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The Life Room

Q & A

Q: The Life Room opens with an epigraph from Anna Karenina, and the careful reader of your novel will find many allusions to Tolstoy's classic throughout. Could you discuss The Life Room's relationship to Anna Karenina the novel, and Eleanor's relationship to Anna Karenina the character?

A: When I was a young reader first embarking on a literary education the models in literature for women protagonists who had to struggle between passion and domestic responsibility were Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Lily Bart, among others. Passion was terminal; female protagonists swept up in love affairs ended up killing themselves. The message was that abundance of feeling led to tragedy. If women in novels were not killed off by their creator, they struggled like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady to define themselves against erotic desire and the confines of marriage. I wanted to create a contemporary hero who does not have to die for her passions. We live in a time where adultery seems commonplace, certainly not a crime that would allow a woman to lose her social standing, her children. And yet, internally what are the risks? Are they any less? In The Life Room I set out to create a character that struggles with her sense of morality but ultimately does not have to relinquish her sense of self.

Tolstoy's masterpiece was in the back of my mind when I embarked on writing The Life Room. At the onset of the novel Eleanor Cahn has been invited to attend a conference and present a paper she's written on Anna Karenina. Before she goes to Paris her life is one way. Once in Paris, among other things, she reconnects with an old love from her past and her worldview is suddenly altered. She discovers that her assumptions about Anna Karenina have been false. Now she sees Anna's plight through a different light. I'm interested in the conceit of how perceptions of a work of art change depending on the reader or viewer's perspective. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy explored spiritual questions. Similarly, when Eleanor's domestic life as a wife and mother is jeopardized, she finds herself in a spiritual crisis. As far as other similarities between the two novels, I can't claim much. Tolstoy's novel is a tragic epic. The Life Room is an interior exploration of selfhood.

Q: The works of Henry James also enjoy a special prominence in The Life Room. As a writer, do you feel an affinity with James? What about his fiction interests you or informs your work?

A: I do feel an affinity with James. Over the last few years I've been re-reading some of James' great novels-- Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl-- and when you're writing a novel everything in your private life, every conversation, what you are seeing and experiencing gets stirred into the pot. I'm drawn to the intensity of consciousness James brings to bear in his novels. Every gesture, thought, nuance has texture in his work. I like to think that my work is informed by that deeply felt intensity of experience. I'm interested in creating internal suspense in exploring the inner lives of my characters. How is internal suspense dramatized? In Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer undertakes a moral journey. At the core of the novel is the question: What will she do? In The Life Room Eleanor Cahn must also travel the labyrinthine path through her past to discover who she is and what she will ultimately do. I suppose it is subversive today, especially after 9/11 for an American writer to be engrossed in investigating selfhood in fiction when there are threatening social and political events shaping our lives. But I'll leave that to other writers. I'm a poet. I've been hard-wired to use language to capture internal states of consciousness. My novels are conceived from that place.

Q: The Life Room includes several in-text images of fine art, notably portraits of women. During a pivotal time in her life, Eleanor spends a great many hours as a model and subject for an artist who paints portraits of her. What about portraiture do you find compelling as a writer? For Eleanor, the process of modeling seems to be as revelatory as the process of painting is for Adam, the artist. Do you identify more with one of these situations or the other? If so, why?

A: I suppose it is the "male gaze" that interests me in portraiture of women by male painters. I find the relationship between muse and artist intriguing and was interested in exploring the dynamic of that relationship in The Life Room. One of the themes in the novel is the creation of art and selfhood. The 'life room' is the studio where the artist creates from life. What is it about the "model" that inspires the painter and allows for the energy that coupled with craft is creation? The poet Frederico Garcia Lorca, in a lecture called "Play and the Theory of Duende," describes this phenomenon, the divine presence or "earth spirit" that brings inspiration to artists, as duende, a demon that imbues the artist with a desire to create. Lorca described duende as "the pain which has no explanation...the bitter root of human existence...that wound, which never closes." In The Life Room I ponder whether this demon, if you will, is our erotic nature. What are the demons of creation? For Adam Weiss, the painter in my book, and one of Eleanor's lovers from her past, his demons lie in his history. His sister was killed at a young age. His parents, of Hungarian descent, survived the Holocaust and fled Budapest. But it is through the inner dynamic and erotic interchange with his model, where the demons of creation whisper in his ear and compel him, that Adam has access. Eleanor finds "his gaze" seductive and terrifying. She too has a desire to create. There is something about the intensity of his gaze that as you say is "revelatory." As a writer I identify with both of these states--muse and creator. Writing is an erotic act. As a writer you learn a tremendous amount about human nature and thought through the act of paying attention, which is writing. The Life Room attempts to investigate the self's relationship with 'the other', the demon, and portraiture seemed a good vehicle to explore that dynamic.

Q: The Life Room shifts back and forth in narrative time quite a bit, leading Eleanor back to the events of her adolescence and early adulthood. Why is this? [What role does nostalgia play in Eleanor's current moment of crisis? Can nostalgia be a kind of trap?]

A: I spoke earlier of the labyrinthine path Eleanor must travel to claim her sense of self--to figure out "what she will do." The labyrinthine path is the collective past. When I think back to the very conception of The Life Room I had one single question in mind that I wanted to explore. That question was whether our erotic selves are a culmination of those we have been intimately involved with. It seemed to me that as individuals we have forces from our past inside us struggling for ownership. When Eleanor reconnects with Stephen Mason, an old love from her past, is it Stephen himself who provokes and stirs her, or what he has come to represent? By reconnecting with him she is forced to remember her younger self from which he was a part of, and in remembering her younger self she thinks back to her adolescence and early adulthood and the relationships that defined those years. The self is fluid: a container of memory and events, experiences and associations. I suppose that is where the title of the novel derives. Nostalgia is a kind of trap. When we look back we see things differently, with out the same intensity of emotion that in the present often blinds us. But Eleanor undertakes the occupation of "looking back" seriously. I like that about her. She sees self-knowledge as a gift and ultimately as a release. That's different from narcissism.

