Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cathi Hanauer talks about her extraordinary new novel Gone, what the world speeding up means to her, the vanishing middle class, health care, kids off to college, and so much more

One of the great pleasures of doing this blog is that I get a fabulous excuse to meet and talk to my literary heroes. I've been following Cathi Hanauer for years. I devoured her essays in  Mademoiselle, Parenting, Redbook, Child, Elle, O, Self, The New York Times, and more, and I kept hearing about her writing classes at The New School, The University of Arizona at Tucson and privately. I was dying to be in her anthology The Bitch in the House, and I loved her novels Sweet Ruin and My Sister's Bones. But we never crossed paths! Recently, after six tries, I finally got into the New York Times' Modern Love, the Holy Grail of columns, edited by her husband, the brilliant Daniel Jones (he's brilliant in general, not because he chose my piece!), which narrowed our pathways. Then I saw a posting by her about her new novel, Gone, which I had read and loved, (alert to book clubs: You want this book and this author. Trust me on this.) It seemed the perfect time to pepper her with questions.  A million thanks yous, Cathi! 

Q: I so deeply admired how Gone was seamlessly and grippingly told from two points of view. Was this alchemy hard to do?

A: The book is told from the husband's and wife's points-of-view, and, maybe obviously, both of them are sides of myself. (Narcissism alert--sorry!) The male character, Eric, is my depressive, arty, ineffectual, wanting-to-flee-all-responsibilities side, and his sections were much easier to write. I actually love writing in the male POV--maybe b/c it allows that rougher, swearing, sluttier side of myself to come out, or maybe just because I believe that male characters aren't judged as harshly as females (though maybe that's saying the same thing twice, actually). I think if Eve had done the things Eric does in this book--being depressed and ineffectual, running away from her family without notice (and with the hot young babysitter, at that!)--she'd have been judged much more harshly; depressed female characters are "whiny," adulterous female characters are often "sluts," while a depressed male character is allowed to just be depressed and a male character who cheats is often forgiven. Not that Eric cheats! People will have to read the book to find out. 

Q: You've explored relationships before, with The Bitch in the House and Sweet Ruin, about women in their twenties and thirties. Gone goes one step further, to enter middle age to reveal the complex problems about marriage, money, art and more. You do all this brilliantly. Why do you think marriage and family today are such rich subjects to mine--do you get cranky (I know I do) when women who do this are said to be writing about "women's issues" when men who do it get huge amounts of attention and are called Franzen? 

A: Thanks so much for the compliments, and PS, your own work does a beautiful job with these topics too. And yes, I get cranky--how can you not?--when a novel by a man gets acclaim and attention that the exact same book by a woman would not, although I guess now we're supposed to be happy that at least we sell more books than men, right? No doubt because the majority of novelreaders are women, and women tend to read novels by other women, as we're often looking for characters and situations we can relate to and even learn from. I think we write about marriage and family because, post-feminist world or not, marriage and family is primarily what many of us still do: We get pregnant and give birth and raise babies and run households--or organize the running of households--even if we work fulltime too. It's the classic Allison Pearson scenario of the husband who dresses the baby in the doll's clothes because he doesn't know the difference, or doesn't know where the baby's clothes are kept, even though both parents work. Yes, many men do a great job of parenting and helping out, and some even stay home so their wives can work. But in the end, it's still primarily women running the domestic show. So--that tends to be what we write about, and what many of us want to read about. That said, the finest male writers write about domestic stuff too, or at least about love and marriage: think Hemingway, Tolstoy, Updike, Roth, Perrotta, Eugenides, and, yes, Franzen. Some of them broaden their books to include outside themes, but so do lots of women. But as long as there's a wife or a mother, the women's books tend to be considered domestic or women's fiction, no matter what else is in there, whereas men's work is considered literature, and treated accordingly. 

Q: You've got this absolutely amazing bio. Not only are you a novelist, essayist and editor, but you've also written an advice column for Seventeen for many years. I realize this might sound weird, but do you think being a novelist and dealing with fictional problems is definitely helpful in dealing with the real problems of teens?

A: I wrote that column for seven years, in my late twenties and early thirties, after working for several years as an editor at Seventeen. And the question is a good one, because I have always felt that my non-fiction and journalism writing fueled and improved my fiction, and vice-versa. My first novel, My Sister's Bones, about two sisters (one of them anorexic) growing up in suburban New Jersey, probably stemmed in part from the thousands of letters from real teenagers that i read over the years of writing that column. And writing for magazines, which I still do a lot--I'm a contributing writer at Elle, and I've written for Real Simple, Parenting, O, Whole Living, and many other magazines--always helps me think about brevity and audience and "what am i trying to say?" in a way that I think is helpful for writing novels, while writing novels is great because it makes you dig deeper and think about the Big Questions. Also, whichever one I'm doing at the time, fiction or nonfiction, I want to be doing the other one. Ha. But writing for magazines always makes me feel constrained by space restrictions, while writing novels makes me remember how great it was to get an assignment, do it and be done! Also, to get paid pretty fast and have someone else to do the marketing. So--there are pluses and minuses to both. But yes, they all fuel and feed each other, just as writing fuels and feeds life, and vice-versa.

