Some months ago, I was asked to copyedit a novel forthcoming from Lethe Press prior to designing and laying it out. The author, I was told, was very nearly as persnickety and detail-OCD as I. (Steve Berman, Lethe’s publisher, trembled in fear of her. It takes a lot to make Steve tremble.)
The author was Joyce Thompson, whom I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of or read before, the book a remarkable and remarkably eccentric murder mystery told in the pitch-perfect voice of an African-American gay man, an occasional drag queen, non-practicing lawyer, apostate from one particular House of the Afro-Cuban faith Santería although still a devotee of the faith itself.
Fortuitously, I happened to have done a fair amount of reading about/research into Candomblé, Santería’s Brazilian cousin. So I was more or less at home with the orishas (their names looked funny, transcribed from Yoruba using Spanish orthography instead of Portuguese) and some esoteric concepts that might have thrown a different editor. And Joyce was (is) as careful about her words and sentences as a grammar/vocab geek could wish. So we bonded. Doesn’t happen that often.
How to Greet Strangers is out there now, as of a few weeks ago. You should go buy it (the print edition is currently on sale at Amazon) and make Archer Barron’s acquaintance. You won’t regret it. The world he lives in is not yours or mine, and yet it is, so very much: you will be enriched and changed.
Meanwhile, at some point Joyce learned about my forthcoming novel, Deprivation, and asked for a copy of the Advance Readers’ edition with the thought of maybe reviewing it somewhere. Deep in a flu delirium, she decided she liked it and, instead of reviewing it, wanted to interview me about it. Now, in her super-secret identity Joyce is a marketing professional so who was I to say no?
Her questions were tough—brutal. She got it. You’ll see, below the ornamental spacer. Or you could read it at Joyce’s site.
An Interview with Alex Jeffers about his novel, Deprivation
Surrendering to Deprivation requires a reader to slow down. You make this happen by turning the sensory evocation way up. Every sight, smell and sensation is described—beautifully, but almost indiscriminately in the first chapters. A reader who stays the course does so with an altered sensibility, counting dreams as real as mundane events and being opened wide to the impact of the sex scenes.
Does this happen by chance or strategy? Talk about the importance of sense data in your evocation of character and world.
Strategy in the sense that it’s always my aim to be reread. I want patient readers and I want the work to be rich enough to reward their coming back to it. Twenty years ago, when I wrote Deprivation, the richest tools in my arsenal were description and lyricism—actual prose rather than stage directions and dialogue. (I may have discovered a few more since. Plot, perhaps.) The fact that serious American fictioneers and critics—back when I paid attention to such people, anyway—seem to distrust words, rhetoric, and their sensual values doesn’t, to my thinking, signify. I would rather read García Márquez or Pamuk or Gene Wolfe any day than Hemingway, Bret Easton Ellis, or Heinlein.
Chance in the sense that that’s the way I write. (Or did. As I said, my armament is a little more varied these days.) I somehow missed the memo that novels are meant to be scenarios for film. I like prose. I like to chew on it and sniff it and rub it between my fingers and listen to it moan and whisper, speak and shriek and sing.
But also both: Chance that it was a pair of dreams inspired the book, strategy to deploy narrative and prosodic techniques intended to immerse the reader the way one is immersed in a dream.
The protagonist Ben is a very young man. Is the intensity of your descriptions meant to reflect his age—a young man who’s not yet blunted his perceptions? What’s different in writing a young versus a more jaded character?
Ah, twenty-three isn’t that young. The first-person narrator of the novel I should be revising right now is sixteen. Although, truth be told, sixteen-year-old Nate often acts more mature than twenty-three-year-old Ben.
That’s a lovely idea, unblunted youthful perceptions reflected in floods of description, but it would take a far more analytical, conscious, and self-conscious writer than I’ve ever been to do it on purpose. I’m also not sure how true it is. I tend to think young people’s brilliant senses are also brilliantly focussed: they see what’s important to them in the moment without noticing the inessentials, the stray beauties and horrors that don’t immediately affect themselves. Young extroverts, anyway. Me, I’ve been a middle-aged introvert since I was wee, far more interested in the periphery than the center. Ben’s a bit like that too.
