W. W. Norton & Co.
There are so many different characters in this book. Was there one in particular who sparked the idea for the whole novel?
I'd written Nadia's story as a short story, just a small part of it. I published it and I thought it was finished. And that was called "From the Desk of Daniel Varsky." But I found I couldn't stop thinking about her story. So I revisited it, and it began to take on a new life of its own. Then I began to experiment with other voices and tried to open up other stories. And I think they each provided me with something that the other couldn't.
In The History of Love, the two main characters are a precocious little girl and a charming old man living in New York. The characters in Great House are more aloof. A lot of them are reclusive, even misanthropic, and they're scattered all over the world.
In The History of Love, I felt I was writing characters—Leo and Alma—who had tremendous energy. I was aware of them being quite lovable from the start. They were funny and wore their charm on their sleeves. And I was deliberate this time about not wanting to use that. I wanted to find characters who had something that Leo and Alma didn't. I wanted them to be sophisticated thinkers, acutely self-aware, able to go anywhere in their conversation.
I also wanted characters who were not immediately likable. I didn't want to make the reader, or myself, fall in love with these characters too easily. When you meet Aaron, you might think, "Hmm, this father is quite cruel." Or Nadia—in a way, she's perhaps selfish in her shutting out everyone and everything for her work. But I wanted to stay with them long enough that we could come through to the other side. We would understand what made them the way they were.
I can't write a character I can't empathize with. In the case of Aaron, I didn't understand why I felt compassion for him. But the more I wrote him, the more I began to understand him. Here was a person who felt rejected by his son. He felt that his son had chosen the mother against him. Had he been a better person, he would have continued to make the effort. Instead, he did what many of us would have done. He became hurt and he backed away. But he never stopped thinking about his son. Once you begin to realize Aaron's own pain, I think you develop compassion for him.
To me, this is the singular privilege of reading literature: we are allowed to step into another's life. It's an opportunity for compassion that's very, very hard to find elsewhere. So writing this book was a harder path, in certain ways, than writing The History of Love. But at this moment in my life as a writer, it was much more interesting to me.
Parent-child relationships figure heavily into all of your books. Has becoming a mother changed the way you understand your characters' feelings as parents?
Of course. I remember one of the first books that I read after my first son was born happened to be, by chance, a book that had a mother and a son in it. And I was aware of something different. For the first time as a reader—the first time in my life—I was identifying with the mother. I'd never thought about the fact that, before, I'd always identified with the child.
I can only begin to describe the changes that were happening in my emotional life as I became a mother—even before my child was born, when I was pregnant. In Great House, there's this character, Daniel Varsky, who is this Chilean poet who disappears after Pinochet's coup. He's arrested, like so many who were arrested and ultimately tortured and killed. And so he sort of flits through the book as this ghost.
Now, at the time I was pregnant with my older son, for reasons that weren't clear to me at the time, I began to read obsessively about that period of Chilean history. And I couldn't stop myself from it. Later it seemed to me that I was somehow trying to face, in a very strange way, this vulnerability that I was entering into—this sense that when this child was born, everything would change for me. My entire happiness would come to depend, would rely, let's say, on the well being of this child. And God forbid anything should happen to him.
So I think all that reading became a way to touch this quite untouchable thing. And I thought I would write a whole novel about that period in Chilean history. But instead, it got all soaked like this dark blot—this ink blotter—into this character, Daniel Varsky.
It's interesting that you deal with your fears by diving more deeply into them. A lot of us would prefer to think as little as possible about the experience of losing a child—or the experience of losing a spouse, which is another major theme in your novels.
There are some things I couldn't write about because they were simply too painful. I couldn't write, for example, the story of somebody who loses a young child to brain cancer. I couldn't go there. Some young mothers who are writers would be able to. We're all made of different material.
But there are many things I'm willing to do and places I'm willing to go that feel very uncomfortable to me emotionally. And that's why I'm drawn to going there. I feel like it's in those places that I as a writer—but also in those places that my characters—those fissures, those very fragile and quite dark places, I almost think of them as these abysses that my characters fall into. Like the swimming hole where Lotte Berg swims every morning, and Arthur watches her disappear into this black pond and come up.
I think these abysses that they find themselves in give up this opportunity for revelation, for transcendence, I think, for transformation. I'm attracted to them not for their darkness, ultimately, at all. I think everything I write, strange to say this, but I feel hopeful about all the potential. I feel hopeful about the magnitude of life and all we're given to feel. I'm not shy about touching and talking about how painful it is. But I have this hope that somehow, in dwelling in all that, there's this opportunity for some kind of enhancement.