An Interview with Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand is one of the best fantasists of her generation and one of the finest prose stylists of the past 20 years. Her novels and stories, from Mortal Love and Winterlong to Bibliomancy and Last Summer at Mars Hill, display a rare integrity and honesty. Lately, she has pared down her style and approach, with her last two books (Mortal Love and Generation Loss) being perhaps her most mature at the novel length.
Generation Loss is out this spring from Small Beer Press. The novel deals with the limits and limitations of art while being both thriller and mystery novel at the same time. Narrator Cass Neary is a hypnotic blend of hidden vulnerability, selfishness, and curiosity. Hand’s official website has excerpts and other information. She has also just completed a podcast of the novel, which you can listen to at http://www.elizabethhand.com/2007/gen_loss.mp3.
Hand was kind enough to answer my questions in frank and honest fashion via e-mail in mid-April.
What do you most fear?
As a parent, my greatest fear is that something will harm my children. But the truth is I’m afraid of everything. I wasn’t always -- I was abducted and raped when I was 21, and that left me with this vast reservoir of rage and fear. I get panic attacks. I have sometimes violent parasomnias, which is when you act things out while asleep; the most dramatic of these was a few years ago when I thought there was an intruder in my bedroom. I jumped out of bed, ran to the other side of the room, and ripped a heavy wooden curtain rod from the wall to use as a weapon. I came to and found myself standing naked in front of the window, screaming and brandishing an eight foot wooden pole -- an event that was a weird catalyst for Generation Loss.
Do you enjoy the actual act of writing?
I love the experience of writing. It’s like a drug for me. There’s a passage in the novel where Cass talks about photography, how it’s better than drugs or alcohol or sex or religion -- that’s me talking there, that’s exactly how I feel about writing.
How do you feel your writing has changed over the course of your career?
Well, I think it’s definitely less purple than it used to be! I made a conscious effort to cut back on the over-the-top stuff, to try and use fewer words and be a more efficient writer, less self-indulgent. There was a lot of obvious stuff I never learned, probably because I was never in a creative writing program at university.
But my writing has also grown more personal. I just turned 50, and as you get older you realize that you’ve really just got this one shot at everything. There are people and experiences I feel a strong need to honor, and so I’m trying to do more of that through my work. When I was younger, I think I had raw talent but very little control over it. Now I have more control, and I try to learn faster from my mistakes. It’s all a learning process, though. I still very much feel like I’m just starting out and just beginning to get a handle on how the process works.
The eventual antagonist of Generation Loss has gone beyond conventional morality in a search for personal solace but also in search of some sort of truth in art. Is there some part of you that is sympathetic to that character’s search?
Yeah, very much so. That character is like a negative image of a very dear friend of mine who died several years ago, an old hippie neo-pagan artist who was a real believer and seeker (the story “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is a memento mori for him). In Generation Loss I turned that extremely benign and loving character on his head. I turned a lot of characters on their heads in that book, actually, including myself.
The search for transcendence through art is one of the things I’m most concerned with, in my life and my work. I use a lot of my own experience in my fiction, and a lot of the characters are drawn from people I know, and I’m always thinking about this -- when do you cross that line? When does the search for transcendence become dangerous, to yourself and other people? Are there people or things I would sacrifice for my art?
Is there any difference, necessarily, between madness and great art (whether painting, writing, or whatever)?
Oh, there’s definitely a difference. Serious mental illness -- schizophrenia, clinical depression, hypomania, bipolar disorders -- is not conducive to success in art any more than it’s conducive to success in the legal field, or accounting. Art demands discipline and a certain level of detachment, as well as technical skill and concentration, and mental illness can shred all of those things.
But I have no doubt that there’s a link between certain kinds of mental illness and creativity. Too many great artists have produced work in the up (manic) cycle of a bipolar disorder, for instance, for the relationship to be discounted.
Do you believe art has a responsibility to be moral?
I think individuals have a responsibility to be moral, and art inevitably reflects that. There’s a big difference between the work of someone like Joel-Peter Witkin, which is extremely dark and draws on the same themes and imagery as the work of the (fictional) photographer in GL. Witkin may have used dead people in his work, but as far as I know, he didn’t kill them first. If he had, I think the experience of viewing and assessing his work would be lot more problematical.
Still, on a certain level, art can and does detach itself from a subjective moral experience. We can’t know anything about the artists who created the cave drawings at Lescaux or Chauvet Cavern; their work has to stand for itself, and does. But how would we react if we knew the artist was a Paleolithic serial killer?
Do you believe in any form of life after death?
No. I’d like to -- I was raised Irish Catholic, and am the product of Catholic schooling from childhood through university. I lost my religious belief at 15 and was a biological determinist before that and am one now.
What writers have provided the most personal examples of artistic courage or integrity to you?
As a teenager, I read the work of the existentialist Viktor Frankl. It had a huge, probably incalculable influence on me. Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz but lost his wife and nearly his entire family to the concentration camps. He later wrote of his experiences and of the coping mechanisms various prisoners used inside the camps, and of how even under the most terrible circumstances imaginable, it was possible to survive with one's decency and humanity, and even hope, intact. At the same time, he acknowledged the presence and power of genuine human evil. Frankl’s work is not an antidote to despair, but I find it a profound weapon for dealing with it.
