A READER'S GUIDE TO THE FICTION OF LISA ALTHER|
Lisa Alther's first novel KINFLICKS was one of those rare books that crystallizes the spirit and mood of a generation. The story of a young woman's sexual, emotional, and political coming of age during the turbulent 1950's, '60s, and early '70s, KINFLICKS, published in 1975, instantly established Lisa Alther's reputation as a shrewdly perceptive -- and achingly funny -- storyteller. Critics hailed the book as a comic triumph, comparing Alther to Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and John Updike. But readers embraced Alther not as an icon in the gallery of literary masters, but rather as an intimate human presence who spoke to them and about them. Reading KINFLICKS was like hanging out with an erudite, crazy, wise-cracking friend who dared to tell the truth about her wildest fantasies and most painful humiliations. Alther, in short, was a natural writer.
After the phenomenal success of KINFLICKS, Alther went on to write three other novels, ORIGINAL SINS in 1981, OTHER WOMEN in 1984, and BEDROCK in 1990, each one extending her range and enhancing her reputation. Her novels, though they all show a family resemblance in probing the depths of a woman's experience, stake out distinctly different territory, both emotionally and geographically. ORIGINAL SINS was a kind of epic, following five characters, white and black, from their dreamlike childhood in Tennessee through the social revolutions of the '60s and '70s. OTHER WOMEN tightened its focus to dramatize the intense, nakedly revealing relationship between a young woman on the edge and her brilliant psychotherapist. And, in BEDROCK, Alther's heroine is older and her life infinitely more complicated as she abandons a successful career and privileged New York lifestyle for the perils of rural life in an eccentric Vermont town.
Now in her new novel FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN, Alther takes a strikingly different course. FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN is a story of "graveyard love" -- love so intense and consuming that one carries it to the grave. At once heartbreaking, deeply sensual, and profoundly moving, this new novel follows its heroine Jude from her tomboy childhood in the mountains of Tennessee to her troubled maturity as a book editor in a seductive, deceptive, intricately sophisticated Paris. Alther has said that her books are about "all aspects of relationships between women." In exploring Jude's impassioned, obsessive, often destructive relationships, Alther has created the most compelling and disturbing book of her career.
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
Though Lisa Alther's novels are not, strictly speaking, autobiographical, she does draw freely on places, periods, and situations she has experienced in her own life. Born in Kingport, Tennessee, in 1944, the daughter and granddaughter of doctors, Alther went north for her college education, studying at Wellesley and Radcliffe. After graduation she worked briefly for a New York publishing company before heading off to rural Vermont. Alther wrote fiction steadily -- and unsuccessfully -- for years, eventually amassing 250 rejection slips without getting published. But, wisely, she refused to quit. "I'm very stubborn," she says, "I got defiant and thought, 'You're going to be sorry one of these days.'"
A CONVERSATION WITH LISA ALTHER
KINFLICKS was her revenge. She wrote the book in a series of creative binges, holing up in a boarding house in Montreal to write 18 hours a day. The phenomenal success of KINFLICKS established Alther as a major presence on the literary scene, and her subsequent novels consolidated her reputation. Alther, as one critic puts it, "chronicled the changes that constituted the 1960s and never failed to connect the dots between the personal and the political." In addition to her novels and short stories, Alther has written articles and reviews for the NEW YORK TIMES, ART AND ANTIQUES, the LOS ANGELES TIMES, NATURAL HISTORY, THE GUARDIAN and many other publications.
What was your inspiration for FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN?
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
I was visiting Paris and sitting at the window of a friend's apartment high up on Montmartre. I was watching the clouds and sky and they formed a face, and this reminded me of a dream I'd had as a teenager. A close friend of mine had died and I had a recurring dream in which I saw her face in the clouds. That cloud in Paris reminded me of it and became the starting point of the book. What I saw next was the ending of the novel, which is also in the clouds. So I had come full circle.
Why did you choose Paris as the setting for part of the book?
Jude's mother is mostly French and it seemed logical to set her search for someone to take the place of her mother in Paris.
The intertwining of good and evil is a dominant theme in FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN. Have you become more preoccupied with this idea in recent years?
