Lauren Kirshner’s Where We Have To Go is the story of Lucy, a Jewish girl growing up in the wilds of Toronto, who adores cats and aliens from the planet Melmac. Over the course of the novel she grows from a gangly and unsure eleven-year-old to, well, a gangly and perhaps only slightly more sure eighteen-year-old.
But the evolution is a remarkable and unique one that somehow manages to flow through well-worn grooves like eating disorders and mean-girl mentalities and sexual discovery without feeling stale, or rote. Zoe Whittall, reviewing the book for The Globe and Mail observed that: “Kirshner tempers any potential for melodrama with an expert eye for specific detail and the curt, cruel dialogue of teen girls hell-bent on destroying each other despite their abject loneliness.” I agree, and I wish this book was getting a wider audience in America, where, like a lot of Canadian writing that isn’t bylined by Munro or Atwood or Ondaatje, it’s made a rather quiet debut.
As I was reading it I kept thinking: it’s so strange how I feel like I never read novels like this. Obviously there’s a long tradition of writing about female adolescence, but it isn’t usually treated in the way Kirshner handles it: as something worthy not just of public discussion, but of a literary treatment. So I decided to email Lauren some questions about that, and other things, and she was gracious enough to answer them.
I have left all the “u”s in our spelling because they belong there and Americans don’t know how to write properly, I think. (Just kidding, though only sort of.)
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The Rumpus: One of the things I liked best about this book was that it hovered in this liminal place between YA fiction and literary fiction for “adults.” There’s a tendency to relegate all books about adolescent women to the former category, somehow delegitimizing those stories in the process, and I liked that the book resisted it, somehow. Was that deliberate, or am I misreading? Do you even think there’s a firm line between the genres?
Lauren Kirshner: I wrote Where We Have to Go as adult fiction, but genre considerations never took up much space in my imagination as I wrote – I was just more absorbed by entering my narrator Lucy’s world and finding the right voice to do that with.
It’s interesting that you say the novel hovers in a liminal space between YA and adult fiction. Did you find that because of the voice or the subject matter? If it’s the voice, there’s a reason why: it’s a coming of age novel that spans eight years of a girl’s life. It’s told retrospectively, from when Lucy’s 19. Some readers have commented that they can hear Lucy’s voice changing — ageing — as the novel progresses. I’m glad when I hear that. I wanted readers to hear her attitude and emotional life developing through her voice.
I grew up reading novels with strong female first person narrators, and my influences come from both “YA” and adult fiction. I don’t think there’s a firm line between the genres, at least for readers. As a 13 year old kid in Toronto who basically lived at the public library, I remember reading omnivorously between the YA and adult sections. The only separation between the two genres was literally the staircase that ran up the centre of the library, splitting YA and adult — but I’ve never been one to abide categories so much. I’d go home with Judy Blume, Sylvia Plath, Beverly Cleary, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, and some racy teen titles thrown in there about drugs, and sex, etc (those shiny early 1990s pocketbooks with the hunky guy/blonde girl cover art). I take the same approach to writing as I do to reading: I let the story lead, not the genre it might fit within.
I’d be curious to know: how do you think the book resisted being YA? Was it the style? Or the ways in which I deal with certain subject matters? There are certainly sections that don’t shy from explicit exploration of sexuality and anorexia…
Rumpus: The resistance I saw was mainly in your control of language, I think, which is perhaps what other people are detecting in the evolution of the voice, too. Young adult tends to be either sloppy about language, or very — for lack of a better term — dumbed-down. Simplified for what is perceived as a simpler audience.
Kirshner: As I wrote I definitely was conscious of not “trying” to sound like a teenager— I don’t think that would’ve worked for the book at all, and the last thing I would’ve wanted was for the story to get lost in my mid-20s contrivance of what a 12-18 year old girl sounds like. Voice is really interesting thing with a coming-of-age-story, very tricky. My favourite coming of age novels are told in a retrospective tone, yet dip down into the cadence and language of youth at pivotal moments. Take a memoir like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life — one of my favourites. The language is precise, luminous, the story driven clearly and boldly — and yet at times we drop into his young mind, his attitude on the world, and we feel right there beside him.
