When Victoria Redel had her second son, she was teaching and trying to write poetry, and she wondered what would go first: her family, her job or her writing? "Your writing,"
says Redel with a decisive clap, "is the illegitimate child." She is a very long, handsome person in her early 40s, a shade
in black from hair to boots, seated in her inelegant but functional shared office at Sarah Lawrence College, in the stately
Bronxville suburbs of New York City. "Everyone says, Oh, I love that you're a writer, but nobody is going to say, You haven't
fed that child, you haven't written in a year. Everyone talks about this: at what point does writing become really urgent?
For me it was when time was constricted. I was writing long poems, and then I started writing fiction. It was the illegitimate
child demanding not to be dismissed."
Redel's illicit urge to write fiction hasn't let up since her first collection
of stories, Where the Road Bottoms Out (Knopf), appeared
in 1995, at the same time as her first book of poetry,Already the
World, won Kent State University Press's Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. And this month sees the publication of her
debut novel, Loverboy (Forecasts, March 26), Graywolf's
lead spring title. It earned the first annual S. Mariella Gable Prize, sponsored by the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota.
Narrated in an eerily convincing first person, the novel relates in flashbacks—and from a hospital room—a mother's
obsessive love for her small son, which leads her to try to kill herself and the boy before the world can separate them. The
novel is a shocker because the narrator's voice is so sympathetic, and if the strong reviews are any indication, Redel might
reassess whether she is really a poet or a fiction writer.
"I'm not alone in being someone who practices both fiction
and poetry," Redel informs PW, as the planes on a flight
path to LaGuardia motor sporadically overhead. She cites Denis Johnson and Julia Alvarez as two favorite ambidextrous examples.
Poetry and fiction, Redel admits, make "different demands, but ultimately it's about having authority on the page, hearing
music in language and making a believable lie."
The "erotics of motherhood," as she terms the fierce maternal bond,
figures in all her work, from a sensuous poem about breastfeeding, "Milk," to the anthologized story "A Day in the Park,"
in which the narrator buries her sons in leaves (playfully or otherwise); to Loverboy and the calculated doting of its unnamed narrator. "For me, so many concerns of motherhood seem taboo,"
Redel observes in her congenial, forthright manner, which veers occasionally into a meandering quirkiness, attesting perhaps
to years of putting students at ease. "What interests me is to look at the everyday, the extremity in the everyday. InLoverboy, it's obsession in the extreme, but I kept hoping that
I was working within bounds, describing something recognizable to other people."
"Live like a bourgeois, write like a
maniac," says Redel, quoting Flaubert more or less accurately. She admits to having to brush away a censorious "board of directors"
every time she sits down to write. "One of the great reliefs in writing is that I can say anything on the page, and it's not
about being shocking. It's about true sentences, sad ones, beautiful ones, provocative ones. I'm not into shock fiction; it
has to have a purpose, it has to be an honest journey into something."
Redel is a teacher in the low-residency
MFA Writing Program, based at Goddard College She has been doing "gigs" at Sarah Lawrence and Vermont College since 1996,
and teaches occasional graduate fiction workshops at Columbia. Her role is largely to help her advisees choose the right models
to emulate—"sending people on different goose chases," as she puts it. She tends to have students read two short novels
such as Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold
and John Gardner's Grendel, and then short stories by the
likes of Chekhov, Lydia Davis or Raymond Carver.
"I tell my students all the time, You have permission to be as powerful on the page as you can let yourself be," says Redel, emphasizing
a word of evident significance to her. "And that means calling attention to all the times in writing we go the easy route,
and use some kind of received language. Sometimes it means saying to a student that the best choice is not the first choice,
because all the censors are engaged at that point. Try it a different way." Censors may be imagined in any form. Redel herself
remembers cringing the time her father came to hear her reading from a story in her collection about an unflattering relationship
between a daughter and her mother; in the end, he was simply enthralled at seeing Redel's name in print.
"Look, all the
real censors, whoever they are, I probably made them up," she muses. "Hopefully I write something worthy of being read, and
it endures. The only way of doing that is by being…," she pauses to lower her voice to a barely audible whisper, "fearless."
However, fearlessness seems like a splendid
indulgence when a writer is faced with the need to make a living. Redel grew up in Scarsdale, N. Y., a wealthy suburb of Westchester,
just north of Bronxville. Her father, a Polish Belgian, worked as a commodities trader and her mother, a Romanian-born ballerina,
ran a series of ballet schools at which the three daughters were duly trained. (Victoria is the youngest—her slender
frame suddenly makes perfect sense.) She graduated from Dartmouth College, where she studied visual arts; after school she
moved to Massachusetts and got a job—improbably, but somehow suitably—as a counselor to recovering alcoholic teenagers
in a halfway house. She was practicing painting and print-making, and even exhibited her work in New England: she mentions
she has two landscapes in an office in the Chicago Sears Tower. Redel had no intention of returning to live in New York, imagining
that she would work as a social worker and write poetry, but when her mother died in 1983, she enrolled in graduate school
in poetry at Columbia. A friend suggested she sit in on a general studies course in fiction writing taught by Gordon Lish,
the writer and famously demanding editor then at Knopf. "I said, 'I'm a poet not a fiction writer,'" she remembers, though
she went to the crowded workshop anyway because she had heard that Lish was "really smart about writing and could teach me
something." What did Lish teach her? Redel hesitates somewhat, uneasy with the "judgment the world has against him." "He was
very exacting," she replies at last. "You read out loud. He says, 'Start reading your story,' and you start reading, so the
belief is that the story works from the first sentence on, and if it doesn't, then you fix the first sentence and go back."
