By Steve Rudd
Nora Chassler is an acclaimed American author living and working in Scotland. Here she chats to Pulse author Steve Rudd about all things writerly…
For those not in the know, you’re the author of three acclaimed books, two of which have been published by Valley Press. What led to your work being picked up by Jamie at VP?
I approached Jamie because my agent at the time, Andrew Kidd, couldn’t place G/M=OS. I was incredibly disheartened at the time. I was taking a course to get a certificate in counselling children and young adults. I was throwing in the towel. So, when Jamie accepted it, I was ecstatic, vindicated; I believed! I was fished up, rescued, redeemed! Even though I don’t really drink (anymore), my daughter got me a bottle of Prosecco and a Victoria Sponge. We had a little party. I now accept that I will always write and that there will be painful moments when the readers aren’t there. I am incredibly grateful to have a few. That allows me to persist with slightly less sorrow. This in no way means that I think all writers need to be as insecure, pessimistic and as generally needy as I am, but for those who are: you aren’t alone!
How would you best describe your style of writing, and which authors have had the most influence on you?
My style is the result of where I am from, what I have read and admired, and what I believe about art and reality. William Boyd called it demotic, which I originally misread as demonic. Demotic is good, too, of course. Seriously, though, hmmm… describe my style? That’s a tough one. I’m very keen on getting to the bottom of things and calling the reader’s attention to whatever assumptions they are bringing to the text. They often precisely don’t want their attention drawn to anything about themselves—they are reading to escape—so I employ all manner of tricks: I try to charm, disarm, dazzle, distract, then I get very close to their ear and tell them something they might rather not hear. Why not just tell them outright? Because it’s through the narrative, the characters, the whole shebang, that I attempt to set up a conceptual/ emotional world that will change the reader for the better. It’s a moral project. It sounds a little patronising, perhaps, but that’s the truth, and I myself have learned many things from books. Authors who have influenced me include Jean Rhys, Heraclitus, Malcolm X, W. B. Yeats, Dostoevsky, Julia Kristeva, Freud and Buddha.
You interviewed Paul Auster in Edinburgh. He is my favourite author, and I have read every one of his books bar his latest. Are you a personal fan of his, and how on earth did you manage to bag the “gig” of interviewing him?
I’m not really a fan of anyone. I am a fan of great books, not people. I’ve known too many great artists. I love great books; in my life, great books have done me far more good than people. Sounds harsh, but I’m too old to mince words. (That’s except for my daughter, Frances, who has done me more good than all the books I’ve loved added up.)
I think The Invention of Solitude, Moon Palace, The NY Trilogy and The Music of Chance are works of literary genius, up there with the House of the Seven Gables and Bartleby the Scrivener (Auster loves Hawthorne and Melville, as do I).
When I spoke to him, much mention was made of Beckett, but I had only read Waiting for Godot—which was a little embarrassing. I read a bit of Molloy in a bookshop and was immediately struck by how strong an influence Beckett had been on Auster. I didn’t buy it, but I should have. I’ll get it online. It looked great.
I got the “gig” because Nick Barley saw me do a reading from Miss Thing in 2010, and I guess he thought I fielded the Q&A well. I had never interviewed an author before, and was super-nervous, but didn’t want to say “no”, even though I was really scared. I actually said to Nick, “I won’t let you down, Sir!” It went well though. Phew.
Like Paul, you have a kinship with New York, both of you have lived and set your stories there. What would you say are the best and worst things about living in such a huge city of NYC’s calibre?
Place is hugely important in my writing, and in my life. NYC is, as you imply, incomparable. Even now, stuffed with rich bankers, its spirit still breathes under the asphalt. And that is not nostalgia or romanticism. NYC has an intense and messed-up history in terms of humans, and it’s ongoing. Horrible things happened when the Europeans arrived, and the guilt and bad blood still seethes out of the river and the leaves. I always felt like it was a stolen place.
I spent a lot of time in the parks in NYC growing up, to get out of the tiny, oppressive apartment I grew up in, and there is something so alive about it, geographically. The rocks in the park, the sky, the rivers, are all strong and impolite. (As opposed to the weather in the UK, which sometimes seems passive-aggressive.) Although it’s been through hell, the earth over there is not beaten; it will remind you continually how much bigger than you it is. I like that. The seasons are actually seasons. I miss the weather and the parks.
The best thing about NYC that we can all access (without my hippy-vision goggles) is being alone in a crowd, I’d say, and not being judged. It took me a while to adjust to the homogeneity of the UK. At first, I disliked it, but truth be told, I’ve settled in. I feel safer here. That said, yeah, in New York, you can walk down the street in a chicken suit wearing a placard that says “Go Fuck Yourself”, and no one cares. Here, if you don’t have a TV, or your kid isn’t allowed to watch it, or if you don’t iron your shirts, people treat you differently. There are a lot of British protocols that I could do without (all this polite stepping aside when the person on the pavement with you has more than enough room), but the irony is that I find it easier to communicate here. In America, everything is always up for grabs; every conversation is only about that conversation, and the rules are established as you go. It’s every man for himself. Here, you can relax a little. I think this has to do with the welfare state (what’s left of it).
