Excerpted from The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories by Valerie Martin. Copyright © 2006 by Valerie Martin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
An Interview with Valerie Martin
Q: Did one of the pieces in THE UNFINISHED NOVEL AND OTHER STORIES inspire the rest? Were they all written with the collection in mind?
A: The last story in the collection, “The Change” was written first. This was in Rome, about ten years ago. I had nothing thematic in mind, beyond amusement at the idea that menopause was called “The Change” in some books. My own experience of that condition made me think this wasn’t entirely an exaggeration. It was an accident that my character was an artist, but as soon as I understood that she was, the thematic possibilities got richer and I understood that the story was really about art, about what it allows and what it requires. I enjoyed writing the story and some time after began the second one, “His Blue Period.” After that one was done, I consciously decided to spend some time writing other stories about art and artists. These will be cautionary tales, I thought, about how art ruins your life and saves your life.
Q: Several of these stories feature tragic, unnatural deaths. Was that something you set out to explore in this collection?
A: Not at all. These are long stories which often cover decades in the lives of the characters. Some of them died, as they will, in the course of things.
Q: All the pieces in this collection are full of details that suggest a wealth of knowledge of artists and the arts. Do you have experience with drama and the visual arts, or a particular interest in them? How much research did you do for these pieces?
A: I’ve always been drawn to the visual arts, though I have no talent for drawing, no sense of color or design, and composition is a mystery to me. What fascinates me is how the ability to draw is a gift some have and others cannot get no matter what they do. People who have this ability generally don’t value it particularly; never having not had it, they don’t think about it.
This is true in all the arts, music being a particularly good example: the gift often shows itself very early and just will not be denied. Those who love art but have no gift for it often suffer: those who have a gift have no pity on those who don’t. Envy, bitterness, rancor, and self-hatred can be the result.
I did some research for these stories, but not much. Over the years I’ve tinkered enough with paint, written bad plays, met actors, painters, dancers, lots of poets. Being a writer, the one gift I do have is an eye for detail and an ear for the telling twist of fate.
Q: Is there an overall structure to the collection, or a reason for the order of the pieces?
A: I put the stories in the order they are in after they were all done. I wanted “The Unfinished Novel” in the center because it is the longest. It was the last one I wrote. I tried to rotate the professions a bit, as well as the points of view. I knew I wanted “The Change” to be last because in that story the artist literally flies out the window. It seemed a good way to end the collection.
Q: Did you have models in mind for the various works of art in your stories, or are Anspach’s paintings, Sandra and Carter’s production of “Hamlet” and Rita’s unfinished novel pieces that exist only in your own words?
A: Anspach’s paintings and those of his friend John are loosely based on paintings I saw in shows when I was in graduate school. I knew that painters had a kind of competitive thing about who was representational and who wasn’t, and who had a lot of technical expertise and who was just throwing the paint at the canvas. They still do, I gather, when they use paint at all. The production of “Hamlet” and Rita’s novel came entirely out of my own head. I did see a student production of “Hamlet” many years ago, in which the lead was clearly the envy of his fellow actors. Everywhere I go I meet people who have novels they haven’t finished. I recall a conversation with a painter who told me that when his uncle died in Wisconsin his children found about twenty boxes of a novel he had been writing in secret. His heirs threw it away.
Q: How did you decide on the title “The Unfinished Novel” for the novella and for the collection?
A: The novella was the last story I wrote and I was clear that the title would be “The Unfinished Novel” before I wrote the first word. I love stories about manuscripts that get lost or show up at inappropriate times or places after their authors are dead, putting the burden of a lifetime of work on the living. The story of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces is a good example. I once sat in a courtroom while the fate of his first novel Neon Bible–which he wrote when he was sixteen or seventeen–was decided. Once I’d written that story I thought the title would do for the whole collection. For a while I wanted it to stand alone, but then the idea of the novel unfinished and other stories presumably finished struck me as having just the right touch of irony.
Q: Do you think creative ambition is always personally destructive?
A: Let’s say it’s a mixed blessing. I can’t imagine not wanting to make up stories and I’ve been fortunate enough to be allowed to do it. I consider myself to be one of those saved by art; as the years go by I find myself continually excited and engaged by the possibilities and challenges of my profession. I’m never bored. But I’ve seen the demon of ambition bring many a fine talent to ruin. The self-destructive artist is a trope, and rather a silly one in my view, but creativity pours ultimately out of the self and is, therefore, draining.
Q: Is Meyer Anspach’s route to success indicative of how you think the art world works today, and if so, are you equally skeptical of the other creative industries?
A: The art world works, to some extent, the way the real world works, and it often comes right down to who you know. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about this, in fact, it’s bound to happen. But it can feel very unfair. One likes to think good work will find an audience sooner or later (usually later), but what is stunning is how often really bad work is successful. Whose fault is that? I’d prefer not to comment.
1. “His Blue Period”
• Anspach is ruthlessly unsentimental about his career, about the business of art, and, most crushingly, about his mistress Maria. Does he ever feel genuine passion for anything? How does his attitude contrast with John’s? What might Martin be implying about the relationship between feeling and artistry, and between artistry and success?
• What keeps John from expressing his love for Maria? Is Anspach right when he implies that he bears some responsibility for her suicide? How much are we supposed to believe John’s claims about his feelings and motives, and what subtle means does the author use to undermine them?
• At the end of the story John’s wife, having told him that Maria was in love with him, exasperatedly asks, “How could you not have known that?” [p. 27]. To what extent is this a story about not knowing, and how does the theme of not knowing–of willed ignorance–occur elsewhere in it?
