Last week we reviewed The Girls from Corona del Mar and Shotgun Lovesongs. This week we have interviews from both of these debut novelists. Read on for Rufi Thorpe’s thoughts on female friendship, young motherhood, and Western medicine. If you missed our interview with Shotgun Lovesongs author Nickolas Butler, check it out here for his thoughts on some of these same questions, plus Midwestern modesty and why (or if) the Midwest gets short shrift in fiction.
Both The Girls from Corona del Mar and Shotgun Lovesongs are focused on childhood friendships continuing into adulthood and that loss of innocence that accompanies that transition. It really reminded me of the closing line of the movie Stand by Me, based on the Stephen King novella. The closing line is, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” What do you think it is about childhood friendships that make them so special and almost mythic?
Gosh, I think it’s a lot of things. Part of it’s just time. If you know someone long enough they burrow into your heart. … But I also think it has to do with the vulnerability of being 12. You’re sort of unformed and part of your love for each other is seeing those unpolished places, those awkward times, and understanding the child in somebody else. I think there’s just so much social grace that you get as you get older that creates this kind of distance that isn’t there when you’re young. And so when you become friends you really become friends, whereas there are long periods of acquaintanceship when you try to start a friendship when you’re older. I also think that childhood is just magic and that everything that touches our own childhood is then imbued with nostalgia, whether it’s the place where we grew up, or a way that our family was at the time, or an activity that we did. I know people who still think about their high school football as being the most glorious time in their life. Those things stay part of our identity even if we never play football again.
So do you think that it’s possible over time to develop friendships like that in adulthood that have that same quality?
I don’t know. I certainly think it’s possible to develop friendships that are intimate and wonderful and profound when you’re an adult. My husband’s sister, so my now sister-in-law, I only met when we were in our late 20s but I just adore her, and I’ve taken her on as family. We’re now technically related by intermarriage, so maybe it takes something crazy like that to make you invest in another person. It probably also has a lot to do with your character. … You know, here what’s I think it is. I think it depends on how many of your friendship slots are already full. I think people get enough friends where, they hit this number where that’s how many they can keep in touch with and then they may meet someone wonderful but if they don’t have any more time … everyone has work and family, there just isn’t room in your life. Maybe that’s what it is: when we’re 12 we have all the time in the world.
Part of what defines Mia and Lorrie Ann’s relationship early on are the dichotomies between the two of them. Lorrie Ann’s the good one and Mia’s the bad one. Lorrie’s the beautiful one and Mia’s the sexy one. Do you think that we continue to assume those roles in our adult friendships even after we’ve theoretically come of age and know ourselves and know who we are?
Part of the reason that I had them divvy things up like that is I do think it’s something we do a lot when we’re younger, and I don’t see it in people, at least in my life, in people when they’re adults. Because you’re pretty confident in your identity by the time you’re 30. So if somebody’s like you, that’s not threatening. But I think when we’re young, whether it’s our siblings or with friends, there’s like a need to make space for each other, to make room for the other person by being different from each other. So sisters will be the pretty one and the smart one. You specialize so you can have a thing that’s yours. But I think it’s ultimately a mistake.
I don’t want to put you on the spot and make you try to speak for all of humanity on this, but I do think that writers can often tell us more about society than sociologists because you’re just such great observers of people and how we behave. So given that this book is a portrait of female friendship, if you had to define what that fundamental difference is between female friendship and male friendship, what would it be?
Now this is an interesting one because it’s so hard to make generalizations about gender. To say something general about female friendship or male friendship isn’t to say that a man couldn’t have a friendship that’s barbarous, and intimate, and wild, and deep. But I do see men having friendships that are … the intimacy is sort of formed by not picking at each other, by easy, comfortable silences and ribbing each other. They can have big questions unanswered about each other. I think that women tend to just be way more intimate and our relationships with each other are much closer to romantic relationships that we would have with men. I think that women are too emotionally active to have that more passive form of intimacy. I don’t know how else to put it. I think that if men are sexually aggressive, I think women are emotionally aggressive. I also think that some of it has to do with how women are more judgmental of each other because we’re more alike. I see the same kinds of problems with mothers and daughters, too, where the line between the two of you gets blurred. So when your mother does something really embarrassing, you’re like “uggh!” and it’s like you’ve done it, and you get mad at her. It’s the same thing with your friend when your friend does something that you don’t think she should and you’re like, “uggh!” and it’s almost as though she’s a part of you. And I think that that self-identification is somehow easier when the person is of your same gender. Whereas in our love relationships, when our husband does something that we think is embarrassing maybe we just laugh and kind of enjoy it. But when it’s our friend it’s harder to tell that she’s not us.
