A few years ago, when the robin’s egg blue of The Lovely Bones was everywhere you looked, you might have resented Alice Sebold . . . maybe just a teensy bit, anyway.
If you weren’t one of the five million people who bought it, or the unsaid millions who read it, you might have shrugged off seeing it on the bestseller list again (78 weeks, all told). You might have thought, for a moment or two . . . ugh, another wunderkind, striking it rich on her first novel, and passed it by, not relishing the idea of sticking your nose into a novel written from the point of view a dead girl, one who’d been raped and dismembered and was looking down on the aftermath from her own personal heaven.
On the other hand, if you did come across The Lovely Bones as a recommendation from the book club or from a friend, well, just as listening to a symphony puts you inside a composer’s mind, you probably knew something about Alice Sebold that the rest of us didn’t—she’s actually likable.
Sebold, who’s new novel The Almost Moon, releases this week, is the kind of author you’re happy to see succeed. Why? Well, having sat down with her for an afternoon in her new hometown of San Francisco, let me tell you:
Exhibit A: Sebold is not the prototypical 20-something first-time author who struck a right chord and now thinks of herself as indomitable.
Rather, just the opposite. Sebold is a private person who takes very seriously her craft, and has learned that success and failure are often as indistinguishable as they are transmutable. That and, well, she’s actually in her 40s—so, if you do the math, you’ll realize that means she was in her late thirties when she hit it big with Bones. In these days—when everybody loves a prodigy—she’s positively ancient to be exploding with a first novel. “People would ask ‘why do you think it didn’t happen to you sooner,’ like I was at death’s door here!” she says, laughing. “But I have to say, the one thing I did feel when I finally did succeed was . . . thank God, I’m not 25 . . . being humble, having failed, all of that is a really, really good thing.”
Exhibit B: As with many other great writers, her failures prepped her for success.
It’s true. Read her memoir, Lucky, an account of her rape while attending Syracuse University (which was actually published before Bones, but was largely read after), and you’ll see she’d been working toward this for a very long time and is refreshing case for stick-to-itiveness. Despite the writing program she graduated from at Syracuse, a short stint trying for an MA in poetry at the University of Houston (failed), and ten years in New York City as an outsider looking in, Sebold wasn’t actually published until after earning her MFA from UC Irvine. Add that up and it’s around 15 years of toil and invalidation. “I would get a bunch of rejections and lose the energy (to submit) for like a year and a half,” she says of this time period. “The whole time I was in New York I didn’t show my work to anybody. And when I finally did show my work to one of my friends . . . his only response was ‘thank God it doesn’t suck.’” For any despairing writer, or honestly—for any despairing anybody—this is a needed antidote to all the first-time-out-and-I-made-it tales that lend a false sense of things to aspiring writers.
Exhibit C: Sebold worked at it—and still does.
Even after her early schooling, and ten years of solo effort, Sebold credits the Irvine MFA course that she took in her 30s as the catalyst for honing her craft and, through the workshops and criticisms, reaching a point where she could securely stand behind her writing. You may not have heard of UCI’s program, but over the years it’s produced many successful writers including screenwriter David Benioff and author Michael Chabon, among others. As Associate Professor Michelle Latiolais says, “the program has been quietly famous for many, many years now and that’s how we’d like to keep it. Our sense of successful writing is writing which is true to itself.”
But more importantly, perhaps, is that those two years helped Sebold form a community of writers who continue to support one another—like a modern-day version of Dorothy Parker’s round table, or the community that surrounded Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in Paris. Sebold met her husband, Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) and Aimee Bender (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt) at the workshop, both of whom are among her core group of what some call “beta” readers—a group that also includes PEN award-winner Bernard Cooper (Maps to Anywhere), who is now a part of the circle as well. “I know Amy and Glen and Bernard are not going to lie to me,” she says, pointing out that success breeds a level of distrust among those who just want to cash in on the heels of a best-selling book.
“We’ve all be responsible for bearing each other’s work, and saying ‘you know what, this is not working.’ And that’s intense—your friends can give your failed work a really lovely funeral.”
The Almost Moon, Sebold’s new novel, is like a dark mirror image of The Lovely Bones. Capturing the first 24 hours after its narrator, Helen Knightly, murders her aging mother, it explores in familiar first person the myriad emotions that follow upon such an act. Where Bones took the point of view of a young girl who hadn’t yet lived her life, following the consequences of a brutal murder and how such an event forces opens the fractures in an otherwise “normal” family, Moon heads the opposite direction, drifting through memory to unearth the effect of a lifetime of mental illness on a daughter.
It’s an able follow-up to Bones, if perhaps lacking in that novel’s genius perspective and ultimate optimism. Sebold’s straight ahead prose carries you forward through the story and backward through Helen’s memories of growing up with her agoraphobic mother, finding her own strength as her mother’s deteriorates. It goes beyond the Alzheimer’s tale you expect when you read the word “dementia” in a synopsis (you know, weepy, sentimental fare a la Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook).
“We tend to try to pretend that somebody enters dementia that they are suddenly sweet or whatever—and we even do that for someone who’s just become older—but I can’t tell you how many what I call ‘fangless’ parents I’ve met. Somebody has told me this horrible story about their parent and then I meet their parent and their parent is 80—they’re pretty fangless by that time . . . they’re not scary, but I know that they’ve been a horrible presence in that person’s life. I have to imagine that, you know, it’s still there, even if it’s a very sweet person bent over with white hair and you could knock them over,” she says.
