The writer discusses her dissociative debut novel’s speculative journey through sex, sickness, and literary form

“Pulling on the threads of her fantasy, however, revealed not much more than a confusing confrontation with real life, which took all the fun out of pretending,” writes Stacy Skolnik occupying the mind of her unnamed protagonist in The Ginny Suite. Isn’t that a central problematic of so-called fiction?

To be published by Montez Press this week, Skolnik’s debut novel accrues medical reports, news items, advertisements, journals, and poems alongside first- and third-person narratives about ill-fated dates and fears of disease and doctors visits. The book is a nonlinear journey through a time not unlike ours. In The Ginny Suite’s reality’s sex bots work a little better, sure—that is, if they’re sex bots at all. And there’s a pandemic brewing, although this one, called Sunnyvale syndrome because it was reported in that California town, only affects women, afflicting them with aphasia.

Although Ginny’s named in the title, she isn’t the narrator—and this remove or dissociation is a governing principle for the illness and for the text. A lucid yet mysterious reflection on our moment and moments yet to come, The Ginny Suite turns sci-fi and contemporary autofiction on their heads in equal measure, posing challenging questions about gender, medicine, technology, power, and poetry.

For Document, Skolnik discusses the novel while evading any spoilers, reflecting on its multiplicity of forms and perspectives.

Drew Zeiba: The Ginny Suite pulls together disparate elements—it could be called collage, or a collection of stories, or something else. You called it a novel. Why is that container important for it?

Stacy Skolnik: I call it a novel for simplicity. I call it a novel in stories, I call it speculative autofiction. I didn’t know that I was writing a novel until I had about half of the stories written. And then I was like, Oh, there’s this thread. I come from a poetry background, an MFA from Brooklyn College. So I feel like a lot of my impulses were driven by a poetic sensibility. It’s a conceptual novel.

Drew: What are some of those poetic sensibilities?

Stacy: There’s poetry in the book. She is a poet, a struggling, failing poet. There’s a moment where she’s trying to write a story and talks about how much easier it is just to write poems, because in some ways, the poem is neither true nor false. It’s neither fiction nor nonfiction. I guess that’s some of the playfulness around the speculative autofiction thing. It’s not fiction, it’s not nonfiction. It’s kind of not even autofiction. I mean, there’s ephemera from my life that has been incorporated into the book, but I think it’s also about finding the poetry, so to speak, in different types of language that are sourced from places that may be one doesn’t normally associate with being poetic—like a medical report or a news article.

Drew: One thing you can get away with in a poem is having perspective or a ‘speaker’ that’s detachable or mobile in a certain way. You have multiple, or multiplied, perspectives in the book. How are you thinking about the points of view?

Stacy: There’s a dissociative quality that happens. I would say there’s one protagonist. I would say Ginny’s a character more than a protagonist. It’s the nameless narrator’s perspective illustrated throughout in first and third person. There’s also writing that she does within the book. There are these nestled narratives I was thinking a little bit about Frankenstein when I was writing this and how something that’s interesting to me about Frankenstein is that by the time you’re reading, the story’s already been recycled like four times. Dissociation is like the primary logic behind this seemingly illogical motif or writerly choice.

Drew: There’s also a dissociative quality to Sunnyvale syndrome—this unknown illness circulating in the book. Women experience aphasia, which leads to this displacement where men are speaking for them because they can’t communicate effectively. Sometimes they talk about themselves in the third person. And since they’re ‘misusing’ language, as a reader we’re also dissociated a bit from the everyday.

Stacy: That’s also some slight commentary too on the poetic condition. I feel like when writing poetry, you really construct language in all of these ways it’s not meant to be used. But also in terms of the illeism, which is to speak of oneself in the third person, I was also intrigued by the thing that happens where when someone has been traumatized, they’ll talk about themselves in the third person, which is to distance themselves from the traumatic thing that happened. Something that’s interesting is this idea of language as a tool to both be closer and further from ourselves and each other. And a way to distance oneself from truth.

“Perhaps when I started writing this, the drama around autofiction as a term was much more of the moment. I think even things that we call fiction probably contain elements of autofiction.”

Drew: That makes me think of the word ‘speculative’ in ‘speculative autofiction.’ One could say that one is already engaging in displacement or speculation by fictionalizing one’s self on the page.

