Bonnie Nadzam: Interview

Monday, January 16, 2012

I expected to feel a certain level of discomfort when I began to read Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam’s debut novel about a middle-aged man (David Lamb) who strikes up a line-blurring relationship with an eleven-year-old girl (Tommie). Yet I found myself squirming even more than I’d anticipated—and for reasons I couldn’t have predicted based on the plot summaries provided in all of those stellar reviews. Yes, David Lamb’s behavior angered me. Yes, his abuse of a young girl’s trust sent me scribbling all varieties of accusation-riddled notations—Manipulator! Liar! Delusional!—in the margins. But none of that came as a surprise.

What caught me off-guard, what made me shrink more deeply into my armchair and gnaw especially nervously on the end of my pencil, was how often I noticed myself empathizing with this rather contemptible character. For all of the harm David Lamb does, for all of the lies he tells, there exists a certain desperation in his insistence that his actions are somehow “good,” a desperation that rings heartbreakingly human—and makes him surprisingly relatable.

Shortly after the novel’s release, I sat down with Bonnie Nadzam to discuss the lies that Lamb tells himself, the lessons we stand to learn from those lies, and the healing she found through telling this story.

This is an edited transcript.

TriQuarterly Online: How did the idea for Lamb come about?

Bonnie Nadzam

Photo Credit: Jeremy Chignell

Bonnie Nadzam: The idea and the draft started as a sort of autobiographical . . . [spewing]. But as I read, while working on my dissertation, about aesthetics and different theories of art and art appreciation, I decided—and of course I sort of knew this on a visceral level all along—that I wanted to write a story that evoked some feeling in the reader. I didn’t want to play language games this time around. I didn’t want it to be too much of an intellectual experiment. So I had to start thinking: “OK, so if I want to share these feelings that I’ve had in my life, how can I fictionalize the characters and the scenes so that similar feelings may be elicited in the reader?”

It’s tricky, because you don’t want to be rhetorically and emotionally manipulative with your readers, and I think if I had tried to do that, the story would’ve fallen flat. It would’ve been too much. It would’ve been clever. It would’ve been an intellectual game.

So as I started revising, which was basically beginning all over again with a blank page, it was a little bit of back-and-forth with “these are the feelings I had that I’m trying to dissect and get into and share” but also “I don’t really know where this is going or who these characters are”—and so it just turned into its own [journey].

TQO: I read that you threw away an entire, completed first draft. How did you find the strength to do that?

BN: Well, I knew it was terrible. [Laughs] What happened was that I wrote the first draft, which was more of a personal getting-stuff-off-my-chest, and did it all very quickly—in three or four months—and then put it away for a summer and wasn’t sure that I’d ever go back to it. It was just that I had to get a draft out for the program that I was in. So I left it alone for the summer, and toward the end of that summer I read this terrible news story about a three-year-old girl. And I won’t go into much detail about that because it was really awful, but it haunted me for a couple of weeks. The news story included little bits of information about the man who was involved and how he seemed to respond to the situation with as much horror as everybody else. I thought: How does that happen? How can you participate in something, believe it’s OK, perhaps even believe that it’s good somehow or necessary somehow, and be horrified with yourself? And that’s something I know about, that’s something I’ve experienced. Certainly not on that scale . . .

So I thought: Oh no, Tommie’s eleven! She’s ten, she’s eleven. Shoot! Am I allowed to write this story? Can I do this? And the more I felt like I didn’t have permission to write such a story, the more I felt “I have to do this.” Then it became easy to throw away all of those pages, because they weren’t the heartbeat of it anymore.

TQO: Were you intimidated at all by your own idea?

BN: I think intimidated isn’t quite the right word. Because it started with my own heart and experience, it was more like, Can I do this without flinching? And without beginning to make up my own stories and defend my own ego as I write? Or can I really—not confess, it’s not a confession; it’s not that type of book—but can I really look in my own heart and not look away?

TQO: As much as this is a novel about an older man’s obsession with an eleven-year-old child, it’s also a novel about the lies we tell ourselves and the destruction born out of those lies. What drew you to the subject of self-deception? Do you think it’s a common problem in our culture?

