Jen Beagin's sharp and superb novel Vacuum in the Dark finds Mona, the main character from Beagin's previous novel Pretend I’m Dead, now 26, living in Taos, N.Mex., having followed the dying wishes of her ex-boyfriend, a man she met at a needle exchange. Mona cleans houses for a living, shares a ranch house with an older married couple she calls Yoko and Yoko, and claims Fresh Air’s Terry Gross as imaginary friend-slash-therapist. Beagin talks about her long, winding path with Mona and writing.
I can’t recall what possessed me to write a novel about an emotionally unstable cleaning lady, except perhaps that I was once an emotionally unstable cleaning lady who’d recently retired from the cleaning business and decided to go to college. I was that weird older chick sitting in the front row, a freshman at age 34. My first semester, I took a creative writing class and wrote a few short stories about a cleaning lady named Mona. Five years later, at UC Irvine, I turned those stories into a novel called Upkeep, which I thought was a genius title. Two Ps plus two Es plus my favorite letter K? All in one word? Who wouldn’t want to read that book?
Agents, that’s who. Granted, I only solicited four rather than the recommended forty. They all passed. Naturally, I figured the book was garbage and got a job as a waitress. It was a relief not to be a writer anymore. Now I could do other things, such as adopt a dog nobody wanted from a no-kill shelter in Queens. I called the dog Hambone. He’d been locked up for five years and looked exactly like Heffo, my beloved companion of over 10 years who’d been given to me by a former cleaning client. You’ll have to pardon my language when I say that Heffo was literally the love of my life. I never made a move without him. If Heffo wasn’t welcome, I didn’t go. But Heffo was dead, unfortunately. He’d died of cancer the year before. Adopting Hambone was a desperate attempt to recreate the life we’d shared, and everyone knew it.
As it turned out, Hambone had a lot of hang-ups, including an intense hatred of redheads. I happen to have several redheads in my life and he bit every one of them, hard enough to draw blood, and didn’t show any remorse. He also left bruises on my favorite blonde. He was okay with brunettes, though, which was why he’d lovingly lick my face after chomping my hand or arm. Obviously, he’d been in a cage too long and just needed love. And a little rehab? We’ve all been there. But nothing worked. He got kicked out of obedience school. Trainers refused to work with him. Prozac made everything worse, and yes, I tried the whole positive reinforcement thing. Long story short, I decided to have Hambone killed. Was it a difficult decision? Of course. But the truth was, Hambone was miserable, and I didn’t want him to end up back in a cage. I fed him an entire container of cream cheese, his favorite treat, and held his paw while the vet put him to sleep.
In my grief, which seemed to go on forever, I decided to write a novel about the time I left my husband for a woman I met at a dog park, a woman with whom I fell in love and eventually ran away to Europe, where I lost the rest of my mind. There had been a lot of dog drama between me and this woman, and I felt ready to write about it. I worked on the novel for close to a year, but I found myself missing Mona, whose name I’d gotten tattooed on my stomach some years before. It was a simple, 10-minute tattoo: MONA, in typewriter script, on my lower abdomen. As Upkeep had been sitting in a drawer for two years at this point, I considered having the tattoo changed to MONASTERY. That’s when it began speaking to me. It was my only tattoo, so it had a lot of power. “Don’t abandon me,” it would say, as I was working on the lesbian novel. Or, “Come back to me. I need you.” And when I didn’t listen, it began speaking to whomever I was sleeping next to. “Help me,” I’d hear it whisper to my companion in the dark. “Help me get out of here, away from this woman.”
It was around this time that an editor at Northwestern University Press asked to read Upkeep. I handed it over. He read the first hundred pages and said he wanted to publish it. “You might want to read the second hundred pages,” I said. He already knew he wanted it, he said, but since Upkeep didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, could we change the title to Pretend I'm Dead?
I dedicated Pretend I'm Dead to Heffo. After it was published, I told myself I would never write a novel again. My advance for the book had been $500. It had taken five years to write, yet it can be read very easily in under five hours. It sold maybe five hundred copies in five months. This novel-writing business was for the birds, obviously, a unique hell I didn’t ever want to revisit. I told my friends, “If you catch me doing this again, do me a favor and throw a rock at my head.”
But most of my customers at the restaurant had bought the book, god bless them. For some reason, I never imagined they’d actually read the thing, but they did (shock, horror), and now they were telling me about their experience. Apparently, it’s kind of strange to read a book written by someone you know, especially when that someone has been serving you pasta for many years. “Were you really a cleaning lady?” they asked, baffled. I told them I was. Naturally, they wanted to know exactly how much of the book was autobiographical.
“It’s 80 degrees out,” I said, changing the subject. “Why on earth you ordered a steaming hot bowl of Gnocchi Bolognese is beyond me.”
But their main comment was, “I read your book in two sittings. The ending was a little…abrupt. Are you writing a sequel?”
I was not, and had never planned to. Given the Hambone disaster, I understood that sequels of any kind were risky business, capable of biting you really hard and leaving scars.
On the other hand, I felt like the premise of the book—a cleaning woman cleans out her psyche while cleaning other people’s houses—could work well in a sequel or series, because, while the protagonist stays the same, the setting changes with each new house, and with each new house comes new characters, as well as new opportunities for Mona to make an ass of herself. The challenge, it seemed to me, would be to avoid writing the same book twice. Pretend I'm Dead and its sequel should be as different from one another as Heffo and Hambone, and in fact the sequel should have more bite. It should be darker, edgier, more fucked up. It should be…Hambonesque.
So, I started writing a sequel, god help me. When Terry Gross showed up, as Mona’s imaginary friend and guidance counselor, it felt like I’d found the correct key. Terry kept me grounded and entertained enough to keep going, and no one stopped me. I’m not sure anyone would have tried, because there’s less of a stigma now when it comes to sequels and series in literary fiction, especially given the success of the Ferrante and Knausgaard books. Plus, I had an agent now, and a new editor, and they were both on board with Mona, Part Deux.
I’m realizing now that I should have dedicated Vacuum in the Dark to Hambone. The book comes out in a few days and I hope the fact that it’s a sequel doesn’t bite me in the ass or hand or arm, because, unlike dogs, you can’t put books out of their misery…can you?