The author on depicting female friendship and fielding questions about unlikable characters.
Photo by Steve Reitz
As Good as Dead, author Elizabeth Evans’s newest novel, is an intense portrait of the intricacies of female friendship. Charlotte and Esmé were roommates while attending a competitive creative writing graduate school in the late ’80s; Charlotte was infatuated with her stylish, magnetic friend and so intoxicated by their intimate bond that she could overlook Esmé’s occasional thoughtless violations of trust. When the novel opens, it is twenty years later, and the former friends haven’t communicated in almost that long. Esmé shows up unexpectedly at Charlotte’s Tucson home, reviving a guilty secret and all its accompanying fears.
Charlotte’s own apparent treachery is revealed early on, but not its particulars, which turn out to be as mercurial as the friendship itself. Questions about how Charlotte, who seems so sober and thoughtful, could have done something so terrible to a friend, make the book a page-turner, but Evans’s deft prose also urges slowing down. Through Charlotte’s ruminative voice, As Good as Dead shifts elegantly between mild satire and close, at times excruciating, observation.
Evans is the author of three other novels—The Blue Hour (Algonquin), Rowing In Eden (HarperCollins), and Carter Clay (HarperCollins)—and two story collections: Suicide’s Girlfriend (HarperCollins) and Locomotion (New Rivers). Her books query intimacy, meaning, and morality with wit and compassion, but they are also full of event. Things happen to her characters, who are all too subject to fate and to their own better and worse impulses.
Evans is a professor emerita in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona, a visiting faculty member at Queens University’s MFA program, and she completed her own MFA at the University of Iowa. My friendship with her began twelve years ago at the University of Arizona, where she was my thesis director. Her assiduousness can be intimidating: although she carries conversation lightly, this does not detract from her attentiveness, whether to social dynamics or to a book’s tone or to the birds she travels the world to see. Each of Evans’s novels takes up a very different swath of American life, but they share this clarity of sight, and insight—it’s as though she sees possibilities in her characters’ natures that many might otherwise miss.
I spoke with Evans via email from her home in Tucson, AZ.
—Padma Viswanathan for Guernica
Guernica: You often traverse multiple registers in your work, from satire to intimate domestic drama. Can you talk about the origin and evolution of As Good As Dead, and the ways that these different styles work to articulate its concerns?
Elizabeth Evans: I’ve always been attracted to novels that make shifts in tone or, to use your good word, “registers.” Think of Anna Karenina, in which we see, just to offer a few examples, Levin out in the fields mowing hay and trying to decide—in ways both earnest and comic—if he should live as a peasant; gently tending his dissolute brother in the grimmest sickroom; tearing around on a hunting party; comically horrified while hearing himself repeat the same story that he told at yesterday’s soiree. Or Anna herself, utterly meek and repentant after her affair with Vronsky—then suddenly, no, she finds Karenin repulsive and decides she must leave him! Life is like a coin: tragedy on one side, comedy on the other; the sublime on one side, the banal on the other. Sometimes the coin is spinning; sometimes still with one side up, but there is no one-sided coin.
On and off, I considered various circumstances in which a particular character might feel compelled to perform a terrible favor.
In As Good as Dead, I investigated what was noble and base in Charlotte’s character. She is, at heart, a good person, but I wanted to make sure to provide her with a full humanity in a variety of situations. As narrator, she provides a chilly memory of blotto sex on the waterbed of her roommate’s boyfriend, but also offers up a light-hearted calculation of how to survive solely on items offered for sale at a Walgreens drugstore. When she reports an early beating dispensed by her father, she’s terse. She keeps that very emotional experience tamped down, blunted, the descriptions unembellished, but then I allow her to detail amply the awkward, surprise visit from her long-lost friend Esmé—and I interrupt that visit with narrative commentary that’s designed not only to set the stage for the Big Drama that Esmé’s visit precipitates but also to create intimacy between Charlotte and the reader.
As for the story’s origins: When I was in my early twenties, a much older woman told me that a friend from her past had asked her to perform a repellant favor: provide, please, an alibi that will cover-up the fact that my husband has shot our neighbor’s dog. The story haunted me. On and off, I considered various circumstances in which a particular character might feel compelled to perform a terrible favor. A few years ago, I made a note on the back of a bill sitting on my dresser—just something like, “M’s story of the terrible favor.” Every now and then, I’d write a few more lines on the bill. Finally, I tackled a short story of what became the novel. I let myself drop deep into the joys and tribulations of friendship and marriage and ambition. I kept cutting—and saving—material that interested me—material that, as you put it, plays in different “registers,” so when Bloomsbury’s Nancy Miller read the story and encouraged me to expand it into a novel, I jumped at the chance.
