Valerie Martin, the Orange Prize winning author of Property, has taken us through Victorian England, 14th century Italy and our own Deep South in the 18th century over the course of her 33 year career. Her ninth novel, The Confessions of Edward Day, however is set in a time and place much more familiar to some of us, New York City in the 1970s. In an era where rent didn’t cost $3,000 a month for a basement apartment and the specter of AIDS had yet to hang over the city, Edward Day is an aspiring actor who, after having his life saved by another actor during a weekend at the Jersey Shore, recounts a tale of desire, revenge and ambition.
I first met Martin in 2002 when she was my mentor at Sarah Lawrence College. I have been fortunate to remain in contact with her and I am proud to present a chat with Valerie Martin as Spectrum Culture’s first interview in our new BOOKS section.
What is about Chekhov that actors still return to his plays over and over again? In acting there seems to be this trinity in Chekhov, Stanislavski and Brecht. Why is that people are so obsessed with Chekhov still?
Yeah, the sacred Chekhov. I think I read somewhere that there are two playwrights whose works are always in production somewhere and that’s Shakespeare and Chekhov. There’s more Chekhov going on all the time than almost any other playwright. So you’re right. It’s not just actors. Audiences are devoted to Chekhov. People love Chekhov. It’s different from any other theatre. You wouldn’t mistake a Chekhov for any other playwright and there are certainly many playwrights who imitate him, but they can’t seem to do it. I gave a talk about Chekhov recently and I was talking about how in his short stories the characters are really active and dynamic and they shout a lot and they’re lively. But in the plays they are almost affectless. They’re bored; that’s the subject of the play, idle and worthless. Somebody said to me, “Why would his stories, where you could do a lot of internal revelation, be active and the plays, where you would expect action, be without it?” I thought that was a really good question. I think that kind of quality of real life, which Chekhov was after on the stage, of people being idle and doing nothing, is extremely appealing to audiences. There is a kind of tension in watching people who have no rhyme or reason to do anything; they don’t need anything. They create huge destruction in little bits of conversation. So, I think that’s part of what’s appealing about Chekhov is its originality.
Do you find that trope in any other authors that you like to read where people create destruction by doing very little?
Sure, I can’t think of any offhand, but I think that’s a subject matter that is never old. I think even some kind of writers who are considered to be writers of manners and what is going on in these highly mannered novel is various kinds of psychological destruction. I haven’t read Richard Russo, but I gather there is a bit of that. I’m doing a lot of that these days, the quiet conversation, especially among artists that are psychological violent. Hmm, I don’t know. Can you think of any? I’m looking at my books. Yeah, Mary Gaitskill, there’s one.
I can think of it more in filmic terms than in writing.
Well, that probably comes from Chekhov.
Is Uncle Vanya the play that speaks to you the most?
No, I actually like The Seagull better because of that dreadful mother. I think it’s such a wonderful part for an actress. But what I really like about Uncle Vanya is that there is that moment, which is very important in my book, when two characters who you understand are very attracted to each other have about one minute together on the stage. There’s this very brief kiss and that’s it. It’s over for them. It’s the closest they will ever get. They both sort of reel away from it because they are caught in the act and they immediately begin denying that it meant anything to either of them. So, I like that about the play that it’s the climax of the action. This one little kiss that takes place. I’ve seen it several times and the audience is always eagerly watching the kiss and sometimes the kiss is directed so it’s practically just a brushing of lips and other times it’s a full body embrace. So the director has this huge range of possibilities vis-à-vis the kiss.
That’s one of the most tragic elements of your novel is when your two characters can be the most truthful to one another is when they’re actually acting.
Yeah, that is the sad thing. And although Edward is not a deep thinker, on some level he is conscious of that.
Let’s talk about the book itself. Prior to this interview you mentioned it was about duality. Like the actor’s duality and whether they are being true to themselves or real because they are buried under layers and layers of character. One actor once said to me, “I’m a real actor because I act all the time.” Do you find that in your actor friends or people you know?
(laughs) I do find that. I think that actors need a lot of attention. What I like about them is that they are extremely observant of other people which most people are not. Most of the time, when we meet other people, we are unconscious. Actors are usually watching you and they usually can do a good impression of you after they’ve talked to you for a few minutes. So yes, I guess the greatest actor would be the one who is always playing a part and the part is the part that he takes when he’s talking to someone else. It’s what he gets from the other person.
Don’t we all act though? The Valerie Martin who was my teacher is different than the Valerie Martin who is the wife who is…
Well, that’s sort of the point. Everybody has many, many identities and we flick in and out of them without even thinking that one is, sometimes in fact, constitutionally different from the other. Especially myself as a daughter and myself as a mother. Those are just two completely people. They practically don’t even have the same thoughts. So, I suppose to some extent I’m acting or that I’ve accepting these roles with great interest, vivacity and almost joy. So yes, I think that’s true and that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in doubles. What’s fun for me, specifically about this book, is it’s about actors who are always doubled or tripled and then, in the course of the book, we have an actor who looks like another actor and they have a double Jekyll and Hyde sort of relationship. I love that. I love it because it’s fun.
I’m glad you mentioned Jekyll and Hyde because that was going to be my next question but isn’t duality something that has appeared in a lot of your work. We have Mary Reilly and then you have Property where the woman and the slave almost become…
Yeah, they’re doubles.
So what it is about that idea that informs your writing?
I don’t know, but I tell you, I never get tired of it. (laughs) I must have a real sense of it in myself to be constantly preoccupied with it. When I read stories that have doubles, I find myself engaging in a really excited way. I guess I feel like that is, as far as the novel is concerned, is a theme that is inexhaustible.
Do you feel that if you see your doppelganger that means death is impending?
Sometimes. I once had the experience when I was very young. I went into a bar and everyone who saw me walking in said, “Oh, here you are. There’s this woman sitting at the bar who looks exactly like you.” It was as if I was moving through a dream sequence, but it wasn’t a dream. I got up to the bar and this woman turned around and looked at me. She looked exactly like me. It was like looking in the mirror. I really didn’t like it. I immediately found some reason to leave. I never heard anything more about her, never saw her again, don’t know who she was. Yeah, I think the whole notion there might be another you out there is really scary.
Did you address her?
I can’t even remember. I think maybe there was a word passed between us. I can’t remember anything but I thought that it was not good.
That’s kind of scary.
Yeah, it is. But I’m sure there was probably a strong resemblance and that she didn’t look exactly like me. But, everybody gave me the impression I was about to see my mirror image, so I did.
At least you were prepared for it, somewhat.
Yeah, it would have been worse if I had just walked in and yourself turns around and looks at you! I think that’s everybody’s nightmare and that is why I don’t like twins and just the thought of being twin. I really wouldn’t like that.
Have you seen the film Dead Ringers?
Yeah, that’s a good one.
I was reading about it the other day and Cronenberg said the premise is imagine if the twin is the same exact person and not just the facsimile.
Yes, that is quite a disturbing notion especially if you know yourself well enough to know that your twin is going to be dangerous.
Back to the actors and writers question, you said that actors are observing people all the time and that they need attention. What separates them from a writer?
They’re not like writers at all, although I know a few actors who write and sometimes they are very good playwrights. Pinter is a great example. He was a really good actor but also just an amazing playwright. I think there are some actors who are in love with theatre more than they are in love with acting so they have this extra dimension and they are able to enter it a writers. But for the most part, I think actors are really interested in being a stage and working on performing. What makes that very different from being a writer is that what you’ve got to sell is physical. It’s your body and your ability to do things with your body and writers, fortunately, don’t have to worry about that at all.
Do you think it comes down to how you look as a person or is it something different?
Actors are in the business of trying to persuade you that they are somebody else and also that they’re having real emotions in front of you that you know that can’t be because they are on a stage in a play. How could that be? But they know that when they’re good they’ve persuaded you that they are physically, emotionally and psychologically someone else. It’s a strange thing to want to do and some actors, I think, are just going through the motions. But the ones who are artists really are sincere in believing that is the essence and the goal of their art. That’s very different from what writers do. Writers have all sorts of motivations for wanting to write and it doesn’t really have anything to do necessarily with persuading the writer that you’re someone else. Although if you write a first person book you are trying to persuade the reader that your voice is somebody else’s voice.
Not to be gauche or to force a generalization, but do you like actors?
Do I like actors? I don’t think I know any of them very well. I didn’t spend that much time in their company. I find their company very tiring because they are on the go all the time. I find it interesting to watch actors being interviewed because sometimes, especially if they are working a play, they seem to be exhausted, they seem to be just empty people muttering responses. I don’t like or dislike them. I admire good ones but I don’t understand them at all. I certainly don’t understand what would make you want to do that as your life’s work. I think it’s an art.
Can the same be said for writers?
Oh, I know a lot of writers and I know them really well. I like some of them a lot and I really don’t like some of them (laughs). It’s the same with all people. Somebody asked me once, “Do you think that you can like a writer whose work you detest and detest a writer whose work you admire?” I thought that was a good question and I don’t know the answer. But I have met writers whose work I admired but I thought they were really screwed up and I have met writers whose work I didn’t think was that great but I really liked them. I guess that’s my answer to those two questions. I think you can do both. It’s really a question of whether you’re trying to be a friend of the person or whether you’re just kind of interested how come they write the way they write.
I better start treating poorly then.
Ernesto Mestre once told me that all writers are scroungers and assholes.
Scroungers and assholes?
You shouldn’t tell them anything because it automatically means it can be taken.
I know there are writers who really do. I mean, everything is material. I think to some extent that I am like that: that everything is material. In fact, this book was based on a little story I overheard really from three ladies having tea. I guess it was actually told to me because I asked questions about it. It was a story that was actually in the news as well. The person who told me didn’t really want anyone to know that she had told me.
Back to the book, during the ’70s did you live in New York City?
I didn’t live in the city, I lived in Massachusetts. But I had friends in the city and I would go out fairly often and visit with them and sometime go to some theatre. There was a lot of new theatre and new stuff going on.
What is it about this milieu that interested you?
It’s an interesting period but probably what interested me is that I could remember it. I really didn’t want to have to do a lot of research. The other thing is that this is the period when all the off-Broadway and all the off-off-Broadway theatres started to open so there were a lot more plays going on then had ever been going on before, all over town. Especially downtown. The problem for actors was they wanted to work. You could get into a play but it wasn’t a union play so your wages were sometimes absolutely zero. You would be paid nothing but you’d be working and you would take the part because some of this theatre was new, it was exciting. Actors couldn’t make a living, but they could work and that is something that hadn’t really happened before. A lot of actors who were in New York during that period, it’s amazing what names you read, wound up going to Hollywood and becoming stars.
There’s something Edward Day that reminds me of Stingo from Sophie’s Choice in terms of his voice. It’s kind of this self-aggrandizing, put-upon but ultimately working class type actor who is trying to pull himself ahead in New York. Do you see any parallels?
You mean Edward’s defensiveness?
His defensiveness, but also his snarky outlook on life and people who are doing better than he is.
Yeah, actors are very competitive and he’s really incapable of admiring anyone else’s work except for his friend Teddy. I don’t see his personality on anyone else. Whenever I write in the first person point of view, I usually write a little ways trying to figure out who this character is and he what he’s like. Edward doesn’t have a lot of insight into his own motives and he’s actually writing in self-defense. He actually, in some ways, feels responsible for what happened to Guy and for what happened to Madeline.
And his mother.
Yeah, his mother is sort of the big thing in his life. Somebody said, “Who is his muse as an actor?” I think, well it’s his mother, the person who knew liked him and cared for him but not only rejected him and his whole sex but there is the whole business of her death. She had tried to call him the night she killed herself so he feels in some way responsible. You know, when you think about the number of things his mother did to him without thinking about what she did to him you can see why Edward is the way he is.
