An Interview with Patrick Somerville

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03/30/2009 9:00 AM |

By Nate Brown

Patrick Somerville is the author of the short story collection Trouble, which was published by Vintage in 2006. His first novel, The Cradle, has just been released by Little, Brown, and has already received lots and lots of love. Most importantly, of course, he’s also contributed to The L Magazine’s annual fiction issue — with his story The Unrealized Subversive Fantasies of a Medium Pizza, in 2006. We recently emailed Somerville to ask about his young success, his Midwestern roots and, of course, the new book.

The L: I want to start by asking you not about The Cradle, but about your first book, Trouble. In that collection of stories, the work ranged from the incredibly naturalistic and serious (“Crow Moon” and “So Long, Anyway” come to mind) to the hilarious and bizarre (“English Cousin” and “Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow,” for instance). In subject matter and tone, the stories in that collection displayed a broad interest and ability on your part, and I’m curious to know whether you enjoy writing one type of story over the other. Is the process of writing a humorous piece fundamentally different for you than writing a piece that’s more naturalistic?

PS: I float around and see Trouble in multiple lights, I
think. At times, the different tones and styles strike me as one of the
book’s great strengths — the book gives a lot, I think; at other times,
though, that same diversity looks like a tremendous flaw, some sort of
aesthetic indecision, an inability to set forth in one direction,
something all artists eventually have to do if they’re going to avoid
becoming catatonic. Then I also get into this other thing and see the
jumping around as neither good nor bad, but rather kinda neutral and
okay and more about a young writer trying to figure out how, why, and
what to write, and what the different payoffs and costs of approaches
to storytelling may be. I enjoy laughing and using humor, but what I
learned from Trouble is that it’s pretty hard to get at anything substantial if there’s too much absurdity looming in a story.

The L: You published Trouble at a young age. What was it like having a big house like Vintage put our your debut when you were, what, 27?

: It was great; I loved my editor; they paid me nothing, I didn’t care. I was fortunate to be rewarded so early and to be told I wasn’t crazy to keep writing.

The L: I’ve heard that The Cradle began as a long short story or as a novella. What led you to make a novel of it? Did you know at the outset that this was going to be a longer piece, or did the nature of the project change over the course of the writing?

PS: It changed as I went along, yeah, but it took me a little while to figure out how to properly understand what I wanted to do. As I was writing Matt’s part of the story I found myself almost gratuitously dropping these huge oh-by-the-way-this-is-in-his-past lines, playful at first, but by the time I was getting close to what I’d previously thought of as the end, it was pretty obvious there was a gigantic negative space that needed to be addressed, and along with that, a broader ending to find. Parts of themes were there, parts weren’t. I liked Matt, and thought his story was lean and linear enough to drive the reader to investigate another person’s story, too. Someone a little more introspective and articulate, someone with a much different perspective. It was clear who this person had to be, too, so I just kept going.

The L: From start to finished draft, how long did the book take you to write?

PS: I started the book in August of 2007 and sorted out the details of the ending in November of 2007. About four months, total.

The L: While the book is absolutely concerned with a number of characters, much of the action in the book is Matt’s. His quest for his wife’s family’s antique cradle begins in a rather odd way, with his pregnant wife Marissa demanding that the cradle be found and brought back to her. At first, this feels like an unreasonable request on Marissa’s part, but as the story unfolds and we learn more about the couple, the premise seems more relatable somehow. Did you ever worry that readers might not buy her stubbornness on this point?

PS: Yes, I think so. I bet some readers just straight-up shrug and go, “Nah,” and move on to a different kind of story when they see how it gets going, but I tried very hard to make Matt a pragmatic romantic, a rational person who, because of the reckless way that he loves his wife deep down, would conceivably agree to do something a little insane, too. Marissa also had to be her own version of both real and over-the-top. I also tried to make the idea of a quest Marissa’s, not the book’s, so I’d be free to escape it later on. Motivation is so hard, and it’s so difficult to dramatize it in a way that makes the audience nod in collective agreement and say, “Of course he would go do that for her, yes, obviously,” without feeling as though the story’s also asking you to be a complete moron in order to believe in what the characters do. I hope that works right in The Cradle.

