by Lisa Peet
How clean is your house? Right now—no, don’t rinse those empty yogurt containers in the sink; don’t scoop the litter box. Would it be clean enough if your best friend dropped by? Your kid’s teacher?
Housekeeping is a heavily loaded topic on all sorts of coded fronts: gender, class, and labor, to name a few. It occupies a disproportionate amount of head space for those of us who have outgrown the idea that scruffy is charming, for women who have internalized the ideal of keeping a nice house to some extent or another throughout their lives, for working people who can afford to have someone in to clean, and working people who come in to clean someone else’s house. For the many Bloomers who have had side hustles while they wrote, painted, or made music—have you swabbed someone’s toilet to make the rent? Would you?
Mona—the dark-edged, complicated, and fascinatingly unpredictable protagonist of Jen Beagin’s novels Pretend I’m Dead and Vacuum in the Dark—cleans houses. She is, at first glance, a hot mess: a hard-luck kid in her 20s with self-destructive impulses, self-esteem issues, and no real ambition. We first find her flirting with the sad, charming “Mr. Disgusting,” an addict she meets while volunteering at a needle exchange and who becomes her boyfriend—not even the worst decision she makes over the course of the two books.
But Mona is also smart, self-aware, and very, very funny. And though her motivations are not necessarily clear even to herself, she’s also an artist—even though the idea is born not from any burning creative impulse, but as a way to put potential clients at ease:
Because she was white and well spoken, people assumed she must do something “other than.” Clearly, cleaning houses wasn’t good enough. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. She must be in some kind of rut. Would he have asked if she were Hispanic? Of course not. She watched him squirm a little—she was probably glaring at him without realizing it—and decided to let him off the hook. “I take photographs.” Not a total lie.
Not a lie at all: Mona takes self-portraits in her clients’ homes, dressed in their clothes (“lingerie and wedding dresses were off-limits”) and posed with their possessions. She is a collector, as well, of weird found objects and even weirder found people, like the New Age couple next door she nicknames Yoko and Yoko, or Betty, the ex-husband-obsessed, doll-collecting psychic.
Mona’s not who you think she’s going to be on the first page of Pretend I’m Dead, or the last page of Vacuum in the Dark. She cleans houses not only because it’s an easy way to make a living, but because she likes to clean things—and who doesn’t like to clean things?
Lisa Peet recently caught up with Beagin to ask that question, along with a few others.
Lisa Peet: You worked as a cleaning lady before you began writing. Why did you gravitate to that way of making a living?
Jen Beagin: I dropped out of college because I was on drugs. This was in the early ‘90s in Lowell, Massachusetts. I used a student loan to move back to California, where I’m originally from, and then I drifted up and down the coast, working as a waitress. Whenever I relapsed, I moved to another town.
I ended up in Santa Cruz in 1994. I was 23. I’d moved there without ever having visited, and my only frame of reference was the movie The Lost Boys. The town was crawling with junkies, though, not vampires. Consequently, there was a lot of recovery happening there. The self-help movement was really huge, and often highly annoying. Anyway, I took myself to some NA meetings and made friends with a cleaning lady.
She was a few years older, and seemed sane and happy. She cleaned with two other women and they were all thin, beautiful, and energetic. I wanted to be like them. At that point, I looked like a chubby ex-gang member. I wore baggy sweatsuits, heavy eyeliner, a bandana around my head. I drove a ’64 Ford Fairlane with a chain-link steering wheel. But they gave me a job, taught me how to clean, and, in a roundabout way, how to stay clean.
LP: Do you find cleaning satisfying in the way that Mona does?
JB: I do now, but I didn’t when I first started. I’d never done manual labor before, and I remember my hands aching in the middle of the night. I was also useless without sugar, caffeine, and nicotine. I needed all three, all the time. The women I worked with ate apples for breakfast. Apples. It was baffling. They were always offering me fruit, and I was like, Get away from me with your disgusting bananas. They drank tea and didn’t smoke. They swept mindfully. They appreciated the meditative aspects of cleaning. They could clean three houses and still go to the gym and out to dinner. I showed up with donuts, and then ate all the donuts.