He also seems a little sociopathic in some regards. His empathy level is…
Low. Yeah, he is. He certainly is. I think actors in general are a little bit sociopathic.
Guy seems to be just as bad.
To me, Guy is a very complex character. You only see him through Edward’s eyes. You don’t what he thinks or why he really does anything. Edward originally sees him as the competition and somebody who is doing better than he is and then it turns around and Guy is doing worse than he is. My editor in Britain said, “This is the Dorian Gray story. This is the new version of Dorian Gray.” I don’t quite get that but it is true that every time Edward sees Guy things are a little worse. In a way Guy is a reflection of Edward’s moral failures.
Every time we see Guy he is physically deteriorating as well.
Yeah, like the picture of Dorian Gray. He looks worse. But then he ultimately, I think, turns out to be a rather sad character. He’s failing and he knows it.
They all seem kind of sad in one regard or failing.
Yeah. Ultimately they all have failed except Edward still has a life that is connected to the theatre.
Teddy reminds me of Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited.
(Chuckles). Yeah, I really like the character of Teddy because early in the book I assumed he would kind of disappear but I kept going back to him and I think if there is a moral arbiter in here it’s Teddy. He’s the only one who can really see what’s going on and he says the most important thing to Ed about Guy which is, “No one disliked Guy as much as you did.” Which tells us that we never have been able to see Guy really well because no one else saw him the way Ed did.
One thing I remember from our workshop is your affinity for the unreliable narrator.
I do like it. It’s very fun to write it because it makes me feel very superior and god-like. I like when I read a book that has an unreliable narrator. I like that when you move in that your instinct is to trust the first person voice and believe the story they’re telling. With the unreliable narrator, gradually your distrust grows and you start to feel more for the characters that you can’t see than the one that you’re constantly hearing. That, to me, is very much like real life. You meet someone and feel the story they tell you is quite interesting and then as they continue to tell the story you see why they are telling you that particular story. And it’s to make themselves look better or to make them feel better about what happened.
Don’t you think all humans subconsciously embellish stories to make themselves look better?
Yeah, I think that is part of where storytelling first began. It’s a complex motivation. I had some friends tell some killingly funny stories about their experiences in Italy yesterday. It was all about their being inconvenienced and confused and made to feel inferior and made to feel wonderful. It was all about how they were made to feel. They wanted to tell this story because they were still puzzled about how they were made to feel. That’s a motive for telling stories, when we can’t quite figure what happened and so we try to tell the story to someone else. There’s a real need, when you go through an experience, to somehow put it into some order if it was disturbing to you and then get somebody else to verify that it was disturbing.
I am thinking even more benignly than that. When I used teach about perception and unreliable narrators, I would put a student out of the class and then I would do something like throw something at someone or yell at somebody. Then I would bring the kid back in and have three people explain to them what happened. Each one would be filtered through a different perception.
That’s a brilliant exercise.
It’s even the slightest thing. When we get off the phone here my perception of this conversation and your perception are going to be our own truths but neither one is really going to mirror exactly what happened.
No. I will have very different feelings about it that you will (chuckles).
Back to the unreliable narrators, it shows us just how much trust we put into an authorial voice, even if it’s in the third person.
The third person, as you know, when you’re doing it you have so much access to the interiors of the characters and it’s up to you as the puppet master to sort of reveal the characters to the reader and the reader comes to trust that voice that they don’t know anything about. Especially the omniscient narrator, they put their trust not in the characters. For me, characters in that type of writing are a little flatter than when they are in a first person voice because the first person is so confined inside one head that you feel you’re in a cramped space with a psyche.
I’m going to shepherd you onto another topic. Let’s talk about inspiration. A lot of your books travel in time and space. We have Robert Louis Stevenson’s England, we have slave times in the Deep South, you have written about Frances of Assisi and now New York in the ’70s. You had mentioned you didn’t want to research this time, but it did take place in an era and place that is starting to drift into the past. I was not cognizant of it.
