by Valarie Clark
Despite, well, reading fiction, and taking a half-dozen graduate courses in the fiction of various time periods, I cannot, by any stretch of the definition be called a “scholar” of fiction. I’m not even a fiction writer. But for the last two years, I have found myself interviewing visiting fiction writers for Barely South Review and I have a theory about this – bear with me, it might get complicated:
I like reading good books.
Radical, I know. I’m also eternally grateful when I meet an author, and he or she turns out to be an amazing human being. Too many of us, I think, have found ourselves in a situation where a writer, a hero in some cases, turned out to be a complete jerk. It’s worse than discovering that Santa isn’t real, or that wrestling is fake, or that the “low-fat” frozen yogurt you just ate a metric ton of is actually full-fat. It’s heart-breaking to a writer because you feel the disappointment of busted hero worship, and you also think, “Jesus, am I going to turn into a jackass if I become a successful writer?”
I had a feeling after reading Girl Held in Home and Celebrities in Disgrace, two slim, unassuming tomes by fiction writer Elizabeth Searle, that the author was going to be of the non-jackass variety. Her situations: a mother and son find themselves swept up into a criminal situation, but not the one they thought they were in; a family tries to escape a devastating car accident; a figure skater/actress meets her stalker and finds herself in a kind of danger the reader wouldn’t suspect from the set up; a college student is a reluctant pawn in her professor’s fading marriage – are all fascinating in their banality. These are real people, who are thinking the same things you are, often without any witty banter or preternatural insight. It’s like watchingToddlers and Tiaras except that the people being filmed aren’t aware of it, and are completely, and utterly without artifice.
It takes quite a writer to be able to create characters and situations like that. No matter how “lost” we get in a story, that distance is still there – that recognition of the created world. But Searle’s work is filled with, not people we wish we knew, but people we do know. Shoot, in many cases, people we are.
And luckily, Searle turned out to be, of the thirty-or-so authors I’ve met during my time at Old Dominion University, helping out with their annual Literary Festival, in the top three, easy, of the nicest, most down-to-earth, and genuinely friendly people we’ve hosted. It must be crazy-making, to be traveling around, meeting hoards of people (in our case, students who may or may not have been coerced into attending the reading by a well-meaning professor), reading for hours, shaking hands with the snuffling, coughing masses, and then dealing with me, a slightly red-faced, certainly overwhelmed editor for the M.F.A. program’s literary journal, who had spent the better part of the last few days begging the visiting writers to speak with her staff in order to produce the annual Lit Fest issue. Searle had already smoothed the way for me by being one of the first to agree, via email, to an interview. As a student of nonfiction, I could have chosen Megan Stack or Claire Dederer (both awesome people, by the way – also non-jackasses), but I assigned myself Elizabeth Searle, and I am so glad I did. All else aside, this is a woman who understands my/our obsession with pop culture: she created a rock opera about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. I say this completely un-ironically: genius.
She was even really nice about my decidedly non-fiction-writer questions.
VC: In both Girl Held in Home and Celebrities in Disgrace, Point-of-View jumps from character to character. Maura and Joezy share the narrative in Girl Held in Home, and in the title story of Celebrities in Disgrace, Daniel and Kathryn. What do you feel you gain from moving around, and how do you keep from losing readers who tend to get attached to one character or another?
ES: I am close to my sister; I grew up in a sister-centric world where there were always, in a sense, two of us. So I often do duo POVs, most often (though not in the two works you mention) two “girls.” To me, jumping from POV to POV is one of the privileges and almost magical powers of a fiction writer. I always wonder as I drive along at night past various lit windows and various quick glimpses of different lives: what is going on in there? And there? How would those stories contrast or connect?
Gish Jen said something about Point of View that sticks with me. She said as a young writer she felt writing was all about “transcendence.” Then she went to graduate school and decided, no, writing is all about “Point of View.” Then when she got out of grad. school and really started writing, she decided that writing IS all about “transcendence” but you reach that transcendence via Point of View.
I agree. Nowhere but fiction can you really delve into so many different intimate thoughts and views and get a full poetic sense of perspective on the many mysterious and outrageous slings and arrows of life. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work and that’s the kind of thing I aim for when I jump from character to character. But yes, as you say, anytime you make that kind of decision as a writer you risk losing some readers. There are readers and writers who prefer a single narrator, a first person POV. I do have some stories written in first or even second person. But in my two novels and my novella I have opted for a split POV.
