Luke Rolfes: Candice Wuehle is the author of several books of poetry, and, recently, the novel Monarch from Soft Skull Press—a wonderfully weird and beautiful book that takes readers on a strange journey from beauty pageants to Boredom Studies to micro-chipped government operatives. Thanks so much for talking with us, Candice!
I’d love to hear about the genesis of Monarch and what influenced this particular novel. Where did you get the idea not just for this story but this style of story?
Candice Wuehle: The plot is based on a real conspiracy theory that asserts a secret wing of the CIA, Operation MONARCH, recruits agents from beauty pageant contests because they possess a specific skill set—they’re attractive, obedient, and charming. From there, I developed my own childhood fixation on the murder of JonBenèt Ramsey into a story about a young woman much like her who lives, grows up, discovers she’s been an unwitting agent in a deep state program and takes her revenge on the forces that placed here there.
How I came upon this style of story is very related to research I was doing toward the end of my doctorate on trauma studies. I was really interested in the idea that trauma is marked by its unspeakability as well as its tendency to emerge in a non-linear manner, so the style is intended to represent the unpredictable, peripatetic mode not so much of speaking about trauma, but speaking through it.
LR: Following up on that, were there any movies, music, books, art pieces that were influential in your shaping, or that you see as companion pieces? This book is set in the late 1990s. Did you, for instance, listen to a bunch of mixed CDs from the time period to ground yourself in that moment?
CW: MONARCH dialogues with a pretty wide spectrum of inspirations and references, ranging from ‘90s dark comedies (like Drop Dead Gorgeous) to more canonical films about memory (like La Jetée). I’ve always been really obsessed with glitching in storytelling and I think the one element that unites all the different texts that went into writing MONARCH is the idea that a narrative can malfunction the same way memory malfunctions. In ‘90s dark comedies, this comes across for me in the tone—the way that these movies are aware of the culture they satirize, yet they also propagate that culture because they’re a part of it. In La Jetée, the glitch is much more direct. An actual screen freezing, a distortion.
As for mixed CDs, I actually didn’t listen to much music from the time period to ground myself. I mainlined pop culture so hard in the ‘90s that it’s pretty ingrained! Instead, I listened to what I thought the main character would be listening to, which was Joy Division, The Smiths, and a lot of actual white noise. This is a book about a person inventing a personality, so I wanted the tonal backdrop I worked into either be blank or totally affected.
LR: Monarch could potentially fall under many different labels of genre: Speculative fiction? Science fiction? Experimental? Postmodern? Sci-Horror? Slipstream? Did labels and whether or not your work fit under a certain genre matter to you in the conceptualizing of this book? Did you start out saying “I want to write a science fiction novel,” or did you let the story take you in whatever direction it wanted to go?
CW: I love this question! I was on a sci-fi panel at the LA Times Book Festival, which was a great experience, but I definitely felt out of place! So, no, I never intended to write any kind of novel other than literary. You’re right to guess that I just let the story go in the direction that it wanted to go in. I suppose I never worried about genre because most of my favorite books defy genre—I think of Orlando by Virginia Woolf, of Margret Atwood’s novels, of Kafka. Honestly, when I start thinking of books I think are great, it’s much harder for me to think of one that is solidly within a genre than one that is hybrid in some way. I went to one of Selah Saterstrom’s Sunday divination writing workshops recently, where she spoke about the three of hearts as the tarot card of hybrid genre because, to quote her really roughly, “all emotional stories are pierced by multiple ways of telling.” I don’t just believe that—I don’t know any other way to tell a story.
LR: The novel begins in a fairly recognizable reality—well, reality adjacent, perhaps. The setting, at least, is grounded in 90’s tropes that early Millennials and Generation Xers remember. Early on, we are treated to some vignettes and images of grisly nightmares, but we don’t know how Jessica (the narrator) fits into the strange world of beauty pageants, nighttime bruises, and odd parents who don’t seem to belong to normal, suburban society. The major speculative and sci-fi elements aren’t revealed until the middle of the book, and that is when readers get to see the uniqueness of Jessica’s identity and plight more fully. I really liked the pacing and slow build of this book, how the mystery of the world unraveled like a tightly wound ball of thread. Can you talk about managing the release of information in this novel? Was it hard to keep so much close to the vest early on?
