Q: SEATING ARRANGEMENTS is set on a Nantucket-like island off the coast of Cape Cod over a three-day wedding weekend. What about this elite social setting drew you in?
I grew up in Southern California. My parents are transplanted Midwesterners who don’t like gin or lobster (I know: weird). I didn’t know what a WASP was until I went to college, and then, through friends, distinctly non-friends, and a boyfriend, I got something of a crash course, which was, like most crash courses, intense but patchy and incomplete. I’m not a believer in the old “write what you know” chestnut. I like to write about what I want to know more about.
My first year of grad school, I was kicking around the question of what problems come with privilege and entitlement. For example: if you think all possibilities are rightfully open to you, whether in choosing a job or a mate, then how do you ever decide? How can you ever be content? I hadn’t come up with a way to approach these questions through fiction until a friend of mine had the good grace to be hit by a golf cart while riding his bike on Nantucket. (Naturally, he was wearing tennis whites.) His leg was cut badly enough to need stitches, but the driver of the golf cart wouldn’t apologize. This profoundly unsettled my friend. “You’re supposed to apologize,” he told me on the phone. “Even if something’s not your fault, you apologize so everyone feels better. It’s polite.” He was bewildered, not angry, and, while making sympathetic noises, I started thinking about a character who depends on the people around him to abide by strict rules of behavior and whose fragile world is thrown into disarray when they don’t. I knew I wanted to explore and maybe critique the very, very First World problems of such a character, and I knew I wanted to use a certain crisp, clean, preppy New England vacation aesthetic as a background for behavior that was neither crisp nor clean. So I wrote a very bad short story, and then, two years later, I lived on Nantucket for eight months (let the record show that they did not include the summer months) and wrote the first draft of the novel.
Q: Throughout SEATING ARRANGEMENTS, it often feels like we’re getting voyeuristic glimpses in to the habits of the well-bred and ill-behaved. Where did you draw inspiration for these characters and their antics?
The characters are all primarily invented, but I accessorized them with bits and pieces borrowed from real people: choice phrases, descriptive details, a delightfully strange first name. Sometimes a name or a line of dialogue is enough to give a character shape, especially at the beginning. Then, the more you write about a character, the more information you have about what he or she would do, think, and feel in any given situation, and their antics start to flow from their personalities. When you go back to the beginning of a draft to revise, you suddenly know this person better than you did when you started and can see all sorts of psychological inconsistencies and moments where the tone wanders. The borrowed bits and pieces get crusted over with layers of invention and eventually lose all connection to that poor real-life source who was foolish enough to talk to a writer at a party.
Q: Patriarch Winn Van Meter is a Harvard graduate who is obsessed with membership in all the right clubs. As a Harvard graduate yourself, was club membership something people took very seriously?
Harvard has an odd, retro system of social clubs called final clubs that are exclusively male, are not funded or regulated by the university, own spectacular Cambridge real estate, and admit members through a selective process called punching. From what I observed, membership was a matter of absolute and dire seriousness for some guys, but others had no interest in joining a club or joined for reasons that didn’t go much deeper than wanting to have a place to hang out with their friends. A handful of female final clubs have been founded over the past twenty or so years, but because they don’t have the same alumni resources or long traditions as the men’s clubs, they don’t seem to confer the same status or occupy the same place in the collective Harvard imagination. There’s an ongoing debate about the final clubs that will probably never end. Some people think they’re incubating and perpetuating misogyny, racism, economic segregation, homophobia, and other very bad things. Other people argue that club members have special and unique bonds and create opportunities for one another. I don’t begin to have the answers—I think, at the very least, it’s problematic that men control so much of the social space at Harvard, but I also see how, for lots of members, the clubs are harmless fun. Truth be told, I was just glad to be a girl so I didn’t have to worry about getting punched or not.
Q: To the horror of his daughter, to whom he is toasting, Winn’s wedding toast equates marriage with death. Was this intended as farcical or tragic and have you previously experienced an awkward wedding toast such as this one?
