Transgender seems to be the social issue of this year. From the TV series Transparent to Bruce Jenner’s emotional interview with Diane Sawyer, transgender is receiving its due notoriety. As an author, the timing of The Listener must seem serendipitous. How long have you been working on this book? Was its inspiration something you encountered in the media, or is it a past project that has finally found its time?
I began work on the novel in 2003, long before “trans was trending.” Back then many of the words that are now in the language did not even exist. I don’t think Noah conceives of himself as transgender. One of the things he rails against is the limitation of labels, of being defined by societal concepts and constructs. His goal is to be able to act on the outside the way he feels on the inside. He’s trying to do what we’re all trying to do — get free.
That the book has been born into a particular social moment is probably not serendipitous. As our notions around gender fluidity evolved, I suspect that a novel I had trouble pedaling previously, finally became palatable. What I’m saying is, no one was much interested in The Listener in 2008, when I finished an earlier draft of the book.
The parallel worlds of Dowd and Noah expose many common human conflicts: social acceptance versus the expression of individuality; the weight of secrecy versus the pain of confrontation; familial responsibility versus independence. Did these conflicts develop with the story, or were they themes you felt were imperative to convey? In other words, did the themes create the story or did the story reveal the themes?
Fiction writers invariably say that the characters and the story come first, then the themes follow. But truthfully, I choose characters and plots because they allow me to explore significant, inquiry-worthy questions. I think when I am sliding the hangers along the big rack of potential plot complications, I seize on the ones that will resonate for me.
Do you perceive literary themes, then, as a bit like the lion with the thorn in his foot? You could go years with it embedded in your psyche before the irritation becomes so severe you must roar?
There is no way for me to respond to this without referring to Flannery O’Connor’s disquisition on “theme” in fiction. “The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it… The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning…” She says that if you can separate theme from story, “then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.” Most likely what transpires is that the dreaded “theme” or what I like to think of as, “the obsession,” pecks away at me and eventually I come across the makings of a story — people and dilemmas — that offer a way to transmute that obsession, to make what has been abstract and theoretical into something concrete and experiential.
Writers are often counseled to make their readers care about their characters, not necessarily like them. From the very first pages of The Listener, we care deeply about both Noah and Malcolm. As a young transgender college student, Noah is a very sympathetic figure, but Malcolm, a middle aged, somewhat battle-worn psychologist, less so. And yet we empathize with Malcolm tremendously and feel like we know and care about him. How do you do that?
In my experience of writing novels, I inevitably slip into an organic relationship with my main characters. The further I get into the writing of a book, the more the characters reveal about themselves, and the more they reveal about themselves, the better I am able to understand why they behave the way they do. The more fully we know and understand people, the better chance we have of loving them. Of course, this is very different from liking one’s characters. I don’t think I set out wanting readers to feel a certain way. It’s really me I need to convince.
Backstory is one of the trickiest parts of writing, sometimes appearing to interrupt the narrative and be “stuck into the story.” In The Listener backstory comes in and out pretty seamlessly. Again, how do you do this?
I laughed out loud at this question about backstory. You should probably interview both my agent and my editor whose advice during rounds and rounds of edits helped to significantly streamline the backstory and finesse its inclusion in many scenes.
So the issue of selection must have become crucial in terms of backstory. Did the rinse and spin cycle with your agent and editor help to clarify in your own mind what the reader needed to know about your characters’ pasts? And do you believe this process refined the book’s structure?
Backstory, like everything else in a novel must do one of two things (ideally, it does both) — deepen character and/or further plot. Often when we write we create backstory as a kind of scaffolding on which we can stand so that we can build the novel. Then, when the novel is finished, we see (or someone else sees for us) that the scaffolding, which was essential to the process, is not only unnecessary, it’s in the way. We wrote the backstory for ourselves, and, truly, now that the world of the book is complete, those scenes from the past neither further the plot nor deepen the characters. That stuff can be eliminated or, at least, reduced.
There are several coincidences in The Listener which really help the plot move along —Malcolm getting involved with Noah’s Mom, Leah working for her Mom’s lover, Malcolm mistaking Noah for Cara— and they are all believable. Any advice on how to make them work?
Alice Mattison has written a terrific essay on coincidence in fiction (AWP Chronicle 2004). We all know there is much more room for coincidence in life than there is in art. In the earlier drafts of the book, a few readers told me that some of the “coincidences” strained credulity. I mounted a pathetic defense in response, saying that I lived in a smallish town, and all kinds of eyebrow-raising synchronicities befell me. Of course, to invoke real life when discussing the laws that govern the world of realistic fiction is ludicrous. I think that when a novelist sufficiently develops his characters and when the story is emotionally honest, piercingly true (I just finished the heart-stoppingly good novel, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, in which coincidence is something of a weight-bearing wall), the reader barely notices coincidences as such. The cosmos of the novel becomes so palpable, the struggles of the characters so fraught with the texture of human experience, that we nod along like dashboard bobble heads, saying, yes, yes it happens just like this in real life. I suspect that reading a terrific novel, being in the thrall of a wonderful book, is not unlike being in a cult. We’ll go along with whatever so long as we don’t get booted out of that world.
Malcolm’s inner story is so rich and, as a psychologist, he gives us such insights into his self-evaluation. His ruthlessly honest depiction of the arrogance of a single parent, his dry-eyed criticism of a spurned lover, etc. is palpable. What has happened to him in the course of the novel? How do you feel he has changed?
You have fingered a sore point here. In earlier drafts, a couple of therapists who read the book were mightily chagrined that someone who considers himself a change agent for others, has evolved so little himself. I spent a lot of time trying to “fix” this. While I don’t think that Malcolm has necessarily grown or become enlightened by the end of the novel, I do think the events that elapse in the real time of the story have set in motion some potentially great changes. His daughters have forced him to release his death grip on the narrative of his life and theirs. On the last page of the book Leah says to him, “Sometimes I think you confuse your childhood with ours.” My hope is that he’s off somewhere contemplating that right now.
Rachel Basch is the author of The Passion of Reverend Nash (named one of the five best novels of 2003 by The Christian Science Monitor), Degrees of Love, and The Listener, out now from Pegasus Books. Basch has reviewed books for The Washington Post Book World, and her nonfiction has appeared in n+1, Parenting, and The Huffington Post. Basch was a 2011 MacDowell Colony Fellow. She received the William Van Wert prize for an excerpt from her new novel, The Listener.
A dedicated teacher of creative writing for over 20 years, Basch is a contributor to Now Write!: Fiction Writing Exercises From Today’s Best Writers & Teachers. Basch currently teaches in Fairfield University’s MFA Program and in Wesleyan University’s Graduate Liberal Studies Program. In addition she works independently with writers and leads a private master class.
Basch holds degrees from Wesleyan University and NYU’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, where she was awarded a Teaching Fellowship and a University Scholarship. She has lived in Connecticut for 30 years.