2. “The Bower”
• Early on we learn that Carter Sorensen is an actor of genius. What does this genius consist of, and what is its effect on Sandra? On other characters? What is the relationship between the young man’s preternatural talent and his otherwise rather bland personality?
• After Carter starts seeing a young freshman, Sandra thinks, “He would be successful. . . . He had already shown a survivor’s instinct by choosing only totally inappropriate women who could easily be left behind” [p. 51]. Does this turn out to be true? Are we meant to believe that Carter’s behavior is calculated–that he acts offstage as well as on? Or does Carter’s kind of acting have nothing to do with dissembling?
• Carter’s career comes to a premature end because of a bizarre accident that takes the life of his future sister-in-law. Is this accident foreshadowed earlier in the story? Think in particular of the way Sandra cuts her leg before she and her student become lovers, and of the remark of the onlooker who sees his effect on the actress playing Gertrude: “He’s killing her” [p. 31]. What is the significance of the fact that Carter and Sandra meet during a production of Hamlet? What is the nature of the part she envisions waiting for him [p. 62]?
• Why is the narrator drawn to Philip, and how does this attraction fit into her general expectations of life? Is she deluded about what Philip is really like, or does she already sense his desperation and impending failure? What about failure might be attractive to her?
• “You should never fake it,” Philip cautions the narrator. “If you can’t be authentic doing whatever you’re doing, you should do something else” [p. 76]. How do we reconcile this with the fact that Philip is making his (indifferent) living painting portraits of Beethoven, whose face he likes because “It’s easy to draw” [p. 75]? How do we reconcile this with the fact that he’s still infatuated with Ingrid, an unabashedly commercial painter? Why does Martin, or her narrator, describe Ingrid in such precise detail while leaving Philip a visual blank?
4. “The Unfinished Novel”
• Maxwell makes a great deal of how ugly Rita has become since he last saw her. What is the effect of this? Are his descriptions marked by pity, or by gloating? Are we meant to see Rita’s physical decay as a corollary to her moral ruin? How might this story be different if she were still beautiful?
• In their college writing workshop, Rita once justified Maxwell’s shallow portrayals of women on grounds that “It mirrors forth the myopia of the narrator” [p. 101]. How does this observation resonate through the story? In what ways is Maxwell himself a myopic narrator? Which of his statements and observations may be untrustworthy?
• Rita tries to enlist Maxwell in a deal involving some ostensibly priceless Zuni pottery, which she claims has been entrusted to her by the tribe. Does Maxwell believe her? Ought the reader? In what ways is the pottery like Rita’s legendary manuscript?
• How do you feel about what Maxwell ultimately does with Rita’s novel? Regardless of any obligation he might have to carry out her last wishes, is he betraying a writer’s responsibility to his art? Do you think the author believes that such a responsibility exists?
5. “The Open Door”
• Discuss the significance of Edith’s exchange with an Italian reader concerning the English word choke, meaning the matted, inedible part of an artichoke. Edith’s translator has misrendered the word as cuore, or “heart,” and Edith, clarifying, cites the English homonym “choke,” meaning to strangle. In what ways do both the heart and strangulation–not to mention a tough, indigestible residue–figure in this story?
• Although Edith is the more successful partner, Isabel has the advantages of youth and sexual attractiveness. Which of them has the greater power in their relationship, and how does their balance of power shift during the course of the story? Are you left feeling that they will stay together? Is Edith dismissing Isabel’s proposition that they stay in Italy because she knows she could never function there, or does she do so simply out of fear, especially the fear that she would now be dependent on her lover?
6. “The Change”
• Are Gina’s symptoms–“sleep disturbances, hot flashes, irritability, weight gain, loss of libido” [p. 187]–simply those of menopause, as Evan thinks, or is she undergoing a deeper transformation? What other misperceptions may he have about her? Evan’s chief unhappiness seems to be that his wife has become strange to him, but doesn’t this mirror the estrangement and defamiliarization wrought by the work of art–for example, the vertigo he feels upon viewing her latest print?
• How literally are we meant to take the story’s ending? How is it foreshadowed? Judging from Evan’s feelings, do you feel that Gina will come back or that her transformation is now complete? Is Evan too limited–as an artist, as a human being–to bring her back or follow her?
7. For discussion of THE UNFINISHED NOVEL
• Many of these stories concern relationships between uninhibited, sexually rapacious geniuses (Anspach in “His Blue Period,” Carter in “The Bower,” Rita in the title story) and their more scrupulous (or repressed) friends, lovers, or rivals, who also happen to be less gifted. Does Martin always equate genius with ruthlessness and predation? Is the subliminal message of these stories that nice artists finish last? Why do you think the author always portrays these brilliant bastards at secondhand, through the eyes of a fascinated or repelled observer?
• In her acclaimed previous novel, Property, Martin asks the reader to identify with Manon, a character who “behaves as though she has no heart at all” [Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 2003]. While none of the characters in The Unfinished Novel is quite heartless, some of them are severely flawed. How does the author manage to keep the reader engaged? Does she herself appear to judge her characters, and if so, for what failings?
• Many of these stories feature an iconic animal–for example, John’s rabbits or Maxwell’s beloved cat, Joey. What role do these animals play? Does their appearance signal that Martin is not entirely a realistic writer? Might these stories be described as fables?
• Can The Unfinished Novel be read as a primer on artistic creation? On the basis of these stories, what generalizations can we make about where art comes from, what it requires from its makers, or what makes it good or bad?