. . . [T]he apparel department was very strong in its technical craft, in its design training, and the one lesson they really drilled into me was that classic adage that a garment should be so well made that you can turn it inside out and wear it. I think about that all the time, how to turn a piece of writing inside out. In part two of a two part interview, Rebecca Keith talks to novelist Courtney Eldridge about her experiences at RISD, loyalty, and Battlestar Galactica.
Read part one here.
Rebecca Keith In our first interview, you claimed to have an aversion to plot-driven fiction, starting with voice instead. You said “characters drive plot, plot doesn’t drive characters.” But Ghost Signs is such a mystery, cliff-hanger and the narrative so complex. The Generosity was layer upon layer, but this time sequencing seems even more intricate, and the story much more suspenseful. Saccades is the quick, simultaneous movement of both eyes in the same direction—so this clearly played into the narrative’s disjointed structure. How did you conceive of this novel with all its flashbacks and flashforwards? Did it help that you wrote in small chunks based on your collaborators’ contributions? Did you make an outline or know where you were going at all? How did you keep track of the passage of time? How are you going to answer these seven questions at once?
Courtney Eldridge My aversion is to the attitude that plot-driven fiction is the right way. Because it’s not. It’s just one way.
Given that there was so much material, having one thousand pages to work with, and fourteen different collaborators, and many other contributors whose imagery resulted in a few pages of writing, when the time came, I had no idea what to do. I never imagined having that much material—and that’s how I thought of it, as material. So I really had to draw on an art school education, design training, and I started by outlining every piece of writing by choosing headlines, or even just writing a single word on hundreds of index cards, and then laying them out on the floor, just so I could see what I was working with. This was a year after the project began, and the original ideas I had conceived weren’t working, because all of these scenes were all over the place, completely random, moving forward and backward in time.
What is the structure? I kept asking myself that question, and finally, a physical image came to mind—an antique, hand-painted fan. That was it, exactly: when closed, an antique fan looks like a rule, linear. As you open it, the material moves from side to side in equal increments, both ways, and when it’s fully opened, it becomes a full circle that clasps together. I had originally conceived that this book would be written in one year, and that the structure would be circular, not linear. The story would start and stop at the same point. The concept of a fan allowed me to move very carefully, preceding one step forward, one step back, and thereby allow a missing character to be present throughout the novel.
June, 2009 (two years earlier)
RK You liken the structure of The Generosity of Women to a patchwork quilt, a highly female medium. Can you talk a bit more about that—the structure and sequencing?
CE I come from an oral tradition, not a written tradition. I come from a working class family. We’d sit around the table and tell stories, and voice is again the engine—being able to sit around with my grandfather and his friends. I don’t come from a family that read. I came from a family that told history and stories at the table, so that was a structural element and craft element.
You know, when I was hardest at work on this novel, I was at Ucross, a writer’s retreat in Wyoming—I had a room of my own, all right, and a very nice room, at that, to work—and it was the first time I felt artistic. Inasmuch as I had so many scenes, so many loose threads that it was all I could do to write titles or lines of dialogue on a good two or three hundred note cards at once. It was as close to painting and/or composing as I’ve ever come, really. Because I’d write keywords, some extremely inflammatory (for memory’s sake of course!), and I had a studio space large enough that I literally tacked hundreds of cards on a wall (with tape, so as not to mar their paint job) that was easily fifteen feet high and wide. So, by week two of my residency, I’d stand there for hours some days, just looking at all the scenes, composing. That’s how it felt, at least, hearing all the voices while seeing all the images in my mind’s eye, while trying to create a single narrative thread.
That said, I think the book also challenges the idea of craft versus art. I think women’s contributions are too often reduced to the “craft” camp, when, in fact, art is 90% craft, based in repetition. So I had an idea of a patchwork quilt from the start—something kaleidoscopic, something that would deal with the repetition and interaction of basic units of composition, thereby allowing the six main voices to reflect and refract off each other, while, at the same time, creating one picture—the craftwork of creating something so simple, so visually dynamic, so female, for better or worse.
