Katie Arnold-Ratliff's Bright before Us is an exquisitely written, masterfully haunting story of a life unraveling. Francis is a 25-year-old second-grade teacher in San Francisco, living in the poverty of young adulthood with his wife and a baby on the way. During a moment of inattention on a coastal field trip, his students discover something horrifying — a mutilated body washed up onshore. Seeing the body triggers a reaction in Francis that Arnold-Ratliff chronicles in alternating stories from the present and the past, and his world begins to disintegrate around him.
Karen Russell, the author of Swamplandia! (and subject of a recent Powells.com interview), raved about Bright before Us:
Katie Arnold-Ratliff writes sentences that have the luminous candor of X-rays, laser-traceries of the human heart. Young Francis is a fascinating and exquisitely drawn character, and the urgency of his story left me breathless.
We couldn't think of a better way to describe this remarkable and startlingly original debut novel, which we've chosen for Volume 26 of our Indiespensable program.
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Katie Arnold-Ratliff: Thanks. But, yes, I have no way to know if it's accurate or not! [Laughter]
It was never as much a conscious choice as the way he just started speaking to me. I think it was probably influenced by the fact that the teacher that's meant the most to me in my life was a man. He was my fifth-grade teacher, and he was not at all the jerk that Francis is, but he was a big part of my life. I think maybe my default setting for an elementary school teacher was a man.
But the book started out as something really different. It was sort of like the two strands of narration were two separate projects I was working on — Francis in the back story and Francis in the front story. Then when neither of them were working, I just smushed them together and let them play off each other. So, he had to be a man, in that a story about a guy being sad about a girl was obviously about a guy. [Laughter]
Jill: You called Francis a jerk just now. I was wondering about that, as well, because he's often actively unlikable and cruel. As a reader, it's interesting to be inside this kind of a character's head.
Arnold-Ratliff: I think I assumed that if I had sympathy for him that a reader would, too. I tried to make every terrible comment or nasty barb that he throws out grounded in something that explains it, a little, or at least gives a context for it. He is this way for a reason. Not that there's any excuse for what he does or what he says, but that there are things that get him there.
Ultimately, it's a tradeoff. If you want to write a book about somebody who disappoints himself, you have to show him being a really disappointing human being. But I think, ultimately, he's not only one thing. He's not just a jerk. I kid about that, but I do think that he has different sides besides this nastiness.
Jill: And, certainly, you get that as the book goes along. At the beginning, in particular, I just wanted to shake him. [Laughter] I wanted to yell at him, "Stop it. Stop lying!" But, then, as the book goes along, you understand the context better.
Arnold-Ratliff: Yes. It's interesting you mention the lying, because I feel like at its core, at its essence, lying is always about self-preservation and fear. It's always some kind of insecure impulse, some kind of attempt to make myself sound better than I am. I'm going to excuse my behavior by lying about it. It's always, always, always something people do when they're afraid of being exposed. That doesn't make it completely sympathetic, but, to me, it makes it more sympathetic to think about lying that way.
Jill: You said it was initially two stories that got smushed together. How did those stories come to you in the first place?
Arnold-Ratliff: The concept of the teacher in the class came to me when I was 19 or 20. I was a docent at a Save the Marsh project that was held in this little town in California, next door to where I grew up. There were these endangered marshlands, and we would take fourth graders there. My job was to teach them how to write haiku about the marsh.
One day when we were there,this kid came up to me and said, "What is this?" And he held up this massive bone, a huge Halloween-store-looking bone.
Jill: A human bone?
Arnold-Ratliff: Yes, with knobs on each end.
Arnold-Ratliff: It could not have been more human-looking. I don't know if it was actually human or not. I was in college then, majoring in poetry, but writing some stories here and there. That incident freaked me out really badly, and I decided to write about it, to think about it more, and, in the writing, the bone became a body, and over many years, the story evolved, but that was the germ of it. I never did find out what it was. The kid just threw it into the water as we left, which was fine. I don't think I want to know.
The other story was less story-driven than character-driven. This character kept appearing in stuff I would write, this guy who was sort of a sad sack over somebody whom he'd lost. He wasn't attached to anything. He had a compelling voice, so I wanted to keep him around, and then I made him into Francis.
Jill: I was going to ask if you'd ever been a teacher or worked with children in some way, because the way Francis is with his students includes some of the most touching parts of the book.
Arnold-Ratliff: I have not, other than that docent job, and it was like three days every year that I would do that. I don't want to oversell it. [Laughter]
But my whole family works in education. My mom has been in education for 30 years, and my sister is now. They all do that. I always felt like I couldn't, because kids sort of scare me. I don't know how to interact with them; I think I'm too self-conscious.
Jill: Did you grow up in San Francisco? The setting is almost its own character in the story.
Arnold-Ratliff: Oh, that's so nice to hear. That was important to me. I grew up in Vallejo, the suburb where Francis lives. But it's very close to San Francisco. It's like half an hour away, and I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I lived in the Bay Area until I was 24.
