November 2015

Cara Benson

features

An Interview with Jill Bialosky

Jill Bialosky is a versatile and accomplished woman of letters. She's published acclaimed works of poetry, memoir, and fiction, and is an editor and senior executive at W.W. Norton. In whichever genre she is writing, to me her work stands out for its compassionate attention to the psyche of the imperfect humans struggling through their lives in her lines.

Her recently published novel, The Prize, tells the tale of Edward Darby, an art dealer who finds himself somewhat at the emotional mercy of his own under-investigated family history and of the vicissitudes of the temperamental and often superficial art world. As in many of her works, Bialosky moves the story back and forward in time with the grace of a writer who is well practiced in her art. It is an elegant, poignant, and sensual read. You will want to tell Edward what -- and what not -- to do. We corresponded via e-mail.

You write such memorable women and girls -- both as studies in interiority and as moving portraits. I'm curious about your decision to write from the perspective of a male character in The Prize. Was there something in particular you wanted to explore or achieve in doing this?

First and foremost, thank you. As a writer my desire is to create a memorable character who lives and breathes on the page, whether male or female. My first two novels involved female protagonists and I wanted a challenge with this new one. My last book was a memoir of sorts and I wanted to get as far away from myself as possible in writing The Prize, and I suppose too I was interested in exploring the male psyche through one character. You know, as a writer, the key is to keep yourself interested. It's slightly embarrassing to admit that I sought to create a character I could fall in love with as a woman.

I see Edward Darby as a man who wants to do good in the world and in his personal universe and remain true to his ideals and perhaps his desire to be a gentlemen, an old fashioned concept, but one I still believe in, traps him. He discovers he is also fallible and human and his unconscious and conscious desires press against him in the course of the novel. He also loves and admires women, and that was important to me. I think about my own education and much of what I thought and understood about human nature came from my voracious reading as a young adult. I wanted to create a character for the reader who in his complexity might help a reader understand parts of his or her own nature.

A character, if realized, is an object of perception and consciousness, and I worried over Edward and his fate as I wrote the book, and I wanted my readers to worry and feel for him too. I've discovered that some men act strangely when they desire or are admiring of a woman or feel threatened and I wanted to try and capture those nuances, shine them to the light. In a way, The Prize is a feminist novel, in the sense that it is written by a woman with an intention. There are many novels written by men about women and their own desires and fantasies shape those portraits. I wanted to flip that notion on its head. Of course, it's frustrating when you attempt to do something more nuanced and your book is reviewed in a The NYTBR with four other novels under the heading "Marriage Plots."

I love that you speak of The Prize as a feminist novel due to your intention for it as a woman author. History is, as you mention, rife with male intention in regard to female characters. In a way, not only did you flip that notion on its head, but you've also played with the conventions of the Western tradition's early female novelists as well. Out of the gate I couldn't help but think of Austen's Darcy when I saw the name Darby. I'd bet my house that you knew that as you named him. More than understanding human nature ahistorically, then, this evocation speaks to the history of women making literature. How would you want a reader to consider your work in relation to this history? And how do you situate your writing in this vein? Have we come a long way?

It's important as a female novelist to write into a tradition. It's curious because reviewers and critics rarely pick this up in female authors but of course when a writer like Franzen writes a new novel, it is considered Dickensian, and Knausgaard, Norway's Proust. I'm curious now about Garth Risk Hallberg and his new novel, City on Fire, called "Dickens-size" in NYTBR, and how his novel will weather the media storm that is descending. I don't recall a female novelist tagged in this way, nor do we but rarely see the media lifting a female novelist into stardom the way male novelists seem to immediately gain traction.

As for The Prize I did think about Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy early on in the novel's conception and I was playing with that association. Names are about association, aren't they? A close friend recently pointed out that she lived on Darby Lane, and wondered if that had subconsciously entered my mind when I conceived of Edward Darby's name, and perhaps there was an echo there too. Names are important in creating characters. Edward, to my ear, is a classical, slightly buttoned-up name, and my character is a reserved and inward man; with the echoes of "Darcy," it seemed right, and as I grew to know him better the name stuck.

