Arts & Culture

Barbara Bourland Discusses Feminism and the Art World

We talk to the author of Fake Like Me.

Why did you choose to omit the protagonist’s name?
I never knew what her name was. It was never made apparent to me, by whatever process this is. The book is also a very, very light remake of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier—sort of the classic trapped woman, psychological suspense novel. So my narrator doesn’t have a name, much like the narrator of Rebecca does not have a name. Her namelessness is meant to give you a sense of universality.

I was struck by how long it took me to realize you hadn’t included it.
Yeah. I had a fun time making that work.

There are so many layers to this book—multiple storylines, including a mystery, these great characters, social commentary and critique of the art world and feminism—what was the impetus of all of it?
I started writing this book as I was working the edits for my first book [I’ll Eat When I’m Dead], and I had the very uncomfortable experience of being turned into a commodity. I found it to be extremely unnerving. When you begin to talk about branding and marketing, I didn’t have an easy time with it. The book business has really changed drastically over the past 20 years: we have more books, we have more readers, but we also have such a different marketplace in terms of how readers learn about books. I think it was easier when you were Daphne Du Maurier, quite frankly, and you were touted as someone whose opinion was worth hearing because 2 percent of Americans had a college degree. It was simpler, if you were educated and you could write, to be branded as someone who we should be listening to, and I think that’s very difficult now. So it was a very tense experience and it made for the grounding of a novel that’s very tense. We’ve all made jokes about the development of the personal brand, but it really is a dehumanizing experience. How vulnerable you are to that depends on how confident you are as a person. I’m not very confident [laughs]. So that was the emotional state I was personally in when I started writing this book.

The detail with which you write about art making—and selling—is phenomenal. Are you an artist yourself, or did you just do a ton of research?
I’m a very amateur artist. I draw and paint, but it’s a non-commercial practice. My husband is an art historian. I tag along with him to studio visits a lot, and the studio is such a special place—I think it’s the reason most people are drawn to the art world to begin with. . . . We live in a built society. An artwork is built, and the economy of the art world is built. It’s a set of choices and collective decisions, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the art world because all of the artworks’ value is derived by their social impact, its greater resonance throughout the culture that you can measure. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of notoriety or awareness that people have about artists and their work, which isn’t to say there isn’t also so much beauty available to us from art. Of course there is. But it is a mixture of both of those things. And the book is a mixture of both things.

You did an artist residency at The Wassaic Project. Did you specifically choose a fine arts residency so it could inform the book?
Yeah. I sent them the first two chapters, and also they’re in upstate New York [where the novel is set]. I told them I had a big edit coming in and would love to work on it there. I think what I was hoping for—and I think that I got it—was to absorb the timeframe. I make work, but again, I don’t make work to support myself in any way; I can go into the studio at any time. I wanted to get a sense of how long artists are grinding in their studios. At Wassaic, our studios are all adjacent to each other, so just hearing how people are moving around the space, how late they’re staying in the studio, how much back-breaking physical work there can be to make something that’s really big, or even to make something small that you have to throw away if you ruin it. I don’t think there was another way to get that sense of it. In the acknowledgments, I tried to list every artist whose studio I was in who I took something from, whether it was the handle of a brush or a habit with the gesso or whatever. There’s a lot of technical information.

Did you make a lot of changes while you were there? Were you surprised by anything you noticed when you were living with all those artists?
I’m not a particularly linear writer. Very infrequently do I feel like on the first draft I’ve landed it, whether it’s a paragraph or a page or whatever. So I was there making so many cuts to give it the temporal structure that puts the reader in a position where they don’t want to put it down. That push and pull and stress is all about a series of beats that you hope you’ll hit, but you don’t know that you’ll hit them until you have the raw material to edit down. Being in that place with these long stretches of nothing and work that are mixed with that summer camp feeling, where these are the only people that you see and the only people that you now know—that is a very unique circumstance. Absorbing everyone’s work rhythms helped me with the pacing of this book immeasurably. They also bring in museum curators and gallerists who go from studio to studio, so I put out seltzers, had my notepad, and when people visited, I said, “I want to ask you about your job.” Like, “Here are some ideas I want to get at in this book.” So I sort of flipped it.

Your other novel was also a satire and a mystery. Why are you drawn to that genre?
Here’s hoping that someday I will be talented enough to write a book where nothing happens and you are still compelled to turn the page, but I think that is a very rare skill. I believe in plot. I think that most books are actually mysteries: there’s always a problem. And I think that if you write about contemporary society, there is no way not to make it a satire because the society we live in is so incredibly absurd and changing so rapidly. I live on the East Coast, I’m college educated, I’m a Millennial. The jobs that my peers have taken as we’ve gotten older—it’s wild, what my friends do to make a living. We make our money across a very wide spectrum of professions. And there’s no way that that’s not funny. It’s like a joke: an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, and a circus performer walk into a bar. What do they have in common? They’re best friends!

Or they’re all one person.
Or yeah, they’re one person! And again, maybe the reason being made into a commodity is an uncomfortable experience for me is because I don’t know how my work fits in. I think it’s not a singular thing. It’s a multiplicity of things. And young women writers are put in a tough position, I think.

How so?
Well, there’s the smiley, happy-go-lucky girl reporter with her lipstick and her cool clothes, and then there’s the disaffected young woman who doesn’t care about anything. And I’m neither of those things. I mean, we’re all struggling to brand ourselves in this world, and it’s hard to know how much energy to put into that. . . . We’re so conscious of our bodies and appearance. Good on you if you’ve managed to escape it; I personally have not in the slightest.