You write, “When you become a young mother people don’t give a f— what you’re doing. Their eyes glaze over before they even finish asking you.” Which of course, as a young mother, I loved that line.
It’s true, right?
Yes! Yet you’ve written this beautiful, arresting novel that is really in part about what happens to these two women when they become mothers or when they’re choosing whether or not to become mothers. Your book is likely to be classified either as literary fiction or, perhaps less generously, as women’s literature. Do you think there’s a challenge to having a book about women’s choices around motherhood being taken seriously, or a stigma to so-called women’s literature?
Well, there’s a whole bunch of interesting questions implicit, I think, in what you’re asking. On the one hand, I have to say, when I wrote this I wasn’t even thinking about audience. It didn’t occur to me that no man would ever pick up a book called The Girls from Corona del Mar. I thought I was writing literary fiction and I didn’t understand that it would be women’s fiction or that it could be called chick lit or something like that. … And I started to think about it and I thought I would be fine if no man ever really did read my book. I mean I hope that men who read my book find it entertaining. And even if they picked it up and they weren’t expecting to become interested in it, I would hope that it would still hold their interest and be meaningful for them. … I don’t think that women are separate from the human experience. Which is maybe also why it doesn’t bother me to be women’s literature because it’s still literature.
In terms of the motherhood stuff … it’s hard to write about motherhood. If you count the number of births described in literature to the number of weddings or death scenes there’s really relatively few, so I was interested in exploring that just because it was happening in my own life. When I got pregnant I had no model. I felt totally like I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t have a narrative. There was no version of Cinderella for having a baby. I didn’t really know, I had only the vaguest of Hallmark sentiments about what having a baby was supposed to be like. … I mean women have only been actually writing and publishing fiction for a couple hundred years, and I think there’s a lot that we have yet to get to adequately writing about. And I feel like it’s exciting to see women starting to explore the things that happen to them besides romantic love. I would never want my characters to not get to fall in love. I’m not anti-romantic love for my characters. I love my characters, I want them to have happiness. But I didn’t want that to be all the book was about. And so trying to give Mia a love story that was really happy without it becoming the plot of the book, keeping the plot in other parts of her life, keeping the plot being about her career, about her friendship, about struggling with life and death and having babies, I feel like those things are also really big parts of women’s lives, and they’re parts that just really interest me.
Inanna figures prominently in the book, and you write in an author’s note that you would not have written this book without having read Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Ancient Sumer by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. So tell us about your experience reading that book and how it moved you to write this one.
Well, I had never read anything like it. I had studied Italian and Latin in undergraduate, so I had read a lot of mythology, a lot of ancient poetry. I loved all of that kind of thing. But I had never heard of her. I’d never read any ancient Sumerian poetry and I hadn’t really learned very much about ancient Sumer. And so I got the Inanna book from an ex-boyfriend. … So I read it and I was just shocked. There was something so raw and old, and just witchy, spooky true. And I’d never seen sexuality portrayed in such a vegetable-y way. I’d never seen it figured in terms of plants and “tore out your wheat,” and I thought it was just wonderful and magical. What I also liked about Inanna was that her story was about her own personal development in a lot of ways. … It was refreshing.
Tell us about your experience and process for writing this novel. I know that you earned your MFA at the University of Virginia. Did you begin work on this while you were there, did it grow out of your work there?
