JENNIFER LEVASSEUR & KEVIN RABALAIS
INTERVIEW CHARLOTTE RANDALL
Q: In the novel you’re writing during your term as writer in residence, Within the Kiss, you take the story of Faust and apply it to tennis. What drew you to this story?
A: The bargain in my current book is that Mephistopheles will obtain Faust’s
child for a mind-bogglingly successful sports career in return for helping Faust write a best-seller. In effect, the book is about writing and not about sport. The notion of being able to bargain one’s way to ‘success’ has always attracted me.
Q: So is this your twist, that your Faust is not selling her soul to the devil but that of her child? Why did you make that fundamental change? How faithful to the original Faust story have you remained?
A: Not faithful at all. I made the change because it suited what I wanted to write about. Besides, Faust couldn’t offer her soul because she hasn’t got one. She only has her child to offer.
Q: What do you think has drawn you to stories based on history and/or on established stories? Does it have anything to do with seeing how you can subvert and alter what people assume they know about certain things?
A: Yes, absolutely. Also because if everyone already understands the basic story, you can spend less time setting the whole thing up, and more time writing about aspects that interest you.
Q: How free did you feel to bend historical fact in The Curative to meet the book’s fictional demands? Was this an issue you had to struggle with?
A: Free as a bird. Fiction is not History.
Q: That said, you did research for the book and made use of real-life “cures” and historical figures. Were those just jumping-off points for you? Did you want to get the feeling of that time and place “right”?
A: Complete historical verisimilitude was never my intention. What I did get right was convincing enough people that it was right, more or less, and that is all that matters. It is much harder to get unresearchable more amorphous things right. For example, I felt more nervous describing Horatio dying and Londale’s response to it than I did about the cures and historical figures.
Q: The voice of the narrator in The Curative is very strong. Was that character the impetus for the book?
A: Well, I wanted to write a book based on character rather than plot, although a good bit of the latter is obviously essential (and let’s not even get into the ways in which they might be the same!). I wanted a character who could convincingly use a large vocabulary and keep on thinking about and playing with words even in, or particularly in, a desperate situation. I was very aware that he had to carry the book on his own.
Q: Were there particular moments or ideas that sparked each book?
A: Yes, particular moments/ideas spark each book; in The Curative I had to create a character to carry the idea of someone looking for a single word to sum up a life. In my head, the book started off being called ‘haecceity’ and throughout the book I was working my way towards that word. Sort of like when you were a kid and had to write a story that included or elucidated a particular word. I always liked having to do that.
Q: Dead Sea Fruit and The Curative are vastly different books. You said at a reading once that you wrote another (unpublished) novel between those two that shows the transition. What is the subject matter of that book? Is it a book you’d like to see published?
A: I think I said it might show the transition. What is quite transparent to me can often be opaque to everyone else. That in a nutshell is probably my greatest difficulty in being a writer! But anyway, it’s about the black death (historically) and a woman with a whole lot of children (present day). I’d like to see it published because I like it. I think it needs simplifying, that’s all.
Q: After setting Dead Sea Fruit in New Zealand, did you purposefully set The Curative in anther country? Or was the English setting simply an outgrowth of the story? When choosing settings, do you think at all about international marketability?
A: It was an outgrowth of the story. As far as ‘international marketability’ goes, it seems so unpredictable that I just set the book where I want it to be. For example, Within the Kiss discusses Goethe’s life in Venice and Weimar, but this is because of the story, not so that I can appeal to a wider audience.
Q: There have been plans for The Curative to be adapted for the stage. How is that progressing? Have you had an active role?
A: The Court Theatre has finally commissioned it for late 2002. No, I haven’t been involved, although I do get to approve the final script. Sometimes though, it seems only a writer particularly wants to write…
Q: When Australian novelist David Malouf visited the International Institute of Modern Letters, he said that writers often have to write certain books that are expected of them before they can write the books they want to write. Do you agree with this?
A: Writers seem to have to earn the right to write the books they want; that is, you have to please publishers and the public first and only after that can you please yourself. Unless you are rich or have given up eating or you have a patron…
The best thing of course is to please everyone all at once. (Fat chance!)
Q: Now that you’re nearing the end of Within the Kiss, do you have your next book in mind?
A: Sure do. I’m going back to Painting the World on the Walls, which already exists as a full first draft. It’s about the discovery of the Southern Hemisphere by the Northern. Oh, and the process whereby religion has given way to medicine as a way of looking at the world. And I have a small indulgence for myself in mind, a short book about the postman Ferdinand Cheval, tentatively named Building the Ideal Palace—of which not a single word has been written. It’s about doing something utterly pointless—and obtaining great satisfaction from it.
Q: What role does reading play in your writing? Are there certain books or types of books that you move towards or avoid while you’re writing fiction?
A: I read a lot and always have done and I suspect reading plays a role in my writing (and my life!) that I can hardly begin to describe, even to myself. As a reader, I like a challenge; I’m not usually looking for light entertainment. Apart from that, I just follow where my mood takes me.
Q: After publishing two novels, how has your writing schedule developed and changed? Do you have a particular method or goals when you begin a new book?
A: I still always write new and tough stuff in the mornings. I puddle round with it in the afternoon, or do research, or read, or swear a lot and look at the newspaper for jobs in other fields. One important difference is that I’m determined that from now on I will solve the book’s problems as I go; before, I have held them over till the end, perhaps hoping they’ll go away. Big mistake: you end up having to solve all the problems at once—and fast.
I always have goals but they tend to be vague and inexpressible. In the end, I want the book to be the clarification of the goal.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais‘s work has appeared in several North American journals, including The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review and Tin House. They are both post-graduate students at Victoria University.