Local author Emma Rathbone stays focused with Losing It

Photo: Renee Reighart Photo: Renee Reighart

Writing a novel isn’t easy by most measures, but it’s said that your second novel is where the anxiety really kicks in. Pressure builds to craft a book that’s readable and critically embraced, without being too similar to its predecessor. Of course, this is even more true if your first was met with popular success. Just ask author Emma Rathbone, whose second book, Losing It, was released on July 19 by Riverhead Books.

A recent transplant to Los Angeles, Rathbone is an alumna of both the UVA Creative Writing MFA program and Charlottesville itself. She is known for her first book, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, and as a contributor to The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs column. In the latter, her oddball comedic knack is on full display in pieces with titles such as “The Lost Pages of Fifty Shades of Grey” or “A Few Things I’d Like to Convey with My Funky Lizard Brooch.” (If those leave you with any doubt of Rathbone’s sense of humor, you might also be interested in knowing that her MFA thesis was titled, Retarded revolutions around the dickface sun.) This same eccentric jocularity provided an undercurrent for her debut novel, but Rathbone really hits her stride in Losing It.

Perceptions and stereotypes about the second novel aside, Rathbone found the opposite to be true. “Losing It was a little easier because, having written Patterns, I knew it was possible to finish a novel,” she reflects. “I knew how hard it was going to be, and that it’s okay to have many fits and starts, and to have to throw a lot of stuff away. So, there was a little less anxiety about the process the second time around. Both times it was about generating material, figuring out what was chiming, finding a through line, shucking away what doesn’t work, rewriting, then tightening and tightening and tightening.”

Rising to the challenge of the second novel with wit and verve, Emma Rathbone reads from Losing It on July 23 at New Dominion Bookshop. Photo: Publicity photo

Working on the idea on and off since 2010, Rathbone wrote the vast majority of Losing It in Charlottesville. “It’s a great place to write because it’s fairly quiet and inexpensive, compared to a big city at least,” she says. “I love the beautiful, overgrown South, and that had a lot of influence on the book. There are some aspects of Charlottesville that I kind of grafted onto Durham, where the book is set, because it’s fiction and you can do whatever you want.” Indeed, a character closely resembling Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall Harmonica Man makes a cameo in the novel as do various downtown shops, the Sprint Pavilion and nearby carousel, Cismont, Sperryville, Ivy Nursery—even the Lazy Parrot.

On its surface, this book is about Julia, a 26-year-old virgin who’s determined to finally lose “it” one summer after also losing a promising career as a swimmer and other social identities from her youth and early 20s. “I wanted to explore the conundrum of wanting something very badly—to the point of obsession—while on some level knowing that the more you want it, the harder it will be to get,” Rathbone says.

The quest keeps Julia distracted throughout the book as she considers a smorgasbord of options for doing the deed but also ponders whether she’s made some sort of irreversible error that led her to a sexless fate. All of this is exacerbated when Julia moves in with her Aunt Vivienne, a 58-year-old virgin. “I thought it would be interesting to put someone who is grappling with the question of ‘meeting someone’ and what that means, next to someone for whom the worst-case scenario has played out,” says Rathbone. Elevating the work beyond the plot of a Judd Apatow movie, however, Rathbone uses Julia’s first-person narration as a framework to dig deeper into underlying anxieties and expectations about life that are surprisingly universal.

“Most people who know me will admit I’m not a chilled-out cucumber,” jokes Rathbone. “I’m pretty anxious and neurotic, so it was not hard for me to channel that side of Julia, and it was kind of fun. I like characters that have a constant, antic, kind of bitchy narration going and are always pulling out the threads of themselves and other people, and so that’s the kind of vein I tried to write in.” She balances this high-energy and, at times, off-the-wall style with a careful and considered approach to characters. As a result, Julia and the book’s major supporting characters—including Aunt Vivienne—exhibit peculiarities and personalities that extract the reader’s empathy for those in the throes of self-discovery, while suggesting that no one ever really finishes that process.

Rathbone’s likable wit and finely tuned ability to expose the intricacies and absurdities of social interactions are evidenced in all of her work, and Losing It is no exception. Next up, she’s expanding her oeuvre by joining the team of writers for an upcoming Netflix comedy series while also beginning work on her third novel.

Do you have a favorite book that incorporates Charlottesville landmarks?

Tell us about it in the comments below.