Jardine Libaire’s searing second adult novel White Fur is electric with sex appeal, grit, lust, fury, temptation—all the trappings of a first love. In what could be interpreted as a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, a young man and a young woman from disparate backgrounds fall in love, despite everyone warning them not to. Although Elise Perez and Jamey Hyde are next-door neighbors in New Haven, they come from different worlds. Elise grew up in a housing project without a father and didn’t graduate from high school; Jamey is a junior at Yale, heir to a private investment bank fortune and beholden to high family expectations. Nevertheless, the attraction is instant, and what starts out as sexual obsession turns into something greater, stranger, and impossible to ignore.
The unlikely couple moves to Manhattan in hopes of forging an adult life together, but Jamey’s family intervenes in desperation, and the consequences of staying together are suddenly severe. And when a night out with old friends takes a shocking turn, Jamey and Elise find themselves fighting not just for their love, but also for their lives. White Fur follows these indelible characters on their wild race through Newport mansions and downtown NYC nightspots, SoHo bars and WASP-establishment yacht clubs, through bedrooms and hospital rooms, as they explore, love, play and suffer. Jardine Libaire’s gorgeously written novel perfectly captures the ferocity of young love. Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Jardine to discuss how she updated a timeless tale, fleshed out her characters and wrote about sex in a compelling way.
Read It Forward: You’ve written a story about two people from very different socioeconomic backgrounds drawn to each other despite their families’ major objections. What’s so compelling for readers about a star-crossed lover story?
Jardine Libaire: I think it can be related to in a few different ways. You’ve either been there on a minor level, even if it was one date or relationship, or it can represent something that you’ve experienced in another part of your life. There’s something about being doomed that is sexy. I think it’s why people break up and make up. When something is finite, it makes it precious. You become so aware of what you have.
RIF: So how did the idea for your novel White Fur come to you?
JL: I’ve been thinking a lot about this because, unfortunately, if I talk about the way the novel came to me, it almost spoils the novel! So it’s hard to talk about with anybody who hasn’t read it yet. But I will say I really became obsessed with what a double suicide is and why on Earth two people would think that was a good idea, let alone a beautiful idea, let alone something out of destiny, out of love. The more I thought about that premise, of two people who are not allowed to be together in the world that they live in, it started to mesh with all this other thinking that was preoccupying me about social class—who we’re allowed to be and who has the power to transcend it and what it takes.
I also have a butterfly fetish and I found this little antique book that was written around 1912. It was about caterpillars and butterflies and there was this one line about how a caterpillar has to turn to liquid before it reassembles itself according to the blueprint that’s already inside it. This is going to sound so silly, but I really thought that the caterpillar just like, morphed and grew wings. The fact that it has to become nothing before it can then recreate itself was just so beautiful.
RIF: And that it knows internally what it’s destined to become.
JL: In its cells. But it has to be eradicated first.
RIF: In writing your characters, did you have a better sense of Elise or Jamey, before you started?
JL: They both crept up on me in steps. He went two steps ahead of her, then she caught up and went a step ahead of him. So much of the process of writing this book was about coming to a certain point and realizing that one of the characters was not real enough. I would spend some time free writing to find out who Jamey was and then add a couple of details. Then he would be real for that stage of things. And then I’d do the same for Elise. At different points, they were both in the lead for who I knew better.
RIF: Adding those flashbacks of their past and their memories really enriched their characters for me. Like when his feet are cold as he’s looking for oysters in the bay…
JL: …Or when she’s buying diapers and is like, oh, I forgot the beer and has to return. All of those add that little layer of where they come from. Those are things that come to you like a dream and you’re like, oh, that’s what she did. That diaper scene came from the Sesame Street skit where the child is like, I got to get the eggs, got to get the butter, got to get the milk. There was a little pneumonic song and I added beer to it.
RIF: Of course. All the basic staples.
RIF: After Jamey drops out of Yale, the couple moves from New Haven to Manhattan. The city is so gritty in 1980, it almost acts as like a great equalizer for the couple—like they’re now on the same footing. Was that intentional?
JL: Yeah. I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if you took them out of this little nest of intellectual elitism that Jamey was in. She was still more displaced than he was in New Haven but she had her roommate and friend Robbie. When they’re in SoHo, he’s in a different New York than the New York he grew up in. So that makes him slightly new to the world and she’s definitely new to the world. I think he still is more comfortable than she is. I don’t think they are both strangers in a land until they get to India.
RIF: Why did you choose to have these very different settings? We go from New Haven to Manhattan, to Wyoming and then, right, a touch of India at the very end.
JL: I spent a summer at Yale and took a writing class with Tom Perrotta. I was 17 and even though I’d grown up on Long Island and spent a lot of time in New York City, there was something about New Haven that was more violent or upsetting. I remember a homeless man who was mentally ill threw a brick at me one day. There was this clash of people that was very immediate. You went from poverty to this wonderland, this majestic castle of a university. New York had so many little rabbit holes to use where they could play things out. And then Wyoming, I think I have this kind of Kerouacian idea of what America is, what the frontier is, and how you discover yourself in this country. I spent a lot of time in Wyoming and that seemed to be the right place to do that experiment.
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RIF: After reading that first chapter, I thought, “What is going to happen?” for the remainder of the book. “When are they going to get to Wyoming and how is it all going to crumble?” You paint such a beautiful transition of how they end up with her clutching this gun. It’s so not what I thought it would be initially.
JL: Good. I think that’s how it should go.
RIF: There are some ways that our families, especially our parents, maintain this hold on us for our entire lives. And Elise and Jamey—in different ways—are both trying to outrun where they came from. But are they ever entirely successful? Can we ever leave where we came from?
