Extraordinary writing; I fell in love on the first page.
–Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Of course I had been hearing all the buzz surround the book Louisa Meets Bear, a complex, dazzlingly original story about love and loss, but when I met Lisa Gornick at a panel we were doing together, I found that I liked her as much as I liked her book, which made me want to interview her even more. She is also the author of the novels A Private Sorcery and Tinderbox, and her stories and essays have appeared in Agni, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, Slate and The Sun, and have received many honors including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories. Lisa, thank you! Let's have coffee soon!
I always want to know what sparks a book? What was haunting you at the time that made you want to write this?
This book started as individual stories--some of which date back in their earliest versions several decades. Originally, I set out to put together a collection, but as I reread the pieces, I had the uncanny feeling that together they told a larger story about some of the social and psychological transformations that have taken place over the past fifty years. Threaded throughout the book are characters who move from working-class communities into upper-class ones, struggle to find the place of work and children in their lives, and traverse different phases and kinds of love.
What’s your writing process like? Do you map things out or just follow that pesky muse?
With poems, stories and essays, I can, for the most part, hold the piece in my mind, beginning with a strong impulse and seeing where it will take me. It's only after I have the first draft that I step back and look at it with a cooler, editor's eye, searching for what's missing, what's superfluous--what are the themes. By contrast, I can't hold a novel in my mind save with the broadest strokes. With both of the novels I've published and with the one I'm at work on now, I've done an enormous amount of preliminary work. What that preliminary work consists of has evolved as I've evolved as a writer. For my first novel, A Private Sorcery, I wrote case studies for each of the characters with the aim of knowing them as well as my closest intimates. With my second novel, Tinderbox, I did the same, but I also spent a great deal of preliminary time working out the storyline and how it would unfold so as to allow for dramatic tension and elements of mystery. With my new novel, I've added the goal of trying to create an elegant structure such that the aesthetic experience of the book moves beyond language and includes its form, as is the case in some of my favorite novels.
I deeply admired the structure of Louisa Meets Bear., the way the stories are linked, the connections made between the characters and unmade. Did you know this was going to be the structure when you started, or did it evolve?
I started with two independent sets of linked stories, one of which is the title story, "Louisa Meets Bear. It was clear to me that this story, with its four main characters--Louisa, the skittish daughter of a molecular geneticist, raised in the wake of her mother's mysterious death; Bear, the hot-tempered son of a plumber, who has made his way to their elite college on an athletic scholarship; Andrew, the son of a radical political science professor, who is attempting to define himself through his risky travels; and Corrine, Louisa's once babysitter and now sexually adventurous best friend--was the heart of the collection, and that the story about a mother and daughter (transformed in the book into Louisa's aunt and her cousin Lizzy) that begins in 1961 should be the prequel. Four of the other stories, originally written without any of these characters, could, it occurred to me, become later chapters in the lives of Bear, Andrew, Corrine, and the daughter who Lizzy gives up for adoption.
The idea about how to link what was now eight stories was the easy part; effecting the transformation--fitting the pieces together chronologically and psychologically--then took a great deal of work and rewriting. This left a long story, "Priest Pond," what has been called the most Alice Munroish piece of the collection, both in terms of its themes and the wide lens it casts on its rural protagonist. I knew "Priest Pond" was a thematic fulcrum in the larger narrative, but it took me a while to discover how and why it connected. The only character whose future remained open was Louisa, who returns in the final story (or chapter, for those who experience the book as a novel)--a story that stands alone, as do the others, but was written specifically as the ending of this book.
I always want to know if anything surprised you in the writing?
I was surprised by the many ways a story can be simultaneously told. In the opening chapter, Lizzy narrates a traumatic event in her mother's life as she imagines her mother having experienced it, as her mother tells it to her, and as it shapes each of their futures outside their dyad in different ways. Similarly, in the title story, Louisa moves between an imagined narration to Bear of the events they've lived out together, an actual narration of these events to her friend Corrine, and her own ultimate self-reflection about them.
You’re a former psychotherapist, which I find fascinating, since to write a great novel, you really have to understand people. But did you find that working as a psychologist, exploring other peoples’ lives, made you yearn to create lives on the page?
The link went the other way. I was both a voracious reader as a child, the kind of kid who could spend an entire summer primarily with books, and an early scribbler of journals and poems. It was on account of the storytelling on which psychotherapy is based that I became interested in psychology. My first exposure to psychotherapy was actually in a prison, where I worked during college as a volunteer tutor. The program was run by a charismatic ex-con who (strangely, it seems to me now) invited me to sit in on the group therapy sessions he conducted with some of the prisoners. I was fascinated not only by the stories the prisoners told, but by the ways they unfolded within the group therapy context -- and the transformative power of the experience for both the narrator and his listeners.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I have a first draft of a new novel, replete with its own obsessions, both technical and thematic. On a technical level, I'm obsessed with what James Wood calls "free indirect style"--the economical and elegant way an author can slip in and out of interior monologue--and how far a writer can safely assume a reader can follow this undulation. I'm also obsessed with how tight-frame novels--books that take place in a circumscribed time frame--can simultaneously tell the story of an entire life without clunky flashbacks so that the narration of the story outside the frame feels as fresh and alive as the story within the frame. On the thematic level, I continue my obsession with the tyranny of perfect surfaces as a sadistic denial of the inevitable processes of decay and death, and with the tragic way that we limit possibilities for joy in our lives.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You've covered a lot of ground! Thank you, Caroline, for your wonderful blog and for this interview...