Courtney Maum’s first novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, landed her on a slew of “Best of 2014” lists, and her latest, Touch, continues her exploration of relationships and love by telling the story of Sloane Jacobsen, one of the world’s top trend forecasters, who is hired by tech company Mammoth to lead their annual conference applauding consciously childless couples. They hope Sloane will push them into new technological directions, but she instead begins to question the use of devices, deciding consumers will soon rally against them. This causes her to butt heads not only with Mammoth’s owner, but also with her lover, Roman, who considers himself a “neo-sensualist” and predicts the death of touch in sexual encounters. It’s a warm, smart, funny novel that’s bound to create conversation amongst readers.
Since Touch speaks to the importance of face-to-face conversation, Courtney and I decided to meet at her home in northwest Connecticut one cool, rainy afternoon to discuss her writing, beliefs, and how we can all do a better job of paying attention.
The Millions: I know your first book had a long life before it was published. What was the genesis of this novel?
Courtney Maum: When I looked back two or three years ago, I noticed that for all of my friends, without exception, our friendships were being devastated because of our cell phones. We’d be out at a café and our phones were on the table. I became friends with my friends and also their phones, which were always there. And then gradually over those two or three years the phones were held upright, and they were taking photos and branding our interactions and we were on people’s timelines and Instagram feeds.
Not that I’m perfect. Not that I go around everywhere with a typewriter or something. I’m a modern person too.
TM: You don’t carry your record player to the café?
CM: I do carry my record player to the café. [Laughs.]
But I think what led me to write the book, what really drove me nuts — more than that we were all distracted — was watching people who were bright and creative — fashion designers and photographers and painters — people who were creative and paid to make decisions become incapable of making decisions. If they were hungry, they went for their phones right away to tell them what to eat and where to eat it. My single friends, instead of looking around at a bar and feeling things out, would instead be staring into their phones, swiping left and right and giggling about what someone looked like in their photo. And I started wondering: what is becoming of human instinct? I tried to find a structure and a way to turn my question into a book, and it didn’t happen until I found the main character’s job, which is a trend forecaster, a job I used to do.
Once I gave myself permission to tap into those memories of what that job had been like, then things started to come together.
TM: How does the timeliness of the book play out, considering our political climate and failure at day-to-day interactions?
CM: Having any published work out post-November 2016 feels like a huge risk. You never know what’s coming. But if there’s a silver lining to having a book about smartphone addiction under this current political reign, with a president who is addicted to his smartphone, is that it may make people who don’t consider themselves interested in technology take a second look at how they’re using their own devices, as well as the role of cell phones and the Internet in our personal lives.
I think it’s pretty clear that it’s actual face-to-face connection that’s going to change things going forward. If you look at the success of the protest marches that have occurred — and by success, I don’t mean necessarily that they’ve changed things politically — but it takes a lot to get an American out onto the streets. I say that as someone who lived in Europe for five years, where it takes nothing to get a European out onto the streets. More Americans are marching, and that’s a big deal, so it’s a good time for people to begin reevaluating their relationships with their smartphones. Especially as we arrive in what will be known as the era of AI.
TM: It’s funny, because every semester I have my students write a paper about their relationships with technology, and whether they think their devices impact the ways they function face-to-face. When I first started, I assumed that every paper would be about the merits of technology–
CM: Why’d you think that?
TM: Because they’re always on their phones. But the essays were all pretty negative about technology…
CM: That’s so interesting because I feel like our assumption is to look at people on their phones and to assume that they’re having a positive experience. Even if that’s rarely true! Yesterday, I was writing by hand, (because I now write by hand in the morning in order to not be online), and after 90 minutes of writing I let myself check social media. And inevitably what ends up happening is I come out of that social media rat hole feeling bad about something, and when I go back to my writing, I end up abandoning it, because I’ve lost whatever magical private world I was in when I woke up, whether it’s the news cycle, or it’s something happening within my social circle.
TM: Is it also that immediate influence of other people’s thoughts?
