Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Read this book: In a Perfect World

Laura Kasischke is one of my favorite authors. She has this eerie ability to meld the everyday with the unsettling, to unpeel her characters' lives with astonishing grace and beauty, and to craft novels that continue to resonate months after you've turned the last page. My copy of The Life Before Her Eyes is dog-eared, and I suspect the same fate for her newest, In a Perfect World, about family, step-parenting, betrayal and love, all set against the apocalyptic world of global flu. Thank you so much, Laura for answering all these questions.

The flu seems to me to be the perfect end of the world scenario—not the bomb, not terrorism, but something organic. What made you choose it?

I was reading the book THE GREAT MORTALITY by John Kelly, a history of the Black Death. Actually, it was two summers ago, and I was reading it mostly in a chair at the edge of the public pool while keeping an eye on various kids in my care, and the writer’s question occurred to me: What if? What if a plague happened here—starting slowly, caused by things we couldn’t understand, trickling across the landscape in terrifying bits instead of the cataclysm we often dread, like the bomb you mention. Who would we become? So, it was the combination, I guess, of reading that book and being a not-very-relaxed person in this sunny, sweet place and time, that got me thinking.

You have this wonderful, thrilling ability to walk a thin line between the matter of fact reality and the impossible-to-imagine, and both seem equally real. You did this in the very fine The Life Before Her Eyes, and it’s here too, in the day-to-day juxtaposition of a stepmother grappling with an absent husband and step kids who seem to hate her. I’m wondering where that sensibility comes from and how much of it impacts your own life.

Well, I’m definitely a worst-case-scenario kind of person. Luckily I have the outlet of writing so I’m able to avoid a complete neurotic meltdown most days—but I do think I tend to find myself noticing the potential, often unpleasant, for surprises beneath those ordinary stones.

The other thing I found fascinating is there is no one real way to categorize this book. It’s got a hint of sci-fi in that it’s futuristic as it deals with the flu, it’s most definitely a rich human drama, it’s a story about step-parenting, but it’s also a kind of love story, because as things get grimmer and more menacing, this family unit gets warmer, richer, and they become something truly unique. How did you personally see this novel?

I wanted it to be, I suppose, a kind of fairy tale. I might say ‘fairy tale gone wrong,’ but I do feel that, in the end, the fairy tale is redemptive. At the outset, the protagonist is a kind of woman like one I’ve been myself off and on at various points in my life. She wants romance. She sees romance as a particular kind of thing, and perhaps it’s got less to do with reality than things she’s read about and movies she’s seen. In the end, she does not have the fairy tale romance she wanted, but by rising to the challenges she’s given, she has something richer and more important, in my opinion. I knew that a step-family would ‘instant conflict,’ and that an epidemic sweeping the land would be upping the ante on that considerably, so I tried to keep the focus on the domestic details, and the crises in the larger world acted as a kind of landscape, a stage set. This is also how I imagine such disasters occur in real lives: first a distant rumor, and then for long periods a peaceful denial, and then a little closer trouble, followed by a reprieve and a forgetting, etc., and in the meantime you’ve got to scramble some eggs for your kids and get the laundry folded.

You’re also an acclaimed poet, which explains the gorgeous writing, (impossibly beautiful images, amidst startling violent ones) but you also seem to have no (at least no visible ones) struggles with plot. How does being a poet impact your writing, or are the two apples and oranges separate?

Thank you so much for saying that. The kind of writing I really love is sensual stuff—the sky and the weather and smell of your kid’s hair—so I work extra hard when writing a novel to give the reader something to fear or anticipate or a question to find an answer to, so he or she will be more likely (hopefully) to indulge my lingering on images so long.

The Life Before Her Eyes became a film—did you feel the different media enhanced your novel, too away from it, or made it become something quite different? Did you have an input into the film?

I was happy with the film, not the least reason being that it was so incredibly flattering to have someone make a film of my novel! But I also felt that the director, Vadim Perelman, really liked the sorts of things about the novel that I myself was proudest of—the atmosphere, hopefully, and the imagery, and a kind of background of beauty and dread that I see as so akin to feminine, teenage life. I loved his first movie, The House of Sand and Fog, and felt that he brought a lot of passion to The Life Before Her Eyes, too. It was changed, of course, and, no, I did not have input, but I was very pleased with the film.

I don’t want to give away the stunning ending, but I will say that it ends on a note of both high hope and major apocalypse—an unanswered question which left me unnerved and exhilarated at the same time. It creates what John Truby calls “the never-ending story” which makes the reader continue to tell the story to him or herself long after the last page because it’s so open-ended. Did you know how the book was going to end while you were writing?

I did have the end in mind all along—that they would be a family, waiting, and that something was coming, they could hear and feel it, and they did not know what that was.

The unsettling undercurrents of the book are leavened with a good deal of humor—i.e. a very famous pop star being a victim of the flu! But there are also elements of the fairytale in here, and interestingly enough, it’s more Grimm’s fairy tales than the more happy-go-lucky kinds. I’m wondering if that was a deliberate choice.

Early, I knew that the scene I’d open with would be a stepmother and her teenage stepdaughters together on the day Britney Spears was announced to have died. The fairy tale choices were deliberate, too, and seemed obvious to me: Mostly they were the mother/child stories, which always involve so much conflict and heartache, especially Hans Christian Andersen’s. His “The Story of a Mother” was on my mind the whole time I was working on the novel—and if you haven’t read that one before, get out some Kleenex before you do!

What are you working on next? I’m writing poems, and also trying to finish a new novel. It just gets longer and longer, though!

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? Well, thank you for asking! How about, “Do you have anything against Britney Spears?” Absolutely not! I hope she lives to a ripe old age!


Gina Sorell said...

Great interview!! thanks.

Titus said...

Yet again, another interview that has me yearning to not only read the latest book, but to seek out previous work. Brava!

Caroline said...

I'm so glad! Read this one and then The LIfe Before Her Eyes --unsettling in the best, most hypnotic way. She's genius.