an interview with Charles Baxter      
Charles Baxter

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The Feast of Love opens with this quotation from Beckett's Molloy: "Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was but that I was, I forgot to be."

It's not something that can be conveyed to people easily but I think Beckett is describing, or the narrator Molloy, is describing the conditions under which not only do you forget who you are but, it's more profound, you forget being itself. It's as if you're going through your life not fully conscious, almost in a dream condition. I thought that was ideal for my opening move because that's what happens to Charlie. He wakes up not being sure of who he is and he's conscious of his emptiness and gradually his emptiness is filled by these stories that are told to him. The whole novel goes back to that idea of dreaming yourself into life and the Novalis quote at the end "Our life is no dream, but ought to be and may become so." I really wanted to bookend the novel.

The final quote works well with what is discovered in the novel about the nature of love, falling in love and being spellbound. Sometimes it is like the dream in Midsummer. You wake from it and wonder "Who was that?"

Right, "What came over me?"

And then it's gone, but it's a beautiful dream.

Each quote speaks to the ephemeral nature of love. It goes and we wonder who it was and what.

Various characters narrate the chapters and their voices are immediately recognizable.

When I started writing the book, each chapter began with a heading with each person's name. I decided I did not want to do that. If it was working, if the novel worked on its own terms, then every reader should be able to figure out who was speaking, fairly quickly, even when someone new comes in. I thought that these people were going to have to be identifiable for who they are from the way they talk.

Diana says everything with authority. She thinks with lawerly precision.

I heard from an early reader at a bookstore here that he was in love with Diana and I said, "R__, she would eat you alive."

No question.

Yeah, she's a handful.

But suddenly, she becomes aware of love and, with it, the image and the fact of her soul.

The scene in which Diana is making love to David and becomes aware, for the first time in her life, that she has a soul was one of the first passages that I wrote in the novel. It happens to be near the end of the book but that was one of the catalytic scenes for the whole novel: the idea that, under some circumstances, love and sexual relations can lead you off into this other direction and you can realize that your being is larger than you thought it was. And that's what happens. It's also how she knows that she does, in fact, absolutely love David which she's been denying all along.

You have mentioned that A Midsummer's Night Dream was a starting point for this novel. It's tempting to associate Chloé 's spiritedness with Puck, Diana as Titania, and Bradley as Bottom to Diana, he's certainly seems off-type for her.

Someone told me a story, a very naive guy who fell into the hands, really the arms, of a woman who had considerably more experience than him, told me she said to him at one point in their relationship, "You know, I've heard about guys like you but I've never actually seen one until now."

Bradley, in his happiest state of love says he won't talk about love because since he found it, he's not a story anymore: now his life is about ease.

The reference to A Midsummer's Night Dream allowed me to present a story in which people are, for the most part, paired off with the wrong people at the beginning and then paired off with the right ones at the end. It gave me a way of talking about the way that people are spellbound when they're first infatuated with someone else. I thought that if I set the story in the middle of the night, I could suggest that all of these stories were about transformation, about the way that we think about love when we are lying awake in the middle of the night and are wondering about the road that we might have taken but didn't or the road that we did take and where we ended up. I suppose in a way the book is also about compensation. It is losing one thing and gaining something else which is, very often, also a mistake. Relationships and love and what it is that you are willing to settle for as opposed to what you thought you were going to get and what you actually end up with. It is true that stories are really powered by unhappiness. It's harder to write a story in which all of the characters are happy all of the time. That would be intolerable. You couldn't bear it. Bradley ends up happy, but once he's there he doesn't want to talk about it in the way that you'd find it unbearable if a friend of yours came down to the bar and sat next to you and ordered a beer and said, "Hey, let me tell you about how great my life is."

Yes and being human, you would immediately start comparing it to your own life, and half-listening, get very upset.

Right. People can say that to you but they have to be long-term friends and you'd have to have suffered worse times with them if you are going to be able to stand stuff like that.

Bottom has become a fount of beauty.

Yes, and different people have suggested different kinds of correspondence and said to me, "Well, Chloé is Titania, isn't she?" and I've asked why and they said that because she said she was a goddess and was able to transform people. I had never thought of that. While I was working on the book, I had dropped the framework of A Midsummer's Night Dream. I didn't want to write a modern update of it, I wanted to write my own book. I suppose some of these suggestions still filter through me.

Soon after Chloé is almost raped, she recounts an evening from her high school days. She went to a costume party where she wore the guiding star of Venus on her forehead. She became Venus that night and laughed like an Olympian god at anyone who thought they could resist her romantic caprices.

Chloé doesn't want to be pitied by anyone. She doesn't think she is pitiful and piteous. She thinks she's powerful. She thinks that she is the biggest thing that came down the pike in a long time and she thinks the fact that she doesn't earn very much money is, more or less, irrelevant to the fact of her power and who am I to disagree?

How were you able to tap in to her voice?

You'll forgive me if I say I have no idea? I'm not going to go into any New Age-y thing about channeling. I was writing it and one day, about three years ago, I knew that Bradley had a waitress in his coffee shop and since I was going through the novel in the first person, I thought, "How did she talk?" I started Chapter 5 and this voice came into my head: "Me and Oscar, we have such good sex together we ought fix up some way to make some money out of this."

