Unwrapping Longing: A Conversation with Neda Disney




MUCH HAS BEEN MADE about Los Angeles being a city with no center, about it lacking a cohesive structure. Arguably, “Los Angeles” represents a notion of a unitary place rather than actually being one, since it consists of a loose chaining-together of numerous smaller cities. Whether or not you find such descriptions useful, it’s hard to read a novel like Neda Disney’s elegantly fragmented Planting Wolves, about six disparate but glancingly connected characters in Los Angeles, without seeing its structure as shaped by its setting.

A costumer and production assistant on a studio lot, a writer at the dentist, a sex addict at a meeting, an AA sponsor at a meditation center, a housewife in Glendale — these people have L.A. in common, but the linkages that tie them together aren’t what make this debut novel so impressive, though the wormholing and even supernatural connections between them do add a sense of narrative cohesion and structural fun. Instead, what makes Disney’s Planting Wolves a rich and memorable reading experience is the depth and care, not to mention humor and compassion, that the author brings to her characters’ inner lives. The tiniest thoughts and actions of the middle-aged AA sponsor, some noble and some pathetic, are wrapped in delicate layers of vulnerability, while the production assistant’s messianic, bleeding stigmata aren’t used as a magical plot device but a window into his sweet, bumbling approach to life. What fuels this intimacy with the characters is, of course, great writing.

The verve and prickle of Disney’s prose make seemingly banal encounters unforgettable, as when she writes of a man “whose face was so far deep into adulthood it had actually taken a turn towards a different species,” or captures childhood itself in a single sentence when describing an acting class for preschoolers (granted, a very L.A. thing): “They had not grown self-conscious enough yet that they would need a class to teach them to be unselfconscious.” 

Planting Wolves is a startling, assured, and nourishing debut. I emailed with Disney about it over several weeks in November and December.

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AARON SHULMAN: I wasn’t familiar with your work before reading Planting Wolves. What’s your writing background?

NEDA DISNEY: Professionally speaking, I wrote and produced for a couple of public radio programs at WNYC in New York. I covered art and the artist themselves. It became more storytelling than reporting. It went over well. Oh, and I was briefly a night crawler for local TV news in L.A. too. A lot of “Go go go!” Triple stabbing in Monrovia. Get there before the coroner. Then we’d just abandon the stabbing story and leave because it would be raining in Van Nuys. Weather gets the best ratings. That was barely writing. Some words on a longpad turned over to someone else. I loved the van.

I did write little books as long as I can remember, though. One of my elementary school books which I illustrated too might be developed into a cartoon. We’ll see. It is so innocent and ridiculous. It’s called Snatch Craftington. So, yeah — I just wrote and wrote.

How did Planting Wolves come into being?

I was doing TV costume work, which was my career alongside writing since writing didn’t pay. I was in a costume house pulling clothes for a TV show. I got on a ladder to reach up and pull out a big box. The box pulled my arms backward and I heard a crunch. I had torn both my rotator cuffs. I’d already paid off my student loans by then, so I could just go to physical therapy and rest. Dressing actors and keeping continuity on a set is surprisingly physical work.

I hung out at home and got very bored. I went for long walks and looked at houses and wondered who lived in them. I wondered what they wanted, what they longed for. I was unwrapping my own longing. Then I’d go home, shoulders tight against my body, and bend my arms stiffly over the laptop and download my thoughts as fast as I could. A mishmash of people poured out. The characters seemed familiar. They just assembled themselves from all the loose parts. Then I’d put them away for a year or so, pull them out again, then put them away again. It was 500-plus pages, and I had to take out many characters. Eventually it became lean, and by that time I’d had many longings satisfied, lost, and learned. I added those experiences to the characters as the years went on.

Interesting to learn there’s so much material you left out. Could you tell me about a few of your favorite darlings you had to kill?

The characters who were let go were not beloved. That’s why they had to go. They were flat plot devices who provided forced explanations for things which were more elegant left unsaid.

I actually disliked them. I love all the six remaining. Even the terrible asshole.

I’m curious about your thoughts on the title. It refers to an experiment a character mentions, in which wolves were “planted” in a non-native habitat among deer, but end up cannibalizing themselves and dying out. This has nice metaphorical power, and I take it to mean that in some sense each of your characters has been planted uncomfortably into their adults lives and can’t figure out how to survive. What was your thinking behind the title?

