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Never the Face


June 15, 2011

Claire Messud and novelist Ariel Sands (the pseudonym of an internationally known nonfiction writer) discuss the tradition of sadomasochistic literature, the glorification of obsessive love, and whether there’s a feminist defense of submissiveness.

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Never the Face: A Story of Desire is the first novel written by the pseudonymous Ariel Sands; but in another guise, under another name, Ariel Sands is an internationally known and highly respected writer of nonfiction.

It is perhaps not unusual for nonfiction writers to try their hand at fiction; but it is certainly less common for such endeavors to be sexually graphic narratives about sadomasochistic obsession. What prompts a woman to write such a novel? Having done so, what prompts her to publish under a pseudonym?

The tradition of sadomasochistic erotic literature is long and intermittently illustrious, dating back centuries. Sadomasochistic literature written by women is a more recent phenomenon, with Story of O (1954) being one of the most notable twentieth-century examples. Ariel Sands—whose novel is not at all a pulp fiction, but rather an attempt to explore masochistic desires in a highly literate, literary way—sees herself in a tradition of psychological explorations of desire that includes the late Josephine Hart or Anne Rice.

Never the Face is narrated by a thirtysomething academic, known to us only by the names her lover, David, gives to her: “Kitten” and “Bitch.” A long-term friend, recently married, he surprises her by proposing an affair—by offering, at the novel’s outset, to “take… [her] to the Gates of Hell and beat…[her] there.” What unfolds may begin as a divertissement, but the pair’s mutual erotic obsession will break not only boundaries but hearts as well.

In what proves a highly compelling novel about compulsion, Sands explores the relation of fantasy to reality, and follows one woman’s path of simultaneous self-discovery and self-destruction. From the first lash of David’s riding crop to the brutality of his ever more intense sadistic control games, Kitten is under David’s spell. What, if anything, are the limits? What is the relation between her degradation and her pleasure? Kitten’s submissiveness is key to both her liberation and to her potential ruin.

I met with Ariel Sands in late May at a stylish Berlin café, the day after her arrival in the city. Slight and elegant, armored by a black leather jacket and sunglasses, she has a commanding presence: in her professional capacity, she is accustomed to speaking before crowds. Her acerbic wit, her erudition, and her concision—trademarks of her nonfiction—are obvious both in her literary prose and in her conversation. Sands’s demeanor is formal, sometimes clipped; but she has a ready, throaty laugh that keeps her from seeming brittle. Sands does not suffer fools, nor does she downplay her accomplishments. A feminist by her own admission, she is above all a female success story; which is one reason why her interest in Kitten’s obsessive submissiveness intrigues.

On the cusp of forty, Sands is the sort of woman about whom old-fashioned words like “broad” are apt: tough, indomitable, funny, she is clearly, in a general sense, a man’s woman: when ordering coffee, she unfurrows her fine brow and turns a dazzling smile upon our handsome young waiter, despite the fact that he is obviously gay. It’s a flirtatious, even seductive smile; and in spite of her cordiality throughout our encounter, not one she will direct my way.

In the course of our conversation, Sands explains some of the motivations and influences behind her unsettling book, Never the Face; talks about what really turns women on; and tackles the question of how it might sit with the feminist sisterhood.

—Claire Messud for Guernica

Claire Messud: Given that you’re a nonfiction writer, let’s start with the question of why write a novel? Why this sort of novel, and why this specific novel?

Ariel Sands: Well, I wanted to try a different kind of writing. I think it’s tempting to keep on being in a comfort zone, writing in a field you know well, in a style you know well; and actually, for me it seemed more exciting to try something different. But this particular novel happened by accident. It wasn’t what I sat down to write; it’s what appeared as I began to write.

I did want to write a novel about human sexuality. Although this topic can be approached through nonfiction, and sometimes is approached through it very well, I think that what nonfiction can get at is limited. There are some aspects of human sexuality that fiction can illuminate that nonfiction perhaps can’t.

Claire Messud: Do you want to elaborate on that?

Ariel Sands: Studying human sexuality presents certain kinds of difficulties. For example, it’s extremely difficult to know about sexual behavior in the past. We can infer it to some extent through paintings and fiction and writings that come down to us: Casanova’s memoirs give us some insight into some people’s sexuality at a certain period, if you believe them; and the frescoes in Pompeii give you a sense of a kind of overt sexuality that we don’t participate in very much in the West in the twenty-first century.

But there are aspects, particularly of the psychology of sex, that I think you can describe in nonfiction and describe them well, but it’s going to be a different enterprise. It’s going to be, often, much drier. It’s going to be about facts and figures, and on some level, it misses the essence of it. The essence of human sexuality is intensely psychological, and what I wanted to do here was get at the psychology of extreme experiences.

I think the book is structured like a hurricane: the winds blow in one direction; then there’s a brief calm; then they start blowing in the other direction.

Although my novel is very sexually explicit in places, or possibly throughout, titillation is not the point. I wouldn’t put it in the erotic section of a bookshop, I’d put it in the general fiction section, because although the particular kind of sexuality—sadomasochism—is essential to the relationship of the two main characters, it’s really a novel about obsession, about what happens when a relationship starts to get completely out of control.

You read about crimes of passion and people murdering each other over sex, and although it doesn’t come to murder in this, it nevertheless is a kind of dismantling of a self. And I think that’s interesting. I’ve certainly seen it happen to people I know, and I wanted to try and get at why—how can someone lose it like this?

Claire Messud: I’m curious because you’ve referred to Never the Face in connection with The Story of O, which is not a psychological novel, and is not something that would be in the general section. There’s no question that The Story of O is a fantasy. It was written as a gift, as a dare, not as an exploration of psychology. One of the questions that pertains here is that of the humanity of the characters: in The Story of O, the full humanness of the characters is beside the point, right? But what you’re saying to me is that you’ve written a psychological novel, a psychological study of desire.

Ariel Sands: Yes.

Claire Messud: The physical elements are necessary for the story but they are not the point of the story.

Ariel Sands: That’s right.

Claire Messud: At one point you said it was written in a tradition, or out of a tradition, and you mentioned The Story of O. I’m just wondering how those two things sit side by side—how it is simultaneously responding to a tradition of what is undoubtedly erotic fiction, and yet is something different.

Ariel Sands: There is a tradition of sadomasochistic literature, and The Story of O is the most prominent example from the twentieth century. It is definitely a fantasy. When I decided that this was actually what I wanted to write about, and when the material began to appear before me, I wanted it to feel real. I wanted it to be something that you didn’t just flick through for “the good bits,” the way that certainly some people—not mentioning any names—have been known to do with The Story of O and with other fiction of that kind. Arguably the first modern masochist novel is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs . Obviously before him there were de Sade’s novels—and those are both the beginning of—

Claire Messud: And both written by men.

Ariel Sands: Both written by men, absolutely. De Sade’s fiction, personally, actually, I find revolting, I can’t read it. I’m not interested in it; it seems to me to be about suffering in a way that Venus in Furs is not. I think my novel is much more like Venus in Furs than it is like The Story of O. Venus in Furs is not very accessible to a modern reader—at least, it wasn’t to me—because it has so many references to classical antiquity, but it is intended to feel real, and indeed, in his case it was a semi-autobiographical account of a journey that he, von Sacher-Masoch, took as the so-called slave of a woman he was in love with.

Part of his intent is to explore where these sorts of desires come from. And so, although the story as I recall it is not particularly sexually explicit in a graphic way, he’s trying, I think, to understand where such desires come from. And in my book also the characters are trying to investigate where these desires come from. It’s an attempt at self-understanding at the same time as it’s a descent into anarchy.

I think the book is structured like a hurricane: the winds blow in one direction; then there’s a brief calm; then they start blowing in the other direction. And at the end there’s nothing left but destruction and, you know, cars blown onto the beach.

