D. FOY’S LATEST NOVEL, Absolutely Golden, is a great time — although maybe not for some of its characters. It takes a sharp turn from the gritty textures and subjects of his previous novels, Made to Break and Patricide, while retaining their tonal dexterity. Set in the early 1970s, Absolutely Golden takes place almost entirely at a nudist colony, where drugs and gnarly sunburns abound. The effervescent prose keeps the novel feeling crisp and clean, as we watch its characters struggle, fail, and eventually awaken from despair. In the end, Absolutely Golden is a novel about transformation, written by an author going through something of a transformation himself. Talking to Foy over email, I was delighted to hear him describe the book as a “vehicle” that moved him out of dark times and into something like peace. Every writer — and reader — should get to experience that feeling. Absolutely Golden is a shining place to start.
COLIN WINNETTE: There’s darkness in this book, but on the surface it’s brighter, lighter on its feet than your previous novels. I’d even call it joyous. Did you set out to write a joyous book?
D. FOY: I wrote this after Made to Break but well before Patricide. Everything up to that point — two other novels, two collections of stories, and two of poetry — was decidedly black. And so were the days leading to this book. It was all so heavy. But I was tired of heavy and looking for new ways. Probably it’s easiest to say I had a God-shaped hole in me. I was searching for the meaning I thought would fill the emptiness I’d been carrying till then. The book’s lightness and brightness are natural consequences of this search. I didn’t really try to do anything different from what I’d done before. Rachel’s voice came to me effortlessly. It’s like that old cliché we hear when artists speak of themselves as a channel. It felt as if I were her. She inhabited me. Her voice was my voice, our voices were the same. And her voice is the voice of the book. It’s just the way it was.
It’s joyous because what happens is worthy of joy. A long-suffering person experiences a kind of enlightenment and, through it, powerful redemption. The story, really, is a celebration not of potential — who we might be able to be — but of now, of this and what this is, and, of course, of who we are right now, in this moment. The notion that we must somehow make payment for happiness is so dreary and Christian, to say nothing of ridiculous. Redemption, the sort that happens in this book, isn’t a function of penance but of acceptance. We don’t need to change. We don’t need to wait. We’ve got everything we need, right here, right now, but mostly we don’t know it, sadly, because we’ve been trained to ignore it. The truth is, what we’re looking for is what is seeing. This is the great quote-unquote secret. The kind of freedom Rachel achieves is only a matter of her having recognized this secret and its wisdom, and, through that recognition, stepping away from the countless veils that have till then distorted her vision. I think this is as perfect a reason for joy and celebration as any.
How did the character of Rachel come together? What were the challenges in writing from a female perspective, or from that of a woman who was, as you say, inhabiting you?
Obviously, and especially in this age of appropriation phobia, this is a question folks can’t help but to ask. You’re not the first, and I don’t imagine you’ll be the last. I’ve already talked about this elsewhere, and in fact I’m now in the middle of an essay about the dark period in my life just before this book in which I explore some of these concerns. It was a difficult time. Had it not been, I likely would have written a different book.
Whatever the case, at some point when the book was gestating in me, an image appeared, an old memory, of a woman, a teacher, ripping the hair from the head of a little boy, one of her young students, who was me. Somehow, bizarrely, I thought — and think even now — I identified not with the boy but with the woman. I found myself wanting more than anything to know what sort of pain would drive her to do what she did. How could a person who was essentially so good do something so patently bad? The only way to my answer, it seemed, was to become this woman. I had to be this woman and, to find out what drove her, I had to write this book. And not only that, but I had to place her in an alien world, a world full of brilliant light, where all the guises she’d been hiding behind were stripped away. She — I — we — had to be stripped, literally, of everything we’d had and known. We had to be naked in the sun.
There’s more to the story, of course, as there always is, but this in short is why Rachel Hill is the narrator of Absolutely Golden. I came to love her very much — it was easy, really — and through her I came to love myself, perhaps not the way I love her, but still. Today I feel not the least bit reluctant to say that it’s by my having become Rachel Hill that I’m still here. Truly, I feel, Rachel Hill, c’est moi.
Can you elaborate on that more? How did becoming Rachel Hill save you?
Had I not become Rachel Hill I’d never have had the ability to see myself as I was and had been. In becoming her, it’s not as if I became someone else but more that I became who I really am. Through her eyes, I could see the falsity of my ways, if this makes sense. She gave me the freedom to fall into myself, into my deeper, truer self, and from there to see — really to see — my contortions and mistakes and lies for what they were, absent the rationalizations I’d used to validate them. This is the thing: once we know something, we can’t un-know it. We might forget this thing for a time, which isn’t the same as “un-knowing” it. Having seen through Rachel’s eyes the impostor I’d been, I couldn’t very well go blithely on. This doesn’t mean I immediately changed. It means I saw what I needed to change, or at least some of what I needed to change. I still have very far to go. Change, real change — truly to change ourselves — there’s nothing I know that’s harder. The effort never ceases, the end never comes. It goes on and on because in the commitment to become a better person, there’s always room for growth.
