Mariah Stovall

On Writing the Music Scene She Always Wanted to Read About, Timing and the Publishing Marketplace, and Her Debut Novel, ‘I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both’

Cover of Mariah Stovall: On Writing the Music Scene She Always Wanted to Read About, Timing and the Publishing Marketplace, and Her Debut Novel, ‘I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both’

I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both (Soft Skull, 2024), Mariah Stovall’s debut novel, is named after a song by the punk rock band Jawbreaker. It brings together these two ideas—punk music and complicated friendships—in a whirlwind of dizzying, beautiful prose. On an otherwise ordinary day, Khaki Oliver receives a letter from her former best friend, Fiona, after ten years of estrangement. The letter prompts her to delve deep into her memory of their friendship the only way she can: through the music she used to listen to. We follow Khaki into her past, to turbulent days at university, punk concerts in dark rooms, and a childhood friendship that affects them both in unimaginable ways.

I Love You So Much is an astonishingly expansive novel, one that explores a multitude of ideas—obsession, eating disorders, the punk scene, and a friendship teetering between destruction and care—with remarkable ease. Stovall’s command over language is evident in every line, and I found that sentences were stuck in my head for weeks, much like the perennial soundtrack that Khaki lives within. I spoke with Mariah Stovall over video call about writing the music scene she always wanted to read about, avoiding reductiveness, and how her book changed over a period of nine years. 


Nirica Srinivasan: The title of your book is great, and such a fitting choice for what it’s about! Did you have it in mind from the beginning, or is it something that came to you while you were writing?

Mariah Stovall: The original title was a different song name—it’s a song that my best friend always liked and thought was really funny. But that song is called DIY Orgasms. When I look back on this now, I’m like, why did I do that? [laughs] I was sending out the book under that title, and I’m sure it got caught in some spam filters. 

At some point I just thought, if I want to do a song title, “I Love You So Much, It’s Killing Us Both” is a good one. I like a long title! That was probably three years into what has been an eight- or nine-year process. It’s been the title for a while, but it was not the original title.

NS: What was that like, a nine-year process?

MS: The writing actually was not necessarily what took so long, it was getting published. I wrote in 2015—I wrote the first draft very quickly, in about six months. I hadn’t ever written fiction before, so it was new and exciting, and I had all of this energy that I don’t think I’m ever gonna have again! 

In April of 2016, I started sending it out to agents. I always got interest in terms of people wanting to read it, but once they actually read it, it wasn’t quite right, or quite ready. It’s really hard—you don’t always get real feedback in terms of why something didn’t work. I would take breaks. There were probably entire years when I was not trying to make anything happen with it. I got an offer from the agent eventually, and from there it was two years of being on submission, trying to find a publisher for it. It’s been a long journey, but it wasn’t a lot of active writing time. It was trying to get published for the most part.

NS: I know this is not necessarily comparable, but if I read anything I’ve written more than two years ago, I’m always like “that wasn’t me!” What’s it like to work on something over such a long time, while it changes and you change?

MS: The book is set against a particular music scene and culture that has been and always will be so important to me. That was in many ways why I started writing the book. I just wanted to write about this thing, with a little piece of history in fiction, rather than as a nonfiction book. That was always a good motivator to just keep going. There’s some stuff in there that has been more or less the same since the first drafts. It’s the same book, but it’s also very different—I was just a much better writer, however many years later. I think I matured as a writer even in the six months I last worked on it. 

Knowing that it was actually going to come out, and that someone else had actually invested in it, made it real, and clarified things. I had to think, what do I actually want this scene to look like? What do I really want this particular sentence to sound like? I felt like there were real stakes. I had tried all of these other ways of doing this for other people who didn’t even want the book. And now I could kind of go back to the question, what do I want the book to be? 

NS: Your book starts in the present, and then continues with sections going further into the past. I found it affecting how Fiona is this constant presence through the book, but she’s actually absent for so much of it—you only meet her in the latter half. How did you think of structuring it that way?

MS: I’m very interested in structure, it’s really exciting to toy with. The original idea that I wanted for structure is that I wanted to start with a seemingly mundane story that would then tangent off into another story and then another story—but you would need all of those pieces before you could finish the main story. The book is kind of like that, but I was thinking of something a lot crazier to start with. I always liked the idea of going backwards for the most part. Part of it was because the book is so much about memory and nostalgia, and it felt natural. 

