Photograph by Rachel Herr

In Rebecca Kauffman’s character-driven novels, everyone has pre-existing conditions. Her protagonists suffer from afflictions both physical and emotional: Another Place You’ve Never Been (2016) chronicles the decades-long dissolution of two families, while in The Gunners (2018), a young man losing his eyesight reconvenes a group of former neighbors following a classmate’s suicide. Flashbacks emphasize children’s helplessness in the hands of shortsighted parents, and ubiquitous themes of abuse, addiction, and abandonment expose characters’ capacities to be both predator and prey. These are deeply wound narratives, which slowly uncover divisions between lifelong friends and close relations.

The quiet spectacles of Kauffman’s novels, which unfold in working-class, middle-American settings, are the instances of grace and dignity encased within harrowing circumstances. Even quick, painless death is, given the alternative, a mercy. In her devotion to the subtle rhythms of conversation, marriage, and maturity, Kauffman underscores the humanity of even the ugliest deeds.

The House on Fripp Island, her third novel in less than four years, is new territory for Kauffman, given its structure as a beach thriller. Yet for all its suspense, the book is driven by its attunement to class distinctions and companionship. Lisa and Poppy, friends since adolescence and each married with two children, plan a joint family vacation at a palatial house in coastal South Carolina. The two families tiptoe around gulfs in wealth and taste, attempting to better identify what they owe themselves and each other.

Despite their shared history, Lisa and Poppy occupy different worlds. Lisa’s husband Scott has found his professional calling in a lucrative, ethically questionable legal field. Feeling stifled in a household with two daughters, he expresses his vengeful middle-aged masculinity in drunken outbursts, gambling, and, Lisa suspects, a penchant for womanizing. Lisa finds herself increasingly envious of the domestic bliss Poppy enjoys with her husband John in their blue-collar West Virginia hometown.

The politics on display are performative and, sometimes, subtextual. Scott’s golf course etiquette and ostentatious Christianity are belied by his boorish behavior behind closed doors. Already sensing her lack of agency as a young woman, Lisa’s older daughter Rae is envious and apprehensive of her mother’s sexuality, observing its deployment as both a tool and a crutch. The lurid institution of American leisure, in its bright pastels and sugary cocktails, allows for commentary beyond the scope of the families’ intimate social gathering.

A murder plot adds a whiff of intrigue to each interaction, but the book’s chief thrills, as in Kauffman’s earlier novels, arrive via tenderly written dialogue. In one scene, Poppy’s college-aged son Ryan attempts to discuss death with Lisa’s ten-year-old daughter Kimmy in a way that won’t bruise the little girl’s infectious spirit. While Lisa and Poppy maintain an effortless alliance, their protectiveness as mothers borders on paranoia and reflects a shift in priorities since their young adulthood. Each of Fripp Island’s characters is both destructive and fundamentally decent, and all equally helpless when faced with mortality.

Days before The House on Fripp Island’s publication, I reached Kauffman by phone at her home in Virginia to discuss her novels’ tonal balance, naturalistic elements, and her development as a young artist.

Pete Tosiello for Guernica

Guernica: I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Fripp Island is a departure from your earlier novels in that there’s a murder plot. Was this format a challenge for you? What inspired you to take this approach for your third book?

Rebecca Kauffman: This book started as an experiment to see if I could do something with a novel that I hadn’t done before. I really admire writers like Jennifer Egan, whose books are very different from one to the next in style, structure, and subject matter. My first and second book are quite different from one another overall, but similar in the sense that both make a lot of use of flashback and vignette. In both books, there’s a clear protagonist whose emotional life is at the helm of all of the action, and was at the forefront of the decisions that I made along the way. In Fripp Island, I wanted to start out with a central question or problem or mystery, and see if I could sustain a reader’s interest in that over the course of the book—and then also, perhaps more importantly, see if I could do interesting things with character development within that context.

Once I had the mystery established, my objective was to make a pressure cooker of the house that the characters were in together. As a person who finds other people’s conflicts intensely interesting, this was an intriguing premise for me to work with from the get-go—to identify every possible entanglement within the group, and see how they all played out under one roof.

I think character development will always be my first love. It wasn’t until the characters in this book became distinct to me that the story itself began to sweep me up as well. Whatever type of story I’m engaging with as a reader or a writer, and whatever sort of craft challenge I undertake, my primary interest is always in people. Whether my books are plotty or meandering, I think I’ll always take the most joy in telling stories that honor the complexity of the human heart. I hope this book accomplishes that, and I hope my books will find readers who share that interest as well. 

Guernica: While reading Fripp Island, something I found myself thinking a lot about was these performative, almost competitive displays of wealth and leisure which seem endemic to the culture of American vacations—and the forced camaraderie and class envy that come with all of that. Did you find that writing a beach novel allowed you to explore issues of class and privilege in ways you hadn’t before? 

Kauffman: Absolutely. That’s exactly what I mean by creating a pressure cooker of the house, which has always been my experience of vacation—that being under the same roof can create all sorts of new dynamics with people who you’re more accustomed to in smaller doses. 

In terms of class, the lens through which I wanted to explore it in this book was not necessarily any broad, sweeping social commentary, but just to take a microscope to the small daily ways that having money, or not having money, factors into little decisions like clothing, food, understanding of appliances, that sort of thing. As a working artist, I’ve become accustomed to the feast-or-famine mindset, and have experienced the up-and-down of the freelance lifestyle, shifting between comfort and discomfort, enough times that I’m hyper-aware of how my own consumer habits change really quickly.

The other aspect of class that I wanted to look at in the book relates to the assumptions that we tend to make about others who are in different financial circumstances. In this case there’s mutual discomfort, especially between Lisa and Poppy, in relation to this. Initially both of them are a bit ungenerous in the way they view the other, but over the course of the book they make great strides to forge beyond petty observations and judgments and grievances about the other’s lifestyle in service of connecting on a more meaningful level.

Guernica: One of the things I’ve enjoyed about your novels is that while most of the conflict is propelled by genuinely traumatic circumstances—financial distress, substance issues, abuse and mental illness—I’ve found that each of your books has a distinct and realistic element of hope. Is there a certain balance or tone you’ve sought between your darker themes and a more optimistic outlook? 

Kauffman: In general when it comes to theme—and I’m really pleased by your observation and will happily agree that I think hope is a theme that emerges in most of what I write—the ideal scenario for me is that it emerges fairly late in the course of writing a book. I think the moment you decide what a story is about, or what is good about a story, or what is the crux of the story thematically, is the moment that your thinking about the story becomes rigid and the story stops evolving.  

I see a lot of risk in determining a theme too early, or setting out to, for example, write about darkness or about redemption or about hope, because of the way that instantly limits the scope of a project—and the work tends to come out really heavy-handed anyway. I’m not necessarily consciously writing about a theme like hope, or towards a theme like hope, but maybe instead just allowing myself to unconsciously write in proximity to it, and then edit accordingly once I have a better understanding of the full story.

Guernica: The Gunners and Fripp Island are both very much ensemble novels. How have you gone about finding the right group dynamics and compositions of characters while writing these books?

Kauffman: I love writing ensemble scenes. Dialogue in a group setting is probably my favorite thing to write. Generally speaking, in composing a group, I’m usually aiming for a contrast of characters to provide a vibrant dynamic. I think I enjoy writing that sort of scene so much because in daily life I so rarely say what I want to say in the moment, especially in a group setting. Unless I know the people that I’m with really well, I tend to default to quiet observer. 

Writing ensemble scenes in fiction gives me the chance to say all of the funnier or more intelligent, more compassionate, more provocative sorts of things that I might wish I’d said after the fact, but in real life it just takes me way too long to arrive at. So being able to toil over an ensemble scene in fiction allows me to be an instigator and provocateur and puppetmaster in a way that I really enjoy. 

Guernica: Each of your novels has main characters portrayed as children. In Fripp Island, Kimmy in particular stands out as an insightful kid, but she has a very wandering mind—she hops from subject to subject while speaking and asks a lot of questions. When writing about children, are there any ways you’ve worked to ensure their language and dialogue seem authentic? 

Kauffman: I don’t have children, so I can really only go on my very limited current interactions with children, and my own memory of being a child, which is usually fairly accessible to me. I’m glad you brought up Kimmy—she was my favorite character in the book to write. In particular, her existential crisis is something that I remember acutely from that age. I can recall reaching a point in life where I was suddenly deeply concerned with big questions—what happens when we die, what’s the purpose of life—and I remember finding it absolutely unacceptable, unfathomable that grown-ups couldn’t provide answers.