She continues, "I think Gordon was for me a great teacher because it was about thepermission for me to have my own singular kind of voice."
Lish asked to see some of her work for
his journal The Quarterly (she had been published in Epoch, The
Antioch Review andThe Alaska Quarterly Review); he
offered her a book contract in 1992 before her collection of stories was even finished. "In previous work I had been presenting
the kind of person I wanted to look like on the page," Redel says of her narrative evolution, "so my characters were caricatures—the
folksy girl from Alabama, the tough girl from Colorado. Then I began to hear in my head the twisted English syntax I grew
up with—syntax of the first generation in America, the Jewish diaspora." The stories in Where the Road Bottoms Out are delicately, lyrically crafted, and notable for their fluid
experimentation in narrative voice.
She had been teaching freshman composition as part of a Columbia fellowship,
and when she began to have children (Jonah is now 12, Gabriel is 8), she accepted a full-time position at Brooklyn Friends
School. In a bold attempt to enjoy her kids, hold a job and not let her writing go ("I was desperate to figure out what to do"), Redel started a tutoring business for mostly middle and high
school students out of her Manhattan apartment. "The day was more flexible, but then I published two books and the kids would
come home when I had my students there," she concedes. "It wasn't working." Needless to say, the idea of pursuing a degree
in social work had been quietly abandoned after she took one course at Columbia in "Basic Personality." She is pleased to
have found that "teaching writing is like doing therapy—the students are finding their own voice." Professionally, Redel
(now divorced) has been "piecing it together" ever since.
(a pet name the narrator uses for her son) took three and a half years to complete, with Redel setting aside three mornings
a week to write. The idea for the novel has haunted her since her childhood, when a neighbor mother killed herself and her
children after a disfiguring car accident. As someone who had never tried her hand at a novel before, Redel found herself
fascinated by the process of revision, of gaining and losing hunks during successive drafting. "I think I was just trying
to prove to myself I could write that long, and fill that many pages," she says, laughing. "And a lot of it looked like stuff
meant to fill a lot of pages."
She talks of being obsessed by the "architecture" of the novel, of wanting
to write something "after the fact," with the ending known up front, which is something she admires about Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. "How to deliver that and still
keep the engagement, keep some kind of mystery and appetite for the reader seemed interesting to me," she explains. Her original
notion, that the narrator would wake up in the hospital and realize she had killed her son without succeeding in killing herself,
was rejected by her nine-year-old as being unworkable. "Then she would have gotten what she wanted," the boy explained. Redel
was dazzled by her son's perception. She thought, "My god, will you be my reader forever?" She "loosened all the bonds and
just started to write."
Redel remembers an important lesson taught by Lish. "You can't know your ending," she says. "He
would say that if you know where you're going, then there's no real discovery in the piece of writing, there's a loss of energy,
and I've never written any story with any sense of the ending… As I first started to write Loverboy I came to a dead end, and stalled and thought, I don't know how to write a novel,
and then I let go of the idea that I had to know the ending. I started to write the way I knew how to write instead of thinking
that with the novel I had to make up a whole new way of writing."
Redel compares her novel in form to a classical tragedy,
in which the protagonist, who will not speak in contractions and rejects the notion of a father to her son, colludes in her
own downfall, rather than a contemporary "novel of redemption," told by the victim determined to effect a turnaround through
hard work or a miracle. Eventually Redel sent the novel to several agents, and Charlotte Sheedy agreed to represent her. The
novel's distinct voice and contemporary edge found a natural placement at Graywolf, under editor Fiona McCrae. The S. Mariella
Gable Prize, named after a beloved nun who taught for many years at the College of Saint Benedict, carries a $15,000 advance
and matching marketing funds—allowing more advertising to be spent on Loverboy than the average Graywolf title, and for extra bound galleys to be printed for the sales force.
fact, Redel was invited to a party to meet the army of literary salesmen at Consortium, which distributes Loverboy. She recalls being heartened by their enthusiasm for the novel, even taken aback
by their gallant reaction. "Someone said, 'You have written a wonderful, creepy novel,'" Redel recounts, "and I rushed to
reply, 'Yeah, but I'm really a nice person.' And they said, 'But isn't that beside the point?'" Indeed, Redel admits that
her "good citizen" self, who recycles and cares about politics, is often at odds with Victoria Redel the writer, "who moves
through darknesses." She is clearly steeling herself against the untoward question that must follow: is her work autobiographical?
"I keep saying to my boys, 'There are lots of moments of you in this book, lots of things that have been said or done by you,'"
says Redel. "I feel like I move in my work very fluidly, I move often between the true and invented." And she asks, rhetorically,
"Is it biographical, the narrator's love for her child?"