New Routes in Fiction: TAYLOR LARSEN with Alec Niedenthal
Stranger, Father, Beloved
(Gallery Books , 2017)
Stranger, Father, Beloved follows a wealthy New England husband and father of two who, while hosting a party with his wife, meets a man by whom he’d like to be replaced—as a husband, and as a father. Over the course of the rest of the book, Michael, the protagonist, does everything he can to make this strange wish into reality, believing as he does that John, his intended substitute, is the man his children and wife should have had at their family’s center. The consequences of erasing oneself as a husband and father make for innovative fiction that taps into something old: the anxiety and alienation that prop up even, or especially, what should be the safest households. Larsen deftly explores the pain of Michael’s wife and children as they watch him disintegrate and come apart a bit themselves. She plumbs his inner darkness as he tries, in middle age, to figure who he is, and the happiness that, if he’d been honest with himself about his professional and personal desires, he could have had as a younger man. Inner conflict touches off a clash between the person Michael truly is and the shell of a man he’s convinced he’s been for the past decade-and-a-half. While the results unfold with the unsentimental rigor of Madame Bovary, Larsen never lets off listening to the beating, screeching chest of the human being, a la the finest writer of unhappy families, Leo Tolstoy. When a man tries to scratch himself out of the existence he’s known for his whole adult life, who does he become?
This interview is the first in what I hope will be a long series. I’d like to interview risk-taking writers of fiction that fit broadly in the realist tradition: fiction which, by provoking the reader, takes her beyond herself, making her feel changed, or even saved. For a writer to be that good, particularly at a time when Convention reigns in the kingdom of fiction, thereby producing the same reading experience on repeat, she needs to be bold and dauntless. So I want to talk to these bold novelists and story writers about how narrative works of art—theirs and those of the writers who have shaped them—can lift readers out of the isolation that’s been inflicted on so many millions in this claustrophobic second decade of the new century. I want to talk about technique and craft, of course (the oddities of process, the trail of crumbs that is the first draft, the crushing exhaustion mixed with raving excitement of the last draft), but I also want to figure out how fiction helps people not break.
For this interview, I met Taylor at her apartment in Brooklyn, New York; what follows was, or is, our conversation.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): It seems really difficult as a novelist to get away with so much without having your characters talk to each other about the things they feel really deeply. Your protagonist Michael never makes any large admissions to anyone. How did you communicate so much through what’s left unsaid?
Taylor Larsen: I think that’s the great pain, the deepest wound in the book is that things don’t happen, that things are not said. One of my earliest mentors at Columbia, David Plante, read an earlier version of the book, and gave me the following advice: “Don’t let an editor or agent make this about saying all the things that need to be said—this is about things that aren’t said.” Things happen, but the pain is all in the things that aren’t said and in actions that miss a chance at connection.
Rail: It’s also very difficult as a writer to show someone lying to himself—but it’s one of the fundamental techniques of the book. Was that something you discovered in the process of writing? When you had to tell the reader something about Michael’s deepest desires, were you nervous about giving away too much?
Larsen: I think I got the heart of his struggle, so it wasn’t too hard to plug into how he’s thinking. He’s so ashamed of himself that for such an articulate person, he can’t even articulate who he really is in terms of his desires. I was trying to make a commentary on shame—how people get ashamed of themselves, what they do.
Rail: I want to talk about process. You’ve told me that the first draft was in first-person and “claustrophobic.” What do you mean?
Larsen: I had no idea if anyone else was going to enjoy the claustrophobic feeling of this book. I didn’t know if the book would be published or anything when I first started writing it, but I just knew I wanted it to portray the core of his experience. But I eventually wanted to branch out and explore the daughter’s story. I adjusted the book to a close third and I felt it was almost the same as first person and I could do more with close third. It was so far inside his mind even in third person that I knew I could retain that claustrophobic sense of mental anguish that is so essential to this novel.
You asked: how did I know when to go into his brain and when to pull out. A lot of that was revising. I do feel writers should get to the point at which they know things are working, they can feel it, but a writer really does need an editor. If you trust your editor, she can see what you can’t. I can feel intuitively when things are working in a book, but there are some blind spots. The editor will say: we have to keep it moving, the pace is dragging here. There was a point at the end where Michael kept leaving places and running all around. And in the course of five pages he’s in the car, he’s out of the car, he’s in the car. My editor was like, “Do you really need him to be scurrying around like a squirrel? Or is it really more like the energy of the scene needs to have that quality?” I had had those scenes in there for so long, I couldn’t see beyond them—I was wedded to them. She told me it was distracting, and she was right.
