How Debut Novel ‘Oola’ Is Like A Millennial ‘Lolita’
Talking with Brittany Newell about her new book
The first thing I noticed about Brittany Newell were her gloves. We were meeting for coffee to talk about her stunning debut novel, Oola, which dug itself deeply into my consciousness for many reasons, not least for its tactility. This is a book whose prose is so fervidly lush that it feels like, when you're reading it, that you're actually feeling it. Alternately sticky and soft, the words are palpable, not dissimilarly to the way in which merely thinking about those opening sentences of Lolita make the tip of my tongue tingle and the roof of my mouth pulse.
So it was interesting then, that Newell was wearing gloves, a barrier to feeling things directly; and it was perhaps even more interesting that the gloves were rubber, with carnelian nails painted at their tips. But this detail was only one of the striking things about meeting Newell, and undoubtedly the least of them. Far more notable was the expansive grace with which she talked about her experience writing her book, the fluidity with which she experiences the world, and the generosity with which she shared her thoughts and feelings. Oh, and the ease with which she correctly and unselfconsciously pronounces "Nabokov" (it's a long "o" and it ends with an "off").
When I first came across Oola, it was via a press release which made a big point of the fact that Newell was still an undergrad at Stanford when she wrote it. This is, absolutely, an impressive feat, but it's not what's notable about the book. Rather, Oola, which traces the relationship between Leif, a tormented young writer who spots the titular character at a party and, in no time at all, becomes instantly obsessed with her. The narrative unfolds into a feverish story of paranoia and isolation, lust and power struggles, and it is never less than captivating; a surreal and beautiful depiction of the way in which we feel like we are entitled to another person's experiences, and even to their very being. So is it incredible that this book sprang from the mind of such a young person? Sure, but it would be no less so if Newell had been 35 or 52.
Below, I talk with Newell about Nabokov, how she knew she wanted to be a writer, and how being an outsider can inform your art. And, of course, Oola.
How long have you known that you wanted to be a writer?
I guess I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I think a large part of it had to do with the fact that from a young age I had access to a computer, and that sort of privacy. I was always writing stories on my parents' MacBook and, like, hunting through probably horrible things on the internet that I shouldn't have been looking at. I feel like all of that has fed into my psyche as a specifically contemporary writer. 'Cause I think there is a different way that you write when you're on the computer, a sort of layering. They always say that Nabokov was the first writer to write as if he had been typing on a computer, 'cause he had this weird system of index cards, where he would go back and look through them. Which is like the ability to scroll up and down.
And at what point did you realize you had this novel in you?
I was always typing stories on my computer when I was young as eight, but the decision to do a novel came about when I was a freshman in college and I was trying to do the typical short story thing and I just got sick of it. Like, I realized that it was taking the same amount of time as it would take to write a novel, you know? And with a novel at least there's the hopes that more people would read it. I just was tired of submitting things and figured I might as well go for the long haul and see if I can do it. And there was an element where I was just curious to see if I could do it, just a personal experiment to see if it would work out.
When reading Oola, I was definitely reminded of Lolita in that there's an incredibly unreliable narrator and the narrative revolves around obsession and the ownership that some people feel like they have over others, particularly young women.
Yeah, it's interesting, I definitely had Lolita in mind honestly just as a book that I love and think is really beautiful. But it's funny because it's like there's an impure beauty to that book, because the fact that you like it is evidence that you're being coerced by the narrator. I think I was just really attracted to that idea of a coercive narrator; you know, it's not just Oola he's controlling. In the end, he's controlling you because you went along with his story and maybe you were annoyed or horrified or upset by things he did to Oola but you still went along with it, exactly like with Lolita, where the beauty of the language has a lot to do with the coercive narration. The element of being carried away by obsession or desire is definitely present in Leif's relationship to Oola, even though I think as the book goes on, you see that he has more of a plan than he might initially admit to. But you know he might claim like, "I was just carried away by it all and I didn't know any of this would happen." And that could be true.
Do people tend to think that you're a character in your book? I think that happens a lot with young, debut novelists, the conflation between their lives and what they write.
Whenever people read it, everyone's always asking whether I'm Leif or I'm Oola—as if it could be so simple to reduce it, like I'm one or the other. People will be like, "Well, you are obviously Oola, because you are a girl." Or, "You're obviously Leif, because you're a writer." Or they're always asking if it's about me and my wife, like, "Which is which? Obviously this relationship has to be based on the two of you, right?" And it's like, first of all that'd be kind of fucked up if it was. But also, it's been three years basically, from first writing to publication, and as I've gone through my life and as the book develops, there's always a vacillation between which roles I inhabit and when I'm the passive or the active agent in any relationship, not even romantic ones.
I think what's also interesting is that people think the characters are so easy to reduce to something static, like that they aren't also changing based upon the way you're feeling when you read about them.
So that has actually given me more sympathy towards Leif, because when I was drafting it I was like, yeah, Leif is going to be this embodiment of that colonizing urge that people have in romantic relationships, where they don't want anything unknown to them and they don't want anything off limits. And when you're drafting that in a simple way, it sounds purely nasty, but as I have been able to approach the book in a roundabout way now I can approach it like a reader, rather than a writer, and as a reader I'm more fluid in which characters I relate to and more sympathetic to Leif and the Leif-like things in me. It's also been interesting because it's very unpredictable how people relate to some of the characters. I've had people say they don't like Oola at all and they think that she's cold to Leif and that she's somehow in the wrong, and then other people who are really creeped out by Leif, and people who are put out by both, because they're like, "Oh, they're so privileged," which is something that comes up a lot.
