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.
Loverboy (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.
In 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?"
Aaron Hamburger interviews Victoria Redel on The Border of Truth
Aaron Hamburger interviews Victoria Redel, author of The Border of Truth for Small Spiral Notebook
Aaron Hamburger: How did you get started as a writer?
Victoria Redel: The truth is that I never expected to be a fiction writer. I started as a poet. That said, my first book published was a collection of short fiction. That was a surprise. After the stories were done, I went back and finished a manuscript of poems, which wound up coming out the same year as the stories. Since then I've pretty well alternated a book of fiction and a book of poems. I don't write both at the same time. Although, there are always bits of poems, lines, starts, a word that wants to get used that nag at me while I've worked on fiction. But really seriously working on one or the other seems to happen that way--one or the other.
Aaron Hamburger: What inspired you to write The Border of Truth?
Victoria Redel: There are two answers (at least) here. The questions that engage first generation children of immigrants interest me and threads of that curiosity and experience have always been stitched through my short fiction and poems. How do we hold on to the myths/stories/syntax of our families in their homelands? In my case, that's the Jewish Diaspora. My grandfather (on my mother's side) was Egyptian born. My grandmother: Bessarabian. My mother: Romanian. My mother's grandfather was a composer and flautist that lived in Persia. My father is Belgian born and his family is Polish. Egypt to Poland, these were stories that filtered to me, that sang me to sleep at night as I was, (by day) trying to maneuver my way around suburban Westchester.
But the more specific answer is that the path of Itzak [the protagonist of The Border of Truth] from Brussels to America was my father's path out of Europe. His family arrived in 1940 on a ship called the Quanza. This ship’s story—for personal and historical reasons—was interesting to me. Over time I kept playing around, trying to compose something about boats, refugees, and luck.
Aaron Hamburger: What kind of research did you do to write this book? Was there anything you uncovered that surprised you?
Victoria Redel: The most wonderful form of research came in the form of talking with my father. There was so much texture in our conversations; it was a gift that I'd not planned when I set about writing. For example, speaking of texture, we'd be talking about schooling for a Jewish boy in Brussels and I'd say, “Dad, tell me about those knee-high socks you wore with your schoolboy uniform.” And I'd watch my father as he began the process of feeling his way back into the body of the boy in those socks. “Itchy,” he'd say. “What do you mean itchy?” I'd say. “They were woolen and you know they really itched,” he'd say. It was beautiful watching his eyes then, seeing a man peering back through more than 60 years. My asking gave him the chance to remember the smells and sounds, specific details he hadn’t recalled for years. It was nothing I would have thought of talking about with my father if I hadn't been writing the book.
As for surprises! I can't even begin to list these. There were times I thought the book was like being in a magnetic field of coincidence. But actually I think maybe all writers feel that when they're in the middle of something.
Here's an example: I'd decided early on in writing that the boy, Itzak, should be a fan of the movies. For me it was a way of beginning to explore his wanting to have a bigger world than Brussels. His adoration of movie stars was also a way of talking about his fascination with girls and women. It also satisfied my interest in learning about something in which I didn't have much knowledge base. One day I'm talking with my dad and he says, “Have I told you Marcel Dalio was on the ship?” I had no clue who Dalio was. When he told me Dalio was a major French actor in many of Renoir's films, I felt like a pig in shit. It was almost too good to be true. My Itzak loves the movies and I have the occasion to have a famous actor stuck with him aboard the ship. These kinds of surprises kept coming at me. In a certain way Sara's section of the novel was born out of my own pleasure, surprise and sense of the unexpected.
Aaron Hamburger: There have been a lot of books written on the Holocaust. Were you at all concerned when you started out about how to make this one different? Did you read other works of Holocaust literature for comparison?
Victoria Redel: I didn't either worry or set about reading anything for comparison. I didn't really even think about it as a Holocaust novel though of course I do think about it partly as a novel about the effects of war. Actually. I really think more about all of the writers writing right now who are first-generation American- Chinese, Arab, Indian, Central American. Whatever the specific differences of culture are here, there is a way in which many of us (first generation writers) have needed to play with, invent, imagine our way into homelands and experiences that shaped our childhoods despite being raised in the United States often in families that were trying hard to assimilate.
