. Not me.”
TCR: That’s another thing I wondered. These women are not unlikable, but they’re imperfect, and they’re going through hard things. And I don’t know what it says about me, but I found them relatable in some ways.
LJ: I hope so, because who do you know that’s perfect? Nobody, right? Human beings—we’re a pretty unlikable species. We can do good things, and we can try to be good people, but we err constantly. And not acknowledging that is problematic. Everyone I know is just trying to get by. And those are my kind of people, the ones who try and fail and are honest about it.
TCR: I wanted to know too how it felt to inhabit those characters when they’re going through such hard things.
LJ: Oh, God. It’s so hard. My editor jokes that I’m a method writer. You know, like a method actor where they become their character. And in some ways, that’s true. I really have to get into the psychology of the character and understand who they are. I go on the field trips, eat at the restaurants they’d eat at, drink the drinks they’d drink, which is fun when the book takes place in Italy. But on the flip side, I’d walk around Rome, this vibrant city, and I’d have to view it through Cilla’s eyes. Somebody who is struggling with profound grief. How might the reminders of death everywhere make her feel? It’s also a very sexy city, so what does that trigger within her? Another example, with Elsa in Catalina, I’d get so wrapped up in her that my husband would get home, and I’d be outside smoking cigarettes. And I don’t smoke! I eventually learned to make a safe space at my desk where I could leave it after I was done. It takes a while to shed that world and that sort of heaviness, especially when something dramatic happens in the book. I try to write everything with a playlist so that it can be self-contained. I can take off the headphones and extract myself quicker. It’s funny though, after you’re completely sick of it, you’ve been writing it, you’re living it, you’re trying so hard to get all the pieces right, and then you finish. You turn the book in. And it’s like the gates close. Suddenly you can’t access that world and all you want is to find your way back in and feel those emotions again. But you can’t. That’s when the post-book mourning starts. I think I’m in that now.
TCR: There’s a line in Catalina—“The worst kind of want is to survive, and we all have that.” How did that end up being the title of your second novel?
LJ: I think it’s one of those themes like the line between beauty and ugliness that I will probably be dealing with in everything I write because want is such an interesting thing for humans. It’s such a universal thing, and it causes so much grief. Even acknowledging that, I can’t figure out a way not to also obsessively want things. And I’m not talking about wanting to go on a vacation or something. There’s a line between want and need, and that’s what I’m talking about. The thing in between that makes us start measuring the distance between the top of the bridge and the bottom, where you think, “I want it so bad, I’ll fucking die for it.” For Elsa in Catalina, it meant she wanted something she couldn’t have. That’s the kind of want I’m talking about there. But with Cilla in The Worst Kind of Want, it’s the kind of want where not only can she not have it, it’s already gone. Because part of Cilla’s journey is that she’s aging. And I was doing a lot of reflection on that—the idea of what happens to the woman, the invisible woman, the middle-aged woman. Where do women go in society? How are they treated? And I’m about there. I was at the doctor’s office the other day, and a nurse there was younger than me. Actually, the doctor was younger than me, and I thought, “What the fuck is happening?” And they’re all saying, “Ma’am,” that kind of thing. So, I started thinking about it and what that means for Cilla. What that means for just being a woman. For Cilla, it’s not just, “I wish I could be with Donato, who’s seventeen years old,” or “I wish I could have a family,” or whatever it is she might want in the moment but can still possibly have. It’s time. That’s what she wants. And she can’t get the time back with her sister, her own youth. That’s already gone, so for her, the worst kind of want is something that’s gone. It’s already too late, but it doesn’t stop you from wanting it. And I think that’s such a tragedy.
TCR: Can you tell us a little bit about The Pink Hotel? I know it’s not out until next year.
LJ: Yes, summer of 2022. June, I think. It’s a little different from the first two books because it is written in third person. I’m excited about it. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing a book. It takes place at The Beverly Hills Hotel during raging wildfires and social unrest. Sort of High-Rise meets Eloise.
TCR: So you recently finished writing The Pink Hotel. Do you have any special celebration or ritual when you finish writing a book?
LJ: Finishing a book sneaks up on me. I write and write, and then one random afternoon, usually midweek, I wrap up a scene that I’ve been rewriting for months, trying to get it right, and I click save, and suddenly I’m done. There’s very little fanfare. This last book, I’d been so hyper-focused that, when I finished, it was like somebody shook me awake. There was a wave of recognition. We were living in our friend’s guest bedroom, recently returned from South America. We had sold all our things. We had no car, no apartment. We’d gotten our first shot of the vaccine. So much had happened since I started the book—what celebration can account for all of it? All you can do is drink a martini and marvel.
[UPDATE: The Pink Hotel is scheduled for release on July 19, 2022, and is now available for preorder at some book outlets.]
Leanne Phillips is a writer based on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kelp Journal, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Persimmon Press, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts.