Wednesday 12 February 2014

Representation is Powerful - Zoe Pilger on Eat My Heart Out

Zoe Pilger's debut novel Eat My Heart Out is a wild gonzo satire of East London hipsters, chick lit and 21st century feminism, seen through the eyes of narrator Ann-Marie, a university drop-out who finds herself taken under the wing of the media intellectual Stephanie Haight. Released this month, it has received excited reviews, and has been compared to the early work of Martin Amis and Bret Easton Ellis. Ms Pilger is based in London, and works as The Independent's art critic. Here, she talks about her novel, Amy Winehouse, anger and more... 

Q. Eat My Heart Out has already generated a lot of discussion on social media ahead of its release - have you been surprised by the reaction so far?

A. I have been surprised – I had no idea how people would respond to the book. For four years, my editor and publisher Hannah Westland was almost the only person who I showed my fiction to. I always hoped that people would engage with the ideas in it, and that it would generate debate about feminism.
Q. There's a lot of anger in Ann-Marie's narrative (some of it very focussed - some of it less so!) - is that indicative of your mind-set whilst you were writing?
A. No – I wrote the book in a very controlled way. I was also writing a lot of art reviews and working on my PhD at the time, so I only had a limited number of hours each day to spend on writing fiction. The restriction helped a lot – it made me focus. For me, writing the character of Ann-Marie was like getting in role – perhaps in a similar way to how an actor might get in role for a play. I always felt that writing in the first person was like performing (although you are alone and typing on your lap-top, rather than on a stage with an audience). Particularly because there is a lot of emphasis on voices in the novel – both her voice and the conversations around her. And she is very theatrical!
Q. Ann-Marie and Stephanie both make references to Amy Winehouse throughout the novel, although it seems like she means different things to each of them - what do you think makes her so important to Ann-Marie's generation?
A. I saw Amy Winehouse play at The Junction in Cambridge when I was 20. She was a year older than me and her first album, Frank, really expressed what it meant to be a young woman growing up in London at that time. I always loved her rawness, her energy, the poetry of her lyrics, and I thought it was a terrible tragedy that she died. For me, she belongs to the tradition of female artists, like Janis Joplin, who stepped outside of what Stephanie Haight would call The Symbolic, who didn’t conform to conventional ideas of female beauty, who expressed something very true about the female experience with pathos and rage, and who were punished as a result. How and why they were punished is complex. While Ann-Marie identifies with Amy Winehouse, Stephanie views her as a kind of martyr.

Q. Eat My Heart Out opens with a parody of a conventional rom-com set-up; in your acknowledgments you talk about the creative freedom Serpent's Tail gave you, but do you think elsewhere in the publishing industry writers are being encouraged to follow traditional, 'safe' subjects at the moment?

A. I feel very lucky to be part of Serpent’s Tail, which has given me complete creative freedom. This is very rare. I think there is great pressure elsewhere in the industry on both writers and publishers to produce books that cater to a pre-established market. In regards to writing by women, this is a charged and political issue. Chick-lit, women’s magazines, rom-coms are all responsible for creating a vision of what it means to be a woman that in turn affects women’s own sense of themselves. I don’t believe that women are simply brainwashed by these mass-produced narratives, but representation is powerful; it influences the status quo. If the dominant narratives about women’s lives insist that finding a man is paramount, then that will shape expectations. If other, more questioning narratives are allowed space, then our sense of what’s possible will widen. Of course this is dangerous (in a good way).

Q. The novel makes much of the generation gap between Stephanie's generation of feminists, growing up in the 60s, and the modern equivalent - do you think there's a way to bridge this gap, or have developments like the internet changed life too much?
A. The freedoms of my generation (I am 29) are due to the struggles of generations of women that came before – from equal pay to abortion and contraception rights. I am greatly influenced by so many feminist books, from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to Jessica Benjamin’s Bonds of Love. However, I think every generation needs to build a feminist consciousness of its own – varied and contradictory as it may be. I’m so glad that a new feminist wave is emerging at the moment. There is a hunger for feminism now among young women, which feels urgent. I think the gap is “bridged” by continuing to engage with feminist ideas, but insisting on creating them afresh.

Q. Which modern writers do you most enjoy reading at the moment?
A. I really liked Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, which is about the wives of modernist writers. And I just read a brilliant biography of Dorothy Parker by Margaret Meade called What Fresh Hell Is This? I also just read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest for first time, as research for my next novel. And I’m looking forward to reading Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life. I think this is a really exciting time for writing by women. Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen2014 is a fantastic project – promoting female writers and challenging the dominance of men in the literary world.
Q. What's your writing routine - do you go out, stay in, listen to music, stay in silence...?
A. I only ever write at home, at my desk. I write best after I’ve just done exercise, which always clears my mind and gives me new ideas. I listen to a lot of music between writing, but never during. I used to work best at night; I wrote the first draft of Eat My Heart Out at night. I found that I could think better when everyone else was asleep. But these days I keep regular daylight hours. And I watch a lot of films for inspiration when I’m writing. 
Q. What are you working on next?
A. I’ve just finished writing the second chapter of my second novel, which is about a romance writer who gets locked in a mental asylum for pushing against the bounds of the genre. I’ve become very interested in the idea of genre since the book has come out. And I’m planning a non-fiction non-academic book based on my PhD research on romantic love, sadomasochistic power relations, and feminism.  

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