Meet Ruth. She’s a little lost, a little feeble, a little unsteady on her feet. She is what Kate Zambreno, her creator, calls a Green Girl, a girl suffering through her own becoming. She is an American lost in London, working at a department store she bitterly calls Horrids, trying to force a perfume called Desire on American tourists.

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You might not expect such a girl to keep the company of Walter Benjamin, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Cornell and John Keats, but in Zambreno’s world she does. Writers and filmmakers and philosophers weave in and out of her tale of one girl in danger of being gobbled by the big city. Her life might seem a little mundane, with the toing and froing on the London Underground, the dreary retail job, the boy problems and the girl problems and the hair problems. But the book is anything but. It cracks, it zings. It makes you call your girlfriend and read sections aloud over the phone. It makes you scribble down lines into a notebook, as Zambreno scribbled endless epigraphs into Green Girl.

I talked to Zambreno about Green Girls past and present, the pathos and delight of the department store, and why Virginia Woolf called on women writers to create fiction about the shopgirl. 

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Tell me a little about the shopgirl. All we know about her from the movies we've seen her in is that she is delicate and poor, and desperately waiting for a man with money to save her from her circumstances.

Well to use a reference my cinephile-characters would love, the shopgirl in early film is also the vamp, the saucy flapper Clara Bow in It or the femme fatale Joan Crawford in The Women. And then yes there is the sad shopgirl-turned-hooker or manicurist-turned-hooker in a Godard film. But in film, even if these are films I adore and reference in the novel itself, the shopgirl mostly exists as a cipher, the glossy object of desire.

And yet Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own calls for the future woman writer to write the girl behind the counter. I have always been drawn to this girl sitting bored and waiting and have wanted to examine her life and livelihood as an object, as a becoming subject, how these two might tangle up in each other. What is the content of her interior monologue?

I see Ruth, my heroine, as a girl-Gregor Samsa whose consciousness is still dimmed and often dismissed, in life, in literature. Woolf writes of this too—that feminine experience is often rejected as not universal, hence not literary. There is, however, a literature of the shopgirl whose anti-heroines are the true ancestors of Green Girl—the Jean Rhys jeune fille in her between-the-war novels, Zelda Fitzgerald’s girl portraits, Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I remember too what it was like to have no real sense of self, to be dull with flashes of brilliance, trying on jobs like hats.

Harrods: The temple to girl consumer culture. You lived in London for a while, tell me what you thought about Harrods and why you selected it as the setting. 

When I lived in London I was totally obsessed with the luxury department stores, how grand and impeccable they were, and as I was only there for a year I was in some way an utter tourist, and would spend my time being caught in the crowds on Oxford and Tottenham Court, just walking, getting lost, straining my neck to gaze at the horns on the top of Selfridges, saving up to have tea upstairs at Liberty, buying one little thing at the food hall at Harrods.

I also worked at Foyles Bookstore, beginning as a temp over the holiday season, and some of the characters and incidents are drawn from my experience there, the rush and the fatigue and the cliques. I found the experience of being a temp also to be revealing of my general experience as a foreigner, the second-class status, the dizzying sense of being temporary.

There are two department stores that feature heavily in the novel—Liberty and a store she merely refers to as Horrids. I liked the contradictory idea that Liberty was this place of utter jouissance and freedom for Ruth, that she went to on her day off, window-shopping so to speak like Holly Golightly at Tiffany’s, while she viewed Horrids as this jail cell. I only went to Harrods a few times, but I found the place totally iconic but utterly vulgar, and also this ultimate tourist destination for Americans, which I thought was kind of delicious. When I moved back to Chicago I would go often to the Marshall Field’s on State Street. The perfume spritzer seemed the role with the most pathos.  

I like that some of the saints show up as previous Green Girls. I always envied my friend's Catholic upbringing, because as a Methodist no one told me about St. Lucy. Tell me how that section came to live in the novel. 

Oh, God, I love this question. Yes St. Lucy the ideal blonde who gives her beautiful blue eyes to her admirer, because she so wanted to distance herself from his gaze. It seems my childhood incubation in Catholicism always creeps into my works. Like so many Catholic little girls in their miniature wedding dresses, I was obsessed with the female saints. We read their lives in gold-plated prayer books—these mystics who felt intense loss and longing at His departure, and little Catholic girls too are trained to be madly in love with God.

Ruth to me is a mystic character, and much like these mystics she isn’t looking for embodiment or empowerment but rather something closer to its opposite. She is searching for a form of decreation, an ecstasy that is outside of herself—she has sex, takes drugs, dances with Hari Krishnas, all in an attempt to find a higher level of experience.

I vampirized from these medieval confessions of intense girl-love for Ruth’s prayer-like meditations on a past love affair. These meditations are threaded throughout the work [and are also inspired by Elizabeth Smart’s channeling of the Song of Songs in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept]. So my obsession with mysticism is throughout, but is explored in dialogue during the later scenes with the holy boy Ruth meets whom she longs to soil.  

I am struck not only by the intensity of desire these women mystics felt, but also by how they weren’t strictly authors of their own narratives but in fact always narrated their confessions to a male confessor who told their story for them. In my novel, the father-confessor is instead an ambivalent mother-narrator. A fantastic book I was reading during the height of writing was Sensible Ecstasy, Amy Hollywood’s book about the obsession of the early 20th-century French intelligentsia [Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Lacan] with Teresa of Avila and other mystics.  

Ruth is sort of an exasperating but recognizable presence. You both want to slap her and to feed her like a baby bird. What did you think of her as you were writing? 

I loved her. I felt great oozy empathy for her. I still do. There were many models for Ruth, but while writing the mass of the work in Chicago there was a girl who lived below me, an impossibly cool blonde, who I never had a conversation with, who cut her hair suddenly one day, and for a while I really modeled Ruth on her. I loved her, too.

Ruth is my past students and my past toxic friends and my own past as a toxic girl. I want Ruth to discover herself, to find herself, but also knew that I didn’t want to create an easy or quick narrative of empowerment. But she is in that liminal state of being—she has not reached a real consciousness yet. It’s infuriating. Ruth is often mean, petty, self-indulgent, impossibly vain, too tortured to live, passive. But she is also sensitive, a watcher of the world, a lover of beautiful things. So there is a glimmer, more than a glimmer, a possibility that Ruth will transcend being a character, my character, everyone’s character, and become her own author. In some ways I think of the novel as an author and character in search of each other.

Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.