Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes, has written a new novel, and it’s a doozy. Cartwheel, which tells a fictionalized version of the Amanda Knox story, is a literary page-turner and a deeply imagined character study. It centers around Lily, a smart but naive protagonist who’s studying abroad in Buenos Aires when her roommate dies under mysterious circumstances. Even if you followed every second of the Amanda Knox case, and know exactly how it ended, you’ll be riveted by Cartwheel. I spoke with Ms. duBois by email about Amanda Knox, her writing process, and her favorite authors.
Did you study abroad in college? If so, where, and what was your experience like?
I did—I spent a semester in Prague and a summer in France. My experience in Prague, in particular, was life-changing and rapturous in some of the same ways Lily’s experience in Buenos Aires is for her. I was genuinely enchanted by the city and the country I was in, but a good deal of what made the time so meaningful was probably just about being on an independent foreign adventure for the very first time; I think the reason study abroad students often fall so hard for the places they travel is that those places wind up serving as proxies for the whole enormous world, which suddenly feels available in a new way—or it did for me, at least. I realized that if I could scrape together enough money for a ticket, I could just get on a plane and go somewhere new—which I then did, as often as I could, and sometimes alone. Some of the pretensions and reactions I had when I was studying abroad in college were as predictable and silly as Lily’s, but that time’s effect on my life was profound: the world has been bigger for me ever since. I liked the idea of exploring Lily’s newfound sense of freedom and independence and possibility immediately before she is imprisoned and that sense necessarily slams shut.
Did you spend time in Buenos Aires as you researched this novel?
I went to Buenos Aires as I was first starting the novel. I wasn’t initially wedded to any particular city or country for the setting—unlike with my first book, where Russia is basically its own character. But I was looking for a Catholic country where an American student might study abroad, with a legal system she might presume is similar to our own but is different in some key respects, and where she might know enough of the language to not quite realize how much she doesn’t know. Buenos Aires fit that basic template. And then as I got deeper into the book, Argentina wound up threading with the characters in more fundamental ways; setting the story in a more-recently-developed country, particularly one with which the U.S. has such a shameful recent history, presented some interesting possibilities—especially for the prosecutor, Eduardo, whose devotion to justice and truth-seeking is forged in the context of coming of age during the Dirty War. But to me, Cartwheel is very much a story that could have happened anywhere.
Cartwheel reminded me of American Wife, which is a fictional imagining of the life of Laura Bush—although that description cheapens the lushness and imagination of the actual novel. I think it would cheapen your novel to describe as a fictional take on the Amanda Knox trial, but that story was constantly in my mind as I read your book.
Were you riveted by the coverage of the Knox trial? What interested you about it?
I was very interested in that trial, and what intrigued me about it was the fact that people viewed the case incredibly differently (though often with a similar level of certainty), and that their views were so often inflected by concerns of privilege, gender, race, class, sexual mores, American entitlement, etc.—all hugely important issues that often shape the course of justice or injustice, to be sure, but not ones that actually have anything to do with whether one specific person committed one specific crime. It was that notion of a character who serves as a blank slate, or perhaps a Rorschach test—somebody who we regard through the prism of our own lives and preoccupations, somebody in whom people see different things but everybody sees something—that made me want to write Cartwheel. Once I began writing, I avoided coverage of the trial, since the novel takes place in a totally fictional sphere and it seemed to me that information about the Knox case would be irrelevant at best, damaging at worst, to my effort to authentically explore that theme in fiction.
Have you read Waiting to Be Heard?
I haven’t, for the reasons I mentioned above—though I would like to read it someday. I have followed some of its reception, however, and continue to be fascinated by the degree to which the conversation about Amanda Knox is still dominated by variables that are irrelevant to the question of her guilt (though the internet is constantly convicting and exonerating her of many other things). She still seems to be viewed as something larger than a person; people seem to see her as a symbol of a kind of entitlement they abhor, or maybe as a symbol of a kind of victimization they empathize with—but rarely just as an actual, literal, individual person who was on trial for one very specific thing.
How is Lily different from Amanda?
It’s hard to answer this question since I don’t really know anything about Amanda Knox as a person and didn’t set out to write a book about her. My character Lily is a very specific creature with her own personality, quirks, concerns, and sense of humor, so it would be very unlikely that there would happen to be any substantial similarities between them as people. There are some superficial similarities between them as figures or archetypes: both white, American, relatively privileged young women who seem to somehow invite certain snap judgments (though the judgments split)—it’s that last quality that I’m most trying to explore in this novel. As defendants, my fictional character and Amanda Knox are very different: for one thing, Lily’s DNA is found at the crime scene. That was not the case with Amanda Knox, which is one of the many reasons why it’s important to me as a person, and not only as a writer, that this novel not be misread as a book about real events or people.
