A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Two Poorly Soldered Wires does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Lionel's most recent novel, Big Brother.
Release no. XII:
Two Poorly Soldered Wires by Lionel Shriver
I met Lionel at the address she’d given me, but when I arrived at the house I could only assume I was mistaken—it was barely a house at all. The frame had just been completed, and an entire construction team was milling about, smoking, emptying trucks, staring at me. Then Lionel emerged from the future foyer with one hardhat on her head and another in her hand. She gave me mine and motioned to come inside. As we walked around, she tested the vertical beams with her first, stomped on barely laid floorboards and let off one scream, perhaps to grade the echo. “Can you imagine it?” she asked. “The future families?” I asked. “The furniture? All of it coming together to make a house a home?” She looked at me as if I’d just pronounced my own stupidity. “The structural inefficiencies,” she said. “The unleveled tiles. The mislaid pipes. This is house is going to make someone miserable one day.” She sniffed once, deeply. “My god it’s a beautiful thing.” Below are excerpts of the conversation that followed.
I'm here with Lionel Shriver, in discussion of her newest novel, Two Poorly Soldered Wires. The titular concept is of course not to be taken just at face value—as in, it's a metaphor—but it sets the tone for what is largely a work of the physical. You aren't just obsessed with the characters but the house they live in, its plumbing and its construction, the molding and the turn of the knobs and the pipes that form its skeleton. But of course, through the character of the house we get the characters themselves, their creaks and uneven floorboards, leaky faucets and the fire hazard of their frayed cables. Doyle Fitts at The New York Times called it a "technical manual written with literary sensibilities, a blueprint where the lines and spaces and dimensions form a value infinitely greater than the sum of their parts." Sang Reddick over at Publishers Weekly said, "Shriver is in her element throughout Two Poorly Soldered Wires, whether making us question ourselves for loving her characters, or describing the hydraulics of waste pipes." Can I ask where the idea for a novel came from, and what sort of background research it involved?
I had a deeply traumatic experience that helped to bring this novel into being. I had just bought a new laser printer, and perhaps inadvisably plugged it in for the first time with an extension chord. There was a sudden, if exquisitely subtle crack--a sound distinctly electric; you know it when you hear it--and the printer was dead. The extension cord had two poorly soldered wires. Traditionally, electricity implies energy, synergy, excitement, and connection. So I was riveted by an electrical image that evoked termination, stasis, and inability to communicate (I had fried my printer, after all). I was fascinated with that inversion, and was suddenly overwhelmed with the symbolism that pulsed in every aspect of my home. People, by comparison to 'the hydraulics of waste pipes,' seemed terribly dull.
To research this tome, I decided that to write about a house, what more elegant a solution than to actually live in a house? So I lived in my house. It's funny how these arcane avenues one pursues in the interest of artistic endeavors can keep enticing you up their narrow byways long past the point that the work itself has been released to the world. Because I still live in my house. It's so weird. I just can't seem to stop.
It's inspiring to hear authors pushing themselves to the brink for the sake of their art. For example, that movie, 127 Hours (I also hear they made a book off of it). Like, that's pretty courageous, to put yourself through that for research, but obviously the whole lark pales in comparison to your sort of field research—sleeping in a bed between walls, getting up, doing things in your house, sometimes leaving, sometimes coming back, etc.
There are parts of the book that are literally breathtaking, as in, I held a mirror to my mouth to remind myself. These parts must, must have been taken straight from experience. Like in chapter 4, we have you taking the classified section of the paper, folding it again and again and then placing it underneath a leg of your kitchen table to stop it from rocking. I don't want to ask for an unwilling answer, but tell me: was this something you had to live through? If so, was the writing catharsis or a sort of traumatic flashback you'd rather never do again?
It's so terribly upsetting, especially for female authors, to have highly imaginative scenes like the one you cite always interpreted as autobiographical. As if women were so ploddingly stuck in the world of blenders and Dustbusters that they could never actually invent folding up the classifieds to stable a table leg.
But since you are obviously one of those relentless, terrier journalists who will never acknowledge a woman's right to privacy, and who has no respect for the great mystery of creation, I will relent this one time. If you have to know, in real life I did not use the classifieds, but the business section, and it was not a table leg, but a chair leg! As you can see, that is the kind of transformative magic that real artists work on the ordinary clay of the day-to-day. After all, propping a chair leg entailed repeating this wedging process several times a day, since in real life the chair was continually being moved. By transmogrifying the chair into a table, I was able to fashion an image that was so much more eloquently eternal.
Using the classifieds instead of the business section was also a carefully considered choice. The business section would appeal only to a narrow sector of my readership, and might also invite accusations of favoring the super-rich. The classifieds were more inclusive, populist, and thus made the image more universal--while also salting the vision with an elegiac sense of doom and mortality. After all, no one prints classifieds any more after Craig's List.
You are right. If I had read the same scene written by the hand of, say, Bellow, I would have said "What a mind! What a vision!" But because you're a woman, I thought "bleh, probably just happened to her". Who gave me this job?
But of course the classified stood for so much; it was impossible for me to even do the book justice without the complete writing of Barthes, Foucault, Glaser, Kristeva, Sebeok and Derrida by my side.
Now we could talk carpentry, plumbing, electrical all day long but I feel like that would be shortchanging the book, which does, in fact, feature people. I want to describe the main character as...Or I don't know if the right word would be...I'm honestly afraid whatever I say will be taken the wrong way. How would you describe Natalie?
Oh, for pity's sake. I know my publicist is always advising me to keep interviewers on side, to never allow the process to become adversarial--but my characters name is not "Natalie," thank you very much. It's Nattalie. Got that? Honestly, they assured me you were at least professional. Although I see you have no trouble spelling "Foucalt" and "Derridda" correctly--male names clearly scored on your cranium for life.
Moreover, I have no understanding of why you might put your questions forward with such trepidation. Why on earth would I take anything "the wrong way"?
Lastly, whyever would I describe Nattalie to you, when I have done so, lovingly, achingly, for the first 300 pages? Have I not poured out my soul enough? Have I not already imbued this complex character--by turns consternating, even contemptible, and cute, both wild and deeply domesticated, rivetingly beautiful despite the third degree burns scars that cover over half her face--with enough contradictory incoherence to bring her to life? It's very frustrating for authors to go to all that trouble to cover a theme thoroughly, or to fashion a convincing fictional character, only to be asked to repeat the process, badly, hastily, in email. If you aren't already conversant with Nattalie's every nook and cranny--by turns unseemly and irresistible, aromatic and smelly--I can't help you now.
Yikes. Um. Ha, er. I apologize for the autocorrect. I did mean Nattalie. How could I not remember her name when you refused to use a pronoun in place of it? As if you really wanted to remind the reader, over and over, how unique the spelling was.
Right. So. The word I'll use for Nattalie is complicated, or as we in the business of lit love to say, multi-dimensional. After those first 300 pages I honestly thought I knew her more than my mum, and didn't think I could take another page of her, but there she was on page 301, where the action of the novel takes hold. What we then is a spin on the classic day in the life, that is until Mr. Bigsby shows up, and then we get sort of a Woolfesque passing of the consciousness torch, back and forth, back and forth. You write well from the male perspective, given your limited point of view. Do you know many men? Is that how?
With Nattalie, I came to the view that the pronoun is cruelly reductive. How could we shrink such a vast, encompassing character (a great deal more compelling than your mother, I'd venture) into "she"? And don't even talk to me about "her."
On your other point: I encountered the expression stealth protagonist recently, and my own expertise is the stealth plot. So it seems as if nothing whatsoever has happened for the first 300 pages--and that's because … nothing has happened! I've heard from enthusiastic readers that my not starting the story itself until two-thirds into the novel was what kept them really turning the pages.
As for men, I'm a purist. Many a humanoid with a penis has tried to inveigle himself into my good graces, but it is indeed very important to me to be able to write persuasively from the male perspective. In order to do so with perfect clarity of insight, I have kept at arms length from men themselves my entire life. All expertise is a melding of wisdom and naiveté. Like so many top-flight fiction writers, I approach every subject I tackle in a state of cleansing ignorance. To preserve my cerebral innocence, to paint on an unsullied canvas, it's vital that I have no idea what I'm talking about.
I...did you just imply my mother was a one-dimension, or weak character? For lack of space here I'll let that slide, but I cannot get past something else. And that is when Mr. Bigsby drops a quarter and goes to pick it up. I won't reprint the passage here for sake of the strict copyright injunctions your publicist made clear, but, well, it sort of becomes apparent you aren't sure if men have elbows. Nattalie sort of laughs at him having to bend down farther, for lack of a segmented arm, and I struggled to read on, like really had a hard time placing myself in that world, because, as you now know, or maybe still not, men do have elbows. Our bodies are quite the same as women's, especially in the limbs. Don't feel as though you have to comment if you don't want to.
Let's switch to the plot now. For all the innovation in your disregarding it for the first two-thirds of the novel, it really is sort of a regular plot arch. Is this metafiction, or laziness, or...?
It is well known that articulation, in both the physiological and linguistic senses, is a great female advantage, and I've been surprised why so few fiction writers have played that advantage to comic effect. You seem to nurse a vanity about these apocryphal "elbows" of yours, however, so far be it from me to burst your bubble.
"Regular"? You're calling my plot regular? Is it regular to have a protagonist finally meet the love of her life, only to confront a sequence of seemingly insurmountable barriers to their union and wild hilarious mix-ups that keep them apart? Is it regular to have invented a character born in St. Louis who moves to Wichita? Are you seriously going to tell me you saw that one coming?
As for laziness … I don't call it lazy to have hit the comma key--which does not have a repeat function like the period, and I could have chosen the period instead just to make my life easier, but no, it wouldn't have made the same transfixing stuttering pattern, it wouldn't have implied wistfully that there is always so much more to add, so much more to say--over and over and over, filling 120 pages top to bottom. That passage was a lot of work, and I think it got across to my audience better than any other device might have the authorial anguish of having no idea what happens next. I garnered so much sympathetic post about those pages, from readers worried about my potential for repetitive stress injuries.
So, lazy indeed! Your mother's lazy.
At this point I'd normally politely ask you to refrain referencing my mother again, but it looks like we're nearly out of time, so I'll ask one last question, and if you talk about my mum then that's that and there's really nothing I can do about it.
These sort of wacky doodle doodle moments of cinematic hilarity—Mr. Bigsby tripping over a chair and mispronouncing "love" as "lug", him choking on a banana, him splashing an ice cube into hot tea and burning his eyes—to me, really detracted from the novel and weren't funny, even out of context. It almost seemed you were trying to lampoon that idea, of the "hilarious moments" in narrative. Am I right? Or are you just not hitting the keys on this one?
Now, that device was metafiction. I wanted you to laugh, and then to step outside your head and see yourself laughing, and become uncomfortable with your laughing, and so stop laughing, but when you stop laughing it's as if you never laughed in the first place. Ashamed of finding amusement in other people's pain, the mind erases all memory of a deep, immensely private guffaw, and replaces the moment sternly with a socially appropriate dismay. Thus we create a false recall that comports with modern mores, as opposed to the transgression of complicit sadism. Incredibly, and ironically, through this complex circularity, the reader's surface experience is of reading a passage that is not funny.
Now, is that sophisticated, or what?
Top notch Lionel, truly. You've really mindfucked the reader into hating your writing, and probably themselves. Well this has been an old whip in the park. And I want to thank you for your time because, well, I'm obliged to do so. Thanks for your time, Lionel, and your words.