Excerpted from The Outside of August by Joanna Hershon. Copyright © 2003 by Joanna Hershon. 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 Joanna Hershon
HELEN SCHULMAN is the author of the novels Out of Time, The Revisionist, and P.S., which is soon to be a major motion picture. She has published a collection of short stories entitled Not a Free Show and coedited the anthology Wanting a Child with Jill Bialosky. She the acting fiction coordinator of the MFA Program at The New School in New York City.
Helen Schulman: Can you remember the moment when you knew that The Outside of August was the novel you wanted to write? Was there an inciting incident or image
that got you started?
Joanna Hershon: I began visiting a town at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula in 1997, while I was working on my first novel, Swimming. Very early on during my time there, I knew that’s where my next book would be set. There are endless ways of looking at the town, but I was immediately
interested in the idea of how one might “end up” there— that feeling of getting lost in an unfamiliar place, getting in over your head.
HS: The beating heart of this haunting, compelling newnovel of yours is the quasi-romantic attachment Alice has to her elusive brother, August. Although they both have lovers of their own, although their parents’ personal mishegoss is enough to propel both siblings into a lifetime of therapy, it is August’s hold on Alice that both drives her and holds her captive. How did you come to write about this charged and undeniable attachment?
JH: Although Alice is profoundly attached to August and in perpetual pursuit of her brother, I came to feel, while writing this book, that Alice actually treats her brother as a conduit of sorts. She aligns her mother and brother so strongly that she has the misguided notion that if she can understand August, she will understand her mother as well. Charlotte’s death obviously magnifies both Alice’s enormous needs and August’s desire to escape, and, for Alice, the heart of the
matter is ultimately realizing there is no truly catching upwith Gus because there is no grasping anyone’s interior world—especially if the person in question is harboring such deeply buried secrets and illusions.
HS: The novel is constructed in three parts. Did it come to you this way initially or did you discover the need to cordon off the various narrative movements as you went along? I guess what I’m asking you is, How did you come to build this story in this particular manner?
JH: While writing this book, the question of structure was a huge one. I wrote a first draft of this novel in the first person from Alice’s perspective, and the story began with her packing for a trip with her brother to Baja. It was a linear narrative that spanned only a couple of months and the whole story essentially took place in Baja. I .nished the draft in about a year and it was simply not working. After much hand-wringing, I decided I still liked the characters, and so I shot them back in time about twenty-.ve years and started writing. A very different voice emerged and I realized I had a Part One. Part Two was what I had been working toward, so I moved ahead with the journey to Baja, which had now taken on a wholly different meaning. And then Part Three was very intuitive. I had to see Alice out of Mexico. Therewas never any question about that.
HS: Sense of place here is profoundly powerful. Whether it’s the North Shore of Long Island or the ragged coast of Mexico, your readers can smell the air—I found myself longing to buy a plane ticket. Can you talk about the role of location in your work? You seem to treat it like a character.
JH: I do think of location as a character. Sense of place is something I can’t extricate from drama. I usually think of place as partnered with a sense of longing. Homesickness is not only a sense of missing one’s home, but it can be a nostalgia for home while you’re right there in the center of it, or a yearning for the place you wish you were, for the person you want to be.
HS: There is always a high level of sensual description in your fiction, Joanna. This was true in Swimming and it is equally true in The Outside of August. And I’m not just talking about sex—although there are plenty of well-written and evocative sex scenes in your work—but also the sensuality of taste and touch and smell. Is this a conscious application of writerly skill at evoking a world? Or a personal preoccupationwith the senses?
JH: I can’t imagine a novel really working without the strongest possible immersion in the living, breathing world. Escapism has a negative connotation but it is, on some level, my requirement for a truly great reading experience. Sometimes it’s necessary to escape the literal world in order to
reach some kind of truth—whether personal, political, historical, etc. I suppose, on some level, this sense of escape drives my work, and whatever process ultimately leads me to
find a compelling story is probably grounded in the sensual.
