'How Wonderful Is It to Want?'
Julia May Jonas on desire, self-doubt, and being that "funny mess of a woman" at the party.
Julia May Jonas. (Photo credit: Adam Sternbergh)
“What I like most about old men now, however, and the reason I often feel that perhaps I am an old man more than I am an oldish white woman in her late fifties (the identity I am burdened with publicly presenting, to my general embarrassment), is that old men are composed of desire. Everything about them is wanting… [T]hey do not know or cannot imagine a kind of world that is not completely and totally guided by a sense of wanting and getting.”
I picked up Julia May Jonas’s debut novel, Vladimir, thinking I’d skim just enough to understand the hilarious oversaturated cover image of an exposed chest in forest green leisure wear. Instead, this paragraph about old men hooked me (it’s at the bottom of the first page). There’s so much packed into it: affection, humiliation, resentment, longing. Our narrator, an English professor, reveals her conflicted, self-conscious heart while imagining an alternative reality where the full force of her desires might be expressed without shame.
Several hours after picking up Vladimir on a whim, I couldn’t put it down. Jonas captures the intensity of a late-middle-aged woman staring down the barrel of mortality and professional decline with such unflinching emotional courage and wit. Every character is a mix of awful and delicious traits — they’re all ambivalent and they’re all improvising. In other words, her novel feels just like real life — except slightly overexposed, a little oversaturated, extra sexy, and a tiny bit reckless. What could be better?
Once I finished the book, I was anxious to ask Jonas how she managed to give such a realistic and relatable voice to a woman twenty years her senior. Our conversation ended up spanning many topics, from grappling with doubts during the creative process to the longing inherent to becoming an adult and committing to just one life.
Q: You’ve been a playwright for years and this is your first novel. How did you find the courage to pursue your writing dreams so unabashedly? Theater seems like such a daunting field, but also so exciting. I imagine it requires a lot of faith in yourself.
Becoming a playwright was, believe it or not, a turn toward being more practical, as ridiculous as that may sound. I started off wanting to be an actor, the most daunting field of all. Then when I went to college and I read a lot of theory, was taught by some excellent New York theater artists and thinkers, saw some life-changing performances, got excited, and wanted to make work myself. I started out making found-text dance theater compositions that I choreographed and composed as well as starred in. Eventually I began writing my own text, and realized I felt the most artistic heat when it came to writing — it was the part of the process I valued the most/wanted to be the best at. So I moved toward playwriting. Playwriting felt like it was the best combination of my love for performance and my love for literature, which I had never known what to do with as an actor.
Theater is very exciting! It's the physical feeling of making and doing theater that keeps me hooked to it. Even watching theater is a physical experience, which is part of why so many people hate it, or find it hard to go to. It is all about presence, all the time — attempting to find something new inside of a container over and over again. It’s a ritual. People who do theater feel very religious about it. You have to feel that way, because everything about theater that is not the actual art — infrastructure, institutions, compensation — is massively challenging.
I was able to keep going because I was of the mind, or ethos, having come of age at the time that I did, that it was generally best to keep money and art separate. I always had a day job or a number of day jobs, and any money that the art made went back into the art. And in fact, it was only after I began teaching theater and started trying on this identity of theater-artist-who-made-money-from-her-work, got an agent, some institutional recognition, all those things, that I began to have any dissatisfaction with the arrangement.
My proudest moments are always the acts of creation. I remember listening to this piece of music, for example, and realizing that I could make the first ten minutes of my play feel precisely like the opening of that song, rhythmically and emotionally. Forget the story, just make it feel like the beginning of that composition! I remember finding three of the same weird wigs in a store and coming up with the idea that one woman could wear all the wigs and then take a wig off her head one at a time and place them on the other characters’ heads, and we did it in rehearsal, and it was so simple and effective and great and somehow profound.
Q: Your novel Vladimir often feels that way, too, with scenes that are so simple and entertaining yet also so profound. And I was surprised by how well you capture the strange vanities and preoccupations of a woman in her 50s, even though you’re much younger than that. How did you pull that off?
Oh, what if people didn't change? They so often don't. The narrator is not very much like me, but I'm stunned at how similar I am, or can be, to the self I was in my teens and twenties. As I was thinking about writing her, I thought about writing someone who hasn't changed as much as she believed she has. She hasn't gotten over the socialized messaging about her worthwhile-ness as a woman. We figure things out and then forget them all the time.
I wanted to consider how the arrival of Vladimir could bring back all her old hang-ups about her body and looks and professional status that she thought she no longer struggled with. It's like muscle memory. She thinks of herself in this particular sexual situation and that leads to all the attendant anxieties that come with that fantasy. I didn’t want to sand any of her bumps down. I feel like too often in older female characters they’re either softened or hardened in this way that denies their full vitality, their full aspirations, their full desires, their badness but also their goodness. And culturally we find it hard to think about a woman past a certain age still having some standards and expectations for her life. I think I also got some conviction about who she might be from memories of my mother, and particularly some of her friends, from when they went through this time of life.
