The Astral: An Interview With Kate ChristensenInterview by Kasey Carpenter
THE ASTRAL. The title alone suggests several concepts. Those familiar with Greenpoint, Brooklyn may know the building of which the title pays homage to. The other definition deals with the protagonist of the novel, one Harry Quirk, a wilting poet who suddenly finds himself accused of cheating on his dogmatic wife Luz, an accusation he knows to be false, and tries with every breath, up to a point, to correct in Luz’ thinking. In his life, in his writing, in the inextricably wound thread of it all, he fights the need for transcendence, he flees the astral plane that might just be where he needs to be to renew his poetic sensibilities and give him what he needs to weather the storms of his own little teapot.
Of course, that in and of itself does not a conflict make – Christensen needs the water a little hotter for Harry, so we throw in a lengthy couch surfing session taking place all around town, his Freegan daughter who, aside from her peculiars, is Harry’s greatest confidant and supporter through all of this. Oh and his only son Hector is convinced by a cult that he is The Messiah. Good times for poor Harry.
Her portrayal of the artist Oscar Feldman in THE GREAT MAN, which won her the 2008 PEN/Faulkner award, displays her talents at writing the wily male. Harry Quirk, an artist of a different stripe, and on the other side of the infidelity fence, is in capable hands.
Kasey: What was the inspiration behind THE ASTRAL, why did you feel compelled to tell us about Harry Quirk?
Kate: The building itself has a sordid, legendary history, and Greenpoint had an amazing effect on me. And one of the most amazing things about Greenpoint, although many so called hipsters have moved there, it remains un-gentrified, and is almost un-gentrifiable. The nature of the neighborhood is timeless, it’s right on the tip of Brooklyn, looking into Queens and Manhattan, so it’s this kind of geographic outpost. Harry took root in my brain because I saw a lot of men like him walking the streets in Greenpoint. Harry was an offshoot of the neighborhood where I lived – he was a geographically formed character.
Kasey: Reminds me of Paul Auster’s SUNSET PARK…
Kate: Yes. I love that book and when I reviewed it for Elle, I thought, “This book could be THE ASTRAL’s southern cousin.”
Kasey: Would you consider Harry a theosophist?
Kate: I myself am not a mystical person, and neither is Harry Quirk. He’s a man who is strained by his dogmatic atheism. I intended, hoped, that the ending would point towards the possibility of transcendence in Harry, which has been his downfall as a poet, and he doesn’t know it – so there’s no way for me to make it manifest in the narrative, but I saw, as the author, that he desperately needed to jump on this astral plane – he’s resisting ecstasy. So much of the book is concerned with my own family history: with belief, atheism, dogmatism, I come from a family of kooks of every stripe – believers, mystics – and though I’m not one myself, I think, I’ve always yearned for that, and it seems kind of fun.
Kasey: Harry beat the atheism drum pretty hard in the book, but he came across as a guy who had this doubt about his current belief system. Not to bring up another book, but this also reminded me a lot of Hale’s THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE, and how Bruno wrangled with it, and Hale admitted as much to me that he’s an atheist, but he doesn’t know how much of an atheist he should be. Harry gave me the same vibe. He bristles immediately when religion and god come up in life or conversation, but he still acknowledges this little itch that he doesn’t want to scratch with the god-finger, so he scratches it with poetry.
Kate: Exactly. I was just on a humor panel with Hale, and I felt that book too could be a cousin of THE ASTRAL. We were part of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop 75th reunion, and we were both put on a humor panel called the “Kid’s Table” - we talked a lot about how our works are similar – in my case Harry Quirk is both visceral and divine, as Bruno was – and how there is this elevated language that is constantly being brought low by physical realities and the animal nature of the narrator. So we decided that if we are humorous writers, we’re humorous writers for similar reasons – and so much of this dark comedy comes from trying to bridge this gap between animal and divine – and it can be quite funny, it can also be tragic – and his novel is deeply sad and moving – but in the end the comic vision is that we are not demigods though we oftentimes think we are.
Kasey: You delve into the grey area of emotional infidelity, what with Luz throwing Harry out without any tangible proof of a physical affair. Do you think emotional infidelity is just as grave, if not more so? There isn’t a huge amount of importance attached to this concept these days, and it was really curious to me – was this a conscious effort on your part, what are you trying to do with it, etc?
Kate: Well first of all the subject of adultery in a novel is always inherently interesting – that triangle, that rupture of a bond, that fallout of an affair afterwards – you can write about someone on crack, that isn’t that interesting, but the fallout afterwards when it becomes public – that is interesting – from a novelistic standpoint – in real life I’m sure it’s no fun. The idea that Harry feels falsely accused and that his wife is unable to convey her real feelings to him, the fact that she carries this inchoate pain, the feeling that her husband no longer loves her so she gives it a name, “he’s cheating on me, he must because this is how I feel.” And so she becomes irrational and seems insane to all those around her. But she isn’t insane, she’s just not saying what is really going in which is that “You don’t love me anymore and I want you to leave.” Instead of just talking it out, she blows it up into a psychodrama that involves the entire neighborhood – and I need her to do that in order to write the book. Emotional fidelity comes up in the themes that deal with Marion and Luz and how Harry has to deal with the fact that he loves Marion as a friend, and Luz as his wife. Luz, can’t see the grey that exists – and the only way the marriage can get past the breach, perceived or real – is to talk about it and come to some sort of an understanding, “You did this, you didn’t do this and I believe you” and we move on. But Luz can’t perceive this, things really are black and white for her, she has limited sight in this regard. Harry and Marion both see the grey when they talk about why they never actually had an affair…
Kasey: Yeah, it’s very apparent there when you read their dialog – “this is why we didn’t – okay – let’s move on.”
