I N T E R V I E W S|
from TURNSTILE, v.IV, no.1
Carol E.W. Edwards
"The kind of fiction that interests me most, as a reader and as a writer, is the kind that attempts to expand our understanding of the human psyche....I have always read fiction for clues to the murder mystery that is life. And I have always written fiction as an act of self-discovery." -- Lisa Alther
It is this heart's needle probing of the psyche, truthful, often sad, and always tempered by mordant wit and irrepressible humor, that Lisa Alther has given us in four novels (KINFLICKS, 1975; ORIGINAL SINS, 1981; OTHER WOMEN, 1984; BEDROCK, 1990; all available in paperback) and numerous short stories. In exploring the generational continuity and conflict inherent in families and the "fugue", as she terms it, that connects friends and lovers, it is their passions -- physical but perhaps most importantly psychological -- that she reveals with quicksilver accuracy: "that jarring moment when you finally discover after hours, days, years of talking, what obsession it is that gets a person through the night."
In her fictional world, Alther vividly describes cultural and regional traditions, geographic diversity, and political and social ideologies, but it is her ability to map the landscape of the heart that distinguishes her.
CEWE: On reading and rereading your books, I am always struck by what a consummate storyteller you are. In this age of the postmodern novel, storytelling seems to be a waning tradition, but it is one I identify most closely with southern novelists. How did growing up in the South affect you and to what extent to do you see yourself as a part of that tradition?
LA: It was a very useful thing to grow up in the South if you wanted eventually to be a novelist, because of the anecdotal style of conversation that Southerners use as a matter of course in their day-to-day dealings with one another. The South, until it became the Sun Belt, was the poorest part of the country and it still has a very high illiteracy rate. And often the schools aren't very good, so people tend not to be abstract and analytic, but they are very intelligent, nonetheless. The way that they deal with theoretical issues, in my opinion, is via anecdote. People have points that they want to make, but they never make them in so many words. You sit down and somebody might say, "Well, I was just downtown and I saw this old man and he was holding his son by the hand, and he said to his son...." and in the course of telling a very amusing thing that they have seen, they will also be making some kind of more general point. People always talk in terms of little anecdotes that embody some larger point. Because the South is such a Christian part of the country, you get trained almost from infancy by reading the Bible and hearing the parables in the Bible -- the parables are stories but they're also inculcating morals or making philosophical points -- so as a Southerner, you just get used to thinking in that way. That can be very useful if you want to grow up to be a novelist, because that's basically what novelists are doing -- or at least that type of novelist.
I also think that this business of storytelling to make larger points is a defense mechanism because of the South's having been defeated and impoverished for so many decades after the Civil War. It was actually dangerous to say what you thought in so many words, so people became more devious. They would still mouth their complaints, but often these were concealed in the form of some humorous story.
CEWE: With regard to your work, do you feel that the short-story form inhibits storytelling?
I just write what I have to write for my own internal reasons, and then, once it's written, other people classify it. I have been classified as a southern writer and also as a woman writer and a feminist writer, but the categories are not something I would necessarily apply to myself, although I'm very pleased whenever I am put in any of those categories. It's always nice to have attention, and certainly to be included in that remarkable southern literary tradition is a real honor.
LA: Although I have written quite a few short stories, I have a lot of difficulty limiting myself to that single crystalline moment in one person's life that you usually need to do if you're writing a short story, because I'm too long-winded. When I began each of my novels, I thought the first chapter would be a self-contained short story. Once I start writing, however, I become fascinated with the characters and I have to know who their grandparents and cousins are, and the origins, historically speaking, of the social network in which they find themselves and that kind of thing. I think it's basically a product of being nosy. As a rule, I think that Southerners tend to see people as part of a web or network, because that was how we grew up: in small towns, with several generations of every family around, and you knew everybody's cousins and mother and father and grandparents and which houses their families lived in over the past couple of centuries. It's difficult to extract a person from his or her web of connection.. The idea of the isolated individual suffering solitude and aloneness is not something that ever really caught on in the South. We tend to have the opposite problem of feeling overwhelmed by the past and imprisoned by the social strictures of the family and community.
So although I love to read short stories and even love to try to write them, I think that my temperament is more that of a novelist.
CEWE: When beginning a novel, do you choose a narrative voice that you maintain throughout?
