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Anna Dorn Writes Maximalist, Campy Queer Fiction Inspired by Lesbian Pulp

I am tempted to say that I fell in love with author Anna Dorn’s third novel, Perfume and Pain, because of its refusal to be aspirational. But here is the dirty truth: I do kind of find the book — as well as protagonist Astrid — aspirational, although I can’t decide whether this is despite or because of the comically ill-advised life decisions Astrid makes throughout the novel.

Astrid and I are both queer Angelenos in our thirties with writer’s block and floundering love lives, so perhaps I can be forgiven for relating a little too intensely to Dorn’s heroine. (Unlike Astrid, however, I have not published any novels, let alone three, nor have I had my writing optioned by a closeted Marvel star. Also, where Astrid routinely blacks out on Adderall mixed with other substances, I find the drug merely enables my ADHD-riddled brain to follow a single train of thought for more than five seconds.) Just as I crave the literary success that my fictional not-quite-doppelgänger has achieved, I also envy her ability to throw herself with abandon into self-destructive spirals; it’s a type of id-driven release that feels totally inaccessible to me as a person who often feels trapped within her own mind. The ability to see the messy consequences of my worst impulses laid out before me, as Astrid does in Perfume and Pain, strikes me to some extent as a luxurious fantasy.

Throughout the novel, Dorn’s Astrid spends most of her time brooding, self-sabotaging, and gradually figuring out how to get out of her own way — a quintessentially thirtysomething-year-old experience if I’ve ever seen one. Ultimately, that’s the appeal of the novel, and the mark of a truly resonant work of fiction: Astrid’s journey is entirely her own, but… is it, really? I spoke to Dorn about finding the line between fact and fiction, embracing our most problematic selves, and learning how to protect the parts of our lives that are most sacred.

I wanted to start off by asking about the premise of Perfume and Pain and why you started writing it.

I turned 35 and realized a lot of my bad behavior wasn’t cute anymore. It probably wasn’t cute long before that, but it became glaring at 35. I guess one’s personality sort of crystalizes at 35. So if you’re in a bad place around there, changing becomes high stakes. So I dramatized that struggle in Astrid and her two love interests. Ivy, the younger love interest, represents staying on a destructive path, and Penelope, the older one, represents growth and maturity.

I think that comes through in the sense that there’s a lot about the book that feels very roman à clef-y, though I know you also pulled from the original lesbian pulp novel Perfume and Pain. How do you navigate the decision of how much to pull from your own life and how much to fictionalize or wholly invent, both in general and for this book?

It’s not autofiction, but I did write it, so obviously I’m in there. I wrote most of this book in 2021 when we were all still very confined to our own worlds, which probably inhibited my ability to imagine circumstances outside of my own. Maybe that’s why Astrid shares a lot of biographical details with me. I’m pretty boring, so my bad behavior was nowhere near as bad as Astrid’s. And she’s much hotter and more successful than me.

Can you describe how the original pulp novel was a jumping off point for you in developing the book?

I think my writing is already naturally pretty pulpy. Campy, melodramatic, and destined for paperback. I’d already been writing the book for a bit when I got the idea that Astrid would plagiarize a lesbian pulp book for her Zoom writing class (crazy sentence, I know). When I got that idea, I started researching pulps, and as soon as I came across the cover for the original Perfume and Pain, I was in love. I knew Astrid was going to plagiarize that book for her Zoom writing class and that I was going to plagiarize the title for my novel.

Has your writing style always been naturally pretty pulpy, or is that something that you’ve leaned into over time?

I think it comes naturally to me. I used to fantasize about writing controlled, minimalist, well-argued prose like Sally Rooney or Joan Didion. But that’s just not what wants to be written through me. My writing is pretty maximalist and wacky, and whenever I try to fight that, no one is interested.

What is it about early lesbian pulp in particular that is exciting to you?

So many reasons! First and foremost, the visuals. I’m so in love with the covers. They’re so sexy and fun and often feature femme-on-femme romance in a way that a lot of contemporary queer media doesn’t. Also, unlike a lot contemporary queer media, it’s not moralistic and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Of course it was problematic in a lot of ways, like the fact that the publishers wanted the characters to be punished for their homosexuality to avoid potential government censorship. But, like Astrid, I’m often drawn to what’s considered problematic. And I’m also inspired by and indebted to the women who wrote it, who were writing during a time that was very hostile toward lesbians. (Of course, a lot of it was written by men and for men, but that’s another convo….)

I think there’s also a lot of pressure on queer or marginalized people in general to be perfectly non-problematic in a way that denies the full expression of humanity, and campy, pulpy stuff is a way of resisting that. After all, those stories still represent someone’s lesbian experiences. Suppressing that is sort of just another flavor of insisting that any given queer story must apply to everyone.

Yeah, like Astrid, I feel like I don’t fit the idea of what society wants from a queer woman. The publishing world seems to want something really heavy-handed from queer women, like, “In a dystopian near future, gay women aren’t allowed to BREATHE.” But I would never write some kind of alarmist allegory. I have problematic fantasies about being closeted in the 50s and just like having “a friend.” And everyone knows what it means, but no one talks about it out loud. Actually, most of my extended family is from the South, and that’s kind of what it’s like there. Everyone knows I’m gay but no one talks about it. And I find that much more comfortable than the expectation to be “out and proud.” Love is humiliating, and I prefer to keep it private.

Love is humiliating, thank you for saying that. That’s kind of how I relate to love in family contexts, where I simply don’t want to talk about it, versus outside my family where the dynamic is kind of opposite of that — oversharing on the internet, etc. Do you feel like your relationship to love or queerness changes depending on what context you’re in?

If my dental hygienist asks about my love life, I’ll probably say I have a boyfriend because he’s holding a sharp object close to my gums, and I can’t risk homophobia in such a scenario. But normally I’m not really thinking about it.

Re: love being humiliating, do you think that affects how you approach it as a topic in fiction?

Probably! My writing process isn’t the most conscious, so sometimes it’s hard to figure out where things are coming from. I typically start with a spark of an idea and just go. It’s like a manic dream state. The first draft is a real high. I’m on top of the world. I write fast. I’ll write a draft in one or two months. And then when I’m done, I’m like… Ew. What is this crap? And then I attack it with a self-loathing fervor for like 2 years lol.

How has your relationship to writing changed since you wrote your first novel?

Weirdly, I’m less confident now. When I first started writing I had delusions that I really had ~something to say~. And now I just feel like a try-hard. But I do love writing and feel incredibly blessed that people want to read mine. I mostly feel like the luckiest person in the world.

You published a memoir, Bad Lawyer, and you’ve talked about that being a really difficult process for you. What motivated you to write that book in the first place? And did you know from the jump that it was going to be harder and less pleasant for you than fiction, or did you learn that while writing it?

I grew up really loving memoirs. In my twenties, I was obsessed with Elizabeth Wurtzel and Cat Marnell. And I still love them, but I no longer want their careers. The hard part about publishing a memoir was not how I came off — which I think was bad, but I’m always cringing at a fairly recent version of myself — but how it impacted my loved ones. My parents are still upset about my memoir, which is why I don’t really like talking about it. And the unkind things I said about people in that book still keep me up at night.

How has that experience with the memoir affected your approach to writing fiction?

Reactions from loved ones to both my first novel and my memoir taught me to keep my precious relationships out of my work. I really don’t care at all what people online or Goodreads say (I respect my audience, but their negative reactions don’t hurt my feelings). But if someone I’m close to is hurt by my writing I really can’t handle that at all. I don’t know how Lena Dunham did it for so long!

I think it’s because she was in her twenties! I feel like most people tend to have more of a tolerance for self-humiliation during our early to mid-twenties than later on. Even Lena Dunham has been far less active and certainly less self-referential in her work as she’s gotten older.

Yes, I was thinking that right after I sent that! That she’s gotten less self-referential. And I have as well. Promoting a book is always so weird because you’re in a completely different headspace when you’re promoting it than you were when you were writing it. I’m writing in third person now! A new me.

Perfume and Pain by Anna Dorn is out now.

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Keely is a lawyer, writer, and filmmaker living in L.A. by way of Brooklyn. Find out more about her work at www.keelyweiss.com.

Keely has written 3 articles for us.

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