Interview with Kat Hausler, author of What I Know About July
Today it gives the Indie Crime Scene great pleasure to interview Kat Hausler, whose book What I Know About July is our featured new release on November 1st.
We’re here to discuss your latest novel, What I Know About July, which has its debut on October 31. What can you tell us about the inspiration for the novel?
It started with the idea for a short story: a singer tracking down his former stalker because she stops coming to his shows. But as soon as I started working on it, there was so much I wanted to explore. I’m fascinated by the disconnect between how two people can perceive the relationship between them, and this is especially striking in the relationship between a fan and a celebrity. The power dynamics also interested me. You’d think Simon, the (sort of) famous musician, would wield the power. Instead, it’s his pushy fan July who calls the shots, infiltrating Simon’s personal and professional life, and taking up far too much space in his head – even after she goes missing.
The “July” of the title is the stalker who haunts musician Simon Kemper as he returns from rehab to his band. How much can you tell us about July and the glimpses we have of her?
We always see July as Simon sees her. At first, he doesn’t know much about her and doesn’t want to. He struggles with the sense that things in his life are out of his control, and she’s a prime example. Because July ignores all the boundaries he sets, he’s most aware of her as something unsettling creeping into his life, something he keeps trying to push away. But, because she’s always around, he can’t help but notice a few things about her: Her endless supply of band shirts and bad lipstick. How she’s always alone. How she never talks about anything in her life except him and his band. Her sense of entitlement, not just to his time and attention, but also in some bigger way, acting like she knows him better than everyone else does, instead of not at all.
When July disappears at one of his concerts, Simon is the prime suspect. As he sets out to find out what has happened to her, what are his motives?
They’re very mixed, and only become more so. At first, he’s anxious to prove to the police that he wasn’t involved. Because his memory of the night in question is hazy, he’s also trying to prove that to himself. At the same time, he’s driven by guilt that July was traveling to see his band’s tour when she disappeared. Whatever happened to her, he knows he’s the reason she was there when it happened. There’s also a lot of wanting to prove she was the guilty one and not him, of worrying that no one else will look for someone so isolated, and especially of trying to understand the meaning behind her obsession with him.
Simon is the main character, “narcissistic, insecure, and consummately relatable”. Would you call him a reliable narrator?
As much as anyone is. Simon’s not overtly unreliable in the sense of lying to the reader. But his perspective is skewed by his by his anxieties and hopes, for example: things he sees signs of all over the place, either because he’s so afraid they’re true or because he so badly wants them to be. Do strangers on the street look at him with disgust, is he a curse for anyone to be with, doomed to be alone forever, or is that just his self-loathing talking? Is a fascinating new acquaintance his soulmate or only a mirage? Can he really turn his life around and solve a mystery better than the police can? Because July causes him so much anxiety by her mere presence, it’s hard to tell – until things escalate – how menacing she really is.
The novel is described as a psychological thriller. What does that mean to you?
To me, it means the focus isn’t on external action but on what’s going on in the characters’ heads, in their relationships and interaction with each other. Not because the external action isn’t there, but because the tension is also driven by things like how an anxious person like Simon, who often has this background sense of guilt and dread even in ordinary situations, would feel suddenly being investigated about a missing person. And that missing person is someone who made him feel like he was the victim. Obsession, guilt, self-loathing, aspirations, loneliness, personal growth, trust, the creative urge… all of that is much more interesting to me than a chase scene with explosions.
Another difference between my book and a purely action-driven thriller is that it’s also what I’d call a belated coming-of-age story: In this midst of the mystery, danger and confusion about July, Simon is working out for himself what he wants in life, what it means to him to be a good person, and how he can move towards those things. Of course, with all his thoughts revolving around July, finding her inevitably gets mixed up in those ideas until it feels like he can’t have any of those good things until he knows where she is. I’d also say What I Know About July is a literary thriller in the sense that language and character development are at least as important as plot.
Simon discovers that July’s influence has invaded many aspects of his life: “a trusted band member, a tenuous new love interest, a resentful ex, and the self he’s supposedly left behind.” How much can you tell us about these people?
Well, being careful to avoid spoilers, only a little. July loves to pop up in every last corner of Simon’s life. She does all she can to spend time with him and also to find out as much as she can about him, past and present. This is especially distressing to Simon because there’s a lot he’s trying to move on from, and he has the sense of her digging up things he doesn’t want to remember, let alone talk about. Many of the people in his life can’t help having at least some involvement with July since she does her best to shadow him – and some turn out to be a lot more involved than he thought.
Simon has to confront his past self. How far is he investigating his own life?
As I said, a lot of this book is about Simon trying to figure out how to lead a good life. So he’s analyzing his past and present, looking into what he did or is doing wrong and why, so he can do better. But because July’s obsession with him is almost the only thing he knows about her, he also becomes the starting point for his own investigation into her disappearance. Just as July managed to entangle her life with his while she was still around, looking for her afterwards has him learning as much about himself as her.
As a woman writer, what challenges did you face in writing a male - and possibly unsympathetic - character?
First off, I want to say I don’t see Simon as an unsympathetic character. Some of his actions are wrong and may have readers thinking he at least used to be a bad person. But because the book is from his perspective, there’s a lot of room for seeing his efforts to be a good person, friend, partner, family member. And we also see the things he’s struggling with that might be less apparent if we weren’t in his head.
One reason I wrote him as a man was to make the nature of the threat from July more ambiguous. When he tries to talk to his drummer about his concerns, for example, Micha reminds him that July’s only a petite woman who can’t (physically) hurt him. If it were the other way around, I think there’d be more the sense of overt dangers like physical or sexual violence. Instead, Simon doesn’t know how to answer when people ask what he’s so afraid of. On that note, one of many things I had to take into account in writing a male perspective was different sensibilities about danger. Even as an anxious person, Simon comes home alone after dark without concern about being attacked or having to be wary like a woman walking past a dark park alone would be. Instead, we see him worrying about seeming creepy himself, but also sometimes clueless in that regard. His fellow sleuth Soledad has to explain that a strange man showing up at a woman’s door could cause alarm.
By 2015 when the novel takes place, toxic masculinity was becoming a more mainstream topic, so I was reading perspectives from men who were becoming more aware of the role that played in their lives and interactions, in managing their emotions. And I incorporated some of that awareness into Simon, while still having him face a lot of the compulsions that go along with toxic masculinity. While he rejects the aggressive masculinity he experienced from his dad growing up, he still feels shame expressing “weak” emotions, like by crying or seeming too emotionally invested in a relationship. He’d rather let people think he had a drug addiction than that he was feeling depressed and overwhelmed.
I don’t know whether men writers will agree, but I felt that certain things were easier for a woman writing a man. We live in a society in which the (hetero) male perspective is so present, in the much-discussed male gaze, in the space men have in public discourse… But fiction writers of any gender face this kind of challenge, not just when writing a gender other than their own, but in all the ways a character can be different from you and require you to still identify so completely you see the world through their eyes.
Your first novel was Retrograde. How would you compare that with the experience of writing What I Know About July?
Retrograde is a much more contained novel, even a claustrophobic one. One of the characters is too injured to easily leave the apartment on her own, while the other is doing all he can to isolate her from the outside world. That meant there were very few characters and settings to keep track of. At the same time, the logistics are very different in a setting like that, thinking about things like how you’d keep someone from accessing the contacts in their phone or using the internet, and on the other hand how that person would gain information in spite of everything.