In my first novel A Four-Sided Bed I split the POV between two women who are referred to at times as “Girl A” and “Girl B.” In my opera and rock opera about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, I focus of course on two female POVs. In Girl Held In Home there are, as you note in a later question here, two female characters who both are in a sense ‘trapped.’ For me as a writer, it’s all about (to quote the tag line of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera) “Two Girls Going for the Gold.”
VC: Why was it important for you to show only Maura’s and Joezy’s perspective? Why not Rakeen or One?
ES: Different writers would tell this story different ways; I picked the way that best fit the elements of the story that I knew best and that happened to interest me the most: mother/son relationships, the effect of post-9/11 stress on a middle-class family, the shock of discovering a “crime in the neighborhood.” In early versions of this novel, I did go into the POV of my character One, who was based on several real-life women I knew, including a young woman from Vietnam who went by the name “One.”
However, in giving her POV and revealing this character’s situation early on, I found as a storyteller I lost a lot of narrative drive. A reader/writer I trust told me after reading my draft that when there is a “mystery” element in a story, it is sometimes best to keep that element a mystery as long as possible. She felt I should try telling this story just from the mom and son. And I found when I did that, the narrative really took off for me, fueled by the almost detective-novel element of Joezy trying to figure out what on earth is going on with One.
With Rakeen, I never considered tackling his POV. For me as a writer, it was already a stretch to be doing a male POV on Joezy, a boy from a background I knew a lot about. Other writers would feel differently, but for me taking on a male POV on a character from a totally different background from mine was such a stretch it did not feel do-able to me in this story. But Rakeen is to me in some ways the hero of the novel and I was very ‘into’ him– even though I stayed ‘outside’ his head.
Regarding One, the “girl” in Girl, I want to add that one of my latest projects (see my answer to your last question) is a one act play called “Stolen Girl Song” in which I attempt to enter the POV of a young woman in a similar ‘trapped’ situation as One. So for that project, I do try to enter into a One-like POV. For each project, I just have to follow my own instincts and find out– which is sometimes harder than it sounds, as I tell my students often– what most interests me in a particular story and what is the most interesting angle I can take to tell this story the best way I know how.
VC: Why set Girl Held in Home around the events of 9/11, and why is One Asian instead of Middle Eastern as well?
ESHere, “reality” played a role. (Nabokov noted that the word “reality” should always appear in quotation marks). I based Girl Held In Homeon a real-life crime in my neighborhood and in real life the woman “held” in a home as an unpaid servant was described in our newspaper as having been an immigrant from “Indochina” who had been convinced that the family who held her controlled her visa. I never saw this woman and in my own version I make her younger, a teenager. But I kept the fact that she was Asian. Maybe I kept that fact partly because one of my real-life models for One was a woman from Vietnam who had the name “One.”
As for the era of the story, that too was dictated by fact. This real news story did “break” in our paper around 9/11 and our neighborhood’s interest in the “house on the river” (actually a house on a lake, in real life) was triggered by a real version of what is referred to in my book as the Terrorist Trick Or Treaters: boys trick or treating our neighborhood after 9/11 dressed as a “terrorist” and a “dead American.”
Scary stuff, and so that was another element from real life that I decided to use in my mash-up imaginary tale. I think all writers are magpies– picking and choosing what shiny or strange objects from life strike their particular fancy. Or those objects they think will serve best to strengthen or enhance what they are building, whether story or nest.
VC: There is very little resolution, at least for Maura, at the end of Girl Held in Home. She loves her son and husband, and yet she’s still “held” in her home, pining for Frannie and what might be. When you began writing the book, was it Maura or Joezy whose story you were seeking to tell? Going back to my question about POV, if Maura is indeed the actual “girl held in home,” then why not just tell the story from Maura’s POV?
ES: Poor Maura. Well, I didn’t really want her side of the story to be “resolved” or tied up too neatly. To me, she and the character Joezy are on different types of “character arcs.” With Joezy, who is the more proactive one, he goes through a lot and changes a lot. He is “sadder but wiser” and also in some ways stronger by the end. He realizes some of what he’s done was very wrong and he’s strong enough to be honest about that and accept it and try to do what he can to change.