Claire Messud: So, let me take you up on that. The characters are trying to understand where the desires come from.

Ariel Sands: There’s a section in the middle where they play around, trying to understand to what extent it’s a common part of human psychology.

Claire Messud: One of the things that struck me on rereading it is that for our narrator—she doesn’t have a name except Kitten—for Kitten—

Ariel Sands: —or Bitch.

Claire Messud: I prefer Kitten.

Ariel Sands: I prefer Kitten, too.

Claire Messud: I think it comes through perhaps in conversation with her friend Sally—that there is some loss of self, that that is the goal, right? That some loss of self-consciousness, some freedom from the self is the aim. But I was struck on rereading that a lot of the conversation is David telling Kitten what it’s like to be beaten. Which seems ironic because he doesn’t get beaten.

So my reaction is, “So it’s your idea, David, that pain releases you from this and pain does that—how the hell do you know, asshole?” The reason I was hesitating when you said “the characters are exploring” —I feel like, characters?

Ariel Sands: Well, it was a writing decision. At one point I was a bit stuck on how to make the book work. There was a possibility of making it a much more externally referential book, a possibility, for example, that in his [David’s] bookcase he has the earliest psychological works on the subject—you know, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who wrote one of the first studies of masochism and coined the word masochism from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s name [in his book Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: a Clinical-Forensic Study, 1886)].

And in principle, David could’ve had all of these books, and they could’ve been reading The Story of O together, there could’ve been much more obvious commentary back to this other literature, because Venus in Furs and The Story of O are by no means the only examples— there’s Jenny Diski’s Nothing Natural, there’s Josephine Hart’s Damage, there’s also Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, which is again fantasy like The Story of O. There’s tons of stuff. Ian Fleming was famously into all this, and one of his novels includes a rather bizarre look at violence and sexuality, but I decided that they wouldn’t be referred to in the book.

In Never the Face, David, a lot of the time, is repeating what his wife has said to him. In Chapter 8, when he quotes “Some women respond to the whip, and some to the kiss. Most like a mix of both.”—that’s from Ian Fleming. And he got that from his wife.

Because although most of the action [in the novel] takes place between two characters, there are at least two others in the background. And the most important other character is a shadow, but nevertheless a big shadow, and that’s Maria, David’s wife. She’s actually the really smart one, in terms of this sort of psychology. She’s the one who really knows stuff, and he, actually, most of the time, he’s repeating his wife.

I do think obsessive love is something that our society glorifies.

Claire Messud: And yet she had been married for ten years without having an orgasm until he—

Ariel Sands: Until he comes along.

Claire Messud: Until he comes along. So he was an initiate already—but she was the quicker study—

Ariel Sands: Yes, indeed.

Claire Messud: That leads me to another question, which is how important narratively the triangle is—and that’s not theorized, not articulated as an idea. It’s something that’s shown through the plot, through the unfolding of the story. The degree to which that triangle is important remains somewhat shadowy. It isn’t something that the characters talk about: they talk about Maria, but not about her importance in their sexual relationship per se. Is that fair?

Ariel Sands: I think that that’s right. She’s a huge force. When I say that there’s a hurricane, there’s a point in the story at which everybody thinks that they have control of the situation: it’s just fun, it’s a fling, there’s a kind of experiment. This married couple is experimenting with some kind of sinister aspect of submission. Maria’s supposed acquiescence—David says she acquiesces; Kitten believes him; we don’t really know if Maria does, but that’s the stated parameter—her acquiescence, Kitten imagines, is part of their dominance-submission relationship—and everybody thinks they’ve got it under control. Maria thinks she’s got it under control, David thinks he’s got it under control. And then suddenly, no one has it under control. It’s just totally exploded and everybody is just kind of flailing around. And so Maria’s existence is hugely important.

The submissive character of Kitten, is not jealous exactly, and she very rarely talks about Maria directly—but she thinks about it a lot.

