LA writer Catie Disabato’s novels explore the complex terrain of millennial life with wit, candor, and high intelligence. Her latest, U Up?, out from Melville House, is about a woman named Eve who lives on the Eastside of Los Angeles, working online, hanging out in bars, drinking, fighting, searching for one friend while also grieving the loss of another. Eve also happens to be a psychic medium, and communicates with her dead friend via text message. The novel’s form is highly original, interspersing visual text messaging bubbles throughout the book.
Disabato’s power is in how she sees everything around her, from the messes we make for ourselves to the way we use our devices, and mirrors them back to us. She weaves the disparate parts of our lives together in a network of intricacy on the page that captures something of what it is to be alive right now. I spoke with Disabato about her work over Google docs in August.
I’d love to talk first about the inception of U Up? How did the idea for the novel come to you?
With both of my novels, the inception of the book came from marrying a few topics or ideas I couldn’t stop thinking about, and mixing in inspiration from other works of fiction of various forms and genres.
After seeing the Olivier Assayas film Personal Shopper, I decided I wanted to write a novel about texting with ghosts. At the same time, I was also working on a manuscript about a mom who was a witch and had a friend who was maybe a witch and it absolutely wasn’t working, and that was frustrating me. I was really emotionally out of sync with what I was writing, and I wanted to write something that felt more in tune with my own emotional reality.
I was also hearing a lot of authors (generally ones I didn’t know personally) talk about how putting things like texting into a book was gimmicky or wasn’t interesting to them. I was also really frustrated by this sentiment, because in my experience, so much rich interpersonal drama happened on or because of texting and social media, particularly Instagram. Part of me wanted to write a book that proved that you could have equally rich and impactful character drama even if no people involved in the drama were ever in the same physical space. (Though of course, I didn’t end up doing exactly that in the book.)
I also really wanted to write my “LA society” novel, by which I mean an “LA hangout” novel, by which I really mean a neo-Eve Babitz novel. All these things stewed around in my brain and I gave them the framework of “Eve’s best friend disappears from both IRL and online.”
I’ve noticed lately that texting is somewhat more embraced in books and TV shows, but in a way that feels almost too eventful. Like, “Now I am texting!” The way you capture it feels more like how we actually experience it, folded into our everyday experience.
Your books are always propulsively readable but at the same time they have all these layers, whether through footnoting in the The Ghost Network, or the interspersal of text messages in U Up? These formal qualities in your work really connect for me to the various mediated realities online and off that we live within, though I think they can be read in lots of ways. Can you talk a little bit about how you conceive of the form of your books, what excites you or matters to you most about it?
You actually got at the way I conceive of form in your question, to a certain extent. For both books, I wanted the reading experience to feel like an extension of the way we’re consuming other texts all day long. Often with novels or other writing contained in a book form, you pick it up and feel transported away from the typical patterns and movements of your life — I love that experience, but it isn’t what I was going for in my books.
With U Up? I wanted the reader to feel like they were physically holding Eve’s phone in their hands and were able to read what was on the screen.
When I was writing the book, I hoped that including the graphic details of a phone-form and seeing the texts on screen would really reflect the way that we can have multiple simultaneous conversations on the same or various topics with many different people. I also hoped it would reflect the way conversations can start via text and then continue IRL and then keep going over texts later. I wanted to reflect this because it’s true to life to me, and I hoped it would make the readers feel close to the characters and see their own experiences on the page. Basically, I hoped they would have an emotional impact on the reader, of empathy and recognition. If that’s how they were received by readers, that would excite me very much.
That’s definitely how I experienced it. You also call “U Up?” fake autofiction. I know of one or two other books in that sub-genre. One is Nikki Darling’s Fade Into You, which is also about LA. Can you talk a bit about how you conceive of that genre? What did working in that space allow you to do?
