by Kate Gorton
|Karen Osborn is one of those authors who handles time in her works with skill and authority. She drops you into a moment in the past—say, the Civil Rights era, or the time of westward expansion—and her authority with the subject matter and the richness of her details bring the time to life; you never doubt that you are where she has placed you. In this interview, Karen talks about the role time plays in her novels, including Centerville, which came out just this fall.
Q: Your latest novel, Centerville, is set in 1967 amidst the Civil Rights Movement and the general tumult of the Sixties. This has been a popular—and much-clichéd—era for authors; how did you manage to make it feel new for your readers?
A: Creating an authentic setting for an historical novel is similar to creating an authentic setting in any novel: both depend on using the right details. I often think of a cliché as a failure in vision, rather than as a failure of technique. I had to see the 1960s clearly before I could write about them, instead of relying on my ideas about the 1960s, which would probably have ended up being clichéd. I was a child during the 1960s, so I remember parts of it, but I approached the time period as if I knew nothing about it. My research included reading a number of Martin Luther King’s sermons and letters, several books about the Viet Nam War, and a book about the sixties, which described the time period in context with earlier and later decades. Also, a resource I found indispensable was a collection of older Life Magazines. I spent a number of hours at a couple of different junctures combing the issues that came out right around the week during which my novel takes place. These were immensely helpful, as the articles not only showed what was happening then, but also showed how people were responding to events. Also, I was able to see the details of fashion and lifestyle, which enabled me to imagine myself into the skin of a man or woman living then.
I learned a number of things doing the research, which cut against my own preconceptions about the time period. Martin Luther King (whom I thought of mainly as a pacifist) wrote persuasively about the existence of evil in the world and the need to recognize it, something that influenced my vision of not just the time period but of the events that occur in the book. Many African Americans were eager to fight in Viet Nam, seeing it as a way to advance economically and be seen as equal. The war formed friendships between black and white soldiers, but African American soldiers returned to a country that was still mostly racist. These details led me to develop the subplot between Officer Beckley and Jack Turnbow. Life magazine had an article about L.B.J. on his ranch in Texas in the same issue as an article showing the violence that had taken place when the National Guard was called out in Newark. L.B.J. stood next to his glistening new motor boat, and in his easy smile I could feel the way Americans at that moment in history were perched between a recognition of the increasing violence erupting in the cities and their optimism that everything would turn out great. They had been promised that life would keep getting better if they just bought the newest appliance designed to make life easier and more enjoyable, and their belief in that promise kept them from accepting the reality of an immoral war that wasn’t going well and a racial and social-economic reality that wasn’t based on equality. All these insights enabled me to see that time period distinctly.
Q: Time in novels is often revisited through characters’ memories: flashbacks. In your work, you have dealt with some pretty unreliable memories, especially in The River Road, thanks to an LSD trip at the most climactic moment in the characters’ lives. How do you handle a protagonist with an unreliable memory without alienating the reader?
A: I’m not sure that I thought about that difficulty as I was writing the book. I suppose that I wanted the reader to empathize with Kay, since I empathized with her. Throughout the novel Kay revisits the moment of her boyfriend’s death, which occurred when they were both high on LSD. She sees her boyfriend climbing up onto the railing of a bridge and then falling into the icy river below, but she can’t remember if she helped him or encouraged him to climb and then fall to his death. I mixed that memory with lots of other memories that Kay had of her childhood when she was close friends and neighbors with David and his brother Michael. These earlier memories complicate her character and hopefully the reader’s response to her. They show that her love for David was genuine, and they reveal a rivalry between the two brothers for her attention. The flashbacks also characterize the two families that lived next door to each other. Seeing Kay’s childhood of growing up with her single mother makes her more sympathetic, and it presents a clearer and less appealing picture of David’s father, Kevin. His story is told in present tense, versus Kay’s, which is related in past tense. I think his actions become more relentless as a result. Ironically, while he should be more reliable as a narrator than Kay, the relentlessness with which he pursues the court case against her makes him less empathetic and less reliable. While Kay revisits the past over and over again, questioning her own actions, Kevin never questions his actions or his view that Kay is guilty in the death of his son. This claustrophobic view alienates the reader more than Kay’s unreliable one that is filled with questions about the past, which I think is more human.
Q: In your novel Between Earth and Sky, you manage to draw parallels and create a deep connection between Abigail, the protagonist, and her long-deceased great-great-grandmother. What devices were useful in building this bridge between the living and dead?
A: The letters in Between Earth and Sky that Abigail Conklin writes to her sister chronicle her long life, so that the arc of the main narrative suggests the connections that exist through time between family members. Abigail’s sister lives out her life in the east, separate from Abigail, who travels with her husband and young children to the southwest in the 1860’s. To set up the bridge between Abigail and her ancestor, who inherits the letters, I had to first set up the connections between Abigail and her sister, or between east and west. Throughout the novel, while Abigail relates the details of her life in the southwest, she also responds to her sister’s remarks (which the reader mostly doesn’t see). Abigail’s life is so different from anything her sister can imagine that at times she’s quite critical of Abigail’s decisions and behavior.
Over time, their relationship is alternately challenged and strengthened. Even though they’re apart, they still have conflicts with one another.
Because Abigail’s oldest daughter returns east to live with her aunt, I had a vehicle to continue the conversation between east and west, in the form of Amy’s granddaughter who inherits the letters. The novel begins and ends with a narrative describing Abby’s trip to New Mexico, which I saw as the envelope for the letters. Once there, she meets Anita, who the reader learns was Abigail’s granddaughter. In the final letters Abigail writes toward the end of her life, she describes raising Anna, whose mother has deserted her. Other parallels between the 2 time periods exist: Anita is now an old woman raising her granddaughter alone on the property that Abigail deeded to her years ago, and Abby, like Abigail, decides to stay in New Mexico and ends up raising Anita’s granddaughter after Anita’s death. Answers are suggested to questions left unanswered in the letters. In that way, the final narrative functions as a resolution. Some of Abby’s character traits, such as her burning curiosity, her sense of adventure, and her love of the southwestern landscape make her similar to Abigail. Finally, the details describing the landscape, which is mostly unchanged, connect the two stories and perhaps form the most substantial bridge between the dead and the living.
Q: Okay, final question: You have the power of time travel, but you can only go in one direction. Which do you choose: forward, or backward?
A: This is a harder question than it appears at first glance. My immediate answer is forward–after all, who wouldn’t want to know everything that’s going to happen? The future is what completely eludes us. But upon reflection, I’d choose to go backward. I enjoy being surprised too much to want to know what’s ahead.
Karen Osborn is the author of 4 novels: Patchwork, Between Earth and Sky, The River Road, and most recently, Centerville. Publisher’s Weekly calls the new novel “powerful,” claiming that Osborn “employs a restrained ruthlessness, maintains the tension throughout, and appropriately refuses easy outs for a satisfying conclusion.”