The Beatrice Interview

Alice Elliott Dark

"There's not as much as a barrier as we think between the living and the dead."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Alice Elliott Dark's Think of England, like her short story collection In the Gloaming, features a striking Maxfield Parrish painting on the cover, the result of the author's lobbying. "I've always loved Parrish," Dark explains over the phone, "and when it came time to talk about covers, I said why not use something by one of the all-time great illustrators instead of making something up on the spot?" She admires the strong narrative sense in his pictures, as well as what she perceives as a dreamlike, out-of-time quality. These two traits can also be seen in her highly polished fiction. Think of England, Dark's first novel, begins the night the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, an event which provides a temporary focal point for young Jane and her squabbling family. In subsequent sections, set in punk-era England and contemporary New York, the adult Jane tries to make peace with the tragedy that occurred that night and comes to realize that just because somebody isn't around doesn't mean that they aren't a part of your life.

RH: Had you been intending to work on a novel for a while?

AED: I actually started working on a novel five or six years ago which turned out to be Think of England, even though the early versions are nothing like what's left. The first thing I had was the structure, although it's not exactly the same structure the book has now. I wanted to write about one day in the life of a woman at three different periods in her life. The first section I worked on was the middle section, set in England, which is now set over a period of about eight months. I wrote a few versions set during one day and never got it right, because I wanted it to be a straightforward narrative without a lot of backstory, but it was impossible. So I let it go. The idea of looking at a person at three different stages of her life stayed with me, though, throughout the writing process.

RH: You start the novel in Wynnemoor, the location of many of your short stories, so there's a sense of continuity with your earlier work. Why did you invent that town?

AED: I realized that I was trying to invent new settings over and over again, so one story would be in Connecticut, one story would be in Westchester, and the settings would all be similar to one another, so I decided to create a town like the one in which I grew up, on the Main Line outside Philadelphia. But it also draws upon elements of those towns in Connecticut and Westchester, so it's really more of a hybrid town. When I began the novel, I thought to myself, "I've made up this town, I'm attached to it." I think I'll keep going back to it. The novel I'm writing now is not set there, but the next one will be.

RH: There are incidents in the book that may be ghostly encounters. Do you believe in such things?

AED: I don't know if there are ghosts. I've had experiences, but that doesn't prove they exist. I lived in an apartment in New York where there was a ghost, and I used that for the last scene in the book where Jane feels a presence in her apartment. But I didn't make it clear if that came from outside her or inside her. I do think that people have those experiences, but what it is, I'm not sure. I also believe in more subtle experiences where people have the chance to communicate with dead people in all kinds of ways. It's happened to me and to many people. There's not as much as a barrier as we think between the living and the dead. Whether it manifests as a ghost, or a strong sense of that person's spirit, even in your own mind, it's a very powerful experience. I chose a ghost for the story because it's the most extreme form of that experience.

RH: An earlier draft of this novel was at least twice as long as the final version, and included a very different fate for Jane's father. How did you go about cutting that much material?

AED: I didn't really cut it. I just let that entire version go and rewrote the book. I'm not a cut-and-paste person, I'm a complete rewriter. When that version didn't work, I just dumped it. It's a sad and hard thing to do, because there are parts of that version I really loved. The first section was much longer, and covered the parent's separation and finally their divorce. I miss a lot of that material, too, but it didn't really speak to the theme I was getting at as I wrote more deeply into the book. That's what happens to me--I'll try something, and if it doesn't work, I'll throw it out and start over completely instead of trying to fix it.

My husband just said to me, after having read the final version for the first time last week, that he missed a few parts from that earlier version. I know what he meant, but one of the important things for me in becoming an author is that you start to think of a story as a whole, rather than a collection of parts you like very much, so you have to be willing to let parts go for the sake of the whole. My process has a lot to do with writing until I've figured out what I want to say, then writing a fresh version based on that new understanding. I may still extract a story or two from the parts I let go, but I'm not sure about that yet.

RH: It sounds like you and your husband are very judicious about the degree to which he offers his insights as an editor by looking at your writing.

AED: We've been together for sixteen years, and there were periods earlier in our relationship when I showed him every single thing. I don't do that anymore, because I've become a lot better at judging my own work and don't need his voice as much as I used to. But if I don't know about something, I'll show him. I also know that he's always going to tell me the truth, so I have to wait until I'm ready to hear it from him. Sometimes I'm not ready.

He saw a lot of parts of this book as I was writing it; last week was just the first time he'd read the story as a whole. It was fun to have him read it at this point, when I have this much distance from the story, and there's nothing any of us could do about it because the book's out there already.

RH: Were you prepared for the amount of attention "In the Gloaming" brought to you and your writing?

AED: No, and I'm still not. I wrote the story very quickly, it was published very quickly, and everything happened so fast that I didn't have time to sit with it the way I did with some other stories. I don't feel completely identified with the story because of that, but I am identified with it. It's wonderful that people would care so much about something I've written, and I never could have imagined the response I got to that story, but it's one part of a huge body of work I'll produce over my lifetime. It's not the only thing that's happened for me, and my sense of identity around it is limited.

For a while, people just wanted me to write that story again, and I couldn't. I'd written it, and now I was writing other things. It put me in a box for a while, but that passes.

RH: Being the author of what's considered one of the best short stories of the twentieth century is a great box for a writer, but it's still a box.

AED: I think I've gotten past that now. I remember reading an essay about Doris Lessing praying that one day somebody would review a book of hers without mentioning The Golden Notebook and comparing everything else she wrote to it. I'm certainly not comparing myself to her, but there was a tiny version of that for me, too. It was hard for me to know what to do about that. Should I try to write something else with that same feeling or tone, or should I just move on? It took me a while to figure it out.

I feel grateful for some of the things that happened after that story was published, but also a sense of detachment. What happened was often so external to me. It was like winning the lottery, but even more so, because I didn't set out to have any of this happen. I just wrote a story.

RH: You said that you've wanted to write a novel for a number of years, but was there any commercial pressure on you to do a novel as well?

AED: Totally. Right after I published the story "In the Gloaming," people started telling me I should write a novel, and I thought, "Wait a minute! I just wrote a really good story. Can't I just write another one? Now that I've finally figured out what I'm doing, do I really have to start all over again?" The business reality, though, is that the chances of making money on a novel are much better than the chances of making money on a short story collection, so publishers are looking for novels. I resented that for a while, then I adjusted to the reality of it, and I accepted that it was an opportunity for me to learn something new and that I was lucky that I could write a novel and have it published based on the fact I'd written stories. So I was pushed, but it turned out to be a good thing.

RH: And you mentioned a novel you're working on now, and one planned for after that, so it sounds like you're comfortable with the direction your writing has taken.

AED: I am. I'll still write stories, but I like this space. A novel is a much looser entity than a short story, and has a lot more to do with character change, seeing how time effects the development of a person. Even if it's confined to a twenty-four hour period, I think there's more movement internally than there is in a short story. I wrote poetry for a long time, and then I needed more room, so I wrote stories. I don't think I needed more room to start writing novels, but now that I have it, I like it, and I'm going to stick with it.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Sue Miller | Complete Interview Index | Andre Dubus III

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