LA DAYS, LA NIGHTS: An Interview With Mallory Smart

LA DAYS, LA NIGHTS: An Interview With Mallory Smart

The pulse of that jaded glamor city LA provides the mood music for Mallory Smart’s I Keep My Visions to Myself (With an X Books, 2023). Smart’s vision is of a city whose youthful inhabitants ride their passions through hazy streets, on the run from their demons, hungry for a life yet known. This cast wears their sunglasses at night, and drinks heartbreak down on the rocks. The novel races from small-time tom-tom club dreams to the stern realities of fame chasing, on the way stopping to ask the question of how enticing star power can be. I talked to Mallory about the book.

Rebecca Gransden: I’m interested in where the title I Keep My Visions to Myself originated. So much of the book is dedicated to dreams of one type or another. Stevie is subject to dreams of great intensity. Her world is dominated by dreams: for her music career, for escape, some semblance of peace of mind. LA is perhaps the ultimate setting for the realization of the American dream, while at the same time perpetuating its own mythology of broken dreams. Yet the title talks of Visions. How do you view the book’s relationship to visions and to dreams?

Mallory Smart: The title was originally LA Nights, which the musician God’Aryan used as a title for a song inspired by the book. I was going to end each chapter with Stevie taking these blasé selfies and captioning them: just another LA night…But as I wrote, those selfie moments failed to come except in two chapters where they felt most organic. As I finalized everything and was going through the last draft, it occurred to me how that original title was bland given the fact that the ‘inside joke’ was no longer there, and I remembered that my previous book was also named after a city. So I took the idea behind the selfie caption and applied it to the themes that were staring me in the face: Isolation. Loneliness. Apathy. I started writing a list of other random titles and sent them over to Jon at With an X (my publisher) and he picked out Visions which is, of course, a line in the song “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, making your question even more on point. Without ‘visions’ and ‘dreams’ LA wouldn’t exist, let alone this novel. I wanted to expose that more. LA, the Glamorous Dreamer. LA, the Complex Contradiction. LA, the All-Encompassing Stage.

With its neon cityscape, palm-lined streets, and pulsating music scene, Hollywood exudes an energetic charm. LA is legit known as The City of Angels and The City of Dreams, it provides a perfect backdrop for someone who is in the pursuit of fame. But beneath that surface at night, when the palm trees begin to cast shadows and the city begins to reflect the vast disparities between affluence and adversity, Stevie’s sleepless mind can no longer dream, literally and figuratively. She’s either having night terrors that come off almost as shamanistic visions or she’s stuck in a walking trance. The only times she isn’t in those states are when she shares those “visions” with other people whom she slowly considers family, or “tribe” as I call them in the book.

RG: The book provides its own playlist, but while reading I kept wondering if specific scenes evoke particular tracks in your mind. It seems like a silly question, but I’m thinking about process: Did you use music when writing?

MS: I use music every time I write, but for this book, the playlists were more curated than usual. Typically when writing, I allow Spotify to take the wheel and throw me onto “On Repeat” or “Daily Mix” playlists. But this time I sought out music that made me feel like I was inside the novel. I pictured it like the soundtrack to a movie. So I actively sought out other people’s music recommendations and playlists to help jog my mind. I also took from some Textual Healing (one of my podcasts I host) playlists that I’ve been sent in the past. What came out was a mixture of prog-rock and art pop. Basically, the kind of music you’d hear in a neo-noir film and songs with mystical imagery.

Straddling those moods was immensely important because that’s the core tone of the book. It’s about a female anti-hero who is kind of moving through what sometimes seems like a midnight hellscape whilst trying to truly figure out what her real identity is. It’s moody and pessimistic at times, but is heavily contrasted by the mystical imagery that’s going on in her mind. So artists like Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, and Nico came up. And then delving into that pessimistic night sound, artists like Cowboy Junkies and Corey Hart kept popping into my mind.

RG: There are echoes of song lyrics, titles, and band names embedded in the language of the book. For me, this mirrors the way riffs, bursts of melodies, and random lyrics surface and soundtrack waking life. In what way does music and the unconscious mind manifest in the book?

MS: A lot of times I didn’t even realize that a song was going through my mind when writing a chapter. Which sometimes ended up being referenced in the title of that chapter. Subconsciously, I am always having a ‘main character moment’ and walking through life as if I had my own personal soundtrack going overhead. By extension, Stevie is doing that too. I’m not sure how much other people can see it, but it’s definitely there.

