Memories Are Like Plants: An Interview with Juliana Romano




I READ JULIANA ROMANO’S first young adult novel, First There Was Forever, in an airport lounge, where I was stuck for 12 hours waiting for a rerouted flight. Ferrying between the unlimited complimentary snack bar and beverage station to an overstuffed sofa, what began as a curious peek at the book on my phone quickly turned into an obsessive, near-constant scrolling as I read without wanting or being able to stop. I became a body capable only of consuming: the soft, damp snack bar cookies; the awful yet comforting cardboard-tasting coffee; and the story of a girl who often finds herself in a position of solitude, who edges toward belonging without being able to ever tangibly arrive. I read the entire book in this one sitting, crying behind my sunglasses, for the story and the specific clarity of transience and aloneness that only an airport can afford had coalesced into a truth that only fiction can adequately articulate.

Romano’s second YA novel, Summer in the Invisible City, is about Sadie, a 17-year-old living in New York City who takes a summer photo class and is a collector of postcards. Despite her dedication to photography, she fails to impress her father, a successful artist, from whom she is estranged. In fact, disappointment and abandonment are primal conditions for her. Through love, through heartbreak, through trying and failing yet never being unsure of what she wants, Sadie finds a place for herself in a world that often renounces her — not regardless of but because of where she comes from. “There’s such a big gap between all the pictures I’ve taken of the real world,” Sadie says, “and the perfect world that the postcards depict.” This gap is, precisely where the productive force takes root, the place from which an artist must begin time and time again. 

I first met Romano 10 years ago, somewhere around the time when we were both in graduate school. She hails from a family of writers: her father is a screenwriter and television writer, her mother writes book reviews, and her sister writes fiction. Romano and I spoke on a Thursday afternoon over the phone, Romano walking with her dog around the Silver Lake Reservoir in Los Angeles, as I sat cross-legged on my sofa with my dog beside me in Brooklyn, New York.

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SARAH WANG: I want to begin with the first line of your book, “Memories are like plants: if you care for them, they grow.” Thinking about memories as a kind of photograph as well as a kind of text, I’m curious about your relationship to image-making and writing. You are both a painter and a writer.

JULIANA ROMANO: I’m beginning to see how my writing practice and my painting practice are related. Hopefully, they can grow together from here and really influence each other. I didn’t conceive of Sadie as a painter, which is what I am — an image-based painter — because painting adds so many layers of remove from the image. I hoped that in making her a photographer, she could investigate a more direct relationship between image and meaning. I wanted her to investigate how you nurture an image, how you nurture a memory. How do you know what’s real? That’s what her arc is with pictures. She’s looking for proof of reality, of truth. Some photographs are lies or misleading, and some are closer to a truth that will help her grow.

In a larger sense, what is she looking for proof of in the world around her?

She’s looking for proof that her father loves her. She’s looking for proof that things are meant to be a certain way, and that she’s going to find her way to certainty. She wants proof that there’s an order and a sequence of events that she can sync up with, and then things will make sense. She doesn’t want chaos.

Something that remains a mystery throughout most of the book is what happened between her parents. It seems like such a simple question, which her mother resists answering for the majority of the narrative. Were they in love? Why did they break up? Sadie wants confirmation that her origin yielded from a union of love. This unknowing is a central node of the story, and it functions as a void. Sadie is coming into her own as an artist, which is what her father Allan is. What do you think about notions of inheritance — both in terms of the inheritance of work and the inheritance of trauma, which are not unrelated? 

Sadie wants a narrative. She wants to impose a narrative on her parents’ relationship and impose a narrative on her relationship with her dad. She’s holding on to this desire, and she has to let go of it in order to discover what the real inheritance is.

Having an idea of yourself as a certain kind of creative person keeps you on that path. Sadie doesn’t know yet whether she’s staying on the path she’s on, whether she’s even been on a coherent path. She wants a simple answer, like I’m an artist; my dad was an artist; I’m good at it and I want to keep it going. Her state of unknowing is also an unwinding of tightly wound ideas about who people are and how they’re going to affect your life.

In terms of your own inheritance, what was it like growing up in a family who writes and becoming a writer yourself as an adult?

I feel like becoming a writer was part of my inheritance, or even my “destiny,” because I come from a storytelling family. Both of my parents and my sister are all writers. My sister and I spent so much time reading and writing when we were little. She probably influenced me to be a writer more than my dad did, because growing up my dad wrote for TV shows, which I experienced simply as him going to an office. I didn’t see his creative practice in action the way I observed my sister writing in her room every single day after school. I wanted to be able to go to an imaginary place the way that I witnessed her doing.

I know a lot of people who go into the same creative fields as their parents and siblings, and it’s always complicated. Sadie’s struggle to separate herself as an artist from her father’s legacy is going to be a lifelong struggle. Allan is very famous and the world idolizes him. Often, when we see children of famous artists become successful in the same field, we think that it was easier for them. But really, I think Sadie is learning in this book what those people learn too — that it’s hard to make your own work in the shadow of a parent, that your path is no clearer than anybody else’s.

