I once worked for an editor who wrote three decent books before she hit thirty. I admired her, and when I told her so, she waved me off. “Just get drunk and write some shit,” she said. I could hardly contain my mortification. As young writers we endure a full spectrum of covetousness before learning the simple, silly truth: there is no formula. There are no secrets. There’s only this lonely, unquittable act. And while downing whiskey at a three-legged desk doesn’t seem entirely prudent, neither does hoarding war stories in the hope that they’ll transform us.
Imagine the intrigue, then, of a novel built upon these very themes: desire, unrealized ambition, and admiration for achievements we can scarcely comprehend. The novel is The Intimates, written by Ralph Sassone. I spoke to Ralph last week and was delighted to find a careful, articulate writer who spoke humbly of his work but never took the wind out of it. I’d wager he’s not the type to just get drunk and write some shit. Sweet relief.
Ralph Sassone You’re calling from Georgia. Is that where you’re from?
Emily Testa No. I moved here last year to work as a speechwriter at a university. I gather you’re acquainted with the juggling act of writing and doing other things at the same time.
RS I am. I think a writer has to be. It’s probably good. Do you know anyone who says, “I just love writing, it makes me so happy, and I would be so contented if I could just do it all the time”? If that person exists, he or she is a liar.
ET Either a liar or the most infuriating person on the planet. So, about your book …
RS I’d almost forgotten.
ET One of the first things you notice when you begin to read The Intimates is that the central value is friendship. All too rare in books for grown ups, if you ask me.
RS Agreed. And so curious, given the significance of friendship in contemporary human congress, and the fact that friendships can last quite a bit longer than marriages and lovers and other relationships do. It’s odd to me that there isn’t more literature about it.
ET As I got through this book I kept recalling something a college roommate once said to me, which was that agonizing over friendships is pointless. She said there was this inevitable die-off, where people grow up and pair up and that’s it—friendships are the skins we leave behind. I hated that idea.
RS I don’t like it either. Of course there are friendships you outgrow, those that fall away. But then there are those that last. It’s a bit of a cultural brainwash, the notion that friendships, and especially young friendships, are basically starter relationships, like some sort of warm-up for the main event: conventional romance, marriage, child-rearing. All these other more important things. I don’t buy that. I never have.
ET So then do you see your characters Robbie and Maize as being on some sort of societal fringe?
RS Well, by the end of the book, even Robbie and Maize start to see that they’ve used their friendship as a way of avoiding other people and other relationships. But that’s not the fault of the friendship. It just so happens that these are two who find it difficult to let others in.
ET For both of them, family fails. Love fails. Sex fails, spectacularly. Only friendship is unconditional.
RS Yes, they’re a real pair, a couple. Just not in the way we’re used to.
ET At the end of the book I got the feeling that Maize would be all right. I wasn’t so sure about Robbie. Perhaps I’m biased, but it just seems like a woman like Maize has a stronger instinct for self-preservation than a man like Robbie does.
RS I like to think I gave them both a hopeful ending. But really, the ending in this book is just another step in their evolution as friends, not a huge dramatic moment, no matter the drama that precedes it.
ET Speaking of drama, why structure the book the way you did? We start with a did-they-or-didn’t-they rendezvous between Maize and her guidance counselor, then move to Robbie’s misadventures in Italy, then, finally, Maize and Robbie and others share a harrowing weekend in the suburbs. In such an enduring friendship, why these moments?
RS They’re all so pivotal in the lives of the characters. Maize’s first lesson in carnal knowledge, Robbie’s sudden awareness that he’s lived his entire life in emotional retreat, and then in the last section … . well, that’s more complicated. There both characters discover that, wish as they might, they’re unable to reason their lives into discrete chapters. Things merge willy-nilly. And I hope the structure of the book reflects that.
ET Another thematic element comes in the form of … . misappropriation? People are stealing all the time, or thinking about stealing. Sometimes the coveted objects have value, and sometimes they don’t.
RS You know, there are so many kinds of theft. Theft of material objects, for sure, but also the short-term identity theft that happens when you’re twenty-two and you can’t imagine how things are going to turn out for you. For Maize, especially, this is true. There’s always another love interest, another hair color. A new and potentially more arresting version of herself that’s beckoning from the sidelines. And with all this unexplored, a settled life feels totally impossible.
ET What a fitting denouement, Robbie and Maize—classic millennial personalities—packing boxes in this faded Connecticut bedroom community. In really subtle ways, Robbie and Maize become emblems of a certain kind of childhood. They’re completely overparented, yet neither can seem to believe that they’re worth very much. They’re clueless about happiness, what it might look like or how it might feel, because they never had any point of reference for that sort of thing.
RS More than a certain kind of childhood, I think that’s a natural part of coming up in the world. It would be wonderful if we all knew from an early age who we were and what we wanted, but that’s very rare. Maybe there are 15-year-olds who say, “I want to be a vascular surgeon,” and thirty years later that’s exactly what they’re doing. But I don’t know any of those people.
ET Switching gears here, I heard an interview with you on KCRW and in it, you said you didn’t really enjoy writing until you wrote this book. Was it a question of working on the right project at the right time?
RS Something about the form both liberated and anchored me. It was comforting to know that when things went awry, when I went in the wrong direction, I would find my way back to the story I wanted to write. For me, though, the early stages of any writing project are like groping in the darkness. I would love to be one of those writers who’s able to outline his story and see it whole, to know roughly where it’s going from the start. But I’m afraid I’m not. What I know about myself as a writer is that I’m interested in character, and in situation, and in a certain amount of emotional excavation. At the beginning, those interests manifest themselves in a verse, a turn of phrase, a one-line description, a patch of dialogue. A lot gets thrown out, but gradually those things accumulate, and they fuse into scenes. And the scenes expand into stories, and the stories become part of a larger narrative. There’s considerable rethinking along the way, and a tremendous amount of rewriting … . not only before it’s done, but before I’ll even show it to anyone. Anyway, perhaps it was that the largeness of the novel form felt accommodating enough to forgive my possible missteps. In any case, it was the first time I was truly patient with myself and with the writing, and the first time I experienced the pleasure that comes from that particular kind of patience.
ET It’s interesting that the time required to write a novel—one of the most daunting things about it, really—is what relaxed you into the process, in the end.
RS I think if you start writing a novel and all the while you’re thinking of its enormity, you’d almost have to stop. It’s so frightening. I didn’t allow myself to think about that. I couldn’t afford to. The other thing is that with the time it takes to write a novel, you can be a little more forgiving about having a bad day, or even a bad week. Nobody wants that to happen. But when it does, you can keep the faith a little easier.
The Intimates is available now from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.