Joan Silber, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize for Ideas of Heaven, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City. Her most recent novel is The Size of the World.My two favorite books this year were a new and an old. I loved Margot Livesey’s new novel, The House on Fortune Street. Like all of Livesey’s work, it has a mystery to it that is dark and yet has elements of beauty. Here four characters tell separate tales, united by their connection to a suicide and by their own jagged family histories. I heard Livesey on NPR, just after the book came out, and she said she thought what kept people from “free will” was not “pre-destination” but what we now call “baggage,” the remnants of the past we drag with us. The fates of these characters stayed with me – it’s a haunting book.This year I also re-read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. First published in 1979, these are wild re-tellings of fairy tales, with all the blood and sex and cruelty brought to the surface. Carter got amazing mileage out of feminist re-envisionings of wolf tales and Beauty and the Beast. In all of these, the woods are dangerous, our own animal natures lie in wait, and sex is not for sissies. Carter. who died much too young at 51, forged her own path, and her boldness still sends sparks.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Margot Livesey’s latest novel is The House on Fortune Street, an absorbing, beautiful and sad story told from multiple perspectives. Richard Eder of the New York Times remarks, “Livesey’s writing is acutely observant; her psychological algebra is admirable and sometimes astonishing,” and Alice Sebold says, “her work radiates with a compassion and intelligence and always, deliciously, mystery.” Margot Livesey’s previous books include Eva Moves the Furniture and Banishing Verona.The Millions: The House on Fortune Street is split into four interlocking narratives that overlap and echo one another. How did you decide on this structure, and what informed the ordering of these narratives?Margot Livesey: I wrote the first part of the novel, Sean’s section, in the late nineties, hoping that it would be a novella. I sent it to Robert Boyers at Salmagundi magazine. He wrote back an immensely thoughtful rejection letter which made me realise how much I’d left out of Sean’s story. I knew, however, that I didn’t want to expand the novella in a conventional way, that that wasn’t what I was after, and I put it aside first to revise Eva Moves the Furniture and then to write Banishing Verona. But Sean remained on my desk and almost as soon as Banishing Verona was out in the world I found myself sitting down to write the second section of the novel, from Cameron’s point of view. So I can’t say exactly when I decided on the four sections, but once I did I knew where I was going and that I wanted to write a novel in which, as in life, the story came to you from different sources. I also loved the idea of replaying events from different angles, not in a Rashomon-like way but in a way that expanded or changed your opinions.TM: At the end of the novel, Abigail says her grandfather always thought “everyone had a book, or a writer, that was the key to their life.” This is certainly the case for your characters: Sean refers to Keats, Cameron to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Abigail to Dickens, and Dara to Charlotte Bronte. For better or for worse, your characters look to the stories and/or biographies of their favorite artists to help them navigate through life. I wonder if this theme, which seems central to the story in many ways, helped in your conception of these characters. Did it shape their destinies on the page? Were there particular challenges to weaving this real life art into your fictional world?ML: The idea of giving each of my characters what I think of as a literary godparent came to me when I was working on Sean’s section. As a graduate student of English he had to have an area of study and I decided that Keats – the poet of erotic love, early death and immortality – was the perfect choice. Then of course it got a little harder with my characters who weren’t doing Ph.Ds, but I still loved the idea of how a literary godparent could point to a character’s deepest concerns and enlarge the reader’s understanding. My rule for picking the godparents was that they had to be well known and nineteenth century and somehow I had strong instinctive feelings about who was right for who – Dickens, for instance, would never have been a good fit for Dara. The biggest challenge was working the necessary information into the plot in a natural way so that the reader could enjoy this aspect of the novel.TM: It seems to me that The House on Fortune Street is very much interested in how our actions reverberate and affect other people, and how relationships, whether they be familial, platonic, or romantic, are limited by our own solipsism. How did you use the book’s central event – a character committing suicide – to express the relationships between these characters?ML: One of the questions I was trying to explore in Fortune Street was how damage gets passed down in families, or not. Why do some people emerge from traumatic childhoods relatively unscathed while