In Marcy Dermansky’s black comedy novel, Hurricane Girl, a woman’s beach house blows away in a hurricane, and that’s just the start of her problems. Screenwriter Allison Brody moved from Los Angeles to North Carolina to escape an abusive boyfriend, and just a week after living in her idyllic beach house — it’s gone. Trying to rebuild her life triggers a chain reaction of events that go from bad to worse, but Dermansky somehow renders loss, violent assault, and brain injury… very fun!
Dermansky’s magical ability to turn tragedy into comedy lies mostly in her delivery. For example, when Allison visits a Starbucks after the head injury, the cashier says to her, “I can see your brain” and “Girl, your head is wide open.” Allison is seriously injured, but the cashier's glaring lack of tact lightens the mood. Dermansky’s books share a theme of people-pleasing women finding agency. Allison doesn’t like how the Starbucks cashier speaks to her, but rather than saying something, she simply opens her app to pay.
Allison is “probably much too nice to people,” Dermansky writes. After Allison gets injured, she feeds her attackers’ cats. Over the phone, Dermansky tells me she left San Francisco, where she lived after college, and went to grad school back East because she didn’t know how else to break up with her boyfriend. This is precisely how her characters often behave, taking great lengths to avoid confrontation. In fact, Allison herself drives cross-country before the book begins to leave her movie producer boyfriend.
Dermansky tells me she doesn’t plan her books, which tracks in that each turn is a delightful surprise. In a sea of books that are overwrought and pretentious, Dermansky’s novels read like a summer breeze. She tells me she worries she’s been overlooked because her books are easy to read. I tell her it’s easy to be esoteric and difficult; it’s much more difficult to be fun. And her books are far from frivolous. Deceptively simple sentences pulsate with rich emotional depth, reminding us that fun can be profound.
Hurricane Girl is out now from Knopf.
I wanted to start by asking about Hurricane Girl’s origin story. How did the idea develop?
With all of my books, I never start with a plan, just a blank page. But I've always thought about losing your house after you got it. It's just been an idea in my head. And so that was the first paragraph. And then the hurricane is pretty much done with early in the story, right? And then it just sort of evolved. She's a horror writer and all of a sudden I'm like, "What if I create a horror scene?" And I didn't know I was going to do that until I did it. And that's how I love to write, not knowing what I'm going to do and surprising myself. This whole book was surprising to me because it wasn't supposed to be autobiographical. I've never owned a beach house. I've never been brutally attacked. And then it becomes like a really intensely personal book.
Which parts were personal?
The grieving about her father and going into a hospital where she could look out the window and see her elementary school. I mean, I've never had a brain injury, which is in this book, but I did go spend time with my dad in his hospital and look out the window and see my old elementary school. And I didn't know I was going to put that in a book ever. I didn't even ever think I would actually write about my dad. So that's personal. There are other personal things. But I don't have to reveal it to you yet if you don't ask me, I guess.
I wanted to ask if you enjoy writing. Most writers seem to hate writing. And I love writing. And I have a feeling you love it, too.
I do. Sometimes people talk about how much they hate writing and they're just happy when they're done writing. I really love to write, but I hate starting new things. I just feel like sometimes the question is, do you write every day? And the answer is no. I spend more of my time not writing than writing. I feel like I could write a lot more if I could just get myself to start things. I'll take months off and not work at all. And then I don't know about you, but when I'm not writing, I start to feel badly about myself. Right now, for instance, I'm not feeling so great about myself because I'm not writing, which seems crazy because I have a book coming out and I have this self-esteem issue going on. It doesn't really track, but that's just what happens to me.
That's the really weird thing about publishing books. You write it, and then when it comes out years later, you're in a completely different place. And you have to promote this thing and you don’t even remember who you were or what you were thinking when you wrote it.
Yeah. Sometimes I don't even remember what I wrote. I have to go back and read the book again.
I feel like Hurricane Girl is hard to categorize. How would you describe it? Comedy? Horror?
I know. It ends up being horror, but it's not strictly horror and it's definitely funny. And then serious, too. I think my whole chip on your shoulder writer thing is that sometimes I feel like my writing isn't that highly valued because it's so easy to read or because it's funny. And so people don't think that it's serious or about real things. I don't think I know how to write without being funny and I'm not trying to be funny. If I tried to make a joke, I wouldn't know how to. Have you ever been in a conversation where you make a joke and it also sounds like you could be telling the truth? And so people look at you like, "What?"
That happens to me. I'll make a joke and they'll be like, "Are you okay?" And regarding your comment that your work isn’t highly valued, I definitely think you should be way more famous than you are.
It sounds better when somebody else says it.
I wanted to ask you about Twins because that's my favorite book of yours. I just loved it so much. And I wanted to ask, are you a twin?
Not a twin.
How did you get the idea to write a book from the perspective of twins?
I'm not an astrology kind of person. You wrote about that in your new book Exalted, but I am a Gemini, which is the twin sign. But I mean, the actual answer is kind of boring, which is that I got stuck and I didn't know what to do. So I said, "Why don't I just write from the other point of view?"
