Jillian Quint

“Am I really going to tell a story from a dead-and-buried baby’s point of view?” Courtney Collins asked herself, early in the writing of her stunning debut novel, The Untold.

The author was a year into a fictionalized portrait of real-life Australian female outlaw Jessie Hickman. And to be perfectly honest, the story just wasn’t working.

“I felt very much in service to Jessie,” Collins recently told BookPage from her home in Victoria, Australia. “I wanted to give voice to her life, so I tried to write a first-person narrative from her point of view. And it was a spectacular failure. After all, I didn’t even know if Jessie was literate, let alone well-spoken, and here I was putting poetic musings into her mouth. It just didn’t seem authentic.”

So Collins did what any good MFA graduate would do: She gave herself a writing assignment.

“As I wrote, I learned that the greatest act of selfless love is to want freedom for someone else.”

“I decided to write a letter to Jessie from her dead baby. And out of that came a strong voice that I could really travel with. Out of that crisis came the book’s true narrator.”

The Untold is a difficult novel to pin down. On the one hand, it’s a classic Western: a lone ranger, a horse and life on the lam. On the other hand, it’s a decidedly modern take on gender, marginalization and the impossibility of freedom.

The book begins in 1921. In a mountain-locked valley deep in the Australian bush, 26-year-old Jessie is on the run. Her crimes include cattle-stealing, armed robbery and, oh yeah, killing her husband. Plus, she’s just given birth to a child she can’t keep. Think that’s intense? Within the few first pages, Jessie also slits the baby’s throat and rides off into the wilderness.

“Once I made the decision to tell the story the way I told it, really owning this voice seemed like the greatest risk,” says Collins. “Still, I thought it was important that I wasn’t constrained by Jessie’s ‘likeability.’ She’s not compassionate or maternal—and, in a way, that was freeing. As a storyteller, I had to really let it rip.”

 


Jessie's mug shot

 

Collins hails from the remote Hunter Valley where the novel takes place. And though she moved to Sydney as a young woman, she grew up hearing stories about the region’s famous “Wild Lady Bushranger.” As Collins tells it, the real Jessie Hickman was sold to the circus at a young age and had a successful career as a trick horse rider. But after the troupe fell on hard times, Hickman became an outlaw, rustling cattle and evading the authorities. She was arrested several times (“The fact that she committed so many crimes was helpful for research,” Collins admits. “She was well documented in police gazettes.”) and was later blackmailed into marrying one of her employers. Several years later, Hickman’s house burned down and her husband suspiciously disappeared.You can probably guess who became the prime suspect.

This amazing true premise is where The Untold begins. But Collins uses these facts as a springboard for her own writerly inventions. Of course, there’s the dead baby narrator, who forgives his mother’s desperate act—but she has also created two memorable foils to Jessie’s wild abandon. The first is Jack Brown, an Aboriginal horse-wrangler and Jessie’s secret lover. The second is Sergeant Andrew Barlow, a heroin-addicted lawman tasked with bringing her to justice. Both men want to rein Jessie in, to capture her. But as the novel progresses and they come closer to their mark, each begins to wonder at the value of his quest.

“I’m a sucker for a Western. I love the idea of the lone rider and his relationship with the land—what it means to be the outsider. But I don’t think it needs to be cowboys battling Indians. There’s something about loneliness and landscape that’s really at the core of it.”

“When writing this book, the question I grappled with was, Can a woman be free?” Collins explains. “And as I wrote, I learned that the greatest act of selfless love is to want freedom for someone else.”

The conflict between love and freedom is nothing new—we’re in solid John Wayne territory here. But what complicates Collins’ narrative is the people she’s chosen to zero in on: a woman, a black man and a drug addict. “In Australia, we have a dominant history, which is very much told by white settlers,” Collins says. “But I’ve always been more interested in alternative histories—histories told by aboriginals, by migrants, by women.” She laughs. “Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic school, and my education about these types of people was extremely moderate.”

Still, Collins is clearly indebted to the tradition she’s subverting. “I’m a sucker for a Western,” she admits. “I love the idea of the lone rider and his relationship with the land—what it means to be the outsider. But I don’t think it needs to be cowboys battling Indians. There’s something about loneliness and landscape that’s really at the core of it.”

