Brooklyn-based novelist Siri Hustvedt is best known as the author of the mega-bestselling What I Loved. This month she is in Australia (with husband Paul Auster) to promote her latest novel, The Sorrows of an American, *her first since she moved from cult success to major literary star.
What was the genesis of The Sorrows of an American?
Before my father died, I was thinking about writing a novel that in some way dealt with my father’s childhood in the Norwegian American immigrant community where he grew up during the Depression and with his experiences as a soldier during the Second World War. He was very ill at the end of his life, but entirely lucid, and I asked him if I could use passages from his memoir in the book. He said yes, and I did. The character of Lars Davidsen isn’t identical to my father, but I was looking for some emotional rather than literal truth in the depiction of the character. Most of the book was written after my father’s death, and I think its dominant themes circle the problem of how one generation affects the next, how fathers – present, absent, negligent, or kind – leave their traces in their children. We are all haunted by ghosts.
Your books are rich with secrets and puzzles for the reader. What is it that draws you to this as a theme in your writing?
I think life is a secret and a puzzle. Most of what happens to us is unconscious. This has now been established as a neuroscientific fact. There is much that we don’t know about ourselves and I think this fascinates me. Easy answers hold no interest for me, so when I write I am always on a search, always trying to articulate the nuances of how people relate to one another.
You used passages of your father’s memoir of his childhood and wartime experiences within this book. How important was this to you?
I could not have supplanted my father’s voice with my own. His narration of his own experiences is crucial to the feeling of the novel. He was an impoverished child of the Depression and a soldier who saw, heard, touched and felt what I have never seen, heard, touched or felt – combat. I would not have had the audacity to imagine war first-hand. My father’s words are crucial to the book as a whole.
Psychology and the inner workings of the mind play a big role in this book, as well as in What I Loved. Is this something that particularly fascinates you?
I have long been interested in psychology, psychoanalysis in particular. For this book, I did extensive research into contemporary psychiatry, pharmacology, and neuroscience. I have also been teaching a writing class to psychiatric inpatients every week at New York Hospital. The mind/brain is our most mysterious and crucial organ. Yes, I’m fascinated—one might even say obsessed by its workings.
Do you feel any pressure for this book after the success of What I Loved?
‘Success’ is something writers don’t control. It’s gratifying to be noticed, but the safest way to deal with both ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is to try to keep it at a distance and not allow it to affect one’s work. The good part is that once I’m deeply inside a novel, it takes over, and the last thing I’m thinking about is its reception. That fear comes later. I suspect this is true of most writers.
The politics of the Bush administration have clearly affected your work – was writing this book an easy way to communicate your frustrations?
Writing a novel is never an easy way to communicate political frustration. I can do that in interviews. The novel is set in the year 2003, the year of the American invasion of Iraq, and the discussions of that war can’t be separated from other traumas addressed in the book – Erik’s grandfather’s loss of his land during the Depression, Lars Davidsen’s recollections of the Asian theatre in the Second World War, Sonia’s memories of September 11, and a number of Erik’s patients who suffer personal or collective shocks, which leave them scarred.
Your language is at times so lyrical and beautiful. Do you think being a poet allowed you more freedom in your writing?
Although I always aspired to write novels, even as a very young person, I was unable to manage such a large, long form. I now feel lucky that I spent years reading and writing poems. The discipline required to master meter and rhyme and the closeness I felt to the music of poetry has obviously affected my prose. By the way, I enjoyed writing poems for two of my characters in Sorrows, Sonia and Mr. T. They aren’t poems I would write, but it was fun to be somebody else and invent their lyric works.
You’ve said that you and your husband include ‘winks at each other’ in your writing. Is the relationship between Max, a very famous writer and Inga, one of these winks?
The story between Inga and Max is far too important and complex to be a wink. Although I doubt I could have written about Max Blaustein if I hadn’t been married to a famous writer with a passionate following, his character is light years away from my even-tempered and slow to anger husband. The works I invented for Max, however, the film, Into the Blue, and the story, ‘The Coffin Papers’, were inspired by Paul’s artistic sensibility. I was very flattered when my husband said, ‘I’d love to make that movie!’