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A Voice of Our Own: Debra Jo Immergut in Conversation with Lisa Gornick

I met Lisa Gornick last spring, at a gathering of women writers in the living room of a gracious old Brooklyn Heights townhouse overlooking a rain-soaked back garden. I didn’t know it at the time—I hadn’t read her latest work yet—but it was the perfect setting to encounter Gornick as she prepared to publish her fourth work of fiction, The Peacock Feast. Historic, vibrantly appointed New York City homes are at the very heart of this panoramic saga, which centers on a family descended from a pair of servants employed by Louis C. Tiffany. This century-spanning tale by the acclaimed author of Louisa Meets Bear and Tinderbox has now landed (Meg Wolitzer called it “both grand and intimate”). I was happy for the chance to quiz Gornick on the secrets of the book’s intricate structure, and to compare notes on writerly hopes, ambitions, and angst in the strange cultural landscape of 2019.

1. On Time

Debra Jo Immergut:  The Peacock Feast is a novel obsessed with time—its mysteries, its ravages, the costs and benefits that accrue with the passage of years. This is certainly an obsession we share. But I’m awed that the narrative covers more than a century. Were you intimidated by the prospect of crafting a story that would unfold over so many years? Quite amazingly, you kept the novel at a very manageable length—were you ever afraid it would become an 800-pager?

Lisa Gornick: Wide-ranging and labyrinthine as the plot and narrative are in The Peacock Feast, its most elemental structure is simple: a line segment bounded by, on one end, the baroque peacock feast Louis C. Tiffany threw in 1914 at his Long Island estate and, at the other end, the meeting, nearly a century later, of two women, both of whose lives were shaped by Tiffany.  Before I could decide how I would tell a story that stretches over four generations of a family as they traverse multiple social classes, I had to flesh out its contours as it unfolded against a century of American history — which involved a prodigious amount of research.

In The Captives, you, too, are telling a story that stretches over decades. Your timeline begins in 1981, when Miranda, your female protagonist, is 13 and ends with the postscript in 2016 from the point of view of Frank, your male — I don’t think I can call him protagonist, though you present him too compassionately to deem him an antagonist — central character. When in your process did you commit to the structure you employ?

DJI: True, The Captives covers more than 30 years — but I hardly think of it this way because the present action of the story unfolds in less than two years. I find a compressed timeline simply helps me focus on moving action forward. I layer in flashbacks that explore my characters’ histories and motivations. So, the idea of a lot of tumult in a short time dictated the structure of The Captives and even more the shape of my next novel, which takes place over the course of a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days I tackle a novel that takes place in a single day or even an hour.

LG: One of my loves in literature is what I call the “tight-frame” novel: books like Mrs. Dalloway and Embers and Crossing to Safety in which the present action is constricted to a short stretch of time, but the narrative includes accounts of entire lives. While The Peacock Feast doesn’t fit this moniker, its backbone is the weeklong encounter between Prudence, a 101-year-old woman who was born on the Tiffany estate, where her parents worked as gardener and maid, and her 43-year-old hospice nurse great niece, Grace, who she’s never known existed. Whereas in Mrs. Dalloway, the past — what we learn about Clarissa’s relationships with Sally and Peter and her marriage — illuminates Clarissa’s experiences the day of the party, in The Peacock Feast, the reverse is more operative: the conversations between Prudence and Grace cast light backwards on the hidden history of how they become who they are.

DJI: How do you keep track of multiple time lines? I was struck by the book’s internal rhythm — the narrative bubbles along with a sort of musical point and counterpoint. Did that come naturally, or did you have a plan about when to shift from one timeline to the next?

LG: With three storylines — Prudence’s, Grace’s, and theirs together — that ultimately braid together, not to mention various historical characters each with their own chronologies, I never could have kept the dates straight without timelines. As for when to shift between storylines: each storyline unfolds chronologically, though to bedevil matters, portions of Prudence’s and Grace’s stories are told to each other, which then stimulate memories. Musical composition contains so many lessons for writers, and I did think about the storylines as musical themes: aiming to let each develop but returning soon enough to the other threads that their momentum would not be lost. Superimposed on this rhythm between storylines was a more granular rhythm between sentences and sections — long and short; associative as in thought, propulsive as in emotion.

