Two writer friends get together again to knock heads about the importance of character, and all the places and ways they can lead you. Lisa Gornick’s new book is Louisa Meets Bear, a “wonderfully, perfectly executed” (NPR) novel in interconnected stories; Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive!.
Mary Kay Zuravleff: First of all, congratulations on Louisa Meets Bear. I was blown away by this book, starting with the first paragraph. Usually, writers build up a character and then are able to deliver a succinct one-liner that rings true. However, you often introduce your characters with a single telling line of description—we know them instantly—and then you elaborate. That distillation, does it come to you first, too? I guess what I’m asking is, how and when do you do that?
Lisa Gornick: After college, I spent a year training with a professional acting company that had its roots in the “method acting” technique developed by The Actors Studio. The core work, we were taught, is the deep imagining of a character prior to setting foot on the stage. This imagining ranges from a precise sense of the physical attributes of a character—her gait, how she drinks her tea, chews her lip when she feels ashamed—to her inner life—her nightmares, her childhood griefs, her secret dreams. Although what makes it onto the stage is only the tip of the iceberg, what has been imagined gives the performance depth and weight: it makes the character feel real rather than acted.
As a writer, I go through a similar process of extensive imagining of my characters before I let them loose in a scene. Then, the real process of discovery happens. Fictional characters, like the people we think we know, can—and should—surprise us, behaving in unexpected but revealing ways: the soft-spoken girl with broken glasses who stands up to the ranting racist, the boorish bully with his military crew cut who weeps over the dead bird.
To circle back to your question: what comes in the first paragraph, while early for the reader, is not early for me as a writer.
MKZ: You frequently focus on the gap between the working class and the wealthy. Bear is the son of a plumber who goes to Princeton and becomes an investment banker—you write “being admitted into their circle is more valuable than an inheritance.” He crosses that chasm but his sister doesn’t, just as in the first story, Lizzy’s mother is shocked to learn how people live in East Harlem. What about that chasm captures your attention?
LG: Inequality is the buzz word of our gilded era. In Louisa Meets Bear, I focus less on economic discrepancies than on what Sennett and Cobb over forty years ago termed “the hidden injuries of class.” In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco reports that despite decades of action to promote economic diversity, only 5% of students in the most highly selective colleges come from the bottom socioeconomic quartile. That number, I imagine, was even smaller in the 1970s when my character Bear arrives at Princeton, where he is surrounded by the gentry of the day for whom college is a layover en route to Wall Street. For the few, like Bear, who are able to cross the class chasm, it is often after enormous effort and with anxiety about wounding family members or being perceived as an imposter in the acquired social milieu.
One of the themes I explore across the stories is how the acquisition of cultural capital can be more difficult than the acquisition of money alone.
LG: Work has many meanings in our culture. Work is the labor for which we are paid and by which we put food on the table for ourselves and our loved ones, but work can also be our calling—to stop fracking or help addicts or compose a symphony. Given how little financial remuneration there is in our country for the arts or for work for the public good, the two meanings are often at odds.
Louisa Meets Bear opens in 1961 with a suburban mother who has gone back to school to become a social worker. She’s married to a lawyer who is skeptical about her pursuits: as he points out to her, they will pay nearly as much for a babysitter as she’ll make as a social worker. She persists, but at the cost of a great rupture in her family. We follow Andrew—raised in the shadow of his mother, a professor of political science whose career, bolstered by the insurance settlement his agoraphobic father received after a chainsaw accident, centers on a conference circuit where she gives papers on topics such as “Western responses to clitoridectomies: Cultural centrism or anti-violence advocacy?”—as he struggles between his wishes to make money and to do good. Bear never questions his goal of becoming rich, but he is aware that there is a way of life, lived by people like Louisa, for whom work is about creating something other than money, and he both suffers from and rails against this idea. We then watch Louisa as she anguishes over the moral underpinnings of using her talents and resources to write poems read essentially only by other poets, and questions whether this constitutes a life’s work.
MKZ: The book is about how we are connected and disconnected from one another, by choice and happenstance, and the structure beautifully reinforces that. What I treasure is that you wrote all the way to reconnection, even in the first story, but reconnecting as older, wiser people. That was so moving. In your NPR interview, you talked about trying not to be cheesy or madcap about connections. How do you make those decisions?
LG: Fiction can tolerate less coincidence than real life. In real life, twins separated at birth can end up at the same college, in the same classroom, wearing the same turquoise sweatshirts—and we take pleasure in how unbelievable that is. With a novel, unbelievable is not good.
In Louisa Meets Bear, the reconnections, for the most part, happen for the reader, not the characters. It’s the reader who re-encounters the child given up for adoption, not the birth mother. It’s the reader who meets again the too-bad-to-resist-guy fifteen years later, when his life is sadder and more complicated, not the girl he seduced in a Greenwich Village café. The connections are not based on coincidences; rather they are like an Altman movie where we explore contiguous stories, the camera shifting to a close-up on a character who in an earlier story was in the periphery.
Louisa Meets Bear has one coincidence. It’s a big one and it comes at the end of the book, and I worried whether the narrative could support it. When an early reader told me that she’d gotten to that page and jumped up and down on her bed saying “Yes,” I decided to keep the faith that I’d earned it by then.
MKZ: At the end of the book, Louisa reflects on having chosen happiness. Do you believe people can make that choice, and how does Louisa do so?
LG: Most psychotherapists share the belief that for those of us privileged to not live in extreme deprivation or in the shadow of extraordinary violence or illness, a substantial portion of human misery can be alleviated by self-knowledge that leads to choices that allow for greater happiness.
Work and love are the basic arenas for most of us, and in each, Louisa makes a radical decision. About her poems, she decides that it is irrelevant whether they are lousy or brilliant: they are largely unwanted and only causing her misery—and she is going to do something else. With Bear, there is a winter afternoon in a bar across from The Museum of Natural History when she might let him place the flat of his hand on the small of her back and shepherd her to a hotel or she might take the train to Great Neck to meet the parents of the gentle and generous man she has recently met. It’s a watershed, a moment when Louisa can choose happiness—and, against all expectations, she does.
Lisa Gornick is the author of the recently released Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as well as two earlier novels: Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin). Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Agni, The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, and Slate, and have received many honors including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories anthology. She holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive!, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls. Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.
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