(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

BooksSeptember 8, 2023

For the girls and the gays: an interview with Joy Holley

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Sinead Overbye interviews Joy Holley about writing Dream Girl, a book of short stories that uplifts the private lives of queer women, published earlier this year by Te Herenga Waka University Press.

Sinead Overbye: Kia ora Joy!

Joy Holley: Kia ora Sinead! 

What inspired you to write Dream Girl?

The girls and the gays! I wanted my friends (you!) to feel seen and represented by these stories, and to give everyone else a little window into our world. 

Throughout my teenage years and early twenties, I have often felt a kind of anticipatory nostalgia for all the good times we’re having, and even some of the bad times. Dream Girl is one of many attempts to capture the fun, chaos and magic of these years. 

I’ve lived in Wellington pretty much my entire life, so inevitably Wellington was another big influence: the flats, the parties, the queer scene, the history of specific places. 

Some stories started with a “what if” from my own life. What if I’d actually got what I wanted, what if I did that thing I know I shouldn’t do, what if I could adopt a pet snake in New Zealand? This led to some especially bratty characters, bizarre situations, and sometimes the supernatural. 

For me, one of the driving forces of the book is queerness. The book is full of sapphic images, innuendos, queer sex and secret codes. Could you talk a bit about how queerness influences your writing?

It was really important to me that this collection was a celebration of the communities that I exist in, where queerness is accepted and flourishing. There’s so much art about the struggles of being young and queer, but it can also be so fun! 

Most of the characters in Dream Girl are openly queer, and they aren’t repressed by it. Their actions aren’t determined by the patriarchy or heteronormativity. They also don’t really have a pre-established romantic model to follow. Anything goes: they can invite their crushes strawberry picking rather than on a dinner date, they can flirt via public playlists, they can sleep with their best friends. This is pretty liberating from a writing perspective! There’s so much potential for drama, complicated power dynamics, and the absurd. 

Writing short fiction meant I could include many different queer relationships: platonic, romantic, sexual, and all mixed up. There are also stories about teenagers who aren’t yet aware of their own queerness, including one set in the 1950s. So many queer relationships have been erased from history, but I love how fiction allows us to write them back in.

The feeling of being watched is a major theme in these stories. You quote your IRL grandma in the story called Manifesto saying “There is nothing more romantic than feeling a man’s eyes watching you and following you in the streets”. And often these girls are performative – they want to smell nice for their crushes, and do beautiful things like picking berries and participating in beauty rituals. Can you talk a bit about how these ideas shaped your book?

I’m really interested in how this idea of an imagined audience can exist outside of the male gaze. It’s something I’ve thought about since I was a teenager, when I started having big crushes and constantly wondered how that person would perceive me (even when I was alone in my bedroom, in a maths class, etc). 

The first time I remember reading about this experience was in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing:

“A woman must continually watch herself … She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”

Some of this felt true, but I have imagined myself through a woman’s eyes much more often than a man’s, and I suspect this is the case for many other queer people!

I saw the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire just before I started writing Dream Girl, and that felt like the first time I’d seen these ideas explored through a queer lens. It reminded me of all the ways in which only women can really see each other, and the intensity of that! Director Céline Sciamma has called the film a “manifesto about the female gaze”, which isn’t far off what I wanted Dream Girl to be. Although entirely different to Portrait, the story ‘Manifesto’ was written as a kind of ironic manifesto to performativity as a bisexual woman.

Most of the main characters in Dream Girl see themselves as main characters: they’re constantly romanticising themselves and their lives. This was an easy source of comedy, but I also didn’t want to judge them. I’m sure different readers will make different judgements, but the girls that get it, get it!

Joy Holley (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

Dream Girl has a real materiality to it. The stories are all so vivid, and objects are cherished by the characters. I feel like the girls’ fixation with ‘things’ could be written off by some as being shallow – but for me it felt far more complex than that. Could you talk a bit about this rich imagery and why that is important for the book?

I wanted Dream Girl to be unapologetically femme, so there are a lot of pretty things and feminine iconography! I love the way girls can turn even the most everyday objects (Vicks VapoRub, seaweed, a tangerine) into totems of magic, and the intimacy of all the things girls share (makeup, hair ties, vapes…).

Early in the writing process I read this piece by Emma Cline on The Virgin Suicides (TVS), and became interested in the idea of “hyperspecificity”. I agree that it’s “one deep pleasure” of TVS, but also that it can be used to “obscure the larger picture”. In ‘Fruit’ and ‘Blood Magic’, including lots of sensory detail and imagery was a way of distracting the reader from something else going on; something darker.

Some people could get the wrong impression of this book – the characters are very dreamy and fanciful. But there’s a sinister underbelly to your work that I think many readers won’t be expecting. There are truly spooky moments, and the dangers of being a young woman are ever-present. Can you talk a bit about those dark moments, and why they are important for the book?

During my MA, Emily Perkins (my supervisor) and I talked about Dream Girl’s utopia of girls as an act of resistance, or rebellion. I wanted to emphasise their pleasure and joy, and I didn’t want them to be defined by their trauma. Emily encouraged me to find ways of contextualising this stance: showing the cracks in the fantasy, the burnt edges.

One of the ways I tried to do this was by writing about Wellington’s past. ‘Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents’ is set in 1954 — a time of moral panic and conservative fear for New Zealand. The girls in this story are much like the other characters in the collection, but they face much darker consequences. It’s possibly the saddest story in Dream Girl.

Unfortunately the threat of violence is a reality of girlhood and often exists very closely alongside the best stuff (sex, parties, adventures in nature…). This kept coming up while I was writing, even in places where I didn’t expect it. I still consider most of these stories to be optimistic overall, though!

Some of my favourite parts of Dream Girl are the moments where we teeter on the precipice between reality and magic. There’s an otherworldly vibe that intrudes on our sense of reality, but also, the supernatural elements are depicted in a very real way. What appealed to you about crossing that borderline between reality and magic? 

I wanted all of the stories in Dream Girl to exist in the same “world”, and for that world to feel real. But I was also interested in the kinds of magic that could exist in this world, and settings where it might slip under the radar. I find parties especially good territory: it’s nighttime; there are drugs, rituals, communion. ‘Blood Magic’ and ‘Ghost Story’ were inspired by these ideas. 

I also like thinking about how the past can live on inside a building/space, and find the presence of history can be quite magic in itself. This influenced how I wrote about Erskine College in ‘School Spirit’, and the murder of Phyllis Symons in ‘Girls in the Tunnel’. 

In this piece by Carmen Maria Machado, she talks about how non-realism “is a way to tap into aspects of being a woman that can be surreal or somehow liminal.” She points out, “Being queer, too, can feel surreal. There’s this sense that you’re seeing things that other people don’t, which I think is true of many groups of people who exist apart from the more culturally dominant perspective … It’s very surreal to have this perspective where you experience reality in a slightly different way.”

I think these ideas are woven all through the book, but especially ‘Blood Magic’: a story about a vampire, and/or a story about lesbian infatuation. 

There’s also a lot of music. One of my fave stories is ‘Ghost Story’, where the whirlwind romance between two girls is told through the playlists they create for each other. What’s the importance of music in this book? 

For the characters in Dream Girl, every song is a message – almost always aimed at a crush. Music is a love language for many people, but I think this is especially true in queer communities. Songs are a way of confessing your feelings without actually confessing, which can be high risk if, for example, you don’t know the person you’re into is queer. 

I also love how mentioning songs (movies, art…) can add another layer of context and imagery, or even be an inside joke. I made a Dream Girl playlist for these reasons!

Dream Girl by Joy Holley (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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