Claire Messud: Right, it isn’t jealousy—it’s almost erotic—

Ariel Sands: It is erotic up to a point, I think, for her; and then there comes a point where it’s just fucking everything up. As she becomes more infatuated and obsessed with David, the fact that he’s married to Maria starts to become a problem rather than a fascination.

Claire Messud: So here’s another question: what does this have to do, if anything, with love?

Ariel Sands: Well, it is a kind of love. Arguably, it’s a kind of love that’s very much glorified in our society. The idea that Kitten had a crush on David for many years, she’s known him since she was a kid, she had a crush on him at university, it’s never consummated, and finally the moment comes where it can be consummated. The idea that you’re in love with one person—it’s something you find in Harry Potter, the sinister character of Snape, he’s been in love with Harry’s mother, he never met anyone else, and somehow this is meant to be glorious.

I’d argue that it’s actually not glorious, that it’s a shame as much as anything else, and I think it’s fundamentally immature as a kind of love, but I do think obsessive love is something that our society glorifies.

Claire Messud: So, I’d known that she’d had a crush on him, but I hadn’t understood the extent to which that was a kind of underpinning, that it was the satisfaction of a lifelong desire. What if he hadn’t been a happy sadist and had just been like [her old college boyfriend] Bobby— if he’d just been like Bobby—and she’d held a torch for all those years—then what?

Ariel Sands: She wouldn’t have been interested. I think she knew very early what David was like. Part of the attraction was that. There was always something—not necessarily sadistic, but at least dominant—that she responded to very early.

There are interactions with people that are extremely slight—a brief exchange of looks—that nevertheless tell you a lot about somebody’s character and personality and can leave you with a frisson of excitement, that if it is then consummated turns out to be entirely justified. And then, you know, you can be extremely fond of somebody who leaves you totally cold.

So she had always had this idea that they would be good together—

Claire Messud: But that’s an idea that in life is so often—

Ariel Sands: As indeed it turned out in this case, right, they weren’t good together in the end. It was kind of a train wreck.

Claire Messud: But would she wish not to have done it?

Ariel Sands: That’s a hard question.

Claire Messud: My sense is no. My sense from the book is no. The intensity of it is almost fatal in some way, but it is an intensity that otherwise wasn’t there. That’s one of the things that’s complicated about the book’s psychology: it’s written with some distance and also with no distance at all. It’s written with distance in the foreshadowing—in that she says “stupid bitch”; “didn’t I think… ”; “you’ve crossed the Rubicon—isn’t the Rubicon south of here?”—she gives us all these moments where she’s recalling her hesitations, where she dismissed her reservations.

And yet, and yet, there’s no sense—I don’t get any sense of regret from her. One of the things that fascinates me is these different levels of belief. On the one hand this is a game, a role-playing game; and on the other hand it’s not. There are moments where these two things converge, and moments where there’s some distance between them.

There are these different registers of belief even in the narration of the novel. On the one hand, Kitten tells us “this is over, this is something I look at now with a distance, and think ‘how could I have been this person, how could I have done that,’”—and on the other, she’s saying, “Let me tell you! Let me tell you!” Right? Both of those things are true at once.

It’s a philosophical question about the reality status or the belief status—that’s a terrible word—that as readers, you as an author might expect us to have: whether we’re reading a fantasy, or whether we’re reading a reality. But our reactions—or my reactions, at least, as a reader—are really different depending on which way we’re reading it.

Ariel Sands: It certainly wasn’t conscious, although I think that both things are there simultaneously. David is a very ambiguous figure. On the one hand, he takes sex very seriously, he’s imaginative—this guy is of a different order of magnitude from most people, and at least with her, is very good at getting inside her head. On some level, it’s also about trust, and she trusts him, probably too much, but at the same time, I think there is a question, with him, to what extent is it rhetoric that it’s not a game, in order to make it more real for the purposes of playing a better game.

