Adventures in disturbia
Her first novel, The Lovely Bones, a haunting account of a young girl's rape and murder, was hailed as the most successful debut since Gone with the Wind. Not bad for a woman who'd spent her life dedicated to failing. Now, as Peter Jackson's film version gets under way, and her next novel is published, Alice Sebold talks to Robert McCrum about truth-telling, her traumatic youth and exploring the dark side of America
Sunday October 14, 2007
Her first novel, The Lovely Bones, a haunting account of a young girl's rape and murder, was hailed as the most successful debut since Gone with the Wind. Not bad for a woman who'd spent her life dedicated to failing. Now, as the film version gets under way, and her next novel is published, Alice Sebold talks to Robert McCrum about truth-telling, her traumatic youth and exploring the dark side of suburbia. Photographs Barry J Holmes
Sebold, now 45, still possesses the singularity of a weird child telling herself stories, and the unworldly detachment from everyday life of a woman who needs to be lonely. But although she might seem a little bit gothic (black silk blouse, black trousers, jet-black fringe and pure white skin animated with sensuous scarlet lips) she projects none of the whimsical self-absorption you might imagine from reading her 2002 mega-bestseller The Lovely Bones
At odds with her image, and some of the things she has said in the past about the predictability of violence in everyday life, she's rather jolly and game for a laugh, with smiley, Chinese-looking eyes and a lovely, infectious chuckle that bubbles up from somewhere deep inside. That's what she wants you to think because, behind her mask, she's watchful, and alert.
'I've decided to trust you,' she says a few minutes into our conversation. This is a significant declaration from a writer who makes a fetish of her 'honesty' and her 'truth-telling', and who has been at odds with the adult world almost all her life. How much she has to hide remains to be seen. Certainly, there's a book to be written about the creative kids of the suburbs in contemporary America, from Steven Spielberg to Dave Eggers, dreamy misfits from the place that's sometimes called Disturbia.
Alice Sebold, who is one of these children, grew up in Paoli, a comfortable, God-fearing middle-class suburb on Philadelphia's Main Line region. She is the 'alienated' second child of academic, self-improving parents from the University of Pennsylvania (her father taught Spanish), a college awkwardly placed towards the bottom of the Ivy League.
The teenage Alice, she says, was 'too smart, too fat, too loud, too arty', and she fought her mismatched, unhappily married parents tooth and nail. 'Too - T-O-O - much. That was me,' she recalls, letting out another fruity laugh. 'I always had that sense of being censored for the things that I thought. Why is it wrong to embroider your pants, or paint with acrylics on your clothing? Why is that weird? Isn't it weirder to want to be like everyone else?'
As an academic family, the Sebolds had their own kind of weirdness - fierce dinner-table arguments about the meanings of words - and Alice was, 'kind of proudly', she says, in full revolt against it. Looking back from the safe high ground of middle-aged success, she is happy to say: 'I wanted to be the moron of the family, because morons seemed to have more fun, more freedom and more personality.' With another convulsion of merriment, she observes, in a kind of warning: 'The life of a middle-aged snob is something that seems horrible to me.' Somewhere else she has said she feels no bond with 'well-educated writers'.
For all that, she always wanted to be a writer, 'with a penchant for the morbid', and felt herself 'divided between being a poet and Ethel Merman or Bette Midler'. Speaking for 'the frustrated fat girl' who could not fit into the repressed routines of her parents' lives, and who suffered from a mild dyslexia that inhibited her adolescent reading, she notes that, 'As a misfit, if you become that super-freak on stage, you think that things will work out for you.'
Finding a place in the world is every teenager's project. For Alice Sebold, whose parents lavished all their approval and attention on their straight-A-winning eldest daughter Mary (and Alice's childhood rival), it was Broadway or nothing. But (another merry laugh), 'I couldn't sing.' So it would have to be poetry. Even now, in moments of private stress, she releases the tension by chanting aloud in rhyming couplets. Her husband jokes that when she's in a mood you want your name to rhyme with 'Orange'.
To Sebold's bewilderment and, I suspect, inner rage, her father couldn't get his faculty-brat daughter into the University of Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, it was a conventional liberal-arts course that took her to Syracuse in upstate New York in the fall of 1980, aged 18. The life of Alice Sebold was just about to get 'a little bit different'.
