When I read Ayşegül Savaş’s Walking on the Ceiling (Riverhead), it was one of those rare experiences of picking up a book with no prior information about it and getting fully swept away. In it, a young woman named Nunu reads books, skips school, walks around Paris, notices people, calls home to Istanbul, and tries to hold her past and future—one in each hand—while she gropes toward some kind of conclusion or solution for her life. It is missing the overt melancholy usually found in my favorite books, but it is somehow—magically—not lacking it. The book’s sensitivity never veers into the saccharine; it is tender without being too self-enamored. I feel that all dyed-in-the-wool readers, lonely in some intractable core of ourselves, crave books like this, books that walk along side us, books that are companions of contemplation, not distractions from life but magnifying lenses for it.
Catherine Lacey One central concern in the novel is the creation of memory—how we wear out certain treads of thought, and how we cannot really understand what we’re leaving out or why. This seems intimately related to the structure of the book—brief, bursting chapters that usually do not progress in a linear fashion. How was it that you came to the decision that the book had to be formed this way? Did any books give you a road map? Did any of them give you false instructions?
Ayşegül Savaş We talk so much about the books that guide us and not enough about the false guides. For me, false instructions come from books I really admire but find too difficult to imitate. One of these is Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian which is also a book about memory, told in a single, meandering letter as the dying emperor recalls episodes from his life. An early draft of my novel was in the form of a letter from Nunu to M. It was a shapeless thing and very tiring to read, even though I found the structure of Memoirs so simple and thought that it would serve as an obvious template for my novel as well.
In some ways, what you call the “brief, bursting” form was a result of my inability to write this linear narrative; those short bursts are what remained of the previous draft after I broke it apart with frustration. Nunu feels a similar frustration regarding her own memories and ultimately tells the story in many different, fragmented ways. I guess I settled for this particular structure because it felt like the only one I was capable of writing.
CL In the novel and your recent New Yorker story, “Canvas,” an important part of the narrative is told by other people. In the novel, Nunu narrates about others—rarely herself, and even when she reveals something of herself, it is often told indirectly. In “Canvas” we know essentially nothing about the narrator—the entire story is told secondhand about a character the narrator never meets. I’ve found that particular conceit to be mysteriously useful when writing—if a story or chapter allows the “narrator” to listen to another character speak to them, suddenly I have more words than I know what to do with. Do you feel similarly? Differently?
I think about this all the time! I have several guesses as to why this conceit enables writing. First of all, because it offers relief from the usual worries of fiction—coming up with plot, creating a story-arc, providing character development. When a character is telling a story, I can allow myself to set aside these writerly concerns which often stifle the creative impulse. Perhaps the abundance of words comes from the fact that I’m allowing the character to speak without interfering with my “fiction” kit.
Then there is the fact that we spend so much of our time telling each other stories of other people. It’s such an integral part of how we socialize, perhaps even more so among women. So it seems obvious that this texture should exist in fiction, too.
I also wonder whether this conceit of listening to someone tell a story is heightened in a globalized world—having friends in different places and seeing them for short, concentrated periods of storytelling in order to update them on all that’s happened. And then there is email, which makes up my regular conversations as much as having dinners with friends. I’m constantly sending or receiving these tightly-shaped narratives, and even passing them on to someone else. “I have this friend who … ” “I just heard the strangest story … ” This is an intense narrative mode, because it fits a lot of information into a few minutes or paragraphs, covers long time spans and many psychological observations.
CL Short follow-up. Many writers have used the conceit of having an ancillary character tell a story to the narrator, but the gold standard of this tactic seems to be all the works of W.G. Sebald—why do you think that is?
AS I actually think of it the other way around—that the ancillary characters in Sebald’s works are the narrators. Think of the narrator in Austerlitz, for example. It’s easy to forget that Austerlitz is not the narrator himself. But it’s significant that he isn’t because the narrator provides a larger framework for his story by virtue of being at a distance. He adds to the central narrative with facts, photographs, historical or architectural asides, all of which inform the novel’s emotional core. I think Sebald is a “gold standard” because he expands our definition of consciousness; he’s created a richer vision of human experience which goes beyond the minutiae of our own memories and sensations. The multiple voices fitted inside one another form an ecosystem of thought.
CL When did you first read Sebald and what did you feel about it then or now?
AS I read four or five of his books over one summer seven years ago. At the time, I was very excited by the books’ formal aspects—the way they seemed to include whatever the author was interested in, as well as their lack of plot. You know how writers talk about “getting away” with something? When I started reading Sebald, I felt I could get away with writing a book that was a mix of essay, travel writing, and fiction. I thought that I might try stringing together all my writing up until that moment and call it a book. (I couldn’t get away with it, obviously.)
But the formal qualities of Sebald’s writing are really secondary to the intense emotion of his work which can’t be replicated with stylistic tools. Now, I’m struck most of all by the depth of feeling and the way that this feeling is unbearably restrained.
CL The occasion for Nunu telling this story is ostensibly for her to record some facts about her friendship with the writer, M. Yet she takes several chapters before their first meeting appears and just as often as he appears directly, Nunu tells us his books and characters and secondhand information she has about him. It gives her scenes with M a sort of prismatic effect—she is spending time with this person, and with his ideas, and with her ideas about his ideas. Could you elaborate on the process of building the concept of M?
AS I’ve always had a fantasy of going on a walk with a writer I admire as a way of getting a glimpse of their imagination—a walk would be a democratic, unregulated way to spend time, as opposed to meeting the writer at a reading or at a university setting. I finally started writing out that daydream, triggered by a short and disappointing walk I went on with a writer I admired.
But just like my own daydream, there was something unreal about Nunu’s relationship to M, who never comes into full focus—we don’t even know his name. He remains a figment of Nunu’s imagination; he is the embodiment of a “Writer,” an authority who can decide what stories are worth telling. Building the concept of M meant building Nunu’s fascination with him—thinking about why she wanted to be friends with a foreign writer of her native city, why she felt so compelled to impress him—and the story began to spill out of the framework of the friendship and seep into Nunu’s loneliness and her inability to look things in the eye.
CL One incredible thing about the novel is that every major relationship in the book is a happy one. Not perfect, of course, since there is really no such thing, but they’re all reasonable happy. The tension seems to arrive from the intimacy being strained by distance (whether physical or metaphorical.) I don’t think I have written about a happy relationship ever in my life—it seems too difficult or perhaps I am being lazy. Do you find it difficult to write about genuine affection or are you just a happier person than I? Both may be true.
AS Now that you say it, I realize that the relationships are relatively happy but it’s Nunu’s perspective that makes them sad. She feels so much guilt. I’d only considered things from inside Nunu’s head. Which makes me think that you are the happier one, Catherine, for pointing out that a relationship isn’t destroyed because it bears sadness. I think Nunu would tend to think this way.
It might also be useful to distinguish between a happy relationship and an affectionate one. Feeling affection for someone doesn’t necessarily mean acting on it. Much of Nunu’s melancholy comes from her inability to say what she feels—she ignores many of M’s attempts at connection and then there are all the silences of her childhood when she and her mother kept quiet instead of addressing her father’s death.
I guess I find it difficult to write about genuine affection in a transparent, straightforward way. A lot of the tension in my writing seems to arise from huge reserves of affection that are unarticulated, characters who don’t know what to do with their feelings. Is this a happy state?