Not to plug my own forthcoming second novel, but–aw, why the hell not? THE ABUNDANCE is coming out from Holt/Metropolitan on March 5, 2012, and from OneWorld in the UK a couple months after that. I happen to hate it right now, in the way I have of hating things I have written–I never touch my own volumes of poetry or my first novel (neither, it seems from the sales figures, does anyone else)–perhaps for the same reason I cannot bear to hear recordings of my voice, and sometimes am seized with the desire to tear up all but the earliest photographs of myself. And yet naturally I hope desperately that other people don’t hate it, and the news has been good so far; it has gotten a starred review from Kirkus, a glowing review from Publishers Weekly, and was recently featured as a New Book Pick in Good Housekeeping, which Wikipedia informs me has a circulation of 4.6 kazillion.
I thought I would excerpt the publicity questionnaire I filled out about the novel for the UK publisher. I found myself in a commenting sort of mood as I answered them. Rather than rewrite my answers as posts, I figured I’d just paste them here. Shakespeare as the father of the modern novel, the “immigrant experience in literature,” and some random other things….
Q: The Abundance is concerned with inter-generational relationships in immigrant families – is this rooted in personal experience?
A.M.: Few of the actual incidents are drawn from life. My mother is thankfully quite healthy, and the characters in the narrator’s family are nothing like the people in my own family. The main sequence drawn from personal experience is actually drawn from my parents’ personal experience—that of both the narrator and her husband going back to India for a prolonged time to take care of their mothers, who both grow seriously ill at the same time. The details about the grandmothers are similar to my own grandmothers, but even with them, it’s not a faithfully drawn portrait; I changed and emphasized things for effect, the way fiction writers frequently do. Having said all that, the passing details throughout the book, the little bits of life that give the imaginary the feel of the real, are very much drawn from observed life.
Q: What do you think about the portrayal of the immigrant experience in literature?
A: I think that The Abundance, when I wrote it, wasn’t about the immigrant experience; it was about a mother-daughter relationship primarily, and family above all. I think that, because the interactions take place within an immigrant family, the book, inevitably, will be defined as an immigrant story; if the same themes and relationships were transposed into a “mainstream” white American cultural context, we’d be talking about it as a book about a mother and daughter. I myself certainly didn’t set out writing the book thinking, “Let me write about immigrants”—I wanted to write about two women, which struck me as a sufficiently difficult thing to do, and because the approach was to be realist, I placed the story in the most clearly observed setting I know, which is that of an immigrant family.
Q: You’ve moved from dealing with the political in Partitions to the personal in The Abundance. What inspired the change?
A.M.: I cannot say the change was inspired by anything in particular—or that it was even a change. I move around constantly, and I’m often thinking about—or working on—multiple works at once. I drafted a novel about werewolves while in the middle of writing The Abundance, and also wrote several of what have turned out to be my most successful poems. And Partitions is actually more personal for me; the voice of the narrator of that book, as he talks about his twin sons and the one twin’s illness, is more personal, more “me,” than anything in The Abundance.
The most significant change, from my perspective, was a more fundamental one than setting and time period; it was a change in the storytelling itself. Partitions is a slender book where all sorts of things happen—it’s full of events and actions, very plot-driven. This new novel is almost the complete opposite; it progresses almost entirely through conversations, memories, and emotional shifts—slower in pacing, and much more character-oriented.
Q: You’ve now published two novels in quick succession – do you find writing easy? How do you come up with your ideas?
I do not find writing well “easy”—I think it is the most difficult thing in the world to have an effect on a reader. The act of stringing together words is not a difficult thing; look at the massive amounts of prose churned out by bloggers on a weekly basis. The invention of brilliant metaphors and images will not save a writer, either; immense complexity and fullness of language can be quite devoid of effect, which is something you see frequently among contemporary poets. Only the effect, not the language itself, is placed in the scales against silence. And I do not find having an effect easy at all.
Q: You’re a poet as well as a novelist – how does this shape your writing?
A.M.: When I have a story to tell, I write fiction. When I have a sound to make, I write poetry. The accidental doing of the one through the other is probably the source of my best work.
Q: Which other writers inspire you?
A.M.: Shakespeare, for the most part. He inspires both my prose and my poetry. My poetry purely on a linguistic basis, but my fiction, too, because of the way he inhabits his characters, even the villainous ones. The dramatic monologue of a stage character and the thought-narration of a novel’s characters are closely related; it’s almost as though the latter evolved from the former. Shakespeare’s massive influence on the novel as a form is consistently underestimated; I don’t even know if it has been pointed out that, before Shakespeare, you found out what people thought (in Homer, or in Dante, or anywhere) based on what they said to each other. So if Agamemnon is angry, he harangues someone. With Shakespeare, and eventually with the novel, you have pages and pages of people talking to themselves. This was a revolution in literary art. You wouldn’t expect it to start on the stage, where people by definition are talking to each other; but that’s why Shakespeare is Shakespeare, I guess.