LA: I don't really choose a narrative voice; rather, it chooses me, in a way. A novel originates for me in mental images that show me the beginning and end of the novel. In the course of developing the characters that I see in those images, I really hear the voice in a sense, not like a tape deck in my head, but the tone of voice presents itself to me in a certain way. It's almost a question of rhythm. It's hard to explain, but it's like once you get on the horse, then you ride it and you're carried along. So it's not a question so much of choice as of opening myself up to that rhythm.
One of the things I find most interesting and exciting about writing fiction is that so little of it is a choice or rational. In other words, when I'm starting out on a novel, the rational part of my mind insists that I go to the library and make lists of books that I need to read and check them out and read them and make notes and outlines. Then I tear up all my notes and outlines and I'm ready to start writing the book. The book comes, I think, from a deeper level than my rational mind -- from my subconscious, in a certain sense -- which is a relief for me, because if my rational mind was in charge of the show, we'd be in big trouble. So it's nice to know that there's another part that understands more of what's going on than I do in my conscious day-to-day life.
CEWE: It's often a reader's assumption that a first novel, at least, is autobiographical. Do you think that's a reasonable assumption?
LA: I guess that in a way every character a writer writes about is some projection of an aspect of themselves. But a lot of times that means that it's an unconscious or semiconscious aspect of themselves and not the one they identify with for their daylight personality. So in KINFLICKS, I was using Ginny Babcock as a vehicle, someone who would be dumb enough to want to experience all the things that went on in the sixties. She really goes through everything. And I was much more inhibited or more selective or whatever you want to call it about what I've actually done in my life. I live in a certain sense through my characters and, in another way, they're wish fulfillments. It is what I would like to have done. Take Ginny: She was a flag-swinger. When I was in high school, I practiced for years in the backyard with a flag, but then I wasn't selected to be a flag-swinger. it was the great crisis of my life [laughs]. So then when I became a writer, I wrote about a character who is a flag-swinger, whom everyone thinks is me, so at last I get to be a flag-swinger.
Certainly I think when you first start writing there's all this stuff that's been bottled up for a lifetime and it all comes pouring out, often with a lot of energy and intensity, which is what can be so compelling about first novels. But I can't speak for other writers. For myself, each of the books I've written has been in a sense a chronicle of issues that I was dealing with at that time in my life when I was writing it. In a way, it's like an exorcism: You take what it is that's troubling you or pain you don't understand and you put it through its paces out there on the page with fictional characters and it frees you from it. So all my characters have something to do with me, but they're not how I see myself. I haven't yet written an autobiographical novel, one that I would consider autobiographical in the sense of the main character being me.
CEWE: Are you concerned that anecdotes in your books or certain nuances in the characters will be recognized by your friends and family?
LA: Well, yes, in fact, that's one of the big challenges. I mean, after you've been published, if you have fairly good reason to think what you write in the future will be published, then it really becomes an inhibiting thing. In my case, I'd written two novels and fifteen short stories and had hundreds of rejection slips before I wrote KINFLICKS, so I thought KINFLICKS wouldn't be published either, and therefore I could pull out all the stops. With the subsequent books, when I knew they probably would be published, I had to go through certain exercises to allow myself to write what I wanted to write -- namely, not taking an advance, and secondly, assuring myself that if it was too revealing of myself or insulting of my loved ones I could burn it in the wood stove. So that's the kind of bargain I always made with myself and then I could write flat-out. Nevertheless, I'm sure that you inhibit yourself in various ways unconsciously. That's one unfortunate thing about bad reviews. If you make the mistake of reading them, they can scar you in a certain way and I think probably do influence what you write in future books.
The thing about reading the reviews...everything one person loves, somebody else hates. A novel is really like a Rorschach test and a review often tells you more about the reviewer than it does about the book being reviewed. So, as a writer, if you read reviews and take them seriously, they can really throw you off your stride. It's nice to know how people react, but I think it's also important to remember that we're all individuals and we all react out of a personal history.
CEWE: How long before KINFLICKS had you written these novels and stories?
LA: I wrote my first story when I was sixteen and I started writing fairly regularly when I was about eighteen, and so I wrote up until KINFLICKS was published when I was thirty-one. I was mainly writing them during the decade of my twenties.
CEWE: So fifteen years of publishers' rejections didn't stop you from continuing to write?
