Belonging, Desire, and the Cruelties of Youth: Ellie Eaton Interviewed by Kayla Maiuri

A novel about the hyper-ritualistic insularity of elite institutions, the friendships that forge there, and the implosions that await.

The Divines by Ellie Eaton

In her debut novel, The Divines (William Morrow & Company), Ellie Eaton delves into the complexity of female friendships and the way these relationships continue to shape and tug at us well into adulthood. The story is about reckoning with the past, as it moves between the protagonist Josephine’s current life in Los Angeles and her formative years at St. John the Divine, an elite British boarding school for girls that has since closed its doors. As she reflects on her youth, the school’s scandalous history comes into view, including the heavy hand Josephine and the rest of The Divines played in its demise. 

Eaton, like Josephine, grew up in England and lives in Los Angeles, and is brilliantly attuned to the trickery of memory—the ways we reconstruct our pasts into renderings we can live with. Intoxicating and provocative, at times deeply uncomfortable, The Divines is a novel that asks readers to confront parts of themselves they’ve tried to bury.

—Kayla Maiuri

  

Kayla Maiuri The novel opens with a girl lying on the lawn of the school grounds, presumably dead. She looks “like a bird with a broken wing—something small and green and feathered” with an “unusual bend to one knee.” Did you always plan to open here, at such a climactic moment of the story? 

Ellie EatonFor a long time, I opened with the sentence, “I am Divine.” These were the first pencil scratches I made on the paper, months before I began working on the manuscript in earnest or even really knew what shape the novel would take. This refrain—I am Divine—became lodged in my head, an earworm that would follow me around the house; in the shower, on a walk, feeding my daughter. Later, when I had finished the business of dragging the rock up the mountain—the hard graft of writing those early drafts—I began to play with the idea of including a prologue. Someone recently drew a comparison between The Divines and the opening sequence of the movie Blue Velvet (I’m a huge Lynch fan). The white picket fence, the camera zooming slowly beneath the grass, the beetles clacking beneath the ground. I wanted my prologue to operate in a similar way, a flash of the violence and damage that exists below the surface of the school St. John the Divine. I also wanted the opening to be somewhat disorientating, which is why I opted for the first-person plural, a chorus of disembodied voices.

KM Why was it important to show Josephine living as a wife and mother in Los Angeles, looking back on her years at St. John the Divine? Did you always know the novel would move between the past and present?

EA I did. For me, the heart of the story isn’t just Josephine’s experiences as a teenager—the tribalism of her school days and the mistakes of her adolescence—but also how the choices we make when we’re young go on to shape us as adults. The fact that Josephine has a daughter feels particularly significant to me. Motherhood is a privilege but it’s also a very complicated gig, especially when it comes to raising girls. In addition to the usual demands of keeping a small human alive (feeding, washing, stopping them from putting their fingers inside the toaster) there’s pressure for mothers to be some kind of exemplar. In The Divines, the birth of Josephine’s daughter acts as a catalyst, causing her to fixate on, and finally reckon with, her former self. I don’t think the novel would have held up if it was stripped down to just the school years.  

KMYou do a magnificent job of capturing the loyalties and betrayals that exist among young female friends. The social dynamics are nuanced and sharp—exactly as I remember them. I’m always scouring shelves for these kinds of books. Why do you think this time in our lives is so fascinating? 

EAMe too! Growing up, my school-assigned texts were all very much from “the canon.” Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Brontë, Orwell. Books I’m thankful to have read and absorbed at a young age, which transported me to other worlds, but none of which particularly reflected the experience of being a teenage girl in the ’90s: The shame of an unexpected period seeping through your school skirt. The clumsy fumblings with boys. Adolescence is, as a life stage, often in danger of being trivialized. The very powerful and volatile emotions teenagers feel are chalked up to hormones. Surging hormones play their part of course, but I wanted to write about that time period in a way that didn’t shy from the rawness of the teenage experience and how fraught it can be. How alien our bodies feel, how out of control. As well as the intense friendships we make at that age. Elena Ferrante captures this so well in The Lying Life of Adults

KM Ah, yes. Ferrante always gets it right. Speaking of which, were there any novels you turned to for inspiration while writing this? I thought a lot about Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? while reading.

EAAbsolutely. If I look over my shoulder, I can see Frog Hospital from my desk. Moore handles the recklessness of those teenage years so well. There’s that moment in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Woman when Del Jordan describes her sweat which always stops me short. In terms of thinking about plot and pacing, I returned again and again to Rebecca, which is, to my mind, a perfectly structured novel. The way Ottessa Moshfegh describes the human body—vomiting and shitting—definitely encouraged me to lean into the physical in The Divines. From a factual point of view, there are some excellent books out there on the British class system; David Cannadine, Ross McKibbin, Jilly Cooper (yup!) and Orwell’s book-length essay, Such, Such Were the Joys… I was also heavily inspired by visual art, photographers like Martin Parr who is so good at capturing the oddity of the Brits. I’m thinking of The Last Resort and Badminton Horse Trials in particular. I miss the “before times” when you could spend three hours at a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at LACMA. A couple of Mapplethorpe’s nudes are always pinned up in front of me while I write. They’re like Greek sculptures. The deification of the body in his work and his polaroids definitely crept into my pages.

