A Seahorse Year/Stacey D'Erasmo: Reflections

Monday, September 2, 2013

One hour before I was scheduled to meet Stacey D'Erasmo in a hotel lobby, I took a walk through the residential streets of Decatur, GA. There, near the local library, stood this magnificent magnolia tree, bent but not broken, mature but incredibly alive, shadowy and cool except for that break of sun. It was, I thought, like the novel I'd just read, the complex and complexly brilliant A Seahorse Year

No doubt every D'Erasmo novel is as rich as this one is—as thoroughly considered, as masterfully developed. I chose A Seahorse Year because it has two teens at its interwoven heart and because it is ultimately about the repercussive impact of one on many. A child gets sick and: His biological parents (Nan and Hal) are stricken. His step-parent (Marina, Nan's lover) finds herself on the margins, and straying. His Dad's new lover (Dan) is not sure he wants to be absorbed into such a broken family. The boy's girlfriend (Tamara) believes (with all the assurance of youth) that she can be a saviour. Tamara's parents are furious, spiteful. Nan's brother does the wrong thing. Everyone separated by degrees. Every catastrophic turn sparking seismic implications. Every nuance nuanced. And somehow Stacey D'Erasmo keeps track of it all. Produces a novel about relationships, which is also a novel of suspense. Writes with such intimate knowledge of her characters and their worlds that it is no wonder that Graywolf Press chose her to write The Art of Intimacy, the book Stacey and I had come to the magical Decatur Book Festival to discuss.

It takes about four years, Stacey told me, to write each of her novels. It is time enormously well spent. She invests deeply in her characters. Knows every detail of their rooms and their souls, the roads they walk on, the paths they walk, the fights they're not having, the words they hoard. She knows the mistakes they make, which are the mistakes we make. She is patient. She allows her stories to evolve. I bookmarked so many passages in A Seahorse Year that I am hard pressed to choose a single one. Because I must choose, I will choose this one, below—proof of what the right details do to illuminate character. Here we see Nan's house as Marina sees Nan's house. We are given the space, we are given two characters. We are given a story:

Flitting through Nan's house, Marina felt like a bird that had flown in and couldn't find her way out. Nan's house, like her bedroom, was slightly underfurnished, not austere so much as elementary, in the way of someone who would think with satisfaction: well, this is everything we need. The only extravagance was in the living room, where more than a few new, lavish books were stacked on the mantel. A thick biography of Madame Tussaud. An entire set of Proust with silvery corners. Otherwise, the house was like a collection of simple verbs: eating, sitting, watching TV. A red, child-size hooded sweatshirt was crumpled against the arm of the sofa. A few little robot men slept, still locked in combat, on the coffee table. Several plastic trucks were suspended in a convoy into the dining room. Standing half-wrapped in the damp towel, Marina's feet were cool on the cool floor. She stood there looking for something, but she didn't know what. Evidence—though the extravagant books weren't it—of some intractable bitterness, strained rope tethered to rusted stake, some wormhole that would end this thing before it had properly begun. She didn't want another complicated wife. Nan, the night before, had been very quiet and determined, like someone building something. Marina thought warily, Why?

My conversation with Stacey D'Erasmo at the AJC Decatur Book Festival will always be a life highlight (a photo here). Stacey's book on intimacy is not to be missed, my thoughts about that here. And look for Stacey's new novel, Wonderland, out next May. It's about an aging rock star, she says, and Stacey went on tour to get the details right. I cannot wait to see what she saw, and how she transformed it all to fiction.


Serena said...

I've been thinking quite a bit about this -- "Every catastrophic turn sparking seismic implications" -- very thing.

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