An Interview with Bonnie Nadzam

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bonnie Nadzam doesn’t believe in telling stories. It’s an odd thing to say about a fiction writer, but when you read her work, you see that it applies. Her debut novel Lamb won the Center for Fiction’s 2011 First Novel Prize and was adapted to film in 2015. In it, she presented a character so steeped in denial, so insistent on telling himself stories of his own goodness, that he actually convinced himself he could save an eleven-year-old girl by kidnapping her. Nadzam’s latest novel, Lions, explores the same premise, the dangers of self-delusion, but casts a wider net by presenting an entire town filled with storytellers. The main characters in the novel have lived their whole lives in the dusty, dying town of Lions, Colorado, some of them as descendants of its earliest settlers. Maybe they know, even not-so-deep-down, the town has little left to offer  (after all, someone did post a sign along the highway reading “living ghost town,” and even the oldest of the old-timers are starting to pack up and move away), but they won’t admit it because they want to believe they belong there. They want to believe in the fantasy of a bountiful American West.

I adore Lions. I adore it for its hypnotizing prose, its careful construction, for the way it makes me sympathize, as Lamb did, with characters I should probably dislike. How can I judge them harshly, though, when I have behaved (and, sadly, sometimes still do behave) the same way? Lions is one of the most engaging and layered pieces of literature I’ve read in some time, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Bonnie Nadzam about it. Below, a conversation about craft and culture and farming and welding, about the troubles in our society and our part in creating them. About the distinction between story and reality, and our insistence on conflating the two.


TQ: This subject of the fantasy of the American West came up in your first novel, Lamb, and you explore it again, even more directly, in Lions. Why do you think you’re so drawn to the topic?

BN: So much of the American West in its current iteration (right word, I think) was founded on fantasy: the fantasy that the land was unoccupied and clear for white settlement; fantasy that it was a good idea to strip every river and stream of its beaver for a passing hat fad in Europe; fantasy that the desert could be farmed and cattle from Britain would make a good new resource once the buffalo were out of the way; the idea that cows are resources; the belief in a bigger better life, an American Dream, a City on a Hill, Manifest Destiny; papal bulls that gave any Roman Catholic a “legal right” to plant a flag at the mouth of a river and thereby claim in Christ’s name all the land through which that river and its tributaries flowed; the unbelievably persistent promotion of an almost totally human-managed West as a wild place . . . I guess many of these fantasies apply to America as a whole, not just the West. I might be finished writing about it, but I suppose the reason I was drawn to do so is at least twofold: first, I’m fascinated by storytelling as an unreliable, even destructive way of understanding “reality,” and second, I’m an outsider in the West. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and the West seemed very romantic and very wonderful to me when I was an adolescent. In practice, however, and after two decades of trying, I find the West almost impossible to live in. Though I guess if I didn’t continue to love some of it anyway, I wouldn’t have the energy or interest in picking it all apart. I have to balance this negative perception with westward movement and seeking with an awareness that many people did and still do rightfully come to this country seeking a better life. Lions isn’t an immigrant story, though. It’s a metaphor for people who mistook North America for something it never was.

TQ: There’s a line in the book that speaks quite directly to that metaphor. After John Walker dies, an elderly resident of Lions presents a riddle to some of John’s closest friends. “Here’s another riddle for you,” he says. “How long can a man believe he lives in a country that doesn’t actually exist, standing in the middle of one that does?” I remember pausing over that line, not only because it’s a damn good sentence but also because it feels so heartbreakingly relevant to the America of today. Can you talk about what the line means to you and why you decided to present it as a riddle?

