Image by Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay

Author/Director Sandi Tan Discusses Exorcism and Other Battles in Her Art

Sandi Tan on how she battles demons and performs exorcisms in her new book, Lurkers, and elsewhere in her art.

Sandi Tan
March 2021

Battling Demons

Lurkers begins with an intriguing epigraph from historian Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages. What is the connection between the middle ages and mid-00s Los Angeles?

I feel like the mid-’00s were a jumpy time with no true defining characteristic other than uncertainty — news networks certainly wanted this low-level hysteria to persist so they could keep people glued to the screen. This was before Twitter and Facebook disfigured public discourse even more, but you could already feel this growing pull towards the poles, this bipolarity of “Life is fabulous!” and “We’re going to Hell!”

I felt as if the 21st century at that point was harking back to less enlightened times with its heightened rhetoric of “evil-doers”, of Othering strangers, of blind trust in the supernatural. We had phones we could put in our pockets but fear was turning us lazy and superstitious. There was this tension of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The next explosion, the next Apple product, some kind of deliverance. And then the financial crisis of 2007-8 happened.

Lurkers contains plenty of markers of the mid-’00s setting, such as the music of Christina Aguilera or the Vice City video game. Even the neighborhood’s name, ‘Alta Vista’, recalls a search engine from a bygone era. All these details give a feeling of a past simultaneously recent yet distant. Were these period artifacts purely utilitarian, or do they serve another purpose?

Hah, yes! That was 15 years ago yet it feels like 50 because cell phones weren’t yet these magical devices you could live your life on. I wanted to play with what was probably the last frontier of a certain type of social isolation, and also extol the untapped spiritual virtues of my favorite video games Vice City and Katamari Damacy. I’m not sure how I feel yet about fiction storytelling in the age of FaceTime, Twitter, and Google Street View.

You didn’t seem nostalgic for the period that the novel is set in, but there was another, perhaps truer version of nostalgia: anxiety about returning home. It’s seen in Kate’s unsuccessful attempt to reconnect with her roots in Vietnam and Mrs. Park’s desire to go back to Korea after 20 years in the US. How do these themes function in the novel?

We all know about the unlovability of Los Angeles from decades of noir novels and movies, its boulevards of broken dreams, its serial killers, the way thwarted dreamers return to small town Ohio chastened or embittered. This place seems friendly on the surface but it’s a pretty slippery character, Los Angeles. There’s something waterproof about its charms, unless you’re native-born maybe. (Caveat: I’m pretty resistant to nostalgia, except nostalgia for times and places I’ve never known.)

You have to learn to tango with it. Even the people who thrive in Los Angeles, like Hollywood luminaries, have to fret about wildfires, earthquakes, and crime. It’s not immediately or even intermediately likable, but I guess that’s what I’ve grown to respect about this place.

If you come from somewhere else, be it Vietnam (like Kate) or Korea (like Mrs. Park) or Iowa (like Mary-Sue) or Kansas (like Raymond), there’s always the temptation to retreat to that supposed homeland. It’s this confused movement in and out of here, this ambivalent bustle, that makes the place feel alive. Ambivalence holds Los Angeles together since it’s more a clutch of neighborhoods with different centripetal forces depending on your priorities: craftsman homes, Thai takeout, decent transit, good schools, hikeable canyons, Kardashian sightings. I think my characters grow to realize that home is where they determine it is, not where they were born into, and I like following through those very personal, often rocky reckonings. 

Los Angeles is one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited, though I can never quite explain why. What was important for you to convey in terms of place?

The light is gorgeous here. It’s why the movies have been here for a hundred years. But yes, its other charms are far less apparent.

Hollywood Boulevard is one of the seediest corridors in a major world city, downtown L.A., with its once-glamorous buildings, is pretty broken — and anyway, nobody lives downtown, except me. Well, OK, some people live downtown. But most people actually live in what might be termed the burbs. Covid has only made the various residential pouches here seem even more like cul-de-sacs.

This is a place that’s challenging to explain to outsiders because it quickly becomes a long fragmented story, like describing your dream before you’ve had any coffee. (And true-blue Angelenos even object to it being called “LA.” To them, it’s Los Angeles and only ever Los Angeles.) It was important for me not to be some godawful dream describer, so I thought I’d try to see the place from the point of view of different people agitating along the sidelines. It’s a lonely place, even if you came here to disappear.

When I began reading Lurkers I thought the setting and characters meant that I wouldn’t be reading about ghosts, whether the figurative ones of Shirkers or the more literal ones of The Black Isle. I felt ghostly imagery started to creep into the story after a while. Tell us about the significance of this theme and how it relates to Lurkers and your other work.

I partly wrote The Black Isle because I was a scaredy-cat living in a creaky hundred-year-old house, and had a vivid imagination about paranormal occurrences. I was delighted to find that it’s actually not easy making things appear frightening on the page. Trying to conjure up scary things in writing actually robbed them of their power to scare me. Does that make sense?

After that, I remained haunted by the unfinished business of my teenage years — the events that propelled Shirkers’ plot — and I made that film to take care of that ghoul. I’m a far less haunted person now. I’m now mostly boringly sunny. But I’m still a worrier — and I wrote Lurkers with an understanding that real-life vampires/predators and life itself can be every bit as monstrous. I’ve run out of ghosts, so I went to work on my demons. 

There are some deeply unpleasant, manipulative characters in the Lurkers. Is it freeing to write these kinds of characters, and what do you learn from getting inside their heads?

There’s some of me in all of the characters — well, almost. But the really unpleasant, manipulative ones you’re thinking about are rooted in experiences I’ve had with people like that. Even during those times, I thought, “I am fascinated by you.”

Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, this mental jiujitsu that’s borne of my exposure as a kid to terrifying adults. I like digging into the subtle, sometimes cruel games that men and women play with each other when there’s sexual tension in the mix. Is it gonna be a seduction? or is it gonna be murder?

I think the current trend of viewing every uncomfortable interaction through the lens of “toxicity” to be willfully, schoolmarmishly ignorant. If you’re being emotionally honest, there’s always so much more at play, and it’s often not a one-way street — the more naïve party gains insight into the workings of a more complex mind, for one.

I think of creative work as thought experiments and use them to continue conversations I never got to finish in real life, to draw out unplayed scenes to their logical conclusions. The most unpleasant characters in the book remain slightly opaque, and that’s deliberate. We get close to them but we never really get inside them — so they remain more dangerous, more unpredictable. 

You find humor in dark situations in Lurkers. I found myself laughing but wincing at the same time. What’s your perspective on dark humor?

I like funny. I’m so delighted I made you laugh and wince at the same time! That is my perspective on dark humor in a nutshell.

Your next project is a film adaptation of Elif Batuman’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Idiot. I’m sure the pandemic has thrown all sorts of curveballs where getting a film into production is concerned, but tell us about what you plan to achieve with your next project.

Oh, I can’t wait to get out there and make it happen. I love Elif’s book and there are things you can do with visuals, sound, music, editing, and, of course, actors, to make it come alive in a different way. I’m itching to get going. The delays have been absolutely maddening but they’ve allowed me to finish Lurkers, so I can’t complain too much. (Yet I am.)