Ellie Eaton by Lauren Ward

Photo of Ellie Eaton by Lauren Ward.

KM“The rest of us prowled around outside, flicking our hair, ululating loudly, our arms chained together. We were always touching one another…” I love the way you illustrate the insular world of the boarding school. These young girls hold such a strange power over one another and also the reader, their presence so all-encompassing. You forget that a real world exists outside the walls of St. John the Divine. I assume this was intentional on your part?

EA It was. The way that these kinds of elitist institutions operate is to make the reality of life inside the school walls more real than the outside world. The girls I write about would have been almost completely oblivious to the huge social changes going on during the ’90s. The fall of the Berlin Wall, The Gulf War, the birth of the Internet. They couldn’t have cared less. I wanted to demonstrate how insular and narrow-minded these places can be. And of course, from a plotting perspective, the claustrophobia helps heighten the feeling of tension because you know that at some point this hyper-ritualistic world is going to implode.

KM Of course, we’re kind of smacked with reality when we do enter the outside world and witness the class divide in this small town. The focus is no longer on The Divines, but on the “townies,” who they endlessly mock and cast judgement upon. Can you talk more about this aspect of the novel?

EA Class is a particularly toxic part of British culture. I know that there’s also a huge socio-economic divide in the US, but there’s something particularly awful about the way class manifests back home. In England, the time you eat your evening meal and whether you call it “supper,” “dinner” or “tea,” is an instant class signifier. The poet Rachael Allen writes so eloquently about this subject. I read an interview with her recently about what it means to be a working-class poet. The way the family you’re born into, the wealth you inherit, has such a profound impact on your career. As she puts it, there’s this tendency for people to renounce their privilege for fear of seeming inauthentic. As a cis white middle class woman, it would be completely disingenuous to not acknowledge the obvious advantages my education gave me. In writing about the townies in The Divines, I wanted to show how this class dynamic plays out. The real tragedy of the book, to my mind, is that despite Lauren’s intelligence and pluck, there are very few opportunities for her to escape the town, whilst Josephine has the financial means to move abroad and completely reinvent herself.

KM After she is confronted with memories of her youth, Josephine says of her husband, “I feel a burst of relief to see him standing there, solid looking and straightforward, not in the least Divine.” I adore Jürgen as a character. He’s comforting and grounding. There’s also an unbelievable level of poignancy, realness, and vulnerability in their scenes. Can you talk more about what you were trying to accomplish in their moments together, and with Jürgen’s character in particular?

EA In many ways, Jürgen acts as Josephine’s moral compass. The fact that she’s so secretive with him about her past is an early sign that she feels a sense of shame, both about the privilege of her childhood as well as her behavior. I know that some readers have commented that sections of the book are pretty explicit, but it felt vital to me to go there, particularly the moments when Josephine is pregnant. There’s a strange taboo around the subject of sex during pregnancy (much like period sex). I wanted to show that Josephine is finally able to verbalize her impulses and act on them in a way she was incapable of in her youth.  

KM We learn towards the end of the novel, along with Josephine, that her classmates viewed her as “poised” and “self-assured,” as a leader. This vocabulary differs greatly from the self-deprecating interiority we’ve witnessed throughout the book, and we quickly realize how unreliable this story has been.  

EA We’re all the heroes of our own stories, aren’t we, which inherently makes us unreliable as narrators. Typically, we have a group of people in our lives, family and friends, who validate the stories we tell about ourselves, making a kind of composite personal history of who we were when we were young. I wanted to take a character who is totally detached from her past and family and explore how much of our memory is constructed and how much of it is true. 

KMLet’s talk about that final scene. I find endings can often be a letdown—there’s all this expectation, that awkward dance between author and reader, where we both know what’s coming. But your final scene is everything a writer strives for: inevitable yet a total surprise. I had to stare at the wall for a few moments afterward, feeling every bit of shock, shame, and anxiety that I imagine Josephine felt. How did you get there? 

EA Without giving away too much, I’ll say this: I’m always infuriated by the kind of narratives that show characters going through an ordeal or test and emerging at the other end a new person, polished and perfect. Yes, we mature and I certainly hope I make better decisions than I did when I was sixteen, but I think it’s misleading to think that time eradicates all of the elements of our personality that aren’t as palatable as we’d like. I don’t think you have to scratch beneath the surface very far to find that as humans we’re all still prone to moments of jealousy, insecurity, and rage.

The Divines is available for purchase here.

Kayla Maiuri’s debut novel is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Born in the Greater Boston area, she now lives in Brooklyn.

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