Anna Dorn is in the midst of what she’s calling “a Virgo nightmare.” While dog-sitting for her sister, the canine took an unauthorized swim in Echo Park Lake, one of Los Angeles’ least swimmable bodies of water. We both express our disgust at the event over Zoom, where we’re discussing Dorn’s latest novel, Exalted, out now on Unnamed Press. Can we blame the dog’s brief aquatic retreat on the position of the moon? Maybe he’s just a water sign? I keep these questions to myself, but it’s the type of reasoning that fuels Exalted, as well as many astrology-addled minds worldwide.
Exalted follows Emily Forrest, the voice behind one of Instagram’s most popular astrology meme pages, @exalted. As a Scorpio who relishes solitude to the point of detriment, Emily nurses her addictions to Radiohead’s discography, Juicy Couture tracksuits, and ripping her bong while hiding a crucial truth from her followers – she doesn’t really believe in astrology anymore. That is, until she sees a birth chart that pulls her into a black hole of obsession. Beau Rubidoux’s is as perfect as it gets; all his planets are in their destined, amplified places. Beau is, more or less, cosmically exalted. Meanwhile, an hour’s drive away in the sleepy hellscape known as the Inland Empire, Dawn Webster is an aging party girl lesbian who is ostracized for her often disturbing behavior. So what if she lit her ex’s car on fire? Does that mean she shouldn’t get laid anymore? As Dawn reevaluates her life, she scrolls through @exalted and feels seen. She’s a woman looking for a sign, and she gets one: she spots her son’s estranged father after decades of no contact.
The two narratives inch closer throughout Exalted, woven together with Dorn’s biting humor and sharp prose. “Freud is just Astrology for men,” explains Emily at one point. Dorn’s not afraid to throw jabs at obsession in all its forms — Instagram, love, desire, control, the freedom of mind-altering substances, and more — and the payoff is the perfect balance of wickedness and fun. Dorn herself prefers astrological archetypes to the business of cosmic transits, but there’s something to be said about a wild page-turner dropping smack in the middle of Gemini season, historically one of the most lawless signs of the zodiac. Perhaps astrology is real, after all.
I know you've been into astrology for quite a bit. How did you get into it exactly?
I think it's something I picked up over the years from being online, and just having friends who were into it. I think when I moved to LA, it got more intense because LA, people talk about it more here.I was living in the Bay Area before, and I was really into the Enneagram, which is their astrology. I think it wasn't until I moved to LA that I knew my rising and my moon. I think before that, I just knew that I was a Virgo. That's probably why I was less into it, because it's not a very fun sign.
I feel like once you land in LA, it becomes the go-to social lubricant. Most of the time, you can connect with somebody over it.
That's the main reason I think I started getting into it. Of all the small talk things, it's the most fun. I don't want to talk about jobs or whether you have siblings.
How did the concept for Exalted come to you?
My friend — or someone I was actually dating at the time — had a subletter who ran one of these astrology meme accounts. I can't say which one, but it was a popular one. She didn't believe in astrology at all. She was just like, "Astrology memes are just the easiest to make, and I have this following." That's where the idea sparked. She also never left her bedroom. I saw this girl maybe one time in the four months she was living there. She was home all the time.
She was also smoking a bong all day and had this hacking cough. That sparked the idea of this character. She had no friends. She just smoked a bong all day and made astrology memes, and she wasn't even really sure if she believed in it.
Also, at the time, I was doing astrology readings for fun, petty cash. I was accumulating all this knowledge that felt useless. I was like, "Well, I can put all of that into this book." I still feel like my knowledge about it is definitely on the amateur side. But then I think, for people who don't know a lot about astrology, they think they know a lot.
Typically how it goes. Why did you decide on making Emily and Dawn a Scorpio and a Leo? Is there anything in particular behind that? Are you just obsessed with fixed signs?
I've always been obsessed with Scorpios. I go through phases with signs, signs that I romanticize. Most of my friends are Scorpios, so I feel like I get them. Also, I guess I love the underdogs. Scorpios are really demonized by the meme accounts. I was like, "I'm going to inhabit a Scorpio."
I'm doing a book event with one of my best friends who's a Scorpio. We're going to talk about whether the character is a gross caricature of a Scorpio or whether it's real. And then Leo, I'm a Leo Rising. My sister's a Leo. I think I was very into Leos at the time. I was into this idea of an aging party girl Leo. Whenever I write things into fiction, they sometimes have a way of finding their way into my life. I became friends with a party girl Leo in her late fifties over the past few months who has some Dawn vibes.
Something I found very surprising was that half of the plot is set in the Inland Empire. Most people who move to LA have no concept of California outside of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and maybe Big Sur and Palm Springs. Where did that come from?
That's one of those things where, honestly, I don't know where that came from. It was not a super conscious decision. The Beau character is in Vagablonde. He's more of a side character in Vagablonde. I was thinking about the character. I honestly don't know where Riverside is. To be honest, I've never been to Riverside. I've driven through it. It must have come from somewhere, but I can't locate it. The Juicy jumpsuits, too, I don't know where that came from. My writing process is pretty unconscious, which makes it hard to do interviews sometimes. But yeah, the Inland Empire, I'm not totally sure where that came from.