I was also deeply affected by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Otherwise, W. H. Auden and C.P. Cavafy; Rimbaud for his vision. Oscar Wilde. Charles Dickens, who confronted social problems without sacrificing story.
Contemporary writers whose artistic integrity I admire: M. John Harrison, Patti Smith, Angela Carter, Peter Straub, Robert Stone, Hugh Nissenson. I have great admiration for Stephen King, who continues to push himself as a writer and has used his success to help people and institutions in his home state.
Is there any particular artistic or writer movement or group, past or present, that you find most interesting?
I love the French Symbolists and the Beats. One reason I immediately jumped into the whole New York punk scene in the early 1970s was that it had grown out of the Beats, who had themselves been inspired by the Symbolists. I thought, “Man, this is the bus I’ve been waiting for!” and jumped right on.
I also have an enduring fascination with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, which was less of an artistic movement but definitely a party I wish I’d been able to crash (I was too young). I'm obsessed with Rimbaud and am presently working on a YA novel about him.
Do you like Cass Neary, the protagonist of Generation Loss (If so, what in particular do you like about her)?
I had a hard time creating Cass -- she’s me if my brake lines had been cut when I was in my early 20s. I hated being in her mind, because it was like channeling the worst possible version of myself. A lot of her early experiences were mine -- at 21, I was not a good role model.
Still, there was something deeply cathartic about just giving that character her head and letting her run with it. I have friends who are still a lot more like Cass than I am, and, I have to confess, I have some admiration for a certain kind of recklessness and hunger for experience that I’m far too cautious to indulge in now, except through my writing.
And I do have that same admiration for Cass. I feel like, in the end, she demonstrates real courage -- she’s reckless and arrogant and self-destructive, but she’s also scared shitless a lot of the time. That’s why she drinks and dopes up nonstop. I absolutely understand the impulse behind that. So her decision to act, to attempt to save someone else when she herself is terrified and chronically self-absorbed, is a big deal for her. And, I think, an act of moral courage in an otherwise deeply amoral character.
I love that Cass is ultimately able to channel her rage into no-holds-barred physical violence against a manifestation of her own darkest impulses. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to that, but it’s true. For years after my own rape, I stalked around DC in a pair of steel-toed cowboy boots and thought about what I would do if I ever had a second chance to confront my assailant, which would have been to kick the shit out of him. That might be sick, but I also found it empowering. Of course I never did that, but the impulse remained powerful enough for me to rip that curtain rod out of the wall in my sleep (I should say here that I am in fact a very nice, peaceloving person and against capital punishment).
Maine is most definitely a character in Generation Loss. When did you move to Maine and what do you most like about the area?
My family vacationed in Maine when I was a kid, and in college I visited a friend whose family had a place on one of the islands. I always loved it. I moved here in 1988, from DC. What I love most about it is the same stuff Cass loves -- the beautiful parts, but also the bleak ones. Mainers have a stoicism and integrity and lack of pretension that I find really admirable and increasingly rare in this country. I get stir crazy sometimes (everybody does), and it’s definitely not an easy place to live. And I really do hate the tourists -- I share Cass’s misanthropy when it comes to that.
The brother of one of my closest friends since adolescence now owns an island down east. Visiting there is what inspired me to write Generation Loss. I love visiting the islands, but I don’t think I could ever live there -- too remote, and I like looking at fresh water more than the ocean. I work in a tiny lakefront cottage that I’ve owned since 1990. I never grow tired of this place. Every day I walk in the door and feel my blood pressure drop.
This is your first novel without a distinct fantastical element in it. Did this affect your writing process or your approach to the novel?
I found it very difficult to write something without any fantastical element whatsoever. Even though much of my most recent material has almost no supernatural element in it, there’s always something, even if it’s just a flicker. I missed that -- it was like working without a net. In a way it was like losing my religion -- I didn’t have the solace of thinking, “This isn’t real, this couldn’t really happen.” In stories like “Cleopatra Brimstone,” the protagonist undergoes terrible things, but the fantasy element acts as a buffer between that experience and the reader, or writer. I found it painful and a terrible effort to write without that buffer, which surprised me. It was a genuine relief to write a no-holds-barred fantasy (“Winter’s Wife”) after I completed GL.
Where does “strangeness” end and “fantasy” begin for you?
That’s a great question. To be honest, I don’t think the “strangeness” ever ends -- I have ecstatic visionary experiences a lot and have since childhood. My experience of the world is pretty intense, and sometimes scary, which means I have to be very careful to maintain my balance. But it’s also a gift, and I try to impart that experience and that vision to my readers.
But the fantasy absolutely remains on the page. I have never, as much as I have tried, succeeded in turning a man into an insect. Ditto all the other fantastical stuff I write about. I find the real world to be extraordinary enough, especially the natural world, animals and plants.
What would you most like readers to take away from reading your work?
A sense that they’re actually had the experience I’ve written about -- that they’ve had an orgasm, or a hallucination, or watched someone die, or be born. Also a sense that there is a very real moral dimension to life, and that we always have a choice -- my stories are full of people making literal or figurative leaps into the unknown. But they make those leaps, those choices, mindfully.
Generation Loss opens with the line, “There’s always a moment where everything changes.” We confront those moments every day. Our decisions aren’t always life or death choices, but sometimes they are. It may be a subtext in my work, but I’m always very aware of the choices my characters make, for good or ill. I’d like to think that my readers are, too.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?