Q: What's your writing life like? Do you have a set schedule or talismans? Do you plan things out or sit down and hope for the best?

A: In terms of my writing life/schedule, it's different for each book. My Sister's Bones was my MFA thesis, so i wrote that while going to school (in Arizona) and also writing other stuff, taking classes, doing enough magazine work to survive. No kids back then, though, so I could work all the time, anywhere I landed, till all hours of the night. Then I moved to New York with my recently acquired husband, Dan, and we moved in together for the first time, and I finished the book there while working as a temp and writing the Seventeen column, sometimes in our sublet apartment, sometimes out and about. Sweet Ruin I wrote in the Smith College Campus Center cafeteria, which is very near my home; i got up every morning and went there and used it as an office (and i think i gained about 10 pounds by the end, given all the donuts, pizza, and cheeseburgers I ate). GONE I wrote in bed, i confess, because my home office is a tiny room with a bed and our house is very cold in winter and it's  more comfortable to work under the covers than upright at my desk. So it really depends on the book and on what else is going on in my life at that time. I definitely don't write every day except when I'm into a book. But in between books I find I need a break, to refuel or clean the house or figure out my kids' summers or, frankly, just make some money, whether teaching or editing or coaching other writers or doing some magazine work. Right now, as I contemplate my next book, I'm helping two writers who hired me for editing/advice, I did a piece for Parents magazine, and I'm helping my husband with a book he has due and well as with his editing job, because he's shouldering a big portion of the financial and work burden right now, so--what else is marriage for but to lighten that load, right? As for planning a book, I am definitely a planner, in work and in life. My husband will sit down with a blank piece of paper and see what comes out. In contrast, I can't start a novel until i see an end at very least, and maybe also a beginning, and have several themes I want to explore, and a general idea of characters, and a general story line. I take zillions of notes about everything in life, all the time, that i hope to put in a novel sometime--they're all over my office, on the floor, on the desk, taped on walls, in piles--and I write and rewrite notes and outlines the whole time I'm working on a book. By the end, the book changes a lot from what I first set out to do, but at least I have the illusion at the beginning that I know where I"m going. Like having a map through a tunnel. Even if it's a fake map, it can give you the confidence to go on. 

A: What's obsessing you now and why?

Q: My daughter is a senior in high school, so this year feels very transitional, and also very much about the future and money--how will we send first her and then her brother (who's 14) to college, and what will life be like when she's gone, and then, in a few years, when he is too? My life has been so much about them for the past 18 years; even my career has been so much about combining work and motherhood. And my kids keep me plugged in and out in the world and up on what's happening. They lighten me up and make me laugh. I have a tendency to be very solitary and insular if I"m not forced out, so I worry a little about that. And then there's money. My husband and I are both writers, both working in industries (books, magazines, newspapers) that are greatly downsizing, so that's a little scary. And we've lived pretty cheaply over the years--it's a small town, public school, old cars, mow our own lawn/shovel our own snow sort of life--and suddenly we're entering a whole new era of spending, a lessening of some responsibilities and an increase in others. I"m both looking forward to the freedom of having an empty nest, and slightly terrified of it; when you have kids at home, you can always distract yourself from work that's not going well--or not going at all!--by blaming it on motherhood, you can always spend more time with the kids and justify your time and existence in that way. Other current obsessions:  the disappearing of the middle class, of which I am part, and the insanity of the current health care situation, and the manically fast, technology-obsessed, social media-driven world that we all live in now, to which I'm pretty unsuited. I used to be a fast person--i walk fast, I talk fast, I can multi-task. But it seems to me that the world has sped up exponentially in the past decade while I have stayed the same or maybe even slowed down, to the point that I now often feel left in the dust by those around me. No one completes a sentence or thought anymore, b/c there's always a phone beeping, a text coming in, someone updating a Facebook status…something to pull you away from deep thought. Things seem wider and shallower to me now, and I'm a person who prefers depth to breadth, obsession and rumination to rushing around manically, reading a book to going on Facebook. Am I already a dinosaur? Will my kids ever be able to read a book, given their ability and even obligation, in this day and age, to flit from thing to thing to thing? Anyway, these are some of the things that obsess me now. Hopefully they'll form themselves into a beautiful and lucrative novel one of these days! 

Q: Why question didn't I ask that I should have?

A: Um--how about what am I reading? I love that question! I just finished Gone Girl--i know, a little late on the uptake there, right?--and of course I could not put it down. Also recently devoured The Kingdom of Childhood, by Rebecca Coleman; it's beautifully written, sexy as hell…just riveting. Now I'm reading Julianna Baggott's Pure, which so far is pure fun, and Heart of Darkness, which is sort of the opposite of fun but still worth it. My daughter's reading it for AP English, so it seems like a good time to force myself through it again. 

Cathi Hanauer
Facebook: "Cathi Hanauer Author" 

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