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.