Kitten is also disturbed by this question of whether he is sinister or not, of how much he means it. For example, she’s disturbed by his fantasies—she’s appalled by them, appalled by the idea that he really does get off on hearing people scream. She thinks there’s a big difference between being submissive and being dominant, and she wonders a lot about who he is, why he’s able to enjoy doing what he’s doing. It’s part of what simultaneously fascinates and scares her.

Journeys through dark places—journeys into the abyss, journeys to the edge of sanity—are intrinsically interesting, I think, precisely because most of us don’t experience them.

Claire Messud: This novel is a voyage of both self-discovery and, in a way, self-destruction—or certainly, loss of self. Would you say something about how these two are related?

Ariel Sands: Yes, it seems paradoxical that what you discover about yourself is that you’re most free when you have obliterated a sense of self, but perhaps that’s true for most of us? It’s just that most of us don’t have an easy route towards obliteration. The self-destruction is a later phase of the story, and I don’t think that that’s inevitable. That is, I don’t think that self-obliteration necessarily has destructive consequences.

Claire Messud: You mentioned early on that this began, for you, in wanting to write a psychological novel about desire. It is certainly an exploration of extremity, of extreme emotions—including desire, but also all the other emotions to which desire renders one vulnerable. Why your particular interest in extremity? Do you think each of us is capable of it? Do you think each of us experiences some version of it, sooner or later?

Ariel Sands: Journeys through dark places—journeys into the abyss, journeys to the edge of sanity—are intrinsically interesting, I think, precisely because most of us don’t experience them. Indeed, they have rather gone out of fashion.

Characters in Shakespeare are often walking on the edge of sanity, or tipping over into insanity—Othello, Ophelia, Lear, Hamlet, these are all characters who become crazed and do crazed things. They’re all characters who become trapped inside their heads. Richard II, when he is in prison, even discusses his thoughts and the extent to which he is a prisoner in mind as well as in body.

And while I certainly wouldn’t compare this novel to anything of Shakespeare’s, I do think that questions of self-destruction are ultimately about how people get trapped inside their own heads, about how they become prisoners of their thoughts. For although Kitten has some powerful help in her descent, it’s essentially self-made. On reading the manuscript, one friend of mine commented that he wasn’t even sure that the character of David was real—that he seemed to be more of a Dark Force that Kitten was wrestling with. And that’s one possible reading of the book.

Incidentally, I just wanted to make a quick aside back to one of the other questions you asked, about the decision not to refer back to other literature. It was partly because I wanted the book to be self-contained, and because I didn’t want it to be long, overt, literary criticism. And I didn’t want it to be that, because I thought it would detract from the obsessive nature of the story—because the story is about obsession but it is also obsessively told.

Claire Messud: The pace of it is completely consuming. And where do you think Kitten is at the end? Is she still in love with that without knowing it, is she still in love with it and does know it, but feels she should have some condemnation of it because it was a train wreck, is she not in love with it but able to re-inhabit the feelings as they were—do you know what I mean?

Ariel Sands: It’s not clear. If I were to write a sequel, I’m fairly sure that she no longer has affairs with married men; I think that there’s an open question as to whether what David says is true, that this kind of submission is fundamental to who she is, or whether it was just fundamental to him.

Claire Messud: Right. That’s something I was curious about—is David irreplaceable? Is this actually a template for what is then the articulation of desire: “I didn’t know what desire was; now I know what desire is—desire, for me, is this”?

Ariel Sands: I don’t know. The shock of the whole debacle, the whole catastrophe of the ending, leaves her in pieces for a while. And the question is, to what extent somebody like that then says, “Okay, I must try and find someone else like him.” Certainly at the end, that’s part of what she’s worried about.

But on the other hand, from the prologue we know that she’s made some kind of peace with it. Whether that means she’s found someone else who’s able to play without being so destructive, or whether it means that she says, “Well, that was an interesting experience, I’m pleased to have had it but I’m not going there again, and from now on it’s vanilla only.”