Jill: There's so much aimless driving that Francis and Nora do, and even Francis and Greta. I used to love to do that, in high school and college; there wasn't too much else to do. And I love how you use that in the book as a metaphor for the restlessness that they feel. Did you do that? Do you still do that?
Arnold-Ratliff: I do... Well, it's hard because I live in New York now, and I don't want to lose my parking spot. [Laughter]
But I do love to drive. And it was definitely something I thought about a lot when I was writing it, because they never really get anywhere, you know? They drive around and don't really have a destination. At least, Francis and Nora don't. But it's a particular teenage thing to do, to sort of drive around town doing nothing, and I definitely did a lot of that when I was a kid.
Jill: A friend of mine told me a couple of days ago that he and his wife still do that on their date nights sometimes.
Arnold-Ratliff: Oh, yeah? That's so sweet.
Jill: I thought that was great. They live in South Carolina, so....
Arnold-Ratliff: So, they can do that.
Jill: Yes. Portland doesn't feel as conducive to just driving around randomly.
Arnold-Ratliff: Right. You guys would just bike somewhere instead.
Jill: Exactly. [Laughter]
I think the number one thing that struck me about Bright before Us is that it feels so emotionally immediate. How did you think about getting across that kind of emotional intensity and weight?
Arnold-Ratliff: I guess the best way to think about it is that there's nothing Francis won't say. He'll look everything in the face even if it's really, really unpleasant. He's honest with himself about things that he thinks and feels, things that are difficult for anybody to be honest with themselves about.
I'm thinking of the moment where he and Nora are at her parents' funeral, and he feels like everyone is jockeying to be the person for her, her source of support. And he's won. He's the winner. It's an ugly moment, but he's willing to look at it and admit to it.
I think on a sentence-to-sentence level the way to do that is to be matter-of-fact. I feel like the language is pared down in a way that lets whatever emotional things are happening just happen. But maybe I'm wrong. [Laughter] Maybe I'm not an accurate judge of my writing.
Jill: No, I think that makes sense. It's not fraught with over-describing.
Arnold-Ratliff: Yes, it's a weird paradox. The more you try to make something sound emotional, the less it will be. If you're just sort of flat about something, then I think that the emotion rises to the top.
Jill: Another thing that maybe contributed to that feeling of immediacy for me was the fact that the Nora sections were written as a story Francis was telling to Nora. It's a kind of long narrated shared memory — a "do you remember?" structure — which draws the reader in.
Arnold-Ratliff: I'm trying not to give anything away here, but I think that pays off in the last line — essentially, that it's totally futile what he's doing. He's telling someone a story that doesn't mean the same thing to them and never will, and in the end it's over. It's a story that's ended.
But I do think thatthere's something about breaking up or losing somebody where you tell yourself again and again the narrative of what you've experienced, partially to relive the relationship and be with that person again, at least in your brain, but also to make sense of it. He has to order the events in his head and make them try to come out to something, even though they never really do.
Jill: This question might be too personal, so feel free to refuse to answer, but I was wondering if you had a relationship at all like either of the relationships in the book.
Arnold-Ratliff: What's a good way to answer this question? I probably shouldn't answer it. [Laughter] Don't be sorry at all for asking. I'm just going to say the wrong thing.
Jill: Regarding the emotional immediacy, it was interesting to me that this part of Francis's life is so cathartic; he's looking really honestly at himself and the things that he's doing. It's almost as though, up until this point, he hasn't. He'd been suppressing his feelings about Nora and to some extent his feelings about his parents. Then, once he sees the body on the beach, it unleashes this whole process for him of trying to understand things he hadn't really dealt with his whole life.
Do you think that's accurate?
Arnold-Ratliff: That that's sort of the occasion of the book and all his contemplation? I do. And I think that it's because... Well, this might partially answer the question I didn't answer a minute ago.
This is sort of how the genesis of the book was for me, personally. I had a friendship that collapsed. It was not under the same circumstances as Francis and Nora's friendship, but it felt like that person had died. So, I think in part, the book is a literal version of that idea. And when Francis sees the body on the beach, it's a reminder not only of this person he cared about — because she's always on his mind and he makes everything about her — but also that she may as well be that body that's on the beach, if that makes sense.
I also think part of why the body is the occasion for the book is that he feels like it's yet another failure on his part — that he's allowed this horrific thing to happen to these kids. Then it calls to mind all the other things that he's allowed to happen, or has actively made happen, that have messed up his life. So, that was another big chunk of it.
Jill: I don't think I've read that many books, particularly in first person, that are about a character so completely seeing himself as a failure as Francis does at so many levels. It's a fascinating and fresh perspective, because I think everyone feels that about themselves to some degree, but it's really interesting to have that be a nearly all-consuming thing for this character.
Arnold-Ratliff: Yes, I agree, and I think it's interesting that he's maintained as long as he has. [Laughter] He's actually managed to go to college, and have a job, and a wife.I felt like he was always one straw on the back away from cracking, and this was the thing that finally did it.
Jill: I like the way you describe the relationships Francis has with his parents. It's quite subtle. The reader gradually realizes how much his parents really kind of screwed up his perception of himself, as a teacher and as a father.
