Saturday, September 12, 2015

Q&A with Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is the author of the new book Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf. She also has written Self-Made Man, Voluntary Madness, and Thy Neighbor. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Advocate, and The Village Voice. She lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Adeline?

A: I had thought about writing about Virginia Woolf about three years before I did so. That was when I read Hermione Lee’s biography and reread many of Woolf’s best works.

I had read with great interest many years before (and still own) Leonard Woolf’s five-volume autobiography, as well as Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and Stephen Spender’s World Within World. They had obviously been percolating for a while.

I shied away from writing about VW for obvious reasons—it had been done before (most famously by Michael Cunningham in The Hours), and besides, VW is not a subject that anyone gets inside of lightly. So I shelved the idea.

But in the summer of 2013 I suffered one of my worst bouts of depression, and as often happens when I come out of those spells, I write like a fiend. I had written previously on Woolfian topics like gender identity and madness, and I had read and subconsciously processed all these books, so it made perfect sense.

Plus, I had just gotten married, and I wanted to write a book about marriage—Leonard and Virginia’s in particular.

Q: You've said that most of the book is factual. Can you say more about how you researched it, and what do you see as the right blend of the fictional and historical?

A: As I indicated, much of my research was protracted and mostly without intent. I was simply interested in the people involved and their ideas. When it came time to write the book, all of this backwork was at my fingertips. 

As I indicated in the author’s note at the end of the book, I owe a great debt to Hermione Lee for her comprehensive and wonderful biography of Woolf. 

As I began writing, I also bought the many volumes of VW’s diaries and letters (I had only read expurgated versions before), so that I could see for myself what she’d had to say about particular people on particular days.

That was inadvertently how the book unfolded. I learned of conversations and events that happened at certain times in VW’s life, and between certain people.

But even the diaries and letters, as well as Lee’s biography, could not offer a great deal of detail about what precisely was said in these conversations, which I felt were definitive both of Woolf’s fate and the fate of so many women at the time.

Exploring the fate of so-called “hysterical” or “mad” women was of particular interest to me, and it was why I expanded the view of marriage from what I had initially intended—just VW and Leonard—to include T.S. and Vivian Eliot, as well as Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington (not a marriage, but a domestic partnership).

When I say that a great deal of the book is factual, then, what I mean is that— with the exception of the first act, wherein I take you inside the heads of both VW and Leonard over the course of a single day in 1925—almost all the things I depict really did happen when I say they happened and between the people involved.

But oddly, I often came to know this in strange ways. For example, while rereading Spender’s World Within World, I came across a passage that described a tea that Spender attended in 1934 at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s.

Yeats and VW were also there. He says that Yeats really did tell Woolf that The Waves corroborated so much of what psychic and scientific research was then discovering about energy flowing in waves, and the nature of the universe.

I had already written the scenes in which Leonard and VW talk about Einstein and Freud (VW really does mention Einstein in Mrs. Dalloway, and the Hogarth Press really did acquire the English language rights to Freud).

They discuss at length the importance of light in the newly emerging quantum theory of the time. So finding this passage in Spender really blew me away, and I realized that I’d have to write this scene between Yeats and VW.   

Two more telling examples. VW really did visit Dora Carrington on the afternoon before Carrington shot herself (it’s in her diary), and they really did talk about suicide, but very little is known about what was said.

I constructed this scene partly from the little that VW did say about the day in her diaries, Hermione Lee’s analysis of the situation, as well as a wealth of very interesting information which I gleaned from Michael Holroyd’s biographyof Lytton Strachey.

For example, Carrington really did write out that line from Webster that is also in Eliot’s The Waste Land (though altered slightly)—“Keep the wolf far hence who’s foe to men, or with his nails he’ll dig it up again”—and she really did underline the word “wolf.” It was found among her posthumous papers.

I have Vivian Eliot say this at their tea party in 1932, and though to my knowledge she said no such thing, that tea party did take place. There are a host of famous pictures of it, which I used to describe what everyone was wearing. 

Finally, the penultimate scene between VW and Octavia Wilberforce also really did occur, and on the day—March 27—before VW took her own life.

Again, nothing is known of what they said to each other, but a fair amount is known about Wilberforce and her friendship with Leonard and VW. She did, for example, really keep a herd of Jersey cows and give milk to the Woolf’s during the war. Yeats also really wrote a poem for Woolf called “Spilt Milk.”

