Anne Fernald: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to another interview! I hope this is fun and not too odious. And most of all, thanks for your novel, Seven Loves. You sent it to me out of the blue and, as you intuited, it was just my thing.
Valerie Trueblood: I did send it to you out of the blue! And you put your hand up and caught it. I had been reading your blog with such interest; I knew you loved Woolf and so were probably open to work that had to do with time and the slow (or in Amy Hempel's inspired word, "slown") onslaught of existence rather than with plot as such, and I suddenly thought, "I want this person to see my book." I thought "see." I didn't think "read." It was hard to imagine anyone actually sitting reading it; it still is. So thank you! And then to my surprise and delight you nominated it.
AF: I read in an online interview that it was a friend who told you that you had written about the same character, but at two different ages. Is true? How did you go from those two stories to the novel?
VT: Yes, a friend sort of seized me and said, "Write this out." It was Denise Levertov. In the last years of her life she moved to Seattle and through various twists of fate we became friends. Actually I bought her at a peace group auction! She offered a master class for a poet, and I bought it and gave it to a poet friend. Eventually I met her too and that turned into one of the great friendships of my life. Anyway she liked to order people around and she felt there was more where those two pieces came from. And there was. I just kept going.
AF: I love the structure. But it's a risky one. When you were refining the form of the book as a whole, what did you take into consideration? Did you see the seven-chapter format early or late in the process? How did you figure out their order?
VT: In Evan S. Connell's novel Mrs. Bridge, the son, Douglas, decides to build something in the back yard. He just starts building. I think his tower has golf clubs in it, and boxes, and parts of machines-- pretty much everything he can round up. But it's set in cement, it has posts, it's strong. The book's structure started like that thing. I don't mean it was just random objects. I knew the posts were there. In the beginning I saw the book--when it began to be a book--as separate stories from a life. But as I wrote, the parts ceased to be free-standing and came to lean on each other and require each other. Finally an agent saw a story of mine (all of this happened to me suddenly and late in life) and asked to see something longer, and she called me and said, "This is a novel!" I see I'm describing everything the way I saw May's life as I was writing it, as accumulating rather than going from A to B. But in fact my definition of the novel would be a loose one. And the forms are blurring now, all of them. The order: I couldn't get it to go any other way. I did know I wanted the last chapter to be last, that the life had to make that circle. It wasn't so much that I didn't want it to end in death, since I seem to have killed off nearly everybody, but it was definitely not over until the childhood chapter. I knew where everything had taken root and I had to show how it all began, for May. But the other chapters were like horses that keep coming to the fence in a certain order.
AF: For me, this is book has a lot to say about mothers and daughters, yet neither of May's daughters has a chapter. For the Publisher's Weekly reviewer, the most moving relationship was the one with May's husband, another character without a chapter to himself. Do these reactions surprise you? Did you ever imagine writing a chapter for these characters? And what, of reactions to your novel, has surprised you most?
VT: May's daughters' lives unfold in closer proximity to hers than her son's does. I'm not sure why they don't have their own chapters. They're in every one, I think, except maybe the last. They're mainstays--as I think daughters often are, after the fires of adolescence, taking a rather parental interest in you as they get older. (I don't have daughters but I have some borrowed ones.) The fact that both daughters are temporarily out of the country in the sixth chapter is one of the things that lets May act. Actually May's husband, Cole, does have a chapter, though you're right, it's not "to himself." It's the one called "Olga Sobol," where the two of them go away for the weekend and she makes a kind of rediscovery of him when she's drawn into the story of another couple who had stayed at that inn. The reaction that has surprised me most--what a good question. It was the plot summaries in some reviews, when plot is the last thing I would have thought anyone would find in it. Long ago I studied with John Hawkes, who said about his own writing something like, "Once I had dispensed with plot, characters, setting and theme I knew I had a novel." Words to that effect. He believed "totality" was what mattered: one's particular view, even if it was through a keyhole. Especially, for Hawkes, if it was through a keyhole.
AF: This is your first novel. Congratulations! How does it feel?
VT: It has been quite an experience, wonderful and unsettling. I would never have thought a book's fate would prey on my mind this way. But luck was with me at the outset: I had an agent who cared, a wonderful editor at Little, Brown--this sounds like the Oscars. I've been writing for so many years, and I had become--not resigned but accustomed to doing it in the absence of an audience. After sending work out and getting it back, I stopped sending things. Cowardice. I started to publish non-fiction, which, probably because I was much more cavalier about it, always seemed to have an easy landing. Not that I wasn't serious about essays and reviewing, but they weren't at the core; if somebody didn't like an essay I didn't have to consider jumping out the window.
AF: You've been a contributing editor at American Poetry Review for a while. Is there a synergy between the two jobs—novelist and editor--or are they in competition?