Guernica: At a certain point in the novel, Charlotte’s mother complains about not coming off very well in Charlotte’s stories, and Charlotte says to her, it’s fiction, don’t worry about it. What are your thoughts on the ethics of writers’ inevitable mining of their biographies for their fiction? Can it be as simple as, “it’s fiction, don’t worry about it?”
Elizabeth Evans: It’s not a simple matter. Still, I’d tend to support the twenty-one year-old Charlotte—I wouldn’t want to discourage her from writing what she needs to write—and what she says is true. She writes fiction. Note: she doesn’t say mere fiction. She believes fiction is essential, and goes on to talk to her niece about how fiction selects from the flux of life and transforms what it selects. The transformed material is structured in such a way that it provides the reader with a sense of meaning that’s generally unavailable in the flux. It’s my sense that art creates a distillation of thought or experience that “brings us to life,” reveals—in the grand sense—what we are generally unwilling to attend to or can’t get at on our own, or, at least, can’t hold onto. Pity writers’ families and friends, okay, but the energy in fiction does come from writers working on material about which they feel and think deeply. Inevitably, we draw on the autobiographical. And in order to write well, we have to believe that what we’re doing is crucial. This gets very complicated if one of the key projects of your work is an examination of how people treat one another. When a piece is done, I have to consider whether what I’ve written—despite manifold alterations to the factual—might make someone feel hideously exposed. Be brave, I say, but I have a novel and several stories that I have not published because of such concerns.
My first and third novels—though not remotely autobiographical in the manner of, say, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—draw on aspects of my young life in ways that people who knew my family of origin intimately would recognize. My late father never talked to me about my work—he did tell me he considered fiction a waste of time—but I learned from a sister that he read the first novel, The Blue Hour, and found it “painful.” I wasn’t ashamed when I learned that, but it occurs to me, now, that I might have felt ashamed had he told me so himself. Though that would have meant he was a different person than he was, and the character that borrows from him would have been different. At any rate, I didn’t write the book to cause my father pain, but because I needed to write the book. And I didn’t approach the task lightly. There were scenes and reflections so close to the bone that I took them out and put them back in again and again. Some stayed, some didn’t.
As a reader, I do look for a connection to the author; for the work to provide a confirmation that the author has brought his/her full heart and intelligence to bear on the material.
Guernica: Novelists such as Aphra Behn, William Styron and Junot Díaz write narrators that have a great deal in common with their creators. In Behn’s case, she put a preface in Oroonoko urging the reader to accept the novel as nonfiction. Is there a tension between the perhaps inevitable need of a novelist to draw from life, as they know it, and the common desire of readers to discern autobiographical elements?
Elizabeth Evans: As a writer—this is true in all my work, not just in As Good As Dead—I publicly reveal myself in the sense that I show all that I know—the good, the bad, and the ugly—about the human heart. Now, as a reader, yes, I might be curious as to whether certain details in a piece of fiction are “true” to the historical author’s life, but that curiosity would stand completely apart from whether or not I found the work valuable as a piece of literature. You mention Junot Díaz. Is he interested in readers finding tension between his fiction and his autobiographical self? Certainly, his fiction draws on his history, but he calls it “fiction,” and that tells me that he has a different intention than the memoirist. Vladimir Nabokov, the writer who more than any other convinced me to move from writing poetry to fiction, sometimes played around with the relationship between his story and what has been termed “the nar-author.” That intrigued me as young writer—not because I was interested in what material in the fiction was “true” to Nabokov’s life and what was not, but because I never had seen the artificiality of fiction pointed to so explicitly. As a reader, I do look for a connection to the author; for the work to provide a confirmation that the author has brought his/her full heart and intelligence to bear on the material. That is the sort of intimate knowledge of the author that interests me: the clear sense that, as in the case of Flaubert, for example, who found Emma Bovary banal and maddening, also could write of his creation, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”
Guernica: I wondered if you intended to encourage the reader to conflate Charlotte’s biography with yours. Charlotte teaches in the same program where you taught for many years; she is from Iowa and went to the Writers’ Workshop. She is even deaf in one ear, like you. And, when we see a piece of her fiction, it is explicitly autobiographical, even identifying Esmé by name by mistake. Can you comment on this technique?
