Since she moved to Berlin in 2015, Rebecca Rukeyser has become one of the city’s best-known English-language writers. The US-born author has published short stories in many prestigious journals, teaches writing at Bard College Berlin and won a Berlin Senate Award for Non-German literature. Last month, she published her much-anticipated debut novel, The Seaplane on Final Approach (Granta). We caught up with Rukeyser to hear about her sexy, darkly funny, clever book, which is set on a tourist lodge on an Alaskan island – a perfect read for the summer.
How would you introduce your book to those who haven’t read it?
It’s about a young woman who is obsessed with sleaze and with building a grand unifying theory of sleaze. She meets a young Alaskan fisherman, who is sort of the delicious embodiment of all things sleazy. She thinks he’s hot, and she decides that this is the path forward to leading a perfectly sleazy, or rather sleaze-adjacent, life. So she torpedoes her life in the Lower 48 and finds herself seasonal work in Alaska at a small island lodge. Everything quickly goes off the rails from there.
Why sleaze – and why explore the idea through a young woman?
There was a time when I got really into reading Westerns. And I noticed that there tends to be this convention in the Western genre where a young man is drawn to adventure because he is searching for some kind of purity, either in the land or in some idealised American spirit. And he goes somewhere trying to find it. I wanted to resist that. If you grow up as an American woman, you’re inundated with ideas about purity. I wanted something that’s the opposite – or if not the opposite, then something dim, tentacular. And that was sleaze. So I thought, okay, it’s not going to be a young man going west in search of purity, but a young woman who wants to get into something murky, who wants to get into sleaze.
First the narrator seeks out danger, thinking sleaze might be found there. But then she starts having doubts. Can you really hunt sleaze down, or is it immanent in everything?
Both! I mean, you can hunt for anything you want. And I have a fondness, in general, for any character who is on an impossible quest. Of course, sleaze is all around us. Sleaze is already there. I didn’t want anyone drawing too many definite conclusions, but I wanted to find a logical end to her impossible quest, a path out of her obsession. And, in an addled way, theorising herself into the impossibility of her own concept lets her put the obsession to bed.
Where are they? They’re underrepresented! We need more young woman pervs in the media please!
So you don’t personally have a general theory of sleaze?
Oh, I absolutely do have a general theory of sleaze. And it’s called The Seaplane on Final Approach (laughs). No, I mean, I have played around with sleaze as a parlour game for a long time – just asking people, What is sleazy? It’s a slippery concept. But it’s something that people smoking outside of bars really like to contemplate. I got a lot of juicy sleaze tidbits that way.
There’s a lot of steaminess in the book, even if there isn’t all that much actual sex. How do you write desire so well?
The short answer is not letting the person get what they want. It also has to do with the way I’d read about women fantasising in books before. I thought it was more interesting, to take the physicality out of the fantasising. Instead of being like, “I imagined him and that made me feel this or that,” to focus only on what the narrator was projecting. I don’t know if it gave her more agency, but it did put her in the position of, well, objectifying this guy. I also just wanted to write a young woman voyeur. I was like, where are they? They’re underrepresented! We need more young woman pervs in the media please!
Do you also feel politically or ethically motivated about that?
Well, I feel artistically motivated about that! And of course, there’s a political arm to that, but it sort of gets back to what I was saying about women fantasising and masturbating in literature, where you often get descriptions of their own physicality, which takes away from the single-mindedness. That also takes the reader out and makes them into a sort of like, counter-perv. I didn’t want that.
The narrator’s search for sleaze takes her to this amazing tourist homestead in Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago. How did you come up with this setting?
The very easy answer is that I used to spend my summers in Alaska. I’ve worked a lot of weird jobs, including one in a cannery in the Kodiak Archipelago, and it’s just phenomenally beautiful. And on the northwest side especially, it has this eerie beauty, with almost-treeless mountains rising up out of the sea. It’s deeply striking. It’s also isolated and remote, even by Alaskan standards – and for the book I wanted a place with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, all the better for claustrophobic tension to build. So I used my memories of that landscape.
Early on in the book, we hear about the narrator’s aunt and her determination to “stay authentic”. But then this setting is hardly authentic – it’s a wilderness island, but everything’s basically a show for tourists…
Yes! The question of authenticity was at the forefront for me. The authenticity is… there is no authenticity! (Laughs). This sort of goes back to Westerns, and while the book is not a Western, it’s really indebted to the summer when I got strep throat and worked my way through a whole bunch of them. The thing that always surprises me about Westerns – as a Californian who grew up steeped in Western lore – is the amount of time involved. The Wild West as we think of it was brief. I grew up thinking it was a long era, one that spanned most of the 19th century. But then something like the Pony Express only actually ran for 18 months. All this Western lore got metabolised and turned into shows before it was even over. So in terms of portraying the American West as entertainment, or as hospitality, authenticity has always been deeply elusive.
I absolutely do have a general theory of sleaze. And it’s called The Seaplane on Final Approach
Your novel is not just set in America – it’s about America. Does living here give you critical
Yes, I’m in this slow-motion, never-ending metamorphosis into something that is not completely American. I’ve had to stop and examine my Americanness, my American behaviours, in a way that was really good for the writing of this book. When I visit the US, I always fret over the different recyclings without realising that I can put it all in one bin and no one is going to scream at me. And then in America I find myself forgetting how to make small talk with a barista. I find myself performing my Americanness there. Which is different from how I sometimes perform my Americanness in Germany. Someone will be like, “wow, you’re from California, tell me about that, tell me about Las Vegas!” And then (laughs) this thing happens where I’m like (cool voice) “Yeah, I’ll tell you about Las Vegas.” So now I perform America on both sides of the Atlantic.
- The Seaplane on Final Approach was released in June 2022