Liz Kay’s Monsters: A Love Story isn’t your typical, well, love story. The plot unveils the rather turbulent, and some may even say, disturbing relationship between Stacey Lane and Tommy DeMarco. Stacey, a poet, has recently lost her husband Michael in an unexpected accident, leaving her widowed with two young boys. This loss shocks her to the core, rendering her unable to write anymore, much less anything as powerful as her only published work Monsters, a novel-in-verse feminist retelling of Frankenstein.
When Stacey receives a proposal for her book to be made into a movie starring well-known Hollywood actor Tommy DeMarco, Stacey has no idea how this will dramatically change her life. As she and Tommy become physically entangled, the emotional backlash of how strongly they feel for each other becomes too much to handle, pushing them both into unwise choices that include diving hastily into relationships with other people as a way to escape this unfamiliar passion for one another, and where it might lead. I asked Monsters author Liz Kay to delve a little deeper on these perfectly imperfect soulmates, and what makes Tommy and Stacey monsters-in-love:
You were a poet before becoming a novelist. Is there a difference in the creative process when writing a poem or, conversely, a novel?
With Monsters, the process was very much the same. Even in poetry, I tend to work on long-term projects—thematic or narrative sequences of poems. I do a lot of research and reading and obsessing and then I write in short bursts. Obviously, the burst of writing that came with a novel was significantly longer, but it felt very much the same, and as with poetry, I wrote it line by line, revising along the way. I don’t tend to write multiple early drafts of poems and didn’t with Monsters, and I think that’s probably unusual for a novelist. Certainly, the novel I’ve been working on since Monsters has had dozens of messy incarnations and restarts, but Monsters itself was written in one fast feverish stretch, much like a poem.
How did the idea for Monsters: A Love Story first start, and how did the title come about?
The last project before Monsters was a retelling of Hansel & Gretel from the perspective of the witch, and from the very first few poems, there was something about her (the witch) that other artists and writers were interested in. They wanted to draw her or write poems in response. She was part of a page-meets-stage production out of Eastern Washington University.
Poetry is a very solitary art, so initially, it was uncomfortable with the idea of other people getting their hands on my work. I started thinking about collaboration, and specifically what it would be like for two artists—one very public, one very private—to be working together.
My first attempt at playing with the characters was the panel at the book festival. I imagined them talking about the project, but almost immediately, the question of the nature of their relationship presented itself. I didn’t know if they were sleeping together, but I knew what the assumption in the room would be, and then I wanted to know if it was true. Who were they? How did they get there? What did they mean to each other? So I threw that scene away, opened a new document, started at the beginning and wrote the whole book from there.
The title came about when I’d finished writing it, and I realized that this thing in front of me was, in fact, a novel. I knew the next step was finding an agent, and I knew I couldn’t send it out untitled. I also know a lot of novelists and none of them ever seem to get to keep their titles, so for me, Monsters: A Love Story was something I settled on pretty quickly.
I did want something that would capture that off-kilter quality of the novel. It’s a love story, but it’s not really a romance; it’s a serious novel, but it’s also basically a romance. It’s both and neither and so it’s kind of a tricky fit. I knew that I needed to find an agent who’d be intrigued rather than put off. I thought of the title almost as a warning label, but it was always a working title, and I never expected to see it on the spine of the book. But then my agent loved it, and my editor loved it, and it stuck.
Tommy and Stacey are difficult characters to like. They each seem elusive when having to confront their own emotions and what they feel for each other. Is this what ironically makes them perfect for each other or on the other hand, is this the reason that separates them?
Can I say both? I think Tommy and Stacey are very much creatures of the culture they’re in. Women’s emotions especially are seen as demands, as something to be dealt with, so Stacey’s unwillingness to admit to hers leaves a lot of space for Tommy’s feelings for her to develop. It’s Stacey’s emotional absence in a way that creates such a pull for Tommy. But then their mutual refusal to be honest causes them both to act out in really unfortunate ways.
Why does Stacey appear less than enthusiastic to start a true relationship with Tommy and decides instead to date and get involved with another man? What scares her the most about Tommy?
For one thing, Tommy’s not really offering. He makes one half-hearted, I guess if you want me to stop sleeping with other people… and Stacey interprets this as both a terrible apology and a trap. He doesn’t say, I’d like us to be more serious; he says, I guess I’d be willing to listen if you want to make some demands. She just doesn’t trust him. She doesn’t trust that anything between them is real.
