BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
[Born a long time ago, in another country, Audrey Schulman has traveled enough to have vomited on four continents, including once onto a Masai tribesman’s feet. She has also published four novels, most recently Three Weeks in December, which was selected as an Indie Next pick in February (more info here). Eric discussed this latest work with Schulman by email. For Eric’s review of Three Weeks in December, which gives more detail about the elements of the novel discussed below, click here.]
Eric: So thanks for taking the time to talk to me and letting us interview you for Chamber Four. I was hoping you might start by talking about where the concept for the dual narrative of Three Weeks in December came from.
Audrey: Partly it came from my great uncle who lived in India for a short time on a tea plantation and at one point had to shoot an elephant that was killing nearby natives. His story was so funny–he’s a nice guy but he’s a bumbling guy–his version of “The Great White Hunter” was so utterly not Hemingway-like that I began to think of how you could turn that cliche on its head to look at colonialism and to look at power dynamics and how killing off predators helped achieve a lot of British aims at the time.
So that’s where Jeremy’s story came from. After that I began to try to open it up to look at what has happened over the last 110 years since the scramble for Africa when it was partitioned up into territories by European countries. Africa is a continent with such incredible resources, such incredible riches, but to look at what is happening there now in places, certain countries are just so blighted. I’m really curious how that happened, what outside influences contributed to that, and what local influences contributed to it. I’ve tried, in the book, not to make it at all didactic, but to just examine those problems through two stories, one which takes place at the beginning of that scramble for Africa and one which takes place in something close to modern day, to look at what’s the same, what’s different.
And that’s sort of how the dual narrative came about, but getting Max’s section right took an enormous amount of time and energy.
Eric: More so than Jeremy’s?
Audrey: Yes. Jeremy’s was effortless. I spent so much time reading so many different Great White Hunter books that it was easy. You just take it and turn it upside down. It’s done. But to get Max’s section, she’s an ethnobotanist working to find a vine that is supposed to have five times the beta blockers of anything known to science and that’s not a trope. That’s not a cliche like the way Jeremy’s story is. So the character didn’t really come effortlessly to me.
Eric: How did the decision to give her Asperger’s come about? It seems like a complicating factor if you’re having trouble figuring her out, like something that would make it even more challenging, and yet she comes together in the book.
Audrey: When I used to teach writing, I found that a lot of students would write really bad, bland stuff if they were just told to write a story, but if you told them to write something with a lot of rules or regulations around it, suddenly they would effortlessly write something that was deeply meaningful and fascinating. And I think in some ways Max was rather similar to that for me. I kept trying to get her to come alive but her character wouldn’t under any circumstances. I would give her a sibling, kill the sibling off, I’d give her a dad, kill the dad off. Nothing worked.
And then, just around the time I was ready to give up on the book, I began thinking about Dian Fossey. She worked first with developmentally delayed kids and then with the gorillas, and all the way through her life she just didn’t have really good connections with adult humans. So I began to wonder if maybe she was in some way different, and if whatever that difference was not only made her able to connect better with the gorillas but also made it so that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. There was nowhere better. And I thought maybe that’s what should be true for Max also.
When I had that realization, just a week before I’d been to the zoo and seen the lowland gorillas there. One of them had sort of knuckled over to my kids and sat down with her shoulder to them without ever looking at them directly but really clearly aware of them. There was something very affectionate about it. It was like the way a cat walks up to someone, as though “Oh, I just happened to be sitting here and aren’t you lucky.” And I thought that was so not conventionally human, but still affectionate, sort of Asperger’s-like in a way, so I wondered what happened if Max had Asperger’s.
I went to google and typed in Asperger’s and gorillas and a book by a leading gorilla researcher popped up immediately. She had Asperger’s, and part of the way that she pulled herself through some of the hardest parts of Asperger’s was by researching and connecting deeply with a family of gorillas, and from the moment I saw that, it was golden, the narrative just took off.
Eric: Her affective disorder makes for interesting echoes with Jeremy and his own sense of alienation from society, his repressed homosexuality. Did you think at all about pairing not just the historical aspects of the story but the sense of alienation, creating characters that shared alienation in a way?