Collins’ literary influences range from Cormac McCarthy and Patrick DeWitt to Zora Neale Hurston and Carson McCullers. Much like her idols, she’s deeply attuned to sound and poetics. “I do not know death as a river,” she writes, early in The Untold. “I know it as a magic hall of mirrors.” Later, she describes a woman in labor as moving “like a snake sliding out of old skin.”

But she’s quick to assert that it’s more than lyricism that compels her. “It’s the way characters are pitted against the world and the way they hold their form. That’s what I most admire when I read my favorite books.”

Collins is currently hard at work on a sophomore effort—this one about a peeping tom who walks the streets by night, peering in on strangers’ intimacies. She can hardly conceal her excitement when talking about the project—“I’m a full-time writer now!”—but she concedes that the process is often grueling.

“It’s that bricklaying thing,” she elaborates. “Turn up to it every day and lay something down. After all, writing isn’t a sprint; it’s a different kind of endurance.”

So how does she balance that day-by-day endurance with the thrill of publishing a highly acclaimed first novel? “Really my motto is just to serve my work when I’m doing it, and to live well when I’m not.”

Solid advice, for writers and outlaws alike.

 

Author photo credit Lisa Madden.

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

“Am I really going to tell a story from a dead-and-buried baby’s point of view?” Courtney Collins asked herself, early in the writing of her stunning debut novel, The Untold.

The author was a year into a fictionalized portrait of real-life Australian female outlaw Jessie Hickman. And to be perfectly honest, the story just wasn’t working.

Here’s the first thing you should know about Helen Oyeyemi: She’s got a soft spot for twisted fairy tales. Her widely acclaimed first novel, The Icarus Girl, drew from both African and Western mythology to tell the story of a biracial 8-year-old and her wicked secret friend.

Her next two books, The Opposite House and White Is for Witching, address Cuban mysticism and Gothic horror, respectively. Mr. Fox, which she penned in 2011, recasts the classic Bluebeard folktale as a story about an English writer with a nasty habit of murdering his female characters.

Here’s the second thing to know about Helen Oyeyemi: She wrote all four of those books before the age of 27.

The award-winning British novelist (and daughter of Nigerian immigrants) shows no signs of slowing down, having just published her fifth book, Boy, Snow, Bird, a sly retelling of Snow White.

Oyeyemi has particular sympathy for one type of literary scapegoat: the wicked stepmother, whom she believes gets a bad rap.

“I never really set out to rewrite fairy tales,” she told BookPage during a recent telephone conversation from her home in Prague (where she moved last year on a whim). “I just get really interested in them. Perhaps it’s because there’s something about the retelling that exposes the teller. You have this very old frame that’s been used by various other storytellers through the generations—an anchor, if you will. But there’s also room to show your own thoughts and feelings, to insert yourself into the narrative.”

Oyeyemi certainly brought her own experience and wild imagination to bear in Boy, Snow, Bird, which examines the trope of the notorious evil stepmother—but with a racial twist.

The novel begins in 1953 when the beautiful, troubled Boy Novak leaves her abusive father (a snarling, wild-eyed “rat-catcher”) for a small town in Massachusetts. There, she meets and marries a handsome widower, Arturo Whitman, whose daughter Snow is indisputably beautiful—the fairest in the land, if you will. As if Snow’s looks weren’t trouble enough, Boy soon gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, who is shockingly dark-skinned. Thus is uncovered the Whitmans’ deep, dark secret: They are a family of light-skinned blacks desperately trying to pass as white. Once this shame has been revealed, Boy banishes one child, while embracing the other—and all three characters are forced to confront their own identities.

What’s interesting though, is how unfixed the concept of identity becomes over the course of the book. Not only are characters repeatedly miscategorized (by race, by gender) and misnamed (“Boy” is a girl, the Whitmans are not “white men”), some of them aren’t even positive they actually exist. How else could Snow and Bird explain the fact that they generally don’t show up in mirrors? Or the fact that neither can recall meeting the other in person? Even Boy’s father, the abusive rat-catcher, isn’t what he initially seems, revealing himself to be neither completely bad, nor exactly Boy’s father.

If all this sounds confusing, fear not. As with her earlier novels, Oyeyemi’s prose can be cyclical and demanding—she’ll never be the type to spoon-feed takeaways or wrap things up in a pretty bow—but she’s also never out to full-on befuddle. If anything, she aims to please.

“I just want readers to care enough to turn the page,” she admits. In other words, she writes characters who may be complex, but are both relatable and sympathetic.

Oyeyemi has particular sympathy for one type of literary scapegoat: the archetypical wicked stepmother, whom she firmly believes gets an unfairly bad rap. “Wicked stepmothers disrupt the values of a story in a way that interests me,” she says. “They disrupt the notion that a woman should be dutiful or beautiful or sweetly tempered, and in that way, they become real people. In fact, the fairy-tale villain or wicked stepmother has a spark for life that a character like Snow White just will never have.”

"To be honest, I’ve always found Snow White to be quite menacing."

OK, you might concede, so maybe Snow White is a little boring. But surely Oyeyemi can’t deny her fundamental goodness, right? Wrong.

“To be honest,” she says, “I’ve always found Snow White to be quite menacing. She was always so placid and just accepted everything terrible that happened without any anger. I mean, she’s been thrown out of her home. She’s frightened. She has to go and live with these weird dwarves. And yet . . . she’s just this complacent blank slate. I find that much more terrifying than her wicked stepmother.”

Such irreverence is fundamental to Boy, Snow, Bird which, it’s worth noting, is often surreally funny; Even the nastiest characters have moments of levity (the rat-catcher certainly plays for laughs), and particularly harrowing scenes are tinged with lightness—as when a thick clump of hair is found in the cranberry sauce during an emotionally fraught Thanksgiving dinner.

But overall, Oyeyemi’s irreverence serves to disrupt fairy-tale convention, which typically relies on strict black-and-white dichotomy. No character, she seems to say, can be defined by race or gender, let alone moral good or evil.

“Sure, it’s easier if you stick to absolutes,” she admits. “This is a man. This is a woman. This is what a white person does. This is what a black person does. This is what a black person looks like. This is what a white person looks like. And so on. But what I wanted to do was create characters who connect on other levels, who overcome the obstacles that might otherwise make them enemies.”

Another absolute that drives Oyeyemi crazy is the concept of “happily ever after” or “closure,” both of which she resists in Boy, Snow, Bird. “What does ‘closure’ even mean?” she demands, laughing. “I don’t know if I should confess this, but I’ve been obsessed with this TV show called ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ and every episode it seems like somebody needs ‘closure.’ What psychobabble!” Then, with a hint of mischief: “The only real closure is death, right?”

This interplay between the funny and the grim, the refreshing banal and the fantastically unknowable is perhaps what makes Oyeyemi so likeable—both as a person and as a writer. She’s wise beyond her years, but never pompous or intimidating. She gushes about Lydia Davis’ new short story collection, but also admits to crying during trashy airplane movies. And then of course there’s her fiction, which is at times difficult and dense, but always full of humor, joy and good old-fashioned plotting.

About this balance, Oyeyemi is remarkably humble. “The things I write are so disobedient. I never know what they’ll turn out to be.”

OK, fine. But in that case: She’s one darn good disciplinarian.

 

Here’s the first thing you should know about Helen Oyeyemi: She’s got a soft spot for twisted fairy tales. Her widely acclaimed first novel, The Icarus Girl, drew from both African and Western mythology to tell the story of a biracial 8-year-old and her wicked secret friend.

Nebraska author Timothy Schaffert sets his sweeping new novel against the dramatic backdrop of the 1898 World's Fair, where a con man falls in love with a beautiful magician's assistant. We caught up with Schaffert, currently a professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, to ask him a few questions about the book.

Your novel's narrator is Ferret Skerritt, “ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth.” To what extent are you, as an author, a ventriloquist or a con man?
As a fiction writer, you’re creating a kind of illusion, I suppose. And with that illusion, you seek to convince. But unlike a con man (or con woman, as there was great gender equality in the field of thievery in the 1890s), an author doesn’t want to take anything. You want to leave it all behind. So you’re kind of a reverse thief, sidling up to folks so you can leave something in their pockets.

