When We Lay Ourselves Bare: Robin Wasserman and Charles Bock in Conversation
On Finding Your Best Self on the Page
Robin Wasserman: Good morning, Charles! I wish I could say that I hope your day is less grey and rainy than mine, but since you live about three blocks away, such hope seems misplaced.
We’re fast approaching the paperback release of Alice & Oliver, your spectacular and heartbreaking second novel. I want to kick things off here by considering the book both as a piece of art you labored over for years in intense, painful privacy and as a published work, exposed to and claimed by an audience of strangers—and ask you about the way those dual personas can often sit uncomfortably together. Alice & Oliver is a love story based on your own love story with your first wife, who passed away after a long struggle with leukemia. You’ve written and spoken so beautifully about your own experience and the love and grief you channeled onto the page; you’ve also written at length about the impulse to fictionalize that narrative: “Writing the truth often requires invention and imagination. In order to make the ‘real’ details seem real, I needed to work off them, and make stuff up.”
What I’ve always wondered about is the collision between these two. Did you feel constrained by imagining what readers might conclude about you, or your late wife—and if so, how did you find the freedom to write the novel you did, with such honestly realized characters who are allowed their own flaws, their own ugly choices? I find myself shying away from autobiographical fiction, so terrified am I to give people the chance to draw their own conclusions about my life; I know I couldn’t be as brutal to my characters as they deserve. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “But what if they think that’s me?” So I’m asking this somewhat selfishly: How did you do it?
Charles Bock: The whole time I was writing Alice & Oliver I was worried about lots of things: who wants to read a book about a young mother with cancer? Should it be a young zombie mother with cancer instead? Meanwhile, the truth is this: my family went through this horrible thing, and I was stuck in the aftermath, you know, mourning a wife and now taking care of this small girl who’s not going to know her mom. So, all this grief, all this rage, all this sadness, all this love. I tried to use it, to use the events of those years, to write something that maybe could be heartbreaking and funny and touching. A story about a woman being ill being something tangible the reader could connect with, as opposed to—say—the abstracted stats of news coverage. (Because healthcare is up for grabs with this administration, a lot in this novel becomes hugely topical again—as if the moral questions weren’t already, always topical). But I did want a novel that also would delve into deeper questions. And how I did it is pretty much the same way as everyone else who has a book inside them that needs to get out. You take what you have and do what you can.
I was never interested in writing a flat-out memoir; I needed whatever veils, even as I still was exploring what had just happened. Yeah, I blurred some lines. For instance, the character that could be seen as a stand-in for me was going to be involved in something that most sane people would view as a massive betrayal. A betrayal he’d have to do, an action he’d have to take—in his mind anyway—so he could keep on taking care of his wife, even as she’s the one he’s betraying. Writing this meant knowing that my sister might wonder about me, if I did that. Knowing my daughter when she’s 16 will read it and ask.
Honestly, I can’t worry about that. Or shouldn’t worry.
If a writer really gets into the characters, and the situation, that writer will start using whatever they can. A responsible person has commitments to many things; an artist also is committed to getting their vision correct. I wanted nuanced, if intentionally shaded, visions about race as an undercurrent, and also the joy of boho lower Manhattan in the early 90s. I wanted, like you said, deeply flawed and human people, for readers to follow and care about and also be infuriated by.
Girls on Fire, meanwhile, has something primal propelling it. You seriously committed yourself to exploring female friendship but also female rage. It’s a melodic, almost lyric book, but it’s also propelled; you can hear Bikini Kill blasting in the background. In that sense, there’s no running away from the author. Don’t you think that a piece of work exposes the author in all kinds of ways, no matter what? Each work might expose a different part of us—your BuzzFeed essay on losing your best friend has a different music to it. But in any case the writer does—and I think wants to be exposed. Yes? No? Comment at will.