So I simply put these two facts together at the end and had VW pour a vial of Octavia’s milk over the stone that really was found in VW’s pocket after her death. 

Q: In a recent essay, you wrote, "Adeline was not just a work of fiction, or an act of literary ventriloquism. It was my suicide note." What impact did the process of writing this book have on you and your own health?

A: Yes, it’s true. Adeline would have been my suicide note had I succeeded in killing myself on the night of March 20, 2014. The arguments that I gave to VW in that penultimate scene with Octavia were my own, and I meant them. I still do. There is a case to be made for suicide under certain circumstances. 

Also, whether or not readers agree, I think Adeline is beautiful, and I wanted to write something beautiful before I died. I’ve done that now, whatever else happens. 

As for Adeline’s effect on my mental health, I think it was, as all my books have been, a purgative, and in that sense, it was a good thing, a way of leaching out the poison of depression.

However, during the process of writing Adeline, I allowed myself to get too immersed in VW’s state of mind, and my own—or revisitations of my depressive notions—and most importantly, I did not maintain the personal relationships and “real world” touchstones that I needed to maintain my balance. I hibernated and wrote like a fiend, and that wasn’t healthy. 

So, in the end, Adeline didn’t make me do anything I wouldn’t have probably done anyway. It was only one of many things—including divorce, loss of a home, abandonment by the people who were supposed to care for me, and genetic predisposition—that contributed to why I did what I did. 

Suicidal tendency lies in wait, and has many causes, and it’s usually a confluence of events or catastrophes that brings it to the surface. This was certainly true for me.

Q: You've mentioned the relationship between Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Can you say more about how you would characterize it?

A: I wanted to write about Leonard and VW’s marriage—a kind of portrait of a marriage, if you will—because I think they had a very unorthodox, yet on the whole wonderful, relationship.

I can’t know this, of course. No one but the two of them can or ever could. But I wanted to explore the ways that a supportive spouse who believes wholeheartedly in the genius and mission of his partner, as Leonard did (this is in his autobiography), can help mitigate the damaging effects of mental illness, while encouraging groundbreaking creativity.

You can see why this might be especially interesting to me, and it just so happened to be the case with the two of them. As I’ve said elsewhere, far from hampering her, I believe that Leonard fostered her, and was the reason that she lived as long as she did.

But there is always the question of what is fair to expect of a spouse when he or she is dealing with the terrible ups and downs of mental illness. This, too, is something I know a lot about. It’s also why I had VW discuss this explicitly with Octavia the day before she died.

I believe she really felt (her suicide note says as much) that her death would free Leonard from his self-imposed caregiving of her. As I said, suicides happen for many reasons, and this was true of her as well. Leonard was only a piece of the puzzle. 

Q: You've said that you're now writing a novel about Samuel Beckett. How would you compare his life to that of Woolf?

A: Beckett was very enamored of the idea of suicide when he was a young man. He also suffered all his life from what were probably psychosomatic illnesses, such as painful cysts, night terrors and insomnia.

But he changed his mind about suicide somewhere along the line, and I think his father’s death had a lot to do with that change. He nursed his father in his last illness, and was there when he died. His father’s last words to him were: “Fight, fight, fight.” 

And that is how Beckett lived the rest of his life. Fighting. Fighting depression, heartbreak, disappointment, loss, and all manner of adversity, including joining the French resistance, and, when his cell was betrayed, being forced to go on the run from the Gestapo during World War II.

He never took his own life, though God knows he drank and smoked and drove motorcycles and automobiles recklessly enough to have committed what I call a kind of slow suicide by attrition.

Still, he died of natural causes. He would not have made the arguments that VW makes to Octavia. He became philosophically opposed to suicide, partly I think because he thought, as he says in so many places in his work, that you should just bloody well get on with it until it’s your time, but also because I think he believed in reincarnation.

I think he felt, as his narrator in The Unnameable says at one point, that “they” (the powers that be, or the turners of life’s wheel, what have you) will just keep sending you back into the fray until you’ve learned what needs learning, or progressed enough, so you might as well do the best you can to face the music now, because you’ll have to face it anyway.

I think Beckett suffered emotionally every bit as much as Woolf did, but he was a recluse. She was a party girl—at least some of the time.

I also think that Beckett was a romantic—a cynic, to alter a phrase, is simply a romantic who’s been mugged—whereas I don’t think that was true of VW. She was a visionary, no doubt, but in the end, I don’t think she was ever in love with love. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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