If you’ve stopped by this sliver of the internet recently, you may have noticed that I absolutely adored the novel A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois. I happened to have the good fortune to ask Ms. duBois a few questions, the answers to which I can now share with you.
I also have the particular pleasure of offering you a chance to win the book! I have 4 whole copies of the paperback to giveaway, to 4 different people, so your chances are fairly high. Note that this giveaway is only open to those with a United States mailing address. To enter, simply leave a comment below by 11:59PM Pacific Time on Monday, September 24th. One extra entry for sharing the giveaway on twitter (cc: @zeteticat & note in your comment). I will announce the winner here by Wednesday, September 26th.
Enjoy the interview (and read the book!). Gary Shteyngart is right – Ms. duBois is definitely “too young to be this talented.”
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed your novel – it was truly one of my favorites this year. What struck me was both the introspective nature of the story and the characters’ impending sense of demise, and yet I didn’t find the tone to be terribly melancholy or simpering. What inspired the dark themes and their matter-of-fact treatment?
A: Thank you so much! Most of the darkness—and probably most of the matter-of-factness—comes from my experience growing up against the backdrop of my father’s long decline from Alzheimer’s disease. (He became ill when I was 12, and died when I was 25, just after I’d finished drafting the novel.) The questions that arose for me during that experience—how do you go on when you’re confronting a lost cause? How do you find meaning and sense in a situation like that?—formed the thematic underpinnings of the book.
Q: Aleksandr Bezetov seems to be loosely based on real-life chess champion-turned-political activist Garry Kasparov – was it your intention to write a novel using both chess and Russian social politics as a backdrop?
A: Yes—I thought that the broad arc of Kasparov’s career, from chess champion to political dissident, would be a really interesting through line for a character in a novel. And chess and politics seemed to resonate metaphorically not only with each other, but also with Irina’s journey.
Q: Your post on Powell’s site articulated an issue that needs constant addressing, that is, the cultural cues that result in a somewhat broader reading spectrum for women (in the ability that comes from being forced to relate to either gender) but a rather limited one for most men. Going back to a possible bit of inspiration for the post, did you consciously write Irina from the first person and Aleksandr from the third for a gender-specific reason, or did something else come into play?
A: Lots of different variables came into play in making that decision. Aleksandr’s story occupies so much more time than Irina’s does; his journey contains a lot of plot, and he undergoes an enormous amount of change, and all of that seemed better served by the tiny sliver of distance from a character that’s granted by the third person. Irina’s story covers a very brief time period, and her sections are very much driven by her voice, so first person seemed the natural fit for her. But I did deliberately decide to write a female point of view character into my novel (I think of first person and close third person as in the character’s point of view, so both Irina and Aleksandr are point of view characters, to my mind). When I was in graduate school, I usually wrote short stories from male perspectives. I think that was partly because I was afraid that writing from a female point of view would invite speculation that the character was autobiographical (which has indeed been the case with Irina). But I also think there was this weird internalized misogyny going on where I subconsciously felt that writing about men was writing about the universal in a way that writing about women wasn’t. So I’d always write these stories that were about some funny, ornery, misanthropic voice, and, over and again, I’d make that voice male. It’s like I thought that writing about a woman would automatically trivialize the story, or try the readers’ patience somehow, or require the plot to revolve around shoes. It’s very hard for me to believe that I had this stuff in my head—but I think that, as a very young writer, somewhere deep down, I did. And at a certain point I realized there was something wrong with being a female writer who was using the best efforts of my brain exclusively to explore the psychologies of male characters. And I do remember consciously deciding that it was very important for me, just on a personal level, to write a sort of curmudgeonly, smart, ironic, prickly voice and to give it to a woman.
Q: How often do you play chess? Are you any good?
A: I play chess only rarely, and I’m pretty bad at it. People who are really excellent at chess seem to have such particular brains, and part of what was interesting to me about writing the book was getting a chance to try to tackle the interiority of a person like that.
Q: What draws you to Russia? Have you spent a significant amount of time there?
A: I had the chance to travel to Russia as a very small child, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and that trip sparked my lifelong curiosity about that part of the world. And I’m really into international politics, so that’s the prism through which most of my interest is filtered these days. I had the chance to return to Russia in 2010, a few months after I sold the book, and it was such a mind-boggling experience to get to go to a place I’d been Googling so committedly for years.
Q: With Pussy Riot’s trial and sentence recently in the news, the general mood in Russia under Putin’s rule seems especially relevant (though, not surprisingly, it seems the band and the incident received much more press and support abroad than in Russia itself). Were you at all surprised by the outcome of the trial?
A: I wasn’t surprised by the trial’s outcome, though the fact that the band was charged in the first place for a 40 second performance was pretty interesting. It seems clear that Putin is becoming less and less tolerant of mockery; my semi-optimistic view of this is that it’s indicative of a growing insecurity as his grip on power becomes more tenuous.
Q: Why Huntington’s disease?
A: My father’s Alzheimer’s disease raised a lot of questions for me—about cognition and personal identity, the struggle against futility, etc.—that I wanted to explore in the book through the lens of a character who knew that she would one day lose her mind and memory. Huntington’s disease fit the needs of the story because it’s degenerative, fatal and, crucially, testable—genetic analysis can tell you not only whether you’re going to get the disease, but also, with some accuracy, when you’ll begin to exhibit symptoms. So I chose Huntington’s because it was the disease that matched the dramatic situation I was interested in.
Q: This may be a ridiculous question, but what became of Ivan’s cat? Did I just miss it? (Are you a cat person?)
A: You’re the third person to find this mistake! Poor Natasha got lost in revisions. Maybe she went to live with Elizabeta’s old parakeet. In spite of my misplacing this one, I do really like cats.
Q: Who are your favorite contemporary authors?
A: Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Grace Paley, George Saunders and David Foster Wallace.
Q: What are you reading these days?
A: Libra by Don DeLillo, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I’m also reading a book of poetry by Brittany Perham called The Curiosities.
Q: Where do you do most of your writing?
A: At my computer in the kitchen.
Q: If we could finagle a Freaky Friday type scenario, is there anyone, living or dead, with whom you’d trade places for, say, a week?
A: I’d like to trade places with Hillary Clinton and be the Secretary of State for a week. But maybe not this week.