Jamie Marina Lau wrote her debut novel over two months, in a state of trance, at the age of nineteen.
The result was Pink Mountain on Locust Island, a rapturous inversion of boy-meets-girl; a narrative that unfurls with prescience in surrealist vignettes, laced with cosmic specificities. Each vignette builds powerfully over the last, placing the reader in fifteen-year-old Monk’s outsider-view as she coasts through outdoor shopping malls, casino resorts, and the grubby Chinatown apartment she shares with her dad — only to discover that the boy who once emerged as a romantic prospect, has now become her painter father’s artistic protégé.
Pink Mountain on Locust Island serves as an invitation to intimacy, but it also enacts as a barrier from it, burrowing down and extending out at once.
Below, I speak with the author about the experience of writing chronological ‘fragments’, her literary beginnings, and the idea behind ‘art scams’.
Hey Jamie! Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
I’m writing to you from my bedroom, self-isolating in Melbourne. Spring’s just started here, so there’s a lot of green and colour outside my window right now. And, it’s been a fluctuation for sure.
How have you been keeping yourself occupied during quarantine?
I’m blessed to have my second novel to focus my attention on. We’re in the midst of structural edits right now, and this process of reworking this novel I’d written a year ago, realising where there are details to stretch out has been really enriching. There’s a lot I’m learning about my own writing, process, and tendencies. I’m really just trying to live as presently as possible other than that, feeling my way through days, lying in bed, I’ve gone through Love Island phases, cooking, meditating with my mum, out in nature a lot, mahjong with my family haha.
Pink Mountain on Locust Island was originally published by Brow Books in 2018. How does it feel to have the book picked up now by Coffee House Press?
The process has felt like a full cycle. I wrote the book in a trance in 2016, still studying and nineteen. A lot of me didn’t know how to speak about my work, myself or my book when it came to sharing and publicising. Prior to this book, I’d always written as if I didn’t carry the body I carry, and so it was vulnerable for me to suddenly acknowledge myself as the author of this book that carried this particular protagonist and voice, her particular struggles with race, ‘gender’ and body. When it was picked up by Coffee House a bit later, it felt like I could find a new way to think about the book as the result of a fervent, almost-urgent practice. And it felt warm knowing that the book had been all these things for me in that moment years ago, a process of collaging imaginations vs. anxieties vs. experiences, and thinking through toxic social dynamics I had experienced prior, and was honestly still experiencing as the book came out the first time. It had been the thoughts and reactions I’d taken from digital and actual existences/experiences arranged into narrative and poetry. So it’s really felt like a full cycle, and I’m grateful the energy of the book has translated so nicely across into now, that people can still resonate with it.
Tell me a little bit about how you got started in writing — how would you describe your literary beginnings?
When I was seven we’d moved across states and my family and I were living in a tiny flat of an apartment building on a highway. I remember asking for a 90-page lined exercise book. I covered about 70 of the pages with a ‘novel’, (a lot, half-filled with drawings, and then the last 30 pages filled only with drawings) and sat everyone down in our shared bedroom, reading through the entire exercise book to them. So I guess, it had always been a way of fun lol, but also I think I’ve always used writing as a way to communicate what I’m not able to communicate out loud. Now, the more critical, pessimistic thoughts. Also to exit — exit anxieties, or exit tangibility in order to rethink it.
I’m curious to hear how the idea for Pink Mountain on Locust Island first came to you — how did you imagine this book before you began writing it?
I wrote the first section during a timed-exercise in a university fiction class and it was the final week. I hadn’t said anything the whole semester so the lecturer specifically asked me to read mine aloud to workshop. I remember someone said it was ‘more like poetry than fiction’, and I liked that. After that, I began to intuitively write the chronological ‘fragments’ or poems, days after that class sitting in all different places. And this felt like such a new writing practice for me and unlike any of the artistic processes I had before, it was healing. So I guess you could say that I didn’t necessarily imagine this book to be anything, I just wrote it all out by feeling my way through it, writing from different places. Small letters, or poems which eventually became the novel. It’s probably what gives the feeling of aimlessness when reading it, or why perhaps some describe it as not having any apparent plot. It was definitely always more an exploration of space and interaction, those interactions particularly interested in reactions to do with race and visual identity. I guess somewhere when deciding to continue to write it, I began to aim for a feeling of immersion too; one of my unfinished books is actually centered around VR, and I’ve realised that it’s similar to how I’ve always wanted to experience the practice of writing, and perhaps how I’d describe the outlook of ‘Pink Mountain’.