In terms of Fiona’s presence, that was really hard to nail down because I really wanted her to not be there for most of it. I would get feedback from people who found it difficult to be invested in her when she wasn’t there. I was like, okay, I see that, but also I don’t want her here in certain parts of the book! Hopefully I figured out a way to balance that—it was really tricky and took a lot of experimenting and trying different things. I did always know that I couldn’t have her in-scene in the first half of the book. I think that mirrors that feeling of isolation and separation, so I wanted to see if I could make that work.

NS: The way you use language is hypnotizing, and very vivid. The writing reflects what’s going on in Khaki’s mind—there’s one section where numbers overtake the page because the numbers are overtaking her mind. How do you approach writing for this effect? 

MS: This is such an unhelpful answer, but I think that’s just how I write! It’s very interesting for me to hear about other people as readers. I saw a discussion online recently, asking people if they approach reading as an observer or as a participant. It never occurred to me that people approach it as a participant, that they’re imagining themselves as the main character or other characters. For me, even if something’s not in the first person, reading has always been a way to try to understand people and their inner lives.

I’ve always been attuned to how you can use language to represent consciousness. I’ve always been very interested in the granularity of language and syntax. I don’t not care about plot or what happens in a book, but I’m so much more interested in how the story is told, whether that is in the structure or the prose itself. It’s something I’m always subconsciously very aware of. I just think sentences are really cool and so I try to write interesting sentences.

NS: I loved that the cat in your book is called Merricat. A lot of Khaki’s behavior that felt very compulsive reminded me a lot of the protagonist Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

MS: I actually didn’t read that book until I had already had some number of drafts! Yes, I love that book so much. I obviously love intense claustrophobic relationships that are kind of creepy without necessarily being violent. That’s one of those books you feel like you were influenced by even before you read it—you feel akin to it in one way or another. 

NS: I’d love to hear more of how you think of music and memory. 

MS: Personally, especially because of how much music I used to listen to, there are certain times where I’ll realize “I remember I was listening to this album a lot during this particular week when this thing happened”. There are also times where I could be listening to the same thing and not be associating it with that particular memory. There’s something so interesting neurologically or psychologically about that. It can be very communal, it can be very private. It can be tied to one memory or to multiple associations. 

What I wanted to do in the book is to have this character who not only relates to music through memory, and vice versa, but does so in a way that is very language-forward. I find it very boring-slash-tricky to write about music in terms of just description—maybe because I don’t have an actual musical background, so I don’t know a lot of technical terms. This was a way to write about music without writing about music, and to show how it’s not just an aesthetic experience for someone, but very much affects cognition and thought. 

NS: Khaki is often coming up against criticisms of the music she likes, from both race and gender perspectives. A lot of the time she’s very defensive of the music or she’s thinking about it in a certain way and can’t understand the other side of it. I wonder how you approached those ideas.

MS: A lot of that came in later drafts, after someone gave me really helpful feedback that her relationship to music could have more variety to it. There are a lot of reasons I gave her this very defensive, either uncritical or a refusal to be critical, perspective. For one, a lot of the book takes place in 2011. I didn’t want to retroactively apply what might be a consensus or what you might expect if she were that age today. A lot can change—in, oh god, almost 15 years!—whether it’s within the cultural dialogues or just within an individual. I also don’t put any particular stock in trying to make my characters perfect or likable or always right. This felt like a way to add dimension to her, and to subvert expectations.

There’s a very well-regarded book that came out last year called Monsters that I’m very excited to read. The conversation about separating the artists from the art is so complicated, especially in subcultures and smaller scenes where it’s much more intimate. There’s also questions about rehabilitation or second chances. There are situations with bands where I’ve come down one way with one band in one situation, and in another one maybe I have a different perspective. I’m not going to say that I’m coming from a truly rational or correct place. It’s hard! I did not want to put all of that baggage onto this character—it would’ve felt unrealistic. As I was writing it, I was very intentional in trying to capture some of the messiness and humanness and complications of it all.

NS: You’re now working with a literary agency, and you’ve been in the book industry for a while. How has working in the industry impacted your book? 

MS: My first full-time publishing job was in early 2015, and I started writing this book that summer. A big impetus was wanting to see this music world represented in fiction, and realizing that if no one else is going to do it, maybe I should give it a shot. I don’t think I would’ve written this book if I didn’t work in the industry. I learned so much, because I started both around the same time. I wasn’t starting with this great knowledge—I didn’t know what I was doing! It was probably good that I came in very pure and naive. 

