When I first had the pleasure of reading one of Elizabeth’s books, I was awestruck and immediately hooked—the beauty of the language, the amazing, insightfully-drawn characters. After inhaling The Blue Hour, a book that blew me away with its suburban angst, what she was able to do with familial love and complications, I quickly read another. I was addicted. I got more of her books until I’d read every last one. How different each was. What scope.
I have been lucky to stay in touch with Elizabeth over the years and to have her as a writing confidante and to get her wonderful input on all things literary. And how fortunate I got to read her newest book As Good As Dead from Bloomsbury before it even hit the shelves. You enviable people—some of you still have the pleasure of reading it ahead of you. You can listen to Elizabeth talking about and reading from As Good As Dead on NPR. At The Nervous Breakdown, you can read an excerpt of the novel and her self-interview.
Elizabeth Evans is the author of six books of fiction, including the upcoming novel As Good As Dead (Bloomsbury). Her two short story collections are Suicide’s Girlfriend (HarperCollins) and Locomotion (New Rivers). Previous novels are The Blue Hour (Algonquin), Rowing in Eden (HarperCollins), and Carter Clay (HarperCollins). Recent stories appear in Ploughshares, Cutthroat, and XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths (Penguin Books). Distinctions include the Iowa Author Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the James Michener Fellowship, and a Lila Wallace Award. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle, Wurlitzer, and other foundations. Evans received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. A long-time professor in the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, Evans also has served as a faculty member at Queens University of Charlotte’s Low-residence MFA Program in Creative Writing. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Bonnie ZoBell: Charlotte and Esmé have a profoundly complicated relationship, which is at the heart of your wonderful book, As Good As Dead. Theirs is a love/hate bond if ever there was one. They’re like sisters with inside jokes who share their deepest intimacies at some points, and are utterly cruel to each other at others. How did you come up with the idea to write about them? Do you think most women have had relationships like this? Is this strictly a female conundrum, or do you think men have similar relationships?
Elizabeth Evans: Thanks so much for giving me a chance to talk about this, Bonnie. I find the whole subject fascinating. Of course there are exceptions, but I do have the impression that females are more heavily invested in their same-sex friendships than men are in theirs. My female friends and I have shared stories about these intense friendships—particularly the friendships from when we were young. They could be wonderful, but also devastating. There was a sense that you could share everything—that it was safe to share everything—but, of course, that kind of sharing does make a person vulnerable, and it also can lead to expectations. Then, if the expectations aren’t met, people feel wounded. There are aspects of our culture that pit females against one another, invite dissension. The emphasis on appearance leads us into weird states of insecurity and vanity. As is common in any under-class, there is scrambling for the goods. Girls sometimes turn against girls in underhanded or overtly ugly ways. We let each other down.
BZ: If I haven’t made it clear enough above, I loved this book. You immediately break a cardinal rule in it, writing about writers. I worried for a split second and then remembered who I was reading and knew you’d get away with it. And you did. Did you worry about this when you set out to write it?
EE: Thank you for the kind words. I have to say that I really enjoyed writing a story from the point of view of a writer! As a reader, I like knowing about characters’ occupations. I’m so interested in learning how different characters spend their time and what they think about. I find people are very interested in my job, and I assumed I could make Charlotte’s job and its particulars as real and solidly interesting as any other. Of course, the writing world is fraught with competition, and I liked having a chance to show the younger Charlotte as a graduate student in the hothouse environment of the Iowa Writers Workshop.
BZ: Another thing that fascinated me was how much more passionate Charlotte is in many instances in her relationship with Esmé than she is with her husband, Will. This, even though years go by without her seeing Esmé. It’s true that Charlotte and Will are having some marital issues—Charlotte feels too much distance between them and wishes he’d finally agree to her getting pregnant instead of being so focused on furthering his career. However, something about your book made me keep thinking about the differences between men and women. (Maybe it’s my issue!) Do you think in some ways Charlotte is closer to Esmé than she is to her husband? Do you think there is a kind of closeness between women that can’t be translated into male/female relationships?
