Excerpted from The Crossley Baby by Jacqueline Carey. Copyright © 2003 by Jacqueline Carey. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.
A CONVERSATION WITH JACQUELINE CAREY
DEIRDRE MCNAMER is the author of the novels Rima in the Weeds, One Sweet Quarrel, and My Russian, which is a Ballantine Reader’s Circle book. She lives in Missoula, Montana, where Jacqueline Carey lived for four years in the late nineties. The two have been friends for
Deirdre McNamer: I know I’m supposed to ask the questions and you’re supposed to do most of the talking, but I feel I must jump in at the outset and tell readers something about our longstanding
Jacqueline Carey: Jump away.
DM: For at least a dozen years now, Jacqueline (I call her “Jay”) Carey and I have spoken on the telephone for an hour or so at a set time each week. We refer to it as “meeting at the Phone Bar,”
although sometimes it is the Phone Cafe. Or the Juice Bar. Sometimes we’ve met at the Phone Bar when I’ve been in Montana and Jay has been living in Manhattan, Brooklyn or, most recently,
Montclair. We also met there when she lived in Missoula, four blocks from my house.
JC: Because neither of our homes had a jukebox.
DM: But you always complain about the jukebox!
JC: Not as much as I do about the noisy underage clientele on my end.
DM: Still, I thought we might conduct this conversation at the Phone Bar because we’re used to the place and tend to do a lot of our mutual mulling there. We’ll stick to the topic at hand. Invite
interested company. Ignore the distractions.
JC: Practice a certain restraint.
DM: Those sisters in The Crossley Baby. Let’s begin with them. Because Bridget is absent from the novel, except in retrospect, we find ourselves wondering most about the differences between careerist Jean and stay-at-home Sunny. Whom do you identify with more?
JC: I know this is going to sound cowardly, but I have to say I identify with both. When I was writing from Jean’s point of view, for instance, I wasn’t secretly rooting for Sunny. I was thinking, “That Sunny, she thinks she can get away with anything.” To keep myself true to each voice, I would work on a number of Sunny’s chapters all in a row and then a number of Jean’s. When I originally conceived of the book, I identified a bit more with Sunny. That is, I thought of arguments for Jean’s side without really feeling them. But once I actually started to write, I found the Jean chapters more fun, and my loyalties became entangled on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. I always
found it easy to look through one sister’s eyes and see what was wrong with the other.
DM: Which sister do your friends identify with?
JC: I was surprised at the great variety in my friends’ responses. Some identify with Sunny because she is, at least on the surface, nicer, more pliant, more generous. Others recoil from her because of her passivity or the way she uses men. Some career women identify with Jean somewhat ruefully, recognizing her greater anxiety or her self-justifications. Others, just as
jobs, dismiss her for her single-mindedness and her ambition, saying, “I just don’t get people like that.” I’ve been thrilled at how different the reactions are. They are just as complex as I hope the book is. Even better has been how very emotional the responses have been. People really care about these characters and have vociferous opinions about them. But I don’t think I know who you identify with.
DM: Neither. For me, it’s baby Jade, all the way. She’s got all her options before her, and in a certain deluded state of mind, I like to think I do, too. But I did, I admit, identify very much with Sunny at one point. She is watching her husband, Leon, being interviewed on television about his real estate projects in Harlem, and she feels, at that moment, that she has the best of two worlds: access to the realm of consequence and physical proximity to her child. It seems to me that many of us, parents or not, want a realm of consequence and some sort of pivotal, warm relationship with another human, pure and simple. Do you think it’s possible that this is, finally, what Jean wants, too?
JC: Jean wants more than access to a realm of consequence; she wants to tell people what to do there. But I do think women on different sides of this question might be forgetting how much they have in common. And readers can lose sight of the ways in which Jean and Sunny are, finally, like each other. Both sisters do what they have to do with great energy and enthusiasm. They don’t whine; they just keep going; they’re both great company. Their marriages are very different, but they’re basically successful. And the sisters get more like each other in other ways, for better or worse, as the book progresses.
DM: Where did you get the idea for this novel?
JC: I’ve long been fascinated with the bitter feuds that split some Irish and Irish-American families apart—feuds that often last decades. My own father, for instance, did not meet one of his uncles
until the older man was close to eighty, even though they’d both lived near Boston for a good part of their lives. It was hard for me to imagine what could cause such unrelenting enmity. Then I had my first child, and overnight questions of time and money, career and family responsibilities became unbearably fraught. At last there was something I could imagine fighting over—fiercely and at length.
DM: I think rage can be wonderful fuel for a novel. And I’ll step out on a limb and say rage of a sort might be what makes The Crossley Baby feel . . . well, the only word I have for it is . . . large. Are you enraged about anything?
JC: You name it. The gap between the fabulously rich and the rest of us is mind-boggling. The only thing worse is how most Americans accept it. But, really, I couldn’t possibly list all the things I’m
enraged about. A peaceful, contented person wouldn’t write fiction. It’s simply too hard. I aimed for a large scale in the book by including characters from all sorts of different economic classes and ethnicities—perfect mouthpieces for rage, I guess, as long as you can see everyone’s point of view. The conflict comes built in.
DM: The tone you take in talking about big topics like race, class, suffering, and social inequality is witty, lithe, even disarming. Yet you never sound dismissive. How do you manage that? Are there other writers you admire who do something similar? Or who have had some other kind of influence on you?
JC: Big topics are big only because they are important to lots of individuals. Once you get to the personal level you can see all the funny little quirks behind these abstract ideas. Philip Roth is hilarious about social questions. It may be hard to see his influence in my novels, but I admire him a great deal, and certain of his scenes often come to mind as I work. I love the Zuckerman trilogy.
The two authors who probably had the greatest effect on The Crossley Baby, though, were Leo Tolstoy and Agatha Christie. I reread both obsessively while I was writing the novel. They may
seem absurdly different, but I very consciously imitated certain things they have in common. Chapters are usually scenes with individual shapes and payoffs. Every moment is grounded in the
physical world. If a character is getting key information from a book, say, you’re going to hear where she’s sitting as she’s reading it. And every sentence has to have at least two reasons to be included.On the simplest level, in an Agatha Christie, that means that everything has both a narrative purpose and a role as a potential clue.
DM: Do you try, consciously, to create characters who work against stereotypes? I mean, if stereotypes are both boring and inaccurate, as they surely are, then a writer isn’t going to want to go near one, right?
JC: Going against stereotype in a simple-minded way is usually laughable. Take the bestselling novel about a female boss who sexually harrasses her male assistant. That to me sounds more like a male fantasy than anything that would happen in real life. Okay, maybe it happened once in the history of the world. But some things are uninteresting precisely because of their singularity.
On the other hand, no one is merely a sum of probabilities. A person who looks like a certain type can display amazing twists. For instance, the only person I knew who came to the defense of
O.J. Simpson was white. He’d played football in college, and obviously that meant far more in this case than the color of his skin. I try to make my characters both believable and surprising. According to the polls, stay-at-home mothers tend to be more conservative than career women. Tilting the lens slightly made more sense to me, though. It seemed to open things up a bit. I could
have gone further and had both Leon and Geoffrey quit their jobs to devote themselves to the raising of children. But I’m not interested in fantasy. Jean especially makes all sorts of pronouncements about types of people only to acknowledge some kicker in the end. Like when
she’s sitting in the bar, hiding from her prospective in-laws, and she thinks, Jews don’t drink alcohol—except for the ones she knew.
DM: Although the research in your novel is not intrusive, I know you did plenty of it. You write so clearly and engagingly about the nuances of real estate transactions, for instance. How did you get so interested in, and knowledgeable about, that whole realm? And how did you manage to make me and a whole slew of others interested, too?
JC: I read all sorts of stuff about real estate, executive recruiters, laparoscopic surgery, and adoption procedures. But in some ways interviews were even more important. It was from them that I got a real feeling for the emotions behind the facts. I don’t think it’s too hard to interest readers in real estate, say, as long as you stick to the human ramifications. What defines you more than your home? A house or a co-op is most people’s biggest investment. Leon just works on a bigger scale. When I was trying to decide on a way that a character could lose a lot of money, I remembered reading in the New York Times about a woman who had transformed a section of East Harlem real estate in the eighties. I was living in Montana then, so I flew to New York to see her, and she kindly spent two mornings with me, reminiscing. She was even more extraordinary than the articles had led me to believe: brave, persistent, far-sighted, and
generous-spirited. I was surprised at how much time she and lots of other people spent talking to me. After doing the research, you have to live with it a while, so that it sort of gets under your skin. You have to know lots more than you use on the page. Readers assume that you can write most convincingly about something you’ve experienced yourself, and there is some truth to that. But research that you’ve carried around in the back of your brain, half-forgotten, as if it were simply
another part of your life, works just as well. Better, since it can break you out of your little world.