I was always either high or crashing, and my cravings occupied a lot of head space. Where was my next cookie coming from? How on earth was I going to clean this house without Junior Mints? How many cupcakes could I get away with stealing from this client? I remember getting caught eating from a bowl of cookie dough. I wasn’t caught in the act, but I’d been wearing red lipstick as I forked it into my mouth. Apparently, I left lip prints all over the fork, which I left stuck in the dough, and that’s how I was caught. The client called and complained, and I was ashamed of myself.
Anyway, I felt too gross and lethargic to find much satisfaction in cleaning. It wasn’t until I worked for myself, about 10 years later, that I found cleaning satisfying in the way Mona does. I was living in San Francisco by then and in my early thirties. I’d had a ridiculous internet job for many years, but after 9/11 I was suddenly out of work. So, I started Jennie Bee’s Housekeeping, cleaned two or three houses a day, and ate a lot of fruit.
LP: What inspired the transition to writing?
JB: I never wrote when I cleaned houses. I was too tired. Also, to be honest, I didn’t consider myself a real writer until a couple years ago. I took a lot of pictures of myself cleaning, and I realized later that this was a form of note-taking, because the pictures themselves never fully captured my experience. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but mine were worth about 10 or 15, at best.
When I showed the pictures to friends, for example, I’d explain what was happening in the background. “This house belongs to an artist couple. They live in a glass house on top of a hill. The wife had the nerve to ask me to wash all her red clothes separately. That means I generally do four loads of laundry: whites, darks, sheets, and REDS. She doesn’t allow me to clean with anything other than vinegar, but she has wild cats that slaughter animals in the house. Have you tried removing bloodstains with vinegar? She likes me to burn all the paper trash in the fireplace, but she feels the need to supervise, because she’s afraid I’ll burn the place down. Yesterday I went through her bathroom trash and picked out her menstrual pads with my bare hands. Should I burn these, Linda? It was the first time she really looked me in the eye. It seems like a small moment, but that’s when I realized how intimate and potentially strange it is to clean someone else’s house.”
After which my friend would say something like, “That’s weird, everything you told me had either blood or the color red in it. Maybe you should write this shit down.”
LP: What eventually convinced you to go back to school?
JB: The last houses I cleaned professionally were in New Mexico, where I was living with my boyfriend. It was impossible to get ahead there, so we ended up leaving and moving to Boston, where he was from, and I decided it was time to go to college like a normal person. So, at age 35, I became a college freshman at UMass Boston. At night I worked as a waitress. I didn’t feel any desire to study art or photography, so I declared English as my major. Seemed more practical.
My first semester, I took an introductory creative writing course and wrote some poems. My professor told me I had something—a voice, or whatever—and I remember thinking, “Maybe, but I’m also just old.” But he convinced me to apply to the advanced workshop.
You needed a writing sample to get in, and I didn’t have one. I remember the professor asking me if I’d ever written fiction, and I said, “I’ve written this book in my head about a cleaning lady.” He rolled his eyes. “Writing in your head doesn’t count,” he said. But he let me in, anyway, and I wrote my first Mona stories.
I continued taking workshops until I graduated, after which my professors encouraged me to apply to MFA programs. Apply to a dozen, they advised. I applied to five and got into one, UC Irvine. I could not imagine writing an entire book, and teaching terrified me, but I went through with it anyway. My thesis was a much longer version of Pretend I’m Dead, which I whittled down to 200 pages. It took an additional four years to get published. By the time it came out, I was 44, and still waitressing. I don’t wait tables anymore, but I found it to be more conducive to writing than, say, teaching. The money is often better, and I never took my work home with me.
LP: You’ve acknowledged that your history and Mona’s story have a lot of overlaps. Where does the character branch out from your life and take on her own existence?
JB: For better or worse, I stick pretty close to my own experience. In fact, I often don’t feel very inventive as a writer. I generally start with something that happened to me, something true, and then move it in a new or different direction. This usually happens by rearranging the furniture, as it were, and inventing new dialogue. I remember most of the situations I was in as a cleaning lady, but I don’t remember much of the conversation. So, all of that is pure fiction.
