Growing up on remote Crab Island in Maine, Miranda Donnal lives in the realm of her own imagination, finding comfort both in the natural world and the world of myth. Independent and practical yet aching for human connection, Miranda is left largely unsupervised by her father Peter, who toils away at his never-ending translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; more often than not, it is up to Mr. Blackwell, a local fisherman and close companion of Peter’s, to provide Miranda with the practical direction and parental affection she needs. Miranda strives to bridge the gap between the ethereal ideals of her father and the earthly concerns of Mr. Blackwell, but struggles to build her own identity separate from these influences. When her father sends her to New York City to visit the people and places of his past, Miranda is initially unsure how to function beyond the safety of her secluded island life. But even in the urban wilds of New York City, Miranda’s private mythology sustains her as she slowly unravels secrets about her beloved father and, in the process, about herself.
Utilizing many of the themes and images found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aoibheann Sweeney’s Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking gives these classical myths a modern context. The book follows Miranda from the rugged isolation of Maine to the metropolis of New York City, charting her voyage of psychological development. Told in spare, poetic prose, the novel is built of only the most essential and intimate moments in Miranda’s rapidly changing life, and yet the novel never feels lean or detached. Sweeney’s unerring sense of voice and character development makes the intimacy of Miranda’s confessional first-person narration shine, creating the illusion that the character is whispering her secrets directly to each individual reader. Like many of the mythological journeys Miranda relates, Sweeney throws a variety of compelling characters in her heroine’s path to challenge and encourage her, and each supporting character—from Ana, a Latina coffee vendor, to Nate, the son of a well-to-do Connecticut family—is a fully-realized and authentic personality. Through them, Miranda learns to navigate the ebb and flow of human relationships, and she begins to understand that sometimes the distance between two people can feel greater than the distance between man and the gods.
Speaking of the changeling characters of Metamorphoses, Miranda says, “The process of transformation . . . was sometimes a punishment, and sometimes a reprieve. But mostly it was a compromise of some sort, a way to negotiate the chasm between desire and mortality, between human nature and human need.” In plumbing the depths of these chasms and compromises, Sweeney has created a compelling examination of Miranda’s own emotional and sexual metamorphosis. As she struggles toward intimacy, Miranda carefully peels away her own layers of innocence and assumptions to reveal her true self and the reality of those she loves.
Aoibheann Sweeney earned her BA at Harvard University and her MFA at the University of Virginia. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and The Village Voice Literary Supplement, and is currently the director of the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q. When did you first become interested in classical mythology? What do you believe accounts for its lasting appeal? How does mythology serve to connect people, both in the novel and in real life?
Math and science used to make me cry; it has always made more sense to me to explain the world through stories about people in love. I think myths and fairy tales endure because being in love is important to everyone; it is the best explanation for everything we do.
Q. There are many parallels between Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Why were you drawn to this particular play? For those who aren’t familiar with this work, could you identify what you see as the most significant connections between the play and your novel?
The Tempest is about Prospero, the Duke of Milan, a bookish man who is sent into exile with Miranda, his daughter, and lands on a remote island inhabited by a witch and her son, Caliban. From the witch he quickly learns sorcery, which he uses to do away with the witch and control the island’s inhabitants: Caliban, the witch’s son, whom he enslaves; Ariel, a magical fairy who does his bidding; and his own daughter, Miranda. Over the course of the play he manages to shipwreck the men who exiled him from his kingdom and to marry Miranda off to a young prince who is among them. Miranda has very few lines, but she was always the character who interested me the most. I have seen the play countless times, and every time I see it she is played differently — studious, rebellious, petulant, playful, or princess-y—but she is always married off to the prince before we really find out what she’s like. I wanted to write her story, to get her off the island before she had to marry the prince and to see what she was like in the real world. Initially I think I saw her story as a universal one, of a girl growing up under the spell of a patriarchal education, but later as I got to know my own characters and to study the play as well, her relationship with her father and even her self began to seem more and more particular: it became the story of a girl who grew up believing in the power of poetry and storytelling and how that changes when she has her own story to tell. It was my own story, of course—the story of a writer.
Q. Certainly most writers are avid readers, but you’re a professional reader in the sense that you’ve written numerous book reviews for publications such as The New York Times. How does your work as a literary critic affect your work as a fiction writer?
I am very critical of my own work. I edit myself all the time, and have a very hard time letting things go. I think it is easier to be hard on others when you are being hard on yourself, but the result is not necessarily more rigorous or more honest—it’s just hard.
Q. Because of many of the characters’ implied or explicit sexuality, your novel could be considered gay fiction. What is your response to that? Do you see any benefits or drawbacks to categorizing writing in this way?
My own reading has been shaped by a tradition of passionately closeted gay American writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Bishop. (For a while I considered titling the book “One Art” after Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same title). Their work was never characterized as gay. I’m really proud to be bringing that tradition into a new, more sexually explicit light, because I love their writing and because I can take it to a place that they could not. But neither will anyone ever again write something quite like The Country of Pointed Firs.