I’d also point out that, while I’m much older than Ben now, I wasn’t so much when he spent a year and a half scrambling my brain. I had just about a decade on him then but, due to peculiar circumstances in my own history, was at approximately the same life stage: a transplant from California still absorbing the matter of New England, a recent college grad (same university) with a similarly impractical liberal-arts degree, commuting between Providence and Boston to jobs unlikely to become any kind of career. The “intensity of descriptions” in many cases is simply me transcribing my own perceptions, because that’s how I make sense of the world, in sentences and paragraphs.
I like to think that, at whatever ungodly age I am now, I’m not jaded yet. That’s kind of a necessity for a creative writer, isn’t it? But the signal advantage of a youthful protagonist is simply that he or she is open to more possibilities, hemmed in by fewer restrictions and responsibilities. I find myself writing a lot of teenagers these days because teenagers—first-world teenagers, that is—don’t have careers. Careers get in the way of stories.
This level of descriptive intensity is more common in short fiction than in novels, I think. You’ve written many well regarded stories. How does that inform the way you shape a novel? Do you experience any tension between the demands of the two forms?
The thing about the contemporary understanding of the short story is that it’s the only form of fictional prose in which every sentence is meant to be meant, essential. I think that might be what you’re seeing, rhetorical intensity more than descriptive. Of course it’s generally an artificially plain, falsely transparent rhetoric because American distrust of style manifests as…style. (Hemingway’s sentences are differently artful than Proust’s but equally so. Guess whose I prefer.) Nevertheless, short-story readers expect the prose to be highly worked—to answer to a higher rhetoric than looked for in the prose of novels.
A short story is a sculpture. You can walk around it, inspect it from all angles, see it whole. There’s no room for error. Novels are buildings—sometimes a house, sometimes a palace or skyscraper. You have to go in the front door, walk around, explore, and you don’t really get a sense of how all it fits together, how it works, right away. If the foundations are sound it doesn’t much matter if a sentence or two or whole paragraphs aren’t first rate.
My natural length seems to be the long story easing on up to the novella. Stories of the length magazines prefer, 5,000 words and under, I find almost impossibly difficult. In the rare instances they succeed, they’re either all narrative, all language, or all character. In 10-30,000 words, I can give all three their due.
Novels—proper novels are horrible. (To write. Tremendously satisfying to have written.) Plot, plot, plot: architecture. Structure more important than style, rhetoric subservient to narrative. In my first (published) novel, Safe as Houses, after many failed drafts I ultimately used architectural metaphors to obscure the lack of plot. My second (published) novel-length work, The Abode of Bliss, admits in a subtitle that it’s really a sequence of ten stories, ten plots, although I tried for several years to pretend it was a proper novel.
Deprivation was a not immediately intentional experiment: a full-length novel written as if it were a long story, without stopping, no pauses for breath or reflection. I may have had in mind García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, in which each forty-page chapter is a single paragraph—once at least a single sentence. There are no forty-page paragraphs in Deprivation, but no chapters either.
In that sense, then, there was no tension between the demands of the novel and those of a shorter story, because I refused to allow they weren’t the same. I don’t think I’ll try it again.
There’s an engrossing family melodrama near the heart of the novel—a story you don’t start telling until the reader’s already come a long way with you and Ben. It’s almost as if you’re saying, See, I can do this more common thing, too, but it’s only one dimension of the tale I want to tell.
Did you know from the start that the novel would contain this family saga? How did you keep it from unbalancing your magical dream fugue?