'Weird' is a word that crops up a lot in Sebold's conversation. She has described herself as 'very happy with my weirdness'. But when she left home and went to college, that 'weirdness' became very weird (aka shocking, traumatic and horrifying) indeed.
One night during her first semester, on her way back to her dorm, Sebold was brutally raped in the tunnel to an amphitheatre. She fought her rapist, but he beat her up anyway. 'Please don't rape me,' she said. 'Take off your clothes,' he replied. 'I'm a virgin,' she pleaded, to no avail. After a savage rape, her assailant forced her to kiss him, urinated on her and eventually left her to crawl to safety, like a wounded animal.
In the same tunnel another girl had been murdered and dismembered. The police said she was lucky to have survived. Her family had an equally dysfunctional response. Hearing the news of her ordeal, her father, whom she now describes as 'an interesting fish', asked if she'd like something to eat. Alice replied that this 'would be nice, considering the only thing I've had in my mouth in the last 24 hours is a cracker and a cock'.
So much for 'truth-telling'. On the verge of adulthood, Sebold was now on the wrong side of something her family would never understand, and she could scarcely understand herself. 'My life was over,' she says. 'My life had just begun.' (Some critics have said that all Sebold's subsequent writing has been a tribute to the girl who died when she was raped in 1980.)
But now Alice's courageous singularity kicked in. With extraordinary determination, Sebold returned to college and enrolled in the creative-writing programme taught by Raymond Carver and his wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, who both effectively babysat a young woman in the midst of a full-blown crack-up. Slowly, they coaxed her, through her writing, to begin to confront her fate.
Simultaneously, with grit and determination, Sebold set out to bring her rapist (who was still at large, just off the campus) to justice. After a gruelling trial, in which she was described as 'the best rape witness ever seen on the stand' in New York state, Sebold secured her assailant's conviction, the maximum sentence for rape and sodomy of eight to 25 years. Her attacker is out of prison now, though she says 'I don't follow his life. Keeping tabs on that is kind of anchoring your life.'
Despite this victory, she was still, in her own words, 'a mess', and her family was no help. Her mother was telling her daughter: 'You don't want to become defined by the rape,' and Alice was reduced to playing the clown, her family role, joking that while her sister was majoring in Arabic, she was majoring in rape.
For a troubled, painful decade after her ordeal, Sebold tried, and failed, to make sense of her life. Reading between the lines, her parents found it all 'too much' to handle. In Paoli, young Alice Sebold was the crazy kid who had paid the price for being 'different' and gone off the rails. In a decade fascinated with personal trauma, she was also taking her story aggressively into the public arena. She published a first-person account of her rape in the New York Times; she appeared on Oprah as 'The victim who fought back'.
But there was still no resolution. She drifted down to Texas (and more failure), and then back to New York, where she joined a rootless, boho crowd in downtown Manhattan, experimented with heroin, and continued, in Samuel Beckett's words to 'fail better'. Her most memorable achievement during these bleak, lost years was, high on drugs, to scale the Manhattan Bridge at the dead of night. After 10 years in the city, she moved to California, where she got the job of caretaker in an arts colony. She lived in an electricity-free cinder-block and plywood cabin and worked by the glow of a propane light.
Finally, now aged 33, she began to write a novel called Monsters, a strange, otherworldly story about the sexual assault and murder of a 14-year-old girl. As well as the inspiration of her own rape, there was Sebold's fascination with everyday violence and her burgeoning realisation that 'within the suburban world of my upbringing there were as many strange stories as there were in the more romanticised parts of the world'.
Progress was painfully slow. By now she had enrolled in a writing programme at the University of California at Irvine. Eventually, she broke off from the novel to address her own rape and wrote a 'misery memoir' entitled Lucky. The man who raped Sebold appears as Madison in this haunting, enraged elegy for lost youth, which was published in the US in 1999 but made no impact.
Meanwhile, Sebold had finally completed Monsters, and gave it to a mentor, the poet Wilton Barnhardt. He was so impressed by what he read that he ferried the manuscript straight to his agent (now Sebold's) in New York. After more vicissitudes, Monsters (briefly This Wide Heaven) became The Lovely Bones
This was every bit as dark as Lucky. Its narrator, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, is raped and killed by a neighbour in the opening chapter. Susie narrates the story of her death - and of her family's response to it - in an omniscient first-person narrative from heaven, an imaginative stroke of considerable daring that, post 9/11, entranced American readers.
If there was ever a bestselling novel made by word-of-mouth enthusiasm, it was The Lovely Bones, which has been described as the most successful debut novel since Gone with the Wind. At one point in the pre-publication feeding frenzy, independent booksellers were telephoning the publishers Little, Brown to beg for reprints to meet demand.
Then the critics followed: The Chicago Tribune ('an audacious novel about death'), Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times ('a keenly observed portrait of familial love') and even Jonathan Franzen all rolled up to hail the novel as 'deeply affecting' and 'an elegy for suburbia'. Not everyone was so impressed. In the UK, the response was more guarded. Philip Hensher, writing in The Observer, said: 'It is not exactly bad, and very readable, but ultimately it seems like a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy... It will, in short, do extremely well.' Ali Smith, perceptively, noted that 'at the heart of The Lovely Bones is an unwritten book about loneliness'.
Sebold was bewildered by the experience of sudden exposure and acclaim, and is still adjusting to the unfathomable mysteries of overnight success. With her new fortune, she was able to move to a town house in San Francisco, where she now lives with her husband Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil, whom she met at Irvine and describes, rather girlishly, as 'my one true love'.
After so many years of failure, she had not expected success. 'By rights,' she says, 'in terms of what I was writing, the success I got never should have happened.' In her mind, she was still this weird, lonely child from Paoli. 'I was not greatly connected up with any great media sources. What I think is that my novel was something that had a long trail.'
She insists that writing is a profession, not a career. She says: 'If you get enough success, people tell you it's a career, but you have to remind yourself constantly that it isn't.'
Nevertheless, after years of painfully finding a new voice - the narrator Helen Knightly - she is about to publish her second novel, The Almost Moon, about a suburban woman living in Pennsylvania who kills her elderly mother in a terrifying fit of manic rage and, in the course of 24 hours, plunges into the dark side of suburbia.
At this point in our conversation it becomes impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: the insistent and exceedingly complex relationship between life and work in Sebold's writing. She insists, properly and naturally enough, that fiction is fiction. In the next breath she recognises that her readers will inevitably try to psychoanalyse her through her books. Implicitly, she acknowledges that this response is not inappropriate. 'It's impossible for that not to happen,' she concedes. 'I understand the human condition. That's just the way we work. I end up doing it, so why wouldn't anybody else do it?' Why not, indeed?
Once we've got this out of the way, she fully acknowledges the intense, sometimes direct relationship between her experience and her writing: 'I find talking about my work harder than it might be if honesty wasn't my calling card,' she says. Sebold admits that she returned to her 'obsessions' (the dark side of suburbia and of mother-daughter relations) when she came to write The Almost Moon
The new novel is a strange, oddly compulsive hybrid of gothic detective story and literary fiction. It is shocking and 'dark', another word Sebold favours, though not strictly gothic. 'The problem I have with "gothic",' she says, 'is that it speaks to me of intention, and I didn't have any. I never know how to answer this question. I hate "literary fiction". What the hell does that mean? The word "dark" I like because it doesn't seem to have any freight to it.'
The novel itself is not short of its own freight, however, and is littered with raw asides, fictional lines in the narrator's voice ('I would chase the animal that had wanted to murder my mother since my earliest age') that, considered in the light of Sebold's singular biography, have a haunted resonance. Most telling of all is this sentence: 'I saw my own epitaph: SHE LIVED SOMEBODY ELSE'S LIFE.' This goes to the heart of the matter. The fascinating, untold story that's buried in Alice Sebold's life is not hers, but her mother Jane's.
Jane Sebold was a child of post-war America, a nervous, strangely grandiose, bookish girl who lived with her parents in Bethesda, in the suburbs of Washington DC, and worked on National Geographic magazine, and later The American Scholar. She first met her future husband on a blind date and took an instant dislike to him. 'They hated each other,' says Sebold. But eventually, her father's shy and dedicated courtship paid off. According to his daughter, he was 'the only one who would take the bus from Washington and then walk the five miles to my mother's house'.
