Sunday, March 6, 2011

Louise Dean

Louise Dean's novels include Becoming Strangers, which was awarded the Betty Trask Prize in 2004 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, This Human Season, and The Idea of Love. She lives in Kent, England.

Her new novel is The Old Romantic.

A few weeks ago I asked Dean what she was reading.  Her reply:
I hesitate to say ‘writers’ because when writers write ‘writers’ maybe they ought to put‘people’, but in any case writers and people both think a great deal about ‘honesty’. And they think about it most keenly when starting out. They tend to think of it as an act of God or a natural disaster with life changing consequences, and certainly that’s got literary appeal, but as one gets older in life and in writing, I think you realize that honesty is more like the ill-willed sibling or sour stepmother who somehow improves you by showing you how shabby you are, repeatedly.

Anyhow, many writers kick off with dying as a plot device. I know I did. You imagine, you see, that people get ‘honest’ as they draw close to the veil. That’s why I gave my Belgian man pancreatic cancer and the chance to see ‘clearly’. Of course, Faulkner ennobled the idea in As I Lay Dying but there’s life in this classic young writer's plot device yet. And Paul Harding’s Tinkers bagged a Pulitzer with it. I started it a couple of weeks ago but have left it about a third of the way in. I wasn’t surprised to read that he hailed from the Iowa Writers Workshop. You can tell a good workshop alumnus in the deliberate obscurantism in the writing, the quaint particularism of the details and references. If you’ve played the game ‘Balderdash’ and you should, then you’ll know that most of us are duped by anything highly particular. I admired the book somewhat, but it left me cold, so I set it aside. It was very decent of him to make something quite poetic so short. Maybe next time he could make it less poetic. Gerbrand Bakker, in The Twin handles the old man’s dying with terse ill will and I enjoyed it much more. His honesty was born of bearing a grudge. I think I like honesty best when it's a gun loaded and pointed at the writer. For that you have to love Tobias Wolff in The Old School which I read whilst the bath turned cold. It deals with the delusions and pretensions of young writers even whilst they try to pluck the flesh off the lying ribs of others. I thought the concept was fine, but perhaps I would.

In my first book, which dealt with a man dying of course, I quip that one person’s honesty, even if it's heartfelt, is a bit of an inconvenience or an imposition for another person. No one cares for it much, suspecting that the confession is booze fuelled or betokens lunacy or worse neediness, because all normal people get over being honest by eighteen. No good can come of it. And yet a writer who can know himself or herself, and use hate with the aplomb of affection, and present his or her own postmortem live on page after cringing page, is really a great writer. I just read Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing. The woman in the book, her first book, was clearly drawn from herself. It had to be - it’s how we start. You can only begin to write when you get that, and when you almost, not quite, but almost have got over yourself. The woman in The Grass is Singing is deluded, pretentious, hostile, selfish and dangerous. If books warn at all, it’s because they are more mirror than conduit. I’m getting a bit lofty - but what I want to say is: great book, and I’ll bet Lessing was a total bore in person.
Visit Louise Dean's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Old Romantic.

--Marshal Zeringue