Early this summer, Anna Quindlen raved to a national television audience about a not-yet-published novel called The Lovely Bones. By the time it landed on bookstore shelves in July, Alice Sebold's fictional debut had become the most highly anticipated book of the season. Then came the astonishingly enthusiastic critical response: "few novels, debut or otherwise, are as masterful or as compelling" (Kristine Huntley, Booklist); "a keenly observed portrait of familial love" (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times); "faultless" (Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor).
Here it is September, two months later, and a million copies of The Lovely Bones are in print. But the short-term view, albeit impressive, seems awfully shortsighted. People are going to be reading this book for a very long time.
In Lucky (1999), Sebold confronted her rape head-on, following events from the dark, out-of-the-way tunnel into which she'd been dragged to the courtroom where a suspect was eventually tried; it's a mystery, a memoir, the story of one nineteen-year-old woman seeking peace with the world - and, she won't deny, revenge - while in a shadow life studying literature and writing with luminaries the likes of Tess Gallagher and Tobias Wolff.
Readers encountering a plot summary of The Lovely Bones might be tempted to turn away before giving it a chance, figuring that newspapers offer enough tragedy these days; do we really have time and energy for dark, tragic fiction? Consider those apprehensions dismissed: The Lovely Bones is an unflinching, graceful gift of a novel, an invigorating, expansive work of storytelling that should not work, but simply does. "An audacious novel about death and connections," Conan Putnam marveled in the Chicago Tribune, "The Lovely Bones shows us there are more important things in life than retribution. Like forgiveness, like love."
Dave: You had started to write The Lovely Bones when you stopped entirely to write Lucky instead, right?
Alice Sebold: Right. Though I did take notes for Lovely Bones - infrequently at best, I would say - while I was working on Lucky.
As weird as this sounds, I think that after writing the first chapter of Lovely Bones, in which Susie is raped and killed, there was some urging on Susie's part that I get my own business out of the way before writing further into her story. When I say "on Susie's part" I mean: the demands of her wanting to tell her story and using me to do so meant that I had to unload my story someplace else. It wasn't going to fit into the book I wanted to write for her.
So I went ahead and wrote Lucky. But whereas in Lovely Bones the rape and murder scene was the first thing I wrote, in Lucky it was the last; the first chapter in Lucky is the last part I wrote.
I definitely feel that Lucky was part of the process of writing Lovely Bones. I think it exists on its own, but I don't think I'd have written it if not for the demands of writing the novel.
Dave: It's interesting to hear that because Lucky reads as if it's compulsively told. It doesn't feel like a book that inadvertently came into being. How long had it been between the rape and the time you began to write the book?
Sebold: I think fifteen years by the time I started drafting Lucky.
Dave: Had you considered at various points during that time, I need to write about this?
Sebold: Never. Some of the most obvious things don't present themselves.
I lived in New York for my twenties and early thirties, and I wasn't really living a life that was conducive to reflection. So I was writing a lot of other things. I had my East Village novel, things like that. But self-reflection was not part of my makeup then.
When I moved to California, which I guess is a natural geographic switch, I met other people who were about writing in a more serious way and a less faux artistic way, and they all pressed me to write my story, I think because they realized that if I did that my fiction would be cleaner and better on the other side.
Dave: So you were working on some other piece of fiction when the Susie chapter suddenly came out.
Sebold: I was writing another novel. Then I just went over to my desk one day and wrote that chapter; I didn't even realize it was a chapter. I just knew that it was different than what I had been working on and what I'd written in the past; and I knew that I had to follow Susie and write whatever book would result, though I had no idea what that book would be.
Dave: How did you begin to understand that The Lovely Bones would tell the story of Susie's family after the murder?
Sebold: I think I knew it was going to be about her family, and it was going to be about Ruth, within the first chapter. When Susie presented the first fifteen pages, she let on not only that she was speaking from heaven and that she had been killed by Mr. Harvey, but also her father, mother, and little sister were all in that first chapter. Even if it just contained a line, not a full character, the chapter evoked enough of a start to those characters.
But I also wrote a lot that isn't in the book and isn't even referenced in the book. That's the way I write: I discover where I'm going just by writing, which means that I end up writing way more than ever ends up in the final book.
