Monday, June 3, 2013

Q&A with writer Gordon Dahlquist

Gordon Dahlquist
Gordon Dahlquist is a novelist and playwright. His most recent novel is The Different Girl; his other works include The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, The Dark Volume, and Chemickal Marriage. He lives in New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Different Girl?

A: I began the story some years ago as the libretto for an opera, the music for which would be written by a composer friend in Oakland. I didn't have the entire story worked out, but certainly the sparse circumstances on the island – the two caretakers, the four girls (and their chorus of voices) – were derived from the (mostly financial) constraints of theatre. 

But I was only a few chapters in when that project got side–tracked pretty early on by another book, which turned out to be The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, which took over my life for a few years. Eventually I came back to The Different Girl and finished it fairly quickly, in a few months. 

The impulse for the book came less from the story itself than from the narrative voice, and the constraints that come with it. The book hews very much to what Veronika experiences, her particular thought processes, and her conclusions – which is to say she's becomes something of an unreliable narrator, not out of any malice, but simply because her perspective is, at least at the start, fairly limited. 

Interestingly, May, the character that cracks open Veronika's world, carries her own fairly limited perspective – it just happens to not overlap with Veronika's at all, so finding common ground is something of a challenge. 

For me, being true to those constraints – not cheating and having someone find a newspaper that explains everything – was the core of the book, because it makes the book not finally about what happens – the plot – but about the characters, and their emotional evolution.

Q: Do you consider the book to be science fiction, and why or why not?

A: The book is totally science fiction, even if it takes some time to really reveal what that means. That said, I'd say it works in two different ways – which perhaps touches on two strains of science fiction. One is simply exploring ideas of cognition and identity, in very much a classic science fictional manner. The other is more social, and floats around the edges of the story, and speaks to the role of science in society now. 

I'm extremely concerned about the anti–science culture that's risen in the United States, recently, specifically related to topics like climate science and evolution. I personally find this to be an extremely dangerous phenomenon, and there's certainly an element to the book – again, very much around the edges – that touches on the consequences of this kind of mindset.

Q: What age group do you think would enjoy the book?

A: Honestly, I didn't write the book for any particular age – I wrote it for me. The voice of the narrator – her age, her vocabulary, her diction – are established at the beginning, and read as a fairly young person. Likewise, the questions at play are very basic issues of identity and character – who are we, what defines us, what separates us from other people, what responsibilities do we have to have to others. These are classic teenage questions, but they're also simply human questions. My hope is that readers of any age will appreciate the book.

Q: How much of a departure is The Different Girl from your previous books?

A: It's very much a departure. My previous books have been long and complicated adventure stories with a fair amount of adult content. The Different Girl is a much simpler, almost fable–like story, with everything happening on a much smaller, more intimate scale – and something anyone could read. The earlier books dabble in science fiction, but more with a steam–punk/alchemical edge, while The Different Girl speaks more to a classic '70s sort of science fiction.

Q: As someone who writes both plays and novels, do you prefer one to the other?

A: I like them both, and by now both feed each other. Certainly my novels are greatly influenced by writing – much of the stories move forward through dialogue, and the action is very much rooted in a concrete sense of place, almost like what happens is blocked out for the stage. 

More than anything, I think they serve different impulses in my writing. A novel will have a broader social canvas in terms actual plot, but also perhaps a more introspective one, with more time spent within a character’s thoughts. A play is necessarily more social, a world created through conversation, where what isn't said is more interesting than what is. 

In many ways it seems like for novels one gets the whole paint box, while for plays one gets charcoal – neither is better, but different ideas are suited to each.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've just finished a draft of a new novel presently called Second Skin, which isn't a sequel to The Different Girl – it doesn't deal with any of those characters – but takes place elsewhere in the same world. The Different Girl raises a lot of questions that aren't answered – because those characters aren't in any place to get all those answers – and so the new book allows me to show a much broader view of that society, from the slagheaps of poverty and environmental contamination, to enclaves of wealth and technology.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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