The women in Marcy Dermansky's novels and short stories are stealthily complicated; outwardly they seem like they don't give a fuck, but they’re actually hyperconscious of what everyone around them is thinking about all the time; they work dead-end jobs but have bigger dreams; they observe the world with a wry, dark sensibility. And they do bad things — even though, as Dermansky herself would argue, they are not, themselves, bad. And they are some of the most compelling women I've ever read about.
She's been writing books about women behaving badly before it was a trend, and now, with the release of her incandescent third novel The Red Car (Liveright, Oct. 11), she's poised to ride the current wave of fascination with these anti-heroines. Early reviews of have been effusive; one noted that the book "combines dreamlike logic with dark humor, wry observation, and gritty feminism." A longtime cult favorite of writers like Roxane Gay, and now Maria Semple, it doesn't seem like a stretch to say that The Red Car could be the book that brings her mainstream success.
It's also her most personal book to date. The protagonist, Leah, is unhappily married to an Austrian writer named Hans, whom she met in grad school, and the couple live in a shabby apartment in Astoria, Queens. Dermansky is recently divorced from her husband of 13 years, a German writer named Johan whom she met in grad school; before the pair moved to Germany for the two years leading up to their divorce, they lived in Astoria for a decade. Leah worked in San Francisco for five years before going to grad school in Mississippi, as did Dermansky; Leah went to Haverford (although she dropped out in the middle of her freshman year), and Dermansky did too.
So it didn’t seem crazy to ask her, when we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago, if writing the book was a way of processing her divorce. “Totally. Yes. I can admit to that,” she said. Dermansky, who is 47, now lives in Montclair, New Jersey, just a few miles from where she grew up, with her 7-year-old daughter, Nina. “I was having a hard time getting divorced, and I wanted to write a book where whoever read the book is like, oh I’m so happy she’s getting a divorce. I think I was doing some wish fulfillment. I think of this book as a fairy tale because everything just sort of happens so well for her and it’s all in a strange way.” She paused. “I think I was writing a case for divorce with this book.”
If she was, she made a strong case. We see Hans and Leah’s marriage only briefly, before she leaves spontaneously to go to her former boss Judy’s funeral in San Francisco, but Hans seems manipulative and petulant, while Leah just seems defeated. In a pivotal scene early in the novel, Hans is making pad thai for dinner; Leah describes it in Dermansky's trademark style — short sentences, no contractions, little emotion on the surface but bursting with subtext: “He was very proud of his pad thai. He bought noodles at the Asian market and fish sauce, limes, bean sprouts and peanuts, and fresh shrimp, tofu. It was a production. Whenever he made it, it was my job to tell him how good it was. And it was good, but it wasn’t any better than the pad thai that came from the local Thai restaurant and didn’t require produce praise and sometimes sex afterward.” When she tells Hans she’s leaving that night for the funeral — and she’ll be gone for two weeks — he loses it, throwing the pad thai:
It happened so fast I didn’t even see it coming. I don’t know how it happened, Hans’s hands were around my throat and he was choking me, my legs were twisted out from under me, and I was on the floor, unable to breathe.
I wet my pants.
Hans stopped choking me.
I suggested to Dermansky that it wouldn’t be a crazy leap for people to assume that her husband had abused her. “That’s the question I don’t want to answer,” she said. “I mean, it is fiction. You need a dramatic act in a book to make something happen.”
Of course, it’s tempting — and perhaps all too easy — to try to make a one-to-one comparison of someone’s life with someone’s fiction, particularly when the writer is a woman. We crave authenticity in our writers, in a way that can be unfair to them. One of the justifications that the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti gave for unmasking the author Elena Ferrante was that she had written a book of autobiographical fragments that do not correspond to her real identity. What’s implied is that Ferrante had also “lied” in her fiction by making it seem autobiographical. It would be an oversimplification to assume that because Dermansky admits to some aspects of her fiction being drawn from her own experience, all of it is.
“Everything I write is autobiographical,” she said. “There’s plenty of parallels in this new book between my life and what happens in the book, but then it’s also completely fiction. I never went on a road trip to California. I never heard a voice of a dead woman. There are plenty of elements that I take from my life, because where else are you going to take from when you write?”
Dermansky’s first book, the 2005 novel Twins, told the story of the competitive teenage twin sisters Sue and Chloe; her second, 2010’s Bad Marie, is the tale of a young woman, fresh out of prison, who becomes a nanny for her childhood friend’s daughter. She runs off with the woman’s husband, taking the couple’s 2-year-old child with her. Dermansky’s short stories all play with questions of good and bad, women who are more complicated, less virtuous, and more self-centered than society likes them to be. In The Red Car, Leah realizes: “I did a lot of not so good things, but somehow I did not doubt my goodness. … Maybe, it could be said that I had done several not so good things in just the last couple of days.”
An early review of The Red Car claimed that one of the things Dermansky's work is preoccupied with is women making bad choices. Dermansky seemed simultaneously frustrated with the perception of her characters as “bad women” while being fully conscious of the ways in which she deliberately plays with this trope. “My sister, actually, was quoting Oprah Winfrey when we were talking about my life, and she was saying there are no bad choices, that all the bad choices you make put you where you are. Which is so woo-woo sounding, but I don’t think of my books as characters making bad choices so much,” she said.
