Being a child beauty queen and an MKUltra agent aren’t that different. Or, at least, they require similar skills: an ability to take commands, fierce dedication to a mission, to perform on command, the ability to lose oneself.
Candice Wuehle’s intoxicating, off-center, debut novel Monarch centers on Jessica, a former child beauty queen who grows up enmeshed in the world of child beauty pageants at the behest of her Norwegian mother Grethe, who each night freezes herself in a cryochamber device built to halt the aging process so she can remain beautiful forever. At 14, Jessica quits the pageants and unknowingly becomes part of a secret government project called Monarch. Eventually, with the help of her Riot Grrrl babysitter Christine and the memory of her first love, a childhood pageant friend named Veronica, she regains ownership of her mind and body.
Evoking true crime stories like Lorena Bobbitt and JonBenét Ramsey, Y2K anxieties, and ’90s-era supermodel and diet culture reverence, along with dark academia settings and unsettling Norwegian folktales, Wuehle has created an addicting novel that blew me away in its scope of eeriness and beauty, like a Barbie doll whose head has been torn off.
Wuehle grew up obsessed with reading Top Model magazine and watching ’90s classics like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Clueless, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, while also being obsessed with Silence of the Lambs, The X-Files and Morrissey — all references whose tone seeps through the Tommy Girl-scented pages of Monarch.
“On one hand, there’s this Cher Horowitz figure in my mind, and on the other hand, there’s Dana Scully — the way conspiracy theories and the occult and paranormal were equally part of my background in the ’90s as fashion and pop culture,” Wuehle tells NYLON. “On one hand, there’s the beauty, and then there’s the violence and they went with each other in the ’90s in a way that was so specifically marketed that I don't think happened in such a blatant way in any other era.”
One of the book’s most alluring qualities is the voice of its narrator Jessica, a cadence that Wuehle describes as a mixture of Clueless’ Cher Horowitz and Morrissey, with lines like: “I became a perv for oblivion after that.” Describing her babysitter, Jessica says: “Adulthood, in my mind, wasn’t an age so much as a resume of achievements. Christine had some vital accomplishments: she had a boyfriend, she had ex-boyfriends, she had been to Europe, she wore a huge black cross studded with amethysts and skulls around her neck… Her transactions resulted, unlike mine, in currency she converted to black lipstick, healing crystals, whatever.”
Ultimately, the book, which is dedicated to “women who survived and women who didn’t,” but mostly for “those still somewhere in between” is about survival and how someone can reclaim their brain and body after something traumatic happens — a story Wuehle felt was especially urgent to tell in the wake of #MeToo, but was also inspired by watching brutal depictions of violence against young women in the ’90s.
“I was writing a book about lots of young women who were murdered when I was a teenager, like JonBenét Ramsey, which of course imprinted on me and most women my age in a really specific way that I think in the back of your mind always guides you for the rest of your life to be aware of threat and also to be fascinated by stories like that for different reasons,” Wuehle tells NYLON. “I wanted it to be a book about what survival really looks like long after the fact.”
NYLON spoke with Wuehle about what would be on the mood board for Monarch (including MTV and Naomi Campbell), unsettling ’90s TV specials, and how to tell an authentic story about trauma and survival.
Monarch is available from Soft Skull Press starting on March 29.
Can you tell me where this book came from? What were you thinking about? What was the initial spark for the idea?
I was a poet before, and I had started to write a book of prose poems inspired by Cindy Sherman photographs. I thought I was doing that and the first poem became a lot voicier than I thought it was going to be. There was this line in it, “the witness elocution of the child beauty pageant contestant,” that kind of came out of nowhere, and from there, I started to connect it to all these other things. I’d been wanting to write a novel about a woman who becomes invisible or starts to wonder if she’s invisible, and I read this weird statistic about women who win the Miss Universe pageant tend to have, mathematically speaking, the combination of their features is like right in the middle of all the contestants in the terms of the ratio of their face. I thought that was really interesting; it’s not the most objectively beautiful and talented woman that wins; it’s someone in the middle.
