Baldwin, the 33-year-old co-founder of the online magazine The Morning News, talked to The Atlantic about his book, and the life of a writer.
You Lost Me There is novel about a man who discovers that his memories and understanding of his marriage are entirely different than his wife's. What did your wife think about that?
Well, you'd have to ask her. I think it rang true for her, not because it's reflective of our relationship, but because it's true for Victor and Sara, the characters. My wife is the first to read all my drafts, so she's used to treating fiction as fiction, or at least trying to.
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How did you initially conceive of your narrator, a prominent neuroscientist in his late 50s, given that his experiences are so different from your own? Victor came from a picture. Where the picture originated, I don't know, but it popped up in my mind and it stuck there. It's late at night. There's an older man in a parking lot seeing a younger woman get into her car. He wants her, but he can't have her, and I was wondering what it would be like for him to know that she's completely unavailable. Not necessarily sexually—in fact, I was pretty sure they were sexually involved—but more deeply. For some reason there's a chasm between them he can't bridge.
The death of Victor's wife, Sara, didn't come to me until later. For several drafts, the novel was entirely about Victor and Regina, the girl in the parking lot. But the story wasn't alive for me. It didn't work. The chasm I had to bridge, as the author, was to figure out exactly what had put Victor into that parking lot, sitting frozen in his car--his inability to grieve over Sara's death.
It took me several years of waking up and slipping into Victor's head every morning to begin to figure out what that would be like. Working out Victor's occupation and age were comparatively much less challenging.
After his wife's death, Victor discovers a group of index cards on which she had recorded meaningful moments from their relationship. These cards pace the novel for the reader, signifying shifts in the narrative and in Victor's perception of his marriage. Were there any index cards that didn't make it into the final book? Did you ever write cards for Victor?
Some cards were lost to editing, yeah, but hopefully for the story's improvement. Things Victor and Sara did together, trips they shared. They weren't necessary stories; they didn't add much. I mean, in the first draft You Lost Me There had a blackmail plot. Thankfully, it's consigned to an external hard drive buried in the yard.
I didn't write any cards for Victor, but to me, the entire novel is in a way Victor's set of cards.
At times it felt difficult to sympathize with Sara since, being dead, she wasn't around to defend herself against Victor's memories of their marriage. Yet, when we do encounter her in the index cards, her voice and perspective is much more forthcoming than Victor's. Is this is because Sara is a screenwriter with a flair for drama? Or are we meant to feel alienated from Victor?
Actually, I've heard the opposite reaction a lot, that Victor's perspective is easier to slip into. I've heard a lot of different reactions. A guy told me two weeks ago that women won't "get" Victor because women don't like to imagine men being different from women. This came a week after a woman told me at a reading that she believed she personally harbored more sympathy for Victor than I had in writing the story, and she was disappointed I hadn't understood him better.
I'd say my intention in creating both Victor and Sara was to develop a narration that grafted as closely as possible to their desires, their loneliness, their frustrations with each other, and how they sounded to themselves and to other people.
Thinking about it some more, one of the main things I wanted to get across was a sense of what it's like to be alone. Not just for Victor or Sara, but for all of the characters. A few of them think about it. Some feel it unconsciously. They all act on it in ways. But I think it's universal, to sense that we're alone inside our heads, and that solitude can be difficult. And I tried to convey that with enough lightness, humor and love that a wide variety of readers might hopefully recognize the feeling. It's not always easy to connect with other people, but it seems to be the only way out.
There are many missed opportunities between Victor and Sara, in which one of them is seeking a sign from the other that doesn't come. It's unsettling to consider how easily a red-letter moment or turning point for one partner escapes notice for the other, and that the formative turns in a relationship can seem so small or insignificant at the time. Is that something that you have observed?
It became a preoccupation as the story started to emerge. I find memory unsettling. It's dishonest, it's erratic, it's open to interpretation. Courts no longer trust eye witnesses to determine convictions—that's pretty much my approach to memory. And yet, it's the only machinery we've got. We have to believe in our memories. We have to have faith in them, even when we know how frequently they're wrong. When something robs us of that faith, it can be terrifying.
