Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wednesday, March 11, 2020: Maximum Shelf: Siri, Who Am I?

Quirk Books: Siri, Who Am I? By Sam Tschida

Quirk Books: Siri, Who Am I? By Sam Tschida

Quirk Books: Siri, Who Am I? By Sam Tschida

Quirk Books: Siri, Who Am I? By Sam Tschida

Siri, Who Am I?

by Sam Tschida

A young woman wakes up in a Los Angeles hospital bed, wearing a yellow Prada gown with a bloodstain on the hem. The only items in her possession are a tube of red Chanel lipstick and an iPhone with a cracked screen. She clearly has great taste--but what happened to her? Where is she? And who is she? In Sam Tschida's smart, snarky debut novel, the young woman (Mia) tries to piece together her life via social media posts, asking a question that may sound flippant but is in fact existential: Siri, Who Am I?

Told in Mia's first-person voice (studded with quippy footnotes and hashtags, also in Mia's voice), Tschida's narrative follows Mia's journey as she discovers she has a concussion and a high blood alcohol level of "mostly Grey Goose. Funny how I know what I drink, even if I don't know where I live," she muses. Soon, Mia is discharged from the hospital (though she wants to cling to her kindly nurse, Brenda) and finds her way back to a chichi house that appears in her Instagram feed, but that is evidently not hers. The housesitter, Max--who turns out to be a kind-hearted neuroscientist--doubts Mia's story at first, but he lets her stay and eventually joins in her quest to recover her identity. Mia combs her Instagram photos for locales and people who might be able to jog her memory, initially reveling in the sun-splashed parties and gorgeous companions in her photos. But as she uncovers more details of her past and present, she starts to wonder: Is the person she's been really the person she wants to be? (While Siri helps out with dates and directions, she remains stubbornly silent on this topic. Mia must wrestle with her questions of identity on her own.)

Tschida's story is at once a zany Memento-style ride, a rom-com of sorts (though Max is coming off a breakup and Mia, of course, has no idea who she is), and a sharp-edged, highly entertaining look at selfie culture. What people choose to share online, and how they share it--with edits, filters, hashtags, strategic cropping--can shape not only others' perceptions of their identities, but also affect how they perceive themselves. In Mia's case, it becomes increasingly clear that the highly edited, glamorous selfies in her feed are only a tiny slice of the story. Driving around Los Angeles in a borrowed Ferrari (it belongs to the absent JP, a French chocolate magnate who owns the house where Mia is staying, and is also apparently her boyfriend), Mia begins to build a mosaic-like picture of her life and career. Though she's genuinely searching for answers, her curiosity gets an uneasy reception even from the people she's supposedly closest to. The details that emerge, along with Max's steadfast kindness and decency, make Mia wonder if this could be a chance to start her life over. Was she a terrible person before, and if so, was she only self-centered, or actually scamming people? Can she build a life and relationships she'll actually be proud of? What is she going to do to pay the bills (of which there are apparently many)? And when will her memory of the night she was injured come back?

The novel's Los Angeles setting is the perfect backdrop for a story about image and reality. Mia's travels take her through neighborhoods that go from gritty to glamorous in mere blocks. Her previous career also straddles the line between glitz and harsh reality, and several encounters with Crystal, a no-nonsense former colleague (and possible frenemy) give Mia a dose of truth about her work and the person she was. Meanwhile, Max is trying to mop up the mess from a breakup with a colleague at his lab, which involved her sabotaging the lie detector they were working on together. Max may be a brilliant scientist--his Instagram handle is "Black Einstein," and he's definitely earned it--but when it comes to figuring out relationships, he may need a little help from the girl who's lost her memory.

Tschida's narrative plays with truth and lies, love and infatuation, and the notion of who a person is, or can become, when all the trappings of modern life (and even their e-mail inbox) are stripped away. Readers may cringe as Mia makes a few missteps--she might be trying, but she's far from perfect, and she can't even blame her head injury for all her mistakes. But Mia's journey is ultimately a story of growth: taking an honest look at uncomfortable truths and deciding to do better. By the end of the novel, Mia has decided to live up to her Instagram handle, @Mia4Realz, no matter how uncomfortable her filter-free life gets.

