Anna Dorn Headshot

“I Have No Choice But to Fictionalize” – A Q&A with the writer Anna Dorn

Anna Dorn’s fiction has the cool allure of a brilliant beach sunset. Taking place in a fictionalized Los Angeles that is rich with coincidences and unlikely turns of fate, her novels feature a crew of terminally cool regulars who recur in interlocking combinations. Yet it’s her work’s emotional intensity and atmospheric density, rich with longing, desire, and dreams that give her plots—which she herself describes as “fun, twisty romps”—their literary impact.

Dorn graduated from the Antioch MFA in 2017, and since then she has been busy, publishing a memoir, Bad Lawyer, and two novels, Vagablonde and Exalted, the latter of which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her third novel, Perfume & Pain, will be published in May 2024. This fall, Antioch MFA Program Chair Lisa Locascio Nighthawk engaged Dorn in an email conversation about the ideas behind her work, celebrity culture as artistic inspiration, the desire to sell out, and what fills an average day in this prolific and accomplished writer’s life.

LISA LOCASCIO NIGHTHAWK  You’ve said that you write from obsession, and obsession is also a frequent topic of your writing. How do you keep your own obsessions, and the obsessions of your characters, fresh and fertile in your creative life?

ANNA DORN  Well I was recently diagnosed with OCD, I kid you not. So I guess it’s less of a choice and more of a psychiatric condition lol. My mind is always hurtling at lightning speed, which is scary until I’m at a keyboard, and I calm down as I put all the thoughts into sentences. It’s my zen. 

LISA  That move-fast quality seems present in your career, too. You already had a JD when you chose to pursue an MFA, and you’ve described yourself as a prolific, fast writer. What led you to choose to attend a graduate creative writing program?

ANNA  I wanted to be a writer, but at the time I had no idea how to go about it. I had no writer friends. All my friends were lawyers or had normal careers. I got an MFA because I was desperate to be published and wanted to figure out how to make that happen. 

LISA  So then can I ask why you chose Antioch?

ANNA  Antioch was the only program I applied to, because I didn’t need to take the GRE, and it was in California, and it was on some list I saw in The Atlantic. The program felt low key after law school. I didn’t tell anyone I was in the program and treated it like my little secret. It felt very self-indulgent at the time, luxurious. But it was also very helpful. My first workshop leader, Francesca Lia Block, taught me how to write a novel. I am so grateful for her. Alistair McCartney and Gayle Brandeis were also amazing teachers. And Lauren Strasnick was my other mentor who I’m still close with. For one workshop I had Alma Luz Villanueva who told me I would publish a novel in 2-3 years, which at the time felt too far away. (I am very impatient.) But she was right! 

A photograph of the exterior of Anna Dorn's books Bad Lawyer and Vagablonde.

LISA  That novel was Vagablonde, which came out in 2020. Can you tell us about how that novel came together? What did you want the book to be, and how did you make it happen? 

ANNA  Well, I got my agent via a different book that I started before Antioch and finished at Antioch. It was called Web Glow, and it was loosely inspired by Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I started writing Vagablonde when Web Glow was on submission. I’d been toying with the idea of a lawyer who wants to be a rapper for years, but I finally started writing it. I wrote the first half of Vagablonde feeling extremely cocky. I was like, I finally have an agent and I’m about to sell my first book and this is going to be my second! And then by the time I was about halfway done, it was clear that Web Glow was not going to sell, so I wrote the second half out of desperation, like—it’s this or bust, baby! 

LISA  Who were your influences?

ANNA  I’m trying to remember what I was reading at the time. Story of My Life by Jay McInerny, which is a great “unhinged girl with a fun personality” novel. That’s one of my favorite genres—just some hot, snarky bitch acting a fool. Paulina and Fran by Rachel Glaser was another big influence. It has a “devastating” ending which is a major plus for the snarky girl book. Oh and Twins by Marcy Dermansky, which is just so effortlessly funny. I love Marcy. 

LISA  In 2021, your memoir, Bad Lawyer, was published. It turns a deliciously gimlet eye on law school and the world of practicing law. It also pulls no punches when discussing your family and the lawyers in it. How was it received by your relatives?

