Books In Conversation
Same as I Ever Was
Susan Perabo with Weston Cutter
The Fall of Lisa Bellow
(Simon & Schuster, 2017)
There’s a fine line you’re walking when trying to ask interview questions to an author you like, especially an author as astute and precise as Susan Perabo. This is a woman whose fiction is as exact as any you can find, but whose stuff is so gloriously, overwhelmingly generous that it’s hard to even know how to begin. Like, an obviously impossible first question is: how do you pull off what you do?
Because what Perabo pulls off—in all her work, but especially in her latest novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow—are these shattering portraits of folks going through tremendous tumult. You know those times when you finish something and find yourself somehow simultaneously disliking but also loving a character? Perabo induces that, tremendously. It’s a fullness that she gives you, which, sure, is what most of us want from any author. However, this fullness, this completeness she offers, is somehow rooted in generosity—or at least, that’s how it reads to me: she wants to make sure we can see everything. Perabo, over and over, in all the stuff of hers I’ve read, feels like a reader’s writer. She wants us to be fulfilled, to not have lingering what-if questions. Of course, the flipside of that generosity toward readers may also be a mercilessness toward her characters: you get the sense Perabo knows these people fully and wouldn’t hesitate to name their bad aspects. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t love or respect them, just that they’re not—at all—hazy, or sketched-in.
All of which is sort of silly anyway; the book’s got everything you need to know about Perabo, and the following conversation will, hopefully, cast just a little more light on a truly exceptional novel.
Weston Cutter (Rail): In the broadest ways, I’d love to know where you/your work/writing come from—this I suppose is that “general-influences” question, but I’d love for it to not just be literary. For instance: in another online interview, you mention how much you enjoy sitting in sunny bleachers, watching kids play ball, maybe drinking a Coke (amen, by the by). That aspect—or appreciation—seems as telling as any book you’ve read, any author you’ve imitated. So: in huge, general terms, try to address where you come from, writing-wise. (Like: is part of your sense of yourself as a writer defined by the fact—again, this is from another online interview—that you weren’t a huge reader as a kid?)
Perabo: I was the one who was out with the neighborhood boys. Thus, a book had to work very hard to win me, to keep me inside. I was a tough sell. I had to be riveted, and quickly. I have never considered how that may have defined me as a writer, though in thinking about this question, it now seems fairly obvious. I like stories (and I mean here both short stories and novels) where dramatic events happen early, and then those events are made worse—or at least more complicated—by the inept ways characters choose to deal with them. I like to watch people continually screw things up. That’s the kind of story I like to read, and that’s the kind of story I like to write. That’s what keeps me inside.
Rail: Where are you from, originally? I know you went to grad school in Arkansas; were you born in the South? And, how does location play into your work? Lisa Bellow isn’t—as I’m now recalling—ever set clearly in one place. (Or is it and I just skipped it?) I presume it’s in Pennsylvania because that’s where you are, because the car trips to Kansas City take so long, but maybe I’m just being dim. Regardless: I’d love to know about how place plays into your work.
Perabo: I’m a Midwesterner through and through, born and raised in St. Louis. I’ve lived in Central Pennsylvania for much of my adult life, but it’s the Midwest that defines me. (And Central Pennsylvania, I would argue, is really the far eastern border of the Midwest. The East starts, maybe, in Allentown.) My parents still live in St. Louis, so I’m there at least twice a year, and every time I see the Arch I give a deep sigh of relief. When I retire from teaching, I’m moving back to St. Louis and getting season tickets to the Cardinals. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is set in a suburb of Philadelphia. It never says so explicitly, but that’s where it is. Sometimes I feel like a loser for saying this, but place is rarely central to my work, at least not in any conscious, deliberate way. It’s just not something I’m overly concerned with, nor something I think I do particularly well. I’m all for improving on weaknesses, but I think it’s more important to improve on strengths.
Rail: I’d love to know about the genesis of The Fall of Lisa Bellow; was it something that just came immediately into view, and you ran with it quickly? Was the context of the story clear but the execution harder? I don’t want to get too detailed to ruin anyone’s reading experience, but the execution question—how Meredith works through/processes the trauma—is among the most intense points/aspects of the book, and I’m especially curious about how long it took to get that aspect nailed down.
Perabo: The story came about from the collision of two moments. One, a totally imagined situation: what would it feel like if the person beside you were abducted and you were left behind? Two, a question drawn from personal experience: what lengths would you go to, to get back at a child who bullied your child? These two ideas existed separately in my head for many years. When they ran into each other, the novel was born.