Certain sounds or chords bring her back to her childhood. Distinct memories. It’s kind of like when we hear that opening key to “Welcome to the Black Parade” and all immediately know that’s the song we’re about to hear, or in the last season of Stranger Things when they realize that playing someone’s favorite song is the key to bringing them back to life. You don’t know that those songs and sounds still resonate with you, but they do. And in this book, Stevie is going through that more subtly. I think that it might be most visible in the hotel chapter where she hears the finishing chords to “Silver Springs” being played. She goes into that chapter as one person, but in that moment she’s vaguely reminded of the feeling that a song gave her and is someone else when she walks out. It didn’t take the entire song. Not even the lyrics. Just that quick shot of nostalgia, of how that song made her feel like it was okay to be broken and strong at the same time.

RG: For Stevie, her passion extends to an appreciation of music as objects and records. Do you share this, and if so, in what way does this take shape?

MS: I am a record junky but I also have an intense love of mixtapes. Hello America Stereo Cassette really revitalized that for me. I didn’t even have a cassette player until Adam Gnade offered to do a tape of my last book and it brought me back to when I was a kid and making mixtapes with friends. You’re taking part in the musical process when you make a mixtape as opposed to being a passive listener. That is both an object of appreciation and an outlet. 

I also have instruments strewn around my apartment. My favorite random musical object in here is my Kalimba. I wrote a short companion piece to I Keep My Visions to Myself in Major 7th Magazine where I tell Alfie’s side of things and I make specific reference to him passing a yard sale and seeing instruments and records that remind him of Stevie. I made sure to mention a Kalimba being one of those musical objects.

RG: The novel centers around a point in the protagonist Stevie’s life where she’s pulled in many directions. Her passion for music often clashes with reality. The eternal dilemma of every struggling musician, or musician on the rise, of needing to financially survive–perhaps commit to a day job–while at the same time searching for a way to not neglect their band and music, plays a significant part in the book. How did you approach balancing this tension?

MS: I approached it in the most indirect way. The external chaos was always going to be there. The expectations. The job. The ambition. The relationships. Instead of having Stevie come into direct conflict with any of these things, she’d be having conflict with the idea of them instead. Her ability to balance tension like this is nonexistent and I wanted to highlight that as much as possible after she has a moment of true contact with these forces. When she is having a great time avoiding her problems and then is forced to face them. She could’ve challenged herself to be more adventurous and open to things. But instead she crawls her way through the situation and copes with alcohol. Which, wildly, is where she finally finds some form of clarity.

The amount of things that she had to deal with couldn’t be met head on and couldn’t be spelled out throughout the novel. Having the tension be more abstract and happening almost solely in her head felt the most authentic way to go with a character like Stevie. By doing that, we’re able to feel the side effects of what all of that does to a human being without having to witness it.

RG: Stevie is living a mostly nocturnal existence, disappearing from the more conventional routines of daytime reality. What attracts her to this alternative world?

MS: It can be a bit of a trope: struggling artist wanders the city at night contemplating mortality. But in Stevie’s case, there’s that layer where she can’t sleep at night because of her anxiety. So her only real choices are sitting around in bed while watching Star Wars and blaming a full moon for her lack of sleep OR getting out of the room that is suffocating her and seeing what’s out there.

I also always found the way that the human mind works differently during night and day fascinating. Some scientists believe that being nocturnal allows artists to access a more flexible state of mind, which therefore enhances their imaginations and ability to create. I’ve been told several times by therapists how the mind works differently between night and day for people dealing with depression or anxiety. During the day a person’s brain power is EXTREMELY focused on waking up, going to work, doing work, running errands, going out with coworkers after work, making dinner, etc. There’s not much time to dwell on your thoughts. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings kind of vibe. So when someone who is depressed/anxious is done being a drone at the end of the day, their emotions suddenly come rushing towards them. You spend time subconsciously holding those back so you can get through the day and by the time night comes, your brain is too exhausted and lets down its guard. I imagine that a lot of people would see that as a bad thing but the sensation for a creative person could be a tad addicting.

Stevie works an extremely boring job that has its “moments.” Think High Fidelity but in LA and less comradery with your coworkers. Her brain is both exhausted and refreshed once she comes home at night. She no longer has to go through stacks of albums or make small talk with people she doesn’t even like. She’s able to dwell. She’s able to wear her real personality and be as moody as she wants. Or have as many weird and intense conversations as she wants. I’m sure it’s something that happens, but I have issues imagining an artist going through an existential crisis doing so in the daylight. The night is also when she has access to her people.