CW: Yes!! As I got closer and closer to the end of the book, it became increasingly difficult to keep pace because I just really wanted to get to the book’s major reveals. Discipline is obvious a big part of writing—you have to write to, you know, be a writer, and you have to do that pretty much every day—but this book required a lot of discipline in terms of the plot pacing, especially at the end. Early drafts of this book jump pretty abruptly, in part because I wanted to make sure I got to those major plot points, and because I couldn’t wait! For me, a lot of writing a first draft is really just entertaining myself. Later drafts are for other people, so that’s where I step back and try to look at the pacing and the questions that haven’t yet been answered or the relationships that haven’t been fully explored and then re-pace by incorporating that information. I’m really lucky to have first readers who understand what I’m trying to do and who give me feedback that’s more geared toward pointing to what can be filled in than what can be totally restructured. They make the novel more itself, they help accentuate significant themes and characters. In short, the answer to these questions is pretty workshop 101: I draft, I get feedback, I have fun and make a mess early on and then I clean it up for a long time.
LR: Speaking of the 90s, Monarch gives readers tons of pop culture references. OJ Simpson trial, Lorena Bobbitt, Y2K, mixed CDs, just to name a few. Can you tell us what about this particular decade appealed so much to you for this narrative? Would this have been a different book if it were, say, set in the late 80’s or early 2000’s?
CW: Yeah, that’s a great question. The book naturally emerged as set in the ‘90s because I was aligning it with the death of JonBenèt Ramsey to some extent. And, of course, I grew up in the ‘90s and am pretty much the same age as Jessica, the main character (actually, in reference to your previous question—one way I kept track of the threads of the novel was to simply make Jessica’s birthday my own, which really did help ground me in the wash of cultural and political life at the time).
The book would certainly be different if set in the ‘80s or early 2000s. MONARCH is really engaged in beauty culture and fashion and trends as well as in the late ‘90s as a sort of fin de siècle, an end of everything but also a transformation. Themes of presentation, death, and a fetishization of death via beauty culture (anorexic models, heroin chic, etc.) as well as the Y2K obsession with prophesy and end times (I feel like there was a new Nostradamus documentary on the History Chanel every weekend of ’99!) shape the texture of the book quite a bit.
LR: A theme in this book is youth trauma (and violence). A scene that sticks with me is when Jessica experiments with the Dead Ringers (a neighborhood youth “fight club”). Jessica, for the first time, steps outside of her body, and can do things she didn’t think were possible. Her experience with Dead Ringers reminds me, vaguely, of her time in the beauty pageants. Can you talk a bit about the role of trauma in this book? Was it difficult to marry this theme with the speculative/sci-fi threads?
CW: The sci-fi thread actually emerged because this is a book about trauma, I think. One thing that gets said again and again about trauma is that its “unspeakable,” right? It both cannot and must be spoken, thus trauma survivors tend to depend heavily on metaphor until they retrieve or develop the language that can express their experience. The sci-fi element of this book (about freezing in a chamber that halts the aging process) is one extended metaphor that plays on the idea of the freeze trauma response. One of the moments that I think about the most from my coursework on trauma studies is watching the testimony of K-Zetnik in the Eichmann trial and reading Shoshana Felman’s incredible analysis of this testimony in her book, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Trauma in the Twentieth Century. In short, K-Zetnik was a survivor as well as a writer and when called upon to testify about his imprisonment at Auschwitz, he frequently employed metaphor. The court requested he contain his remarks to facts, which he attempted to do until eventually collapsing on the witness stand. It’s not just “easier” to discuss traumatic events through metaphor; it’s sometimes only possible to discuss them through metaphor. Sci-fi is often an extended metaphor, so discussing the structure of trauma through this genre seemed intuitive to me.
