photo courtesy of Virginia Tech/Jim Stroup
PM: Does that inherent violence make it difficult for the characters to connect?
Ed: I think that’s suggested in Avery and Grant’s relationship. Instead of a healthy bonding connection that might be sexual, it’s a violent act. Where I think the issue is interesting is the degree of complicity and awareness on both their parts. Is that scene a rape? That’s the question.
PM: So maybe we’re complicit in that violence some times, as well.
Ed: Yeah, I think that’s the issue the novel is exploring. The violence in our nature, the degrees to which we’re complicit with acts of violence, the ways in which violence disrupts our lives. It asks: Is this simply our nature, are we always going to be like this, is there some way to change?
So Lindsey looking at Ronnie’s MySpace page comes to the conclusion that little brothers will always be dying in war. But Grant rejects the violence in the most extreme way. He’s willing to get shot, instead of killing somebody else. That’s a sort of Saint John connection.
PM: It’s almost like a martyrdom.
Ed: Yeah, it’s almost like, “I can’t do this again,” because he just spent the last 12 years suffering for that momentary act of violence. He keeps thinking through, you know, why did he do it: the gun was beside him, he picked it up, he pointed it out the window, it was almost instinctual. But he says, nothing happens without thought.
PM: He said: “Yes.”
Ed: Yes. And so at the end, of course, he says, “No.” So maybe we are not doomed to this violence in our nature that’s definitely there, maybe we can make choices. And as a novelist I don’t have to answer questions… (he laughs)
PM: You just have to raise them …
Ed: I just have to raise them and pose them in the story. I like the idea that we can evolve beyond our violent natures. There’s not a lot of evidence of it at the moment in the world that that’s a possibility.
PM: If we’re going to be talking about violence and its effect — and it’s such a big part of this book — it’s hard not to talk about the Virginia Tech shootings, because the shooter was one of your students.
Ed: It happened in the midst of the novel, so I was already writing about this when it happened. And people have asked me, because I write about violence regularly in my fiction, what is it to have one of your students do something like that. I’ve never been able to really come up with any sort of coherent response to it. It seems to me like another example of the kind of horrific cultural violence endemic in America. And it just hit home this time.
The next day, after the shootings, something like 200 people were killed in a bombing in Iraq, so this violence just came right up into the mountains of southwest Virginia. But the kind of violence that happened here is happening every day, and there have been, I forget the number, but, a couple hundred people killed in massacres by lone gunmen since Virginia Tech. So my answer is — I’ve been writing about this my whole life.
PM: Did the Virginia Tech shootings have an influence on Saint John?
Ed: I can’t see how it didn’t, because it happened right in the middle of the writing of it, but again, I was already writing about that issue. I was thinking of it in terms of the Iraq War and individual violence.
PM: There are many scenes in the book where people are looking at their reflections and wondering about who they really are, and feeling that they’re trapped in these narratives that other people have thrust upon them.
I know that the shooter in the Virginia Tech shootings had a really tough time communicating and talking about his problems and his issues. Maybe some of that violence that you write about stems from the confusion that people have about who they really are ,and what they’re supposed to be.
Ed: It’s an interesting connection. (The shooter) suffered from something called selective mutism. It was a mental, emotional issue with him, he couldn’t speak. He could speak, but he just wouldn’t speak.
On some level it’s fairly obvious he was furious and that fury comes from being so different, from not being able to be a part of the world around him. Certainly the stuff we saw him broadcast on TV after the shooting illustrates a whole lot of anger at all of the others around him whom he thought were persecuting him, and treating him badly. What I see that connects is that he was furious, and he was angry, and trapped inside that body. He had no outlet, he was mentally damaged enough to not have the kinds of protective layers that keep us from acting out on the violence. He acted out, and he lived in a culture where he can ride into town and buy guns and ammunition.
PM: The constant struggle for the characters in Saint John is to break from narratives that are thrust upon them. Do you think that it’s possible to reinvent yourself, and get away from how people see you, or how people perceive you?
Ed: I do, but I think it’s very hard. I grew up in a working-class culture in Brooklyn, and you would’ve never bet that I would go on to be a writer. We’re sort of defined by our class, by our culture, and I think it is hard to change. But your question is even more to the point. When we find ourselves in a particular narrative in our relationships, how can you change that narrative? It’s common between parents and children and in marriages, where you have a role, and that role is what defines you. It’s very hard if you want to change that role and be somebody different, I do think it’s very difficult…
PM: Art also plays a big role in this book for almost all of the characters, except for the male characters outside of Grant. Do you see art as a way to help deal with that violence that’s inherent in all of us? Are artistic outlets a way that we can become “more human”?
Ed: I truly do. Certainly for the artists, and for some artists, it’s a way of negotiating those intense, maybe difficult, maybe violent feelings, frustrations. There’s a line about artists: you don’t have to look too far to find the wound, and that’s true of most artists. So art is a way of dealing with things, of negotiating pain, negotiating chaos. That chaos doesn’t necessarily have to be an abusive family, it can be an emotional chaos, a sense of alienation, or a lack of understanding of who you are in the world, and a need to understand better the purpose of things.
Art is a way of exploring, a way of thinking about life, and it’s a way of formalizing feelings. So you have a chaos of feelings inside you, and art provides you a way of getting them out of you and transferring them to the page, or to the screen, or to the canvas, or to the sculpture. When Avery is thinking about what she believes in, she comes back to art, she thinks that art has a tremendous gripping power, and there’s something about it that she can believe in.
PM: You write pretty convincingly about the New York art scene. Have you spent time in these penthouse apartments and art galleries?
Ed: More SoHo than penthouse, but yeah. I dated a photographer who lived in Brooklyn for several years, and that area of Brooklyn I’m writing about is when I was dating her and I knew that area. My brother was always making art, and producing art.
And that’s Edie’s apartment that turns up in the novel.
PM: The other world in this book that’s also clearly drawn is the underworld of the Mafia. I don’t like to make suppositions about you being Italian and Catholic, but is this another world that you are familiar with?
Ed: I’m not familiar with it, but I know a little bit about it growing up in Brooklyn. I worked for a while with racehorses on racetracks and I know a little bit about it from that world.
In the part of the novel at the funeral where Grant discovers for the first time that he has an uncle — that comes out of life. I actually had an uncle whom I knew nothing about until after he was dead, because my father didn’t want us to have anything to do with him, and it was because, I don’t know the details, but, how can I put this diplomatically…
PM: He was shady?
Ed: Yeah, good. Because he still has family around, and his sons are my cousins, who I don’t really know, but I know of, so there’s that kind of level of background knowledge of it. But I don’t have any real first-hand knowledge.
PM: Do you feel that being in the world of academia helps you as a writer?
Ed: I get to be around a lot of people who care about writing. When I graduated from college, I had read some W.H. Auden, and Auden had always recommended that if you want to be a writer don’t do anything that takes up the same kind of mental energy. Don’t be a journalist, don’t be a teacher.
I followed that advice for a long time, and found myself getting kind of schizophrenic, since I was paying all this attention to writing and I was living in a world were no writing hardly existed for the people I was working with. And when I went back to school for a graduate degree I found myself much happier being around people who cared about writing, who read, and could talk about writing. And I’ve stayed in this world largely for that reason. Now that I’m teaching an MFA program and working with young writers who come in full of the new folks that they’re reading, it’s a world I feel pretty comfortable in.
"The language and dialogue in his latest novel, The Whites, gives away his identity -- and that's a good thing.READ the article