Rail: I was listening to an interview with Robert Gottlieb and he was talking about how writers are not editors; that’s just not what they are.
Larsen: I feel like you should be a good enough editor to bring your work to a certain level. That does require editing yourself.
I do enjoy editing myself now as I write. After the first time writing a passage, which should be pure and unselfconscious, I cannot stand to see a sloppy sentence and on a second round of writing, I will polish it. I would feel embarrassed if I gave my editor a big mess. As an artist, I would feel embarrassed. Especially the language—I polish it. That’s my job. But even that takes forever. Even after you’ve polished the language forty times, you still find one thing, one error, in there.
Rail: Did you have to work to find the tone?
Larsen: That came the easiest. Mood and tone. A character’s voice. That’s what always hooks me. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I start, but I have a sense of the mood and tone and the main character’s voice. That comes first, but the other stuff is harder. Without a strong sense of mood, I’m usually not that interested and put a book down.
Rail: What do you think mood is?
Larsen: The predominant feeling or atmosphere of the book. I guess my book’s mood is pretty gloomy. Probably a lot of books are like that. I’m really obsessed with this book, The Loney. From the first three lines the mood sinks its hooks into you. I love rainy, shifty books. I think it’s important to bring in the elements. They are there to serve the story and echo the moods and themes playing out.
Rail: Your book juggles several different psychologies—different, but connected. Each character is equally afraid of intimacy. Equally afraid of connection. For you, was that one of the things that linked these characters together?
Larsen: I felt like if I started out writing the book consciously aware of what I wanted the themes to be it would be devoid of magic. I just wrote a piece about how a lot of it comes from the subconscious. Because if I consciously set out to write a book about people who don’t understand intimacy it would be forced. But they all naturally kept not connecting and then I plugged in subconsciously, and I thought, “Oh, that’s what’s going on in this book, an inability to connect”—and then so a certain amount of time has to go by in the writing process; you’re exploring the characters and then the themes announce themselves to you, and you’re like “oh, okay.” I’m not a very cerebral writer in the sense that I would ever think, “I’m going to write a book about missed connections.”
Rail: At what point does that occur to you in the writing process?
Larsen: Usually, by page 40 or 50 you should know. You need something to hang your hat on. I have to have a sense of the character, his relationships to a couple people, the town, the setting, and some drive or desire that he wants, maybe is not getting, maybe is getting for the first time, is just out of reach, something; then I can be like: now I have a book. If I don’t have that, I am screwed… I’m not a big intellectual writer.
Rail: Do you think there are writers who can write that way well?
Larsen: I wouldn’t be interested in reading them. It’s subjective…I had a writing teacher in college, Jaime Manrique, and he told us, “You young writers, you’re so subtle, so clever, you never want to get to the heart of the matter, what’s the heart and soul of the story?” Something clicked for me when he said that. For a beginning writer, it’s scary to go into sentiment and heart. I do think all intellectual books that resonate for people must have heart and soul or depth. They might take a certain amount of intellectual prowess to understand, but the ones that matter also go into the heart of human dilemmas—they aren’t just heady.
Rail: When you’re writing are you reading a lot?
Larsen: I’m really careful about reading while writing a new project. I read certain books over and over again. I just want to get my subconscious juices flowing in terms of how to write a novel, so I read and reread Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, which has some thematic similarities; I read Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House over and over again; I always love to read Murakami while I’m writing because he takes so many risks and is so bold.
Rail: Rereading seems very important. Just like revision is very important.
Larsen: For the first book I read things over and over again. I get obsessed with a book for a couple years, basically anything by Murakami, and then this year with this new novel The Loney. If I read something that’s way too different stylistically from my work, I might be really impressed by the writer’s style, it’s not what I’m trying to do, so reading it while writing could throw me off course. Reading Murakami, he’s such a master of plot, you can read him and trust that he always has great insights into the characters even though he has all these intersecting plots going on, and I think ‘Wow, keep that coming!’ I like to read dark novels. I watch a lot of horror movies. And yet I hope to present something that has redemption. I don’t just want to depress people and have there be no redemption.
