Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Henriette Lazaridis Power talks about The Clover House, being caught between cultures, why she loves Dickens, and so much more

I first met Henriette Lazaridis Power at a reading and got to know her when a bunch of us all headed out into Boston for food and wine, and I was lucky enough to sit next to her. Spectacularly talented, her amazing debut, The Clover House, is about identity, longing and the cultural bonds we choose to keep. I'm thrilled to have her here. thank you, Henriette! 

Calliope is a woman caught between cultures. How much of that informs your own life as a Greek-American woman with family in Greece?
I share Calliope’s preoccupations with cultural identity, and have spent more brain time than is probably healthy trying to figure out what label best suits me. Especially because my ethnic background isn’t obvious (I don’t look particularly Greek, and unless I include my maiden name, all you see is a French first name and an Irish last name), I feel as though I might lose my Greekness if I don’t make a point of claiming it publicly. What I have only recently realized is that my way of thinking and various aspects of my behavior are very much shaped by my Greekness, no matter what language I’m speaking or what country I’m in.
In many ways, writing Callie was a way for me to try on for size certain choices I haven’t made to resolve the dilemma of cultural identity. For instance, Callie completely cuts herself off from her Greek heritage at one point, in a misguided attempt to simplify her life. I have often fantasized about doing just that: it seems such a clean and straightforward approach, creating a sort of aerodynamic self that moves swiftly and smoothly through life. But it’s not possible. The ties are there and they keep pulling me back. And the truth is that I am happy to be pulled.

It took you eight years to write this novel. What was that process like? Was there anything you'd do differently in writing your next novel? 
It actually took me both much less and much more time than eight years to write this novel. Let me explain that. When I first contemplated quitting teaching to take up my pre-academia dream of being a writer, I went to the stories I knew best: stories of my parents’ childhood and youth during the Second World War in Greece. I wrote a mediocre novel that had something to do with that (and that will remain in its desk drawer), but when I finally did quit teaching, I began working on another project that had no connection to that earlier narrative. Whenever I took a break from that manuscript, I would tinker with some story or other from World War II, one of which was published in the New England Review. At one point, I set the other book aside, thinking it was done, and I returned to the World War II story. I came up with the character of Calliope Notaris Brown, a 35-year-old Greek-American woman who is wrestling with the legacy of her mother’s life during the war--a legacy she can feel in her mother’s coldness and sorrow, but that she can’t quite understand. Once I had that, I wrote a good draft of the novel in a matter of months. I wrote much of it during the winter, with the curtains to my study closed so that I couldn’t see the passage of time. It was exhilarating, and I treasure my memory of that experience. I hope I’ll be able to capture that feeling again.

At the moment, I’ve returned to that older manuscript once more for a final revision. But for the book after that, which I’ve begun notes for, I want to be better prepared. With The Clover House, I had at least a chronological structure to the narrative, provided by the timeline of Carnival celebrations in Patras, Greece. In the past, I’ve embarked on writing projects without much of a structural overview. I vow to do things differently next time. It’s easier to dig into the work, I think, and to get that sense of exhilaration when you have at least a framework to guide you. It’s sort of the way masons will set up their plumb lines and horizontal string guides so they can build their wall within them.

When Calllie flies to Greece to claim her inheritance, she's actually inheriting a lot more than physical goods. Can you talk about that please?
For better or for worse, Callie has inherited certain behaviors from her mother. Just as her mother pushes people away, so does Callie. Clio’s actions emerge from a deep sense of shame, while Callie’s have more to do with a fear of commitment and a belief in the frailty of human connection, but Callie has certainly learned that behavior of shutting people out from her mother. Callie has also been fed with the conviction that the world of her mother’s stories is perfect. She inherits from her mother this dream of an idyll--and the attendant inability to find happiness in the present.

Of course, it’s not all bad. Callie also inherits beautiful memories of her own--memories of family closeness and warmth and protection. She inherits a store of scents and tastes and sensations that, though abstract, is no less powerful than the accumulated objects in her uncle’s home. This is the legacy that sustains her and that actually has the power to help her quell her more destructive impulses.

So much of The Clover House is about the stories we choose to tell, or choose to keep secret. Can you talk about that--and about the power of stories?
We place such emphasis in our culture on communication and on “sharing”--a usage that makes my skin crawl. That word--sharing--implies that there’s some equivalence gained when one person tells something to another. In fact, most of the time, the information creates or sustains an imbalance. One person is usually in a more powerful position than the other, thanks to having conveyed that information. Communication certainly resolves conflicts and mends hurt feelings, and I would never dispute its value. But we forget that often it’s what we choose not to say that can do the most to repair or sustain a relationship and that can keep people on equal and cooperative footing.
In The Clover House, I wanted to explore how a secret can be both source of conflict and source of forgiveness at once. The central secret in the novel comes from shameful events and generates further shame. But forgiveness and closure don’t come from the revelation of that secret. They come from the partial withholding of that information. In deciding what to tell and what to keep--that’s where we all create stories, whether we’re writers or not.

As an engine of narrative, I don’t think there’s much better than a secret. Immediately, a secret creates a gap, and the energy of the novel requires that that gap be filled. The novelist’s challenge is to fill the gap at the right pace. I always say that the writer needs to dole out information like an intravenous drip. Too fast or too slow and you lose the reader to the unconsciousness of sleep or the hyperactivity of inattention.

What's your writing/daily life like? Do you have rituals?
I am a serial monogamist when it comes to writing rituals. I believe in them and am probably too much a creature of them. But I don’t keep them the same for very long. If I weren’t doing so much book-promotion activity right now, my writing routine would go something like this. Go for an early-morning row in my racing shell on the Charles River, shower at the boathouse so that I’m ready to go straight to my desk when I get home. Quickly read the New York Times (in print), and then work with a cup of coffee by my side and a baked good of some sort. Later, I eat when I get hungry and have been known to forget lunch. I keep a pad of A4-size paper beside my laptop and maintain a running conversation in its pages. Sometimes it’s a to-do list for the upcoming section; sometimes it’s a scolding I need to give myself; sometimes it’s notes as I work out a narrative problem.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Without question, I am obsessed with point of view. In returning to that older manuscript I was working on before The Clover House, I thought I wanted to redo it in omniscient point of view. But I’m finding this maddeningly difficult to conceive of, never mind to achieve. I am poring over novels that experiment with this and other kinds of voice--like Joanna Smith Rakoff’s wonderful A Fortunate Age, Chris Castellani’s All This Talk of Love, Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz whose first-person narrative makes you want to live in the world of narrative voice, What Maisie Knew, that does such a crafty job of indirect discourse. I know I’m not alone in my conviction that the selection of the right narrative stance makes or breaks a novel.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 
Who are your favorite authors?

Among the classics, Dickens without doubt or hesitation. The man was ahead of his time, a post-modernist before modernism. Still, you can keep Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities. Give me the doorstop Dickens: Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House with its two (two!) narrative voices. And The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the most tragically uncompleted novel of all time.
Among the contemporary novelists, Ian McEwan, Michael Frayn, Anne Enright, Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one), Kate Atkinson, and Tana French. These are all British writers, yes, and for some reason I have imprinted on the Brits, perhaps because I lived there for four years. Among Americans, there are many but one stands out: Tom Drury.

No comments: