I first met Taylor Larsen last summer, when Jill Di Donato invited us to read on a panel at Barnard called Women, Writing, & Intersectionality. Months later, when we met up for drinks at a cocktail bar in our neighborhood, I knew we’d become good friends.
Taylor isn’t just a talented author; she’s also a wonderful mentor to so many other writers, including myself. In Stranger, Father, Beloved, her riveting debut novel, Larsen addresses complicated issues: mental illness, sexuality, and suburban isolation. Reading it is like entering an air-conditioned room on a sweltering day. There’s a relief and a shock as the cool air hits your skin. I interviewed her recently via email.
The Rumpus: I kept thinking about misfits while reading your book. Michael doesn’t feel like he is a good husband or father. Nancy is an unhappy housewife who pities “those in her view who were less than perfect.” And even Ryan, their teenage daughter, is a loner who doesn’t want to “fit into the social hierarchy” at her high school. What drew you to characters who are outsiders?
Taylor Larsen: All of my characters are definitely outsiders in their own way. I think all people feel a sense of alienation from the world or people around them, though some to a greater degree than others. I am not sure if I am projecting my own sense of alienation onto my characters, but I really relate with this sense of “not belonging.” Perhaps all writers feel this way and create works that reflect this interpretation of reality.
Even those who go through phases where they feel at home in the world and cozy in their reality eventually experience a phase where they feel like an outsider, overwhelmed with pain and cut off from other people. It’s an unavoidable reality we all pass through, one way or another. People wither and die emotionally if they are too cut off from others.
Rumpus: Michael and Nancy go through the motions of married life instead of having a healthy relationship. You write: “He and Nancy were neutral, he felt—that was all. They canceled each other out and stood for nothing.” Did you find yourself sympathizing with one character over the other? Is being a novelist like being in a kind of marriage with the people you create?
Larsen: That’s a great question. Somehow, I felt the most sympathy for Michael. It is hard to be the seemingly cruel one, and he is very hard on himself for not being loving and affectionate with his wife and other people in general; he is the perpetrator of pain for others, and he knows it. But I do have sympathy for Nancy as well. She might be an extreme example, but she is a victim who derives her sense of self from other people’s views of her, the classic people-pleaser. This is so common in our society. Beyond her dysfunction, she is just a loving and generous person. Michael is as well, though his self-hatred will not allow him to see it.
I do feel married to Michael or I feel a kinship with him as if I were the one who was stuck married to Nancy yearning for a lost love. This is going to sound completely bizarre, but I’ve always identified with gay men, as if I were somehow one myself, though this does not make logical sense, since I am a mostly straight woman. Go figure.
Rumpus: I know Tom Perrotta blurbed your book. Was he an inspiration for you as you worked on this novel? I see similarities in the ways both of you explore the dark underbelly of suburbia.
Larsen: I very much admire Tom Perrotta’s work—his prose is excellent and I think he is strong in his plot development—the reader is really being told a story, which I appreciate. His themes involving the dark underbelly of suburbia do indeed interest me as well. Tom was my teacher at the Yale Summer Writers’ Program when I was about nineteen years old (which is a very long time ago). I learned a lot from him about craft and he was very helpful to me during the year or two before selling my book and pre-publication, even though he was very busy writing episodes of The Leftovers for HBO and doing other important work like editing The Best American Short Stories.
I am currently writing a recommended-reads list and Tom’s latest short story collection, Nine Inches, is on it. I do not feel this book got the readership it deserved, in comparison with his other books. I was blown away by it. It is an almost perfect or perhaps perfect story collection—delightful, funny, sad—and each story hangs together so well with the others. I devoured that book as if I was eating candy, and my mom read it in the same manner. The thing about Perrotta is he is so subtle/understated in his prose, but he always uncovers a powerful truth about human loneliness, desire, or shame. I’m a big fan.
Rumpus: Stranger, Father, Beloved is such a great title. How did you come up with it?
Larsen: Thanks! The original two titles for this book were: A Better Husband and The Husband You Deserve. My agent and I agreed those titles suggested the book was a lighter read than it is. We knew we wanted the word “father” in there somehow, so for awhile we kicked around the idea of naming it Latin for father: Pater. I am so glad we didn’t end up with that title—it’s so pretentious! It makes me laugh to think about it. We emailed back and forth brainstorming titles. I thought of my favorite book titles and in one email told my agent: “Too bad Camus took The Stranger, haha” and in another I wrote, “Too bad Toni Morrison already took Beloved.” So, we thought of Stranger, Father, Beloved. That way we got the word father in there (without the obscure and pretentious Latin title) and could take words from two of my favorite book titles.
Rumpus: Michael suffers from neurotic paranoia and anxiety. “He felt he wasn’t hard-wired right; his nerves ran on strange impulses, as if they needed some reprogramming.” Did you know from the start that you wanted to write about someone who struggles with mental illness?
