Siri Hustvedt: se-ree hoost-ved
Siri Hustvedt discusses the fragmentary nature of The Blazing World, and issues of gender perception, feminism and the art world.
How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
I have been immersed in questions about human perception for a long time, including how works of art are received in the culture. Pseudonyms have also been a longstanding interest of mine, especially Søren Kierkegaard's use of them in his work. By adopting various pseudonyms, the philosopher explored points of view he didn't necessarily share but which nevertheless fascinated him. I knew I wanted to write a story about a woman artist who hides behind three male masks, but it was Harry herself who became the burning catalyst for the book. Once I began to hear her voice, see her, and feel her, I found the heart of the novel. And yet, I did not want the book to belong only to Harry. She is an explosive character, and her view had to be tempered and framed by other perspectives. I knew that an unstable, polyphonic form was the only one that could embody the book's themes as a whole.
While this is a work of fiction, you present it as a true collection of writings on the subject. Why did you decide to present the story in this form?
Journals, diaries, letters, published texts, and art works can survive the person who made them. Once the author/artist is dead, "the body of work" is all that remains. My fictional conceit is that an editor, I.V. Hess, has gathered the texts included in the book because interest in the work of the now deceased Harriet Burden has surged. From the beginning, the reader knows that the main character is dead, that she conducted an experiment, and that she craved recognition, which she gained only posthumously. The narrative urgency is not about what happens, but about how what happens is experienced by the people intimately involved in the story and by others who have a far more distant relation to the events.
What was your writing process? Did you write sequentially, as the story unfolds to the readers, or did you write every section from one person's perspective before moving on?
I have always thought of a novel as an organism that develops in time, and so I write sequentially. I feel my way forward as if the shape of the narrative is already there, and my job is to find it. When I returned to a particular character's voice, it could take me some time to "recover" it. Writing as Harry, Rachel, Bruno, Ethan, Maisie, Phinny, Oswald Case, and Sweet Autumn, as well as some of the people who appear only once meant adopting very different vocabularies and verbal cadences. I did not imitate what I had written earlier, but rather, like a method actor, I would feel the presence of the character and then the words seemed to come of themselves.
In this novel, and in previous work, you discuss gender and play with its meaning and how people perceive it. How has this novel advanced your thoughts on the subject?
I think I have always been interested in escaping the social conventions that define gender and the metaphors that shape the constricting oppositions between the feminine and masculine that remain active in our culture, such as soft and hard, mind and body, reason and passion. The novel as a form is in itself an escape hatch for a writer because inside a book, one can become women and men with different personalities. In all my novels I have characters who trespass gender norms, who move from male to female or female to male. In my fifth novel, The Summer Without Men, my heroine Mia sums up the problem of sex difference this way: "It is not that there is no difference between men and women, it is how much difference that difference makes and how we choose to frame it." Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that one is not born but becomes a woman. De Beauvoir was well aware of the reproductive bodily differences between men and women, but her argument about becoming a woman remains powerful. The Blazing World might be seen as a meditation on the question of becoming a woman. For many reasons, Harry finds herself torn between her masculine and feminine identities, two sides of herself she finds difficult to reconcile.
There are many characters with differing opinions about the art community in this novel. Do you side with any of them in particular?
No, I do not have a uniform view of what is called the "art world." Harry's view of it has a paranoid coloring. Case's view is mostly cynical, but he is nevertheless prone to celebrity worship. Phinny sees how money, status, and racism afflict that world. Rosemary Lerner is an intelligent observer, especially in her discussion of women artists. Hess is more interested in philosophical ideas than in sociology. All of these views together are meant to provide some insight into the diverse community of visual art in New York City.
Harry is a very strong female character, in touch with her masculine side, and keen to assert herself in a man's world. Do you consider Harry a feminist and is this novel a feminist story?
Today there is not one feminism but several feminisms. The debates among people who call themselves feminists are vociferous. That said, Harry is a feminist for the simple reason that she longs to be free. At times she is her own worst enemy, but that is nothing new. The constraints that bind her are internal as well as external. Women in the arts continue to struggle for the recognition that comes more easily to their male counterparts. Much of the prejudice against women is unconscious, not conscious, but that only makes it more corrosive because people, both men and women, are not aware of their own biases.
A working title for this novel was Monsters at Home, but it became The Blazing World in the end. Can you discuss your decision making process for titling this, or any novel?
I like to have a working title as I work on a book. I began with Monsters at Home and felt sure I would keep it. The monster theme is strong in the book: Frankenstein's monster, Milton's Satan, the cyborgs of artificial intelligence. Harry feels monstrous. Some of her neighbors in Red Hook call her "the witch." Margaret Cavendish, Harry's seventeenth-century alter ego, was regarded by some in her time as a monstrous travesty of masculinity and femininity. Teratology, the study of monsters, appears as a word with scrambled letters in The History of Western Art. After I finished the book, however, I realized the title didn't fit what I had written. I no longer wanted the comic undertones of monsters lounging about at home. The monster Harry is redeemed by the artist Harry. The book belongs to her own blazing world.
Do you have any future projects in mind? Will you continue to tackle with issues of gender and art?
I have many future projects in mind, and I am sure I am not finished asking questions about sex and gender. I plan to pursue questions of the self and sexual identity and how they relate to culture and biology in both my fiction and nonfiction.
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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