Fiona Alison Duncan On 'Exquisite Mariposa,' Success, And Not Being An Asshole

Talking with the author about her new book

"I'm interested in whether you can be successful and not an asshole," Fiona Alison Duncan told me, as we sat drinking coffee and talking about her new book, Exquisite Mariposa. Our conversation had veered off course, somewhat—or maybe it was going exactly where it was supposed to—and we found ourselves talking about the specific compromises that come along with navigating the twin tasks of making art and making money, and Duncan questioned whether or not anyone could successfully reconcile the two acts, and still preserve their integrity.

This is something that Duncan also explores within Exquisite Mariposa, which is a book about art, and also about artists and creation and patterns and disruption; about the real and the simulated; about games and nature and animals and friends. It's a beautiful fractal of a book, and it feels almost alive in your hands as you read it, like it's a map that you're navigating, like it's helping you discover a path to somewhere new, yet weirdly familiar.

While it is a novel, Exquisite Mariposa does center around a character named Fiona Alison Duncan as she enters and then exits her Saturn Return, an astrologically important turning point that comes along in a person's life every 27 years, and is supposed to signify major changes. It's a sly kind of fiction, one that feels transgressive and pure, and aided by Duncan's background as a journalist, because every aspect of it feels thoroughly interrogated, and all the more lucid for it.

Below, I speak with Duncan about the novel, how her work as a journalist informed her fiction writing, and being a Canadian socialist.

At what point did you start writing and realize that you wanted to write this story as a book? I am really interested in its framework: the very distinct chapters, the fact that it takes place during this specific period of life, the Saturn Return, but within that specificity, there's also room for so much, not chaos exactly, but roaming around. It's very provocative, the way it rolls and folds in on itself.

I wrote it over the course of about three years, I think, and very much off and on. The first chapter was intended to be a self-contained essay portrait of some of these people [in the book]. But then that felt also wrong to publish, so then I just put it away for, I think, a year. There's one or two chapters that I wrote and then put away for a year... I wrote a lot of it while walking around, or busing around, L.A. It was written pretty much beginning to end, formally. There was definitely a little bit of reorientation at the editing stage, but for the most part, even when I write profiles or essays, it tends to be first line to last line and going back and combing through every time. But a lot of it was written while walking around and having a realization, or really just crunching a topic that was driving me crazy, whether it was personal or more political.

I wish I had more of an intention to super-structure. It's more like... I used to say that it felt like when you have something that is covered and you don't know what's underneath, and you have to do a rubbing... or pulling out thorns. It felt more like a process of trying to uncover or understand something.

I like those analogies, because they're so tactile. Your writing is very sensory. Reading it really does feel like an experience that goes beyond the intellectual, and it felt incredibly immersive, like I was there in L.A. with you, or within your group of friends. Which, I did want to ask you: What it was like to write about people you have real relationships with? What came naturally and what was difficult to explore?

What's difficult is knowing if it's okay, and that's, I think, another question of the book: the ethics of making work based on your life—because I love doing it. If I could just write about my life uncensored, I'd be delighted. That comes very naturally and is very exciting to me, and I think it's a nice way to connect, especially if you write something and send it to them and get their feedback and then you can use that as a medium to intimacy, if you have intimacy issues.

[But] questioning whether that was okay, if that was exploitative, if you're getting it right, and how to see if you're getting it right—those were the harder things.

Did you figure out a set of ethics for it?

I think this idea of wanting to do it perfectly or wanting to do it in this pure way, or this way that has no harm attached or things like that, it feels impossible... It's more about being open to having it be a bit compromised. Or being really direct and like, "I'm doing this, and I really want to do this." And asking for blessings and being able to take the responsibility if it isn't everybody's ideal situation in the end. I think the problem with print is that people do see it as very authoritative, or as the story, and I know what it's like to have people write things about you that aren't true or have only their version of the story exist on the public record and your version of the story be totally silenced.

You've worked in journalism; you've written profiles, you've written extensively reported pieces. You have an interesting background to bring to a kind of writing wherein there's more license, but there's also a thoroughness to how you're interrogating experience. I wondered if that background allowed you to have a different kind of perspective while you were writing, if you were able to detach at all from things that might otherwise be difficult to write about because of their intimate nature. Or if that wasn't actually a tool that was utilizable.