Stacy: It’s a playful way to poke fun at the discourse around autofiction. Maybe that has passed a little bit. Perhaps when I started writing this, the drama around autofiction as a term was much more of the moment. I think even things that we call fiction probably contain elements of autofiction. And I think things that are marketed as nonfiction or biography contain elements of fiction, obviously, because even our memories are not accurate. In terms of the speculative component, another thing that I say about this book is that it takes place in a present future, in a time that is very much like the one we live in with just a few minor technological tweaks that I don’t think are that unrealistic or farfetched. I mean, the main difference primarily is the quality of sex bots, and their ubiquity. And I think we’ll get there.

Drew: If we think about what AI looked like 10 years or 15 years ago versus now it doesn’t feel too distant. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s also a critique of power or a political critique of agency with the sex androids.

Stacy: The most obvious political critique or question is about the singularity and what that means. I think people think about technology as something that’s going to be fully artificial and overpower us. But I think that we continue to just incorporate it into our own bodies and our own selves. Human beings will become more and more indistinguishable from the technology. As I was writing this, what is it called? CRISPR…

Drew: The gene editing tool.

Stacy: Yeah. Like, we could edit our genes right now. They sell little kits now where you can create, like, fake lizards at home or whatever. That’s fucking crazy that in the span of the five years I’ve been writing the book we’ve done gotten there. And there are good things that come from this and dangerous things. The book is, I think, less concerned with being prescriptive. But it’s also a book about gender. With the sex bots, there’s a whole lineage of film and literature that this is playing off of. I think that the book has a sense of humor about these things.

Drew: The book could also be considered a ‘pandemic novel’—as in reference to that pandemic. When did you start writing this?

Stacy: Well, “The Spread” was written during the pandemic, but not all of the stories were. I started writing some of the stories in 2019. I mean, part of me is like, I don’t want to talk about the pandemic, but yes, you are correct. I think that mostly I just became aware of, as we all did, the way that an epidemic would feel to experience in real time. And the sense of that underbelly of risk and anxiety that was horrifying, but at times full of potential and excitement.

“I was thinking a lot when writing this about the soft power inherent in the practice of writing. There’s power in just writing poems in your room or writing a letter to a friend.”

Drew: The story of Sunnyvale syndrome, of the sex bots, of illness is told not only through the narrative, which is itself nonlinear, but also through news articles and medical reports placed throughout. In some ways, the last lines are what in a more traditional novel would be the ‘inciting incident,’ setting up a very different kind of story. They’re not an end, so much as a start to something else. How did you structure or pattern the different elements? Did it come in editing, or did you have a sense of the shape earlier on?

Stacy: One of the big changes was putting a news article first thing. The question was like, Well, where does this begin? Because it’s nonlinear. You’re absolutely right that the end is towards the beginning of the timeline of the activity that happens in the book. But I think putting that at the end was important because it calls into question which of the stories that came before are actually after. In terms of the protagonist’s behavior, I think it calls into question like, Well, is this her behavior before after being infected? Or how does her behavior relate to the syndrome? That ambiguity in this book was very important to me. It felt very natural in terms of what would come first, what would come last. I always knew “The Spread” was last. And I always knew that Ginny was towards the beginning. And then in terms of the medical reports and the news articles, it was about figuring out pacing to a degree, and a sense of symmetry.

Drew: There also are a few different modalities of purported truth-telling or accessing the truth. You have medical epistemologies, you have journalism, you have people attesting their own experiences with various degrees of reliability or precision. The medical reports are also a flipside to the embodied sexual experiences or the narrator’s own experience of her condition.

Stacy: It’s the language of power, and as forces of power use language, it’s more opaque. The distance between the subject and the speaker feels so wide. Kind of similar to how in “The Spread,” she notes something about a box filled with gloves that prevents the doctor from ever having to touch the skin of his patients and kind of that distance between people in certain positions and their subjects… I was thinking a lot when writing this about the soft power inherent in the practice of writing. There’s power in just writing poems in your room or writing a letter to a friend. A lot of the language of the medical reports to me seems so… There’s so much meaning in them, but it also is completely impermeable. Those are real documents, and I do not understand them. And if I had created a whole world with all of the details around what Sunnyvale is and does, I don’t know if that would have actually done any work to clarify anything for a reader, because I don’t think that the average person understands such things. Like, this isn’t a book for scientists. It’s a book for people with imagination, and a sense of humor and an interest in gender, genre, and experimental fiction.