Cat Fitzpatrick On Writing a Novel in Verse About Online Spaces

Cat Fitzpatrick

Some books about online communities venture into the science fictional to appropriately describe the goings-on there. Others, from Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts to Elle Nash’s Gag Reflex, adopt the styles and formats of certain online spaces. Cat Fitzpatrick’s novel The Call-Out also wrangles with questions of online discourse, but is likely the only novel to do so while also being written in verse. I spoke with Fitzpatrick on an autumn morning to discuss her novel, art forms, and the excellence of New Jersey.

There’s a reference in The Call-Out to a Bach cantata and the ability to find a contemporary relevance in archaic forms, which feels like a nod to the structure of the novel as a whole. Did the form come first or did the story come first, as you were writing the novel?

The idea of telling a very contemporary story in a non-contemporary style is where I’ve kind of always been at in terms of the kinds of writing I like. I wrote a longish poem that was written in sort of a parody of the style of Wordsworth’s The Excursion about like a trans girl and some cis girls walking along Hadrian’s Wall and having a terrible time. I’ve done a lot of things like this.

I often think, if I was a painter, I would definitely be doing something like Breughel scenes, but of the trans girls’ picnic — or a Brooklyn farmer’s market, but in that Breughel style. Shola von Reinhold has this concept of the necrophiliac, and that is definitely me. I’m always a little bit stuck in the past, and yet here I am living in the present.

I just like that stuff. Honestly, I just like it. I really like rhyme. I just enjoy it and I think, like, why can’t we have it? I know obviously, there is also a situation where you can’t — but you can, you can do it naively. And then you are a conservative and it is a problem, right?

If you are someone who asks, oh, should I love this? And you come to the place of doing it? Then you have to think about what it means to do this, because even if the form is the form and is fun, it also has these connotations or applications. It has this history, and so it’s important not to kind of go into that like naively and instead to kind of think about what that means.

But I also think that very fact opens up a certain possibility for humor. There is something inherently funny in this kind of wrong-headed misguided out-of-place speaker who is using these antiquated forms. And so I think that itself opens up this kind of field and then you might even go a little further than that — there’s a third level.

Someone once said to me something like, “The only thing I know how to do with sonnets is to break them.” I will see your postmodern irony and raise you another level, which is doing this stuff and knowing it’s wrong and still doing it. A level of sheer earnest boneheadedness. I am captured by the past, I cannot escape it. Instead, I attempt to dramatize my own foolishness in the position of capture.

What was the biggest challenge, in terms of making use of the form you did and still having a narrator with a consistent voice?

As I’m reading it at events, I’m like, “Oh my god, what a fucking bitch.” She’s so mean. I think it’s kind of roundabouts, right? It’s got an element of “backwards in heels” about it, right? There’s something aesthetically attractive to me about the idea of being Ginger Rogers in any given situation. Other people can just write a paragraph. And here I am sitting there, cuddling my brains for two hours, trying to think of a rhyme and there were times where that was extremely frustrating. The flip side of this.

There’s also a certain amount of sausage-machine quality to this, or to put it like I’m smart, kind of an Oulipo quality to this. I’m a big George Perec fan. There’s something about that kind of process writing., and the way that process writing takes responsibility out of your hands a little bit. You are the technician, you kind of set up a set of constraints. 

There are actually a lot of constraints in this book apart from the metrical constraints, as well. This is a book that has many forms of constraint in it. Most of them are numerical. 

Tell me more.

Once you’ve set up this elaborate system of constraints, then what you have to do is dance through it. If you carry out all the moves that you’ve planned in advance, at the end of it you will have a book.

Obviously, there are the seasons. There are two chapters of winter, three chapters of spring, four chapters of summer, three chapters of autumn, and two chapters of winter. It follows a year. There are these stanzas at the start and end of every chapter, which pick up the year and put it down. So it’s got a shepherd’s calendar kind of thing.

There’s a basic numeric thing. There are 14 chapters. Every chapter is 21 stanzas and they’re made out of these 14 line things. So there’s seven 14, and 21 within each chapter, and each chapter is broken down into three sections. Each one of those sections is like a towpath. 

There’s a symmetrical thing of which characters appear where in the book — like Henrik Ibesen’s Moral Fables or whatever. There’s a symmetry of where the characters appear. There’s also a symmetry of events. I think that if you compare the events at any point in the book, they’re kind of a mirror.

It’s got a five act structure of course, which is why there’s the five sets of seasons each. And then there’s a bunch of numbers which I don’t want to say too much about. The numbers are encoded in places. You can find them in the book if you look hard. I have a spreadsheet.