Dave: How concerned are you then with the tone and the shape when you're drafting? Are you simply writing to find a story, assuming that you're going to go back and change everything later?
Sebold: Voice is really key to me, so when I drift away from voice, that's when the writing begins to sound tinny or dry; it will start to sound wrong to me.
I'm compelled by language, so there are days for instance where if it sounds flat and dry I try to find something else to do that will help the book. That often means going to poets and reading poetry. That's my fuel tank. Voice and language is primary, and everything comes out of that.
Dave: Looking at the book now, what surprises you?
Sebold: There are a couple lines that I can't remember having written. Or I remember having written a much-elongated version and now it's been cut to three words and two dashes, something like that. But I'm one of those people that would change a thousand things now.
There was a sense, as I built the pages with Susie, that this work, if I was equal to it, could be what I had been wanting to write for years, and had avoided writing either because I was pretending to be too cool or because I didn't have the intuitive abilities that might be necessary to pull it off. I think I needed to mature as a writer, but also as a person, before I could write a first novel that was worth being out there.
Dave: Publishers Weekly noted that Susie's voice provides "the warmth of a first-person narration and the freedom of an omniscient one." That struck a chord for me. I was surprised that more reviewers weren't picking up on that.
Sebold: Probably because I talked about that with the reporter. It's first-person omniscient, which allowed me access into worlds you wouldn't have with any other viewpoint. It's something Susie could use in the ways that she wanted.
Dave: What I still can't get over is that Susie somehow becomes a completely real character within a wholly unreal, or at least unprecedented, context. She's dead, and yet she's still a young girl dealing with very real young girl problems. You talk about a lot of thrown-out pages....I would assume there were a lot of missteps along the way to creating her world.
Sebold: Everything from horrible versions of heaven that didn't make the grade to long segments about some of the minor characters that ended up being too long for the narrative to bear.
Whether anybody likes the book is one thing, and whether I like the book is another, but I like Susie. I felt compelled enough by her character to draft and draft until I found her story.
It's kind of a brutal way to work, but it was probably about five or six years ago that I really stopped judging myself for how I worked. That seems to have been my ticket to more creative freedom.
Dave: When I finished Lucky, I read the acknowledgements and discovered that you're friends with Aimee Bender. I passed that news on to some people around the office, which was funny in itself because they tend to get annoyed with me for singing her praises so often.
Sebold: People who love Aimee do so to a degree that can be annoying to people who don't understand. It's true.
Dave: There's so much common ground between An Invisible Sign of My Own and Lovely Bones. There's certainly a particular way of looking at the world and a transcendence of imagination in both.
Sebold: I think Aimee and I were drawn to each other in workshop at Irvine because we were the two weirdos, in some way. We had other friends there too that were great and very supportive of our work, but if we had ten pages with only a couple of good lines, those lines made us so excited for each other. And we would support each other in that way.
One of the nice things about being in workshop with her and watching people was that sometimes her stories worked and there wasn't a way to critique them. That drove some of those people insane. They loved to critique from a linear kind of place. Her stories worked or the images just worked; it was a joy to behold.
Dave: It was actually a Houghton Mifflin rep that first gave me a paperback copy of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee's stories. I hadn't heard of her previously. The stories are so unclassifiable and so unpredictable. I was curious to see how that would translate onto a larger canvas. Then I loved the novel, and I've probably given it to ten people since it came out.
Sebold: I get the draft of her new one in about a month.
Dave: That's what I was going to ask: when's the next one coming out?
Sebold: I know she has a deadline in May 2003, but she'll take her time. She's going to give me a full draft, and we'll see where she goes with that. She published two books so quickly, and I kind of feel like she should be given all the time in the world before she has to show her next one.
Dave: So many of the authors that visit Powell's have a home base in New York or somewhere in the surrounding area, but you left and came west to California.
Sebold: There's a saying that everyone thinks they're famous in L.A. Well, my counter to that is that everyone thinks they're a literary genius in New York. But it wasn't New York that caused me to leave; it was me. I needed a different atmosphere.
It didn't work for me. I know it works for many, but I felt that my natural self-judgement, which is intense, was turned up too high by the incredibly judgmental surround of New York. That could act as a big motivator if you had a different personality than mine, but I'm already so self-critical that I don't need any help.
That's one of the reasons why Glen and I don't even live in downtown L.A.; we live outside the city in a place where there's only one other writer I'm aware of - and not because I actually know her, but only because I saw a sign at Book Expo America: "Lives in Long Beach, California." It just lets you do your work and hang out with people who don't care what you do. I think that's very important.
Sebold: I'm very tight with about five or six people. The irony is that the one who lives in New York now is from Santa Cruz, California, and didn't move there until two years ago.
Dave: You went to college upstate?
Sebold: In Syracuse.
Dave: You had some amazing teachers there.
Sebold: I lucked into them, totally. I ended up going to Syracuse because I didn't get into the University of Pennsylvania, which is where my father taught. It looked like I was a shoo-in, a faculty kid - and I got rejected.
I lucked into Tess Gallagher, Ray Carver, Toby Wolff, Hayden Carruth, and some visitors as well. They shaped my desire to be a writer, but also they stood as examples of very good writers who not only lived nice lives outside the city but could not comport themselves at a party. Ray Carver at a party was just...he wasn't very good at it.
I think I was still an undergraduate when the New Yorker asked to have "first look" at everything Ray wrote from them on. I remember when I heard that from Tess my response was like, "Alright!" Some kind of New York-come-begging-to-Ray Carver kind of thing. It really was about what a good writer he was, and not any of those other things that when you're young seem to matter so much, like looking good in a dress, drinking the right drink, fitting in at a party?
Dave: You continued writing after graduation, and I know from reading the last chapter of Lucky that you were up to other things, as well, but your success has come rather suddenly.
Sebold: Yes, in the last month! Things have been really incredible.
Dave: Someday someone will find this interview and not quite understand that you'd become a national sensation about three hours prior to our conversation. It's an interesting path you've taken.
Lucky is about a rape, but it's also about a young writer learning to express herself. How did you fare without those incredible teachers around? After graduation it seems like you floated a bit.
Sebold: After I graduated from Syracuse I went immediately to the M.F.A. program at the University of Houston, but I only stayed for ten months.
I had an evening in Houston where I was the young, twenty-one-year-old girl sitting at a table with poets like Stanley Plumly, and I think Richard Ford was there - that kind of ilk: people who'd published and had careers. We were sitting around the table and they were all talking, and I wasn't. I just had this awareness of They've all been out in the world and done it. I haven't. That's what I should go and do. So I quit school and moved to New York.
I ultimately left New York as well because I was becoming a better New Yorker than I was a writer, but I wouldn't trade that time for anything. I wrote semi-consistently - certainly not with the discipline I have now. I got involved in bad relationships, bad behavior, all that stuff. But that's all part of living. And I can write scenes now that I wouldn't have been able to if I hadn't done all those stupid things!
I just think it takes certain people longer to get there. Except that taking all these airplane flights would be a lot easier if I were a twenty-four-year-old wunderkind, I'm very happy that it took me this long. I feel very settled. I know what I want to write next. I know who I am and who I'm not. That feels very good.
Sebold: Or Harriet Doerr.
Dave: You have a long career in front of you.
Sebold: But for fifteen or twenty years before I was published I was floating in and out of the atmosphere where everyone else was getting published, so it seems as if it's taken a lot longer. Not just to me, but to other people who know me or know who I may have studied with. It leads people to the question: If I was writing, and I knew those people, why did it take me so long?
I think there are probably a couple answers to that but, again, the ultimate answer is that I've now published two books that I can stand behind, which to me is what it's all about. I'm fine. I have my dog, a husband - and who the hell knew that would ever happen?! I've got great friends and another book underway.
Dave: What's the next book? More fiction?
Sebold: It's a big secret! No, it's more fiction. Another novel.
Dave: Now that you've started another novel are you going to put it aside for a year and a half to work on something else?
Sebold: I don't think so.
Because I've written a memoir, when people ask me if I'm writing another book they always want to clarify whether it's a novel. I always have to remember the memoir. That story was getting in the way of all the other stories that I didn't even know I wanted to tell. I had to get it out before I could move on.
I didn't write an autobiographical first novel; I wrote a memoir, instead. I think that's really what happened: I went straight to memoir as opposed to writing a veiled account of my own experience.
