Q. Your last book, Bury Me Standing, was an acclaimed nonfiction book about Gypsies. What made you want to delve into the world of fiction writing?
A. Like all writers, I write in order to explore and understand something that bothers me, or intrigues me, and like many writers, I think of my writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction or journalism as one continuous, if continuously interrupted, investigation. I may be making a suit in nonfiction and an evening gown in fiction, and so naturally I will be cutting from a different cloth. But non-fiction involves most of the same writerly and imaginative skills as a novel, just as in fiction you also have to do justice to the truth of things. But of course you do have wonderful freedom in fiction, and more of the work is done while you sleep, by your subconscious. Importantly, whatever the form, I do think it has one voice - mine.
Q. ATTACHMENT takes us into the life of a health columnist, Jean Hubbard, enjoying a sabbatical on a remote tropical island with her husband Mark, when her life is suddenly thrown off kilter by the arrival of a love letter addressed to Mark. Where did the initial idea for ATTACHMENT come from?
A. The arrival of a letter – the violent precipitant: something that comes at us from the outside and forces us to look within – is maybe not that unusual a fictional device. What is unusual is that Jean, the main character, chooses to answer the letter, as if she were her husband. Trying to understand him, and the affair he is apparently having, she puts herself ‘in his shoes.’ And takes a walk down a sometimes treacherous path. In this novel, I wanted to explore the idea of personal identity, which of course evolves over time at different speeds and in unexpected directions, particularly within the context of marriage. Identity: we hear a lot about its theft. Can it be borrowed? Tried on? Can we be cross-dressers of identity – this least negotiable yet surprisingly hazy department of the self? How well do you really know the people you love? I can’t tell you how this question first arrived in my mind, but I had a nagging need to answer it . . . or to try to. How far does empathy take us, even with the best faith in the world? In the course of a long marriage, where exactly does the self end and the other begin? Probably like any person in a longlived relationship, I was curious to explore the murky penumbra of the shared self, and to think about what it means to each participant: how similar is our experience of common events? How
does the difference shape each of us?
What, in trying to learn about the person closest to you, might you discover about yourself? Because along with personal identity come questions of personal responsibility, which I also think a lot about in this book. Who is responsible for my happiness? Jean, looking for something else, comes face to face with this conundrum. Thinking about how unlikely it is that we – any of us – should develop with anything like synchronicity, the question of difference is increasingly pressing, even if love itself is not in question.
And with difference, the notion of trust – which is not a passive thing. I love Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion – which I saw again recently. I was surprised to find it echoed so closely both the atmosphere and themes of my novel.
Q. ATTACHMENT is divided into sections and set in three places: New York, London and the
imaginary island of St Jacques. What did you have in mind by structuring the novel this way?
A. I didn’t schematically set out to convey any particular symbolism via location (novels are written more mysteriously – to the writer – and more helplessly than readers may imagine), but one place, New York, is the childhood home of Jean, my protagonist; London is her marital or adult home, and St Jacques is ‘other,’ and therefore a place where she is not bound by the habits and expectations of the other two. I have noticed a kind of cold-eyed clarity when I travel, and again when I return home: I think we all get that in varying degrees. Very often, dislocation affords insight. You know how cars are called things like Explorer, Quest, Escapade, Discovery…? We are restless beings, in life and in fiction, which is all about life. Books often involve travel and then the strenuous effort to get home, whether from Narnia or Wonderland or Oz and, in a way, our heroine in ATTACHMENT, Jean, is also trying to get home. Although she doesn’t always know it, in her search for truth she journeys both to her childhood place and to her adopted London, where she has made her own family. The search for our lost Eden – and perhaps our future or alternative Eden–is certainly a theme in this book. St Jacques, an imaginary tropical island, offers a good sample of Eden, even a classic one, but you can speculate that the past, and the time before all kinds of knowledge, is Paradise. From birth to adulthood, or maturity, our lives can seem like a journey away from Eden and the desire to get back there; naturally fiction likes to follow this trajectory.
Q. The reality of aging is another theme in ATTACHMENT. Do you think the fear of aging is primarily a female anxiety?
A. To the extent that youthful beauty is so wildly prized in women, the inevitable waning may be more obviously painful and cruel for women, especially for beautiful ones, but I think everybody feels anxiety about aging. It may be the thing that most separates us from other animals, who don’t suffer anxiety about aging – a bare-bones form of consciousness. Not merely fretting over diminishing allure – which men also suffer, of course they do–but, more profoundly, and universally, over the gradual approach of death. I think death awareness is an experience, even a sensation, not unlike homesickness. Paradoxically: because one is dread while the other involves us in longing and nostalgia. These are very distracting, and sometimes distressing emotions. Which may be why we especially treasure the times and kinds of experience in which we are fully and necessarily in the heroic present during sex, for example, or when giving birth.
Q. Towards the conclusion of ATTACHMENT, one of the characters, in describing Jean, uses the phrase ‘your long vacation from reality.’ Much of the book, in fact, seems to involve Jean in a state of unreality.
A. Jean’s comfortable life has been thrown into disarray, as we have seen. Pretty much everything she takes for granted is suddenly called into question – her marriage, her health, her attractiveness, the value of the work she does, even the continuing existence of her beloved father. ‘Reality’ has become a slippery concept. Perhaps there are moments, within such episodes of unsolicited chaos, in which we have a special access to clarity. We have a glimmer of the way things really are. Jean finds herself in such a moment, unwillingly, and the rest of the time she is making sense of what that information tells her she must do.
Q. Your protagonist, Jean, is an American writer from New York living primarily in London, married to a British man. You are an American writer from New York living in London, married to a British man. Parallels are bound to be drawn. How similar (or different) are you to Jean?
A. You could go further along the road of spotting parallels. Like Jean, I went to Oxford and, like Jean, I had an older brother who died young. Jean has a daughter. I’ve got daughters. Jean and I both worked for a summer as a paralegal and when we were young teenagers we bought some pot in Washington Square. But these are details, plundered episodes. In bigger terms, Jean isn’t like me. Crucially, she is very innocent. She is, you might say, underexposed. Jean’s background is all-American, and fairly conventional- her parents are a lawyer and an event planner. My father was Uruguayan; he was a sculptor. My mother is a painter. Naturally, there are things from my own experience that I’m interested in drawing on and exploring: I am not a science-fiction writer. But neither is fiction a branch of journalism. I am not reporting from my life. I think it was Philip Roth who said “You don’t write about what happened. You write about what didn’t happen. Writers are sent down here precisely to imagine the ‘what ifs’.”
Q. You’re married to the British writer Martin Amis. What is it like to be part of a writing couple?
A. It’s very convenient. Probably only another writer could understand, and cope with, the utter distractedness of a person deeply at work on a book. There are other benefits, such as the shared joys of discussing punctuation over dinner. I do not mean this facetiously. Perhaps like pairs of lawyers or chefs, we enjoy a certain amount of shoptalk -- of which I’d say I am the prime beneficiary. I feel very lucky to share the building with one of our finest living prose writers. Writing is a lonely profession, and this suits us, obviously; but there is comfort to be had from a shared solitude. We don’t read one another’s pages at the end of the day, but we are alone in this together.
Q. What’s next for you as a writer?
A. Another novel. Although – from what I know about it so far – it may be as different from this one as a work of non-fiction could be. Readers tend to have this one basic misconception about writing: that people sit down and choose what they’re going to write about. It isn’t quite like that. While you can decide what sort of journalism you’re going to take on, with books, it’s more likely that they’re going to choose you – even when you’re very busy doing something else, or earnestly attempting to write another kind of book entirely. I was at work on a different novel when ATTACHMENT came along and cut in line. Of course some people only write poetry, or financial thrillers, or fishing books. But mainstream, or non-genre, writers are sort of up for grabs -- even when it comes to finding the best form for the subject, there’s a full rainbow of possibilities between factual reporting at one end and pure fiction down at the other.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What do you think ultimately compels Jean to correspond with Giovana, pretending to be her husband? A sense of propriety? A perverse curiosity? How would you describe her complex motivations? What would you do if you were in her position?
