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Patricia Lockwood
Courtesy of Bloomsbury

Patricia Lockwood is searching for the last truly offline person

The Booker nominee talks her debut novel No One is Talking About This, being the Booker’s ‘Internet Writer’, and whether Twitter is really giving us brain worms

If you don’t know Patricia Lockwood, you’ll know her Twitter avatar. A veteran of Weird Twitter, Lockwood has made a name for herself as one of the funniest and most Online posters out there. Her viral tweets are numerous, such as her evergreen work “@parisreview So is Paris any good or not” or recent hits such as “just envisioned a guy named Croag”. She has also made a superstar out of her cat, Miette, who famously banished Lockwood to jail for “One Thousand Years!!!!”. However, Lockwood isn’t your average shitposter. She is backed up by a body of work that traverses genre, from poetry to memoir and literary criticism. And, as if to prove she can absolutely body any form, her first novel No One is Talking About This has been Booker-shortlisted.

Her two published poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, showcase a writer whose style is reminiscent of John Ashbury but with the playfulness of Frank O’Hara, which is to say, she’s funny complex. Much of this migrates to No One is Talking About This, a novel told entirely through dissonant fragments purposefully reminiscent of tweets.

The book follows a woman who has become famous because of her weird tweets. We see her flying all over the world giving talks, participating in panels about digital culture, and ultimately trying to find an answer to the question: can a dog be twins? The novel’s first half is a panoptic survey of the last five years of Twitter, referencing specific days, discourses, and enemies. Anyone who has been on Twitter during this time will surely recognise the references to washing your legs in the shower and the plums in the icebox.

The book is so much more than just this, however. Halfway through, the narrative suddenly twists when the protagonist’s sister receives news of a problem in her pregnancy. Quickly the novel becomes a meditation on what happens when someone who is so wholly Online is faced with an extremely Real Life situation.

I caught up with Patricia Lockwood over Zoom to discuss her book, her Booker nomination, and the Internet as she sat in front of the pantry in her home in Savannah, Georgia.

So, what’s it like being Booker shortlisted?

Patricia Lockwood: I feel insane and I want to jump into a well. It doesn’t feel very good, it feels huge, it feels like a globe is being blown up inside of you and your body is stretching and your recognisability is suffering, you no longer feel like yourself. It’s immense. And also since it happened in the strange liminal stage of the pandemic it does feel like it’s not real. I did go shopping for a dress, that made it a little bit more tangible. I’ve been making all these jokes about these Bo Peep dresses that everyone’s been wearing since they were released from quarantine so the first thing I did was find a dark Bo Peep dress and I’m going to wear it to the Booker ceremony. Just because it’s funny. Like, should I get a black shepherd’s crook and bedazzle it?

You should hire some lambs maybe.

Patricia Lockwood: Yes, some lambs to gambol around my feet. This is how I’m making it more real.

I find it so interesting that a novel like this has been Booker shortlisted – I love it, but it’s so not Booker, y’know?

Patricia Lockwood: Do you think it’s to be cool? It’s the big question. People have written about the internet and there is this perception of me as an Internet Writer, but when you look at my language it goes all the way back, it’s very lyric, it belongs to much older traditions. So maybe they’ve been waiting around for a novel that combines the modern with this very old sense of foundational literature. Maybe that’s the thing, and maybe that means that ultimately... I am not very fucking cool at all.

“There is this perception of me as an Internet Writer, but when you look at my language it goes all the way back, it’s very lyric, it belongs to much older traditions“ – Patricia Lockwood

When did you write No One Is Talking About This?

Patricia Lockwood: I started it in spring of 2016 and I worked on it right through until about March 2020, literally when I had COVID, I was turning in final edits.

I was wondering, because there is such a scope to all of the references and the events in the novel’s first half, it feels like a vast breadth of online history, how did you actually write it? Did you just keep a log of every day on Twitter over those years?

Patricia Lockwood: For a while that’s exactly what I did, but only for the most charismatic happenings. The original version of the novel preserves a much greater sense of that chronology. I worry that I edited it a bit too much because it removed a lot of that flow through time. I also took out a Joyce Carol Oates bit ultimately that I sort of now regret.