For me, fake autofiction is defined as borrowing the tone, style and form of autofiction but not the content — that is to say, not writing directly from life in the way writers of autofiction do. I admire being able to organize one’s life into any kind of book form, as it’s not my forte. I love to read autofiction, but when I’m writing, I love to dive into my imagination. I love to push emotional stakes in a scene into a crisis, and I love to give my characters a chaotic energy, but in life I try to diminish chaos and conflict wherever I can.
That leads me to the other part of the reason to call this book fake autofiction, which is that in most autofiction the main character is supposed to be read as a stand-in for the writer, which isn’t the case with Eve or any other character in the book. Of course I pulled details from life here and there, but my characters and their situations are an amalgamation of small details from myself or people I know, as well as many completely fictional character traits, moments, and situations. Eve and I share some superficial details, but many other superficial details are completely different. We don’t look alike, and we have very very different perspectives on the world, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Eve talks the way I talk so people who know me think we’re more similar than we are, but I deliberately gave her a perspective I don’t share, and she reacts to situations in ways I wouldn’t. However, we were both messes at age 28 — I was a mess, and I have her messiness, so I do feel quite close to her and protective of her.
In many ways U Up? feels like a love letter to Los Angeles, which becomes both a place but also a character in the book. As you nodded to earlier, Eve is named after Eve Babitz, the quintessential LA It Girl. What inspires you about Babitz?
I love this question so much, almost as much as I love Eve Babitz.
When I first started reading Eve Babitz, I was in my early 20s and was trying to figure out what kind of woman and what kind of writer I wanted to be. I loved Eve’s writing and saw a person I could be in her work and what I knew of her biography at the time (this was before Lili Anolik published her biography of Babitz, Hollywood’s Eve). Now in my 30s, the hero worship has settled into a great respect for her life and work, and gratitude that the literary world re-found her work at the exact right time for me.
In her work, Babitz has an incredibly strong voice and perspective — strong as in, there’s an energy to her that’s mesmerizing, that draws you in. After reading her autofiction novels, I wanted my characters and my work to insist on their own relevance, to cast themselves as the life of the party no matter who else was in the room.
I also love and am inspired by some of the things that many of her readers highlight: her wit, and her beautiful depictions of Los Angeles.
The relationship between the IRL and URL worlds has long been a key aspect of your work. In U Up? this relationship, at least for me, becomes particularly sticky and interesting because Eve is a medium or clairvoyant. It’s like, she’s communicating with ghosts, but she’s also doing some of this communicating through digital means. Ghosts and the internet seem like such a perfect combination to me. I’m not totally sure how to phrase this as a question, but I guess I’m interested in hearing you talk about that relationship, between ghosts and the digital, if it resonates for you, what interests you about it.
I’ve always loved supernatural stories; horror movies, gothic fiction, ghost stories, all of it. There’s something really campy about literal ghosts, and I love a little camp in my fiction/movies/TV etc. Within the vast landscape of ghost stories, I love cursed object stories — which if anyone isn’t familiar, is like when there is a ghost in a doll or a mirror or a locket. But there’s also a subgenre of cursed object stories — or maybe a cousin to cursed object stories — that’s about ghosts or other supernatural beings getting into tech objects. Poltergeist is a good historical example, with ghosts in the TV.
Personally, I love this story because it just gives me a thrill as I’m watching it or reading it. There’s a scene in Personal Shopper, which I mentioned before, where Kristen Stewart is texting someone and you think it’s a ghost, and it’s an incredibly emotionally and narratively intense 10-20 minute sequence. I was vibrating out of my chair in the movie theater watching that. And I love all kinds of dumb B horror movies with ghosts in technology objects: The Ring, One Last Call, Unfriended, etc. I don’t have anything deeper to say other than I just find them fun.
I might be getting the history slightly wrong here, but I had once read that the spiritualism craze in the 1920s grew out of the invention of the telegraph and telephone, because being able to communicate across long distances felt uncanny to people, like the Arthur C. Clarke thing “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I think it’s possible that because I grew up as the internet was forming, I had a sort of parallel experience to the people in the 1920s, that I was opened up to the uncanny because of the sufficiently advanced technology that’s still springing up all around us today.
