By: David Olsen
Liska Jacobs holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and The Hairpin, among other publications.
Catalina, is her first novel.
The Coachella Review: I was in attendance last fall when you were interviewed by Mark Haskell Smith. There was a story regarding the sacrifices you made in order to go through your MFA and complete your novel Catalina. Specifically, regarding a bed with a barrier around it. Can you share a few details about that experience? I found it extremely inspiring.
LJ: Ha—you’re referring to the “witch lines,” which was what my husband and I called the circles of Ajax around our bed in an effort to keep cockroaches away. Those were some sleepless nights. This was soon after I quit my job at the Getty Research Institute to pursue writing full-time. My husband and I were in our twenties; we had no savings. We sold a lot of our things and moved into an apartment complex off Martin Luther King Blvd.
We never had a fridge because no matter how many roach bombs we set off, we just couldn’t get ahead of it. We became expert happy hour goers. I knew where to get $1 tacos, or two-for-one sliders and really strong mai tais. A couple of months into our lease, we lost our couch to the infestation. I remember trying to carry it down the stairs to the alley, and halfway down a cockroach crawled out, right next to my hand. These weren’t the small German cockroaches; they were American cockroaches, which are big and brown and have very thick exoskeletons. You have to whack it with something heavy, ten, twelve times, and then it can lay eggs before it dies. I just dropped the couch. My poor husband had to take it out to the alley by himself. Luckily, it was one of those cheap lightweight IKEA couches. We were down to a few kitchen chairs and our bed by the time we moved out.
This was during that year of relentless heatwaves too, when Los Angeles just felt like it was melting and would never see rain again. That kind of heat gets to people. I got a job downtown, at The Last Bookstore, and the tension down there was razor’s-edge sharp. Someone fell from a balcony on the building next door and died, there were multiple ODs in the park across the street, and weekly jumpers on the Red line. I worried a lot about whether I had made the right decision leaving the Getty. And I can tell you no one in my family understood. To them I had quit a career for a part-time book-buying gig downtown. It was great getting into UCRPD because it meant I hadn’t lost my mind, I could write, and an MFA program agreed. Plus, loans to pay for a nicer apartment!
TCR: So, Catalina. I read this book and I really loved it. It actually bears some similarities to the novel I’m writing in terms of a protagonist on his/her way down. And lots of drugs. I know you get the question a lot about whether or not this has elements of autobiography, so I won’t bother you with that question. But where did you get the inspiration for this narrative and its protagonist, Elsa?
LJ: Thank you! I’m so glad you liked it. I love Elsa. She’s an amalgam of many women I know, including myself, but she also came from a long tradition of women on the edge in literature. I’m a huge Jean Rhys fan, so any of her heroines, but especially Sasha Jenson from Good Morning Midnight. Also, Joan Didion’s Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays, and of course Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar. I’m a huge fan of literary fuck-ups, actually. To be unlikeable and to err is one of the most radical things a woman can do. It’s rebelling against the status quo, a rejection of what a woman should be. We’re lucky to be living in a time when there are so many great female characters that really challenge readers. My favorite contemporary fuck-ups are probably Olga in Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Kitty from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home.
TCR: What about the name of the novel? Why Catalina? Had you considered other locales as the inspiration? Did you visit the island for “R&D”?
LJ: My editor likes to joke that I’m a “method writer” because I did go over to Catalina several times. Place is so important, and I have to get it right. Not just the description but the feel of the place too. I tried out a few spots before I settled on Catalina. At one point, I thought they could sail to one of the Channel Islands, but I needed the two halves of Catalina to make the book work. All the characters are struggling against their inner selves and who they pretend to be. So, I wanted that same kind of tension reflected in the place. Catalina is perfect for that. On the one side of the island you have Avalon, this very touristy area made up like a small Mediterranean town—like a back lot or a set. On the opposite end is Two Harbors, this natural landscape with only one restaurant and one bar; Catalina Island foxes and bison come down from the mountains; bald eagles nest on the rocky cliffs.
I’m doing something similar with my second book. I guess I like to write stories that take place somewhere beautiful because no matter how I set up the characters, dark things happen. And I love the tension created between that kind of dichotomy. Beauty and ugliness, lightness and darkness. I think that’s where human truth exists, somewhere in that gray area between the two.
TCR: Let’s talk a little bit about process. Do you have a defined process for writing a novel-length manuscript? Are you an outliner? Or are you a Stephen King “Excavator” writing into the ethereal fog?