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While researching the scientific background, what are some of the findings you came across that helped you delve into these themes? Was there any research in particular that colored your understanding?
The research I did was minimal. Mainly it was on Alzheimer's Disease, the current state of research and the progress made. I might have seen more stuff about grief and memory if I'd gone into memoirs about people who've had experiences with AD, but I deliberately avoided those books. First, I've had my own experience—my grandmother died from Alzheimer's. Second, there are plenty of terrific books along those lines, and I was worried I'd start cherry-picking other people's stories without realizing what I was doing.
I don't see grief and memory being very separate. Grief is memory. Memory is a big part of what makes grieving so painful and difficult, and also consoling.
You Lost Me There takes place on Mount Desert Island, in southern Maine, where you spent summers growing up. Did your choice of setting guide the story you were trying to tell? For example, the isolated, year-round community on the island seemed to mirror the small academic sphere of Victor's professional life.
Absolutely. For example, sometimes I'd have an idea of what I wanted to accomplish dramatically in a scene, but I wouldn't know where it should take place. Then a memory of a location would turn up and I'd try setting the scene there, and if it worked it might suggest to me another idea that came from a previous experience.
It helped that I love Mount Desert Island. It's been a favorite place of mine since I was a kid. When I was working on the book, I didn't exactly have a ton of faith that it would be published (I wrote two novels before it, both now buried deep in a drawer), so visiting the island on the page made writing the story more fun.
Given that this is your first novel, was the editing process what you expected?
I didn't know what to expect, and it actually went very well. I got lucky, I think. I had terrific people to rely on. My agent, PJ Mark, worked hard to find the right editor for the book, which ended up being Sean McDonald at Riverhead. Sean and I hit it off from the start, and he'd send me these long letters, we'd talk on the phone for hours, then I'd go hole up in Maine or North Carolina and knock it out.
What are your writing habits like? Do you have a daily schedule, or was this book more of a fits and starts sort of endeavor?
I write for a couple hours every morning, and every six months or so I disappear for a week, see what I've done, and tear it all up and rewrite the hell out of it. Then I do it again. I like routines and caffeine. I don't do well when I'm off routine or caffeine.
Before the book came out, you created a video book trailer, which is on your website, along with other music and images meant to evoke the book. How did you go about creating a trailer for a novel?
Well, there were a number of lucky events. We weren't sure quite what to do. Sean and I had a bunch of ideas. We wanted something a little mysterious, a little unsettling. Something that would that capture the book's atmosphere.
I knew of a photographer who I thought might "get it." Her name's Aya Padrón, she's a photographer based in Maine. She did a road-trip series that I liked, and it had an aesthetic that reminded me of some parts in You Lost Me There. So I just wrote her a note saying how much I admired her work, how I had this idea that she might enjoy my novel, and if she did, maybe we could see about collaborating on a project. And luckily, she really liked the book, and she volunteered to go to Mount Desert Island for a weekend and shoot pictures inspired by the story. Next I contacted a design firm in Chicago, Coudal Partners, about piecing the pictures together into some kind of video. The owner, Jim Coudal, is an old friend, and he's got this great video guy who works for him, Steve Delahoyde, and once they got excited about the project, one thing led to another.
I should point out that it was their idea, not mine, to have me narrate the video. Thankfully, Nathan Tarr, of the band Wood Ear, coached me during the recording on how not to sound like an uptight parakeet.
I read that you're now working on a nonfiction book about Paris? Has it been difficult to step away from the fictional realm to deal with facts?
For me, it's the same work. The nonfiction book, Paris, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down, is a travelogue about living and working in France, and the same challenges exist—creating characters, working out scenes. Of course, the trouble is that I can talk about You Lost Me There as a finished book, whereas the Paris book is currently very rough. Right now I'm in that early-draft period that makes me want to tear out my eyeballs.
So, is You Lost Me There an automatic entry into the Tournament of the Books?
Unfortunately not. Due to the amount of Morning News staffers publishing fiction--just this summer we had Jessica Francis Kane's The Report, Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall, Kevin Guilfoile's The Thousand—we've put a ban on TMN staffers' books being entered in the ToB. Considering this year's competition, though, that may be a blessing.