Alice Sebold returns with another morbid plot, beautifully written

[24 October 2007]

By John Mark Eberhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

NEW YORK—Alice Sebold doesn’t flinch.

Her first book, 1999’s “Lucky,” was a memoir that fell far outside the “ah, those were the days” realm; it chronicled Sebold’s rape when she was a college freshman. Her second book, the 2002 blockbuster novel “The Lovely Bones,” was narrated by the spirit of a murdered girl.

Now comes “The Almost Moon.” The new novel features the voice of Helen Knightly, who tells us in the very first chapter that she has killed her ailing, aged mother.

And yet Sebold finds ways to make her disturbing tales compelling to millions. She smiles as she ponders the question: How does she invest her dark stories with such beauty?

“If you love language, it’s like holding a beautiful object,” Sebold says in an interview in Midtown Manhattan. “You’re drawn toward beautiful objects, to pick them up and get to know them. I’m drawn toward words and word combinations in that way, and then that just expands into images. I write visually, in the same way I would reach out for an object that I find attractive.

“The combination of the more grim subject matter and the language—it’s compelling to me as a writer to try to find ways to express difficult things in a way that draws you in as opposed to repelling you.”

Sebold adds that she’s “not into that whole assaultive aesthetic” of some writers. One thinks of a Bret Easton Ellis (“American Psycho”), for example, or Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club,” “Rant”). Maybe part of it is a gender thing; those male writers tell grim tales, too, but their diction and syntax can be as battering as their subject matter.

Not so with Sebold. She works hard, in fact, to invest “The Almost Moon” with sympathy for Helen—not an easy task, considering Helen’s actions. Sebold’s graceful prose definitely helps:

“As my mother drifted into the past, where she was happiest, I appointed myself the past’s faithful guardian. If her feet looked cold, I covered them. If the light left the room too dark, I quietly crept over and turned on a bookshelf lamp that would cast only a small circle of light—not too big—just enough to keep her voice from becoming a scary shapeless echo in the dark.”

But will “Moon” enjoy the kind of success Sebold had with “Bones”? The latter became a huge best-seller; counting hardcover and paper sales in this country, it has crossed the 5 million mark, according to the author. It got glowing reviews. Director Peter Jackson is working on a film version starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel Weisz. Readers still come up to Sebold everywhere she goes, telling her how much they love it.

Early rumblings suggest “The Almost Moon” may be a tougher sell.

Booklist liked it but opined that it is “grim and grimmer ... so unremittingly bleak that it seems unlikely that it will be greeted with the same enthusiasm” as its predecessor.

Publishers Weekly was harsher: “The matricide is woefully contrived ... Sebold can write, that’s clear, but (this) effort is not in line with her talent.”

The author professes not to be concerned with living up to external expectations, whether they be book sales or critical responses.

“I feel a self-imposed pressure to write books that I believe in as opposed to trying to fulfill some level of success. There are people who are not going to like this new book at all. But that’s OK. My job is just to do my work. The readers can like it or not like it; of course I hope they do like it. But I focus on the things that are fascinating me or haunting me or challenging me.”

The challenge, in fact, is one of the two chief reasons she writes. Her deceased narrator in “Bones,” 14-year-old Susie Salmon, provided an eerie but enthralling narrative stance: a girl, murdered, whose soul or spirit or consciousness does survive in a place called heaven. But creating the ethereal after-images of Susie’s world pushed Sebold to her limits.

“It was very difficult. I would say to my husband and my best friend, `If I ever try to write another book from a dead character’s point of view, kill me.’ But there’s also a part of me—if somebody tells me I can’t do something, or it seems like it’s really tough, it’s like catnip to me.”

Creating Helen—a woman who evolves from caregiver to killer—was just as taxing and as satisfying.

“The underpinning of the novel is that intense love/hate relationship you have with a parent. Particularly with an aging parent whose demands on your life increase—helplessly, as it is. The book plays out a literal version of what we all somewhat struggle with.”

Longer life spans have changed the adult child/parent relationship, Sebold thinks. Her grandmother died at 96 when her mother was 73.

“It was interesting to see my mother, in some sense, finally free, because my grandmother had been quite a force to be reckoned with. You can be free; it’s not like your parents have to die in order for you to become free,” but it does require asserting one’s identity.

Her own parents, she says with a laugh, are “still living, so that proves the book isn’t based on reality!”

Back to her other chief reason for writing (the challenge being the first): Sebold makes friends that way. She lives with her husband in San Francisco but also peoples her world with folks who exist only in her mind.

“I think I write for company—to live with a group of characters or a single character for a period of years. It’s kind of cool—you create your own inflatable friends!”

On a more serious note, Sebold says she remains dedicated to telling stories that have strong intellectual and emotional elements.

“It does fascinate me that in literary fiction, often `clever’ is judged superior to books that try to reflect life—as opposed to proving the intelligence of the author.”

“With `Bones,’” Sebold says, “there were people who complimented me for my simple language.” Not everyone, though, was convinced by that approach: “Then there were people who didn’t.”

But that’s the great thing about books, especially fiction, she thinks: There is a wide range of approaches, and many can work.

“I’m not quite sure why people can get so aggressively defensive of their own aesthetic and not allow the other ones in.”

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