You mentioned the risk of an 800-page behemoth, and though I never approached that length, I ultimately cut many, many subplots and characters because, as I could only see later, they were undermining the centrality of the evolving relationship between Prudence and Grace.

2. The Uses of Intuition

LG: Both of our books have a mystery at their core — and The Captives was just nominated for the Edgar Best First Novel award. In my novel, the reader and the main characters are in the same shoes: they don’t know what happened. With The Captives, however, Miranda knows very well why she landed in prison. I’m curious whether your decision to narrate Frank’s chapters in first person and Miranda’s in close third-person was a way of handling the unfolding of the mystery, or if it happened intuitively.

DJI: It was an intuitive decision, and also a purely selfish one. For me, writing only happens as part of a pitched internal battle. I’m compelled to write, but part of me absolutely rebels against it, because it is such hard and sometimes painful work. I finally figured out that I do best when I give myself some sort of enlivening challenge. Switching back and forth between Frank’s first-person narration and Miranda’s third-person allowed me to play with voice and style. Then, over the long stop-and-go history of this project, I began to realize the narrative advantages of Miranda’s more distanced point-of-view—it left her space to keep secrets.

Speaking of style, Tiffany provides the aesthetic underpinning of this narrative—you gorgeously describe the sumptuousness of his homes, and that detailed jewel-toned imagery seem to bleed into all the other descriptive passages in the novel. Surprisingly, though Tiffany is a central influence on the action and looms large in the characters’ psyches, he makes only a brief, silent appearance in one scene. Did you intend for him to have this ghostly presence? What are the roots of your fascination with him—and do you have a special love for his work and its aesthetic?

LG: I didn’t realize that Tiffany was so off-stage until after I finished the novel, but, in retrospect, it makes sense because the novel is not about him: it’s about the impact on others of the sadism that’s an inevitable part of perfectionism and the legacy of feeling dehumanized that lingers over a century. I’d never particularly liked what I knew of Tiffany’s work—largely his lamps and stained-glass windows, which struck me as treacly and have acquired a patina of kitsch over the years. My view of Tiffany as an artist, however, was turned on its head when I saw an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now more than a decade ago, about Laurelton Hall, his Long Island estate, for which he served as architect, interior designer, and landscaper: an extraordinarily beautiful and lavish historical mash-up with a loggia that borrowed from the Red Fort at Agra and a courtyard that evoked the Topkapi Palace.

3. Writing While Hyphenated
DJI: We both have spent years balancing fiction writing with many other pursuits. Can you talk about your journey as a “hyphenate” novelist?

LKG: I’ve been writing since I was a child, but it never occurred to me that I could solely pursue writing. Rather, my family culture and circumstances made it imperative that I acquire both an advanced degree and have a secure means of supporting myself. Working as an analyst and writing fiction draw from the same wellspring: an appreciation of narrative and an understanding of how emotions and language are entwined. As I’ve written about elsewhere, for a long time, there was a happy marriage between my two professions. There were many factors that lead to the ultimate divorce, including the birth of my second child, which made having two demanding jobs in addition to being a hands-on parent impossible, the increased complexity of my fiction writing, which could no longer be relegated to “borrowed time” (which at one point was four to seven a.m.), and the explosion of the internet, which undid the comfortable separation I’d been able to maintain between my professions. Nonetheless, stopping practicing as an analyst hasn’t stopped my being an analyst: It’s still the primary lens through which I look at the world, and through which I understand my characters and the writing process.

How about you?  Can you tell about your “hyphenate” journey as a fiction writer?

DJI: First, I must say that your deep knowledge of human psyche informs every page of this story. Plenty of novelists are “self-styled analysts” but it is fascinating to read a work by someone with real bona fides in this area. It shows.

I worked as a magazine editor, trying—and often failing miserably—to balance a fulltime job with parenting, household duties, and writing. I sometimes call my story “a triumph of intermittent persistence.” I walked away from my writing desk for years at a time, but I always found my way back. There’s a machismo in the literary world about discipline, the ironclad full-time writing routines, and so on. That kind of talk used to fill me with real shame—at a deep level, I truly believed in myself as a writer, but I felt I wasn’t acting like a writer was supposed to act. So, I’ve been trying to add a small voice to the conversation—one that says that you actually can walk away from this work at times, you can write only on weekends, or one night a week (I wrote much of my second novel’s earliest iteration in a one-night-a-week group at a neighbor’s house). The work will be there, waiting for you, when life allows you to return.