RW: Oh, no doubt a piece of work exposes the author, like it or not—and definitely what I find most exciting (if also most terrifying) about fiction is the blur of disguise and exposure, hiding bits of myself in the work as if I’m leaving a trail of breadcrumbs . . . on a ground made out of breadcrumbs. As for Girls on Fire—I’m glad you can hear its soundtrack of righteous riot grrrl rage. The rage is real, channeled straight through the time vortex from my own adolescence. The soundtrack, on the other hand . . . not only did I hate Nirvana when I was a 90s teenager, not only did I acquire my flannel at the mall while playing Billy Joel and Les Miserables on my Walkman, but I never even heard Bikini Kill until I finished the second to last draft of this book. That may be a trivial example (though I gather people with actual taste in music would disagree), but it applies to the whole novel. There are deeply private, hideously honest pieces of me buried in this book, but I’m hoping I’ve surrounded them with lies persuasive enough to be indistinguishable from truth. As an intensely (some might even say neurotically) private and risk-averse person, this game sometimes feels like the closest I’ll ever get to a daring high-wire act. As satisfying as it is safe: In every piece of fiction, I’m laying some part of myself bare, standing there naked and exposed, but it’s like the story is one of those Magic Eye posters—you can’t see me unless you know exactly how to look.
This is, of course, something of a fantasy: I’m not sure I’ve ever written something (or at least something good) where a friend hasn’t noted how much me is in it. Usually more than I realized or intended.
CB: I’m going to be pretentious (shocker!) for a moment. At the end of the introductory essay that starts his famed volume, Montaigne writes: “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” He recognized something none of us can escape, that no good writing can possibly escape. The brutal truth is, the person who wants to read your work the most, the person who cares about your work the most, is always the writer. If you do your job right and skillfully, you pull people along. And with fiction, even as you explore these multiple selves inside yourself, even as you do research and steal and alter anecdotes from friends and let your imagination rip, you still have to channel deep into who you are. All so you can tell a story that, in the end, reaches and affects others.
As for whatever I’m doing next, this is worth discussing with you. Alice & Oliver is an emotionally intense novel, and right now I don’t know that I could do something like that to myself again. I don’t know if I have the gas, even as it’s also true that all I’d need for a project, all any of us need is the strength to start. For a while though, I was convinced that whatever I was going to write next would be for pure entertainment, mine and the reader’s. But Trump put everyone and everything up for grabs.
What’s happening is a total disaster, we all feel it, every day our nerve endings getting jammed that much more with more craziness. Every fiction writer I know doesn’t know how to deal with this. On the one hand, I know that there will be an artistic response to what’s happening; it’s part of what’s going to be the political backlash. We all have to believe in it and work towards it. Meanwhile, good fiction needs time to burrow and develop. But how? We’re in this perpetually instant moment of enhanced craziness, every day with revelations and feed updates, and this is so much at odds with Pound’s idea of the news that stays news. On top of it, I’m a straight white guy and, really, most of the most exciting work today comes from voices that middle-aged straight white guys have spent this country’s history marginalizing, taking for granted, exploiting, and destroying.
Tell me tell me tell me, how are you dealing with the Orange Apocalypse?
RW: Like many people I know, I stumbled through the days and weeks after the election in a bit of a foggy haze. Despairing, confused, wondering at the point of anything, especially communication and persuasion via the written word.
Apparently I’m still wondering, as I just typed and retyped several paragraphs worth of incoherent ranting here, then deleted the whole thing and gave up. Instead I’m going to point you to this lovely piece by Lynn Strong. She wrote about Trump and despair and language and hope, and she did it magnificently. I can’t even bring myself to try.
So that’s one answer to your question. I’m tired of rhetoric; I’ve lost faith. I have nothing to say on our current apocalypse. At least not for the record, at least not for now, at least not head on—and, of course, that latter is my giant, gaping loophole.
You say that everything and everyone is up for grabs, that we’re in the middle of a total disaster and yes, this is true—but it’s not news. It seems trite to say that the world has always been screwed up, that there’s always been injustice and misery and too much death (and that my sitting at my computer imagining up stories has always been a pretty useless way of combatting any of it). But this is the truth, the one that makes writing fiction seem no more or less essential than it did to me a year ago: There is plenty to be angry about. There has always been plenty to be angry about.
Girls on Fire is driven by my white-hot fury about what this society does to its young women. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to writing a manifesto. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing when I started, and if I had known—if I had started the project thinking, I’m going to teach you all an important lesson about female adolescence and maybe help this misogynistic world of ours get a fucking clue, I doubt I’d have come up with anything worth reading.
