The Gate of Permission: A Conversation with Victoria Redel
From the moment I picked up Victoria Redel’s mesmerizing first novel Loverboy, in which a mother loves her son just a little bit too much, I knew I’d found a fearless writer. Fearless not just in the sense of delving into the dark temptations of life, which she does with great aplomb, but plenty of authors do so as well. Rather fearless in mucking about in love, desire, kindness, loyalty, compassion. The stuff that is often looked down upon by purveyors of “literature.” Victoria makes it lethal. And glorious.
Victoria’s prose is exquisitely intimate and exacting. Trained as a poet, she measures the depth and breadth of each word before situating it on the page. She’s a master of restraint, yet her stories burst with uninhibited abundance, like the child catching fireflies who refuses to go to bed.
Before Everything, just released at the end of June, is Victoria’s eighth book, and she’s more fearless than ever. Inspired by the death of her dearest friend, Victoria steps into the oft shied away from world of the dying. Or, in this case, the dying by choice. Anna, the ringleader of “The Old Friends”—five women who have known each other since childhood—chooses to stop treatment for recurrent cancer and enter hospice instead. Her friends variously freak out, argue, and support her. Told through rotating narrators with a collaged timeline, Victoria does what she does best: exposes life for all its horror and sadness, and also all its wonder.
Victoria has previously published two novels, two short story collections, and three collections of poetry. She lives in Manhattan and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. As a student at Columbia back in the day, I was lucky enough to have Victoria as a professor, and lucky all over again to Skype with her in May.
The Rumpus: Why did you choose to write Before Everything as fiction rather than a memoir?
Victoria Redel: This is a story about a group of lifelong friends who have to figure out how to support one friend when she decides to enter hospice. This is an experience that happened to me and one that upended my life. My best friend died after a battle with cancer. I’d been working on another novel, but when she died, I couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t focus. But because writing is the way I understand and manage my way through experience, as the fog cleared, I did begin writing again. Mostly fragments about my friend, about our five decades of friendship. For some months everything I wrote was nonfiction. But I found that in the invention of characters, in the invention of a situation, I could move more authentically into territory that mattered to me. When my best friend went into hospice there was a lot of back and forth between all of our friends about taking care of her. She was a person also with a very wide circle, so that frame of my new novel is true. But the characters in the novel now are fictional. If I had kept close to a cast of characters from my actual life, I would not feel entitled to write certain things, or about aspects of lives that are not mine to reveal. The invention of scenes and characters in the novel allowed me to come closer to certain truths and to have a world revealed.
Rumpus: Yes, I was wondering if it was difficult to write these fictionalized versions of yourself and people you knew. If you felt inclined to be overly kind or overly judgmental? Or were there just not enough of the real people in there to begin with?
Redel: When I was first digging around writing scenes (none of which exist in Before Everything anymore, by the way), I tended to make approximations of specific people. I showed one of those scenes to a friend who was an “approximated character” and she said, “This is really flat, Victoria.” Then I showed her a completely invented scene, a piece of pure fiction and she said, “That’s something I’d want to read. The other thing I wouldn’t want to read.” That was my gate. I understood that I could pull from what I had witnessed and lived and imagined that even if the frame of the novel made use of an actual circumstance, none of the characters were going to be this specific friend. It was the gate of permission to swing the novel wider: you live, if you’re lucky, a big long life, meet a lot of people, and there are different, beautiful, haunting and specific aspects of people that filter up and onto the page. This permission allowed me to move back into what I knew how to do which is create characters through language.
Rumpus: Switching gears a little, modern medicine can extend life long past where our bodies would naturally allow. I was struck by how Molly, one of Anna’s friends, argues that it’s fair for Anna to say no to more medicine, but Molly’s partner Serena cites the miracles of drugs and the history of the AIDS epidemic. She takes Molly to task for supporting Anna. I feel like this presents deep challenges that we’re all facing these days. What do we do now that we have these sorts of protocols available?
