Transcript: G. Willow Wilson and Zen Cho

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 6.

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JENN

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. In this episode, G. Willow Wilson and Zen Cho talk to us about two of their favorite unreliable narrators.

JENN

G. Willow Wilson is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Alif the Unseen, the memoir The Butterfly Mosque, and the graphic novels Cairo, Air, and Vixen. She co-created the celebrated comic book series Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, winner of the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, and recently debuted as writer of the Wonder Woman comics. Her new novel, The Bird King, is a fantastical journey set at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, exploring love versus power, religion versus faith, and freedom versus safety.

GUEST 1

My name is G. Willow Wilson, and The Hunters by Claire Messud is my recommended.

So The Hunters is actually a duo of novellas by the author Claire Messud. The first one is about a woman who is looking back on her life during World War II, and all of the things that she had to endure, and how different the life of her son, who grew up in Canada after she was relocated, has turned out to be, and the massive gulf that that has caused between them, and the great irony that she feels in that gulf, because the reason that she brought him to Canada in the first place is so that he would not have to go through what she went through. And it’s an amazing parable about the gulf that can open up between generations unexpectedly.

And that one, I liked, but the one that really stuck with me, the one that really struck me, was the titular novella, The Hunters, which, in many ways, is kind of a precursor, but in a much more literary, restrained, fascinating form of novels like The Girl On The Train, and the kind of Gone Girl, disappearing woman under mysterious circumstances genre that has become so popular in recent years. And the reason that The Hunters is something I go back to again and again, is because it does several things very well: It does an unreliable narrator extremely well, it creates depth in characters who could otherwise just have been ciphers or plot devices, and there are some narrative twists that I didn’t see coming, and I kind of pride myself on my ability to see narrative twists coming. So it’s a really, really fascinating book.

We never learn the gender, and we never learn the name of the narrator. But what’s so incredible about this book, is that the first person narrative is so well done, you feel so close to the narrator, you feel like you’re sitting at their elbow. There’s a feeling of real intimacy, so when you get to about three quarters of the way through the novella, and the narrator says … This is 20 years after the main events of the book, that their life has changed because they fell in love with somebody much younger who was neither the gender nor the age that they would have expected. And it’s only when you get to that point that you say, “Oh my god, we don’t know this person’s name. We don’t know this person’s age. We don’t know this person’s gender.” This narrator, who we’ve spent 100 pages with, and we think we know so well, we really know nothing about, and we’re left to wonder. It’s never revealed, has this person, after a lifetime thinking that they were heterosexual, fallen in love with someone of their own gender. Or, is it the reverse? Are we dealing with a man? A woman? It’s so unclear. And yet, that feeling of intimacy remains.

And what that says about us, as the reader, is almost as interesting as what it says about the book.

I found this book entirely by accident. I bought a copy when I was living in Cairo, and books in English were fairly expensive, and fairly scarce. So when I would go to an English language bookstore, it really forced me to broaden my tastes and my reading material, because I was limited by what was there. I couldn’t order things off of Amazon, I couldn’t go to Books-A-Million, I couldn’t go to the bookstore across town. It was really whatever the selection was at that bookstore, and that was it.

And so The Hunters was something that I picked up on a whim, at an English language bookstore in downtown Cairo, and I read the back copy, and I thought, “You know what? This isn’t something that I would normally read. But you know what? I’ve kind of combed through the rest of the bookstore, and this is the most intriguing thing that I’ve found.” And I took it home, and I read it, I think, overnight. It’s one of those things that even though a lot of the themes are quite heavy, reads very fast because the narration is so rich and restrained at the same time. The language is so precise. The story goes at quite a clip. And I was really blown away. And I seem to remember … This was maybe, gosh, 15 years ago, that as soon as I read it, I put it down. And then a couple of days later, picked it up and re-read it all over again.

I feel like having read this book now, oh gosh, probably three or four times all the way through, that there’s really something to be said for restraint in the narrative. I think we assume a lot, as writers, that the readers are going to ask certain questions. When the fact of the matter is that, if you build up the world well, whether it’s something very real, set in the real world, as The Hunters is, or it’s high fantasy, or anything in between, if you set that world up appropriately, you can get away with concealing a great deal and letting the reader fill in whatever they see, or whatever pops into their head, and you can use that. That’s really a tool that can pay off down the line in the story when you need to add a twist, and you realize that, “Oh, well I haven’t said X, Y, or Z,” or, “I’ve kept this a secret from the reader, but they probably haven’t realized it, yet.” And then you can go back in and drop something in that feels really genius because you’ve read the story well, you’ve kind of got a read on what you said, what you haven’t said, and you’ve allowed the reader to do quite a bit of work in filing in the details.

The twist in the Hunters caught me so completely off guard that I kind of took a step back and reassessed myself as a reader. And it’s so fun when you get a book that does something like that for you, that really changes your reading experience, and the way that you process a story, and reminds you that you’re not as smart as you thought you were. And it’s so rare, and when it happens, it’s just so much fun. And The Hunters was really one of those books for me.