When I was a little girl, as young as three or four years old, I used to sit and watch my great-grandmother, Margaret Shannon, crocheting these enormous ivory lace tablecloths in her living room. And it always amazed me that she could just sit and stare out the front window, watching her street like a traffic cop, and the whole time, her hands would be moving, creating this pattern, this picture that she was making up, improvising as she went along. I mean, she never followed an actual pattern, just the image in her head, and it never made sense until she was about halfway through a tablecloth, and then you could begin to see forms, shapes—order.
RK Did you actually get to do any painting at RISD or make art in any media?
CE Believe it or not, I was accepted to RISD as an apparel design major. Fashion, yes. I will say that the apparel department was very strong in its technical craft, in its design training, and the one lesson they really drilled into me was that classic adage that a garment should be so well made that you can turn it inside out and wear it. I think about that all the time, how to turn a piece of writing inside out.
But from the first day of my summer transfer session, the first 2D class I took with a painter—and a truly infamous figure on campus—named Alfred DeCredico, I gave serious thought to switching majors to painting. See, the night before his first class, a group of us went out to see Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover—which was a pretty intense film experience for all of us—and I have to say, Alfred was the spitting image of the Thief, walking into class with his cane, stopping before the class to take a long, hard look at us, then pounding his cane on the floor, before barking, “Your assignment is to bring me a painting in three hours. And don’t bring me any SHIT!” Then he turned and walked out.
RK How did you come to writing then?
CE Well, by traveling the world. Between RISD and Austin [where Eldridge studied film and worked as Richard Linklater’s assistant] I went to visit my best friend, in Rome, and I spent three months in Europe, traveling all over by myself in 1993. I spent weeks at a time alone, in towns in Eastern Europe, Poland, where no one spoke a word of English. And since I was really the first person in my family to be able to travel the world like that, and since my mother had never had the opportunity to leave the US, since I needed to speak to someone, I took to writing letters home. Every day, sometimes I’d sit in a café all day long, just writing my mom, wanting her to see and experience everything I was seeing and experiencing. It never occurred to me that a reader wouldn’t understand where I was coming from, because I started writing from that point of intimacy and of . . . well, trust, I suppose. The day after returning from Europe, I left for Mexico with my boyfriend, got stranded down there, had some adventures, and just kept sending the letters home. Eventually, over the next couple years, those letters grew into stories.
RK Sci-fi is about the last genre I’d imagined you’d write. What sparked your interest/drew you to it? Have you read much sci-fi? Also, the opening of DECCA is very noir and cool in a Play It As It Lays (I’m obsessed) way—definitely cleaner than a lot of your other voices. Would you cite any specific influences here or were you just trying something new to you?
CE Actually, yes, I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan. In fact, one of my earliest memories of a blockbuster, learning the meaning of the very word, was seeing the aerial shots of thousands of people, wrapped around entire city blocks, waiting to see Star Wars. Nearly wet my little cotton pants, when that movie began, and I was hooked on sci-fi—dressed as Princess Leia for the Fourth of July parade, and by the time I started elementary, I was a card-carrying, lunch-box-toting member of Battlestar Galactica.
I was a fan of both Battlestar Galactica series, actually. I don’t care what the so-called “purists” say, the creative decision to reincarnate Starbuck as a badass blonde? Hot. It’s like Orlando in space, and he-she Starbuck’s a laser-gun toting mystic to boot. By the way, did you ever read that Carrie Fisher interview in which she talks about how, still a teenager, and nipping out for the entirety of the shoot, at one point, Fisher approached Lucas and asked why her costume didn’t have any undergarments? To which George Lucas replied, “There’s no underwear in space.”
Years later, by the time I was in middle school, I distinctly remember the first three films I ever saw on video, babysitting for some well-to-do neighbors. The first movie was Alien, and the second was Blade Runner. They were game-changing, all right, and those were the movies that led me to check out Star Wars and Dune, which were the first books that got me hooked on reading. Then, of course, seeing Sting in a Lynchian black leather loincloth certainly helped the cause, as well.
Also, keep in mind that over the course of writing two novels, between 2006 and 2010, I had spent four years in solitary confinement with a total of seven women in my head. Because one novel with six women wasn’t enough, why not tackle a novel about a fifteen-year-old girl? Hard to believe, I know, but creatively speaking, I was suffering severe testosterone deficiency, and I wanted to have fun. I wanted to write a book that one could read on, say, a flight from New York City to Los Angeles. I wanted it to move, I didn’t want to think about characters’ feelings much, if at all; I didn’t want to ask, What are you thinking? So, who better to work with than a couple male cops?
