Siri Hustvedt Interview

by Alexander Laurence

Siri Hustvedt is the author of two novels including The Blindfold and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, author Paul Auster.

Alexander Laurence: Your new novel, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, takes places in Minnesota, where you grew up. Could you talk about Minnesota?

Siri Hustvedt: It's Iris Vegan's hometown. Where Lily Dahl lives, is also where Iris grew up. I think that I always wanted to write about that place, where I grew up. I spent many years there. I even went to college in that town. Webster is not a real place. It's based in Northfield, Minnesota; and that's where the Jesse James bank robbery took place, and the citizens of Northfield rose up and stopped the James' Gang. It was all out of my life. That place was deeply formative and important to me. For me, writing books has always been about something that has settled in me for a long time. The Blindfold was about an early period in my life in New York. It's not autobiographical, but I certainly used things from my life about ten years previous.

AL: I found The Blindfold more fragmented than the new book. It was told in sections that were out of order.

SH: It has a fragmented narrative and it's in the first person. I wanted to write what is, for me, a fairly traditional narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and end. I wanted to write a third person novel just because I wanted to do something else.

AL: Since you have many references to photography and paintings in your writing, I was wondering if you had some sort of art background?

SH: It's interesting, not really, except on my own. As an undergraduate I studied history, then at Columbia I got a Ph.D.. in literature. I love art and painting, so I made it my personal business to have a private catalogue of important paintings that I really care about. The new novel is partly about the fact that Lily emerges from childhood. But that's not the main story. Perhaps more in this book, I was interested in the relationship between art and the world.

AL: What about the relationship between Mabel and Lily? Mabel seems to me to be this Falstaff-type character. Definitely a guiding spirit.

SH: Right. She's also like a fairy godmother. I personally feel closer to Mabel than to Lily. Mabel's more like me than Lily is. I love Mabel: she's a wonderful kind of strange and nervous character. That's the great love story in the book, between those two women.

AL: How do you feel about fiction that parades as pseudo-autobiography?

SH: Let me put it this way: the germ of every novel, even those novels that are purely fantastical, those novels about flying people or whatever, they nevertheless have some seed in experience of the writer. I think that experience is part of the imagination, but for me, it's just a beginning. I am not interested in doing straight autobiography.

AL: A character takes pictures on balconies in The Blindfold and then says "You like the danger." I feel a constant sense of danger in your books, like there always something around the corner.

SH: (Laughter) I think that I'm interested in danger so to speak. I am interested in it psychologically. That this feeling of danger is a threat. I realized that I loved books while growing up that had some kind of suspense, some kind of engine that pushes the narrative along. Suspense is always about not knowing. It's just about not knowing and I think that's really my subject: what you don't know. And how not knowing things is often kind of scary. I guess that my idea is not to really shut that down, but to let it go on. In other words, even after the so-called mystery in mystery (that's not exactly a mystery) is solved, Lily thinks to herself at the end that the secret wasn't the doll, the secret is elsewhere. It's always elsewhere. The secrets go on and the mysteries between human being are always present. Does that make sense? The impulse for me to write is to write about stuff that I don't understand.

AL: There's several references to films in this book, and Lily is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. Why do you refer to films?

SH: I referred to Murnau's Sunrise in The Blindfold because I loved that movie. I love the end of Bus Stop, and I love Some Like It Hot, which I think is a perfect movie. It's one of the great movies ever. I really think that. I'm not kidding. I would put it up there with The Grand Illusion. In the new book, I have these icons: there's Elvis and there's Marilyn, and then there's Jesse James. So you have the mom and dad cultural icons hovering over The Ideal Cafe. Both Elvis and Marilyn have had a lasting cultural impact that I find fascinating. They resonate in the culture.

AL: Is the process of self-revelation also involved with a discovery of the outside world? Your characters seemed to be deeply involved with their most immediate surroundings, their situation, but not with abstractions or political views?

SH: I think that is true to an extent, except that those immediate issues at hand, for me anyway, resonate with the larger moral and political questions in the world. In other words, ultimate questions are metaphysical and moral. For me the stakes are not low because we are not discussing politics, or because my characters aren't out there to save the world. In The Blindfold, I think murmuring beneath the whole text is the Holocaust. I always felt that. This whole idea of evil. There are several references to the Holocaust in that book that are oblique. For me, these are the big things, those are the big issues. For Lily trying to penetrating the mystery of Martin: it is a kind of ultimate question. And what is really real? It's like in Midsummer Night's Dream, which is all about appearances and reality, where Puck says at the end: "Don't worry about it, if you find this too much to take, you can just tell yourself that you dreamed it."

AL: What about some of the characters names? Iris Vegan lies about hers. Lily Dahl is an unusual name. Issues of identity seem to play a large part here?

SH: Lily has a more coherent identity than Iris. Iris is sort of an intellectual out there experimenting. Lily is rather young and still forming herself. I personally don't believe in identity as a fixed thing. You know how people say how they are finding their real selves? I don't believe it. I think that identity is a narrative that is formed over time. I think that cultural fictions play a big role in identity.