CM: Yeah. It’s so weird that I think of my social media break as a reward. I would never invite a friend over for coffee at 11 in the morning. I try to have my workday run from nine to at least two in the afternoon, so I would never, ever, invite not just one person, but 3,000 into my house to start rattling off at me what they’re doing with their lives. That’s my idea of a nightmare, but I do it virtually.
TM: Many of us do, and now, because I’ve read so many of my students’ negative social media papers, I see them on their phones in a very new way.
CM: That’s interesting. I mean, they could be sitting there with needles in their veins. It’s not necessarily a good thing for them, but they’re doing it anyway. We’re doing it, anyway.
TM: Sloane, your main character, is a trend forecaster. Do you see trend forecasters and storytellers in a similar light?
CM: No, not really. Storytellers seduce you with a narrative, and trend forecasters just announce an outcome, without seduction (although the best ones craft some pretty powerful PowerPoints). You either believe what they’re saying to you, or you don’t, but a trend forecaster is not going to take 300 pages to tell you that off-the-shoulder tops are going to be the big thing for this summer. They’re just going to show you a picture. It’s more immediate, whereas storytelling is slow. But there is a build-up, though, with trend forecasting. This thing you’re learning about…it might not come for many, many years down the road. So you hear about it. And then you have to wait. So I think I’m changing my opinion. There’s a slow seduction to both arts.
TM: Maybe it also has to do with how one views storytelling? Like, are you trying to create something everlasting, or are you driven by something you want to talk about in that moment?
CM: Right. By nature of the job, trend forecasting is seasonal and is rarely told with words; instead it uses film and texture and photography and textiles as accessories. I used to work on trend books, which are these very expensive, giant tomes that look like a crazy person’s scrapbook. Maybe they don’t look like that anymore, but when I started out in the early aughts, these books would have actual swaths of fabric and rubbers and plastics, because they cover not just fashion but also home design. So there’d be chips of porcelain and fans of color and paint swatches, and that’s how they’d tell their story. Now things have changed and you can have a Pinterest board, but when it comes time to tell a company that all the accessories for fall of 2018 need to be charcoal gray, you want to touch things. It’s not enough to go up and tell a story, whereas a storyteller can sway people with words and nothing else.
TM: As someone who works in branding when not writing, how do you brand this book? Did you have the title Touch from the beginning?
CM: No, actually. That title was my editor’s suggestion. Originally it was called The Future, but someone came out with a book using the same name. Then I liked The End of Touch, but my agent thought it was too sad. [Laughs.]
My editor suggested Touch, and I liked it because it was short. My first book’s title was so long. When I first started to think about it, I was a little intimidated, because it felt a little Jonathan Franzen-ian. It’s ballsy to have a one-word title. But I gave myself a pep talk and thought, well, this is what the book is really about: touch screens versus tactile touch. So it’s a perfect title.
I’ve been really lucky as a female novelist that no one at either of my publishers tried to push cheesy-ass covers on me. With both books, the first PDF they showed me was the cover that we have. They just got it right away. In this case, they hired Rodrigo Corral, who’s a demigod in graphic design, and he totally nailed it. I really love the cover.
So the branding is really thanks to my team at Putnam. I wrote the book, but they instinctively “got” it and did a great job.
TM: Another sort of branding: how do you name your characters?
CM: That’s a good question! Sometimes it comes right away and it can’t be anything other than that. Sloane was always Sloane. Roman, for a while, was Romain, but my agent kept calling him “Romaine Lettuce,” and I realized nobody is going to understand what “Romain” sounds like, so he became Roman.
In this book, everybody’s name came easily, but in the thing I’m working on now, no one’s name will stick. I have this terrible manuscript where I’m writing “MC” for “main character,” or “Last Name” because I don’t know what their last name is yet.
Nothing’s continuous throughout the manuscript. It’s a hot, hot mess, but I believe names have power. I went through a phase where I had this mug from a college where I’d attended a writing conference that had the names of graduates I didn’t know, and I’d keep it on my desk and mix and match those names. I moved recently, and that mug is gone. None of my characters will ever have a name again!