So that sort of connected with this idea of invisibility, and I guess, like, the way that what culture suggests to women is the height of beauty is also the height of extreme mediocrity in some ways, so that connected to the invisibility thing to me. Then I heard this conspiracy theory about JonBenét Ramsey, and the theory was essentially just that her mother, Patsy Ramsey, was a triggered MKUltra agent in this wing called Monarch that maybe exists, probably doesn’t exist. The theory is that Patsy was triggered, and there was a note with an oddly specific number left for the ransom of JonBenét because they framed it as a kidnapping to begin with. The theory is that that was Patsy’s number that would trigger her and that she had killed JonBenét herself and the other part of the theory is that JonBenét herself was in training to become a Monarch agent, so that's where the plot came from.
So the Monarch conspiracy theory, I don’t know how real it is. In some ways, it’s almost like MKUltra fan fiction. There’s one book, [Trance Formation of America] by Cathy O’Brien, who says she was programmed by Project Monarch, but that is as far as I can tell the only resource about Project Monarch. And of course, at the time, some of the Jeffrey Epstein stuff was coming out, and I’d been paying attention through true crime podcasts, and this idea of things you wouldn’t even believe were real, I was already thinking about a lot before we all realized that some of those things were real.
“There are movies like Clueless, where the vocal patterns and the voice are part of her personality and it’s totally charming, but there’s the paradox between how smart what she’s saying is versus how she’s saying it, and I found it more empowering to just go ahead and embrace that.”
I’m so curious about how you developed the voice of Jessica. It's so specific. It’s something she even remarks on, that she’s been trained to speak in a certain way. How did you go about developing the voice?
Developing the voice was really natural. I think that I’ve just input so many ’90s movies, especially teen movies, that it’s just always been in the back of my mind. Personally, it has been something that I’ve tried to train or did try to train out of myself to speak in this potentially undercutting or disarming way that you hear teen girls speak in in these movies from the ’90s. But at the same time, there are movies like Clueless, where the vocal patterns and the voice are part of her personality and it’s totally charming, but there’s the paradox between how smart what she’s saying is versus how she’s saying it, and I found it more empowering to just go ahead and embrace that. I used to describe the voice as a mix between Cher Horowitz and Morrissey, and I listened to a ton of the Smiths and Morrissey and Joy Division and Elliott Smith, and I think a lot of those turns of phrase or sentiments are in Jessica’s voice, and I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of really smart people who talk in a way that would indicate that they’re not that smart, who say “like” every sentence.
I’ve seen on your Twitter that a lot of moments in this book are from ’90s movie references. Can you talk about that?
It was more like I watched the movies and when I was in high school, I wasn’t aspiring to be a poet or anything at that point; I was just very into pop culture and an obsessive reader of fashion magazines. A lot of the details about Jessica like her obsession with Top Model [magazine], a lot of those things were based on me. I can’t remember what I watched, but it was more that I had so deeply embedded things from watching Clueless again and again or Romy and Michele or those things that it was just all there in the background, and I never thought that I would use it in my writing. One thing I really believe about writing is you’re always doing it and there’s nothing that you take in in terms of culture or reading or trash television that you’re not going to be able to use in some way.
It was partially that and partially reflecting on other stuff I was watching at that time. This predates the ’90s a bit, but I can remember being 7 or 8 years old and my parents watching Twin Peaks and what a huge event it was and scheduling around watching it. They just let me watch it, and that just imprinted in my psyche in a specific way. My mom has always been a true crime fanatic, so Unsolved Mysteries was always on in the background. I can just remember all these moments from the ’90s. I remember the principal of our high school calling us in for an assembly to hear the verdict in the O.J. trial. Personally, I was obsessed with The X-Files and The Silence of the Lambs. On one hand, there’s this Cher Horowitz figure in my mind and on the other hand, there’s Dana Scully — the way conspiracy theories and the occult and paranormal were equally part of my background in the ‘90s as fashion and pop culture.
Did that combination feel distinctly ’90s?
Yeah. It’s coming back now, don’t you think?
Yeah, I feel like every generation has its version of those things, but maybe nothing was as intense in both of those ways as in the ’90s.
I just watched Yellowjackets, and I was so interested to see that it was set in the ’90s, but also to see the way the paranormal came into it. I wonder if what unites those things is the way the ’90s was so particularly obvious about violence towards women, especially towards women that were stereotypically attractive. Almost the way that heroin chic culture relates as well. I think in some way the way things like Prozac Nation or stories about suicide became really popular, right? On the one hand, there’s the beauty, and then there’s the violence, and they went with each other in the ‘90s in a way that was so specifically marketed that I don't think happened in such a blatant way in any other era.
And you also have that in a similar way with Lorena Bobbitt — women being perpetrators of that violence after having been victim to it too.
Right and with that, I just listened to a story recapping the Amy Fisher story, which I haven’t thought about in so long, and remembering how they called her the Long Island Lolita. I think this is still really true, but whoever the woman was who perpetrated the violence was often sexualized really quickly and became part of the 24-hour news cycle right away. The idea that it wasn’t just pop culture or lighter news outlets but also just every news outlet, every form of media was perpetrating this in some way.
Everything we’ve been talking about speaks to this question, but what’s on the mood board for Monarch?
Caboodles; they’re like a mix of pastel and jewel tones. The models that reigned in that era: Claudia, Cindy, Linda, Naomi. Probably MTV shows. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I read your piece on Hilary Duff and was thinking about the Bimbo Summit, which is a little bit later than the ’90s, but getting towards when using a phrase like that would have not been acceptable. Other things on the mood board… definitely Gillian Anderson, Hitchcock films. I think there's a lot of spy elements of the book that come from Hitchcock, and I love the Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint character who won’t take no for an answer. There’s so much dark academia in Monarch, just pictures of those really old buildings and Yale and the green lawns and Rothwell. Norway. And seances.
On the note of Norwegian folktales and dark academia — those sections add such an air of the macabre, and it’s such an interesting juxtaposition with the ’90s top models and fashion magazines. Where did all of that come from?
Some of it came from the [JonBenét] conspiracy theory. I guess the dark academia part came from research I was doing into MKUltra. So Monarch goes back to MKUltra, and MKUltra I think we mostly know it from LSD experiments from the ’60s and ’70s and different kinds of mind control experiments. Before I even knew the book was going to deal with [Monarch], I’d already written the part about Dr. Clink, the main character’s father, being in the Boredom Studies department of this university. That was a direct riff off the Hitler Studies Department in White Noise by Don DeLillo. Then, from there, that developed into this idea that if someone is in Boredom Studies, they’re probably in Memory Studies, and I was finishing my dissertation at the time, and one of my dissertation lists was in Memory Studies. A lot of the memory and trauma studies parts of the book come from my own academic experience, which I then threaded into the MKUltra origins of going back to when the program was initiated, with something called Operation Paperclip, where academics and scientists from the Nazi party were recruited by the United States into work for the Cold War effort.
I was thinking of you getting some tiny hints of this in Monarch. There are these strange mysterious roots back to Europe and the war, especially through the Chancellor character, so the academic part was that the scientists got recruited and placed into American universities, so the Ivys but also places like the University of Wisconsin and Illinois and places you would not expect. I was thinking a lot about secret societies because of that, and all of that sort of came together into this idea of there being an actual shadow academy that is part of the shadow government that sort of springs off from there. The Norwegian folktale part came from first the cryochamber idea — the idea that there’d be this technology built by the Boredom Studies department to freeze the aging process. The idea of the kyrokammer came from this Disney special I watched in the late ’80s or early ’90s that I don’t know if it actually exists or not. No one else has ever heard of it, but it was this Disney special that was a Stepford Wives setting, and the moms in the neighborhood would all get into Tupperware like huge Tupperware at night and they would sleep in that at night and it would keep them young. Do you remember that?
No! I wish I had seen that.