BN: This is an old-time farmer who owns the water rights to his property—a very valuable thing in the West (ironic that the same nation that values its water “rights” so highly is determined to cross entire river systems with tarsands and oil pipelines). There are some areas in Colorado these days that are drier than they were during the Dust Bowl. There wasn’t irrigation back then like we have now, so it isn’t as obvious, but the drought isn’t any less serious or real. In Colorado and other western states, some farmers are making more money by either selling or leasing these water rights to residential areas than by growing and selling wheat, or any crops at all. It’s a paradox, because even as there is little water, and elsewhere there are starving people—millions upon millions of them—there can be a worldwide surplus of commodities like wheat that drives the price very low (partly because of irrigation). So, lease your water rights, instead, to a new housing development in the high desert where everyone wants green lawns, as if it were England. Though it may not actually be in any living creature’s interest, it’s the best way to make a profit. This is the first riddle to which this man’s words are referring. I hope Lions points to a fundamental delusion of North American settlers and colonists that has been passed on from generation to generation: it began with this mistaken notion that the land was empty and abundant and ready to be used and broken (when in fact there is no such thing as pristine wilderness, and there were many, many complex cultures of people already living here, as we all know), and it continues today in a mentality of entitlement, of believing that if you’re a certain kind of American, then you have certain rights to a certain lifestyle, even if the planet cannot possibly support it. And it exists in a mentality that is anti-science, for example—that puts more stock in the notion of a white-bearded white man in the sky watching over all of us like Santa Claus than in basic physical laws and easily observable truths (such as “it is better to be kind to people than not” and “we shouldn’t use up all the ground water”). It’s hard to see how this won’t go badly on both a personal and a cultural level, but it’s a system that does seem to work out very well for some people in the short term, doesn’t it?

TQ: It certainly does. And forgive me, I can’t help but think of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, all of its talk (and bumper stickers, and yard signs, and boxy red hats) about making America “great” again. I’m not asking you to discuss your political leanings, but I do wonder how you respond to a presidential candidate running on a promise to return the country to a state of mythical greatness.

BN:  “Make America Great Again” is a stupid euphemism for “Make America White and Male Again,” and everyone knows it. If anything is great about this country, it’s our progress away from that reality. The “America” that is supposed to be made “great” again was and in many ways still is a country of genocide, slavery, bigotry, bullying, the butchering of wildlife, overuse and pollution of the land and waters, and lack of reverence for nonhuman life,  to name just a few, very obvious,  not-great problems. If there is to be any greatness, we’d better all hope it lies before us, not behind us, or the future is going to terrifying indeed. All of this said, though, I think it’s important to remember that nothing in this life is created in a vacuum. We’ve all created Trump, and we’ve all created his supporters. Not at one particular point in history or via some particular bill or law, but all the time, every day, continually. This isn’t a belief system—it’s an observation of cause and effect (granted, with many, many moving parts, and some with more cards to play than others). We are all responsible.

Nostalgia is totally inappropriate in terms of this novel; while that may be obvious to some, others have read it as a lament for the loss of a certain kind of rural America. It’s astonishing to me that anyone could read it as anything but an indictment from beginning to end. I even worried that, as such, it went a little too far—because it can’t really be all bad, can it, to believe that a better life is possible in this country? It would be a privileged and ignorant notion indeed to imagine that immigrants and refugees are mistaken in perceiving America as safer, more stable, and with more opportunity than many other countries. But what I worry about as being heavy-handed often ends up being missed as too subtle. It’s a mistake I make a lot. The character of Leigh, for example, I find totally reprehensible, soulless, shallow, and deserving of her fate. How do you reveal the darkness of something that is so status quo without being over-the-top with dramatic irony (which essentially tells a reader what to think)? It isn’t sad to me that Lions is dying and closing down. It’s just an inevitable fact. The inhabitants and their ancestors destroyed every living thing around in order to claim it, only to decide it’s worth nothing, that they never cared for it, then to move on with their sights set on some better place down the road (because it has a Ponderosa restaurant and a Bible church), and finally they recall fondly and with sickening, erroneous longing the place they ruined and left behind.

TQ: There’s a character in Lions that reminded me very much, in a psychological sense, of Lamb’s David Lamb. I’m talking about Leigh, who bears no surface-level resemblance to Lamb—she’s younger, just a teenager getting ready to go off to college; she’s fairly innocent, not nearly as manipulative with her boyfriend Gordon as Lamb is with Tommie—but she shares with him this idea that some better version of herself exists out there, waiting to be achieved. What do you hope readers will take away from these stories of characters who chase so hard after mere ideas of themselves?

BN: You said that beautifully—chas[ing] so hard after mere ideas of themselves. I hope that’s right, and I’m so glad you saw or sensed a similarity between these two. It’s easy to dislike Lamb, and startling to sympathize with him. In some ways I think Leigh’s crime is worse than Lamb’s. I had a tricky time writing Leigh, because I think it might be a little too easy to like her and sympathize with her to sense how really unlikeable she is. In the interest of examining my own faults and shadows, I poured a lot of myself into her, though I’d like to think that on the page I exaggerated the worst qualities. I had a very smart reader at Anderson’s Bookstore in Naperville, Illinois, ask if Leigh was really as bad as she seemed, or if everything happened too fast for her to act any differently. I think that’s an amazing question, really—flip it back on yourself and a time you made a bad choice. How to answer such a question? On what grounds do we fairly judge one another, if any? Perhaps unsurprisingly the question was from a young woman who is currently clerking for a judge.

TQ: Perhaps because questions of race and ethnicity are so present in the social conversation right now, I noticed that the text—more than once—describes the people of Lions as white. That’s a rare thing, I think, to see a story populated by white characters actually point to them as white rather than treat it as a given. Was this a conscious decision?

BN: Yes—though clearly not mentioning whiteness doesn’t mean a thing or group isn’t white, itt just means that in a racist culture, whiteness doesn’t have to identify itself—or hasn’t had to so far. I guess I felt that this story needed to be identified as one of whiteness. If the book includes a critique of certain kinds of behavior, and I think it does, it’s not a criticism of humanity in general, or even of white America, but of a particular kind of white America that refuses to examine itself. Some people are calling this “white privilege,” which is perhaps a euphemism for racism; when I hear the term, it connotes not only racism but also another kind of personal impoverishment—a kind of ignore-ance that thrives in the shadows, on not being acknowledged, discussed, or healed. A few years ago I was teaching a university course on environmental ethics in which we discussed Garrett Hardin’s “lifeboat” ethics—what constitutes moral or fair resource distribution, and who gets to be in the lifeboat (the wealthy areas of abundant resources). These bright and earnest (if very privileged and predominantly white) college students mostly agreed that each of them had more inherent value just because they were American (i.e., they believed they deserved the majority of the world’s resources). Can you imagine? On the other hand, how many of us behave much differently than in a way consistent with this appalling belief? Lions examines a particular set of cultural values, of how the idea of Manifest Destiny—and its totally pervasive racism—has sunk not just obviously into the bones of organized religions like fundamentalist Christianity and into corporate culture, but also nearly unobserved into the heart of anyone who is taken with the idea of, and thinks they are entitled to, a life of material wealth, over and above other human beings. Failure in the writing itself notwithstanding, anyone who finds places like Lions incidental, or folksy, or rural and quaint—take a step back from that person.

TQ:  I enjoyed very much the use of lore in Lions. It heightens our sense of this place as a “living ghost town" and reminds us that the dream of self-betterment is an age-old one, practically embedded in the soil. Can you talk a little about how the idea of inserting stories within stories came about? 

BN: There are stories within stories all over this book—in the dialogue, in internal monologue, in sermon form, in ritual. I’m interested in the way people engage with works of art—including those stories we might not even recognize as stories. When I was a little girl, my Grandma Mary used to tell my sisters and me not ever to watch soap operas, because then we would think our lives were supposed to be that way, and we might unintentionally make them so. I do think we create this world one act at a time, often enacting what we see in others and in art around us. If that’s at all true, then it would seem pretty important to be aware of the stories and behaviors we’re observing and subsequently repeating to ourselves and enacting. Leigh falls into repeating and enacting the stories of her hometown and her larger culture so unconsciously that she really hurts herself and others. One reviewer of Lions suggested that if Leigh had told herself a different story, she might not have ended up repeating the cruel myth of leaving a loved one behind for dead while pursuing a “better life” somewhere else.  I think that’s a fascinating question. How do we create the world via the stories we tell ourselves about it? The incomplete piece of all of this is how a reader of Lions might engage not only with the book but with the stories within the stories, and then, of course, with the stories in their own “real” lives.

TQ: Another craft element that stood out was the structure of the story. When I think of how the story progresses, I think more in terms of layers than of a traditional story arc. To be sure, an arc does exist, but there’s another, more circular shape at play, and if I were to draw it out, it might look like one of those science book renderings of the layers of the earth. At the core, we have the story of the Walker family (John, Georgianna, and Gordon), which is buried under generations of lore about Walkers-through-the-ages and their mysterious duty to a living ghost (“Boggs”), which is buried under another layer of lore about the town itself, which in turn is buried under yet another layer of lore about the American West. These layers feel so deep and so hardened that the reader (like the characters) can’t possibly hope to reach the truth. How difficult was it to construct such a complex narrative?

BN: It was like building a house underground at the same time as excavating the very same house. It’s a house, so it needs a roof, so I’m working on the roof, but in order to see the roof as a roof, I have to get some of the dirt out of the way. Now is it a sharp-pointed roof? Not sharp enough—one reader still mistakes it for a door. So remove more dirt. Oh, maybe it  is a door. Now, what’s this over here? In my limited experience, it isn’t normally like this. It’s normally like just excavating, or just building—and usually building a single room, not an entire house. But there are many different facets or rooms to this book; each one seems independent, but together they make up a single structure. Really, they do. Despite what many call an ambiguous ending, I feel like the “truth” of the story is very obvious. But of course, I won’t say anything more than that. Because I’m probably wrong.

TQ: We’ve spoken before about your appreciation for Henry Fielding’s work and I do believe I see his influence in the pages of Lions. Did you have him in mind at all when constructing the book?

BN: It’s funny, the first review I saw of Lamb commented on an interview with me that was published in the back of the galley. This reviewer hated Lamb, and said that I would have to dispense with “shabby influences” like Henry Fielding if I were ever going to “amount to much.” But my fascination with some of Fielding’s plays and his prototypical novel has only grown. I guess this ensures my failure (whew, glad I got that out of the way, don’t need to worry anymore). What Fielding does in a lot of his work is nest plays within plays, history books within novels. He does this not “just” in a metafictional way, but in a way that forces a careful reader to make a metaphysical leap regarding personhood—in a way that is fundamentally, philosophically at odds with the notion of an individual as an independent, fixed self, with a body separate from other bodies, with an essential soul or being, and even with an essential character. Investigating selfhood and personhood was a big project for Enlightenment thinkers, and I’m afraid we may have settled, as a Western culture, on a quite brittle explanation of what constitutes a human being—one that keeps us feeling safe, may even assure some of us of an afterlife, and grants each of us extreme, outsized personal importance while we live. In the novel, Leigh’s mother says to her: “You act like everything happening in the world is happening in the story of your life. Leigh Ransom’s precious life.” And Leigh responds, totally confused, “If it’s not my life, whose is it?”

TQ: In talking about Lions with a fellow writer, it occurred to me that I sounded as if I was describing a work of metafiction. There’s something in that categorization that feels off, though. What do you think? Do you consider yourself a writer of metafiction?

BN: It’s an interesting question. As I understand it, works of metafiction deliberately point to the work of art as a work of art. I think what I’m trying to do is a little different—to point to a person’s engagement with stories, but without being heady, or heavy-handed, or very obvious about it—because I do love the total absorption that’s possible when experiencing art without “awareness” of it as a work of art. Still, there’s also something about this absorption that I find very powerful and mysterious, even dangerous and destructive, and I can’t completely abandon examining it. With Lamb, I wanted to embed a story within the story that might mirror the way the reader was experiencing the larger narrative, but not necessarily by pointing it out. For me, one of the “points” of Lamb was for the reader to be unknowingly seduced alongside Tommie—if not by David Lamb, then by the story itself. It’s a little different, structurally, with Lions—we see a lot of characters swept up by many different kinds of stories: a perverted version of the Gospel, ghost stories, ideas about what a life should look like, how a person should be . . . so many stories. I hope that readers are able to drop in and get swept up in the tale—that’s sort of the point—but at some place in the novel, or after reading it, have a sense of the layers and their own relationship to all these internal stories and the desire to be swept up by them. Maybe that really is metafiction. Fortunately, I don’t really need to know.

TQ: I read an essay in which you talk about the limitations of language, how words continually fail to convey what you’re really trying to say. And yet there’s a level of precision in Lions—when you describe John Walker’s welding, or the landscape of the fictional town, or the food and faces gathered in Georgianna’s backyard after John’s funeral—that makes everything seem so accurate, so true. Was this part of your artistic vision for the work, to demonstrate to readers how easy it is to become seduced by story, or is it more a matter of voice? 

BN: That is such a subtle question; the answer I think is both, but even I am not sure where one stops and the other begins. Yes, I was exploring questions of how we get seduced by stories that aren’t good for us, or for anyone. Why does anyone believe a story that on some level they suspect or even know is untrue, but which their attachment to makes them forget or ignore? I also sort of deliberately wanted to undermine that old adage to “show not tell.” I wanted to narrate. It was fun. I hope it’s not too much to ask of readers, to wade through some good, old-fashioned narration.