You really know how to start a chapter.

That's where she got started and every time I sat down to write one of her chapters, her voice came back. I've heard young men and women like that but it it's kind of a mystery...which ones come to life on page and which ones don't. She seems to.

There is sadness and humor in this novel, but most of all, the stories feel real. These people are drawn real. They may not be anyone I know but I can understand them; they feel alive.

It's wonderful to hear that because writers like me will work on a book like this for years and it is all in our heads. You never know whether what you are writing is going to seem like somebody's utter fantasy or whether it is going to seem real or not. After a while, I begin to get a sense that yes, this is a real account. I was hoping that people would laugh. There's sadness but I was hoping that the sadness, a fair amount of it, would be funny.

How long did you work on The Feast of Love?

I've been working on it for upwards of four or almost five years. Some years ago, my wife's cousin, who is a photographer, had taken a collection of photographs of roadside art, the kind of statuary that you see for sale on lawns in the Midwest. She had taken pictures of cement children and wanted me to accompany the text with an introduction and what I wrote ended up being the germ of a chapter in which Bradley and Diana go on their fatal honeymoon.

Diana is so intense and lives on drama. She expects them to get lost on their honeymoon hike. Bradley will not get lost. Other things will happen to him but not that. You know he's not going to have that kind of drama.

He is a character who underplays the worst things that happen to him. His stance--and I think a lot of guys are like this--is often to stand three or four feet, psychically, away from where he actually is and to observe himself and to observe you. It is not until near the end of the book that he actually coincides with himself. He seems to be living inside his own skin.

You have some stand out names in this book such as for the psychic: Mrs. Maggaroulian.

I spent some time on the names. I remember once when Elmore Leonard was giving a reading and someone asked him, "Where do you start?" and he said, "I start with the names. If I don't have the names, I can't go anywhere." When Chloé goes off to get her fortune told, I thought, "This isn't going work if she goes to someone named Smith or Johnson. She has to go to someone whose name is a bit exotic." There are a fair number of Armenian-Americans in Michigan--we are the state of Jack Kevorkian--so I'll give her an Armenian name.

Between you and me, the source of Mrs. Maggaroulian's name is a minor--so minor that he never appears on the screen--character in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. In the movie Lifeboat, the William Bendix character is worried about a guy named Al Maggaroulian and I just loved the name so I saved it, not the Al part but the Maggaroulian.

Are there other Hitchcock names in your novels?

Every novel has a few small jokes and in The Feast of Love there are a number of characters from Hitchcock movies: Sam Loomis, Mr. Vandamm. Sam Loomis is from Psycho; Vandamm is from North by Northwest. Maggaroulian is from Lifeboat. Sooner or later, someone is going to smoke me out on this.

You're telling me, and Bold Type has a large audience.

Well, that's okay.

There is a good amount of philosophy in this book, particularly from Harry, who favors Kierkegaard.

It's genuine. What Harry is worrying over is a philosophical problem presented by Kierkegaard in the Philosophical Fragments. Although the problem may not be exactly as I stated it, it's fairly close. What Kierkegaard says about love is also in the book. He's quite prolific on this subject for a man who never married. I didn't quote but I did try to be reasonably faithful to some of his ideas on the topic. The other material is about Wittgenstein.

Harry calls him the the Knight of Rules.

Yes, thank you, I'm glad you remembered. That is reasonably accurate, too. It is a book about love and I needed the head and I needed the body and I needed the soul and Harry is the head. He's the brains. It's not that he doesn't have a heart and soul, too, but he comes at it in the most abstract way through his philosophy. Chloé comes at it most instinctively.

Harry is interested in people. He visits the coffee shop and in a great scene, Chloé expects to pay a fee for having asked a philosopher to think about something.

Yes, you get paid to think and I need someone to do my thinking for me.

She takes a survey when something's on her mind.

And she thinks over what they have to say and if what they have to say agrees with what she thought anyway then she thinks they're right.

It's interesting to watch her talk herself into things. She transforms the voyeur into a benefactor who will, through the goodness of his heart, assist them in putting a down payment on an apartment.

Yes, poor Chloé. She gets herself into all kinds of situations because she is flat broke and she needs the money and thinks, "Oh well, what do I have to do? I have to have sex with Oscar? I've done that before and that's great." She gets blindsided by what it means to be watched. The Feast of Love starts quite light, the initial stories are not as dark as they get. There is a shadowing that comes over the book as it goes on. I think it ends up in the light again. I felt that I had to produce a darkening nature, even in Chloé's life.

There is great anguish in Harry's life. The phone calls from his son Aaron, in the middle of the night, are like ransom demands. When Chloé moves into his house at the end of the novel, I wondered if Aaron was going to come home with the spirit of Oscar inside him.

It's a strange thing that both Harry and Chloé are waiting for someone to return in the book. Maybe they'll get that person they're waiting for and maybe they won't. The reader has to decide and has to imagine the rest of the novel. I think that it is a good thing to leave the reader something to do at the end of the book. Not to imagine the thing so completely that there is nothing left to imagine.

interview by Catherine McWeeney

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