One aspect of your book that I found especially interesting is that it’s a novel where there are these elements of literary history baked into the style, but you also use places like the Morgan Library as  settings — so literary history is an element of the the book but also literary history is a place where the characters can go—

— and have have an argument about it! (laughs) Yeah. I’m very literal-minded. What is the right setting for this argument? I don’t have a subtle metaphorical mind; I thought, “Yes, the Morgan Library. Totally.”

Before reading your novel, I had completely forgotten about the existence of Dante’s Peak. And then I remembered — “Oh, right! It’s the mountain movie that isn’t Cliffhanger, with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton!”

It came out like basically the same fucking week as Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones. So there was like a real head-to-head. It was when they were the two asteroid movies. I will say that Volcano has a certain pleasing absurdity to it — like there’s a volcano in Los Angeles and the shit they’re doing, like their version of the canal system. But Dante’s Peak is fucking amazing. It is such a good movie. It is arguably, Pierce Brosnan’s greatest performance. I am completely earnestly a big Dante’s Peak fan.

Also, I was thinking about this character, and people I knew who were like this character, and what they would mention. You’d expect a character to be different from you, right? So you have to give them things that are kind of your taste and also not what is not your taste or whatever. You’re always lending a character a little bit of what they need. But also you need to make sure you’re not lending them everything, because then they’re just you and that’s boring. 

Reading this, there were certain things that seemed like riffs on existing writers or works of literature. At one point, there’s a novel that seems like a riff on or homage to [Imogen Binnie’s] Nevada, for instance. 

Yeah, there is Arizona. I think about how there’s a novel [within the novel] called Arizona; it’s quite funny. (laughs)

All the conferences, I think, are real ones. Even the sperm test app, that is a real thing. You can buy a little thing you put into your phone and then you jizz in it and then the phone does a thing, and it tells you how much sperm you have. It is real. It is really called YO, it actually exists. Maybe it went bankrupt already, but it definitely exists.

Given that I was creating a fictional Brooklyn trans scene, with different people in it than the actual one, I feel like the kind of stuff with Nevada and with the lit readings and stuff was so kind of central to that that it needed to be fictionalized. Stuff that is a little further out from the thing you fictionalized can be left intact. 

It’s like an alternate history, right? If what changes is just something about the trans community at a certain point, probably that doesn’t change Dante’s Peak —but maybe it does change Nevada enough that it becomes Arizona. Obviously there’s an extent to which — I won’t speak for others — certainly the writing I’m doing was made possible by Nevada.

There’s a lot of people who say, “Nevada changed my life in a way where I read it and I came out,” and obviously, that wasn’t the case for me because I’d been out for 13 or 14 years at the point that Nevada came out. So I was already an old bitch at that point, but it definitely changed my understanding of literature and writing.

I thought, “Oh shit, somebody just did it,” and it was a massive grab of freedom in that sense. Certainly for me. So while the narrator is slightly grudging about Arizona, I am certainly not grudging at all about Nevada. It’s fucking brilliant. The narrator is a nastier person than me. At least, I hope I’m not that nasty. 

I did enjoy the occasional digs that the narrator makes at literary events and various things over the course of the book. 

The character organizing the literary event actually is me. I make a cameo in the book and so there is actually me. And then I thought about the worst DM I’ve ever received in my life, this really horrible DM, and then I gave those opinions from that DM to the narrator. Someone sent me a really bitchy direct message. I will not say who. And I thought, “Okay, I’ll give that opinion to the speaker.” If you cannot abuse yourself, why are you even writing a novel?

Another thing that really struck me about the book is the way it captured, from the opening chapters, this sense of being someone who is a member of a group but also finds themselves to be on the outskirts of the group — especially when the people around them are coupling up or finding people. How do you approach writing group dynamics and loneliness?

I have a story that comes to mind as relevant to this, and maybe it’ll get me there. When I was writing this book, I was talking a lot to Jackie Ess. There were a couple of conversations that were about what kind of things I thought about a lot in writing. Some of them were ones where she was right, but actually there was one where I was right. 

At that point, she was writing Darryl and obviously her move in Darryl was to say, “Everyone expects me to be this like trans woman of color writer, snd so I’m gonna write a book about a white, cis, straight, or, kind of straightish, and eventually not straight cuckold in Oregon. I’m going to fucking refuse this completely.” I was talking about what I was working on and she said, “But don’t you want to write about people who are different from you?” And I said, “They are different from me.”

The book is dedicated to the trans girls of New York and that is a dedication that does not come from a place of understanding myself to be one of their number. I am here, but I am not exactly of here. I am of an older generation and also, I’m like a foreigner and I’m coming from a kind of very different aesthetic kind of position. Moving here and meeting the trans girls of New York has been a broadly wonderful, chaotic experience. But I’m also definitely someone who is a little bit of an odd fish in this context.

The thing you’re dramatizing is the addition of somebody who is in, but not of, that kind of situation,which is a great place for a narrative to be. That immediately felt like an opportunity, right? I was thinking a lot about all those like Thom Gunn poems about like going to California and meeting all the gays or whatever, and how excited Thom Gunn was. I like Tom Gunn a lot, but those poems look a little over-enthusiastic. 

I was writing somebody who was being a bit of a bitch about it. And then, of course, I thought about what happens if she can’t maintain this distance in this context. What happens if she has to get sucked into this thing? What if you can’t keep as far away from it as you think you can?

I grew up in New Jersey. I live in Brooklyn now but I feel like the Jersey connection gives me a weird relationship to New York, because growing up, New York was never “NEW YORK!” It was just the city that was an hour away. I’m curious, because I know you teach at Rutgers-Newark, do you feel like there’s something similar happening there? It’s close to New York, but it’s also just far enough away….

Somewhere in the region of four to five years before I moved to New York, I was living in Jersey City. I definitely think that was a good move. Coming into New York, then it gives you an exciting and different perspective on it. Yeah, I also love teaching in New Jersey. I love the students at Rutgers-Newark. I think they are incredible. They are so smart and not annoying. It’s my first time meeting students who aren’t annoying. I think they’re really fantastic. And yeah, I think it’s very useful, if you’re gonna spend a lot of time around New York people, to also spend time away from New York people in a different context.

One of the things that New York really deeply believes in much the same way that America really deeply believes that America is the center of the universe, New York definitely believes that New York is the center of the universe.

This is the one thing I think all Americans seem to agree on, like, even the ones who, like, hate America, think that America is special: “I hate America so much. America is so especially bad!” What if America wasn’t special and what if there were other countries that are also terrible? England, Jesus fucking Christ. I think it’s really helpful that I’m someone who, several days a week, leaves New York and meets people who are not in that context.

If this does manage to be a book, which is about New York but not entirely of it, probably part of that is being a foreigner in the first place. And, probably, part of that is also spending a lot of time in Jersey.

Where do you see the aspects of online culture that you wrote about in this book heading in the future?

I do not have a crystal ball, right? Maybe I can talk about the past;  I am part of the early waves of trans people who came out because of the internet. I came out, basically, at the millennium, and I did so because of the 90s trans internet. I actually don’t understand how people came out before there was like and you could take [online] tests — you had to meet people in real life or something. It seems impossible. 

And so I came out not knowing any other trans people, but I knew the internet like in real life. At the time, the kind of coming out I was having was like the transition experience of the generation before me. I was going to these doctors who were like giving me get out of jail free cards and making me do real life tests and all this stuff that was very 1970s. But also I think I was kind of like me and like a few other people I know who came out around that time were a sign of things to come. Although we didn’t realize it, we were the first flowers of what would be an amazing harvest. and undoubtedly like if things look totally fucking different now for trans people to how they look in like 1990, it is because the internet allowed us to not be isolated. It allowed us to find each other. 

And so all these people who otherwise were just different by themselves and never figured out their shit to suddenly had Twitter or Susan’s Place, you know? I think there was definitely this point, probably in about 2005 or something, where we were like, “The internet is amazing, with what it’s allowing.” The thing that we didn’t realize is that the exact same dynamics that allowed trans girls to talk to each other also allowed Nazis to talk to each other.

What the internet produces is an acceleration of everything, both the parts that you like and the parts that you don’t like. That also goes for all of these online complexes — everything accelerates. so when these arguments, these disagreements, and these things are happening, I think there’s not like a clear line where you can take like a ruler to this stuff and say, “Well, the people engaging in this behavior are the virtuous ones and the people engaging in this behavior are the non-virtuous ones.”

“The ones who say this are good, and the ones who say this are bad.” Even within people, even in an individual person, the internet is constantly accelerating both your best and your worst impulses. I feel like we’re all going insane, because both the best parts and the worst parts of us are being pulled out of us in ever-increasing measure with ever-increasing intensity.

It’s like that Foucault quote — I know we’re all calling out Foucault at the moment, but I still think about it all the time. He says you cannot expect the discourses to tell themselves to tell you which side they represent. You can’t judge by what people say what side they’re on. You can’t judge what something does by what something means.

I don’t think that there is a way to look at something like the practice of the call-out and say it’s good or bad. I’m not coming into this to say, “Hurrah! Now we can call people out on the internet. Or, “Oh, how terrible it is how we call people out on the internet.” I’m curious about how these processes continue? What kind of things move them? What kind of things do they produce, what kind of things do they produce by? How do things that are impure go into and come out of them?

I got interested in asking these third-order, more complex questions. If you want me to ask me what the future of this is, I do not know what the future of this is. I think it’s more that we are not slowing down. We are speeding up and that whatever is happening is only going to happen with more intensity. I think maybe in that context, writing books about it — especially in archaic form — is a way to get a little bit of distance from that perpetual motion machine. 


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