July 07, 2015

Julia Pierpont

The end of the affair

In her perceptive debut novel, Julia Pierpont examines the effect that an extramarital affair has on one artistic New York City family. We asked Pierpont a few questions about the allure of the affair as a plot device, the brother-sister bond and smutty "Seinfeld" fan fiction.

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In her perceptive debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, Julia Pierpont examines the effect that an extramarital affair has on one artistic New York City family. We asked Pierpont a few questions about the allure of the affair as a plot device, the brother-sister bond and smutty "Seinfeld" fan fiction.

Many novels are about marital affairs—why people have them, what comes next. Why do you think readers have such an endless appetite for this perennial family conflict?
I think adultery, really affairs of any sort, will forever compel our attention: It’s certainly the sexiest of the Ten Commandments one can break.

In my case, I was interested in depicting the sort of betrayal that would affect each member of a family, though in different ways. Why should children be so injured by their father’s betrayal of the vows he made, not to them, but to their mother? It isn’t about the children directly, and yet for that very same reason it is, it does hurt them. And then there is the added complication for the parents, once the kids are brought into it. How much more difficult does it become for parents to move beyond such transgressions without seeming to condone the same amoral behavior that we are taught, as children, to reject?

“I think adultery will forever compel our attention: It’s certainly the sexiest of the Ten Commandments one can break.”

I enjoyed observing the development of Kay and Simon’s relationship. Do you think their parents’ marital troubles brought them closer?
I’m glad that relationship resonated with you. Initially, yes, when Kay realizes that the only person she feels free to confide in is her brother, that recognition is something that really binds them to each other. They are both their parents’ children: The only two people in the world equipped to share the same burden. But then the way they each process their father’s affair is so different, which is pretty inevitable given their respective ages.

When we meet Simon, he is just embarking on the world of girls and popularity and mild drug use. He’s affected by his parents’ problems, but he’s reluctant to admit it on a conscious level. Kay’s world hasn’t opened up in the same way yet, she’s too young—her family is still everything to her. So Simon finds it irritating to be around his sister’s devastation, while Kay feels estranged by her brother’s apparent indifference.

Do you have a sibling yourself? If so, did you draw from your own sibling relationship to create the dynamic between Kay and Simon?
I’m an only child, which I’m sure has only amplified my interest in sibling dynamics. I remember begging my mother to have another kid—but what I really wanted was an older brother or sister. I would have loved it if she’d somehow managed that.

The four main characters in your novel have very distinct personalities and characteristics—though they’re all relatable in different ways, and it’s a pleasure to follow their stories. Do you have a special fondness for one specific character? Why?
I really did come to love them all—it’s strange now to go on without them. Jack was actually the most fun to write, though he’s liable to be the most difficult character for a reader to like. I think it was his way of looking at the world—even when circumstances were terrible, he’d notice what was funny or absurd about them. He also happens to be the only character with whom I have the least life experience in common, and so in a way he arrived more fully formed, separate from me.

Your novel has an unconventional plot structure. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll say only that readers do not discover the beginning, the middle, and the end in their natural order. Why did you decide to structure your book in this way? In your opinion, what do readers gain from this choice?
I knew early on that I wanted to look at time. In our lives, just as in the stories we read, there’s always a great deal of importance placed on endings. It’s an understandable, and very human—uniquely human—focus to have, but it can be detrimental to our days as we live them. In the Galway Kinnell poem from which I took my title, as well as the novel’s epigraph, we hear a father address his young daughter about the passing of time, though she is still far too young to understand, urging her to soak up her days on this earth though they will soon be over. There’s a passage in my book that refers to “between-time,” time that we spend waiting to see what will happen next, but which really winds up constituting our whole lives. The structure of the book is meant to remind us: These are the days we have.

Kay’s “Seinfeld” fan fiction is a hilarious entry into the young girl’s creative mind, and it’s a clever way to show how she understands her dad’s infidelity. Why “Seinfeld”? (Did you grow up catching those after-school re-runs?)
Thank you, those sections were fun to write. I watched reruns of sitcoms religiously after school, though when I was really young I was under the impression that the episodes were premiering that day, the way it is with soap operas. I knew I wanted a way into Kay, who’s a very shy, closed-off child—closed off to herself as well as to the people around her—and I thought her feelings could be more believably explored through her writing.

Why “Seinfeld” in particular? Putting aside the fact that I was already tremendously familiar with the show, I liked that it didn’t fall into any of the genres one typically associates with fan fiction, and that the more mature themes Kay would ultimately integrate into her writing would be especially incongruous with the cartoonishness of its characters.

How did you conceive of Jack’s art installation, complete with explosives? Did any real-life artists or installations inspire his work?
It was very important to me that the work be credible. For the most part, Jack’s projects weren’t inspired by any artist’s in particular; rather, they were the product of what I’d been able to glean about the art world and the kind of artist I imagined Jack to be.

There was one real-life artist who inspired some of Jack’s later art, in which he makes images by using the smoke of burning objects to singe his canvases. That artist’s name is Rob Tarbell and I found his smoke art online by total accident a few years ago; he makes these haunting pieces that really stuck with me.

What books are on your own personal summer reading list?
I’m reading Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels right now. Then I mean to pick up where I left off with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. So many series lately! Summer’s a good time for them. I read all of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books one summer while I was working behind a dark bar, wishing I were traipsing around Paris or Tangier or wherever Highsmith sent him.

Are there any authors who inspire you over and over? 
Oh sure, there are so many. Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster are big for me. Richard Yates, Harold Brodkey. Amy Hempel, Philip Roth, Nicholson Baker. I’m just reading what I love, that’s as inspiring as it gets for me. Lorrie Moore’s “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” was the first book I read that made me want to write. I loved what she was doing and I remember thinking, that, I want to do that.

What can you tell us about your next project?
Not as much as I’d like to! I’ve been working with siblings again, sisters, only this time the characters are closer to my own age, which is something I’ve been predisposed to avoid. It’s enough just to live it, without going home and writing about it too.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Among the Ten Thousand Things.

Get the Book

Among the Ten Thousand Things

Among the Ten Thousand Things

By Julia Pierpont
Random House
ISBN 9780812995220

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