Arnold-Ratliff: I really was worried that it would come off as a sort of "this equals that" relationship — like his mom is a drunk and his dad is a douchebag, so therefore, he's this character. I wanted it to be less psycho-babbly and more like he hadn't been given the model for good and healthy and responsible living.
Jill: I think that's partly what I meant by saying they were done subtly. It's certainly not reductive in that way, so I think that was successful.
Arnold-Ratliff: Oh, that's good.
Jill: You touched on this a bit when we were talking about emotional intensity, but, in general, how did you think about language and imagery? I was going to try and list a few quotes that were some of my favorites, and there were too many. There are wonderful, sharp observations that come in almost every paragraph, and the language in them is spot-on.
Arnold-Ratliff: Wow. Thanks. That's the way I was taught. I think about the language just as much as, or probably more than, the story. I spend as much time working on language as I do the pace work or making things flow well. I think that's what makes for a pleasurable book, sentence to sentence. I need to be engaged by the sentences just as much as the story. I was taught by Amy Hempel, who writes that way, literally sentence to sentence. She writes a sentence and it has to be perfect before she goes on to the next one. It's a really hard but rewarding way to do it. That's essentially what I did.
Jill: That's impressive. That doesn't surprise me that Amy Hempel does that, although I didn't know that specifically. But it makes total sense, reading her work.
Do you think having studied poetry, which was your initial major, affects the way you think about writing prose?
Arnold-Ratliff: It may. I wasn't a very good poet. My poetry kind of sucked. I think it was in part because when I went to college, I had this really dumb idea that I wanted to write fiction, but I would write poetry because it was easier. [Laughter] Of course it's not easier! It's way harder. Or maybe it's the same amount of hard. I don't know. But maybe on a subconscious level, that affects my prose a bit.
Jill: You're an editor and writer for O magazine, is that right?
Arnold-Ratliff: Yes, I'm an editor there, and I write often, too.
Jill: How is that?
Arnold-Ratliff: It's great. I really like it. I have to use a totally different part of my brain than when I'm writing fiction. But it's challenging in a completely different way. I'm really, really lucky that I get to think about stuff and write stuff for a living.
Jill: Okay, this is a random jump.
Arnold-Ratliff: All right. I'll go there.
Jill: I found a CNN article that you wrote about high- and low-culture foods you enjoy. In it, you talk about loving Long John Silver's chicken planks. I had completely blocked it out, but those things were like crack to me all through my childhood.
Arnold-Ratliff: I know! They are. [Laughter]
Jill: I don't know if they did this where you were, but for a dollar extra you could just get...
Arnold-Ratliff: ...the box of crunchy batter?
Jill: Crunchies, yes!
Arnold-Ratliff: Yes, I know. It's terrible. It's just greasy chunks of batter. But they're so tasty.
I don't know if you read the comments on that page, but they were not all nice.
Arnold-Ratliff: I remember that. That was the setup for the joke, "She's probably Kirstie Alley."
Jill: Oh, that's right!
Arnold-Ratliff: That was pretty good. [Laughter]
Jill: There's not much food, really, in Bright before Us. There's Francis eating out of those awful cans...
Arnold-Ratliff: The burnt-up food. Yes, people have said that to me actually. I don't know why that is, the lack of food.
Jill: Maybe it's the separation of those two kinds of writing.
Arnold-Ratliff: Maybe. Maybe I just don't want people to know that I like a bunch of crap — well, I guess I do if I published it!
Arnold-Ratliff: My favorite writers are probably Fitzgerald and Nabokov. They are the ones. I don't reread books, ever, but I reread all of their books over and over, especially when I'm stuck when I'm writing.
That being said, I don't think I could in good conscience say that either of them are influences of my work. I don't see it. I think Amy Hempel was a huge influence on my work. We worked together at Sarah Lawrence, and then she helped me with a book afterward. There are some passages that I read from the book and think, You are such an Amy rip-off right there.
Jill: What are you reading lately? And what you are listening to? I think all the driving in the book made me think, She consumed some good music while she was writing this book.
It's a ton of this band called Rachel's. They are instrumental, but it's really good writing music. A ton of Jon Brion instrumental stuff. But then also a lot of sad stuff was really helpful. A lot of Wilco, a lot of Dr. Dog, stuff like that. I'm starting to sound like a dork. [Laughter]
And right now I'm reading the new Chris Adrian novel. It's so awesome and weird. I was especially excited to read it because it takes place in San Francisco. And I'm reading Moby-Dick, because I never did.
Jill: Oh, I did that not long ago, too. Three or four years ago I finally read it, and I loved it.
Arnold-Ratliff: I'm loving it. I'm really engaged and excited by it.
I'm also reading this very weird novel by Iris Murdoch called A Severed Head. It's about this guy who's cheating on his wife and she finds out. There's a theme here. You can see where my interests lie — people cheating on people. [Laughter]
Jill: There's a lot of literature to draw from, with those interests.
Arnold-Ratliff: Right. I've got plenty of options.
I spoke with Katie Arnold-Ratliff on March 22, 2011.
Books mentioned in this post