Sebold says the idea for the book, which was already in the mental works before the colossal success of Bones, comes from seeing the very real state of medicine and aging in America and how that affects our family dynamics. “As medical care gets better and people live longer, the burden of taking on those family members falls to the family—usually to the woman,” she says. “In my mother’s case it meant that she didn’t live free upon the planet until she was in her mid-70s because her mother didn’t die until she was 96. And so that’s a huge burden to place on somebody,”
(For the record, although her mother does suffer from panic disorder—as is documented in Lucky—she is alive and well. “I told her to stay in good health,” laughs Sebold, when asked of her reaction. “She said, matter-of-factly, ‘Some people need to replace fictional characters with real people, I don’t need to do that. I’m a reader, not an anthropologist.’”)
This exploration of the effect of childbearing on mothers and their ambitions isn’t new to Sebold’s work. The theme of thwarted desires, set aside for motherhood, appears in Bones and Lucky, and works both ways in Moon: Helen’s life is held in stasis by both her mother and her daughters. Sebold herself doesn’t have children (she says her biological clock “never kicked in”)—so how does she write so effectively about this mother-daughter relationship? “I very much stand in awe at women who have many children, a massive career going, a fulfilling relationship with a partner—I frankly stand back and don’t know how they do it. I see all that and I wonder what you gain from it, what you lose from it, and the only way that I feel that I can have something to offer is that I have enough distance and freedom to be able to contemplate and to watch and observe.”
This ability to engage in a character’s perspective is probably what propels Sebold’s writing (and therefore her readers) out of the abstract and so directly into her narrator’s point of view. It’s clear from talking with her that despite the underpinning of these “big ideas” in her work, she doesn’t sit down to write about them, but rather about a character who’s demanding to speak. “Themes never crop up for me. They crop up for the people who read the books and they tell me what they are and I’m like . . . yeah, that does keep coming up! I get obsessed by a character.”
It’s a glimpse into the mind of the writer, a fairly secretive writer, into how she writes and where her ideas come from—something we’re all curious about. How do you do it after having a hugely successful novel? Although it may start with a character, or a preoccupation, Sebold eschews an outline, “It’s all shaping and going back and revising and moving things around and kind of feeling like, ‘oh, I need a little bit more here.’ It’s a really organic process but not organic in that free flowing ‘this feels good’ kind of way, but a lot of drafting and redrafting.”
In other words, it takes tedious, laborious effort to get it right. She’s a writer who prefers to get up and start work when it’s still dark, in the quiet of a house (husband Gold works the night shift, heading for bed postmidnight when Sebold is just waking) or the solitude of an art colony (Moon was written primarily in the town of Ojai). Sebold works through from about 3am to noon for pockets of six to eight weeks at a time when she’s actively writing, before having to “get out and around people again” to avoid stir-craziness. Though she can’t read prose while she’s working, however she does enjoy reading poetry, latterly that being the late English poet Philip Larkin, whom she says, “just his attitudes towards the world, his sense of humor, his sort of distrust of people and love and all of that just worked really well with what I was doing. So I try and find, like, poet companions that work with my characters and so he was one.” Such things speak of Sebold’s discipline as a writer, and one can imagine how isolation helps her to engage the minds of her characters so thoroughly.
When asked if she found it unpleasant to dwell in the mind of woman who’s murdered her mother, Sebold put it this way, “I don’t really feel like I’m imagining myself in it, I just feel like I’m writing her story. I like Helen as much as I like Susie. For both of them there’s no way out. I mean, Susie’s dead and Helen’s 49 years old and really up against it. Neither one of them is in a great place, so whatever lights are going to come, come from inside their heads and their own ability to function and make light from that place. And that makes me like them.”
For Sebold, it’s about following a character where she leads and avoiding what she calls “puppet mastering” (something she hates in modern fiction). To this aim, both of her novels have been written in the first person, “Sometimes it ends up being the clearest access to a strong voice and if you’ve got a strong character who wants to be heard, there’s part of her or him who’s saying . . . get this bullshit out of the way and let me speak. It’s more challenging; it’s harder to write than the third person. It becomes about having to engage with whatever the emotions are and whatever the next step is, and not putting yourself above the character.”
This might sound pompous out of the mouth of a 25-year-old punk kid who’s famous for having scribed some off-the-cuff, self-pitying best-selling memoir, but coming from Sebold—who’s matter-of-fact self-assurance and quiet elegance comes from knowing, deep down, she’s earned her success—it sounds just as it should. Namely, like a writer simply describing how she writes, but one whose dry humor speaks to having been humbled by years of working at it, years of failure, and years of learning in the presence of other writers.
Rather than taking the success of The Lovely Bones—which is currently being made into a movie by that great human enigma, Peter Jackson—for granted, Sebold’s already moved on. “I almost work to forget how certain things come about so that I don’t find myself retracing. Like . . . how do you write a book? I don’t know. Because you never want to get to the point where you are redoing what you did before.”
What’s next for Sebold? She won’t say, but you can rest assured—she’s working at it.
The Almost Moon, Little, Brown and Company, $24.99, 304 pages. Sebold will be reading at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in Westwood on Wednesday, October 24th.