Kasey: With Luz and Hector, you get the sense that she deeply loves the boy, but to the same extent you see that she is terribly hurt by his decision with the cult group - was it her dogmatic belief system that kept her from Hector, or was it more of a pride thing?
Kate: That’s a really good question, but I think it’s both. I think she is unaware of her need for Hector to be what Harry isn’t – by Harry’s not being around, and Luz’ inability to control this, which creates in her a hunger – and I think the fact that Hector joins a cult is more of a symbolic rebellion than she knows, even consciously. And she refuses to rise to the bait. She lets him go. It’s like the umbilicus is finally cut.
Kasey: Yeah, you got a definite sense of the termination there. And your father/daughter mother/son relationships were, based on my experience and reference, spot on in a good or bad way – you take that for what it is. The mother wants the son to fill the inequities of the father and the father seeks a feminine comfort from his daughter and a sensibility he might not be able to get from his wife…
Kasey: …it just made perfect sense that the father and daughter were these running buddies of sorts and the mother and son were cut off – the dynamic was really well done, I thought, and again I don’t know what that says about my family experiences.
Kasey: Just how much damage to a relationship can writing a book inflict?
Kate: You mean how much to a real life relationship?
Kasey: Yeah, the whole threat that Luz sees in Harry’s writing, how the book becomes the other woman. I hear a lot about the sacrifices a family has to make to accommodate the life of their writer/loved one. Are you drawing on this from personal experience?
Kate: Let me first start off by saying that in this book, this doesn’t stem from any real life situation. Not like any relationship I’ve ever had. In my own life, the people I’m close to are my readers, so I involve them in the process. The people I’m closest to and love most, never appear in my novels. [laughs]. It’s very tempting to include them, but I try to avoid it. Though there is some potential, some tremendous risk with rivalries between work and family. I hear it happens more between children of writers. To me Harry’s book represents, to Luz, his inattention. He wasn’t writing about HER, and she wanted to be first with him, in all things.
Kasey: Was there a particular group you modeled for the cult in your book?
Kate: My sister belonged to a group called The Twelve Tribes for many years, and she left the group with her husband and four children the week I finished writing THE ASTRAL. I’ve spent a lot of time with her since she left, and talked with her about her experiences within that group – and it has been very illuminating. But while she was in the group, my family talked to various ex-members and counselors who, well, who called it a cult. My sister never called it a cult. She did leave, and she is very perceptive about the dynamic that went on there, though she doesn’t go so far as to call it a cult. But we, my family, were planning an intervention and when they got wind of it we lost touch with her for about ten years. It was one of the most painful things in my life, to date. Having her back is wonderful. But the thing is - I feel like writing about cults is so tricky. It’s so easy to write about these Hare Krishna-like weirdoes, but what I knew about my sister and her husband, is that people who join cults are often highly intelligent people, idealistic and wanting to find something more in the world. So I wanted to take what I learned from these ex-members and be true to what I knew. On the one hand I was angry at the cult because I lost my sister, but on the other hand I feel that what they did wasn’t evil per se – what happens in cults is complicated and different people have different experiences.
Kasey: It’s not all Jonestown.
Kasey: Tell us how you really feel about therapists! You know you have an entire book in Helen, you know that right?
Kate: (laughs) It was hard to keep her so limited.
Kasey: I loved how she could just manipulate an entire neighborhood like that with no remorse – I so want to read more of her.
Kate: The sad thing is that she was based on several therapists in New York City – she in some particular, exists.
Kasey: Yikes. There has to be some sort of oversight to control that from happening.
Kate: Thank you, she was fun to write.
Kasey: Can you let us in on your writing life? How much time you devote to reading other works? Any good books you’ve read lately? Are you a reclusive or a group writer? Longhand or straight to the keyboard?
Kate: I have a daily word limit. I have a thousand words a day, no more. I do it every day, if I take a day off from the words, then it becomes meditative towards the upcoming scenes. No longhand. I type everything and edit everything on the computer. I have about four or five people that I send stuff out to read. And that is important. I trust these people never to be editors, but only to be cheerleaders – I really need that at that stage of the book. But it is so nice to have these external voices saying keep going, and every now and then I ask questions to see if things are clear ro not. I generally think about a book for a couple of years before I start writing. All my books are first person except one, which was the hardest because it was my own narrative voice. But POV narrators start talking to me, by the time I start writing the first sentence, I have a momentum for the book already. I write books straight through. I become a hermit at those times – I don’t go out, and now I live in New Hampshire out in the middle of nowhere, it's wonderful! When I lived in the city I had this studio I would walk to with no internet, no phone. It works for me, it gets books written. Everything goes forward at a quick but orderly pace. I wrote THE ASTRAL in nine months. But I have to stick to it every day – if I lose track for a day or two, then it takes me a week to get my rhythm back, to find my place in the story again.
Kasey: Danielewski made a great point along those lines, he called it the Jane Goodall Method. You have to sit in those trees and wait for the apes to appear, at first on the periphery, then they get closer, until you can eventually interact. But you leave for a day or two, and you have to build their trust all over again.
Kate: That’s exactly it. I think it’s a pretty universal experience. I think this is how novels get written.
Kasey: What are you working on next?
Kate: I’m about to start another novel about a food writer in her fifties who goes to Hawaii to research the cuisine there. I laugh a lot when I write it, so I think it’s going to be a comedy... [laughs] I think it’s time we took American Food writing and satirized it.
Kasey: Well that is something I look forward to. Thanks for your time.
Kate: Thank you, this was nice.
You can buy THE ASTRAL here.