I’m really glad that, at the time I picked up The Hunters, my choices were somewhat limited, because I think if I had been left to my own devices and had a whole giant Barnes & Noble, or a really well-stocked indie bookstore, or library, or Amazon at my disposal, I would never have thought to pick up this book. And it really says something about stretching yourself, about not limiting yourself to what you think you like, but opening yourself up to books that you might not pick up normally, but which could really be a turning point for you as a reader. And you realize that your tastes are much more omnivorous than you thought.

So I’m really grateful that I was in a situation where my choices were somewhat limited, because I think … Not just in the case of Claire Messud and The Hunters, but there were a lot of books that I read during that period that I would not have picked up had I had access to books that were part of my normal reading diet, which runs a little bit more mainstream, and skews a little bit more sci-fi/fantasy and genre.

So I’m really happy that that was just one of those wonderful coincidences that can happen in your reading life, where you pick something up and it kind of changes who you are as a reader.

I have recommended it to others. When people say that they liked Girl On A Train or Gone Girl, or something from that genre, I will immediately say, “Well, you will love The Hunters. Pick it up. It’s a bit more literary. It’s a bit more textured. It’s a bit more challenging, and the reward is just incredible.” And I also recommend it to people who say, “What are some good novellas?” It’s one of those things that doesn’t quite fit into one category or another, in terms of what genre it is, or what you would call it. It’s not quite a mystery. It’s not quite a thriller. It is quite literary, so it doesn’t fit, in terms of genre, into one box really neatly.

JENN

Thanks again to G. Willow Wilson for joining us and recommending The Hunters by Claire Messud. Her new novel The Bird King, published by Grove Press, is now available wherever books are sold, and you can follow Wilson on twitter at gwillowwilson.

AD READ: CHENDELL: A Natural Warrior by Leslie Landis

JENN

Zen Cho is the author of the short story collection Spirits Abroad, and two historical fantasy novels, Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen. She is a winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She was born and raised in Malaysia, resides in the UK, and lives in a notional space between the two. The True Queen, which takes place two years after the events of Sorcerer to the Crown, follows a young woman with no memories of her past who finds herself embroiled in dangerous politics in England and the land of the fae.

GUEST 2

my name is Zen Cho and Villette by Charlotte Bronte is my recommended.

So Villette follows the fortunes of Lucy Snowe, who is not unlike Jane Eyre from Bronte’s most famous novel. She’s, you know, sort of mean, pure, poor, obscure young woman, English woman. And she has been left alone in the world, due to circumstances she doesn’t go a huge amount of detail into. And she ends up going to Villette, which is a fictional, Belgian city. And she becomes a teacher there, at a school. And the story’s just all about her experiences there, the people she meets, and eventually, the person she falls in love with. And it follows quite closely, I think, Charlotte Bronte’s experience teaching in Belgium herself.

I grew up in Malaysia, and I didn’t have any libraries nearby, really, all the decent libraries were about an hour’s drive away, and as a child I didn’t drive. I was taken to a bookshop about once a week and allowed to buy one book, so what it meant was that I was perpetually, in kind of, reading deprived. I had very little reading material that could keep up with my reading speed. And so, I … and there also weren’t … there wasn’t a huge selection of books in Malaysian bookshops. The situation’s improved since then, but at the time that I was a child for example, there are very few Malaysian authors on the shelves, exclusively kind of British and American authors, and I made a very good discovery as a child, and I think I must have been around ten years-old when I started reading my way through these. And the discovery was the Penguin Popular Classics. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these, they’re sort of beige, mass-market paperbacks. The great thing about them was that they were very cheap, so they were 5.80 ringgit, which is about a pound, a British pound. And Jane Eyre, for example, provides a lot of reading material for 5.80 when you’re only allowed to go to the book shop once a week.

So, when I found these, I just started reading through them. I read Dickens, I read Austen, I read George Eliot, and, obviously, Bronte, the Brontes. And so, I read Jane Eyre first, and then just went through what else I could find by her. She hasn’t published all that much, three novels mainly, so Villette was the next thing, and I have to say, although Jane Eyre is more famous, Villette is definitely my favorite of the three.

And I think it’s just a really fascinating book, I can’t think of anything that is quite like it. And I think part of the reason is because Lucy Snowe, the main character, and it’s written in first-person, like Jane Eyre, is quite a weird person. Jane Eyre is pretty weird, but Lucy Snowe is even weirder. And given that when you sort of think of her, each of the protagonist probably followed Bronte fairly closely, sort of makes you think, wonder what sort of person she was.

Lucy Snowe is a really fascinating protagonist, cause one thing about her is that she well, firstly, she’s incredibly lonely, she’s a person that’s kind of been left alone in the world, she doesn’t really have any family that she tells you about. She doesn’t seem to really have any close friends. And she’s set herself up as a kind of observer, she’s conscious that she has no money, she has no family, she’s somebody who’s very insignificant in kind of Victorian society.