AL: The stories we tell ourselves?

SH: Exactly. The stories we tell ourselves. I don't mean that as other books or literature, I just mean how we tell ourselves what we are. How the heck do we know that we are right? You know what I mean. I mean on the most basic level. Nothing fancy. We are formed through others.

AL: What sort of spiritual interests do you have? Is transcendence very important to your characters?

SH: Lutheran. It has been very important to me. As far as my characters go, they are interested in some kind of transcendence beyond their lonely selves, absolutely. It probably has to do with other people and a sense of community. Iris feels so alone because she doesn't have that. Lily does in a way have it in that funny town.

AL: There much reference to the art world, theater, classical music, but not much to popular culture, such as kitsch and TV. Why is that?

SH: It's probably because I'm not such a pop culture kind of girl. Besides the few pop icons that I mentioned it's true that television is not deeply a part of my life. My husband uses a manual typewriter, but I use a computer, so there is a generation gap. Most things in popular culture don't interest me in themselves. Sometimes they interest me as phenomenon, as something which says something about the culture. I am fascinated by what it means that people will go on talk shows and confess their crimes on television. I find that revealing.

AL: What about literary influences or so-called literary enablers? What book did you read that made you think about becoming a writer?

SH: I can tell you that when I was thirteen I read David Copperfield and Jane Eyre. Those two books changed my life. Later, I read Crime and Punishment, which was a huge book for me. And also Henry James' Turn of The Screw. And James in general. I realize how terribly important James is to me. Not because I write anything like James, but because I think the subtlety of those interactions between people in James, I just can't get enough of it. I have been reading more James just lately. I read the Awkward Age and What Maisie Knew: two books I have never read before.

AL: When I see the title, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, I immediately think of The Ravishment of Lol Stein. Is that intentional? Is there any awareness of Marguerite Duras?

SH: I read that book by Duras, but I didn't think of that. Someone else mentioned the Duras book. I admire Duras. She's  very different. Duras is interested in many things that I'm interested in. After thinking about this question I realize that I admire Duras but I have a certain reservation about some of the work too. I think that the reservation comes from two different traditions: that very cool French tradition, of a certain kind of removal in French fiction that goes throughout, it's very interesting; and an English tradition that is much more engaged. I think that I belong more firmly in the English side of things, even though what Duras is interested in is not unrelated to what I'm interested in: those sort of haunting, ambiguous, relations among people, and a certain kind of perversity even in rather normal people.

AL: Since writing has been over-powered by popular media, what do you think the role of writer has become?

SH: It's a good question. I think that it's something that writers think about quite a lot. In Europe there's more respect for writers, even if they don't sell a million copies. I think that it's true that writing literary books is a marginal activity. Except in some funny ways, it has always been that way. You have to remember that when Thoreau and Hawthorne were writing, there were women novelists in America selling half-a-million copies of their books. We don't read those women anymore, and maybe a lot of people are not reading Thoreau and Hawthorne anymore either. But there's a lasting effect on the culture of those wonderful writers who sold very few books. You don't choose to be a writer because you have this idea that you want to make a huge cultural impact. You become a writer because that is what you feel you have to do, and you feel better doing that than anything else, and I feel very lucky that I can do it. You know what I mean? That I don't have to work at the grocery store and write my books on the side.

AL: Any other writers that you like?

SH: Now? Insatiability by Wicowitz. It's an amazing book. Of course it's an old book. I admire Don DeLillo very much, who I know. I think that he writes beautifully, and I think that he's always one step ahead of the culture. I think that is an amazing thing to be. I admire all sorts of writers. I like Waiting For The Barbarians by Koetzee. It's a masterpiece.

AL: Your working on a book of essays now?

SH: I discovered that I really like writing essays. That really is that other brain that I left in graduate school, even though they're not academic essay in that way. I wrote an essay about a painting by Vermeer that was actually published in an art magazine in England. Woman with a pearl necklace. I realized that it was an annunciation painting. That's what I wrote about. I wrote a long essay about place and memory called "Yonder" and one about Dickens about language and identity. All my obsessions are in there. I'm thinking about writing a plea for Eros. I want to make some sort of plea against the culture of explanation. I think that understanding how ambiguous and inexplicable a lot of things are in the world is not a bad thing for us. Not to take things for granted, not to make every answer so easy. That's my plea. I think that erotic experience is an ambiguous experience. Throughout history there always been these erotic cultures where they have practiced it as an art, and I don't think that there is anything wrong with that. Sexuality now has become sort of grim. Everyone is defending themselves. Everybody has a fixed sexual identity. It's depressing. I don't look at American culture as a culture that celebrates Eros, do you? Everyone is so serious about it all. I guess that there is a Victorian legacy. Desire is the nature of being human. If you are totally satisfied you can't live.

September 1996