Wry and witty with surprising depth, Siri, Who Am I? is a satire of our Instagram-obsessed world, but it's also a sweet love story and an incisive look at one young woman's decision to change her life after it's been changed for her. --Katie Noah Gibson

Quirk Books, $15.99, trade paper, 352p., 9781683691686, January 12, 2021

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Sam Tschida: Real Life vs. a Curated Version

(photo: Ingrid Weise)

Sam Tschida (pronounced "cheetah") is based in Minneapolis. She works as a book editor and teaches writing classes, when she's not wrangling her gang of children and dogs. Siri, Who Am I? (Quirk Books, January 12, 2021) is her first novel.

What was the inspiration for Siri, Who Am I?

I wrote a book before this one where someone had a head injury. This is a very different iteration. I kept thinking: What if this happened? What if this happened? My sister-in-law is a neuroscientist, and my dad's a neurologist, so everyone I know is squeezed into the book in some ways.

Your protagonist, Mia, wakes up with a head injury and has to try and reconstruct her life via social media.

With social media, we're all living a double life in some ways--that's where I started. Everybody presents a certain life online that isn't necessarily the true version of themselves. If you go from that point and try to rebuild your life, you're not going to end up with who you truly are.

As Mia tries to uncover her life, she's in a unique position: she's just getting to know herself, and she's not sure she likes who she's meeting. I liked the idea of putting her in that position. If you look at yourself based only on what you're putting out online, would you like that person? I thought it was interesting to think about identity in different ways.

Mia gradually discovers that her life--even her self--isn't what she thought.

Yes, that was deliberate. I wanted her life to feel perfect, and then it gradually falls apart. Mia has a romance with her own identity at first. It's a meet-cute with the version of herself that she put out to the world, and she gradually realizes that's not the true version of herself. Nor is it the version of herself she wants to be. She has to decide what to do about that.

Max, the neuroscientist, is a great foil for Mia.

Max is a super-smart neuroscientist, but he doesn't have any money. He and Mia are basically on the same financial plane. He's a straight-line, objective person, and sometimes he misses the human component of things.

Mia is lying to herself, and she finds out she's been lying to other people as well. I wanted Max to prioritize the truth in his work, and I wanted them to find out they're worried about the same things. I wanted him to also be lying to himself, because who isn't, in some way? Mia doesn't want to see the bad things about herself, and Max doesn't either. But they both reach a point where they have to face up to some things.

Tell us about the plotting process.

I love mysteries, and somewhere along the way I realized: This is a mystery! I hadn't intended to write one of those. I realized there were all these mysteries in the plot, and I had to get my act together, plotting-wise.

I've never thought of myself as a good plotter, but my editor said along the way that I was a great plotter. I think I've shied away from plotting a bit in the past because I like to surprise myself--otherwise writing can feel kind of stale. But I really had to sit down and make one thing happen in each chapter, to get the story to move forward. Sometimes I would write a chapter, and I didn't know who the characters were, or who they were going to turn out to be. I would sit down with my characters and ask them, "What should we do today?" It was hard to keep Mia on task, because I'm not naturally on task.

Mia doesn't always make good decisions, but she still feels like a sympathetic character.

That part was tricky. I really wanted a heroine who's a giant mess. Mia's definitely not always a good person, and I struggled to take people along on her journey, knowing that. When you ask a reader to go on a journey with a character, most of the time the reader needs to like that person and be okay with most of their decisions. Mia's not always making the best decisions, but she's looking at herself from a new angle, and trying to grow toward making herself a better person.

Has writing the book changed the way you think about social media?

Definitely. I tried to play around with it and post things that Mia might post, just so I could try it out and see what I thought. I think I've probably posted less since writing the book. I should probably be posting more, since I'm now supposed to be promoting the book! I also started following influencers, to see what kind of posts they had, and what their version of the world looks like. But it is just an amplified version of what everybody else does. People curate their lives and post little snippets--the vision/version they want people to see. There's a movement now to share things in a messier way, but that's also a curated version of your existence. You can't get around it--you have to select some things to share. It's contrived, but it's not necessarily bad.

Mia's particular situation is unusual, but on some level, she's all of us.

Social media is such a ubiquitous part of our lives, and I don't know if we fully understand it yet. The whole book is an examination of social media. It can be harmful. I think women in particular tend to portray a sunny, beautiful version of themselves that is false, and no one sees the real them. That's something women can fall prey to--you're either always perfect, or imperfect in a cute way, so you don't connect. The real 'you' is hidden. It's like heroines in a romantic comedy--they always have one relatable flaw.

I also wanted Mia to be distracted by her beautiful life. She wants to believe the lie so badly that she doesn't question things we should really be questioning. But she eventually gets there. --Katie Noah Gibson

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