Actually, it's been a preoccupation in all my books. I see it as light versus dark, the comic versus the tragic. But I agree that the new book is an attempt to look more directly at the dark side and to integrate it with the light side. One of the themes of the book is Jude's learning to accept her shadow. With Olivia, the dancer in Paris, Jude is forced to face her own capacity to choose a destructive situation. She must acknowledge that this is inside her, just as it is inside Sandy, Anna, and Molly. In a way, it's a loss of innocence but also a strengthening of innocence since once she knows her dark side she can guard against it.
Mme. Touissant says to Jude, "There are worse things in this world than a woman who loves you" -- and yet every woman Jude really loves dies? Why?
That is the mysterious question in life. Freud called it repetition compulsion: you get unconsciously drawn to similar situations because you're trying to work your way out of it. So ever since her mother's death, Jude keeps getting drawn to women who are going to die. She's been set up for it early in life.
Do you think Jude is somehow related to Ginny Babcock -- that they share certain traits or attitudes?
Both are Candide-like characters going innocently into situations that are beyond their capacity to understand or manipulate. But Jude is older than Ginny. And she is a more poignant character. She doesn't try to blunt the impact of everything with humor. Jude is also more obviously searching for love -- to love and be loved, whereas Ginny is searching for experience. Ginny has that young energy -- the energy of first novels and of people in their twenties.
The Tennessee parts of FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN have a very different feel from the Paris sections. Did you set out consciously to write them in a different style or from a different point of view?
I thought of the childhood sections of the book as photo realism: this is how children experience reality -- everything is new, exciting, and immediate. The Paris section has more of a surreal quality, an atmosphere in which you're not sure what is dream and what isn't.
Which writers have been most important to your own development as a writer?
The Southern women writers -- Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty. They showed me that writing was something that was open to women growing up in the South, something I could aspire to. I have read and do still read the classics -- the great English women novelists, the Brontes, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. Doris Lessing was very helpful to me in my career. I also love the French novelists -- Stendhal, Colette, Proust.
Did you study creative writing formally in or after college?
I took two creative writing classes at Wellesley in which we wrote short stories. They were helpful in terms of making you show your work to other people and they taught me that there were many ways to turn the criticism of others into something positive. But for the most part I've just had to learn to write by studying how other writers do something.
Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?
I do in the sense that I consider myself in any category. I get labeled a woman writer, a feminist writer, a gay writer, and I'm flattered to be included in all those categories. Though I've lived much of my life in the North, my childhood in Tennessee remains very important. So much in my Tennessee background has helped me in my writing as an adult -- the humor I see in everything, my interest in telling a story first and foremost -- these are things I get from the South.
Do you believe in "graveyard love"?
The love that lasts a lifetime. I don't know that you suffer all your life over one person, that you love once and you can never love again. But I do believe in graveyard love in the sense that Jude comes to at the end of the book -- in the sense that it seeks objects and other people and that it connects her with other people. I know there are people I have loved, people who have died, whom I continue to hold in my memory and in my heart, and I always will.
Which aspects of your work do you hope to be remembered for?
What I've tried to do in all my books is to get at the human reality behind the cultural stereotypes, especially the stereotypes of women. I explore the variety of relationships between women -- mother-daughter, sisters, lovers. I also like to tell a good story.
Do you think men read your books in a different way from women?
A special kind of man reads my books. I have had lots of letters from men and they're always generous and sensitive -- in fact, the men who read my books react similarly to the women.
You once said, "As you get older, the question becomes, if I'm not who I'm told I am, who am I? In each of the books I've been peeling away and once you've stripped away everything else, what's left?" How does this peeling away process relate to the new novel?
In the scene in the catacombs of Paris, Jude is peeled right down to her core, and she finds something is there -- it's what gets her up and gets her out of the catacombs. That essence, that life force, is what ultimately shapes her life. When all is stripped away, I believe there is something left that unites you to everything else.
Which aspects of your books do you wrestle with the most? What are the toughest challenges you face?
The question I'm always struggling with is the relationship between comedy and tragedy -- the daylight self and the shadow self. How to have both in the same book? How to write humor that isn't savage? Each book presents a new challenge. My two early books were painted on big canvases, they covered a lot of terrain. In OTHER WOMEN the challenge was to put two women in a small room for six months and make it interesting. In BEDROCK I wanted to do a portrait of a small town, a slapstick town with serious relationships going on within it. With FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN the challenge was how to combine the photo realism of childhood perception with the more surreal adult journey into the depths of the psyche.
Jude in FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN bears a certain family resemblance to Ginny Babcock in KINFLICKS -- both are outsiders, both of them drift from one romantic entanglement to another, both grew up in Tennessee and then moved on. Yet their differences are also striking. Talk about how their similarities and differences reflect on Lisa Alther's development as a writer.
All of Alther's heroines are bisexual to one degree or another, and all of them suffer serious conflicts about their sexuality. How accurate is her portrayal of female sexuality? Has she captured something essential about women's eroticism, or are her novels fundamentally about the lesbian experience?
Alther's novels are primarily about women, yet male characters play important roles in the lives of her heroines. Ginny Babcock, Sally and Emily Prince, Caroline Kelley, Clea Shawn, and Jude are deeply involved with men as fathers, lovers, husbands, brothers, friends. Are her male characters as real and vivid as her female characters?
Alther has remarked that one of her key issues as a novelist is "the relationship between the daylight self and the shadow self." This issue is especially powerful in FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN. Discuss how the daylight self and the shadow self keep cropping up in Jude's life -- both in her relationships with others and inside herself. Does Jude succeed in reconciling the basic conflict between good and evil?
Many of Alther's heroines work, though they are not always happy about their jobs or careers. How central is work to the identities of Caroline Kelley, Clea Shawn, Sally Prince, and Jude? Does Alther give a realistic view of the satisfactions and conflicts that women experience in work? Or does she use work as a symbol for some deeper emotional need in the lives of her characters?
In the novel, "five minutes in heaven" is a sex game that adolescents play: a boy and girl are locked up together and get to do whatever they want for five minutes. Why did Alther choose this as the title of her novel? Is five minutes all the time Jude ever gets in heaven? Does the idea of five minutes in heaven have anything to do with "graveyard love" -- the love that lasts a lifetime?
The very first line of Alther's first novel reads, "My family has always been into death." Sex and death have always been two of the dominant themes of her work. In her new novel the two are inextricably bound up together -- sex always seems to lead to death, whether for Jude's mother, or for the women and men Jude falls in love with. Discuss how Alther's treatment of this theme has changed from book to book.
Alther has spoken of her reverence for other Southern women writers, especially Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor. Discuss which novels and stories by these women had the greatest influence on the Southern sections of Alther's books, especially ORIGINAL SINS and FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN.
Relationships between parents and children are not always at the center of Alther's work, but they are always an important part of the story. Think of Ginny Babcock and her dying mother in KINFLICKS, Emily Prince and her son in ORIGINAL SINS, Caroline Kelley and her parents and her sons in OTHER WOMEN, Clea Shawn and her children in BEDROCK, Jude and her dead mother and charming father in FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN. Are parents and children doomed to wound and disappoint each other? What do Alther's heroines get out of motherhood? Does Alther do justice to the complexities of being a lesbian mother?
"Everybody ends up hurting each other," Molly tells Jude in FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN. "It's the law of the jungle." Is this Alther's essential view of human relationships? Or does she go beyond it to some deeper harmony and forgiveness?
Before they become lovers, Anna tells Jude that she is "transparent...what you see is what you get" and Jude ponders the meaning of this: "Transparency suggested naivete. Was it corny to be naive, or did it indicate authenticity and integrity?" What do you think about Jude's character? Is she the eternal innocent, always looking for love in all the wrong places? Or does she possess an inner core of solid strength and maturity that she eventually taps into?
At one point Anna and Jude debate the nature of love, Anna claiming that "the one who is able to set limits loves less" while Jude counters by saying, "Maybe the one who sets limits loves more. Maybe she doesn't want to endanger something that has become absolutely vital to her happiness." Is this a fruitful way of looking at love? Does the discussion of limits suggest that their love has already grown stale -- or that it's deepening into something more complex?
In a hallucinatory scene near the end of FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN, Jude's mother tells her, "Once you can love without needing an object, then you are love. And you will rush to unite with love and will leave behind that strange place, so beautiful but so marred by hate." Is this what Jude's quest for love is leading up to? Is this even possible on earth? Is it a worthy goal? What is the "strange place" that Jude's mother talks about?