LA: It certainly gave me pause for thought. I had crises of confidence, but the thing was that I loved writing so much that I thought, Well, even if it's never published, I feel myself getting better at it as a craft. And that was very satisfying and it was also the way I used -- which I think a lot of southern writers do -- to make sense of the world, the things I didn't understand. You put them in a story and let the characters go at it and then by the end you understand the situation better than you did before.
CEWE: That's interesting, because I'm always impressed by how even-handed you are -- your treatment of the North and the South in KINFLICKS and ORIGINAL SINS; the relationship between the therapist and client in OTHER WOMEN; but especially the character of Donny in ORIGINAL SINS. Why did you choose to write in a black voice?
LA: Well, I was trying to create a picture of that little town in the South and I felt that you couldn't write about the South without including a black perspective. On the other hand, it felt incredibly presumptuous to try to do it. But I thought, Well, if it's not possible to do that, if it's not possible to understand the point of view of someone who's very different from you, in terms of race or class or age or sex, then there's no hope for us all. There were five main characters; three were male; one was black. I thought, At least I have to try. Maybe I'll go down in flames, but I'm going to try. I had gotten some confidence to try it because of having written about Mrs. Babcock in KINFLICKS. At the time I was writing it -- I was in my late twenties -- I thought, What do I know about being close to sixty and dying? Obviously, there wasn't anything I knew directly from my own experience. But I thought I really had to have that perspective in it, so I went ahead and tried. In response to ORIGINAL SINS, I got a lot of nice letters from black people saying, "Thanks for trying," and some of them even said, "You got it right."
CEWE: In a world that is so politically correct, it strikes me that nothing in your books is politically correct. Do you see yourself in any camp? Do you regard yourself as a feminist writer, for example?
LA: Well, I've never been politically correct for a day in my life, and I'm not about to start now [laughs]. You can't be politically correct if you're from the South. You're tainted from the minute you set foot in the North, so you might as well not try. I grew up surrounded by Christian fundamentalists, so I'm allergic to any kind of party line. But a feminist...yes. When I'm writing, I'm just writing whatever I have to write for my own reasons, but in my personal life I would definitely consider myself a feminist. The problem you always encounter when trying to talk about feminism is that different people have different definitions of it. But to me, basically, what it means to be a feminist is that you're displeased with the power arrangements between the sexes. And that's certainly true for me. In my private life, I have been involved in birth-control counselling ande in the fight to legalize abortion and various other projects. It's very important to me to do what I can. But I don't write books with any particular political goals in mind. If they're feminist, it's because they reflect who I am, and feminism is certainly one aspect of me.
CEWE: A critic in THE NEW REPUBLIC said he felt you weren't able to develop your male characters as fully as your female ones. Do you think that's a fair assessement?
LA: Oh, probably. Because I am a woman and so I know in some detail what is involved in being a woman, whereas I have to imagine my way into the male characters. But I grew up in a family of five kids and three of them were boys. I've always been very close to my brothers, and I actually did think I was a boy for quite a few years [laughs], so I have some insights into it. And also, I think I agree with Virginia Woolf that to write you need a certain amount of androgyny. And I certainly have a male side to me.
Men aren't very often criticized for trying to write from a woman's point of view. But when women try to write from a male viewpoint, it's considered trying to step out of your caste.
CEWE: I'm not sure it's incumbent on a writer to give equal weight to characters in terms of sex.
LA: Well, that's true. God knows, we've certainly heard the male point of view till we're sick to death of it -- throughout history. So if women are trying to correct the balance, I don't think it's out of line.
CEWE: I remember when I first read KINFLICKS in 1975 how liberating I thought it was that a woman was writing in what is often conceived of as "male" language; that women fucked and thrust and got laid. But I would imagine there must be, or still is, a strong reaction that this is too masculine a language to be assigning women. Is that true?
LA: I imagine; I don't know. People don't say it to me, but I imagine they think it. It wasn't deliberate on my part to do that. It may be something to do with the economics of publishing -- that the women who got published in those years had a slightly more male tinge to their writing. Maybe there was some very wonderful writing that was more "female" but didn't get published. It's like the movie THELMA AND LOUISE -- which I really enjoyed -- but it was women doing the male buddy film. To me, it wasn't how two women relate to each other. A movie that would show that probably wouldn't get produced. But it wasn't something I did deliberately in order to get published; it was just a reflection of whom I was and how I saw the world at that time.
CEWE: Florence King reviewing OTHER WOMEN commented on how honest and well done the sex was in that book. Certainly you are one of the most truthful novelists when writing about sex. In your novels, sex defines the passage to adulthood and then the adults themselves. Are you saying sex defines people?
