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From Barnes & NobleJonathan Lethem interviews Rebecca Wolff about The Beginners
Lethem: What does a poet already know about the stuff of narrative fiction going in—about character, scene, "story"? What does she have to learn on the fly? How did that feel?
Wolff: I'm not sure I can speak for all poets (in fact, I'm sure I can't). Some are quite dedicated to narrative as a basic logical structure for their poems—think of the sort of poem that can be paraphrased: "I was mowing the lawn and then I saw this bird and it made me think of my lost freedoms; and then I saw this leaf fallen on the ground and it made me recall my imminent mortality in such a way that I no longer felt a pang at my lost freedoms." That poem provides an arc not at all unlike the arc of story, with scene, with character. I have never been exactly that kind of poet—I tend to think of my poetic impulse as being more ambient, more akin to a soundscape or dreamscape than a story line—but on the other hand I have always been a hungry consumer of narratives in the forms of novels and film. When I began The Beginners I instantly realized that the most significant tutelage I had absorbed from my reading of narratives was at the level of the sentence: How to begin and end a sentence, and what might go in the middle. So I still did have a seriously steep learning curve, and the first drafts of this novel were so haphazard as to be unredeemable. I had to actually learn that it was in my power to move characters and their story along by forcing them to do things, to say things, to pick up and put down things. When writing poems I prefer to rely on what feels like divine communion with language itself; and when writing a novel one must subscribe to, even love, the banal in a way that can make the complex weave of a story hang together.
Lethem: New England already seems dotted with ominous, dreamlike, unreal literary places—the Lovecraft towns, the Shirley Jackson towns. Where's the town of Wick situated on the map of the real and the unreal?
Wolff: Wick is exactly that town that you drive through and can't believe you're driving through, and that was exactly what made me want to write about it. It is directly based on an amalgamation of a very strange set of towns in central Massachusetts—I hope I'm not preemptively destroying the mystery of the fiction by disclosing this, but I just visited the area again last week so I'm full of the sense of it. One town is called Hardwick, and it is quite near a larger town called, I kid you not, Ware. The two are joined by a hamlet called Gilbertville. I drove through these towns quite often when I used to have to go from somewhere to somewhere else in Massachusetts and they were on the way, sort of—although part of the magic of them is that they are not really on the way anywhere at all, they are set off from anywhere, almost cut off, by the circumstances of their history as described in the novel. So I would be by myself, in the car, full of wonder and a sense of possibility at the question of what could bring anyone there, and who they would find if they arrived there—and that was the seed of the novel.
Lethem: You're a descendent, and share part of your name, with one of the Salem "witches" featured in The Crucible. Is this a family matter?
Wolff: It is, and this biographical fact is inherently related to questions the novel attempts to raise. Originally, I visited the three towns that became in my imagination Wick, because I was on the trail of my ancestors. My mother had told me that the remaining family of Rebecca Nurse, my ancestor, had moved to Hardwick after the witch trials had claimed the lives of their matriarch. So I went poking around looking for family names in the graveyards there, and what I found made me ask myself: What does it mean to be connected to a beautiful, lonely place by a tragic error? How real are connections that we feel to places, or to people? Is there a kind of magic in our often ephemeral sense of relationship, of connectedness, of history? (One of the main characters, Raquel, is a woman for whom there is no continuity.) Histories are, of course, stories, and so this story attempts to ask what it means to find meaning in stories, in "facts," in their infinite interpretation. Not to be too circular about it. The witch trials are a fascinating study in multiple subjectivities, and in the shifting nature of rationality, as the conviction of the people of Salem that certain behaviors could most reasonably be caused by consort with the Devil would be definitively contradicted soon after. Just as the conviction that the "afflicted girls," the teenagers who were given the power of accusation and upon whom the burden of proof also lay, were under the spell of Tituba, a slave, later shifted to a belief that they had eaten moldy grain and were hallucinating, and later again to a more sociologically determined reading of group hysteria. Semiotic, social, psychiatric, and religious historical treatments all smooth the path toward a reasoned understanding. But as a child growing up with the nominal connection to Rebecca, I was not so interested in these kinds of explanations, and instead immersed myself in the part of the story in which accusations were made, and lingered in that space before the accusations were denied. Though the texts I studied reported that, for example, one of Rebecca's accusers had been seen to prick her own self with a pin just prior to crying out that Rebecca's spirit had punctured her flesh, I was loath to dwell on these more prosaic passages. I wanted to be the descendent of a witch, not a victim.
Lethem: Henry James. Shirley Jackson. Paula Fox. S. E. Hinton. I'm guessing wildly, but I have to ask you about influence. Pick two and discuss.
Wolff: I like to describe The Beginners as a cross between Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and The Turn of the Screw. But seriously, I'd like to order a large James/Jackson combo. My sentences can be Jamesian, though I attempt to unwind them as much as I am able; my conviction that fiction is a perfect place for exploring what is otherworldly, in the midst of or just adjacent to this fabric of "reality," comes out of Jackson.
Lethem: I had the feeling you were inspired to try to create real fear in your reader -- or perhaps you scared yourself while writing it. Do you identify with "horror"?
Wolff: I think being truly frightened is a formative experience for children, and is a foundational experience for the adults they become. Horror, the kind that we create most vividly in our imaginations, gives us yet another opportunity for the experience of finding relief—we run to our parents, we bury our faces in their laps. We find comfort in turning on the light, in being shown that there is nothing under the bed. Ginger, the fifteen-year-old narrator of The Beginners, is just coming out of that period of childish consciousness in which one is quite open to the possibilities of one's own fancy, and to granting them credence. And just as she begins to feel the pressure of crossing over, she finds herself consorting with adults who occupy a dangerously liminal state and who produce or call out in her an absorption, a giving over to that childish consciousness, even as they call upon her to enter a realm of sexuality that is quite at odds with childhood.
I was very concerned that the book actually be scary. It was my worst fear that the book would simply gesture at fear, without truly evoking it in the reader. The act of writing, just like the act of reading, can be frightening—one necessarily leaves the realm of rationality, or anyway I do—and I was frightened at times writing this book (when I was not engaged with the more banal tasks of making characters pick up and put down their teacups). And I knew that that was exactly the sensation I wanted to create for the reader—as an opportunity for him or her to return or arrive at that kind of open consciousness, the capacity for belief. The book is in part an homage to fear.