(Laughs). Yes, I’m getting old enough to remember things that others don’t.
What is it about other times and places that appeal to you? There are definitely some writers who only write in their element.
Yeah, I’m interested in the past but I don’t like the past very much. I think that’s why I’m interested in it. I think that when you write about the past, you can’t really be honest and you can’t know what it was like to be there. In particular, I was writing about 14th century Italy. I don’t even speak Italian. Or Latin, for that matter. There is no way that I can apprehend what the consciousness of people was during that period. I’m pretty much an outsider acting as an explorer. With that understanding, then, you bring to bear the present upon the past. It’s hard to do and I’m not if it’s a useless thing to do, but for some reason I feel interested in these particular subjects and a lot of the time just turn out to be in the past. I can’t see St. Francis in a contemporary setting. One could try that. But what was interesting about his story was the world he lived in. I think the same thing is true about slavery. There’s slavery and I could probably make up a story about a woman slave in current times but there was something about that particular period that made that institution very visible, so you can get at it and try to get some notion about how it operated in a societal scale. I guess I’m answering this question very well. I don’t really know. I don’t know. I don’t like doing research, but once I start doing it, I usually have a very good time.
You’re not the only one who does this and needs to worry about veracity. Rossellini made The Flowers of St. Francis well after his time, of course.
Yeah, that’s a nice film.
There are also tons of films about slavery.
What brought me to slavery was reading other books about slavery and thinking, “I don’t think it was like that. I think it was like this.” I guess there is this corrective feel although I don’t know. Nobody knows. I want to put my two cents forth and say I think it was like this. I don’t think it was like Gone With the Wind. I don’t think the slaves were happy singing in the fields. I am thinking it was probably more like hell. So you’re right. That’s an impulse because others have looked at it, the Victorian period too, and I want to say what I think about it.
One time in a workshop at Sarah Lawrence, I had a lesbian author tell me she wouldn’t read my work because there was a gay character in one story and since I’m not gay I don’t know what it’s like to have that experience.
That’s an absurd thing for a writing student to say. I had a friend who taught Shakespeare and a young woman in the class said, “How dare he write female characters! He could he possibly understand what they were thinking?” I thought, “If you can’t imagine what other people are thinking, give up!” You can’t write if you can’t imagine a world outside your own head.
Well, we have Shakespeare writing about Julius Caesar.
He’s putting clocks in there but…
Yeah, so what? It’s so good!
Have you ever been assailed for veracity in your own writing?
Oh, I got a little tap on the wrist for a couple of words in Property that wouldn’t have been available to the speaker in that period. I’ve been pretty lucky in that. I haven’t had a lot. I was really anxious about the St. Francis because it was reviewed by historians largely and I thought these were people who have been studying this period all their lives. I just spent a couple of years kind of dithering around in the 14th century. I seemed to skate on that. Nobody called me.
Congratulations on that. How do you feel about this new book?
I had such a good time writing this new book and I had such high hopes for it. I wish that people will read it. I think it’s more light-hearted than my last book, Trespass, which was pretty much a horrific family, war saga, which was harder to write. For me, this book is playful and kind of funny. I don’t know if people will find it that way. Nobody ever seems to think my books are funny except when I read aloud. Then people laugh and laugh. Strange. I’m hoping it will find a good audience.
Talk to me about winning the Orange Prize for Property.
That was really great. That was really just about the most fun you can have. You get to go to a place and think, “I’m probably not going to win this prize.” There were six of us on the final shortlist. We did a reading at the British Library, which was great. Then there was this wonderful party and then I got this wonderful prize and then I got in the car and went to the radio station and then I came home. That was really fun.
My last question now. Looking at the dust jacket of Edward Day, how much do you love the four words, “John Malkovich and Julia Roberts?”
(Laughs). Yeah, I really wish they would take that off. I actually called and said, “It’s been like 20 years. Can we drop the John Malkovich and Julia Roberts?” Thank you. Yes, I wish they would drop that. The movie was not great and it didn’t even help the book (laughs). So let’s drop it!