Patrick Somerville is having a pretty wild ride. Still in his early 30s, he’s already been seated at literary galas with the likes of Salman Rushdie, and his debut novel, The Cradle, was celebrated . . . everywhere. His fourth book, the novel This Bright River, is out this month to advance raves; Donna Seaman at Booklist says, “Somerville has a gift for spurring dialogue, and the meandering narrative tributaries he explores stoke our curiosity and build suspense as he crosses the wilderness of madness and bloodshed, lies and loyalty, courage and love in this by turns rolling and raging river of a novel.” Pat is also a new dad, before which, when he used to occasionally sleep nights and show up in public without spit up on his shirts, he was the youngest member and lone testosterone presence in my writing group, where his positive, insightful energy is now much missed. Here, with the frankness and humility I’ve come to expect from him, Pat allowed me to pick his brain here on everything from riddles to the nature of good and evil.
THE RUMPUS: I almost don’t know where to start, because This Bright River is such a layered novel, with so many different branches. I’d like to start with perhaps a more conceptual question and come back to the more concrete ones – if this novel has, I guess, a central organizing principle, it would be the solving of riddles. I mean, yes, there’s the river, obviously there’s that, but I mean in terms of the way the novel’s characters function – the way plot moves forward, and the reasons things change, reverse or develop…usually there is some sort of questing or solving involved, in terms of a central riddle. Can you talk about the way riddles are used in this text – because I realize even as I’m saying this that it makes This Bright River sound as though it could either be inaccessible or excessively, self-consciously clever, and the novel isn’t either of these things. Still, the characters are compelled with figuring things out, and there is a game involving riddles, and there are at least two plot mysteries, each of which have other branches to their core mystery…does your mind simply “work in riddles?” How did this structure come about?
PATRICK SOMERVILLE: I think of stories and games as pretty closely allied—they’re just ways of creating thoughts and fun, things we do that are not real but are still real, which for me makes them very human—and I think at the outset I wanted the book at the very least to dramatize that intersection a little with a real game or puzzle built right into it, which is what that middle section, “Bonus Level,” is about. I thought: well, there may as well be an actual puzzle in this book, so long as Ben is always talking about these puzzles he makes. And I may as well go all the way and make the solution of the puzzle a valuable little nugget for the reader. Not at all something that had to be figured out in order to keep going with the story, which would be sadistic of me as a storyteller, but a stopover from the narrative, some kind of acknowledgement that being inside of a plot is not unlike playing a game. And then I even thought: I may as well ask this guy in Chicago named Sandor Weisz, who used to have a column in the Red Eye called “The Puzzler,” for help with that part. So I did that. But once I made a little more headway with Ben, who he was, his character’s interest in puzzles, and the video game company debacle from his past, I also just got more excited about using riddles and riddle-solving as a bigger idea in the book, too, and something that extended to his and Lauren’s more abstract questions about the world. One reason why Ben is so idle and feckless, I think, is that he knows there are unsolvable questions in our lives but he is bridled with this very Western idea about either knowing or not knowing. Like: acquire knowledge, you will be in control. Fail to: you won’t. Traditional mysteries are built like this: knowing is the ultimate resolution. And I think it matters in this book, too, but just in a different way. Throughout the book Ben’s running up against a wall – his preternatural test-taking abilities and his weird ability to do well at games and puzzles has allowed him to fake his way through life, in a way, as our world is set up to benefit people like that, especially early, in school, but the luster is fading as he gets into his 30s. It worked for awhile but it’s not real, it’s not substantive in terms of emotion and spirit. And so in a way the book is the story of him going beyond riddles, beyond knowing, beyond solving things, and moving closer to something richer, more paradoxical, more important.
THE RUMPUS: You and I talked several times as I was reading the novel about the way the book’s tone and plot diverge sharply approximately midway through the read. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I guess the easiest and least revealing way of discussing this is that for roughly 234 pages, more than half the novel, not much…well, happens on a plot level, other than our main narrator, Ben, going back to the town he was born in, having a bit of casual sex, debating whether or not to drink, having a visit from his sister, that kind of thing. The novel, for this first half, basically, is entirely character and voice driven. And, I want to say, too, concept driven, because despite the clean prose and accessibility, the pages of This Bright River sort of crackle with complexity, like all good novels of ideas. Anyway, you’re reading and you think you know what you’re reading. Can Ben learn to feel, basically. Can he learn to risk? Is there a family secret he seems to be stumbling around, to echo the riddles he’s written for his ex-friend’s computer game? Is Ben even someone we can trust? These are what seem to be the questions, and the novel is almost uncannily absorbing and gripping, considering that all the real “action” is psychological action. Then, we begin the section called “Bonus Level: The Tuesdays,” and suddenly, more than mid-stream, the whole novel begins to change…I don’t even want to reveal too much about the nature of that change yet, but can you just talk about this? About the shift in the entire tone and pace that then carries the reader through to the end?