I always need to know a thing or two about my protagonists’ families in order to begin understanding the protagonists themselves. The very first thing I knew about Ben’s mother, Sandra, was that she wrote savage but extremely civilized novels—I picture them as Anita Brookneresque, if Brookner wrote about the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s. The very first things I knew about Ben’s father, Ian, were that he was gay and that he would neither fool around behind Sandra’s back nor leave her by choice. (And then I slapped myself really hard and said, “David Leavitt already did that!” Didn’t stop me. Leavitt and I are very different writers, his Owen in The Lost Language of Cranes and my Ian very different husbands. As are his Philip and my Ben very different gay sons. The gay father and son in Sandra’s novel might deliberately more resemble Leavitt’s.) So the family melodrama was implicit, whether or not it got used.
And in some ways, yes, when it crops up it’s meant to say: Look! This could have been a conventional, conventionally “realistic” novel! Ha ha! Excellent joke.
Not to say I planned it that way, though. If I’ve learned one thing in mumblety-mumble years of writing fiction, it’s that planning, outlining, is death. (For me. YMMV.) If I know what’s going to happen, why the hell put myself through the hell of writing it? The point—the excitement, the joy—of a story is discovering what it wants to be. About a third of the way into Deprivation, I think I remember, I realized what the very last scene would have to be but I needed to get there to understand how to get there.
As to balancing Ben’s dreams and his everyday life, that would be one reason the melodrama never gets properly resolved. Like a dream from which one wakes untimely, it breaks up into incoherent fragments, flittering off into the empyrean. Maybe it was a dream, too.
The role dream plays in Deprivation seems to change over the course of the book, especially as it unfurls in parallel with Ben’s “real” life. At first, the reader wonders if you mean it to be related to mental instability or an escape hatch, but by the time his family’s secrets are revealed, we believe dreams are his way of being his own shrink, his agency of healing and becoming his own man. Was this always your intention or was it a gift of the process of writing? Did your sense of the meaning of his dreams change as you wrote your way through the story?
This is a tough one. Partly because it was all so long ago—who can remember? Partly because my conscious understanding of the novel has changed, evolved—caught up, I really think, with the understanding my subconscious always possessed. The novel I see now is a different animal than the one I believed I was writing back in 1991-92. Thankfully, a healthier, better put-together animal. The book I thought I wrote was a chimaera, its lion and goat and serpent heads all battling with each other to see which would win: Dream? Reality? Dream reality?
Now I see Ariosto’s hippogriff: still a mythical beast, still an assortment of unlike parts grafted together, lion and eagle and horse. But these parts work in concert and the animal is as concrete, as integrated, as it is impossible.
The chimaera reading, in which Ben’s dreams are his own unconscious self-analysis, remains valid, if reductive. He makes the point himself. I’m content for readers to take it that way.
The hippogriff asks, however: Is any of it real? Is all of it real? What is “real”? Is the entire novel one dream after another, dreams within dreams on top of dreams without beginning or end?
I’ve admitted above that bits of Deprivation are in conversation with David Leavitt’s very fine, conventionally realistic The Lost Language of Cranes and, less pointedly, Anita Brookner’s many terrifically smart, bracingly hopeless novels. Epigraphs acknowledge the conversations with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (so much stronger, better than Jane Eyre!) and Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love (most of her quietly spectacular oeuvre, actually). It’s abundantly clear, I expect, that there’s a larger conversation with Ariosto’s Orlando furioso—with the entire genre of chivalric, romantic epic he perfected. The book I’m not at all certain anybody will see that Deprivation is talking to, without my telling them, is H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I really need to reread that.
Each of Ben’s lovers seems to reflect an aspect of himself. It’s almost as if by loving these men he’s assembling the puzzle of his own personality. Is that the role that lovers play in our lives when we’re young? How did you conjure up Ben’s romantic partners?
I would hope we all, young and not so, learn as much about ourselves from those we love as we do about them. I would hope we all are always all the time endlessly learning. Please don’t disabuse me.
