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Miranda Popkey On 'Topics Of Conversation'


In her debut novel, Miranda Popkey explores the kinds of raw and vulnerable conversations that happen between women in private - conversations over a cup of coffee, a bottle of wine or on a long car ride, discussions we don't always know how to start that sometimes take an unexpected turn. Popkey's story follows an unnamed woman over 17 years as she opens up about topics like love and infidelity, desire and power. So it's fitting her book is called "Topics Of Conversation." Miranda Popkey says she was thinking about the kinds of messages women often absorb about how to think about those topics.

MIRANDA POPKEY: A moment I thought a lot about as I was writing this novel is a moment in the movie "Rocky." There's a moment when Rocky has taken Adrian out on a date, and they're back at his apartment. There's a mattress against the wall - vertically. And there's a knife in it for some reason. And Adrian is trying to get out of the apartment. Rocky is cornering her. He says he's going to kiss her. And there's a moment of resistance. And then she sort of gives in. When you see the same sort of thing over and over again, I think it's possible that you come to want that thing in your own life. What I saw was a man sort of forcing himself on a woman and the woman realizing, ah, yes, this is, in fact, what I desire.

MCAMMON: Yeah. I think that's such a - I mean, that's such a big theme throughout the book - is sort of these negotiations around power and consent and desire and the tensions that, I think, a lot of women feel. And it's certainly in this moment, you know, post #MeToo where we are re-evaluating some of those themes that, as you say, just pervade our discussions about female sexuality. Is that what you were trying to get at?

POPKEY: Yes, exactly. I don't want to speak for anyone else. But certainly, I have the sense that it was possible that the men around me knew my own desire better than I did. And something I find sort of frightening - that the fact that it's just - that that's in my brain.

MCAMMON: I'm struck by the fact that there are so many women in this book, including the narrator herself, who often don't seem to know exactly what they want. Or they seem to want someone else to make things happen for them. And later, the narrator recalls an evening she spent at a hotel bar trying to escape, essentially, the constraints of her marriage. She goes there looking for a sexual encounter with a stranger. And I wanted to ask you to read from that section. She's all dolled up, wearing a tight dress and sitting at the hotel bar.

POPKEY: (Reading) It was the situation we'd all - the girls of my generation - been warned against, been warned specifically against getting ourselves into. In my adolescence - this was the early '90s - consent wasn't yet affirmative. And though no means no was the standard, it was also understood that it wouldn't protect you. No short skirts. And watch your drink. And tell a friend where you're going and call her when you got there and again when you get home. When we thought about sex, we thought mostly about ways to defend against what we didn't want instead of ways to pursue what we did. So that now the way I thought to attract a man was to make myself vulnerable to attack - sitting alone, drinking too quickly. I'd made myself a sitting duck and deliberately because men were attracted not to predators but to prey, not to strength but to weakness.

MCAMMON: Your book is called "Topics Of Conversation." How similar are these conversations to some of those you've had with other women?

POPKEY: It depends on the conversation. The second section - that section is most like conversations that I think have now become public but were happening in secret, the kind of whisper network conversations.

MCAMMON: When you talk about a whisper network, you mean women telling other women privately about an experience of sexual assault, warning them about a particular man.

POPKEY: Yes. And things that we might not have wanted to call sexual assault that maybe we would call sexual assault now, things that we might have called bad dates or weird workplace interactions. And I don't want to lump all of these things together except to say that that's a whole spectrum of conversation that I have had.

MCAMMON: Were there questions that you were trying to answer for yourself through writing this book?

POPKEY: I think, where do the desires that I don't recognize but that I have - where are those coming from? And the other question that I had was about narrative - what kinds of narratives are helpful? And what kinds of narratives are not helpful? Because there certainly have been moments in my life when it was easy to tell myself a kind of narrative that allowed me to not take appropriate responsibility for my behavior. I think that that is something else that is going on in that scene at the bar that you asked me to read. The narrator is a little bit letting herself off the hook. She's saying, this is the only way I can be because this is what I learned. I think it is our responsibility also - especially those of us with the emotional capacity and the privilege and the time to be able to do so - to look for different kinds of narratives and to tell ourselves different kinds of narratives.

MCAMMON: Miranda Popkey's first novel is "Topics Of Conversation," thanks so much for speaking with us.

POPKEY: Thank you so much, Sarah. I really appreciate it.


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