RG: Sleep should be an escape, right? A sanctuary from the madness. But even in my dreams, anxiety just sneaks in, turning my sleep into a living nightmare. There’s no escaping it; it’s like a shadow that won’t let go. It’s like I’m just sinking. Sinking into bed, drowning in this overwhelming fear and doubt that just keeps crashing over me. There’s no reprieve.

What part does anxiety play in I Keep My Visions to Myself?

MS: Anxiety was the main reason I wrote I Keep My Visions to Myself. Like most writers, I draw from real life and that was the strongest emotion I was having at the time. This novel served as a way for me to express those feelings from a distance so I could learn to cope with my own constant fear of failing and pervasive thoughts about why I’m doing any of this at all. To be clear, Stevie is not a stand-in character for me, and most people who know me shockingly think that my personality is more like Claire’s. But the dilemmas that Stevie has are similar but far more intense. She deals with outside pressure to live up to expectations that amplifies the panic she feels when that moment arrives where she can finally be that person she was bred to be. A person that she isn’t sure she wants to be. But there’s an urgency to this moment. When urgency is met with the dissociative state that she slowly finds herself in panic is the most probable outcome.

RG: Echo Park. Hollywood Hills. Silver Lake. Mulholland Drive. The book incorporates the dreamy side of LA weirdness, especially of the Lynchian variety. What do you regard as the main cinematic reference points for the novel?

MS: I love David Lynch so much that I have a Twin Peaks tattoo on my ankle. Inland Empire played a pretty heavy role in creating the tone of the novel but Almost Famous was on in the background while I was writing it. So you can imagine the different angles I was coming at it from. But The Runaways, Sunset Boulevard, and Swingers are the films that I drew the most inspiration from. I directly reference two of the films mentioned above in I Keep My Visions to Myself, but I can’t imagine that people would have guessed the others. Especially Sunset Boulevard, which is an undisputed masterpiece.

RG: LA is painted as an enchanted city, bathed in magic-hour haze and the glow of lit streets after dark. What does LA mean to you and what version of LA is presented in the book?

MS: As you noted, LA has been painted as a city where dreams come true. The music scene in the 70’s-90’s is iconic. If you want to make it in any entertainment industry, you go there or New York. But NYC has never pretended to be some immaculate city. It’s been open about its gritty side and people who go there are well aware of the struggle. Not the “I’m a waiter until I get discovered” struggle. They go in knowing the “starving artist who lives in a studio apartment with several people” struggle.

I wanted to show the darker side of LA, which is steeped in intense competition, societal pressures, and the struggle for authenticity in a city often associated with glamor and superficiality. Stevie’s current life is lost in a confrontation with her personal uncertainties but also the hidden challenges inherent in pursuing a musical career in a city known for both dreams and struggles.

LA in this book serves as a mirror of Stevie’s life. It is the embodiment of her dual nature. It’s both the seductive validation that comes with fame and the harsh criticism that comes with the complex uncertainties that make up real life.

RG: There is a pervasive atmosphere of ennui that hangs over Stevie and the city. In the book, this phenomenon is described as the “Great Saddening.” What is the “Great Saddening” and how does it impact your characters?

MS: It’s funny because, like the title, it’s something that changed names as the writing progressed. I originally called it ‘The Big Sad’ which I compared to the Big Bang. It seemed like we experienced a sudden and rapid change in mood. The 21st century is stuck under a cloud of pessimism and it’s palpable. I wanted to figure out why we got to this point. It felt like a shared sense of doom that wasn’t so ambiguous. Like most phenomena, I felt it came from a single point that slowly expanded. So I tried to figure out if our country started to go downhill after ‘68 like boomers like to say. The year we supposedly lost our innocence as a nation. Or something closer to home like 9/11.It was brought to my attention though that Adam Gnade wrote a book that also referenced ‘The Big Sad’ but in a different way. So there became a shift in how I would explain it and kept jokingly calling it ‘The Great Depression’ ironically but it spurred the term: The Great Saddening. As anyone who has studied The Great Depression, it’s pretty widely known that it didn’t stem from one pivotal moment in time but a combination of things, and it wasn’t limited to just America. It was international and affected the majority of the modern world. Anywhere that our country had contact with caught it like the plague. Or maybe Covid, to be more timely. But it couldn’t be traced to just the Great War. It could be speculated that it came from nationalism and capitalism and industrialization but we couldn’t definitely say.

And what was more important is how quickly we began to abandon our ideals as humans. We turned into a people who treated others like animals. We discarded people and left them to fend for themselves. Industries collapsed. Entertainment wasn’t as accessible and constantly a reminder of what was happening. Boxing matches, carnivals, and even music became parables for what we were going through. The only stimulation the people had was to just survive.