I think of the novel as feminist since the major women characters leave my poor Edward spinning in all their complexity and strength, and he learns from them and admires all of them. And I attempted to create a male character who is gentle and a man to admire, as there are so few in literature. I admire many of the male characters in Henry James's novels, and in Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer's fate is shaped by four strong male characters, and part of her plight is that she longs for her own independence in a world where men dominate. In The Prize I flipped this notion on its head by creating a male character who is surrounded by four strong female characters: Holly, his wife, Astor Mayweather, known as May, his mother and the woman who owns the gallery he works for, and then there is Agnes Murray, the painter he makes famous, and Julia Rosenthal, a woman he falls in love with. I wanted to see how he would fare and what he would learn about himself in the midst of all this feminine energy.

Back to your question about how I see my work in the context of other female writers shaping history: I suppose some of the female novelists that I admire are Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, the Brontės. I love the stories of Katherine Mansfield and poems of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and in all of their literatures there is a sense of conflict, pathos, and tension between the feminine and the masculine, and in many ways The Prize is concerned with these tensions.

I was happy this season that Elena Ferrante's work created a stir. I haven't read the quartet yet, but the two early novels of hers, Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter are filled with feminine pathos, and I consider both works of literature. As a novelist, I am interested in psychological perception and insight. You know, there are some male novelists -- their ambition is perhaps more testosterone driven-- who set out to write the great American novel, as if on a quest for importance and singularity. As a novelist, I'm more interested in the novel succeeding on its own terms.

Many novels I admire most are considered by the critics to be "quiet," "small gems," and yet those are the novels that move me -- here I'm thinking of novels by Alice McDermott, for instance. I loved Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. And then there is Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. All of these works have gained in stature over time. They're character driven, and though it has been years since I've read these novels, I remember their characters and feel their souls. I see Elena Ferrante in this tradition -- at least in the two novels I've read and cited here. I don't think these writers set out to write the great American novel. In my own work, I'm interested in character primarily, but also in the novel as a vehicle for exploring ideas of art, integrity, betrayal, and love.

One of the delights for me in reading The Prize is the nuanced way in which you deal with hype and ambition in the art world. Your characters are keenly aware of it, indulge in it, push back on it, resist it, and cannot help but be affected by it. I think many artists (and writers) have a complicated relationship with this aspect of how work gets valued -- or doesn't.

One of your previous books, History of a Suicide, was a New York Times bestseller and rightly received quite a bit of media attention (it's a stunning book). Did that influence your subsequent writing in any way? Or, as Julia says in The Prize, did that enter the studio for you as you started on new work?

I love this question because like my characters I have an ambivalent relationship with ambition and hype. I am, as you say, keenly aware of it, at times indulge in it (for instance, I am by nature a modest person, but, as an editor, I know the importance of self-promotion and ask my writers to indulge in it as much as they can stomach it), resist it, and cannot help but be affected by it. It bothers me when books I don't admire suck up all the air (and often these are books that were highly sought after in auction), and books that are more deserving get left behind. One has to take the paradoxical view of Montaigne, who I have been reading as of late. He writes: "We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn." This quote says everything about my relationship with ambition. I want to be the quiet insular writer making my own art and disregarding how it will be perceived and what I can and cannot do to make it so, but I know that ambition, and the desire to be read, partly drives the enterprise. I wanted The Prize to struggle with this conundrum.

Thank you for your kind comment about History of a Suicide. It was an emotionally and psychically difficult book to write, and I struggled with it morally, both as I was writing it and when I finished it, and though I persevered in committing myself to publishing it, I had no idea it would be received generously. Many publishers -- at least ten if not more -- rejected the initial proposal, not because they did not admire the writing, but because they feared there wouldn't be an audience for a personal book on suicide. They were wrong. Readers longed for a candid account, and I heard from many of them, and continue to, in personal emails. I was stunned when the first two weeks of publication reviews began to appear in mainstream publications like Time, People, and Entertainment Weekly. It made me happy as part of the urgency of writing the book had to do with my desire to destigmatize suicide.

