Monday, June 25, 2007

Alice Sebold Interview

I interviewed Alice Sebold author of The Lovely Bones, Lucky and the forthcoming The Almost Moon (October 2007). She was in New York for BookExpo America in early June and I met her in the lobby of her hotel. The chance to interview her just fell into my lap. I seized it immediately. She was lovely, polite, and smart--very generous with her time. Somehow, while I got the chance to interview her, I didn’t get an advance copy of the book. Afterwards and since BEA, I learned that the galleys to The Almost Moon were one of the conventions hot giveaways. I didn’t get one--though mine is in the mail, I think--so, in retrospect, I feel sorry that I must have seemed unprepared. Still, looking back on our conversation three weeks ago, that immediate pang of self-criticism has waned and what emerges most vividly to me, in writing this up is her generosity and her intelligence.

Fernham: Tell me about your new book.

Alice Sebold: Well, it’s about a woman who kills her mother.

She paused to let that sink in and continued.

AS: It’s about mental illness and it’s about how you always have your mother. How she’s always with you even when she’s gone. It’s something the character has to figure out. I was interested in strained relationships with mothers. You can let it pass or work it out, but it’s there. I just took a dramatic leap and wrote about someone who kills her mother. Of course, she doesn’t escape her. You never escape your mother even in death. My mother was kind of owned by her mother until my grandmother died at 96. My mother was 70. And I watched a certain part of her spirit unable to be free while her mother was alive. And now, it can be. My mother is an amazing being--I mean, I have my side of the story about my mother, too--but she’s an amazing being and it’s been amazing to have her feel that freedom for herself.

F: Has your mom read the new book?

AS: Yes. I just sent it to her last week. I wanted her to read it before BEA. Then, I could go to BEA knowing--well, either it was going to be o.k. or… She called and told me “You’ve written a wonderful book. And, unlike some people, I am able to identify the difference between fiction and fact.”

F: That’s a grand reply.

AS: Oh, my mother is quite grand. She’s wonderful. You know, she’s always had an idea of herself as a writer. That’s was a burden to me when I was younger, but now it’s a gift. My father read it, too. He left me the longest phone message I’ve ever gotten from him about it. He’s retired now; he was a professor and I think he read it as a kind of assignment. Anyway, he took it very seriously and had a lot--for him--to say about it. I think that I came into existence for my father after attention from the world.

F: Tell me about your teachers--what they’ve meant to you and what you learned from your teachers. I particularly want to hear about Tess Gallagher--I so vividly remember seeing her give a poetry reading when I was in high school.

AS: Well, I feel so lucky to have intersected with so many great teachers who inspired me with their work, their teaching, their person. Along the way, I’ve had the chance to meet certain people. I mean, watching Ray Carver at a party and seeing that he was not so great at a party and recognizing that that doesn’t have to do with writing, that was a gift.

I remember Toby Wolff said that the former students you hear from are never the ones you hope to hear from. And I worked myself up for years and years to ask for a recommendation from him and when I finally did, he said of course he would write for me.

But with Tess, it was her work, her teaching, and her person.

F: I remember at that reading, sitting myself behind William Stafford on purpose in hopes of overhearing the elder statesman of Washington State poetry make an aside about Tess Gallagher. She walked in and Stafford said, “That Tess, she always wears such funny hats.” I was so disappointed: I thought it was a terrible, dumb thing to overhear. But now I think it’s kind of great.

AS: Maybe my noncompetitive clause on dress dates from Tess.

F: Tell me about yourself as a teacher.

AS: Well, I’m not teaching full-time now, but when I do workshops--a week here or there. I’m tough. I never lie. A lot of people find different ways of lying when they teach. But I’m not about being tough and mean. I try to suss out what writing means to people at the very beginning. People usually telegraph that pretty quickly. The goal for the old man who just wants to write the story of his life and bind it in leather for his grandchildren is different from that of the woman with six hair colors who’s written three pages in six months and frenetically insists that “it sucks and doesn’t have a plot.” With her, you want to find the four good images in those pages and show them to her and get her to work with that.

I taught at Hunter College for ten years when I lived in New York and toward the end, I got to teach a few fiction workshops. Who knows why they let me do that. I hadn’t published anything yet. But one of the things that was really frustrating then, that I had to learn to just let go of, was what to do with the occasional student who’s a fabulous writer but doesn’t want to do anything with it. You have to overcome the impulse to push him into writing and recognize that he’s fine; he’s a happy person; he’s going to go on and get a good job designing video games or whatever and maybe that’s better.

F: Tell me about the reading you do. Does your reading change when you’re deeply immersed in writing from when you’re between projects?

