“The best thing that ever happened to my writing life was breaking my ankle,” Baltimore author Laura Bogart proclaimed in 2015. At the time of the accident, Bogart, now 37, was writing mainly nonfiction, and she’d already met with success as an essayist. Her personal reflections on a range of hot-button topics—sizeism and feminism, politics and pop culture—often went viral on Salon. (She’s now a featured writer at The Week and a contributing editor at DAME).
When the injury forced her off the 9-to-5 treadmill, however, Bogart found herself with time to contemplate tackling a longer project. After being prescribed seven weeks of “bed rest” on her parents’ living room couch, she decided to write a novel. (Fortunately, she got a script for Oxycodone as well). And so, hopped up on pain meds and propped up on the broken springs of the couch, she began the first draft.
After more than five years and countless revisions, Don’t You Know I Love You, Bogart’s fiction debut, comes out this month from indie publisher Dzanc Books.
The novel’s premise reflects its genesis: a broken bone compels a young artist to return home and live with her parents. Angelina Moltisanti is just out of college when a negligent driver crushes her car “like a beer can stomped on a curb.” Angelina manages to escape with only a fractured wrist, and she knows she’s lucky: “If anyone had been riding with her, they’d be dead.” Unable to draw and paint, however, let alone perform the day job that supports these creative pursuits, she doesn’t feel alive. And living under the same roof as her violent, overbearing father (an ex-mobster) and vacant, submissive mother could turn out to be a fate worse than death. After all, she walked out to avoid getting hurt—or hurting someone else.
Reckoning with the demons in her past while also confronting the question of her future, Angelina must learn to live with wounds that will never fully heal. Like Bogart’s essays, Don’t You Know I Love You offers an unflinching portrait of one woman’s struggle for self-actualization.
BFB: I’d like to start by asking about your decision to set the novel in Baltimore. You’re very specific in describing the city, from the Pulaski Highway to the Papermoon Diner . . .
Laura Bogart: I grew up here. This is my hometown. I went to Goucher, then to D.C. for grad school. I have come to appreciate the community, the quirkiness, the eccentricity of Baltimore, and it was always very important to me to set the novel here.
Plus, Baltimore has a robust tradition—I’m thinking of Ann Tyler, John Waters, and, of course, [David Simon’s] The Wire—of storytelling that approaches big issues in an intimate way. And that’s what I wanted to do with Angelina.
BFB: When she can’t sleep, Angelina takes her rescue dog on drives “through Hampden and Remington and swathes of Mt. Vernon,” reminiscing about “her Baltimore, the girl she’d been here.” She and the city have a lot in common. Was that intentional?
Laura Bogart: Yes, absolutely. Angelina is very much a working-class artist from a working-class city. Her art revolves around the architecture of the body, even as her own body is in the process of healing, and that’s reflected in the industrial landscape, in the factories and construction sites and so on. Both Angelina and Baltimore are, in a sense, under construction . . .
In the world we actually live in, there are a lot of working artists who have to work. I think stories need to show this, to reveal the unvarnished side of creativity, the grubby jobs people have to do to get by. So much literature about artists coming of age is of the Lena Dunham variety: 20-somethings with trust funds, characters who don’t have to think about the price of a can of beans. I wanted to counter the idea that being an artist means living in Brooklyn, making art all the time, not having another day job.
BFB: What were some of your influences? Mary Gaitskill, perhaps? Clearly not Girls . . .
Laura Bogart: Gaitskill, for sure; also Dorothy Allison. And a lot of films. I love James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, young Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Figures like Dean and Brando definitely colored how I wrote Angelina. Also, superhero movies, especially Wonder Woman, which essentially is about whether to fight from a place of rage and hatred or a place of love and protection. That’s a version of the choice Angelina has to make.
BFB: On the page and on the screen, angst-ridden characters have tended to be men. Why?
Laura Bogart: Male characters are allowed to do things that are clearly wrong and still be deeply human. I don’t think the same is true for women. In everything from classic film to prestige TV, you see lots of male characters dealing with uncomfortable, uncontrollable feelings. When we talk about women’s anger, on the other hand, it’s often in this very constructive way, as though it has to be cathartic, as though it must serve a purpose, be part of a trajectory that will culminate in something fruitful. But that’s not reality. Women deserve more complicated narratives.
BFB: What do you think of the attention female anger has been getting lately? Is it helping?
Laura Bogart: This is a very bizarre moment. Personally, I feel like women’s rage has been taken up to the extent that it can be capitalized upon, but for all that it gets talked about, it still has not become manifest in a social or political way; for instance, in a woman president . . . So I think the conversation is just beginning. We have now reached the point where some women—not all, not by any means—can get angry; some women can have power, but only if it feels palatable.
You know, when we first started sending out the manuscript of Don’t You Know I Love You, people were really taken aback by Angelina’s anger. And that was kind of shocking for me because it was post-2016, after the election, in the middle of #MeToo, at a time when it seemed like it might be possible for female anger to be acknowledged, finally, in a meaningful way. But their reactions suggested it was still taboo.
I think it’s important to share that reality. Because, again, that’s what motivated me to write the novel: a desire to show the world as it actually is, to show that reality is highly complex.
Laura Bogart will discuss Don’t You Know I Love You with Madison Smartt Bell at The Ivy Bookshop on Monday, April 16, at 7 p.m.