Andrew Byrds: Milan is presented as a city of opposites in your book, and these contradictions are explored a lot. For every glitzy room there’s a gritty little corner that hasn’t been cleaned in years. But the way you write plays off this so well. It’s like tonguing a canker sore, it hurts but there’s also some messed up little pleasure to it. When writing about the city, is it more for nostalgia? An invitation? Or trying to capture a specific era?
Tea Hacic-Vlahovic: I want to glorify modern Milan. Europeans cling to the past, to whatever made their city great ages ago. Now it’s a hot mess! As an outsider I spotted the juxtaposition…and I LOVED it. I appreciate garbage and glamour equally. Most of Europe is decadent but Milan is a trash can covered in Swarovski with a Versace label on the lid.
AB: Was there an inciting moment where you were like, I gotta write about all this? And what led you to wanting to approach it as fiction?
THV: Last winter I visited Milan after moving away. One bleak morning I was walking my dog in my old neighborhood and the thought struck me, “Milan shouldn’t be seen during the day.” The first line of my book. I ran to Bar Basso and let the pages spill out of me like champagne in a shallow glass!
The fiction approach was a careful decision. Memoirs are a cop-out, unless you’re a celebrity or seventy. Real writers write novels. With a novel I had more artistic freedom and romantic freedom. Memoirs have too much hindsight. I wanted to avoid criticizing the past or dishing out wisdom.
Writing from Mia’s perspective was challenging. Going through some of it was heartbreaking. Not being able to “warn” Mia or have footnotes explaining why she did (or let others do) certain things to herself was frustrating. So the whole time I had to remind myself: Respect the past. Give your readers the experience. Let them be swept away the way you were!
AB: Tell me some more about that initial stage in writing your book. How did you find your way to CLASH? And what was it like working with them to get this project off the ground?
THV: The publishing industry is annoying. You need representation to get a book deal but in order to get representation you need to show them you’ve had a book deal. I emailed a bunch of agents, who said, “cool book but we’ll pass, good luck!” In their defense, most books don’t make any money so I get why they don’t want to “gamble” on something, even if it’s (let’s face it) a masterpiece!
After a month of emailing I got an agent on board. We made plans to meet in New York. Last minute something came up and she couldn’t sign me after all. She was sorry, and did some research on my behalf. (You bet your ass I still made her meet me in NYC!) She was like, “there’s a new indie press putting out awesome work” and showed me the Clash Books website. Unlike most publishers, Clash accepts unsolicited manuscripts. The next day I sent them my book and the rest is herstory. Leza and Christoph are my publishing parents!
AB: A line that stands out for me, “How can they use the truth against me if I’m not ashamed of it?” It’s an idea that echoes throughout the novel. Despite the circumstances, and despite how the reader may react to what’s going on, Mia is unabashedly charismatic and rolls with the punches. Is it a philosophy you see reflecting your own writing?
THV: Yeah, that’s one of my mantras. Also: nothing is embarrassing if you aren’t embarrassed. I sprinkled my survival techniques throughout the book. The philosophies I came up with while living that fast, shameless life! I don’t need most of those mantras anymore but I know my young readers will.
AB: What separates a gritty/grungy style of seeing things from a punk style?
THV: You said it: style.
AB: Your novel deals extensively with the nightlife culture in Milan. It also brings up the roles of gender and queer identity, especially the contradictions of aligning oneself solely in the macho/feminine binary. Speaking personally, how has clubbing culture helped in shaping your own identity?
THV: As a teen I let my identity be shaped by punk rock. The punk version of nightlife is: going to concerts, loitering in parking lots and binge drinking in basements. (At least where I grew up, in North Carolina). I’m grateful for the punk scene, it toughened me up. But at its core, the punk scene (as most music scenes) is hetero-normative and misogynist. Aside from the fact that punk boys could sew (they embellished their own clothes), gender roles were strict and archaic. The hierarchies were based on aggression for boys and sex appeal for girls. Girls could never reach the top. They could be, at most, groupies. It’s similar to the concept of the Skate Park “Betty” – even if she skates, she’s a Betty.
Clubbing is gay, at its core. It’s fabulous and flamboyant. I don’t just mean The Gay Club. I mean every club is gay. Like, in downtown NYC in the 70’s, there was Max’s and there was Studio 54. Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, etc, frequented both places.
Studio 54 was gay, Max’s was straight. Studio 54 went down in history. Unless you’re really into music history, you’ve never heard of Max’s. THERE IS A REASON! (I recommend reading Please Kill Me and Edie: American Girl, two essential oral history books that will enlighten even the most jaded dickhead).
So I moved to Milan as a young punk. I had never been to a club or a real party, only sloppy punk stuff. At first I was disappointed, I complained there was no music scene, “only DJs, no bands!” But then I was like, “wait, this rules!” Nightlife is a place to explore who you want to be socially, sexually and spiritually. You learn what you’re capable of in a low-risk high-reward setting. The personal freedom one can reach at a gay party (remember: any good party is a gay party) is unprecedented.
AB: Going off that, were there any misconceptions about nightlife/sex positivity you wanted to challenge?
THV: That club hookups aren’t safe. On the contrary; meeting someone alone at their place is riskier! The atmosphere of a club is like…the palm of God’s hand…what better place to experience anything?
AB: Following your social media and writing, you’re very much into the nightlife. How crazy has the shift been from hitting the clubs often, to suddenly being quarantined for the last few months?
THV: Now that I don’t spend hours planning outfits and hours showing them off and even more hours recovering from the whole process…I have too much time on my hands. Now I understand why people who don’t party have children. It’s something to do!
I’ve realized, being stuck at home, that the party lives inside of you. A party girl is a party girl for life, even in jail, even when she’s dead! That being said, I can’t wait to go back. I think we’ll all be crazier than ever.
AB: There’s arguably a large demographic of people who see the nightlife/clubbing scene as a solely hedonistic culture. But reading your book presents it as such an intricately layered act of identity. How does being someone so engaged in nightlife complement a queer/feminist philosophy?
THV: Nightlife represents freedom. Feminism and gay rights are about freedom. The freedom to be the protagonist of your story. Not just somebody’s girlfriend or mother or “gay friend.” Parties are about being the star of your movie. Women and queer people rarely get that kind of spotlight in their daily life so having an outlet in the dark where they get to live as ‘QUEENS’ is priceless. It’s radical. Parties are political!
AB: Finally, I want to be completely unfair and ask: if you could dance to only one song for the rest of your life, what would it be? To be less unfair, which album would you choose?
THV: Song: “Search and Destroy” by Iggy Pop
Album: Chromatica by Lady Gaga