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History and What It Can Do to Us: An Interview with Aurelie Sheehan

The Anxiety of Everyday ObjectsIn her debut novel, Aurelie Sheehan delineated the difference between vocation and job, between meaningful work and the crap we do to make money. She considered the temptations of worldly success. She traveled much the same territory that Lauren Weisberger tramped over in her debut novel, the main distinction between the two books being that The Anxiety of Everyday Objects is outstanding—very smart, sharply witty, beautifully crafted, and slightly kooky—whereas The Devil Wears Prada (the book; haven’t seen the movie) sucks ass.

I was so charmed by The Anxiety of Everyday Objects that I imagined that it might signal a new direction for chick lit, one with all the romantic pratfalls and career-girl high jinks and fondness for fashion one expects from the genre, but written with intelligence and honesty and originality. Indeed, this hopeful scenario provided half the thesis of the very first article I ever sold to Bitch. The other half expressed a longing for more of the over-the-top screwball comedy I enjoyed in Plum Sykes’s Bergdorf Blondes.

As far as I can tell, though, chick lit has not evolved much in the intervening years, and “women’s fiction” remains, as far as I’m concerned, a dubious literary arena. Sykes’s second novel is, alas, a soulless and leaden exercise in extending the brand, but Sheehan’s latest is something else altogether.

History Lesson for GirlsHistory Lesson for Girls is the story of Alison Glass, who, at the age of 13, moves to the tony town of Weston, Connecticut, and begins the 8th grade in 1975. With her artsy parents, her yellow plastic clogs, and her back brace, Alison cuts a weird figure among the coltish, Shetland-sweater clad girls who populate her new school, but it hardly matters: She has smart-mouthed, confident Kate Hamilton to save her.

Sheehan conveys the intensity of adolescent friendship without mawkishness or sticky sentiment. The adult Alison tells her story because the telling is important to her—because she needs to remember Kate in order to understand herself—and Sheehan makes the story important to us, too. This history of two anonymous girls is juxtaposed with Weston’s preparations for its bicentennial celebration, the historical society made up of rich housewives that Alison’s mom joins, and a tale about a colonial girl who lived 200 years ago that Alison and Kate write together. The first two, with their fake, Colonial Williamsburg-style approach to the past, offer an instructive contrast to the story Alison is telling, while Kate and Alison’s fable is a poignant echo of the larger narrative.

To suggest that personal history is important may seem redundant in our memoir-glutted, talk show-laden age, but Sheehan reminds us that art is not just as important as truth, but that it offers its own kind of truth. History Lesson for Girls is not just about the necessity of telling our stories, but the necessity of telling stories well.

To what extent, if any, is History Lesson for Girls autobiographical?

Aurelie Sheehan: The novel is inspired by some of my own experiences, but the story and the characters are fictional. Some similarities are that I had (have) scoliosis, I rode horses as a kid, and I grew up in Connecticut in the seventies. Most importantly for the novel, I would say, is that I had a friend who was very important to me. When I think back on it now, her importance to my life and survival as a teenager is hard to overemphasize.

At the same time, in order to write the novel, I had to distance the characters in the book from my own personal history, not just because I didn’t want to write memoir, but really so that the characters and story could lift off the page and become real. It wasn’t until they’d become truly imagined characters—going off and doing their own things without my permission and that sort of thing—that I could really write this story.

Why didn’t you want to write a memoir? Why turn your own experiences into fiction? Your choice is paradoxical, given how important the idea of personal history is in your novel, from the title to the closing line.

AS: Yes, the idea of personal history is very important to me, and some nonfiction is done in a way that I find really inspiring—I love some of the kinds of surprising “narratives” that can be found in, say, boiling a cup of tea or sharpening a knife, narratives that don’t rely on traditional story arcs to find meaning. And indeed, I have written a series of personal essays myself, so I am familiar with the process of plumbing one’s own life directly. (“The Seven Sisters” was in the Pushcart Prize XXIII anthology, one called “Romance” was in the Alaska Quarterly Review, and I’m in the process of writing an entire book called One Hundred Histories, which are basically short narrative “histories” of objects or concepts.)

I came back to fiction for this novel for various reasons. One, I wanted to write intimately about lives that didn’t necessarily go well at every juncture, and I didn’t want to cannibalize the lives of people I know and in some cases love. Two, I wanted to use form in various ways that had to be fiction. For instance, the “Lost Heroine” narratives are, to me, a second way of telling the story of these two girls and their shared psyche. Ideally, or for me anyway, this narrative exists in a kind of parallel reality alongside the lives of Alison and Kate. Three, I wanted to use an accelerated narrative arc, playing out the consequences of certain kinds of societal injustices and sadnesses in a dramatic fashion.

You’re right when you say that the novel concerns itself with history, and yet to play with these notions with freedom (ironically, yes, to be free of actual history), I wanted to lift the story out of my own life and place it just to the side. This way, I’ve been able to underscore, with the eye of some distance, how a young person can reconcile various intrusions of faux and fateful history (the bicentennial, the pressure
of her parents’ own histories), with a history that seems to be largely ignored, the story unfolding under her sneakers at this very moment in time. I wanted to reveal a secret history, an ignored history, the history of girls.