LJ: I like that, “ethereal fog.” I don’t outline a whole lot, but I do always start with characters and place. There’s a peg board above my desk that I use as a sort of mood board. I take those cheap magazines they sell at Walgreens or CVS that have different haircuts/styles and cast my characters from there. Sometimes if I’m feeling fancy, I use foreign Vogues. I pin color swatches from Lowe’s to invoke place—Lapis Lazuli, New Terra-Cotta, Raging Sea were the colors I had pinned for Catalina. From there it’s all about what kind of situations I can put my characters in and how they bounce off each other.
TCR: Revision is another thing that interests me. Some people seem to love it, some not so much. I like revision a little better than the initial rough draft because I can see the characters and plot arcs more clearly. Where do you fall on this argument?
LJ: They’re both gratifying in different ways. The initial draft is exhilarating because it’s so raw. It’s just you and your characters and you’re just riffing and spilling your guts out onto the page. Later there’s an agenda and it becomes more refined, which is satisfying in a different way. It becomes something outside of yourself, like a child. Part of you but also its own entity. Even after the tireless revisions I did on Catalina, I can still see traces of myself, but it’s more of a din than a flat-out echo.
TCR: It seems like it’s every writer’s dream to get an agent and a two-book deal with Farrar Straus and Giroux. And you did it. Congrats, by the way. I had another friend publish a novel recently and they had been through fifteen drafts, thought they were done, and the publisher gave them twenty pages of notes and revisions. I am curious as to the kinds of edits that you underwent during that process? Did you feel like you had a completed, ready-to-publish manuscript when you queried? Can you give us an example of a change that was requested?
LJ: Thank you! It’s been wonderful, and I feel very lucky.
Catalina started out as a short novella that I wrote in a couple of weeks right after leaving the Getty Research Institute. I submitted part of it during my first workshop with Mary Otis. She was nurturing and enthusiastic and after she read the other pages, she told me to keep going. I really fleshed out the novel during my time at UCRPD, working with Mary and also Mark Haskell Smith and Tod Goldberg. By the time I started querying agents, I thought I had a manuscript ready for publication. Which is hilarious because I did another three revisions with my agent, and five more with my editor!
One of the things that kept changing was the ending. I just couldn’t nail it. The original ending, back when it was a novella, didn’t feel right after I fleshed out Elsa. I had been with her for so long, gotten to know her so well, that I really wanted a happy ending. I wanted to believe that times had changed since Jean Rhys was writing. Her characters drink and have sex and reap the consequences, but that was almost a hundred years ago! Did Elsa really have to be punished? And I realized, eventually, that yes, she cannot come out unscathed. So, I went back to my original ending and cried into my gin.
TCR: I understand that you have another novel coming up soon and have turned in a draft? Do you have a time line for that one yet? Can you give us a small teaser for the next installment from Liska Jacobs? Where is it set? Do you have a byline?
LJ: Yikes, I should be working on that right now! The deadline for my second book is fast approaching. I think we’re eyeing publication late next year (fingers crossed). I’m really excited about it. While working on Catalina I had several ideas for other books, and this one was next in the chamber. I can tell you it deals with womanhood and all its complexities. I want to untangle that dark root of female need—for a child, for sex, for sisterhood—and how those needs bend and change with age. It takes place during a very hot summer in Rome and Puglia.
TCR: You completed your MFA and published your thesis (also a dream many share). Can you give those of us in that category some words of advice? Anything about your particular experience that resonated with you and helped you along your path?
LJ: Originally Catalina was going to be called The Worst Kind of Want, partly because it’s a line one of the characters says to Elsa, but also because my desire to write, to publish was almost all consuming. It’s the type of want that borders on need. The kind that makes you take up drinkingor measure the distance between bridges and the ground below. I mean I gave up everything except for my husband, who for some reason stuck by me. I was ready to burn it all to the ground. But humans are basically black holes of desire and nothing we throw at it fills it up. You just go on wanting. I guess my advice is, know it’ll never be enough. You’re in this for the long haul. Do it because you can’t do anything else.
David M. Olsen is a full-time insurance broker, writer, editor, and poet. He is a graduate of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and is also an MFA candidate at UCR-Palm Desert. He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a chapbook of poetry. David is also the fiction editor at the The Coachella Review. In a past life David won awards as a chef and brewer. He is a Cicerone, Sommelier, and is a certified pizzaiolo trained by 11-time world champion Tony Gemignani. He resides in Pacific Grove, California.