Michelle Latiolais is the author of the new work of fiction She. Her other books include the short story collection Widow and the novel A Proper Knowledge. She is an English professor and codirector of the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine.
Q: How did you come up with the structure of the book, which features one character's story alternating with those of other characters?
A: I only know one writer who ever worked off outlines and knew precisely how the structure of a book would unfold, and that was John Williams of Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing and Augustus fame. He made extensive outlines and character sketches.
But my influences are pretty obvious here: Winesburg, Ohio, In Our Time, The Wild Palms, and I’ve talked about this, but I was realizing the other day in answering the question of what books I admire most in the world that Last Exit to Brooklyn continues to be a huge influence on me. That’s a book with several sections or stories linked by place, and certain characters, but not completely, and certainly not slavishly.
In hearing more and more about the Orlando, Florida, shooting, Omar Mateen, I kept thinking about “Strike” in Last Exit. Powerful, painful writing that articulates a certain psyche, and I think might even get at the confusion of the wife, her contradictory statements.
So, I’m perhaps far afield of my own writing, but we hear over and over this search for a motive, or the question of whether or not “the shooter” was mentally ill. Read some serious fiction folks; you’ll hear the news, the real news. DeLillo’s Libra, brilliant, even Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. Listen to that.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: It’s not that I made many changes so much as I originally ended the book with “Promotion,” and that was a kind of metafictional gesture back at the reading process, or what the book is now, filtered through the reader’s reading, et cetera.
Too clever by half, dumb, dee u em, as my sister would say. And Elizabeth Tallent said, hey goofball, you can’t end the book without us knowing where she lays her head that night, can’t, can’t, can’t, and I do everything Elizabeth tells me to do, because I’d be a fool not to, and John Glusman also very much wanted a closing section of She.
So, I wrote that after the book was taken. I love that phrase, “after the book was taken,” as though it got ravished off a Récamier chaise longue!
Q: The book takes place in Los Angeles. How important is setting to you in your writing, and could this have taken place somewhere other than L.A.?
A: Now Deborah, are you really asking me that question. As my colleague Ron Carlson says to students, “nothing happens nowhere,” and if the writing could happen anywhere, are there sentient characters on the page? Or perhaps the writing takes “place” in a deprivation chamber?
Of course, now, I suppose, we have a lot of stuff happening online, or in the ether, that place, or realm, or domain, love it, domain, technology’s feudalism!
But being serious, that is an amazing arena of freedom for some people, and for a kind of artistic collaboration, and I respect that, but I’d be lying if I also didn’t say that one of the pre-eminent reasons I go to books, serious books, is to be in the presence of a single mind thinking or creating singularly; I want to read the emanation of a single mind at work; character matters to me; product is product and I’m much less interested in that than I am in something that has really tussled itself into the world. I know why product makes it into the world. So what.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: It was just always the title. She. Some things in writing have squatter’s rights. I think it was the poet Juan Delgado who I first heard say that, or tease someone about something that writer was holding onto in a piece of writing. “Hey,” Juan said, “it doesn’t have squatter’s rights.” I always loved that, but She just always had squatter’s rights.
Plus, my late husband always refused to introduce me as “my wife,” because he said that people then rarely if ever asked any subsequent question. “Wife” seemed definition enough to people, and that angered him.
So, something in my thinking about the word “she” being both an erasure and mystery at the same time, though this book is not autobiographical. Pronouns also just keep us closer in on the character. At least I think they do.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A cherry tarte for guests tomorrow night; I just made the pastry dough, and tossed it in the fridge. I need to walk up to the world’s most expensive grocery store and buy some hazelnut oil for a dressing for green beans, and I was thinking maybe I’ll just roast the asparagus with olive oil and lemon. I don’t know. I’m thinking . . . you can smell the burning.
If I was cool, I’d say I was Tweeting something; I just always find people are hungry afterwards, though.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb