Author Interview: Beth Morgan (A Touch of Jen)

The Book

A young couple’s toxic Instagram crush spins out of control and unleashes a sinister creature in this twisted, viciously funny, “bananas good” debut. (Carmen Maria Machado)

“Um, holy shit…This novel will be the most fun you’ll have this summer.” —Emily Temple, Literary Hub

Remy and Alicia, a couple of insecure  service workers, are not particularly happy together. But they are bound by a shared obsession with Jen, a beautiful former co-worker of Remy’s who now seems to be following her bliss as a globe-trotting jewelry designer. In and outside the bedroom, Remy and Alicia’s entire relationship revolves around fantasies of Jen, whose every Instagram caption, outfit, and new age mantra they know by heart.

Imagine their confused excitement when they run into Jen, in the flesh, and she invites them on a surfing trip to the Hamptons with her wealthy boyfriend and their group. Once there, Remy and Alicia try (a little too hard) to fit into Jen’s exalted social circle, but violent desire and class resentment bubble beneath the surface of this beachside paradise, threatening to erupt. As small disturbances escalate into outright horror, we find ourselves tumbling with Remy and Alicia into an uncanny alternate reality, one shaped by their most unspeakable, deviant, and intoxicating fantasies.  Is this what “self-actualization” looks like?

Part millennial social comedy, part psychedelic horror, and all wildly entertaining, A Touch of Jen is a sly, unflinching examination of the hidden drives that lurk just outside the frame of our carefully curated selves.

The Author

Beth Morgan grew up outside Sherman, Texas and studied writing as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently completing an MFA at Brooklyn College. Her work has been published in The Iowa Review and The Kenyon Review Online.

The Interview

What was the most difficult part of writing A Touch of Jen?

Writing the ending was definitely challenging. The last scene was in place fairly early on, but the big challenge was figuring out how to arrive at that point in a way that felt intuitive even as the story entered this fantastical register. I had to make sure all of the cosmological and logistical elements were hanging together, but more importantly I also had to make sure that these elements were serving the story’s emotional core. David Lynch’s movies were definitely a big inspiration for me here–even when they break with the rules of reality as we know it, the emotional arc is 100% convincing. 

Your characters are pretty flawed and insincere, but who do you love to hate the most? 

I think that as an author my job is to love all of my characters because that’s what makes them feel convincing to readers. Remy, for example, is someone who I might find myself irritated by in real life but I wanted to portray him in a way that made readers feel close to him and even empathize with him. I think the discomfort that a lot of readers feel with this book comes from the fact that they see some of these unlikable characters in themselves. And my hope is that in processing that discomfort, in recognizing the ways that we can all be shallow or insincere or malicious, we can locate compassion for ourselves and for others as we’re trying to become better, kinder people. 

What inspired the creation of the strange dark creature from your book?

I think the creature ultimately came from the way I was thinking about how to represent violence. We have this impulse to process violence by categorizing it–by determining when it’s justified or not justified, when it’s supposed to be read as fun or exciting or heroic and when it’s supposed to be read as horrifying. In introducing this camp or supernatural element in what is otherwise a fairly realistic narrative I was hoping to complicate some of these distinctions and get at the way in which the fantastical way that violence appears to the perpetrator and the real way that violence is acted out on the victim are too sides of the same coin.

Have you ever been very envious of someone on social media to the point of behaving irrationally at times with regards to them?

I hope not! I think the experience of envy is pretty universal and social media does create this sense of intimacy with people we’re not interacting with in real life. And there are plenty of moments in my life that I feel shame or embarrassment about. So the book does correspond to some extent with my experiences. But this particular scenario and the social media aspect of it grew more out of the characters Jen and Remy and the kind of relationship I wanted to create between them. I wanted to create this simultaneous closeness and distance between them and the simultaneous closeness and distance of watching someone on social media felt like a perfect way to realize that relationship. 

What is the main message you would like your readers to take from your story, if there is one?

I don’t think the book has a main message. I was thinking about a lot of things as I wrote it–for example, the hero’s journey and the American appropriation of Eastern spirituality. But the book is also interested in violence and gender and class as well. As a fiction writer, I don’t want my books to be arguments for a thesis, though I hope that my treatment of these topics feels textured enough that it helps readers to think more deeply about them. 

Is Remy and Alicia’s relationship toxic or do they basically deserve one another?

It’s a very close, intense relationship. So I think it’s hard not to feel like it has some intrinsic value even if it’s unhealthy in many ways. Definitely these characters could have better lives in a whole variety of ways including in their relationship. And perhaps that would be better for them and make them happier and kinder people. But I don’t want to put myself in the position of judging them or deciding what they deserve or don’t deserve. 

Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on a book called The Shit Your Pants Button. Like A Touch of Jen, it has an absurd premise (the main character has a button on her thigh that she can push to make people shit their pants), but it’s also engaging with some of the subtle forms of violence in white Middle American culture.

***Spoiler question***

Did any of the characters not deserve their fate in your opinion? 

I don’t think any of them deserved their fate! There are very few people who I think deserve a violent or gruesome death and I don’t think any of the characters in A Touch of Jen fall into that category.

Thank you, Beth!

Lilla the Accidental Witch – Eleanor Crewes

It should not be legal for a graphic novel to be so dull. It should not be legal for them to take me such a long time to get through… and eventually discard them. It’s insane how this book has everything I love in fantasy stories: magical coming-of-ages, witches, family secrets, town mysteries and familiars.

And yet, and yet. Somehow, I don’t have the patience for more than 25 pages in one sitting and, somehow, I don’t have the energy it seems to require to finish it. I can probably count on my hand the amount of graphic novels I have DNF’d in all my life—that’s how rarely that happens—so I’m as shocked as you are with the outcome.

It’s possible part of it is me; part of it is probably always us, because I feel very indifferent about the illustrations. They don’t need to WOW me to make them worth looking at, but Eleanor Crewes’ very cartoonish style with soft shadows and lines and bright, unrealistic colours does not appeal to me. I’m not so superficial that the visuals alone could undo a whole entire book for me, but this ‘‘is’’ a graphic novel after all.

And the story is not original enough to add enough ‘‘personality’’ to this work to make it work despite its visual shortcomings. It’s the very usual tale of a young teen who discovers she has powers and tries to learn about them and right some wrongs at the same time. Maybe if it had been Halloween, the atmosphere of the day would have made reading this book more enjoyable, but it’s not and I’m writing this not only because it was sent to me for review, but also because I want to move on from it to another more interesting and engrossing work. Goodbye!

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.