Story Behind the Story: “A New Life” by L. Green

One of our favorite stories from Defiant Scribe’s final edition was A New Life by L. Green. It’s a captivating piece about two lost souls connecting at a party—and the messy, revealing conversation they share. If you have not yet read it, you can do so by clicking here (and since the story is filled with twists, we strongly recommend following that link before continuing with this article). Like all great works of fiction, we were left wanting more. To satisfy that itch, we had a talk with the author for the final entry in our “Story Behind the Story” interview series.

Spoilers ahead.

Defiant Scribe: The theme of our August edition was Endings & New Beginnings, and A New Life was an interesting interpretation of that: Cate’s life is full of endings and new beginnings because she’s constantly reinventing herself, with each persona “dying” before she can be reborn as somebody new. What made you decide to go that route with the theme?

L. Green: I love reinvention as a topic, first of all, and I’m particularly fascinated with people who reinvent themselves for all the wrong reasons. With Cate, I was able to not just have one ending or new beginning, but a whole series of them packed into her backstory. That was a lot of fun to play with. Plus, I was in the mood to do a character study—a story centered around two morally questionable characters, something that would really get in their heads and unravel their psyches, and involve a lot of arguing (because I love writing arguments). I knew that interest would blend nicely with a “master of reinvention” character who’s not what she appears.

DS: While Cate’s life is full of endings, the story itself doesn’t have a definitive conclusion. Her fate—and Graham’s, for that matter, but Cate in particular—is sort of left up to the reader to decide. However, it seems like she intends to scam again. Why did you choose to leave that door open?

LG: I guess you could say the whole story is a palindrome of sorts. Or it’s cyclical, just like Cate’s life. You want her to knock it off, but she probably won’t. This is just what she does. She starts, stops, starts again, over and over. Ends up in the same place she started, every time. There are no definitive endings—while she thinks each of her personas “die,” they’re really just scrapped and re-calibrated into the next version—and so it’s fitting that the story about her doesn’t end definitively, either. Has she had a breakthrough after admitting to Graham who she is, or is she just going to keep doing what she’s always done, indefinitely? I’d like to say the former, but my money would be on the latter.

You’ll notice that I used some of the same imagery in describing her at the end of the story as I did at the beginning (minuscule pores; sky-blue eyes), and that was very deliberate. She might be worse for wear now than she was at the beginning, but she’s the same girl. Cate is Ilana is Kelsey and so on. They’re all her. She can’t escape herself, her beauty, her worst instincts. No matter what happened with Graham on that balcony, she’s the same girl she was, the same girl she’s always been.

DS: And yet she could change, couldn’t she? It seems like she’s thinking about it, since she knows the time she has left to run her scam, now that she’s twenty-nine, is running out. And then there’s that line at the end, about her crying in front of Graham and not giving a fuck. If Graham represents all that she wants (attractive, young, rich), then her crying in front of him—showing her true emotions, weaknesses, and appearing physically unattractive—would be kind of a breakthrough of sorts, wouldn’t it? A sign of growth, even.

LG: I think her conversation with Graham on the balcony does alter her thinking, at least a little bit. For one thing, it’s the first time she actually has to say aloud what it is she’s done, all this weird shit—she has to admit it and then sit with it, let Graham judge her for it, judge herself for it. I think she’s able to see it with a little more objectivity at that point. On top of that, she has to listen to Graham berate her and single-handedly make her question her motivations for the first time. And then she has a moment when she realizes that maybe it actually wasn’t about the money, which is a big revelation for Cate and would be, I think, the first step in addressing her issues and stopping the scams. That is, if she chooses to continue down that path. And, finally, there’s the fact that Graham has a similar past, and she’s able to look at a version of herself and judge him for doing, more or less, the same thing that she did. Hearing his story and what he did to Marti—this girl she had some fondness for back in the day—is like looking into a mirror. It allows her to see herself from a different, more critical point of view. So, by the end of the story, I think she has gained some new insight into herself and maybe some new revulsion for her choices, and I did include that line (about her not caring that Graham was seeing her cry) to sort of mark how, over the course of their conversation, she’s been essentially dismantled. But will that be enough for her to stop scamming, or is she so horrified by the person that she is, the things she’s done, that it’s only going to make her want to scam again so she can continue pretending to be somebody else? That’s the big question the ending is asking. Yes, change is possible for her, but it’s not at all a certainty.

DS: Cate and Graham have an interesting dynamic: Graham has such hostility toward Cate, while Cate continually notes how attractive he is, even when he’s being awful to her, and she seems to never quite lose interest in him romantically. Where did those feelings come from?

LG: Graham has a lot of self-loathing, and of course he sees himself in Cate, so he can’t help but resent her. All of the anger he directs at her is really just the anger he feels for the choices he made and the person he’s become.

As for Cate, she’s used to people adoring her, and Graham is the only one who refuses to. He’s also the only one who knows who she really is. He looks at her and sees Kelsey. And I think that makes him terrifying to her, but also appealing because he presents a challenge. Cate wants everybody to love her, even Graham. If he had expressed an interest in her, she wouldn’t have hesitated to run with it, despite all his hostility.

DS: Was Cate meant to be sympathetic? Likable, even? She seems very much like an antihero, someone we root for and grow to care about despite her actions. Did you intend for the reader to feel that way about Cate? Or Graham, for that matter?

LG: I felt very sympathetic toward Cate as I was writing her. I also liked her as a character, because she’s complicated. But I don’t think she’s likable—at least not in the traditional sense—and I didn’t want or need her to be.

Given her backstory and her clearly flawed view of both the world and her worth as a person, I think her choices are understandable—not defensible, but understandable. I don’t think she’s mean-spirited or heartless. She goes after the rich rather than the poor, and while she’s far from Robin Hood, her choice of victim makes her more palatable. And it’s not like she’s a ruthless murderer, or even that her scams are as bad as they could be. So, while she’s not a saint, she isn’t evil, and I think it’s fairly easy to sympathize with her. Of course, by virtue of the fact that she’s conceited, materialistic, selfish and a liar, she’s not a “likable” character, per se. But she’s also funny, and smart, and analytical. She knows exactly what she’s doing and has an amazing ability to read the people around her and manipulate them. There are a lot of different facets to her personality—a bit ironically, since all her fake personas are limited to just two or three traits—and I think that makes her an interesting character, someone you can root for, find entertaining, and feel invested in without ever liking them as a person. And that’s what I was intending.

Graham is sort of similar: obviously a bad guy in many ways, but he’s so desperately sad and has glimmers of a moral compass (e.g., his remorse over his treatment of Marti), which makes him, if not likable, at least interesting and somewhat sympathetic.

DS: We never see Cate and Marti together, but we do see how Cate feels about Marti. She initially says she always liked Marti, having had a soft spot for how Marti resisted the norms that Cate herself fell prey to, but then later, she starts having a lot of mean thoughts about how Marti “deserved” to be hurt by Graham and should’ve made herself into an embodiment of male fantasies and expectations the way Cate, herself, had. Why did Cate have such mixed emotions about Marti?

LG: Her initial thoughts on Marti were centered around the Marti she knew, this girl who seemed to almost ruefully go against the grain, who gave no fucks about beauty standards, didn’t care what people thought of her, et cetera. She was more or less Cate’s opposite, and that was interesting to Cate, because Cate couldn’t fathom the idea of not caring about being beautiful. The freedom of that. Of course, when she learns that Graham was Marti’s husband, that makes her see Marti—as well as Graham—in a different light. And she swings between feeling sorry for Marti and blaming Marti, or feeling like Marti somehow brought the scam on herself, I think mainly because Marti suddenly becomes a stand-in for Cate’s victims. And sometimes Cate feels pity for the men she’s scammed, just as sometimes she thinks Marti was this poor, wide-eyed innocent who was unfairly victimized by Graham, and sometimes she thinks the men she scammed were idiots and creeps who deserved it, which is reflected in how she begins to think of Marti as just another annoying undesirable who was too stupid to understand that Graham could never have been genuinely interested in her. Additionally, the fact that Marti didn’t care what people thought of her and didn’t try to meet impossible standards of beauty is both a source of fascination/respect for Cate, and a source of resentment and jealousy. On the one hand, Marti isn’t a threat in terms of her looks, and she’s this quirky little anomaly that Cate finds endearing; on the other hand, she’s free in a way that Cate never has been, and she has a lot of the things Cate thinks she wants (wealth, status, even an attractive husband for a time), and it bothers Cate that Marti has all of that without having to suffer for her beauty or make herself this demure, phony little creature. So there’s a lot of envy and anger on Cate’s part.

