Do you think of PERFECT READER as a coming-of-age story?
Yes and no. The story traces two years in Flora Dempsey’s life: one from her childhood and the other in her late twenties—a bit old to come of age, perhaps. But in the sense that Flora is trying to figure out where her parents’ lives end and her life begins—a difficult and thorny task for her—then I suppose it is.
Describe the idea of the “perfect reader.” Why did you choose this as the novel’s title?
This is a notion you sometimes hear, from both writers and scholars—I’ve heard Martin Amis described as Saul Bellow’s perfect reader, for instance. It’s the notion that there is someone in the world who can and will read a book exactly as the author hoped it would be read. It’s a recognition fantasy, the fantasy of being truly seen and known, and there’s something fascinating, and moving, and troubling about these fantasies of recognition we all travel around with, as a kind of antidote to aloneness. So for me, it was a way into the question of how well we can know another person. In Flora’s case, she becomes her father’s literary executor, where the job description as she sees it is to be, essentially, the perfect reader, and so the question becomes how well can—and really, should—a child know a parent.
You grew up on a few different college campuses, the daughter of a professor and later a college president. How did the environment surrounding your childhood affect your writing of this fictional town of Darwin and of the world of academia?
I started writing stories set in the town of Darwin in high school, maybe fifteen years ago now. Darwin is at once everywhere and nowhere I’ve lived. The college campus is a place I know intimately, in my bones. I’m certainly not an academic, but I grew up watching and listening to academics, and I was always struck by their particular breed of humor, and disappointment. My upbringing caused me to draw a possibly false correlation between intelligence and depression; I wanted to understand why these impossibly smart people who seemed to have an ideal professional life, one that allowed for great leisure and great probing conversation and thought, seemed so dissatisfied. Anyway, I’ve been trying to sort it out ever since. It’s an obsession I’m hoping writing this novel has cured me of. Enough Darwin! as Flora herself might say.
Though the novel focuses intensely on the relationship between Flora and her father, while he was alive and now that he’s deceased, with her memories of him, there are many relationships on the periphery of that story that directly affect the plot of the novel.
Flora returns to Darwin and begins to inhabit her father’s life—she’s inherited not only his house and his work, but also his dog, his girlfriend, his rival in Darwin’s English Department, and her relationships to all these things and people are complicated by her relationship to her father. The longer I worked on the novel, the more populous the town of Darwin became. I guess I’m more interested in characters than I am in plot, or, to put it another way, I’ve tried to allow story to emerge by putting the right people in a room together.
I love Flora’s father’s house. What was the inspiration for the house? Do you live in a house like this, or did you at one time?
The house is a character, just as the town is a character. Flora’s former job was at a shelter magazine, so houses and rooms—the way things look—are particularly important to her. Also the elusive feeling of home, the longing for a true home takes up a lot of space for her. Flora’s father’s house borrows bits and pieces from several houses I’ve known. I live in the city now, in an apartment, so in writing the book I spent a lot of time moving through all those houses in my mind.
How does memory play into this novel?
Flora’s memories and the presence of her past play a big role in the novel. She recalls and replays key moments and things her father told her. In the way fresh experiences can conjure old wounds, she is living in more than one time—for much of the novel she is outside of time and trying to find her way back. This may make the book sound like science fiction, which it is distinctly not, but as Joan Dempsey, Flora’s mother, says near the end, part of the point of being human is time travel—that in our minds, at least, we can move between now and then. This is both a blessing and a curse.