Larsen: Michael embodies the tragic combination of sexual repression mixed with mental problems. I knew from the start that he was gay and that he finds it unbearable to be living in a heterosexual marriage any longer. Since he does not know he is gay, he blames his impulses on his “faulty wiring.” He thinks he is just a misfit, perhaps an asexual being, and like many of us, feels there is something fundamentally wrong with him, something he can’t pinpoint.
The entire novel is an awakening for Michael: he awakens to his true feelings, he begins to understand why he acts in bizarre ways, and he tries to plot an escape for himself in order to be true to himself. He does all this quite messily, but life is usually a big mess, so I wanted the book to be true to life in that sense.
Rumpus: In the first chapter, Michael meets a stranger at a party and becomes fixated on him. He thinks John would be a better husband for Nancy. Does that come out of genuine love for his wife, or a desire to be a different man?
Larsen: Michael wants Nancy to be happy. He sees her looking genuinely joyful as she flirts with someone and realizes the two of them have never had that spark. So, he does genuinely love her and wants the best for her. He is also drawn to the man flirting with her. He feels this man will be a more “normal” head of the household for his kids and he admires the man’s apparent good-natured and straightforward personality.
So, I would say that opening moment is a fusion of his own desires and his desires for his wife—that’s how he knows setting them up must be a good hunch on his part—it feels pure and for the benefit of all.
Rumpus: The landscape seems just as important as the characters themselves. “The woods beyond the yard had a haunted quality, an unidentifiable angst or shiftiness,” you write of Michael and Nancy’s property. Do you think that this is a story that could only be set in New England?
Larsen: I do. It is a New England story and it shows a very specific set of people who are envied by many but who still have their own maddening set of problems that keeps them from enjoying their wealth and privilege. The peninsula is, in some ways, like a fictionalized Cape Cod, a place I know very well. I adore books that have a strong setting and that use the weather and the landscape as a mirror for the festering themes in the book.
I have so much fun describing things like the woods and the wild frothy ocean. Wind never gets old and I love to have characters realizing things in their houses while the wind knocks around outside. But, back to New England. I took a setting I was familiar with, and explored it in conjunction with the elements that accompany it: wind, wood, and sea.
Rumpus: Michael sees his wife as a simpleton. “Perhaps being around Nancy for so many years had drained his mind of its brilliance as well—it was not as if he could have intellectual banter with her or discuss politics in any refined way.” What drew him to her in the first place?
Larsen: Michael was initially drawn to Nancy’s nurturing and understanding nature and he loved the admiration she clearly had for his intellectual prowess while he was a student at Yale University. He also watched his best friend get married to a woman Michael abhorred, so he figured he needed to find a steady partner as well to tolerate the loss of his best friend to “the responsibilities of being an adult, like getting married.”
Michael’s marriage to Nancy is also evidence of his inability to know his own needs. He doesn’t know himself. He needs intellectual stimulation and he needs to admire his partner. This is the tragic nature of Nancy’s character and dilemma—she thinks if she were only smarter, she would win his love. But Nancy would need a penis to have a true chance with Michael. And since Michael was raised in extreme homophobia, he does not even recognize his needs until he becomes embroiled in a love triangle with John and starts to understand himself.
Rumpus: I want to talk about your writing process. Do you come up with the characters first, or the plot?
Larsen: I guess I would have to say a sense of a character comes up, someone caught in a particular dilemma, so it’s a mix of a concept and a character. I need to feel the character in my gut before proceeding. I kind of fall in love with all of my main characters.
In my second book, I am mostly writing from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy who is discovering his sexuality and his first love experience with his girlfriend. I feel I have kind of fallen for him in a sense, like I know him very intimately or want to protect him from all he experiences he will go through in the book. It’s strange. I think about him all the time.
Rumpus: How did you change as a writer over the course of writing your first novel?
Larsen: I think it’s easier to write a second book after doing your first. I feel more confident and I have more fun than I used to when I’m writing. I also feel like I am hooked on writing novels over short stories. I like a nice long romp. I also enjoy editing more now that I went through editing that first novel. Editing is less daunting and knowing I don’t have to go it alone is a huge relief—I can rely on my agent or editor to steer me back on course if I go too far in the wrong direction.
Also, knowing people will read it one day is exciting. I also enjoy writing really wacky moments and then seeing if my agent or editor flags it as insane. It’s really fun. I don’t want to be gratuitous but I love throwing curveballs in there and seeing if they work.
I’ve also changed in that I have become a bit weathered from the business side of it all and the debut author experience—I started it bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and have ended up much wiser and more grounded from all the steps that go into putting a book out in the world. I’ve lost that naiveté that comes with never having been published and thinking it’s all going to be a hoot and a holler. There are so many ups and downs and unknowns in launching a first book and there’s no way to prepare for how that will affect each author. Now, even though I am slightly less sane than I was before the process, I’m ready to get this second book out into the world, moving beyond the debut author stage and into a long-term career.
Author photograph © Sylvie Rosokoff.