Transcript: Victor LaValle and V.E. Schwab

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 8.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we talked to Victor LaValle about Kenzaburō Ōe’s A Personal Matter and Victoria Schwab about Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

JENN:

Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, two novellas, Lucretia and the Kroons and The Ballad of Black Tom, and four novels including The Changeling, which has recently been optioned for TV. He is also the creator and writer of the comic book DESTROYER. He’s been the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.

Trigger warning: LaValle’s interview includes a discussion of rape and infanticide as plot elements.

VICTOR LAVALLE:

My name is Victor LaValle, and A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe is my recommended.

I first encountered this book from an ex-girlfriend who remains a good friend. She had lived in Japan, she had been a Japanese major, and so she had a whole genre of writing influences that I knew nothing about. At the time I was a hopeful writer myself and I wanted to write really autobiographical stuff.

What she said to me was, “If you really want to get into some autobiographical stuff and you want to, maybe to some degree, avoid some of the sentimentality and romanticism that can infect a lot of contemporary American writers in their first books, then you need to read this book. Because, whatever you decide you feel about the book you will never be able to say, “He’s too easy on himself.”

A Personal Matter is the story of a young Japanese man named Bird, that’s the only name we have for him. His newish wife is giving birth to their first child in a hospital nearby. The story takes place in the 50s, so at that time the father being in the hospital or even in the delivery room did not happen.

He gets a phone call from his wife’s family who say the baby has been born, and it’s got a deformity, as they say. A severe deformity, they essentially say it was born with two heads.

Then, he speaks to the doctor, and the doctor says, “A baby like this shouldn’t be allowed to live, so why don’t you go off and we will not feed it anything but water, basically, and it will die, and that’s for the best.”

This doctor tells him, “Just go away and let’s let the baby die.” He’s conflicted about it, but he does go. He follows orders, essentially.

And to make matters worse, he looks up an old girlfriend and the two of them basically go on a drinking marathon. He’s doing this largely to kill the pain he’s feeling over what might be happening to his child in the hospital.

What you realize is that the woman that he’s staying with, this ex-girlfriend, she also has a loss.

The two of them in the woman’s apartment go into these deeper and deeper conversations, and there’s a moment where he tells a story of what he thought the first time they had sex was like. That he was fumbling, and he was not a very good lover, and he was embarrassed when he thought back on it.

Then, she tells him what she remembers the first time as being like. She says explicitly, “You raped me that first time.” As a reader and writer, on one level, just emotionally, it’s profoundly powerful, because she’s speaking the truth on what she knew, and that Bird, for all the ways that he has been avoiding the ugliness in himself, she finally is not going to let him avoid it. She’s gonna call out specifically what he did their first time, and how she felt their first time went.

As a writer, that scene was really powerful to me, because, as strange as this may sound, the way that Ōe writes, Bird, abandoning his son at the hospital, there’s room for you to see the ways that he’s being forced into this decision, even if you hate him for it.

There’s all these ways that you can still say, “Well, the doctors made him, and his wife’s parents told him to do it, and it’s an extremely hierarchal society, he couldn’t say or do anything about it.” Then, when it comes to this moment with the ex-girlfriend, it’s essentially a way saying like, “Even if you’ve been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt you cannot do it anymore. You and Bird are going to have to face his ugliness, and all the ugly things he’s done to hurt other people, this woman, and the things he’s doing to hurt his baby.”

I just felt like I had never read a writer who was willing to be that hard, and harsh, and clear about the evil or the ugliness that even a supposedly decent person can do.

Ōe wrote this book a year after his wife gave birth to their son who had a severe brain abnormality. For anyone who’s listening, the thing I always try to say whenever I talk about this book is in real life, he and his wife did not let their child die. In fact, their child has grown up to write music, and Ōe and his son work on operas together, and there are all these ways that the real life story is a story of much greater familial love, and loyalty, and support on the part of Ōe.

In the book he doesn’t cut him that kind of slack, and I think my natural tendency, and the tendency of many writers I know, is to cut the characters who are based on you, way too much slack, and to kind of try to protect them from the harshest judgments that others might make.

A Personal Matter was probably less of my usual kind of book, although, it is in the sweet spot of a certain kind of writer and writing that I love dearly, and that I discovered that I loved dearly after reading A Personal Matter.