I’m normally a planner, but in this case, the execution question (great question, by the way!) got nailed down as it was unfolding on the page. I always knew that Meredith’s imagination was going to play an integral role in the narrative, but I was never sure how that was going to play out structurally. Again, not to ruin anyone’s reading experience, but for a while I thought I might have several chapters that exclusively followed the “other” story, almost two entirely separate narratives. But when I started writing it, when I saw the arc as I began writing Part 2, it fell into place in a different way. And I never questioned it after that, because I really trusted my instincts at that point.
Rail: What’s the best movie you’ve seen in the last year? Again, I’m looking at your earlier interview—it’s noted you were a film major; feel free to go into whatever depth you’d like about that, the essential glories of film (or TV, if you’re a TV person) vs literature.
Perabo: This is not a movie from this year, but I recently saw Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert. I’d been wanting to see it for ages, because I’ve always been a huge fan of his, but I also knew it was a film that I’d need to be in exactly the right mood to watch, and that the watching would need to be uninterrupted, and that I’d probably need some uninterrupted time after it, too. The opportunity and the emotionally right moment eventually lined up, and it was well worth the wait. It confirmed for me, once again, that the most amazing story is always real life. The relationship between Ebert and Siskel—I watched the two of them on TV starting when I was eight years old!—is just brilliantly defined in this film. But the relationship between Ebert and his wife Chaz… It’s astounding, and so beautifully rendered by the filmmaker Steve James. I wrote down this quote—and I almost never do this while watching a film—something Ebert said in the last year of his life, about continuing to work pretty constantly, despite his illnesses and disability. “When I am writing,” he said, “I am the same person I ever was.”
Rail: One of the greatest aspects of The Fall of Lisa Bellow is how thoroughly everyone’s drawn. Claire and Meredith obviously seem the most vivid, but Evan and Mark are just as clear. (This might be its own question, or line of thought, but, as a dad and husband, reading about Mark was weirdly chilling—to see/read a husband and marriage rendered so accurately and clearly made me feel like I’ve been watched for some time). I don’t know if there’s a huge story or question here, other than that you seem bent on portraying individual characters with their full, usual retinue. For example, I don’t remember Meredith’s friends’ names, but they are just as essential in establishing who she is, as the little animal figurines she keeps on her floor. So many writers talk about character, and that's fine, but your characters—in your stories and this novel—seem inescapably connected to whole choruses. I guess maybe the question is: is that always an awareness of yours? How un-solitary characters are, how defined-by-others we all are?
Perabo: Thanks, and yes. I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters. As a writer, I suspend disbelief in precisely the same way as I do as a reader, which is to say that when I am working on a story (or a novel) I come to believe that my characters are actual people. I mean I really, truly believe it—that’s the only way, I think, to create a fully developed character. This is how we become invested as readers; we consciously give ourselves over to the dream. Reading fiction requires willful temporary insanity. We know Jay Gatsby is just marks on a page, but we set aside that knowledge, with the help of the writer, so that we might feel things for Jay Gatsby that we could not feel for marks on a page. That’s precisely what I do as a writer: I willfully go insane. And when I do it for a novel, I set aside that knowledge—that my characters are only marks on a page—for months, for years. It’s a risky and complicated way to live, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve only written two novels.
Rail: I’m curious—as a teacher and reader—how much teaching informs your work. I know this can sort of be a perilous question…
Perabo: My students energize me. It’s a huge cliché, but it’s true. My students remind me weekly, if not daily, why stories matter. They also remind me, with their enthusiasm, that writing stories can be a great pleasure, and a great gift. Also, and this relates to the last question, teaching helps to keep me sane. It forces me to interact with real people in meaningful ways. Sometimes I wish I had more time to devote to writing, but I don’t think I could ever stop teaching entirely. To put the full burden on the writer’s family to keep a writer grounded in the real world is way, way too much to ask. It’s hard enough to have a writer in the family, I think.
Rail: Along with that, I have personal questions, because of what I’ve read about you—that you have sisters and kids (I have three daughters, so am in the process of gathering any wisdom/info I can). I’m curious about how they influence your work. I’m also curious about more general, harder-to-pin senses I have, such as: were you an athlete? Are you? Physicality seems to come up in your stuff in a serious way.
Perabo: My family informs and influences everything I do, and everything I write. They define me. I was an athlete, yes. I played baseball and softball pretty well, and basketball very poorly. I am a proud former Division-III athlete. When my kids were little I coached them in Little League, which was one of the great joys of my life.