That makes sense. The Gemini duality. I also have to ask, since there's so much swimming in your books: are you a swimmer?
I am a swimmer. And it's funny, I don't know. I could stop writing about swimming, and I don't think there was swimming in Bad Marie. Very Nice is all about the pool. And was there swimming in The Red Car?
She fantasizes about being in a swimming pool.
I think whatever I write next probably can't have any swimming because my daughter, who's 12 now, just opened Hurricane Girl and she read the first page about wanting to find a swimming pool. And she looked at me and she said, "Oh, mom." She makes fun of me, but that's really when I'm the happiest. Swimming. And if you were to ask me my favorite season, it would be summer, without any doubt. I'm really happy with just a public swimming pool. I don't need it to be fancy. And I have a lake that I swim in and I go to the beach. I'm not a great swimmer, I couldn't win a race. I can't do a flip turn. But I can do laps for a really long time. All my characters want to go swimming because they might all have little pieces of me. Like characters in a dream.
I feel like there's this theme in your books of passive women finding agency. Or maybe people-pleasing women finding freedom? Do you see that as a theme of your books? Or am I stating that wrong?
Sometimes I think other people find them passive and that's true. I kind of hate that these characters are thought of as passive, but then they also are passive. You know what I mean? So I can't deny that. And I wish that weren't true, and that probably is a little bit like me. These aren't exactly autobiographical books, but there has to be a lot of me in all of these characters. In the end, they get out of whatever situation they need to get out of. Wait, I'm denying answering your question. I'm sorry.
To be clear, I don't see them as passive in a bad way. I find your characters to be very likable. And honestly, I don't know if it's a female thing or just a human thing, I find them extremely relatable, like that idea that you expressed earlier, “I wanted to get out of the relationship and I didn't know how so I went to grad school.”
That's actually true, though. So is that passive or not passive to you?
I guess it's more people-pleasing, or non-confrontational—that's the better word. Passive is not the right word because it's actually very active to move across the country!
I think you're right about that. I just hate confrontation, to tell you the truth, so much. Recently, I’ve tried confronting people and saying, "I don't like this. Could you do this?" I have found it to be so fruitless. I feel like I always lose and I always just feel so defeated and out of energy. Well, I would rather not always move across the country to avoid a confrontation, but I wish I could always find a way to get around it. That's just me. Some people are very confrontational and are really successful about it. I feel like things take me longer than they should, and maybe that's why. What is it, circular? Not circular, but not linear. It's like a weird life hack or something.
Inefficient life hacks.
Yeah. It's not advisable, but I'm thinking of other things in my brain right now that I've done that I'm not telling you.
[Author] Tao Lin said he began writing novels by trying to copy other novels he loved. I've tried to copy you, I don't think very successfully. Are there any authors that you've tried to copy?
I've only done it once and it was Haruki Murakami. I was totally stuck. In between books, I get really stuck. The Red Car was supposed to be a Haruki Murakami novel to begin with. It was going to just be a writing exercise and then it became a book. It became mine.
And do you ever get inspiration from pieces of art that aren't books, like movies or songs or TV?
Bad Marie was completely inspired by movies. I was in a big French movie phase when I wrote that book. And there was a French film, A Tout de Suite, that literally started with a woman who had a new boyfriend and he robbed a bank and got killed. And that was sort of the same sort of same idea as Bad Marie, she has the same thing happen to her and then she ends up in jail. And there was a beautiful French actress in it. I thought you would like it because she was just so beautiful.
It's so important to me, honestly. I'm not really that interested in those male characters as much. In that movie, there's a scene where they're in Paris and they see a Ferris wheel that's by the Eiffel tower. And I put that in Bad Marie. I've only been to France once, for like a week, so that was taken, not from my experience, but from a scene in a movie. Oh, and then, the Very Nice was inspired by soap operas.
I see that. I loved Very Nice. The last scene was incredible. Do you write with a particular audience in mind?
I think the audience in mind is me.
So you write to amuse yourself, basically.
Yeah, I think so. I once went to a Cheryl Strayed reading before she was really Cheryl Strayed. She talked about writing Eat, Pray, Love. She literally was writing that book for a friend to read. And I thought that was so interesting, but I don't do that. I just write for myself, which just sounds so narcissistic. I'm actually pretty amazed that I write books for myself and then I have mainstream publishers. And I just feel like that's kind of amazing since I feel like they're all a little bit quirky and all. I think maybe a lot of people are weird, and they're just not really catered to enough.
Is there anything you want readers to take away from Hurricane Girl?
I was just going to say something stupid, I don't mean it. It's important to have cats in your life. The cats in the book, by the way, are my cats. They're orange and white cats and one's much bigger than the other. When I write, I like to put little objects that are mine. But I don't know what I want people to take away from the book because I guess I don't know what my books are about thematically until book critics and readers tell me. And I truly love knowing what other people take away from my work, but that's cheating in terms of answering your question, I don't have a lot of awareness. Then I create something and people are like, "Oh this happened." I'm like, "Wow, that really did."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.