Chiara Barzini and Annie DeWitt are friends who both recently just published their debut novels—but that’s not where their similarities end. They both come from parents who spent time as nudists and they both hung out at communes while researching their novels. Annie went from the U.S. to Europe to visit a commune in Spain while researching for her second novel and Chiara traveled from Europe to the U.S. to visit a commune in Topanga Canyon to do research for her first novel. The two writers say down to discuss Los Angeles, their similar protagonists, the intercontinental research process, hippie communes, and absent family boundaries.
Annie DeWitt: One of the many fierce enchantments of your book, Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, is the way in which you embody this place—Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating. Early on in the novel, Max, neighbor of Phil Collins (the narrator’s parents’ go-to friend for yard-sale bling), says of LA, “The magic of this city is not the mansions but in the smell of the cedar trees that are planted in front of them. It’s not the beautifully tiled pools but in the way the sunlight reflects on the water in them. It’s what keeps people here. The luminous unseen.” I loved this phrase as it seems to describe the mirage of LA itself—a kind of haunted specter without a human soul, a place that offers both everything and nothing. One of the things I love about your description of this place is the way in which the city becomes Eugenia’s first friend and foe. I wondered if you’d talk a bit about that phrase—the luminous unseen. It seems to be what this family is in search of, from the SPAM commercial they do in Italy, where the father in “pink and aquamarine shorts” who “calls himself an anarchist and practiced Yoga and Transcendental Meditation” plays a more patriarchal version of himself, to the films he creates after moving to LA with his tortured art student who gets off on necromancer movies, is a Hitler fantastic, has two-minute sex with our narrator on her “spree” and eventually suffers an “episode” of mental breakdown. How did you conceive of this phrase—the luminous unseen and the dangers it possesses?
Chiara Barzini: I see the “luminous unseen” as something intangible and otherworldly that has a component of shine and of danger, a magnetic pull, but also a double-edged sword. In Los Angeles, I think there’s something about the light and the hidden promises behind the private hedges that pulls you in but can also deceive you. In Hollywood, right when you think you’ve got something, it slips away from your grasp. And you would know about this kind of special light because White Nights in Split Town City opens up with a similar image with the poem “When” by Sharon Olds: a mother and daughter seeing the upper rim of a gold ball that rises and glows and blossoms and rises… I think that’s her and your own atomic version of the “luminous unseen”…
AD: These parents! The narrator calls them by their first names: Serena and Ettore. I got such a kick out of this. I called my parents by their first names in high school, as a way of kind of humanizing them. It seemed natural to me—my parents were very much their own humans with their own wants and needs. I remember a southern friend’s mother laughing out loud at this. The mother in your story strikes me as similar to the one I was trying to capture in White Nights. The narrator is often forced to mother her own mother, who, while charming, is constantly on the verge of a dramatic episode and seems a bit lost in her understanding of how to be maternal. I remember feeling shocks early on by reviewers’ reaction to parents such as this. The words “neglected” and “permissive” parents “with a complete lack of boundaries” kept showing up in reviews. I was laughing out loud and thinking, “What? I wish!” I wondered if you’ve had similar responses and how you deal with them seeing as are now a mother yourself?
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CB: I completely related to the “lack of boundaries” theme of White Nights and felt so much compassion for Jean’s reaction to her mother’s sudden absence. Our main characters, Jean and Eugenia, are only a few years apart, but I see them as having a similar form of resilience. There is a blissed-out ignorance to youth. Jean’s parents might be selfish, absent, distracted and gone, but mostly Jean takes it as a fact rather than a tragedy, which is a similar reaction to Eugenia’s. I think this is a common component of women in general. We are able to endure so much without veering into self-pity. And I would know about this because I come from Italy, the land of self-pitying men! I definitely think the readers were much more scandalized by Eugenia’s parents than I was.
AD: One of my favorite scenes is the one in which the mother, Serena, takes the family to North Dakota as a way of “paying tribute to the people who originally inhabited it.” She, like the mother in White Nights, seems to be obsessed with understanding a fake kind of “news” / engaging with world politic on a kind of surface level. The mother in White Nights becomes obsessed with images of the Desert Storm and imagines herself as a newscaster. Your mother “made a Thanksgiving trip of it and visited the battlefield of the Wounded Knee Massacre of the Lakota at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.” The mother makes the family dress all in white to “pay tribute to the deceased souls of the Lakota.” The brother has to wear his father’s old boxers, the Sicilian grandmother refuses to wrap up in a white bedsheet for fear of getting arrested for being “naked again” (after their topless sunbathing incident in Malibu), and the narrator dons a pair of “yellowing thermal pajamas from the Salvation Army.” What emerges is a wonderfully tragicomic scene that feels straight out of a movie about LA. I wondered if you might talk about Eugenia’s experiences that night when [SPOILER ALERT] she decides to run away and returns to the Lakota reservation with a man she finds nude in the hotel pool. He seems to kidnap her in his truck for the night, gets her drunk and high on peyote and eventually violates her in the woods while she hallucinates about the Lakota throwing American chicken nuggets in the fire.