Rail: Do you think it’s the duty of a writer to do something like that?
Larsen: I wasn’t sure for a while because I wrote such tragic things. I mean, I think even in a tragedy there can be some kind of redemption. But I feel really maddened by a book if I don’t learn something or I don’t think there’s a through-line to take me beyond the pain at some point.
I don’t mind going through hell if I feel like there’s some wrapping up, closure, or learned experience. Otherwise I get mad at the end; I feel slapped in the face. I’m not saying it has to be tied up in a bow at the end. But I do feel that it’s a really depressing world, and I happen to write about really depressing subject matters, but I hope at the very least to show a sense of clarity, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable about putting something out there that just portrayed life as depressing. If there’s no clarity or nothing is learned, then I feel like I’m being abused as a reader. A lot of the movies that I love can be terrifying, horror films, but at the end there’s hope; there are people fighting for something; they go through hell and come out the other side. For me, in books, that’s what I want. In The Professor’s House, it’s a downward spiral in a man’s life, and he has a couple revelations at the end that are pretty depressing, but at least they’re revelations. The revelations were enough for me to cherish that book.
Rail: You can say if you don’t have those elements you’re just not writing a good book.
Larsen: The reader isn’t learning anything. You don’t have to be like, “Here’s the lesson for you, la la la,” but otherwise it’s sort of like, well—people are spending their time reading it and the publisher’s publishing it so if you’re not putting out anything that’s teaching someone something, or showing some truth of the human experience, what’s the point?
That’s why everyone loved the film, The Babadook. It taps into the universal truth of facing mortality and coping with grief. It’s like, yeah—there’s this scary monster, blah blah, but it’s really dealing with the fear of the unthinkable. That’s something everyone fears, even if you are lucky enough not to experience really horrible things in life. Watching The Babadook is a process of going through terror and having a realization about how to cope with pain. And my reaction is: thank you. I appreciate that I learned something.
Rail: Have you ever tried recently to write lighter material? Does dark material come to you naturally?
Larsen: I’m not trying to write things that are lighter per se, but I enjoy humor in a novel. I found certain parts of my novel hilarious, but I don’t know if anyone else did. I have a very weird sense of humor. The stuff I find funny in movies—no one else is laughing in theater while I am laughing hysterically. Swiss Army Man, for instance, I think it’s hilarious at times even though it’s dark. Or the movie Creep. I feel like life is sort of like a comedy of errors, we all kind of make fools of ourselves, or do stupid stuff, or say the wrong word, or if we use the right word, we pronounce it wrong. This is what happens in life. I don’t want to necessarily poke fun at my characters, but we all act like morons. And we’re trying to act like we’re not.
But, there are certain things that are too dark for me to write about, like the torturing of animals.
Rail: More psychological darkness. That’s what you do.
Larsen: There are very important books that are very dark. Like Richard Wright’s Native Son. Wright is one of my favorite writers. He’s so effective at going into the mind of every character ashamed of him or herself, but at certain points I was so emotionally affected by that book, I felt like my heart was breaking. I felt that way reading Giovanni’s Room, and I think that’s the sign of a great book. Or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I read that in my early twenties and it blew me away. It increased my desire to want to write because she is not afraid to go into the darkest of corridors and face the deepest horrors. It’s a very painful book, but I tried to reread it a couple years ago and I found I got too upset. Which I think is my way of giving respect to her, because she’s just so good. The same thing would happen if I were to read Native Son again. It’s like he’s too good as a writer—it all feels too real, like it’s actually happening to me.
Rail: That’s a punishing book.
Larsen: That’s one of the best books I’ve read about being inside a character’s head. I think Richard Wright is a genius. I don’t like to throw that word around and I rarely use it. Genius is a subjective concept, but I do think Richard Wright is a genius in terms of having a mastery of craft on so many levels. I am in no way comparing myself to Richard Wright, but this second book I’m writing is very dark, and there are times when I’m writing that I’m emotionally troubled in reaction to what I’m writing. So, I’d be curious to know whether or not other writers working with very dark material felt deeply and emotionally affected by it. I would imagine they did. I’ll never get to ask Richard Wright, “What did you feel when you were writing Native Son?” But I imagine he felt a lot of emotions. He goes all the way, and I admire that.