Rumpus: Were there other memoirs that inspired you, other than the Wolff?
Kirshner: I love memoir. Most of my writing is not memoir, but I learn a lot from the boldness of the first person voice, its intimacy. Some of my favourite memoirs are Jean Genet The Thief’s Journals, Mary Karr’s Lit, essays by Andrew Holleran, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Deborah Spungen’s I Don’t Want to Live This Life (she was Nancy’s Mom, of Sid and Nancy)… lots of David Sedaris… James Ellroy’s My Dark Places… recently Patti Smith’s Just Kids blew my mind. That book rocks. And I can’t forget my first great experience reading memoir — the “memoir” that is The Diary of Adrian Mole!
Rumpus: Well, although it’s not a memoir, would you call your book in any way autobiographical?
Kirshner: Whenever I connect to a novel, I like to imagine that it’s the author’s real life. I don’t know why that it is… perhaps my childhood obsession with Geraldo and other talk show hosts who got to know people through their secrets. But seriously, Where We Have to Go isn’t autobiographical in the true sense of the word — it’s not my life story. However, it is my world, if that makes sense. I grew up in Toronto, I am crazy for cats, I love bikes, and I spent my teen years idolizing Patti Smith. I dig hamsters. But in terms of the plot, the characters, no, these are my inventions ribboned through with the world that I grew up in. So, while the novel isn’t an autobiography, it is certainly about my preoccupations. At least some of them.
Rumpus: I guess I ask the autobiographical question, and others do, because the thing about first-person narratives that are heavily dependent on voice, well, it’s hard not to feel that the person is just telling a fictionalized memoir, or else they’re literally channeling some kind of spirit from elsewhere. I mean, writing can feel that way, mediumistic. Did you have that sense with this?
Kirshner: The novel really is centred around Lucy’s voice, and it took me a long time to get it right. I experimented with different voices and forms. Then one day I started writing a story about an 11 year old girl who becomes obsessed with ALF as her parents’ marriage falls apart. As soon as I had ALF, my protagonist Lucy’s voice just started flowing out on the page in a way that, as you say, felt mediumistic (more often though, I think that mediumistic effect is a result of lots of careful editing). On some level, I think every creative work is a fictionalized autobiography — it bears the imprints of the writer’s obsessions, desires, fears, their sense of humour, their language. But for me, getting to that point where I could actually tap into those levels meant first finding that spoke, if you will, in the story, the imaginative centrifugal force — which turned out to be Lucy’s voice.
Rumpus: Do you ever feel conflicted writing about Toronto, or Canada, in terms of getting your work heard? I guess Sheila Heti has just blown this perception out of the water, but before then I would have said: it’s often hard to get Americans to read books about other places.
Kirshner: Ha, writing about Toronto, that’s a great question. I was born in Toronto, and place affects so much of why and how I write, so I can’t imagine NOT having set my first novel in Toronto. Getting heard, well… I like to think that place — city, neighbourhood — would neither attract nor deter people from reading a particular novel. I’d like to think that story and character would be the most important factors of attraction. Ultimately, I think place matters much less to readers than story and identification with the protagonist. I fall in love with and get interested in cities, even neighbourhoods, because of the characters and what they do in those places, rather than for the intrinsic aura of the city itself. Some of my favourite writers (and songwriters) make cities matter to me because of what they make their characters experience in those cities. Alan Bissett does it for Falkirk and Glasgow, Stephen Elliott for Chicago, Leonard Cohen for New York, Elliott Smith for Los Angeles, Patti Smith for New York, Mikhail Bulgakov for Siberia, Brian Moore for Montreal. My hope in Where We Have to Go was to make Lucy’s story make Toronto come alive for readers, even for those people who have never been here.
