Working in a Castle Turns You Into a Romantic: An Interview with Victor Lodato
By Kathleen RooneyMarch 30, 2017
His debut novel, Mathilda Savitch, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2009, and won the PEN USA Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize. He has also written 13 plays — a fact which will come as no surprise to readers familiar with his keen sense of drama and his remarkable ear for dialogue.
Part love story, part ghost story, part coming-of-age fable, Edgar and Lucy’s masterful, omniscient, and shape-shifting voice whispers, yells, sings, and sobs, keeping the reader in thrall to its ever-shifting registers of complex feeling.
In early March 2017, just as the book was coming out, I was able to interview Lodato by email to get his thoughts on fate and memory, the differences between writing for the stage and writing for the page, the crucial role of smell imagery in fiction, important dead people, and the strange rarity of real kindness.
KATHLEEN ROONEY: I thought we could sort of start from the outside of your novel and then work our way in, so — the cover! You thank the designer Olga Grlic, who did a gorgeous job. Did you have much say in how it came to be?
VICTOR LODATO: Five choices were presented to me. I was immediately drawn to the paper cutout of the forest. I thought it was both beautiful and strange, seductive and ominous. I love the white — how it refers to Edgar’s pale skin, and to ghosts and bones. And the way Olga placed the title in the center of this cutout — I thought it was perfect. Edgar and Lucy — their names, at least — seem trapped inside this otherworldly landscape, with the blades of the ferns intruding upon them, almost threatening them. That seemed exactly right for the story.
Moving slightly inward, I’m fascinated by paratext — the acknowledgments, the epigraphs, and all the thresholds of a book. So I was struck by your dedication: “in memory of my grandmothers, Jo and Tess — who read no books, but who taught me everything.” Of course, the grandmother angle resonates with the importance of Florence, the grandmother in the book, but can you talk about why you chose to dedicate your book to your own grandmothers, and in that way?
I dedicated my first novel to my mother, who died fairly young. I commanded myself, with Edgar and Lucy, to dedicate the book to a living person. But, in the end, I offered it up to the memory of my two grandmothers. I guess I just have a lot of really important dead people in my life. And though there’s a lot of invention in Edgar and Lucy, in terms of the story, some of the emotional dynamics between the characters are very much based on my life — especially Edgar’s relationship with his grandmother. I had the luck of growing up in a house with both my grandmothers. The character of Florence is basically a combination of these two women — as if I’d stuffed my tiny Polish grandmother inside the larger body of my Italian nonna.
Also, writing Edgar and Lucy was an incredibly difficult undertaking, physically and emotionally. For all its playfulness, there’s a lot of tough stuff in the book. But somehow, in being able to access the love I had as a child from the two women who raised me, well — it got me through.
You also thank Pietro Torrigiani Malaspina and Maddalena Fossombroni at CastelloInMovimento in Fosdinovo, Italy. Can you say a bit about that place and its role in your writing of this book?
Pietro and Maddalena had read my first novel, Mathilda Savitch, and graciously invited me to their artist residency. I was already a third of the way into Edgar and Lucy when suddenly I found myself continuing the story in a nearly 1,000-year-old castle — a castle where Dante had once stayed, and where a particular cave in the vicinity supposedly inspired some imagery in The Divine Comedy. How could I not feel enchanted? Also, my hosts would often tell me stories about the ghosts that haunted the castle — including one of an albino child that had been imprisoned there. At that point, Edgar already existed in my book as an albino, but this other pale ghost seemed a sort of twin, another sad spirit I might help to liberate. Clearly, working in a castle turns you into a romantic.
You’re a poet and a playwright as well as a novelist — how do you decide what material goes in which genre, and how do each of the genres you write in relate to and inform each other?
Certainly, writing from voice and character is an extension of my work in the theater. When I write, I actively take on the characters — perform them, really. It’s a very physical process. Ideally, I want to feel that whatever I’m writing is happening right now. I guess one could say that the medium of theater is fate, while the medium of fiction is memory. I try to bring into my fiction some of the danger of theater, to create narratives that, even as they describe the past, are somehow infused with a present-tense theatricality that raises the stakes of the emotional transactions.
One of the things that I love about writing novels is the freedom to let the story unfold over a greater length of time. In a play, the magic circle drawn around the characters has to be much tighter. When crafting a play, I invariably find that I write more scenes than I can actually use. In a play, too much extra material, too many diversions, can be fatal, especially if these things impede the sense of inevitability, the sense that we are witnessing characters caught in the wheels of fate. And while a novel’s power can be reduced by excess baggage, as well, the form is clearly a roomier one — one that allows the characters to have a few more detours of thought and situation. And, having fallen so deeply in love with Edgar and Lucy and Florence, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to give them a more generous life.
Speaking of a more generous life, your first novel, Mathilda Savitch, was 304 pages long, but Edgar and Lucy announces itself as a big book, 544 pages. How does writing a short book differ from writing a longer one, and did you know that Edgar and Lucy was going to be a behemoth when you started?