The main thing, I think, is that it’s not about being a good writer, it’s about writing a good novel, and about fitting into the marketplace at a certain point in time. I’m actually really glad that this didn’t get picked up earlier—now is a better time for it, not only because my writing has had time to mature, but because there’s also more of a solidification of what this time in music was. On the nonfiction end, there’s books like Chris Paynes’ Where Are Your Boys Tonight, an oral history of third wave emo, and Dan Ozzi’s Sellout. There’s more context out there for my book now, whereas there might not have been previously. That’s me talking with a publishing-marketing brain!

I was also always worried about how there can be a lot of reductiveness in terms of marketing to male versus female readers. This girly, teenage-girl book about eating disorders, how is that going to work? Punk is mostly male, and a little bit older as well, in comparison to these teenage girls. I felt like people weren’t going to know what to do with this book, and who we’re trying to sell it to. But I have found it really gratifying so far to hear from readers from both those groups and that it resonated for them. 

If I wanted to write the most publishable version of this book, I could have tried to do it—and it would’ve been a very different book, and I don’t think I would’ve been excited about it! Like you said earlier, why is Fiona so absent from the first part? If I had done an alternating point of view between the two of them, if there was more conflict about race, if I’d toned down a lot of the music stuff—there are certain things that would’ve made it more straightforwardly interesting to bigger publishers. I don’t blame them, but a lot of people also do not want to read a book that involves an eating disorder. If my goal was to get the biggest publishing deal possible, I would’ve written a very different book. I don’t even know if I would be able to, honestly—I don’t think I’m like that kind of writer. In terms of the writing itself, I try not to be too affected by the industry. 

But in terms of understanding what would help a book have its best shot at success, I do really try to learn from my work—how to present a book, what kind of cover it should have—and use that insider knowledge to my benefit. 

NS:  It’s a beautiful cover! Were there other covers that you considered before you decided on this?

MS: Yes! I try to be a very agreeable and grateful author, and I’m very grateful to be published at all, but I can admit I was extremely picky and insistent about the cover. I was very lucky. That’s one of the benefits of working with a smaller publisher, who can be more invested in author input and happiness. They put up with my complaining and we landed in a place that we’re all really happy with. I love the cover, and now for everything else, I just try to say yes automatically.

This is another way the industry affects me—I have very strong opinions about visual things, and there were a lot of cover tropes I didn’t want to engage in. I didn’t want a flailing woman who looks very exhausted, or women’s bodies at all, because then we wonder, how thin or not thin should they be? If you’re using photography, getting a character of color who actually matches the description of the character can be very difficult, because there’s not as many images available of us to pull from. There’s a lot of books about black women where their hair takes up a lot of space on the cover. And I didn’t want just a picture of a crowd at a concert or headphones. 

There are covers that fall into all these categories that I love, but they didn’t feel right for this book. I’m so grateful that we landed where we did. I didn’t want it to feel like a cover I’d seen already. 

NS: It definitely doesn’tand it doesn’t reduce your book to only one of its many dimensions, bringing it down to just bodies or music. One last question: do you have a favorite thing in your book? A sentence, a character, anything you’re proud of?

MS:  I had a lot of fun with the very last chapter! Most of the present day sections were very vague in early versions—I wanted to focus on the past. The last chapter is the youngest part of the book. I originally wanted to end it on the chapter before that, which would be almost no resolution, and my editor said, “Can you go a little further?” People think of writing fiction as this very solitary, independent thing. One of the reasons that traditional publishing can be really appealing is you really get to have other people’s ideas in the mix—whether or not you take them. I’m so thankful for any feedback I got along the way, and especially when people pushed back against my instincts, and convinced me to not do things I was dead-set on doing. The last chapter is really fun. It gives a little bit of conclusion, but, probably unsurprisingly, I do like ambiguity. I’m glad I got to leave it where I did.



Mariah Stovall has written fiction for the anthology Black Punk Now, and for Ninth Letter, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Hobart, the Minola Review, and Joyland; and nonfiction for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, Hanif Abdurraqib’s 68to05, The Paris Review, Poets & Writers, and LitHub. I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both is her first novel and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is her favorite Jawbreaker album. She lives in New Jersey.

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