The novel is not centred upon youth in the way that many other modern stories of desire and relationships are. Do you think this is something that has been missing from contemporary fiction and was this a conscious attempt to redress the balance? Equally the focus on female voices throughout?
While the affair with James happens in the middle of Maggie’s life — that dark ink-blot at the centre of her imagined timeline — the narrative casts a much wider time-net. Maggie’s childhood and adolescence, her loss-of-virginity in college, her wedding, her years at Princeton and the boys’ school, the birth of her children and move to Nashville. And then of course the novel sweeps far into the future, into Maggie’s old age and beyond it, right up to ‘the end of all things.’ So the mid-life affair actually functions as a kind of vortex around which the novel swirls.
Throughout her life Maggie looks for ways to understand and manage her guilt, she is aware of the mechanisms, the ‘intellectual scaffolding’ as she puts it, that make up her self preservation. But she doesn’t regret her feelings, her actions. Is that a fair assessment?
I think any reader’s assessment is a fair one! Once a book is out in the world, 'meaning' belongs to the reader. That said, I might re-phrase slightly: Maggie doesn’t regret her feelings, but she does regret her actions. She also recognizes the paradox: the actions are what allowed her to experience the feelings. To 'keep' the feelings but re-vision the actions in a way that allows her some peace — this becomes Maggie’s agonising intellectual, emotional and theological struggle.
From the infidelity, both Maggie’s grandmother’s and her own, to taboo relationships (her uncle’s thwarted relationship with a black woman) to Thomas’ attempts to improve their sex life, there is a weight of expectations here – others’ desires. Do you think Maggie compromises as a result or still manages to foreground her own desires?
This is indeed one of the novel’s central tensions: how do we negotiate between the radically passionate lives we often long for, and the sedate-but-bearable lives we usually choose? The daily, sometimes hourly decision to do the 'right thing' over and against one’s feelings — trusting that eventually the feelings will follow — this becomes a quietly radical act of faith. Trusting that there will be other, possibly greater gifts on the far side of the discipline.
There are multiple threads within the novel; Maggie and James’s relationship, Maggie and her husband’s relationship, the epistolary relationship with James, other voices. Is there a point from which, for you, the story sprung? Did the idea develop from the affair in the same way that the finished novel does, or differently?
I drafted the final scene first, years ago, thinking it was the seed of a short story: a couple holding hands and taking a walk around a pond. In the story the couple start out very young, early twenties. They fall in love during the first lap. With each subsequent circuit around the pond they age ten years. After seven or eight laps — which in real-time takes an hour — they’ve become ancient, grey-haired and stooped. The woman helps the man find a shady place to rest. That was as far as I got with it. I had no idea that couple would someday become Maggie and Thomas walking around the pond in Tennessee.
Eliot appears as quite an influence on the novel and Maggie’s story. Do you think his warning that literature risked being divided into ‘pagan’ and religious books to its own detriment has held true and what do you make of the effects of that if so?
The problem with self-consciously 'Christian' writing — what I think Eliot was referring to — is that it only wants to tell one aspect of the truth, or its own version of the truth. It has an agenda. But real art will never have an a priori agenda, especially not a religious one. Any authentic artist — whether she is an artist of faith or not — begins with reality, the flesh and bone and muscle and sinew of existence. Her work will tell us of things as they are, not as they 'should be'. If there is such a thing as 'truth' it will be located in and translated through the material world. The human body. The physical senses. Nature. I know there is such a thing as the 'Christian publishing industry' but I don’t think it has anything to do with literature. That is to say, I don’t think the audience for whom it exists is an audience that would ever pick up my book. Or Kafka or Dostoyevsky or Camus, James Salter or Lydia Davis or Maggie Nelson. All great tellers-of-truth.
Describing the act of betrayal in the opening chapter Maggie refers to ‘The safe way to let yourself fall in love with someone who isn’t your spouse: imagine the life you might have together after both your spouses have passed away’. Is Maggie cynical or just a realist?
I actually might call her an optimist here, because she’s imagining the only way she could 'have' James without hurting anyone else: in late life, after the people she would hurt have passed away. This is why the final scene — the old married couple walking around the pond — says something about Maggie’s evolution as a character. It reverses the opening: instead of imagining herself with the 'magnificent old man I knew [James] would become', she chooses to imagine herself with her husband.
The novel makes reference in various places to 2017 and feels consciously modern. Was there a deliberate attempt to be as contemporary as possible with events? Why?
When I’m drafting I’m doing almost nothing deliberately. The affair happens between 2013 and 2017, and I included dates for Maggie’s journal entries and her emails with James because dates were authentic to those forms. But again, those contemporary bits aren’t the whole of the novel. The narrative goes back to when Maggie’s grandmother was a teenager in the 1920s, and to when Maggie’s father and uncle were children in the 1950s, and to Maggie’s childhood in the 1970s and 80s, to her college years and wedding and graduate school in the 1990s, to the day of the 9/11 attacks and her childrearing years in the early 2000s. And the narrative moves forward from there into the future, when the Alaskan glaciers have shrivelled and only one newspaper in America still exists in print.
In one of the emails to James, Maggie quotes C.S Lewis; ‘ A book sometimes crosses one’s path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.’ Are there books which have influenced you in the same way?
Too many to list. A few standouts: Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Collected Essays. Salter’s Light Years. Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory and The Problem of Pain. Jack Gilbert’s poetry, all of it. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.