When I work on a play, I can keep every bit of the story in my head, and so as I make changes and adjustments, I immediately understand the effect they’ll have on the rest of the piece. This was true, as well, for my much shorter first novel. But with Edgar and Lucy, I became overwhelmed after a while by the sheer number of details and events I was processing, and I needed to put notes up on the walls of my office — so many notes that the room started to look like the cell of a lunatic, with taped-up pages saying things like “Remember Orion!” or “Where are the acorns?”
When I started the book, I had no idea that it would end up becoming so huge. Perhaps because so many awful things kept happening to the characters, and because I loved these characters so much, I probably felt compelled to fight for some dignity and grace for them. And, of course, grace can’t be forced. It has to be earned. It couldn’t be easy, because it’s not easy in life, and I wanted this book to feel like life. This fight for grace might be a factor in the length.
Also, this book is very much about grief — and I think it’s impossible to discuss real sorrow without the element of time. The story just needed time to achieve its emotional ambitions.
One of my favorite moments in the novel is early on, when Edgar sneaks into his grandmother’s bedroom as she’s asleep and helps himself to some of her Chanel No. 5. It’s very revealing of the oddness of his character, and also of their relationship dynamic, but even more than that, I was struck by how beautifully you write about smells. This happens throughout the book, like when Edgar thinks of another character, “Thomas smelled like bread not yet baked, with a top note of ripe banana” and of another, “Jarell had the scent of pennies.” So, I wonder how conscious an effort did you make to include so much olfactory imagery, and are you a big smell/perfume person in your own life?
Like Edgar, I have a very sensitive and perceptive shnoz. A friend used to call me Francine Fishpaw, referring to the olfactory-gifted character played by Divine in John Waters’s Polyester. I think that was the movie that was done in Oderama, and audience members were given a scratch-and-sniff card that corresponded to scents in the film. Maybe I should suggest this to my publisher’s marketing team.
With regards to perfume or cologne, I pretty much detest it. (Most perfume actually makes me feel ill.) I’m very fond, though, of pure essential oils. Some of my favorites: vetiver, geranium, lavender, and rose otto.
Wonder seems to be a driving emotion for Edgar, the young protagonist. How did you decide to instill so much wonder in him, and why does wonder interest you in general?
Oh, well, that’s just me. I’m often in a state of wonder — sometimes leaning toward confusion, sometimes leaning toward reverie. I find it liberating to write in the voice of a child, from the perspective of someone who is still learning the world and interpreting its complexities for the first time. It enables me to address my own fears and anxieties and longings in a very open and innocent way. I don’t have to pretend to have all the answers.
I’ve always taken comfort in something the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” I suppose that child characters allow me to access this “I don’t know,” and it seems to be very fertile territory for me, creatively.
Staying on Edgar, we learn, gradually, that he is an albino, and that he also seems to be somewhat autistic and maybe OCD. His father, Frank, seems schizophrenic, and his mother, Lucy, seems alcoholic. How did you decide what burdens and traits to give your characters?
I don’t choose these things, really; they just come to me as I write. And I find it fairly easy to get inside characters with odd traits and emotional burdens. Like Edgar, I’m an oversensitive plant, nervous by nature, prone to moodiness. I completely understand the vibration of mania, of extreme, almost uncontrollable, reverie.
Ultimately, though, I don’t focus on a diagnosis for a character. I don’t think I ever mention schizophrenia in regard to Frank — and there’s just a glancing mention of Edgar possibly being borderline autistic. I’m a bit strange and so are many of my characters. Sometimes, in the end, their peculiar traits lead to triumph (as with Edgar), sometimes to misfortune (as with Frank).
On page 112 (which, in a book of this magnitude, is still fairly early) Edgar thinks, “Had it really been only four days since he’d walked from his house and tripped and dropped the card? […] Could so much happen in so little time?” I loved that moment because it seemed so true to his character, but also like a reminder to the reader, like See what I’m doing? And I was impressed at how much incident had taken place already (but also how it didn’t feel like too much). How do you approach time and structure? Do you outline, do you just write?
No, I never work from a plan or outline. I want to feel as if the story is growing organically, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. I prefer not to play puppet master too much with my characters. I think I’m at my best when I’m writing from inside a character — when every twist and turn of the story seems to be dictated by what a character is feeling. I think that this way of working helps to keep me truthful, emotionally, and prevents me from writing anything just to be clever. I don’t care for stories that come across too blatantly as something written by a “writer.” I prefer stories in which the characters seem to exist on their own. Maybe that’s because I’m also a playwright.
Honestly, as I’m working on a piece, I never really know what’s going to happen next. The characters and I edge toward the truth together. It’s this sort of detective work that keeps me interested, and hopefully it does the same for a reader. I think at the core of all writing and reading is mystery — the ultimate mystery being: Who are other people? One writes — and reads — in an attempt to answer this question, or at least get closer to an answer. It’s a very humanizing endeavor.