LR: I loved the college section of this book, especially the characters in the dormitory and the dynamic between them. My brother went to University of Iowa, and he lived in an off-campus building called Mayflower—which is the name of the dorm in the book. Just out of curiosity, is that dorm an inspiration for the one in Monarch?
CW: Yes, It absolutely is! You’re only the second person to ask that. I was always fascinated with the Mayflower dorm at Iowa (where I did my undergraduate) because there was a rumor of a triple suicide in which three girls jump off the dorm’s roof and then haunt the dorm. So, that rumor emerges in MONARCH during Jessica’s time there. I just looked for evidence of this ghost story online and I can’t find anything, so it must not be a big part of campus lore. It’s possible I knew some people who lived in that dorm that believed it was haunted? It’s really odd to write about a memory, because at some point you realize how much you’ve modified it.
LR: Reflections (physical and figurative) come up time and again. In the climax of the book, Jessica sees her reflection on steel boxes, and she seems to ruminate on the idea that her identity is bigger than the self. Why did you see that particular moment as the end of her journey? Is it the end?
CW: One of the ideas that interested me most while writing MONARCH was the idea of where one’s identity actually comes from. How much is shaped by family, culture, education, and how much of your identity are you born with? I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the Original Face (which is featured in a college lecture Jessica attends at one point in MONARCH), which is the concept of “the face you had before your parents were born.” I think her journey ends with this thought of the Self going onward and curling tendrils into the future because only a person who has truly come to “know thyself” can intentionally extend beyond what’s right in front of them. To put this differently, I mean that really knowing your own motivations and desires and truths can allow you to see yourself outside of context(s), which is/are inherently always decided by other people.
Yeah, I think this is the end for Jessica. I see her as a character that has answered the major questions of her life and now has to do the work of existing. To quote Anne Carson, “to live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” As hinted in the epigraph to MONARCH, Jessica gets to a place where she survives, but she doesn’t really live after the trauma she’s endured. I’m not saying people who endure trauma don’t come to live full lives eventually, but I do want to provide a representation of a character that isn’t there yet. Healing takes a long, long time and before that long time, there’s the long time of just being—and that’s where Jessica ends MONARCH.
LR: What’s next for you and your writing?
CW: I’m tentatively working on a companion to MONARCH that goes back to the origins of MONARCH, MKUltra, and Jessica’s parents. I thought of this book while writing MONARCH, so there are certainly some open ends or oddities in MONARCH that will be addressed in its prequel, if it ever comes to be.
More immediately, I’m finishing up my next novel, which is about a ballerina who joins a cult that choreographs a ballet to end the world. It’s inspired in part by Russian occultist and composer Alexander Scriabin. Like MONARCH, this next novel deals with performance and memory, however the idea of the listener or witness to memory is a more integral aspect. So—another weird plot with serious ideas told in the voice of, like, your annoyed older sister.
Bio: Candice Wuehle is the author of the novel MONARCH (Soft Skull, 2022) as well as three collections of poetry, including FIDELITORIA: fixed or fluxed (11:11, 2021), BOUND (Inside the Castle Press, 2018) and Death Industrial Complex (Action Books, 2020), which was selected as a 2020 finalist for The Believer Magazine Book Award. She is also a co-author of Collected Voices in the Expanded Field (11:11, 2020). Her chapbooks include VIBE CHECK (Garden-door Press, 2018), EARTH* AIR* FIRE* WATER *ÆTHER (Grey Books Press, 2015) and cursewords: a guide in 19 steps for aspiring transmographs (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). Her work can be found in The Iowa Review, Best American Experimental Writing 2020, Black Warrior Review, Tarpaulin Sky, The Volta, The Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, and Joyland.
Candice holds an MA in literature from the University of Minnesota as well as an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She earned a doctorate in Creative Writing at The University of Kansas, where she was the recipient of a Chancellor's Fellowship. Her studies focus on the relationship between trauma, memory, and the occult.
Candice lives in Iowa City, Iowa.