This week’s interview is with A. Natasha Joukovsky whose debut novel, THE PORTRAIT OF A MIRROR, is getting comparisons to the work of Edith Wharton and Donna Tartt. Her novel is a modern reinterpretation of the Ovidian myth of Narcissus, following two couples in the summer of 2015. With razor wit that “both skewers and sympathizes” (Vulture), Joukovsky has crafted a modern novel of manners that is both deeply felt and deeply thought.
A. Natasha Joukovsky is a strategy consultant turned writer based in Washington, D.C. Her debut novel, THE PORTRAIT OF A MIRROR, was published by the Overlook Press (ABRAMS) and is in bookstores now. She studied English at The University of Virginia and has an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Prior to business school she spent five years working in the art world, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She’s been at Accenture ever since, specializing primarily in innovation strategy and pricing architecture.
On one of her early consulting projects, she invented a recursive estimation algorithm that’s been patented in the U.S. and Australia.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
One summer in college I worked as a writer for a . . . fledgling brand of upmarket polo shirts. The founder was eccentric and conceived of the brand as a 21st-century J. Peterman and hired me to write whimsical vignettes about the shirts’ “signature colors.” These stories centered around the brand’s eponymous hero—an old-sport swashbuckling type; think Hemingway meets James Bond. His glamorous scrapes were woven into the history of the early twentieth century, but also rather clearly reflected the founder’s real impression of his fictional self. I had the hero serve aces at the R&T, drink with Mark Twain, etc. The founder loved them—so much so that he invited my mother and I to stay at his family’s Newport mansion on our way up to Nantucket. This was less creepy than it sounds—he genuinely just wanted me to be able to write about the place with first-hand experience—but a strange experience nonetheless. Sadly, I no longer have copies of the vignettes. The company went belly up in 2013, only to resurface a few years ago under a (dubious, in my opinion) “membership” model promising an assortment of vague benefits—including access to my color stories, which now sit behind a $500 “Media Product Subscription” paywall.
Tell us about some of the authors who inspire you.
Necessary Fiction recently published my “Research Notes” for The Portrait of a Mirror, cataloguing some of the novel’s most direct allusions to authors who ever-inspire me: Herman Melville, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, George Eliot. What the list misses, though, are the two who have inspired me most systemically, whose influence relentlessly permeates everything I write: Jane Austen and James Joyce. My father is an emeritus professor of English and started reading Austen to me in elementary school; I joke that her voice has become indistinguishable from that of my own conscience. And Joyce was my academic obsession as an undergrad—in particular Ulysses, which, alongside The Waste Land was the subject of my senior thesis. Everything from applying the “mythical method” vis-a-vis Narcissus to em-dash dialogue to my ultra-allusive tendency itself is thoroughly Joycean.
What was the first piece of writing you ever published or saw in print?
I wrote an essay on Austen in high school that won a prize and was published in the school’s alumni magazine. It was titled “Seven Types of Irony in Jane Austen’s Novels” and old friends are still poking fun at me for it (“wait—remind me—how many types of irony?”). It began:
“Much of the popularity of Jane Austen’s novels can be attributed to their romance plots. On the most basic level all six of her major novels follow an ancient storyline: a young heroine who is either unlikely to marry well or unwilling to marry at all meets a young man who is eventually able to change her situation or her mind. While Austen is writing love stories, her superiority as an author should be attributed more to her commanding use of irony than to her happy endings.”
I know one’s supposed to look back at these things with some degree of embarrassment, but quite frankly I stand by it!
If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
That great writing, and especially great fiction, is often an exercise in self-sacrifice—it requires disarming the cognitive defense mechanisms your ego is designed to protect. When authors are overly concerned with how something will intellectually, socially, or especially morally “make them look,” I think this nearly always shows up in the work to its detriment. A good example of this is the recent deluge of novels (generally by white women) that read first and foremost like a vehicle for their authors to demonstrate woke allegiance to, like, every marginalized group. Eventually, I think people will wake up and realize that many of these novels with admirable politics—politics that I share—are, from a literary perspective, often pretty mediocre. Anyway, it took me like a year to think exclusively about what best served my book and override the impulse to consider what readers would think of me, Natasha, for writing it—and this was the epiphany that allowed me to finally begin.
What does literary success look like to you?
Like Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray meets T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” To me: literary success is the creation of beautiful things with a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together. I want to reveal art and conceal the artist not merely with my own generation in my bones. I think the twenty-first century is more like the centuries preceding it than we’d often like to admit, and I want to be judged by the standards of the past in writing contemporary literature—to set my personal quality standards by Wilde and Eliot and Wharton and Morrison et al.; to master thought and language as the instruments of art. I want my work to spark diversity of opinion, but for those who do admire it to admire it intensely. I want it to be all-encompassing; I want it to be quite useless.
ABOUT THE BOOK
A stunning reinvention of the myth of Narcissus as a modern novel of manners, about two young, well-heeled couples whose parallel lives intertwine over the course of a summer, by a sharp new voice in fiction
Wes and Diana are the kind of privileged, well-educated, self-involved New Yorkers you may not want to like but can’t help wanting to like you. With his boyish good looks, blue-blood pedigree, and the recent tidy valuation of his tech startup, Wes would have made any woman weak in the knees—any woman, that is, except perhaps his wife. Brilliant to the point of cunning, Diana possesses her own arsenal of charms, handily deployed against Wes in their constant wars of will and rhetorical sparring.
Vivien and Dale live in Philadelphia, but with ties to the same prep schools and management consulting firms as Wes and Diana, they’re of the same ilk. With a wedding date on the horizon and carefully curated life of coupledom, Vivien and Dale make a picture-perfect pair on Instagram. But when Vivien becomes a visiting curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art just as Diana is starting a new consulting project in Philadelphia, the two couples’ lives cross and tangle. It’s the summer of 2015 and they’re all enraptured by one another and too engulfed in desire to know what they want—despite knowing just how to act.
In this wickedly fun debut, A. Natasha Joukovsky crafts an absorbing portrait of modern romance, rousing real sympathy for these flawed characters even as she skewers them. Shrewdly observed, whip-smart, and shot through with wit and good humor, The Portrait of a Mirror is a piercing exploration of narcissism, desire, self-delusion, and the great mythology of love.