Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Space-Time Tour"

Thanks so much for coming all the way to Bangkok, Sue.

I absolutely loved Tangled Roots, particularly Grace with whom I really identified. To give people an idea of what it's about, here's a short description:
Tangled Roots interweaves two first person narratives of John and his mother, Grace.

We meet John first. He is forty, single, and a physics professor at an American University. He’s good looking, has hobbies, good friends and plenty of money, despite all this, he is in a mess. John is furious with his mother. He’s angry at the emotional scars she has left him with and the physical scar she caused his sister, Lizzie.

We meet Grace as an old woman who is telling stories to people John never knows (and when he meets them at her funeral, he resents.) Her stories tell painful truths about her life and herself.

Both John and Grace’s narratives reveal the stories of their past, as each believe it happened. John has to reconcile his past in order to move onto his future, moving the story from Boston to London to Moscow and back.

So, on with the questions?

I’ve always been interested in the notion of science and art going hand in hand. There’s an assumption that these are two separate concepts. I’m married to a material scientist and I am struck by the creativity needed by scientists to make successful research. In Tangled Roots, physics isn’t just John’s career; it runs through the story at all kinds of levels. Can you tell me how and when you made the decision that John would be a physicist? This was one of those decisions that was just obviously made, an idea obviously there that hardly needed any thinking about at all. I was starting from the assumption that John is actually very much like his mother, and although he professed to reject all of the spirituality that her later life embraced, he was actually just as drawn by those ideas as Grace was — who are we? Where do we come from? How are we connected? And that quickly drew me to physics, and specifically, cosmology. Then the more I read and researched the clearer it became and the more I was eventually drawn to the very new science of holography and its connection to string theory.

I very much enjoyed the strong sense of place (Boston, Manhattan, London and Moscow) that you painted throughout the story. You and I have in common that neither of us live in the countries of our birth and formative years. We’re different in that you’ve chosen Britain as the place to live and bring up your children whereas my home – Bangkok - is most definitely a temporary place. I know that you don’t consider yourself an expatriate but do you think that that ‘dislocation’ is what makes place in your fiction so important? Yes, that is very much one of the reasons. I have had to think very consciously about the meaning of “home,” especially as I was raising my children outside of what would have ordinarily been seen to be my own home. I talked about this idea very specifically in the chapter, “Sliding into Home,” about John’s little league baseball game. But I also find that, although I am not a very visual person, I am very strongly affected by my surroundings. There have been specific places that have become immediately important to me and I carry the impressions of those places around inside me. Those impressions inevitably become key in my writing. My new novel is very much growing out of this sense of place in that after just a 10 day visit to Cambodia I am now writing a novel set there, a novel in which the country is as much a “character” as the people who inhabit it. It’s also interesting that you used the word “dislocation.” I don’t think of myself as dislocated, but then again, I have written a play which I hope to be producing soon called “The Bistro Down the Road.” After a week-long workshop on it, the actors and director agreed that it is a play about “dislocation.” I hadn’t been aware of that, but once they said it it became obvious to me that they were right. Hmmm......

I think one of the most exciting aspects of telling a story in fiction is perspective. You do this beautifully in Tangled Roots; you could wonder if John and Grace were talking about the same events because their viewpoints were so dramatically different. As I daughter, I could understand John’s anger toward his mother but as a mother myself, I felt John was both old enough and intelligent enough that he should have considered his mother’s humanity and fallibility. You’re a mother of sons but was there ever any temptation to have John’s sister Lizzie, telling her perspective? Wow. This is fascinating because, to be honest, I never once thought about telling the story from Lizzie’s perspective. When I read this question it really stopped me in my tracks. Why hadn’t I thought about doing that? Is it because I’m a mother of sons and so I was especially drawn to the character of the teenage John as someone whom I wanted to raise to maturity, just like I have tried to raise my own sons? Maybe. But also maybe because although Lizzie doesn’t get her own voice, her needs and feelings are still strongly communicated via the voices of her mother and brother. And isn’t that so much like girls vs boys — girls often have less trouble expressing their emotions (especially to their mothers!). Boys, like John, often turn those emotions inward and become sullen and distant. Perhaps I had to force John’s voice to be heard whereas Lizzie had no trouble doing that for herself. I know that after I wrote Grace’s set of stories I felt very strongly that Lizzie had found her own way towards being a whole, developed adult, despite her having to take on a physical disability (I don’t want to give too much away!). But John was left emotionally stunted. I had to write the 2nd half of the book to make him whole.

Thanks for asking such great questions, Jenny, and for bringing me over to Thailand! Shall we repair to the balcony for some mango salad and lemon grass tea?

Sue’s website is here and her blog here. Go here to see the incredible book movie that Jamieson Wolf has produced for Tangled Roots. You can buy Tangled Roots from here as well as other good bookshops.


liz fenwick said...

A fascinating interview and the books sounds truly intriguing. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy.

Sue I found reading your boi fascinating as to compare it with the journey I have made from Boston and Cape Cod to the UK (which is our permanent home now) although I am truly an expat having lived in Moscow, Jarkarta, Dubai, Houston, Calgary and of course the UK.

JJ thankss for the insightful interview.


SueG said...

JJ: Thanks again for having me and being so supportive of my work. You're great.

and Liz: lovely to "meet" you here. I love the way you can meet people on the net whose lives have paralleled each other in this way.! I do hope you like the book.

JJ Beattie said...

Liz, thank you for coming. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview and I hope you enjoy Tangled Roots.

You're most welcome Sue. A physical copy of Tangled Roots has been on TBR pile for a while. I have a horribly haphazard approach to this pile... so I was delighted to have a reason to pick it up and read it.

BT said...

Wow, what a superb interview. I enjoyed it all the more, being just over half way through 'Tangled Roots'. I didn't receive my copy until about a week ago, so am a bit behind the others. I can't wait to read the rest. JJ, the questions were so well thought out and the answers, Sue, gave such an insight on you as a writer and the story itself. Well done.

JJ Beattie said...

BT, thanks so much for your comments. I'm so glad to hear you're enjoying Tangled Roots. I loved Grace... wish I'd known her.

ChrisH said...

Lots of points to take away from this interview, thanks JJ and Sue.

KAREN said...

What a great interview, it made me want to read the book :o)

HelenMHunt said...

It's on my tbr pile. Must get around to reading it!