Jonathan Parks-Ramage on Subverting the Expectations of Genre and the ‘Fever Dream’ of His New Novel
Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s debut novel Yes, Daddy is an unnerving examination of the relationship between Jonah, a young writer struggling in New York City, and Richard, an incredibly wealthy, much-lauded middle-aged playwright. Jonah, who is barely able to make ends meet working at a restaurant for an abusive boss, is initially swept away by Richard’s lavish lifestyle and career full of accolades. Their idyllic romance turns dark, however, when Richard invites Jonah to his opulent compound in the Hamptons. Jonah, awed by the cultural glitterati who pop by for Richard’s wild weekend parties, overlooks several ominous signs, including the compound’s forbidding iron gates and the bruises that appear on the bodies of the handsome young men who serve as Richard’s staff. Yet after a fallout with Richard, Jonah finds himself plunged into a terrifying situation, one that forces him to confront some of the darkest moments from his past. In Yes, Daddy, Parks-Ramage deftly hops among multiple genres to spin an unsettling tale of abuse, betrayal, and atonement. Critics have been quick to praise Yes, Daddy. Entertainment Weekly listed it as one of its “20 Best New Books to Read in May,” and Booklist hailed it as “a story that offers all extremes, from verisimilitude to despair and from a lust for revenge to a longing for home. Fear settles over the reader as they wait for the next blow, making Jonah’s story akin to that of the victim in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.”
The book has been described as a modern gothic, and there are allusions to Rebecca as well as The Talented Mr. Ripley in the book. I was wondering what were the books and authors who were influential to you as a writer?
I grew up next to a library. When I was a kid it was literally right next door. I was a very nerdy, gay kid without many friends, but there were librarians who actually were some of my closest friends as a child. (laughs) From a very young age, I was reading books that I probably shouldn’t have been reading as a fifth grader. Carrie, millions of Stephen King books. I loved classic mystery series, I loved Agatha Christie. I grew up as a kid reading a lot of mysteries and thriller and horror, and those were the earliest books to wind their way into my psyche, which I think accounts for some of the darkness in my own work. Obviously Daphne du Maurier, I love. Some of her short work is incredible. She did the story that “The Birds” was based on, also “Don’t Look Now,” which was made into a 1973 film. I love those gothic tales, as you mentioned.
A lot of what I’ve been reading with this book are books that kind of defy genre, that use elements of genre in them, but also subvert our expectations of genre. One of my favorite books is Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee, who’s also one of my favorite contemporary queer authors. Edinburgh has this epic, operatic plot with these huge twists, but it’s also very emotionally revelatory and impactful. The prose is absolutely stunning. Carmen Maria Machado does a lot of incredible things with genre and defying and subverting genre in a literary way. Her book In the Dream House explores queer abuse through the use of genre. Each chapter is done in the style of a different genre, which I find really interesting. It challenges the way we look at memoir. I also love A Little Life. Édouard Louis is a French queer author who’s another one of my favorites. Garth Greenwell is another contemporary queer author I love. I would say that my own style and literary aesthetic is definitely influenced by those early books I was reading in the stacks of my childhood library—the Stephen Kings and the Agatha Christies—but then also my contemporary queer idols in terms of literary fiction that’s being done in the queer space right now.
It’s helpful to hear you talk about the books that subvert genre, because that was my experience reading Yes, Daddy. Every time I thought I knew where the plot was going or what kind of book it was, I was completely thrown and realized I had no idea what was going to happen next.
I think that genre can be a powerful tool because using recognizable genre elements can hook readers, I think. At first you’re drawn into this story, but then, like you’re saying, I like to always subvert the expectations. What are the cliches, what is the received story that we’ve gotten over the years, and what have we been told about the types of people or the types of stories that are featured in this book? And how can I explode those and bring the reader into new territory, into territory they weren’t expecting? For me, a huge part of this was exploring the Me Too movement through the queer lens. I wanted to draw people in through this story that felt, at first, like this gothic, dark romance with mysterious underpinnings and then it quickly takes a turn into a more resonant, important, social territory.
The novel centers around the abusive relationship between Jonah, an aspiring writer, and Richard, a hugely successful playwright. Was there a specific character who was your entry point to the novel?