At one point, they drive by Castle Park, and I was like, "I can't believe she's writing about this. That's so crazy."
That was from Google that I got that. I was just like, "Amusement parks near Riverside." I'm glad it's legit.
When you talk about your writing being unconscious, do you mean that you just sit down at your computer and you just don't plan anything that's coming?
I start with some sort of spark. For this, it was that character. I just start writing, and I see what happens. I actually wrote Exalted with a twist, and my publisher keeps telling me not to spoil it. So I'm not going to say where this book ends up. But that, I didn't know that was going to happen. I'd probably written a third of the book before I thought of that. But I pretty much just start with a spark. Then I just write in a state of almost mania. I write the first draft really quickly, in a month or two. Then I spend years editing it. That's when I do more of my left brain, putting more of a structure on it. That sort of thing.
That's when the Virgo comes out.
Yeah, exactly. It's Leo before that or something. Or maybe Mercury Libra. I'm not sure.
Do you let astrology guide your personal life, or are you more like Emily?
I'm more into the personality stuff. I've never been super into the transits, like Mercury retrograde or Venus retrograde. I never think that much about the full moon, or whatever. In terms of the personality stuff, for a while, it would definitely guide me. If I was on a dating app and found out somebody was a certain sign, I would just stop talking to them. I did see an astrologer when I was with my ex, who said that I was going to end up with an Aquarius or a Pisces. I don't love Pisces, so I was like, "I'm going to end up with an Aquarius." Then now I'm with an Aquarius. So that felt right.
I'm curious about what the super metaphysical girls are going to think about Exalted.
This is definitely not for actual astrology people. I have a friend who's really, really into it and is taking a class. I'm terrified for her to read it. I think this is definitely for people who are maybe not into astrology or just have Co–Star. I'm nervous about what actual astrology people are going to think. I'm sort of mean to certain signs in the book, which isn't totally me. That's partially Emily. I'm writing this character. I actually love Libras, but she does not Scorpios tend not to like Libras. I love Libras. She doesn't. But my mom's a Libra. My mom takes everything I write personally. I'm just like, "Why did I do that?"
Speaking of Libras, let's talk about one of my favorite characters: Stella Shadid.
I think it was my agent who told me to change the name. It was originally Bella Hadid. But, obviously, I didn't try very hard to change it. It's so obvious who it is. I was just like, "Hmm. What rhymes?" Yeah. That's another thing where I'm not totally sure how she ended up in the book. I think I was thinking about memes that she could make. A lot of memes feature celebrities who are of that sign. I know that Bella Hadid's a Libra. Fortunately, I know most celebrities' signs off the top of my head.
Also, I've always been into the Hadids, I think in part because I'm a huge Real Housewives person. I feel like I watched them grow up on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I have a stage mommy thing with them. I'm just like, "Aw, they made it. They really did it." I remember Gigi wanting to be a model. Bella was the awkward sister. She was the neglected, awkward sister. I feel very proud of her.
I'm proud of them both. They went from having to eat a few almonds very thoroughly to leading such grand lives. Yolanda Hadid, you will be dealt with.
Oh, my God. I love to watch compilation videos of Yolanda interacting with her kids. It's so disturbing. There's one where she calls Gigi a lesbian because she wanted to play sports.
She really did not want her playing volleyball, that’s for sure. To backtrack for a second, I know you said you're in a different state as you're writing, but do you ever think about the longevity of your book when making pop culture references or having Instagram be such a huge component of the novel?
Yeah, I do. Vagablonde, when I was writing it, I felt like it was very hip. Then it came out years and years after I wrote it, and I was cringing at it. With this one, I purposely had Emily be someone who had opted out of pop culture. She'd been listening to Radiohead for the last 15 years. I do think about that. It's tough because I think I'm online a lot, and I'm into pop culture. I absorb it, and then it just comes out when I'm writing. But I try to not have anything that I think of as hip or fresh in the book, because I know that it will seem lame by the time the book comes out.
The time delay between writing and publishing seems like such a pain in the ass.
It's a real pain in the ass. But even if the book came out right after you write it, I mean, it takes a few months to write a book anyways. Everything changes so fast online anyways. I think it's just for novels, the point should always be writing something that's more universal. I'm not sure that I've nailed that at all. But that's what I try to do. I think the idea of projecting something that isn't there onto our love interests is probably pretty universal and evergreen, I hope.
As is not getting what you want, and having that be good in some way.
True. Disappointment is always relevant.
I like what you were saying about projection earlier. Can you expand on that?
A big way I got that idea is how you know how the internet just speeds up everything? I feel like I have friends — and I've been this person, too — who will be on dating apps having a fight or being nervous about something, with somebody that they haven't even met. Pre-internet and pre-dating apps, this is a conversation that would come up six months into the relationship, and it's coming up in six days. I was interested in exploring that. Often, when my friends are talking about something like that, in my head, I'm like, "Whatever the situation is, it's probably so different from whatever they're imagining, because you just don't have enough data." I'm sure they've thought the same about me. So I went wild with that in this book.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.