SOMERVILLE: I love the idea of a novel changing uniforms halfway through. Many of my favorite books—So Long, See You Tomorrow, To the Lighthouse, even Wuthering Heights—undergo transformations in the middle of the narrative, and I feel like even though it might not always be a justifiable thing to do, and that it’s a lot to ask of the reader, in this case and with this book there was just something darker and more dangerous that needed to grow out of that first half. I knew that was true after I’d written this conversation between Ben, his sister, and his parents about whether or not small towns can really be pastoral. (Ben’s mother says no way, Ben’s father tries to say yes. He loses the argument.) But that’s sort of how I thought about the book, too: a story about the problems of idealizing the home, idealizing the past, and how no matter how much we idealize, there are monsters living everywhere, always. Where there are people there will be monsters. So I felt that the right thing to do was to try to weave two very different tones together into one book. I love the questions that come along with that challenge, too: Can a book become a different kind of book partway through, but remain the same fundamental book? Is that even something fun for the reader? Or is that annoying? I like love stories, thrillers, mysteries, big conversation novels, and quiet, contemplative novels. I guess whenever I write I’m wanting to mash all the things I love together into one book and then hand the whole thing over, a big goulash of feelings and ideas.
THE RUMPUS: Okay, so I’m in a rare position, with this novel, of having actually seen a very, very early section when we were in a writing group together…and at that time, some of the Lauren narrative, and her relationship with Will, actually took place in Africa – in Chad. I mean, to specify: Lauren still used to live in Chad, and work as a doctor, and had a relationship with another doctor named Will, but now this is all backstory information relayed in dialogue and thoughts, as opposed to happening in the main narrative strain of the novel. And I hope this isn’t an annoying question, but, well…I found This Bright RIver so weighted toward Ben’s first person sections – and to be honest, I loved Ben beyond reason; I was completely compelled by him, and maybe this made it hard for Lauren to “compete” regardless, which is a common issue anytime you have more than one first person voice in a text – but I did find myself wondering why the real complexities Lauren’s story ended up being mainly so off-the-page, and how that may have contributed to what I was feeling. Her backstory offers so many complexities: a radically foreign country, a refugee camp in Chad and the NGO culture there, power balances between men and women, between doctors and patients – and woven in with the really nuanced, mysterious aspects of Lauren and Will’s relationship – I mean, it’s such a complex thing that it could have been a novel in itself. I guess I’m wondering what happened, in the process of writing this novel, that made you choose to put Lauren’s life in Africa and Zurich so much in the periphery, never exactly depicted on the page.
SOMERVILLE: Why would that be annoying? I love that question. My answer is that I tried to find a way to use a variety of perspectives, and to also use Lauren’s own voice, to tell her story directly to the reader, but in the end I think I felt that this book is so much about people talking to one another, and people sharing their stories, and people hiding their stories, and people trying to hide other people’s stories, that it just made sense that Lauren tells her story to Ben, and that act is a kind of watershed moment for her. It’s not just the content of the story, but it’s that in Ben she’s found an audience for her story, and once she decides to tell it, she tells it all. There is a certain power in a narrator talking directly to the reader, I agree, but there is something interesting and different about a narrator talking to another character, especially when it’s a character we’ve gotten to know. I liked that. I thought that was weird and good. To me that was an important part of the love story – getting to a place where they could be one another’s best and most trusted audiences. Not friends, but audiences. What’s more romantic than that? And while a part of me wishes this book could have been everybody’s book – all the characters, all the voices, as I fell in love with lots of them along the way – I think that had I not chosen one character, Ben, to be the kind of 1A protagonist (to Lauren’s 1B) it would have just ended up 4000 pages. I like long books, I do, but I think in this case I chose width – some surprising voices in the second half – instead of more depth and more space for Lauren. It’s just one of those things – sometimes you gotta choose, cut the things you really like.