I went through a period of my life where I was seeking validation, support, and becoming dependent upon older men, personally in my own life. This is not an autobiographical book, I would say it’s a personal book. I think that part of this book is an exploration in the ways in which I was lost and thought I could be saved by older, wealthier, powerful men when I was in my early twenties. Also there are some real world parallels. I think it was a combination of the personal and then the larger, bigger, picture of queer abusers in the Me Too moment.
Richard is such a specific character that I lost sight of connecting him to any real world figure, but viewed him as a terrifying character in his own right.
That’s my hope. This isn’t a memoir, so it’s not connected to my life. It isn’t journalism, so it’s not connected to the real world. So that’s so gratifying to hear. It’s important to me that the fictional world works on its own terms. That was very important to me, to have these characters that were really fleshed out and felt real within the kind of fever dream of the novel.
The book begins with Jonah committing what, from the outside, is a pretty unforgivable act. As the book progresses, we learn a lot more about his background and come to understand his actions. What were the challenges of creating a character who would make these huge choices that readers might not initially understand?
I think it was really important to me to have a character who wasn’t this “perfect victim.” I think that’s a really dangerous falsity in modern society. There’s no such thing as the perfect victim for victims of sexual abuse and assault. Their pasts are often used against them to somehow justify the acts of abuse that have been inflicted upon them. That’s a really toxic thing I wanted to challenge and say look, this is a really imperfect person who’s made really bad decisions that have affected other people in negative ways. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s also experienced his own trauma. At the same time, I also wanted to illustrate the ways in which trauma—trauma with respect to his childhood, trauma that he experiences as an adult—has a real impact on us as people. If that trauma is shut away or repressed or not dealt with, it can bubble up and manifest in ways which can be really harmful to other people.
I am a big believer in therapy. It’s important to be aware of your own story, to really interrogate your own story, to examine the ways in which your own story influences the ways in which you move through the world, and the ways in which you interact with other people and what decisions you make. I think that it’s important to work on that personal evolution, and that’s something that Jonah really hasn’t really done. He hasn’t done the work to examine this very intense trauma that happened in his life. Part of the journey of the novel is getting him to a place where he’s able to confront that. I think the novel itself, as you see, is a living document where he’s processing the story after the fact. You’re seeing him confront it in real time.
I loved the element of the book as a living document for Jonah. The book begins with him addressing an unknown character, and a lot of the suspense of the novel is wrapped around figuring out the identity of the person to whom he’s writing. How did that element of mystery surrounding this character’s identity make its way into the novel?
I wanted to have a device where Jonah was triggered to actively seek forgiveness of someone else. To me, that felt like a good device to force him to look at his own story, force him to look at his own decisions. By creating that tension, by having this kind of reckoning, and having this direct address to someone else, it added an element of tension but also forced Jonah to examine his own story. Of course, the reader is also left wondering who this person is and how they relate to Jonah’s life.
The book primarily takes place in 2009. What interested you about exploring how our culture viewed and understood power dynamics or abusive relationships in that specific time period?
For me, that was the period of time I was personally living in New York. That was the milieu I was familiar with. I was a waiter at a very similar restaurant to the one described in the book. I wanted to start it in 2009 because, again, it was before this awakening, it was before Me Too really started to gain traction after the Harvey Weinstein revelations. To what you’re saying, 2009 is a very different time in terms of how victims were perceived and believed or not believed in the public sphere. I wanted to have it be part of that era to present the contrast. But also, I wanted to present the contrast to see how far we’ve come but I also wanted to highlight how far there still is to go, especially in the ways in which the criminal justice system completely fails victims of sexual abuse and assault so regularly. There was a public awakening, but there’s still all this legal disappointment that essentially Jonah, and everyone involved in the story, has had. Without giving away too much, let’s just say the criminal justice system does no one any favors in this novel. Even in the later chapters where we’re passed the Me Too moment, it still doesn’t do anything.
And finally, what kind of stories do you want to tell in future books?
I’m interested in telling stories that are deeply human, deeply queer, and deeply complex. I’m interested in real characters that are flawed and real, that aren’t just shiny, perfect people, because no one’s perfect. I think I’ll always be exploring queer territory. The book I’m working on right now, it’s too early to talk about in a public forum. It’s still in process. But it’s a different genre, but it’s another queer spin on a different genre.
This interview has been edited for context and clarity.