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Siri Hustvedt: The Interview

Siri Hustvedt's latest novel, The Blazing World, is aptly titled; it is a tour de force about a larger-than-life artist, Harriet "Harry" Burden, whose three great works used "masks" — male artists who claimed the works as their own. Hustvedt frames the book as an anthology of Harry's life and work after her death, including excerpts from Harry's many journals, interviews and critical essays (both positive and negative) from members of the art world, and reminiscences from Harry's children, friends, and lover.

The Blazing World warmly and thoroughly depicts an intelligent, fierce life well lived and tackles feminism, creativity, and definitions of identity. It is Hustvedt's most masterful, page-turning novel yet, and we are proud to feature it as Volume 46 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: What made you want to go back to writing about the art world? Your last novel, The Summer without Men, had this hidden, subversive visual art in it, but it wasn't the main focus of the story the way it is in this book and in What I Loved.

Hustvedt: I have a longstanding fascination with visual art. I do, in fact, draw as well, as I did in The Summer without Men. I also write essays about visual art. It's a natural tendency for me to return to that.

It's hard to absolutely restore the genesis of a book. But I think for me, this one began with the idea of masks and a woman hiding behind a masculine mask. The notion of having living pseudonyms do this for her in the art world just seemed natural. I love making up visual works of art in language. I get to be an artist without actually being an artist in that sense. This is a wonderful pleasure for me, so I did it again, in a different way.

Jill: All of the art in this book and in What I Loved sounds like art that I wish existed, that I would love to see. How does that process work with fiction? How do you imagine it?

Hustvedt: These are works that I would like to make if I were a visual artist. Often, they grow in my mind as visual images, and then I describe what I see. They're really mental images. I suppose many artists begin their own work that way. They see something. Unless it's really representational and they're trying to do a portrait, for example, and represent a real person, they must be working from mental images. Rather than creating works of art themselves, I describe them in the text.

Jill: It's interesting that you mention the drawings in The Summer without Men. When we spoke about that book, the image of a woman crawling out of a box was something that very much was in that book. We talked about the idea of someone having been shut in, finding a way to break out, which certainly seems to describe Harry in this book.

Hustvedt: Yes, Harry is an explosion... out of the box, out of what she feels has been confining her.Harry is an explosion... out of the box, out of what she feels has been confining her. It's interesting. It did occur to me that between the little drawings in The Summer without Men and the second work of art that Harry does with Phinny, there is a connection there. But actually, when I was first writing that passage, it didn't occur to me. It didn't occur to me until later, which means that this material is coming from places deep within myself that I'm not entirely aware of until later.

Jill: You describe Harry as an explosion, which I would agree with. She's such a vivid, towering, forceful character, but also moving and vulnerable.

Hustvedt: I think I began to hear her and to see her, and I had this thought: I wanted her to be huge. I'm six feet tall, but Harry is at least two inches taller than I am, and she has wild hair. I imagined her as very big boned and extremely strong. Also, she has large breasts. She's a really big woman. This, of course, has been hard for her in her life. I mean, we know that she was self-conscious when she was younger. But, in a way, I think Harry grows into herself. I wanted a powerhouse of a woman, so she evolved, I guess.

Also, I wanted someone who is unleashed into herself in some way, and is very learned; she is an erudite character. It was fun to do. So she's passionate; she's really angry. She's pretty neurotic, as her friend Rachel knows, so she's both perspicacious and blind, as you say, strong and vulnerable. She's a multitude of contradictions. But she was a lot of fun to write.

Jill: I can imagine. I thought it was interesting and funny that Harry names Bill Wechsler, the artist in What I Loved, as one of her influences because, in a way, their work does sound sort of similar. I thought, on one level, of course it does because they're both your creations.

Hustvedt: They are. But it makes sense that Harry would admire Wechsler's work. Even though they're not identical, there is a narrative impulse in both of them. I think it was a natural way of finding my world.

Jill: Bill, in a way, in his "Self-Portrait" series, is doing almost the inverse of what Harry is doing. He's ostensibly painting himself as a woman, but under his own name, celebrating that rather than masking it.

Hustvedt: Exactly. In a number of my books, from my first novel, actually, even in The Blindfold, there are versions of cross-dressing. It just keeps coming back, the idea of passing from the masculine to the feminine or the feminine into the masculine.

In The Sorrows of an American, I have a character, Burton, who cross-dresses. He finds his feminine side, the way Bill is exploring femininity in his self-portraits. In The Blazing World, I'm going in the other direction. Harry is masking herself as a man and trying to plot her way out of this binary male/female that she feels has harmed her work.

Jill: You have written extensively about the fact that we have, it seems, lots of male and female selves inside us.

Hustvedt: Yes. We all came out of a man and a woman, after all — every single one of us. We all live in a culture that is continually isolating feminine and masculine aspects, even when they're not related to people. If you think about softness associated with femininity and hardness associated with masculinity, you have the "soft" disciplines like the humanities and the arts, and then you have the "hard" disciplines — science and math, for example.

It's all very interesting, but I think that every person partakes of these masculine/feminine qualities. I think Harry does, too, but Harry's enraged because she feels she's been ignored and her work has not been recognized. Of course, this is partly absolutely true. But it's also lodged in deeper psychological stories that are part of her life. She feels her father didn't recognize her, and she always wanted him to. That familial relationship or background is also part of Harry's story.

Jill: There are so many ideas and there's so much art in this book, but it struck me how much relationships are also at the heart of the story.

Hustvedt: Yes. It's a constellation of fairly complex relations that are part of who she is and, of course, part of who those other people are as well, especially her children.

Jill: In What I Loved, Violet's idea of "mixing," of losing track of the borders and boundaries between people, seems very relevant in this book, too. It almost sounds like that's what Anton Tish's breakdown is about after the first art project, in a way.

Hustvedt: Yes. I think she feels... I, at least, feel sorry for Anton. I think Rachel judged this pretty accurately when she talks about the fact that Harry treats him almost as a shell to hide behind. She fails to recognize his vulnerability. So he cracks up. He's not a very strong person. He finds it hard to resist Harry's power and does crumple up. I think it's Bruno who reports that, his mother says that she doesn't want anything to do with her. Obviously, at some point, Anton has confided in his parents, and when they're looking for him, they don't want anything to do with Harry.

Jill: I love Bruno's character.

Hustvedt: I do, too.

Jill: His voice is so different than everyone else's. It's so full of life and kind of bawdy. I love that he's a poet.

Hustvedt: He's a wonderful guy. It's funny, because this is definitely a feminist book. But Bruno is a character whom I love, and he has these really sexist parts of him. He's kind of a benign sexist, if you will. He has these fantasies about rescuing Harry.

Also, we understand that he's been rather neglectful, in some ways, of his daughters and is over the moon about this grandson for whom he has all these baseball fantasies. But I love Bruno, too. He's a fierce and wonderful person.

Jill: I would agree with that. I read that a working title of this book was originally "Monsters at Home."

Hustvedt: Yes.

Jill: The image of women as monsters is something that Harry writes about in her journals, that they're ungovernable and uncategorizable. There's also, of course, her sort of identification and fascination with Frankenstein's monster.

Hustvedt: Yes, that's why I actually wrote the introduction and provided the notes for Harry's text last. I became I. V. Hess last, just the way he or she, this editor, would have done it.

Jill: I have to interject — I feel like there has to be an anagram or something in the name I. V. Hess that I'm not figuring out. It might be totally obvious.

Hustvedt: No, it's not obvious at all. It's very oblique. But I'll tell you, since you asked. The heroine of my first novel is Iris Vegan. I used those two letters for the initials and all the other letters, H-E-S-S, appear in my last name.

It's a little bit of a Kierkegaardian trick. Kierkegaard had Eremita as his editor for the book that, of course, he wrote, but inside the book, there are A and B. Kierkegaard is referred to throughout The Blazing World. I thought, these are not stolen strategies but strategies that are a kind of homage.

So I liked the title "Monsters at Home." But when I finished the book, I realized that it was wrong. First of all, there's a little bit of comedy in it. It can be monsters at your home or monsters lounging about at home. Suddenly, I thought, really, the Margaret Cavendish title was the best.

"The Blazing World" blazed out to me. Then I put "Monsters at Home" in the preface. The editor says that it was his or her working title, and it was abandoned. That also echoes my abandonment of that as the final title. But it gets a little spot in there, because there's also, you noticed there's Frankenstein's monster — there are a lot of problems with category. The monster is the thing that can't be categorized.

One of the works has teratology scrambled in it, one of Harry's works. Teratology is the study of monsters. As well as all the references to Milton and to Milton's Satan, who is, of course, maybe the ultimate monster in some way, but a very seductive one. The monster theme runs through the book.

Jill: I was delighted to hear about the structure of The Blazing World before I read it — it sounded like it would allow for a multiplicity of views and voices, which it did. Why did you decide to approach Harriet this way, and what do you think you gained from this structure?

