Impressed by LOTE, the idiosyncratic debut novel by Shola von Reinhold, Fiona Alison Duncan set out to interview the author. A conversation in the context of our thematic focus Fabulating—about how life, literature and the archive might connect and the challenges of embellishing your own biography. The Photos of Shola have been shot for V/A by Kyle Crooks.
Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel LOTE is decorated with names as iconic as the author’s own. Some of them—Josephine Baker, Virginia Woolf—may be recognizable, others—Ardizzoni, Sarah Montmorency, Luisa Casati, John Garreaux—may be less so, because they are fictional or niche-historic. LOTE is rich, in the non-sarcastic sense: Layered and ornate, the text is a luxury to re-read, tie-ing in, as it does, and so leading out, if you’re curious, into a vast world of research and observation, complementing specialized histories with contemporary realities dressed in clever analogies. Should you answer the call to research, you may find yourself becoming a version of the novel’s protagonist, Mathilda Adaramola, whose name the reader learns on the book’s second page when an “incensed blond twink” tries to stop her from entering the London archive she is volunteering in. This brief encounter reveals that LOTE’s first-person narrator is Black in a white dominated space, something she seems used to, as she deftly deals with the power-drunk door boy “James.” We also learn that Mathilda is wearing “eBay lab diamonds, silver leatherette and lead velvets,” an almost-synesthetic description that places us post-Internet while leaving much to the imagination. What is the cut of her look exactly?
LOTE is motivated by mystery. Mathilda is beyond obsessed: she is transfixed by select Black, queer, trans, and/or femme figures from the past, information on whom is often very sparse. Mathilda calls these figures and the altered state they inspire transfixions. (The experience thereof is described with such sensual amplitude that you might miss the word play: trans fictions.) To be transfixed for Mathilda is to be fixed with transcendent longing, a sense of something being there and something missing; it’s to feel seen while seeing something as delicate as a single century-old picture or half of a name… When research on her latest Transfixion, Hermia Druitt—a glamorous poet pictured alongside “Bright Young Thing” Stephen Tennant in Late Renaissance angel costume, who was also known (one of the few bits of information Mathilda has) as “the Negress of Dun—” leads Mathilda to join a well-financed artist residency in the small European town of… Dun, the archive starts to come alive. Joining forces with her new platonic soulmate Erskine-Lily and a rabid residency overachiever named Griselda, Mathilda will deep-dive into a cult of “the Luxuries,” to which Hermia seems to have belonged and which has some connection to the residency in Dun.
As I keep telling Shola, LOTE is the best—because subtlest, quickest, richest—contemporary novel on the contemporary art world—and the race, class, sex, gender, and post-colonial realities therein—that I have ever read, and should be mandatory reading for all art students, professors, collectors, institution and gallery directors, dealers, critics, auctioneers, and archivists, etc.
FIONA ALISON DUNCAN Dear Shola, When I saw you read at Rizzoli in New York, you came in with a documentary crew pursuing you. What was going on there?
SHOLA VON REINHOLD Oh yes. I’d just come from a kind of interview which took place at this designer’s studio. A few months before this, when I’d first arrived in New York, I ended up at a gala at St John the Divine Cathedral, where I had a moment of anxiety. I didn’t really know anyone but it was my first party in the city so I wasn’t sure whether to leave or attempt to ride out the intense social anxiety. Eventually, I remembered the advice given to me by a chronically socially anxious socialite at a club when I was 17 – “hide under a table.” So I took a cocktail and hid under the table. Shortly after which someone walked past and looked down and asked me if I was me. It turned out she was working on a film called Seeking Mavis Beacon (which actually overlaps a lot of things we’ve both written about previously – archival absences and so on). For the interview they put me in a pink wedding gown by the designer and interviewed me and the Rizzoli event was straight after – as you’ll recall I was late: the interview ran over – and since they had to drive me there still wearing the wedding dress they thought they’d get some more footage… Although I think the battery died on the camera.
FAD I love this: hiding got you seen. Did being on camera alleviate the social anxiety of the book release?
SVR Seen from the most flattering angle. It did a bit, yes.
FAD At that event you also mentioned that LOTE was many attempts at different books that eventually came together as one. How long was the process? What uncertainty did you have to face? How much did you leave out?
SVR Yes l could never finish writing a novel – so I suppose what I was describing was the fact that LOTE in some senses is probably the same book I’d been working on as a very young teenager – each new book would emerge out of the old one before I could finish it, meaning nothing got finished until LOTE, which I realised contains the faintest threads of those early attempts. Something changed with LOTE – it was able to synthesise what might have been new projects into the same one piece of fiction. It was strange after essentially having been working on one thing forever, to finish it. Slightly terrifying even.