2. In what ways is this a novel about the differences between men and women? How does the author challenge (and/or maintain) standard notions of such a divide? Would you describe this as feminist literature?
3. What kind of role do you think Jean's family played in her falling in love with Mark? How did her brother's death, her mother's critical eye, and her father's stoic detachment lead her to Mark? How does the author probe this question?
4. How do you think Jean's “Americanism” informs her outlook? In what ways does the novel explore the differences between American and British women (and men)?
5. Does Mark remain a mystery at the end of the novel? A mystery both to Jean and to the reader? What do you think the author's intentions were in this respect?
6. How does the author use humor in Attachment? Discuss specific examples.
7. Where does Jean seem happiest—in St. Jacques, London, or New York? Or does she only seem happy in her memories of these places? Discuss the role of memory in defining happiness.
8. Why do you think the author chose to invent an island (St. Jacques) when the other settings are recognizable—e.g., New York and London?
9. “Paradise Lost” is a theme in the book. Is St. Jacques a kind of Eden, and, if so, what role does it play? What other forms of lost Eden may be detected in the novel and what is the author getting at with this investigation?
10. Is “Eden” always a place, or can it be a time of one's life—the past, for example—or childhood? How does Jean's accession to knowledge alter her sense of herself and her world?
11. Where does Jean belong? And what is her sense of belonging? Is the idea of “home” important in the novel? How does that idea change over time?
12. Jean seems restless. How does nostalgia affect Jean, and each of us, as we age?
13. Attachment has an adultery plot. But is the book primarily about betrayal? To what extent does the protagonist's shifting feeling about aging influence her sense of her own life story?
14. Why does Jean wait so long to confront Mark? Is it because of fear? Because of love? Do her decisions in this respect make her old-fashioned? If so, how is she also a modern woman?
15. On page 128, the author uses the seasons as a metaphor for one's life, suggesting that there is a natural progression to it. Do you agree? How does Attachment challenge this notion? How does it support it?
16. Two themes in Attachment are competition and talent. How do the different characters manage these behaviors? Which of them are more or less adept at it? How do these themes effect the action of the novel? And Jean's character as a lawyer turned writer?
17. How does the author use irony to create suspense in Attachment? Discuss, for example, Dan and Sophie's roles in the novel.
18. Attachment is a novel about husbands and wives—but it is also a story about families. Discuss the ways in which the author depicts the modern family. Do some relationships feel more realistic than others? Which ones do you wish the author had explored further?
19. To some extent—the author seems to suggest—we live our lives in our heads. Discuss the way Jean's imagination, her sense of ideals, her morality, and her fear are manifested in her mistakes. Is Jean's rich inner life ultimately a burden? In what ways it is also an asset in this story?
20. Toward the end of the novel, Jean pleads that she doesn't know who her friends are yet. What role does friendship play in Attachment—and, more generally, in our adult lives?
21. Regret is a powerful and often shifting force in Attachment. How does regret affect the actions of the characters in this novel? For example, what does Jean and Larry's relationship tell us about the sacrifices we make in life, and how we manage regretting them?
22. Is Mark a sympathetic character? In what ways would this novel be different if the narration were shared between Jean and Mark? That is, if we had access to Mark's voice, without Jean's filter? Would Mark have been a more sympathetic character?
23. If you could add an epilogue to Attachment, what do you think it would be about? Where do you think Jean's world—her marriage, her family, her career—is headed? Do you think the novel ends satisfactorily?
24. The author seems to relish her ability to shock readers. What would you say was the most shocking revelation in Attachment? Discuss how it changed your relationship with the characters and with the book.