You are correct about the planting wolves title origin — that experiment actually happened. A bit of a conservationism dark secret. I wrote that in because I’d just read about it and thought it was amazing. I just wanted to put it somewhere and so I made it one of Dwight Randall’s projects since I wasn’t quite sure what he did as I was writing him. Much later while trying to think of a book title that was not specific to any one character but wasn’t The Lost Six or something absurd, I thought that planting wolves had a nice ring and the characters for the most part cannibalize themselves and their own thoughts. No new nourishment gets in.

It was only later that the planting/implanting/misplacing metaphor was expanded by people who were first reading it: the tooth, the liver, the child, the weight, the blame, et cetera. I was pleasantly surprised. That’s why you have to trust your reader and not put in lame characters to give solid alibis. The reader has all the answers in the end.

At many points when I was reading this book, it didn’t feel like an “L.A. book.” The narration is so focused on the psychology of the characters, which are landscapes unto themselves, that a lot of the time it felt like their problems transcended any one place. Other times, though, this felt like a very L.A. novel. What role did or didn’t Los Angeles play in your writing process?

L.A. is my hometown, and it seeps into everything I write or say. Because of that I imagined where things were happening but didn’t specify. The shooting TV stuff, for example, was on the Warner Brothers lot. Mrs. Randall was in Glendale. The sponsor was probably in Valley Village and East Village NYC flashbacks. Nelly was in WeHo. The sex addict, Redondo Beach or something. The writer, probably in La Crescenta half the time and Claremont the other half, plus the Union Square NYC flashback. Those are the locations in my head, and they are fluid.

The novel flirts at a few points with magical realism, but you never commit to it as an organizing principle of the narrative as a whole. I’m curious about your thinking behind the different literary modes you chose and why you chose them (or didn’t choose them).

I don’t think of it as magical realism. I see it as absurd reality. It’s not magical. It’s more warping reality’s limited possibilities and indulging in “What if?” It was so fun to write. Really fun and often silly. The novel I’m working on now will have some other weird versions of it but more quiet, aimless, and casual.

Do you consider your book a novel or a collection of interlinked short stories, or do you just see these labels as constructs that don’t really matter?

It’s not a novel. They’re not short stories either. They’re chapters. They could be read in any order and everything would turn out the same way. Is that a genre?

Who are the writers or works that influenced your book?

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for sure. I knew him for a brief time. He asked me who my favorite character in Infinite Jest was. I said Pemulis, and he was horrified. He feigned suspicion and distaste. Pemulis is a manipulative, ambitious, and precise student at the tennis academy. He’s also a drug dealer. I thought about that when I wrote the most unlikable character in my book and how much I love her. I wouldn’t be horrified if she was someone’s favorite. Maybe a bit suspicious, though. I don’t have favorite authors, just favorite books: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, London Fields by Martin Amis, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, Revenge of The Lawn by Richard Brautigan, and The Great Gatsby, of course.

Can you talk about what you’re working on now?

Fiction again. It’s called The Happy, which is a literal translation of Los Feliz. Most of the book takes place in Los Feliz. Los Feliz Boulevard separates the north and south parts of the neighborhood. On the north side, the streets head or wind toward Griffith Park. Beautiful homes, some grander than the others. Very quiet. Then there’s the south side of the boulevard. Little stores, restaurants, a surprising number of cafés, groceries, some pedestrian activity. Lively but shut by about 8:00 p.m.

In my book, there is no crossover between north and south. North eats, gets food, and occasionally walks on the streets filled with visiting people on the south. And the south side rarely has much hang time with anyone on the north side in this book. South folk pass the houses to get to hiking trails in Griffith Park and sometimes deliver things to the big houses. Not especially enviable wealth. No one on the front lawns. So there’s our setting. We get to know various people in the grand Tudor and Mediterranean homes, and we meet people working on the south side of the boulevard and living in the apartments. These specific north and south characters begin to interact — sexually, in friendship, and some bad things too. Our story begins.

Culturally we have stereotypes about the rich being evil and working people being the salt of the earth. Very lazy signifiers. We’ll see who’s good and bad. Lots of female characters. A bit of a soundtrack because everyone drives and drives. And one character’s dead father, reincarnated as a squirrel with wisdom for his lonely daughter, who has married into a well-known family and is slowly becoming invisible. Literally.

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Aaron Shulman is the author of the book The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2019).

 

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