In "Happy Hour," Women Get What They Want
Marlowe Granados' debut novel will be published by Verso this year.
Last week, while the internet was swapping memes and theories about Samantha Jones’ absence from the upcoming Sex and the City reboot, I was preoccupied with a different set of friends living in New York: Isa and Gala, the stars in Marlowe Granados’ debut novel Happy Hour. The friends, in their early twenties, arrive in the city for a summer of scrappy yet glamorous antics. Initially sharing a bedroom sublet in Brooklyn, the duo’s outsized confidence and bemused interest in witnessing characters and drama up close means Happy Hour is less a conventional coming-of-age story and more a flâneuse adventure.
Propelled by curiosity, social savvy, and a wicked sense of humor, Isa, who narrates in the first person, and her best friend Gala dabble in ad-hoc gigs as market vintage sellers, models, and audience members for a pre-taped television show. They party with celebrities and artists, start bar fights, endear strangers, and receive invitations to the Hamptons. Whereas cultural portraits of young people cavorting and occasionally being humbled by life in the Big Apple have tended to the focus on characters with inherited wealth—Gossip Girl, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, and even Catcher in the Rye come to mind—Isa and Gala get by on a delicious admixture of luck, pluck, and social intuition. The young women do experience challenges—and in the second half of the book, the reader learns more about hardships from Isa’s past—but, as Granados has commented in previous conversations, Happy Hour is unique for portraying young women having fun without looming threats of moral or mortal punishment.
Happy Hour begins with the auspicious: “My mother always told me that to be a girl one must be especially clever. Before landing at JFK, I had three Bloody Marys and an extra piece of cake that fell apart in my mouth. A person should never take on a city with an empty stomach, and I am always hungry.” Granados presently resides in Toronto; recently, we spoke via Zoom about releasing a debut during a global pandemic and about complex, modern protagonists who can have their cake and laugh about it, too.
How has it felt like to have your first book come out during a global pandemic?
It’s funny, because I usually only know if people are talking about [Happy Hour] if they direct message me. It’s always so nice to get those messages; they’re usually long screeds, which I think is so brave and sweet.
It’s been odd, though, because I haven’t had a lot of experience talking to people about the book in real life. Most of my interviews have been like this over Zoom, so it’s very different than a regular launch. Even when I participate in digital talks and stuff, I can’t always see how many people are attending or see their reactions, so it’s distancing in that way. Something that’s been interesting is how talking to another person, even online, can make it feel you’re in a bubble together temporarily.
Isa and Gala exist very actively in the world; they’re always going to bars, parties, and visiting friends! Have you heard about any readers living vicariously through the book, or maybe even experiencing jealousy of the characters’ freedoms?
I appreciate that people are thinking about the characters as friends or living vicariously through them. A lot of people have said the book has been a nice, bright spot for them during the pandemic, and that is so touching for me.
In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about the ways that cultural portraits of young women’s relationships to glamour, fashion, and other forms of pleasure are often prejudged or characterized. Knowing that you wrote a lot of Happy Hour during your own early twenties, I’m curious about how you feel about female coming-of-age stories now?
I never thought about it a coming-of-age novel until I saw that’s how Google has been categorizing it. I started writing the book when I was twenty-two and I finished it when I was twenty-five. Sometimes I'll revisit certain passages, or I’ll see a page or quote someone has posted online, and I’ll think, “God, I still feel the exact same way,” or “Wow, I still experience that sensation,” so I don’t know. Certain concepts and themes seem to recur regardless of age.
I think what distinguishes Isa from other young protagonists is that she’s so self-assured. Rather than searching for herself, as is common in coming-of-age stories, Isa and Gala enter into situations already having very strong senses of self. They almost think, "Well, this is just how I am. This is probably how I'm always going to be," and then go out and test how situations will react to their personalities, rather than how they’ll respond to situations.
Throughout the book, Isa alludes to the pressure she and Gala sometimes feel to assume the role of host or social facilitator, even in settings where they are the guests. On certain occasions, the girls are even brought into situations to enhance the experience for other guests, by contributing an element of fun or wildness to a party. Was hosting—arguably itself a form of social or emotional labour—always going to be a big theme?
I’ve been researching and seeking examples of women hosting across many different cultures. I think geishas may be the most extreme example, as they are explicitly performing the act of hospitality, performing charm and amusement.
The first part of Happy Hour that I wrote, which didn’t make it into the final version, was a monologue of Isa explaining who she is and where she comes from. And the idea for that kind of self-introduction goes back to old Hollywood films, where you often see examples of girl characters with super-developed origin stories. Sometimes you don’t know if the story is true, but that’s not really the point. The story is always a presentation.
While I was writing, I was definitely thinking about charm as a form of currency. With [Isa and Gala], of course you assume that they're pretty, but the whole thing is that they're also bringing a specific energy and awareness and excitement that the people around them also feed off. My own experience of going to new cities or getting invited certain places—and often being quite young in comparison to everyone else—was that my age would often get brought up and it would be a sore spot. I think that at some point, you anticipate that and prepare your angle, or your story, for when you enter those places. And if you want to continue being invited, you kind of have to maintain it.
Happy Hour also explores the idea of benefactors—I thought one of the most radical parts of the book was how the characters talk fairly directly about money and the challenges it presents.
While I was writing the novel, part of what I wanted to do was map [Isa’s] story against a lineage of women in history and to think about how a certain attitude toward getting what you want has been pretty consistent. In one sense, Isa and Gala are maybe only a couple steps away from being sugar babies. And I was really interested in that and in thinking about historical characters like flappers and gold diggers and other women interested in rising ranks from where they were born and moving upwards.
Are there certain women that have really struck a chord or inspired you?
I love Jean Rhys and Maeve Brennan. Anita Loos was also influential because she wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [published in 1925], which inspired the film. After reading that book, I started reading a lot the screenplays that Loos wrote—she was a huge screenwriter in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s and she writes the most amazing dialogue. It still feels so whip smart and really gives women the last laugh, that kind of winking at the audience humor.
I also recently watched Working Girls [from 1931], which is an amazing, pre-Code film by Dorothy Arzner. While I was watching it, I felt shocked that I hadn't seen it before. The characters are like Isa and Gala. One of them is street smart and the other is a bit more innocent and coy; it’s that classic opposites attract dynamic. Even after I finished writing [Happy Hour], I’m still collecting examples of these kinds of female friendship. There’s just this playfulness that I really love watching.
The news about Verso releasing Happy Hour next summer is really thrilling. How do you feel working with such a radical press?
I'm so excited about Verso releasing it, because it means [Isa and Gala] are being taken seriously. One of my biggest struggles putting the book out was that nothing bad happened to the characters. I think the publishing industry can struggle with marketing different voices and stories. I really didn’t want to have the book come out and be marketed in a way that books by young women sometimes can be… Not that there’s anything bad about those approaches. I just think there’s a failure or some major limits to how the publishing world can approach or market those novels.
And there’s a risk of writers getting pigeonholed if the book is positioned in a certain way. Since I'm a woman of color, I’m in this weird position where I don't belong in any specific category because I don't really write obvious racialized stories. But then, I’m also not a young, white woman, so my characters and my photography work aren’t either. My worst nightmare thinking about publishing was weird comparisons, like when people want to compare Happy Hour with Girls [the television show]… It’s not like Girls! [laughs]