Claire Messud: But to what extent is this tied to this individual? There’s this passage in Proust where Marcel says, about being in love with Gilberte when he’s young, he says, “I was still at the age when I believed that love was something that came to you from outside.”

Ariel Sands: Right.

Claire Messud: And don’t we all want to still believe that, but we know it’s not true. We know that I could fixate upon the lamp, and I could give it my all, and suddenly the lamp could be my passion. And that—that’s the weirdness of desire: is that it seems on the one hand uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and on the other it’s entirely self-made and internally manufactured.

Ariel Sands: I think that some things are bigger than your own will.

Claire Messud: Really?

Ariel Sands: Yup. So for example, heroin is sometimes bigger than the will of the person. I think arguably, for some people, chocolate cake is stronger than they are, that to satisfy something inside them that is separate from conscious stated will, they are overpowered. They are overpowered by themselves. But nevertheless they are overpowered.

And Kitten is a feminist too. She struggles—especially at the beginning—with whether she “should” feel what she feels, whether it’s okay to take on a submissive role.

Claire Messud: So in this instance, the question is, what is her desire for? Is her desire for that skin, that smell, that hair, that body, or is her desire for something else? For that crop?

Ariel Sands: It’s strongly tied up [laughs] with him, but at least at first she thinks that it’s replaceable. She thinks it’s a set of attitudes and that it’s possible to find a plausible replacement.

I don’t know if she does. Certainly it’s one of the things she’s worried about. There’s a point where she starts to really want the relationship, and really fear it’s not going to work; and at that point she starts thinking, how am I going to find someone else like him—do I advertise? How do I replicate him? And she imagines placing ads in the newspaper “Sexy wildcat taming” or “Bitch seeks owner.” But whatever happens, she reconciles to her life. She does not go through the rest of her life obsessed with that person. She manages to let it go.

Claire Messud: What about the title? Never the Face—it’s clear, in a literal sense, although that’s not a conversation that Kitten and David ever have, but perhaps there are other meanings?

Ariel Sands: I never intended this title to be taken literally, although I realize it can be taken that way. Instead, to me, it is more about shadows, reflections, masks, the loss of self, and the inability ever to know someone else—or indeed, oneself—fully. Several times, the narrator resorts to describing her current condition by describing her mirrored reflection—there’s a symmetry to it, too, as both the first chapter and the final chapter include a scene of this kind, although what she sees when she looks in the mirror is shockingly different—to me, the use of mirrors was somehow related to my conception of the title.

Claire Messud: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Ariel Sands: Yes. And Kitten is a feminist too. She struggles—especially at the beginning—with whether she “should” feel what she feels, whether it’s okay to take on a submissive role—it goes against everything she’s been brought up to think is appropriate. And that’s one of the reasons that her friend Sally is so shocked by it all—Sally sees it as a betrayal of principle.

Claire Messud: So what’s the feminist defense of this?

Ariel Sands: I think that there probably isn’t one. It’s not a book that’s in line with feminist views on female sexuality. That doesn’t mean, however, that those desires don’t exist and that female sexuality doesn’t contain this. For some people, maybe for many. Certainly, when you start looking at erotic literature, as David says to her, much erotic fiction, even the really soft stuff, you know the Mills and Boon, much of it is about these kinds of dynamics.

The theoretical “what women should want” and what women actually want are not the same.

Claire Messud: I read something that suggests that 75 percent of men want to be submissive.

Ariel Sands: There are huge numbers of both. But it’s a famous problem in the S/M subculture: there are far more submissives than dominants. It’s one of the problems she would face in trying to find someone else. There’s a whole “how-to” literature out there, from SM 101—an excellent read by the way—to Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns —which is essentially the The Joy of Sex with whips and capes—and all these books (and others) talk about the dearth of dominants. It’s well known on the scene.