Maura, on the other hand, isn’t as strong. Or another way to look at it is that she isn’t in the end willing to “crack open” her life for what she sees as selfish reasons. Yes, I do see her “in a way” as a female “trapped” in a house. But even self-centered Maura is able to see by the end that her situation can’t truly compare to that of a girl being literally held hostage. Maura does have enough perspective by the end of this tale to see that she has made certain life choices and that she’s stuck with them or is deciding to stick with them. For a mix of reasons that readers will see different ways.
So she is more the character who comes to the brink of making a huge change in her life but then pulls back. To me, in real life, people are much less likely than they are in fiction or film to actually upend a whole settled life and throw caution to the wind. So Maura plays it safe. But if Maura’s story were to go on, maybe later on that too would– as things tend to do– change.
As to making it all Maura’s tale, for this story that just doesn’t feel right or interesting to me. It’s all very individual to a writer. For this particular story, it felt right for me to have two females in similar yet much different “trapped” situations. And in the end it felt right for me to leave “one” woman trapped in her situation and to let the other (also with mixed results!) go “free.”
VC: How do you, personally, structure a novel? The chapter breaks in Girl Held in Home, don’t always come at a lull in the action. Do you process while you’re writing, or do it all during revision?
ES: Structure is tough, for such as me. I am not a systematic thinker– and I often think we need a different word than “think” to describe the process used in creating fiction. For me, anyway, it is all very instinctive.
I play around with various ideas of how to structure a story in the early stages, and I sketch out ideas that no one else would be able to decipher in my notebook. Chapter titles and “breaks” interest me– I enjoy titling chapters and find it easier and more fun than titling a story or novel.
Generally with me and novels, I settle upon a basic idea of the structure early on and pretty much stick with or “within” that. In terms of breaking up the chapters, it is sometimes hard to decide where to do it but I try to “feel” where things are getting too long. And I have a trusted writing group to help me out with that and other matters.
With Girl, I had the additional challenge that I was shifting back and forth between two voices. It helped when I decided that it was OK for some chapters to contain both voices and for some to be just one character. I don’t know even now, with the book published, if there is necessarily a “rhyme or reason” to how the voices alternate or how the single-character chapters alternate. Again, it’s all instinct to me. I arranged it the way that “felt right” to me and that seemed to me to tell the story in the most (I hope) enticing way.
VC: Dysfunctional marriages figure in both books – Maura’s in a bit of a lull with Dan, “101” features a supposedly “open” marriage in which the husband seems less excited about the prospect than his wife, the couple in “Celebration” are experiencing first the stress of a childless marriage and then the stress of the unknown with their child. What is it about marriage that makes you want to explore the less-than-romantic side of it?
ES: Ah, marriage. I have spent the majority of my life married to one guy. My “first husband” who is also always my “first reader.” We have been married over twenty years. (Whenever we mention this, we add in mock-MC voices, “How ABOUT that, folks?”)
So I am an accidental expert on longtime marriage with all its ins and outs, ups and downs. Because this is the world I have lived in for twenty-plus years (and still counting) it really does fascinate me. In real life, I am something of a “booster” for marriage. I sometimes get annoyed at the bad rep. marriage gets from folks who clearly have never experienced a long-term married relationship. I am always reminded of something the novelist Thomas Fielding said back at the dawn of novels: that people who claim love does not exist are like those prospectors who find no gold themselves and then claim no gold exists to find. So that is how I feel “in life.”
But in writing, in a yin-yang way, I am a darker creature. In my writing life, I find myself drawn to explore the darkest “what-ifs.” For instance with Tonya & Nancy, I have existed for years in a competitive profession and never yet let my id run away with me to the extent that I’d have a rival’s knee whacked. But “what if . . .”
