2009 National Book Award Finalist Fiction
Interview with Marcel Theroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.
Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on Far North being named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction! Do you recall the inception of the book? Was there any image or incident or memory that triggered the writing process?
The book is the crystallization of things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but I remember the exact moment when it started to come together. It was Wednesday 12 April 2006. I keep a diary by my desk that I use for unburdening myself when work Is going badly. I was stuck on something else that I was trying to write. I wrote: “I want to chuck in the things that I’m doing, but I know that the idea there is something out there that’s easier… is a chimera. You have to buckle on your guns and go patrol the dingy city. And some days it will be rewarding and some days it will be thankless. And today is thankless and dispiriting.”
The overall tone of it is just a writer whingeing to himself, but that sentence about buckling on your guns stood out to me. It sounded resourceful and stoic in a way that I’m unfortunately not. I wondered whose voice that was. I was fascinated by it. It threw up another line, and another, and suddenly, with slight modifications, I had the opening of the novel.
BAJ: When you wrote Far North, did you have an audience or reader in mind?
More and more, I write with questions in mind (who is this? why are they doing that?) and I write to find out the answers for myself, but the reader I think about most is my wife, Hannah. The acid test for me is if I can make her cry at the end.
BAJ: Did writing Far North feel any different than what you’ve written before?
Yes, it did. It was looser, less planned, and I just kept faith that it would somehow all come together. Also, I was quite sleep-deprived because we’d just had a baby and funnily enough I think that disinhibited me in a good way. I have various mottoes that I scribble down to inspire me. The British painter Francis Bacon said “the hinges of form come about by chance seem to be more organic and to work more inevitably.” He was talking about painting but I find it apposite to writing. When I started out as a writer, I think I was always looking for a structure that would carry me through the process. Now, I think that not knowing is a good thing, although it takes a certain courage. I feel it’s what Keats is talking about in his definition of “negative capability,” – “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”
BAJ: Did you encounter any blocks or unexpected difficulties in the process? How did you push beyond them?
Of course! That’s the job. But I think those blocks and difficulties can be really instructive. Sometimes, it means you lost your way a little further back and you’ve only just noticed it. Or maybe you’re manipulating your characters in ways that’s a bit dishonest. I write about the blocks as honestly as possible in the diary and try to untangle them. I don’t think you can just batter your way through them. When I was writing my last book, A Blow to the Heart, I got so stuck at one point that I just gave up. I went for a walk and thought “that’s it.” After about forty-five minutes, I had an idea that enabled me to go back and carry on. But I felt I had honestly to give up to find it. The tai-chi master Chen Man-Ching used to say “invest in loss.” It’s counterintuitive as we’re used to overcoming obstacles by trying harder. Sometimes trying really hard is the worst thing to do.
BAJ: One of the most surprising rewards of Far North is that despite the desolation in the book, the story skirts bleakness. In some ways, the sun around which the narrator and the other characters orbit is hope. What emotions did you hope to elicit from the reader?
Well, the book is a speculative novel, but like many speculative works it’s really about the world we live in. Russian critics gave us this word “ostraneniye” which we translate as “defamiliarization”. A weirder but more accurate translation would be something like “making strange” or “strange-ifying”. I wanted to strange-ify things for the reader. When I was writing it, I kept thinking that, for all its failings, our world is really something beautiful and marvellous. Makepeace is constantly looking back in awe at things we take for granted. Right now, in 2009, we’re at one of the peaks of human civilization. That hasn’t always been true. For centuries, people looked back at the achievements of the Romans and thought: how on earth did they manage that? Somehow, in her awful world, Makepeace is consoled by the thought of her predecessors on the planet and also by the natural beauty around her. She never actually says it, but I think you can tell that she’s moved by her surroundings. In the end, I think I wanted to give the reader the feelings that I had when I was writing the book, which were predominantly hope and wonderment, and a sense of affection for this lovely planet.
BAJ: In addition to the emotional power of the novel, the book is also something of a page-turner. The readers get so caught up in Makepeace’s quest that her need, her desire, becomes something of our own. How did you go about creating such suspense in a character-driven novel?
I think it’s a result of not knowing everything at the outset and also being honest with yourself about what it is you don’t know.
BAJ: One of the elements that all of this year’s fiction finalists share is a deep sense of place, a narrative focus on how time and setting both form and inform the characters’ lives. Did you always know that place would play such a large role in Far North? How did you go about evoking a landscape that would imbue the book with such power and resonance?
I was very lucky here because I’ve been fortunate enough to spend quite a lot of time in the landscape of the novel, which is northern Siberia. I had wanted to write about this place for a long time, but until Makepeace came along I really had no way of doing it.
BAJ: Along those lines, what kind of research did you do for Far North?
I visited Siberia five times in total, but they were never research visits. I was going for other reasons. I didn’t consciously research the book in that way, but it was the fruit of time spent in Siberia, Chechnya to an extent, and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Also, in 2004, I worked on a long film about climate change which was part of the genesis of the book. In the course of making that, I talked to various scientists including James Lovelock, whose writing about Gaia influenced me a lot. I feel like research needs quite a long time to mulch down before I’m able to use it in a way that doesn’t sound like I just researched it.
BAJ: What writers do you enjoy reading? Are there other artists or art forms that influence or inspire your fiction?
I’m always looking for books that will give me a jolt and free up my imagination. I love Jorge Luis Borges for that, though a little goes a long way. Some of Far North’s specific antecedents were Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, and Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee. I was also very struck by a reading I went to by the writer Jane Harris from her novel The Observations. And I think the spirit of Huckleberry Finn is hovering around it somewhere.
BAJ: As a member of such a literary family and as a writer of such distinction yourself, you have a unique perspective on the state and future of contemporary literature. What advice would you give aspiring writers about the future?
The publishing industry is tying itself in knots worrying about the future, and e-books, and how they’re going to charge people for books, and, in general, what’s to become of us. But in fact uncertainty and financial insecurity are pretty much the resting state for most writers and always have been. My advice to aspiring writers is let publishers worry about the future, you worry about finishing your book.
BAJ: This year is the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards. How do you feel having your book celebrated among the luminaries that have preceded you? Are there previous NBA winners or finalists that you’ve found especially powerful over the years?
It’s an unimaginable honor for me to be mentioned in the same breath as Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cheever, Updike, Faulkner et al. It’s a bit daunting too, to be honest. They’re all writers that have meant a great deal to me. I wrote a book about boxing that was partly inspired by The Natural. I often think about that moment when Iris Lemon says to Roy: “We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with afterwards.” I actually don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a lovely thing to say and at that instant it’s true for her.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is director of the creative writing department at Harvard.