On your interview over on the festival blog, you expressed your annoyance at the initial reaction of your book…
Yes. As a bit of background, the book is mainly female protagonists; tries to be frank and open about issues not usually explored with much candor; sexuality, sexual abuse, relationships and their Initially there were some reviewers who hit the same refrain al of the time; seeing the characters, as twisted and neurotic…I felt it wouldn’t have had the same reaction if the protagonists had been men. I feel men’s suffering in literature is seen as universal; shedding light on the human condition. But if it’s a female character, there’s a squeamishness… it really irritated me because my book was being looked at through a gender-specific lens.
You’re becoming very famous in America now but here you’re relatively new; can you describe a little about your background?
I have a very boring background, growing up in Michigan in a middle class family, with catholic schooling. I don’t think my family was a factor at all in my urge to become a writer; it always felt inherent. My parents read to us a lot, but they didn’t really read fiction for pleasure; it wasn’t part of our daily routine. I’d always felt compelled to write; it was very urgent and personal to me, very private, my escape.
The Bronte’s started writing about their brother’s toy soldier collection. When did you start writing?
I have written for as long as I could remember. There was a certain age when I started saying vocationally that I wanted to be writer; when I understood that it was a category which you could use to identify yourself. I always wrote prose fiction; I tried poetry but I was the worst, wordy poet and realised quickly that prose fiction was what I should work with.
You had a distinguished college writing career – did you have anything published beforehand or did you have to provide a portfolio?
I had to provide a portfolio and it was very bad work. Those were the days when I had an immense allegiance to and feel for words and language, but I didn’t have any idea of how to create a character, how to convey a narrative. My characters were just a voice which was a talking head without any concept of what was going on around her. Objectively, I guess it was my use of language that they saw in me because that was all I had going for me at that time.
Compare and contrast the situation of being part of an MFA course, and then a stigma fellowship.
They’re actually different in a way that you wouldn’t expect; I found my MFA programme to be quite alienating in its atmosphere, and quite competitive. That was when I became quite disillusioned with academia as a whole – petty politics consumed and had nothing to do with writing. I wrote while people got drunk and tried to impress the famous people on the faculty. Then when I got to the stigma fellowship I discovered the social side of writing; I discovered how people come become better writers using each other as an influence. I had conversations about writing and literature which I hadn’t done before. There was a certain purity to that which I found validating. It was very much treating writing in pro-active rather than analysing writing in the abstract.
You can’t judge a book by its cover clearly isn’t something publishers believe in – there’s an interesting story behind the hard back version of your book.
When we talked about the cover, I asked my publishers, please, whatever you do, don’t make the cover of my book a photo of a woman gazing into the distance, or wistfully walking down a lane in a sundress or a shot of a woman from the thighs down. I specifically asked that that not be done. I asked that a tiger somehow be incorporated into the cover because one of the stories contained a tiger. They listened to me and were completely respectful and created a beautiful cover which I thought was emblematic of the book and the collection; I was disappointed the tiger didn’t make it to the paperback but they gave me so much leeway before, I was happy to let it go.
The book is dedicated to a tiger, and why is that?
In 2007 a tiger escaped from the enclosure in the San Franciscan zoo and attacked three young men who had been bating the tiger; the tiger escaped, killed one and injured the other two. The police came and shot the tiger and killed it. When that incident happened, my sympathies were with the tiger and it seemed such a waste of life to me; towards mysteries in general. There are certain things that are mysterious because that’s what they should be and this mythologised creature is one of those things and shouldn’t have been placed in the path of those men in the first place
There’s no genius without humour – can you relate to that saying?
Yeah – humour is so much a part – whether it’s appropriate or not – it’s integral to how human beings process things that happen to them. Loss of humour in a story would be doing a disservice to the scope of human experience.
I think you’re right; and it’s also asking the audience to react in the same way. Your individual way of telling the story of child molestation – is it primarily driven by your concerns as an artist or as someone motivated by rebelling against the disservice.
For a very long time I’ve had visceral reactions to template portrayals on media, tv shows and literature, of child molestation. I think on the one hand it was a very instinctive decision – there was no agenda – but there a fierce mission to express some kind of truth which I didn’t feel had been done. There is an accepted narrative; this is what it is, this is how it affects people and that’s it. It’s formulaic and damaging.
Where in the process of composing the book did you write the stories with younger protagonists?
With the title story “Death is not an option” that’s the oldest story in the book and thats the only one from my MFA that made it into the book. The one with the girl in the early twenties was a bit later. Some reviewers in America think the title story is too glib or is trying to sound too hip; others love it because it’s the most immediate and most visceral. People either love it or hate it.
So now you’re writing about Walt Whitman?
Yes. The novel I’m working on is written (so far) in the first person and I’m trying not to think too hard about how audacious that is – and I’m also trying not to emulate his voice. It’s the bewildered, disaffected part of his life that I’m focusing on; the type of protagonist I’m always attracted to – someone trying to establish themselves in the world.
Audience question: How has it been for you having a book published and affected you as a writer?
There have been positive and negative affects; I was so used to writing for me by blocking out the idea of readers – and so the book being received as an object that doesn’t belong solely to me has been disconcerting as well as validating; but now I realise there are external expectations. I always wrote solely for my own gratification; but the reality of the reality has put a gloss of attachment to my work now. The only way I can deal with it is to artificially construct for myself that mentality that I had before my book. I have to think about why I’m writing and follow the bit that resonates to me and focus on that.
You were asked in an interview what you’d like to ask a reader and you replied that you’d like to know what they thought the last story in your collection was about. What does the final story mean for you?
It involves an encounter with the tiger; I guess that story has always meant a person’s ability to confront in normal time the ability to distill mystery – something unknowable that only retains its mysteries if it always stays unknowable. I think there’s an element in every person that has that mystery, that is unknowable. That story is representative of that; we should keep that mystery because it’s so integral to us, not for ourselves or others to understand.