Ferret’s dummy Oscar is a character in his own right. What did you learn about the history of ventriloquism when researching this book?
I read issues of a turn-of-the-century magazine called Magic, which was “devoted solely to the interests of magicians, jugglers, hand shadowists, ventriloquists, lightning cartoonists and specialty entertainers.” Just in that description on the magazine’s front page, you gain insights into the entertainment of the day. But it was a how-to guide by Charles H. Olin that taught me how a ventriloquist of the day would have developed the physical skills required, and I worked some of that into Ferret’s own apprenticeship—things like how to prepare the throat both externally and internally, and how to keep your lips still. I don’t know if any of it was good advice, but Ferret swore by it.

"[A]s a writer, you get into character, like an actor. You explore your own emotions and sensibilities, so that what you’re expressing is genuine."

Did dummies really have hidden bells and whistles—as Oscar does?
There were all varieties of homunculi in the age of the dime museum and vaudeville theater. You would have seen the most bells and whistles in the automaton, which came in all sorts of sizes and characters. One of the attractions at the Omaha World’s Fair was Psycho, a small wax figure that did some meager magic tricks—most notoriously he could win at any game of whist—via remote control and compressed air.

And how about the rest of your research? What were some of the craziest facts you learned about the 1898 Omaha World Fair?
The Fair gave the reporters of the local dailies an endless supply of craziness—at once you had all the high-mindedness of the endeavor with its commitment to art and beauty and majesty, and meanwhile the city attracted all sorts of crime and corruption. One man was threatened with his life when he refused to pay the exorbitant fee he was charged by a local barber for a mustache dye. And, of course, there were the prostitutes who did swift business. But I think my favorite story is about the Salvation Army lieutenant who was so disgusted by the classical statuary of naked cherubs and such, she took a hatchet to them. But the statues were mostly just plaster of Paris, so the woman was arrested and the statues quickly repaired. Her vandalism inspired a cartoon in LIFE magazine.

You’re an Omaha native. Is the World’s Fair still part of the collective consciousness there?
Not really. There are certainly many people devoted to its study, and to its artifacts, but Omaha’s collective consciousness seems mostly focused on the city’s future rather than its past; we’re keen to help shape the national culture. And that was certainly the sensibility that drove the very design and development of the Fair. We wanted the world to take notice. For over a century now, Omaha has been on the verge of discovery.

The threat of war is quietly present throughout the novel. Did you want the sinking of the Maine to play a role in your story?
If you’re going to write a book set in 1898, you’re going to have to write about the Maine. “Remember the Maine” was a national catchphrase—memorializing the Maine was an industry in and of itself, influencing music and fashion and design. But, of course, we’ve forgotten the Maine. The Spanish-American War isn’t a war we study in school, is it? Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how the politics and ambitions of the time so starkly parallel ours today—economic turmoil, big business, agricultural anxieties, populist movements, the role of media in the fighting of a war.

From tornados to emerald cathedrals, your writing seems influenced by The Wizard of Oz. Are you an L. Frank Baum fan?
The Wizard of Oz, we’re told in the original book of 1900, was from Omaha; he worked as a ventriloquist and entertainer, and finally left in a balloon. So that character was an inspiration for my novel, and I definitely drew from Baum’s world, and from the illustrations by W.W. Denslow.

Let’s talk about Ferret’s love interest, Cecily, who has her head chopped off nightly in a traveling magic show. Do you think she’s a tragic character?
Women at the time didn’t have a great number of opportunities if they were unmarried past a certain age. There were few jobs available to them, and those jobs didn’t pay well. There were indeed women who achieved a great deal at the time, and forged the paths for women of the 20th century, but if you were poor—as so many women were then—you struggled.

For a book that’s unabashedly romantic, The Swan Gondola never becomes schmaltzy or melodramatic. How do you strike a balance?
Melodrama was at the heart of so much entertainment at the time; and my characters are in the entertainment business. They thrive on melodrama. They navigate all its possibilities. And the choices they make reflect somewhat the natures of the characters they play on stage. But yes, as a writer, I wanted to avoid melodrama in the writing of the novel itself. But as a writer, you get into character, like an actor. You explore your own emotions and sensibilities, so that what you’re expressing is genuine.

As a creative writing teacher, what’s the one thing you tell your students to never do?
Never stop writing. There are any number of obstacles, and any number of reasons to give up. Even if nobody is publishing what you write, write anyway. My students are all so young—they’re just finding their voices.

What are you working on next?
A novel about a child vaudeville star who becomes the most famous man in America. But, of course, things don’t go quite as he’d hoped.

 

RELATED CONTENT
Read our review of The Swan Gondola.

Nebraska author Timothy Schaffert sets his sweeping new novel against the dramatic backdrop of the 1898 World's Fair, where a con man falls in love with a beautiful magician's assistant. We caught up with Schaffert, currently a professor at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln, to ask him a few questions about the book.

At the start of The Swan Gondola, Timothy Schaffert’s enchanting new historical novel, two elderly spinster sisters discover a man in their front yard who has fallen from the sky (or from a hot air balloon, at least). The man in question is Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist turned star-crossed lover with an incredible tale to tell. 

The story-within-a-story begins several months earlier, in the spring of 1898, at the opening of the Omaha World’s Fair. Ferret, who rolls with a Fellini-like crew of freaks and circus performers, becomes enchanted by Cecily, a beautiful member of a traveling horror troupe. (She plays Marie Antoinette and nightly has her head chopped off.) Despite a rocky start, the two quickly fall in love, and their relationship blossoms amid the magic and mysteries of the fair.But as with all too-good-to-be-true romances, a threat looms. Here, it’s in the form of William Wakefield, an older Fair investor who has an eye on Ferret’s dummy, Oscar—not to mention Cecily herself. 

Schaffert clearly did a tremendous amount of research for this book, and he’s at his best when cleaving to historical detail and quirky fact. The uncanny automatons cackle with life; the late-night séances are chill-inducing; and the sinking of the USS Maine is on everyone’s mind. But Schaffert’s period authenticity is also literary in nature. He’s clearly a fan of L. Frank Baum, and Wizard of Oz references are plentiful, though at times heavy-handed.

The Swan Gondola will no doubt garner comparisons to Water for Elephants and The Night Circus, and fans of such historical romances will not be disappointed. There’s plenty of magic to go around in this good, old-fashioned love story.

 

RELATED CONTENT
Read our Q&A with Timothy Schaffert about The Swan Gondola.

At the start of The Swan Gondola, Timothy Schaffert’s enchanting new historical novel, two elderly spinster sisters discover a man in their front yard who has fallen from the sky (or from a hot air balloon, at least). The man in question is Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist turned star-crossed lover with an incredible tale to tell. 

Fashionable friends are the toughest to shop for. You wouldn’t dare buy them clothing and, anyway, their closets are already jam-packed. Luckily several chic new style books by both big-name connoisseurs and under-the-radar experts have recently hit the bookshelves—all great for gifting to the fashionistas in your life. From the glossy and gorgeous to the text-driven and probing, here are six of the best.

THE TRENDSETTERS

Katharine Hepburn. Jackie Kennedy. Madonna. You know a style maven when you see one. And yet, their particular breed of je ne sais quoi is often difficult to pin down. Luckily, fashion historian and Parsons professor Elyssa Dimant has done the work for us in The Style Mentors: Women Who Define the Art of Dressing Today.

Breaking down these trend­setters into eight signature looks, Dimant explains how the most stylish women approach their wardrobes and how burgeoning fashionistas can achieve similar success. From the icons (Coco Chanel, Cate Blanchett) to the mavericks (Isabella Blow, Daphne Guinness), bohemians (Veruschka, the Olsen twins), gamines (Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy), sirens (Marilyn Monroe, Beyoncé), minimalists (Donna Karan, Sofia Coppola), rockers (Debbie Harry, Gwen Stefani) and classicists (Wallis Simpson, Michelle Obama), The Style Mentors outlines the world’s greatest fashion role models, alongside lovely, illustrative photographs.

In addition to the eye candy, Dimant’s book proves exceedingly useful. Learn why a bohemian never wears flats and how Dita Von Teese tailors vintage clothing to fit her famous curves.

AGE-OLD TRENDS

As anyone who has ever worn a cloche or coveted a bustle knows, fashion is as much about looking backward as it is about envisioning the future. Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style acknowledges this centuries-old journey, tracing some 3,000 years of high couture and humble duds—from the draped fabrics of ancient times through contemporary street style.

Moving both chronologically and geographically through the ages, this stunning coffee table book —penned by Smithsonian consultant and Cooper-Hewitt curator Susan Brown—looks in on such clothing moments as Etruscan dancing garb, Flemish squirrel-skin kirtles and 17th-century baroque doublets.

Somewhere between history lesson and fashion spread, Fashion is particularly adept at capturing the ways in which Western style was greatly influenced by design from around the world.

VOGUE'S HEAVY HITTERS

This fall marks the 120th anniversary of Vogue. In appropriately lavish celebration, the world’s most iconic couture magazine is releasing a glamorous new volume chronicling the publication’s history as seen through the eyes of eight of its most memorable editors.

Told via in-depth interviews with each of these visionaries, Vogue: The Editor’s Eye gives a glimpse into the process, proving that the magazine’s cutting-edge fashion spreads are as much about editorial point of view as they are about model-photographer-designer collaboration.

Here, readers learn about Babs Simpson (fashion editor, 1947-1972), who traveled to Cuba to shoot Ernest Hemingway; Jade Hobson (1971-1988), an advocate for flattering power suits and the liberated career woman; and Phyllis Posnick (1987-present) who took a conceptual, provocative approach to the fashion narrative.

Alongside these stories are iconic photos from Vogue’s own pages (from heavy hitters like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz) as well as wonderfully telling behind-the-scenes shots. An introduction by Anna Wintour adds an extra air of backstage insight.

WARDROBE MAKEOVERS

As the co-host of TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” stylist Stacy London is a pro at helping regular women ditch frumpy sweaters and dated jeans to dress properly for their lifestyles and body types. Her new book, The Truth About Style, follows in this empowering makeover tradition (or what London calls “a startover”) while also incorporating the writer’s own history of self-doubt and renewal.

London’s struggle is all too familiar: When she graduated from Vassar at the age of 22, she weighed only 90 pounds, having devoted her senior year to both academics and anorexia. This battle with her weight stretched into adulthood, and it was only through her work helping women look their best that she learned to love herself.

In The Truth About Style, London interweaves her own story with those of nine women desperately in need of a style startover—from a post-mastectomy cancer survivor to a busy mom who hasn’t bought new clothes in seven years. Working with each to construct a new wardrobe (and life) outlook, London deftly shows that the way we present ourselves influences the way we feel.

TIM GUNN'S TUTORIAL

What Stacy London is to the style-impaired, Tim Gunn is to aspiring designers, having served for 12 seasons as the ultimate mentor on the hit reality show “Project Runway.” In Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet, the coolly collected clothing authority goes beyond styling advice (or pleas to “make it work”) to tell the quirky and often downright strange histories of just about every article of clothing or accessory ever worn.

Readers are treated to factoids like how a man’s politics used to inform his necktie choice, why there was once historical concern with making pants difficult to remove and what the connection was between World War II prudence and the rise of the bikini (hint: It involves fabric rationing).

With the same dry humor and anecdotal joy Gunn fans have long admired, his Fashion Bible proves both a useful reference book and a fun read.

20TH-CENTURY STYLE

Cameron Silver began his career in the theater, and it’s easy to see how this flair for drama informed his work at Decades, the L.A. vintage boutique he opened in 1997.

Decades: A Century of Fashion is Silver’s gorgeous, oversized love letter to the style eras that comprise his collection. Beginning with the Edwardian hats and John Singer Sargent silhouettes of the turn of the 20th century, and moving through 1990s Kate Moss cool and deconstructed minimalism, Decades explores the designers, models and overarching looks that defined each period.

At every point in history, Silver is careful to detail conflicting aesthetics, concluding that fashion is always about dichotomy. Take, for instance, the 1970s’ simultaneous attention to sporty all-Americanism (Cheryl Tiegs) and disco danger (Bianca Jagger), or the complicated crossover between Grace Kelly’s and Bettie Page’s mid-century appeal.

Silver attributes a different “it designer” to every decade, but perhaps more emblematic of the times are the photo plates he inserts between chapters—pictures of gowns taken at extreme close-up, such that the material, stitching and color come into vibrant, telling view.

Fashionable friends are the toughest to shop for. You wouldn’t dare buy them clothing and, anyway, their closets are already jam-packed. Luckily several chic new style books by both big-name connoisseurs and under-the-radar experts have recently hit the bookshelves—all great for gifting to the fashionistas in your life. From the glossy and gorgeous to the […]

Wickedly funny yet refreshingly hopeful, A.M. Homes’ latest book is a picaresque rollercoaster of a story. May We Be Forgiven follows Harold Silver, a middle-aged suburban everyman who gets the chance to change his lackluster life for the better—if only he can figure out how to go about it. We caught up with Homes, who lives in New York City, to talk about her memorable characters, the absurdity of modern life and the very human need for forgiveness.

You’ve said before that a writer’s job is to “know the things about ourselves that we don’t want to know.” What unpleasant truths did you uncover in writing this particular story?
May We Be Forgiven is filled with characters having to confront themselves—both Harry and George come up against their emotional truths, their own dashed dreams, hopes of who they might be. On the upside, in some really lovely ways, Harry and the children, Nate and Ashley, actually become the people they hope to be.

You’ve also said that you may have “an old-man psyche.” Harold Silver isn’t particularly old, but he can be curmudgeonly and he’s definitely very male. What was it like inhabiting his voice? Did it come naturally to you?
Writing from a male point of view has always come naturally to me—my first book, Jack, which I wrote when I was 19, was from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy, and my last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, was from the experience of a middle-aged man—I think a lot about what my teacher and mentor Grace Paley taught me about, “writing the truth according to the character.” It’s not about what I think—it’s about what’s accurate for the character, learning whose story you’re telling and what’s at risk for your characters, and also having a sense of their life before the book begins—i.e. what brought them to this moment—and why we’re calling the reader’s attention to this point in time.

The opening scenes in May We Be Forgiven were initially published as a short story. Was it always your intention to turn this haunting and oddly funny premise into a full-length book?
Oddly enough the novel was begun as a short story written for Zadie Smith’s anthology The Book of Other People, which was a benefit for one of Dave Eggers’ projects. I started writing it but didn’t finish in time and so it appeared instead in Granta’s 100th issue—and then even as that was being turned in—the story just kept going. I had this happen once before with Music for Torching—which also took me by surprise. One of the difficulties inherent in these short stories that take on a life of their own is that in both cases—about 20 pages in—there’s an event that would in a traditional tale end the story—i.e. a murder or the burning down of a house—so it raises the curious question of where do the writer and the characters go from there.

"The author’s job is reading the culture—if you are attentive to how things are unfolding, you’ll gather a lot of information ahead of the curve."

This book wonderfully and unpredictably toes the line between dark and comic, realistic and absurd, fatalistic and uplifting. To what extent was this intentional and was it difficult to balance such conflicting tones?
The shifting from realism to the absurd and fantastical was entirely intentional—and very much intended as a heightened version of what life is like these days, as so much of our experience is wildly absurd and hard to predict. It is the conflict between the more traditional, familiar world and this new entirely weird world that interests me—the impact of media, of technology, of shifting values on people who in many ways can barely keep up.

Long ago someone dubbed my work “emotional science fiction” and I think that was quite accurate—it takes reality and current conditions and pushes them just a little bit out there beyond our comfort zone. What I honestly find worrisome is how often they turn out to be accurate prognostications of the future—i.e. the story where the old woman has a GPS chip installed and so on, the fact that Music for Torching, which ends with a school shooting, came out just before Columbine—when that kind of thing was still quite rare. The author’s job is reading the culture—if you are attentive to how things are unfolding, you’ll gather a lot of information ahead of the curve. To me it’s all the more interesting given it takes me 5-7 years to write a book.

Harry is an extremely convincing Nixon scholar. Has Nixon always interested you? What type of historical research did you do to write this book?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., during the Nixon administration—my school class used to take trips to the White House—we’d be playing on the lawn as Nixon was welcoming the French President and so on. So he’s always loomed large in my mind—and importantly Watergate unfolded when I was an adolescent so it had a huge impact in my world. I did a lot of reading of books by and about Nixon and traveled to Yorba Linda where he was born and where there’s an excellent Nixon library. I’m fascinated by him as a figure and also by those who surrounded him. Also important is that details of his presidency are continuing to unfold—documents that were seized in 1972 when he resigned are still being released—history is continuing to unfold and the connections between Nixon and those who both preceded his term and those who have followed are significant.

To that end, what does Nixon represent about the fallibility of all men? Is he a stand-in for the narrator?
He’s not a stand-in—but I think he’s interesting as a flawed figure, a man who in many ways is his own worst enemy.

A lot of the book’s minor characters are Chinese. Aside from the Nixon link, what do they represent?
It’s curious isn’t it—Chinese characters have been appearing with increasing frequency in my fiction—the story that in many ways in my mind is the precursor to this novel is one called “The Chinese Lesson.” The main characters in that story are prototypes for Harry and his wife Claire. And then a couple of years ago I wrote a story called “Omega Point or Happy Birthday Baby” and there’s a very strong Chinese connection in that story—and a blending of fact and fiction—as relates to 75 Chinese men coming to work to bust a strike in a shoe factory in North Adams, Massachusetts (the town where my beloved Grandmother Jewel was born). A man named Lue Gim Gong, was among them—he was later known as The Citrus Wizard for developing a frost-resistant orange. All that to say I am very interested in the intersection of American and Chinese history and the impact of Nixon’s visit to China—without that opening of relations with China—where would we be now?

The act of eating—consumption and cleansing—also seems to be a persistent theme. Has this always interested you and what does it mean for Harry over the course of his journey?
It’s funny, people always notice themes/repetitions in my work—often there’s a lot of food and someone once counted the number of things set on fire and amount of Diet Coke and Valium consumed—which at the time was also quite a lot—curiously there’s been a sharp drop in both over the years. In terms of the meaning of it—I don’t think I would assign any particular meaning—but would leave that kind of thing to the reader’s interpretation.

Redemption is a concept that appears very early in the novel, but doesn’t become realized until the very end. From whom do you think Harry—or for that matter anybody—is seeking forgiveness? How do we know when we have, in fact, been forgiven?
That’s a very good question, and I’ll answer it by saying that in the Jewish religion every year at Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—we fast and ask for forgiveness. We begin by saying, “ For the sin we committed before you”—by being ignorant—or for the sin of envy or speaking poorly about others. We literally beat our breast and go over a litany of possible sins and whether or not we have committed them and we ask to be forgiven.

I find it deeply satisfying to confess, even for things I have not done—to repent for ideas, to repent for transgressions of the mind—to raise the bar for the coming year and hope to do better.

Importantly it is also at this time that we forgive others—as much as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves.

OK, so I’m getting a bit lofty here, but the idea is that we should accept responsibility for our transgressions and importantly go beyond that and make an effort to do better in the future.

As a reader, it was surprisingly and touchingly difficult to say goodbye to these characters. Was that true for you as well?
Yes. This book took many years longer than I thought it would—and it was a wonderful adventure to watch these characters grow and change in ways that often surprised me. Writing a book is like having a relationship—by the time I’m done—I am convinced these characters are real and walking among us and I fully expect to hear from them again soon—for example—what classes is Nate taking this fall?

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of May We Be Forgiven.

Wickedly funny yet refreshingly hopeful, A.M. Homes’ latest book is a picaresque rollercoaster of a story. May We Be Forgiven follows Harold Silver, a middle-aged suburban everyman who gets the chance to change his lackluster life for the better—if only he can figure out how to go about it. We caught up with Homes, who […]

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