Mystic Journey by Sarah Anne Johnson

Novelist Lynn Freed plunges into a tumultuous underworld of emotion

June 2002

How did you get started writing fiction?

Every week at school, we were given the choice of writing either an essay or a story as homework. I used to choose a story because it seemed so much easier, so much less terrifying. And then I’d read the results to my mother. I was looking for praise, of course, but I didn’t receive much, not unless I wrote something that she thought good. She had a fine ear and a love of good writing, and no idea that a child should be encouraged on principle. How refreshing that seems now.

Who are your favorite authors and what are you reading now?

Trollope – I’ve recently come to him, with sheer delight. Jane Austen, of course, and George Eliot. V.S. Naipaul, Alice Munro, Frank O’Connor, George Orwell. Oh, on and on. I read slowly, and often I read several books at once. At the moment, I’m reading Alice Munro’s new collection, Mavis Gallant’s FROM THE FIFTEENTH DISTRICT, some Frank O’Connor essays, Tocqueville’s WRITINGS ON EMPIRE AND SLAVERY, edited and translated by Jennifer Pitts, which is oddly apropos in these times. I am takingTrollope’s CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? on holiday with me.

How does your reading life inform your writing life?

If I’m stuck, I reach for something wonderful to remind me of what the point of it all is, what delights me, what there is to hope for. If I’m moving through a novel, I tend to read anything but fiction – in an ongoing fashion, that is. One can be infected by a voice, the cadences of someone else’s sentences.

I know that you do a lot of teaching. Does teaching inform your writing life at all?

Teaching is the enemy of the writing life. That is why I teach only half time. Reading and trying to fix other people’s work makes me stupid about my own.

The House of Women is a novel about a young Jewish woman growing up in South Africa as you did. What role does autobiography play in your fiction?

Autobiography? Oh God, I don’t know. When I am writing properly – which, I might say, comprises only a fraction of my writing time – I tend to disappear into the fiction. I tend to disappear completely. What is the difference between remembered experience and imagined experience? I don’t know. Nor do I know, by the way, that being Jewish has much to do with the young girl’s experience in this novel. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She’s that Jewish.

*Let’s talk about some of the themes that crop up in this novel. First there is a woman’s struggle to have an identity separate from the people whom she is most intimately connected to. Thea struggles to know herself separate from her mother, as Nalia struggles to know herself without her daughter. What draws you to this intense connection juxtaposed to an equally intense separation? *

Consider the Demeter and Persephone myth. It’s all there – the archetypes, the set-up.

Yes, the archetypes are all there. Will you talk about the role of that myth in inspiring this novel, and how your own imagination interacted with the facts presented in the myth to create the final fiction?

The trouble with trying to express the idea behind a novel is that the idea vanishes as soon as the novel is underway. In this case, I was and am fascinated by the myth of Demeter and Persephone. It informed the relationship between mother and daughter as I began the novel. But then, as soon as I had established the characters themselves – say, by the end of the first few pages – the myth, as an idea for the novel, faded to the periphery of consciousness. And then stayed there until, for instance, I needed to come up with a vision of Hades. And then vanished again. And this is not even to explain what is essentially inexplicable. If there is a place for such analysis, it is probably to be found more in the revision process for a novel than in that murky period before one begins.

The theme of namelessness also crops up over and over. There is the Syrian, who remains nameless until his children are born; the island where Thea lives with him remains nameless throughout the novel; and the children themselves are named by the Syrian with names that Thea cannot pronounce until she claims them by naming them for herself. What is the power and meaning of name?

The power of a name is the power of language itself. There is a question as to how — without language, without a name to name it — experience is to be measured at all, known. In other words, how can one have an experience without a word for that experience? If names are missing – or a map, for that matter – we will have to name things and place things for ourselves in order to be able to understand them, in order to make them part of our experience. I suppose that that is what I was after, although I haven’t thought it through until now.

The idea that without language or a name an experience cannot be measured or known is an interesting one. In fact, Nalia limits her visits to Katzenbogen — the only person she knows who shares her native language and her experience of the holocaust — to once a month. Is it that she cannot bear to know that experience more than that, or that she is denying herself something of her essential self?

She limits her visits to Katzenbogen, her psychoanalyst, because, I presume, he lives a day’s drive away. Or, possibly, because she doesn’t need to see him more often than that. The trouble with trying to find a meaning behind every aspect of a fiction is that one can lose the trees for the wood.

Is this why she’s never able to integrate her life with Katzenbogen, which is so reminiscent of a terrible past, with her life with Thea, which for Nalia, holds all hope for the future?