As for how this attention entered the "studio" when I began writing The Prize, that's a fascinating question to ponder. I began writing The Prize as a balm. I wanted to step out of myself after writing History of a Suicide and dive into a fictional world. In the five years in which I was immersed in it, I did not think of audience, per se. I thought only of making my characters as complex as possible, and I wanted the novel to contain many of my thoughts about integrity, ambition, power, money, as these ideas were, in moments, threatening to overstimulate me, living in New York City at the epicenter of it all, and writing is a way of calming the chaos. So yes, like Julia, I sought only to immerse myself in my own obsessions and see what would come of it, and somehow block out the noise.

Rendering complex characters seems a particularly timely endeavor in an age of instantaneous judgment of others via social media based on gotcha photos and decontextualized sound bites. I don't take issue with a brevity of form (140 characters is little different than haiku, for example), but the frenzy that can ensue from one documented moment in another person's life can be brutal. It's de rigueur to say that comment streams are viscous and quickly polarizing, but still so true. The phenomenon of virtual bullying has increased the teen suicide rate.

In a way, Edward gets piled on in The Prize. This happens mostly in his "real" life, rather than exacerbated via the virtual. I wonder if you've ever considered placing your richly flawed characters in that kind of mediated milieu. And have you seen any works that are grappling with this in a way that you admire?

I'm afraid I don't have much to add to this conversation. The characters in The Prize, particularly Edward, are living in a different moment. I can't imagine Edward dabbling with social media -- Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. He's too refined and paranoid. I'm not interested, at least not now, in writing novels that mimic our day-to-day realities. And I can't recall any novels I've read recently that deal with social media. I see that more in nonfiction.

What do you make of Henry James's claim that fiction is history? That the novelist should speak with the assurance and tone of the historian?

If I understand James's statement clearly -- and while I admire his novels, his long-winded sentences in his letters and essays are sometimes more difficult to parse -- he is referring to authenticity. In his essay "The Art of Fiction," he states that the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it attempt to represent life:

One can speak best from one's own taste, and I may therefore venture to say that the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel -- the merit on which all its other merits [...] helplessly and submissively depend. If it be not there, they are all as nothing, and if these be there, they owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life.

This notion of the "illusion of life" is what resonates for me in his statement. In other words, the novelist must be true to the reality he has created or set up for his characters within the realm of his imagined world. If the reader does not feel his illusion of life, then there is no real engagement. A reader must trust the voice in a work of fiction, and for that to happen, then, yes, I would argue that the voice must be one of assurance -- and that this voice is representative of the imagined world, as if the author were historian to it.

As I said earlier, I am interested in the way in which the novel can be an intimate act between author and reader. I just finished Ben Lerner's 10:14, and while Lerner makes imaginative leaps and connections in this novel, he is to some degree asking the reader to authenticate his experience as "author" of 10:14 as well as narrator. I admire how closely he brings the reader into this imagined world. In spite of occasional moments of indulgence, one leaves the novel feeling as if a psyche is revealed. I love that closeness in a work of fiction, and in this case I would agree that Lerner in 10:14 speaks with the assurance and tone of the historian.

Have you any thoughts yet on your next writing project?

After finishing a book of poems, The Players, and a novel this past year, the well is pretty empty. I have three or four projects churning in my head, but I'm not sure yet which one or two -- or if any -- will spark fire. I'm in that period of unknowing and second-guessing. I miss the characters in The Prize. They were great company and it's hard to say goodbye.

Cara Benson is a writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, and in syndication. A New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Literature, Benson is at work on her second book. www.carabensonwriter.com