Poking at My Wounds: A Conversation with Judith Freeman
By Scott BurtonDecember 4, 2021
Jolene and Verna share complicated ties that have crystallized over time. Beginning when they were girls just discovering their needs and desires, their ongoing stories have been inextricably linked. But when Verna marries Vincent, Jolene’s ex-husband, their paths may have finally, permanently diverged.
A successful and provocative feminist artist, Jolene travels the world, attracting attention wherever she goes. Verna, a writer, works from her home near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, where she and Vincent plan to spend the rest of their lives in a contemplative, intimate routine. Then Jolene asks one more favor of Verna — to take a road trip with her to their small hometown in Utah. It’s a journey that will force them to confront both the truths and falsehoods of their memories of each other, and to reckon with the meaning of love, the bonds that matter most to us, what we owe one another, and time itself.
MacArthur Park has much to say about a changing California, the military-industrial complex, the bloody consequences of American imperialism, environmental collapse, and the role of the artist. It would be easy to read the book as pessimistic — and it might well be that — but the moments of humor and tenderness throughout, at the very least, take the edge off. Freeman and I spoke via email.
SCOTT BURTON: Verna, the narrator in your new novel, MacArthur Park, is the same Verna from your first novel, The Chinchilla Farm, but years later. What made you want to bring her back to life?
JUDITH FREEMAN: I’ve always felt a fondness for the character of Verna. As one critic pointed out in an early review of The Chinchilla Farm, she seems almost more interested in the outcomes of other people’s stories than her own. I like that quality in her. This is somewhat less the case in MacArthur Park where we see a good deal of her internal musings, but still she becomes a “listener” for her old friend Jolene during their long drive through the West as Jolene lets out her thoughts on a variety of subjects. The world seems full of talkers, but few real listeners. In this sense, as a listener, Verna can transmit the stories of others, get them onto the page, in much the same way the narrators of Rachel Cusk’s novels do. I’m a great believer in the power of voice in a novel, and when I discovered Verna, as I attempted to write my first novel in the late 1980s, I discovered a voice that seemed true and that I could easily inhabit. Verna is also a kind woman, curious and strong and compassionate — the sort of woman I myself would like to be. She has authenticity. She’s very grounded. I never really imagined writing a sequel to The Chinchilla Farm, and I don’t think of MacArthur Park as necessarily that or only that; it is its own continuation of a story set in motion long ago. At some point, Verna beckoned to me again, and I could see how my life in the 30 years since I’d discovered her might be rich with stories that she, and only she, could tell.
We catch up with Verna years later. She has become a successful writer in Los Angeles. She is married to a composer, Vincent. The book centers around her relationship with Jolene, a famous performance artist, childhood friend from Utah, and Vincent’s ex-wife. There is obviously a great love that exists between Verna and Jolene. What made you want to write about female friendship, the love between two women?
Female friendship can be so complicated. It seems to be an ever-vacillating, charged condition, a dance of approach and restraint. I wanted to explore that. It’s one of the themes I most admired about Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels, how they captured this complexity, especially between childhood friends who remain in touch throughout their lives, in a state of constant tension driven by love (and also shared history). While you’re right about there being great love between Verna and Jolene, there are also more troubling feelings like jealousy and envy and resentment, especially because they have at different times, like the characters of Lila and Lenù in Ferrante’s novels, shared a love for the same man. We can cherish the camaraderie and importance of old friends, in spite of their faults — or perhaps even because of them because with such friends, we have endured so many ups and downs. These friends have stayed with us over the years and often know us so much better than others do. We all want to be seen in an effort to be understood and to be forgiven for our faults, to know that even if we act badly, we won’t be canceled. Jolene is a difficult woman to love because she’s so self-absorbed as many artists (and writers!) are. We expose ourselves to our dearest friends with the hope they won’t hurt us, and we love them even more dearly when we can see this is true. That is the basis of Jolene and Verna’s love for each other.
The novel is filled with Verna’s interior life. We read about her struggle with her relationship with Vincent (who has Asperger’s), her dislocation from the home that she and Vincent shared for many years, and the resurfacing of her old friend Jolene after years of absence. Verna is a character who seems to oscillate between being headstrong and incredibly vulnerable. This tension, I think, is key to the impact of the novel. How were you able to so effectively convey this internal conflict in Verna?
That conflict exists within me, I suppose — that tension between vulnerability and a kind of willfulness that might be thought of as strength. Some writers are born without the kind of thick skin that enable others to move about less painfully in the world. I am one of those writers. I feel everything, sometimes to a very unsettling degree. It’s both the source of a great deal of struggle and pain and the gift that enables me to inhabit various personalities and points of view as a writer. I wonder if most women don’t suffer from a more acute sense of empathy as part of our nurturing natures, our conditioning, and possibly our genetic past. We are living in an era where this is changing, so perhaps there’s hope. I’m waiting for the time when I stop seeing rooms full of men making most of the decisions, dominating politics and world events. These concerns lie at the heart of MacArthur Park, which I think of as a political novel, or at least one making moral arguments. Jolene represents the outrage I often feel about our war-mongering world and sees it as an amoral condition. I decided to let it rip and gave Jolene the job of voicing my anger about certain issues, including the obscene amount of armaments the United States supplies to the world, including to some very bad actors.
