The Beatrice Interview

Kate Christensen

"I found as I worked on the book that I wanted to resist stereotype in every way."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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In the first chapter of Jeremy Thrane, Kate Christensen's second novel, Jeremy is returning from Staten Island, where he's just spent the night at the home of a waiter he picked up in a bar the night before. His walk from the ferry terminal through downtown Manhattan to the apartment of Ted Masterson, the action film star who employs Jeremy as his personal assistant (and is conducting a closeted relationship with him), takes on a new, elegiac quality in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Christensen was in Europe visiting family on September 11th, and when she made it back to New York, she cancelled the majority of her publicity for the book. "I didn't see how my book tour would help anything," she explained over coffee in a Brooklyn café. "The world of the book seemed so far away from how the city felt right after the attacks."

When Christensen was growing up in Arizona and California, that world was always on her mind. "I couldn't wait to move here and start my real life. New York was a beacon of culture and freedom and decadence and individuality...all the things that Arizona lacked." Now she finds herself crying while watching Liza Minnelli sing the title song of Scorsese's New York, New York. "I don't imagine people have cried at that scene much before," she confessed, "but I bet they would now; it's so nostalgic in such a piercing way. New York seems so small now."

RH: Both of your books are about people who are in the background of celebrity culture. They're not rich and famous themselves, they're more like the support structure for the rich and famous.

KC: I worried about that when I was writing Jeremy Thrane, because it was about one person with power and another without, one person was an assistant type...but then it turned out not to be the same book at all.

The first book I wrote was based on a job I actually had as a personal secretary and ghostwriter. I was intrigued by the idea of how power relationships work between people who have power and people who don't. So it's not so much famous people, it's people with power in a private realm. That tension drives all of In the Drink and the first part of Jeremy Thrane, but after that, Ted's leaving is what gets Jeremy unstuck, out of stasis and into life, into the world.

RH: He's forced out of Ted's life very early in the novel, right.

KC: People have told me that they read the book hoping that Jeremy and Ted would get back together and it just astonished me, because that is so not the book I set out to write. It never even occurred to me that that might happen. Probably it should have. (laughs) I just wanted to write a book about somebody who was stuck, in a relationship that's limited and can never be more than it is, and then see how his life changed when he was out of that relationship.

RH: What was it like to write from the perspective of a gay man?

KC: I was writing another novel about a woman who tries to rescue her sister from a cult, and it was going nowhere. I was in a funk about that, lying awake in bed, because I couldn't figure out how to write this book, which I needed to write because I had a two-book contract. I thought I had something to sink my hooks into, but it was so dull, I couldn't even make my husband read it. It was dead in the water.

Then out of nowhere came the image of Jeremy. It had never occurred to me to write about a gay man before, but I was intrigued by the idea immediately--it was a kind of "aha!" feeling, the excitement and challenge of inhabiting a different point of view and set of experiences and way of looking at the world from my own. When I started writing the novel, I was conscious mainly that I wanted to resist stereotype in every way. I know a lot of gay men, and none of them is stereotypically gay. A lot of them seem 'straight,' whatever that means.

Jeremy's voice came to me as soon as I started the first chapter. I found that I identified strongly with him, maybe because a lot of gay men, like women, are outside the status quo--we feel that we belong to a sort of subculture. Writers too, for that matter. So it wasn't so hard to get into his head; the difficult thing was letting the story take its course, and not trying to make it something it wasn't meant to be. Which brings me back to those readers who said they wanted Jeremy to get back together with Ted... Did you want him to?

RH: No. I always assumed that Jeremy was kicked out for good, and that Ted and Yoshi would stay involved.

KC: (laughs) I'm laughing because my husband and I have a running gag about an imaginary houseboy named Yoshi; that's where the idea for the character came from. Sometimes when the dishes pile up in the sink, or we'd like to have someone bring us coffee in bed, we say to each other, "Where the hell is Yoshi?" We're always threatening to fire him. (laughs again)

RH: The sex scenes are fairly convincing. Did you have any gay friends vet them for you?

KC: I have two gay men in my writing group. I didn't email them and...(laughs) "Does this work for you?" I was nervous about having them read it. If they had said anything about the character not ringing true as a gay man, it would have taken the air right out of my sails. I would have thought that I could never pull it off.

RH: What familiarity did you have with the world of gossip columnists and celebrity assistants?

KC: Zero. I made it all up. And when you make it all up, it's harder to believe in your own authenticity. The world of personal assistants to Upper East Side socialties, I knew so well, and I felt it was my little revenge--in a way- -to write about a world that was so humiliating and so debilitating. By writing about it from my perspective, I could shift the power back to myself, power that I had lost completely.

But this time, I just made it up, and it was so much fun. I love gossip columnists. That's why I read the Post, for the gossip.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Erika Krouse | Complete Interview Index | Jennifer Weiner

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan