Sunday, January 19, 2020

Crissy Van Meter talks about her ravishing debut CREATURES, and about love, oceans, loyalty, grief, her love of the non-linear, and so much more.

What's more glorious than discovering a debut? It's my favorite thing in the world, especially when it's from my own genius publisher, Algonquin Books.  I was instantly enthralled by Crissy Van Meter's astonishing novel, CREATURES,  about grief, memory, family, and the sea. Plus, get a gander of that extraordinary cover!  I'm not the only one praising this gorgeous novel. Take a look:

“Van Meter’s debut is an unwavering triumph.”
The New York Times Book Review
“The sensibility of this short, gemlike novel puts Van Meter in league with contemporary novelists for whom humans and their environment are tightly bound together—Lydia Millet, Joy Williams and T.C. Boyle come to mind.”
The Los Angeles Times

“An alluring, atmospheric debut.”

 Crissy is a writer based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the founder of the literary project Five Quarterly, and the managing editor for Nouvella Books. She serves on the board of directors for the literary non-profit Novelly. I'm so thrilled to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Crissy!

I always deeply believe that every novelist is haunted into writing their novels, hoping that the narrative will answer their questions. What was haunting you? And was the answer that your novel gave you the one you expected? Why or why not?

I agree with this! I start every project with questions and work my way into the answers. With this book I was asking questions about grief. I lost my dad and I was experiencing grief in a non-linear way; sometimes I’d feel things all at once, sometimes I’d feel nothing at all. I wondered how grief and time and memory really worked. It felt like a constant ebb and flow of emotion. And then life kept going, and I fell in love, and I wondered how I could love, if I could love. How can a person with a broken heart, or a lifetime of a lot of broken hearts, survive love?

I’m not sure the novel gave me any real answers, but I did find comfort in the idea that life can be happy and broken all at once. There’s a high tide and low tide … every day.

So much of Creatures is about waiting—to be married, for the groom to arrive, for an absent mother who suddenly shows up. Why do you think those pauses in our lives, those spaces waiting to be filled in some way, tense as they are, leave room for us to change and grow?

I think the moments of waiting, and longing, are the quiet and scary moments that make Evie really question what she wants, and how she might get it. Those are the moments she has to listen to herself, trust herself, because she’s all she’s got.

Creatures is also so richly atmospheric that the land itself truly becomes a character as much as any of the people. Can you talk about how environment very much works as a force in this remarkable novel? And could you also talk about why many people today do not see the connection we have with our Earth?

When I was writing this I was thinking so much about emotional weather. And also, real weather all around me. In California, I’m constantly reminded of climate change – everything on fire, erosion, drought, heat, rain. I wanted this book to reflect Evie’s emotional barometer – extreme, constantly changing. I think this book is about the extremes of both emotional life, and our physical earth experiencing trauma too.

Evie’s upbringing with a father who suffers addictions and a mother who leaves and leaves and leaves, is certainly not ideal, yet every page is full of a deep, yearning love that is palpable. And as you move through Evie’s past and her present, we get an idea of the future she might get to have. Which brings us to the question: of how you did what you did here.

I kept thinking of darkness and light – and how they just exist all at once. And in nature, literally, we get both each day. And while it may be dark here now, there is light just around the way. I know that it’s possible to love someone you hate, and in Evie’s situation, with this kind of father, I think she truly, deeply loves him, while she hates and mourns his flaws too. It’s her darkness and light.

What kind of writer are you? Was Creatures planned out before hand or did you start with an image or an emotion? 

I started writing the father sections first – because those were the most emotionally true for me. And as I kept writing, I wanted this story to encompass an entire life, so I just kept building Winter Island and the good/bad/tragic people who lived there. I wanted to answer the question: What kind of chance does Evie have for love and happiness? So, I needed to include all the relationships that would inform and shape her—a mother, a friendship, a marriage.

I’m terrible at outlining or planning, and I didn’t do it for this book. I really kept trying to answer the big questions, and to get to know Evie, and to figure out what she really wanted for herself. A lot of this meant writing bits and pieces, and taking time away from the writing, and coming back to it and putting together like a puzzle.

That cover is just gorgeous! I know Algonquin always does a spectacular job on covers, but I was wondering what images you personally were thinking of when writing this book?

Whales. Sea creatures. Things that lurk in the dark. The things we hide from the ones we love, and from ourselves. Of course this is not literally horror book, but there are so many terrible and horrific things in this book, at least emotionally. The word ‘creatures’ feels like it could be the title of an old horror movie.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I love nature and nature writing. I’m big into geology now. I’m researching the formation of the earth and reading a lot about how the earth might end. I can’t help but compare my own life, and all human life, to the cycles of earth. I’m always looking for answers (why are we here!?!) and right now I’m reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.

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

I’m a sucker for structure talk. This book felt like a puzzle, or a shattered piece of glass that has been put back together. It jumps around in time to emulate this non-linear sense of memory, time, love, and grief. If you turn the table of contents on it’s side, and trace the chapters, it mimics a tide chart.

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