ANNA  I have regrets about that book. My heart is racing just responding to this question and it’s not just the caffeine I’m drinking. My family was unhappy with it. If there’s a reprint, I’m going to ask to revise it and take out the stuff about my family. I don’t know if they’ll let me. But I’ll never write about my family again. And I’ve finally convinced my parents to not read my books. My parents are offended by everything I write, but the nice thing about having highly critical parents is that nothing on Goodreads bothers me. 

LISA  I admire your sangfroid when it comes to Goodreads. It reminds me of the way so many of your characters are great at pretending not to care despite really caring a lot on the inside. In your fiction it seems to me that, like many writers, there are certain similarities between your life and experiences and those of your characters. I’m thinking particularly of Prue in Vagablonde. How do you balance writing that is inspired by life with elements that are more straightforwardly fictional?

ANNA  Just Googled “sangfroid” haha. Cool word, I’m going to start using it! Hmm. My next novel Perfume & Pain stars a lesbian novelist in LA, so people are going to think it’s me. Her name is Astrid. I think both Prue and Astrid share a lot of autobiographical details with me, like their jobs and their age and where they live. But they’re both much more fun and active and dramatic than me because no one would want to read these books if they were actually based on me. My life is honestly very boring. I’m just sitting at a computer drinking caffeinated beverages and typing all day. I have no choice but to fictionalize. Joan Didion said writing is acting, and I am definitely acting. 

LISA  Your two novels, Vagablonde and Exalted, take place in the same world—what I would term the Anna Dorn Cinematic Universe. Is your forthcoming novel, Perfume & Pain, also set in the ADCU?

A photograph of the exterior of Anna Dorn's novel Exalted.

ANNA  Thank you! Perfume & Pain is also set in the ADCU! When I started writing fiction I was inspired by Brett Easton Ellis, the way he includes overlapping characters and places in different novels that aren’t serialized. I think they’re fun little easter eggs for readers. 

LISA  On the topic of readers finding little easter eggs in your books, you write often about the culture of celebrity, and this includes having characters who are thinly fictionalized celebrities—I’m thinking here of “Stella Shadid” in Exalted—as well as celebrities under their real names. How do you parse those distinctions? Why create a fictional celebrity vs thinly fictionalize a real one, for example?

ANNA  LOL, well Stella Shadid was originally just Bella Hadid and I was forced to change her. So that was not a choice. But I think it’s fun for readers to see regular people interact with celebrities. We read for a vicarious experience, and I think it makes the reader feel like it’s happening to them. It’s exciting! 

LISA  I think a lot of people are curious what goes into being a writer, on a practical basis. Can you walk us through what an average day in your life as a writer looks like, from waking up to going to sleep?

ANNA  I’m sure this will be very boring to read, but you asked! I wake up, I make a caffeinated beverage (currently matcha) and write for 2-4 hours. Then I go on a long hike. Eat lunch. Make more matcha. Write for another hour or two. I’ll typically do client or student work in the afternoons because it’s not my ideal writing time, but if I’m really into a project like I am now, I’ll write in the afternoons and skimp on everything else. I guess I shouldn’t say that in case people reading this want to hire me to edit! I am a fastidious editor, so me skimping is like a normal person’s hustling, I think? After skimping or not skimping, I either go out to see friends or go on an errand, something to get me out of the house and interacting with people. Then I’ll come home, eat dinner if I haven’t eaten, watch Real Housewives, maybe write more. I go through phases where I’m into writing at night when everything is dark and quiet. Occasionally, this routine is broken up with meetings with my editor or agent. I’m currently in the process of pitching the adaptation of my second book to streamers, so that breaks up the routine. The routine happens on weekends too. I’m telling you, it’s boring!

LISA  What is your advice for people in other careers who think they might be writers?

ANNA  I’d say join a writing group. Get as much feedback as you can. The best way to learn to write a book is to write a book. Go to literary events, meet other writers. Build a community. And be grateful—writing is the best drug there is! 

LISA  You’ve achieved a great deal in under a decade of publishing. What are your hopes and dreams for the next ten years of your literary life?

ANNA  Honestly, I’m so ready to sell out! Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to sell out, but I briefly became preoccupied with “expressing myself” and trying to be some kind of alt lit figure. But I’m over trying to gain the respect of a niche community. I’d also love to become a book editor one day. I think I have pretty fabulous taste, so…  ◆

Lisa Locasio Nighthawk

Lisa is the Chair of Antioch’s MFA in Creative Writing. She is the author of the novel Open Me and the email newsletter Not Knowing How.