Is that how you came to the idea of “golden”? Of blonde and bright? It radiates throughout the book.
At some point in the writing, after I got Rachel into the nudist colony, I realized I wanted everything in her world — which, I hope, is also the reader’s world — to feel bathed in light so radiant and pure that everything it touches glows. I think we’ve all had that experience at some point or other, if only briefly, where, in that kind of light, we have to squint, and what we see feels preternaturally beautiful, as if it could only have come from a dream.
Speaking of the nudist colony, what drew you to that setting?
I’ve always been fascinated with nudist colonies, though I’ve never been to one. What I have been to, though, is nude beaches. My parents took my brothers and me when we were too young to have a say in it, and, for reasons even now I can’t entirely explain, it creeped me out. I always felt that places like that have nothing to do with reality. It was as if everything you did there — and doubtless I’m speaking for myself here, based on my experience — was a simulation of something else. It didn’t seem as if anything I did at the nudist beach was genuine because, ironically, it didn’t seem natural. I felt always that the way people acted was the way they thought they should be acting, based on some idea of how people should act once they’ve stepped outside the auspices of their mundane lives.
In the book, nudity isn’t equated with vulnerability (even those new to the nudist colony take to it without much hesitation), but we do see these characters in moments of crisis. They’re exposed through how they interact with one another. How does vulnerability relate to this idea of authenticity? When are we truly vulnerable?
To be vulnerable in the negative sense is, for me, to be defenseless. This isn’t a healthy vulnerability or a happy one, because it presumes loss and fear. We first have to have been stripped of the armor we believe protects us — from whatever nameless force — and once it’s gone we’re terrified. Without protection, we believe we’ll be harmed.
Maybe. But to be vulnerable in the positive sense is to be open. And to be open is to wield no arms and bear no shield, to walk the world naked, as it were. When we’re open — and by this I mean when we’re openhearted — we don’t try either to keep things in or out. We simply accept things as they are, even the things that hurt, which, at least when we’re young, is more often than not. At a certain point, though, the longer we maintain this state, openness ceases to hold any sense of trouble, so that the concept of vulnerability becomes moot.
I’m very far from this place. I’m terrified still of all kinds of stuff — I mean, today, in this world? My grace lies in knowing in the deep that my fear is my delusion, and that I can be free of it if I choose.
Hair carries a great deal of weight in the book. It’s almost like, with clothes and belongings out of the picture, the characters cling to whatever’s left. I started to get the sense that stripping away earthly attachments was impossible, because there’s always something left to cling to. Is that part of why hair has so much power here? And were you thinking about figures like Samson, Rapunzel, Farrah Fawcett?
Hair is huge in this book! And, just as you say, it is inspired by tales of people whose hair endows them with extraordinary powers. Throughout history, and still, today, in many religions, hair is magic, and often even considered the essence of who we are. I wanted all of that in this story. I mean, really, the whole thing depends on it, right? Rachel’s gone for years with her beautiful hair disguised in an obsolete bouffant, a symbol, pretty obviously, of her repression. But the day before she heads to Freedom Lake, the last day of school for the year, she tears the hair from the head of one of her students — blond hair, no less — and is by that act compelled to dye her hair and get it styled au naturel. There’s no explanation for it, of course, but something actually changes in Rachel, the new do actually transforms her, to the extent that everyone around her knows it, though they don’t know why, either.
I’m glad, too, you noticed the irony inherent to this notion of the struggle to free ourselves of attachment. But I do believe it’s possible to get free. In the book, we see this with Rachel’s erstwhile beau, Jack, who undergoes the epitome of cosmic reversal when he achieves freedom through losing the only thing he thought made his life worthwhile.
Jack’s someone we’re wary of from the beginning, if only because the narrator views him as a little parasitic. But there’s still so much sympathy for him radiating from Rachel, and when his redemption comes, she’s right there waiting. In fact, most of the novel’s plot hinges on characters other than the narrator. She often acts more as an observer. While she’s undoubtedly going through her own private experience, it feels a step or two away from those she’s reporting on. How do you think about that distance, and why was it important to this story, these characters?
This is a provocative point. I recently finished a draft of a book-length meditation on the state of art today titled In Favor of Nearness. In it, I advocate for art that evinces radical nearness and foment against “art” whose principal characteristic is an obvious distance. We’ve reached a place, I feel, as a people and as a way of being, where fervent belief in anything is subject to ridicule and scorn. The ethos, if really we can call it that, of distance (and of the murderous irony that it spawns) derives solely from fear. We’re not afraid of commitment and of revelation so much as of the consequences of commitment and of revelation — mockery and laughter, basically. Without this fear, the distance required to study ourselves enough to see the difference between our feelings and desires is impossible, at which point so is irony. Irony — the difference between what we say and mean — can’t be got without an obsessive surveillance of ourselves, a surveillance whose principal requirement, always, is distance.