Our economic and moral condition lacks a name, but the symptoms and side effects are there. That ennui you referenced isn’t as dire, but the discontent is felt by a vast amount of people. Stevie feels that. Her friends feel it. If you haven’t felt it, you aren’t paying attention. We are stuck in a cycle of trying to shake that feeling and move forward. But the task seems insurmountable and therefore easier to ignore.

Whether this started from the World Wars or the atomic age or Columbine or 9/11 or sudden mechanization or AI…can’t be traced. But what’s clear is that as a people there is little we can do about these things, and the vast consequences of all things like those events are almost impossible to overcome. So we become complacent. Stuck and dissatisfied with life. Stevie is stuck. Her best friend works in the gig economy. She’s a musician who is stuck in a world that doesn’t reward originality but profitability. Her newfound friend is a poet who knows that her work is futile. The people on the sidelines in this novel are just as aware of these insurmountable obstacles. The education system, healthcare system, etc. It feels better sometimes to do nothing at all rather than try when everything seems to be working against you, especially if you dare to embrace individuality over being a commodity.

All we can do is hope for the best and wonder how things got so bad. It’s the very essence of who Stevie is.

RG: The book has a cinematic sensibility, and would easily find a place as a lowkey indie film. Have you thought about your perfect main character castings? Is there a track that would fit perfectly for the film’s trailer?

MS: I would LOVE it if someone made this an indie film. I’m highkey hoping some rando studio exec notices it and wants to put it on Netflix or Amazon. I’m not picky. Whichever outlet fits best. If an indie filmmaker wants to snatch it, I’m down. The perfect track for the film’s trailer would be “Telephone Line” by Electric Light Orchestra. I also think “LA Nights by God’Aryan would be lit. He offered to write a song inspired by the book and I was blown away by how well he captured the mood.

And of course, I have definitely thought of the casting, which has been a very fun and dorky process. Especially when I have to remind myself that I’m a hipster millennial and the actors I lean towards are no longer the proper age for this story. I gave Vol 1 Brooklyn one casting list but the more I thought about it, this is where I landed:

Stevie: Taissa Farmiga
Claire: Zoey Deutch
Finn: Joe Keery
Alfie: Alex Wolff

RG: The Pacific Coast Highway stretched out before them and Stevie began to think of it as a metaphor for her life, hugging rugged cliffs but offering the view of something sparkling below. It looked majestic.

In many ways, the book is about direction, most evident in Stevie’s quest for a way to go, both for her music and in life. What place does ambition have in the novel?

MS: Ambition is probably one of the biggest questions in the book. Is Stevie ambitious? Or is she just a talented person surrounded by ambitious people who could exploit that? Her mother clearly raised Stevie to be the musician she wished she could’ve been. The band is on the sidelines, but it’s clear that they are haranguing her to move forward and they probably can’t gain the success they want, without her.

So the novel is more of a meditation on the subject of ambition and how much of a role it should play in a person’s life. Being too ambitious can torture a person. But that isn’t quite Stevie’s problem. Her problem is that she has something majestic waiting for her, but she can’t decide if she wants it: if it’s something that she’s been striving for or if it’s just a trophy for a race that she didn’t want to run. So ambition is everything. The root of all of her problems seems to stem from it.

RG: In the end, for all of the lostness, the losing of oneself, the narrative pushes your central character into a type of reassessment, that only by embracing and refocusing on their original motivation can they find a way to become unstuck. When you think about the book now, what reflections do you have?

MS: Reflecting on something so recent can be hard. I wrote this in May and it came out a few months ago. So the process of writing it and the reception can hardly be described. In terms of writing it. Or in terms of the statement I try to make in the book, I can only say that I’m satisfied and feel like every word I wrote was worth it.

At times I wonder if I pushed the message enough. The idea that the pursuit of fame can be destructive and what it can do to someone’s mind is transformative. You’re no longer just living for your art. You’re living for your art to be consumed by others. You belong to the audience if you aren’t careful and might have to shed what makes you unique in order to please them. It’s not something that is inevitable but it’s something worth thinking about. This especially resonates with me as a creator who is now giving parts of myself to others through my writing.

Mallory Smart is a Chicago-based writer, editor-in-chief of Maudlin House, and doer of many other things. She is the host of the literary/music podcast, Textual Healing, and is the co-host of the horror podcast, That Horrorcast. Her new book, I Keep My Visions to Myself, is available now through With an X Books. Her website is here.