Old Monsters, New World: The Spirit of Mentorship

VandV correct orientation
On January 6th 2014, a nasty, inhospitable morning, we drove up to Millbrook, NY (we meaning myself, Molly Friedrich, with my colleague and daughter, Lucy Carson) to visit with our clients Valerie Martin and Violet Kupersmith. Valerie Martin is, of course, the highly respected author of many novels, including MARY REILLY and the Orange Prize-winning, PROPERTY. Violet, on the other hand, is completely new to the business of being published. It struck us that here we had two fiction writers, each on the eve of their respective publications, both of them writing about ghosts and spirits, although in utterly different ways.  Valerie Martin, who teaches at Mt. Holyoke, had first encountered Violet in her writing class and soon become her steadfast mentor. We were curious about the evolution of this relationship and so we all sat down in Valerie’s light-filled studio to learn more…

MF: Although Lucy and I know the basics, readers need full background here. When did you two first meet?

VM: Violet appeared in my Writing Short Fiction seminar at Mt. Holyoke in 2008.  I hadn’t taught an undergraduate class in many years and I was a little anxious about where to pitch the workshop, how much to expect from my students – or how little.  There were twelve students and as it turned out the range of ability was very wide.  Violet distinguished herself with her first story, which was just four of five pages about a teenage boy in Texas who has a run in with a ghost at the gas station where he works.  A fully realized world right off the bat.  It was early in the semester and I wasn’t sure who was who yet, so I had to look at the roll with the photos attached to figure out which of the students Violet Kupersmith was.  There she was, looking shy and maybe a little sly, peeking out from a wave of her dark hair.  It never occurred to me that this small, elfish person would also be captain of the rugby team!

VK: I’d only ever taken one creative writing course before this one, and was especially nervous to be in Valerie’s class because her career was so celebrated, and the department had been talking about her coming to Mount Holyoke in the way you would of the arrival of a movie star or a mighty wizard. We were so lucky to get to work with an extraordinary and prominent writer who also happened to be an attentive and generous professor. I loved that Valerie could identify, with an acupuncturist’s precision, what line, what exact moment in your story wasn’t working, but she let you figure out which way to fix it. She was always guiding us, but allowed us use our own writing muscles—a teacher, not an instructor.

MF: So Valerie, you’re sitting there and you’re reading these papers and you come across hers. Did you sit up straight and say “there’s some real talent here”?

VM: Yes, but talent isn’t enough.  Many students can turn out competent scenes at an alarming rate and some are good at generating plots.  But what I’m looking for when I’m teaching is not just ability but a temperament.  Being a writer requires patience, the ability to concentrate, insight about the process. I’m looking to see what happens in revision.  Does she just take my advice or solve problems in an original way.  How does she apprehend what she reads?  I worked with a student recently who could write well enough and was good at drawing out a scene, at detail.  But her comments about the assigned reading amounted to “I didn’t (or did), like the character.”  When talking about her own work she revealed that her characters were, in her mind, all examples of popular psycho-babble designations, one was OCD, another was bi-polar, a third was a narcissist. They weren’t characters; they were demonstrations of psychological dysfunction.  I gave up.  Violet is an enormously patient writer, and her characters grow rather than recede as the stories go forward.  She’s also a gifted critic.  I wanted her to apply for a Rhodes scholarship and go to Oxford.  But then she wrote these stories.

MF: Valerie, your latest novel, THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE is, I’m convinced, a masterpiece, how’s that for a becrazed agent endorsement? You’ve published so many different kinds of books, including short stories, and even biography, but in this new book, you return to the so-called historical novel.  I know you hate that description but Mary Reilly IS historical fiction and so is your Orange-Prize Award-winning novel, PROPERTY. I’ll admit it, there is historical fiction and then there is shape-changing, genre-busting fiction set in another period. How would you describe the book?

VM: A ghost ship appears in the mist. That’s the lead line of the book jacket copy and I love how that brief description causes a visual image to leap into the mind.  In a way it describes how I came to this book.  The Mary Celeste was an American ship found adrift off the coast of the Azores in 1872, in good condition and with no one aboard.  I’d read about it as a child and got interested in it again when I learned the captain had his wife and child aboard; that they were part of the crew that disappeared.  In a way my novel is about stories spinning off from other stories, which is what happened with the Mary Celeste – as time passed the story of the ship accumulated details.  Another writer drawn to the ship was Arthur Conan Doyle, pre-Sherlock Holmes.  I couldn’t resist tracking down this great master tracking down such a mystery.  I describe my novel as historical fiction mystery post modern love story with ghosts.

MF: Violet, it’s your turn.

VK: I also like to think of THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL as stories spun off of other stories. I took the spirits and demons from old Vietnamese folktales that my grandmother told me and brought them into a post-war, post-1975 diaspora setting. Old monsters, new world, same havoc. And many of the pieces within the book itself use narrative frames, stories within stories, uncoiling as you go deeper. I think the idea central to the collection is that of inheritance—ghosts, like stories, like trauma from the war, are all passed down from earlier generations. They are all things you can’t escape.