Hustvedt: Harry is such a hot character, hot as opposed to cool, that I think the reader would die, actually, if it were only her voice. The book really is a kind of refraction; it's like light in a prism.The book really is a kind of refraction; it's like light in a prism. It keeps refracting around the room.

I wanted her to be seen from multiple perspectives. She's dead, of course, but you get to feel her living, writing in the notebooks, with the distance that's provided by this frame with the editor. We know there has been interest in her work. She is a respected artist after her death, which is something she desperately wanted and hoped for.

Then I think about polyphony, that you can't come down in any one place. The voices are voices of contradiction, of cacophony, and there are warring ideas, warring feelings. The form really mirrors the thematics of the book.

Jill: What was the process of writing it like? Did you do the sections or the same voices at the same time?

Hustvedt: No. I think of a book as an organism. I wrote it in sequence except for the editor's introduction and the notes, which I did last. I think it was necessary because I wanted to feel the progressive music, if you will, and how the transitions were working, so that when I would end one section and, say, start writing in a new voice or return to an old voice, it would always take a little time.

I felt as if this was my multiple-personality-disorder book, like the alters took a little time to come out. It wasn't that I would return and start reading the earlier voice that I had made of that person. I would really start listening to it again. It was almost as if I felt it coming. In that way, it was a bit like having a pathology.

I needed to do it in sequence to feel the rhythm of the book. I did go wrong. I went wrong a couple of times. I had one extra character and I realized it was too many. The book just got too heavy, so I took that out. Then there was a time when I felt the rhythm was off, so I went back, redid a couple of sections. I did a lot of rereadings of the book up to where I was to feel that the rhythms were working for me as a reader.

Jill: Maisie's and Rachel's recollections are very calm.

Hustvedt: They are. You're absolutely right about that. I felt that both Maisie and Rachel served as anchors in the text, if you will. Maisie even says that. She's a bit garrulous. She goes on with it. She's a little wordy. But she's also a kind of anchor. She's the one that's supposed to be the reasonably well-balanced person in the family, unlike her rather strange parents and sibling. I wanted these calm voices as well in the book. There's also one art critic, Rosemary Lerner, who's very perspicacious and sort of straightforward.

Jill: The opposite of Oscar Case.

Hustvedt: Yes, just the opposite.

Jill: I love Ethan's stories. I loved his sections. They were so different really than anything else. It was such a different perspective but still so intricately tied to the themes of the book.

Hustvedt: That's right. He's somewhere high on the spectrum and he has a whole different way of looking at things.

Jill: Did you enjoy doing the footnotes?

Hustvedt: I did.

Jill: Several of your novels make room for a lot of scientific, philosophical, and psychological theories, but it seemed to me that this one did especially, and the footnotes were one way that worked those ideas in.

Hustvedt: There are two reasons for that. One is that I wanted Harry's voice to fly. After all, these are private notebooks. They're notebooks she kept for herself. Without the notes, it's hard to know at times what the hell she's talking about. So the editor provides these dry footnotes to tell the reader, should the reader choose to know or look, what the heck she's talking about.

It also helps frame some of the philosophical problems in the book, one of which is this ongoing debate between computational theory of mind, which is the computer metaphor for the mind, the mind as an information processing machine, versus more embodied models, which do not think of the brain as a machine. I thought it was good to have that stuff in there. Of course, some of the footnotes are invented.

Jill: Harry chose to reveal her role behind the three artworks in an interpretive, layered letter under the name Richard Brickman to an editor in a small arts journal. I love your — well, Brickman's/Harry's — reference to yourself in that letter as "an obscure novelist and essayist" whose position on theories of self "is a moving target." Other than the adjective "obscure," that seems fairly accurate to me.

Hustvedt: I had a little fun with myself. That Brickman piece is really something.

What the heck Harry thinks she's doing there is anybody's guess, but she's playing with all these ironies. This is really her deepest Kierkegaardian moment, that she thinks this is going to be a way to reveal herself to the general public.

It's true that half of it is trying to uncover what is ironic and what is not ironic, what is parody, what isn't parody. But I did have a great time writing that because it's so... I think every reference is accurate, and there are some really obscure ones, like this post-phenomenological writer Filke who I've read. That was fun. So there's another mask.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Blazing World Sale Hardcover $7.98
  2. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life...
    Used Trade Paper $11.00
  3. The Sorrows of an American
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. What I Loved
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  5. The Summer without Men
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  6. The Blindfold
    Used Trade Paper $9.00
  7. Paradise Lost (Modern Library Classics) Used Trade Paper $7.00
  8. The Blazing World and Other Writings New Trade Paper $17.00

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