If there is any justice in the world, Laura Kasischke will soon be as big as Alice Sebold, she of The Lovely Bones, that haunting book that burned through smart women’s book clubs.
Kasischke’s novels are as beautifully written and as daring in their subjects. Take, for instance, Be Mine, which was published by Harcourt last week. A middle-age married English teacher, Sherry, gets a secret admirer, who turns out to be a younger man at her university. She embarks on an obsessive sexual awakening, which eventually endangers her marriage and her college-age son.
Kasischke’s previous novel, The Life Before Her Eyes, is a recently finished movie, In Bloom, starring Uma Thurman as a middle-age woman who must live with the consequences of a terrible decision made as a 17-year-old. The movie is supposed to be released later this year, and so Kasischke is poised to be launched out of the ranks of the literary, talented but possibly obscure into the ranks of literary ... and possibly famous.
We chatted recently with Kasischke (kah-ZISS-key), who is also an acclaimed poet and an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Michigan—about middle-age fantasies, motherhood and why if Hillary had done what Bill did, she’d never be senator today.
Q: Have you ever found this Web site called Literature-Map.com?
Q: The idea is that it asks people to give writers that they enjoy. And then they pool that knowledge. So a writer’s name will appear and then the names of other writers that those readers like as well will appear close to it.
A: I’ve heard of something like that.
Q: Well, your name is tremendously close to Russell Banks.’ (A highly regarded writer of literary fiction. Two of his novels, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, have been made into movies.)
A: Oh, how nice!
Q: So it’s saying that people who read Russell read you, or vice versa.
A: That’s a really nice thought. I don’t know if he would think so, but I do.
Q: Be Mine is kind of like a romance novel that goes about as badly as it could go. I’m 45, so I’m reading about Sherry, and I’m thinking, “Gee, this is a nice little middle-aged fantasy, that you’d still be hot to someone new.”
A: Well, I’m also 45! Part of what I was thinking about when I wrote the novel was not so much about age, or even romance, but identity and who we are in relationship to one another. And with Sherry, what happens with her is that she thinks she knows who she is. She thinks she knows who her friends—even her colleagues—are, but finds out that indeed, you only ever know someone or own someone in a very sort of tentative way.
I started with the title and the (opening) image of the florist’s truck running over the rabbit. That’s the idea: Valentine’s Day, romance ...
Q: Dead bunnies.
A: Dead bunnies.
Also—I write about this in the book—about the different odysseys that women take, how they differ from men’s—many men’s—sort of solitary excursions, their outdoor adventures, their military service, and how many of the women I know, their great adventures have mostly had to do with romantic entanglements and so on, psychological conflicts. Some professional (adventures), too, but not a lot of physical adventures that lead to the kind of disasters that psychological adventures end in.
Q: And motherhood and the intensity there.
A: I have a son—he’s 10—but one of the things I’ve learned from motherhood what a primary attachment that is. You know: Mother and child. Sherry was losing that, as her son was getting older, and I was thinking about what an irreplaceable attachment that is, what a primary and defining attachment that is.
For a while, we have these people who are ours, but they don’t stay ours.
Q: This is the reaction you absolutely have to have, as a feminist in this day and age: This woman has an affair and gets relentlessly punished for it.
A: Well, I certainly didn’t mean for the book to be a condemnation of Sherry. I think it’s a condemnation of a culture in which a woman is going to be punished like that. Everything is against her venturing out in this way.
On the other hand, her husband has gotten away completely with his affair, his sort of acting-out, the willingness to keep a secret that way, and his wife’s willingness to forgive and overlook it. This is something that is only semi-conscious when you’re writing a novel, but it is about how traditionally women, especially women with roles like “wife” and “mother,” with expectations of a certain kind of nurturing—there’s a kind of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy to what happens to Sherry, it goes above and beyond, but it’s not that different from the falls I’ve seen some women take.
It’s the difference—you can imagine—between what happened with President Clinton having an affair that went public and what would have happened if his wife had done that.
