The Inner and Outer Self: A Conversation with Sylvia Brownrigg

By

In Six Memos for the Millenium, Italo Calvino identifies the qualities he aims for in his work: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, but died before finishing his sixth memo on consistency. And perhaps also before he drafted a seventh. Imagine: some Calvino correlate to Barthes’s idea of jouissance, the pleasure which an author takes in her work. Certain authors beam clarity, and a large part of their clarity comes from the pleasure with which they tell a story. As a reader, you know when the singular subjectivity of a writer arcs and meets the page with a kind of sizzle: why else are we all here if not to share our version of the world?

With a sprezzatura that hovers just above a work and invites us in, Pages for Her shows Brownrigg returning to the world of her second novel, Pages for You, with such speedy exact visible light, you will truly wish to read it in one sitting. That said, the book offers so many psychological and lyric pleasures, moments of great perception, a reader will want to return. The effect is that of a deep summer lake: glistening on the surface, fathoms to explore below.

I wrote from Cyprus to Brownrigg in England about a work that bridges two distinct moments in two women’s lives, spanning northern California and New Haven.

***

The Rumpus: Your work, over five distinct but related works of fiction, touches on such a vast array of themes while also bearing, as an almost moral project, one particular core question: the disjuncture between female interior and exterior life.

In certain of your works, this disjuncture between interior feeling and external sociocultural expectation radiates into a larger geopolitical unease (e.g., The Delivery Room). What led you, in the tradition of so many great novelists (we begin this interview on Bloomsday) to return with such intimacy to the world you began in your second book, Pages for You?

Sylvia Brownrigg: That is a great question or pair of questions. The gap between the inner and outer self is one I’ve found interesting, even essential, about the way we move through the world. In The Delivery Room, I enjoyed traveling back and forth between the perspectives of the patients and that of the therapist—with the irony that with your therapist, you are at least supposed to be your most authentic self.

In Pages for Her, the two women characters, Flannery and Anne, are also grappling with the personae they present to the world and how they feel behind those masks. Ostensibly, Anne is successful in her academic career, poised and sure of herself, but a recent personal grief has shaken her. Flannery has, by contrast, fallen into the roles of mother and wife, which have taken a more traditional shape than she had imagined. The experience has dislocated her: moved her so far away from the self she once was that she feels unmoored.

In meeting again after a long separation, the two women are able to help each other rediscover selves they had lost. That is a powerful element of what the love between Flannery and Anne has meant for them: they realize that they have each held within them a sense of who the other once was, twenty years before. That makes their reunion complicated, deep, unexpected. Sweet.

In terms of returning to the characters of Pages for You: an interesting challenge of rediscovering the characters was that in the earlier novel we only ever saw the beautiful, ultimately elusive Anne through Flannery’s adoring eyes. So we did not really know the ‘real’ more vulnerable person within. Discovering Anne now, in her late forties, required me to delve into a character who had been only seen from the outside, before. That has given this new novel a different kind of depth.

Rumpus: Toni Morrison once said she began writing to find the work she could not find elsewhere. As a reader, is there a fiction you have been seeking for some time? Where has your thirst been slaked and where does it linger? Who are your forebears?

Brownrigg: That’s a great quote from Morrison, and who could have imagined the story of The Bluest Eye until she had? When I wrote Pages for You, writing a pure, intense love story about two women that did not politicize that element of their relationship was something of a novelty. The way that novel poured out of me when I wrote it (eighteen years ago!) may have come from an urge like Morrison’s: I want this to be a story in the world, what it is to fall so intensely in love with another woman when you are just discovering your own adult woman self.

Pages for Her explores very different elements in the women’s lives though again through the prism of the love these two women have for each other. I have also, inadvertently—as I’ve realized, now that I’ve started talking about the novel in interviews—created a novel that gives voice to bisexuality, and that is a subject not perhaps given its fictional due. Flannery and Anne are both women who have very significant men in their lives, and women also.