Redel: That’s a great question. This was a big piece of what I wanted to consider. I don’t exactly feel like I have a polemic in me to be written, but I think reckoning with another person’s choice to stop treatment is an essential and complicated reckoning. We have increasingly more medicines, which is great. And for many people who learn there are no more treatment options, the possibility of new protocols would be a gift. But there are also essential conversations to be had about what a person wants to endure, how a person defines what “living” means to them. For some the secondary health problems from years of treatment become unbearable. And a limited life is not a life they want to continue just because medicines can keep them alive. This is a difficult conversation. And it’s not a static, singular one. Each person’s threshold for what it is to have a life, to be alive, is radically different and shifts at stages in a life. I don’t believe we should legislate an individual’s choice to end treatment or choose an assisted death.
There’s a joke moment in Before Everything, well, not quite a joke, where Anna is speaking to her doctor and asks him for medical assistance to hasten her death. And later in the book she asks her close friends if they will help her when the time comes. Would you help another person die? Is it fair to be asked to help? These are really difficult questions. But they’re all part of an end of life conversation. There’s the remarkable book by Atul Gawande called Being Mortal that I think everyone should read. He considers these questions as a doctor, as a son, and as person who will also face his own mortality. He suggests that, with each patient, doctors must learn what matters at the end of a life and what is a good end of life. We are so afraid of conversations about dying. With those we love and even in our most private self. I think it takes enormous trust and courage.
Rumpus: What you’re saying is making me think about the role that we as family and loved ones play in the possible decision making for or influence upon a dying person. We don’t know if that protocol really will help them or harm them. One of your characters talks about by the time Anna’s next flare-up happens, there’ll be a new medicine. It can be hard to be the friend of the one who is dying.
Redel: I think the easy part is when we get to be a cheerleader for our friends: I’m going to bring over the soup, I’m going to drive you to the hospital visit. Obviously, in long-term illnesses this can become taxing and caregiving takes a toll on everyone. But in that whole fight and illness-as-battlefield metaphor, which really has a limit. Friends want to feel they are part of the team, helpers, the army. But to be a friend to someone who is dying or choosing to stop treatment means to stop doing. Sometimes it means listening or simply being a loving witness. It’s hard to give up our helping jobs. Illness has layers of complication in all relationships. I can speak about friends who have been very ill. There were definitely times where what they needed was for me to believe, with all my heart, that treatment was going to work and this was a blip on a big long life. Sometimes my job was to be hopeful. And that meant compartmentalizing any of the doubt I felt. So encouragement trumped truth. But then there are other times when that shifts and that’s part of the complex dance of this other thing, illness, entering into the relationship. Part of the realization for the characters in Before Everything is the sense that there’s a private life inside of illness that’s separate from them. We all have private lives inside of ourselves in all sorts of arenas that are separate from those we love, but I think illness becomes its own tangled relationship with the person who has to endure it.
Rumpus: I must say as someone who has struggled with my health for nine years, I thought you had incredible sensitivity around this very thing. You touched my heart many times. Another thing I thought you captured so beautifully was the sort of day-to-day ordinariness of caring for someone who is dying. In fact, Helen says, “How is it that the ordinary continues?” I think when we think of someone dying we think of it being epic and happening in some gigantic, dramatic way, but it’s often happening in the small stuff. They feed Anna, they bathe her, take her on an excursion. Can you talk about that?
Redel: I’m sorry that you’ve struggled for so long. For me the everyday, the small stuff, is the sacred and I tend to write into that. But putting it that way makes it sound shimmery twenty-four/seven when mostly there’s the slog and mess of daily life and then right smack in the midst, whether you notice it or not, is the extraordinary. This is Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” This is Milosz’s “Song of the End of the World.”