AS: Well, when I’m really really writing, I read poetry the way you pick up a pretty piece of stone on the beach. For something beautiful, specific and hard. For this last book, there were two poets. Philip Larkin. There’s a sadness in him. So many poems that seem hostile to the world also describe a desire to belong, to be a part of things. That was a real touchstone for me. You know, it’s funny, somehow two collections of his work came out at about the same time--one is chronological and one is by themes. You should get the Penguin one. That’s the one I used, that’s the one. And--I’m embarrassed to try to pronounce her name--the Polish woman. Szymborska. She was the other poet for me.

I have a thing about pronunciation. It’s because I’m so poorly educated.

F: (I protested this fervently, but she was on a roll and persisted.)

AS: I just finished doing the audio of The Lovely Bones and there’s a character in that book named Hamish. I’d been pronouncing it hammish in my head [with a soft a] and the recording engineer pointed out to me that it’s usually pronounced hame-ish [with a long a]. I was so embarrassed. And so disappointed. Why can’t it be hammish? I want his name to be hammish. And for years I mispronounced Simone de Bouvier because I think my mom must have had de Beauvoir in the house but we talked about Jackie de Bouvier so I just thought Beauvoir was pronounced that way.

F: I still stumble over “sword” and “monastery” from reading historical novels as a girl.

AS: I never really bonded with well-educated writers because of that kind of one-upsmanship. Now, I’m happy to have avoided that and that moment of theory, deconstruction and all that. It was intimidating. Years after the fact, I bonded with my father over that, about our both missing that heavily theorized deconstructionist boat. It’s funny, because we never spoke about it to each other at the time, but I was in college and he was a Spanish professor and we were both really alienated from the prevailing theoretical mood. Then, he retired at 70 from teaching and we had this conversation about how we had both felt out of sync.

F: Do you read memoirs?

AS: Not lately. There’s a biography of Colette that came out ten years ago. You should read that. You know, I was just talking about her with the woman who photographed me for this new book. She was wonderful! Anyway, we talked about how Cheri and The Last of Cheri are the Colette novels for young women, but My Mother’s House and Sido, that’s what to read now. That’s Colette for middle-aged women. [Sebold and I are both in our early 40s; though it goes against the grain of common parlance, we are, I think, technically middle-aged.]

F: I’ve never read Colette. But so many of the people I like most who write about Woolf also love her, so I know I would love her.

AS: I think I avoided Colette for a long time because I was put off by the very things in her that drew me to Woolf. That is, Colette had a make-up line, she wrote all about sex, she was frightening.

F: Tell me about what you like about Woolf.

AS: I was assigned Woolf in college and I didn’t like it. I came to her late. After liking Henry James and Edith Wharton, then I could come to Woolf and like her. But the thing that made me a Woolf fanatic was A Writer’s Diary. Before I was published, I would read an entry every morning as a way to get me started writing. I did that again this time reading bits of Woolf to get started. I remember when I was starting out, reading her sniping and complaining and wanting to say, “But don’t you see, you’re Virginia Woolf!” But it sounds different now. I understand her better.

F: So much of your memoir Lucky is about before and after--before and after the rape and the way the rape ended an era of your life. But it seems to me like, since The Lovely Bones, you’ve been living in a new after. Does it feel that way to you, too?

AS: You know, I think life is lived in eras and I’ve had a lot of them. Some eras are the result of marriage or a job. But with this one, it’s weird to create an era by the result of work you’ve done.

F: Thank you so much for your time!

AS: Thank you.


Michelle said...

Hi Anne,
What a great interview. You covered so many topics. Good work!

Anne Camille said...

Great interview. Thanks for posting this.

Sophronisba said...
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Sophronisba said...

It is a great interview. I really didn't like The Lovely Bones, but the new book sounds interesting (and Sebold herself has always seemed like an interesting person).

Anonymous said...

you interviewed her on the spot, without having prepared? well done, in any case.

I don't know about this classifying of Colette novels according to age. By that formulation is Claudine for schoolchildren? And are Colette's novels only for women? I know plenty of men who would be well-served by a reading of Chéri...

Unknown said...

Believe me, I prepared plenty--there was nothing on the spot about it. But I didn't have the new book and I thought maybe it was embargoed. When it turned out to be plentiful in advance, I was bummed.

As for Colette, I think she was talking about a place to start...

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Anonymous said...

Hello Anne. My name is jonathan Shaw, I also write (my book is THE LONELY WALK) and I just want to say a big THANK YOU for interviewing this talented writer ALICE SEBOLD. Having just read THE LOVELY BONES I found it lifechanging - I think it can help people! Yet I cant seem to find much on Alice herself. So it great to find a good interview that you did that helps me understand Alice a little more. Keep up the good work, and I hope you write a book too.