LA: Well, I think it's one of the things that defines people. It's a pretty powerful force in most people's lives, so it seems to me you can't give a full picture of reality if you don't deal with it somehow.
CEWE: The common situations that affect men and women are dealt with in all your books, but there are lesbian -- or at least bisexual -- characters in all of them. Do you think that has enlarged or narrowed your readership in any way? Do you think people now tend to think of you as a lesbian novelist?
LA: I don't know what people think. I would imagine probably by now that's the conclusion some people are drawing, yeah.
CEWE: You are one of the few novelists who portray lesbians as real people with friends and children and full lives -- people who are concerned with how their sexuality affects the lives of those who are dear to them. Perhaps a certain segment of your audience is preselected because of that.
LA: Again, it may be the politics of publishing. The books may be being written and not being published -- I don't know. That was why I was fortunate to have KINFLICKS be a best-seller. It meant what I wrote after that would be published even if it did have lesbians in it [laughs]. What I was trying to do, particularly in OTHER WOMEN, was to protray homosexuals and bisexuals as real people. Sex is one aspect of being homosexual or heterosexual, but it's not the main thing. In OTHER WOMEN, I was writing about lesbians as people who love women but who also have this whole full life of paying their mortgages and raising their children. One aspect of their lives is that their partner is a woman. I've been a wife and mother, so I've done it all, so to speak.
Again, for centuries we've had to read about the heterosexual view of the world. Homosexuals can read heterosexual books and appreciate them, and I don't see why the opposite can't be true. I think it's really sad if we can't all profit form one another's experience of life, because, God knows, it's a confusing-enough experience. So it seems to me that whatever light anybody can shed on it from whatever their minority perspective ought to be valued, but of course it often isn't.
The other thing about writing about lesbians is that it's exciting to do because it's an area that hasn't been dealt with. And when it has been, it's had to be concealed in various ways. So to be in a position to be able to write openly about it is very challenging -- and not just about lesbians but about women in general. The female psyche is the great unexplored continent, in my opinion. Supposedly, the era of women's fiction is over now, but to me it seems we've just begun.
CEWE: Does KINFLICKS haunt you -- a novel that was so tremendously successful with both critics and the public and that still has a huge reputation twenty years later? Did it make the writing of the books that followed more difficult?
LA: It didn't make the writing more difficult, but it did make the reception of them more difficult. Almost every review I've ever read of any of my other books says the book is as good as KINFLICKS, or isn't as good, or is different from it, or the same as it. Nobody can look at any of the other books as just a separate book and judge it on its own merits. And that's a bit of a drag for me...to go through life being Ms. Kinflicks. But on the other hand, I can't really complain too much, because it allowed me both in terms of publication and money to write whatever I wanted in subsequent books, and that's been wonderful. So, in another sense, I'm grateful to KINFLICKS. But I wish it would get off my back [laughs].
CEWE: I think of KINFLICKS and ORIGINAL SINS as being sprawling sagas of growing up and taking responsibility. OTHER WOMEN and BEDROCK seem to be much more interior books, more focused inward -- the work of a maturing writer, if you will. Is that your perception?
LA: With both KINFLICKS and ORIGINAL SINS, I wanted to do these very broad canvases with a lot of characters and involving several different regions of the country and spanning several decades. When it came time to start OTHER WOMEN, I thought, I'm tired of broad canvases. I want to see whether I can just take two people and put them in a small room for six months and make it interesting. So I presented it to myself as a technical challenge. I think probably it also reflected my age. When you're younger, you are expansive; you're going out and trying everything and exploring the world, and as you get older maybe that loses some of its gloss. Your friends are dying and your health is starting to go and there is much more of a tendency to turn inward -- more all the time, I gather. So I think it's probably a fairly inevitable progression for a person, as well as for a writer.
CEWE: You're certainly thought of as having a very black comic voice. In OTHER WOMEN, you appeared to have left that behind to some extent, but then you return to it in BEDROCK. Is the comic voice one you are more comfortable with -- because it leavens?