Similarly, in my tales of shaky marriages, I often take an imaginary couple based on my own marriage or on a marriage I know well or on some mash-up marriage of many elements and I put that couple to an extreme test. “What if” a young wife discovers the first love of her husband’s life was in fact a male-female pair with whom he shared an impassioned menage a trois? (see A Four-Sided Bed) Or “what if” a woman with bisexual desires finds herself drawn to a fellow PTA mom while ensconced in a very traditional middle-class marriage? (See Girl Held In Home)
Or, more simply, to take the final example from your question, “What if” a couple who wants a child can’t conceive one? Or what if they think they can’t, then do, then wonder if that is what they wanted or could handle after all? (See the story “Celebration”).
As a writer, I often take rather extreme plots and apply them to characters or settings that are based on actual people or worlds I know. But it all is mix-mastered up to such a degree that it is its own world by the time I am done, or it ought to be.
So marriage interests me because it’s almost all I’ve known in my adult life, having met my husband-to-be at the tender age of 18. I realize this is somewhat unusual in the world we live in, and as a writer you want to take advantage of any experience or aspect of life that you happen to know very well, especially the unusual ones. Many writers these days take on the subjects of broken relationships or solitary “singles.” For me, I feel more at home on the marriage beat.
It helps that my husband is also a great open-minded supporter of my work, as well as being just generally a cool guy.
VC: There is a theme of “fame-seeking” within Celebrities in Disgrace, but half of the stories in it also have a character with developmental disabilities. Why the juxtaposition of these two things? Why was it important for the siblings in “Memoir of a Soon to Be Star,” and “Celebrities in Disgrace,” to have disabilities instead of just being, say, a younger sibling?
ES: Good question and to me, those two worlds/themes do connect. I worked for years in my twenties in Special Education and really got to know that fascinating population. I felt especially drawn to autistic kids– I think truly there is a thin line between “autistic” and “artistic.” I connected to these kids with their intense inner lives. I noticed how some of the emotions that many of us in the so-called “typical” population feel are “acted out” in a bigger more open way by kids with special needs.
So that interested me– how jealousy and longing and a sense of wanting to “shine” can be so openly expressed among those kids. Also I noticed when I worked at a State Institution for adults with disabilities that some of those who had no family formed extreme attachments to celebrities or sports figures. They would have magazine pictures of these figures in their little rooms. Again, it was a more exaggerated version of what we see in many people in our culture. My first collection, My Body to You, has many stories from the Special Needs world. In that book, I did not also have the theme of Celebrity.
But in Celebrities in Disgrace, it interested me how these two worlds connect in a weird way. The Olympic Skating world places a “number” on each performance and you feel watching as if this group of young athletes are being ranked and numbered in terms of their “worth.” In the last story in Celebrities, a couple faces and ultimately rejects doing an amnio test to see if the baby they are expecting might have Downs Syndrome. They are rejecting the unspoken notion that one kind of person is somehow “worth less” than another because of their abilities or lack of certain abilities.
So to me in my own mind, these themes connected in a way that made sense and more importantly “made” a certain energy or “frisson” that inspired me.
VC: How did you set about creating a collection of short stories? What was the goal you had in mind when you began?
ES: For me, it’s not so much having a specific “goal”– I am not that organized. It’s more that over a period of time I write a lot of stories, and start to notice some themes in common, and start to group certain stories together. I had lots of different versions of my first collection; both my first and second collections consist of stories written over a period of about ten years.
I have another set of stories now that is evolving and by the time it is put together as a collection (knock wood) it will probably represent ten years of work as well. Something that really helps me bring together stories as a collection is to settle on a title and “title story.” Once I did that with both My Body to You and Celebrities in Disgrace, I felt I found a focus, a way to choose and arrange the stories into a whole.
VC: The novella “Celebrities in Disgrace” is about the periphery of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal, and you followed it up with what eventually became a rock opera about the actual events. What was it about them that intrigued you so much? What’s your current pop culture “obsession?”
ES: Tonya and Nancy were “mine”– that scandal obsessed me from the start and it still obsesses me. The opera and now rock opera have been a huge part of my writing life for the last six years, and I still do not tire of that particular tabloid tale. To paraphrase Nancy Kerrigan: Why why why? For me, this scandal has always been both darkly absurdly comic and also surprisingly poignant. As a writer, the combination of dark comedy and poignant drama is like catnip. I love stories and shows that manage to balance both, like Cabaret orChicago or Threepenny Opera. To me, Tonya and Nancy is “unsatirizable.” The real-life story is so full of black comedy and melodrama there is no need to “turn up the dials.”
