Michelle Hart Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Michelle Hart

Michelle Hart

An interview with Michelle Hart

Michelle Hart discusses her debut novel, We Do What We Do in the Dark, and how the mixture of grief, love and coming of age in the novel reflects her own experiences.

We meet Mallory in college, in between adolescence and adulthood. What drew you to writing about this time of life?

I really love a good campus novel. There's something at once capacious and cloistered, expansive and constricting, about a college campus. College campuses are microcosms of the larger world and yet so rarely do they resemble reality. A campus is such a good setting for an affair—an insular relationship that has outsized external stakes.

The novel centers around the relationship between Mallory and the woman, but ultimately is about Mallory, who is coping with the all-consuming grief of losing her mother. Can you talk about the book in relationship to loss and learning to live with loss?

When you experience loss—especially parental loss—at a young age, it both strands you in adolescence and causes you to fumble forward into adulthood. You feel so much older than people your age and at the same time so much younger. You know too much and nothing at all. It's a very confusing, disorienting paradox that was not at all fun to live through but was endlessly fascinating to write through.

For Mallory, as it was for me, it's quite lonely. She wants love but is also wary of love. She becomes more independent and self-protective; her experience of connection is one of preemptive disconnection. There's a pleasing egotism to grief—how wonderful is it to sit alone in a room with the lights out thinking about nothing else but yourself? But this is a difficult way to live. To me, this is a book about a girl who learns to let in a little bit of light.

In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story about Mallory. To what degree is this novel autobiographical to your own experience?

Like Mallory, I'm a gay only child whose mother died—in much the same way that the mother dies in the book—when I was a teenager. We share many of the same feelings of grief, desire, loneliness. We've lived in and visited some of the same places; we've both had charged relationships with other girls and women. We have many of the same preoccupations: how to be a woman in the world, how to be queer, how to be an artist, how to be a lover and a partner, how to be all of these at once and whether that's possible.

I started working on this book while I was in college, trying to write myself out of the closet and through the grief I felt over my mother's death. These two things—losing someone I loved and gaining significant self-knowledge—was dizzying and profound. I began looking back at my childhood to find traces of the person I now knew, a process that is still very much ongoing.

The woman is an older, married professor at Mallory's college, though Mallory is not one of her students. Their relationship is consensual, though Mallory appears extremely vulnerable. Do you consider this a #MeToo story? Did you write it after the movement or with it in mind?

I don't think I'd classify this as a #MeToo story, partly because I'm not totally sure what the contours of that genre are, if indeed there are any, but I do think it participates in many of the important cultural conversations that surround the movement: the role of influence in intimate relationships, questions of autonomy in relationships between two people who are different in age and station, how our perceptions of formative relationships can shift over time.

One of the most fascinating and significant things about the #MeToo movement is the way it causes people to recontextualize past experiences. To me, this book is about how the relationship between Mallory and the woman changes over half a decade. It begins almost like a romance. Then the woman's husband enters the frame and it becomes a full-blown affair, with all its moral grayness. Later in the book we see Mallory as more firmly an adult, in a happy(ish) relationship with a woman her own age, (re)considering her time with the woman. It was important, for me, to end the book with someone else asking about their relationship; for the entire novel, the affair is a secret, a story only Mallory knows, so how would she recount that story to another person? What would she say about it? Would a movement like #MeToo affect her classification of the relationship?

How do the age and power differences between Mallory and the woman read differently because they are both women?

Both Mallory and the woman have been, from a young age, driven by their desires, even if—or especially since—they weren't always able to articulate those desires. The title of the book is a line of dialogue spoken by the woman to Mallory as a way of ascribing words to the way they both move about the world, cloaked in secrecy, and I do think this is a uniquely female way of experiencing desire. Women are so often told to keep our lust to ourselves.

The reader only understands the woman through the lens of Mallory. You don't even reveal her. What can you say about this choice?

I had initially started writing this as a short story, almost fable-like, where neither character was named. When it evolved into a novel, I found that giving "the girl" a name was a way to close the distance between the character and the reader. But when I thought about what to name "the woman," I came up blank. Names carry a lot of weight, but they also have a way of making a character more mundane. I realized that the woman would always be, to Mallory, the woman: the one who taught her, the one who would always be older and wiser, the ideal to which she aspired.

We see Mallory several years after the relationship, more firmly established as adult, and yet it's clear the woman and the relationship have left an indelible mark on her as a person. Can you talk about the powerful imprint an early relationship can have?

When you're young, you look, consciously or not, for guidance. This can come from parents, teachers, bosses, friends, lovers, storytellers. We look to these people to see how to be; the self is an assemblage of the objects of our admiration. Often, in yearning to understand ourselves, we can do so, for better or worse, only through the eyes of someone else. And if you admire this person, you want to become the person they would want. The hard part, then, is to untangle from all of that what you want.

What compels Mallory, and confounds her, is that while she assumes that the woman wants her to be a certain way—acquiescent, uncomplicated, solicitous—the woman also encourages Mallory to parade out her defining idiosyncrasies: her sensuality, her artistic aspirations, her self-sufficiency. The woman takes Mallory's raw material and molds something worthy of her limited attention. That's work Mallory doesn't have to—or get to—do herself.

How much is Mallory's story a coming-out story? The novel looks back at her formative childhood experiences and a relationship with a high school girlfriend and the friend's mother. How does Mallory's confusion with herself sexually color other relationships in her life?

Queerness, even when (especially when?) it's closeted, does complicate relationships: between mother and daughter, between student and teacher, between friends. But it's hard, in the moment, to comprehend exactly how it colors those intimacies. Late in the novel, Mallory wonders what it is about her that makes certain women confess things to her; why do some women confide in her while also keeping her at arm's length? These questions in particular are central to Mallory's sense of self. It takes her going backward and forward in time to try to answer them.

The structure of the book compels the reader to ask these questions too. By beginning with the affair, it reorients the narrative to ask: How did she end up here? What has made Mallory who she is?

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Michelle Hart at BookBrowse
We Do What We Do in the Dark jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Michelle Hart but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    If you enjoyed:
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  • Sang Young Park

    Sang Young Park

    Sang Young Park was born in 1988 and studied French literature at Sungkyunkwan University. He worked as a magazine editor, copywriter, and consultant before debuting as a novelist. The title story of his bestselling short ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    We Do What We Do in the Dark

    Try:
    Love in the Big City
    by Sang Young Park

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