A conversation with Jen Silverman, author of We Play Ourselves

What made you want to write a novel about a girl fight club?

I’m fascinated by the ways in which women experience rage. We’re generally socialized out of expressing it from a very early age, but that doesn’t make the rage go away, it just means we repress it until it emerges in unexpected ways. I was intrigued by the idea of a group of girls who are refusing to repress their rage, and who are repurposing a masculine classic for their own uses. And then, the double-edged sword of that experience—what is raw and authentic about it, and what is easily manipulated.

For someone consumed with a desire for success, Cass repeatedly sets herself up for failure—which made me both laugh and cringe. Can you talk about her—and your—relationship to success and failure?

The tricky thing about “success” is that—essentially—it boils down to what other people think of you. And the same thing applies to failure. Cass really struggles with her belief that she is what she’s perceived as. People think she’s winning, so she’s a success; then a terrible scandal occurs, so she becomes a failure. But there’s value in developing memory that is longer than either your most recent successes or your failures. And over the course of the book, Cass starts to generate a sense of her own history that extends beyond the present moment. That’s something that I also actively work to achieve.

Cass refers to her nemesis Tara-Jean Slater as “the person leading the life I should have.” And it was pretty inspired of Cass to set up a fake New Yorker email address to “talk” to Tara-Jean. Do you have a nemesis?

I did! She was completely fabulous. She was fearless and unique, unreserved in her desires and her ability to pursue them. Successful in her specific field, but entirely blasé about that success. I had a fascination for her until I met her and realized that she was not at all the person that I had constructed. I felt a ridiculous sense of disillusionment. I’d needed her to be an elusive and threatening creature from another planet, but she was just another confused human trying to get by. So now I’m in the market for a new nemesis. Drop me a line if you’d like to apply.

Jocelyn, Cass’s agent’s assistant, reveals a lot about how the arts industry works or doesn’t. We first see her as a sign that Cass has fallen from grace (her agent won’t call her back), but we soon realize that Jocelyn is complex and captivating in her own right. What made you want to include her as a character?

My agents are really funny people and so they tend to have assistants with dark, wry senses of humor. I was once discussing scheduling with an assistant while she was emailing me links to a news story about a cassowary (like, a dinosaur-looking bird) who had just murdered someone. What’s so striking to me is that these are intelligent, articulate young people who see a very different side of the industry from the start. When I was twenty-one, I had so many hopeful illusions about a life in the arts. But these are twenty-one-year olds who are receiving the brunt of clients’ desperations, their frustrations, their stymied desires. As I was thinking about ways in which women struggle with the success-failure dichotomy—and repress their rage—Jocelyn became her own full character.

When I got to it, I read the details of Cass’s public humiliation as if I was in the same drunken brain fog she was in. Without giving away what happened, can you talk about this scene?

It’s hard to talk about without giving it away! Hmm…The situation that occurs is fairly bizarre, so it felt important to me that we would be closely aligned with Cass’s perspective while it happened. That it would feel to us as out-of-control and surprising—but oddly inevitable—as it feels to Cass in the moment. And then later, we (like Cass) get to say: Wait a minute…WHAT just happened?

Cass’s journey from NYC to LA to SF and finally to her hometown in New Hampshire is a series of attempts to transform herself and start over. How did your itinerant, international childhood inform your writing about people re-rooting and starting over?

I was born in the US but raised between America and a long list of countries across Europe, Asia, and Scandinavia. This had an indelible effect on my fantasy of how quickly and completely transformation is possible. I used to have this feeling like: Switch countries, switch languages, and there it is! Your new life. Of course, you get where you’re going and you’re always still yourself, with your same fears and hopes and disappointments. A fascination with reinvention has stayed with me, though—the sense that your new life is always just one city away.

Why did you title your novel We Play Ourselves?

We perform ourselves all the time; we play different versions of ourselves depending on who we’re with, what we want them to see, how we’re longing to be seen. We even perform versions of ourselves for ourselves, which gets really confusing. And then, on the flip side, to play yourself can also mean to trick or deceive yourself. We first hear the statement when the girls are telling Cass about the fight club movie—that they play themselves. But of course the whole book keeps circling a series of performances that the characters are giving, or are somehow trapped in.

What are you working on now?

A mix of TV and film projects, and (slowly, slowly) a new play commission. BUT—if I’m being honest—the thing I’m most excited about is drawing a tarot deck featuring a series of depressed pandas. I’ve been working on it for a while. Like, if we’re on a Zoom call and you think I’m taking notes? I’m drawing Sad Panda Tarot.

Panda: Ace of Wands