JL: That’s a really good question. I think that what they’ve done is both beautiful and dangerous because by cutting themselves off entirely, it can be a matter of losing part of one’s self that is too precious to have let go of. But for them, it really felt like life or literally death. So they did it. The dream is that they could return one day empowered by having found themselves. I think that that is a trajectory that some people’s lives take. You really do have to say goodbye and mean it, to then be able to come back.
RIF: Even though it’s set in the 80’s, there are threads in this book that almost reference a lot of current headlines, which is wild. The couple goes to this transformative Prince concert and we recently just said goodbye to Prince. Was he a huge part of your own life?
JL: Oh my God, yes.
RIF: And then the penultimate, climatic scene happens in Trump Tower. Was that at all intentional or just did little sparks find their way into your 80’s setting?
JL: Little sparks. I mean, Prince, I just revere him above all others. All mortals in general, he’s the number one. He’s the saint. And I have always thought that of him since I was 13.
RIF: He doesn’t age.
JL: He’s not a man or a woman. He’s everything, he’s everyone. I listened to him when I first went to boarding school and got introduced to a ton of stuff all at once. It was the first seed of something kind of sexual and also innocent. “Starfish and Coffee” is so innocent. I don’t know. He seemed to be the perfect person for Elise to revere because that represents to me so much of who she is. I had no idea that we would lose him, it’s so heartbreaking. Then Trump Tower, I went there once in, I think it was probably ’88, so I just linked it to this period of time. And it’s always stood as this landmark of 80’s gauche —
RIF: Yeah [Laughing]. Gold and opulence.
JL: Yeah, and the sickness of that. The girl who lives there in the book is demented. She’s so materially spoiled that she’s basically insane. And she lives in this tower.
RIF: It was very prescient of you in a weird way.
JL: And sad, too, totally sad. [Laughing]
RIF: But that moment at the Prince concert knits them together in this unexplainable way. That is a turning point for this couple. And in the snippets of lyrics, I could feel your love for Prince coming through the page.
JL: I’m so glad. It’s adoration.
RIF: Parts of this book are seriously sexy. I was reading on the subway and I was hoping people weren’t reading over my shoulder—I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved it. Were those scenes fun to write?
JL: It was, although I recently sent my brother a copy and I’m like, I’m sorry.
RIF: Oh, that’s so funny.
JL: My life in Austin is very protected and very private and as I’m starting now to talk about this book I’m like, God, did I think no one was going to read it? It really felt like a private document of some sort, and I’m glad that I felt that way because it allowed me to take chances. I was interested in specifically writing about love and sex together in ways that are not what I’ve seen. In ways that feel real to me and not contrived. There’s tons of pulpy stuff in here that isn’t completely natural, organic realism. It’s not like I’m against magical kind of details but within those, I also wanted sex that was real. That’s what I kept coming back to. What are the raw, tiny living organisms of this love story that won’t make it feel stale or canned or like you’ve heard it a million times?
RIF: Did you feel like you had to write these scenes to really show their magnetic chemistry in order for their relationship to evolve into something even greater?
JL: I did. And for it to be palpable, like you are there. You don’t hear about it afterward or have a premonition of it before, you are there during all of it. I think it serves to show their real connection and then it also anchored the transgressions they’re making. Those are the steps they are taking to outgrow what they’ve been assigned to be. The sex should sometimes be silly and in a way, it should be gratuitous, but it’s also hopefully tied down into deeper meaning about liberty and play and the evolution of a person—their journey basically.
RIF: So, Matt is Jamey’s asshole roommate who seems completely threatened by Jamey’s attraction to Elise.
JL: Poor Matt.
RIF: Why is this? Is he just worried about being displaced from his best friend’s life or does he have more sinister plans at work here?
JL: I think he’s threatened by being displaced. I feel like I have felt that way—I’ve been jealous when a friend falls madly in love with somebody and you’re like, oh, you’re gone. They don’t get you anymore. Then there’s another layer of it that I’ve definitely seen before. I think it’s one of those keys to understanding class warfare, too. He hates her. Matt hates Elise. He thinks she’s disgusting. In ways that are so irrational but I feel like the more we investigate it and see how it feels and looks for people to have that face-off, the more you’re like, so that’s what it is. That’s what hatred is. That’s what class warfare is. It’s suspicion. It’s sensing differences in language and then suddenly using that to crucify somebody. And why? Why do we do that?
RIF: He won’t give her a chance. She was never going to get a chance.
JL: She was just a stereotype from minute one. Jamey played with that, too. That was how he was going to protect himself from being vulnerable towards her and close to her. And I think that’s how we sometimes use class difference—to protect ourselves. Like, I don’t want to feel compassionate to you. I don’t want to see that you are suffering or that you’re human.
JL: It’s easier for me to make you a sound bite and a voting statistic.
RIF: Like tunnel vision. I mean, it’s playing out now, today.
JL: It is, for sure. It’s mysterious. I can read accounts and scholarly breakdowns of what’s happening and then you can read poetry that has dealt with this over the decades and still, putting it all together, I find it mysterious. Are we just tribal? I don’t know.
RIF: Do you have a favorite scene in the book?
JL: Oh, God. Oh, one… There’s something about when she goes into the house with Jamey and Matt for the first time and she is afraid, but she acts like she’s not. She says I’m going to burn your house down. It’s very silly of her, but it was the first moment that I really started to understand who she was. I don’t know if it’s my favorite but it was a very hopeful moment. I was like, oh my God, I see who she might be. And that’s exciting—to have your way in and realize that there’s something to follow.
Author Photo: © Justine Gilcrease