Thursday, April 17, 2008

Q & A with Sheridan Hay

Sheridan Hay, author of the biblionovel "The Secret of Lost Things" will be signing copies of her book at our shop on Saturday, May 3rd at 5 pm. We will be in full party mode with refreshments, live music and two art gallery openings that evening so plan to visit our historic and cultural village. Here are some interview questions with Ms. Hay from the HarperCollins U.K. edition to whet your appetite in the interim:

Did you enjoy writing The Secret of Lost Things?

Writing is difficult and takes time and discipline but it is intensely satisfying. When I look up after a day of concentrated work and realize that I've been enfolded in an envelope of time -- hours pass in one attenuated moment -- that is what I really enjoy and I came to that eventually with The Secret of Lost Things.

The Secret of Lost Things feels like a fairy tale or fable at times, at other times a compelling detective story. Did you consciously use different genres?

I was conscious of trying to write a sort of personal fable -- one girl's "myth" of her beginnings -- and that the structure of the bildungsroman was a form I wanted to employ. An exemplar of the form is Great Expectations, and I've always been taken with Dickens' ability to make "types" wholly compelling as characters. One doesn't really question, for example, the "believability" of Miss Haversham remaining in her wedding dress or not throwing out the cake after half a lifetime! I am interested in the emotional impact of theatrical "reality" -- the staged piece that none the less moves one to tears. So there is an element of the theatrical in the novel -- the characters are playing, to some extent "roles" in Rosemary's play, and the Arcade is both theatre and bookshop. The "mystery" element owes less I think to a detective genre than to my interest in Borges and playing around with truth and ideas of history.

Melville was brilliant in his manipulation of different forms and very early on was moving between genres. In Moby- Dick, he made a new form using combinations of established forms which is interesting to me.

Did you like using factual material in the novel?

I love letters and what they communicate and what they leave out. Letters are the best kind of history because they record thoughts. It was only as I sat with the material over a couple of years that I saw how Melville's lost novel and its theme of abandonment and remorse could amplify Rosemary's story of becoming herself. The factual elements of Melville's story, research into the lost novel, as well as things like the cabinet of curiosities and the arcana of collecting, meant that I couldn't wait to get to work each day, that there was always something interesting to find out about and to find a place for.

"[Australia]. That great America on the other side of the sphere...given to the enlightened world by the whaleman". What was it like to come from Sydney to New York? Do you miss Australia and will you ever return to live there?

After more than 20 years in New York, I think what I miss about Australia has less to do with what I might find if I lived there again than with what lives in my imagination. At 46, I've lived away almost as long as I lived at home. There are great advantages to being an ex-patriot but I'm never sure if the underlying sense of loneliness and isolation I occasionally feel describes my nature or my displaced condition. I have family in Australia, so I will always return to visit but I've made my life in America and have an American family of my own. In that sense I think the children of an ex-patriot become her roots rather than the more conventional way ones parents root one to geographic place. Both my parents are dead and that changed profoundly my idea of Australia as a home to return to.

Rosemary says of her mother's death "Her death had called me to my self". Have you any personal experience of such grief?

My mother died just as I began the novel and for some time I felt that in describing Rosemary's fictional anguish, I was describing my own. I had a feeling throughout that my mother was keeping me company as I wrote, and the sense of loss that pervades the novel is perhaps its most autobiographical element.

Oscar is an original and intriguing character. Did you want his ending to remain enigmatic?

Oscar, in part, stands outside the action of the novel, so having him "escape" its ending is intentional. Oscar is not touched by the lives of others but is driven by a fascination with his own subjectivity. I see this as less narcissism than retreat. He will turn up in a situation that suits his purposes. I think there are people who find intellectual immersion and the accumulation of knowledge a way to remain beyond the realities of emotional demand. The fact that Rosemary imagines he can return something on the order of affection to her is an indication of her naivete, and her optimism.

What does Rosemary learn during the course of the book?

Well, Rosemary learns many things but mostly she learns how to live free of the projections of others and a bit closer to the notion of her own truth. She is on the way to learning the hard lessons of resilience and independence, and we have to assume she gains them as the narrative is told in retrospect and the older and wiser Rosemary looks to this particular year and its experiences to illustrate those gains. She learns that the way through grief is to remember and to live as best she can. It is her imagination that saves her.

Apart from Rosemary, who is your favourite character in the novel?

I love all of them -- you have to like your characters to spend so much time with them. Lots of people have mentioned finding Geist either disgusting or repulsive but I find him neither. To me he is heartbreakingly lonely and isolated. Rosemary's encounter with him is an encounter with otherness and he stands, in a way, for the inevitability of such reckonings. A sexual encounter appeared to be the most dramatic way to depict his utter remoteness: his complete incapacity. That incapacity is something he shares with Oscar only it takes a different form. I know the scene in the rare book room is disturbing, it would have little impact if it wasn't disturbing. But it is Geist who is revealed in that scene rather than Rosemary. It is his suffering that we discover. Readers have told me that they love Lillian and especially Pearl. I imagine that's because they are both capable of loving. All the characters are flawed and sort of in disguise -- each has something to "give" Rosemary (almost like tasks in a quest) but it isn't necessarily something she can anticipate -- or want!

The theme of memory is threaded throughout the novel. Rosemary's name is the symbol for remembrance. And the Arcade functions because of the booksellers' use of memory. Do you think the new technologies will necessarily alter our use of memory for the worse?

I know they will from my own experience. Memory is internal not external and the process of recall is idiosyncratic and entirely human -- that is the point of the Who Knows? game in the novel. My way of writing is associative and depends on reading and the experience of reading. If the novel fetishizes books as magical objects, then it is certainly no more than the computer is perceived by some as an object of enchantment. Perhaps both things are true, but I wrote an old-fashioned novel because my ideas about these things are, I suppose, conservative. I don't want to witness a transition from the medium of books to some other technology and I don't see why that should be the case. It isn't either or, but both serving different purposes.

I do feel that technology is having its impact on bookselling and publishing, and the novel is an intentional homage to a sort of life I feel has largely passed from the culture. It is that feeling that makes the novel have a fairy tale aspect -- that it in part takes place in another time where things were done differently. But that elegaic quality might be intrinsic to the pastime of selling books itself: it is a business forever in decline, and its demise has been predicted for as long as I can remember.

There are many eclectic references in the novel: to Shakespeare, to Auden, to Borges and of course to Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Do you see any parallels between being a writer and being a 'collector' like Peabody?

Absolutely. I like to think about the Australian species of Bowerbirds -- they build an elaborate nest and fly around looking for shiny bits and pieces to decorate the nest and make it beautiful. If you ever find a nest it's full of bright things like tin foil and bottle caps, the odd earring, shells and even berries: sometimes hundreds of dramatically colored objects that the Bowerbird sorts through obsessively. I think my writing style is something like that. I'm on the lookout in everything I read, I see, I hear, for "shiny bits." I keep copious notes on these bits of treasure and look through my pages of fragments before beginning writing each day. That way my mind is working on associations, on the stuff of my preoccupations, on things that caught my eye in another context, while I concentrate on moving the story forward. This is exactly like collecting objects except that I'm the only one who values the bits I've found. They don't have any other value until they're strung on the thread of story.

Are you working on another novel?

Yes, an historical novel set in the middle of the nineteenth century in America and England. The novel's protagonist is a very minor historical figure, an obsessive and an unreasonable woman. She was a writer. I've been researching the book for a year and am now writing the first draft

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