Monday, February 3, 2014

Tragedies of Good Intentions: An interview with novelist Lisa Gornick

Interview by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

In both Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) and her first novel, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin, 2002), Lisa Gornick combines her expertise in two fields, psychoanalysis (she is on the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research) and creative writing (M.A. from New York University.)  Her stories have appeared in Agni, The Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, Slice, and other journals and have received many awards, including Best American Short Stories Distinguished Story of the Year, Glimmer Train Fiction Open Finalist, and Summer Literary Seminars Unified Contest Winner.  Her essays have appeared in The Sun, The Huffington Post, and various psychoanalytic journals.  She has a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale.  Lisa can also be found on Facebook.  Her writing is elegant, witty, and heart-breaking.  If you’re a fan of Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, Ian McEwan, Leo Tolstoy, Wallace Stegner, or Elizabeth Strout, you will get your full measure from Tinderbox.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro:  In Tinderbox, the matriarch of this family, Myra, a psychologist, is like a blind seer.  Her Ph.D. in psychology that she worked so hard for while divorced and raising two children still leaves her clueless about the inner lives of her family; and without her sessions with her psychoanalyst, she would be just as blind to her own heart.  How did her character come to you?  Did you fall in love with her as I did?

Lisa Gornick:  I love that once fictional characters are set loose, they belong to the reader.  I would never have thought of Myra as a blind seer; what an interesting image!  In my view, Myra balances understanding or having intuitions about her children with leaving unspoken some of her perceptions so as not to intrude on their inner lives.  One of the key issues she explores with her own analyst, Dr. Dreis, is how to handle her suspicion that her daughter, Caro, is suffering from an eating disorder.  Dreis points out to Myra that her very capable daughter has not asked for her help, and that Myra would be adding to Caro’s pain by giving unbidden advice, advice that implies that she doesn’t trust that her daughter can handle her own difficulties.  On the other hand, with her son, Adam, who is so wrapped up in his thoughts and imagination that he often doesn’t see what’s going on under his very eyes, Myra actively intervenes on several fronts--interventions that she later views as having set in motion tragedies of good intentions.

RJS:  “Enter the stranger” is one of my favorite classic story-telling devices, and Eva, the young Peruvian Jewish woman hired by Myra to take care of her grandson, Omar, is not only a stranger, but she becomes increasingly strange as the story goes on.  How did her character come to you?  What advice would you give to people who are bringing caretakers into the family?

LG:  Eva was inspired by a true story about a nanny who’d experienced neglect in her own childhood and whose buried longings for mothering were brought to the surface in an overwhelming and destructive way in response to the loving care bestowed by her employer on her child.  People hiring caregivers often underestimate the complexity of the relationship: on the one hand, it’s an employer-employee situation in which everyone benefits from clearly defined parameters; on the other hand, caregiving is a deeply intimate exchange in which profound feelings develop between all participants.  If I were to give one piece of advice to people who employ a caregiver, it would be to keep in mind that their own relationship with the caregiver is fundamental to the work the caregiver does.

RJS:  The clash of cultures, a theme that gets me buzzed, is a big part of your story.  There’s the dark-skinned Jewesses--Rachida, Adam’s wife from Morocco, and Eva, the nanny from Peru, and then there is Layla, a Muslim, all interacting with an Ashkenazi (light-skinned) Jewish family.  Do you actively seek out disparate types to heighten drama?

LG:  I’m fascinated with diasporas--with the global movement of peoples and cultures, which strikes me as a profound argument against nationalism.  Three of my four grandparents emigrated from the Ukraine to this country, but for all of them, there was a certain happenstance by which they’d landed in the United States rather than in Argentina, as had some of my great-uncles, or in Peru, as had a great-aunt.  This awareness--the sense that my grandparents might have as easily been citizens of a South American country or Canada or South Africa or Australia or any of the numerous other countries to which their landsmen immigrated, colored my feeling about being an American.  The second thread comes from my identity as a woman which for me is integrally linked with my abhorrence of violence and the expression of hatred in harmful ways, and an immutable foundational belief that the young and vulnerable offspring of all races, religions, nationalities, and ideologies should be protected and provided for.  There’s a passage in Virginia Woolf’s essay “Three Guineas” where she expresses something similar: “As a woman, I have no country.  As a woman I want no country.  As a woman my country is the whole world.”  As for skin color, it continues to amaze--and appall--me that even within ethic groups, status often remains tied to skin color.

RJS:  Tinderbox is structured so carefully that I wasn’t surprised architecture plays a part in the divide between the family with Adam’s paternal grandfather, Max, loving his Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house built on land polluted with goose poop while his wife, Ida, hated that house.  And the next generation and the next continuing to take sides.  Was the story of the horror that occurred in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s actual houses what led you to work it into the book?  Or did an interest in architecture lead you to it?

LG:  I worked on Tinderbox for such a long time, I can no longer remember how all of the elements accrued.  I do know, though, that the discovery of the fire and murders at Frank Lloyd Wright’s own home was one of the uncanny links that happened in the writing of the book: learning that fire played such a central role in Wright’s life, as it does in the novel and, moreover, that the fire was set by a Barbadian man who was a domestic employee for Wright and may have become unglued from witnessing Wright’s “immoral” liason with his lover, Mamah Cheney.  In Tinderbox, Max falls in love with Wright’s work as part of his own spiritual journey: leaving behind his parents’ immigrant experience and the overly material values that have infiltrated his life to find a connection with nature, beauty and awe.  When Max first saw a Frank Lloyd Wright house, he “felt for the first time that he had seen God” and “the paradox of the infinitesimal scale of each human being, the earth itself but a speck of dust in the universe, existing in concert with the infinite potential of each individual.”  For Max’s grandson, Adam, Wright looms, by contrast, as a dissolute exemplar who leaves horror and death in his wake.

RJS:  Do you have a background in music that helped you write about Myra’s love for it as both intimately and technically as you did?

LG:  When my oldest son first took up piano, I began to play again.  My early training was from a church organist who marched me through a progression of uninspired beginner to intermediate anthologies of “adapted” classical and folk pieces.  My older son’s teacher, by contrast, is a gifted classical pianist and talented improvisational artist.  From her, I have learned how composition is an outgrowth of improvisation, and how musical theory undergirds improvisation.  As a novelist, the dialectic between form and improvisation, between structure and inspiration, is always on my mind.  Myra shares my amazement about how music works.

RJS:  You have so many stories going on within the major story, so many topics of interest, yet the reader never loses track of the major narrative.  How do you organize your work?  Story boards?  Zillions of Post-It notes?

LG:  With both of my novels, I started with the characters: imagining them on every level from their physical attributes to their personal habits to their dreams and fears.  For each of my major characters, I wrote out timelines for the important events in their lives, which helps to anchor them in particular places and in history.  As you picked up, I am very interested in the architecture of a novel--the structural choices about how to handle time, point of view, the dramatic arc.  With both of my published novels as well as with the one I’m working on now, it’s taken me a long time to figure all of this out.  Then, paradoxically, once I commit to the structure, it’s all improvisation: I let loose and all kinds of unexpected things happen.

RJS:  What are you working on now and when can we look forward to reading it?

LG:  I have a collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, that will be coming out in early 2015, also with Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  One of the stories was recently published by Prairie Schooner, and can be read on their website (“Priest Pond”).  And, as I mentioned above, I’m in the middle of a new novel.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, a professional psychic, is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and the indie finalist Award-winning Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook, 2012).  She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Poetry and has published essays in The New York Times (Lives), and more.  She teaches writing at UCLA Extension.  Click here to visit her website. 

Author photo by Sigrid Estrada

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