Q: We would never have spoken to her again. Publicly.
A: No, she wouldn’t be a public figure again and the kind of condemnation that would come down on her would be a completely different kind. And that’s mostly because she’s a mother. And of a certain age.
Q: If she had been 30 ...
A: And a gorgeous Hollywood model ...
Q: Can we women claim both? Can we say: “Hey, we want to have these incredibly intense relationships, but at the same time, if we want to break free of them sometimes, temporarily, we don’t want condemnation?”
A: I think a philosopher would answer that question differently than a novelist! I think the way I see the world is not how it should be, but the way that I see it.
Q: Your novels are not cheery, cheery things. The Life Before Her Eyes is not a cheery, cheery thing.
A: I have something to say about that! In real life, I’m kind of a perky person.
Q: I can see that.
A: But in my early, sort of formative reading, to me, “literature” was about the dark stuff. I was really attracted to the Greek tragedies and I liked Hamlet and Macbeth and not A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m interested in sort of the big themes. So I don’t think that it’s that I have such a dark view of the world, but that as a writer, I want to write about things that I wouldn’t want to have in my real life.
Q: There’s a movie of The Life Before Her Eyes.
A: Yes. It’s done filming. It stars Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood. And Vadim Perelman, who directed House of Sand and Fog, directed.
I went to the set. They were filming in New Haven, Conn., in August, September and October. And we met Uma Thurman and Vadim Perelman and had lunch with her. And we watched a scene being filmed.
Q: As the writer, do you have some sort of cachet on the set?
A: People were really nice. They were really, really nice. I mean, I think that if I had hung out for days and days ... but I was only there for a few hours.
And my son, my son is who they really treated like royalty. So that was really the fun part.
Q: It’s certainly a project with a kind of high profile. Does this translate into anything for you?
A: Well, if it’s a well-received movie, it could sell a lot of books. I mean, I have made some money from the selling of the option to the book, so ... yeah ... more money than I’ve ever made from writing!
Q: We’re talking Hollywood money now.
A: It’s a whole different scale.
EXCERPT FROM BE MINE BY LAURA KASISCHKE
I stepped out the door this morning to a scarf of blood in the snowy driveway.
Like a bad omen, or a threat, or a gruesome Valentine—a tire track, and the flattened fur of a small brown rabbit.
The florist must have run it over, delivering the roses, running late already by nine o’clock in the morning. When she handed me the long white box at the door she never mentioned having killed anything in my driveway. Maybe she never noticed. “It’s our busiest day of the year,” she said, breathless, “of course.”
I was running late myself when I saw it. What could I do? The damage had already been done—utterly crushed, completely beyond hope—and cleaning it up seemed pointless. It was already snowing again. Soon, the evidence would be buried.
But I also felt such a pang of grief, seeing that bit of brown fur in the blood, that I had to steady myself at the door.
Was it one of the baby bunnies I’d startled from their hole in the garden last spring while planting morning-glory seeds?
I’d screamed when they scurried out of the soft dirt, and didn’t go near that edge of the flower bed again all spring, into summer.
The mother rabbit abandons them, doesn’t she, if she smells a human on them?
It would have been impossible to know if this dead one was one of those, but I felt sick with it. Guilt. My Valentine roses had brought this sad end to something that had only been, moments before, making its way back to its little den under the snow. If I were a better woman, I thought, in less of a hurry, I’d get Jon’s shovel out of the garage and dig a grave—a proper burial, maybe a cross made of Popsicle sticks, the kind Chad, when he was 7, made for Trixie’s grave.
But it was such a bitter cold morning—a harsh wind out of the east, and so cold that the snow, even in that wind, lingered before it fell, as if the air were heavier than the flakes. And I’d lost my gloves again. (Left them in the supermarket cart on Saturday?) Out there with my car keys and no gloves, I thought it would have been impossible to dig a grave, anyway, in the frozen ground. Already, a couple of crows were sitting in the branches of the oak, waiting for me to leave.