Kate Christensen and Lara Santoro come together to discuss their literary influences, the origins of greatness, and how to get things done in fiction.
Kate Christensen is the author of numerous novels, including The Great Man, (Doubleday, 2007) which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2008. I met Kate several Christmases ago at a holiday party in Taos, New Mexico, and was told she was a famous author who had graduated from the same college as me. She was humble, almost shy. It wasn’t until this year that I read The Great Man and discovered the brilliance of her writing.
Lara Santoro is the author of Mercy, a novel about a woman journalist working in Africa during the AIDS crisis, which was published in 2007 by Other Press and was a finalist for the Foreward Independent Press Award. Her novel The Boy is forthcoming from Little Brown in early 2013. Lara and I worked together at a small restaurant in Taos where I frequently pestered her, trying to glean as much insight about writing as I could during the busy, frantic hours of service. I admire her courage and forcefulness as a person and a writer.
To complete the circle, Lara and Kate met in Chicago in 2007, when they were both on book tour. After hearing one another read, they went out for dinner, which was, as Lara says, “the only fun I had on that tour.” The two writers discovered kindred spirits in one another and have kept in touch ever since. It was my pleasure to bring them together for this conversation, which took place through an exchange of emails, about the merits and pitfalls of American versus British literature, how to find the muse, and loneliness as a source for great writing.
Kate Christensen Hello, Lara! Do you read me?
Lara Santoro Hello, yes! I read you.
So here is the first question: Who, in your opinion, is the best American novelist alive—and dead?
KC The notion of “the best” is a hard thing for me to reckon with when it comes to novelists. First of all, I haven’t even read so many of my contemporaries. And my mind goes blank when I’m confronted with choosing absolute favorites among the enormous population of writers I love and admire, the huge mass of novels, of books. “The best” is a shifting, slippery thing. Writers I love and admire, that’s easier. You, for one. I think the greatest living writer is [J. M.] Coetzee, who isn’t American. Like most writers, I have always read everything, anything, indiscriminately and voraciously, cramming it all into my brain and digesting it and learning from it. A lot of my favorite writers are English, not American: George Eliot, for one. Do you have an idea of the best living and dead American writers?
LS Well I would have to say Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell among the living and Faulkner among the dead. Oh, and Flannery O’Connor. I think there is a vein in American literature that is concerned with tragedy in a way that the Russians for instance, who are constantly feeling the pain of the world and crying into their vodka, can’t begin to replicate. I think it’s the relative newness and rawness of the American experience, the speed at which it all happened, and it’s all reflected in the language, which is my main obsession. It’s interesting you mentioned Coetzee because Disgrace, to me, is a masterpiece in the same savage vein (and he’s not American otherwise he’d be up there). The prose is subtle, refined, chiseled in the European tradition—the sentences are longer, more articulated—whereas you read someone like Woodrell and you’re lucky if you get a comma, never mind a semicolon. Chandler is an example of someone who chose to reduce his sensitivity—which was essentially British—to gain immediacy in prose.
You belong to and are attracted to the George Eliot tradition, which involves careful observation of human nature in the social context, and you write with the humor and compassion that comes with that inclination. At the same time, your books are structured and disciplined and good, and I have read and loved every single one of them. There are as many reasons to write as there are writers, and I say this with some hesitation, but someone like Cormac McCarthy doesn’t want to observe you—he wants to destroy you. It’s just what attracts us, what makes us want to write. So I guess the next question, which was the first question, is what drives you to write?
Cormac McCarthy said on NPR that he felt tragedy was at the core of the human experience and he only ever wanted to write about the core. I posted that comment on Facebook and raised a shit storm from people whose writing I really respect . . .
KC I haven’t read Woodrell, but I will now because you think so highly of him. Agreed about Faulkner and O’Connor. I like that you point out McCarthy’s punitive aggression, which I have trouble with because I find it didactic, limited. You are as brutally moral in your vision as he is, and your language is also sparely elegant. But at the core of your work there’s a human warmth, a fierce compassion, that I find totally lacking in his.
It’s interesting, the question of greatness—it’s made me think about what it is, what its hallmarks are. What I love about both Coetzee and Eliot, and all writers I consider great—Hardy, as well—is that they’re implicated in their characters’ weaknesses; they do not appear to judge from on high, they show humanity with mordant or tender or brutal or ironic clarity—not sentimentally, not cerebrally, and not idealistically. Disgrace is a masterpiece, I agree, as well as The Age of Iron, and Summertime, which is insanely courageous, is one of the most original novels I’ve ever read. Middlemarch is as chockful of life as a novel can possibly be without exploding, and it has so few and such minor weaknesses—the characters of Raffles and Ladislaw come to mind—that I would call it the most “perfect” novel ever written.
To answer your question, I’ve been driven to write for all my conscious life, starting when I was a very small kid. I require it for any sense of identity I have. It feels necessary; if I don’t write for too long, I’m not sure I exist or know who I am, and I start to fade around the edges and blur and dissolve. Are you this way, too?
Also, I wish you would talk more about McCarthy’s statement that tragedy is at the core of human experience: what did he mean, and how does this resonate with you?
LS Well, I’ve been thinking about it. All I can say is that has been my personal experience, too. But more to the point, I find myself unable to write about happy, well-adjusted people in happy life situations. It doesn’t interest me. What about you? You’ve written some tragic stuff . . . .
I have to defend McCarthy—also, because I happen to know that he is an extremely kind and gentle man. I think his mission was to expose the savagery that was and frankly continues to be at the core of this country and culture, while staying completely out of it. And Kate, who are we kidding, I don’t have a fraction of his talent or imaginative range: I could never begin to describe the movements and motives of a demented necrophiliac, a sociopathic murderer, a great albino sadist, along the great frontiers of this civilization. I simply couldn’t.
I know a lot of people who consider Middlemarch to be the greatest novel ever written, for good reasons, but I was talking about American writing because it continues to obsess me in the way British writing never has. I think of someone like Ray Carver and I want to scream, or I go back to The Sound and the Fury or Blood Meridian and, most recently, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister, and my blood starts to simmer in a way it never did while reading, say, Hardy.
Yes, I agree with the sense of identity you are at risk of losing during long periods of inactivity. I think those can be very dangerous periods. I try to avoid them.
I started to write to manage the crippling rush of emotions I have always been prey to. Over the years the intent behind my writing changed. I went from ranting—lyrical rantings, perhaps, but rantings all the same—in my journals, to short stories and poems and eventually novels, with the fixed goal of creating functioning structures. But unlike Mccarthy, and unlike you, who have the ability to create from completely outside your experience, I have never been able to stray too far from mine.
I think—and you are well ahead of me, so you should comment—that writing is like any other craft: you start out by making a chair, progress with some luck to a table in the hope one day you’ll be making kitchen cabinets. Do you agree?
KC For me, this question of American versus British writing gets to the heart of things. I am so at home with British writing in a way I’m not with American writing, always have been, it’s my true tradition. I’ve never understood why I was born here when I was so clearly meant to live there—I have never been to England, for the record, and I can’t get published in the UK to save my life. The Brits don’t want me and I’m too English for the Americans. Anyway, I think it comes down to sensibility. I love the tragicomic irony of [Evelyn] Waugh, for example—A Handful of Dust is one of my favorite novels of all time. [I love] the lightness of English writing, the detachment from and simultaneous acknowledgment of life’s terror, the veneer of civilization over the maw of rank, awful, brutal, life and death.
When I was ten and 15 and 20 and 25, English novels were an intoxicating relief. I grew up mostly in Arizona, and back then, in the 1970s, it was a cultural wasteland inhabited by quiet, hardworking, disenfranchised Mexicans and Indians, many of whom were alcoholic or had fetal-alcohol syndrome. The people in power were evangelical Christians—men with huge guts in white belts and white shoes and cowboy hats and big hammy red faces—and the women, helmet-headed in pantsuits, were pious, tame, soft, narrow-minded, and shocked unto cardiac arrest by my little naked hippie sisters. I come from a family of Anglophiles and am half-English by blood. Living in that desert, I was profoundly comforted reading about breakfast rooms where you took kidneys from chafing dishes, teatime, grand houses, men in riding breeches, formal balls with young women in Empire-waist dresses and ringlets. Mr. Darcy, Rochester, Jude, even Dick Francis’s jockey-detectives . . . I was in love with them all.
About your own background and upbringing—you’re Italian, but you grew up here in the States? How would you describe your cultural identity? I know you’ve lived and worked abroad as a journalist, covering wars while I was mucking around in New York living the life, essentially, of a flaneur. How did being a journalist shape your fictional sensibility?