Jolene, when she reenters Verna’s life, we learn, has terminal cancer. She asks Verna to drive her back to their childhood home in Utah one last time. On the drive, Jolene essentially monologues to Verna on a multitude of topics: American wars, the military-industrial complex, ecological collapse, life in the United States versus Europe. She is damning of the United States, the harm it has inflicted on the world, and what a mess it has become at home. Do you think it is in an irreversible state of decline?
I don’t know that this country is in an “irreversible” state of decline, but when I look closely at certain things — homelessness in Los Angeles, for instance — I think, how can this ever be fixed? Only a radical reimagining of society can address it, a complete rethinking of the capitalist system that has brought us to where we are. But is human stewardship of this planet “winding down,” as the artist Ashley Bickerton put it in a recent short essay, and we’re now just “fecklessly decorating the twilight”? Who knows? I place my faith and hope in the younger generations. They’re hip. They get it. I have to believe they’ll do everything to alter society for the better. If not them, who?
Jolene also speaks of the role of the artist. She speaks of the artist “poking at their wounds.” Were you poking at your wounds writing this book?
That idea of “sticking a finger” in a wound came from reading Elena Ferrante. In Frantumaglia, her collection of essays and interviews, she suggested this is what novelists must do, stick a finger in our wounds. And not only stick a finger in the wound but activate it in order to discover the source of the injury. The short answer to your question is yes, I was poking at my wounds. But I don’t think mine are so singular. We all experience some of the same injuries.
Your novel has a lot to say about the role of the artist in modern society. What do you think is the artist’s role in modern society?
The artist and writer exist to chronicle a moment in time, to afford the sense of beauty and wonder that allows hope, and to call us to account for our moral and ethical shortcomings. Nobody put it better than James Baldwin, who said, “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you don’t see.”
There is a lot of nostalgia in your novel, nostalgia for how a place once was, for how one once was. What does nostalgia mean to you?
Is there a lot of nostalgia in MacArthur Park? I don’t see nostalgia as a bad thing. Sometimes you want to bring things back for the right reasons. It upsets me to think that once a new thing is invented, what preceded that thing has to be thrown out, even if it has value we don’t want to lose. I’m thinking of the way letters — actual letters — are disappearing from the world, replaced by texts and emails and Twitter. Historically, letters have provided a record of an era, afforded glimpses into the minds of writers and artists and thinkers as well as ordinary people telling about their lives. Our era is being effaced with every email we delete, and who saves emails? Who writes letters anymore? It’s one of the things in my novel that Jolene mourns repeatedly — the loss of letters and, with them, a certain history and record of human thought. Collections of letters are one of her favorite forms of literature. Also mine. People used to write such amazing letters to each other. Will we ever have those volumes again?
This reminds me of what Julian Barnes said of nostalgia. He said,
[I]f nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions — and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives — then I plead guilty. […] And if we’re talking about strong feelings that will never come again, I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. And that opens up the field, doesn’t it?
What do you make of this idea of nostalgia? Of course, what he says makes sense: one cannot long for only the pleasant things of the past without accepting that the picture is always much fuller and includes such strong emotions as both fondness and regret, and also pain, all married to the things and times and people who provoked the feelings of love and loss. Nostalgia is a linchpin of being human, connected to memory, and it reminds us of who we once were. In MacArthur Park, Verna quotes Joan Didion, who once wrote, “I think we are all well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, lest we forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.” Nostalgia reminds us not only of what has been lost, but who we have become as a result of those losses.
The American West is a key character in the novel. Los Angeles, the Great Basin, Utah. Personally, your life has largely taken place here. What do you think of her, having lived here your entire life?
Landscapes in my books are so central, whether it be the American West I wrote about in Red Water, my novel set in 19th-century Utah, or The Long Embrace, my biography of Raymond Chandler where I tracked down the almost three dozen places where he’d lived in Los Angeles. I’m a fifth-generation Westerner. The landscapes of the West, both rural and urban, are where I find my stories. For me, they just happen to come from this area I love, especially the area of the Great Basin — Nevada, Utah, these harsh, unforgiving, and sublimely beautiful places that can seem almost otherworldly. When I see the uses to which this land has been put, how arid it is now, all the small, broken-down little towns struggling to hang on, it can be upsetting, which is why I wrote about the beauty of the Great Basin in MacArthur Park but also the insidious uses to which the land has been put, the way it’s been abused as an atomic testing ground and a dumping site for nuclear waste and toxic debris, bombing ranges, a mining and extraction industry that has left so much waste and devastation behind. The West has seen so much violence, including the ruination of millions of acres by the military-industrial complex. We need to keep telling those stories.
Scott Burton is a literary interviewer and programmer based in San Diego.
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