Elizabeth Evans: I want the reader to believe in the character of Charlotte absolutely, and the “slip” that Charlotte made in that very old, unfinished manuscript seemed to me an error that a “real person who is a writer” could make—though let me be quick to point out that Charlotte’s old manuscript was not meant to be “explicitly autobiographical.” The story in that old manuscript was invented by Charlotte-the-writer.
Guernica: And for you?
Elizabeth Evans: So it is for me: I really don’t mean for readers to conflate Charlotte’s life with mine. I know a lot about being a professor and Iowa City—I lived and studied there and in the surrounding area for over ten years—and Tucson, too, of course. I knew I could use those familiar elements to build something solid. Still, As Good As Dead’s University of Arizona faculty and staff are inventions, as are the characters depicted at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And, very unlike single Charlotte, when I attended the Workshop, I was a divorcée with a two-year-old daughter.
I’m always observing people, and I’ve held numerous jobs: as a clerk in a lumber store and a Pier 1, a waitress in a truck-stop on I-80, a line-worker in an RV factory, a lay-reader, a bookkeeper, a monitor in a safe-house for victims of domestic violence. I enjoyed depicting a character who is a writer and can stand in front of a class and reflect on the students while she talks to them about the elements of fiction. But would the autobiographical element in that depiction interest the reader who does not know me? I assume that the reader would be interested only in how well the scene works in terms of the story.
Similarly, a reader who does not know me would not know that I am deaf in one ear. Charlotte lost her hearing during a drunken bicycle accident that almost killed her. I started losing the hearing in one ear as a little kid—maybe I’ll write about that one day in a memoir, which is a tent I only have peeked under so far. I gave Charlotte a bum ear because I know the freight of “half-deafness”: you miss clues, conversation at parties is impossible, people assume you ignored a greeting you simply didn’t hear. A just-right problem for shy, self-conscious Charlotte, I thought. It was possible for me to write knowledgably about Charlotte’s blue-collar family because most of the kids I went to school with before college came from such families, but I grew up middle class in a small neighborhood on the edge of that working-class world. The parents in that little neighborhood were college-educated, the moms stayed at home, and the dads were either professionals or owned businesses.
Guernica: Do you think that growing up in a place where those worlds met might have informed or sharpened your ability to observe nuances of character and social interactions?
Elizabeth Evans: Absolutely. And I should clarify that while most of my classmates came from families where the parents worked relatively decent-paying blue-collar jobs at the cement plant and the meat pack and so on, other classmates were poor. A grade school classmate and I were alone in the restroom one winter morning, washing up, and she kept the hot water running over her hands for a long time. She loved to do this, she told me, because they didn’t have hot water at home. That moment—I remember precisely the chill, gray light coming in through the tall, old windows and surrounding the two of us.
Another day, during recess, I saw that a girl from my third-grade class wore a dark blue parka embroidered exactly like one I’d recently outgrown. I was pointing out this odd fact to her when I realized that the school janitor, Mr. Meneke, perched on the fence nearby, was giving me a look. Oh, I realized with some horror, I need to shut up; Valerie’s coat is my old coat. My mother must have donated my coat. Some of my classmates had one pair of pants and one shirt that they wore until they fell into shreds.
Being exposed to and recognizing differences between my own circumstances and the circumstances of others made an enormous impression on me. The capacity for receiving strong impressions is essential to the writer’s makeup. For my own case, I use the word impression in the strict sense, as in, say, of warm wax receiving the shape of a key. Indeed, the idea of a “key” seems apropos. Being exposed to, and profoundly struck by, the reality of other lives different than my own—to the extent that I felt, this person and I are, at heart, the same—provided me with the key to telling stories about lives other than my own. It gave me a proper respect. Without such respect, I wouldn’t feel that I had the right to tell the stories of others.
Guernica: In As Good As Dead, you both poke fun at and treat seriously the heady competition of some graduate writing programs. From your many years of nurturing student writers, what do you think are the key determinants of what could be called writerly success? Were there, in your mentoring life, any really big surprises?