What else? I miss all the windows, and looking into them, feeling envy for all the different lives. I wanted to know everyone in NY. Impossible. NY is impossible. Or it was for me. But I love it. Paul (if I may be so bold) had a very different experience; he grew up in suburban NJ. I think that may be why he stayed. Not that he is an incomer, but he made his move. I was from there, and it was time to go.
In interviews, you’ve stated that you have no desire to return to live in New York. Do you mean “never”, or “for the time being”? I take it that you’re properly rooted in Scotland?
I want to leave Scotland at some point and move somewhere sunny and with better food. Not that I don’t like a good mince round (know that joke about the butcher?), because I genuinely appreciate the wonderful tan foods of my adopted homeland (pies, fish and chips) and the foods that glow, but I’m cracking on and I want to be warmer. I want to be an auld dear with tanned bare legs, walking beside the sea.
What memories do you have of growing up in America in the seventies and eighties?
Lots. Can you be more specific?! Kidding. I read recently that amnesia before the age of six is very common; I don’t have that at all. Unfortunately for my mother, I remember everything! Let me pull one from my hat…
In the early seventies, all the mental health patients were let out of mental hospitals because NYC was bankrupt. The streets of the Upper West Side of my childhood were populated by many screaming people. They had names: the Scissor Lady, the Chicken Man. I walked everywhere alone from a very young age. I had to always have my wits about me as people would chase you and scream. It didn’t help that I was blonde, which was uncommon, and so I attracted a lot of attention. To this day I am very jumpy and always sizing people up; it’s a big waste of energy, but it makes me pretty observant. With any luck, it adds to my writing.
You wound up in Scotland, in St. Andrews to be precise, owing to a Creative Writing course you wanted to take. What was the course like, and would you say that you immediately fell in love with St. Andrews?
No! I remember thinking, “this is an outpost”. I grew up looking across the Hudson at NJ, and looking over at Carnoustie was a little different. It seemed so empty and grey. Beautiful, and very bleak. It was a bit of a shock. Also, in those days (2002), St. Andrews was not as posh as it is now. Nowhere near. It was, of course, pretty fancy, what with the golf, but now it’s nuts. The toffs there are just unbearable, especially if you’re not in a good mood. Anyway, it wasn’t a case of love at first sight at all! I almost didn’t even take the course. My daughter was not yet two, and I thought maybe I should stay closer to my (now ex) husband’s family near Brighton. I also thought: a degree in Creative Writing, what the hell? I almost did a Masters in Modernism at York. But I spoke to Douglas Dunn on the phone, and he convinced me. I would not say I regret doing the course, but I didn’t learn how to write on it. I learned how to trust my own opinions of my work in the face of misreading, perhaps.
As well as writing novels, you write poetry. Which comes easiest to you? Prose or poetry?
Poetry comes more easily. At best, that’s a neutral sign; at worst, a bad one. A friend of mine said that “form is a construct”, which is obviously true, once you think about it. I was fretting about whether I could “be a poet”. I wrote poetry before fiction; I stopped in my early thirties because I was discouraged by people (poets) whose opinions I valued, who felt I should stick to fiction. I have written a poem that’s eighty pages long, an epic. (I read Julia Kristeva’s definition of “epic”, and I liked it.) My relationship to the novel and the narrative structure is fraught, ambivalent, complex; I feel less animosity towards poetry.
I think after all the trouble I’ve had getting novels that I worked so hard on (they take six years at least) published, I’m allowing myself to try different things with the old “written word”. I guess now that I’ve accepted that I will never stop writing, I feel a bit freer to try different forms. I’ve written a play as well, about a survivor of Jimmy Savile’s abuse. In it, the character is writing a panto about her history, so there is some singing and dancing.
Your novel Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space certainly possesses the most audacious title I’ve come across in recent years. Where there any other prospective titles in the running? What made you ultimately settle on the one that you did?
I thought of The Sex Lives of Children. In earlier drafts, there was more blatant sexual abuse, but I took it out; I wanted to create an amnesiac, “lacunae” effect that implicated the reader in the suppression. Not sure I succeeded.
I settled on the title because… I’m not sure. Titles are hard. Some people have told me they hate it, others that they love it. It’s a line from a Ted Berrigan poem.
Finally, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you and your writing?
They can email me. I’m pretty much an open book. And the parts that aren’t open, they can find in my books.
Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space is available from Valley Press and Amazon
Image Credit: Nora Chassler
Cover Image Credit: Tom Parker, Head of Photography