This novel often delves into the art world, and more specifically, the idea of art scams — can you describe what drew you to write about this?
I think I’ve always been interested in the idea of ‘artistry’. I did mostly art subjects in high school, I highly romanticised it. I studied art history and I went to university thinking I’d graduate in theatre haha. I was film editing and doing cinematography before I wrote the book, and I’d just started producing music. Along those paths, you begin to meet a lot of different people, particularly people who are already in the industry, attempting to groom you. You have more conversations about being an artist than the art itself. I guess somewhere subconsciously the exploration of ‘art scams’ was rooted in my fear and intimidation of it. I’d grown up with little self-awareness, experienced BDD and anxiety and socially, I was always reflective, often the one listening and couldn’t wrap my head around using myself as the pivot point for my work.
In entering these different spaces — academic spaces, social spaces, industry spaces, I realised that this ‘dream’ of monetising art a lot of the time, does involve access to you or what you can sell of yourself. I was thinking about who gets to choose and curate themselves to be an artist for the sake of being one, who can just become one, and who needs to become one. And this is where the concept of ‘art scams’ come in, some people out here really need to become artists, so that we can hear what they have to say and properly learn from them. We respond to art in a special and transformative way and I believe it is a vital part in progress, but a lot of the time what really needs to be heard/seen/experienced is steered away from using superficialities, or is covered up with merely symbolic or more ‘digestible content’, which can create harm and cause complacency in the art-experience. We as a society need to experience the art of Black, Brown and Indigenous artists under their own terms but often, because of how our creative industries are built, and how we have been conditioned to experience art, I feel there is a compromise for many of the artists that do not immediately fit the very fixed, colonialist facade of art. So for me, talking about art scams is the idea that it is not an equal playing field as much as we are told it is, and realising that in entering creative industries (particularly when monetising or letting someone monetise you) there are levels at which we are allowed to participate.
How did you come up with the names for your characters, Monk and Santa Coy?
I honestly don’t know haha, they just fit when it came time to name them. I was absorbing a lot in a short amount of time in my process of writing, film, music, art — probably subconsciously I had come across all the words before and they just fell into place as I wrote. Monk probably came from Thelonious Monk. I’ve also had a conversation with someone before too, about the idea of ‘monk’ that we perceive here, representing a foreign peace about living apart from typical positioning of society, in asceticism. And in some sense, the challenge of Monk in the book, is the way she deciphers herself against various congregations of people that centre a belief about how life should be lived. Her engrained mentality of doing something to get somewhere versus simply just being somewhere. I suppose the ‘Santa’ in Santa Coy, now thinking about it, revolves around the idea of symbolic artists, artists who want to be artists, not make art — there is a sort of fantasy about that, something childlike about that prospect.
The novel is written in these hazy, surrealist vignettes—could you tell us a little bit about the process of editing and revising a work while still managing to preserve its rawness?
There was a lot of trimming of the absurd descriptions when it came to editing it with my first publisher, which says a lot about my original manuscript. I think with the original draft, the one I submitted, there were many descriptions that came out of my stream of consciousness process, but I kept it exactly how it was with very little editing, pre-submission. I wanted to portray the discomfort in the protagonist’s perception, and the range of her thoughts. I wanted her voice to be uncomfortable to read – there are moments of almost vindictive perversion, and moments of naivety, and this makes up the character of Monk and the way we get to perceive the nameless place she exists in. So it was sent in pretty soon after I finished the first draft, in order to retain that.
When it came to revising the manuscript about a year and a few months after it’d been picked up, it was about finding a way to balance the rhythm of surrealist abstractions versus action. All the sub-headings for each small fragment has remained how I wrote them in the first draft but I remember asking for each of these sub-headed fragments to be separated by page. The idea of negative space counted as a breath. I never want to overwhelm the reader or rip them out of the world I had asked them to join, so the negative space around the dense blocks of text, is designed for the reader to breathe and reflect. As a novelist you can only bring a small portion of the imagined world into reality, the rest is up to the reader and this is why it had been important to spend a great deal of my thought balancing out surrealism and rhythm, outside of the text.