Dave: And now Lucky is being re-released in paperback. It must be exciting to get it out there to people.
Sebold: It is exciting, but I have writer anxiety: I want the novel to have its day before it's supplanted by a cheap paperback. And also, the novel is the more important book to me, so I'm more loyal to it than I am to the memoir. I like Susie more than myself.
Dave: Is that it? You really put yourself out there in the memoir. Given what Lucky is about?
Sebold: It's a little weird. One of the reasons why I wrote it is because tons of people have had similar stories, not exactly the same but similar, and I want the word "rape" to be used easily in conversation. My desire would be that somehow my writing would take a little bit of the taboo or the weirdness of using that word away. No one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.
Dave: I liked it a lot, but as I say that I'm reminded of something A. M. Homes said about The End of Alice, one of her novels. She said, "A lot of people have read that book, and I'm more frightened of the ones that tell me, 'Oh, I really love that book End of Alice, yeah.' I just want to say, 'What are you thinking?'"
Sebold: When people say, "I enjoyed Lucky," and hesitate, my response is, "Yes, thank you." It's a book. It's meant to be read. Even if it's about something horrible, it should be written in such a way that you enjoy it as a reading experience.
Dave: In the book, you're a young woman who's trying to deal with her rape, and repeatedly you encounter people who don't know how to approach you. It's really honest and straightforward about those interactions. There are parts when I was reading and thinking, She really needs to get a hold of herself. But of course the other side of my brain was telling me, There's a reason why she can't.
It's carried off very well; you come across as an entirely sane person who has experienced rage and any number of emotions that aren't necessarily considered healthy things a person normally wants to admit to.
Sebold: Well, I wrote the book for people who were not familiar with rape and have had no experience of it. It's funny because Barnes & Noble shelved it under Addiction and Recovery, and I heard from some rape victims that they were mad about the book because it really doesn't tell you how to recover. The thing that I find interesting about that is the assumption that because I wrote a book about my rape I should nurture and help you recover from yours. That's never how I billed the book. My mistake was I didn't bill it.
It's meant to let people who have no experience of rape see what one of them is like, but the way in which that book was filed in a number of bookstores is mind-numbingly, endlessly alienating to the very audience that I wanted to read it. Also, it was very commonly under Women's Studies. Whereas Drinking, A Love Story [by Caroline Knapp] was under Memoir or Literary Nonfiction - why wasn't that under Recovery and Addiction? So even with the filing system of how people gain access to books I think it got marginalized.
But you put a book out there and you have very little control over how it's received. If The Lovely Bones is doing well, hey!
Dave: What have you been reading lately?
Sebold: Absolutely nothing. I read Vogue on the plane yesterday.
Dave: Okay, then not so lately.
Sebold: Okay, some books that I've liked a lot recently were The Good Thief, so I've been reading that.
How about you?
Dave: I just read this [handing her a pre-publication copy of When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka]. It's fiction, about a Japanese-American family that gets sent off to two different internment camps - the father to one and his wife and kids to another - at the beginning of World War II. I loved it. When I finished, I lent it to a friend here at Powell's that had done an independent study in college about the Japanese internment, and she loved the book, too, which was great to hear because I've never studied that period in such detail.
Sebold: Can I steal it from you?
Dave: It's yours.
Sebold: Excellent! It's the perfect size to take on an airplane. I love a small, good book.
Dave: Do you read a lot while you're writing or do you like to keep those two things separate?
Sebold: I have fits and starts. I actually get a physical need to read. I read the way other people overeat. I read way too fast, then it's over and I'm moaning, Ugh, I shouldn't have read the whole thing. But I read obsessively. Even if I'm working on my own stuff I feel a hunger come for reading.
I'll work on a project basis within my own work, get it to a place where it can sit on the desk for a weekend, maybe, so I can plow through a book I want to read. That's my real love. Instead of moving around the country, I'd be very happy sitting at home reading a lot of books.
Alice Sebold visited the Powells.com bunker on her way to a reading at Powell's eastside Hawthorne location on July 22, 2002. "The Bendy is the best and you are right to recognize this fact," she scribbled above her signature in my copy of The Lovely Bones. "BENDER FOREVER! VIVA!"
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State