I love New Journalism and always wish that that's what I could've written—like, genuine journalism. But that was very much a trend of reporting that existed in a time and space, and was funded in a particular time and space, and doesn't seem to be relevant now. I feel like when I first started doing arts journalism, I would try to put in a lot of New Journalistic stuff, and it would be cut out because it wasn't relevant, or it didn't get to the point enough, or it was too subjective, or whatever it was. The book would have been great to write with such pure journalism. But it ended up being a space for all those things that I wasn't allowed, or paid, to write otherwise. Then I realized that that's what fiction is, and I was like, Oh. I never thought about writing fiction, and now that's all I want to write, really. I think I was just very naïve, or hadn't really reckoned with what fiction can do.

Wanting to do journalism or something like that was very practical. I don't think I let myself, when I was younger, ever think that most things were accessible to me. I wouldn't have been like, I could write fiction, even though I had some teachers when I was young notice terms or phrases or something when you're like, 12 or 13, and try to encourage to continue in the process. All these things that only in the process of writing Mariposa and trying to grapple with what limitations you put on yourself or how even unconsciously you put on the infrastructure of your life, [did I] try to dismantle those and create this more open frame.

At the end of the book, for the first time, I was like, Yeah, fiction could be accessible to me and really exciting. The interest was always there, but it's always like, for someone else. I could never do it.

Personally for me, turning to fiction was finally allowing yourself to indulge in what it could mean to actually be an artist, instead of doing this service-oriented thing, which journalism is. Journalism is more the job.

Yeah. I mean, even in the sense that journalism has to get done fast, on a different timetable. Whereas fiction is going to take a much longer time. It's much more contemplative. And it's the rare publication that will give you 10 months to report a story anymore.

The realization [I had] while writing Mariposa was like, If I'm not going to get paid or treated well within this job, I might as well do it exactly as I want to do it and not try to service someone else's interests for $200.

Speaking of money, something that... Did you read the Tavi Gevinson essay [in The Cut]? I thought it was a really interesting contrast to Exquisite Mariposa because of Tavi's dilemma with regards to selling out. What was so interesting about that was just the reinforcement of this idea that money still needs to be a goal. One thing that I liked a lot in your book was that money is talked about and money is needed, and it's recognized that some people just have enormous amounts of it that they're given at birth, but it's still the art that feels like the driving force. How has it been for you to navigate making art and...

Making money?

Making money, yeah. Staying alive.

It's very challenging. My partner always says that... He's like, "You could make money if you wanted to." I make very little money and during the Mariposa years, I was conscious that I needed as much time as possible to learn to write how I wanted to, or make art the way I wanted to, but also to learn to be the kind of person I wanted to be, because self-work and self-therapy basically takes a lot of labor and it also takes keeping away completely from triggering forces. I basically tried to figure out how I could live off the lowest possible wage. I mean, cheap places, eating rice, greens and beans. Not buying clothes. Any space that I could... Not having my haircut, nothing. I still am in the habit of only a haircut a year, even though it's really ratty.

It's really not.

But that, to me, was a really important thing. Then lately I've been trying to learn how to make more money and deal with money, because I have Pillow Talk [a series on sex, love, and communication], and there's some interest of money potential there, and figuring out how to do it so that you can distribute it. Because whenever we do it, whenever Pillow Talk will get some money, it's very much redistributed to everybody who's involved, getting them wages... It's easier for me to be motivated to get money [that way], sort of like the reality show [in the book].

But my boyfriend, he's always like, "You could've made money at some point. You could've gone into fashion journalism." But to me—and I don't know if it's accurate or just the way it felt, or the blinders of my perception—but it's felt like I've never had to make that hard choice between a big paycheck and doing what I want. Maybe that's why I'm so stubborn and only ever sought what I want, which isn't necessarily so far financially valuable. I also am not a conformative type.

This is a very L.A. book and feels almost like an ode to that city, but you've since moved back to New York: How does it feel being back?

Good. At first, it was very hard. I mean, I left New York after being poisoned with carbon monoxide and going totally broke and having all sorts of anxiety issues.

But then my friend John Walter, who's a filmmaker who I became friends with, the week I was leaving New York we started hanging out, and then when I would come back and visit over the years. He was like, "Oh, you were just at the wrong party." So I think it's very possible that my first stint in New York I hadn't figured out where to dwell or something.

Now I have a lot of good friends who share more of my values and motivations. I don't feel so alone here, or crazy here. I felt really crazy being in fashion. On the surface, [the people I worked with and around and I] were interested in the same things, you know? But our motivating forces and values were really at odds, and that was very confusing.

Is it too broad to ask what your motivating forces and values are?

There are lots of them. I'm very like, overly sincere. The way a friend of mine said it, "You know, the truth, justice, and beauty people," which is easy to make fun of. But yeah, I have some sense of fairness or justice and truth. I'm very Canadian-socialist. I think people should have a fair go of it when they enter life.

Exquisite Mariposa is available for purchase, here.