Catie Jarvis on 'The Peacock Room'

I dreamed of a man with one leg so long that it stretched across an ocean. While dreaming this, I was twenty. It seems so young now, but it didn’t then. I was at home for the summer between junior and senior year of college. It was a humid night and I lay in my childhood bed in New Jersey, alone. I had lain there alone for many years, but now I was in love, and for the first time my bed felt empty with just me in it. I didn’t like this about love, that it changed me.

In the dream people were lining up on the shore to walk across this man’s leg. I don’t know what they were fleeing from or where they were going, but the man with the leg was a willing ferry. There was a kindness in him; there was a story. The man in the dream smiled at me, and I knew he was someone that would be with me for a long time.

The Peacock Room, set to come out from Hyperborea this year, was born from this dream. The novel would form and re-form all through my twenties. It was a precarious time for me: the verge of adulthood. I had just ended my career as a competitive gymnast, a sport I had dedicated my whole life to. And then poof, it was over! I was no longer moulding my body 20 hours a week, focusing my mind for competitions, working towards another flip or twist, the only goals I knew how to conquer. I spent a great deal of energy at the end of my sport dreading the inevitability of injury and age that would, and did, take me out. We have these bodies, and then they begin to fail us. We have these special gifts, but it’s hard to know what to do with them or for how long they will last.

A few months into my novel, I remember having a conversation with my boyfriend in his small dorm room bed. I imagine it as a Socratic conversation that went something like this…

“Do you love me?”
“Yes.”
“Do you love my essence and not just my body?”
“Yes, of course. How absurd!”
“But it is? Would you love me without one leg? Or without two?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Without arms? Without a torso?”
“That might be more difficult…”
“Without a head?”
“How could you be without a head?”
“Would you love me as a concept that you could not touch or hold?”
“I don’t know!”
“If not, then is it really even love at all or just the desire of two bodies forcing tricks on the mind?”

I had begun my lifelong inquiry into what makes us who we are, and what, exactly, does it mean to love.

The Peacock Room was really the start of my exploration into surrealism. I began devouring books that explored the bizarre nature of reality, that push past real in search of truth. Of course Vonnegut and Kafka. Flannery O’Connor. I became particularly devoted to every Haruki Murakami and Salmon Rushdie book I could get my hands on. At the time of my first draft of this novel, I also specifically remember that I was reading a lovely surrealist book called The Planets, by the author James Finney Boylan, who has transitioned now into Jennifer Finney Boylan. I remember thinking of The Planets, Yes, this strange world, yes!, this is the space I want to stay in forever! There was so much about what it is like to be human in these surrealist writings, and that’s where my heart as a writer lies.

In the past ten years, I’ve written at least 15 different versions of The Peacock Room. It is the novel by which I essentially taught myself to write a novel (with the help of many professors, books, and friends/editors along the way). I pared the book down from a messy and quite bizarre 500-page cacophony, to the more lyrical and only slightly surreal novel that it is today. Strangely, though, most of the things that I wrote down that night when I dreamed of my main character, Jonis, remain.

I woke up that night fully inspired the way every writer wants to be. I lit a candle that I kept by my bed, and began writing pages of notes. Every major character in my novel came into formation that night, names and all, and so too came the questions that these characters were driven by, the questions that I have decided are my lifelong journey to examine.

What is the nature of our identity, the uniqueness that makes each of us who we are? What does it mean to transform? How can we reckon with the holding and releasing required of us in this life, and the natural human fear of change, which in my opinion causes all real problems: spiritual, political, environmental, ad infinitum?

—Catie Jarvis, author of The Peacock Room