Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Interview with Robert J. Wiersema About His New Novel Bedtime Story

Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Bedtime Story, was one of the books that I most eagerly anticipated this publishing season, and it fully lived up to my expectations. It's a book about being swept away by reading, the reading of which utterly swept me away. I won't say any more than that by way of preamble, as I don't want to give away a single plot twist, but I'm confident that you'll find much to pique your interest in it in my interview with Robert below.

KS: Bedtime Story very viscerally evokes the intensity of childhood reading experiences. What books did you read as a child that provided that kind of magic for you?

RJW: My whole childhood, I think, was a wonderland of books. To say I was a bookish kid doesn't really do it justice. I was born with a clubfoot, and an inborn aversion to sports, so books were my world. Worlds, actually. Because everything I read took me away from myself and the world I knew. Which wasn't difficult: I grew up in a one-stoplight town; everything was elsewhere. I started off reading non-fiction. I was fascinated with dinosaurs, and space travel, and arcane secrets. Once I realized the power of fiction, though, I was completely gone. Books like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and The Wind in the Door, which transported me across dimensions. John Bellairs' The House With A Clock In Its Walls, which terrified me then, and still does now. Thinking about it, the last book I can remember working that sort of magic for me as a child was Geoffrey Trease's Cue For Treason. That book took me away, back into Elizabethan England, back into the orbit of Shakespeare. Written in 1940, it's very much a Boy's Own Story, but it got me. Right in the heart. That's the book that inspired the book within Bedtime Story, though they're absolutely nothing alike.

KS: Being read to, and not just reading, is of central importance in the novel. Christopher Knox continues to read to his son David past his eleventh birthday, an age by which many parents would have stopped. This is partly because of the dyslexia that prevents David from reading easily on his own, but there are deeper reasons for continuing the ritual. Can you reflect a bit on the nature of the bond that creates, and if there are ways that we might wish to carry the experience of being read to into adulthood?

I think there's nothing more intimate (well…) than the bond created over a book. I'm biased, of course, as a writer, bookseller and reviewer. In a lot of ways, my whole life is based around that belief. Whether it's writing a book, or handselling a book, or recommending a book, there’s a level of intimate exchange: you're trusting someone with a piece of yourself – whether they're your own words, or someone else's – and trusting them to recognize that it's a gift, and not to scorn it. Which sounds, now that I read it back, a bit overdramatic, but it's not. At least, it’s not for me. With reading to a child, it's an extension of the other nourishment that parents provide. You’re feeding them, mind and soul. But it’s more than that, I think. The act of reading to a child creates a deep bond, a moment (at bedtime especially) of connection, of meeting across someone else's words. Cori does the bedtime reading in our house most of the time, and I get to watch, from the bedroom door, the sheer power of that bond, and just how important it is. That's where Chris and David's bedtime ritual comes from. And I think that bond can exist for adults as well, though, naturally, without the parental overtones. There's something so intimate about sharing a book. Reading a book aloud to someone? Transcends the intimate and tumbles headlong into the sensual. That might just be me. I don’t think it is, though.

KS: Bedtime Story is a Russian doll of book, containing stories inside stories inside stories. What was it like to write so many stories at once, particularly, to write the book within the book, writing in the literary voice of Lazarus Took? Did you have any performance anxiety around creating a text that was presented as having such power? (Very clever of you, incidentally, to lower expectations by quoting from Took's Wikipedia entry which described him as "a purveyor of clichéd, derivative, post-Second World War British fantasy"! But I hasten to add that it worked for me—I was as thoroughly swept away by the excerpts from Took's To The Four Directions as I was by the rest of Bedtime Story.)

RJW: Well, to say there was performance anxiety would be an understatement. I'm thrilled to hear that it worked. And yes, that note? Totally a safety net. But no one was supposed to pick up on it! I wrote the two storylines separately to maintain their distinction and try to avoid blurring of voices. My feeling was that I wanted both of them to stand on their own, and thus have double the power when they were combined. The combining of the stories was fun. Physically fun. I printed the contemporary storyline on white paper, the fantasy storyline on orange, and physically put the book together in a HUGE whopping stack before going back to the computer. Back to voice, though: the voice of To the Four Directions was tricky, because it needed to shift. My concept, and I'm not sure how it came through, was that the book molded itself around its readers. Thus, the voice becomes clearer, less period, as David is drawn in. But I'll stop there, for fear of spoilers.

KS: I enjoyed the depiction of Chris researching the life and work of Lazarus Took, and the lovely esoteric details that he turned up, some of which must have been the product of your own research. I'm thinking, for example, of the references to W.B. Yeats and the Golden Dawn which very effectively anchored the fictional Lazarus Took in a factual history. What sort of research was required to get that verisimilitude-producing balance of fiction and fact just right?

