From the publisher’s copy: "Lauren Sheehan's career in medicine came to a halt after a sequence of violent events abroad. Now she's back in the safest place she knows--St. Helens, Wisconsin--cut off from career, friendship, and romance. Ben Hanson's aimless life bottomed out when he went to prison. But after his release, a surprising offer from his father draws him home. In Wisconsin, he finds his family fractured, still unable to face the truth behind his troubled cousin's death a decade earlier. As Lauren cautiously expands her world and Ben tries to unravel the mysteries of his family and himself, their paths intersect. Could each be exactly what the other needs?"
Mr. Somerville and I spoke about craft, videogames, and some other interesting stuff. (Interview after the jump.)
After I wrote The Universe in Miniature in Miniature I felt a pull back toward realism, just storytelling about people and their problems, how love fits into that, how bad choices fit into that, how the world looks to people in the early decades of adulthood. Whenever my writing drifts toward the supernatural this pendulum in my heart always swings and I am reminded of stories like So Long, See You Tomorrow or Kenneth Lonergan’s impossibly powerful film You Can Count on Me and I think: wait, just people, Pat, don’t get cute. I’m that kind of reader as well. Back and forth guy. I love high-concept fiction with crazy setups and I also love fiction that is low-low-low-concept too, just regular life. So as a writer, going back and forth will probably doom me forever, commercially, but it reflects who I am, and I drift around in terms of tone and form and I probably always will.
All that said I did still want This Bright River to be layered and crafted in an unusual way that reflected my doubts about finding certainty in the modern world, and I did still want it to have a big idea in the middle. In this case, really just a probing of the question How do you be a good person? Like: what is the skill of that? How do you learn that? Can you? Is it a sense or an art? It’s sort of low-concept and high-concept at the same time in that way, I guess. And finally, I also just thought: well, hell, if The Cradle is short and sweet, I should probably try to write a novel that’s long and twisted and unnerving now. Just to cover that base.
Q) As a reader, the dialogue that seems most realistic/compelling to me is dialogue that captures just how ineffective a method of communication talking really is, where characters repeat themselves, digress, and fail to address the issue at its core; basically the complete opposite of Aaron Sorkin. The only writer I’ve seen capture this kind of thing as well as you is Denis Johnson. How do you approach dialogue?
Writing dialogue is my favorite part of writing, so I’ve thought about it less than I’ve thought about things like structure or scene or language. That may not sound like it makes sense but I try not to think about whatever feels like it comes out right the first time. For me, so much of the fun of reading is trying to decode the subtext of what people mean when they say certain things, and what the author means them to mean, and what the other characters hear. I just can’t imagine writing dialogue that has a one-to-one correspondence. It has to not make sense, just a bit.
Q) There’s a great digression in the book about videogames, and how they generally break down along Apollonian/ Dionysian lines. Where do you think videogames stand as objects of art? It seems like the form can offer a unique artistic experience when done right, but I still can’t fire up the ol’ Playstation without feeling a bit guilty, like I should be reading instead. Also, a shot in the dark: Have you played Braid?
I haven’t played Braid but now I want to. I don’t play videogames as much as I used to—baby, work, money—but I’m confident they’ll be a larger and larger part of the culture as the next generation takes over the reins of the status quo. The technology is just so powerful, the possibilities are endless, the overall enthusiasm is so high. And that’s good! That’s fine. I think that feeling of guilt just comes from a) the half-breathing narrative that videogames are for children, and b) that other half-breathing narrative that art and play don’t mix. What major art form didn’t come from a place that was believed to lack seriousness?
Q) Is it too imprecise to posit that the American Midwest has a coherent influence on the fiction it produces? I’m very much a product of the suburban wastelands of Long Island, but there is something about the fiction of the Midwest that I find very appealing, something about internality, or the particular type of sadness I feel on chilly Sunday evenings when I stand without a jacket near a long road with no cars on it. I’m thinking of the great David Foster Wallace essay Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley, where the wind is a not necessarily positive omnipresence. Do you see your home country as informing your writing in any particular way?
I can’t pretend that it doesn’t, because I seem to keep writing about where I’m from. I think that’s just familiarity, on one level, but it’s also because I love the American Midwest and I love the people in the Midwest and I bristle at its marginalized status in the larger culture, at some of the generalizations, both positive and negative. I have a Midwest chip on my shoulder. Just like everyone else from here, I suppose. Maybe that’s a crucial part of being from the Midwest.
I would also add that every writer is different, everyone’s history is different, and because of that I don’t know if the influence of place is either coherent or consistent from one author to the next. My mother is English and I have one foot in Wisconsin, one foot across the ocean, so my perspective is unusual, my story has its own wrinkles.
But then again, how can the loneliness and isolation of the farmer or the farmer’s wife not haunt the stories here, even out in suburbia, even in the middle of the city? The Native population that was here for so long before those farmers, all these goddamned mini-malls now?
Q) Let’s say, hypothetically, that a preeminent book reviewer misread (or, really, didn’t finish reading) your book, and then made a flawed negative analysis in a major publication. What is your cocktail of choice?
The Weep No More, of course.