VT: Well, in this case contributing editor isn't really a working editor, more somebody who sends in an envelope every now and then--in my case at long intervals--and recommends other writers and so on. But APR is a great magazine to write for, very soothing, because they give you a free hand. Or they did, however many years ago I sent my last piece. So various eccentricities show up in that magazine, in the prose pieces. Writing non-fiction sharpens the brain. You come out of that fictional swoon, but secretly feed the fiction-devising part. Doing research is good for that part. I used to spend a lot of time in the big heavy books of the New York Times index and in the engineering library studying nuclear submarine accidents, for a peace organization, and going up and down in the stacks is the kind of fun you can't have on Google. The habit of making sure of the facts is a good one. And certainly reading for a review or an essay is a pleasure, sometimes even a thrill. Now I'm off the subject of your question.
AF: Do you write poetry? You must read it. Can you tell us what poets are important to you? How has your involvement with poetry affected your prose writing (fiction and nonfiction).
VT: I read poetry every day and my list of vital poets would be long. I love Louise Gluck, Frank Bidart, Elizabeth Bishop, David Antin. I love Louise Bogan, and two poets she did not love, John Berryman and Randall Jarrell. John Haines is a great favorite and a sort of prophet: for so many years he has had his ear to the ground of the U.S. of A. Alicia Ostriker's poems seem to me the largest in thought and experience right now. There are some interesting new poets I think I was led to by Tao Lin, Reader of Depressing Books: Jennifer L. Knox (A Gringo Like Me) and the Montana poet Michael Earl Craig (Can You Relax in My House--wonderful). Above all I love the Spanish poets, especially Hernandez and Machado. Poetry is always looking over my shoulder saying, "Shorten that. Cut that." I write some poems but am not a poet.
AF: I think I hear Woolfian echoes in your writing and I believe that Alice Munro and Flannery O'Connor are important to you but it wasn't until the last chapter that I thought of another Seattleite who wrote great, witty short fiction: Mary McCarthy. That's the constellation of influence that I came up with. But I'd like to hear from you about the prose writers who have meant most to you.
VT: Definitely three writers who are important to me! (I remember Flannery O'Connor's remark, "At interviews I always feel like a dry cow being milked." She didn't have the pleasure of questions like these. People were always asking her, "How come so-and-so has a tattoo?") Woolf's diaries and letters have their own shelf. I love the way the old and the young are all under the same umbrella, for her. I wouldn't have thought of McCarthy but her "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" must have gone deep; the flu of 1918 robbed her of her parents. Alice Munro is such a giant that to be unaware of her would be folly. Some of her stories leave the novel in the dust. The prose writers I reread most often are Eudora Welty and Clarice Lispector. Welty's book The Golden Apples seems to me one of the great works of the twentieth century. Lispector's The Apple in the Dark is a strange dream, as all of her work might be said to be. All these apples. Right now I'm reading the Javier Marias trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. A character says, "Life is not recountable," and I think Marias believes this, but look at this magnificent book.
AF: When May takes a ferry ride, you write "It was that moment of elementary happiness when the land is left behind and the expectation fills you that something will happen….She realized…that she had been waiting weeks to smell the deep fishy cold Pacific water." That seems quintessentially Seattle to me--a perfect description of how I feel whenever I go home to Seattle and smell Puget Sound. How long have you lived there? How important was the setting to you?
VT: I've lived in Seattle for thirty-three years. "I came here as a bride," as they say. The setting (peace to John Hawkes) was important because this is a city with an intense political history, seminal events in labor history that we don't live up to now, yet it is such a beautiful, rain-soaked, recreation-obsessed place that it's easy to simply dream here. The mountains, the water are very much present in a Seattle life and I hope present in the book. I know the water is, with its claims on more than one of the characters.
AF: May is in the middle of three generations of strong women: she had an activist mother, she herself had a committed career, and her daughters are both independent, powerful women. I would call this a feminist novel. Would you?
VT: I would. Women are worthy. Isn't that a sad flag for a cause? But we Americans are dull and slow: it had to be one of the flags of the cause of racial justice, it flies over the peace movement (people are worthy of staying alive), and it still needs to be said. Women are strong. Or if they are weak, that too has its interest, as it does with men. But men are less apt to be underrated. I remember Alice Munro saying people greeted her at first as a feminist and then turned on her when some stories went outside the bounds accepted by theory. I am not a theorist, but I love the word feminist, with its sly humor and proud seriousness.
AF: I have read that you have a story collection---and maybe another novel? in the works. Can you tell us about what we can hope for from you next?
VT: Right now I'm working on a story about a bear attack. It's very long (the story, not the attack) so may not come out anywhere except in a collection, should one get into print. I have a couple of story collections and I'm working on a novel, Into the Later. It's three novellas, really. Already they're leaning. But the posts are in.