Feminist Author, Olivia Gatwood's Favorite Books That Capture Feminine Rage

From this important and evocative voice in literature comes Gatwood's debut fiction novel, "Whoever You Are, Honey."
You can pre-order Olivia Gatwood's debut novel now, before its release in July.
You can pre-order Olivia Gatwood's debut novel now, before its release in July.

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If you were to look at Olivia Gatwood’s past works, you would see the female experience penned out in poetry, short stories and recollections that feel real enough to taste — writings that distill the nuances existing between that space of girlhood and full-fledged womanness with all its demands, as well as its terrors.

In the author’s note for her first collection of poems, “Life of the Party,” Gatwood describes an all-consuming bout of insomnia brought on by the terrifying image of a man breaking into her apartment and strangling her in bed. Though that type of experience has never actually happened to her, she details how this debilitating phobia stemmed from the statistical reality of women often being murdered by men.

It is through this lens that she is encouraging people to read her subsequent gathering of poems, and providing some understanding for the concept of feminine rage — a growing literary genre about transforming women-specific fear into a targeted anger that has, in many ways, been vital for their survival.

Gatwood’s writing is also a celebration of the softer moments in femalehood, like friendships, instances of self discovery, and relationships to the body, both positive and not. But despite how women-centric Gatwood’s material is, she assures us that it’s for everyone and anyone looking to feel represented or learn about experiences different from their own, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum.

Now for the first time, Gatwood has written a novel of fiction, set for release in July. “Whoever You Are, Honey” is a story about female relationships and identity in a hyperdigital and post-artificial intelligence age. Gatwood took the time to speak exclusively with HuffPost about her debut novel, her opinions on feminist literature, and some of her favorite authors who are masters at writing feminine rage.

“Whoever You Are, Honey” is your first novel away from poetry and chapbooks. Can you tell us a little bit about what that transition was like, and what writing processes remained the same?

It was really, really hard. Poetry, just on a very simple level, functions largely in brevity. It’s just simply less words. It’s more abstract, and so you’re not as bound to the logic that I think plot often requires. It feels kind of like you’re bound to nothing, which is really beautiful and fun, and I think why actually a lot of young people are drawn to poetry, because I think it has no rules. In fiction there are rules. And I don’t mean that to say that you can’t break those rules, but I think that for a plot to be effective, you have to know exactly what rules you’re breaking and why. It felt like putting together a puzzle, but then once I kind of got it, I think it’s so exciting and in many ways actually limitless. I care really deeply about language and about what words I use, the rhythm, the texture of description, and about creating a visceral experience for the reader. And poetry is really sensual in that way, so ultimately it was about merging those two things.

Was there a character you related to most when writing, or some you found the hardest to develop?

I feel like all of the women characters in my book were amalgamations of myself and many people I know. They were all sort of different versions of me at different times, and had parts of myself I don’t or perspectives that I’ve had and have grown out of. There’s one prominent male character who was tricky because I don’t relate to him, but I wanted to. I wanted to write him as more complicated than just like an easy villain because I have met the kind of man that he is. I’ve felt both disgusted by them and attracted to them, and I really wanted to understand why I felt attracted to them. What about him was charming? What about him is endearing or even thoughtful? Why would he win over a woman? I think one of my biggest pet peeves in literature and film is when a male character is so overtly repulsive that it makes all the women who fall for him look quite stupid. I had to dig deeper in a different place that wasn’t rooted in my own experience as a person, but it was maybe rooted in something else, like just my humanity as a whole.

Speaking of writing characters you don’t relate to, I find that male authors often write women as tropes or one-dimensional beings whose only purpose is to prop up the men in the story. Would you agree? And why do you think this happens?

I think we’re all capable of doing that. But I think it was Meryl Streep who once said that women are raised in a world of men, therefore women understand men, which means they’re often capable of writing men. Women have spent their lives being subjected to observing men, listening to men and being in presence of men, whereas a man who maybe hasn’t had many intimate relationships with women, beyond the ones he was having sex with, would have a hard time attempting to write a woman who he thinks is a person, but really she’s just an outline.

There seems to be a growing recognition of the subset of feminist literature known as feminine rage. What do you think this adds to the feminist movement as a whole? And would you say that certain elements of your writing adhere to this genre?

I think sometimes people who are of any marginalized identity are expected sometimes to put out work that feels digestible or nonthreatening to the majority. For example, writers of color are often expected to write stories that are like these inspiring, kind of like selfhood stories, but may be pushed away from writing sci-fi or writing horror — which, those genres have really become dominated by white men because they were the only ones that kind of had the permission to be weird. When it comes to women, I think for so long they have been expected to write, like, domestic stories because that’s what their lives were. But there was a lot of horror and surrealism in that, too. So what I think what’s cool about the genre of feminine rage — which usually centers a protagonist who is highly disobedient, potentially violent, really unlikable, or complex or scary — I think what it does is it just disrupts the idea that what women have to say is lenient or obedient. Instead, it reminds people that women also experience a very varied range of emotions, and men are not the only ones who get to be writing stories that are loud.

Can you tell us a bit in your own words about “Whoever You Are, Honey”?

It takes place in Santa Cruz, which is a town that is sort of in this really strange moment right now, because it used to be a very sleepy, old surf hippie town that has a long history of being a kind of enclave for weirdos and artists, but because of its proximity to San Francisco, it’s currently experiencing an influx of tech people moving in. I became kind of fascinated with that dynamic. The book is about a young woman who has been living in the town for decades and shares a home with an older woman in her 80s, and both of them are very attached to the past. Then a young tech couple moves in next door, and the young woman starts to feel kind of lured into this couple’s life and develops a relationship with the woman in the couple. It’s the first close female friendship that either of them have had in a very long time, and those reasons are eventually uncovered. Meanwhile, we’re also kind of moving into the perspective of the young woman in the tech couple, who is having a bit of an identity crisis and is spiraling with the fear that her boyfriend built her and that she’s actually an AI. It’s essentially about how sometimes friendships between women can really crack your world open in terms of identity and can drastically shift your perspective on the world, and on the idea of what liberation is and what you deserve in terms of love.

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