Groupies, Druggies, and Kept Women: An Interview With Karolina Waclawiak
Karolina Waclawiak’s second novel, The Invaders, is a story with two tellers: Cheryl, a 44-year-old Connecticut “trophy wife” from humbler beginnings, whose husband is losing interesting and who hates the seaside community she’s stuck in; and Teddy, her troubled son-in-law who was just booted from college. Waclawiak is a deeply smart person and, while The Invaders’ themes are universal, a fount of just the right sort of arcane knowledge. She lives in Los Angeles and loves the grime of Los Angeles. Her first novel, How to Get Into the Twin Palms, was a funny and gently brutal story in the Todd Solondz register; her feature film, AWOL, is currently in post-production, and she is an editor of The Believer. We talked about groupies and kept women, as well as class, while dipping, by turns, into a gooey vat of cheese.
I’m excited for that David Simon show set in Times Square in the ’70s.
Yeah! There was an article about a year ago about the last peep show in Times Square. They were talking to a woman who was a dancer there, and she’s worked there for 27 years or something like that, and her family still doesn’t know. They think she just has an office job. But she’s talking about how outside everything has changed, obviously, but inside she has her customers that have been coming in forever, and it’s a place time has forgotten.
Does she enjoy it?
She said when she started, the money was really good. But since internet porn came around, her tips have fallen off. People don’t really go there anymore. she said lately she’s lucky to make $100 in a day.
I wonder why people frequent peep shows in this day in age. Whether it’s force of habit, or whether they just like the—
—the human aspect of it. Have you read Antonia Crane’s memoir, Spent?
You should read it. She worked in San Francisco in a strip club that had a peep show component. And it started me thinking about how—of course, not all men, but men lead these double lives where they can go and have this experience, put their tie back on, clean themselves up, and go back to their lives.
[Laughs] But another aspect that was really interesting is that the women are behind glass, and they’re having conversations with each other about like, “I have to go pick my kid up,” or something, and they’re gyrating. There’s this disconnect of this sexual thing happening, but it’s also so impersonal and not sexual in any way.
I wonder if this is a bridge to the topic of “kept women,” and sexuality as a currency. To start: what is the difference between somebody who works in a peep show, say, and someone whose career is being a wife, who trades on their desirability in that way?
I almost feel like “kept women” have less power. A woman who works in a peep show can go home and live the life that she wants to live, but when you’re married, if you’re not working, you have no such agency. If you have children, or even if you don’t have children, your life and your desires are dictated by the person that you’re with. And then, say in the case of my narrator Cheryl, your husband doesn’t want to have sex with you, you’re a terrible person if you go outside the marriage. If your husband isn’t comfortable with the way you want to act out sexually, you can’t do it.
I feel like I’ve talked to women who—their husbands don’t find them desirable anymore, that’s it. Unless they get a divorce, and blow up their lives, or try to figure out some way to talk to the husband about it. And a lot of times men won’t even engage. I remember, I was talking to a woman about two years before she had a divorce, and her husband was having an affair, but she didn’t know it. And she just felt so stifled, because she couldn’t be a sexual person. She was stuck, because she had three kids, and her whole life was in this neighborhood with him.
I guess if part of your role in a marriage is to be uncomplicated, it makes it impossible to fight for yourself.
Right. Like, who are you to dictate which way the marriage goes? It’s strange and complicated territory, and it’s weird, as I grow older—I’m 35 now—women who’ve been married a long time suddenly want to be more open and honest with me, and it feels very bleak. [Laughs.] It’s never like, This is great!
Who are the women you’re talking to?
I think the women who are probably in their 40s, 50s, 60s, who are—I guess the traditional [pattern] of, I got married, I had kids, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and now what. Maybe that’s why Fifty Shades of Grey was such a huge explosion. Because suddenly there was like a sexual outlet for women who didn’t feel like watching porn. I feel like certain generations of women aren’t as comfortable with that, but so many women read romance novels.
Fifty Shades is such a romance novel—an incredibly handsome man, who’s way out of your league, for some reason loves you and wants to give you the world.
What’s more traditional than a billionaire sweeping you off your feet and giving you everything?
And obviously there’s a transaction involved in these relationships, that is not necessarily recognized as one.
Yeah. My father always brought my sister and I up in a way that was like—I want you to never have to depend on anyone, or feel trapped because you don’t have a vocation, or a way to get out. And I think that certain women—and it’s not a value judgment at all—but I think they buy into this idea of, I’m gonna have children, and my husband’s gonna take care of me now. What are you supposed to do? You can’t do everything. For me, I think that’s giving up so much power. When you’re at the mercy of a wealthy man, I’ve seen often that women put up with a lot more than they would otherwise. Because suddenly it’s like, I’ll have to give up my life if I stand up for myself. You have to pick up the pieces and start all over again, and that seems extraordinarily daunting. Especially if you’ve been together for 10 or 20 years.
That’s what interested me about writing this book, because you pin your hopes and dreams on someone who makes you think all your problems are going to be solved, but you don’t realize that, at a certain point, you’re going to age out. And what happens when things completely fall apart, and you don’t have power anymore? I’m fascinated by male-female power struggles.
