Jen Silverman explores the reality of creating art in her darkly comedic debut We Play Ourselves
The author talks to EW about crafting the story of a young writer named Cass.
Playwright Cass is in a horrible spot when We Play Ourselves begins. In Jen Silverman's new novel, we meet the protagonist as she rebuilds her life in Los Angeles after running away from New York and a career-ruining mistake. As readers uncover what she's done, they follow her as she tries to rebuild. We Play Ourselves examines failure, starting over, and a creative's life through a fierce queer artist.
Having been in the United States but raised in several countries, Silverman finds the conversation about art versus commodification within the country fascinating. "Inside all of these different mediums there's a constant balance between how we make art and how we sell art," Silverman explains. "The book sprung from my personal experience as a playwright in theater, but also my interest in really examining what it's like to make a life in the arts."
Part of what makes Cass the right central character is how hungry she is for a life in the arts. "She's ambitious, has this real idea of where she wants to be and the life she wants to have," Silverman shares about the ambitious playwright. "To have a character who wishes for so much and has failed so completely, it was very magnetizing to me."
Silverman spoke to EW about her darkly comedic debut novel, being excited about being a queer writer, telling a story about women's rage, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You examine themes including success and failure — what were you looking to explore?
JEN SILVERMAN: We are a society that is really obsessed with success, and there are many ways to understand what it looks like. A big part of my journey as an artist has been understanding that there are markers of success that actually are not what I'm shooting for and don't interest me. Then there are things that other people wouldn't necessarily think of markers of success that feel sort of enormously important to me and to what I want to make. I'm interested in any artist, or any person frankly, that is threading a delicate line between what they hope to achieve and how they're afraid of failing.
I am so interested in the comeback story. As a culture, we are consumed by this fascination with the person who has done the worst possible thing or been shamed in the worst possible way and yet somehow achieves a comeback. But, often those stories belong to men. I can't really think of many women who have has a massive public scandal or failure and then achieved a real comeback. In some ways, the book is interrogating a series of characters, Cass being the foremost, but there are other characters in the book who are in the aftermath of a failure and who are having to figure out how to come back.
What inspired the character of Caroline and Cass' relationship with her?
What I find so fascinating about Caroline is her unapologetic ability to understand and then wield the politics of the system. At one point, Cassie is asking about the movie that she's making (this teenage girl Fight Club), and Caroline unapologetically is able to say people want girls right now, everything is girls and women, and if people want it, I'll give it to them, but I'm gonna do it my way. Her ambition is different from Cass' because she has a real control over and understanding of the systems inside which she's operating. I find that to be a really fascinating trait; when people can manage both their understanding of business with their desire to create art.
As for her relationship with Cass, I feel like nothing about Cass is so studied, and so she is mesmerized by Caroline. Then things spin out of hand a bit. That cool ability to analyze ends up pushing both to a place where some decisions need to be made about what's ethical.
Which relationship of Cass' were difficult to write or surprised you while writing?
I found myself surprised by the relationship with Jocelyn, the agent's assistant. Initially, when I started writing, Jocelyn wasn't going to be a main character necessarily, but I found myself fascinated with her. The way that Cass was able to start being a big sister to her even in the middle of Cass' life falling apart became an angle to both of them that really deepened my understanding of them both as characters.
The story of what happened to Cass is teased throughout the book piece by piece. How did you decide to dole out the story of what happened in New York?
My instinct was that I wanted us to live alongside Cass' sense of paralyzing failure and her need to reinvent herself. I wanted us to take that at face value for a time because once we know what she's done, our reaction can either be that's much worse than I thought it would be, or it can be that's kind of funny. Meeting somebody in a place where you just really have to take their word for how desperately they need to shed their skin is a really honest place in which to meet a character. The question for me became what the most effective way is to invite an audience on this journey and not alienate them with a lack of information while making it delicious to lean into trying to figure out what happened.
Whether it's the incident between Cass and Tara-Jean or the Fight Club adaptation, there's quite a bit of violence in the story. What were you trying to explore?
I am interested in how women are socialized to deal with rage and deal with it most often by repressing it or suppressing it or not taking up space with their anger, turning it into other things like sadness or self-loathing.
For women to have a language around violence and anger, that wasn't there when I was a teenager. Women were not the ones wielding it, I should say, when I was a teenager, so I'm interested in all the ways in which across your 20s, 30s, 40s, and in Helene's case, 50s, women handle their anger. And what happens if you repress it? How it can leak out in another direction, like Cass keeps such a tight rein on her anger, and then the one time it comes out that's when this terrible thing happens. Whereas one of the things that draw her to these teenage girls is that they are so comfortable with their anger in this fight club. They repurpose [their anger] into currency, something to perform and celebrate, which is so different from her experience.
Cass could have chosen to live with a friend, or alone, in L.A. Why did you choose to include Daniel and Dylan?
The book's title is We Play Ourselves, and they are both engaged in a series of performances about who they are and who they are to each other. Daniel is gay, and he's not out to his family, so he is well acquainted with the different performances of self that Cass is starting to really have to interrogate. I feel that both Daniel and Dylan, from different perspectives, we're also telling a story about our need to perform all the different ways that we put on a persona for somebody else and then what happens when you start to lose track of who you are when you're alone versus who you are when you're with these other people.
Speaking of the title, what does it mean to you?
To me, it has two meanings, which is why I liked it. The first is we perform ourselves, whether you're suppressing your rage, showing your family one face and your friends another, monetizing or commodifying your identity in order to succeed in a system, that's one kind of performance. Then there's the flip side of it, we play ourselves like we trick or delude ourselves.
How did you choose which celebrities to include in Tara-Jean's success story? Tilda Swinton, Samuel L. Jackson, Cate Blanchett, and more.
It was really a case by case basis. For example, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton are really good examples of multi-talented artists. Yes, they're celebrities, but they are also artists who wear many hats and have forged really distinctive careers on their own terms. There's also a nod of sorts that they are living lives that Cass someday would hope to live.
There's an increase in the range in the types of queer literature recently. Do you feel excited about this moment as a queer writer?
Yeah, I really do. I feel like more and more, there is space being made for a real plethora of queer voices. When there's one space, there's only one type of story being old and we are really seeing a change in that paradigm, and I'm reading stuff that's just blowing my mind. Queer literature can hold so many different kinds of queerness and so many different kinds of life experiences unrelated to queerness. All of that I find it really exciting.
What do you hope people take away from We Play Ourselves?
I hope people have a good time, but, in the book, there's a quiet mediation on what success actually means to us and how we achieve it in our lives that aren't about being handed a baton by somebody else. If people are struggle with what they hoped their lives would look like versus what their lives actually look like, I hope there's some solace to be found in Cass' journey in this book.