CB: I love this other parallelism with your character, Jean’s, mother. Superficiality is a way for adults to deal with big, scary themes and now that I am an adult, I see those tendencies in myself. Rather than engage with the news when it’s too painful to sustain, I fantasize about a different life, just like Jean’s mother. My character’s mother, Serena, is committed to understanding the pains of Native Americans on the reservation, yet she books her family a suite in a horrific casino on the reservation’s grounds where they actually celebrate Thanksgiving, the most anti-Native American holiday ever! Eugenia is running towards danger and escaping from her family also—or maybe precisely because—she judges her mother’s superficiality.
AD: Beyond the parents’ artistic leanings, the book examines many forms of alternative communities from Topanga Canyon to the volcanic island on the tip of the Aeolian archipelago in Sicily, where the kids are shipped off one summer to visit their aunt and uncle who inhabit a kind of hippie existence there, living off the land, bathing in the ocean, relying on donkeys to carry food up the precarious mountain passes which are not traversable by car. I was just in Spain researching a commune there called Beneficio for my next novel. I was struck by your description of a similar community in Sicily inhabited by expats: “Naked on the rocks by the sea, the Germans looked like dying bulls with sagging sacks and flat asses. They brought homemade picnics with them, complaining the panini at the alimentari cost a fortune. My uncle and Alma conversed with them, sometimes partly undressed, sometimes completely nude—depending on whether my brother and I were around.” I wondered if you, like me, had ever considered returning to these communities. They have such a magnetic pull. The idea of living in harmony with nature, outside of society’s arbitrary boundaries has always appealed to me. I, too, had nudist parents, so we have that in common.
CB: Gotta love nudist parents! As much as there is a teasing sense of ridicule at play when talking about aged naked bodies, I actually am so happy and proud of having grown up with a liberated sense of the naked form. It just got rid of so many anxious layers that have to do with shame and guilt. I’ve seen it all hang out since I was a kid and that’s made me very tolerant about whatever it is that is hidden under the garments of strangers. I think connecting to nature is crucial for all writers and that is what I have loved about your work and your research process. The idea of inhabiting alternative communities as “research” is sometimes just an excuse to allow ourselves to live those lives that inform our work, but also, evidently our soul and our character. When I saw your Instagram photos from Beneficio, I had an almost physical reaction to them. I just felt like that was absolutely the best place where you could be to start off your new book. Also, I admire you so much for choosing to live a country life. I did it for many years in the countryside near Rome in a remodeled barnyard and they were, by far, the happiest years of my life!
AD: One of the things I admire so much about your narrator Eugenia is her rebelliousness, her desire to seek out the world. She’s a bit of a rebel. She confronts danger, violence, and sex, head-on. One of the things I encountered many times with White Nights was the sort of confounded critique from readers that Jean often experiences similar scenes of violence and sex at an early age and yet seems to have no reaction to them. It seems that reviewers and readers expect female narrators to be immersed in a kind of pseudo-psychology. There is a kind of cult of victimization, which I wanted to avoid with White Nights. I feel as though your narrator is here is similar. She often talks about putting on her “rubber interior” as a way of not feeling what is happening to her. She experiences the death of a friend to a drive-by shooting, loses her virginity to a much older man who violates her in the woods of North Dakota, and often has sex with “ugly” men for who she has no feeling. The idea of a young female narrator encountering the world with such brazen “unfeelingness” seems to be an affront to readers, whereas this idea exists in so much of European literature I’ve enjoyed. Duras’ The Lover comes to mind. I wonder if you’ve had similar feedback from readers?
CB: I could not agree with you more on this! So many readers complain about the way Eugenia faces her sexuality without understanding her experiences, confusing the character’s misadventures and her risky choices with a statement about how all girls should go through their sexual awakening. They are two very different things. I admire Eugenia and Jean for making mistakes and running headlong into the most uncomfortable scenarios and dangers. I don’t recommend it, but I admire their courage and, as we know, the only way to heal from any kind of pain is to go through it, which is precisely what both these girls do.
Featured image: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo. Location: Llanwrda, Carmarthenshire, Wales, UK, United Kingdom, GB, Great Britain. Date taken: 1978.
ANNIE DEWITT is a fiction writer, essayist, and critic. She holds a BA from Brown University and an MFA in fiction from Columbia University School of the Arts. She teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Granta, the Believer, Tin House, Guernica, Esquire, NOON (where an excerpt of this novel first appeared), BOMB, Electric Literature, and the American Reader, among others. Her story “Influence,” which first appeared in Esquire’s Napkin Fiction Project, was recently anthologized in Short: An International Anthology, edited by Alan Ziegler (Persea, 2014). DeWitt was a co-founding editor of Gigantic, a literary journal of short prose and art carried throughout the United States and abroad. She currently pens a bi-monthly nonfiction column about art, literature, film, and criticism for the Believer, called “Various Paradigms.”