FAD I’ve been working on an artist’s biography myself, and feeling so alone. What am I doing spending my days when I’m young and hot in dusty old archives? Obsessed with a forgotten history? Am I even alive? I had been asking myself these questions when, as if God knew, a number of people recommended LOTE to me. You know what I had been complaining about actually? In the months before I bought your book, I had noted to a couple people who asked what I was reading that I had been reading a lot of great things but that it all felt like witnessing; I missed the experience when I was really searching in life and books would come to me as if they were spirit guides. Reading LOTE felt like this at times, like I was being seen as much as I was seeing. Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot in LOTE that I witnessed and was grateful to be allowed to witness. I only share some things in common with Mathilda, some with Griselda. I’m unfortunately nothing like Hermia. I could be cast as an Elizabeth/Joan.
SVR As long as you’re slipping Xanax into my coffee liqueurs à la Elizabeth/Joan that’s all that matters. But also, Elizabeth/Joan is there at the end, helping Mathilda and Agnes in reconstituting Hermia’s existence. She kind of wrote herself into that bit at the end – slipped in – I reread it and had to wonder what she was doing there… But it’s probably because there’s very much a place for her in the work going on – something she learns through Agnes.
FAD We love an ensemble cast.
SVR When you say witness, are you saying it feels like you are participating less these days in books, that there’s more of an experiential distance that comes with greater academic proximity…? How horrid darling! I’m trying to think of the last book that came to me in that magical way and I can’t… It doesn’t mean the books I encounter now are lesser but I miss the way a book can work its way through the arteries of a wider friendship circle in that wondrous way… Generally it used to happen with not-recently-released fiction. Books as spirits – or having spirits – is fun to think about – small multifarious Geists that descend upon us – and I’m intrigued by the way they used to come into the fabric of life. I’m wondering if the change you describe is similar to one I’ve experienced because your relation to literature has changed – materially, economically, socially. So now instead of literature swooping down at the right moment in life, the kind of revelatory apparatus shifts and instead now life pierces literature in those strange and uncanny ways?
FAD I love the proposal of life piercing literature rather than literature piercing life. Not to conflate the author with the protagonist too much, but have you ever felt like you should leave the archive and live more? Maybe not, LOTE makes the archive feel so alive…
SVR The feeling of being in a dusty basement in the summer when ‘high life with a capital H!’* is shimmering outside is one I know well. It’s a feeling I despise and have become allergic to (perhaps compounded by recent lockdowns and also gender transition stuff). But maybe I don’t feel I should abandon the archive in the sense that the ultimate goal is integrating the archive into life (and vice versa) so fully that we live with it – even now and again the dusty deathliness of it. This overlaps with something I have been thinking – forced to think – a lot about a particular attitude in contemporary fiction of late (and curious to hear your thoughts on this). It persists particularly in the UK in a certain way: the fetishisation of the writer as hermit. Clips and interviews circulate emphasising writers dead and alive talking about this self-isolation – often, of course it wasn’t, isn’t, true… But the kind of expectancy of novelists – more than other artists I can think of – to shutter themselves (or pretend to) is absurd and I simply refuse to play along with it. Obviously periods of seclusion are really useful when writing long works of prose and I do it when I’m able and it’s necessary, but the implication that it’s somehow ennobling is putrid to me! Tedious! Alarming! Being allowed to romanticise one’s own solitary state is important as far as I’m concerned. But that’s quite different from the kind of almost moral light cast upon optional literary reclusiveness which also seems to factor out collaboration of various kinds.
*I should mention ‘high life with a capital H’ is a quote from the ‘20s socialite Stephen Tennant who seems pertinent because he is as known for being at the heart of a famous party set as much as for being a recluse who lived in bed – he was indeed both.
FAD I want a study of what types of people fetishize the hermit writer. Who are some famous UK/European hermit writers or who do you hear lauding this approach? Who benefits?
SVR I had in mind some contemporary writers and references to them – and a few talks I’d attended around the same time where very similar sensibilities were peddled… But I daren’t say who. As for who benefits, some of this is very classed – middle class/wealthy writers moving to “remote” areas then writing about it and this being marketed in a very certain way (meanwhile people already living in said areas, or the ones still in the city who don’t have second homes…). But that’s not the whole of it… It’s an attitude, a reception, something more quietly insinuated than prescribed (but it is too). Of course there’s immense value in unhooking, waywardness – recognising one’s own alienation, bridling aberrance and riding off into the pink horizon – in literature and beyond (all things that can happen alone or with friends, comrades, co-conspirators, gangs, groups, etc). Again, to me, those forms of separation are different from the thing at hand. It’s neither some kind of romantic or mystical hermitage-ship that’s being appreciated. Auratic mystery, enigma, are exactly what this attitude would deny. It’s a flat one… hard work and bare bones…. It’s a presentation of the labouring self, I think, a shift from “chain yourself to the desk and get that work done” to something else. Either way, it’s simply not convivial to me and I am highly suspicious of it. It’s certainly an attitude I encountered far more in the UK than in New York or other cities. Of course – this is all a touch personalized – I seem to be a magnet for puritans like no one else!
