In an exclusive interview with BookBrowse, Louise Dean talks about herself and her three books, Becoming Strangers, This Human Season and the book that she's currently working on; and offers pithy but inspiring advice to aspiring authors.
A lot of first fiction tends to be autobiographical to some extent, but
considering that you wrote Becoming Strangers in your early 30s and the
lead protagonists are two couples in their 50s and 80s, it's reasonably safe to
assume that it's not! Did you have a particular motive for writing it?
After a sadly failed early marriage, I suppose I needed to say "down with love", and "friendship is good". That"s simplistic though. Away from home, in the US, and unable, due to the INS, to go home to see my family for some years, my grandparents died. I loved them dearly and it grieved me to miss their last years (they had a major hand in raising me, I was their only grandchild). I brought them back to life in this book. When I started to write seriously, aged 26, a friend said to me "Write what you need". It was good advice.
Reading the dialogue and thoughts of your various characters, it's as if you've somehow got inside their own skins and are really seeing the world through their eyes. How do you manage this?
Love. Sorrow. Guilt. A sense of your own stupidity.
You portray the clique of Americans in Becoming Strangers as particularly shallow and, frankly, not very likeable. Is that your impression of all Americans?
No. I have quite a relationship with America. I fell in love with the idea of it on my first visit aged 16. (My first love was an All-American boy from Westchester). I married a Texan when I was 25 and moved to New York. I left the US when Bush became king after the Twin Towers fell. His ideas of "good" and "evil" worried me. I watched the second tower fall in front of me. I had no idea how much 9/11 affected me until last night, I saw it again and for the first time since, wept. Back then, my neighbors and I stood on our stoops in silence. I loved New York and its brave diverse people who handled the tragedy with such decency.
I felt that George Bush was a disaster for the American people and their place in the world. I'll admit too I was sore with the bureaucracy of the INS who having lost my paperwork lost 3 times, obliged me to remain inside the country for 6 years without leave to see my family or else lose my right to remain. I had a son, born in the US, and was short on choices. It seemed to me back then part and parcel of the same posture vis a vis the world that has been encapsulated in the ghastly shape of Guantanamo. Do I think G't'mo is representative of the American people? NO! I think Bush's coterie is wiping its ass with the Star Spangled Banner....
The American characters are rather "tinny" in the book, but they could have easily have been English, were it still colonial times. They are of a set, well to do, white, not representative of most people I know or of my friends. There is a defensiveness in their posture, scratch the privileged surface and you get a troubled person.
Your second book, The Human Season, focuses on the Northern Irish conflict. As an English woman who grew up largely after the conflict ended what did you believe you could add to the existing fiction and non-fiction books on the subject?
I was genuinely impartial. An outsider. Slightly guilty, keen to make repairs, silly though it sounds. I thought this was a good start. I wanted to "only connect" as Forster put it. Who knows what I add, but I did justice to those with whom I talked, from both sides, I think, and have been told. I hope so. It was an honour to hear their stories.
How did you research The Human Season? Did you meet any resistance?
Over a year, a week a month in Belfast. 500 hours of taped interviews from all sides. Protestant, catholic, terrorist, mother, priest, child, prisoner, prison officers, you name it. Some prison officers were terrified of being tracked down. Most of the former terrorists were keen to tell, even if they pretended otherwise. You have to stay angry to stay alive when you've killed.
Your biography mentions 3 published novels - these would be Becoming Strangers and This Human Season (already published in the UK and due in the USA shortly). What is the third?
The third will come out at the end of 2007 or in 2008.
Can you tell us a little about it?
It is set in France and London and is about a man who loses his mind but compensates for it with comforting fictions and fantasies. It's a dark comedy again. It will be published by Penguin UK first.
I have realized that I am a slow impulsive writer, that when I think I have cracked the problem, I usually haven't, that most of my material gets thrown and the book is always morphing while I'm writing it. I never conceive it as one, from "A" through to "Z". I conceive it at about "L" or "M" and keep shaking it, rolling it, chucking it around until its pretty creased and wrinkled, but will do well enough to cover the body that lies underneath. I always think of a novel like a sheet over a body, like trying to describe the life of that person with your fingers moving over the sheet.
Can you tell us a little about your life?
I live in France and London. 3 kids, 9, 6 and 5. One tolerant husband. It's hard to find time. I'm writing this with dinner to serve and answering questions on "Dora". I find saying "Good, darling" a lot is how I get through. I would be a worse mummy without writing and a worse writer without the kids. I never forget how incredibly lucky I am. Except when I'm feeling sorry for myself.
How do you manage to juggle your writing with the needs of a young family?
A bad temper visible in the hunched shoulders, the use of the TV, a stern door shutting technique and a husband.
When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
When I was 26. Before that I wrote bits and pieces, but did not dare to think of myself "as a writer". In New York I wrote my first unpublished novel and got encouragement from an editor as Farrar Strauss and Giroux. American writing was a massive inspiration to me, as was being in New York and later Park Slope.
You first job was as a brand manager in a multinational, followed by a stint in advertising. How long was it before you realized that that life wasn't for you?
It never was, but I wanted to please my father, all girls do, by convincing him I was steady and predictable, two things which I am not. It took, perhaps, becoming a mother to work out who I was and that only I could create a way of living that made me happy. I was 26 when I had Jules, my first son. In New York, on 14th Street.
Which writers have inspired you.
That's easy. Raymond Carver is required reading for all would be writers, he makes it easy to understand and sometimes you could just swoon in the reading of it. The art of the period, as he says. Then Chekhov who Carver loved; John McGahern; Graham Greene; Camus; Forster; Philip Larkin; Tolstoy; Kafka; Steinbeck; Hemingway; John Coetzee. The Twentieth Century American canon is glorious (to me). Roth's latest book Everyman is wonderfully wrought. Modern British fiction is pretentious and trivial in comparison.
God forbid we give a shit about Zadie, or McEwan. I don"t know why the British worry so much about what their chums think but they do, it makes for dreary "show piece" writing, irreproachable and forgettable. TS Eliot is the Godfather, in my opinion, of modern writing. Please love.
What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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