others are irrevocably marked? Dara’s suicide, an ultimately mysterious event, is the deepest expression of this question. The other characters don’t really see Dara, in part because she is an excellent listener, in part because they’re distracted by their own preoccupations, or, in her father’s case, by guilt.I was also eager to examine a long friendship between two women and the complexities of that relationship. I hoped that readers would begin by condemning Abigail for her treatment of both Sean and Dara and end up having a much more complicated response.TM: In one of these sections you portray a man attracted to little girls, and you do so with such compassion and depth that it’s hard not to sympathize with his shameful and secret desire. Your depiction of loneliness and isolation is really incredible, Margot. One of the differences between this narrative and the others is that it’s told in first person, whereas the other three are told in close third. Why is Cameron’s point of view different from the other characters’? How did you go about creating such a complicated character?ML: What a generously phrased question. I was very concerned in writing about Cameron, a man who gazes longingly at young girls, that readers might simply condemn him out of hand. One way to make them more sympathetic – or at least more ready to suspend judgment – was to cast his narrative as a confessional. I think we tend to have a soft spot for someone who is telling us the worst about himself. Using a different point of view also fitted with Cameron being a member of a different generation than the other three characters. I decided to make his best friend gay as another way of commenting on his inappropriate desires. Lastly I tried to make it clear that Cameron judges himself quite harshly. He is confessing but not trying to excuse or mitigate his behaviour.TM: You grew up in Scotland, went to college and worked in England, and, after teaching at an impressive number of universities all over the United States, you now spend much of the year in Massachusetts. How has living in so many places informed your writing – and perhaps more importantly, your narrative voice and style?ML: I am not sure I know how to answer this question in a broader way. I do think that spending so much time in the States has given me a very particular way of looking at life in Britain. In many ways being here is like living in the future; things happen first in the US and then elsewhere. In the case of The House of Fortune Street I did try to replicate the rather fragmentary nature of my own life in the form of the novel.TM: And because this is a book blog, I must ask you: What’s the last good book you read?ML: Do I have to answer in the singular? I loved Joan Silber’s The Size of the World and Joseph O’Neill’s equally cosmopolitan Netherland.
Joan Silber’s most recent novel, The Size of the World, is sweeping yet intimate, the kind of book that will take you across continents, and deep into characters’ individual lives. She is the author of the story collection, Ideas of Heaven, which was nominated for the National Book Award, as well as four other works of fiction.The Millions: The Size of the World is billed as a novel, although it could also be called a novel-in-stories or a collection of linked stories. While the book is in fact short stories that are either tangentially or deeply connected, it has the narrative drive of a more conventional novel. Really, it’s addictive. When you were writing the book, did you conceive of it as belonging to a particular genre? How did you balance writing separate narratives while still maintaining such delightful readability?Joan Silber: I did have the idea that I wanted to write a composite fiction more unified than what I’d done before – a hybrid between the novel and linked stories – but I didn’t exactly know what I was doing till I was into it. Which is to say, I made it up as I went along but I mostly knew what I was after. It was very gratifying to me to see how certain characters (Owen especially, who has the ending chapter) could come in again and be re-imagined in a way that pushed the story further. I’m very glad if the connections themselves caused a kind of narrative suspense.I knew this form would suit a book about people leaving home, with settings in Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, etc. But sometimes I think I won’t ever go back to writing a single-plotted novel. There’s a quote from John Berger, “Never again will a single story be told as if it’s the only one.” I think that’s pretty much what I believe, and this method fits with that, for me.TM: Last month you wrote for The Millions about reading books written by the citizens of the countries you’re traveling in. Did this reading prepare and/or inspire you to pen your novel? What other kinds of research, if any, did you do for this book?JS:I love doing research. Well, it’s easier than writing. In the early stages the research gives me details – Michael Herr’s Dispatches told me civilians in Vietnam were not liked by the military, for instance. Later, I zoom in on what I want – after I had written about an American woman married to a southern Thai Muslim, I went hunting for historical material on southern Thailand. And I found a