In her acclaimed debut novel, CATALINA, Liska Jacobs takes us into the tortured mind of Elsa Fisher as she retreats to Los Angeles, jobless after an intense affair in the heart of Manhattan’s art world. A journey of drinking, destruction and discovery follows as Elsa unravels in a seeming paradise: Catalina Island. An excerpt from the perfect beach (or island) read for hot summer days and nights, and a revealing Q&A between AFLW’s Jian Huang and the author on the evergreen question of New York vs. L.A. and, as a native Angeleno, how the character of Los Angeles as place influences her writing.
It’s just past breakfast so I order up a pitcher of Bloody Marys and a bagel. I dash off a text to Mother: I’ve landed safely, sorry I couldn’t stay longer. The phone is a slick new thing, touch screen with buttons too small for my fingers but still they make a satisfying click click. Before I left New York I bought a Gucci case for it — alligator skin, because it was gaudy and expensive, and because I liked the idea of a decorative predator. I turn the ringer off and slip the phone into one of the dresser drawers.
The Miramar is a bougainvillea-and-jasmine hotel — cobblestone circular drive, name in cursive on a black iron gate, golden California light spilling everywhere. My room faces the pier, and when I’m out on the balcony it’s like walking on the giant banyan and jumble of palm trees below.
All the cocktails here are named after celebrities: the Capote is a mess of bourbon and mint, the Marilyn has gin and a cherry. The Bloody Mary is the only one named for what it is, and after the last two days, it’s exactly what I need.
I had gone to Bakersfield because New York had turned on me. It felt treacherous, everywhere reminders of him. I wanted somewhere I would feel safe, somewhere familiar. Instead, almost as soon as I got off the plane I remembered why I left Bakersfield in the first place. Mother, with her thin lipstick smile. How she reached out for my shoulder, but took my bag instead. How she never asked how I was feeling, only said how thin I was, how great my skin looked. By the time she invited my older brothers over for Sunday dinner — something that never happened when I was around, but apparently became a tradition once they bought houses in the area—I was already looking up flights to Los Angeles.
They showed up with their perky, two-of-a-kind wives and their darling, demonic children. At first they feigned surprise at seeing me, but then one did his best Donald Trump: You’re fired, he said, pushing his thinning hair to one side and pointing at me. His wife pinched him, saying, Don’t listen to him, hun, it’s happening everywhere, while her boys tugged at her jeans, chantıng Mom, Mom, Mom. In the kitchen, Mother wasn’t just holding down the button on the blender, she was pulsing it — the ice for her margaritas crunch-crunching between the kids’ chanting, Mom, Mom.
I took the first flight out this morning. Then it was just a short cab ride to Santa Monica. I try not to imagine the face Mother will make once she realizes I’ve left.
I hang my dresses and blouses and slacks, calling up for more hangers. I arrange my shoes in the closet as if I am moving in. I read over the dry cleaning services and note that they will press your socks free of charge.
The bed is wide, a California king, with a down comforter that puffs up around me like a hug, saying, just wait, just wait.
I try not to think of how few options I have left. How being laid off feels like an end that rings on and on. How Eric did not ask me to stay — how in that last moment, in his office, he did not stand up and say anything. Just sat there, hand beside mine, close but not touching, until the human resources woman coughed politely and he moved it away.
But let’s not think of that.
I look up at the ceiling, where a fan made to look like palm fronds turns in quiet arcs. Just beyond the eggshell walls is a bus- tling little beach city — my college town. Those days seem so long ago. Charly and Jared are living in Santa Monica now. Southern California homeowners, for God’s sake.
Their wedding, more than six years ago, was the last time we were all together. Charly, lovely in white lace, already making excuses for Jared, with his sweaty upper lip, still hungover from his bachelor party.
At the reception, a DJ announced Mr. and Mrs. Jared Brown – stone to a cheering room, and Robby stood, whistling and clapping. Jared raised his arms above his head, a victorious gladiator, and the crowd ate it up, their cheering thunderous. Someone stood on a chair and shouted into a megaphone. Others used the toy hand clappers with the bride’s and groom’s names written in white paint. I took a Xanax with champagne, telling myself to be quiet —to ignore that nervous flutter, silence that inner alarm. Just be content. Drink and be content. This can be enough for you too. You are married to your own college sweetheart. It has not even been a year. Give it time, just wait. Charly beaming —beaming — as she looked at me from across the room. A look of cul-de-sac contentment, a future filled with barbeques, pool parties, and playdates. This is enough for her, I thought. It is enough for them all. And then there was Robby, frowning at me because I asked the waiter for another glass of champagne. Because lately I’d been taking Xanax like Tic Tacs. But Robby, I thought, don’t you want a happy little wife?