[Spoiler alert! If you don’t want to read about the end of the novel, skip this question and answer.] One thing I really loved about this novel was its conclusion. I felt like I’d been waiting breathlessly to learn about the outcome of the case, but when it arrived, I realized the outcome was the least important part of the story, and that felt surprising yet inevitable—the perfect ending. Was that the effect you were intending?
Thank you! To my mind, the questions of Lily’s guilt and the trial’s outcome are secondary to the question of why the characters view her so differently—why some people are entirely convinced of one truth, others are entirely convinced of another—and my hope is that, by the end of the book, readers are no longer only thinking about whether Lily is guilty, but are also thinking about why they think what they do about her innocence or guilt. And without giving too much away, I’d also say that I wanted the ending to gesture toward the idea that all of us contain the capacity to do good and to do harm in our lives, to varying degrees—and that how this capacity is harnessed often depends on what we know, or what we think we know, or what we believe, as much as it depends on our intentions. The book engages a lot with questions of collective guilt and innocence—the prosecutor sees in Lily’s behavior an entire murderous history of American arrogance, for example, while Lily’s father sees her as the latest in a long line of persecuted, innocent young women—so I also really wanted it to engage in the question of the moral duality that exists, to some extent, within all of us as individuals. I hope everyone who leaves the book convinced of Lily’s guilt recognizes that the morality of the prosecutor’s actions are entirely contingent on that guilt: his intentions and good faith are the same either way, but if Lily is innocent, he is doing wrong. Similarly, I hope those who leave the book persuaded of Lily’s innocence also recognize the small flashes of brutality and callousness in her, and understand that being innocent doesn’t necessarily mean possessing zero capacity for any kind of guilt.
Cartwheel is told in close third-person narration, and it switches points of view from father, to daughter, to boyfriend, to prosecutor. Which character’s POV was most challenging to write, and why?
Eduardo, the prosecutor, was the most difficult to write—partly because his life experiences are very different from mine (though so are Sebastien’s), but mostly because his way of thinking and his values are the farthest from my own. He’s an incredibly morally engaged person—much more so, really, than any of the other characters—yet he often reaches conclusions that I probably would not. It was challenging, but ultimately really rewarding and broadening for me, I think, to try to make the most articulate, convincing case possible for beliefs that weren’t mine.
Do you outline before you begin writing?
I did outline each character’s through line before I began writing, though I wrote the chapters themselves completely out of order. My original thought was to give each character a standalone chunk of 100 or so consecutive pages, but then I realized that it was going to be a lot more dramatically tense to weave the characters’ sections. My first attempt to do that was basically a mess, but dividing the sections into two timelines—before and after the crime—seemed to clarify things. Part of what I was interested in doing in the novel was revisiting certain moments through different character’s eyes in order to explore the discrepancy between their interpretations of events, so the challenge was to avoid being repetitive and also not to let so much time lapse between interpretations that the reader has completely forgotten the first version.
You write beautiful sentences. Which writers are particularly important to you as crafters of sentences?
Thank you! Vladimir Nabokov is my favorite, though there are also many more contemporary authors whose sentences amaze me. I so admire the wit and unexpected charge of Grace Paley’s and Deborah Eisenberg’s sentences—you just never know when you start one of their sentences exactly where it will land. I love the relentless intelligence and energy in the writing of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace; I love the lyricism of Anne Michaels and Stuart Dybek; and I love Jennifer Egan’s lovely ability to give her characters moments of low-key joy over the beauty of the physical world, even in the midst of sad stories.
You’re so accomplished for such a young writer, and I have to guess you don’t spend hours watching cat videos, unlike most people around your age (by which I mean me). Can you talk about your writing routine, and give us (again, me) some anti-procrastination tips?
The awful truth is that I do spend hours watching cat videos. I mean, not hours per day, I hope, but I certainly wouldn’t want to know my lifetime total. People often ask me about avoiding procrastination, and I feel like such a fraud, because the reality is that I’ve been abundantly blessed with time to write—I went from graduate school to a writing fellowship and since then have mostly been writing. And the last time I had to juggle writing around a full-time job, I didn’t do a lot of it. I’m a terrible procrastinator—I tend to multitask in a way that sort of works for me, since I have trouble focusing at long stretches (I also just read an article about how left-handed folk, like myself, like to multitask because they’re using both sides of their brain in this really awkward way)—but sometimes I think it’s all just an elaborate ruse for my own procrastination. At the same time, I’ve written two novels in five years and I’m sure I’ve never written more than two pages in a day—so it happens somehow, I guess, even with the cat videos.