A CONVERSATION ABOUT A STUDENT OF LIVING THINGS FROM PENGUIN.COM
How did the idea for A Student of Living Things come to you?
One morning during the time the Beltway snipers were terrorizing Washington, D.C., circling the beltway, randomly shooting or killing people from the bunker of the trunk of their car, I went with a colleague to Home Depot the day after one of the killings. I was afraid to get out of the car while my friend went inside the store, instead scrunched down in the front seat scanning the parking lot for strangers. When he didn’t return quickly, I became more and more frightened, certain the snipers had me captured in their scope. Convinced of danger, I climbed into the backseat and tried to crawl under the passenger seat where I got stuck and had to be rescued by my colleague when he returned. Our reaction to the Beltway snipers so surprised me, surprised all of us, the way we slunk around the corners, ran from our houses to our cars, avoided open areas, shopping malls, gas stations. I began to think what it would be like to always live in a landscape of fear with an unknown enemy stalking your daily life.
What are the challenges—and pleasures—of setting a novel in the future?
I have set the book in the “near” future but our lives are circular and the near future is also the past and probably the future as well. I wanted a feeling of timelessness to the story although the characters lives are grounded in family. I hoped to create a sense that something like this story could happen anywhere, could happen even to us.
Claire says that she can understand “how a soldier in a war zone, an ordinary boy from a loving family, can fall into step and discover in himself the capacity to kill.” Could you talk more about what Claire discovers here?
Claire has always considered herself a “gentle soul” but after Steven’s murder, consumed by grief, she finds herself capable of the unimaginable. She falls in with the strange, menacing Victor Duarte, takes on his “mission” to lure Benjamin Reed, a young music student, into a web of deception, willing to believe Duarte’s claim that Benjamin is her brother’s killer. What Claire discovers is her own capacity for destruction, this child who was so fearful of change that she kept a bedroom full of dead things.
A few years ago I read a small story in the New York Times about a Palestinian woman who, in anger over war deaths in her family, colluded with the PLO to lure a young Israeli boy to his death. I was struck by this young woman who had gotten to such a point of despair and anger. How do you make a story like this one come out right? Of course, you can’t make it come out right but that story of the Palestinian woman was also on my mind when I was writing the book.
Do you feel we’re headed for the kind of future that you describe in the novel?
I think we are always in a time when fear can overtake us and if that happens, random acts of violence are inevitable. In the case of this book, there is a post–9/ll feeling of uneasiness but in actuality, the “war zone” is primarily a result of a kind of threatening atmosphere of distrust. Victor Duarte is on a personal mission but his assassination of Steven inflames a public unrest and suspicion. No one feels immune to it. The fear that comes from random acts of terror is different than that that comes from war and challenges our need for control, our sense of the rational. We seem always to be a minute away from distrust and fear in spite of our best intentions.
The importance of forgiveness has been studied by such groups as the Stanford Forgiveness Project and put into practice by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What are your own feelings about the value of forgiveness, particularly at this historical moment?
On a personal level, genuine forgiveness is strange and mysterious and comes, I believe, through a process of connecting with other people, with other people’s stories. I think it is possible to understand almost anyone’s life in context so that one might imagine oneself in the same circumstances. That is the mantra of the fiction writer! Forgiveness is hard one but it is at the heart of love and trust.
As to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, I am amazed by its bold premise. I was in South Africa briefly when the constitution was being written and was aware how necessary it was to move on in order to have a new democracy. So many people had lived double lives, had committed crimes, knew terrible things about one another, knew secrets or didn’t know secrets. It would have taken generations and probably will. But to “institutionalize” forgiveness was an act of courage.
Do you feel it is important for contemporary American writers to address issues of terrorism, religious and cultural intolerance, endangered personal freedoms, diminishing free speech, etc.?
Writers in other cultures have often taken on issues and been given a responsibility for a political voice but our democracy doesn’t breed that in writers. Nevertheless in a time not unlike this one—during the Cold War and the McCarthy red baiting—the fiction writer Shirley Jackson wrote the amazing allegorical The Lottery and Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, both marvelous as artistic expressions and serious as political statements. I think repression gives rise to rebellion and as natural outsiders, writers in such a cultural environment take on the responsibility to rebel. That said we’ve gone through many periods of endangered personal freedoms with a tendency to silence and a latent intolerance. But this particular moment seems especially dangerous in a global climate of fundamentalism. I teach on a university campus with one of the most diverse populations of any university in the United States, yet I feel no sense of urgency on the part of these students such as that I felt during the Vietnam War when I was in college. Are they thinking instead about money and a sense of well-being in this time of general threat? About getting good grades, getting ahead? About fear of speaking out, saying the incorrect thing? Are we being lobotomized by technology? Last week I was in San Francisco, walking along a narrow street with high fashion stores and in the window of one particularly elegant shop were mannequins in briefs and tee shirts on which were written WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE? Was this satire? Did I miss it? Where is the outrage?
Many years ago I took a brief late adolescent fancy to a former Hitler Youth Trooper, then a law student at Harvard, who had turned in his physician father to the Nazis. I will not forget his response to my horror—“No one is more susceptible to fundamentalism than America,” is what he said to me.
Why did you decide to make Claire the narrator of the novel?
A Student of Living Things was initially in the third person but as I wrote, it became clear to me that it was Claire’s story. At the heart of fiction is change and the metamorphosis in this story belongs to Claire. I had never written a first person adult book and was daunted by its limitations—I love plays and when I write a novel, I have the characters coming on and off stage in my head—but as I began to write in Claire’s voice, I realized the internal range of first person and loved it for this book.
How much of your own life and experience is reflected in A Student of Living Things?
I never know how much of my own life is in a book, always more than I imagine, since the world I live in when I’m writing is real to me but I think of it as wholly imagined. There are some specifics: 1. I wanted to write about biology because my youngest daughter Kate is the only one in the family who has gone into science and I was hoping to learn some of her language. 2. The fetus of a kitten. I had one kept first on the mantle in the living room and then in my bedroom. I wasn’t permitted to have a living kitten since, I was told, the dog would eat it. 3. The eccentric family all under one roof, a combination of my desire for such “safety” in numbers. 4. A fear of a family being too small to withstand and survive. My family is one of those splintered Midwestern families, not bound by religion or politics or proximity. What remains, I cleave to.
Did you always intend for the story to have an essentially happy ending or did the narrative take you in that direction as you were writing it?
The first critical comment I ever had on a book was from a crabby, old journalist is his sixties who said—“The book’s not bad but when you get older you’ll understand there are no happy endings.”
I did not know where A Student of Living Things would take me and was pleased that out of such a story could come a love story. But I was happy to believe it when it happened on the page.
You write children’s books as well as novels. Do you feel that your work in one genre informs your work in the other?
I think of character as my center and I always try to write from the center of the character. It gives me a chance to be the actor I didn’t have the talent to become. I tend to have lots of children in my novels though there’s only a baby in A Student of Living Things. They provide the truth and humor, as they do in life. In my children’s books, I take on the point of view of the child and these books tend to be about families and the small world in which a child lives. They are by design more realistic than my adult books. But yes, in answer to the question, the two genres do inform each other and I’m particularly interested in writing at the moment across the age groups so an adult and a child are interested in the same story.