And by sensibility, I mean that your work is excitingly awake to the consequences of individual actions—the ways that seemingly mundane missteps can result in catastrophe. In Mercy, the journalist protagonist, who is drunk and self-destructive and despairing, is confronted and transformed by the reality of Kenya, of Africa. In The Boy, the protagonist is a hardworking mother who makes a terrible decision based on passion. Both women are almost ruined, undone even, by their own appetites and blindnesses. But in both novels, there is a bracing authorial perspective, the sense that one individual story is so small in the face of larger concerns. You manage to make your protagonists so believably flawed, so absolutely sympathetic and understandable in their urges, but the countervailing forces are implacable and impersonal and far greater.
LS I grew up in Italy speaking no English and being constantly embarrassed by my mother’s American accent when she spoke Italian. Nobody in Italy spoke English in those days and my parents made the conscious decision to have a single language—Italian—spoken in the house because of my brother, who had ADHD. So I arrived to the English language very late, really around the age of 15 or 16, not long before coming out to this country for college. I remember handing in my first paper. It was [for] a General Literature class. The professor gave me a D- and wrote, as his only comment, “Is this English?” But by then I had fallen in love with the English language—how sparse and terse and economical it was compared to Italian, which is baroque and circular and laden, literally weighed down by history. Over time I came to feel that, in the sparseness department, the Americans had surpassed the Brits. That’s why I mentioned Chandler earlier. He adopted America as a country and American as a language separate from the one he learned in school. A lot of it has to do with dialogue, I think. Chandler, McCarthy (again), Carver, Faulkner . . . and I have to add DeLillo and Woodrell here. Who in England writes dialogue like that?
But let’s get to what has always bothered me about my own writing and is clearly not a problem with yours: characters. You have a vast gallery of truly great characters, some unforgettable ones. How do you get into the mind of someone like Harry Quirk, a male poet in his fifties washing up from a divorce, or that of a bitter old lesbian, Maxine? How do you make them so real? And talk about flawed . . . I read somewhere that they literally start speaking to you and won’t shut up until the book is done. Is that true?
KC That is true. The only way to get them out of my head is to write them out. They stay there until I do. I once compared them to barflies, as I recall, hanging around jabbering at me all night, which isn’t too far off the literal truth. But I love them all—Claudia, Jeremy, Hugo, Josie, and Harry—as if they were real people I’d observed, hung out with, listened to, and empathized with for months and years. And I also love the four old women in The Great Man, who are third-person, and therefore further away from me, but who inhabited my brain nonetheless and insisted on being written, all together, all at once.
Since I was a baby, I’ve been preoccupied with watching people, stalker-like, appropriating their thoughts and imagining their sensations, trying to get inside their skins, trying to feel what they feel. Since I was a little girl, I’ve lain in bed at night replaying conversations I’ve heard or had that day, trying to see them from all angles, everyone’s perspective, equally. Getting into other people’s heads is very soothing and comforting for me: escaping the tyranny of my own point of view—egomania, limited perspective—[and] letting someone else’s egomania and limited perspective become paramount. All my novels were written out of a lifelong feeling of profound loneliness. I wrote simultaneously to connect to others and to escape myself.
Maybe because I’m not lonely anymore for the first time in my life, maybe because I turn fifty this summer, this time around, it was my own voice that started to haunt me, my own voice that accrued increasing urgency in my brain until it spilled over onto the page and took on momentum. I’m just now finishing a draft of a book that’s a sort of autobiography of my life in food [Blue Plate Special: The Autobiography of an Eater], which is a great lifelong obsession of mine. I couldn’t have written this book without the discipline of the fictional “I,” the intense training those novels afforded me in objectivity and authenticity.
Are you really bothered by the closeness of your fictional “I” to yourself? Many great writers share this with you, the parallel consciousnesses of protagonist/narrator and novelist. I see it as a different way of telling a story.
LS Yes, it’s always bothered me—it seems a terrible limitation, almost a crime. If you can only write about yourself, as you pointed out, why write? Keep a journal. Shut up. I had a friend in graduate school who used to say, on the subject of writers, “Everyone should just shut the fuck up and walk around more.” He only ever wrote from the point of view of midgets or giants in fantastical settings, and he lived in Park Slope. I envied the hell out of him, I still do. As I do you. So I deliberately stuffed myself, in this new book, in the skin of a six-foot-three, two hundred pound detective, hoping he’d start talking to me, too. Not a word. But he keeps doing things, forcing situations, reaching for that bottle when he really shouldn’t, getting roughed up, ending up in jail while trying to figure out—just like I am—who killed who. He is a deeply tragic figure, that’s the only thing I know, and a bad drunk. Will I pull it off? I haven’t got a clue. You’ll be the first to know.