Q: In Vladimir you write, “Writers have to lead little lives, otherwise you can’t find time for writing. Was depression simply hanging on to grandeur?” I love that you encapsulate both the humility and grandiosity inherent to the creative process. What’s your relationship to the smallness of a writer’s life — which can obviously be exacerbated by the presence of small children?
I remember talking to a groovy professor about The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, who had a very sheltered childhood and went straight to the convent and lived her whole life there before she was canonized. This was a time when it was very in vogue for aspiring artists to read things about saints! And I remember he said, "Yes, she made her devotion from a bunch of fucking mushrooms!" Meaning she didn't have much to pull on to create this great faith, and yet she did. Sometimes I think about my life as "fucking mushrooms" from which I work at my devotion, which, in my case, is my creative work. I was never meant to be some Anais Nin, I'm too self-conscious and awkward. I’m reading an autobiography of Tennessee Williams and his life is huge. He goes everywhere, travels, does everything… and he is so miserable!
Writing, for myself at least, requires stability. That stability can lead to a feeling of smallness, and sometimes I think that being upset or depressed about that smallness is something I cling to because I need that dissatisfaction as part of my identity. And I think dissatisfaction is good and healthy, and keeps us moving. Writing is the cause and the antidote of this dissatisfaction all wrapped up in one. I think of it like this: I live in a perfectly lovely neighborhood in Brooklyn, lots of people like it. I enjoy despising it. I'm often in other neighborhoods walking around thinking about how much happier I would be if I lived in that neighborhood. Then I think, "I'm in this neighborhood, now. The thing that I want is already happening." I feel that way about writing. I want to write so that I can keep writing, living a creative life, and that means I'm terrible at planning fun vacations, being spontaneous, picking up the phone, going on adventures. But it’s because I’m writing. I'm doing the thing I want.
At this point, in a positive way I think, my relationship to the smallness of my life is one of resignation. I care about essentially two things: my family and my work. And exercise, I guess. The work is where I get to live. I am an easily overwhelmed person. The pandemic, which stopped me from leaving my house so much, stopped me from going to shows and writing groups and workshopping plays, was truly beneficial. I felt like I sunk into a deeper and truer part of my nature, which is much happier when it takes on a more narrow focus.
I remember with my first child, I kept fantasizing about staying up until 3 am smoking and doing amphetamines and working — a Sontag style work/life balance. With my second child, I now fantasize about having the schedule of marketing director… just a situation in which I get to work at nine and stop at five with maybe do half-days on Fridays, something regular where I can consistently be a productive adult. Very young kids can knock you down, make you grateful for scraps. I like it. I like crisis modes, when expectations are lowered, when you're grateful for the hot shower, or the four hours of continuous sleep. When my son is five, I may shift. I remember it happening with my daughter (who is now eight). I started wanting more as she got older. But I’m back to survival mode and, in a way, I’m grateful for it.
Q: Do you romanticize your early life in theater now that you’re living a more domesticated existence?
No, I was kind of an insecure mess with lots of addictive tendencies who would go back over every conversation and interaction a million times in my head. After performances I would be a wreck. Imagine if everyone who read your book read it at the same time and you watched them yawn or fidget then you had to say hi to them directly after they finished. Excruciating. The work was good. I was passionate about it. But I stunk too much to enjoy it. If I romanticize anything, it's that back then, I believed in the power of art, of theater, to change the masses. I still, in a way, believe in that, but differently, with less of a revolutionary fervor.
Q: How do you grapple with longing for more? Do you have methods for using this longing on the page or transmuting it into some other form? Do you find that creating makes you less grounded? What grounds you after a period of inventing/ writing fiction?
My Buddhism-informed response is that Samsara is an ocean of suffering. That is, there is never an end to the cycle of wanting and getting and wanting again.
Q: This reminds me of the start of your book, when the narrator raves about how old men are composed entirely of wanting and getting.
A: Yes! When I was younger I used to take that Buddhist notion to mean that I should try to get rid of my desire. But these days I like to enjoy it. How wonderful is it to want? To sit in your room when you’re seventeen years old and play music and pine for a different life… to be happy, to be loved.
And yet of course I have fantasies — about people and events and travel and clothes and very nicely cooked meals eaten outdoors in some stunning scenery and never going to American chain stores again. But I’m skeptical of the fantasies, too. Are they just inherited from things I’ve read and seen?
Longing is like a sexual impulse that you can apply to your writing and it’s hot, even if you’re not writing about sex or desire. Longing can energize. It’s an excellent tool. Any sharp emotion is helpful. It’s the dull emotions — the lassitude and the restlessness — that need to be watched out for.