That said, this distance I’m condemning is very far from what I think of as a knowing detachment, which is every bit as necessary to the creation of art as is nearness. It is possible to be so close to something as to obliterate the perceived space between it and us without ever taking hold of that thing. There’s no thing to grasp, really, but our ideas, which amounts to saying there’s nothing to grasp. The world is rising and falling as we speak. There’s no ground beneath us. There’s nothing to hold onto. We can sit right on top of anything without struggling to contain it. The point is only and ever to watch with compassion and love. This is what I mean by “knowing detachment,” and it’s in this state that I believe Rachel moves through her world. She’s radically immersed in events but, critically, detached enough to maintain the perspective that ultimately saves her.
The novel offers rich tangents on the history of erotic dance, occult rituals, classical music, and more. Is it all tied to reality, or did you feel free to invent things? How much research went into this novel?
You may be surprised to learn that just about all of my research for this book consisted of studying Playboy magazine from the middle 1960s to May 1973. Everything you want to know about American culture at that time is in its pages. It blew me away just how much there is. The stuff on erotic dance, however, and the occult, required some investigation, which I did a fair amount of. I used it, of course, but I invented plenty, too. The majority of this book, actually, unlike most of my other stuff, is pure imagination, stimulated by the research but not derived of it. Basically, what’s in the book is there because I felt its success demanded it. I just let the work show me what to do.
You recently had some major health problems. Were you still editing this book at the time? Did revisiting it after all that change things for you?
I did have some health problems — eight major surgeries in less than two years, plus two blood clots, knocked-out teeth, and other divers and sundry afflictions that paled in comparison but which certainly didn’t help. And, yes, without a doubt this all messed me up in the worst way possible. The pain I experienced was constant and critically acute, to the point that it stripped me of all but the ability to contend with it moment by moment. By the end, it nearly destroyed me. To say that affliction of this sort is life-altering is the grossest and most insulting sort of understatement. It got to where I was mostly just trying to make it to the end of the day. There’s so much more to say about this that I’m pretty sure it will make a book. And definitely this was all going on as I prepared Absolutely Golden for publication. With my other books I’ve done a lot of extraneous work — marketing and PR and such — but with this one it was all I could do to bring it to print. I’m telling you, I wouldn’t wish my experience on my worst enemy, not even on Trump, and that is saying something, because he deserves suffering to the nth degree.
Speaking of change, this is what I feel like the hippie movement was once associated with. At least for people like my parents, hippies were the radicals, the liberated, the people who were going to save the future. In the end, though, hippies have sort of become a punch line, even in liberal circles. There’s a quickness to dismiss the mindset. You don’t strike me as the hippie type, but you give your hippie characters a lot of room here. You take shots, but typically at the individual decisions being made, rather than the lifestyle. What’s your stance on the hippie phenom, then and now? Who are your go-to radicals today? How do we enact substantive change, and who’s doing it?
Hippies have always been a punch line! It’s a tautology, really, to say hippies are a punch line, right? But seriously, there’s a hippie, and there’s a “hippie.” I’ve known some real hippies, and they are among the best people I’ve ever known. Basically, they do everything they can to live naturally and respectfully and to help others do the same. But I’ve known many more “hippies” than hippies — the girl whose father is a real estate tycoon but sits on the sidewalk dreadlocked and barefoot, begging for beer money while she huffs on a spleef, then drives back to her condo in her brand-new 4Runner blasting the Grateful Dead and Dylan. I knew this girl. I’m serious. She was very real. And this type of person is a discredit to her fellows.
It’s funny, because I wouldn’t necessarily equate hippies with radicals — not the faux hippie I just described, anyway. The real hippie, though, I suppose is a radical, in the true meaning of radical, which means “root” — what is irreducible, that is, or, in other words, the truth. A radical, for me, is a person who strives to live according to the truth. In that regard, people like Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Chögyam Trungpa are changing the world. And when I say “change the world,” I don’t mean it the way many do. I mean it in the sense not of making things other than they are but of reminding us of how things actually are, and encouraging us to live within the purview of their ways.
There are plenty more humans like this, countless, actually — Shunryu Suzuki and his master Dogen, who brought Zen from China to Japan in the 13th century, and then guys like Kahlil Gibran and Rumi. Also, in the last century, Ram Dass, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti. These and many others are the people I think of as spiritual radicals. There are also the radical thinkers and activists whom I call “sentinels” — Chris Hedges, for instance, being the most prominent in my mind today, along with, of course, Noam Chomsky. Then also you’ve got Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, Slavoj Žižek, and the like. Also, who else, Christopher Hitchens? Glenn Greenwald? Maybe Will Self, too, who’s emerged as a radical of sorts — a man who’s dedicated to calling out the bunkum of countless hypocrisies and ills that constitute our culture today. There are so many. And yet somehow still it doesn’t seem there are enough, does it? Certainly there aren’t enough to stop the lunatic with his arsenal of machine guns from killing dozens at a pop. Certainly there aren’t enough to stop the madman in his truck from plowing down people by the drove. The evil’s out there waiting. We never know what’s headed our way. We’ve all got to get our radical on, I think. We’ve all got to want the truth. If now isn’t good, good’s a thing I’ll never know.