BN: I don’t know if it’s a problem that is culturally bound, or bound by any particular time period. I think it’s probably a pretty timeless, human thing to tell ourselves stories. And the stories can be egregious—like Lamb telling himself that he’s going to save Tommie—or they can be really subtle, like “I’m a human being on Planet Earth.” Well, that’s a useful story to tell yourself, I guess. But it’s a story. What does that mean? What is it helping you with? What consolation does it give you? What if you don’t tell yourself that story? Does that mean, then, that maybe you don’t know who or what you are or where you came from? So there’s a full spectrum, I think, of stories we tell ourselves.

And of course as somebody who loves to read and is committed to some extent to writing, I don’t think that all stories are destructive. Certainly there are stories that are . . . I don’t want to say “useful,” but part of a longer conversation that we have over the generations and over the years about what it means to be human and how to become more fully human. I think it’s a project that most people are committed to in some capacity, to some extent—to pull things out of the shadows and to become increasingly aware of who we are and what it is we’re supposed to do. Those are really fundamental, philosophical questions. Who am I? What am I to do? What are my duties? What are my obligations? There are so many things to pull out of the shadows in regards to each of those questions.

TQO: A guy like Lamb is easy to dislike. He’s conceited, manipulative. But like Tommie, I found myself wavering between feelings of anger and feelings of sympathy for him. How do you crawl inside the head of a character like that . . . deeply enough to find the part of him that we can empathize with?

BN: I’m not sure that I could really dissect intellectually how I did that, but I know that some of it came from thinking about stories that I’ve told myself and told others, and bad choices that I’ve made. I never made them because I thought they were the wrong choice. I never woke up one morning and decided, “Today I’m going to be evil—I’m going to cross the line into the dark side.” [Laughs] And I don’t think that Lamb is that way, either. That certainly doesn’t let him off the hook. He is at times aware of the potential harm that he’s doing—and that increasingly becomes the case. And I think he becomes increasingly filled with despair as he realizes: I’ve done it again. I cannot get away from this part of my humanity. How can I be decent? How can I possibly be decent?

TQO: And he’s constantly looking for reassurance from Tommie. He’s constantly saying to her: “Tell me it’s OK.”

BN: He speaks for her, even. He needs it so much. And it’s heartbreaking, I think, that he’s been reduced to getting it from a child. Because no adult—except for maybe his mistress Linnie, who is in somewhat the same sort of daze that Tommie is in—is going to entertain his ideas and conversation anymore.

TQO: My heart broke over and over again for Tommie and, as I’ve said, even in certain scenes for Lamb. But I simply could not muster any sympathy for Linnie. How do you feel about her?

BN: I don’t like her either. I think she’s the most reprehensible character in the book.

TQO: Why do you say that?

BN: Well, I didn’t spend a lot of time with her, so there isn’t much room to see what her vulnerabilities and weaknesses might be, the way that we get to see them with Lamb and Tommie. But I tried. There were a couple of chapters I was working on, going more into Linnie, and they just ended up not being part of the story. I think it’s because she’s like an older Tommie and should know better, but she doesn’t. I think the fact that I don’t like Linnie reflects something about the limitations of my own empathy. She’s no better or worse than any of the characters in the book. And if we knew her story we might feel differently about her.

TQO: In many ways, she’s even a bit more tragic than Tommie. We get the sense that she’ll just keep going back, and back, and back to Lamb.

BN: Maybe that’s what it is. We get to see that Lamb knows he’s been telling himself a story. He acknowledges, a bit, the delusion. And Tommie is going to be forced to; it’s going to happen, if not in a month, then in ten years. But Linnie is the only one we don’t see. So maybe that’s it. We just don’t—in this book and on these pages—get to see her acknowledge any amount of the delusion and the story she’s telling herself.

TQO: There are some beautifully crafted sentences in Lamb, some truly resonant imagery. Do elements like language and imagery come easily to you, or do you find yourself fussing a bit over them?

BN: I don’t fuss over them when I’m writing and spilling things out. If you looked at a couple of fresh pages, they’d be full of variables and you would think, “This is algebra.” I’ll have five words and then . . . “XYZ words . . . QL.” I’ll know that there are three things missing here and two things missing here. I just sort of know the syllables that are missing, but I don’t let it stop me as I’m going. I fuss later, but that fussing is fun. As I’m writing, though, it really does look like secret code or something. There are certainly times when I don’t do it that way, and it never works. It ends up being all this sweat and blood and a terrible draft that never comes to anything. But when I use that loose process, when I write in the secret code, it usually turns into something finished.