What I Know About July was a lot messier to write and edit: lots of characters (and later suspects), lots of different settings across Berlin and on Simon’s tour of Europe. Another difference is how I presented information in the two novels. Retrograde is written in alternating perspectives from the two main characters, so I worked with dramatic irony there, in the sense that the readers always have more information than either one of the protagonists does. Because What I Know About July is a mystery, it didn’t make sense to provide so much information upfront. I chose to write only Simon’s perspective and limit what we know to what he finds out. But there are some moments where I wanted readers to experience the scene through Simon’s perspective but also have their own ideas about what’s going on objectively. When we see Simon throwing himself into things he’s convinced are absolutely good ideas that will change his life, readers should experience some tension in suspecting he’s wrong. So that was also a delicate balance.
You have contributed to many publications: Hawaii Pacific Review, 34th Parallel, Inkspill Magazine, The Sunlight Press, The Dalloway, Rozlyn Press, Porridge Magazine, LitReactor, BlazeVOX, failbetter and The Airgonaut, among others. What type of writing is involved?
Almost entirely short fiction, with the occasional essay on writing, and maybe a poem every decade. My short stories are always literary, but sometimes with crossovers to other genres like horror or crime. I like clean endings. They don’t have to hit like a punchline, but I don’t really like to read or write stories that seem to stop right in the middle. There’s something unsatisfying about that.
In your day job, you work as a translator. How does that affect your writing when you move between languages?
There are a lot of links between translation and creative writing, because translation isn’t simply replacing a word in one language with one in another. It’s understanding the concept of what’s being said and in what tone, and then striving for the closest approximation in the target language. Similarly, in writing, you have concepts in mind, say, of characters or certain feelings that are hard to put into words, and then you try for the closest approximation of those concepts in language.
Another parallel is the way I deal with technical information I need for a translation or a work of fiction. Some people think translators need to be experts in a given subject matter to translate in that area, but I’d disagree. I spent years translating texts about engineering, something I had no background or specific knowledge in. It’s more about the skills of recognizing what knowledge you need, finding it and incorporating it into your work. To take an example from writing What I Know About July, I have no background in drug testing and had to look that all up. Finally, both translation and creative writing involve a lot of obsessing over word choice and nuances in meaning.
You come from the States, and attended New York University. Has living and working in Europe changed your perspective? Has your writing changed?
My writing is always changing or, I hope, evolving further. A poet once asked me how I could write in one language while living in the other, because she felt the need to be immersed in her working language. I see foreign languages as an enrichment, something that makes me more aware of the specifics of English phrasing. Also, I think that talking about your thoughts and feelings in a second language can make you more aware of what you really mean to say, even of what you’re really thinking and feeling. In our native languages, we often turn to familiar phrases without thinking about exactly what we mean. Although I’ve spoken fluent German for years, every now and then, there’ll be English phrases I can’t find an exact equivalent for in the moment, forcing me to parse out what nuance makes me want that exact phrase – what it’s saying that other words don’t. I think that experience, which I’ve had in small and large hundreds of times over the years, is something that informs the way I write my characters’ interiority. Even if they’re not always self-aware, I need to know on another level the precise shade of feeling they’re experiencing.
Aside from that, I’d say every different place I’ve lived enriches my perspective by making me more aware of different kinds of people and broadening the range of settings at my disposal. But that doesn’t have to be about different continents. I lived in a village in Southern Germany for a while – I think that might’ve been more different from Berlin than New York is. And two different districts of Berlin can feel like different cities.
Something very important to me in writing fiction is how it exposes universal aspects of being human: people’s wants, needs and feelings, what brings them joy or scares them or breaks their hearts or saves them… Going to different places also underscores how superficial differences are, how there are the same kinds of people everywhere.
What are you working on now and have you plans for other novels?
I’m working on a new novel, but it will be a while yet. I also always have a few short stories on the go, in various stages of completion from scribbled idea to tenth draft.
What do you like to read and what are you reading at the moment?
I read almost exclusively fiction. Nothing against nonfiction, but I prefer fiction so much that I don’t usually want to sacrifice time I could spend on fiction to read any other books. I mostly read general literary fiction, but I also love literary thrillers and dystopias. Right now I’m rereading Poe and just starting Happiness Falls by Angie Kim.