Books In Conversation
Neon in Daylight:
HERMIONE HOBY with David Burr Gerrard
Neon in Daylight
In the passage below from Neon in Daylight—the debut novel by distinguished literary critic and journalist Hermione Hoby—Kate, who has recently moved to New York from England, wakes up after a transcendent NYC night:
“Last night, phrases had occurred to her like blazing revelations, rising up in her mind as twenty-foot neon citadels before which she’d wanted to prostrate herself. God, maybe she had—had there been a moment of her actually kneeling somewhere, delirious? Now, as she tried to grasp the words again in daylight, she saw they were dumb—completely dumb. Bad song lyrics that meant nothing.”
This psychic seesaw—with a deep sense of spiritual grandeur sitting on one end and a deep embarrassment at that deep sense of spiritual grandeur sitting on the other—is New York’s ambiguous gift to natives and recent arrivals alike, and Hoby evokes it memorably from Kate’s perspective, and from the perspectives of two other people: Inez, a privileged teenager dabbling in drug dealing and sex work whom Kate befriends, and Bill, a washed-up middle-aged novelist whom Kate sleeps with. (Bill is also Inez’s father, though for most of the novel neither Kate nor Bill knows the other’s connection to Inez.)
In December, I met Hermione Hoby to discuss her debut novel at Milk and Roses, a book-lined Greenpoint café that is the sort of place aspiring artists and intellectuals move to New York with dreams of finding and that usually does not last much longer than does a blazing revelation. (Though let us hope the gods of real estate spare Milk and Roses.)
David Burr Gerard (Rail): You've done many author interviews, for The Guardian and elsewhere. Can you talk about how they have—or haven’t—informed your writing?
Hermione Hoby: I feel like more and more I have been using them somewhat greedily. I’m not sure I can quote a specific thing that someone has said to me, but I do know that every interview I have done with a writer has felt very generative. Even where their work hasn't hugely resonated with me, there's something about talking about writing with someone who's devoted to it that is invariably salutary.
Rail: Can you think of any examples?
Hoby: Well the last interview I did last year was George Saunders. His work has meant so much to me. Every interview I do, as with every piece I write, is in some way autobiographical. This is the nature of the thing. I remember when I was at university, someone two years above me—from the vantage of her wisdom—you know her lofty two years above—I remember her saying, “Oh every essay you write will be autobiographical.”
Rail: Yeah you talk about that in your New York Times review of Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays.
Hoby: I guess that's the same with every interview I do. Often my burning question has to do with the work, but through the lens of the question that's occupying me. The question that has been occupying me since the George Saunders interview of last year up until now is this question of empathy and compassion. George Saunders writes about this pretty explicitly. I think this is what Lincoln in the Bardo was about—to me that book is like the most trenchant testament to the need for polyphony in the political sense as well as the literal, experimental sense. You know, that’s such an American thing. The question is how far does empathy extend. And, George Saunders talked about residing in literary complexity, how necessary that was in this moment. My most recent writer interview was Jeffrey Eugenides, and he was talking about, well I’m paraphrasing, but the need to distinguish between the action and the person, or, to use Christian language, the division between the sinner and the sin. And I said to him what about Charlottesville, all those twats holding tiki torches? (I didn’t actually say “twat” in front of Jeffrey Eugenides but, you know.) Are we really meant to pay them attention? Are they deserving of attention? Attention is a form of love, basically. And he said well there has to be the hope that there is still potential goodness in those people and that they have come to that belief and they have come to that belief for reasons. Rather than some sort of abstract or inherent hatefulness, that hatefulness is sort of learned and that's worth bearing in mind. As in, we have to oppose noxious, hateful beliefs, but not necessarily the people who misguidedly espouse them.
Rail: You mentioned polyphony. That seems like it leads into the structure of the book. Can you talk about why you decided to write the book both from three perspectives and these three perspectives?
Hoby: Yeah I mean, I am going to sound facetious, but three is the magic number. Laughs. You know, after I finished the book, way after I finished it, I found I was unconsciously doing this unseemly thing of critiquing it, like I was going to write a shitty undergrad essay on my own novel. I was like, oh I wonder whether those three characters could be considered Ego, Superego, and Id. Three just feels like the most—
Hoby: Haha, thank you, it’s the holy trinity. What is going on today? Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. I also felt like I won't get bored with three different voices, and so hopefully a reader won’t either. It seemed to me that having three voices allowed me to amplify and complicate each one, that they might, in that way, become more than the sum of their parts. And more prosaically, I just wanted three people for whom New York was very different things. One of the things that really preoccupies me—I almost feel foolish with the extent of this preoccupation—is that New York is both endlessly new and yet ancient. I remember interviewing Noah Baumbach a few years ago and being very struck by him saying that whenever you see New York on screen, it’s more recognizable than any other city, and why is that? I remember feeling almost sort of proud the first time I went to the restaurant that I’d privately categorized as my favorite restaurant on the Lower East Side, and then it was gone, and there was something else in its place. And I was like, shit this city is changing, and changing me, and it's constantly new and refreshing itself. But I felt sort of proud to have had that New Yorker’s rite of passage—one’s favorite restaurant closing. I like that New York has a slightly careless attitude to its past. It's a very forward-looking city. And yet at the same time, it's monumental, and you recognize the skyline, even if that sky line has drastically, tragically changed within our lifetime—it’s still so recognizably New York. I think that’s what Baumbach was getting at. So I wanted this New York to be Bill's old New York—to be haunted by the seventies, eighties, nineties, “noughties” or whatever the fuck we’re calling that decade, and now. And I wanted New York for Inez to be unthinking, as teenagers are, I guess. Or, at least, many of them—I don't want to be denigrating to an entire demographic—sorry, teens! At the same time, I sort of think of all three of these characters as teenagers. Perhaps Bill is the most teenage of all three. This plays into the idea of neon, which means, etymologically, newness. And I love that neon has become an anachronism. New York's neon signs are actually dying, and this thing that is meant to be newness—it's like retro futurism. You see neon, but it reminds you of the seventies, so it's meant to symbolize newness, but it's also aged.
Rail: How about Kate?
Hoby: I have to resign myself to the fact that Kate will most likely be read, incorrectly, as a version of me. I share the most biographical information with her. I too am a woman that moved to New York, though I had a much different experience of it than her. And yet, you know, they are—it's corny, but they are all me. All three of them. Also, they're all composites of real people I have known, who have then superseded their originators in my mind, purely out of having spent way more time with them, these fictional people, than their real life antecedents.
Rail: Bill in particular, is surprising. In broad outline—this washed-up middle-aged male writer who is having an affair with a much younger woman—we’ve seen that in a lot of books by men. I am curious about how that worked for you.
Hoby: Before I had really conceived of them as characters I was just interested in the power dynamics of a relationship like that. That phrase—a middle-aged man having an affair with a much younger woman—now has a profoundly negative tenor post Weinstein et al. But you know in my mind—there’s that line where Bill uses the word “predatory” about Kate, and I sort of don't want to comment on whether he's fair to use that word—but Kate has a curious kind of power too. And maybe that's what drew me to the idea of that relationship. Power depends on what currencies we’re operating in. Obviously if we're operating in cultural capital, then Bill has the power, but if we're operating in terms of need then I think probably Kate does, as in, she needs him so much less than he needs her. This isn't her city; she is kind of a tourist here. I think Bill uses that word about her which, for a native New Yorker, is obviously derogatory. And there is a different power in being young and not being washed up. Not having had the major success of your life. Not having known that that's your peak, and now that it's over and that that's as good as it gets. At least career-wise. I hope there’s some sort of spiritual redemption for Bill.
I hadn’t been thinking about those books by men, maybe because I haven’t read those kinds of books for so long. I have been talking to a lot of women about this, of how when you’re young—particularly if you’re young and you’ve learned things through a—what’s the word I want—an old, esteemed institution, it’s very easy to conflate masculinity with literary authority because that’s the canon. And that’s—well I don’t think it’s overstating it to call it a tragedy. It was a year after graduating when I sort of woke up to how criminally narrow my literary education had been. I really hope things are different now, in every institution, but it was never talked about while I was there. The canon was never interrogated.