In that category I would put something like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, or Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of my Mother. Also, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I could only describe it as like, the stories of unlikable people, or the stories of really in many ways horrifying people.

For a long time I used to teach this book to my graduate students, in particular.

What was exciting and interesting about the book was that I never had a class where anyone was indifferent. Let’s say the class was 25 people, I would have 12-15 people who loathed this book, and as a result, hated me for about a week, because I’d made them read it, because it took them into the deepest and ugliest places they could imagine. It forced them to confront these questions of, “What is unconditional love? Is unconditional love a realistic thing to request of people?”

Then, I would have about seven or eight people who loved the book, and loved it for exactly the same reasons is the funny thing. Because it took them there, and they wanted to be there, and in a way I thought like maybe when I taught this book, I was teaching it for those seven or eight people who might not ever come across a book quite like this in another college class, but who did want to write like this, or just wanted to read books like this and weren’t even necessarily aware that such things existed.

Ōe, when he was coming up in Japan, the majority of the contemporary younger writers were all people who grew up in cities, and who were kids from much more middle-class lives, and the work was much more … it favored the urban personality, the urban experience in Japan much more.

He’s from a super rural area, and he had no context for all these urban ways of seeing the world and discussing the world. What he did know, and he knew it better than anyone else writing at the time, any of these urban contemporaries, he knew the natural world, and he knew how to show his understanding of the natural world through his descriptions.

When you read that you can see that as almost the equivalent of like in the United States when you have people coming up from different parts of the country who are writing much more in the vernacular of, say the South or the Midwest, or from their … whatever their ethnic background is. The key is writing and saying, “This deserves to be a part of literature, too.”

JENN:

Thanks again to Victor LaValle for joining us and recommending A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe. His latest novel, The Changeling, is published by Spiegel & Grau and is now available in paperback wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at victorlavalle.

AD READ:

Today’s episode of Recommended is sponsored by Lion Forge Comics.
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JENN:

Victoria “V.E.” Schwab is the #1 bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Vicious, the Shades of Magic series, and This Savage Song. Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured by EW and The New York Times, been translated into more than a dozen languages, and been optioned for TV and Film. Her most recent book, A Conjuring of Light, is the heart-stopping conclusion to the Shades of Magic series. The precarious balance of power among the four Londons has reached its breaking point, and an ancient enemy returns to claim a city while a fallen hero tries to save a kingdom in decay.

V.E. SCHWAB:

My name is Victoria Schwab, and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is my recommended.

I think Sarah Waters had been recommended to me numerous times over the last few years, especially, I had just come out and it’s a popular book, Sarah Waters is a popular author in the LGBTQ community, but I wasn’t quite sure why, I didn’t know very much about it. It came out in 2002, but I probably didn’t read it until 2014 or 2015. I was already an author and I definitely am one of those people who will say, glaring declarative statements like, “Oh, I don’t like this kind of book.” And if you had just shown me the cover, it’s a historical cover set in the Victorian era, I probably would have told you not my bag, not my kind of book. But every now and then I try to put my assumptions aside and I pick up a book and I read the first few pages and I remember just being absolutely pulled in.

I’m actually really glad that I found it after I became an author because I definitely started reading things in slightly different way, I started looking at them from a bit of a structural standpoint, kind of tried to pick them apart and every time I thought I got my fingers into the book so to speak, it surprised me.

This is a book with a lot of twists and turns. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters follows a young female orphan turned thief a la Charles Dickens’ Fagin style household, who is employed alongside a male con artist, Richard Rivers to help con a widow and her uncle out of an inheritance, so she establishes herself in the widow Maude’s, a very young, very attractive widow’s household as she’s a servant. She’s a serving girl and she is meant to help Maude fall in love with Richard Rivers so that he can win her inheritance essentially. Anything more than that that I say is going to start giving things away, because it’s one of those incredible stories that like a road, winding up a mountain, switches back and forth on itself repeatedly, so what it seems to be is not what it is, and it catches you off guard several times.

I went on to read more books by Sarah Waters. I definitely go towards the grittier, darker side, towards the more fantastical, this has no fantasy and it looked a bit feminine for my tastes. I tend to, like I say, I tend to lean towards the strange and the dark, and I was completely thrown.