Good or bad, the characters in Dermansky’s work all seem to make choices impulsively, which can seem alternately liberating or scary, depending on your point of view. (Lack of impulse control has been pathologized to the point where “impulse control disorder” is classified as its own psychiatric classification.) Dermansky implied that the way you respond to the title character in Bad Marie might say more about you than about Marie: “People get really upset with her. It’s interesting to me, because she’s a fictional character. In a way I feel I must have done it really well, because people get so upset with her.”
But Dermansky also seems to be saying that a life lived without impulse is one in which you end up stuck in a marriage where you’re forced to eat mediocre homemade pad thai, have sex with someone you’re not attracted to, and live in a shitty apartment next to an auto body shop. It’s only when Leah makes the impulsive decision to leave — precipitated by her former boss’s death and Hans’ disproportionate response to the news of her leaving — that she starts to feel that she deserves to be happy. Until that point, Leah seems to have not even contemplated the notion that it would be possible to be happy.
“I think in a really simplistic way, this book is just about what it’s about to be happy,” Dermansky said. “It seems like sometimes people think that’s so unimportant, or that’s the most important thing there is. I’m not quite sure. But I think that’s what this book was about — trying to figure out how you can allow yourself to be happy for no good reason, or for every good reason. Or just to think that that was an available recourse.”
Almost immediately after Leah arrives in San Francisco for the funeral, things start to take a fantastical turn. First there’s the fact that she’s hearing Judy’s voice in her head — reprimanding her, cajoling her, encouraging her. Dead Judy is part conscience, part friend, part big sister. Judy has left Leah her beloved red sports car, which was damaged in the accident that killed her; Leah is reluctant to accept the gift, but does, and soon we see the car itself also has magical elements. The whole book feels like it takes place in a world that is slightly, charmingly off-kilter. It feels fable-like without being cloying. Dermansky was inspired by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, whose books take place in the real world but have fantastical elements.
“I wanted to be writing a book and I didn’t know what I wanted to be writing, so I had this idea that I was going to write a Haruki Murakami novel,” she said. “He’s pretty much my favorite writer. I went back and re-read a bunch of his books. … Then if I was going to be writing a Murakami novel, I also had to do weird things because that’s what he does.”
And yet, there are aspects to writing a book inspired by Murakami that take on a different cast when your protagonist is a woman. “I think as female authors, we’re always sort of made to worry about whether our characters are sympathetic or not,” Dermansky said. She recounted a conversation with her editor, who was worried it wasn’t believable that so many people wanted to have sex with Leah. “That was actually something I took straight out of Murakami though, because he always writes about these ordinary men who are actually extraordinary, and that always used to bother me about his books. That he was always having sex with beautiful women. I liked doing that for my character, just making everybody want her.”
She hastened to add, “I love my editor, by the way. She knows that I do, but she said, ‘Why does everyone want to have sex with her?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, because they do.’ I didn’t have a problem with that.” I pointed out that Marie is also a character who is sexually irresistible. “I live this really quiet life, so you could say it’s wish fulfillment or something.” Then she added, “I can’t believe I just said that.”
Between Bad Marie and The Red Car, Dermansky wrote another novel, about a spaceship. But she gave up on that book. “I just put it in a drawer and decided not to fix it,” she said. “I just was never feeling that book. It was just a book about a sad girl and I was such a sad woman writing that book, so I was happy to stop working on it. I lost a lot of time working on something that didn’t work. I guess all writers have stories about those books that they write that they don’t publish, but it’s really horrible when it’s happening to you. In the middle of it, you don’t have that perspective.”
The Red Car, by contrast, only took her six and a half months to write. “I didn’t tell anybody I was writing this book because I had a little bit of failure in my mind. It’s kind of my secret book. I called my agent one day and said, ‘Oh, my novel is ready. Do you want to read it?’ He was like, what? I guess he was just really surprised because I hadn’t told him.”
Dermansky eschews written outlines, choosing instead to just let the story unfold. “I don’t think I’m lucky, by the way, but I don’t really plan when I write. When I do write, I never keep moving forward until I like what I’ve written beforehand, so I’m kind of always going backwards before going forward and sort of rewriting as I go. Maybe I have an outline deep in the back of my unconscious that’s working, but I really don’t quite know. I just pull memories out.”
She also relies on instinct for her books' endings, which are deliberately ambiguous; they do not align with a narrative structure that requires a resolution-happy third act. Just as having complicated, sometimes unlikable narrators can be disorienting to readers, the seeming lack of resolution in her books has also become a point of contention. She had trouble optioning Bad Marie for film because, she said, producers were confused that there was no third act. (The cinematographer and director Reed Morano did end up optioning the novel in 2012, but the project has stalled.) And, she said, people were “mad” about the basketball game at the end of Twins, because you’re left not knowing whether the last shot goes in or not. Readers "wanted to know if she scored the basket,” she said, a note of annoyance and incredulity creeping into her voice. “Of course she scored the basket! It’s 100% obvious to me that she did, but I just didn’t want to write it.”
Relying on instinct, rather than convention, adds to the mystical feeling of her work. “I didn’t know that it was going to end,” she said of The Red Car. “I didn’t know I was writing my last scene until I just wrote it. Then I was like, wait a second, that’s the end of the book and I didn’t even know.”
And now she’s written her own ending. “To me this book really is a fairy tale. I liked writing a fairy tale, and I like the ending, and I liked how things turned out for Leah, and that pleased me writing it. That doesn’t quite mirror my life, but it mirrors feelings I have. I feel pretty happy right now in my life too, so that’s a good thing.”