I’m pleased today to host an interview between two great writers — and to present this interview as the first post of my recently redesigned site. Here, Tara Laskowski, the Kathy Fish Fellow at SmokeLong Quaterly, talks to Jessica Anthony, author of the highly praised novel The Convalescent. The two writers were classmates in the MFA program at George Mason University, and Anthony returns to Mason on Wednesday, September 23, for an alumni reading as part of the 2009 Fall for the Book Festival. Tara introduces the novel — and the interview — here:
Jessica Anthony’s debut novel, The Convalescent, hit the shelves earlier this summer to rave reviews. (Check out this one at the San Francisco Chronicle.) Anthony was the winner of McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. As McSweeney’s proudly writes on their web site about The Convalescent: “It is the story of a small, bearded man selling meat out of a bus parked next to a stream in suburban Virginia . . . and also, somehow, the story of 10,000 years of Hungarian history.”
I’ve been a big fan of Jessica Anthony’s work ever since we shared a fiction workshop class in grad school, and I can see why Barnes & Noble chose the book as a recommended summer reading pick, part of their “Discover Great New Writers” series. It’s a sharp, smart book that’s as weird and charming as its main character.
Tara Laskowski: In many writing classes, professors will say, “Write what you know.” You obviously haven’t stuck by that rule with this novel. What are the challenges of that, and what are the benefits?
Jessica Anthony: When I started writing fiction, I often struggled with real life and invention. I felt bogged down by all sorts of things: whether I was being unfair to a person I knew; how I could use something interesting that happened to my advantage—but as soon as I let go of writing what I “knew,” as soon as I began aiming for pure unadulterated invention, the boundaries suddenly disappeared. There was no need to sort out what in my life was useful to fiction because it was suddenly all useless. It was a very freeing, happy feeling not to have to rely on experience to tell a story. So I don’t see much benefit for ‘writing what you know,’ whether in fiction or non-fiction. I have never had much interest in heavily autobiographical fiction, because I always found myself asking: “Why isn’t this an essay?” And what do we know of anything, really? If you have a character who has lost a parent and you have also lost a parent, you and your character experience that loss in wildly different ways (usually for the story to work, the further you are from your own experience the better, otherwise you may suffer defending the weaknesses in your story with that embarrassing insistence: “But it actually HAPPENED that way…”). If you are an essayist, memoirist, journalist, or fiction writer, it seems to me that you’re probably better served by writing what you learn, observe, or investigate. Reading what a writer has sought out in truth and fiction is far more interesting than reading what a writer knows.
How did you first get the idea of The Convalescent? Did it start with Rovar, or somewhere else?
I think this question is sort of linked to the one above. I usually begin writing with voice, and it’s very abstract. I wrote poetry before writing fiction, and I have always loved the musicality and innate rhythms of language. The prosody. That’s where voice lives. Take the opening to Lolita, for example:
Lolita: light of my life. Fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
The opening to this novel is pure music — it also, as we learn, is the voice of Humbert…. But all of this is a roundabout way of saying that I begin with voice, and learn about the idea of a story as I go. For the novel, I began with a merging of the voices of Mersault from The Stranger and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. I loved the short sentences. Then I was walking through the Seven Corners mall while living in northern Virginia, and passed a McDonald’s. There on the wall was a picture of a schoolbus that said “MEAT BUS.” I started writing, and thought about something Alan Cheuse once said about character, how we all must know the full history of our characters lives and where they came from. I doubt he meant to travel back to the Ninth Century, but that’s where the investigation of Rovar took me. I recalled an afternoon walking around Budapest with a Hungarian man, Tibor, who said, “Hungarians have no history, they have only myth.” From there, the kernel for the real story began. So I think these two questions are linked because our life experience does matter—perhaps I would not have taken such an interest in Hungary had I never visited the country—but experience should never be used as an excuse for a lack of guts or imagination.
As a first time novelist trying to break into the publishing industry, what was the hardest part of the process?
At some point, in order for anyone else to want to read your story, you have to realize that writing fiction is not a demonstration of one’s ego; it’s the obliteration of it. You just have to write better sentences. Learning that was the hardest part for me. People want to publish great stories, but you have to fiercely try and give them one. It’s like what Hemingway said about how all fiction writers must have built in bullshit detectors. You know when you’re doing something well, and when you’re cheating. As soon as I started being honest with myself about writing, it was easier to find audiences…. All that said, the publishing business is a fickle beast. So it helps to do your research and figure out which magazines, agents, and presses might like your style.
With a polo captain, Carly Simon, a weed named Marjorie, and crazy Virginians popping up all over The Convalescent, we get a lot of quirky, amusing parts of this novel. What was the most fun part of writing this book?
I love this question. I just wrote a blog on Powell’s last week about the importance of fun and experimentation in writing. For me, so much of this book was fun to write, but especially the moments when I began to realize that the history was intertwined with the present. I was writing both narratives separately and never planned on one influencing the other, or vice versa. But when I saw how each could actually tell the other’s story, things really started to snap into place, and I felt like I had found the momentum. I am also a giant nerd. I genuinely loved reading all about the emigration of the Hungarians from the Steppes of Asia. Those are also writerly answers, however—so let me give you a more fun, less writerly answer, which is: “St. Benevolus.” [Editor’s note: The name is what the narrator calls his erections — a word which will surely help to triple this interview’s traffic.]
What’s next? Do you have another novel in the works, or are you still recovering from the energy sap from this one?
I am working on a new novel. When I handed in the final draft to McSweeney’s last spring, four years after it began, I hopped on a plane and walked across Scotland. Literally. Walking. It’s great way to start over: a hundred miles on foot, coupled with a nice sampling of Scottish whisky. You can’t beat it with a stick. ♦
Meet Anthony on Wednesday, September 23, at the Fall for the Book Festival, where she’ll be reading with fellow novelist O.H. Bennett, author of The Lie, and poet Nancy Pearson, author of Two Minutes of Light (a selection from which is reprinted here).