Has Cheryl been in your head for a while?
I wrote a screenplay version of this world, but through the eyes of Teddy. That was like 10 years ago. And I was much more fascinated by the idea of the kid who grew up in a place that he himself can’t afford, and what that does to you. It wasn’t until around my 30s that I started being more conscious about the women in these worlds, and how much they give up. When I wrote the book I realized I wanted to give credence to Cheryl’s struggle—because, especially as a second trophy wife, a much younger wife, there are more obstacles. In a community where everyone’s been there for a long time, there’s so much judgment against you. You start saying, I don’t want this, I never belonged in this place, but you’re lucky to be here, so how dare you?
Teddy’s predicament seems very of these times. Do you feel like you have a particular attachment to it?
I grew up in a town on the shoreline in Connecticut that was pretty wealthy, but we weren’t. So I saw a lot of Teddys. And they’re the sons of families that lived on the beach, who were fuck-ups. Everybody else was busting ass to get degrees and stuff, and these guys were just partying, doing drugs. I remember in eighth grade, our English teacher sat us down and said, Look around—most of you will never be as successful as your parents. You just don’t have the same striving quality they do, because they’ve already made it. And you’re comfortable with having made it, even though you had nothing to do with that.
Since then I’ve been fascinated with that idea; it’s always been an obsession with me, the unearned place. And how that must feel, to have this life where you have sailing lessons at age seven, and then suddenly at 20 you’re living behind a gas station and figuring out how you’re going to take care of yourself. I do feel it’s so relevant now because of the recession, and a lot of people who are unable to find jobs moving home with their parents. So they’re living in the cul-de-sac and going to the country club, but they actually can’t afford anything for themselves.
Honestly, it makes me feel really empathetic, because how on earth, in this day and age, are you ever going to get that again? Especially, I feel like upper-middle-class families maybe still had to take out student loans and stuff, so you’re already well behind your parents, who were starting at zero. You’re already deep in the negative. For myself, I have an insane amount of student debt. So the rest of my life is going to be trying to pay that off, instead of like, putting money down on a house. I think a lot of people are going through that. Not in Canada.
Not in Canada. Well, in Canada, but not quite the same.
Not six figures.
No. One thing that stands out about the book is the fact that you’re writing about someone who’s in this transactional relationship, while focusing on the emotional ties she has to her husband. It’s not just the trophy wife and the dissolution of her lifestyle.
I think it was necessary to show how much Cheryl and Jeffrey loved each other, or at least the chemistry beforehand, to show how deeply upsetting it was to end up at this place. If you think about it, all relationships are against all odds. You’re fighting against so many variables. In Cheryl’s case, those external pressures of feeling like I don’t belong, everyone’s judging me, and having to mimic these people’s behavior.
Is this a good time to talk about groupies?
Yeah! I think you can jump class with your sexuality if you’re a beautiful, sexual woman. The girlfriends and wives of rockstars, they’ve come from nowhere to become arm candy for these men, and there’s a sense of empowerment in being the lusted-after object. I think that’s true of the trophy wife as well. Even if you’re in a country club community, and this guy suddenly brings around a hot young piece, all eyes are on you—What do you have? You win! It’s the same with groupies and rock stars. If they reach the girlfriend point.
How do you do that? How did Cheryl become a wife?
Because she didn’t want his money, she just wanted his love. I feel like men in power can sniff out the ones who just want the wealth and the power, but someone who loves you for you and understands you—someone you can trust—that’s not necessarily in your orbit. Because everybody wants something from you when you’re famous, or you’re wealthy. A person who doesn’t want any of that is a unicorn. I also think, the woman who plays hard to get—I’m going to make you work for it—is attractive to someone who gets everything they want.
It’s apparent that these men need something from these women. Whether they’ve decided this person’s validation is exactly what they need and can trust, or this person can perform a function beyond just sex. Frank Zappa’s wife said something like, I did everything for him so he could just be a genius. It’s transcending the level of sex object, to be useful. The women find a way to be useful in these men’s lives, and I think it’s probably a very calculated thing. They’re smart enough.
Do you think if Cheryl had been more calculating she’d be able to save their marriage?
Yes. I think she doesn’t understand the rules of the game. Or she doesn’t want to participate in the game. Or she’s exhausted by the game and is just giving up. Why am I fighting for something I’m not even sure I want anymore?
It’s interesting, she has this purity of intent, and it’s actually this purity of intent that sinks the relationship.
Yeah. You come in clear-eyed—it’ll work, because I love you—but you don’t understand the machinations of what it takes to live in this world and have this lifestyle. Wendy Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s wife, was extraordinarily smart, because she came from nothing and was married to this crazy head of all media, but I think it takes a certain kind of woman to have the confidence to say, it doesn’t matter what my background is, I’m going to own all of you anyway.