Q. Are there any writers, living or dead, who inspire you? Do you find yourself drawn to writers who tackle the same themes or issues that you do, or do you turn to writers whose work is in complete contrast to yours? Are there any particular books that you feel would be interesting companion pieces to Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking?
Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s Fun House is beautiful and literary and funny and smart and sad, and a lot of people mentioned it to me after they read my book.
Q. From Peter and Mr. Blackwell to Robert and Walter, Miranda is surrounded by male authority figures (whether they choose to wield that authority or not). What did you hope to convey with the creation of these nearly all-male environments for Miranda?
Most of us, whether we like it or not, are ruled by male authority. I wanted Miranda’s experience to be emblematic, and at the same time, particular to the kind of men she is around: feminine and masculine, nurturing and bitchy, egotistical and caring, lonely and self-confident.
Q. Following Ovid’s example in Metamorphoses, you’ve organized Miranda’s growth around the three ages of man: the Age of Silver, the Age of Bronze, and the Age of Iron. What is the significance of this structure? How do you see Miranda’s development reflecting these ages?
Miranda has no golden age; her mother is taken away from her very early on, and her sense is that she was never there. But she has a long stretch as an innocent, living on the island in the Age of Silver, subject more to the rules of nature than to that of mankind. In the Age of Bronze she arrives in New York: her world is newly ordered and she makes discoveries, forges new tools for living. In the Age of Iron she discovers her own flaws, practices deceit, abandons responsibilities.
Q. The details that can be included in any story depend greatly on the perspective from which the story is told. Your novel is written in the first person, from Miranda’s point of view. How did this affect your writing? Especially in light of how much Miranda is unaware of or discovers through the course of the book, do you think it would be fair to label Miranda an unreliable narrator?
I got a little lonely writing this book because Miranda is so isolated and it was impossible to get out of her head and move into another character’s point of view. I think the book reflects that. I think Miranda is always honest though; she learns a lot over the course of the book, and she tells us her feelings as she experiences them.
Q. For many of us, location has immense emotional power, whether it’s a place we know and love, or a place that we are drawn to. What do New York and Maine represent for Miranda?
Civilization and nature; love and loneliness, all of those in both places.
Q. For your next book, do you plan to write another novel or will you turn to nonfiction? What are you working on currently?
I would like to write about siblings—I grew up with siblings. But ideas tend to just kind of perch on your shoulder. I am still waiting for another one to sing in my ear.
How would you describe Miranda’s metamorphosis? What are the key events of her emotional and sexual transformation?
Of the many myths that Miranda relates through the course of the novel, which do you believe best represents her own situation?
Why did Peter move his family to the island? What is his purpose in sending Miranda to the Classical Institute?
There is a sharp division between Miranda’s life in Maine and her life in New York. In what ways is location meaningful in your own life? Does your personality change depending on where you are?
Miranda says, “I stood for a long time looking at the bay. I often wondered if my mother had done this before the day she left the safety of the island and got lost. It was easy, even in the dark, to see the shape of the bay and each jut of land; heading straight out of our cove in almost every direction but one would have brought the boat to shore.” What does this statement suggest about the circumstances of her mother’s death? Are there any other clues in the novel about her mother’s life? Are there any ways in which Miranda’s life is similar to her mother’s?
Why doesn’t Peter finish his translation? Why, when there are so many other versions, does he bother with it at all? He and his daughter both have trouble translating their emotions to one another: how does the work serve his emotional needs?
What is the nature of Peter’s relationship with Mr. Blackwell? What about Miranda’s relationship with him? In what ways do you see Mr. Blackwell as a mother replacement? How do you believe Miranda’s development—and future relationships with Nate and Ana—reflect her identification with her father and his relationships? Would they have changed if her mother had lived?
How do the cross-class, cross-race relationships that Miranda and her father are drawn to reflect their loneliness and their attitudes toward their own prescribed social worlds?
“I was convinced,” Miranda says, “that all around the island there were women inside the trees. . . . Sometimes I could almost feel my skin thickening into bark, my toes rooting into the ground, my arms raising stiffly to the sky.” How does this comment explain Miranda’s interest in the natural world? How is this expressed in her drawings? What does art mean to her?
Miranda’s relationships provide her with a step toward better understanding herself and, as she ventures beyond her island, the world around her. Choose three characters from the novel and identify what it is that Miranda learns from her interaction with that person.
How does Miranda use mythology as a way to connect with her father? How does she use it as a refuge from the world around her?
Are you familiar with Greek mythology? If you are, are there any myths that Sweeney didn’t mention that you find particular moving? If this is your first time reading about Greek mythology, are you inspired to read more—or perhaps even tackle Ovid’s Metamorphoses?