LA: It seems to me that the dark and the light in life are present in pretty much equal proportions; sometimes one prevails and sometimes the other. But I felt in order to try to present a slice of reality that somehow you had to include both in the same book. So in all my books, I've been struggling with how to do that. In KINFLICKS, I wrote all the picaresque flashback scenes straight through and thought that would be the book. But I read back over it and thought, No, this just doesn't portray things as I see them. So I decided I would write the hospital scenes, and I wrote them all straight through and then went back and alternated them with the comic scenes. I intended for them to comment on each other, on the way in which comedy can shade off into tragedy and vice versa. I wasn't entirely happy with the comedy in KINFLICKS because I thought some of it was pretty savage, and I wanted to find a way to soften it. The question I kept struggling with was, Is humor always based on putting somebody else down? Is there some way to write humor that isn't at somebody's expense? So I tried different ways of doing that in each of the different books. My jury is still out. I don't know whether I've solved the dilemma or not.
CEWE: You also use this alternating viewpoint in OTHER WOMEN: chapters dealing with Caroline's viewpoint as the client and then Hannah's as the therapist. Was this a conscious decision?
LA: Yes, because one of the things I wanted to do was to show the relationship between the two of them, not just Caroline trying to get her head together but how in the therapy situation the client impacts on the therapist, as well as vice versa. To show how the people influence each other, I thought I had to have the therapist's point of view.
CEWE: Anne Sexton once said that therapy was the "big cheat" because it arouses so many strong emotions that can never be consummated. It would seem that therapy is an incredibly private situation about which to write. Why did you choose it as a subject?
LA: It seemed to me that therapy -- maybe not so much now but certainly in the seventies and eighties, at least in the northeastern United States -- was the equivalent of religion. It played the role that the church plays in other places, in the South, for instance. In the seventies and eighties, you would go to a therapist to try to work out the kind of questions that people used to go to their priest for, such as what is the meaning of life; what is the meaning of my life; what does it mean to be a decent person; how am I supposed to treat my friends and family, and so on. So it seemed to me the therapy situation would be a good vehicle for dealing with those kinds of ultimate questions.
CEWE: There is a lot of clinical observation in OTHER WOMEN. Did you talk to a therapist before writing it?
LA: Yeah, I've done therapy twice -- two different chunks -- and a number of my close friends in Vermont are therapists. And one therapist agreed to let me interview her. We got together every week for about three hours over a six-month period.
CEWE: Let's talk about technique. How many drafts do you go through before you get to the final book?
LA: I do a lot -- probably five or six pretty serious drafts, and each of those could involve several minor versions. I do a fairly sketchy first draft and then I flesh it out through a couple of drafts and then I go back and take out everything I put in [laughs]. No, I think you sketch it out and you don't know quite what you have and then you explain it to yourself -- what it is you've done. And then when you understand it, you go back and take out all the scaffolding that you put in to try to make sense of it for yourself and you hope that you leave in enough to convey something of the process to the reader. So it's always a question of where you stop, how much to leave in, how much to take out.
CEWE: It must be hard to separate from your fictional characters and the stories they are weaving in your head and return to the real world at the end of your writing day.
LA: Yeah, it's quite hard. In fact, often my characters are more real to me than the real people in my life. I'm sure I'm very difficult to live with sometimes, for my friends and family, because I'm in another world a lot of the time.
CEWE: Your writing is very imagistic. You say you've been working on a new project -- a story told in words and pictures, a graphic novel. And I know you've been painting the last few years. Why at this point, in addition to writing?
LA: Good question...I don't really know. I have always written in a very visual way. I like to describe a scene so that readers can picture their versions of what I'm seeing in my head. It always becomes a question of how many details are enough and how many are too much. In other words, you want to give enough so the beginnings of an image can form, but you want to leave some out so that the reader can participate to some extent, too, and fill in the blanks. It's not the only way to write a novel, but it's the way I like to. But I guess with my current interest in actual images, I'm just looking around for new things to do. I've done four long novels now and although I still enjoy it, it's as if with each new book I have to find some new technical thing that I'm trying to do, so that I don't get bored. I like to tell stories, but that isn't enough to keep me occupied during four or five years. So I guess with my graphic novel, it was a challenge because it was a form that I had never done, and I wanted to try it. And the same with the painting -- it's very, very exciting to me in the way that writing was exciting when I was first starting, because every time I do a new picture I learn something new. In other words, I'm still learning new things writing fiction, but at a slower pace. So I think I have a constant need to try things I haven't tried before.
CEWE: Does painting enhance your writing? Is there a symbiotic relationship between them?
