Yup, it’s my Alice Sebold interview, as published in the Business Post on December 16th…
All raven-black hair, alabaster skin and sensuous red mouth, Alice Sebold sits in the bar of a plush Dublin hotel with a smile planted on her face and a merry stream of conversation issuing forth from her lips. This seems odd because although Sebold – the author of the bestselling The Lovely Bones – is one of the most prominent writers in fiction today, you would think she has little to be happy about right now.
Over the past month, Sebold’s work has been the subject of some of the most savage critical notices that this reviewer has ever had the shock of reading. While The Lovely Bones was adored and called the most successful debut since Gone With the Wind, when she published her new novel The Almost Moon recently, the mood about Sebold and her work changed markedly.
The Almost Moon begins with these words: ‘‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” The novel continues by recounting, in unstinting detail, the efforts made by Helen, the book’s 49year-old life model narrator, to cope with her 88-year-old mother’s corpse – and indirectly justify her murder.
Helen, it’s fair to say, is no shrinking violet when it comes to revealing how she deals with her mother, who suffered from dementia. In the act of suffocating her, she breaks her nose. Then, because her mother has soiled herself, Helen elects to clean her.
‘‘There it was, the hole that had given birth to me,” Sebold writes. ‘‘This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia. In the last decade, I had become my mother’s official enema-giver.”
Over the course of the next 24 hours, Helen plunges into equally detailed and abrasive descriptions of sex and violence. In the New York Times, Lee Siegel described the book as ‘‘like one very long MySpace page’’. Siegel continued: ‘‘After you’ve finished this insult to the lumbar industry, your health care provider won’t cover your search for a cure.” The Guardian’s John Crace said that The Almost Moon ‘‘makes Dave Pelzer look like a comic genius’’.
Other reviews have suggested that the book is so badly rendered it is laughable. In all honesty, after notices so terrible, it’s hard to see how Sebold can carry on so stoically with this book tour; she is on her fifth week now of interviews. Yet here she sits, smiling brightly.
When asked how she feels about the negative critical reaction to the novel, Sebold – dressed, as is her wont, all in designer-goth black threads, save for the tiniest bit of purple – rapidly sets about sucking the heat out of the question. ‘‘I didn’t know that it would provoke as extreme a reaction as it has. I’m not purposely setting out to write something that’s upsetting or to shock.
‘‘But if you work with dark material, and you’re trying to address things that you feel haven’t been addressed, the outcome of that, sometimes, is going to shock or upset people, you can’t escape that. Also, you’re dealing with the phenomenon of taking down the person who has had huge success. That’s just a cultural thing that happens. I’ll weather it.’’ And she smiles again.
Sebold, 45, has weathered far harsher storms in her lifetime. Brought up in Paoli, Philadelphia, the daughter of unhappily married parents, she was the ‘‘weirdo’’ chubby girl who defied convention, painted her clothes and longed to sing on Broadway. Her sister Mary, with whom she was desperately competitive, was the academic achiever in the family.
In the past, Sebold has described how her father, a professor of Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania, only began to notice her when the rest of the world did. Starved for attention, in 1980, Sebold moved to Syracuse, New York, to attend a liberal arts course.
At 18,walking home, she was brutally raped in a park near her freshman dorm. In a 1989 article for the New York Times, she wrote about how her father had reacted when he heard the harrowing news. ‘‘Ignorance hurts. In the beginning, even my own father, who has spent his life working with young people, confessed to me that he did not understand how I could have been raped if I didn’t ‘want to’ be.” It must have been terribly difficult for Sebold to commit those words to print.
But when asked how she feels about her father’s words today, she doesn’t falter or look angry. ‘‘My father does not feel responsible for a cultural ignorance which he inherited,” she says. ‘‘Nor do If eel he should be responsible. I suffered from that cultural ignorance, but that culture was given to him – that was the culture he was raised in. He was able to give that responsibility away.”
Listening to her defence, you think of the line in The Almost Moon where Helen says: ‘‘How can you apologise for the mother you love? The mother you, too, hate.”
In the years after her rape, Sebold has made it clear that her parents did not provide her with the support she needed. Even as she bravely faced down a harrowing trial, which brought about her attacker’s conviction, her mother was busy telling her that ‘‘you don’t want to become defined by the rape’’. Having always wanted to become a writer, she sought refuge in fiction – she enrolled in classes with the late Raymond Carver and his wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, and learned a lot from them.