Do you think there's an objective reality as to what the characters are really like?
I go back to the original idea of a coercive narrator and the degrees to which we participate knowingly and unknowingly in a seduction. It's a book about seduction in a way and hopefully Leif seduces the reader with his antics and also with his poetic language and lyrical take on things. I guess the secret is that you didn't actually get to find anything out about Oola. Like, I had a professor who said if you try to imagine Lolita, like, you have to realize that you didn't actually learn anything that you can take as a fact. When Humbert is like, "Oh well Lolita was playing into it, and she had control," [you need to] step back and realize that you're taking the narrator at face value. It's a book all about those gray areas between people, between the reader and the writer, between genders, that fluidity.
Is privilege something that you thought about when you were coming up with this story line?
Definitely. For one thing, I was writing it while I was at Stanford and so I was definitely taking cues from that and people I know, privileges that I've had, access to being able to travel through grants, things that Stanford has given me. It's just the environment that I was in for the past four years, that I'm both an observer of and a participant in. But then maybe 70 percent of the way through the book I had my writing mentor ask me, "Why do you think Leif thinks that he can do the things he does? What's the root of that?" And that made me think about this notion of privilege in a different way in terms of entitlement, because maybe of all the things about Leif, that might be his fatal flaw. I mean, I think his fatal flaw is that he's a romantic and then, within being a romantic, he thinks that he's entitled to everything he wants because the purity of his intentions, they atone for whatever he wants to do. And Leif coming from a privileged background and material privilege and material entitlement, that all might translate into interpersonal entitlement. You know like, maybe there's not that much of a difference between thinking he can travel anywhere he wants and thinking he can travel into any part of Oola.
Yeah, he's the woke guy who also doesn't realize how much of what he does is still an infringement on all sorts of other people's rights.
The sensitive bro thing, where it's like, "Well you know I'm friends with women, I'm a good one." That type of attitude.
How was it like living with these characters for so long? And then how is it like when you finish a book like this? How do you move on?
Well, it's funny, I feel like on NPR, writers always like, "Oh, writing is so lonely, writing sucks 'cause you have to be alone all the time," which is true, but I feel like once you get into the groove of the novel—like, definitely the first three chapters are misery, and you're just like, oh my god, what am I doing?—but then once you're in the thick of it ,you are alone and you are technically isolated, but for me—and maybe this is even cheesier to say—but for me, I don't feel lonely because it's this sort of alternate world that you can tune into and sort of feel yourself into and just feel surrounded by something. And then finishing it... I mean honestly I was glad to finish it, because it had been a long time... so yeah, actually, I wasn't too sad to be done with it.
How was it revisiting it years later?
Ah, it's so bizarre. I gave my dad an advanced copy and it's so sweet. Like, my dad really likes westerns and he's not a literary reader but he's... like I always say that, like, he and my wife are going to be the foremost Oola scholars because my dad is literally, like, diagramming sentences and is taking notes in the margins. Seeing what stands out to him as a pretty conventional older man is really actually incredible, and I feel like I'm teaching him things about gender and sexual fluidity. But when I was going through his copy a couple weeks ago, it was the first time that I felt like I had enough distance to approach the book like a reader, not like the writer, which was just really exciting. In a way I was like, "Wow, this is exactly the type of book I'd want to read. It has all the themes that I like." [Laughs] It's just really unsettling, but I think that's the most difficult point for a writer to get to, that necessary distance where I'm not obsessively like, "Oh, I should use a different word." Because I can be very obsessive on the level of a sentence. I'll swap out ten different synonyms for blue. But, yeah, I liked it so and that's saying a lot, 'cause I'm hard on myself.
One of the things about the character of Oola, an experience that you share with her, is being wealth adjacent, which I think is such a common denominator in so many artists that I know, like, they grew up near something powerful and covetable that they could never fully attain. It's the kind of formative experience that adds to the outsider feel that so many artists share, this whole different sense of the world that you wouldn't maybe get otherwise.
More than the discussion of gender in the book, a lot of people have really zoned in on the class elements, and, more than anything, I think class is extremely difficult to talk about and parse out. I grew up in a really affluent community and had a lot of access to intense privilege with the public schools that I went to and living in a safe neighborhood, but then I grew up never having very much money and having my parents go on food stamps and I had a job when I was in high school and was the only one in my family who had an income for awhile. It was very up and down. I'm from Marin, which is a very affluent place, and not having a word for what I was... I think that's kind of a theme in my life, not having a set word for what I am, and I think that that has definitely spilled over into like many elements of my life; not really knowing what type of relationship I was having with my now wife, and then also just with my own gender identity. I still don't know exactly what I'd call it except for I'm femme and assigned female at birth, but I think when you sort of lean into that space where words become inadequate, that's an exciting place for a writer to be. Your whole thing is like, well, all I have are words, and ultimately I believe in language, but at the same time I'm always finding myself in places where language objectively fails. That creates a sort of tension and falling outside of something definitely makes complacency sort of impossible.
Oola is available to purchase here