LA: I think so. I've been feeling as though I'm writing a little bit differently now -- maybe more pared down. My great ambition is to write a short novel [laughs]. KINFLICKS was whatever length it was, but with each subsequent book I always thought, Well, now this time I'm going to write a short novel. They're always at least 350 pages. So I think maybe the painting has helped me understand ways I could finally write a short novel.
CEWE: Often artists know where they are going to end up even before they start a canvas. Is this less likely to be the case with a novel?
LA: Well, as I said earlier, I usually know the opening scene first and the closing scene second, so I usually know how it ends. But what keeps changing through the six drafts and five years is the way in which you get to the end. Sometimes the end changes a little bit, but hardly ever very much. The things that I learn in the process of getting there change. In other words, each time I write a draft, by the time I get to the end of it, I see the whole thing in a different light because of what I've learned in the act of writing the draft, and that means I have to go back and rewrite it in the light of the things I've learned in the previous draft. That goes on and on and on and never really ends; it's just that finally I get sick of it and say, Fuck it, that's going to be the book. I just stop. But I think I could probably go on writing the same novel my whole life in terms of the nourishment it gives me and the things I learn from doing it.
CEWE: More so in writing than in painting?
LA: All I've done so far are watercolors, and you can't really correct a watercolor. You just go on and do the next one. Maybe that's how it's helping me : I have to be much more spontaneous with watercolors and less calculating. A lot of things happen that you don't plan on: The colors bleed in certain ways you hadn't anticipated and then you have to incorporate that into the design. I think maybe that's happening now with my writing -- a bit more spontaneity. So maybe I'll write fewer drafts this time.
CEWE: When I went to see your watercolor show in New York, I was surprised to see how the visual images reminded me of scenes in OTHER WOMEN. They seemed to be mirror images of one another. There is so much light in that book; as the characters change, the landscape changes.
LA: You know, it's interesting. A friend who is a painter was the person who encouraged me to start painting, and she had read OTHER WOMEN and said she could tell from reading it that I had a very visual sense, all those descriptions of the lake and stuff. And then when I did those paintings, she said, "Your paintings are consistent with your writing. There's a correspondence between them." So she evidently saw the same thing.
CEWE: Yes, it's remarkably strong. Nature plays such a huge role in your writing: the image of the tree outside the hospital room in KINFLICKS, for example -- the leaf's breakdown juxtaposed to Mrs. Babcock's disintegration.
LA: I have a very heavy-duty relationship with nature. I really am a country girl basically. I'm from Tennessee and my father had dairy and tobacco farms. We lived in a town, but we spent a lot of time on these farms. Now I live in Vermont, outside of a town of about two thousand people. Nature is really crucial to me in terms of keeping my balance.
CEWE: There's very scientific/medical language in KINFLICKS. The depiction of the emotional side of the characters often smacks up against very hard, clinical language that snaps one back and prevents one from becoming too maudlin or sentimental.
LA: Hmm, that's interesting...sounds like my family [laughs]. My father is a doctor, as was my grandfather. And two of my three brothers and my sister are doctors. Every time after I finish a book, I start thinking I really should go to the midwifery school in Kentucky and ride around on a mule and deliver babies.
CEWE: That same sense is conveyed in your descriptions of generations being born and what goes into making up a country -- those wonderful scenes in ORIGINAL SINS of the Cherokee and Scots-Irish migration, the whole fabric of these different cultures and generations that land in one place and intermesh and how that changes the people. It's one of the richest parts of the book.
LA: That's one thing that fascinates me about America, this mix of cultures. It's not really a melting pot. Each person in a way is a melting pot, but they're all in there exerting their influence, all these different cultures.
CEWE: Does it frighten you how much you see?
LA: How much I see? About life, you mean?
CEWE: Yes, that your perception is so close to the bone, that you possess the ability to see so much in people and situations.
LA: Well, I find life a rather terrifying experience -- off and on. We all know how terrible this world is and how difficult life is, so a lot of times when I'm writing I'm more interested in trying to project some kind of ideal situation as opposed to wallowing in the sordid reality of our lives. If you spend four or five or six years, as I do, writing a novel and it's on your mind most of the time during that period, you have to be writing about characters you care about. If I dwelt on the dark side too much, I'd be too depressed to write a book. I try not to let myself look at life too closely, too often, because it is all so mysterious to me, and more so the older I get. La terreur sacree, the French call this aversion -- sacred terror, holy dread.