Essentially my favorite thing in fiction is when a book surprises me. Again, I know I keep kind of toying around how it does, but essentially the narrative reverses direction. The first part is told through Sue’s perspective, the young female thief, orphan turned thief, and then it switches back and it becomes told from Maude’s perspective, the young widow under the care of her uncle. And it does this thing where you believe that Sue and Richard are in control of the narrative, that they are essentially conning this poor, young, innocent naive woman and then it doubles back on itself and you learn that Maude has been in control of her own narrative the entire time.

It was one of the first books that I really picked up, especially in the historical fiction category that had lesbianism, that showed women in a sexual relationship. This was something that I hadn’t really encountered before, I certainly hadn’t encountered it in a commercially popular novel, I mean I was called like a baby queer, as someone who was definitely still finding their own voice in reality let alone on the page. I was so taken with it. I was so overcome, I think even when LGBTQ fiction makes strides, they’re relegated into YA where it’s this coming of age narrative, and the fact is I didn’t really come out until I was an adult, I didn’t really find myself until I was an adult and so to see an adult novel that was in no way lurid, but for what sexuality and sex was definitely an essential aspect of the narrative and seduction in particular, I loved it. I absolutely loved it.

I think a more recent example that also falls in that same, just the lyrical, the prose quality and also the exploration of female queer identity would be The Tiger’s Daughter, which is a debut novel by K. Arsenault Rivera, that is equally stunning in a completely different way. It’s a fantasy set on the analog of the Mongolian states with two princesses and also, see the key with both of these works is that sexual identity and sexual exploration are key to both of them and defining for neither. I’m someone for whom my sexuality is definitely an aspect of my identity, but it’s not the loudest one or the largest one and so it’s really nice sometimes to find works, I know we need all kinds of works, but it’s sometimes really nice to find ones for which the sexuality isn’t the point around which the story is being played. A different narrative is being played out, and the sexuality is an aspect of that narrative.

Another book that came out very recently that is very popular and that I’d recommend more for feminism and just for female power in a narrative, is Circe, by Madeline Miller, which is a look at this pseudo, not a pseudo god, daughter of a god, so a goddess. And it’s one of the best things that I have read in the last couple years, it’s absolutely exquisite and I feel like it’s an examination of power, specifically of female power, and the forms that that can take, and Madeline Miller is just an author, for me she is the peak, she is one of those authors where I will read anything she ever writes.

Her first book, Song of Achilles, obviously deals with queerness from a male perspective and was exquisite, just absolutely beautiful, an incredible love story between Patroclus and Achilles, and Circe is really a testament to women.

You know I interviewed her and she said to me, and I got to hear her on panel say the same thing, that when she was deciding to write Circe, in the Odyssey, Circe is given the equivalent of only two chapters in Odysseus’ narrative, and so when Madeline sat down to write Circe, she decided that Odysseus would be given only two chapters in Circe’s. And I love that fact so much because it’s true, you go in thinking you only really know about this goddess from one angle and what you learn is how dimensional, how many incredible narratives she is a part of.

I usually am turned on, to use a turn of phrase by good writing, so I love more than anything else just eloquent, elegant writing, and so every time I find a book where the pros quality is as strong as the storytelling, I love that.

Fingersmith is a book that I love not in spite of the writing, but because of it. I love that the queerness and the quality of the story, and the elegance of the prose all nest together into an exquisite story.

There are books out there that I am like, this is sad, or you should be ready to cry, or you should be in the mood to spend a lot of time with this, this is a slow ready, but honestly, with Fingersmith, I read it in a couple days. This is one of those books that most of my friends are surprised I hadn’t read sooner to be honest, but I’m always recommending it.

JENN:

Thanks again to Victoria Schwab for joining us and recommending Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. You can find A Conjuring of Magic, published by Tor Books, wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at veschwab.

JENN:
Next week on Recommended, one author muses on the surprise of picking a favorite book:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

I’m happy about him on that level. Kafka or Camus, someone like that. I’m like, wow reading these books. They’re books that I actually read again and again.

That’s really reading right?

I was sitting around thinking that oh, let me think of something, a book that’s about black people and it’s a history. And maybe I should do Octavia Butler. Blah, blah, blah. And I’m going, no. A book that’s important to me. It’s this book.

OUTRO 2:

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