Rumpus: I know what you mean and hope about Toronto, I’ve just found that often when I’m talking to American writers they find it strange to set stories elsewhere unless you are from more of an “Other” culture. I once had an instructor tell me about a story that I needed to announce right up front that it wasn’t in the States because otherwise “readers would be confused” when they realized they were in another country. The more I think about that remark the more bizarre it seems. Do people have this experience reading Alice Munro, in America? I don’t know, very weird.
Kirshner: I find it weird and funny that your instructor thought it was necessary to tell students the story wasn’t set in the USA. (Maybe that has something to do with being Canadian: I just grew up assuming most of what I read would not be set here). I assume that people read because they want to be shown something different from what they know, and because they want to be challenged by not immediately understanding what they are reading. When I read, I love suspending my disbelief and waiting for the author to make it all make sense. For me, having questions while I read like, who are these characters? Why are they doing these things? What is this place? mean the writing is working. I’m hooked in. It’s a funny to think we need to “set up” or “give context” to literary fiction. If we were reading Philip K. Dick, a brilliant story like “The Exit Door Leads In” for instance, would our instructors find it necessary to map his imagined, futuristic world? I don’t think so. Bold writing with heart, no matter what region or cosmos it’s set in, will connect to me. Which reminds me: In Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton writes that the more specific a story, the more universal it will ultimately be. I agree. The small, rural towns of Ontario that Alice Munro helps me to imagine are indexed in my brain with paintings of Andrew Wyeth, not my own Ontario upbringing, and the New York apartment conversations of Grace Paley could just as easily have happened in Rome or Winnipeg. There’s a universality in specificity that I find beautiful.
Rumpus: Yes, I agree with you about the universality and specificity, it’s just I do think growing up Canadian helps us see that in a way that’s not possible if you grow up “inside the empire,” as in America, you know?
Kirshner: Pop culturally, we share so much with the US that growing up in Toronto, aside from obvious things like our national anthem, currency, and snow, I really didn’t give a lot of thought to how I was different. (I had crooked bangs and wore hot pink skorts so I had other reasons to ponder my difference). My turning point came when I was about eight. I was really obsessed with The Price is Right and one day when Rod Roddy was announcing “Sunnny California!” it dawned on me that I would never get on contestant’s row because the show was in Los Angeles, and I was so so far away. That was a turning point. You know, TV makes you feel like you’re at the center of the world, which is a wonderful thing, but also a delusion. As a teenager, through music, I became more aware of culture outside Toronto. I would imbue cities with creative auras according to my favourite musicians: Billy Corgan put Chicago on the map; Morrissey Manchester; The Clash London; X and other punk groups LA; Patti Smith New York. BIG CITY-ness ran through my veins for a while… I think almost every young (Canadian) writer/person who loves music/artist of any stripe starts cultivating their “move to New York City” fantasy at about age 15. I know I did. Eventually I decided that what I wanted to do was write, and I realized that I didn’t have to leave Toronto to do that. Everything I wanted was here.
Rumpus: Do you feel like it reached the audience you wanted for it? In Canada, and the U.S.? I always hesitate to ask authors about reception, but I know it’s such a hustle to get a book out there.
Kirshner: The book came out in the US very recently, so it’s hard to say who it reached there (I’m hoping a big bunch of coming of age novel/cat lovin’/rock n’ roll enthusiasts). In Canada, I’ve been really happy about its reception. It was a finalist for the City of Toronto Book Award, which was a huge honour, and I’ve gotten to read at many amazing festivals, book clubs, libraries, and schools with writers I admire very much, and where I got to meet lots of really generous readers. Getting letters from readers of different ages, from all over Canada, the US, and a few places in Europe where the book was also published, has also been one of the nicest things. One girl wrote to me about how she really related to the conversations Lucy and Tommy have about animals having jobs. Then she told about what her cat did for a living (something with French pastry). That made me smile.