City Paper is not for tourists
On the page, novelist and short-story writer Julia Slavin bristles with rapid-fire wit and withering satire. But in person, she reveals the distinctly unfunny wellspring of her art: guilt.
“I’m proud to be an American, but I also feel guilty,” she says. “I feel like everything’s my fault.”
Among the things the Chevy Chase, D.C., resident feels guilty about: reaping the benefits of American privilege, the thought that her mother’s elderly friends might be inconvenienced by attending one of her bookstore readings, the memory of once allowing her kids to take a short walk outdoors while the Washington snipers were afoot. And, not least, the possibility that she’s “the worst interviewee you can imagine.”
If the main character of her recently published first novel, Carnivore Diet, is any reflection of her state of mind, Slavin also believes that the guilty must be punished. Wendy Dunleavy’s congressman husband is about to go to prison, her son is depressed, her lover is about to decamp to the grounds of the 17th-century-themed reality show Colonial World, and, oh yeah, her house is being stalked by a hermaphroditic man-eating beast called a “chagwa.”
Like her earlier short-story collection, The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories, in which one character grows teeth all over her body and another gobbles up the lawn boy, Slavin’s novel has a decidedly surrealist bent. But contemporary Washington is recognizable, and looming over Slavin’s fictional city are both a heightened sense of dread and a numbing glibness that only slightly exaggerates the genuine article.
Slavin didn’t set out to write a D.C. social satire, however. “The thing that came first was the animal,” she says. “The animal in the back yard. The animal in the neighborhood. The animal in the city.”
The chagwa announces its presence with an unmistakable odor of buttered popcorn and by occasionally devouring the unfortunate bystander. In its male incarnation, it boasts testicles nearly the size of bowling balls. And very quickly, it becomes something of a local celebrity, incorporated into the narcissistic, status-obsessed lives of Washington society types.
Although Slavin started writing Carnivore Diet not long after the 1999 publication of Maidstone Club, the novel is very much a post-9/11 fiction. The appearance of a mythological predator in the back yards and alleyways of the District inspires not only party conversations but also paranoia and a sense of helplessness.
“On 9/11, everybody’s work, as far as I’m concerned, lost its validity,” Slavin says. “So I had to take a lot of time off before figuring out how any of this worked into this new world.” It turns out she didn’t have to change that much: The mood she’d established fit both the story she was telling and the changing times.
Still, the ever-present guilt ultimately took hold. “I just had to take a little bit more of a serious tone in order to not be disrespectful,” Slavin explains. “I think the book was funnier, actually, and made more light of people’s fears. [But] I realized that these fears that I was writing about were more real than I had given them credit for.”
For the 45-year-old mother of two, that revelation was probably the most guilt-inducing of all.
“This is a terrible time to be a parent,” Slavin says. “I don’t know if it’s today more dangerous than when I was a kid and we were one button away from nuclear annihilation, but we’re more aware of danger because CNN plays 24 hours a day. I don’t know what that’s going to do to the next generation, being raised by parents that are so crazed with fear.”
Slavin remembers the Washington of her youth as more sedate. “My neighborhood was made up of mostly really old people. Old women with little dogs,” she says, recalling her childhood in Chevy Chase, Md. Growing up the daughter of a teacher and a psychologist was a far cry from the world of competitive hostessing and political scheming she sends up in her novel. And besides, she says, “politics was a much more pedestrian job in those days. A congressman could have lived in my neighborhood and nobody would have noticed.”
Slavin’s awareness of the official Washington she so deftly pokes fun at developed later, after she moved to New York in the early ’80s with the postcollegiate idea of becoming a playwright. To pay the bills, she took a position as an assistant on the overnight desk at ABC News—a job that consisted, she says, of “ripping wire copy and fixing the Xerox machine.” She wound up staying 10 years, rising through the ranks and eventually becoming a producer on the show Primetime Live, then hosted by Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer.
“Then,” she recalls evenly, “I quit.”
In 1992, Slavin developed a pathological fear of flying that effectively ended her career as a network-news producer. “I felt like my number was up,” she says. “I kept getting on planes that had to make emergency landings.” On the eve of a West Coast assignment, she walked into her boss’s office and resigned.
“I said I was leaving to become a freelance writer, even though I hadn’t thought about it at all,” she says. “The real reason was I couldn’t walk into an airport.”
