If You’re An Aimless Art School Grad, This Novel Is For You
The story of Paulina & Fran, Rachel B. G’aser's wickedly cutting chronicle of art school social politics and complicated female friendship.
Northampton, M.A.-based author Rachel B. Glaser has an almost preternatural knack for descriptions. When the protagonists of her debut novel, Paulina and Fran, meet at a sweaty dance party at a New England art school, the one sizes up the other's beauty with the green-eyed scrutiny of a sculpture crit: "Her nose wasn't simple. Paulina contemplated the bones of it." Glaser's writing is likewise architectural, harking back to a precision and craft that sometimes feels eerily old world amid today's glut of internet speech-inspired alt lit writers.
But Paulina & Fran, which chronicles a complicated, evolving relationship between two women with very opposite personalities, a love for out-of-the-box dance moves, and curly hair, is also a very relatable book—especially if you're a young, millennial creative person looking to find direction after arts school, or liberal arts school, or any other sort of school that doesn't really prepare you for basic "grownup" things like finding a job and having satisfying personal relationships. Glaser would know—before getting an MFA in Fiction at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst's prestigious creative writing program, and becoming a fixture in the fertile avant-garde writing scene surrounding local literary non-profit Flying Object, she was an art school student herself, studying painting and animation at the Rhode Island School of Design around the time that fellow students (and future global art world icons) Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch were just starting to turn heads on campus. The FADER spoke to Glaser about art school social politics, the book's strange fixation with "bad" dancing, and what it's like to write your first novel. Paulina & Fran is out September 1st via Harper Collins.
Tell me about the experience of writing your first novel. What was your process like? What was your life like while writing it?
Paulina & Fran began as fast-paced, three-page story. I liked it and made it seven pages. Then I made it fifteen. Most of my short stories are more situational rather than plot-driven, but Paulina & Fran had a clear plot. A friend of mine, Lauren Foss Goodman, had recently written a brilliant novel in a year, so I thought I might try it with Paulina & Fran. It ended up taking me more like three years, but I wrote other things at the same time.
Initially, I wrote much of it by hand. When you write by hand, your words are often less legible than type on a screen—which is good! Those early sentences aren't great, and one can get distracted by what they've just written instead of writing onto the next line, the next paragraph. I wanted to write as openly as I could and save the criticism for editing. So there was a lot of transcribing. I edit by hand, so my process involves a lot of printing out and marking up. I like to see the edit on the page, whereas a computer erases evidence of the edit.
My life while writing Paulina & Fran is similar to my life now. I live in Northampton, where I've lived for the past seven years. While writing Paulina & Fran, I taught fiction to fascinating, terrific writers at [Hadley, MA-based literary non-profit and bookstore] Flying Object. I take short walks in an old cemetery with my boyfriend (poet and collage artist John Maradik), I watch NBA basketball with my friends (who write for The Peach Basket), watch movies at Amherst Cinema, paint a little, workout with my friend, the poet Emily Pettit. I read the work of my friends, and send my work to my friends.
Your prose is very chiseled and considered, much more than a lot of internet generation writers I’ve read. Who were some of the literary inspirations for this book?
I'm really into Joy Williams, James Purdy, Jane Bowles, Lore Segal's "Lucinella," George Saunders, "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld, and Miranda July.
You went to RISD, and most of this book takes place at an arts school. What was the school like around the time you went?
RISD was great! There was tons of great art by my painting classmates Aaron Gilbert, Jessica Williams, Casey Glover, Molly Lowe, Nick Payne, and Caitlin MacBride (to name a few of many). The Color Club in Paulina & Fran is partially inspired by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch and The Xperimental people, but those people are such an awesome original force, I could only capture glimmers of the feelings and atmosphere they created. Initially, Paulina & Fran did not take place at an art school, but when I decided to turn it into a novel, I thought it might be smart to set it in a place I was more familiar with—a setting that feels more dreamlike and bizarre the farther away I get from it.
“I’d say that I’ve felt every emotion in this book, though I haven’t been in many of the situations in this book.”—Rachel B. Glaser.
What are some ways in which going to an art school is different from your typical American college experience? Is there something different, do you think, about the way social pecking orders are created there?
What is cool and what is important is different at art school. I think at a lot of colleges, working hard is uncool, but at RISD working hard was really cool. If your art was good, you were cool. And since we were working on our own projects, I think our egos were more excited and unwieldy. Being given a studio and encouragement from these interesting, spirited teachers felt like an invitation into a great club where what you think really matters and what you make is actually seen.
Dancing—and specifically, bizarre, non-conventional dancing—is a recurring theme. What’s that all about?
I'm interested in non-verbal expression and its potential and limits. It's funny to think of traditional versus nontraditional dance moves. The "new" is so compelling—a new kind of painting, a new kind of poem. When someone is dancing in a new way in front of you, it feels alternately like something is being done to you, like something you are witnessing, and like something you've inspired. Dancing also seems (to me) to be an activity that peaks in your early 20s. Maybe it's because your identity is the loosest at that point (who the hell are you?), or that your body can dance for hours on end with only the faintest cramps, but my most transcendent dance experiences were at that time. I only dance at weddings now, but that can be great, too.
What do you find interesting about the two main characters? Is there one you identify with more, personality-wise?
I find it interesting that they can click so well in one chapter, then seem so ill-fitted for each other in other chapters. I enjoyed writing Paulina immensely. I think she's bold and daring. Fran took me longer to figure out. There's aspects of me in every character, but I don't strongly identify with either character. I look for it now, though, because I miss writing them, so occasionally I find a little bit of one of them in a way I act or feel.
The relationship between the protagonists is much more complicated than friendship— they are friends, but they’re also straight up rivals at points, and for much of the novel, there’s this undercurrent of sexual and romantic desire between them. What aspects of the female bond were you interested in exploring?
I was interested in exploring what the mind does with the past, the ambiguous, and the conflicted. I wanted to examine a relationship that wasn't purely romantic or sexual or platonic. I feel that narratives tend to be clear about which category a relationship falls into, and this clarity narrows the possibilities. Also the cyclical nature of admiration, and the power and confidence that can create.
Both of the main characters have curly hair—it’s a strong aspect of their identity, and Paulina actually goes on to make a fortune in the hair care industry. Is there something about curly-haired women that particularly intrigues you?
Most curly hair tends to change throughout the day, based on humidity and wind and other factors. I personally like myself more—and don't think about my looks as much—if the last time I passed a mirror I approved of my hair. There is a kind of futility in caring about this—trying to keep thousands of strands in a certain arrangement—it becomes a metaphor for other things. But, I do love curly hair. It can be graceful, funny, ornate, overwhelming. I like thinking of it as one of nature's patterns. It's hard to draw. It can be pretty expressive and distracting from the face. When you find a curly hair on the floor or on a pillow, it feels more alive (to me) than a straight hair, like it's trying to say something.
How much of this book is drawn from life? Is a lot of your work grounded in people you know?
Most of my writing is far from the people I know, but this novel got a little closer than usual. It's tricky to try and separate the "real" stuff from the fictional stuff when it's become a total blend, but I'd say that I've felt every emotion in this book, though I haven't been in many of the situations in this book.