I don’t expect that any experience of my life will be the big and fulfilling experience. I had, for me, a huge unprecedented success with writing this novel and finding a literary agent and selling it quickly and having it be met with positivity. And throughout it all I’ve been a nervous wreck, unable to enjoy myself, wishing all the time that I was just back writing it, because writing was the thing that made me the most happy.
And I find the most grounding thing after living in a fictional world is to spend time with my kids. They demand presence — they won’t accept anything less. They’re so fun to be present with and so wretched to be distracted with. Having learned that, I use them as a way to recharge and reconnect with reality.
Q: Do you have any good advice for those who struggle to believe in their work?
When my daughter was five, she took this page-a-day inspirational calendar from the giveaway pile in the laundry room in our apartment building, and became briefly obsessed with taping every page to her walls. I usually hate inspirational sayings, anything like that, but there was one page she taped up that said, “Do not let doubt reap what was sowed in faith.” I actually would repeat that to myself on jogs before I would write my novel, as mortifying as that now sounds. It helped.
The point is, trust the initial impulse, that shiver, and don’t trust all the subsequent lawyers in your head who are trying to tell you that it’s actually a bad idea. The other way to look at it is: finish. What makes an artist is not, in fact, the impulse to create, it is the impulse to finish what you started.
But also your work doesn’t need to be believed in! Least of all by you. The more that you can remove the evaluative voice, the better. Move forward, without hope or fear, feel the wins, when the writing feels alive, and don’t worry about the slogs, when the writing feels dead. The part in Vladimir that I enjoyed writing the most was the part that I had to rewrite the most. Some of the sections I wrote that felt like I was trudging uphill lugging an animal carcass are now some of my favorites. When it comes to writing, your feelings don’t matter, and they often lie. So don’t worry about them. Keep going.
Q: Are there specific authors or works you turned to while you were writing Vladimir?
Iris Murdoch, for sure, because she tends to write metaphorical novels that start in a kind of recognizable psychology and then move into an entirely different register, get very wild and dramatic, and I have always loved that and found it mind-bending. I reread the beginnings of some Elena Ferrante books, her short ones, because she has this mode of simply blurting out the story, as if she’s telling it to you at a coffee shop, or writing you a letter. I found that instructive, especially at the beginning, to consider. I thought a good deal about some American male writers, Updike, Roth, Bellow, etc., particularly the way those books look at women. The “arousing cottage cheese flesh of her thighs” is an Updike phrase that remains with me, you know, I never knew I was looked at so much. I was inspired to flip the intensity of that gaze. When I was in the editing process, I focused mainly on the final third of the book, and so I quickly reread the last third of some of my favorite novels that I felt had a kinship with Vladimir: The Sea, The Sea by Murdoch, Cousin Bette by Balzac, Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Sula, and Laughter in the Dark by Nabokov — novels that end in disaster, scorched earth, nobody unscathed.
Q: Vladimir feels so unique and almost retro in its tone to me. Were you actively trying to avoid some of the self-consciousness or apologetic hand-wringing of popular literary fiction today?
Oh well, I’m me. I can’t write in any other way. I wasn’t working directly in opposition to any specific novels (I think I know what you mean), but I was conscious that I wasn’t going to pull back. I tried to write pulled-back prose before and it wasn’t going to work. I had to let the voice come naturally. I couldn’t control it if I wanted to keep going. I knew that in order to get the novel out I had to give up on any ideas that I knew what good writing was, or what a good novel was going to sound like.
If I’m honest, I am annoyed at many novels these days with these protagonists who are so perfect in their perception. Like, the view of many books is that the way this woman sees another character is accurate and right — and it's often a cutting view — or, at least, a view from above. “Why are these women right?” I often find myself thinking this.
In terms of plot, I am very Brechtian, and I think of plots as a transparent structure, the architecture for a greater metaphor of the book or play. So when people say, “I made many disconnected segments because we live in a disconnected world,” I think that’s fine but also that they’re missing out on the opportunity for the more holistic metaphor, the overall metaphor of the plot. Like you can’t think of Jane Eyre as a metaphor about colonial anxiety without the plot.
Lastly, I’m a masochist. I know, for example, that Rachel Cusk talks about plots being “embarrassing.” I think it’s important to be embarrassing. Why do I think this? I don’t know. As a writer I’d rather be the somewhat funny mess of a woman, overdressed, dancing before the good songs come on, and talking too loud at the party, than the cool woman with the low ponytail who talks earnestly on the windowsill in low whispers to men.
Or would I? Maybe I just can’t be the woman with the low pony. Again, it’s about release — releasing into the writing without judgment, letting it be.
Hallelujah and hats off to every overdressed, dancing, funny mess of a woman reading this! Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir, which was proclaimed “a remarkable debut” by Kirkus, publishes on February 1st. You can pre-order a copy here or here, follow Julia May Jonas here, and add her book event with Claire Dederer to your calendar here. Thank you for reading, and remember: Do not let doubt reap what was sowed in faith!