Mystery Is Sexy With Katherine Faw
Fiction writer Katherine Faw breaks down her lack of social media, inspiration, and what her third book has in store.
By Cora Lee
Hot Girl Lit is a monthly column that catalogs hot reads by hot writers.
Katherine Faw was the first writer I saw with a thirst trap for an author photo. In other words––she was my entry point into Hot Girl Literature. I scoured the internet for more of her but found little. There is something deeply compelling about a hot girl with no social media. My curiosity had to be quelled by the two photos of her on her website—one of which is a full-body mirror selfie in which she is clad in head-to-toe leopard print, including matching wedge heels. Her back is arched, her hair tousled, her face impassive. Take one look at her, and you know that her writing is going to land like a punch to the kidneys.
Faw has authored two novels—Young God (2014) and Ultraluminous (2018)—both of which were met with accolades. The former chronicles the rise of a 13-year-old drug dealer in North Carolina, and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a best book of the year by The Times Literary Supplement, The Houston Chronicle, BuzzFeed, and others. The latter, which depicts a year in the life of a high-end prostitute, was an Indie Next pick, and also named a best book of the year by The New Yorker, BOMB, and Vulture.
Faw’s writing is compact. She edits herself extensively, whittling her paragraphs down to the sharpest edge, with no tolerance for excess. Her honed, unflinching prose lures you into the world she has assembled on the page. I first contacted Katherine Faw last year when I reviewed Ultraluminous for the Union Tribune, and found that in addition to being sexy and talented, she is also a lovely person. I decided to email her again to see if I could ask a few questions.
Cora Lee: When did you start to write? You have a very distinct, spare writing style––so pared down that each sentence has earned its place. I'm wondering how you cultivated that, and whether it has always been your approach.
Katherine Faw: I don’t know when I started to write. It was too long ago for my memories. My mother died during the pandemic and I found in her things a story written by me, age five. It’s a simple story about vampires in a house on fire.
I was always obsessed with words. They were synesthetic to me, the best ones. In notebooks I would compulsively string together my favorite, most sensual words with no regard for story. But I also watched a lot of TV and a lot of movies on TV and I absorbed the melodramatic arc and I was seduced by the visuals and I thought what I really wanted was to be a filmmaker. So I moved to New York at eighteen to go to Tisch at NYU.
Then at film school what I did was make experimental shorts out of words. I was also frustrated that film was limited to what the camera could catch and what you could afford, and it dawned on me that writing could do anything and it was free. So then I got my MFA in fiction at Columbia and what I did was write cinematic, realistic novels with the fewest words possible.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with narrative: it both attracts and repulses me. Or I’m just hopelessly rebellious.
CL: Ultraluminous made me commit the ultimate sin of a fiction reader--I assumed it was based on lived experiences, because you write with such authority. I know from interviews that your novels are not in fact based on your life, but that you have a "really fucking good imagination." Did you rely on any research when writing Ultraluminous?
KF: I didn’t do any research, nor did it emerge whole cloth from my imagination. I think many women can imagine what it would be like to be a girlfriend-experience prostitute like K. We’ve been in those imbalanced relationships, where we felt more like objects than people, where we sensed the horrible emptiness that objectification can open up in you who is in fact a person like every other person. That’s what really drove Ultraluminous for me: questions of power. And in sex there are a lot of questions of power. It’s illusory and shifting, who’s dominating, who’s submitting, who’s in control.
I would say, like most novelists, all my protagonists are me, probably every character is me, but it’s “me if.” Me if I were K, a high-end prostitute. Me if I were the calf’s brain guy, one of her douchey clients. Ultimately as a god-dictator-novelist you are limited to your own brain.
CL: You said once in an interview, “Everything I write is about female ambition, however twisted it comes out. I’m always more interested in the women than the men in almost any work of art.” What books come to mind that scratch that itch for you?
KF: I would say most books written by women are about female ambition as we spent thousands of years, and some of us still do, not even being allowed to learn how to read. That said, during the pandemic I had a hard time with books. For a long time I stopped reading them as they came to seem like these exploitative means of control rather than sublimative expanses of escape. It was difficult; I’m emerging from it. I’ve started reading poetry again/maybe for the first time: I like that there is no tyranny of plot or realism.
I haven’t had my bad season with movies yet. I still watch one every night and as even fewer women get to direct films than publish books I would like to recommend Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time by the director Lili Horvát. It has this opacity and calmness, this desaturated red lipstick, but with a deep core that’s molten, burning.
CL: Your private life is not on display at all on the internet—no discernable social media, sparse bio on your website, etc. It's uncommon to not have an internet presence, especially for writers, who may feel pressured to "market" themselves or their work. Did you make a conscious decision to not participate in that?
KF: I’ve never had a social media account, and I suppose it was a conscious decision but it was decided before I had a writing career. It just always seemed like a bad idea to me. At best it seemed ultimately boring and at worst it seemed ultimately toxic. But by nature I’m also a loner who’s suspicious of the collective. Groups scare me; I grew up in the rural South and what people were doing in groups which was conformity was scary. I have a kind of faith that my audience will find me, that they are hopelessly rebellious suspicious loners who are curious, too.
Also I like mystery. I think it’s sexy.
CL: Young God and Ultraluminous were both named "best book of the year" by different publications, so you're two for two. You've alluded to a third novel in the works...is there anything you're willing to share about it?
KF: It’s about a female film director during the pandemic who’s having an existential crisis over narrative. I keep thinking I’ve finished it but it keeps extending itself again like it’s endless. I hope someday somebody will think it’s the best.