FAD This must be a UK thing because the US loves a scam artist and a celebrity. In NY and LA especially, there’s this great tradition of the writer as public intellectual and/or party go-er: Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Eve Babitz, Fran Lebowitz, Hilton Als, Truman Capote, Chris Kraus, bell hooks, Brontez Purnell, Gore Vidal… Although those authors rarely write fiction and when they do it’s closer to journalism or memoir than world-building. I guess we have anonymous Thomas Pynchon, and Helen DeWitt, who seems dedicated to fiction writing above all else, or she just hates the publishing industry and press. I admire all approaches.
SVR I enjoy narratives about hermits almost as much as socialites: Emily Dickens was a first love. Another first love, Woolf, conversely loved to party yet I’d wager is or was spoken more about in terms of her isolation, mental health, etc. She also hated parties sometimes. I don’t think I could as neatly list a group of UK writers like you did with Sontag, Babitz, Baldwin, etc. There was Wilde and then various writers of the ‘20s but that type seems to drop off a bit after the War. There was Angela Carter who, if not a party lover, attended them and was known to be fun at them. Muriel Spark, I think, was a party lover … I’ve just tried to Google something I heard but can’t find, about how she lived in Rome and lived a vigorous social existence and then booked herself into some kind of mountainside health spa/sanitorium for the months she needed to write – very appealing. What I’m actually suspicious of is a different but overlapping distinction, less to do with writers as public/private figures (since there were plenty of anti-social public intellectuals and vice versa), and more about a facile configuration of isolation as honourable and partying or socialising as bad, hollow, frivolous – obviously I love hollow and frivolous things and have written about them as more or less divine – but beyond all of that there’s this implicit factoring out of collaboration/exchange/communalism in the form of this particularly drab and nasty individualism plus puritanism combo. Quelle dommage!
FAD Oh do you have thoughts on Angela Carter? Sophie gave me her book The Passion of New Eve. Have you read it? There’s a glamorous trans love story in one of the sections, other sections feature a group that’s like Trump Youth, revenge fantasies of the primal feminine, there’s some iffy misogynoir in the first section. It’s a fucked-up text. I love its structure and momentum.
SVR It’s been a long time since I read New Eve. My friend Angel Rose gave it to me – actually, it’s one of *those* books. It’s since been much disputed for transphobic depictions, but like quite a few books, it gets brought back into the fold as having something going for it. I have as fond memories of reading it as I do for books like Genet which have been similarly contested (e.g. transness in Our Lady of the Flowers). I’ve recently started Nights at the Circus. Carter and I undoubtedly have some overlapping sensibilities – Firbank and Socialism. There’s an interview with her – I’m watching it now – she’s asked about how her writing sits with socialist art and she says, “Okay, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?”
FAD What do you think about the future of archival research? If someone a century from now, let’s say humankind (who knows what population) survives, were to research you, just as Mathilda is researching Hermia, how would they do it? What kinds of traces are you leaving?
SVR Well it’s been on my mind since I’m currently researching four Black artists who each had to be creative with their identities. I’ve mentioned elsewhere about Zora Neale Hurston and am reminded of her again – she exemplifies one such creative act – putting down her age as 16 when she was 26 to be able to get access to education that allowed her to go to get a scholarship at a Barnard. I’m looking at these acts in Black artists as means of pleasure and survival – you could call some of it scamming and fraud if you wanted. I’m interested in these acts as a form of ornamentation, of adorning one’s own life. It was Hurston after all who located adornment as historically central to Black subjectivity – and here she was ornamenting details of her own biography. So in terms of what kind of traces I’m leaving, there are those I have to generate now for safety, survival, and also pleasure which collide with a certain kind of biographical accounting, and those traces which complicate, and those which actually are in line with but don’t seem to cohere so would be left out, flattened. It makes archival work tricky as I’m learning with the aforementioned artists who lived lives full of loopholes, contradictions, fantasy. Who changed their names and whose identities were slippery. I know the traces I’m generating now are already causing problems for those trying to do said biographical accounting. Some recent queries in my DMs from people: Am I or am I not a “Monagasque princess”? Was I born in 1969 or 1973 or 1993? Did I really get banned from the Bolshoi Ballet? Most recently – Am I in fact the face of a collective of artists who wrote LOTE? It’s all absolute trivia to me! Who has time to keep up with one’s own biographical minutiae? It’s 2023 and feels like time and history themselves are sputtering and choking up!