For that matter, DECCA never would’ve happened if it weren’t for Ghost Signs, Saccades Project, which changed how I write, or at least presented an alternative. I used to work entirely with voice, dialogue, always waiting until I heard a sentence or a snippet of conversation in my head, my ear, whereas with Saccades Project, I began with imagery and it worked. So I decided to try that again, beginning the writing process by gathering images on the Internet—designing action sequences, building scenes around them, and then writing to spec. So, in the case of DECCA, dialogue is more connective tissue than musculature.
RK The Diary of Flight is your next project. What’s that about?
CE My dream has always been to fly a helicopter. And I will. Soon. But the journey to a Robinson R22 starts on two wheels. So, the diary will be just that, all the steps between here and there. And there are a good ten things I want to accomplish along the way.
I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with The Diary of Flight for a couple years now. The reason being that when I first proposed the book, I ran it by this big name in publishing, asking his advice on a proposal. His response was, “But why? Why do you want to fly a helicopter?” Coincidentally, his father happened to be a pilot, and he said there’s always a driving force, that flying is a God complex. (That was a little startling, and I don’t actually see wanting to fly a helicopter as any more or less God complexed than writing a novel, but anyhow.) He asked about my background, and then we got to talking about my childhood, because I’ve wanted to fly a helicopter as far back as I can remember. He was of the opinion that was the story, centering largely around my parents, particularly my father, who’s quite a character, himself.
My dad is a total Gemini: he’s Opie Griffith meets Dr. Gonzo. Seriously, he’s the sweetest, kindest soul you will ever meet, but, at the same time, out of fucking control. And says so, himself: the man’s never met a drug he didn’t like or a law he didn’t break, given half a chance to do either. Seriously, I remember being in kindergarten, watching the old man wheel and deal, thinking to myself, Wow, Dad. You are so innocent, and I love that about you, but you really don’t know what the hell you’re doing, do you? I don’t know about reincarnation, but I definitely believe there are young souls and old souls; my dad is the latter, needless to say.
It’s old news now, but all this talk about the survivor generation, all these children who raised their own parents. Well, believe me, it wasn’t much of a stretch, when the so-called men used to poke their heads in the living room, asking, "Are the pot brownies the ones on the plates with the Mickey Mouse stickers or the plates without?” Anyhow . . .
Working at break-neck speed, sixteen-hour days for five or six weeks, I wrote a memoir, close to four hundred pages. And hands down, the worst writing experience of my life, but I finished. When it was done, the first draft, I wrote my dad. There are few qualities I admire or aspire to more than loyalty, and I couldn’t stop feeling that I was being disloyal. So, finally, I cracked, and I wrote my father an email from Argentina. I told him, straight out. I said, “Dad, I am so torn, because I’ve been trying to write about you for the past six weeks, give or take my whole life, and each time, each sentence, every goddamn word I write about you, even in private, feels like a betrayal. I want you to know I’ll never betray you. Nothing is worth that. And I’m sorry, Dad. I’m so sorry for these impulses, I keep trying to bury them, and they keep coming out. I don’t know how to make it stop, but I will never show this book to anyone without your permission, and Mom’s permission.” And then I hit send. And then I drank.
He wrote me back the next day, in record speed for my two-finger typist father, and he said, “Court, I love you. I trust you. So you write anything you want, and know I stand behind you.” At long last, I was free. Because the choice was mine—every writer has to find that boundary and make those decisions for herself. I made my choice: Flight will not be a memoir. There were some good stories, maybe. I don’t know—when it’s your own childhood, how do you know if it would interest anyone else? The idea for Saccades Project began immediately after I abandoned that book. And here we are, two years later.
Rebecca Keith’s poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in Best New Poets, 2009, The Laurel Review, The Rumpus, Dossier, and The Millions, among other publications. She was a semi-finalist for the 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review poetry contest and has received honors from the Atlantic Monthly. She holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and is a founder and curator of Mixer Reading and Music series in New York City. Rebecca sings and plays guitar and keyboards in the Roulettes and Butchers & Bakers.
Courtney Eldridge is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her latest novel, The Generosity of Women, is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.