Shortly after Rebecca Donner started the graduate writing program at Columbia University, she began attending a series of literary readings held at KGB, a popular bar in the East Village. "One day I saw an index card tacked up on the bulletin board that said, 'New director wanted for KGB,'" she recalls over coffee one afternoon. "I just decided that I would campaign to get that gig. I had an internship at The New Yorker at the time, so I mentioned it to one of my editors, and he said he'd put in a call for me. A couple other people I knew put in a word for me... I wasn't even really hooked into the literary scene at that point, because I had just arrived in New York. I had to be rather Machiavellian about it, and just work very diligently at getting it. I interviewed with the owner a couple of times, until finally he relented and gave me the job." For much of the time while she was producing the weekly readings, she was working on her own novel, Sunset Terrace, the story of a mother and daughter who move into a Los Angeles apartment building and find themselves fascinated, in different ways, by a troubled young girl who lives in the building with them.
RH: Most of the novel takes place in a single building, and I'm assuming you lived in a similar building when you were a kid?
RD: That's right. I lived in an apartment building like Sunset Terrace from the age of eight through high school, and it made a deep and lasting impression on me. There were many single mothers struggling to raise their children, and the kids were basically a ragtag community of delinquents... When I began thinking about writing a book, I thought about exploring some of the themes that emerged for me during my childhood in that building. I was interested in exploring the lives of some of the residents and their struggles, what it was like to live in a nearly all-female community, the alliances, the jealousies. It was a very sad place, but though there was a sense of hopelessness to it, there was a sense of vitality as well.
I remember moving into the apartment building. It was a very poignant time, but very shocking, too. We had just moved from Charlottesville, Virginia, and this was of course a very different place. I remember watching my mother, who was married at the time, and the way that the other neighbors would let her in or keep her at arm's length. It took quite a while before we were fully embraced by the other residents.
RH: The setting also gives you a lot of perspectives to choose from. You mostly focus on Hannah and Elaine, but occasionally we see things through the eyes of another woman in the building.
RD: I started out writing the whole story from Hannah's point of view, but I found that it was very solipsistic and very limiting to write from a nine-year-old perspective. I wanted to pull back and get more sense of the other characters. I also wanted to juxtapose scenes with the mother and daughter, to see how the mother was missing things, not quite seeing what was happening in her daughter's life.
RH: You've been through the writing programs at Berkeley and Columbia. Have you always had a novel in mind that whole time?
RD: I started out with short stories. This novel grew out of one of those stories. I showed it to people who said it seemed like I had packed so much into the eight pages... It showed my limitations as a short story writer, at least for that particular story. I just crammed so much in there, and I thought about drawing it out, elaborating on it, maybe even turning it into a novel. I started playing a 'what if?' game with myself, because it is very intimidating to decide to write a capital-N Novel...
RH: What were some of the particular challenges for you?
RD: I had a sense of what I was writing toward, but I reached that point halfway through the novel and I wasn't sure what direction it would take from there. Bridget is in so many ways the engine of the novel, and once I had her run away, it was hard for me to get my bearings again. I had to flail around a bit before I found my footing again.
RH: That's so true. Despite whatever else goes on with Hannah and Elaine, their reactions to Bridget shape so much of their emotional trajectory.
RD: It's interesting to learn how other people react to Bridget, and some of those reactions are very surprising to me. One reviewer called her a predator, a source of evil. But I think of the book as more morally ambiguous; it's not about predator and prey or good and evil. I see Bridget as more of a demon/angel; she's not one or the other, and I see her as an essentially tragic figure. Hannah had such a connection with Bridget, but at her core, Bridget didn't have much of a connection with Hannah. Narcissistic is the wrong word, perhaps...I guess it's a sort of callousness to her.
RH: She's clearly manipulative and cruel, but not any more so than hundreds of other children.
RD: Exactly. But she's had such a troubled past, too, and I was interested in how she acted out some of the things that happened to her. It was one of the most challenging aspects to writing the book, dealing with her. I almost never get inside her head at all, except for one tiny scene at the beginning. So you have to examine this very emotionally layered character through the eyes of two other quite limited characters: a nine-year-old girl and a mother who is in some ways very myopic.
RH: It's always struck me that running a program like KGB could be just as valuable and instructive for an aspiring writer as participating in a graduate writing program.
RD: Absolutely. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet authors, to hear what they have to say about their own work and about the publishing industry. I learned a lot of things through KGB I don't think I would have learned at Columbia. It also taught me not to be so intimidated by my ambitions to publish. I would get dozens of books delivered to my apartment by publicists hoping to get their authors in the series, a lot of them first-time novelists. I got to see how many of them there were, some of them really inspiring and others... I would say to myself, "Well, if that person can get this published, maybe it's not so difficult after all." (laughs) It does turn out to be difficult, especially when you have a book that doesn't fit into a particular niche, as mine doesn't.
RH: You ended up with a small publisher with a very strong reputation for literary fiction.
RD: I was originally supposed to turn in the revised manuscript to my agent on September 11, 2001. Once I finally did get it to her, because of the timing, nobody really knew what was going on in the industry. She got the impression people in publishing were waiting before committing to any new books of any kind. So she sent it out in early December, and we just kept getting the same type of response over and over. She told me she'd never seen so many elaborately nice rejection letters, and they all basically said it didn't fit into a particular niche, or that the editor wasn't sure they could take a chance on it right now, they weren't sure how it could be marketed... We just kept sending it out until we found an editor at Macadam & Cage who really connected with the material and what I was trying to do and was eager to buy the book.
Macadam & Cage has a different bottom line than publishers like Random House or FSG. I think they're a wonderful place for first novelists, because they've developed that reputation for ferreting out first-timers with literary novels. It's nice to be associated with that kind of house.
RH: Who do you read for pleasure?
RD: I read so many different kinds of things... I just finished reading Jonathan Lethem's upcoming novel, The Fortress of Solitude. Updike seems to be out of fashion, but I find his brand of realism approximates what I want to try to do with my work. I love Robert Stone and Joan Didion. I love Ann Beattie. There's a stillness to her stories, not a tranquility because there's nothing tranquil about her stories... I'm moved by different authorial voices, and hers has an intriguing, compelling quality for me. I picked up Cannery Row around the time that I started writing Sunset Terrace, and found myself drawn in by Steinbeck's voice, kind of folksy but kind of lyrical... I also love Borges and Delillo, so my tastes range broadly, but voice is what I look for, what turns me on as a writer. I'm writing my next novel in the first person, so I'm reading Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier right now. I'm just trying to see how various authors have handled that voice.