RJW: A lot of it was drawing on things that I knew, both personally and through popular culture. I dabbled with wicca as an undergrad, and I've spent some time with tarot cards and such. I've got a good personal background in those worlds which I tapped into. At the same time, books like Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, which I adore, tap into those (and other) worlds as well. That’s where the inspiration for Took's history came from, and its opposition as well, the mother and daughter in the magic shop. From there it was a matter of grounding myself in details, but not too many. Aleister Crowley was definitely an inspiration, but it was important that he not figure in the book. With a true life figure like that, there's too much baggage, too much potential for unintended resonances, so it was important to get the history in, and then mess with it. To have my cake and eat it, too.

KS: Bedtime Story seems to me to be a book that gleefully embraces genre fiction (in celebrating the likes of Lazarus Took) but, at the same time, one that defies categorization. It's fantasy; it’s literary; it engages with children's literature; there's a bit of a detective story woven in. Does it matter to you how people categorize it?

RJW: As a bookseller, it matters, yes. As a writer? Not so much. I don't actually believe in genre, past a certain point. I mean, there are deliberate, to-design genre books, lots of them. And that’s fine. I have every respect for that. I read them. But beyond that point, I think genre classifications only have to do with marketing and navigating your way around a bookstore or website. And I don’t think that's a good thing. I think it actually hinders the reading experience for people, and keeps people from finding things they would take to. Let's take a step back for an example. Television. My mother hates science fiction, and will, if forced, treat it with patient condescension. That's just the way she's wired. Loves mysteries, hates sci-fi. Except... she loved Lost. Devoted herself to it, for years. Given the elements of time travel, other dimensions, doomsday devices and the like, what's the deal? Well, it wasn't called sci-fi. It was a show about a struggle for survival, with deep mysteries, and some weirdness, so she could watch it. If exactly the same show had been marketed as sci-fi she wouldn’t have been interested in it. I tend not to think of books, especially my own, in terms of genre at all. It's like trying to nail down Jello. "Well, it's a domestic realist family drama that shifts into a child-in-medical peril novel that becomes a literary detective story that shifts into an outright thriller. Oh, but there's this whole high-fantasy storyline as well that's played straight, until it becomes self-aware partway through." Nah, screw it. I write stories. They take the shape they need to take, and that's the only consideration, as far as I'm concerned.

KS: Bad things happen to children in your books. I know that you're a father, and I can imagine that going to those dark places in your fiction involves facing some deep fears. Can you write a little about what it takes to go to those dark places, and what is to be gained (as a writer and a reader) from the journey?

RJW: In a very real way, I write out of fear. My nightmares drive my work. Back in December of 1998, Cori told me we were pregnant. I took a moment to respond, and then I spiraled. Downward. I'm a glass-half-empty kind of guy at the best of times, but the idea of having a child (and we had been working toward having one, so it's not like it came as any sort of surprise) terrified me. My mind began to spin worst-case scenarios, all around the loss of a child. I sat down at my desk in early January, and I wrote Before I Woke in the next three months, in a white heat of fear. The World More Full of Weeping was written, well, when I was supposed to be writing Bedtime Story. In a way, it's a miniature of the novel, a different path through similar woods. Both TWMFoW and BS deal with the inevitable loss of a child, the moment when a child steps out on his or her own, when they start to distance themselves from their parents. Writing out of fear... It allows me to hold it up to the light, to look at it from all angles, to push things to extremes and deal with the consequences, if only in my head. I'd say it was therapeutic, were it not for my clear and continued need for therapy. Strangely, I seem to be preemptively fearful: BIW, written when Cori was pregnant, features a fear for a child 2.5-3 years old. TWMFOW and BS, written when Xander was 7 and 8, features a fear for a child 11 years old. The next novel, which I'm starting now, when Xander is 11, has as its protagonist a 15 year old girl. I hadn't realized that, until just this moment. Seems I'm right on schedule.

KS: It was a bold move to write a second novel that features a writer who is having trouble completing his second novel. Were you ever afraid that you might jinx yourself?

RJW: Remember what I said about writing about what I fear? I think it applies to my treatment of Chris, too. He’s working on his second novel, almost a DECADE after his first one. That was the fear, especially when Bedtime Story proved...resistant... to my first clumsy attempts. I think I wrote the opening of the book almost two dozen times, experimenting with different voices, different tenses, different POVs. There was a long, long time when I just couldn't make it work. Thankfully, I managed to find my way in. Even more thankfully, I managed to find my way out. And now, unlike Chris, I've got a second novel. That's pretty sweet.

Thank you Robert, for your generous answers to my questions. (And remind me when next we meet that I have a traumatic story to tell you about Cue For Treason.)

For more details about Bedtime Story, click here, and about Robert and his other books, here.