TQO: You wrote Lamb while in a PhD program at USC, a dual program in literature and writing. What did that lend to the process of writing the novel?

BN: The literature requirements, ultimately the critical lit dissertation, were a bit shorter than if I had been strictly an English lit PhD student. But all of the tests and qualifying exams and screening exams are identical to those of the students who are in the English lit program. So I was reading a lot of theory and philosophy, and I think it was useful to see that the way that we in the West generally define fiction is not always what fiction was, and that in the eighteenth century and pre-eighteenth century the disciplines weren’t divided and categorized the way we divide them now. So to come to a blank page and start to tell a story is not just a creative writing exercise, it’s about answers to bigger questions; it’s about orienting oneself in the universe and asking, How does this address my ontological malaise—or does it? Is this story going to help anybody, or is it just a repeat of the same kind of story that we keep passing on? That’s something to worry about, and I think people do worry about it in American letters because of MFA programs, which I was part of, too. So it’s good to do all of those pushups of reading fifteenth-, sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-century literature. I haven’t even caught up with the twentieth century. If there’s something that a friend has written or that’s getting incredible reviews, I’ll read it, but I’m still now creeping my way through the 1800s.

TQO: I was fascinated by the POV in this book. We have a narrator, but he or she never explicitly identifies himself or herself. Was that part of the challenge you wanted to pose to the reader, to have them decide who tells the story?

BN: Not explicitly, no. The narrator and the sort of narrative hiccups—the conditional statements and the extent to which the narrator is so subjective—came out of two things. One was that I was studying a lot of eighteenth-century literature at the time, and this was an age when writers of what we now anachronistically call fiction were experimenting with forms. Some of the earlier writers like Henry Fielding and Laurence Stern were addressing the same philosophical questions that Berkeley and Hume and Locke were addressing; they were just telling stories and autobiographies. And in particular, there seems to be a bit of a divide between those writers who have a narrator built in to acknowledge the subjectivity and those who do not.

Henry Fielding is one whose narrator is always commenting on the fact that this is a construction, it’s subjective. He’s a skeptic. He doesn’t want to pretend to be authoritative on anything. And thereby he teaches readers to read, to really weigh information and make decisions rather than, in this politically and economically bankrupt England, saying “This is the truth, this is your God, this is The Church, this is your king.” It’s more like “Don’t quite believe this.” So Fielding puts an essay writer into his essays. He puts a historian into his histories. He even has a play called The Author’s Farce about an author who is writing a play, and in the play there are puppets that represent real political figures of the day. But they’re not just puppets, they’re ghost puppets. So he’s experimenting with different levels of representation and reality and truth—and what are you really supposed to believe? how many layers of stories can we go into? Studying those things was a big intellectual influence on what I was working on.

And in a more visceral way, I couldn’t deliver a story to readers that was exactly as seductive and manipulative as the stories that Lamb was telling Tommie. I just didn’t have the heart to do it. So I had to build in these little gaps, these little places where a reader could be like, “Wait—that’s not true!” Or “He doesn’t know that!” Or “She doesn’t know that! Who is this narrator anyway?”

TQO: At several points in the novel, the narrator actually acknowledges the reader’s presence. Why did you decide to engage the reader in this way?

BN: I wanted the reader to feel personally addressed and to make a choice about whether or not to believe the narrator and whether or not to overlook all of those hiccups, just to be sucked into the beauty of the landscape and what’s gripping about the story. I was really, in a graduate-student kind of way, upset by how absorbing certain fictions and stories can be, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want the book to be altogether an escape from reality. So maybe that is a little bit of an intellectual hang-up that is still in the book, but I really just did not have the heart to write a story that was like, “Totally come into this world and abandon all, lose yourself.” It would have felt like—what hypocrisy!

TQO: How long did it take to complete the book?

BN: All told, it took about two years. There was that first draft that I did very quickly, in a few months. And then once I set it aside and decided what it really needed to be, it was about a year and a half.

TQO: Did it take an emotional toll, spending so much time with these characters?

BN: There was more relief in it than it taking a toll. Because I couldn’t stay with them and not come to see and admit that I too have this full spectrum of goodness, badness, whatever you want to call it. And what a relief, to some extent—I’m sure I have a long way to go—to own my humanity and not expect perfection, to not expect self-improvement or some process of becoming a better person, whatever that means. I don’t know that it’s possible. But taking responsibility and being more aware of the more Lamb-like qualities or the darker qualities: that is possible. And I think it’s essential.

TQO: Do you feel as though that perspective came out at the end of the writing, or did it arise through the writing?

BN: Maybe the last six months of the writing. Certainly not right away.

TQO: I’ve seen nothing but positive reviews of Lamb. How does it feel to know that people are reading and appreciating your work?

BN: Strange. Very much like they’re maybe talking about somebody else, because my daily life is still my daily life. My husband and our dog and our house and our chores and the groceries and our bills. So it feels like it’s somebody else out there, which may be a good thing.

TQO: Several reviews make reference to Lolita. What novels do you think Lamb aligns with?

BN: That’s a good question. I had in mind when I was writing—and this actually was a bit of contemporary lit that I’d read—a couple of different classes on American Western literature, starting with Owen Wister and The Virginian and including nature writing and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Jonathan Raban's Bad Land. Really a whole spiel of nonfiction and fiction. And much of the literature about the American West seems to be about disappointment and delusion and looking for a mythological place that doesn’t really exist. I would hope that Lamb is in conversation with those kinds of texts about the American West, but I know the headlines of the summary seem to align more with other books. [Laugh] And I understand why that’s the case, but Lolita wasn’t something I was thinking of at all, so at first I was surprised, and then I was like, “I shouldn’t be surprised at all—how silly of me.”

TQO: To my mind, though, it aligns with Lolita in the same way Titanic aligns with Das Boot: they’re both on a ship.

BN: That’s right! And I think that if you haven’t had any experiences like Tommie’s and Lamb’s except for what you’ve read in literature, you’re going to think of the literature. Like if you haven’t been on a whaling ship and you hear about one, you’re probably going to think of Moby-Dick or Two Years before the Mast. You’re not going to think of all of the people out there today who are whaling—and there are people out there whaling. So I can understand.

TQO: What’s next?

BN: Stories . . . always, you know. Here and there as they come to me, I’ll turn my attention to them. But there is also another novel under way.

TQO: Speaking of stories, you have a new one— “River Purgatoire”—in TriQuarterly. Perhaps because I read this story so soon after reading Lamb, I thought I noticed a few parallels. We have a narrator (Scott) who, like David Lamb, travels back to a once-familiar location. We have a love interest (Glory) who, like Linnie, allows herself to be manipulated emotionally. In some way, does “River Purgatoire” address questions that remained with you even after completing your novel?

BN: One of the most terrifying things I can imagine is standing before God, whatever God is, and God saying, however God speaks: I don’t know you (anymore). How could a human being reach such a point or way of being that the very thing that gave rise to him is no longer “of” or “like” him? And then, what happens to such a person? What is he? I think Lamb is just about at that point, and knows it—and is appropriately freaked out. But Scott is far from it. He’s a decent, young, ardent-hearted guy who is in love with Glory and a bit afraid of the power of that force. He’s not ready or able to let go and plunge into a relationship without knowing what might come of it. I finished this story while I was writing Lamb; I was interested in that spectrum of defense mechanisms, narcissism, delusion, and where along the spectrum most healthy people find themselves, even if they have been in troubled times, and where on the spectrum there is a tipping point beyond which the person in question is truly lost. I remain interested in—and am working through in a new novel, now—that old matter of free will and choice, and how a person at risk might pull themselves out of the dark.

TQO: What is it like now, writing outside of the grad school environment?

BN: I certainly feel like I learned something about the process, and it’s not motivated by a degree anymore. And learning that I don’t necessarily want to be working in academia—that also was a huge thing to learn. That’s changed some of the reasons why I’m writing and who I’m writing for.

TQO: And how is it, writing without workshop?

BN: It’s kind of nice actually, because in the process of all of those years of workshopping you find the people who respond well to your aesthetic. And by “respond well,” I don’t mean they love it. I mean they know where the gaps are, what you’re missing. And you just stay in touch with those people and you pass things around. You have to have smart readers. It’s such a gift.