Interview with Lucie Britsch, Author of Sad Janet

Lucie Britsch’s darkly comic debut, Sad Janet, was named one of the Best Books of the Summer by LitHub, The Millions, Refinery29, and Hey Alma, and has earned high praise:

“The narrative voice of Janet in Britsch’s debut novel is a skin-tingling combination of new and necessary. . . . This book and this character are radical, and readers are likely to feel a relief at reading the thoughts they’ve had but not spoken.”Booklist (starred review)

“Lucie Britsch has crafted a biting, pitch-perfect novel about one woman’s desire to stay true to herself in a world that rewards facile happiness. Hilarious, wise, wicked, and tender, Sad Janet is a dazzling debut and Britsch a singular and necessary new voice.” —Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, New York Times-bestselling author of The Nest

I was delighted to speak with Lucie about Sad Janet, the “depression comedy you never knew you needed.”

RHH: So tell me, how do you feel about Christmas? 

LB: Right now, I feel like it won’t ever be the same again but generally I’m ok with it, it’s a hard time of year. 

RHH: I’ve seen multiple reviews claiming that the book owes a debt to Otessa Moshfegh’s work.  While Janet’s misanthropic, willful disdain for social norms absolutely reminded me of some of Moshfegh’s narrators, ultimately I felt Janet had a much stronger heart, maybe due to her self-described “crippling self-awareness.” I’d actually really love to hang out with Janet, who acknowledges that her abrasive veneer is just that, whereas I might be pretty freaked to be alone in a room with Eileen or the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I’m wondering whether the idea of “likability,” particularly as it pertains to women characters, impacted your construction of Janet?

LB: I wasn’t really thinking oh I want to write about an unlikeable woman. I think women get called unlikeable or difficult when what you really mean is, they’re not just smiling and going along with things. I don’t give a shit personally if you like me or my characters, that’s not the point. It’s hard work being a human and if you can’t see that and understand the complexity of navigating being alive then I don’t have time for you. Life isn’t fun most of the time. I want authentic people and characters and if that means unlikeable so be it. I actually liked Eileen and think her and Janet would get along, if they weren’t such pains in the ass.

RHH: I assume the Moshfegh comparison also probably has something to do with the theme of pharmaceuticals; you could say the premise of Sad Janet is the diametric opposite of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which the narrator essentially takes as many psychiatric medications as she can get her hands on. Were you aware of being in conversation with that book, or the broader ideas it satirizes, as you conceptualized this novel?

LB: Obviously, I have a problem with big pharma, but it’s more than that, it’s society as a whole, capitalism mostly, and this monetizing of feelings. Nothing much has changed regarding medicating women to keep them in line, the drugs might be better but it’s all to make us more manageable. I don’t want to be managed. I actually don’t think my writing or my book are really like Ottessa Moshfegh at all, there are similarities obviously, it’s just easier for people to try to pigeon hole me. I remember Jake Gyllenhaal on something saying don’t try to pigeon hole me, I’m not a pigeon, I loved that. Although I do actually love pigeons so I wouldn’t mind.

RHH: Along similar lines, though Sad Janet’s premise is farcical in its details, most of the accusations the protagonist lobs at Big Pharma are totally applicable to today’s reality. To what degree did you intend for the novel to serve as an indictment of the industry? And do you agree with Janet that gender dynamics (in the sense that mostly women are medicated and mostly men are profiting) are at the crux what’s dangerous about the increasing ubiquity of antidepressants?

LB: I mean I didn’t write it to be like big pharma is bad, but it is obviously. It’s just one woman’s story, it’s not supposed to speak for anyone else. I’m a huge believer in whatever works for you. There are millions of women that antidepressants have truly helped lead more normal lives but then there are a million more who maybe didn’t need them but weren’t really understood or listened to or shown a different way. It’s still mostly men in control of the world and women’s bodies though, and that’s not ok.

RHH: Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but Janet has a little bit of a queer streak, yeah? Her meaningful relationships in the present are all with women, and though those relationships are platonic, she often invokes less-than-platonic frameworks to describe things, like when she swaps reading lists with her friend Emma and calls it their “version of phone sex.”

LB: Janet doesn’t believe in labels but is probably queer, yeah, I mean I’m one of those people that is into people and wants to be a person and doesn’t go in for labels either. She’s wary of most people though so she’s probably asexual if anything.

RHH: I just finished reading and watching Normal People, and one of the things I found interesting about it, and that’s also true of your novel, is that internal obstacles take precedence over external ones. It’s super realistic, but it’s also risky, from a narrative perspective. How do you keep a reader from getting frustrated when a character won’t get out of their own way? I didn’t get frustrated with Janet, or at least not in a way that made me want to stop reading. To that end, what tips do you have for novelists about writing a character who’s her own worst enemy?

LB: Oh man, I mean I’m someone that’s definitely their worst enemy and spent a lot of time in my own head, I mean I think we write these imaginary places and people so we can get out of our own reality in a way, especially now, I’m so grateful I get that escape, but then we get caught up in these imaginary people’s heads, so it’s madness, it’s all madness.

I would never give anyone writing advice, it’s whatever works for you, just stay true to your characters, you have to let them do their thing, something I find hard but also great is you have to give yourself up to that, like you have to go willingly into the madness a bit.

I guess it comes back to that likeability thing again though, even if a character is a pain in the ass you have to find what makes you root for them. I hope people root for Janet.

Lucie Britsch has written for Catapult Story, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Split Lip Magazine, and The Sun, and her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Sad Janet is her first novel.

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