Carol Edgarian and Ann Beattie Talk Complex Characters and Literary Inspirations
A Conversation on Craft with the Author of Vera
So often, writers read their friends’ manuscripts and galleys, squinting while nervously tapping a foot: Will they pull it off? Will they blow it? I mention drafts and galleys because when the book exists, what’s to worry about? It’s too late; all you can do is dwell on what worked, what’s good. But here, everything was good from the get-go: characters who could leap; a “stage” that smoldered in a different way, pre-earthquake. I could tell right away how different this was. I’ve found every previous book of Carol’s riveting, but Vera—in spite of the inclusion of things to which I have an immediate, immature, negative reaction (opera and horses), drew me in and broke my heart.
Vera is the journey of a young, courageous, protagonist looking for home: a real home, a metaphoric home, and the unmistakable home we all hold in our hearts, synonymous with love. It’s about class: high society and low; the bonds that tie and those already altered or severed, as the characters’ lives are interrupted by the shattering San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Can it be coincidence that, snowed in now, in Maine, I’m fixated on the neighbor’s horse? Last Sunday my husband put on opera, and I didn’t run from the room.
We change. But books help change us. Wait till you find out what happens to the horse. What happens when Caruso sings. This is truly a novel of high notes, yet it’s the undercurrent of loss and desire that propels it. While I was experiencing my first New England winter in at least 30 years (where to run?), Carol was living through the California fires (Where to even walk the dog?). Far from making me consider this novel in a new light (Look at the superimposition of then and now!), the novel retained its own complex, hard-won dignity, which made me admire it even more.
Ann Beattie: Just curious: Did you try to fight the impulse to embark on this novel, or did you race toward it?
Carol Edgarian: I raced toward it, then lickety-split ran in the opposite direction! Seriously. The most challenging part is finding my way in. I make all kinds of first attempts and, in this case, spend years buried in research, but until I have characters with blood flowing through their veins, and unyielding, misguided desires, I’m easily distracted. You, Ann, have a fluidity that amazes me (among your many gifts). I’m an Armenian rug weaver. I start with lambs, grow them to sheep, shear the sheep, spin and dye the yarn—you get the picture—till there’s no avoiding the inevitable years at the loom, weaving.
AB: I’m always surprised when I find out what’s built atop something else. I just found out Bryant Park was built over mass graves; I’ve long known that the university I went to was located atop a landfill of radioactive waste. There are many ways to view this—useful; thrifty; repurposed; criminal. What did it feel like, after your many years living in San Francisco, when you did the research for Vera and stepped out your door (which, of course, you could do, pre-covid) and immediately entered the present-day reality, vs. (I assume) a new, acute awareness of the whole place being ruined, rebuilt and reassembled?
CE: If I step out my door and walk half a dozen blocks east or south, I’m on land that was formerly ashes. The books will tell you that San Francisco burned three times but really it’s five. This city of hills, of peaks and valleys, has had to reimagine itself five times. And every time the essential DNA of the place—decreed by the entrepreneurial, rule flouting, go-for-broke, big-hearted, obscene spending, liberal, hubristic gold rush miners—reasserts itself, for better or worse.
Having now written two novels about my adopted city, it’s fair to say that the contradictory nature of the place captures my fancy. I had been collecting books, maps, bits about the 1906 San Francisco quake for a long time. The magnitude of the devastation, combined with the corrupt politics of the time fascinated me. I didn’t have a plan for what I’d do with the material until the lead-up to the 2016 election when I felt our country was at a precarious crossroads. I started to wonder what happens when a society—suddenly, irrevocably—collapses. In the aftermath, who and what rises? It seemed to me that for those who have been overlooked, boxed in, even marginalized, there’s a window of opportunity for recalibration.
For Vera, I had in mind an adventure story featuring a girl who is whip-smart and contrary—a girl who is housed but homeless; surrounded by adults but unloved; looking for what is true in a corrupt world. The story grew out of the line, “All my life I’d been waiting for a catastrophe greater than my birth.” Along the way, Vera discovers some fellow travelers equally keen on reinvention.
AB: In an essay called “The Need to Say It,” Patricia Hampl writes, “The recognition of one’s genuine material seems to involve a fall from the phony grace of good intentions and elevated expectations. (I speak from experience, as memoirists are supposed to.)” I really like “a fall from the phony grace of good intentions and elevated expectations.” I know you’ve written a novel, but it makes me think that, whatever the genre, sometimes we writers are fighting our subconscious, or assumptions we’ve unwittingly internalized. So when you’re writing about the past, how do you discriminate, how do you choose among the many facts, to get to what really matters?I make all kinds of first attempts and, in this case, spend years buried in research, but until I have characters with blood flowing through their veins, and unyielding, misguided desires, I’m easily distracted.
CE: First off—and I think you’ll agree with me—for fiction to work, it has to read as news of the day. We may be driving faster cars that they did in 1906, but the human animal hasn’t been retooled. We’re the same complex mix of thought, ambition, big-heartedness and folly.