I don't want to misrepresent myself because it's not that those weren't great works of literature; I’m so grateful to have had three years devoting myself to them. There's no way we should stop reading the metaphysical poets, or Shakespeare, or Foucault, or whoever else I wrote crappy weekly essays on. Actually, maybe we can let The Faerie Queen slide; that didn't do much for me. But, you know, people are shaped by their reading. It’s an intellectual disservice to academia if you're not engaging and writing about stories from perspectives other than the very narrow one of wealthy, long-dead men. But it's also sort of spiritual disservice, because we need heterogeneity, polyphony.
The great reading experience of my life since graduating has been making my own canon, but also having a sense of what the people I know and love consider their canon too. And it’s lovely when there’s a kind of consensus. Maggie Nelson is our canon and George Saunders is, and I don't know, whenever I try and list writers I blank. Do you do that too?
Rail: Of course, everybody does that.
Hoby: So weird. Anyway, maybe we are reading all the same things, but we're making our own canons.
Rail: I’m curious about more people in your canon.
Hoby: Rachel Kushner—she really blows my mind. I cannot wait for her prison novel. Did you read that excerpt in the New Yorker? So amazing. I was just like, how do you do this? It's almost offensive to call it an extract because it functions perfectly as a short story. Anyway so yeah, Rachel Kushner, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams. Elizabeth Hardwick and Didion, of course. Don DeLillo and Virginia Woolf, but they are the canon. This summer I read Sylvia Townsend Warner and now want to read all of her. Zadie Smith. Every time there’s an essay of hers in the New York Review of Books it feels like this glorious event, capital E.
Rail: I know a lot of fiction writers who don't want to write essays, or do any literary journalism or interviews or anything of the sort because it makes them too self-conscious.
Hoby: I find it all feeds me. I mean you know I just read The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. It's like, the best novel I have read. I couldn't handle it. I felt this intense vertigo. And I read a lot, but it was like staring at the sun; you can't really look at it—it’s just so bright. It's just really this work of genius. I love that thing that you have in the following week, the residue of the voice. I would love to write like her. She's a genius. But I think it all evens out. ‘Cause even if I am doing a bad Don DeLillo impression for three days, in the edit it will become like me again. I don't worry.
Rail: Often, when you think you're being inspired by a writer, it’s in a way that no one is going to be able to see but you.
Hoby: I agree. I think this particular example might be a female thing, but it’s like looking in the mirror, and you have this tiny zit and you think, “Oh my god this is unsightly. I look despicable,” but no one else even sees it. But it's because you know your own face so hideously well that you feel like everyone will be shielding their eyes. It’s the same with fiction. Luckily no one is going to read it knowing your own faults as well as you do.
Rail: Can you talk a bit about sex work in the novel?
Hoby: Okay, I have a funny story at this juncture. Well—mildly funny, let’s not hype it too much. Very early on, I was approaching the end of a first draft, and I was talking to a friend's girlfriend who asked about the book. I wasn’t very used to talking about it, so I began with saying it was about a teenage girl who does unconventional sex work. And this friend just instantly got the wrong end of the stick, and she thought I was writing, you know, 50 Shades of Grey or something. She was all, “Hermione, just cash in, get your money, girl” that kind of vibe. And I felt like a parody of an English person because I just didn't know what to say. It’s not like I could put my monocle in and clear my throat and grandly say, “Actually no, I am aspiring to literary fiction.” I just didn't quite know how to disabuse her of this idea. I mean maybe I have written smut.
Rail: No, that would not be a reasonable description of the novel. But Kate's feelings about smut are integral to the book. She gets into an intense argument about porn.
Hoby: Yeah, hmm, what can I say about that? I think even in this supposedly woke era, sex work still has an incredibly outdated moralistic tinge surrounding it—that belief that there is something morally questionable about it is tenacious and so troublesome. I see this even from people who consider themselves progressive. I mean, I have very mixed feelings about porn. Intellectually, in the abstract, I am of course pro-porn because, you know I am pro-sex, pro-sexual expression, anti-shame, all of that. And yet financial and psychological exploitation happens in all industries, and although women in porn do actually tend to be paid better than their male counterparts, that doesn’t make it a feminist utopia.
