10 March 2020
‘Smart and raw’ Washington Post
‘Blisteringly current’ Esquire
‘Radically honest’ EW
‘Sally Rooney-esque’ New York Times
‘Brilliant, thoughtful and compelling’ Daily Mail
This is a story that unfurls through a series of conversations – in private with friends, late at night at parties with acquaintances, with strangers in hotel rooms, in moments of revelation, shame, cynicism, envy and intimacy. From the coast of the Adriatic to the salt spray of Santa Barbara, the narrator of Topics of Conversation maps out her life through two decades of bad relationships, motherhood, crisis and consolation.
Here, Miranda Popkey tells us the story behind the book.
Topics of Conversation began life as a Word document titled, improbably enough, “Pudding Cup.” For months that document contained perhaps thirty words. Little more than an opening sentence (“A friend of mine got divorced and then, for a while, she went to live with my parents”—a sentence that survived almost unchanged until a very late draft, the first-born darling I was most loathe to kill), and, appropriately, a simile involving a pudding cup. (The pudding cup remains—the reader is invited to amuse herself by trying to find it.)
Somewhere in those thirty odd words was also my narrator’s voice. I mean this literally: I could hear her speaking the lines in my head. She had a distinct phrasing, a particular style: on the surface, cool and witty, even cutting; beneath that, vulnerable and furious about it. Her anger was the key, what made the appalling things I even then suspected she would think and say understandable; her anger that concealed, as it inevitably does, pain.
Since Topics has been published in the US, not a few readers have suggested that my narrator is unlikeable. I can’t argue with them—though, for the record, I quite like her, prickly creature that she is. What I can say is that in the months, in the years before I opened that Word document, I myself had been quite angry, and had been struggling to express this anger, both in person and on the page. In conversation, over text, sure, I could get—let’s say snippy. But even then I quickly found myself pivoting to humor; it seemed like at the very least bad manners (and at the worst potentially quite frightening) to unleash the full force of my fury on an unsuspecting friend over beers on the back porch. And on the page—well, on the page the best my female narrators could do is speak calmly and act purposelessly strange. Alas, it’s no use telling your readers that your protagonist is crashing her car into a tree because she’s angry if that isn’t already apparent. And then, suddenly, this new narrator. Now here was a woman who wasn’t afraid to articulate her rage, even if only to herself.
If she can seem unlikable, I think it’s not only because her anger makes her do unkind things, but also because its source is mysterious—as the source of my own anger was and is. In a way that’s the point. The anger I feel, the anger she feels, is too large to have any discrete reason or reasons. It’s the existential anger of being a thinking female human animal, right now—and by right now I mean this century, and the last, and the one before that and so on. It’s the anger of swimming, your arms ever heavier, in a pool where others are drowning. And hey, is that a group of people on inflatable mattresses in the deep end? It’s the anger of Stevie Smith’s poem, “Not Waving but Drowning.” Of knowing the little waves you’re making, with all your flopping around, are also, slowly, pushing someone else under.
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