And so, what she does for a lot of the book, is observe other people. And kind of try to decide whether to keep them at a distance or allow them to affect her. And one theme that keeps coming up, is they tend to affect her more than she thinks that she affects them, because they’ve got their own lives and so on, she’s sort of peripheral person in their life, whereas she doesn’t have anyone in her life, so she’s kind of, you know, getting really emotionally invested in all these people. I guess if you knew somebody like that in real life you might sit her down and say, you’re getting over-involved in these people’s lives, and they don’t really care about you, it’s getting a bit creepy frankly. But it’s really fascinating to read about, in the novel form. And another thing about her, actually the thing about her that most critics I think foreground, is that she doesn’t tell the reader the full story, so she’s one of those unreliable narrators.

And so I think that’s part of the fascination of the book that you’re kind of following the narration of this person who’s kind uncomfortably honest about all of her kind of weird feelings. They’re all very intense feelings, you know lot of lots of feelings, like Jane Eyre. But at the same time she’s kind of not coming into full story, she kind of comes casually later like “BTW, like I knew that person, that I mentioned in chapter three. And he was the guy I knew as a kid”. And you’re like why, Lucy, why didn’t you tell us that?

It’s a book that I’ve chosen as a reader, rather than a writer cause, I was thinking what would I say about Villette as a writer. Well, I think what I’d say is very difficult to draw direct inspiration from. And I’m somebody that actually tends to, in writing things, I tend to remix what I’ve read. So Sorcerer to the Crown, which is my first novel, draws very heavily, in example, in regency romances. P.G. Wodehouse, you know, all the kind of British comedy that I read as a child. Whereas, and I actually tried to remix Villette, I tried to write once, a space opera version of Villette. That’s set in kind of cultural setting inspired by the classical maritime kingdoms of Southeast Asia. Which sounds kind of mad, but, I sort of thought alright I can see how this is gonna work. There are gonna be sort of bio-engineered courtesans, and you know robots, and all sorts. And I just couldn’t really make it work.

I keep going back to it in a way, because I haven’t really worked out why it exerts this power over me. It is really fascinating, it’s just really so immersive, it’s just incredibly immersive. I should say it’s well, but Lucy Snowe is not a very attractive person in lots of ways, she’s like super racist against the Flemish, um, maybe racist isn’t the right word because they’re all white. But at the same time she just describes them in this quite racialized way. Which is frankly very off putting for a modern reader. But at the same time, you know, I think because they inhabit her point of view so strongly, cause she kind of conveys that, and she might have just drawn you in. I don’t personally find that off putting. She’s also really anti-roman catholic. I suspect, probably, part of the reason why I don’t find it so off putting that I don’t dislike the book is because these kinds of discriminations as it were seemed kind of almost risible to a modern reader, kind of like they’re catholic so what.

She’s living in a time where the British self identity is very strongly shaped by the fact that Britain is a protestant country, as distinct from the continental countries, which are catholic. You can definitely see that in the texture of the work. So one of the major conflicts later on, she falls in love with a french teacher at the school, Monsieur Paul Manuel. And one of the conflicts is that he’s catholic, he’s roman catholic, and she’s protestant. And that’s something that she actually kind of struggles with herself. She ends up sort of saying “oh yeah well catholicism is terrible, but he’s great, so he kind of transcends catholicism” which is an interesting point of view.

I don’t actually recommend Villette all that often cause I think it needs a particular reader. Everyone’s got such a huge, kind of to read list nowadays, I mean everyone who’s interested in reading. If not interested in reading you’re very unlikely to take on, you know an extremely long, Victorian novel about a woman working. Within, frankly, is not Bronte’s most accessible style. Lots of the dialogue is in french, which lots of the dialogue to this day I don’t understand because I don’t speak french. And it’s one of those Victorian poems you know. And you’ve got this character who’s not immediately sympathetic. I don’t recommend it often, but it’s one of those books where when you meet a fellow fan you’re like “it so great, isn’t it so great”. That kind of creates a bond between you. It’s like right, you too are a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s second most famous novel.

Nowadays I do try to read a wider range of authors, I do try to read a wider range of things. I tend to read a lot of what you might call Malaysiana, so a lot of Malaysian history. I read a lot of, a fair amount of non-fiction. I try to read, um, you know more sort of POC writers for example.

So, Villette’s kind of unusual in my current reading on sort of almost every kind of axis, except, it is all about a woman’s interior life, and her inner life. And that’s something that fascinates me so the kind of the kind of sub-genre I would save, if for some reason every genre of books was going to be set on fire except the one I chose. And it had to be an incredibly specific sub-genre. The one I’d save would be kind of books by women, and they are mostly British women in the kind of inter-war period. Early twentieth-century rather. And about women’s inner lives. I think these used to be called middle-brow fiction. And publishers like Persephone Books, and Virago have done lots and lots of them. Also, by authors that may have been best sellers of their time, but have been mostly forgotten, and aren’t as super well respected critically. I think partly because they were about womeny things like marriage, child birth, what a woman felt being at home all day, and so on. I just love that kind of book. I suppose Villette is kind of example of that, although she doesn’t lead a conventional life by any means.

JENN

Thanks again to Zen Cho for joining us and recommending Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Her new novel The True Queen, published by Ace, is now available wherever books are sold, and you can find out more about her at zencho.org.

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