TM: You often create worlds within worlds. In Touch, all of these fake products, Roman’s New York Times op-ed, and the porn video Sloane watches are quite detailed. The reader experiences the media that these characters consume in a very real way, which isn’t something you see all of the time in fiction. Why are you drawn to include these kinds of elements?
CM: It would feel completely unnatural for me to not write that way, partly because I do a little screenwriting on the side with my husband, who’s a filmmaker. And I really do love film as a storytelling medium. Sometimes it helps me to understand where the plot is going by watching the film in my head. I specifically remember, when working on the first novel, that when Richard was getting his installation ready, I was watching him, almost as an employee in a hardware shop as he bought this and that. I watched him go into the public Laundromat to try everything out, and I watched him make a mess. I let the reel unspool. For me, writing that way is partly an aid to help me figure out plot.
TM: Many writers could gloss over the storyline of, say, the porn video Sloane watches, yet you take the time to explain it in detail.
CM: Sometimes I go too far with it. It’s awful to say how many hundreds of thousands of words I cut in the different drafts. I can go too deep into the world building. For example, I wrote up corporate structures for the company “Mammoth” in Touch. All of that was cut because it wasn’t necessary, but to not have written, or included, say, Roman’s op-ed would have been a major disservice to the plot. For me, I hope that the layers have purpose and that I’m not simply proving I can do the layers upon layers thing.
TM: Roman’s op-ed, in particular, is a huge character moment.
CM: I didn’t want him only to be a jester. Whether or not you agree with him, I wanted to prove that he’s a thinker.
TM: In Touch, you tie in actual products with those you invent. Is there a balance you have to find to make that work?
CM: There are sometimes legal reasons why you can’t use a company’s name. People writing about Disneyland aren’t calling it Disneyland. Most times, I’ll change the name of something if it carries too much weight, if it has too much of a monopoly of significance. I don’t ever call the phones in the book “iPhones,” for example. I’m trying to create a world where you can imagine whatever you need to, because it’s just a smartphone. If I called it an iPhone, all of a sudden it could feel like Apple owns my book, or that I’m directly criticizing Apple, which I’m not. Also, in Europe, more people are using Androids, and I want it to be ”democratic” in terms of product names.
On the flipside, though, there might be a scene where someone uses Arm & Hammer toothpaste, for example, because using that brand name wouldn’t distract too much from the narrative and it has such a distinctive flavor. It comes down to whether something monopolizes the pace.
It’s true that there are a couple of real apps included in the book, like RunPee. That’s a real thing, and I also include artist Craig Ward, who makes photographs out of bacteria. I used these because reality here can’t be topped. I have a real Davy Rothbart quote in Roman’s op-ed about dating our own computers, which was said incredibly well and fit in the time setting of the novel. The blending of real and imagined is incredibly fun for me.
TM: Does it assist in creating a reality for the novel’s invented products?
CM: I hadn’t thought about that, but it might give some validity to the products discussed in the book. Like, “OK, I recognize some of these.” I never mention Uber. That was a conscious decision, and I’m glad I did that because look what happened with Uber since I wrote the book. Mentioning a current brand time stamps what you’re writing, but with today’s culture, brand value is mercurial. If I had a character drink Pepsi, and it was published right now, instead of being engaged in the chapter, you’d think, “Oh God, how can this character be drinking Pepsi after that awful ad?”
TM: Staying with the theme of connectedness within the book, I want to talk about how you’re trying to embrace these ideas.
CM: I believe in In-Personism and face-to-face interactions and calling people on the phone. I truly think if we had less smartphone addiction, Hillary Clinton would be our president. The fact that we all have these curated realities because of algorithms and preferences means we read what we want to read. We see only posts from our friends. We’re not exposed to things we don’t want to see.
With The Cabins, a creative retreat I’m running for the second time this year, I purposely try to find places with shitty Internet. It’s become a luxury to sit around with others for three or four days to talk about whatever — art or writing or pop culture — without the interruption of our phones.
We don’t understand what’s happening with our neighbors anymore. We need to all pay more attention to each other and take the pulse of what’s happening, because we’ve misunderstood a lot.