By Cariad Wooster.
We are very happy to welcome Allie Rowbottom to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release Aesthetica, out November 22nd!
At 19, she was an Instagram celebrity. Now, at 35, she works behind the cosmetic counter at the “black and white store,” peddling anti-aging products to women seeking physical and spiritual transformation. She too is seeking rebirth. She’s about to undergo the high-risk, elective surgery Aesthetica™, a procedure that will reverse all her past plastic surgery procedures, returning her, she hopes, to a truer self. Provided she survives the knife.
But on the eve of the surgery, her traumatic past resurfaces when she is asked to participate in the public takedown of her former manager/boyfriend, who has rebranded himself as a paragon of “woke” masculinity in the post-#MeToo world. With the hours ticking down to her surgery, she must confront the ugly truth about her experiences on and off the Instagram grid.
Hello Allie! I loved reading Aesthetica and found it an incredibly interesting read, but also one that made me think.
Whilst I am usually confident with my interactions on social media, reading this made me second-guess a lot of the way I use social media and people’s motivations behind posting. Where did the inspiration to write a book about social media come from?
I started Aesthetica at a time in my life where I was feeling very conflicted about image based social platforms and the images of perfection I saw on them. I was in my late twenties, fully adult, but I couldn’t shake the lingering anxiety that comparing myself to Instagram models left me with. I wondered what life on Instagram would be like for someone younger than myself, someone even more impressionable. The best way to address that question was to get inside the head of an empowered Instagram user, a character who could travel to the depths of online image culture and telegraph the experience back to readers. And that’s where Anna and Aesthetica came from.
The Aesthetica surgery is a constantly looming part of the book, especially when readers are told about it frequently but do not get to hear more until after more of Anna’s flashbacks. How did the idea for the surgery come around? Was there any real-world inspiration?
After losing my mother to cancer I got into injectables as a way of erasing the toll I saw grief taking on my face. But the more into filler I got, the more I started to feel dysmorphic, unsure of what my face truly looked like. And so, after much money and pain, I got all my filler dissolved. The experience led me to create the Aesthetica™ surgery in the novel. For me, using injectables to stop time and freeze myself in girlhood, freeze myself at an age where I was still my mother’s daughter, gave way to a yearning to look in the mirror and see her in my reflection, which was difficult the more I altered my face. Anna feels similarly, I think. By the end of the novel, she no longer wants to look young, she just wants to look like herself, her true self, her mother’s daughter.
Whilst social media is nearly ubiquitous in every day society, it is constantly changing. Did you have any difficulties writing about social media and trying to keep it contemporary?
Though social media is always changing, certain facets of it will remain relevant. I say this because those are facets of capitalism and human culture that have remained relatively constant throughout history. Namely, objectification, and image as currency. Instagram is one iteration of this, but there will be others when Instagram is no longer around, which helped me as I worked. I think, too, that focusing less on writing an “internet novel” and more on writing a story about the transition from girlhood to womanhood and the effects of beauty culture on that transition was imperative to giving this novel the depth it needs to become an enduring portrait of a particular moment in history, while also touching on themes that feel timeless.
One of the aspects I loved about the book was how people’s bodies are described in a way that makes them seem inhuman, as a selection of body parts. I especially loved the introductory chapter where Anna is getting a wax and is described as lying on butcher paper, looking like a steamed lobster, her body being described as flesh. In a book so focused on Anna and her previous desire to make her whole world instagram-marketable, why did you choose to write her seeing herself this way?
Dismemberment of women’s bodies seems to me to be an enduring symptom of image culture. One quick glance at a billboard or subway ad or Instagram banner and it’s obvious; almost everywhere we go we see images of women’s body parts–usually breasts and torsos, often without heads–being used to sell us products. I mean, I’ve internalized this way of seeing. I think in some ways we all have. So it made sense to me that Anna, who at a young age learns to break herself down into component parts in order to assess her worth, would employ this way of seeing to an extreme degree. It’s unshakable, which to my mind is one of the most horrifying elements of her story.
The majority of characters Anna meets in LA are influencers, models and similar social media celebrities, which is contrasted the people she meets in the present day- the people she watched as the pool, for example. This creates a wonderful contrast between the real and the fake which works very well with the topic of social media. Was this a conscious decision at first or did it fall into place whilst writing?
Early on I knew I wanted to contrast Anna’s worlds–the world of her Instagram persona and the world of her normal girlhood, the world of her adult life–because I felt invested in exploring the difference between those two spheres not only for her, but for all of us. Every influencer has a home life, a way of inhabiting the world when they aren’t posed or photoshopped or performing for the app and I wanted to explore that as much as I explored the curation of self that Instagram encourages. Image based social platforms rely on their ability to convince some users that other users’ lives are as glossy as they appear on the screen. But this is never the case. It would be easy to write a novel without showing the friction between Anna’s world online and the real world she inhabits. But that would have pushed this novel into a more satirical sphere, I think, which wasn’t my goal.
What other books would you recommend for lovers of Aesthetica?
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill and Look at Me by Jennifer Eagan
Finally, where can readers get Aesthetica when it releases?
In the US Aesthetica is available wherever books are sold! I wish it were publishing in the UK but for now the best place to get it abroad is on Amazon, via an international link.
Allie Rowbottom’s critically acclaimed debut memoir, Jell-O Girls (Little Brown and Company) was a 2018 NYT Editor’s Choice Selection, Amazon Best Book of the Month, Indie Next Pick, and Real Simple Best Book of the year. Her debut novel, Aesthetica, is forthcoming from Soho Press in November of 2022.
She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and has taught fiction and non-fiction at the University of Houston, CalArts, and Catapult. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer Jon Lindsey.
Allie’s Instagram: @allierowbottom
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