My second novel explores this topic—how a working mother’s thwarted creative ambitions drive her to extreme measures. In that context, I’ve been rereading A Room of One’s Own. I mean, how ahead of her time was Virginia Woolf? It’s uncanny to read the book in the current era, as women try to use their collective power to redress some old wrongs and resist new ones. As I returned to the fiction scene after many years away, I’ve been pleased to discover a solid sense of community among women writers. We met, in fact, at a supportive gathering of authors of the female persuasion. Writers have a reputation of being very sharp-elbowed, but that has not been my experience lately. What do you think? Are women authors just more aware of our common challenges?

LG: Now, I’m feeling guilty that my mentioning how I carved out writing time during the early years of being a mother contributed to that machismo view you’re trying to counteract.  There is no correct way to be a writer: We each have to find our own way that works for our personality and within our circumstances.  Many writers proceed in the intermittent pattern you describe, either because it’s their creative style to work in blasts (think Faulkner’s legendary six weeks for writing As I Lay Dying) or because it’s how they’re able to manage other demands. I wrote my first novel when my older son was a toddler and I was in full-time practice and analytic training.  Every morning, he would wake early and come into the little study I’d fashioned in a portion of our dining room and go back to sleep on the loveseat I’d put next to my desk. It would never have worked if he hadn’t been the kind of sound sleeper he was or if I hadn’t been the age I was then, able to burn the candle at both ends.  It was a sweet and special time, and I’m sure some of that emotional field must have seeped into that novel. Fundamentally, though, it didn’t feel like a choice to me: It was what I needed to keep my sanity.

For most women writers, it’s been a tough road both to create our work and to get it into print. My experience of the community of women writers is in line with yours: characterized by warm helpful hands, not sharp elbows. You are a perfect example: We’d met only once when I emailed you with a publishing question, and yet you sensed the urgency I felt for an answer and pulled off the highway to call me to respond!

As a woman writer, the largest challenge for me has been balancing mothering and creative work. Neither looks kindly on compromises.  I’m certain there are male writers—perhaps Knausgård with his epic struggle? — who experience this challenge at an equivalent pitch, but I’ve never met one. For me, and for many of my women writer friends, there is a profound contradiction between two truths: On the one hand, mothering and writing can both bring us into contact with deep wells of feeling and an understanding of human nature and can therefore fuel each other. On the other hand, to write requires something even more radical than Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own: It requires a mind of our own — and that, to be brutally honest, often requires cutting ourselves off from children and household, for three hours a day, or one evening a week, or for more welcoming stretches of time.

DJI: We both have a longer view of publishing and how it has changed. Does the current sense of urgency about the fate of fiction, publishing — and the world in general — inform your work and your ambitions for it?

LG: I’m aware that many writers have felt so distressed about our current political situation, they’ve either been unable to write or have decided to devote themselves to activism — a decision I respect, though it’s not been my own. Perhaps it’s sophomoric or naively idealistic, but I believe in fiction as a means of nourishing the best in humanity. Reading a novel requires solitude, concentration, unplugging from the daily onslaught.  It’s a kind of meditation and a way of resetting the distracted, jangling mind so as to allow for reflection.  And, as has been amply said and now scientifically studied, reading fiction develops empathy. It doesn’t surprise me that our last president, in my view, one of the most compassionate public figures of modern times, is both a passionate reader and gifted writer, nor that our current president, in my view, the most callous and base of politicians, reads nothing — most certainly not books — and writes only tweets.

As for the state of publishing, I don’t think it’s ever been static or that the current condition is entirely dispiriting. I’m cheered by how vibrant so many independent presses are, and how the work of their writers is being so recognized: two of the five nominees for this year’s National Book Critics Circle fiction award are from small presses! What’s most important, it seems to me, is to understand both how very heterogeneous publishing is with different sectors having entirely different aims, and to interrogate ourselves about our ambitions.  If you’re writing poetry or literary fiction, it’s unlikely that you’re going to sell a five-digit number of books. If you’re writing celebrity tell-alls, it’s unlikely that your work will receive a review in The New Yorker.  In the end, I’d say there’s wisdom in the old canard: embark on being a writer only if you’re unable to not be a writer. If you are one of those persons for whom transforming experience into words is required to feel fully alive, putting pen to paper will help you achieve that.  Nothing else is guaranteed.

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