Or swerving away from works of art and back to life, when you have a baby initially it’s the oh-my-gosh astonishment of a new creature. Then, actually quite soon, so much of life with a baby is routine. Dare I say tedious? You feed, you wash, you nurse and rock and soothe the crying, the tooth coming in, the belly gas. And in the midst of this regular maintenance, running the machine of the ordinary, something unexpected happens, rises up, not in spite of the every day but borne of it. This is true with caring for the dying. There are many little tasks of care or there’s nothing to do, a lot of waiting for the terrible, and then, there are moments of such beauty, tenderness, humor, and human radiance. All those small pockets of activity and concern, which are the last bits of being on the earth. A cramp in a leg. What a person eats or doesn’t eat. Brushing hair. Showering. Maybe they have more to do with the people who are alive, who get to take care and still have tasks. In Before Everything these moments matter less and less to Anna. They matter more and more to her friends.
Rumpus: Yes, it seems to me that Anna starts to be relieved that it’s happening. In an early chapter, when her childhood friends are gathered round her, you write, “She couldn’t explain it, the ease she felt. She wouldn’t have imagined this. Part of the easiness was that she no longer had to try.” This ties in with what you were just saying. She loses interest in the things that her friends are still clinging to. What was that like to enter Anna’s psyche and write about that.
Redel: Entering Anna’s consciousness was the biggest gift I gave myself writing Before Everything. It allowed me the opportunity to imagine a little more of what my friend experienced on her way out of the world. I’m pretty afraid of death. People have told me that they’re not afraid, but I certainly am. As I said, the things of the world matter to me. It’s hard to imagine letting go. So to enter into a dying character without panic or anxiety was a great and also frightening adventure.
Rumpus: Are you saying you’re afraid of your own death? Or other people’s death? Or both?
Redel: Yes, yes, and yes. All! When I was twenty-three my college housemate was hit by lightning and died. She was leading an Outward Bound course for inner-city kids. She was coming off of a ridge in the White Mountains, actually teaching the kids about storm safety. In a fluke one-bolt-of-lightning storm, she was hit and instantly died. No one else was hurt. It barely rained. I spent years thinking that because she died that way, I would die by lightning. I knew that was ridiculous. But it felt inevitable. It’s a version of weird and twisted magical thinking.
Rumpus: You have a couple chapters entitled “Done” that are Anna chapters, and in one of them you have a classic Victoria line where one of the things Anna’s done with is the terrible shame that her body had betrayed her. I feel like you struck such a universal chord with that.
Redel: I believe we all have lists of shame. Long lists. We live with our constellation of shames quite privately. But they weigh us down. I wish I could abracadabra away shame. This is such a waste of our small time on earth. Our bodies are often the focus of shame. The shame of the body changing. Of the sexual body. Of the aging body. Not being able to do what you once could do. Even just looking at your skin as you age, the texture, the wrinkle, the sag, and somehow feeling ashamed and responsible for its changes. Illness enters, too. If you were a better person you wouldn’t be ill. Every failure of the body can become a personal indictment. Abracadabra, Gone, I shout again.
Rumpus: There is a part where Helen, who does oppose Anna’s choice, says she wants Anna to live because she’s afraid to be in the world without her, but at the same time she’s equally afraid that she will be able to live in this Anna-less world. Seems like such an honest, human response to someone dying. Thoughts on how those of us left behind cope?
Redel: This is such a tough question. Helen’s fear is something I understand and have struggled with each time I’ve lost someone I’ve loved. Coping makes it sound like a goal to achieve and I think that’s a false goal. Once a big loss has happened it is part of the picture forever. Not something you “get over.” While each loss has felt specific, one thing I miss with each loss is entirely selfish, I miss the way a particular person saw me, understood me. But part of the challenge of being alive is to remain curious in any circumstance and this has helped me with grief. I want to feel all the contours and contradictions of living. My mother had a life-altering stroke when I was nineteen and she died when I was twenty-three. I’m now older than my mother when she died and my relationship with her has really changed over these many years. I continue to stay interested in her and I know her differently now. Losing my mother, losing dear friends, is now part of the fabric of my being alive. And the fabric keeps changing, which is interesting. Look, I’m not trying to get regularly knocked over by waves of grief but I’m also aware that I will be knocked over and probably at unlikely times. That’s the risk a person takes in loving. I think the balance is to figure out how to go on. You can live. That’s a sort of terrible thing, but it’s also what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to be alive. And you’re supposed to not be in sort of cahoots with death, trapped in that kind of sorrow; it certainly wouldn’t be where anyone whose died would have wanted me to stay. My truth is to be alive.