I’ve never thought of it that way. But really, in the living of one’s life, does one think through such things? Perhaps she does not “integrate her life” with Katzenbogen because she doesn’t want to. It’s as simple – and as complicated – as life itself.

Nalia imprisons Thea in order to protect her from the wider world, much like Demeter imprisons Persephone to keep her safe. This is odd in light of the fact that Nalia was a prisoner herself, and as a result, lost the opportunity to have a real singing career. Can you talk about the idea of imprisonment in this novel?

Ah, but you see every choice brings its own prison. And every choice carries the burden of the choice not made. Nalia’s obsessive protection of her daughter is an aspect of her obsessive nature itself. It is the way she is. She was obsessive in this way – to wit, her relationship with her own grandmother – long before the Holocaust came along. In a sense, I suppose, she is a prisoner of her own obsessions.

Nalia’s singing career and its lost opportunities are mostly seen from her own perspective. At first, we have only her own assessment of her lost chances. But then, in walks a real pro in the shape of Vi, and we have an inkling that the fabulous career might never have been what Nalia thought it.

When Thea learns that her mother is no longer home, she has the sense that there is no home left for her to return to. Even when she does finally return, life there is so different that there is the feeling that one cannot go home again. Do you think that home is fleeting?

Home is not fleeting, it is abiding. But, in the form in which we experienced it while growing up, it abides only in memory. We grow up and we go away and we make new homes for ourself. But the home of childhood it always there in the imagination. It is a boundless immensity.

I know that you travel a lot to do your writing, and that you live in the United States, away from your home of origin, yet you write so much about that original home. What role does your sense of home, or dislocation from home, play in your fiction?

As I say, home is an immensity for me. Everything I write is based on my experience of home, my loss of home, my longing for it.

“The Syrian stands on the terrace, staring down into the bay. His head and shoulders are caught in the last of the light, massive, like a centaur’s. He could be Apollo on his chariot with his hair blown back like that. Or Poseidon. Or Prometheus. He is the darkest white man I have ever seen. It is a sort of gilded darkness, gleaming and beautiful. Even an old man can look like a god, I think.” This novel is seething with desire from the very first paragraph. How do you get such , on the page?

I simply disappear into the situation, and the words, I suppose, follow.

We see the Syrian as Thea sees him, god-like, and she is powerless in the face of his desire for her. What interests you in this idea of a young woman’s powerlessness in the face of a man’s desire?

Is she powerless? I don’t think so. She refuses the Syrian and chooses another lover to effect her own deflowering. After which, she virtually seduces the Syrian, her own husband. Powerless? No, she isn’t powerless. She is swept up by the great power she has discovered in herself to cripple men with desire. This, perhaps, is greatest aphrodisiac – the power of desire to bring desire behind it, the desire of the other, bringing desire for the other. Which is not to say she isn’t infected with a sort of ranging desire herself, right from the start. Of course she is. She’s seventeen and a half, for God’s sake. She’s a creature of desire.

Characters from mythology are used in metaphor throughout the novel. What drew you to this?

My love of Greek mythology, and the language it provides for the understanding of human behaviour.

The House of Women is told in alternating points-of-view, from Thea’s first person point-of-view to a third person personal usually looking over Nalia’s shoulder. How did you decide on this shifting narrative viewpoint?

It started as an experiment. I have never written a book from more than one point of view before, and anyway, I could think of no other way to tell Nalia’s story. Then it became natural to the rhythm of the story.

How did you decide upon dividing the novel into three parts? What does the narrative gain from this?

It seemed to divide naturally into three parts: rape and abduction, imprisonment and longing, return.

The alternating point-of-view creates a suspense in the narrative, shifting from one character’s story to the next, leaving off at a high-point and picking up the thread again later. It makes for a page-turning read. Was this sense of suspense something that you cultivated?

I don’t think one can cultivate suspense; it is in the ear, in the rhythm and timing of the writing. It is just the way this particular book was felt and written.

Another aspect of this novel that makes it absolutely impossible to put down is your pitch-perfect voice. The narrative does not waver or lose it’s high-pitched sense of desire, isolation, desperation. Is this pitch-perfect quality something that you develop through drafts or does it arrive early on the page?

Tone and pitch, balance and timing – all these are worked for, draft after draft. When the writing goes well, it all seems to happen quite naturally, but, when it doesn’t, one has to make it happen. There’s the work of fiction.

In the chapters written in the third person personal looking over Nalia’s shoulder, you refer to Thea as “the girl”, rather than using her name. Why?

It is the way Nalia thinks of her.

