Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Victor Lodato talks about his strange, dark, haunting novel EDGAR & LUCY, why children keep showing up in his work, and so much more

It's always a joy for me to be able to meet writers I don't know, even if it is just online. And it's been a treat to email back and forth with Victor Lodato, the author of one of my favorite novels of the year, EDGAR AND LUCY. Victor Lodato isn't just a genius novelist. He's also a playwright and poet. His novel Mathilda Savitch was a Best Book of the Year by the Christian Science Monitor, Booklist and the Globe and Mail, and also won the PEN USA Award for Fiction, The Barnes & Noble Discover Prize. Victor has racked up the raves with a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and awards from The Princess Grace Foundation, The Carmago Foundation and the Bogliasco Foundation. 

Thank you so much for being here, Victor. I hope we can get pie soon.

I absolutely adored this novel. I was astonished at the virtuosity, how you effortlessly moved in and out of characters’ heads, and yet there was this silver line that connected everything so beautifully.  Love, loss, childhood, old age—it’s a genius book.  Is there a backstory on Edgar and Lucy? Something that pushed you to write these characters alive?

 As with all my work, I started with no agenda. I wrote the first chapter pretty quickly, and was sufficiently intrigued to keep writing. I liked the characters, the voices, and that was enough.  For me, the story always comes later. Early on, though, I realized that the characters and the setting were a sort of mirror-land of my childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, and of my hot-blooded, working-class, Italian-Polish family.  I sometimes affectionately think of this book as my “New Jersey Gothic.”

If I had a better memory of my life—and my childhood in particular—I might write memoir.  But my memory is funny: while I don’t recall specific events very clearly, I have a strong memory of how I felt as a child, and throughout most of my life.  And so I think, in many ways, that my project as a writer has been to invent stories that can accommodate these emotions—to create fictional architectures that can contain these remembered feelings that roam around in me without context.  It’s actually a relief to have a place to put these emotions—to bind them to an invented narrative.  This was definitely true for Edgar & Lucy.  Writing it felt like an exorcism.

I was gobsmacked at the structure of the novel, how it veered into strange territory, and then came back, how voices shifted (I particularly loved the grandmother coming back!). Was any of this planned, or did it just seem right to do this?

Perhaps the book took so many years to write—nearly ten—because I don’t like to force anything.  I want to feel as if the story is growing organically, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.  I prefer not to play puppet master too much with my characters.  I think I’m at my best when I’m writing from inside a character—when every twist and turn of the story seems to be dictated by what a character is feeling. I think that this way of working helps to keep me truthful, emotionally, and prevents me from writing anything just to be clever.  I don’t care for stories that come across too blatantly as something written by a “writer.”  I prefer stories in which the characters seem to exist on their own.  Maybe that’s because I’m also a playwright.

Honestly, as I’m working on a piece, I never really know what’s going to happen next.  The characters and I edge toward the truth together.  It’s this sort of detective work that keeps me interested—and hopefully it does the same for a reader.  I think at the core of all writing and reading is mystery—the ultimate mystery being, who are other people? One writes—and reads—in an attempt to answer this question, or at least get closer to an answer.  It’s a very humanizing endeavor.

You've said that all of your work starts with the characters' voices, and I'd have to agree with that—so does mine.  So how do you find the voices? How do you sustain them? Do you ever have a false voice come to you?

I really can’t begin any piece of writing without a deep connection to a voice. If I have to struggle with the voice, to get it right, I simply accept that this is not my story to tell, that this is not a character to whom I can do justice. With Edgar and Lucy, I felt from the start that I knew both of them in my body, in my breath. The music of their voices—though very different from each other—came naturally to me, and I spoke every word aloud, for years, as I was writing the novel.  Where such voices come from is one of the mysteries of the writing process, and one that I tend not to question. 

How does being a poet and playwright influence your novels, or are they entirely separate entities?

Certainly, writing from voice and character is an extension of my work in the theater. When I write, I actively take on the characters—perform them, really.  It’s a very physical process.  Ideally, I want to feel that whatever I’m writing is happening right now.

I guess one could say that the medium of theater is fate, while the medium of fiction is memory. I try to bring into my fiction some of the danger of theater, to create narratives that, even as they describe the past, are somehow infused with a present-tense theatricality that raises the stakes of the emotional transactions.

One of the things that I love about writing novels is the freedom to let the story unfold over a greater length of time. In a play, the magic circle drawn around the characters has to be much tighter. When crafting a play, I invariably find that I write more scenes than I can actually use. In a play, too much extra material, too many diversions, can be fatal, especially if these things impede the sense of inevitability, the sense that we are witnessing characters caught in the wheels of fate. And while a novel’s power can be reduced by excess baggage, as well (and, in writing mine, I do think I apply my playwright’s habit of precision), the form is clearly a roomier one—one that allows the characters to have a few more detours of thought and situation. And, having fallen so deeply in love with Edgar and Lucy and Florence, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to give them a more generous life.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Short stories. I feel like it was only around five years ago that I began to understand how to write a successful short story.  They’re surprisingly difficult.  But I love the form, and am working on a collection.  Because of their brevity (compared to a novel), there’s something particularly moving to me about the short story form.  You get only so much time with the situation and with the characters.  With a novel, there’s a feeling of living a life with the characters—and that can be a lovely thing.  With a story, you’re having a fling, an affair—and it’s an opportunity for a different, sometimes wilder, kind of passion.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Maybe: Why are there children, Victor, in most of your works?  To which, I’d say: Good question, Caroline!

I don’t set out to write books with children in them—but children keep showing up.  And I’m glad they do.  I find it liberating to write in the voice of a child, from the perspective of someone who is still learning the world and interpreting its complexities for the first time.  It enables me to address my own fears and anxieties and confusions in a very open way.  I don’t have to pretend to have all the answers.


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