She returned to D.C.—presumably by ground transport—to be closer to her family. She did some freelance television production. She worked on what she calls a “disaster of a screenplay that will never see the light of day.” Finally, she turned to short fiction, writing the first stories she’d assayed since high school. ABC, she reasoned, had prepared her well for the format: “On television,” she says, “everything has to be so short and concise, and you have to get your point across.”
Some of those early efforts eventually made it into Maidstone Club, a book that tends to take normal anxieties to absurd heights. “Swallowed Whole,” the one about the lawn boy, focuses on a suburban housewife and the unusual way she consummates an age-inappropriate crush. “Babyproofing” looks at the extent to which a new mother will go to protect a newborn child—even if it requires dispatching the baby’s father. Slavin’s voice throughout maintains the poise that will be familiar to readers of Carnivore Diet: a surreal deadpan that makes the most extraordinary events seem not simply possible but also the inevitable consequences of human frailty.
“Humor,” Slavin says, “is a way of getting at intense pain.”
The stories caught the eye of Jill Bialosky, now Slavin’s editor at W.W. Norton & Co. Bialosky remembers Maidstone Club as “just completely winning—a poignant and original collection and sort of completely her own.” She wrote Slavin a fan letter, and their correspondence led to Norton’s acquisition of Carnivore Diet, which the company brought out earlier this month.
The new book, Slavin says, is concerned with “people who have lost sight of people who are in need. Their work is no longer about serving mankind—it’s about themselves. I’m trying to slap the hand of supreme narcissism.”
Accordingly, a legion of charlatans line up to solve the chagwa problem, with firearms, science, or whatever else they happen to hold dear. Chief among these is a character based on a real Washingtonian who, his creator says, “could be easily recognized by a certain generation.” “Ben Sotterburg,” he’s introduced. “Desegregationist. Civil rights lawyer under four presidents. War hero. Philanthropist. Best-selling author. Real estate mogul. Painter. Counterterrorist expert. Single father. Filmmaker. Gourmet cook. Hostage negotiator.”
He is, says Slavin, “the quintessential narcissistic male.”
If Carnivore Diet is widely read in town, and discussed at the same sort of parties it depicts, one consequence could be the outing of the real Sotterburg. For at least one person, though, he’s already real enough. Earlier this month, when Slavin read from the novel at a small college in upstate New York, an audience member from Washington came up to her to say that, though he’d enjoyed the evening, he wouldn’t read her book. Why? Because he prefers fiction.
“It seems that times are so surreal,” Slavin says, “that I don’t find my book that strange or far-fetched.”
I t took only a few events among D.C.’s elites to crystallize the perception of federal Washington that is at the root of much of Carnivore Diet’s satire.
“I have gone to these parties,” Slavin says, “and I was struck by the fact that there were journalists and politicians hanging out in the same room. It was sort of like when the characters on Green Acres would show up on The Beverly Hillbillies. That always bothered me. They need to be on their own shows. Everything seems to be a little bit cozier here.”
Still, Slavin maintains that the novel “is absolutely not a political book.”
“It’s a family book,” she says. “I think that the book isn’t completely satirical. There’s a lot of pain…I’m hoping that comes across as well.”
That aspect of Carnivore Diet was not lost on Bialosky, who says, “Julia did a terrific job of writing about a woman whose life is really spiralling down and how she’s trying to save her family.” The story is told through the alternating first-person narratives of antidepressant-addled Wendy and her 14-year-old son, Dylan, a boy trying to become a man in a world of feckless role models.
Dylan also happens to be the voice of Harlan, a cartoon rat modeled on the protagonist of PBS show Arthur. His celebrity status doesn’t afford him any social cachet with his peers, however. Friendless, he finds human companionship by hanging around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, selecting a name at random from the wall, tracing his fingers over it, and weeping, waiting for the consolation of passers-by.
There’s no real-life Dylan, it turns out. Slavin’s own children are not yet in their teens. But it’s not too early for the author to start imagining the coming years of parental guilt and adolescent angst. “A writer limits herself if she can’t write in another gender or another race or another nationality or another age,” Slavin says. “I’m not a 14-year-old boy, but there is one in me.”
Slavin reads from Carnivore Diet at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.