Don’t Write Alone | Interviews

Michelle Hart Is Queering the Campus Novel

In this interview, Michelle Hart discusses her debut novel, ‘We Do What We Do in the Dark’; the art of the flashback; and how ceding your power can be very hot.

We Do What We Do in the DarkO, The Oprah Magazine Electric Literature

ER Grey’s Anatomy

Ruth Madievsky: I will always drop everything to read a campus novel. The claustrophobia and intimacy of the college campus is great raw material for the cultivation of dark secrets, uneven power dynamics, and experiences that will reverberate throughout the characters’ lives. Queer campus novels often feel to me like an even richer and more complicated reading experience because, for example, the sexual power dynamic between these two women with an age difference doesn’t comfortably lend itself to a Me Too framework the way a story about a male college professor having an affair with a female student would. Your novel seems much less interested in litigating the ethics of this affair than in exploring how it profoundly affected both women. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the possibilities of the queer campus novel and on writing sexual power dynamics that don’t cleanly fit the dominant narratives that anyone who spends time on the internet can’t escape.

RM: Early on in the novel, you write, “The woman fulfilled so many of Mallory’s wants but left so many unfulfilled that the feeling of wanting in and of itself became desirable.” One of my favorite things about your novel is how horny for loneliness Mallory and the woman are. They want to connect, but perhaps what they want even more is the sweet, sweet agony of yearning. Getting what you want is terrifying! The aesthetics of yearning—the sad music and the comfort food and the lightning-strike sense of purpose—can be so intoxicating. I wonder if mutual desire to be possessed by someone who can’t give themselves fully to you is a big part of what attracts the characters to one other.

RM: For me at least, finding the right title is one of the most challenging parts of writing a book. With both of my books, the titles were suggested by friends, because I simply could not come up with anything that didn’t sound like a first-draft MFA thesis or erotic crime fiction. feels absolutely perfect for this book. Did you always know it would be the title? Were there any others you seriously considered? I’ll join you in mutual vulnerability and share that before we landed on for my novel, some of my outtakes were (boringggg), (too loaded and religious-sounding), and (I desperately wanted a St. Vincent lyric as my book title and basically any lyric would do).

RM: I have seen many a hot take about flashbacks in literary fiction. I think they can be deployed very artfully, as in your novel, where Mallory has a complicated secret friendship with the mother of her childhood best friend, Hannah, and it builds a foundation for her affair with the professor. Did you always know your novel would have an extended flashback section halfway through?

SweetbitterWhat Belongs to You

RM: You’ve shared in other interviews that you’ve been working on a version of this book since college and that it didn’t come together until after you wrote your short story “Hiddensee”—about an affair between a college student and a professor, which was published in in 2017—and until after the Me Too movement happened. I’m so curious about how, on a craft level, the novel changed over time as you came closer to discovering its final form.