DM: Another sort of research is a lot less formal and basically involves a sort of writerly observation of the circumstances of your own life. You have two children, a girl and a boy. And you are a writer married to a writer. How have those conditions influenced the way you write, and what you find yourself wanting to write about?
JC: My career and my children have become entwined in my mind because I had my first success as a writer not long before I had my first child. In fact, I sold my first book when I was pregnant and
so sick I was afraid to leave the house. It’s easy to see children as a threat to your work, because of the demands on time and attention. But children can shake you out of yourself, make you think
more deeply and widely. In that way they can be a boost. My experience has been similar, oddly, to both Jean’s and Sunny’s. Statistically speaking, I am a mother who works parttime, but it is hard to think of something as all-consuming as writing as “part-time.” I brood as much over my work as Jean does, if not more so. And since I’m usually at home and available, at least to some extent, I can be as aware of my kids as Sunny is. Well, almost as much. I draw the line sooner than she does. There are too many parents prowling the halls of the schools these days, anyway. But here I am talking only about my own life. I purposely kept both my children out of The Crossley Baby. They didn’t get their choice of mothers, so I give them a free pass. I figure anyone else
is fair game, though. I’m amazed, really, at the stuff people tell me, people who are perfectly well aware of how freely I borrow from others. My husband (Ian Frazier) has influenced my work mostly as an example. I can see firsthand how incredibly hard a successful writer must work and how courageous and honest he must be.
DM: Would you have written this book if you were still living in Montana?
JC: Don’t forget that I was living across the park from you when I started the book. My husband says I do my best work in Montana, but that’s probably because he’s always dragging me out
there. It’s true that it’s easier to see what makes a place itself when you’re at a distance from it. By that logic, there’s no better place to write about New York City than Montana, which always
manages to feel farther away than anywhere else. But I’m glad I also wrote part of the book back east, because there are always details that you forget when you’re not living with them.
DM: Why is Jean a practicing Catholic?
JC: Well, why not? She grew up Catholic. She always defined herself as a tough Irish-American girl. She’s very tribal. Catholicism is a tough religion, so she would admire it and feel at home with it. She feels its heft. She may look with a skeptical eye upon certain aspects of the mass and her fellow worshippers, but she’s no rebel. She likes the church’s rules, even if she doesn’t follow them all. You may remember that during the mass she dismisses Sunny’s criticism of the church as immature and literal-minded. Jean may be more open to the central mystery of Catholicism than many. Temperamentally she’s not suited to any other sort of Christianity, as she’s much more likely to find a spiritual dimension through ritual—through historically developed structure—than through personal enlightenment or any line of reasoning. For people like you and me and Jean, it’s Catholicism or nothing. And Jean couldn’t countenance nothing. But she’s Jean, so anything she’d say about the subject would be flip.
DM: Do you think mothers should work outside the home?
JC: As much as they can. But the important thing to remember is that most women do not have the choice. For economic reasons they have to work.
DM: I happen to know that you clip stories from the newspaper that don’t make it to the front page. What are you clipping now?
JC: My new book is about the wife of a white-collar criminal, and you couldn’t pick a better time to find relevant articles. Lately I’ve been taken with the monetary scale of the various frauds—who,
in which position, got what. Some of the numbers are incomprehensible, they are so high. I also always clip articles on outrages that seem to be particularly characteristic of a time. Recently it was the conviction of a mother in Meriden, Connecticut, whose son hanged himself in his closet. Although he had been bullied at school, the jury decided the hanging was her fault because her house was such a mess. This was a woman who had to work sixty hours a week, mostly at
WalMart, to support her family.
DM: How much money is enough?
JC: In my new novel, a young corporate striver says to his boss’s wife, “You have enough money so that you can tell everyone to go to hell.” The boss’s wife laughs and says, “I wonder how
much that would be.”
DM: There are moments of piercing tenderness in The Crossley Baby, and they are often attached to the most ordinary physical things. Just one example: Sunny, lying in utter contentment next to Leon, listens to the radiator “snuffing and snorting and stinking happily of burning dust.” Are you trying to suggest that our best moments may have nothing to do with what we want?
JC: I think we are all very lucky that they do not. Sunny is not exactly lying in utter contentment at that point, as her life is falling apart around her. But she does have a gift for appreciating the pleasure to be found in the stink of burning dust that I for one envy. It brings to mind Brecht’s definition of happiness: “comfortable shoes.”
DM: Comfortable shoes—and a session at the Phone Bar.
From the Trade Paperback edition.