The L: You’ve written a few characters who seem fundamentally unredeemable, and many who are utterly driven by, if not optimism, their will to make life (their’s and others’) better. Is it fair to say that there’s a tension in the book between people like Matt and Marissa, who are working hard to build a good life for themselves, and characters like Darren, a self-described nihilist, and Carolyn, the mother who abandoned Marissa and her father?

PS: I would say instead that the tension is between Marissa, who represents one extreme in terms of moral, thoughtful, deliberate behavior, and Darren, who’s way on the other end. I like Thoreau and I’ve always liked the spirit of purposeful action — Marissa, and a quest itself, fits into that. Almost everything Darren does, on the other hand, is arbitrary. I think of those two as big blinking guideposts within the story, examples of ways of being, both somewhat hyperbolic. And while they both trend toward Marissa’s way, Matt and Renee’s problems arise from inactivity — not in terms of being out in the world and doing things, but because they’ve told themselves their pasts don’t matter and don’t need to be actively explored and processed. More generally, though, I think of bad people — evil, I guess — as people who are knowingly and willfully indifferent and cruel, yes. That’s closer to Darren’s mom.

The L: The events in the novel take place in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and, briefly, in Indiana. You’re from Wisconsin yourself, and have written about the state before. There are several vivid narrative passages in the book, and a very clear picture of the landscape evolves over the course of the novel. Do you write about the Midwest because it’s familiar or for other reasons?

PS: I think familiarity helps, yes, especially when you’re trying to manage the other elements of the story. Everybody has a giant warehouse of imagery in their minds that comes from childhood — stock answers to things like “lamp-post” or “fence” — and so far, I find myself wanting to use that stuff. Who knows how long it will last? For now it’s good. The other thing about this question, though, has more to do with Matt than Wisconsin. He has such trouble accepting and inhabiting his own feelings, in the moment, that I often felt as though I had to use the landscape to show the reader what was happening with him. He would stare at something, I would describe it, and hopefully, his thoughts and feelings would get loaded onto the landscape, and the reader would get a tangential glimpse at hidden parts of him. The end of Chapter 1 is like that, there’s a part in the middle when he’s at a rest stop that’s like that… He gets much better at it as the book goes on, and by the end he doesn’t need these exterior objects; he’s thinking directly about what the idea of a cradle means to him. But for awhile, Matt’s eye leads to more landscape in the narration, definitely.

The L: In some respects, this is a difficult novel to interview you about because, in a big way, it’s a novel about personal histories and secrets. Without giving too much away, can you talk a little about the actual process of building a narrative that relies, in part, on the way that secrets are revealed? Was it important to you to keep certain facts concealed from the reader, or are those concerns only incidental to the story you set out to tell?

PS: Some yes, some no. I think by the end of Chapter 2 it’s pretty clear, to a sharp reader who likes to guess at relationships, what’s going on in terms of the two central characters. Other readers don’t read in that way, and it’s not until 100 pages in that this same questions is answered. I didn’t care about concealing that one and felt fine with people realizing it whenever they realized it. However, I think to get away with an easily guessed secret, there have to be many more secrets scattered throughout the story, both factual and thematic. The nature of the plot — and actually, what the whole book’s about — has to be shifting around and changing, and for that to happen, the reader needs to find out things he or she couldn’t have guessed. At the beginning, it’s all about the cradle, the actual object. By the end it’s not. You need to raise new questions and answer old ones throughout the story, though, if a reader is going to go along with that.

The L: The book has already gotten a lot of positive critical attention. What’s that like for you? Do you read your own reviews or, like some writers, do you avoid them?

PS: I read them… I always want to know how readers react.

The L: I’m actually curious to know how you react to reviews — positive and negative. Any thoughts about how the book is being received?

PS: Positive or negative, I think I’m happiest when I feel as though the reviewer is a sensitive reader who took some time to think about his or her reaction. It’s a bad feeling when it seems like someone just breezed through it, got an idea somewhere, and that was it. It’s a good thing that people have varied tastes and opinions, I like that. Once you start showing your stuff to a large number of them, you’re going to get both good and bad reactions. All I can ask is that the reviewer pushes hard against the story and honestly assesses what’s in there.

The L: What’re you working on now? Back to short stories, another novel, something else?

PS: Nothing specific…eventually, just something about people. Or super-intelligent dinosaurs. It’s a toss-up.