Relatedly, I also loved the narrative voice, which slips so effortlessly into each of the main characters’ perspectives, not to mention the minor ones. And it also seems adept at mixing high and low references and observations from a greater distance. At one point, the voice says of Edgar, “In movement he was awkward; in stillness he possessed a natural grace, remarkable van Eyck hands, a long neck worthy of Pontormo,” which is clearly someone thinking of Edgar and not Edgar thinking of himself. And further down the page, we’re back in his mind more closely and he watches his sleeping grandmother, “her great Jiffy-Pop bosom moving up and down with comforting regularity.” How did you settle on this perspective and this voice and how hard or easy was it to make it work in what seems like so easy a way?
Gosh, that’s a hard question to answer because my process is so intuitive. In writing Edgar and Lucy, moving between characters was like swimming in this big ocean, and I could feel the various characters as temperature or tidal shifts. I figured it all out with my body more than my head.
I never studied writing and so perhaps I have odd ways of doing things. I recall talking to some writing students a few years ago, and I mentioned this new book I was working on (Edgar and Lucy), and I commented on how the book moved, sometimes within a single chapter or even paragraph, from one character’s consciousness to another, and then occasionally to omniscience. And one student said to me: I thought you’re not supposed to do that. Afterward, I remember asking my editor at the time: Am I not supposed to do that? She kindly replied that most writers shouldn’t attempt it, but that I’d be fine. She trusted my ability to navigate many voices and make them clear to the reader — and her encouragement helped me to trust myself.
The epigraph for this book is, “There is no place for grief in a house that serves the muse,” which is from Sappho. I wonder, since many people in our nation are still sort of grief-stricken about our new president: How have you been able to continue to be creative in the face of immense political turmoil? And do you have advice for people looking to find a balance between creation and resistance?
To be honest, all my energy goes into my work, and I try not to get pulled down too much by the awful things happening in the world. My only reaction to cruelty and intolerance is to try to invent more kindness.
Ultimately, I want to write stories that have transformative power — for the reader, for the characters, for myself. I guess I’m a romantic in that I want to read and write books that will change me, change my life. It’s funny, writing Edgar and Lucy, I realized how strangely rare real kindness is, when it’s the simplest thing in the world and should be so easy to offer. And I guess if I’ve woken up from a 10-year dream of writing this book into a world in which there is suddenly so much unkindness, then I feel good about putting this love story into the world at this particular moment.
I don’t take fiction writing lightly. I really do believe that fiction, both the writing of it and the reading of it, is a very civilizing thing. In it, there’s the possibility of learning to love people who are nothing like you — and that’s where the miracle of art happens, and you change.
The book makes frequent reference to the working-class backgrounds of most of the characters, as well as to the judgments — usually negative — passed upon these characters by the more upper-class ones. Did you deliberately set out to write about working-class people, and why?
Early on, with Edgar and Lucy, I realized that the characters and the setting were a sort of mirror land of my childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, and of my hot-blooded, working-class, Italian-Polish family.
If I had a better memory of my life — and my childhood in particular — I might write memoir. But my memory is funny: while I don’t recall specific events very clearly, I have a strong memory of how I felt as a child, and throughout most of my life. So I think, in many ways, that my project as a writer has been to invent stories that can accommodate these emotions: to create fictional architectures that can contain these remembered feelings that roam around in me without context. It’s actually a relief to have a place to put these emotions — to bind them to an invented narrative. This was definitely true for Edgar and Lucy. Writing it felt like an exorcism.
The book is extremely dramatic — sometimes even (not in a bad way) melodramatic — how did you decide how big in its incident and emotion to let this book be?
I sometimes affectionately think of this book as my “New Jersey Gothic.” And I do think, in many ways, that the novel is a true gothic, in that it’s about Edgar and Lucy’s complicated connection to the past, and there’s definitely a sense of the past as a source of malignant influence. And of course all of this is happening in an updated version of the ruined castle, which is the dilapidated Fini house, certainly a haunted place. Allowing myself to think of the book as a gothic gave me permission to go with a more heightened kind of storytelling.
Also — and this was perhaps even more liberating than recognizing the book’s gothic nature — I sensed early on that Edgar and Lucy, at its core, was a love story. And not just one story, but a series of love stories that were all connected. I was very aware that the emotional temperature of the book was hotter than anything I’d ever written; the emotions were bigger, balder, crazier. And there was a certain point when I actually felt embarrassed by this, almost ashamed, to be writing in such a way. Ultimately, though, I knew that in order to be true to this story and these characters, I had to just dive into the water and go for the big opera of it.
The inevitable concluding question: What are you working on now?
I feel like it was only around five years ago that I started to understand how to write a successful short story. They’re surprisingly difficult. But I love the form, and am working on a collection. My most recent short story will appear in The New Yorker in late March. Because of their brevity (compared to a novel), there’s something particularly moving to me about the short-story form. You get only so much time with the situation and with the characters. With a novel, there’s a feeling of living a life with the characters — and that can be a lovely thing. With a short story, you’re having a fling, an affair — and it’s an opportunity for a different, sometimes wilder, kind of passion.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and author of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.
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