Oh, goodness no. I really feel like I did my MFA a little bit too young. I was 22 and I just feel like I didn’t know enough to just shut up and listen to people. So I was busy writing much worse things while I was there. … But I started writing this maybe 3 or 4 years ago. And it started out as just as a book about Lorrie Ann and it wasn’t working at all. It went through a lot of drafts and iterations. A friend of mine who’s close to me says, “You’re a pretty good writer but you’re a dazzling re-writer.” My first drafts are really kind of always awful and flawed, and then I have to keep going back, and keep going back, and keep going back. The book was originally set in Charlottesville, Virginia because I had just moved from there and I was picturing the town there, and there’s a lot about Charlottesville that’s really charming and picturesque, and I wanted to use it. But when I switched the setting to California … Mia just sort of sprang into my mind fully formed. She was like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, she just sort of came as soon as I set it in California, and then that made the whole book make sense. And I understood that it was about their friendship and it’s about trying to love somebody over time.
So what did prompt that switch to California? Was it because you did grow up there and you wanted to pay homage to that or because that’s what you knew?
Well really it was because I was writing it in Virginia and it wasn’t working. There were some things distant about it and it was too soap opera-y and stylized. It wasn’t coming across authentic. … It never occurred to me be fascinated with the place I grew up. It never occurred to me that other people would be fascinated by it. It was a place that I took for granted in many ways. I didn’t really romanticize it in my mind. Maybe that’s because I kept leaving. I kept living in other places. … I was always falling in love with a new place. So I guess that it occurred to me that what I knew most intimately was California and that I could make it interesting for somebody else, that I could make it as romantic and interesting-seeming as all these new places seemed to me because where I grew up would be new to somebody else.
There is some criticism throughout of the medical staff handling of Lorrie Ann’s labor and again of the medical community’s ability to really care for Zach. I love the back-and-forth with Lorrie Ann as she’s struggling with caring for Zach and with her not knowing how to care for him and what would be best for him. In that passage, you write, “They keep him alive. That’s the only definition of goodness they know.” Do you feel that there’s a doctor-knows-best mentality in our modern healthcare system that’s perhaps to the detriment of the patient, or doesn’t take into account the rest of the patient’s life?
Oh, man, I think we haven’t had these superpowers long enough to know the best way to use them. We haven’t even had the ability to do this kind of stuff, to keep alive a child like Zach for very long. So we’re kind of only now figuring out what’s sane to do. My husband’s a scientist, so I am very pro-science and I am pro-medicine. … But it also means that I view science and medicine as very human endeavors. I think that there’s a tendency to be very over-awed by doctors and by medicine. We all know how long it takes to become a doctor and then they have all this stuff and this equipment, and it’s all very clean, and it’s different than in our houses, and they seem very unapproachable. They’re distant from us. So it’s easier to imagine that they absolutely know what they’re talking about. And you don’t think things like, “Well, they actually got their degree 25 years ago and they may or may not be keeping up on the most recent medical literature and so they may not have the answer to your problem.” … I was very much a part of my grandmother’s long, long death process. Western medicine just really doesn’t know how to do death very gracefully. Especially in dealing with the elderly. Questions of quality of life are really important and nobody has the answers, and doctors are so afraid of being sued. And that’s true in elder care and it’s true especially, I feel like, with OB-GYNs. The need to perform C-sections in this country, I think, is in large part motivated by a doctor’s desire not to be sued. You can never be sued for doing a C-section, right? I think that there’s a long way to go. But at the same time, I think that looking at the problem head-on is a way of trying to push the discourse forward. … And there isn’t a right answer. And especially people who are getting elected or who are even in positions of leadership in the medical industry, why would they want to be wrong? And there’s really no way to begin talking without being a least a little bit wrong. But luckily fiction writers, no one cares what I think. I can afford to be wrong. I have the privilege of just sort of being a fool, and that’s a very powerful position in a lot of ways because you can just talk about whatever you want.
So what’s next for you? Are you working on anything now?
Yeah, I’m working on the next book. I already thought that it was really good and then it was revealed to me that it was horrible, so now I’m re-writing. This one’s a father-daughter story. Which is interesting. All my close friends are like, “But you didn’t know your father. Why are you writing a father-daughter story?” I think it’ll be interesting.
We’re confident Rufi Thorpe’s re-writing will dazzle and we look forward to her unique perspective on father-daughter relationships. For now, enjoy this clip of The Girls from Corona del Mar, narrated by Rebecca Lowman. The audio wasn’t ready yet when I read my advance copy, but after I heard Rebecca’s voice on this clip I knew she was perfect for giving voice to Mia.
The Girls from Corona del Mar, available from Random House Audio 7/8/2014