I’ve never been in the audience for quite such a downer of a wedding toast, but I would say a solid 30-40% of the ones I have witnessed would qualify as awkward. Most people aren’t entirely comfortable with public speaking, and when you mix in a lot of emotion and alcohol, people can be unpredictable. I’ve seen a mother-of-the-groom catalog the groom’s ex-girlfriends. I’ve seen a maid-of-honor catalog the bride’s ex-boyfriends. I’ve seen a best man rewrite the lyrics of “American Pie” to be an uncomfortable seven minute string of rhyming insults about the groom. I’m generally ambivalent about the prospect of having a wedding of my own, but, if I have one, toasts will be forbidden.
Q: There’s a great scene with an exploding whale. Does that actually happen??
It does! And let that be a lesson to us all: don’t get too close to a decomposing whale carcass. When I was in high school, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a scientist who had been killed while performing a necropsy on a whale. Gas built up inside the corpse; it exploded, and this poor man was impaled by a shard of bone. Not surprisingly, the story stuck with me, and when I started drafting Seating Arrangements, I decided early on to include an exploding whale. I didn’t have the plot mapped out at all, but I was strangely confident there would be an opportunity somewhere to work in the whale.
If you search on YouTube, you’ll find some whale explosions, natural and otherwise. One of my favorites is a classic news clip from 1970 about local authorities in Oregon who didn’t know what to do with a dead grey whale and decided to blow it up with dynamite . . . too much dynamite. Huge chunks of blubber rained from the sky and crushed cars and terrified all the spectators who’d come out to see the blast. Whales are just so impossibly large that I think there’s something confrontational and compellingly grotesque about them when they’re dead. You can’t ignore a dead whale; it’s a memento mori on a gigantic scale.
Q: What writers and novels inspire you?
There are too many to list! Day to day, I tend to read a lot of nonfiction and am not great at staying on top of current fiction, but I have a shelf of books at the ready for when I’m having trouble writing. I’ll pick one up and read for a while, and often just a few pages of someone’s marvelous prose will sort of get me in tune. The contents of the shelf rotates, but some standbys are The Great Gatsby (duh), Brideshead Revisited, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Lolita, Housekeeping, To the Lighthouse, Pride and Prejudice, Loving, The Virgin Suicides, The Early Stories by John Updike, Selected Stories by Alice Munro, and The Stories of John Cheever. Lately I’ve been on simultaneous A.S. Byatt and John Le Carré kicks, who write about very different subjects but are both master stylists and are inspiring me to aspire to use the omniscient voice. I’m also reading Michael Chabon’s new book, and I’ve been thinking about how much I love the way the humor and beauty in his work starts on the diction level. He routinely writes sad sentences that are made funny by one unexpected word or vice versa. Reading his fiction reminds me that every word matters.
Q: When did you first realize you loved to write?
Any day now. Writing is difficult and takes forever, and I’m constantly aware that I should always be looking harder and thinking harder. I don’t dislike the act of writing—and I would feel lost and useless if I stopped doing it—but when things are going well, the experience is more of focus than of enjoyment. I love books, and I do love certain things about the process of constructing characters and stories, like when the solution to some structural problem suddenly becomes clear and I get a boost of momentum. I also love the challenge of inventing characters who seem real to me, and then I love trying to see through their eyes. The opportunity to be someone else is one of the great pleasures of reading, and I’ve been surprised that it’s a pleasure of writing as well.
On a practical level, I started writing fiction in college more or less on a whim and then applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the year after graduation also pretty much on a whim. When I got in, I immediately became much more serious about improving my work, but I can’t remember any moment where I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was more that I slowly figured out I didn’t want to be anything else.
Q: What are you working on next?
I just finished a novel that’s mostly about ballet. It’s all in present tense but covers thirty years. There’s a Soviet defector. There’s Southern California and Paris and New York. There’s some high drama. But, other than that, I’m terrible at describing my own projects and should say no more. Next I’d like to finish a couple short stories I’ve been toying with, one about the Paris catacombs and one about an ocean liner. I like to mix it up.