Q: An unnamed dissatisfaction with her marriage leads Eleanor to seek a passionate life elsewhere, but she seems equally dissatisfied with what she finds. What is Eleanor looking for, and why is it so hard for her to find?

A: Eleanor isn't sure what she is looking for and I hope that is what makes her endearing. When she leaves for Paris she senses a discontent but has not claimed it. She loves her husband and her children and her life. But she's complicated. She is pulled by contrary emotions and needs that lie beneath the surface. I decided to give her eyes of different colors to represent this polarity in her character. She is a second generation of a Holocaust survivor and has been abandoned by her father who left the family when she was a young girl. Perhaps it is because of her father that she is drawn to men who ultimately stir and emotionally abandon her. She's looking for completeness: to shore up her loneliness and existential despair. She's a hopeless romantic. When Stephen enters her life again she believes she's found in him a male counterpart, an equivalent to the Keatsean concept of love. But I suppose we all become deluded in love. This is one of the questions I hoped The Life Room would answer. Does the quest ever end? How do we remain open and alive?

Q: Most of the major characters in this book lead artistic or creative lives, and most of those characters find the artistic process to be difficult and dangerous. Eleanor's father's music leads him away from lasting human connection, William's disintegration seems bound up in his construction of a totemic stone wall, Adam uses his painting to express dark feelings about a death in his family, and Stephen's literary endeavors end in destruction. Is this pattern deliberate, and how does Eleanor fit into it?

A: The creation of art--in literature, painting, music and how art serves as a way of accessing and nurturing the self, and how this access can or cannot provide transcendence--is an important aspect of The Life Room. I envision the 'life room' whether imaginary or real as a place where an artist can transform his or her own inner world. In the writing it became a counterpoint for Eleanor's journey to reclaim her authentic self. She is an artist too, a writer, though she's been trapped from fully exploring her writing creatively in her vocation as an academic. Is this part of her search for an authentic life? Are the men she's been involved with intimately a vehicle toward understanding this journey?

All of my major characters are artists of one kind or another. This was a deliberate choice. Though I didn't conceive my characters as types, I was playing around with the notion of artistic endeavor and its challenges. How does making art remain a pure endeavor? Can it once the demands of the marketplace are at stake? I was exploring through my characters the pitfalls and rewards of the artistic life. Being in publishing I'm around big egos and it was interesting to be able to play with some of my ideas and observations about what fame can or cannot do to an artist. Adam, the bad boy painter, represents the driven, narcissistic artist where nothing gets in the way of his art; Stephen, the journalist/novelist--the 'false' artist (we find later in the book that he may not be what he appears to be); William, who indeed builds a totemic stone wall, could be interpreted as poet 'without a calling'; and Eleanor's father, a failed musician, is an artist who escapes the real world through his music. The Life Room attempts to investigate the creative process, its dangers and lures, and rewards. What makes a true artist is a question that is at the heart of the matter.

Q: Why did you set the book in New York City?

A: In New York there is so much creative life charging through the city. Like my character, I'm a New York transplant and the city seemed the perfect place to put a character who is ambitious, deeply involved in literature and the arts, and who is trying to balance family and career. One of the pleasurable aspects of writing fiction is how you can make your characters fulfill dreams or fantasies you're incapable of carrying out in real life. I have always been fascinated by the lives of painters and at one time wished I had that particular talent. Like every writer I suppose, I'm a voyeur. The artist's studio fascinates me. I'm intrigued by props painters use and how they reinvent their own inner lives onto the canvas. I'm interested in their egos and in narcissism, and how it can cripple. When I was creating Adam, and his studio in Tribeca, I was fusing together studios that I've been in of artist friends in New York and painters studios I visited at Yaddo working on the book. One painter up at Yaddo said he would let me be his muse for a day so that I would have the opportunity to see what it was like to sit for an artist. I learned how truly difficult that work is.

Q: As a poet and fiction writer, who also sees the creative process from a different vantage point as an editor, what are you saying about art and what it does to those who try to bring it into the world?

A: I enjoyed riffing on the literary life through my character, Steven Mason. He's a journalist who has harbored a fantasy of becoming a novelist. He comes to New York to ostensibly work on a magazine piece he's been assigned and to try and sell his first novel. At one point in the novel he gives a reading from his novel at a bar (a combination of KGB or Mo Pitkins or Happy Ending), and his agent has arranged to have media present and he becomes the flavor of the week. Suddenly from this one reading Stephen's on NPR and being written about in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Then he's offered a larger venue to read his book in a series of evenings. It turns out that his work might be more "performance art" than art that works on the printed page. His writing is seductive; he's a seductive presence, but is he able to fully 'face himself' to make 'authentic art'? Or is he simply more interested in fame and attention? Well, being an editor myself, and having this other great passion in my life which is publishing, I've witnessed this phenomenon on both sides of the fence: one never knows what is going to make a book take off. And whether indeed, just because a book is regaled in the media and reviewed widely, it is necessarily a better book than all the books in which the media overlooks or reviews poorly. At one point Steven thinks his novel is going to be sold because his agent tells him that an editor loves it, only to discover later on that the publisher hated it. The way he perceives himself and his work turns on this. The challenge of an artist or writer is the ability to stay true to the course, even when others don't see a work's value. This was an experience that I had when I was attempting to publish my first book so it was great to be able to pass this awful burden I carried onto my character, as it were.