I like your question about thirst. I think I’m not alone in seeking, at times, fictions by smart women that illuminate the ways people find their balance, if they can, between the core of their creative selves and the work of being a mother, a partner. I have recently been reading Rachel Cusk’s cool and powerful accounts of some these issues in Outline, and I’m looking forward to Transit, next.

Rumpus: What led to write Pages for You? 

Brownrigg: Pages for You is set at college, during the main character, Flannery’s, freshman year. Flannery has come east at age seventeen and this is a story about all of Flannery’s discoveries during her first year away from home: intellectual, cultural, and of course, sexual. She becomes infatuated with a graduate student named Anne and the two embark on a passionate affair. Her relationship with Anne, including the heartbreak she suffers, changes everything for Flannery, and is the start of her growing up.

I wrote Pages for You seventeen years ago, and curiously (and probably not coincidentally) it was a transitional moment in my own life: I had recently met the man with whom I would have a family. This was a seismic change for me, not least as it also involved moving country (back home to the US), and I think that that state of change made it easier for me to carry myself back, imaginatively, to that time of life when everything is changing and expanding. The narrative of Pages for You is not autobiographical, but the character at the heart of it was close to me. At seventeen, Flannery is, in her quiet and self-effacing way, voracious: she wants to learn, discover, love. Anne shows her the way.

Rumpus: What has changed in you or your conception of writing (or yourself as a writer) since that book?

Brownrigg: Another fun question to answer! I would love to hear your thoughts on the same question, as you also have explored very different territories in your various fictions, and have written both on a larger historical scale as well as a closer intimate one. I think a writer’s self-conception necessarily shape-shifts, according to the nature of the work itself (and wonder if you agree?).

There was an urgency in the writing of Pages for You appropriate to the kind of breathless and lyrical novel it is, that made writing it seem more like writing poetry, at times. This is reflected in its form, too, the short chapters. I had never written this way before; I had many very set rituals about my novel-writing, all of which went out the window during the composition of Pages for You. (I even shocked myself by writing a chapter or two in bed! And I’ve never done that since.)

Before I started Pages for You I had been laboring away at a book that had a much bigger canvas, and was more politically ambitious; when the story for Pages for You took over I was surprised and a bit wary, but had the instinct that I should follow it, even if it meant leaving my more complicated, research-padded novel behind. That was the right instinct, because Pages for You was the novel I had to tell.

Rumpus: What would you say might be a few of your greatest non-literary influences?

Brownrigg: Great question, and how perfect that my eye first skipped over the ‘non’ and started wondering what other writers to mention…

In film, Richard Linklater’s lyrical, bittersweet stories of lovers who meet, and re-meet—the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight series—have been an inspiration. He has a great ear for how people actually talk, as they try to stay connected with each other. (And how brilliant was Boyhood!) I think Noah Baumbach’s films often have this quality too.

Sharon Horgan’s TV series Catastrophe is not so much an influence as it is a consolation, dealing with many of the issues I mentioned above. The even darker British show Fleabag is stark and great. I love comedy, am one of the countless people who find Louis C.K.’s dark, philosophical perceptions hilarious, and true. (I even went to see him live with my teenaged son… which was a challenge during some of the filthier parts, though we were each in hysterics.)

Now, if I switched gears and started talking about plays and theater, we’d be here all day…

Rumpus: When and how did you first begin to take the act of writing seriously?

Brownrigg: It’s hard for me to give a non-pompous answer to this question. I used to love to pretend, to play pretend games, when I was a kid (either with my best friend, or by myself), and I distinctly remember a moment when I was some ridiculous age, like seven, and realizing that if I just wrote down these tales I was making up, of lost puppies, or orphans in a blizzard or whatever, I could potentially write a little book. Pretty much from then on, that was my ambition. I was lucky to have teachers who indulged me, or at least read me, who allowed me to feel serious about the writing (and illustrating) I did. I even wrote a novel, when I was fourteen.