EE: There were things that the twenty-one year-old Charlotte could share with Esmé that she couldn’t share with Will—and, in fact, couldn’t share with him at forty-one. At forty-one, when Charlotte sees Esmé again, she remembers how, almost as soon as they met, the two of them—at Esmé’s behest—began singing together in a very exuberant way. There’s a degree of masculine reserve in Will—and in many men—that would never have allowed him to sing old Broadway musicals with Charlotte (or anyone else). Some of my closest female friends and I sang together, but I never sang with my boyfriends. Charlotte could be silly with Esmé, too. Again, it has something to do with making yourself vulnerable. It’s delicious—if dangerous. Of course, when a man gives a woman his heart, he does make himself vulnerable. Charlotte and Will share that sort of vulnerability. They have been together over twenty years in the contemporary story and love each other. Ultimately, though, I felt the book was about Charlotte’s coming to terms with her life as opposed to her relationship with any one person.
BZ: Do you think one or the other of these women is more at fault at what becomes of their relationship? Or that we’re all human and this is what happens?
EE: The young Charlotte is a small-town girl from a chilly blue-collar family. At the Writers Workshop, when the charming, sophisticated Esmé offers Charlotte instant friendship, Charlotte is thrilled. The problem: shy Charlotte believes that she and Esmé are much closer than they are. She doesn’t understand that Esmé wants everyone she meets to feel “Esmé is my best friend.” To keep from discussing too much of the plot, let’s just say that at the point at which Charlotte begins to understand her error, she strikes out at Esmé. What Charlotte does is stupid and wrong and definitely not in her own interest. I wanted the readers to participate in her experience—her flailing around—and understand her and also how the after-effects of her action have shaped her life. My own heart is much more with Charlotte than Esmé, but that’s not really the point of the story.
BZ: Every time I read one of your books I’m so impressed by how human your characters are—the flaws are right out there for everybody to see, and yet I care about them all. I want to hate Esmé in some points, and yet when I look over the history of this relationship, I can’t quite do that. And Charlotte seems so full of herself and like nobody else matters when she’s young—though of course I think most of us are full of ourselves at that age. I might have thought I couldn’t read a whole book from her perspective, and yet that never crossed my mind. I grow to deeply care about her. Do you have a philosophy about characterization or a certain way that you approach it?
EE: Thanks, Bonnie. I have been writing—and talking about these things to my students and other writers—for a million years, so I do know a bit about using dialogue (it has authority, even if the speaker is lying!) and physical description and so on. When you come down to it, though, for me, so much of building characters is seat-of-the-pants work and what Virginia Woolf called “tunneling”—just spending time with the characters and interrogating the scenes. I need to know (and show) how characters move through their worlds and how the characters’ minds work. I so often ask student-writers, What’s X thinking here? I have to tell you: I just watched a wonderful movie called The Retrieval, and one of the rare and marvelous things about it was the way in which—with my heart in my mouth—I knew exactly what the boy in the movie was thinking at every minute!
Anyway, the big thing for me is revision. With both novels and stories, I write much, much more than I ever use—and, then, ultimately, I might use a segment that I wrote early in the history of the piece because its “rightness” became confirmed by all the work I did afterwards! These things remain a bit mysterious to me. I do believe in honoring the process. Literature is where I’ve gone to learn most of what I know about the world, so participating in it is a pretty sacred act for me (not that I don a headdress or burn incense, but I am deep into it—I wear no armour, but a powerful bullshit-detector, yes).
As the author and a human being, I have my ideas about how people ought to treat each other, and I hope that a sense of that runs like a current through my work. I do, however, want my characters to be lifelike, which means flawed. I was so happy when I first came to read books—Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, for example—where female characters were flawed yet understood! I’ve always been especially interested in presenting girls and women who are “whole.” The world still favors a very narrow range of acceptable behaviors from girls and women. Studies continue to find that the world judges a man “assertive” when he acts on his behalf and a woman “a bitch” when she does the same. That sort of judgment is applied in the same way to female characters, who I find all too often come branded with what feel like stamps of approval: You can rest assured, readers, that Madame X is unfailingly nurturing. What a shock when I recently was asked by an interviewer—a female interviewer—if I would want to be “friends” with either Charlotte or Esmé! When are we going to get beyond such questions? I thought no one would ask that question after Claire Messud set straight the PW interviewer—a female interviewer—who asked it of Messud regarding “Nora” in her novel The Woman Upstairs.
BZ: What are you working on now?
EE: I’ve finished another novel, Box of Life, which I had to put down in order to begin As Good As Dead. Now I’m working on a collection of stories.
BZ: So great to get to talk to you, Elizabeth. I just went over and looked at your Events page and don’t see a visit to San Diego. We’re going to need to work on that!
EE: Let’s do that!