TQ: On the subject of accuracy: there’s an impressive amount of detail in the passages describing John’s and Gordon’s metal working. Where on earth did you learn so much about welding?

BN: From one of my day jobs, and from my father. My father was a welder—a very, very good welder—and inspired something of the character of John Walker. When I wasn’t sure if I had a welding fact right, I’d check it with my dad. I think some of the most beautiful sentences in the book are his, but they’re not actually the ones about welding. They’re sentences I jotted down while we were talking about life, idiosyncratic beliefs, what makes a good life. He always told me to stop being so hard on people. To mellow out. And he never cheated or took shortcuts on anything. Not on a welding project, not when it came to making a meal, or mowing the lawn, or vacuuming a room with perfect, straight, diagonal vacuum tracks. Everything was an opportunity to make something beautiful, but was never a performance. It was about attention to the work.

TQ: And the book is dedicated to your father, and to “all good men who do good work.”

BN: I got a little pushback from this dedication in a way I didn’t expect, actually, so I have started making a point of saying at readings that I did not mean to exclude women who do good work. I meant to exclude bad men. I think that would’ve made my dad laugh. The dedication is not only about him, but also about a certain outlook and relationship to work and to others. My dad was fiercely loyal to my mother, to my sisters and me, to all his friends and family. I don’t believe he ever lied to me in my entire life, ever, not once, not even in implication (though he was human, of course, and not without his faults). If someone needed help, or a project needed doing, he’d roll up his sleeves and step in and give it 100 percent without a grumble or a sigh. He was a servant of everything and everyone I love. He was a great man.

TQ: I wanted to talk to you, too, about the experience of having your first novel adapted to film. I remember thinking when I read Lamb that it would make a remarkable movie. It’s such a visual book—we get very vivid descriptions of landscape and scenery, it’s quite heavy in dialogue—so it seemed like film made for a natural progression. Did you ever think or hope it might find its way onto the screen?

BN: I’ve been surprised by everything. I’m surprised that I finished writing it. I’m surprised that I got an agent. I’m surprised that it sold. It’s all been one surprise after another. I will say that I wrote it in a way that some might describe as “cinematic,” but that wasn’t because I was thinking of film, or because I think it’s the best aesthetic. For Lamb, it was a form that was appropriate to the content: I wanted the reader to be seduced along with Tommie. I minimized narration and tried to eliminate anything like narrative interruption. I tried to write it as if the narrator were describing scenes to hypnotize the reader (even as Lamb literally does the same to Tommie).  And now—as was the case with Lions,—I’m back to the blank page, the great equalizer, which doesn’t care about your last book, or if it was made into a movie, or what form was appropriate to the content of the last story, or really about any of your ideas or plans.

TQ: How did you feel about placing your novel in the hands of another artist? Any fears?

BN: None. In many ways it was a better experience turning it over to [screenwriter, actor, and director] Ross Partridge to make a film than it was turning it over to readers, to read it. The film is not my project—it’s Ross’s work. I trusted him, and I was busy with other things. You know, I didn’t want to live in Lamb forever, and it’s kind of uncomfortable actually, having the book resurrected by the film—all these same questions again! (No debut novelist wants her book compared to a canonical great, like Lolita.) Anyway, I knew that Ross’s heart was not Big Hollywood. He was an independent filmmaker and that felt right. And so I just gave it to Ross: “I trust you with it. Make a sock puppet show if you want to.” I didn’t have any expectations, because I didn’t know how it worked. I didn’t know what to expect, and he just cleared one hurdle after another. He was on a mission.. Then it got picked up by a distribution company from the festival circuit. So I was just thrilled, especially for Ross and everyone on his cast and crew. They worked so hard.

TQ: What was it like, watching it on screen for the first time?

BN: It was really interesting. I think they did such an excellent job. I didn’t feel like I was watching my novel, I felt like I was watching a movie. I was just so absorbed in it. That wasn’t the case on set. On set it was like, “These are my words. How did this scene in my imagination become three-dimensional? This is totally disorienting.” But seeing it on screen was amazing. And I cried my eyes out at the end. There wasn’t a dry eye among the entire crew when they filmed that last scene. Oona Laurence (who plays Tommie) is a force.