Once you start tabulating the people who are known to have had desires in one direction or another, you end up with a pretty massive list of famous people. Daphne Merkin enumerated a whole list of people who were interested in this kind of thing, on one side of it or the other. I’ve made my own list, and together it’s pretty much a Who’s Who. There were whipping houses—there still are whipping houses in Japan—there were whipping houses in nineteenth-century London where you could go and be beaten.

It’s questionable how much of this is wrapped up with sex—it can be about different things, it can be about religious fervor and fulfillment and so on. But the theoretical “what women should want,” and what women actually want are not the same. And any full discussion of female sexuality has to take into account the reality as opposed to what we’d all like to be the case.

And indeed, arguably, to be able to express your sexuality as it actually is, is a very strong feminist statement. However, this certainly doesn’t fit with what we were all told at university we were supposed to be doing. So I think it makes for uncomfortable reading in some respects. That’s not why I wrote it, at all. But I’m not expecting it to go down particularly well with the women’s studies departments.

Claire Messud: You’ve spoken about the literary forebears—like von Sacher-Masoch—whose influence might be traceable in Never the Face. Are there other literary models or influences that you had in mind? Could you say a little about their role, or effect, in your writing?

Ariel Sands: There were several books I had in mind as models for Never the Face. The three most obvious are Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick, Javier Marías’s novel The Man of Feeling, and W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. Moby-Dick, after all, is a story of obsession—Captain Ahab’s obsession with hunting and killing the white whale. But it’s also much more than that—it’s a detailed account of whales and whaling, as well as having various metaphorical interpretations.

I originally imagined writing a book where there was the obsessive story, but where there would also be lengthy literary asides that commented on other books and other writers in the genre. Eventually I decided that that would get in the way of the story.

The other writers—Marías and Sebald—are superb at the “ultra real” kind of fiction—Sebald even goes so far as to have photographs of people in the text. The photographs are just out of focus, so you can’t tell who they are—and this creates a kind of fiction that feels strongly, disturbingly real, which was an effect I very much wanted to create myself.

Claire Messud: Now, with some distance, do you look back at the writing of this book as a discrete and finite experience, or has it opened a new direction in your work henceforth? Are you working on another novel, or do you have plans for one? And if so, does it bear any relation to this one?

Ariel Sands: I loved writing this—compared to much of the other writing I’ve done, which is heavily soaked in facts and figures, this was hugely liberating. I very much hope to write other novels; I have some ideas, but they are not much like this one. Again, it comes back to what I said about making the switch between nonfiction and fiction—as a writer, I like new challenges, so I’d hope that my next novel will be as different from this one as this one is from my “usual” writing.

Claire Messud: And lastly, because everyone wants to know: why the pseudonym?

Ariel Sands: Two reasons. First, this is very different from my other writing, and I think it’s important to prevent “genre confusion.” Many writers use different names for different kinds of writing—Lewis Carroll, for example, used this name for the Alice books, but wrote under his own name—Charles Dodgson—when writing about mathematics. Second, I wanted the text to be taken on its own terms. Knowing something about an author can alter how you read their writing. In some strange way, using a pseudonym seemed more pure.

Illustration by Erin Schell

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2 comments for Never the Face

  1. Comment by Shoshana Meigh on June 28, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Thank you.

  2. Comment by elaine salkaln on June 30, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Dear Ms Sands,
    Fascinating.
    What do you think of David Mamet’s play / film, “Secretary”;
    and the recent article in the Times, Thursday,June 23rd, on psychologist, Marsh Linehan and not only her history of suicidal tendencies and self medication with pain. but her successful treatments for others who suffer from the malady?
    To me, “Secretary ‘ was a deep and powerful description of love.__
    and the power of that love to heal. also shows that before the healing took place, the woman was “dead” as was the man. that was why they each in their own way inflicted pain on themselves… to feel alive, and to in some way exert ultimate control over themselves, which also gave them a sense of being alive. However the love that they finally were able to achieve did it best!
    I think the flim was a work of genius!
    Now I am going to read your book….
    Elaine

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