It’s funny. You don’t get up from your desk until you have 1,000 words. I stop at 900. Can you talk about that? The practice of writing?
KC The practice of writing is a non-negotiable daily discipline. I say 1,000, you say 900—there is no other way to do it. I don’t believe in all the hogwash about inspiration, the muse. What muse? I used to write for men I had crushes on and call them my muses, but that was really just allowing displaced, frustrated sexual attraction to act as fuel. Writing is no different from exercise, gardening, or marriage. If you don’t work at it it every day, you get flabby, the zucchini plants die on the ground, your spouse feels neglected and has an affair.
I’ve been wondering how my writing will change now that I don’t feel the constant low-pressure ache of loneliness and discontent. I’m worried I’ll deteriorate, frankly. A lot of what used to drive me no longer does—to fill a void, to situate myself, to exist fully. I just finished the book about food and my own life, and, as I said, once I settled into my own narrative voice, which was a new and tricky thing, it emerged shockingly naturally, almost unconsciously. My next novel is about 15,000 words in—I started it last fall and left it temporarily because this new book was demanding to be written and wouldn’t go away until it was. We’ll see about this novel. It’s a departure from my other ones. A Handful of Dust and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India are its touchstones and inspirations—again with the English novels!—but I predict that no one will ever, ever guess that, reading it, [because] it’s so profoundly different from both of them. It’s in a genre I think of as “Food Comedy-Romance.” It’s possibly a bit fluffy, but not, I hope, silly at all. I intend to have fun writing it and see how that goes.
The 1000 words are always book-content. The book I’m working on is advanced one daily thousand-word chunk at a time until it’s finished. I revise as I go and go back and change things and do structural work, but every day when I stop, the book has to be 1000 words longer than it was when I started.
The way I make things happen is by generating trouble, change, misunderstandings, mishaps, and problems for my protagonists. Their reactions to this create a spark of energy that drives the narrative forward. It’s always entertaining for me, and vicariously satisfying. I am a comic writer rather than a tragic one, so I tend to create people who can figure things out eventually and wind up more or less on their feet, which also satisfies me because that’s been my own experience in life.
The practice of writing has never been all that much fun. Well, sometimes it’s fun, [during] those rare times when something clicks in my head and I get to suck at the nipple of the mothership. But on the whole it’s always been, to varying degrees, scary, anxiety-making, sweaty, frustrating, depressing, and difficult. But I love it with an overwhelming passion and can’t do anything else.
LS On the subject of how things happen in fiction: it’s interesting, in my first two novels, the plot was a product of the characters. In this most recent one, I’ve set out to subjugate character to plot. I chose the most classical of approaches: the crime novel. Someone walks into a room with a gun and that’s all you’ve got—so good luck to you.
Don’t you get the sense, half the time, when you read detective stories, that the author doesn’t really know where the whole thing is going? That the story takes useless turns, but the turns keep you guessing and that’s part of the fun? Well, that’s what I am beginning to understand. Half the time you really do not know what happens next. You don’t really know who actually killed who or why, but page after page, 900 words at a time, one situation leads to another and hopefully you, the author, will find out who was behind this crazy murder and the insanity that follows.
I am with you on the non-negotiability of the daily practice. Someone once said to me, along time ago, “Sit down. Sit down and the muse will reward you.” You commented: what muse? And God knows you’re right, but there have definitively been moments when—after one or two hours spent editing the work from the day before—I’ve had things start to pick up fast. I call that a state of grace. You don’t even get out of your pajamas, it’s two o’clock in the afternoon, the day’s run out from under you, you’re dazed and confused, but you’ve had one hell of a run and nothing compares to that. Other times you’re just trotting along, trying to keep up, and that’s where the discipline comes in. No one can write unless they write all the time. It’s the only rule. We have a multi-million dollar industry based on the notion that people can teach you how to write. It’s baloney. Only you can teach yourself how to write by doing it, like any other craft.
For more on Lara Santoro, visit her website.
Follow Kate Christensen’s food blog don’t let it bring you down.
Rachel Mercer is a fiction writer from Taos, New Mexico. She now lives in Brooklyn and writes for BOMBlog.