Friday, February 13, 2015

Holly LeCraw talks about her devastating new novel, The Half Brother, teachers who mattered, what's obsessing her now and more


 Holly LeCraw is wonderful, warm, funny, and a genius writer.  Her new novel, The Half Brother, is already garnering praise any writer would kill for. The Millions said it  is "the finest school-set novel in recent history." Booklist, in a starred (love those stars!) review, compares her to Donna Tartt and Anne Tyler.  Her work has appeared in Post Road, Writer’s Digest, The Millions, Image, and various anthologies, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of THE SWIMMING POOL, a 2010 Top Debut (Kirkus) and Best Book of Summer (Daily Beast and Good Morning America); it was also published in Canada, Germany, Greece and Israel.

I'm thrilled to have Holly here, though I'm sorry she's snowbound in Boston!

 The setting of your novel is a New England boarding school, genteel, cloistered—which plays off terrifically against the tumultuous things going on in your characters’ hearts. What made you choose a boarding school?

As you know, writers generally benefit from structural limitations—setting a book on an island, or during one summer, or over the course of one day. It makes the canvas a little more manageable (or seems to, at least at the beginning of the process). A boarding school setting functions in that way, and it’s also a sort of fairy-tale environment, shut away from the real world, where life seems heightened, small events are writ large, because it’s such a small and coded society. And it’s full of adolescents and their drama.

Also, a boarding school is almost always a setting of privilege, and people are usually fascinated by privilege, whether or not they approve of it.

All that being said, however, I didn’t choose the setting first. I didn’t go to boarding school myself; it doesn’t have any personal significance. I had Charlie Garrett, my protagonist, first, and he was a teacher, and it went from there. Ages ago, I had him working in a day school—but it was in a small town. So, for this story, I always wanted that sense of separation.

I seem to do this thing where I write a book that is a particular Kind Of Book but I’m the last to know. My first book was set on Cape Cod, and I was completely surprised when people called it a great summer book, beach book, all of that. What a dummy! But to me Cape Cod was incidental—just where my people lived, you know. Then this one—it didn’t occur to me until very late that THE HALF BROTHER was a “boarding school book,” which probably sounds ridiculous; but since it’s a story of adults, not students, I hadn’t been thinking of it with that label. I suppose you could say, though, that it’s a coming-of-age book, given that Charlie is a very, very late bloomer.
As it turns out, there are a lot of people out there who seem to love boarding school books. So it’s quite nice to have this built-in audience I wasn’t anticipating.

Families. Secrets. The things we do—or don’t do—for love. All these themes permeate your wonderful novel. Why do you think love, the most important thing in life, is always the most difficult thing to maneuver? Why does it bring out the best—and the worst—in us?

Charlie’s obsessed with questions of identity, and identity begins with one’s family. This is a guy born with imposter syndrome, because he has no father, and because he senses that there is a secret he’s not being told, in the way that all of us, especially when we’re children, can sense secrets.

I myself was attracted by the notion, the problem, of nature vs. nurture, of genetics, of the source of identity—for whatever reason that presented itself as one of the central questions of the book. Charlie assumes identity comes from parentage, which of course it does, in part; but that’s just one way he’s letting others define him. He has a very old-fashioned, classical, even Biblical belief in this biological determinism. It isn’t until he comes to Abbott, and really until he falls in love, that he feels like he has a little bit of agency, that he is finally himself, an individual. And then that goes south, rather spectacularly.

It’s one of the hallmarks of falling in love, that one feels finally like oneself. Literally that you’ve found your other half, your completion. And that is a lovely, lovely feeling, but it’s also dangerous, and it makes you extraordinarily vulnerable. I suppose I wanted to look at one of the worst case scenarios, where that love is definitively thwarted.

I have to ask about your very arresting cover. I love the line that separates the two. Do you have input on your cover? (Most authors have approval, but covers are pretty much a marketing decision, usually.)

The process this time was utterly ideal. That design was the first one they showed me, and it was perfect. I had nothing to do with it, except to say that I loved it. That line is genius. When the jacket was approved and I started showing it to people, every single person said, first thing, “Oooooooh.” As in, I’m intrigued. It’s the line—the line makes it. The line is a mystery, and makes you want to pick it up.

Now we come to the questions I always ask: What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you have rituals? Do you wait around for the pesky Muse?

What kind of writer am I? Slow. I’m the slow kind!

I don’t outline until after a draft is done. I always thought that was just another sign of my essential inefficiency, but then I found out that a lot of writers do it that way. I generally outline in desperation, at that point where I feel I have lost all control, or never had any to begin with, and I am trying to impose a shape, any shape at all, on what I’ve got; but I just think that’s part of the process. An outline early on would be restrictive, at the moment when you should be putting no restrictions at all on yourself. Later on it’s useful if you need to see where holes are or where the tension is dying.

Rituals. Well, in theory I take a walk or at least move around a little outside, walk the dog or something, before I start working—every single day I have very good intentions! Also meditating, for just ten or fifteen minutes, is a good transition. Mainly though it’s apply butt to chair. Absolutely no waiting for the Muse. No way. That’s not to say I don’t frequently feel despair about whatever I’m working on. But there’s no point on blaming it on any Muse.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am wishing I had more time to work on my next idea. It’s very embryonic but it’s pulling me. And I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed, exactly, but for a long time now I have been thinking about fundamentalism, of all religious varieties, and the psychology of it and what it’s doing and has done in the world. And I’m thinking about the theater. I have a character right now who’s an actor. She’s obsessing me, mainly. I want to hear what she has to say.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Well, I’d like to mention the teachers I thank in my acknowledgments. There is Kemie Nix, who was my Children’s Literature teacher in elementary school, and who was my first and best and most important enabler in my obsession with books. There is David Purdum, who was my English teacher my sophomore year in high school. He’s the one who said, “take the end of the sentence and pull,” which is a line I gave to Charlie. We were reading Faulkner for the first time, and we were just baffled—I think it was the first sentence on the first page of The Unvanquished, one of those Faulknerian sentences that’s half a page long, nearly undiagrammable. He just sat back and let us wrestle with it. It was great. And there is the late Margaret Lauderdale, who had this legendary, delicious southern accent. She hated it when she caught someone chewing gum; she’d say, “You look lahyke a cay-ow.” When we read Our Town, she gave us a quotation from St. Teresa of Avila, “Among the cooking pots moves the Lord,” which I have never, ever forgotten, and which informs my writing every day.

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