I love thinking about telephones back in the day. It must have been so weird. I love that scene in Season 1 of Downton Abbey when they get the telephone for the first time and everyone is too scared to go into the telephone room. You don’t have to answer this, but I am also curious if you actually see…or text with…ghosts.
I wish! I don’t actually believe in ghosts but I do wish that benign ghosts existed.
As someone who also lives in the greater LA area, albeit in a hermit-like fashion, I feel like U Up? takes me to so many spaces I’ve experienced in this city, from the hiking trails of Elysian Park to dive bars. “Rich” (mostly West) LA tends to be the LA outsiders think of when they think of our city, because many of the high profile books and films are about that side of the city, and of course because of classism and racism. But LA’s wealth is critiqued in the book, when Eve notes that the ghosts aren’t welcome in the homes of the rich, showing how severe the class divide is here. What drew you to writing about the Eastside in particular?
On a very basic level, I was just writing about the world I live in. Most of the places in the book are places I go, and the people in the book resemble people I would meet in those places. In fact, I would say that the locations (the bars, the houses, the streets) are the most autoficion-y part of the book. I didn’t write a single setting that I invented or amalgamated. The characters are inventions, amalgamations, but the places they are in are pretty much unchanged. (Though I will note that the book takes place in about 2018, so there are some places in the book that closed while I was writing but I didn’t update them.)
I agree that most of the highest profile books about Los Angeles are about the West Side of LA, or Hollywood (the neighborhood) and other areas of “rich LA.” What I think is different about U Up? is that it’s about gentrifiers who are not rich but are definitely more privileged than the people they are displacing. There is a lot of fiction about the East Side of LA, but that fiction tends to be by authors of color or about characters of color — I’m thinking of writers like Wendy C. Ortiz and Helena María Viramontes and Michael Jaime-Becerra. While Eve’s community is filled with people of color, she pretty much only associates with what I guess would be called “the creative class” for lack of a better term, and her world is incredibly homogenous in that sense. In terms of race, while there are many people in Eve’s world that are people of color, there is a sort of whiteness to the world as well, which comes in part from Eve’s perspective as a white person.
U Up? feels deliciously gossipy, and I wondered if some of the New Narrative writers, like Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, were an influence for you at all. What are your thoughts on gossip as a literary mode?
I’m a fan of both Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian’s writing, and I’m specifically influenced by Bellamy’s Mina Harker books. (I read more Killian when I was writing The Ghost Network, specifically I read his book of poetry about Kylie Minogue, Action Kylie, over and over when I was working on my first book.)
I absolutely love gossip as a literary mode. Gossip is just storytelling, right? I love gossip. I hate being cruel or malicious, but I love gossip and I always want to know what happened. There are ways to toe that line of gossip-y but not cruel, and one way is to put a lot of that energy into reading and writing fiction.
I’d love to finish by talking about the concept of the hot mess. I always feel really liberated when I read books about women not being good all the time. Reading Eve, I felt exhilarated, and grateful, that her mess, which is all our mess, was all laid out so generously for me. And yet the book is also tender, and heartbreaking. Could you talk about vulnerability in the book, and writing through messy feelings?
I think — I hope! — one of the reasons that Eve’s mess is so tender is because she’s in such deep grief in the book. Even though she’s not really acknowledging it consciously, her grief — and specifically her refusal to process her grief — drives so much of her volatility and her inability to see her world clearly.
Like you, I find a liberation in reading about messy person. One of the things I struggled with in my 20s and still now, was a strong urge to swallow my own mess and not burden others with it. (Not only did it not work — my mess burst out and was pretty obvious — but it wasn’t actually a good way to process my emotional landscape.) I loved writing Eve because it was a way to inhabit a person whose mess is so external, and who couldn’t contain her mess if she tried — and who doesn’t even want to try! So liberating to write that person, when I am such the opposite. And it was a really safe way to revel in the idea of a messiness that’s so big that it’s destructive to friendships.