A thing about me, as a reader and writer of fiction: I love big books about big things. I love grand plots, sweeping ideas, indelible characters. I love story. Well-crafted sentences? Two thumbs up—but I admit no well-crafted sentence has ever made me fall in love with a book. Occasionally I’m stricken with a flicker of shame about this, living as we are in the era of the well-crafted sentence. But it’s more reason that despite all the things I’m uncertain about now, my commitment to story—as vehicle for anger, passion, attack, pleasure—remains unwavering. I’m angrier than ever, and more determined than ever that the next novel I write will give that anger its release.
It’s so easy to sound certain in writing, isn’t it? And everything I just said is true…but just as true? Bottomless doubt. I believe the personal is political, I believe in the power of art—and specifically narrative—to document and destabilize the status quo, I believe in art as empathy machine and authoritarian underminer. I would go to the ramparts to defend it. I believe in the power of art—the inherent goodness of art—above and beyond any utility it might have, just as much as I believe in the goodness of pure science. Because more knowledge is simply good. More stories are good.
It’s easy to believe that in principle. But to believe it for myself? That my work is noble? That I am an “artist”? That the world needs my story, my voice? That the world wouldn’t be better served if I threw out my computer and joined the Peace Corps? Give me a break. I write because I love it and because I want to—it feels like the most selfish choice I could make. Maybe the thing that allows me to keep writing my way through this particular dark cloud is that I long ago accepted that my writing is not going to save the world, not even a little. I write because it saves me.
So I write. And I try to find other ways to save the world, tiny bits at a time. I give money, I go to protests, I shout at my twitter feed. I try to find ways to put my free time—and, as a person with no husband, no kids, and no day job, I certainly have plenty of it—to more socially valuable use.
I don’t do enough. I feel guilty about not doing enough. I do more. I keep writing.
CB: Well, in the face of almost any statement of purpose so vibrant and assured, I have to admit, my first instinct is to flinch. To add, in my best croon (nasal, off key), the infamous lyric, “I believe for every drop of rain that falls . . .” Maybe reference the song “I Believe” from Book of Mormon, specifically its lyric, “I believe that God has a plan for all of us / I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.”
You’re on the other end reading this and going: moron. Fair enough. There is that part of me that is naturally suspicious, that doesn’t want to join in.
But it’s often said that people write fiction because a book, or many books changed their lives. I believe that. Stories keep us alive. All of us. And part of why writers deal with agents and editors and publicists is because we want our work in the world. We want to be read. I don’t think anything’s wrong with this desire.
Meanwhile, the vibrant statement of purpose (like yours, above) can rise out of contrary, doubting instincts. In fact, I’d say that those gorgeous high notes can only be the result of a person working through fears and doubts. Reading your last answer, what comes singing through is the clear-eyed, shrewd, and very generous declaration of your moral clarity. Your voice. Strong and angry and very smart, this voice is both the result of and the expression of who you are. But for instance, when I mention the rrriot girl pace of your essays, or when you explain the righteous rage that turned Girls on Fire into a manifesto, what we are talking about is how you somehow channeled emotions through both sentences and story structure, how you gave us access to characters and set them loose in the woods. All through this singular instrument.
Who we are on the page is our best self, channeling a response to everything that swirls around and through us. We can channel these selves in other ways, of course, trying to teach a child, grow a tree. But a clean screen, a blank sheet, that is pure.
This is the big artistic challenge, what makes the novel kind of the grand stage. In Alice & Oliver, I tried to build a piece of art out of something impossible. (How else could I live with all this without trying to do something with it?) My hope was that the novel would work the way good art has to work—which means at a few levels: addressing the immediate question of this young doomed mother and her fucked family, but also becoming something larger (like you said earlier, even the landscape of Manhattan has a purpose and serves as a sort of metaphor). A story about how people are supposed to treat one another, what we owe to ourselves and one another, what really matters when time is finite, as all of our time is finite.
At my better moments, I’m pretty sure that my own voice is a unique one, that whatever writers I’ve loved and tried to rip off have all been funneled through my own weird consciousness, resulting in a guy who really is off doing his own thing. I probably need to believe that I’m singular, every writer has to believe it, the way a bee has to believe it can fly because science sure the fuck doesn’t believe.
If it is true that we write our stories to keep ourselves alive, if we read for the same reason, then of course voices have to get out, they have to go somewhere. So we flap our little unscientific wings.