Elizabeth Evans: Few graduate students arrive at the graduate writing workshops without some sense of “calling.” They have to be tough to withstand the scrutiny of their writing, especially if the writing isn’t to the liking of their workshop or teacher. There’s plenty of craving for attention and prizes. Interestingly enough, sometimes people become workshop stars not because their work is brilliant but because they are especially articulate or possess personal charms. Being a star can give a young writer a leg up—say, a workshop professor puts the star in touch with a good agent—but, in my experience, the greatest predictor of success is tenacity. A group of students I worked with in my early years of teaching—friends who supported each other’s work—are now in their mid-forties and enjoying sustained success. All of them were clearly talented and smart, but what really seemed to distinguish them was how hard they kept on working once they finished the program. Of course, you might say that their drive comes in part from the fact that they simply have no choice but to write. And maybe their continuing friendships with one another have sustained them, too.
I should add that it’s been a long time since I was surprised by the post-graduate success of a student whom I didn’t see as notably talented. People who keep on writing after workshop are bound to become better writers, and, then, luck can play its part, too. There’s no denying the power of being in the right place at the right time.
Guernica: What are you proudest of in As Good As Dead? What was toughest for you?
Elizabeth Evans: I suppose that the novel’s candor is what I’m most proud of—especially since that was the greatest challenge of writing the book. It’s relatively easy for me to generate story ideas and develop characters, and I enjoy the editing process. Though I wasn’t tempted to make Charlotte a different sort of character—a female character whose behavior readers would approve of—as I wrote, I did have to work with the knowledge that certain readers wouldn’t “like” her. It’s exhausting to have to continually confront that giant boulder in the middle of the road—exhausting that one is not even supposed to mention that the boulder sits in the road! Well, I scaled the boulder or got around it somehow, but sometimes it was tough.
Since the book was published, two interviewers have asked me essentially the same question that Claire Messud was asked by Publisher’s Weekly regarding the main character of her novel The Woman Upstairs: ‘But would you want to be friends with Charlotte?’ I had imagined that Messud’s eloquent and much discussed response would have prevented that from happening, but no.
Ever since I was a little kid, spying on grown-up parties from the staircase, I’ve been fascinated by the gradations of friendships and loyalties.
Guernica: That question seems to only be posed to women writers, about female characters. Having said that, the depiction of the complex friendship between the two women is one of the greatest accomplishments of your novel. Charlotte is both nurtured and damaged by her relationship with Esmé. You not only present a portrait of Charlotte as a dedicated young writer buffeted by social winds, but also an examination of female friendship subjected to the pressure of various kinds of competition. Can you describe how the relationship came into being under your pen?
Elizabeth Evans: The woman who told me the triggering story—the request for the terrible favor—was simply appalled by her old friend’s request. She felt no pressure or obligation to fulfill it. Given all that I know about the joys and tyrannies of friendship—how easily the gift of friendship can collide with the ambitions of the individuals involved—I could imagine a very different response. I could imagine “chips being called in.”
I grew up the youngest of four daughters in a family that was pretty dysfunctional, but involved in a wide, sometimes wild, social circle. Ever since I was a little kid, spying on grown-up parties from the staircase, I’ve been fascinated by the gradations of friendships and loyalties.
It was important to me to depict the unbridled jubilation that I felt in the company of certain female friends when I was a young woman. As a college freshman, I had the great good luck to be assigned a roommate who had some of the qualities that Esmé possesses. She was lovely, intelligent, and able to make friends easily. I adored her but envied her, and we had our troubles. For one thing, I couldn’t quite believe that she was as fond of me as I was of her. Luckily, she was a brave person and valued our friendship in ways that I—coming from a wildly dysfunctional family—didn’t yet understand. She called me on some of my trespasses and, to this day, we remain dear friends, great confidants.
In the novel, Esmé and Charlotte share more than an interest in writing fiction; they recite poetry together, they sing to each other, for Christ’s sake! I wanted to show the joy in that, but I also wanted to investigate the scorching anger that I and other women have experienced when betrayed by female friends—and the shame we’ve known when we ourselves have been the betrayers. And the latter, I found, invariably involved a betrayal of myself. The writing of all this turned out to be a little spooky, really. Even though I was chiseling away, working to uncover the novel’s overarching meaning, revising and revising sentences to find the best rhythms, and so on, while I lived through that time, I often felt as if I were Charlotte, facing life-altering conflicts. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”
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