But these sorts of questions—of agency and sexual power—felt very urgent to me in my twenties. I think this book is sort of the book of my twenties. Just working out the contours of my own feminism and what I had to work out—what I had to consciously learn or relearn. When I was thirteen or fourteen, for example, the term “slut-shaming” didn't exist yet. And you know, the word “slutty” was used in an unthinking way—it was both something to aspire to and something to denigrate. And that's fucked up.
I mean this all feels very different in this particular moment—you know, this great boner-killer of a moment. This great reckoning, which I welcome. How wonderful that these entitled, unthinking, despicable men are being chucked out and replaced by remarkable women. That isn't to say I haven't experienced—and I know that every other woman I know has experienced—a great deal of pain at this particular moment. This process has been sending us all sifting back through our whole lives and reevaluating moments and situations. I’ve been thinking about the cultural ramifications, too. If for example the Weinstein company is going to be exclusively women, that's going to have an enormous and glorious impact on Hollywood.
And I wonder to what extent a generation’s heterosexual-norms were founded, in part, on the films of Harvey Weinstein, in which relationships between men and women were most likely configured as dynamics of predation. I’ve been thinking, for example, of that scene in which Joseph Fiennes is disrobing Gwyneth Paltrow, and her breasts are bound like a boy, and he just kind of pulls the bandage and spins her into nakedness. And she didn't ask him! There’s no consent in the moment, and that might sound terribly po-faced and humorless but I really think we all need to reconfigure consent, narrativise it, as part of romance, not just correctness. I’ve been thinking that there must have been so many moments like this in film that have informed our sexuality and our ideas about desirability in subtly fucked up ways. I’ve also been realizing that it’s possible to be highly politically conscious and yet have not examined those things at the personal, psychological, and emotional levels. We can all feel quite righteous and clear about these things in the abstract, but it’s so much harder to actually interrogate whether one might be unconsciously or semi-consciously enacting those sorts of problematic power structures or power imbalances in one's own life. Desire is such a weird thing in that way because so often it's because we feel desire for someone else because we know they desire us, right? And that’s just so tricky.
I have said to straight female friends that it makes no sense to be a straight woman under patriarchy. At a structural, political level, it makes no sense. How do we live an entirely uncompromised life in a compromised world, a world in which patriarchy has affected more than we can realize, in ways that we're probably not even fully conscious of?
Rail: Which brings us back to Bill. It felt to me as I was I reading your book like he was the only man I was reading about who was not engaging in non-consensual behavior. He was probably the best middle-aged man I was reading about all fall.
Hoby: Oh, good! I do have a lot of affection for Bill. I don't want him to be the clichéd lech, the older man dating younger women. Bill reads, and he's politically aware, and he's raising a teenage girl, so he's definitely aware of what it means to be young and female in a predatory world. I think he probably is having that same thing of politics being easier at the level of politics but much harder and messier at the level of the personal. It's harder to see and to unlearn and to rebuild oneself. I mean, when I talked about his sort of redemption earlier, I don't think that has much to do with his relationships with women but more with himself and his sense of self and, you know, loving the world.
Rail: Loving the world?
Hoby: Yeah, I wonder what I mean by that. I guess I’m thinking of when he's walking down Broadway and he's almost performing his own misanthropy to himself. Which is of course so easy to do, particularly on Broadway in the summer. When Trump was elected I had this strange thing. The book was long finished by then, but I could hear Bill’s voice in my head, I could picture him watching CNN and fulminating. I wanted to know what he’d say. I think it's hard to love the world, and it gets harder the older you get, but that it’s also, well, our duty and our salvation. To stay awake to it. It’s particularly hard if you've had your moment and that moment is over. I didn't really want any of the three characters to fully transform. I wanted there to be a sense that they're going to go on and change after the book ends. It felt too pat or neat to have them undergo a very explicit or legible transformation.