There’s a certain class of people who spend their summers in Martha’s Vineyard, or Cape Cod, or went to boarding school in Switzerland. And if you don’t have those touchstones in your past, when you’re in social situations with wealthier classes, and you can’t join in to these shared experiences, you are instantly on the outs, or instantly at a deficit. And even if you are having those experiences now, it’s exhausting to play catchup. I think for the person who’s jumping class—the Talented Mr. Ripley, or not even that nefarious—it’s like a full-time job. And I’m not even talking about the mega rich, you know. Because if you can’t upend your life and jump on a jet to go to St Barths or something, because you have a job, suddenly that takes you out of the running, because it’s annoying that you can’t be as free as everyone else.
And it is a fascinating juxtaposition of Teddy, who’s sort of downwardly mobile, and Cheryl, who’s—
Teddy will probably still fail up.
Because of the background that Cheryl doesn’t have.
Yeah. Because you have those same cultural touchstones, you don’t have the anxiety of something to prove. There’s a part of the book where Teddy’s talking about the way certain people dress in an office. He knows his people. And it’s so true, you can hone in on your people and circumvent all the bullshit. I went to high school with some guys who had severe drug problems, and are now like, dads, with two kids, a house and a beautiful wife in the suburbs. How did you do that? You were being chased down the hall by a security guard because you had dropped heroin needles in the bathroom. And now you’re living a perfect suburban life. If you weren’t already established in that world, you’d be in jail. Not summering in Maine.
Do you think you had an early understanding that sexuality was a currency?
Yeah. I knew that to be beautiful had a certain social power, and I think it’s because I grew up watching MTV at the beginning of MTV. I was five years old listening to Madonna. And it seemed like the easiest way to get to where you wanted to go was to be beautiful—not just Lauren Hutton beautiful, but like, walking sex. It was so fascinating to me, for these women to be so brazenly sexual and also to be so lusted after by these men who were in positions of power, and you could see their lust in such a cartoonish way. If you look at “Hot for Teacher,” these men are falling over each other in a way that just felt really empowering. To, like, a child. [Laughs.]
Was it fascination, or coveting?
Coveting. I wanted to be them. In fifth grade, I started wearing makeup, and I started using a ton of hairspray and trying to model myself after a video girl. And my parents are strict, and my dad was like—What is happening, this is not OK! I was hanging out with friends of mine who had older brothers who were in metal, and their girlfriends would coach us on how to get backstage. I remember so vividly, this girl, my friend’s brother’s girlfriend, was like, “You can get backstage if you blow a roadie.” We’re fifth graders, and we’re nodding our heads like, That sounds great! What, you blow on a roadie’s penis? I had no idea about sex. And then she was like, “Just pull up your shirt and you’ll get picked at a concert to be backstage, and then you navigate how you get to the band.” And my friends and I were like, Great, we’ll do it! I always wanted to be older. I remember I told my mom, I’m running away to LA! I’m going to lose my virginity to Vince Neil, you can’t stop me!
You told your mother that?!
I did. And she was so horrified. She threw away all my hairspray.
It was soaking into your brain.
There was this huge battle over hairspray. We were hanging out with the bad guys that were going to reform school—there was a reform school in our town that I used to ride my bike by and just like, watch the boys. That’s where I need to be. But I was incredibly shy, so I never acted on anything. I just had a vivid fantasy life. [Laughs] of being on the arm of someone who had recently gotten out of jail.
The idea of sex as a way of gaining entry is a major theme in your first book, How to Get Into the Twin Palms.
Yeah! And women can do it in a way that men cannot. I think there’s an inherent sense of power in being able to gain access through your sexuality.
But it’s interesting, because of course men can do that…
Oh, yeah. And there are kept men.
Do you feel like they’re more or less reviled for it?
I think they’re not as widely talked about. It seems much more lascivious for a woman to be fucking her way up, and it’s definitely reviled, as you say, in a way that men—if they use sex as a tactic, it’s almost like it’s just a byproduct of everything else rather than, this is how I’m going to get what I want. And I know there are men who do that for their careers and stuff, but somehow no one’s as upset as when a woman does it.
There’s something sort of viscerally disturbing about the idea of someone sleeping with you for reasons other than desire. But maybe that’s tied up in the way women are socialized, where being desired is so much a part of our sexuality. Whereas with men it’s a little more like—spearing the fish.
Yeah. Although it’s unfair to say that men’s looks don’t matter. I think men are actually very concerned with their appearance and being attractive, but that women take other things into consideration. There are plenty of brilliant schlubby men who have hot-as-hell wives or girlfriends where you’re like, that would never happen in the reverse. But I think we all use sex as a tool. It’s almost like women are expected to do so in a way that men aren’t. I also wonder if men feel emasculated by having to do it, or don’t talk about it because it feels emasculating.
As a final question, when you talk about coveting desirability—do you feel like you had to work to get from covetousness to a sense of empathy for the women you considered beautiful?
I do. I think that—and this is going to sound really weird—but I had to humanize beautiful women. I think they’re so dehumanized in culture that you just assume they don’t have feelings, or pain, or problems. When I was younger, I felt it must be so easy to be beautiful. And especially thin. Thin, beautiful, and rich, is probably your best case scenario as a woman. Because if you have your own money, you’re not beholden to any man. You can live the way you want to live.