Literary Resurrection: Jen Beagin’s funny and frank debut novel, “Pretend I’m Dead,”

The UC Irvine MFA graduate (2011) and former professional house cleaner was bartending in New York last year when she won the $50,000 Whiting Award for fiction and got signed by a literary super-agent. Her novel, originally published with little notice in 2015, will be reissued next month, with plans for later releases in Great Britain, France, Italy, and Spain, plus a sequel next year. 

On the novel… “Pretend I’m Dead” tells the story of Mona, a lonely cleaning lady in Lowell, Mass., who volunteers at a needle exchange and falls in love with a junkie. She gets her heart broken, decamps to Taos, N.M., and opens her own cleaning business. There, she’s in search of healing and a sense of belonging.

On the initial publication… (The original publisher) asked to see the manuscript and said, “We’ll publish this, and we’ll give you $500.” Wow, 500 bucks! I bought a pair of boots, and they published the book. I was waitressing at the time. I bought 300 copies myself and sold them to all my customers.
I bought them at 40 percent discount, so I made a little bit of money. I just carried on waitressing and started writing the next book.

On writing about sex… I just appreciate a frank, nonromantic depiction of sex because it often is messy and not very sexy. Sex is just hard to write well. It’s hard to write about good sex, particularly. I find it easier to write about bad sex.

On the sequel… Terry Gross is a major character in the new book. She’s Mona’s invisible friend. I listened to “Fresh Air” a lot when I was cleaning houses. She used to talk to me. She’d be like, “What’s the best way to clean the tub?” and I would explain to her. She would act all fascinated. So I put that in the book.

On O.C. memories… I had a dog, and I dedicated the book to my dog. He died. I would bring him to Huntington Dog Beach. I practically lived there. My dog loved that beach, so I would go many times a week. His name was Heffo. He was a Jack Russell. Actually, he was the dog of one of my housekeeping clients. He bit their baby. I was like, “You should get rid of the baby.” I was in love with the dog. They said, “No, we’re going to keep the baby; do you want the dog?” That’s how I got the dog.



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