Rumpus: All your writing really bursts with life. So I can see that as being one of your truths. Another thing it bursts with is motherhood! No matter the form—short stories, poems, novels—you always write about motherhood. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a mother? And if you’re intentionally working this thread into your writing.
Redel: My writing life really began after I had children. Soon after I had my first kid, a writer, a man, said, “You’re not going to write a whole lot of poems about children now, are you?” And while I sneered at his question, I worried that it would be wrong if motherhood entered the work. I thought he must be right. It felt too domestic. And that seemed outside the realm of what I thought was the world of literature. My life as a mother seemed so ordinary and domestic. What would I write? The poet at the bowling alley. The poet on another baseball field. The poet watching The Little Mermaid again. Then I thought, “Well, really, fuck that. Really fuck that.” And then I got interested in allowing everything from the world of motherhood into my work—which, by the way, means allowing the world of the mind, the world of sexuality, the world of commerce, the whole fucking world—onto the page.
Rumpus: There’s a way you write about it that’s so lush and rich, but then it’s also practical. You combine these two different sensibilities. Early in the book Anna is remembering what it’s like to be pregnant and the feeling of the baby within her body and the beauty of that feeling (“She had loved the shape of him unborn inside of her so much that when she came to full term, she hoped for a long birth, wanting, she said, for each moment to be exception, hers to savor…”) which quickly ends in her wanting the drugs for childbirth. That’s typical of your writing about children. The movement from the beautiful gorgeousness of them into the practical.
Redel: Well, we’ve come back to the question of the every day, haven’t we? The practical part of life. The winter jacket one outgrows goes from one kid and to another kid and then you throw all the hand-me-down clothes and winter boots into a bag and bring it over to the friend with younger kids. And five years later your friend’s sister’s youngest daughter wears your son’s basketball shorts. This part of parenting, the tribe aspect, I tried to bring into the novel. But I also tried to bring in how much of parenting happens alone. This creates that very special and private world with a child. But there’s also loneliness. And sometime I’d really like to write more fully about the loneliness of the parent. But back to the tribal, the wisdom of the elders, the wisdom of other women as you raise your children—some of that’s in this book, I hope.
Rumpus: Very much! It’s all happening in backstory. But the front story would hold without the back stories about the children. It was interesting to me that we would learn so much about them.
Redel: But that seemed so important in a book where someone is dying. The whole rest of life doesn’t go on hold. It doesn’t for any of the characters in the book. Caroline is worried about her sister who is ill. Molly and Serena are dealing with their teenage daughter. Helen is working to repair the damage she caused with her children. Ming has raised a child who survived an illness. Everyone has life going on as Anna’s life is ending. This ultimate thing is happening, but other important things are happening too that need attention. That was a challenge for every character in Before Everything. How can you be every place at once? We’re all doing that to some extent every day, right?
Rumpus: In a way we’re already talking about my next question. The novel is really a tribute to female friendship. “The Old Friends” who have stood by each other for so long. Caroline delivers one of my favorite lines in the book, “To be one another’s witness to the stunning accumulation of a life.” This is what you just said that we sometimes need to be present for one another in order to get through.
Redel: It’s one of the honors we have with one another over time. To weave through each other’s lives. Look we just did this. You and I got on this phone call. We haven’t seen each other in many years and still we immediately began to reference the past and our current lives. We can talk about your new haircut and we can talk about health and how your writing is going and we do so with a level of ease that reflects this affectionate witness of time. It’s not a steady daily knowing one another, but it is a way we know. This witness happens every day with people you don’t formally know. Take the woman in the shop where I buy coffee. We have snippets of conversation. How are you today? Or a comment about the world’s mis-affairs. Or maybe we don’t even have a conversation. But each day I see her. And she sees me. Maybe one morning she looks upset and I make a joke to help her smile or I shut up and just give her room to be in whatever place she is in.
