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.