Dario came to me in a dream, all of a piece. I built Ben for Dario because it wasn’t Dario’s story, he was the impetus, the inspiration merely. The others, Liam, Neddy, Kenneth, Paul—I wouldn’t say I created them to reflect aspects of Ben (that’s the kind of thing an outliner does, planting characters ahead of time so they’ll flower at the perfect moment like scentless florist roses so beautiful they might be plastic), but I didn’t discourage them either. When I noticed what they were doing, I encouraged them. It’s a mysterious back-and-forth process, writing about imaginary people.
When you finished the book, how far could you see down the road into Ben’s future? Has your sense of what the book means in your own development changed over the 20 years between when you wrote it and now?
I adore series and multi-volume novels. Reading them. Following characters from one book to the next to the next. Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò. G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Melissa Scott & Lisa A. Barnett’s Books of Astreiant. Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories.
Reading them. Not writing them. By the time I stagger panting over the finish line, I never want to see those imaginary people or deal with their problems ever again. I am very content to believe that Ben is, and has been for twenty years, happily not having adventures in the Italy of dreams.
I make a poor career novelist. Partly because I tend to be really slow and to work in fits and starts. Mainly, though, because each book—even every story—is a new and intoxicating challenge, not a data point in a career strategy, and that’s the way I like it. As a writer, I have a low boredom threshold. I want new characters, new worlds, new rhetorics and techniques.
Granted there are commonalities from story to story, book to book, themes and subjects I attack over and over (Jesus Effing Christ, Jeffers, not that again!). Doubtless the characters and rhetorics aren’t as distinctly different to readers as they seem to me. But still, I like to think I’ve reinvented the wheel multiple times.
For most of twenty years I believed Deprivation would always be my most successful novel-shaped wheel. (I am not talking New York Times-bestseller type success. There’s no point going there.) Which was kind of dispiriting, because nobody wanted to publish it—until Steve Berman came along, thanks be to Daulton—and because any macro-lessons it taught me weren’t applicable to any other wheels while the micro-lessons apply to all of them. Gosh, this metaphor is unwieldy.
But sixteen-year-old Nate’s book, as much as it wants revision, succeeds very well indeed, I think, on largely different terms. Always learning, always trying new things. That’s why (and how) I do it.
Did you rewrite the younger man’s book before the present man published it?
I thought about doing so. Several times. I thought about updating it to the twenty-oughts or teens. Get some contempojazz playing. Didn’t work. Too much that happens in 1991 couldn’t happen in a period without answering machines, with smartphones and Facebook. Ben didn’t even own a computer. The parallels between the elder George Bush’s recession and Iraq war aren’t close enough to the younger’s. Everything’s so much more serious now, and terrible. Writing a joyful novel set in post-GWB America—well, I don’t know if it’s possible. For me. Nate’s joyful novel, set in 2009, takes place mostly in an imaginary European micro-nation.
So no. I cleaned up the punctuation some (somewhere along the way I’ve developed an allergy to semi-colons), trimmed a few adverbs, but that was about it.
In your afterword, you say you don’t speak Italian. Is there anything autobiographical in Deprivation?
There’s a goodly amount of autobiographical furniture and incidental. There usually is. I lived in Ben’s apartment before he did, owned his Canaletto poster and several of his ties. I rode the MBTA commuter train and Bonanza Bus between Providence and Boston—wrote a fair bit of the first third of the novel on that train. I worked for a small Boston temp agency, if on the opposite side of the desk from Ben. His nervy cat Persia was a toned-down version of my bad-tempered cat Element. I too find the Mediterranean periphery more interesting than the good ol’ US of A.
But in the sense of its being autobiographical fiction? No. Nonononono. I don’t understand autobiographical fiction, I truly don’t. It horrifies me. They are opposed terms, “autobiography” and “fiction,” violently opposed. Fiction is honest lies, autobiography false truths. Confusing them together—oh, the thought of it nauseates me.
Besides, nothing interesting enough to be worth reading about ever happens to writers except in their heads. Hah!
Thanks (I think) to Joyce Thompson for making me think and speak/write and spiral out of control, and to Archer Barron, Steve Berman, and sorely missed Daulton for bringing us together.