And this was around the time of watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? And there were shows on TV for kids that were so, so weird.
I hope that someone who reads this has seen that special.
If no one does, then I think I’ll finally believe that I made it up. I was thinking of that and I had this idea of the freezing and the sleeping in a cryotherapy box and there being a Tupperware ring for this. I thought about how it’s a really good metaphor for trauma, like the way that trauma works is that you’re frozen in the moment of trauma and you can either stay there or develop through different means or be triggered by whatever it is that you’re freezing. Honestly, I think it’s just because my mom’s half of the family is Norwegian and I already have some of that background, but I think I just connected that with a really cold place and there’s a little bit of Carl Jung in the book, so some of that imagery comes directly from his journals, so that’s where the Norwegian folktales part of it came from. I also wanted to have a thing where I was retelling fairy tales in a really subversive way, so I had an idea to make up a book of folktales that does that.
“I felt like it would only be an authentic book about survival if in the end we see someone who had healed in ways you wouldn’t expect or looks like how we wouldn’t think healing looks like.”
To me, this book feels like it’s ultimately about survival. I got emotional when I read the line “Any survivor knows you don’t scream until you’re in some quiet ER or locked car.” It’s dedicated to “the women who survived and those who didn’t, but mostly for those still somewhere in between.” Is this story ultimately about survival? Is it allegorical at all?
I originally titled this book after a child that went missing near the town where I’m from in Iowa and was later found brutally murdered. I had always known I wanted to write about that in some way, so I knew I was writing a book about that and also I was writing a book about lots of young women who were murdered when I was a teenager, like JonBenét Ramsey, which of course imprinted on me and most women my age in a really specific way that I think in the back of your mind always guides you for the rest of your life to be aware of threat and also to be fascinated by stories like that for different reasons. Maybe in some ways, it’s a retraumatization to hear it again and again and again.
I was writing Monarch about a year and a half before #MeToo happened and the Larry Nassar trial was happening. Hearing those gymnasts give their testimonies was unbelievably moving, then the Jeffrey Epstein stuff came out, then hearing those women who had been girls at the time speaking. I think the final crystallizing thing was watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and Dr. Ford’s testimony and just really seeing a person who had survived and was so self-aware of the stages of survival and unbelievably articulate about it in a way that people had not seen someone do in such a public stage. And that was such a flip of the nature of crime trials of the ’90s where usually the woman is dead. I think that in a weird way, if those things hadn’t happened and really continued to make writing Monarch feel urgent and important to me that I don’t know that I would have finished Monarch. So definitely, it was a book about survival and I wanted it to be a book about what survival really looks like long after the fact. There was some discussion at one stage with my agent about if we wanted to have a more positive or affirming ending to Monarch and I knew that we didn’t. I felt like it would only be an authentic book about survival if in the end we see someone who had healed in ways you wouldn’t expect or looks like how we wouldn’t think healing looks like.
I agree and I like that we get to see her be OK but not ever really be OK, and that feels really realistic.
I would just say on the final note of this idea about trauma, I found that there was something redemptive thinking through the process of how one does start to form an identity and personality out of a traumatic event that is potentially erasure of one’s self. A lot of that came from the idea that the main character finds some articulation in being an artist, but also that there’s something I think inherently salvific about desire. Desire was really important to me throughout the book, along with the idea that it is the main character’s desire that exists outside of cultural constructs that actually delivers her back to herself and who she is outside the cultural conditioning that she exists within.
Totally. It’s so often in queer love stories that you’re left with a sense of longing because the characters can’t be together because of the culture they’re in. That happens in this too, but what's powerful here is it’s that desire and having been seen and loved at all that brings Jessica back to herself.
That’s a really nice way to put it. The final motivating quest in the book after she achieves the vengeance that she plans on achieving is to make sure that she really was seen and that she had had this real experience, which I think is like the psychological equivalent of patting yourself down to make sure you still have your wallet or something, like “if i just know I had this one moment in my life where someone saw me for who I honestly was, then I can hold onto that for the rest of my life.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.