Ultimately, I think Sadie’s art will critique and respond to her father’s work, in a satisfying, artistic-patricide kind of way. I haven’t had to go through that with my dad because I think my dad and I are more similar. We both love stories and characters and we both write a lot about what it means to be good and ask ourselves if that’s a real thing. But he writes TV and movies and I write YA novels, so the forms our stories take are very different.

My dad is not Allan. I didn’t channel him when I thought of the father figure in this book. Allan is based on real people I know who have come in and out of my life.

Sophie Calle, whose father was an art collector, said that she became an artist to seduce her father. In many ways, that’s what Sadie, consciously or unconsciously, is doing.

That’s an appropriate quote for this story. Sadie definitely longs for her dad in a lot of different ways.

Sadie says that the only person who can heal you is the one who hurt you. She’s talking about Noah here, to whom she lost her virginity during a one-night stand, but of course we think of her father, who is the original hurter in this story. In psychoanalysis, this is the desire that can never be fulfilled, being healed by the one who hurt you. There is no such thing as healing in real life, for the trauma functions as a void; it resides beyond the limits of representation. Any signifier, therefore, is inadequate, an impossibility. Rippling from the event of the original trauma is a repetition of failed encounters with the very possibility of knowing that suffering completely. It is the work of fiction, perhaps, to do what cannot be done in real life: to heal. The last chapter is the fulfillment of this desire to be healed. 

That line is in the book very early on, in the first few chapters. It’s supposed to set up Sadie’s misunderstanding about the world. It sets her up to fail because it’s a fantasy — being healed by the one who hurt you — when you’re young it feels like that’s the way it should work. The second half of the book is when this particular feeling or misunderstanding has to give way to reality, because Sadie is never going to get satisfaction from Allan or from Noah. Noah disappoints, and when he does become available, it doesn’t fix anything. With Allan, the disappointment is going to be ongoing, something she has to work with and deal with for the rest of her life. Sadie is healed by everyone else, and by herself, but not by these two people. It is optimistic in terms of fiction and young adult fiction to propose a world in which there is healing, and in which healing exists, because complete or perfect healing doesn’t exist in the real world. But there is the idea of making room for new people. Maybe that’s what Sadie ends up with, the knowledge that hurting never stops. Sadie does have a moment at the end of the book where she realizes she’s stronger than Allan. She sees his weakness and she understands, finally, that it’s his weakness that makes him an asshole, and that’s a positive feeling. But that empowered feeling comes and goes. She moves on with her life, and she begins to see Allan and Noah differently, so maybe they hurt her less in that way, and she comes out of it all a lot stronger. She realizes that Allan and Noah are complex individuals and not demons that live in her mind. They’re not just symbols of things that she wants. 

Even though Sadie is only 17, she works in a serious way, doing something every day. This is not dissimilar to the way that we, as adults with art practices, work. Sometimes we don’t know why we’re doing it, and sometimes we question it, but we persist. I like that you’ve written a book about a young girl who knows what she wants and works hard at it. 

Sadie is an artist. She has a part of her that is always observing things and poeticizing them, even as she experiences them. She isn’t always aware of the deep strength that she gets from her work, but I think that, based on your question, readers will see how strong and dedicated she is and how lucky that makes her. I hope I’ve captured the ups and downs and pushes and pulls of it.

Sadie’s mother is also dedicated to and defined by her work.

I really wanted her mother to come through in the end, as someone who Sadie doesn’t realize has been such a good role model, and how she has been emulating her, even though she hasn’t been paying attention to it. But her mother is her primary parent, the person who’s done all the work and modeled a lot of good, independent behavior. As a teen reader, I never wanted to read about anyone else’s parents. So I try to keep all the parent stuff to a minimum.

Still, you use Allan to depict the damage of misogyny upon a young girl. When Sadie tells her father that she wants to have a relationship with him, he says, “I wish you’d calm down,” treating her request for intimacy as the act of a hysterical woman. He mocks Sadie for wanting to be what he is (an artist); he accuses her of throwing a tantrum, being boring, melodramatic, ridiculous, theatrical. He has to get back to his work. It’s brutal.

I knew I wanted to show Sadie being brutally rejected by her father, wanted to show his disgust and dismissal. I saw that scene clearly, before many other scenes were in place. It was satisfying to write. Allan operates from a place of self-obsession and his misogyny is so deeply ingrained that he doesn’t even realize what he’s saying. He’s oblivious. Allan is also really self-hating. I wanted that to come through.