However. Taking writing seriously, and feeling I could move out into the wider world with what I’d written: those were two very different things. This takes us back to your first question, I guess! (The difference between projections outward, and how one feels within. In myself, I always knew I was a writer.) From a young age, writing was serious for me, but I felt nervous about how other people might feel about what I had written. I still do!

Rumpus: About your writing process: I know you begin by hand in notebooks, and further that your prose reveals a lapidary writer, dedicated to the careful carving out of sentences. How do you begin and then revise? What are some of your inner voices and which must you silence, which do you heed?

Brownrigg: It’s true about the notebooks, but as my handwriting looks more and more like a script produced by a special effects department to denote ‘madperson’ or ‘alien,’ I am finding this system more unwieldy. Still, the transfer from my notebook to the laptop gives me a first and crucial moment to edit the original outburst, and that is helpful. I tend to do the early revision as I input the story into a file, and then wait to do more revision till the whole draft is complete.

The inner voice I ought to pay more attention to is the one that says: Too many words! Too many adjectives! Enough with the adverbs, already! Fortunately, because I write book reviews and some journalism, that helps provide some experience and discipline in paring things down. In first drafts, I can often be… well, I don’t want to say flamboyant, and I don’t want to say sloppy, but… Unrestrained, might be a polite word for it.

The internal voice I most value is not a voice at all but rather an ear: my ability to listen to the rhythm of the words, the music of the sentences and paragraphs. It’s important to hold on to that, even or perhaps especially in the revision, the edit, when sometimes the hacking away of material (see above) can alter the sound of the language too much.

Rumpus: Conflate this question with any of the above or address separately: what part of writing is not addictive?

Brownrigg: ‘Addictive’ is a really interesting adjective—I associate addictions with the sensation that you can not stop having or wanting more, and that does not seem to be how I feel about my writing. In fact, with the demands and efforts of daily family life, scheduling, and logistics, I often wish I were more addicted to the process of writing than I am—that it compelled my time in that way. To continue the analogy: if writing were a drug, there would be whole days when I might go around with a pounding headache, having forgotten that that drug is available, right in my notebook, to offer me relief.

I’m hoping to go into a phase this fall again where I access that drug more often! And if I become addicted to writing my next novel—I can live with that.

Rumpus: If every writer finds a balance of stasis and movement which we then call style, how do you like to treat the Apollonian urge to plan and the Dionysian happiness of discovery? What tells you when you wish to push the breathless momentum of narrative rather than linger in the lyrical truth of a character’s psychology?

Brownrigg: The Greeks! They wanted to have it both ways…

I know just the tension you mean, though, of course. It has expressed itself differently in my different novels, I’ve found, I wonder if that is true for you, too? Not surprisingly, my shorter, smaller-scale fictions have often wandered where they wanted, whereas the longer, more complex works do require a map or itinerary. Without one, it is possible to take a bad turn, and wind up a hundred pages in the wrong direction.

Looking more carefully at your lovely and intricate second sentence, I see there’s another element of what you’re asking, I think about the balance between plot and character: when to pause for an interior passage, and when to move on to the action. This is a great point to be conscious of, and something I perhaps understand better during the rewrite or edit. During the original draft, that balance is pure instinct, I think. (And not a flawless one.)

Rumpus: Who lives in your imagined community of readers?

Brownrigg: You do! Rumpus readers, Times readers, mind readers. Movie critics, union organizers, gardeners, athletes, grandfathers. Girlfriends and boyfriends. Parents and artists. Baristas and Uber drivers and caterers. My friends. Your friends. Even your enemies, or mine, if we have any, because maybe after reading each other’s work and the work of others, we’ll see less need for enmity or conflict. Well, that’s a dream of course—a fancy, an ideal—but it’s nice to think of it.

***

Author photograph © Claire Lewis.


Edie Meidav is the author of KINGDOM OF THE YOUNG, a collection of fiction with a nonfiction coda coming out April 2017, as well as other books. ​https://twitter.com/lolacalifornia​ and www.ediemeidav.com More from this author →