An Interview With Meghan Daum
The parallel between your life and Lucinda's is unmistakable.
You once worked for a fashion magazine and then moved to Nebraska. At what stage
in your own move did the novel idea come into play? How much of your real-life
experience influenced the book?
I'd been in Nebraska for well over a year before I started the novel. I remember the day I actually began writing. There were several inches of snow on the ground and it was the coldest winter anyone had seen in years. I'd been thinking a lot about a phenomenon called prairie madness, which was a kind of mental illness that afflicted many of the early settlers to the region, particularly those who came from the east during the Homestead Act of 1863. It was believed that the combination of isolation on the plains and, moreover, the incessant shrieking wind literally drove people insane. It seemed to affect women in particular, many of whom had come from the east, usually at the behest of their husbands, and were used to more refined conditions and larger communities. The deal with the Homestead Act was that families were given 160-acre plots of land, which they could own outright if they managed to farm it and live on it for five years. The act had been sold to easterners as a quality of life issue. There are propaganda posters from that time that show pictures of a barren patch of land magically transforming into a thriving farm with a well-appointed house and a picket fence. Of course it wasn't nearly that simple (this terrain proved more brutal than they ever could have imagined, and lets not forget that the Native Americans didn't exactly see this land as up for grabs) and many of the homesteaders just gave up and went home.
Since I was living at the time in a very small house out in the country (literally a little house on the prairie) I started thinking about how prairie madness might affect a contemporary person. It seemed to me that the notion of "quality of life" continues to be tied up in the concept of the journey west. So I created Lucinda as a sort of vessel for these ideas. And while many of the specifics of her story are different from my own experience, her internal life (her theories and half-baked philosophies and struggles with finding a place for herself in the world) were quite similar to my own. As for the parallels between our New York lives, I'm glad to say that my experiences in magazine publishing in New York weren't quite as dysfunctional as Lucinda's television job experiences.
Lucinda seems to possess a warm disdain for the canons typically covered in a women's book club. If you could choose three novels to impose on your average middle-American reading group, what would they be?
Lucinda's disdain for book club culture is more vehement than my own. I happen to belong to a book club in Lincoln. It's been a real lifeline for me and it's nothing like the one in The Quality of Life Report. But I'm not sure I'd be comfortable imposing specific titles on any group of readers. What I wish more book clubs would do is select titles that the individuals in the group actually want to read, rather than those that, for sometimes mysterious reasons, become culturally sanctioned as "book club material." Reading is about as individual an experience as anything can get, which is why I'm wary of the one-size-fits-all approach that is reflected in the "One Book, One City" movement that has swept the nation in recent years. Suggesting that an entire town or city read a particular book seems counterintuitive to the whole purpose and pleasure of reading. I think most people should try to read Ulysses (preferably with a knowledgeable instructor or at least a breathing coach), but beyond that I suppose I'd like to see book clubs in which people just got together and talked about whatever book they happened to be reading on their own. It seems that might lead to more interesting discussions than people sitting around and apologizing that they're only on page 400 of The Corrections, although that's a novel I enjoyed immensely and for which I have a great deal of admiration.
Would Lucinda have made the big decision to move to Prairie City without Sue as her initial tour guide?
Probably not. In the beginning of the novel, Lucinda is a person who is utterly terrified of living in a world that does not offer some degree of what she perceives as "hipness." In her naïveté and myopia, she takes Sue for some kind of cultural renegade, not least of all because she's a gay woman living in rural America, a combination Lucinda never fathomed before. Much of the satire in the book revolves around the degree to which Lucinda and her cohorts in New York have things backward; for instance, they associate being gay with somehow being cool and, by extension, being cool with being urban. This is a gross form of stereotyping and its own kind of homophobia. So Lucinda's come-uppance has in part to do with her realization that Sue is a person with pretty ordinary middle-class values. If she had been a married housewife, it's unlikely that Lucinda would have initially found her so glamorous. That's a harsh thing to say about a character you've created, particularly your narrator, but, in the beginning, Lucinda is about as provincial as it gets. The twist is that it's only by coming to "the provinces" that she achieves a truer sophistication, a sophistication of authenticity, which is something Sue had all along.
How deliberate were your choices for character names? Trout seems to refer to the fish-out-of-water theme and Mason Clay constructs an image of a man who works with his hands mixed with a figure that can be molded to taste. Or is sometimes a name just a name?
I wanted my narrator to have a name that was both unique and commanded some degree of authority, a name with hard consonants in it. Trout does refer to a fish out of water but I was also thinking in terms of the idea of swimming upstream. Lucinda is very good at making things harder for herself than they necessarily need to be. Mason Clay just seemed like an appealing name. If I saw that name written down somewhere I'd want to meet the person behind it. I'm actually obsessed with names. I have a secret hobby of reading the phone book and looking at all the names and imaging who they belong to. One of my favorite things about writing fiction is the ability to invent names. It seems to me that great heroines in literature almost always have memorable and even imposing names, like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Cather's Antonia Shimerda, which has to be the best name of all time.
What is the one thing that Lucinda misses the most about New York? What is the one thing you miss the most?
Lucinda misses her friends Daphne and Elena. I miss the food in New York. Every time I order a salad and end up with a chilled plate of iceberg lettuce and shaved carrots I want to get on the next plane to LaGuardia (not to eat at LaGuardia, of course, but at least they have a Nathan's franks.)
The novel in many ways works as a love triangle with a man and a place vying for Trout's affection. What is it about the barn and Prairie City that Lucinda cannot live without? Do you think it's possible for someone to feel the same kind of love for a tiny apartment on the Upper West Side?
Much of Lucinda's love for the prairie comes out of the fact that she romanticized it for a long time before she actually got there. She had an image of it that was inevitably going to be, if not shattered, at least dramatically altered. So her love for the farm takes on a desperate quality in that she feels that if she stops loving it she will be a failure. The interesting thing is that for much of the book her love for the land is more contrived than it is completely genuine. It's only when she becomes of the land (she starts making the mistakes that lead to her maturity, she develops prairie madness and survives) that the love becomes authentic. And you can absolutely have that kind of love for the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In fact, it's probably more common. Lucinda doesn't express that so much, but, as I talk about in my first book, My Misspent Youth, I romanticized New York City in a very profound and ultimately destructive way. I still have a very strong affection for both New York and the prairie, but now it's tempered by the experience of having lived for a number of years in both places. In a way it's a more mature, deeper kind of love.
You are currently working on the screenplay to your novel. What is the biggest challenge in adapting this story and character to a visual medium?
Writing the screenplay was a greater pleasure than I ever could have imagined. Obviously, the novel has a lot of characters, and, sadly, many of them had to be eliminated in the interest of writing a movie that wouldn't necessarily be five hours long. So there were some Sophie's Choice moments with some of the townspeople of Prairie City. But I think that the story and, moreover, the essence and tone of the novel are very much intact in the script and I feel tremendously lucky to have been able to write it.
Besides the screenplay, are you working on any other writing projects?
I spend most of my waking hours messing around in my head with a set of characters who I think will populate a new novel. The way I generally write is that I mull the idea over and over again in my mind until it's time to start writing it. Then I write nonstop for months. That writing period is a time I both yearn for and dread, because it's a bit akin to hysteria, but I think it may be approaching. I'd better warn my friends now.
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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