great memoir by a tin prospector that served as the basis for another section.I’m addicted to online research. While I was writing the book, I hit Google many, many times a day, looking up the Feast of San Giuseppe in Sicily or the rules for Thai monks or the languages of Indian groups in Chiapas, Mexico.TM: I love to teach your story “My Shape” (which appears in Ideas of Heaven and was recently anthologized in the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction) because it’s a great example of how to tell a story in lush, detailed summary, rather than depicting it largely in scene. This pacing technique returns in The Size of the World, where you manage to capture a character’s whole life (or close to that) in a single chapter. Is this is a conscious craft decision on your part? What’s attractive to you about this kind of storytelling?JS: I have two somewhat contradictory impulses at this point in my life. I’m a miniaturist by nature – I love the small moment seen intensely. And I love the sweep of time passing. (In real life too, it moves me to see how people surprise themselves by where they end up.) It was a nice discovery for me to see that summary could be written as if it were scene, drawn with details. And this allowed me to get the intimacy of close narration into stories with a broader scope.I do like life-stories. The deepest ironies are in those lurching shifts people make, bit by bit.TM: The narratives in The Size of the World are all told in the first person, as are the stories in Ideas of Heaven. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in the first person? What have been its benefits and drawbacks for you?JS: I came a little late to first person – my first two books were written without it. It strikes me now (I just thought this) that, oddly enough, I came to it as I began to move further from myself. Perhaps third-person at first gave me a distance I needed, and then I needed something else. I’m always trying to capture the emotional logic of characters, what they say to themselves about what they’re doing. I like the directness of hearing them sum themselves up. I’m not really trying to capture their speaking voices so much as their inner voices. The sentences are meant as translations of their thoughts.If there’s a decision about whether to “style” the prose to sound historical or flavored with vernacular, I usually opt for neutral wording. So, for instance, in the chapter about Annunziata, who comes from Sicily to New Jersey, I avoided inflecting her English (she’d probably think in Sicilian anyway) but I took pains to convey her reasoning.”Pains” is right. It takes a lot of trial-and-error to get the voices, especially at first. But the commenting that first-person voices can do is very handy for jumping over spans of time.TM: Ideas of Heaven was nominated for the National Book Award in 2004, and you were one of five women finalists. I was dismayed by the outcry following the nomination announcement; how did you deal with such reactions?JS: I think critics felt left out of the loop, since they’d never heard of us. (I’d heard of most of us, actually.) Their strongest objection was that we weren’t famous, which we already knew. I didn’t immediately think the criticism was anti-female, but after a while I came to think that some of it was. The good part was that we five got to know each other – we had dinners at my house and at Lily’s and have lunched in recent times. Christine Schutt has a terrific new novel out (Kate Walbert and I were at the kick-off reading) and Lily Tuck has a biography of the writer Elsa Morante out very soon. And we all like to think that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s daughter was named Willa and not Kimberly because of our advice.There were many good after-effects for me. A few months after the nomination, The New York Review of Books ran a great piece by Lorrie Moore, on that book and my others. What writer doesn’t want that? I feel that the nomination put me on the map and is the reason I’ve been getting good coverage on this new book.TM: Jessica on the Written Nerd blog calls you one of the most underrated writers in America, even after your National Book Award nomination. How do you feel about such a title?JS: I was very thrilled to see what she wrote.TM And, because this is a lit blog, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?JS: I can think of two – Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a story collection, and Margot Livesey’s novel, The House on Fortune Street. Toibin (whose previous book, The Master, I unexpectedly loved) packs each story with deft complexity, a resistance to the obvious, and a level of insight that is both cutting and humane. There’s something beautifully startling about his work – I’m still trying to figure out how he does it. Margot Livesey’s latest, The House on Fortune Street, is a novel with four interlocking parts, quite brilliantly composed. The plot has a center – there is the puzzle of a suicide to be solved – but it spins out in other directions. My judgment of various characters kept shifting and getting turned around. Especially remarkable is the nuanced treatment of a decent man with a Lewis Carroll-like attraction to young girls. A rare and original book.