There’s an interesting chemistry in the pairing of words throughout the book. “Hotly lamped booth couches”, voices that thrum “like brick walls”. There’s also Dad’s younger sister, “who decorates the rooms of her chubby fifteen-story flat like they’re dolls”. Often, these details come together to create an atmosphere that is claustrophobic and intimate at once. Could you tell us a little bit about how these details accrued in the text?
I really do, after almost 5 years since writing it, realise that a lot of the language and descriptors I used, was very internalised language. The mixture of claustrophobia and intimacies reminds me of the feeling it is to live in a scrutinised body. Particularly in my own experience, where I’ve had a very complicated relationship with my body, I’ve often felt that the space changes according to how I felt in my body on a particular day or in a particular situation. I was and still am hyper conscious of my body, and the temperature, my perception of my environment changes in those states. I’m not sure if that’s a common feeling or whether it’s more specific to my personal mental health – but it’s something that I felt was extremely heightened when I was a teenager where you’re being scrutinised, and changing constantly against that scrutiny or despite that scrutiny. There are a lot of moments throughout the book where Monk is left on her own, to see her body. If I’m honest, a lot of these feelings of heaviness that the book describes, is a combination of language I felt was most vivid to all my senses of these moments, as well as the imagination of a character like Monk, who is also a young woman of colour, unable to perceive the environment apart from the way her body feels in it. Foreignness and engrained familiarity, slowly realising that the space does not receive her, the way she receives it and letting that seep through her skin.
You’ve mentioned, in a different interview, that you wrote Pink Mountain on Locust Island in two months—wildly impressive! What does your process typically look like? Do you keep a notebook? Do you jot down ideas on your phone?
It definitely doesn’t usually happen like that, and I have many unfinished manuscripts I’d tried to complete over a few years even before this one. So I guess it’s about treating each work as its own separate vessel. Each work holds its unique process, purpose, and pattern because I think each time, you’re a slightly different person with slightly different interests and you also need to take care of yourself too haha. It would’ve been silly for example, to try and apply that two month timeline to my current project because this book has been in many different forms for the last four years, and I’ve had new challenges as a person. So I’m glad I don’t hold myself to that haha. At the moment my editing process looks like a nine to five day, which is really lovely, I try to be grounded and have a morning routine so I can focus and disappear into the text for 5-7 hours. As for note keeping and inspirations, I jot ideas on my phone, on Notes on my laptop, on TextEdit on my laptop on Pages, and across three different notebooks, and I always tend to forget they’re there.
You also produce music under the moniker ZK king. How does your audio production process differ or converge from writing prose and/or poetry?
Both practices are meditative, and induce really beautiful states of flow and they both produce similar products, just artefacts of thought-processes I’ve had before. But they differ in how they allow me to move through them. When writing prose, it’s more a forward momentum, I’m more critical and confrontational against my creative mind. When producing, it’s like ruminating in the same moment, uncritically, there’s more spontaneity. Poetry is a perfect mixture of both. But I’ve definitely struggled to see how the two practices can exist simultaneously for me, it sometimes feels like one rules out the other. But I rarely ever write without music, so I’ve been finding that making playlists for my books (including music that is mentioned, music that characterises the mood, and music I had been listening to when writing it), has been helping me understand the connection.
Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m working on my next novel, which was supposed to come out earlier this year but instead, I changed publishing houses, had a few weeks of Zoom meetings speaking about the future of this second novel with many different people, alongside my agent who’s in NY time-zone so it was either late night or early morning calls, a cool change of pace. There was a lot of growth there. And now I get to rework the book with a new editorial team. It’s been really good for me actually. It feels funny landing back at the second novel in this time. The book contains a lot about suburban anxieties and surveillance, is centred around ideas of personal comfort in middle-class suburban lifestyle. It’s interesting because a lot of the book was written while I was away living in the city, or in a different country — but right now I’m self-isolating in an extremely suburban area.
This is a tricky question, but one I feel obligated to ask: what’s something that you’ve recently read and/or listened to and loved?
White Girls by Hilton Als, and I’ve been listening to Yaeji and serpentwithfeet. Also started reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and The Years by Annie Ernaux.
And lastly, is there an indie bookstore you’d like to recommend to our readers?
I really don’t know any indie bookstores in the U.S, but one day I’d love to be able to answer this question 🙁 I like going to The Paperback Bookshop in Melbourne though, if you’re ever here.
Thank you so much for your time, Jamie!
Pink Mountain on Locust Island is out now via Coffee House Press, and available wherever books are sold.