LC: Both of these novels are filled with ghosts and spirits and the afterlife in some way. Let me just come right out and ask each of you: do you believe in ghosts?

VM: I don’t believe in ghosts.

MF: Even though you’re a New Orleans woman?

VM: Good point.  It would be more correct to say there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe in ghosts. And that’s the part I trust. But I do believe that ghost stories have been important to people forever.

MF: But why do we have ghost stories, what’s the purpose of a ghost story?

VM: I think the human imagination just falters in the face of death, of its irreversibility.  Nature is so full of rebirth and renewal against amazing odds.  Even forests burnt to the ground come back if you wait long enough and don’t pave them over.  A lot of stuff seems to come back.  It’s impossible to accept that something as vital as a loved one can just go out of existence. We want to believe in ghosts for the same reason we want to believe in souls. Ghosts are, in a fact, souls adrift.

MF: I have a feeling that you, Violet, have a very different answer.

VK: Look, in my family we differentiate old houses by which one was haunted by what. I do believe in ghosts and I believe that they tend to be mostly malevolent.

MF: Right, your ghosts are not Casper!

VK: No, I didn’t really get Casper when I was a kid—the concept of a friendly ghost seemed like a paradox. I see it like this: when a person dies, if they’re ready and at peace and have everything in order, there’s no reason for them to linger on here. A spirit returns because it has unfinished business to take care of or something is displeasing it. If it’s coming back, it’s because it’s not happy.

LC: Maybe they never were.

VK: In the collection, the ghosts who do the most damage to others are the ones who were already damaged themselves. They come back and perpetuate it. They’re settling the score.

MF: Have you ever had a direct experience or encounter with a ghost?

VK: Only once, when I was seven. I was in bed and saw a smoky apparition of an old woman wearing a beret. In retrospect that doesn’t sound particularly horrific, but it was the most terrifying moment in my life. My heart froze. And I didn’t talk about it to anyone for years—I think I was scared that she would come back if I did—but when I eventually shared this with my grandmother she just nodded and told me, “Ghosts don’t come to the people who aren’t capable of handling it.” This makes perfect sense to me; if a spirit frightens to death the person it appears to, then it isn’t getting any of its business done, right? My grandmother is made of tougher stuff than I am—back in Vietnam ghosts came to her at night all the time.

MF: Is this when she’s dreaming or the twilight area between…

VK: She saw them in her sleep, but they were much clearer, sharper than real dreams—in the morning when she recalled the conversations with the ghosts it would be like remembering an actual event. But the way she talks about them makes it seem like the ghost visits were annoyances—they were always asking her to pass on messages for them or run errands.

LC: So many of the ghosts in Violet’s stories are strangers to the characters who encounter them. It seems more about the ghost’s connection to a place rather than to a person…

VK: I like to think it’s the will of the ghost that brings it back, and not of the living. The people who have the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The ghosts have no qualms about using them.

MF: Why are ghosts so appealing to writers and readers?

VM: Ghosts, in themselves, aren’t very interesting. They’re not complex characters; they’re so transparent! But a ghost in the room is sure to provoke a response, so it moves the action.  Also, ghosts represent both a wish and a fear that death might not be final.   There’s something very touching about that.

VK: I think ghosts are so alluring because they’re breaking the rules—they came back! They didn’t stay dead like they were supposed to. They are inherently aberrant. And so often they also get to bend the laws of physics and completely chuck the moral code that those still living are supposed to follow. It allows a writer so much narrative freedom.

MF: Valerie, you’ve been published many times, does it get old or are you still filled with the fresh hope that hardcover publication still offers?

VM: It doesn’t get old – especially the part where the box of finished books arrives; that’s always a good day – but, much to my surprise, I’ve actually gotten a bit old myself.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and dreaded publishing and that hasn’t changed. The actual day-to-day business of composition is more difficult than ever.  I don’t lack confidence – I know I can write a novel – but I don’t have the energy a young writer has, the constant flow of ideas and subjects leaping to mind, that eager feeling  -what’s next, what’s next – at the end of each project.  Writing is a lonely business, though I’ve found my closest friends through my writing.  When I get messages from readers who have been strongly affected by my books, I feel rejuvenated.   And very rarely I run across a student like Violet, who reminds me that teaching has rewards as well.  I plan to press on, though at a leisurely pace. I’d like to spend a year just reading in a random way, whatever comes to hand – that would be divine.

LC: Part of what Molly & I wanted to hear about during this interview is the emphasis on mentoring in the writing community. Violet, now that you’re slated for a hardcover publication with a major house, do you find yourself fielding requests from your peers about how they can improve their writing and find a way into this industry?

VK: It definitely happens with more frequency now. Even though I tend to be no help at all—I am new and fumbling in this world and a long, long way from being a Valerie and a mentor myself—I do try and support other young writers if I can. My book became a reality because of the generosity of others; it only seems fair that I pay it forward.

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