Nonetheless, the next ten years were hardly easy. Sebold flitted between Texas and New York before moving to California. There, having become the caretaker of an arts colony, she drifted into using heroin. Enrolling in a writing programme at the University of California at Irvine, she began to write a novel called Monsters, but in the end found herself forced to put it aside so she could get a memoir about her rape, Lucky, out of her system.
After Lucky was published, Sebold completed Monsters, the story of a young girl called Susie Salmon who, having been raped and murdered, observes the lives of her family and friends from heaven. The book became The Lovely Bones. When it was published in 2002, it became a worldwide phenomenon.
From being a relatively unknown author of one memoir, Sebold became that rarest of things – a literary celebrity. Myriad fans began writing letters to her; Sebold didn’t write back, but the letters arrived just the same. ‘‘I call them one-sided letter writers,” she says.
‘‘People update me on their lives, their family and what they’re doing, and include me in their existence. It’s perfectly friendly and nice. These are not creepy people, but they send me pictures of their vacation.”
Then it was announced that a movie adaptation of the book was being made by Peter Jackson. The film, starring Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg and Irish actress Saoirse Ronan in the lead role of Susie, is due to be released next year. How does Sebold feel about the prospect of seeing her work up on the big screen?
‘‘I’m sure it’ll be weird: a strange experience,” she says. ‘‘There’s a great, silly, ironic hand-puppet version of The Lovely Bones on YouTube that some kids made with paper bags. I find it hilarious. Obviously, I’m thinking that the Jackson movie is going to be better than the paper bag movie. But it’s another person doing something with it. I’m into watching the process of having the film go out into the world and have a life I never expected it would have.”
Sebold didn’t become involved with the film in part because she was busy working on her second novel. Motivation, she says, was not a problem for her in the wake of the first novel’s success. ‘‘If anything, the influence of that success was that it made me want to write a book fearlessly and relentlessly, instead of worrying at all about reception or sales or anything. In some sense, you can see huge success as something that gives you creative freedom. I’m all about making the harder choice.”
And so, through the weeks and months and years that followed, her new story, the story of a narrator who kills her mother and spends the rest of the narrative coming to terms with her actions, emerged. All of which brings us back to where we started – with a literary world angry at Sebold, and Sebold sitting in the hotel bar wearing a happy mask four inches thick.
In truth, this is a hard interview to do, because I can’t claim to be fond of the book either. There are some good things to say about the work: contained within the 300-odd pages are brilliantly and beautifully written set pieces – when Helen speaks of her parents’ depression, her mother’s nerve issues and a horrendous incident involving a neighbour of the family. But the novel is frequently so repugnant in its viewpoints that it’s a tough task even to read it to the end, much less to like it.
The problem is not so much the unpalatable sex, the violence and degradations of Helen’s mother’s body – though uncomfortable, they do sit accurately with the development of the storyline. No: for my money, at least, the central weakness is that the book crucially lacks any sense of authorial wisdom.
By virtue of allowing Helen to be viewed as holding on to her sanity – and by giving her opinions so much space – the book implicitly appears to endorse her perspective. Small wonder, then, that so many have been so angered by the book.
But, Sebold being Sebold, try as I might, this topic will never be properly addressed within the course of the conversation. While the author is never anything other than completely polite and warm-seeming, every question dies a death within seconds; she seems hell-bent on being as cheerily superficial in her observations as possible. Like a cat slipping and sliding over ice, I’m doing a lot of dancing but making no connection. It feels like we’re in a literary twilight zone, where up is down and left is right, and everyone is happy about everything.
It comes as no surprise, accordingly, to hear from Sebold that her mother had no concerns when she read the novel. ‘‘The first thing my mother said about this book was: ‘Some people need to replace fictional characters with real ones. I don’t. You’ve written a marvellous book.’ ”
Does Sebold care what people think of her? ‘‘No,” she laughs. ‘‘I let it go after a certain point after Bones came out. Because you can’t please everybody. It’s a very female pathology to want to be liked and boy does it keep women from getting work done. I care what readers think, maybe, but I don’t care what people in the street think of me. I’m just writing books, not committing crimes.”
She’s right, of course. And yet I leave, feeling a little chilled – and wishing I’d had a better peek at the author behind the mask.