When I think about “genuine material,” one aspect for me has to do with the notion of displacement. So many of us in this country carry the complexities of displacement. My parents were first generation. My father’s family embody the unreconciled wounds of the Armenian genocide. My mother’s parents came here against their will; they were alcoholics, who immigrated during prohibition, on the belief that a factory worker in Connecticut couldn’t get his hands on hooch. When my mother was five, the state removed her from her parents and put her in an orphanage—where she remained until she turned eighteen. My parents came from starkly different worlds, and let’s just say our homelife was gas and matches. So, this notion of being displaced, of trying to get home, has an urgency for me. That, and I think most writers consider themselves odar, Armenian for outsider.
AB: Any literary inspirations behind the novel? I thought of Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, and also of how visual and tactile James Salter’s writing is. We both admire him. Here’s a quote from Salter: “I write down portions, maybe fragments, and perhaps an imperfect view of what I’m hoping to write. Out of that, I keep trying to find exactly what I want.” How did you assemble the book? Were there things you were sorry to omit? Maybe I’m warping Salter’s words a bit, but once you looked at the written words (or notes), did things ever rise to the surface and show you the way?
CE: I’m mystified by the old saw “write what you know.” In my case, I write to find out what I want to know. I write toward something I can’t quite see, and it’s the process of looking deeply—circling, circling round the thing till at last it reveals its shape—that teaches me. Since I was a little kid I was always wondering, What makes people tick? I wondered about my parents, their friends, my teachers, kids. I’m still fascinated. Early on in writing Vera—I remember the exact morning—I was revising what I thought would be the opening pages when I wrote these lines: “I think of us, our lives, their savor and spark, and all the ways we never could resist the three blind kings of want, stupidity, and brashness. The heart leaps, the head conjures, the soul yearns. Desire being the one renewable fuel we have on earth, here is how we burned.” I picked up my head and thought, Yeah, that’s what Vera thinks. Later, much later, I thought: and I don’t disagree.
AB: Things are easy to see as a panorama (“sweeping” is the clichéd word), or with Google Earth. But how does a writer know how much to pull back and when, exactly, to linger, to focus in close-up? Do those decisions come in the moment, in a first (or early) draft, and sometimes change later?
C.E. The first draft, the tenth, you’re making battlefield decision while trying to keep open and curious to surprises and unexploited opportunities. There are characters who assert themselves in new ways, and you know to follow that, and there are others who fall away. In the end, you’re working in service to the story. It’s about generosity—I mean, generosity to the reader—how many gifts of pleasure, surprise, shock, wonder, interest can you bestow. My job as a storyteller is to show my characters in their contradictions, their wrong-rightness, their deepest desires and vulnerabilities—to give them their dignity. To use my powers of compassion and sympathy and discrimination to make them real and by real—warts and all—utterly specific. To capture, in this case, the “up/downness” of things.
AB: In a big way, of course, it’s a novel about mothers and daughters, with the roles reversed by fate.
CE: That’s right. The book begins with Vera’s birthday wish to be with her mother, an old wish, the wish of a motherless girl. But once she finds Rose and has to care for her, a transition takes place: the girl becomes a woman. Early on, there’s that line “I had made it my secret mission to find one adult—one single adult—who could show me how to behave.” Of course, Vera never finds that adult; she has to become her.
AB: Let me sneak this in: You once expressed your love for your dog—your (let’s be honest) amazing dog—by saying that in her reactions, “It’s always Yes.” That makes me wonder about fictional characters and creatures—in cartoons, or ads, or because they’re Zorba the Greek, or because they’re in an, uh, altered state (pax, Hunter Thompson; hello, Frederick Exley! And hi out there, all you microdosers) . . . but characters who react with instant enthusiasm: Why do they rarely appear in novels? I often feel my characters are there to set me straight or to wear me down.
CE: Ann, I love how your characters set you and us straight. They never condescend. They’re full-tilt boogey, the fates be damned. If we agree that the job of fiction is to thwart a character’s desire—to make it complex—then by definition anyone who starts out as a “Yes” is begging for the gods’ arrows to be pointed at her head. The wants of characters are never slight, whether it’s for the next cig or lover, or heist. Characters want desperately. One of the things I admire in your fiction and that I strive for in mine is nuance. No one comes charging in on a horse, wearing the white hat. Out of the wreckage, Vera, Tan and the rest assemble their own version of a moral code, but it’s imperfect, to say the least.
AB: As a reader, I can’t resist comparing then to now: In 1906, the fire stopped “when it decided to—having destroyed 28,000 buildings and 500 city blocks.” Obviously devastating, but the writer’s eye remains on a small group of people, unexpectedly united out of fear and frustration and courage (or the opposite). We usually have a guide, or guides in a novel. It’s V’s book, but how does it also become the story of many other characters—and might you be suggesting something about unexpected bonds?
CE: In Vera, I was drawn to the notion of honor among thieves. It’s such a rich contradiction. (And, I’d add, we’re seeing it play out on a daily basis in the news today.) I don’t think I’m giving away the store to note that every character in the novel is a thief.
You’ll recall that for a while I was smitten with the idea of calling the novel Hookers, Thieves, Con Men and Your Everyday Righteous, a title no one liked but me. I think it captures that notion of “phony grace of good intentions.” In a fallen world, where each day is a question of survival, and where alliances are always shifting, who are the righteous and who are the thieves? Who, at the end of the day, can you count on?
Vera by Carol Edgarian is available now via Scribner Book Company.