THE RUMPUS: One question that is never made terribly explicit but kind of permeates the novel is the question of good and evil with regard to individual people. Ben has led a mainly useless life, committed some petty crimes, wasted copious amounts of money given to him by his parents, and spends most of his time in an acute state of numbness, and yet the reader experiences him, certainly, as a “good person,” and would be unlikely to blame him for his extreme actions at the novel’s end. Ben’s cousin Wayne is someone who struggles mightily with philosophy and principles and seems to want to exist on a higher moral plane, and yet ultimately he falls, of course, very short of that. And finally there’s Will, who according to Lauren and the general consciousness of the novel, is an exceptionally talented doctor who has saved probably thousands of lives. He’s done things like live in dangerous African countries by choice, in order to contribute his medical knowledge. Despite his arrogance, he appears, in this light, someone who contributes a great deal to society. And yet in the end, of the three, Will may be the closest to “evil.” I’m not sure where my question is here. Can you, I guess, talk about the ways morality, and the conceptualizations of morality, drove you as you struggled with these three men’s identities?
SOMERVILLE: At this point I may as well admit to myself that everything I write is totally preoccupied with the question of what it means to be a good person and how hard it is to be one, and to know what to do, and what is right, depending on the moment and the situation. I love fiction because it can be so many things, and do so many different kinds of intellectual and emotional work. For me a lot of it just comes down to being okay – like being emotionally okay, keeping it together in an essentially fucked world, however beautiful— and what’s more, learning how to be okay and learning how to learn how to be okay. Maybe more specifically for me as a writer: knowing how to be okay and live a spiritual life as an atheist and humanist and participant, not withdrawing, not becoming a hermit. And so the things you’re asking about – like how Will, who on paper has probably done the most to help human beings, quantitatively, and who is also the 1A monster of the book – that’s the kind of stuff that makes life sometimes feel impossible. I don’t know. I believe that novels are still the best way we have to ask questions like that. Will is the kind of person who breaks utilitarianism. Ben, whose depression is the depression of the privileged, which is impossible to sympathize with, still has a story that I think a lot of people really relate to, even if it’s hard to admit. And I think because I grew up without any religion I am particularly obsessed with good and evil. Not somehow “figuring it out,” but at least knowing it when I see it. I hate the idea of living my whole life and then dying and not having done a good job recognizing and celebrating what’s good.
THE RUMPUS: Haley is a compelling character – in fact, Ben’s entire family is extremely well-drawn, and the way Ben thinks about their wealth, his mix of self-righteousness vs. just an abiding disinterest, is interesting. You avoid ever offering any “resolutions” on this issue of money – Ben acknowledges the “complexity” of the issue, but Haley and their father certainly never recant in their political views – nobody “learns” anything per se. What relationship did you, as the writer, feel Ben’s family wealth had to his character and his story? He and Haley both seem, in differently manifesting yet curiously similar ways internally, unable to feel things very deeply without either experiencing a kind of terror or deflecting emotion with humor. Has financial privilege literally numbed these two obviously-very-smart people to their own emotional experiences?
SOMERVILLE: Financial privilege has totally, totally, totally numbed these two obviously-very-smart people to their own emotional experiences, but I would add that their own individual experiences has done the same. I do recognize that there is also something incredibly obnoxious about complaints of this nature, and about ennui in general, and so I wanted it to be in the background; Ben would have been impossible to like if he didn’t have some perspective on the issue, and I hope he does, and I hope he is likable enough to carry the novel. (I think some people will just decide he isn’t, though, and he doesn’t.) But what I think truly makes him catatonic, far more than the money question, is this thing that happens to a lot of people who get a liberal arts education in their early twenties, and a thing that we’re all sort of asked to pretend is not real or true as we enter into adulthood, the work-place, family-life, public-discourse, and everything else that comes after adolescence: if you take a basic look at the history of European “discovery” of the world, and then our own country’s behavior at home and throughout the world, it’s pretty hard not to see several thousand years of monstrous brutality. But right alongside that there are the wonderful elements of the Enlightenment and American democracy. Those two narratives, and all the other narratives around them, start to feel irreconcilable. They definitely did to me. And it seems like to participate in mainstream culture and everyday corporate jobs and the like requires us to pretend the abject does not exist, or pretend to ignore the fact that our country is an island floating atop an ocean of bloodshed. Ben says, “It’s complicated” to his dad, and I think by this he means that it’s irreconcilable, in a way. But it’s another thing I think novels novelists should always be doing: being the id, I guess. Trying to tell stories that the everyday world invites us to suppress.
THE RUMPUS: Rape plays an off-the-page role in this novel but, in both instances it appears, it serves as a powerful catalyst – perhaps THE powerful catalyst – for future actions. Did you know, going in to writing This Bright River, that rape would play such a role in the psychology of its plot? In both instances, too, the issue of “consent” is something the female characters seem to struggle with, in that both have consented to or sought a series of actions leading up to the rapes, which make it hard for them to own their experiences. Neither woman ever attempts to press legal charges on her rapist or seeks any further retribution. How much did your views on sexual violence against women shape this part of the novel’s direction?
