“I came back to Tulsa that summer for different reasons. To prove that it was empty. And in hopes that it was not” (p.12).
Jim Praley arrives home in Tulsa after his first year in college, ready to see his hometown with new eyes; for better and for worse, Tulsa has come to define who he is and to serve as a measure against who he would like to become. His conflicted homecoming is the starting point for Benjamin Lytal’s gorgeous debut novel, A Map of Tulsa.
As Jim revisits old haunts and runs up against ghosts from his past, he meets Adrienne Booker, a former high school classmate, local art scene icon, and rebel heiress. Soon he is in love, fascinated by the impulsive and enigmatic Adrienne, and together they have a summer marked by the excitement, jealousies, and the heartache of youth. Lytal has captured Jim’s intensity of feeling with grace and honesty; Jim’s infatuation with Adrienne is as tender and painful an experience for the reader as it is for Jim.
Intricately crafted and detailed, A Map of Tulsa covers the vast and shifting landscape of young adulthood as Jim redefines his hometown, moving from memories of dull suburban sprawl to the transcendent beauty of an urban landscape, of the evening light on the sidewalks, and the city’s mysteries waiting to be discovered. The beautiful, complicated Adrienne unlocks this for him, becoming the lens through which he sees Tulsa and, by extension, himself
As their passionate summer winds to a close, Jim and Adrienne face the possibility of a future together then step back at the last moment, returning to their separate lives. When Jim comes back to Tulsa years later, it is under tragically different circumstances, but his love for Adrienne is an essential part of himself that, even from a distance, exerts control over his future.
A Map of Tulsa is emotionally sprawling yet narratively concise; a visual, moody, and moving story of the development and dissolution of a love affair, and of its aftermath. Lytal has a gift for the dreamy haze of love and the kaleidoscopic emotions of youth, but ultimately A Map of Tulsa is as much a love letter to the city as it is the story of Adrienne and Jim; Lytal presents a languid and cinematic portrait of Tulsa, drawn in the intimate, everyday details-its beauty and its flaws-that could only be known by a young man in love.
Benjamin Lytal has written for numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, and the Nation. Originally from Tulsa, he currently lives in Chicago. This is his first novel.
How did you choose to write the novel in Jim’s voice? For you, what are the benefits and challenges of writing in the first person?
Jim’s voice came naturally. I did experiment with the third person-on multiple occasions I swore I would start over and rewrite the whole book from memory, in the third person. So that I could be harder on my characters, more clinical. But that wasn’t the way.
As an experienced nonfiction writer, what was the biggest surprise in writing a novel?
That I had to tell the truth.
I had written short nonfiction articles before, but never a book of any kind. When you write short articles, you only have to take your thoughts up to a certain point. Your article is one of many that will be written about the subject. Your job is just to make a small contribution.
But the novel was different. It was my characters’ only chance. You have to tell it all. I remember very much being at my desk admitting this to myself. It must be something every novelist goes through. I didn’t want the book to end the way it does, but I had no choice.
As Jim falls deeper in love with Adrienne, his writing seems to become less important to him. Would it be fair to say that his love for Adrienne becomes his art? Do you find distractions in your own life that take you away from your writing?
I’m glad you noticed that about Jim’s writing-that he loses interest. Note that once he gets back to college his life is once more all about writing-writing Adrienne emails. But then later in the book, he disowns these emails.
Is his love for Adrienne his art? I don’t know. Learning how to work is hard. Adrienne teaches him some things about that.
In your view, are Jim’s memories of Adrienne representative of their relationship or were they shaped more by time and desire? Especially with love lost, can memory be faithfully representative of the original experience or does the act of remembering always affect the memory itself?
Some people say that love was invented by poets. Provençal troubadors, maybe. The woman was incidental to the poem she inspired. I hope this isn’t true of Jim.
The reader sees Adrienne purely through Jim’s perspective. What aspects of his depiction of her do you think she would disagree with?
Adrienne is not a nitpicky person. And she respects other people’s art. Still. A whole narrative about her?
You could reread the book pretending Jim is writing it, with Adrienne looking over his shoulder. Is he showing off? Does he defy her? Is he trying to please her?
What is he trying to tell her?
Was there a particular thought or moment in your life that inspired your writing of A Map of Tulsa? What writers or works have influenced you over the years?
I woke up from a nap one afternoon. I was angry with myself I had not been working harder. During my nap I had dreamed about a girl. She woke up from her nap, and got ready to go to the studio.
Chase Fitzpatrick is an intriguing character and a big part of Adrienne’s life that Jim never quite understands. What is the nature of his relationship with Adrienne
Chase is stupendous. Jim would be impossible without him.
The United States has many iconic cities, from Los Angeles to New York, and each has its own personality. You currently live in Chicago-what does that city mean to you? And where does Tulsa fit into that conversation?
Henry James wrote novels about American expatriates in Europe. His brother William said,C’mon, you don’t really understand European society, you should be writing about Boston or New York. But Henry knew that he had to write at edge of what he understood.
For us, things have flipped. Everybody writes about going abroad. But writing about the hometown seems embarrassing and scary.
My hunch is that this is true for lots of my fellow Americans: that we can go and live wherever, but there is something about hometowns that puts us on our guard, that challenges us, that we respect at the deepest level.
What would life have been like for Jim had he stayed in Tulsa? Do you have an idea of what happens to him after the events of the novel?
This is one of the ways novels are not like real life. A novel confines itself to what’s important in the hero’s life. But in real life, let’s hope there is no such confinement.
What are you currently working on?
Too much and not enough.