Sensory Overload: The Millions Interviews Liska Jacobs

-

I first met Liska Jacobs in 2016, when she was the events coordinator at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, where I had the book launch for my poetry collection Emergency Brake. In the six years since, she’s published three excellent novels: Catalina, The Worst Kind of Want, and her latest, The Pink Hotel. Jacobs’s novels are sexy and atmospheric and often center on someone spiraling out, toeing the edge of some abyss and teetering on a knife’s edge of pleasure and abjection.

With the The Pink Hotel, Jacobs has written a dark and seductive literary satire. The novel takes place at a luxury hotel in Los Angeles amid spreading wildfires, riots, and an escalating class war. Small-town newlyweds Keith and Kit Collins arrive at the historic and opulent Pink Hotel for their honeymoon, which quickly transforms into a job interview between Keith and the hotel’s general manager. Ignored by her husband, Kit gets sucked into the bacchanalia of the hotel’s eccentric, uber-wealthy patrons. Meanwhile, Keith must prove himself a worthy hire by catering to the every whim of the hotel’s elite guests, no matter how chaotic or dangerous. Narrated through the alternating lenses of guests and staff, the novel interrogates social hierarchies, climate-change-induced natural disaster, and how power and money can turn a relationship into a pressure cooker.

I spoke with Jacobs about writing socially-conscious fiction, balancing absurdity and realism, and how her writing process has changed between her three novels.

Ruth Madievsky: Your last two novels belong to my favorite genre of literary fiction: acidic women on the verge behaving badly. The Pink Hotel has plenty of those as well, but what made you decide to cast your net wider this time around and write a social satire?

Liska Jacobs: I write from a place of rage—I call it my rage diamond—so acerbic female characters are close to my heart. It’s funny, I didn’t set out to write a social satire. We’re living in strange times. If you listed out just a few things that have happened this year, it reads like satire. Nancy Pelosi officiated Ivy Getty’s wedding; Pete Davidson is in a love triangle with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West; a Ukrainian actor who wrote and starred in a show about becoming the president of Ukraine is now the president of Ukraine. It doesn’t take much to satirize what I think we’re calling late-stage capitalism, though we’ve probably been here for a while. I mean, the idea for The Pink Hotel is inspired by a true event that happened during the 1992 riots: The Beverly Hills elites didn’t feel safe in their mansions, so they gathered in the Polo Lounge where they watched the events unfold on TV, highballs in hand.

RM: The novel’s descriptions of the Pink Hotel—inspired by The Beverly Hills Hotel—and of Los Angeles are so vivid: the wild parrots, the piles of caviar, the poolside vitamin IV drips. What kind of research did you do to fictionalize these real places?

LJ: I wanted the setting to feel almost claustrophobic in its lushness. We’re dealing with the uber-rich and the descriptions needed to reflect the gluttony that goes with hoarding that much wealth. But then, when I was on the final draft, I started to have sensory overload. Part of it was that some of the things that I fictionalized came true. I was writing a book that had wildfires and civil unrest and by the summer of 2020, there were wildfires making the air toxic and citywide curfews to curb protests. At night you could hear flash bangs in the distance. So I accepted a six-month writer’s residency in Chapala, Mexico and left Los Angeles.

Having digested all kinds of material for research—architectural magazines, articles on extravagant parties, tree arbor books of Santa Monica, newspaper clippings of fancy dress balls, not to mention a week-long stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel—I needed some distance. Some breathing space so that all that research could become this heady, fictionalized version of the truth. That’s a long way of saying that I did the research and then removed myself to let memory and imagination take over.

RM: The combination of social unrest, climate-change-induced wildfires, and eccentric ultra-wealthy people with no boundaries trapped in one place prepares the reader for a wild ride. But that doesn’t make the twists, particularly the ending, any less surprising. How did you thread the needle between the absurdity of satire and enough realism for the reader to buy in?

LJ: All the outrageous, unhinged settings in the book—late-night meat parties, orgies, dog parties, black and white balls—have all happened. Even the details like couture face masks. Do you remember when Christian Siriano threw his fashion show in his backyard for New York Fashion Week because Covid was at its height and they “just needed an escape”? The models all had intricately detailed face masks that matched their couture. Nor did I make up the wild animals and plants that take over the Pink Hotel’s ballroom. That was based on the Vanderbilts’ masquerade in the 1880s, which saw potted palms, masses of ferns and ornamental grasses, waterfalls of roses take over their grand hall to turn it into a tropical garden. One of the guest’s costumes consisted of a taxidermy cat head and seven cat tails sewn onto her skirt—that’s a thing that happened in real life!

It was entertaining to collect all this information about what wealthy people do with their wealth, but it also really pissed me off. Especially the way we consume and idolize the world of the rich. The reality of our lives is we’re seeing the erosion of our civil liberties, debt will follow us into the grave, and you can forget about health care. I’m not saying we should go burn down Beverly Hills, but maybe we stop paying our student loans.

RM: What were your lodestar books while writing The Pink Hotel?

LJ: I set out to write a novel that would be some kind of melding of J.G Ballard’s Highrise and Kay Thompson’s Eloise. But as it progressed through rewrites, I turned to Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind and Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible—both incredible novels.

RM: You’ve worked with the same editor, Daphne Durham, on all three of your novels. What has it been like to grow as a writer and build your career in that context?

LJ: I’ve been very lucky. Daphne’s also a fan of women on the edge. I think she must have a rage diamond too. We’re kindred spirits that way. I honestly can’t imagine working with anyone else. She’s very open to my insane ideas. When I pitched her this book, I sounded absolutely crazy—“There’s going to be wildfires and wild cats and an orgy but it’s also a takedown of late-stage capitalism and influencer worship and society’s complicity in our own demise”—but she was all in. And then I remember at some point after I turned the book in, I kept referring to it as being “ambitious,” and she said to stop calling it ambitious because I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. Writers everywhere should all be so lucky as to have someone like that in their corner.

RM: My debut novel is coming out in July 2023, and I can’t fathom how one replicates the process of writing a novel a second time, let alone a third. What was the experience of writing your third novel like compared to your first and second?

LJ: Yes, congratulations! I’m very excited to read All-Night Pharmacy. I felt similarly bewildered after Catalina. Looking back at the process of writing a novel is incredibly daunting. But when you’re in the thick of it, nothing else matters. It’s like being in a fugue state. I’ll sacrifice pretty much anything to get the words right and to hit the finish line. When I was writing The Worst Kind of Want, I was at the desk for so long I was wearing compression stockings and wrist guards and twice I had to get steroid injections in my fingers from swelling. After that novel I swore I’d take better care of myself but then when I needed to finish writing The Pink Hotel, I sold all my belongings and moved out of the country. So I’m not sure if writing my third novel was much different than the first two—maybe just a different kind of crazy. Every novel has to be its own adventure.