Kimmy is grappling for answers or information from anyone who’s willing to engage with her, particularly people she has deemed to be intelligent, and she has a certain exuberance that was fun to put on display in that context.

Guernica: The animal and natural worlds always play a big role in your narratives as well. How have you found that to be a useful metaphorical device for your human characters? 

Kauffman: It’s easy to forget that at our core we have the same survivalist impulses that animals do, that we are both predator and prey in our daily lives and relationships. I always enjoy pushing the envelope in terms of danger and violence in the natural world in a book. The reality is the predatory behavior that we exact on one another is far more prevalent, and a much bigger threat. 

Guernica: Each of your novels has a distinct, richly evoked regional setting, but many of your themes seem deeply American. How have these settings—the Greater Buffalo/Great Lakes region in your first two novels, and now coastal South Carolina in Fripp Island—been meaningful to your narratives?

Kauffman: Middle-America in general really interests me. It’s where I’m from, I have all sorts of contradictory feelings about it, and I’m always keen to explore something that stirs me up. I also think that exploring a setting more deeply in fiction allows me to connect with memories of times in my life that I’ve spent at these different locations in a meaningful way.

Writing setting is something that I think can be developed with practice, so just from a craft setting, I enjoy constructing settings pretty meticulously. The same way, for example, they say you remember your dreams more clearly if you get into the habit of recording them first thing in the morning, I think making a habit in life of noting what strikes you as unique about an ordinary setting, or a memory that you carry of a setting, sharpens your ability over time to observe and develop precise and inspired language around those observations. Eventually it becomes second nature to notice interesting things about a place. That’s something I find both aesthetically meaningful, and also an avenue to connect more powerfully with memories I have of certain places. 

Guernica: If my math’s correct, Fripp Island is your third novel in three-and-a-half years, which is a pretty incredible pace for literary fiction. As a writer, how have you managed to stick to such ambitious publishing timelines? 

Kauffman: When it comes to productivity and efficiency I’ve dabbled with strict adherence to goals, whether it’s daily word count or hours of writing per day or per week. But what I’m finding to be more helpful has less to do with rigid expectations and more to do with adopting a specific mindset, which is to remain as open and elastic for as long as possible. This is sort of what I was referring to in terms of how I like to approach theme—on top of being a helpful mindset to me craft-wise, it’s a time-saving one as well, because I waste less time moving blindly and stubbornly in the wrong direction for the story, and there’s less to untangle if I decide to change my course.

Also, on efficiency, I think it’s both a bad impulse and a major time-suck—and I did a lot of this in my early years of writing—to become too attached to a particular moment in a story, or a character or plot element. Or it could be something as small as a metaphor or a joke that you think really lands. If you identify that from the outset and decide, This is so good, I’m going to wrench the entire story around to accommodate this one thing, I think you’ve entered a danger zone. Because if you’re wrong, you’re likely to create all sorts of distortions in the story, and waste loads of time. 

If that awareness of what’s good or important in a story happens too early, you don’t give the story room to breathe and transform and evolve in its own magical way. So, my advice when it comes to theme—and also when it comes to efficiency—is to stay committed to giving your story space to change right up until you’re at the very final stages of editing.  

Guernica: I read that you studied music performance for years prior to publishing fiction. Was there a specific point when you pivoted from performance to creative writing?

Kauffman: Yes, but it was not so much a specific point as a two- or three-year aimless, meandering time. I had moved from New York City to Buffalo, New York. This was around 2008, so right around the recession. With a degree in music, I had a hard time finding work in the arts. I was waiting tables, reading voraciously in my free time, and that’s when I slowly started thinking, maybe writing, and decided to give it a go.

The biggest overlap, or area of interaction, has been in terms of self-discipline. My years at the conservatory conditioned me to spend many, many hours a day alone working on my craft with no outside influence or affirmation. Of course, writing is very similar in that respect.

It’s sort of curious to me that this is the path that I’ve chosen, starting with classical music and now writing, because I consider myself to be like a little kid in the sense that I need constant affirmation! Or I crave it, anyway. But for whatever reason, I have pursued these disciplines that are deeply solitary.

Pete Tosiello

Pete Tosiello’s criticism, reportage, and interviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times, Vulture, and Pitchfork, among many others. He lives in New York City.

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