DS: Graham seemed to truly feel affection for Marti, and he was protective over her when Cate insulted her. Why did Graham feel that way about Marti while Cate was so ambivalent toward her victims? Do you believe that actually gives Graham the moral high ground, the way he claimed?

LG: I think just the fact that Graham and Marti were married, while Cate and her men never were, changes that dynamic. Graham settled down with Marti, really had a life with her, while Cate flits from one man to the next and is very deliberate about not taking her relationships too far—like there’s some invisible line she’s afraid to cross. Plus, in each new relationship, she’s a different person, or thinks she is. So, Cate is very careful to put up distance between her and her boyfriends, never letting them know her real name and never developing an attachment to them. But Graham only had one victim, someone he married and really got to know, and Marti was a sweet, young girl—not like the older men Cate went after. Presumably Graham’s personality was authentic during his relationship with Marti, not a make-believe persona, so Marti loved him rather than a mirageAnd I think that made it a lot harder for him: made him feel worse about lying to her, and allowed him to grow attached to her in a way that Cate never did with any of her boyfriends. The circumstances were just so different.

Ultimately, I think you could make an argument that because Graham did have some sort of love for Marti, and does feel genuine remorse over lying to her, he is morally superior to Cate (if only slightly). But I don’t know if I agree or not. I think both of them have done some deeply questionable things for deeply questionable reasons, and there’s not really a point in wondering who is the more villainous of the two.

DS: Something that popped up a few times throughout the piece was the strange, contradictory fixation men have on “pure” girls—innocent virgins, or at least those with very little sexual experience—who also are outwardly sexy, wearing revealing clothes or some such. “Schoolgirls in sluts’ clothes,” as the story phrased it. This attraction is mirrored in another common cultural fixation that’s talked about in A New Life: the “sexy baby,” or very, very young girls who are considered sultry for how young they both look and act. Why did you want to focus on those particular female ideals?

LG: Honestly, I just find those ideals very troubling, especially right now, in the midst of the Epstein scandal—a man obsessed with the type of children that are all too often sexualized not just by outlier men, but by the media itself. I wanted to shine a light on it because, despite the blatant creepiness of the sexy baby/schoolgirl slut thing (and all the pedophiliac overtones they carry), these ideals have, essentially, become normalized. I have a problem with that. And I don’t really care if that qualifies as kink-shaming or fetish-shaming. Fetishes and kinks should be looked at critically, particularly if they’re this problematic. The fact that our culture seems alarmingly permissive of fetishizing very young, innocent girls is gross. So I wanted to show Cate trying to turn herself into a sexy baby/schoolgirl slut—since that’s what she thinks men find most attractive, based on popular culture—because it serves as an example of how the media’s male-centric caricature of female sexuality has a negative impact on women and girls.

DS: There seemed to be a lot of red herrings peppered throughout the story. At some points, it seemed like Graham and Cate might end up together, what with there being moments of intimacy, even tenderness, between them. Then it also seemed like Cate might kill Graham by pushing him off the balcony. She had ample opportunity and even admitted to considering the idea. Were you intentionally trying to trick the reader into expecting a different outcome? And did you ever think about actually going through with one of those alternative endings?

LG: I wasn’t trying to make the ending impossible to predict or anything like that—I don’t think predictable endings are inherently bad—but I do love red herrings, and I envisioned this story as having some mystery-and-suspense vibes, so I wanted to keep the reader guessing.

In an early version of the story, I did imagine Cate and Graham ending up together—but, once I actually started refining and writing it, I realized I preferred the idea of Graham being hostile to Cate, and as soon as their dynamic became a toxic one, I took romance off the table. Ultimately, I think that was for the best: too many stories end up with the male and female leads riding off into the sunset, even when it doesn’t serve the narrative or characters. In this case, Graham and Cate are both self-loathing narcissists—they’d be a terrible couple.