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Photo: © Fritz Lentz
Margaret Hawkins is the author of two previous novels, A Year of Cats and Dogs and How to Survive a Natural Disaster, and a memoir about her sister, After Schizophrenia: The Story of My Sister’s Reawakening. She also writes for the Chicago Sun-Times and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
What inspired you to write Lydia’s Party?
I was thinking about the complications of close-knit groups—families and old friends—and how they relate to one another over time. It’s about love, of course, but not only. There are these other currents, privacy versus transparency, the challenges of individual expression versus being a good citizen. I started the book in January, so that’s where that came from. Really, surviving winter in Chicago, year after year, is a kind of psychological odyssey, reminding you at every turn that you’re going to die. Even in summer, you know what’s coming. Perversely, I suppose, I find that kind of invigorating.
Besides being a novelist, you are an art critic and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How do your “day jobs” inform your fiction?
Everything informs my fiction – doing the laundry, walking my dog. The art part is just what I’m interested in so the themes in the novel and the jobs are both an outgrowth of that. Of course, it’s also true that after writing a weekly column about art for years I’ve seen a lot of inadvertently humorous press releases and couldn’t help poking some fun. The teaching part is drawn somewhat from life—that’s how you think when you teach: how am I going to get and hold attention without being gratuitously theatrical? —but the details are from my imagination. I’ve never given a lecture on Ivan Albright. Specifically, in terms of this book, I’m intrigued by how artists relate to the world at large, how they think of themselves and justify the lives they (we) lead. I mean, is it really all right to lock yourself in a room and spend your days painting pictures or writing stories? I hope so, but sometimes I wonder.
Your descriptions of Norris’s paintings are incredibly vivid. Are they based on the work of a real-life painter or did they spring wholly from your imagination?
They pretty much spring from my imagination. The figure paintings are what I might like to paint if I could. But it’s like teaching; making up ideas for paintings is a lot easier than making actual paintings. I admire good figure painters, especially when they do something new with the genre. It takes a lot of guts to fly in the face of art history.
Did you ever have a List of Fears, as Lydia does?
Not exactly but when I was in seventh grade I had a teacher who started the year by asking us a battery of personal questions. We had to write down the answers and turn them in. One of the questions was: What are you afraid of? We were supposed to make a list. I don’t know if he was just indulging his curiosity or if it was school policy and this was some kind of “modern” technique to better understand children’s psyches but I remember loving that exercise. It was thrilling to me for some reason, to be invited to contemplate, then name my fears, and for years I went over the list in my mind, adding and subtracting items. I can’t remember much of it now but I do recall that the first item was big black dogs. Which is funny because my childhood dog had been medium-sized and black, and when I got to be an adult the dog I got was as big and black as you can get. So I gave that paradox to Lydia. I kind of like that it doesn’t make obvious sense. Maybe the power suggested by such a dog is an aspect of herself she feared?
Who are some of your literary influences?
I guess your deepest literary influences are what you read and loved when you were a child up to about fourteen or fifteen so mine would be A Wrinkle in Time, Alice in Wonderland, Oliver Twist, Lolita, the Bobbsey Twins, East of Eden, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. For years I went to a Baptist church with my friend Debbie so I read the Bible. And my father pressed boy books on me—I don’t think he thought much of books by or about girls —so I read Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island. Everything I read influences me, though. I love newspapers.
As the novel progresses, the focus seems to shift from Lydia to Norris. Why is that?
I’m intrigued by the way people who are close to one another, especially people who are sometimes adversarial, seem to trade personality traits over time. You see it in couples, sometimes when they break up. And it happens when people die, the surviving friend or partner or offspring will take on traits of the person who’s gone, traits they didn’t even like, without knowing or intending to. It’s a kind of immortality. I thought Lydia was passing the baton to Norris, even though she didn’t mean to, like it was Norris’s turn to do some of the unsung work in the world now. She’s just getting started at the end. I didn’t plan that exactly; it just seemed to be what the story needed, a kind of opening out into the ambiguous future. Maybe, also, the book ends with Norris because a life story doesn’t end when someone dies. The story gets passed along to other people, to make something more from it. There tends to be a belief that the passing on of a spiritual inheritance is only a family matter—books often end with the next generation picking up where the older one left off—but it happens among friends, too, and that’s almost more poignant because the time is shorter and there’s less recognition for these relationships. Friendship doesn’t hold the same glorious position in the public imagination that family does.
You do a wonderful job of chronicling the varied experiences of each of the women as they maneuver middle age. Are these characters based on real-life women of your acquaintance?
No! But the dog, Maxine, is. She’s based on my late dog Max (the big black one). He was wilder, though.
How did writing this novel affect your own feelings about growing older?
I think I was working out some stuff. I feel better now than I did when I was writing it.
What are you working on now?
Another novel, of course. Also, I just finished an essay for Katherine Ace, a painter who revisits Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and I’m starting one for my friend Richard Loving, an amazing painter who is about to celebrate his 90th birthday the same week his new show opens.
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