“It’s a Curious Moment When Your Art Upsets You”: An Interview With CJ Leede

CJ Leede

Travel to somewhere midway between Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and Todd Grimson’s Brand New Cherry Flavor and you’ll find yourself in the realm of CJ Leede’s new novel Maeve Fly. The novel’s title character is a young woman living and working in Los Angeles — all the while growing increasingly alienated from the world around her. If you suspect that sounds like a recipe for something violent and transgressive, you’re completely correct; one of the many compelling features of Leede’s novel is the way it immerses you in Maeve’s world and worldview, until you’re firmly ensconced in a nightmarish place. I spoke with Leede about her work, the role of LA in her fiction, and much more.

Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye is referenced numerous times in Maeve Fly. Were the connections between the two books there from the outset, or was that an element of your novel that emerged during revision? 

I cringe to admit it now, but the book was originally titled, Story of Maeve Fly, simply because it rhymed. I asked myself the question of what would happen if Story of the Eye were retold by a woman, and that was very much the project initially. Then it spun out from there, picking up other books along the way. But I was fascinated by and fixated on the idea that so few people discussed Bataille’s novella, and I suppose I wanted to know if it could be brought into our current moment. I find the story to be incredibly unsettling and also (horrifyingly) quite beautiful, and I felt that that in itself was worth not only pondering over but also working through on the page. 

Maeve has a terrifying amount of knowledge of Halloween novelty songs. Is this a case of author and character sharing an interest? Were there any songs that you wanted to reference in Maeve Fly that you weren’t able to fit in? 

I’ve always loved Halloween, and I grew up in a house of musicians, so it was definitely there to a degree. But Maeve’s knowledge far surpasses what mine was at the outset– which is to say, Reddit and Wikipedia were my homes for much of the pandemic. I have a playlist that accompanies the book and has circulated with it, but there is also a much longer playlist that I listened to while writing the book, and there were definitely songs I would have liked to include that just didn’t quite fit in the text itself. Two songs in particular, though not Halloween, being Edwyn Collins’s “A Girl Like You” and Space’s “Female of the Species.” 

Throughout the novel, you offer the reader glimpses of Maeve’s grandmother’s Hollywood career. Were there any historical figures you drew inspiration from – or cinematic histories that you found informative here? 

Like so much of the content of this book, I really knew very little about Hollywood and its history at the outset of writing the novel. For research, I read a number of books on The Strip and The Chateau and watched Sunset Boulevard. But the main inspiration for Tallulah is a very strong, very fabulous woman in my own life. My particular pandemic neurosis was an obsessive fear that something would happen to either of my grandmothers (I’d just lost my grandfathers not too long before), and this was my way of dealing with that fear, even if Tallulah is really nothing like either of them in the end. But I’ve been able to hand them each a copy of this novel two and a half years later, and nothing has ever felt greater. 

Los Angeles’s culture is also a running theme of the novel, and you’re one of the people who runs the @nobodyreadsinla Instagram account. What are the frustrating aspects for you of reckoning with other people’s expectations of LA’s literary culture? 

To be honest, I was among the worst of them at first! My boyfriend and I moved here in 2019 from New York after having finished MFA’s there and being deeply entrenched in the NY lit scene for years. We moved here and assumed everyone either only read new agey self help books or mass-marketed beach reads (though there’s nothing wrong with either!), or that they read nothing at all. I was a New York snob of the worst variety without even having any idea that I was. But lo and behold, LA County holds over sixty bookstores and over seventy libraries, and that doesn’t even count all of what we consider to be LA. Not only that, but there are lit festivals, events, so many writers and readers I can’t begin to count. It was the best reality check of all time, even if it’s embarrassing now. So we started Nobody Reads in LA to poke fun at ourselves for being so ignorant of the incredible wealth of curiosity and readership that exists here, and also to share with the world how awesome it is. The project has taken a bit of a backburner while we’ve focused elsewhere, but we’ve got some exciting things in the works there, so definitely stay tuned (and thanks for shouting it out)! 

I know that talking about genre can be a fraught subject, but I’m curious about Maeve Fly as a horror novel; there are plenty of horrific elements here, but it also doesn’t seem too far removed from, say, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. Do you see a boundary between horror and non-horror? 

It’s a great question, and I’m certainly no authority. For me, the biggest difference has been that I struggled for many years to find representation and wholehearted support for what I was writing when I called it “literature” or “fiction” or even “literary horror”. But once I started billing myself as a horror writer exclusively, the world opened up for me. The horror community is incredibly welcoming, supportive, and frankly populated by some of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. I would so happily accept any genre label for what I write (what do I care as long as someone gets to read and hopefully enjoy it!), but I do feel a certain loyalty to the horror world now, especially as it’s such a rich and vast one here in LA and everyone is so unbelievably cool. 

The dynamic between Maeve and Gideon goes to some thoroughly unsettling places over the course of the book. Have you ever written something that left you unsettled? 

Oh I had to close the curtains and day drink to write most of this book. It’s disgusting! In particular, the tour bus scene and one basement scene really upset me. I will admit I felt a sort of stain on my skin during and after writing this book, and a lot of uncertainty as to what it might mean to put that kind of content into the world. But ultimately, it was the story I felt I had to write in that time. A lot of gruesome stories exist in the world, and it all keeps turning. But it’s a curious moment when your art upsets you, and I can’t help but feel there’s something to be honored in that, even with the discomfort. Maybe especially with it. 


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.