I was interested in family secrets. In this case how someone who’s lived through the extremity of war and displacement manages that story as he moves forward in his life. This isn’t exclusive to the Holocaust. War makes terrible demands on people; it puts people in untenable situations that they have to survive. How those impossible situations translate through generations, how they impact even when they’re withheld.
Aaron Hamburger: Where did you get the idea to structure part of the book as a series of letters from a Jewish refugee to Eleanor Roosevelt?
Victoria Redel: Eleanor Roosevelt was historically a person who interceded on behalf of the Quanza, getting the 86 persons refused entry into the United States or Mexico off the ship. Her importance loomed over the story, though I'd initially started the book differently. I'd written my way into the novel and then one day wandering around, the sentence, Dear Eleanor Roosevelt, do you like stories? entered my head. So I tried a letter or two. Suddenly the book had the tone I liked. I liked the chance for my character to have an American mother, to have an audience to whom he could address his longing.
Aaron Hamburger: Why this story now? Do you see any connection between the refugee situation in the 1940s and current events?
Victoria Redel: Yes, of course. In 1940 there was huge resistance to allowing refugees into the country. Long and Hull advised Roosevelt against admitting the passengers. That resistance, well, still exists and the implementation of barriers--legal and physical--continues. This is an important thread for the character Sara who has political awareness (some) but less personal awareness. As she begins looking around she begins grasping what has been at stake personally for men and women who have survived war. She begins to see that this remarkable city houses so many men and women who have made their way through the most exorbitant and horrifying circumstances. Itzak’s story is a way into thinking about the challenges, choice, and effects of a person who manages to get out alive. Also, as I said earlier, there’s the aspect of luck and making luck and what price one winds up paying to survive. The connections to our world now, if I’ve done my job halfway decently, are woven inextricably through the book.
Aaron Hamburger: You're a teacher of writing as well as a writer. What are some important lessons about writing you try to communicate to your students?
Victoria Redel: The main thing is that I encourage my students to slow down, to think about sentences. To craft their work sentence by sentence.
Aaron Hamburger: One of your books, Loverboy, was turned into a film. What was that process like for you? Was it strange to see your characters on the big screen?
Victoria Redel: It was great. Kevin Bacon was generous and inclusive with me when he made the film. I read the script in draft, was allowed to visit the set and watch filming and I saw the film while it was being edited. I think that was wonderful since he chanced having a writer who couldn't bear letting go. I loved seeing the characters on screen. Kyra Sedgwick is remarkable. Dominic Scott Kay, who plays the son, is perfect. And then there's some pure fun. For instance my character Mrs. Pomeroy became Mr. Pomeroy for the screen, and was played by Oliver Platt. He's perfect and really just what I was imagining.
Aaron Hamburger: What have you read recently that you really loved?
Victoria Redel: I'm teaching a graduate seminar right now at Columbia that is essentially an elements of craft seminar, so I'm having a great time rereading stories and novels: Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, Dusk by James Salter, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley, Stanley Elkin’s stories. Christine Schutt’s stories, Lydia Davis’s stories. Harold Brodkey’s stories, Amy Hempel's stories. The list goes on and on--I'm a nut; I can't stop xeroxing things for this class to read.
As for new books, I've just read the galleys for a story collection by Katherine Arnoldi called All Things Are Labor. It comes out in August and should be read. She is the author of a wonderful graphic novel called The Amazing True Stories of a Teenage Single Mom. Cormac McCarthy's new novel is great. And also some wonderful new books of poems: Ralph Angel's Exceptions and Melancholies (New and Selected) and his translation of Lorca. And The Stray Dog Cabaret, a translation by Paul Schmidt of Russian poets.
Aaron Hamburger: What are you working on next?
Victoria Redel: I'm writing poems. Or I should say trying to and feeling like a clod. But that's how it goes for a while. I'm also trying to feel my way into another thing but so far, it's just not worth too much talking about.