Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.

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Thick Skin, where authors talk about negative reviews, from both critics and readers

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Episode II: Good and pure

Published 5/17/16
In this installment, Sara Majka talks about the influence of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

In this installment of Influenced, I’m with Sara Majka. Her debut collection “Cities I’ve Never Lived In” came out in February from Graywolf. The New York Times Books Review called it “a kind of New England gothic, where the lost children and dead women and doppelgängers serve to add atmosphere and meaning to the narrator’s past peregrinations, her dalliances and uncertainties. It turns out in the end that this is in fact a book about an arty person with a complicated personal life. But it’s a lovely one, written in a moving and uncanny register.” It’s also been hailed as striking, graceful, haunting. Personally I found it profoundly separate from the work you’re going to discuss today, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I admit I was surprised by your pick, and I’m intrigued to learn more. When did you first read The Sun Also Rises, and how many times (and when) have you read it since?

I recently noticed in Q and A's that I keep mentioning the same books, and they're all books that I've read more recently, and they are wonderful and have really influenced me—Alice Munro, WG Sebald, Walser. I bet none of those would be a surprise. But I think our deepest influences are probably ones that we've read earlier, and I was a major reader of the classics growing up. I forget that, because it's been so many years. But I love Henry James, have read so much Woolf and Wharton. I have read The Sun Also Rises three times and once I knew I was doing an interview I started on it again, so I think I'm up to 3.7 times.

I read it for the first time when I was quite young. I don't often re-read books. Actually. I don't know if I've ever re-read another book. I've read stories again, but I can't think of a novel that I've read again.

How young is young?

Oh gosh. I"m going to make up an age here. Middle school? I had no idea about the war injury.

What sort of impression does The Sun Also Rises leave on a middleschooler?

I was a big reader. I describe my reading this way: I was quite shy and we moved a lot and I was reading always, every second I could. So I imagine it left a big impression on me, that I would have found it beautiful even back then, but I missed a lot for sure.

It's funny how not 'getting' a certain aspect of a book, even if it's a major aspect, can end up not meaning much in the way of being affected by it in the way any good art moves us.

Yes, there's so much else to the book. And you understand the two characters can't be together, and even without the injury, I'm not sure they're together...and you sense it helps to get the injury, but it's not mandatory to the book.

Even that kernel—two characters that can't be together—is a profound concept to really anyone still in adolescence. Do you recall the emotions that attended that realization?

No. I have a hazy memory, which is quite apparent in my own book. And I estimated the age that I first read it. But if you grow up a reader, by then, by even middle school, you would have read so much about people who can't be together, would have read about sex and Paris and drinking and everything there is already. I am sure that I had a lot of experience with that idea imaginatively, though not at all in real life. Real life would come as such a surprise to me as I got older.

When did "real life" for you begin?

Ten years ago? I laughed as I wrote that. But there is some truth in it.

As you continued to read the book (the 2.7 times since your first go), how did your concept of it change?

Oh, so much this time. I have been so surprised by it. In some way it is almost nothing like I remember, though all the familiar stuff is still there. 

What tangibly has changed?

How old he was when he wrote it?

27 when it was published.

Now I see a young writer in the moment before his life changes. This time reading it, I am thinking so much about Hemingway. I find I do that more and more as I read now, think about the author. I am reading the part now where he starts going into detail about bull fighting, about purity of line. As I type this I am wondering if you'd read it by chance?

I read it long ago, when it was on the shelf of someone who I was staying with, and then again when a girl I had a crush on said she loved it. How much of that point of view, seeing it as a catalogue of his own career, has to do with your conception of a writerly career now?

I had a boyfriend who read it because I loved it, and he was so disappointed by the flatness of the language. But I am still thinking of the question of how it has changed...and this time reading it I thought of how much the book needed the bullfighting and that one bullfighter. I was thinking tonight that the book needed him...what was his name...Pedro?...because he was good and pure, and at the time Hemingway's work was that way as well, and there is something moving in that, and to see the purity and beauty in how Hemingway wrote when he was that age.

I feel like your language just became Hemingway-inflected there...I thought of this and that, and he was blank and blank, and this was that way as well, and this is that, and...Perhaps I'm imagining it, but he's infectious, both in how we choose language and how we think. How much of your own writing do you think inhabits that sort of purity and beauty?

All of college I wrote in a style that had all of Hemingway's flatness and none of what was good. I like a spare style, and much of that comes from my own feeling of restraint, but also the influence of Hemingway. But it didn't work to my advantage at all until I was older and had a stronger sense of my...I don't own emotional world. But yes, I can do Hemingway inflections with the best of them.

I was going to ask why it takes a fuller emotional world, but I guess that's fundamentally asking why Hemingway's style works, which of course can't be answered, but now I'm going to ask it anyway.

When I used that style in college it sounded vacant. I had we all do...and didn't know what was going on inside of me never mind the characters I was trying to make up. You really have to know that to write in a minimal way, I think, because a mood or feeling is going to rest on just a few words.

The parts in A Moveable Feast when he talks of his wife, and uses just the simplest, barest words to describe their love and the beauty and tragedy of it, it's just so true. And it's something that, I feel, isn't so much a part of the vocabulary of today's fiction writers, to describe love like that. It's now: come at it askew, oblique and in metaphor, underscore and underlay and paint it pointillist. I wonder if it's like fashion, and it'll come back around again, or if it really just relied on his skill.

Oh I forgot about A Moveable Feast. That is also a very good book, so unadorned. I admired how plainly he described things as well.

On a scale from Hemingway to 5 to...I don't know...David Foster Wallace, how would you describe your writing?

On a one to ten scale do you mean? In terms of minimal to maximal?

Yes—0 is Hemingway is minimal. 5 is...Salinger is normal. 10 is DFW is maximalist. Excuse the white maleness.

1? I think I knew my choice would come as a surprise, but I was curious why it came as a surprise to you. To pick Hemingway, I mean.

To be frank, Hemingway and pals seem somewhat outmoded, or...not so much a faux pas, but...something. Hemingway is the name my friends who haven't ever finished a novel pull out. It's funny to remember he was actually a great writer, for some people "the" great writer, and not an archetype or trope or totem.

Yes, that's good to bring that up. There is all that other stuff. But. He was actually a great writer. I admire some of his stories very much, but The Sun Also Rises is something different than that for me, it is the one book I would be able to read again and again. Oh. I could also read the glass essay by Anne Carson again and again. I forgot that, that is one other work I can read again and again. What do those things have in common, I wonder? They both have a lot of gaps, a lot of space. Whatever that means. But there is something in both those works that let you read them again and again. Or at least for me. I’m stumbling here as I try to explain it just right.

Well if you could explain with words why exactly you love something that consists only of words, that would be logically problematic I think. We're nearly out of time, so I'll let you go with this: how would you recommend the book to someone who not only hasn't read Hemingway, but who doesn't usually read fiction?

I seem to be not so good at this sort of thing...I think I am the worst salesman in the world.

Ha. I'll take it. Thanks for your time Sara, and your words.

Thank you. It was nice to spend time with this book again.