Monday, August 4, 2014

"Except for you and me, of course. We don't ever lie." - An interview with Sarah McCarry

It is quite probable that sometime in the past year or so, I have told you that you should read All Our Pretty Songs. I've told you that it was full of gorgeous language and rich mythology and heartbreakingly true characters. I may even have given you a copy, you lucky human.

Now that it's out, I can add Dirty Wings to that "really, you must read this, do it now" recommendation. Sarah McCarry is amazingly talented. Really, you must read these. Do it now.

To help explain why, here is an interview with Sarah about these wonderful books.

*****

Kat Howard: One thing I'm really interested in is the chronology of these books. You begin the trilogy in All Our Pretty Songs with events that happen after the events of Dirty Wings, the second book. And Dirty Wings itself goes back and forth in time between Now and Then. For me, that added to the sort of timeless, mythological feel of the books, but could you talk about the choice that lead to that?

Sarah McCarry: And About A Girl, the third book (out in 2015) moves quite a bit forward in time--its main character is Aurora's daughter, and the narrator of All Our Pretty Songs, who's also in the third book, is in her thirties. It was something of an instinctive choice, to be honest. I knew, when I finished All Our Pretty Songs, that I'd said everything I wanted to say about Aurora and the narrator at that point in their lives, but I also had fallen in love with their world--which is itself a kind of timeless one. I joke with my editor that it's permanently 1997 in all three books. I wanted to give myself a lot of room to move around and connect strands across generations. When you look at how actual myths are structured, they have that scope to them, too--they're often focused on families, or groups of people, but those relationships play out over long spans of time, lots of births and deaths and murders and old betrayals and grudges and affairs. So though I'd say the initial decision came out of impulse, I found more and more richness within it as I kept working on the books, and more ways to build connections between the characters across the years. All three books are basically standalones, but I think they're in conversation with each other in ways that are only clear if you read them all. And I think the stakes are higher when you can see the impact the characters' decisions have across decades--it's more painful when those decisions get repeated, and more powerful when other characters choose to break free of them and find their own paths.

KH: Both books deal with travel, with journeys. Dirty Wings is partially a road trip narrative, and the journey in All Our Pretty Songs is even stranger than that. I was struck both by the necessity of travel to discovery, and by the fact that these books are instances of women, of girls, going on these journeys, whereas in many cases those are narratives that are traditionally coded as masculine. Were you specifically aiming to subvert the usual narrative? Do you feel that travel is necessary for discovery?

SM: I don't know if travel is necessary for discovery for everyone, but it was certainly necessary for me. And no, I didn't set out consciously to subvert that narrative--I read all the epic boys' roadtrip books growing up, and loved them to a certain extent--I was a lot more able, then, to deal with narratives I'd been totally written out of, or was actively insulted by--and I spent my late teens and most of my twenties traveling pretty much constantly, and around people who traveled constantly. I'd work six or seven jobs at a time for six months and then quit them all and just leave (this was long before 2008, obviously; it was a lot easier to do that then). But even though I'd always been frustrated that my own story and the stories of a lot of the women I knew--I mean, we're talking women who hopped trains across the country by themselves, for fun; who hitchhiked alone through every continent that has roads; bicycled from Morocco to Ireland, you name it--that frustration wasn't at the forefront when I started writing Dirty Wings. It was more like, "Obviously they're going to go on a road trip." I definitely wanted characters whose sense of the possible wasn't in any way confined by traditional narratives about what women do and don't do and want--I come back often to Green Screen, Vanessa Veselka's brilliant essay on the lack of female road narratives, and I think that she beautifully articulates how important road stories are. For me there was never any question that the characters' journeys would be literal as well as metaphorical.

KH: One of the things that I love about these books is that they are set with rich, intense female friendships. The narrator of All Our Pretty Songs says at the beginning "This is a story about love, but not the kind of love you think." And while both books have romances that are key to the plot, they come in secondary to the friendships. What are some of your favorite books with strong friendships at their core?

SM: Oh, I love this question! I could go on all day about this question! Brian Hall's The Saskiad is one of my favorite books of all time, and the friendship at its heart--between two teenage girls, Saskia and Jane--is so painful and gorgeous and perfectly rendered. It's a phenomenal, phenomenal book. I love Lisa and Celeste's relationship in Amanda Boyden's Pretty Little Dirty. Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy portrays a brilliantly complicated and intensely painful friendship between its main character, Lucy, and the wealthy white woman she works as a nanny for. Blake Nelson's Girl (which was a central text of my own adolescence) is largely centered on its narrator Andrea's friendship with her best friend, Cybil. Brandy Colbert's Pointe and Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys both have beautiful, unexpected friendships between girls that alter the course of the narrative. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer; Bett Williams's Girl Walking Backward. Edie Meidav's Lola, California is a huge, ambitious, epic novel that's also centered on friendship between two women. I just finished Meg Howrey's The Cranes Dance, which is about two sisters but their relationship is very much of the complicated, competitive, freighted girl-friendship kind. Megan Abbott, obviously, and Margaret Atwood. I'm going to think of like thirty more as soon as I send this back to you. If I ever work in a bookstore again I'm going to make a whole shelf that's just Girl Friendships Curated By Sarah.

ed. note - Yes. Good. I would read the hell out of that shelf. 

KH: One thing that really struck me about these books is the way that works of art - books, movies, music of all sorts - matter to the characters in them. Things like reading Susan Cooper at Christmas - art is a touchstone to these characters, it is one of the way that they mark times in their lives. It made me think of what I used to call my security blanket - the small box of books I took everywhere with me, no matter how small the space I was moving into. Can you share some of your own artistic touchstones?

SM: Oh, I love this. I have a shelf of books that I need to be able to see from my bed, wherever I live, because if I can't see them if I'm not home. 

If we are in full confessional mode, while All Our Pretty Songs is not autobiographical I do share most of my own touchstones with its characters. Other than those, Michael Ende's The Neverending Story was another huge book for me--I read it when I was very, very young, I think probably eight or nine, and I have a first edition (printed in green and red ink!!!!) that has survived something like twenty moves. 

All of the books that I loved tremendously as a child I reread regularly as an adult, and I think the way my relationship to them and with them has changed is another way to mark time--I still love The Secret History, but I understand now why many people don't, and I can also admit that Donna Tartt is rather over-fond of her adverbs (and I think there's more than one scene where Henry smokes something like forty cigarettes in the space of twenty minutes--"Henry lit another cigarette" is a running joke I have with my best friend, who loves that book as well.) Weetzie Bat was a tremendously important book for me--I still remember reading it under the table in eighth-grade art class, walking out of the room thinking holy shit I didn't know you could do that, and there's no question in my mind that I wouldn't be the writer I am without that book; but at the same time, I can recognize now that its characters of color, and some of its references, are deeply problematic, and that I certainly took in those flawed representations as well. I still love the book and its sequels with all my heart, but I think it's crucial to be able to talk about the work we love and that shaped us with the same care and honesty that we bring to anything else. The books we love, and that made us the people we've become, are not beyond criticism simply because they're meaningful to us. It's a little like the process of growing up and realizing your parents are not the all-knowing, all-powerful beings you thought, that they're human and fallible and as prone to making mistakes as anyone else. I think being open to those kinds of conversations can only enrich our relationships with art and how we think about it.

KH: Obviously, your work engages with Greek mythology. But it also engages with a more modern mythos as well - the myth of the rock star who blazes onto the scene and then dies too young. It's a recognizable story, for all that your version of it is unique. Did you feel like you were rebuilding a mythology as you were writing? How do you see mythologies changing and reshaping themselves in around our superstars? Can you share some of your favorite myths, ancient or modern?

SM: All Our Pretty Songs is, I think obviously, referencing the trajectory of Kurt Cobain, and of what happened in Seattle in the very early nineties when the record industry landed with millions and millions of dollars in what had previously been an isolated, tight-knit community of people in a tiny, podunk town. I was too young to witness that actual moment--I didn't start going to shows until the summer of 1994, after Kurt Cobain died and after the city had already been pretty much ravaged--but I grew up in its aftermath and that story was, absolutely, a kind of central myth of my adolescence. And of course there are many, many intersections between that particular mythology and the older myths I was working with in the trilogy. It's been interesting, because Kurt Cobain is very much a fictive figure for me, if that makes sense--but as I've gotten older, there are more and more people in my life now who actually did know him and were friends with him and for whom he was a real person who died much too young and who left a tremendous amount of real pain in his wake. Which has been a little weird, frankly. I didn't base anything in the books off elements of his biography, there's nothing of him there other than the story itself--hypertalented musician who became famous almost overnight and died very young, which describes any number of people--but it was still strange to think of people who actually knew him reading the books. I wouldn't say I felt I was rebuilding a mythology, exactly--maybe more that I was deeply informed by one that I've lived with almost as long as the Greek myths that went into the stories as well.

And my favorites--I always love the really, really fucked-up ones. Medea, obviously. Philomela and Procne--Philomela was raped by her sister Procne's husband Tereus, who cut out her tongue and exiled her so she couldn't tell anyone what he'd done; she wove her story into a tapestry that she sent to Procne, who was so furious at Tereus she killed their son, cooked him, and served him to his father in a pie; the gods turn both Philomela and Procne into birds so they can escape Tereus's wrath. I love that one. All the original Grimm's stories where Cinderella's sisters cut off their feet and bleed to death and everybody gets eaten or torn to pieces or turned into terrible things. I was, like, ten when I was reading those, thinking, YES. 

I'm a really well-adjusted person otherwise, cross my heart.

KH: In the opening of All Our Pretty Songs, we learn that Cass has told her daughter (the narrator) one version of her past with Maia (Aurora's mom). In Dirty Wings, we see another version of that past. These books are steeped in mythology of course, but they're also about the way we mythologize our own lives. Do you think we're capable of seeing our lives truly, and telling them as they are, or do we always need the comfort of that myth, of that alternate version of the story?

I'm not someone who believes in a single truth, or a genuine "as it is," when it comes to stories--when it comes to anything, really. Even in science, a narrative form that's insistent on its own objectivity, the story you read depends entirely on how you're looking. I think even the most honest among us prefer to present our stories in ways that flatter us. And I think even for people who are more or less able to see themselves truly, it's always more fun--more alluring, more interesting, more profitable--to shape our narratives in ways that make us seem more clever or funny or savvy than we actually are. One thing that's been interesting to me is that I've seen more than one person describe Cass as an unreliable narrator, and to me she's not unreliable at all; she's telling the truth as she sees it, which is not the same thing as telling a falsehood. Even Tally, the main character of About A Girl, who spends much of the book obsessed with the empirical, end, s up learning that truth is a malleable thing depending on who's narrating the story. I think most people are inclined to see their lives in the light that leaves them loveliest. Except for you and me, of course. We don't ever lie.

****

If you want to know more about Sarah, and you should, you can visit her website,  http://www.therejectionist.com/ or find her on twitter at @therejectionist

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