And I do use a kind of faux-memoir technique, which is the adult narrator retelling this story. My goal was to allow the importance of the story to occur to her with greater reality as she tells it to the reader, as she tells it for Kate.

Lest I go on and wind this answer into the entire history of my life, I will quit now. But this question—the question of fiction and nonfiction, and the line between the two—is fascinating to me, aesthetically and otherwise.

The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is usually characterized as the difference between true and not true, but, as an artist, do you feel that fiction gives us access to its own kind of truth?

AS: In my own fiction, I’m trying to find the “truth” of very small moments, words and sentences, and then these build toward a larger truth, the truth of the story. Kind of like I’m dowsing for water, I sit around writing sentences until they feel true (as Hemingway might say), working at them until they don’t feel like a lie, like a fake emotion or a fake action. (In my first draft, I’m just blathering on, with hope that turning off the “critic” will allow me to access some bits of imagination or experience that are somehow, to my conscious mind, taboo.) The truth I’m looking for is an invisible one, one that’s tugging on me from the depths of the imagination, I suppose—something that’s yet unwritten and unseen.

The process, then, is like looking for truth. And there’s always the chance that when I’m done, the reader will experience this unreal thing—50,000 words strung together—as a reality of a kind.

All writers, of course, draw from their own experience. When you start to tell a story, do you always know from the outset whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction?

AS: I think that memory and imagination live close by, sometimes borrowing cups of sugar from each other or even walking into each other’s doors unintentionally. I have only set out to write nonfiction in a sustained way once in my life, which resulted in a series of personal essays. In those, I found that I often needed to use metaphor to “find” a truth or tell a truth that I couldn’t get to in a straightforward way. For instance, in an essay on a relationship that lasted many years, I used the motif of the dogs we’d had in our lives as a way to capture something about love and devotion I couldn’t get at otherwise. In an essay on sexual mores, I used third person and re-told three stories three times, attempting to mirror the anxiety of memory, and how even my own memory kept shifting every time I tried to tell the story.

But I usually write under the flag of fiction, because that gives me the freedom to grab from my imagination or from memory, whatever seems to suit the story at hand. I do know from the very first sentence if I’m under that flag or not. If I am, than there’s a chance for this intermingling between memory or fiction—or any intermingling that catches my fancy. If I’m not—if I’m writing nonfiction—than I restrict myself to what I remember (or what is in evidence), even though I may come at it from a strange angle. I find that memory itself can be a wonderful and weird shaping device, and I may well be less inclined than some to borrow too heavily from fiction. When I write nonfiction—a novelty for me—I want the shape of memory and the demand for truth to be part of the constraint and the device of the piece.

What aspect of this story came to you first—a character, a situation…?

AS: I had the idea that I wanted to invoke the power of friendship between girls. In my first steps toward realizing this story, I conceived of it as something like Girls vs. Town, with the girls winning in the end. As I wrote the story the force of the adult world pressed in on Alison and Kate and made me understand that, while these girls may be more imaginative and cooler than a lot of the folks around them, it might not be possible for them to “win” in this conflict—or perhaps that survival itself was a kind of winning, for a while anyway.

I also knew early on that I wanted to tell this story in a retrospective fashion, because the story is about history and what it can do to us. I wrote a lot of material on Alison’s adult life that I didn’t use in the end. I realized that I wanted to create a strong emotional or psychological reality in Alison’s present narration, but keep the reader’s attention on Kate and Alison in 1975 and 1976.

And it was a pleasure for me to enter the town where I grew up—Weston, Connecticut—from an imaginative perspective, and get back to riding horses again. It’s like I used to write a smoking habit into a fair number of my characters, just so I could feel that delightful puff and gasp. Here, I got to ride horses like I used to when I was a kid, and I didn’t have to ride at the back of a pack of tourists on a hokey trail ride like I have to these days.

I’m always impressed when an author creates a thoroughly evil, but thoroughly plausible, villain. Tut is just such a character: He’s a monster, but he’s not a cartoon. Is it hard to write a character like Tut? Do you, as his creator, have to like him at least a little in order to make him real?

AS: Yes, I like Tut, but I wouldn’t want to get stuck in an elevator with him. I think you’re right—we do have to “like” the characters we create, even the evil ones. We’re attached to them. We know them well. They become family. Even if he wasn’t there before, somewhere in my brain Tut is etched into the wall, and he’ll never leave.

It’s easy, I think, to give a story weight—or the appearance of weight—by means of tragedy. The force that compels this novel, though, is not its tragic climax so much as the mystery that surrounds that tragedy. When you began this story, did you expect to have all the answers by the end, or did you always know that the story would remain, in some ways, unfinished and unfinishable?

AS: When I began writing the novel, I didn’t know how it would end, but as the world I was writing became more complete, aspects of the ending loomed with more inevitability. The mystery you are referring to is significant to the story, because it is a further comment on, among other things, history. We have documents, evidence, our memory—but finally, in so many ways, it can all just slip away. I don’t want it to slip away. I don’t want the lives of girls, in particular, to slip away.

July 10, 2006 | Permalink


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