Something that inspired me early on to tackle this material first as a novella was a remark by conservative commentator George Will at the time of the scandal. He decried the 24/7 coverage, saying, “This is a ridiculous story that has nothing whatsoever to do with life in America today.” And I thought: a ridiculous story; yes, of course. But it has EVERYTHING to do with life in America today.
I thought this when the scandal first broke 15 years ago and I think it even more now, because I think our hyper-competitive celebrity-in-disgrace crazed culture has only gone further in the direction it was headed with Tonya & Nancy and OJ and other early CNN sensations. To me, such scandals are the Folk Tales of our times. They are our “shared narratives,” one of the few connecting elements in our fragmented society. Over the last 10 years, since I began fictionalizing Tonya and Nancy, I have had many conversations with people who had then and still have very strong feelings about that scandal, about these characters, “Tonya” and “Nancy.”
Like all the biggest tabloid scandals, this one pushes many hot-buttons and touches on many timely issues. We live in an obsessively competitive society and the figure skating world in its way is a microcosm of the pressures inherent in that. You have the glittery surface and the girls decked out like Ice Princesses; then just under the icy surface you have brutal acts of jealousy and aggression. In Tonya and Nancy, you have two figures who are cast by the media as the Good Girl and Bad Girl.
In our shows, we try to get at the humanity of both girls (and to me, they are always “the girls;” both were so young and under so much pressure at the time of the scandal; I always keep that in mind). As a writer, I love both characters, both Tonya and Nancy. I try to show both their vulnerabilities and failings and their strengths. Both had a lot of grit, talent and scrappy survival skills in the end. A theater pro told me our show is about two girls both being “put through the mill” and spit out the other end, yet both surviving. If there is a villain in our show along with the Knee Attackers themselves, it is the media and media culture that made that story such a circus.
Tonya and Nancy has now been performed as opera and rock opera in four full-fledged productions and several shorter showcase productions. Each time we have had super actresses taking on the title roles. We never play this material “just for laughs” though there is always a lot of dark humor. I think it surprises audiences that in true opera/rock opera tradition, I try along with the talented composers (Abigail Al-Doory Cross for the opera; Michael Teoli for the Rock Opera) to capture the intense emotions underlying this seriocomic saga.
I think that approach is one reason these shows have drawn a surprising amount of media attention, national and even worldwide. I like to say I am perhaps the only “literary fiction writer” who has appeared on ESPN Hollywood. Our shows have drawn coverage fromGood Morning America, MSNBC, CNN, the AP, even mention by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. So as a writer when you hit a vein like that, it is like touching a live wire. There is so much energy in this story and as a writer you are always looking– with your divining rod– for sources of energy.
Theater is a great adventure for me. Much different from fiction writing but I like different. Our most recent Rock Opera production — in Boston in 2011– was a very exciting and exhausting experience for me. I was so proud of what this particular cast and director Janet Roston did with this material. We got some excellent response from audience, critics and media and so, emboldened, we are marching forward with this madness. Stay tuned.
As for my present obsessions, I am superstitious about talking about work in progress. But I do have a couple fictionalized pieces in the works, one based on Bristol Palin and one on Amanda Knox.
VC: Why is it worth exploring how pop culture affects us?
ES: I think our present-day American culture is consumed by “pop culture” to such a degree that the phenomenon demands to be examined. For better or worse, we live in Tabloid Times and to me part of the job (in the higher sense of that word) of a writer is to engage in their/our times.
I feel a kind of gratitude to writers like Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace or Cris Mazza or Mary Gaitskill or Jonathan Franzen who really delve into “today” and get their hands dirty and try to “get at” what is driving us as a culture. Why do certain tabloid stories take hold of us? What do these stories say “about” us? These are compelling questions to me as a writer. Plus– I’m like anyone else. Like millions, I am caught up in this culture and I just plain like following scandals and celebs and modern political mayhem and the whole shebang. So I try to take the energy I feel with that material and translate it into my writings.
It’s the air that we breathe at this point in America; it’s virtually everywhere. I am never one to “look back” and long for olden times. I like to keep in touch with young people and I like to be “where it’s happening,” whatever “it” is.