HS: The Outside of August is a narrative driven by secrets— some of which are exposed to the reader at the end of the novel in the form of a letter. How did you happen upon thisdevice? What risks did it bring you as a novelist? Were you satisfied with its powerful statement? Did you already know the answers to the questions you continually pose in the story before you began writing?
JH: I am honestly not sure how I happened to write Charlotte’s letter, but I really enjoyed writing it. I think I wanted to know exactly what was in that letter, how it sounded, and then it just grew from there. I always knew that Alice and August had different fathers and I knew Charlotte’s story
first—that was my original conception of the novel, but in my first draft, the information about Gus’s father was never a secret. I was aware that the letter was a tremendous risk— would it be too much information all at once? too dramatic? too abrupt a change of voice? . . . the list goes on. But, besides being attracted to messy risks in novels to begin with, I felt like it was the right aesthetic decision. Charlotte is so self-aggrandizing, and I really wanted Alice to read the letter
and—while it is of no small significance for her—to be left with simply a piece of paper at the end of such intense wondering. I wanted her to have the feeling of how the truth can
sometimes be as large or as small as you make it.
HS: Alice’s mother dies in a horrible fire on the family property. Alice suspects suicide and August can’t contemplate it. How do you think this death impacts their relationship and your story? Again, what were the risks in utilizing such a violent occurrence in the development of your narrative?
JH: Anytime a family member dies—especially in a way that is sudden and violent—there has to be a seismic shift in the family dynamic. In the case of Charlotte’s death, that shock and shift are multifold because while she was alive she was often absent and yet she took up an enormous amount of space in the Green family. Alice and August have such differing reactions to her death and, because of this, they grow further apart. It is this distancing that drives the narrative of the story because the further apart they grow, the more they truly need each other—in extremely different ways. We learn that August is burdened with a disturbing truth that he needs to share (whether he knows it or not), and Alice wants not only to be connected to him, but to learn more about their mother; she wants and needs far too much. When they finally do have it out toward the end of the book, they are left with a bit of a blank slate. They’ll need to redefine their relationship outside of their mother—no small task. As for such a violent development in the narrative—well, it certainly raised the stakes, and the challenge, as a writer, was to meet those stakes emotionally,
to go as far as I thought Alice and Gus would go. Those high stakes were at the core of what compelled me to write this story, so I suppose I’d say the risks were necessary ones.
HS: Cady is an extremely interesting character. Her selfpossession and sense of self-preservation remind me of Suzanne, the girlfriend who comes between the two brothers
in Swimming. What draws you to this kind of catalytic character? What do you imagine comes next for her after your story is over?
JH: I do see a basic similarity between Cady and Suzanne; however, I think that Cady is a far more compassionate and generous human being. I suppose I’m always a sucker for a
bit of female mystery, and maybe therein lies the basis of such a catalytic character: Confident girls possess incredible power, and I am always interested in what happens when these girls turn into women. I think Cady is going to be okay after the world of this book. She is ultimately resilient, but Ithink she also carries around a great deal of loss. She’ll always walk the fine line between light and dark. I could predict much more about Cady—I’m a little worried about that guy she’s seeing. I can imagine her getting married to the wrong person too quickly. . . .
HS: Second novels are notoriously dif.cult for young novelists. What was your experience in hitting the drafting boards after the success of your book Swimming?
JH: I think I tried to psych myself out and pretend that it was all one big experiment. The first draft was finished before Swimming was published, so I didn’t feel the pressure until later in the game, when I realized I had to essentially start over. My prior experience helped me in the sense that I
knew I was capable of working extremely hard and grappling with my own writing demons, but what I had yet to experience firsthand was how greatly those demons can vary from project to project.
HS: You are now at work on a third novel. How does it differ from your earlier experiences? Do you feel you are still grappling with some of the same obsessions, or have you moved on to different emotional territories? Have your early experiences in the theater helped or hindered your written work?
JH: As far as my theater background, I can’t separate it from how I work—it definitely helps my sense of character, conflict, and scene. I’ve been thinking recently about how—as I begin this third novel—I often approach a scene as if I’m inhabiting the characters, working primarily through convicting motivations. This new project is set largely in a different era, and it’s been a particularly exciting challenge to begin merging my dramatic and aesthetic sensibilities with an unfamiliar
time and place. I’ve also been doing a significant amount of research, which my previous books didn’t require. My obsessions seem to be shifting considerably, and I’m still in the process of .guring out what they are.
1. Our interviewer thinks that the “beating heart” of The Outside of August is the relationship between Alice and her brother. Do you agree that this is what this novel is essentially about? What overall story element, character relationship, or mood made this work resonate for you?
2. Structurally this novel is composed of three parts. Part One consists of six chapters, and the chapters are named: Heat, 1977; Water, 1979; progressing all the way to Riddles,1985. Why do you think Hershon entitled her chapters thisway? Why do you think she abandoned the titles in Part Two and Part Three? What response was she hoping to elicit from the reader?
3. Readers often talk about characters they love, or characters they love to hate. Hershon’s characters often fall somewhere in the complex, human middle. They are presented “warts and all.” How do you feel about Alice? Do you sympathize with her? Do you understand her journey? What about Charlotte? Surely, she is a failure as a mother and yetthere is something tragic and compelling about her. What is
that component of her character? How do her flaws add tension and pathos to the book?
4. The title of this book is The Outside of August, and it is apt, as August remains elusive to both the reader and Alice or much of the narrative. How can the absence of someoneshape another person’s life? Here we have two characters who mesmerize and disappear again and again, Charlotte and her son, August. Do you find them realistic? Maddening? Do you understand their hold on Alice?
5. What motivates Cady? Why does she hang in there for so long? Do you see her as someone who is hobbled by her experiences with this complicated family, or as someone who is set free by them?
6. Alan, the father, is a stalwart yet oddly weak presence in the book. He is reliable and physically available, and yet incapable of either rescuing his wife or cutting her loose and saving his children. What is his role in this human theater? What do you think about Alice’s decision (and Hershon’s) to
return home to care for him? Who does she do this for, her father or herself ?
7. Alan is a successful neurobiologist, Cady has a good career in design, yet August and Charlotte cannot hold jobs, no matter how creative their explorations of the world tend to be. By the end of this novel, Alice has found happiness working in the local bookstore. What do you think this novel makes of the world of work? What part does it play inthe characters’ lives?
8. So much of this story ends midsentence in the middle of the lives of these characters. What do you think will happen next for them? Has Alice found love? Will Cady leave her life forever? What will happen to August and his newfound family? Do you find yourself imagining other scenarios for
these characters? Alternative actions or endings?
9. Take a moment to savor the prose here. How would you characterize Hershon’s style? What are its pleasures? Excesses? How does she go about building a world and inviting the reader to inhabit it? Pick a scene that strikes you and read it out loud. What are the cadences she employs? Is
there music behind the language? Does she vary the rhythm and length of her sentences?
10. Hershon is also a playwright. Take a moment to discuss the dialogue in this book. Divide some of it and read it aloud, as if it were a play. Can you see her dramatist’s hand? Does she have a feel for spoken language? How do you think stage dialogue and narrative dialogue differ?
11. There is a subtle sexual tension here between mother and son, and even sister and brother. What is the genesis of this tension? How important a component of the characters’ lives is it? How does it repel them from one another and also keep them inextricably linked?
12. Now that you’ve had a thorough discussion about such elements as story, character, prose, structure, and device, what do you think is the beating heart of the story? Has it changed for you through discussion? Does it read differently when you go back and look over the pages? In what ways does talking about literature open it up for you, and in what ways does it take away from the private activity of reading?What would you like to see Hershon write next?