The summer after my junior year of college, I lived in New York City and I worked for two different artists: a female sculptor and a male painter. I worked in the painter’s studio one day a week. It was a huge studio, and really, there was not much for me to do. One day I finally had lunch with him, something I had been waiting to do all summer, and he was so unpleasant. I think we had the exact conversation that Sadie and Allan have. The painter asked me, “Why are you here?” I said that I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a painter. He just looked at me and said, “Why?” I remember being so humiliated. I had been waiting all summer to have this conversation with him, and he just shut me down. I sat there in his weird little office while he stood above me.

How did what he said affect you? Did it make you question wanting to be a painter, or did you think that he was just a jerk?

It didn’t make me question what I wanted to do — maybe for a little while, but it hurt. I felt rejected and wanted to prove myself. But I did in the end have a healthy reaction, one involving patricide, where I thought, Well, you’re old and you don’t know what’s coming next. You have no idea.

Sadie’s first encounter with love is a traumatic one, one that repeats her father’s abandonment. And Sam — who hovers in the unintelligible divide between love interest and platonic friendship — for the majority of the book, is also a stand-in for her lost father. Were you thinking about the ways in which men and women love, and the different ways that the characters approach and consume, use and renounce love?

Sam is kind of a specter. He is almost like someone from her future who floats above the things that are happening to Sadie. Part of the fun of YA books is the wish fulfillment. I have taken someone wonderful from her future, Sam, and brought him into the present. I’ve overlaid what will be on top of what already is. It’s not idealized, love at first sight, but it is really good and chemical. Sam lets Sadie be herself. He’s impressed with her. With Allan and Noah, she’s curious about them, but it’s not reciprocated. Sam pays a lot of attention to Sadie, which is really new. I wanted Sam’s disappointment with his own family to be mirrored. He has his own abandonment issues. His parents are low-achieving, which is his fear, that he’ll turn out like them. Sadie, as you’ve pointed out, has inherited her parents’ work ethic, something that Sam is impressed by. They help each other in that way. They’ve been disappointed by their parents in different ways.

The title of the book is Summer in the Invisible City. I’m interested in the word invisible. The city is invisible, according to the title, but so are many other things as well. The invisibility of Sadie, for instance, is a recurring theme. What is visible and invisible, and is invisibility another form of visibility?

Frequently, Sadie thinks of invisibility in negative terms. She wants to be seen, especially by her father. But invisibility can also be an asset. When Sadie is taking pictures, she feels invisible, which is a good feeling. Invisibility can be both powerful and scary. The title of the book is about the city, but the invisibility belongs more to Sadie’s own experience. Early on, Sam says that the city is invisible to her because she’s so close to it, and it becomes about looking at the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing that is so close it’s invisible. This is true of her mom, too, who is invisible to Sadie because she’s so accustomed to her.

The first time I encountered this whole idea, of things that we are too familiar with becoming invisible, was when I read The Phantom Tollbooth in elementary school. There is a lot I don’t remember about the story, but basically the whole book is an exploration of this imaginary kingdom. The only vivid memory I have from reading it is that the main characters visit two magical cities: Illusions and Reality. Reality is a fully functional city but it is completely invisible. Its inhabitants are always in a rush to get places and do things and they never stop to look around, so slowly the city vanishes. So then, citizens of Reality who missed the beauty created an alternate city called Illusions, which is a nonfunctioning mirage of a city, like a hologram. People could choose to live in one or the other. That dichotomy stayed with me. I haven’t talked about the book since I was nine years old, and now that I’m trying to describe it, I realize how complicated this idea is.

Having worked on your Los Angeles novel in both Los Angeles and New York, and the novel about New York in both New York and Los Angeles, did your writing change in relationship to your proximity and distance to the city you were writing about and in?

I think it’s better to write about a place you’re not in, maybe for that invisible city quality. It’s hard to recall the sensation of being in a city you’re actually in.

What do you think about Sadie’s relationship to image-making in relation to young people now, whose lives are framed and defined by the representation of their own images on social media? 

I can’t pretend to understand young people’s relationship to image-making now. What I suspect is that they see so many images on phones and computers that they almost stop seeing. I hope there is a return to the way that I felt growing up, in which photographs were special things that one coveted and stared at. In the book, Sadie only has one photograph of her parents together and she loves it. I wonder if that’s unrealistic for her generation, but because Allan is so absent, I felt it might be believable. It was certainly true for me and my friends growing up that we all had a really limited number of pictures of our parents when they were young and of us when we were little. And the rarity of those photographs made them feel magical, almost haunted. But all of my peers who have their own families now already have a million photographs of themselves and their partners and their babies. When those kids grow up, will they stare at the gazillion pictures of their early childhood and feel their mystery? I don’t know. But Sadie does.

I memorized all the pictures in my picture books, all the photographs on the wall of my parents’ house, and even all my yearbooks. I loved looking through my yearbooks and I even loved looking through my sister’s, and other people’s, yearbooks. I would pore over them just to be able to look at people. I had a senior page. I wanted everyone I knew to be on there, and for the page to reflect who I felt I was.

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Sarah Wang is currently finishing a novel about immigration and exile in Los Angeles.


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