VC: What’s your preference – short stories or novel?
ES: Can I say: novella? Honestly, both stories and novels have their charms and challenges. I think one of my happiest fiction-writing experiences was writing my novella “Celebrities in Disgrace.” I found that form combined some of the ‘best of’ writing stories and writing novels. The problem is not much material fits the novella form and novellas are hard to publish. But I keep rooting for the novella to come into its own. With today’s ever-shortening attention spans, I predict a novella boom any minute now.
VC: You’re a mom, a former teacher, and you write about some of the places you’ve lived. How autobiographical is your writing?
ES: As author Ron Carlson puts it so well: “I always write about my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.”
Not to be glib, because I am always curious about this myself and I think most readers are. But like most writers I make use of a mix of “real” and “made up” elements. I’d say I am probably much less autobiographical than many writers. In fact, the times when I’ve tried to write closer to reality, I have found myself stymied. I write more freely when I cut myself free to some extent of what “really” happened.
My teacher at Brown U. MFA, the great writer John Hawkes, said he felt that most writers either are primarily autobiographical authors or primarily “imaginative.” He felt both could be strong. And he felt I was more the “imaginative” type. At the time, I wondered. In later years, I believe he is right and I kind of wish I’d realized that myself sooner.
Someone in my family– my ex-brother-in-law, if such a title exists– observed that fiction writing is like playing “Yahtzee” with your life: you mix up the pieces of your life and throw them down like dice in different combinations. John Cheever said that writing is like dreaming: you see your wife only she speaks in the voice of your mother and is dressed in your old raincoat, etc.
There is material that I won’t use. I do have limits. As a Mom of a son who is now teenage (though he was only 10 or 11 when I was writing about the teenage boy in Girl) I am very aware of respecting my son’s privacy and not using anything about him or his life that might later embarrass him. So he is “off limits” to me.
On the other hand, other loved-ones in my life are used to me being the writer in the family and taking bits and pieces of real life then feeding them into my Mixmaster. Honestly there are people I know who are fine with that and who even enjoy seeing bits of themselves in print, in fiction.
Tonya Harding, of all people, had a pretty sane response when I met her at the premiere of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera. Whatever has happened in her past, we saw a positive side to her. She was a good sport that night with a good sense of humor. I only spoke to her briefly but told her, “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop writing about you.” She looked me in the eye and replied, “You got some things wrong but that’s OK.”
VC: What’s next for you?
ES: What IS next? Yikes. Always a good question and I wish I knew– or maybe I don’t. In life I tend to be quite cautious but in my writing life I am a wild woman. Really as some of my recent reviews have noted, I am at heart “zany.” I like to be a bit off balance.
I am working on a number of nutty projects. Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera is an ongoing adventure and my very own writerly midlife crisis. That project has taken over my life much like an unwise but passionate late-in-life love affair. New productions are being planned, as noted, and I am eager to follow where that leads.
I have penned a feature-film script of my novel A Four-Sided Bed with Matthew Quinn Martin. His and Mark McNutt’s upstart film company Bravo Sierra is working to develop that as a feature film. I am adapting a libretto from the John Picardi play Seven Rabbits On a Pole for a classical opera with music by Boston-based composer Pasquale Tassone. Act One was performed in May, 2011 at Longy School of Music. Also I am at work, as noted, on a one act play called “Stolen Girl Song.” I read a scene from it at a venue called Poet’s Theater this past November.
And I have a number of fiction projects in the works, including a collection of stories written and published over the last several years as well as novel manuscripts, one centering on a birth and based on a longtime marriage and another manuscript based on a character resembling Bristol Palin. My friend, the writer Melissa Pritchard, said I am attempting a literary “Triple Lutz”– spinning round and round, writing for theater, film and fiction at the same time. But I have lots of energy and I like to have lots going on. So I’m enjoying the rush and trying to keep on my feet!
Valarie Clark has thrown herself into her work as the Managing Editor of Barely South Review to avoid thinking about her upcoming thesis defense and the fact that she has to get a full-time job again. Her work has appeared in these pages and on AltDaily.com. She lives in Norfolk, VA for now, with a cat and a guinea pig who are both fully aware that she is in unhealthy co-dependent relationships with them.