“If I were not seventeen and a half, I would be able to see his sadness, and his longing, and his hope. I would also see my father’s cold eyes watching.” Here you get away with giving information that the character couldn’t possibly know by casting it with the conditional phrase “If I were not seventeen and a half, I would be able to see…” Comment?

Ah, that is a trick of the imagination. That phrase is uttered in the voice of Thea as an older woman. I didn’t think this through as I wrote, but, if it hadn’t worked – as many such abberations don’t – I would have taken it out in the drafts.

There are many secrets revealed in this novel as well as secrets kept. What interests you about the power of secrets in the lives of these women?

All lives are built around secrets. Truth, in fact, lies in secrets. One of the problems in a confessional culture is the myth that all can be told – to friends, to psychiatrists, even to oneself. Some secrets indeed can be told, they are matters of fact. Others are hidden, shameful, misunderstood, unknown or unknowable. It is these that go a long way in justifying the art of fiction.

Do you think Nalia’s madness rises out of her inability to accept the truth and her compulsive struggle to bend life into her own version of what it should be?

What is truth? I don’t know. Nalia is an impossible woman, but I don’t think she’s mad. Actually, I’m not at all sure what qualifies as madness. Do you think she’d be on Prozac were she living now? Probably. And then there would be no novel.

There is a lush sensuality in this narrative that brings domestic details alive and immediate. How do you create this sensuality on the page?

Sensuality is a way of experiencing the world, of understanding it, and of translating it onto the page. I keep lists of words and names and descriptions. They are the only things I have ever collected.

There is something reminiscent of a Jean Rhys novel in Thea’s powerlessness in the face of male desire, and in the lush tumult of her life on the edge of the sea. Were you aware of this in the writing of it?

I have already addressed the question of Thea’s powerlessness. This, and the lushness of the terrain near the sea may be reminiscent of Rhys, and for such a comparison I can only give thanks, but, in fact, Thea is anything but a Rhys protagonist. She is strong, she is as much perpetrator as victim, she does not consider herself a disenfranchised member of any society. Although, of course, she is.

What’s your writing process like when you’re working on a novel?

I’m not sure I would consider it a process. It is more of an act of will, at least it is to start with, when one has to coax something out of a state of terror and panic. This can go on for weeks, or for months, or for a year or more. Then, perhaps, something hopeful comes along, a paragraph or two, a character in a situation. There is something to wake up to, something other than determination to take one out to the studio every day. Pages accumulate, notes towards, etc., twenty versions of Chapter 1. Then, just as things get going, one has to go into a classroom, or board a plane. And, after days or weeks or months away from the work, one needs to reenter it – reenter the fiction. Terror and panic. And so on.

How many revisions will you do for a novel, and what generally happens through those revisions?

It’s impossible to count. With a computer, one is revising as one goes along anyway. At least I am. And then, once the book is done in draft, the real work begins – the polishing, the cutting, the adding, the tying up of this in the front with that in the back. It is obsessive work for me. I love revising.

Where do your novel and story ideas come from?

Oh, all over the place. Usually they start with a character in a situation, an opening paragraph. Sometimes, as with this novel, I have a schema for the whole to start off with. It doesn’t make it any easier.

What do you mean “a schema for the whole”? Are you referring the Demeter and Persephone myth?


Do you take notes before you start writing?

Oh yes. I make notes all the time. It’s amusing for me to look back, after a book is finished, and see how desperately I was trying to know what I was going to write.

When you begin a novel or a short story or even a short-short, do you have any idea of the shape or where it’s going? How do you know if it’s a novel or a story you’re dealing with?

I have a number of stories that come of failed novels – in other words, I found quite soon that there was not a novel there, at least not for me. And I have one novel, The Mirror, that started out with a short story. Generally, I don’t know how long a story will be, but I do know that it will be a story. And then readers are always telling me that this or that story should have been a novel. Really, I have no idea how these things happen.

Is your process of writing and revision the same for short stories as for novels?

Yes. But for a story, of course, it is usually simpler. One can see the end sooner. A novel is a massive enterprise.

You’ve published many short stories over the years. Will you publish a collection of these at some point?

I’m rounding out a collection now.

What are you working on now?

The story collection, and the beginnings of a new book.

What would you say to new writers working on their first novel or short stories?

I have nothing to say, really. What can one say? Don’t be mad, take up knitting? I spend a great deal of time dispensing wisdom to students: Forget about your audience, More is less, Never show a fool a half finished garment, etc. It’s all rubbish. What did Becket say? Fail. Fail again. Fail better.

Sarah Anne Johnson is a novelist and short story writer.

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