Perhaps marriage was inevitable. Soon, the newlywed Sebolds were moving to an academic posting in Durham, North Carolina. For Jane Sebold this was in some ways worse than the suburbs of DC. Alone all day and unable to make friends, Alice's mother became a secret drinker and then a full-blown alcoholic, the classic academic wife of the Fifties.
Somehow, by the end of the Sixties, she had mastered her alcoholism, but now the drink was replaced by bouts of neurotic crisis 'when Mommy went crazy'. In the repressed code of the suburbs, and with quasi-English stoicism, Alice and her sister referred to these moments as 'flaps'. Who knows what lay behind these disturbing domestic dramas. But one thing is certain: Alice's mother nursed an unfulfilled ambition to be a writer, even a poet, which her daughter is still coming to terms with. 'She always had an idea of herself as a writer,' says Sebold, who remembers functioning as a 'caretaking unit' for her dysfunctional mother, soothing and growing closer to her in response to her older sister's loss of sympathy. In the mother-daughter relationship, she says she became 'the emotional overlord'.
It is, of course, just a fiction, but there's an extraordinary moment in The Almost Moon when the narrator exclaims unguardedly: 'How can you apologise for the mother you love? The mother you, too, hate.'
When I ask her now about this line, Sebold, resolutely unforthcoming, says, 'I think it's from some desire to understand.'
This quest for understanding her relationship with an impossible mother is, typically, singular. The remarkable thing about Alice Sebold is that within her own family, and in the space of just two, now three, books, she has completely mythologised her life. When, for example, her mother telephones to mark the anniversary of her daughter's rape it's on the anniversary given in Lucky, not the actual date. Long before the writing of The Lovely Bones or The Almost Moon, it's as though Sebold imposed her own personal narrative on her reluctant family.
The mother-daughter psychodrama seems hard-wired into her imagination. When I ask Sebold what she thinks The Almost Moon is about, she answers, after a long pause, that 'in some ways I would say it's about bravery'. By this, she means the 'bravery' to confront 'the false messages about what relationships are between children and parents'. She is quite sure it won't play well in Paoli. Being honest about this, she believes, is 'a lonelier place to be'.
What, I wonder, are the limits to this 'honesty'? If she wants to confront her relationship with her mother, what about a book about someone who killed her father? Again, there's Sebold's infectious laughter. 'No, no. That may come next. I'm not saying that might not happen.'
Do you think your parents are proud of you?
'I am the truth-teller. I could give a simple answer and say, "Yes."' (She now adds, as often in interviews, 'I think I came into existence for my father once the world gave me attention. I became real once the world made me real.') When she describes the forthcoming movie version of The Lovely Bones, to be directed by Peter Jackson in Pennsylvania this autumn, she notes with satisfaction that many Paoli residents, including the man who cuts her parents' grass, are competing to be extras.
It's as though, through 'truth-telling', Alice Sebold has finally achieved the straight As she spurned as an adolescent. The happy and successful place she's in now has been painfully won, but it's her achievement, no question.
Sebold herself attributes this to luck, talent, 'and moxie... I like the word moxie'. We wrangle about the Irish or Yiddish roots of 'moxie' for a bit and then, speculating about the launch of her second novel, The Almost Moon, I quote F Scott Fitzgerald's 'There are no second acts in American lives.' Sebold brushes this aside with: 'It's weird. I feel like my second act was moving to California after failing in New York. This new novel is really my third or fourth act.'
In her quest to confront her family's demons, she seems resigned to losing some of the millions who read The Lovely Bones. 'Readers will always read,' she instructs. 'If I continue to write books that are my books, as opposed to books that are somehow warped because I had a success, then readers will continue to read them. I only owe readers what I owe myself, which is to continue to write my books. I just want to write and read and walk my dog. You know, I'm very simple.'
· The Lovely Bones, directed by Peter Jackson, is released next year. In an event sponsored by The Observer, Alice Sebold will be talking about her new novel, The Almost Moon, on 8 November at 28 Great Russell Street, London WC1. For tickets, priced at £7, call 0845 456 9876