Another example, I’m an incest survivor, but I never killed my abuser by giving him too much morphine. I loved the guy; I never wanted him dead in real life. So, killing him on the page wasn’t a form of wish fulfillment in that sense, but it made Mona seem like less of a victim, and like someone free of self-pity, and that was my wish.
Overall, Mona is more of a loner than I am, more detached and judgmental, and has had a lot less therapy, so she reacts a little differently to things than I would. She’s also over 20 years younger than me.
LP: Pretend I’m Dead and Vacuum in the Dark segue right into each other. Did you start the second novel right after finishing the first?
JB: I wrote them back-to-back. Pretend I’m Dead was originally published in 2015 by a small university press and only sold about 600 copies, 300 of which were sold by the owners and wait staff of the restaurant I worked at in Boston. I never imagined the book would sell well, or ever be reprinted. So I started writing Vacuum as a kind of do-over. Ten years had passed since I’d written my first Mona stories, and I felt like a different writer and person. Then, in 2017, I won a Whiting Award for Pretend I’m Dead, and I thought, Shit, maybe this book is pretty good. It was hugely validating. Scribner republished it with a new cover in 2018, and Vacuum in the Dark came out in 2019.
LP: Do you collect vacuums, like Mona does? What’s your favorite?
JB: I’ve owned several vintage Eureka vacuums. When I stopped cleaning houses in New Mexico, I smashed my favorite Eureka like a guitar, much like Mona does in Pretend I’m Dead, and I haven’t owned one since. Not because I’m done with them; I just haven’t come across one I needed to have.
I’m using a run-of-the-mill vacuum right now, but the best vacuum on the market is the Miele canister. Even the most basic Miele is entirely good and worth the money.
LP: Waiting tables, working a call center, doing construction, checking out groceries—almost all other unskilled labor inspires a kind of dues-paying aura, whereas cleaning has so many class issues around it, particularly for creative types. People Mona meets, including hookers and thieves, are consistently taken aback at the fact that not only does she do this for a living but that she takes a certain level of pride and satisfaction in it. And while she’s already interested in taking pictures, she also uses the fact that she’s an artist to justify her paying work. Was that on your mind when you were writing—Mona as not so much of a class warrior as a class confounder? How did your own experience bear this out?
JB: I’m not sure I have a good answer to this question, but in the places where I cleaned houses (Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Taos), most of the cleaning ladies were Mexican, South American, or sometimes Eastern European. Whether they were brown or white, English was rarely their first language. That was the first thing that sometimes confused or startled clients. More often than not, I didn’t look, act, or talk like their prior cleaning lady, or the cleaning lady they’d had growing up, or the cleaning ladies they’d seen on TV. I was somewhat well-read, well-spoken, and well-dressed. In other words, I looked like my clients, and was able to bullshit with them about the art on their walls and the books on their shelves. I wasn’t completely invisible, even when I wanted to be.
So, the boundaries weren’t always clearly marked. I mean, yes, I was cleaning their toilets and they were very aware of that, and one guy asked me to make him omelets, and another asked me if I wanted to “cuddle,” and another wanted me to swim in the pool while he watered the plants, but more often than not, I was treated as something “other than”—therapist, fellow artist, mother confessor, friend, the daughter they never had, that kind of thing. All of which eventually went into the writing, and in fact inspired me to write in the first place.
LP: What are you working on now? Will Mona ever reappear? And my own deep dark need to know: will Mr. Disgusting ever show up again?
JB: I’m taking a break from Mona and writing a book called Big Swiss, which is set in Hudson, NY, where I currently live. It’s about a woman who transcribes sex therapy sessions and falls in love with one of the clients.
I’ll probably write at least one more Mona book, partly because I think three is better than two, but it’s hard to say. Like Mona, I have trouble making plans for the future. Speaking of which, at some future date, Mona (and Mr. Disgusting) will be characters on TV. The pilot is in development with FX and will star Lola Kirke.
LP: What are your best cleaning tips?
JB: I love removing rust. I don’t get to do it often, but the other day I removed a thick layer of rust from a piece of metal artwork by cutting a lemon in half, slathering it with salt, and then rubbing it all over the metal. Thrilling!
Lisa Peet is the News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Author photo ©Beowulf Sheehan
All other photos by Jen Beagin
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features