I started looking for jobs in New York the next day.
Our little clique has kept in touch since then, mostly online. I know all about Jared’s promotions, Charly’s new job at the elementary school, how they began renovations on their house, and how a few months ago when they were in New York we somehow did not find the time to see each other. And Robby too — his new job working for Jared, and dating a woman who takes a lot of selfies, all outdoors, usually summiting some peak.
Should I call them? I’m not ready to hear Robby’s voice — still tense and hurt, waiting to be let back in. Charly? She will definitely want to go shopping. And we will get Frappuccinos with skim milk, and try on dresses, and talk about what ever argument she and Jared are currently in the middle of. God, how exhausting to be back.
I can almost feel my old self, that girl who loved art — museums especially — who dreamed of a career far from here. Poor girl, joke’s on you. You’re back. Your old life just waiting for you, like a second skin.
When I called Charly from Bakersfield, she whooped: Elsa’s finally coming home! She chattered on about planning a trip for us. Robby wanted to see a jazz festival happening on Catalina Island. A friend of Jared’s had a sailboat. It’ll be perfect, she said. It’ll be just like old times.
And that second skin goes zip.
In eighth grade, Charly’s parents divorced and her mother took her to Southern California, to Simi Valley. We reconnected at UCLA years later. We fell back into it easily, discovering that what- ever made our childhood friendship necessary was still there. Then, sometime after my divorce with Robby, as she settled into a life that consisted mostly of pleasing Jared and I was occupied with a new job, we let our friendship lag. It was easy to do. I urged it along, letting weeks go by before returning phone calls or answering emails, intentionally keeping my New York life separate. Private. But Charly is loyal to a fault. Like a good soldier. Or a dog.
This is when being sober is the worst. I call to check on my room- service order, asking them to bring extra pillows and Advil too. The room-service boy lingers, saying he thinks redheads are pretty. He’s young and breakable and it would feel so goddamn good to break something. He’s cute, with a cleft in his chin, but I’m way too tired to do anything about it.
I shower with my drink and take one of Mother’s Vicodins. Let it begin, I think, rolling myself into one of the hotel bathrobes, the fabric soft and vibrantly white, wonderfully impersonal. Let it begin.
Excerpt of CATALINA courtesy of MCD X FSG Originals and the author.
Jian Huang: There’s a noir aspect to your novel that is very Los Angeles, but the place is also married with references to an East Coast high art world of MoMA. Can you talk about how both of these cultures are channeled into your book and in your life as a writer?
Liska Jacobs: I’m still not completely sold that Catalina is noir. I definitely didn’t set out to write a noir novel. I wanted to write my Los Angeles, sort of hold up a mirror to the world around me. L.A. is a beautiful city, it has a Mediterranean climate, sandy beaches, good hiking trails—and when you place human nature against something that beautiful it makes it seem that much uglier. It’s such a great setting for a book. Most of the action happens in Los Angeles, Santa Monica specifically, and it was important to capture it truthfully. There needed to be the June gloom, which is when the fog rolls in and covers the ocean and the horizon so that it feels like one big gray wash of color. And the crowds of day-trippers and tourists and the feeling of their slight disappointment with the city and beach because a place never holds up to the postcard.
I don’t think there’s as much a difference between NYC and Los Angeles as people like to think. But they still take up different space in the American psyche. For instance, Elsa, my heroine in Catalina, sees the NYC art world as the highest rung she could possibly climb. She’s gone from Bakersfield to Los Angeles to New York, where she’s fired from her job at the Museum of Modern Art. And that’s what sets her off, believing she’s falling backwards. All the scenes of Elsa in NYC are flashbacks, filled with romanticism and nostalgia for exactly that reason.
JH: What drew you to Catalina of all places? It’s an island, very much like Elsa. Was that a deliberate choice?
