Queer Love Blooms in the Desert: The Worst Kind of Girl

by Jennifer Lewis

In Susan Rukeyser’s second novel, The Worst Kind of Girl, published in June by Braddock Avenue Books, 50-yearold Paula Winger moves from Connecticut to Joshua Tree after her husband mysteriously disappears. Seeking a fresh start, Paula takes over the Hi-Dez Motel and becomes an aspiring writer. Dead bodies begin to surface in the desert, implicating Paula, and the motel’s relatable bohemian residents as potential suspects. Amidst this mystery, Paula unexpectedly falls in love with a woman, leading her to explore her queer identity later in life.

I sat down with Rukeyser at Más o Menos where we discussed how the desert influences her writing and her exceptional ability to create characters who challenge stereotypes related to aging, desirability, and sexuality. She shared insights into her parallels with Paula, who, like Rukeyser, is a prominent figure in Joshua Tree’s queer community. Rukeyser hosts the Desert Split Open Mic at the Beatnik Lounge, a platform that amplifies feminist, queer, and radical voices. The next event, celebrating Hi-Desert Pride, will be held on Sunday, June 23rd from 12pm to 5pm.

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JTV: How did you approach making the desert an integral part of your novel?

Rukeyser: The desert is what made writing this book possible. It was the first place that felt like home to me. Prior to living here, I was a writer who was trying to come to terms with the fact that my work wasn’t going to be rooted in place, because I didn’t have a home. But once I moved to Joshua Tree, I felt very much rooted in this place, its clarity, quiet, and space. I could finally hear myself think. I had just turned 50, so I was taking stock of things. The desert is a fascinating setting to me because it will kill you. It is looking for a reason to kill you, honestly. I love this place. I love the people who find their way here because we’re all looking for something. We’ve fallen in love with this place because it makes us feel something. It makes us feel capable of pursuing our dreams a little bit more freely.

JTV: In which ways do you relate to the main character Paula Winger?

Rukeyser: Paula has similar traits to me. She’s tall. She has gray hair. She’s from Connecticut. We both fell in love with a woman after a lifetime defined by relationships with men in a heteronormative society. That was a huge change for me, and I wanted to explore that evolution through my writing. I had her explore some of the same things, then I sent her off into her own story that had nothing to do with me. With our fictional characters, we can let them have a little bit more freedom than we give ourselves.

JTV: Paula really challenges stereotypes about aging, desirability, and sexuality. Do you feel a responsibility to create a character like Paula in order to break these taboos, or do you go about your writing by telling storiesthat are important to you?

Rukeyser: It was very important to me, not just from a feminist perspective, but from my personal experience. Society desexualizes women as soon as they have a kid. I did my time in the suburbs as a mom. I remember thinking these people have taken on a PG-rated life just because they’re parents. And it was very strange to me because I was like, there’s only one thing that got us all here with kids in the first place. I wanted to show what I see as perfectly normal when you actually talk to women, which is that they never stop being interested in sex. And maybe even more so as they get older and realize what they like, and they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant, which is a not insignificant thing, especially right now.

We sort of desexualize women when they become mothers, but we certainly do by the time they get anywhere near menopause, and there’s still decades and decades left of potential sex. I wanted to show that Paula is not above having sex without love. If love’s not around, well, that’s not going to stop her from having sex. I hope that [my novel] helps open people’s minds and stop folks worrying so much about what’s respectable for them to be doing at 50.

JTV: Your supporting characters capture Joshua Tree’s vibrant bohemian community. Did you write about real people? Or was it completely from your imagination?

Rukeyser: All the other characters are completely fictional. But they are also composites of myself, everyone I ever met, or stared at, or listened to. In fact, I’ve been listening to these characters talk to me since 2012. I let them tell me who they are and what they look like. As far as portraying the community, I wanted to be very authentic, respectful, and truthful without glamorizing or making caricatures. Because those are two things that the desert is subjected to on a regular basis. And there are real people living here, and they’re much more interesting than caricatures.

JTV: Even though your novel is character-driven, it also has a lot of plot twists–including a dead body that turns up in the desert. What was the inspiration there?

 

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Rukeyser: I knew I wanted to write about bodies and absence. The literal absence of a body, as well as how we can pull away from each other and be gone, even while in the same room. I can’t remember which body it was, but there was a body on fire in the news. I hadn’t lived here that long, and I thought, there are bodies turning up here all the time, sometimes on fire.

JTV: When Paula is so unconcerned about being considered a suspect, it actually made the book more tense for me. Was that intentional?

Rukeyser: I didn’t do that on purpose, but with this book, I decided not to worry about writing rules or rules of any kind. I trusted my instincts. I knew Paula, like many women, is used to being treated with suspicion, and she is distracted by the major shifts happening in her life. I wanted the questions others had for her to take a backseat to her own exploration of identity and joy.

JTV: Is the idea of “gas station sushi” based on something real, or is it just a humorous invention? Rukeyser: As far as I know, there is not a gas station in the Morongo Basin that sells great sushi, but there was a good sushi restaurant in that Travelodge Inn and Suites at the far west end of Yucca. Their sign was actually the inspiration for the book’s cover.

JTV: Paula’s advice throughout the book reminded me of the empathetic guidance found in Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column. Sayings like, “You get to write and rewrite your story infinite times and always be the star. Don’t edit yourself to silence.” Did you feel like you were passing on some wisdom?

Rukeyser: When you hit 50, you stop caring quite so much about what people think of you, and you realize even if I don’t think of myself as a wise person, I’ve picked up some stuff along the way.

JTV: Over the course of the book, Paula becomes a prominent figure in the queer community. What kind of impact do you hope her character will have on the readers?

Rukeyser: Paula would giggle at that and probably say, “Oh, I’m not a major figure in the queer community,” because she was coming into her queerness later in life, I don’t know that she was fully owning it, yet. When you’re coming out as late as I did, it’s like an identity crisis. The sexuality part might be easy, but you have 50 years of being straight. You’ve got everything that you ever said about yourself stored in your head. And now you have to adjust the narrative. This book is for the people who think it’s too late to make major changes. That’s nonsense. It’s never too late. The only thing that was holding Paula back from being accepted was herself.

Jennifer Lewis is a writer, editor, and publisher of RedLight Lit.