Whenever I discuss the book with people they always have this sort of terror in their eyes at how much we can all remember specific things or specific days on Twitter, it’s something that the book records so well.

Patricia Lockwood: It was certainly taken as a personal attack by some. And you could tell the people who were more Online than others. I can already tell you’re much more Online than some of my other interviewers because some of my interviewers have been like ‘oh the internet, it’s terrible’, and then I talk to you and there’s this mutual shellshock in our eyes and we’re sharing that. There’s that bit in the novel’s second half where she meets someone who’s the same amount as Online as she is and you recognise that in the wild.

What has it been like interacting with people about the book who you know are not very Online? I would love to know what this book is like for people who just aren’t on Twitter.

Patricia Lockwood: I am absolutely fascinated by this question too. I don’t know, maybe they just feel they’re at the circus or something. Maybe it’s just a lot of bright lights and whirligigs. But at this point, nobody is actually offline. We’re searching for the last offline person, he’s on a desert island somewhere but he might still have his little phone that he carved out of a coconut.

“At this point, nobody is actually offline. We’re searching for the last offline person, he’s on a desert island somewhere but he might still have his little phone that he carved out of a coconut” – Patricia Lockwood

Do you think Twitter has actually affected our brains? I very much believe we are moments away from “brain worms” being a genuine diagnosis.

Patricia Lockwood: Yes, absolutely. And it was one of those things that felt borderline not okay to say, but was also 100 per cent true, when we were all calling ourselves insane, but it did feel that way, it felt, at that point, clinical. But the strange thing to me is that the brain bounces back within a couple days. If I’m off the internet for a couple days you can read again, you can walk around the world like a normal person. So what is it that happens in the time when you’re actually on there? Especially during a discourse cycle when people are like these snowballs rolling downhill going absolutely mental.

Yeah I agree, it just warps your mind so much. Like, (in the novel) you make a reference to that dude who poisoned himself in the Hague and it’s like, at the time, that was the funniest thing that ever happened.

Patricia Lockwood: (Laughs) Look I burst into laughter just at the mention of it! It’s because the vial was so small and I’m sorry I will still laugh.

It was like a Looney Tunes death. 

Patricia Lockwood: Exactly! To the moment when I drink my own poison, that will probably still make me laugh. That was like an early moment of, wait a minute what’s going on, what’s wrong with me?

You make some references to Trump in the novel and honestly, talk about a main character who has completely fallen off. 

Patricia Lockwood: His flop era.

Literally the election happened and he was like, I am going back to my home planet.

Patricia Lockwood: Yeah where did that guy go? And it was like this bad oxygen had just been removed from the room.

It’s somewhat worrying that all it took was for him to be deplatformed on Twitter and he suddenly disappeared entirely from history, it’s sort of like, oh…maybe this website is too powerful.

Patricia Lockwood: I think everyone felt that at the exact same moment. Whatever he was, whatever he carried with him, whatever he breathed was removed and he did disappear, it was like he went through the airlock into space. And what did that mean? We were still there. Did we survive that or were we these enormous patsies? Are we the biggest idiots on the face of the earth? Maybe the answer is yes.

But it has been quite peaceful. I feel we’re in (Twitter’s) dancing around the maypole era.

Patricia Lockwood: But we all have these hypertrophic muscles, right? So we’re still made for war at this point. And I do feel that’s why the discourse cycles, things like Kidney Person, feel different now. The fangs are really out, people’s blood is really pounding in their temples, because we’re still operating at that level of adrenaline that we previously were.

I have one final question: why is ‘sneaze’ just so much funnier than sneeze?

Patricia Lockwood: I don’t know! I don’t know. But I do think it is universally recognised among English speakers. However it presents a problem to me because I like to read out loud from that part and you can’t read that out loud. So I’ve had to evolve this pronunciation like sneeuhzing which makes it so much less funny that it actually comes out on top and becomes funnier, even.

Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, nominated for the Booker Prize, is out via Bloomsbury