Stacey seems clueless about the fact that she hurts people, including Tommy when she evades her feelings for him. Is this a defense mechanism for her?
I don’t know if she’s clueless. I think she just doesn’t care. She has a very small inner circle of people she’s really connected to, people whose feelings matter and while Tommy’s in that circle, everything she does to him is deliberate.
Tommy is very different from Michael, Stacey’s late husband in the sense that he offers no reassurance or dependability when it comes to making Stacey feel like a real relationship with him is possible. It seems like she is unable to talk about her true feelings, keeping them all in her head. Would you say this is true?
Absolutely. I don’t think Stacey was emotionally open with Michael either. We know that she kept secrets, held her tongue, but Michael seemed to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in that relationship. I think one of the reasons that their relationship worked was that Michael allowed Stacey to be so closed off. Tommy, in the end, wants a lot more from her, so that’s part of what makes him so threatening.
Tommy and Stacey engage in some very heated verbal exchanges all throughout the novel; they often succeed in making each other feel miserable. Is this what makes them monsters? The fact that they can’t seem to stop hurting each other despite what they feel for one another?
They’re really pretty gentle with one another in the beginning. They seem to like each other’s company, and no one’s really expecting very much. Stacey’s grieving; she lives half-way across the country. In a way this makes her almost the safest person for Tommy to invest in because she’s not making any demands. Tommy gets to be attentive and affectionate and romantic while she’s right there in front of him, and then she leaves.
But then that leaving, that pushing away, becomes the only power Stacey has. There’s really nothing that Tommy feels like he can’t have, and the fact that Stacey holds back from him emotionally makes him pretty angry. In their relationship, Tommy has a lot of power. He controls her work through the movie. He controls when and why they see one another. He even, at times, controls her physically. The one thing he can’t control is how she feels about him.
Worse is the fact that Tommy’s anger is probably the only emotion she trusts. Tommy performs romantic, he performs friendly, he performs a million little things and Stacey knows that. When he loses his temper, though, she knows that’s true. So I wouldn’t say they can’t seem to stop hurting each other so much as they set out to do it.
Stacey’s relationship with Phillip, the man she begins dating, is strange because she continues to engage in a physical relationship with Tommy even though she is dating Phillip. Stacey doesn’t seem troubled by this, and doesn’t seem to understand that she is actually betraying Phillip, even when her sister Jenny points this out to her. Does this say plenty about how Stacey views relationships, or is she simply unable to understand (or care) that she might be hurting Phillip?
Stacey’s relationship with Phillip isn’t real to her, at least not in the beginning. Dating Phillip starts as a way for her to hurt Tommy, but then it also offers her the chance to move beyond “widowhood” in a way that’s acceptable in suburban Omaha. She can’t just date around. She’s a widow with two little boys. How would that look? Stacey is always aware of how things look. In her suburban life, she can be single, but she can’t be sexually active and single. She can have a nice stable boyfriend though, especially if he’s a doctor. As her relationship with Phillip progresses, something about the fact that she was sleeping with Tommy first makes it okay for her. In her mind, she’s betraying Tommy with Phillip instead of the reverse, and since Tommy deserves it…
Monsters leaves a few details hanging in the end that might make readers say “why didn’t she tie this up and explain what happened?” Was there a reason for these loose ends? Did you know from the beginning how the book was going to end?
I did know how the book would end, though the exact shape and tone of the ending took a while to nail down. As for the loose ends, in part those are threads that no longer matter to Stacey, so they just don’t come up. It didn’t feel authentic to her character to address them. More significantly, I guess I don’t really believe in endings. I don’t believe in tying things up. In life, there are always things that are unresolved. And while I wouldn’t say that I’m planning in a “sequel,” I like the possibility of revisiting these characters at some point down the road.
Can we expect a new novel soon?
Define “soon.” I have another project in the works, how quickly it all comes together remains to be seen. It has, unfortunately, not arrived in a single feverish draft like Monsters.
If you haven’t read Monsters: A Love Story yet, I suggest you add it pronto to your summer reading list. It will undoubtedly indulge readers with an insightful perspective on the meaning of love, family, loss and yes, even monsters.
Photos used with permission from the author.