LJ: Absolutely. I think people get loose when they’re on vacation and I wanted this group of old friends to let their armor slip. Plus, I love putting characters in cramped spaces, it really forces their issues to the surface. And taking them from a sailboat to an island was just too tempting!
Catalina was perfect because it’s this much smaller version of L.A. Part dream factory, artificial and a bit strained from keeping the veneer in place, and part rugged natural landscape, untamed and a bit dangerous. On the one side of the island you have Avalon, this town built specifically for tourism, to look like a Mediterranean port, and on the other is Two Harbors, which only has one bar and one restaurant and at night bison and Catalina Island foxes come down from the mountains to pillage leftovers from the campsites. That dichotomy was important to heighten tensions already at play within the characters.
JH: Would you talk about your writing process and how you’ve crafted Elsa? How did you create her? What drew you to her?
LJ: After I quit my job at the Getty Research Institute I sat down and she sort of tumbled out of me. I think working at the Getty disillusioned me, which seems unfair to say about a place that I still love but I left UCLA thinking so highly of the art world and it was crushing to realize that it was a job like any other. There were pay cuts, and petty jealousies between co-workers, and sick days and vacations and layoffs. I think a lot of people experience something like this in their late 20s. What they worked for suddenly isn’t enough and there’s a moment when everything must be reevaluated. Sometimes it manifests in apathy as it does for Elsa, or anger as it does for Robby, or just wanting something else, like it does for Charly. I think it’s part of our American identity to believe that there’s something out there that we can either buy or attain that will satiate us.
Elsa also comes from a long line of women on the edge though. Jean Rhys is a huge influence on me. I’d say any of her [protagonists] have been an inspiration, but especially Sasha Jenson from Good Morning Midnight. I keep her Paris Review interview on my desk. One of my favorite lines is: “To give life shape—that is what a writer does.” I think of that often. And of course, Joan Didion’s Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays and Plath’s Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar were also influences. I was very lucky because I was fleshing out Elsa while still in grad school, so my professors assigned a lot books with female fuck-ups. I really learned to love them. There’s something so liberating about a woman who willfully goes against the grain.
JH: There’s this dichotomy of seeking and fleeing in your novel — Elsa leaving New York to find shelter in L.A. As a writer, how do you work with this push and pull in setting and in your characters?
Ouu, this is an excellent question. Dichotomy in setting is so important, especially when you have similar tensions in your character. As you say, Elsa is seeking and fleeing, and there’s an echo of that in just her act of heading West—but Elsa is also playing different roles to different people. Or at least, each of her friends wants her to be something to each of them (friend, mother, lover, wife). It’s so easy to be typecast from the outside, while on the inside you’re seething against it, as Elsa is. Having the book take place in a city built around image and an industry that manufactures it was an effort to reflect this. It isn’t just Elsa trapped by image though, each of her friends struggles with who they pretend to be and what’s really going on just beneath the surface.
JH: I have always found L.A. to be a place that is difficult to define — it has mountains, oceans, deserts, high-rise skyscrapers and, of course, the lure of Hollywood. As an L.A. native, would you talk a bit about how the character of this “place” is of influence to your writing? Where is this genre of L.A.-writings going next?
LJ: That’s a very interesting question. I think because we’re such a young city it’s taken awhile for us to find our own literary identity. Plus, we’ve had to wade through these artificial images of L.A. that Hollywood created: the city of sun-drenched palms and empty reservoirs, of femme fatales and private eyes, traffic’s a nightmare, everyone surfs, and no one walks in L.A. Etcetera. But that struggle with our image is what makes L.A. such an important setting for fiction right now. It forces us to grapple with who we want to be, and what’s great about L.A., is that everyone is welcome to come here and have an identity crisis. I mean where else can the American dream go? Manifest destiny stops here.
JH: What projects are you currently working on? What can we expect to see in the future?
LJ: I should be working on my second book actually! I just got notes from my editor so I’m itching to jumping back into it. This next one takes place in Rome and Puglia, during a very hot summer. I wanted to tackle aging womanhood, how after a certain age society likes to think women are just polite aunts or doting mothers, when I think it’s much more complex and a lot darker. It’ll be scandalous! Hopefully it will be out next year.
Liska Jacobs holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions and The Hairpin, among other publications. CATALINA is her first novel.