Rumpus: So many of your character have secrets, from wanted pregnancies to unwanted pregnancies to the contents of vending machines. What’s up with that?
Redel: I love secrets. Here’s a bunch of people who think they know each other over a long period of time. And they do. And they don’t. Secrets aren’t the same thing as shame, but they can fall in that category. I’m very interested in the ways that people are open and honest with one another and simultaneously in hiding. What we know about those we love is only part of the story. Who do we protect with our secrets? Others? Ourselves? These are questions that interest me in fiction. The public and the private self.
Rumpus: There’s also so much hope in this book in the midst of all the challenges and sadness. I think of you as a hopeful person.
Redel: I am by nature an optimistic person. I don’t know that I was consciously writing that into the novel. It probably snuck in.
Rumpus: Something else I noticed in your work: it’s always so sensual. And often very sexual. I love how you write about sex. It made me wonder what role the body plays in your writing.
Redel: A lot. We are so stuck in our bodies. In a great way. And in a bad way. And that tension, the sheer fact of a mortal self, and a pleasure self—it seems difficult to me to avoid writing about the body. I grew up in a ballet family. My mother ran a ballet school and I studied four days a week. But at the age of fourteen I was diagnosed with a spine disease and for the next seven years I wore a very body limiting brace. So my days went from ballet, which is the great art shaped by the body, to being a solid block not able to turn my head without turning my whole body.
Rumpus: This was scoliosis, right?
Redel: Yes, and the way mine was treated was not through surgery, but through a very cautious protocol of seven years in the brace called a Milwaukee brace. It was head to pelvis, twenty pounds of metal, plastic, and steel—a full harness. So, the difference between being of a body and not of a body was bred early into me.
Rumpus: That must have been so hard. You’re such a generous, wonderful teacher and mentor. You give so much to your students. I was one of them, but there are so many of us out there. Firstly, I want to thank you for that. Then I’m wondering how that factors into your writing. How do you logistically balance it all? And does it shape your writing in any way?
Redel: Thank you for saying that, Jane. It’s an amazement, a joy to watch writers emerge, to claim their unique way on the page. It’s something to watch people stick with it when there’s so little day-to-day “reward” in any traditional sense. I think I used to torture people in class and say, “You think you’re going to publish in a day, it’s going to take ten years.” Or, “Half of you aren’t going to be writing in five years.” Part of what I hope to encourage is the discipline, and the permission to have ambition.
Rumpus: You are a very challenging teacher! Challenging but kind and generous.
Redel: Everything conspires against creating a real life in one’s work unless you locate the urgency or the necessity. We each have to locate the way the process of writing makes you sane, the way it helps you stay alive. I want to push my students, help them get at the language that is theirs, at the subjects that are theirs. I want to dissuade them from trying to write whatever they think is the current thing. There’s so much rigor and heart in the craft. I have watched so many poets come into their lives as poets, and fiction writers as well. It’s really a thrill to watch people blossom. And surprise themselves. And surprise me. Surprise the world. And to give the world gorgeous books.
In terms of time and logistics. I think I was lucky in the sense of having my kids just as I was starting to teach and write. I quickly figured out that I was going to have to organize my time or I was going to lose writing. Everything else you have to show up for, you’ve got to get to the job, you’ve got to feed the kids. The only place I didn’t have to actually show up was for myself and for my work. Once I determined that no one really gives a shit if I ever write another poem, and I recognized that pretty young, I hunkered down and made writing a regular practice. Nothing fancy. Just show up. Being the daughter of a ballet teacher was lucky. You learn you don’t just come out of the wings and dance the Lilac Variation. You spend four days a week in class doing plié, tendu and ronde de jambe. The barre work is just about technique and just showing up. It’s about breaking down the craft. I’d be in a bad mood or I had period cramps and my mom would say, “Get to class. You’ll feel better.” There was not a lot of waiting for inspiration, there was just learning to show up.
Author photograph © Sigrid Estrada.