Audrey: My characters frequently don’t quite fit in in some way or another, but never as severely as these two. That’s their main problem. As well as I can remember, it was a subconscious thing that began to echo back and forth, the way they’re both outsiders in society. And it was fun to do those echoes. All the way through the narrative I had so much fun putting in similar things, where they both try to climb a tree or they both hear or see some of the same things or try to escape from some danger, and each of these things would be similar but done in a different way, It was like a dance, it was like minuet doing that. That was deeply interesting to me.
Eric: The structure works well here, but as a reader facing a dual narrative, it’s easy to get bored with one and sort of power through it and try to get back to the story that you like, but with this one I really did like both of them. Did you worry about that at all, one narrative overpowering the other, or did they really both stand up for themselves once you got them going?
Audrey: I just knew in the beginning that Max’s character wasn’t working. And so that was a major fight for me, but once I had her working it didn’t seem reasonable to me that someone would not be interested in both characters. I didn’t even know to have that fear I guess because of course they interested me.
I think that’s a writer’s duty, to find what deeply, personally interests them and make it interesting to the reader. Not the way that frequently these days the publishing industry believes we should figure out what readers are interested in and then write towards that. I think that results in apathetic, bland, wishy-washy writing and a much less diversified field. Instead we need to persuade readers that something is really fascinating, to show our genuine interest, show the reader why it’s so fascinating and they’ll come with us.
I was told that dual narratives were not a good idea, that I wouldn’t be able to sell it, that people’s minds in this busy, busy age could not encompass a dual narrative, and that didn’t seem right to me. If I’d instead paid attention to what I “should” have paid attention to, the book would be about Facebook and social media or chick-lit. Jeremy would’ve been a vampire. Not that I have anything particularly against vampires. I’d love to write a book about vampire, that just wasn’t this book.
Eric: There’s a lot of fascinating subject matter in both stories, the historical aspect of Jeremy’s story, the political factors of Max’s story, ethnobotany, the pharmaceutical industry, engineering, and all kinds of zoology, all the stuff about the animals and the lions and the gorillas. It’s really well researched. I was wondering if you could talk about that research experience a little bit.
Audrey: I did an enormous amount of research. I read over 70 different books, from historical textbooks–big huge horrors of books–to novels, to make sure that I could place the reader there really well, really accurately in every detail. When I finished the book I gave it to a friend of mine who was a BBC correspondent in Africa, and she asked me how long I’d lived in Africa. I’ve had lots of people read it since who have said it felt like stepping back into Africa.
But I didn’t just want it to be accurate. I wanted to create my favorite kind of book, which is something where I learn but where there aren’t pages and pages of factoids. Instead they’re just sprinkled in so that you as a reader deeply believe that the writer knows what she’s talking about and you are just being led gracefully through the story in a way where you’re learning but it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. I also wanted to have really good writing and not have that get in the way of the plot and have a plot that just churned. Finally I wanted to have real character, where you really cared about the people involved, deeply. A book that has all those elements, that’s my favorite kind of book. And that’s what I tried to create with this book.
Eric: I will say, Three Weeks in December is great mud in your eye for anyone who really wants to draw a hard line between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction. The plot is great and is also easy to care about the characters. They have interesting problems.
Audrey: I think a lot of writers assume “literary fiction” means the book should be boring, as though that’s one of the requirements, that plot is below them. I think that plot is the sugar that you give to the reader to make them eat their vegetables, so I give a lot of sugar all the way through.
Eric: Who are some of your favorite authors or favorite books?
Audrey: For fiction I love Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Valerie Martin, Andrea Barrett. Andrea Barrett had a strong influence on the Jeremy section because she does a really great job of getting the language right for about a hundred years ago. She’s a great writer. I read a lot and I tend to go to secondhand stores and get books, and I don’t read reviews so I’m not so much swayed by the current fashion of whomever you are supposed to read. Instead I dive into whatever deeply, actually, honestly interests me. Or whatever I happen to stumble upon. Secondhand stores are good for that.
Eric: Anything else you’d like to share about the experience of writing Three Weeks in December or about writing or researching for a book in general?
Audrey: For me writing is a very manic-depressive process, as I think it is for most writers. There are days when I feel as if I’m not mentally able to this, and other days where I think like, “Oh, I’m just so wonderful.” And for me the whole point of writing is to disappear. To structure to story to the point at which I no longer exist, and I’m not a part of it, and I just watch it happen. With this book, that was probably the most intense and the longest that I’ve ever had that happen. It was wonderful.