SOMERVILLE: The violence of rape is the violence of war and colonization, but it’s the incarnation of that violence that most readily makes it way into our domestic lives. And in that way I knew the novel would have to consider it and explore it. I am shocked and saddened by how many women I know and hold dear to my heart have been the victims of sexual violence. I didn’t know the details of how it would play a role in the plot, going in, but again, it’s that same thing: I think novelists should write about what happens and what matters to us and the people we love. As for the two women’s handlings of what happens: one chooses to move forward and doesn’t want to talk about it, one has her ability to speak and communicate taken away. These are two kinds of stories and there are thousands of kinds. These are the two that I felt were true to the two characters.
THE RUMPUS: I told you when I first started reading this novel about the relief I felt at being in what I think I called “competent hands.” I sometimes liken the reading process to shopping for a therapist: the moment the client suspects she or he may be smarter than the therapist, it’s all lost. Plus, it strikes me that you’re still a very young writer – I know you’re not even thirty-five yet – and yet it seems that some major corporate publishers are allowing you to do the almost-unthinkable: not dumb your work down for what they believe is the “average” reader. In fact, I want to go so far as to say that I think you’ve been given more free reign here than you were with your debut novel, The Cradle. I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s a guess I’m making based on the two books. Would you be able to talk about how this sort of thing factors into your writing? For example, you chose to publish a – very strange, and frankly brilliant – short story collection with your buddies over at featherproof books rather than even trying to shop it around New York to the trade publishers. Was that because you didn’t want to have to jump through the hoops of commercializing the stories? How important is it to you to have your own intellectual integrity or vision intact in your work – and has attaining this been either a conscious effort or a struggle at times, having started publishing so young?
SOMERVILLE: I think you give me way too much credit! I usually feel totally out of control, Gina, or on good days just barely in control. I think I’ve been lucky with my first editor at Little, Brown, Oliver Haslegrave (who now does this and also sometimes models underwear for J Crew) and now with Reagan Arthur in that everyone just seems okay with me doing my thing. There aren’t many parts of the big publishing world where that’s true. I’m lucky in this regard. And as for the featherproof book, I guess I just thought: maybe we should just do this like this instead, because this book is fucking crazy.
THE RUMPUS: I loved that collection! Okay, so you’re one of those rare people who knew young that he wanted to write and has found a very viable career as a publishing writer pretty quickly out of the gate – I don’t mean immediately, but pretty quickly. So, for the sake of all the young aspiring writers out there who are hoping to roll into a situation like yours: in what ways has life as a successful writer been even better than your wildest dreams, and in what was has it made virtually no difference whatsoever in your daily life?
SOMERVILLE: Better: The feeling of completing books and seeing them come out is more and more amazing, the older I get. No difference: My sense of my limitations and the dissatisfaction I feel toward my writing is exactly the same as when I was sixteen.
THE RUMPUS: Perhaps my favorite thing, among many things I loved and respected, in This Bright River, is the absolutely core and implicit assumption that love – that the connection between two people and their ability to decipher one another’s psyches – matters. Matters more than anything, perhaps, and that a kind of salvation can be found therein. I mean this in an incredibly different way than what we often see in “romantic” fiction or chick-lit, obviously – I’m talking about incredibly messy, difficult, awkward and often terrifying human intimacy. The growing intimacy between Ben and Lauren is at the very heart of this novel, and without exaggeration often feels like where the greatest danger lies, even more so than with Will. What novels, in your own life, have shaped you in terms of your views of the role of love and human connection in literature? How do you feel about the way these themes are treated by your contemporaries? Is romantic love still seen as a serious topic by young literary writers today?
SOMERVILLE: Well, goulash again. I mentioned Wuthering Heights above, and for me, since I read the book in high school, that particular representation of romantic love has been inescapable, haunting bracing, always somewhere in my imagination. My experience of love in my own life is now largely sweet, calm, typical, and certainly generative. But I’ve lived enough to know about and to have felt the vicissitudes and elemental power of love as well, the Heathcliff bashing his head against a tree version, and to have felt how it might tear you apart or destroy you if it’s taken away or if it’s unrequited. I don’t think there is anything more powerful, really. For people. I mean that. I think building things is better than destroying things, and love is the energy behind building, and the absence of love would make life terrible. Wuthering Heights is a story about what happens to people when they’re not allowed to love. I do like that kind of story for how it reminds us of what matters, yes. But I also like stories of people who are allowed to love, and stories of people who don’t know how to love learning to love. I like those stories for how they remind us of what matters even more.