By Natalie Peart
Intelligent, wry and hilarious writing make Kate Christensen a serious wordsmith and a PEN/Faulkner fiction award winner. Her titles include Trouble (Doubleday, 2009), The Great Man (Doubleday, 2007), and The Epicure’s Lament (Anchor, 2005). Her characters, often set in Brooklyn, are fun to read and incredibly believable; her human portrayals of gay and lesbian characters are also a plus. She will appear this Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival on the Me…In The World panel at 12PM in the St. Francis Reading Room, joined by Sam Lipsyte (The Ask), Rakesh Satyal (Blue Boy) and Greg Cowles of The New York Times, discussing their literary responses to the inevitably ridiculous world we live in. I got a chance to speak with her before she headed off on her summer vacation.
BrooklynTheBorough.com: How are you doing these days?
Kate Christensen: I'm about to be much better. I've been at an insanely dysfunctional artists' residency in southern Germany for the past three weeks with 35 fantastic, talented, wonderful artists of various stripes and nationalities, but with organizers whose incompetence and cynicism made life here unnecessarily difficult and confusing. But tomorrow my beau and I go to France for a week of oysters, good wine, and moules frites.
BTB: How long did it take you to form your voice to a point where you felt good about it? Or is it different each time you sit down to write? Is there a larger voice that remains throughout your books?
KC: This happened during the writing of my first novel, "In the Drink." It occurred to me that I didn't have to adopt the earnest, flat, affectless tone of "MFA writing," and that I could say whatever I wanted. As soon as I stopped trying to be a good girl, I started to write.
BTB: I was discussing one of your books, The Great Man, with a co-worker and I told her that your female characters and their engagement and pursuit of sex does not leave me feeling horribly depressed afterwards. Your female characters enjoy sex (we definitely see this in your latest novel Trouble), and not in the flowery way sex scenes with women are often written, and not in the Henry Miller, Phillip Roth, subjugate women kind of way either. I think there is something to be said for that. I read a lot of stories where the female characters are so…passive. They are semi-victims and seem to have sex out of dispiritedness. What do you think about this?
KC: I'm bored by both victimization and passivity in sex scenes. Sex, like food, is part of life and a worthy novelistic subject, but only if it tells you something interesting about the characters involved and allows for complexity and depth.
BTB: How are you able to translate these moments? Do you record specific moments?
KC: I have a good memory for dialogue and a carefully practiced awareness of interpersonal undercurrents and nuance. I find that, after the fact, I frequently replay conversations in my head, analyzing them from everyone's perspective and trying to understand every one of the points of view of the people involved. It's a useful exercise. When it comes time to write a scene, my brain is well-trained in empathetic imagining from multiple perspectives.
BTB: Why did you decide to write from the perspective of a gay man in Jeremy Thrane?
KC: I didn't decide to write about him so much as accept the edict from my imagination that my next narrator was going to be a gay man. He appeared to me one night, fully formed, and demanded to narrate my next novel. I jumped at the chance to inhabit his brain. In fact, that's by far my most literally autobiographical book.
BTB: Is food a metaphor in your books?
KC: Probably, although I'm not conscious of this. Understanding what a character eats and/or cooks tells me a lot about him or her — I love to write about food. It has so much texture, flavor, and social significance.
BTB: What are you currently reading?
KC: I just started Paul Auster's new book, Sunset Park, which I'm reviewing.
BTB: What books would you recommend to our readers?
KC: Here's where I get to tell people about some of my close friends' work. A Lesser Day by the painter and writer Andrea Scrima is gorgeous and brilliant. Likewise the novel Mercy by my friend Lara Santoro. I also highly recommend Mesopotamia, Arthur Nersesian's new book, Jami Attenberg's most recent novel, The Melting Season, Stefan Merrill Block's The Story of Forgetting, and Rosie Schaap's forthcoming Drinking With Men.
BTB: How successful feel? Did you imagine that by 2010 you would have written five books and won an award?
KC: Of course I always both imagined and hoped, like all novelists, that I might be so lucky, but no one has any control over these matters. All we can do is keep writing, no matter what happens, good or bad.
BTB: As a writer, who happens to be female, do you or did you ever feel that you had to negotiate the personalities of your characters, plot, etc? Do you think that female writers are regarded differently than male writers?
KC: This is a question worthy of many essays, but in a nutshell, I find it hard to generalize convincingly about the ways people regard writers… it varies so much from person to person, and from reader to reader.
BTB: Are you currently working on a new novel?
KC: I just finished the first draft of a new novel, "The Astral." I'll revise it this fall; it will come out next June.