A mini-interview with Kate Christensen

Regular readers will remember that I read all four of Kate Christensen’s novels in a single weekend earlier this year and then raved about them on Talk of the Nation. Later in the summer, she and I agreed to do an interview, but instead became email pals. (We keep threatening to meet in person, since we live all of twelve blocks from each other, but it takes New Yorkers an average of six months to make plans, so check back sometime in January.)

Below she answers a few questions about her writing.

Oscar Feldman, the acclaimed painter, notorious womanizer, and “Great Man” of your latest novel, is a less talented painter than his sister Maxine. As you said a couple months ago, her work is deeper, more resistant to pigeonholing, but his is “flashy and bold” — and male artists are “just taken more seriously, even today.” So it’s Oscar’s life the biographers are stampeding to write, at least until they’re forced in the final pages to confront the truth about Maxine’s talents.

I hate to put you on the spot, but I wonder if the story was at all inspired by the reception accorded your first two novels. Despite the richness of your prose and the originality of your insights — not to mention your sense of humor — too many reviewers treated In the Drink and Jeremy Thrane as disposable fluff, something the Sex and the City crowd might pass the time with while awaiting the next Bridget Jones book. As you said then, “I think I have more in common with Lucky Jim than I do with Bridget, Eve or Jane, but because we’re all standing next to each other and we’re all girls, people think we’re together.” What was that like?

I felt a bit like an underdog/loser with a thwarted ego and an axe to grind in one of my own novels, and in that sense it was ironic, fitting, and really, the best thing that could have happened to me. Sure, it pissed me off at first, because few things are more infuriating than being underestimated, but it also lit a fire under my ass, so to speak, and taught me a few valuable Zennish lessons about writing: Let It Go (you can’t control what people make of your work); Keep Moving Forward Like a Shark (all you can do is write more books); and Ride the Ocean Tides and Stay Your Course (your internal compass, not a glowing or scathing review, is the one authority to be heeded and obeyed). If by some stroke of bizarre and undeserved fortune my first novel had been hailed as genius and won prizes and I’d floated off in a filmy golden bubble of critical blowjobs and huge advances, that would not have been in any way as good for me as a writer as being written off as disposable fluff. Honestly.

That said, and to answer your question more directly, it does seem to me that male writers are taken more seriously just because they’re men, and conversely, female writers have to work much harder to be taken seriously just because we’re women; I don’t have any hard statistics to back this up, but almost every time I open the NYTBR, I become convinced anew. Anyway, it’s a little dispiriting, but there’s nothing I can do about it but keep writing.

I know you were as inspired by Dostoevsky and Kingsley Amis as by Dawn Powell, but can we talk about some of the female writers who’ve influenced you? Reading your work all at once, I thought by turns of sharp-witted, gimlet-eyed British novelists like Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, and Hilary Mantel. Do those comparisons make any sense to you?

Not only do they make sense, I’m flattered. Thank you! Both my grandmothers were English; genetics might have as much as disposition to do with the fact that as a kid, growing up in the cultural backwater of Arizona in the 1970s, I was a devout Anglophile. Then, in my late teens and early 20s, when I was developing my idea of how I wanted to write, I glutted myself on twentieth-century English novelists. It seemed to me that, en masse, Drabble, Pym, Spark, Mantel, and Wesley, as well as quite a few equally brilliant Englishmen, had signed a British-Writer Pact agreeing to foreswear heavy-handedness, egotistical earnestness, and didacticism and to embrace instead black humor, deft social insights, wit, lightness, and a float-like-a butterfly sting-like-a-bee verbal dexterity. I wanted to sign that pact, join their gang and live in London and drink in their pub. Instead, of course, I moved to New York and remained as American in vernacular and outlook as I ever was, but it’s gratifying to hear that my lifelong Brit-o-mania might have influenced and even reflected my own native sensibility.

That’s exactly right, though: your books blend all those British traits you admire with an American outlook and American speech, and the fusion makes them wholly distinctive. They’re also remarkably — for lack of a better word — suspenseful. Your stories, even when they’re just about regular people doing regular shit, have a real momentum. Does structure evolve over time for you, do you map it out, or does it just come naturally?

For better or worse, my novels seem to be more intuitively driven than conceptual; my most satisfying writing seems to happen when the brain in my gut trumps the one in my head. Jeremy Thrane and The Epicure’s Lament, are my most visceral books and in many ways my favorites. Although I had scenes in mind that lay ahead as I was writing and a general idea of each novel’s overall direction and flow, I tried as much as possible to let the narrator take over, to allow whatever he said and did to determine the events and outcome of the novel more than my own ideas and plans. In the Drink and The Great Man were far more difficult to write, in part because both novels, for different reasons, demanded more in the way of conscious structure.

I seem to be somewhat allergic to plotting; the homonymity with “plodding” strikes me as no coincidence. I don’t want to know what happens in advance, have zero interest in making my characters do my preconceived bidding. Starting a novel is, for me, the hardest part of the whole enterprise, getting something going out of nothing, trying to figure out who these people are. I don’t have any fun at all until it’s chugging along under its own steam — once my characters acquire desires and ideas and passions of their own, take on their own lives, off we go; nothing is more fun for me than finding out what happens to them, seeing what these people I’ve set in motion will say and do next, letting them surprise me. I feel like a maliciously playful, troublemaking lesser demigod, creating people with appetites, wills and egos and not nearly enough satisfaction, loosing them upon the page for my own sport and amusement.

I nearly pulled out the razor blades when, while trolling Google over the summer for all the information I could find about you,* I happened upon this: “My best friend, the novelist Kate Christensen, will not ‘work’ for a year, and then she’ll sit down and crank out a book in six months, and it’s brilliant.” Do you really write your books in six months?

No! Put away the razor blades! Cathi Hanauer wrote that; she was exaggerating wildly. I am always working. If I’m not thinking about a book, I’m writing or revising or, for lack of a better word, promoting one. And each novel took much longer than six months to write — In the Drink, probably because it was my first, took three or four years in all. Jeremy Thrane took a solid year, The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man each took at least a year and a half, and I did not “crank” anything out by any means. The Great Man was as difficult to write as if it had been my first novel. Each new book presents its own set of problems and technical challenges.

Meanwhile, I read somewhere that Michael Chabon wrote Wonder Boys in something like six weeks. Now that’s razor-blade-worthy.

* I swear the stalker impulses have faded. This was in the afterglow of the four-book binge. No need to install extra deadbolts.


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