An interview with Valerie Martin
“Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a cautionary tale about a foolish woman whose Romantic education ill fits her for her very ordinary life, was, perhaps, the most important influence,” Valerie Martin has said of how she came to write. “As a New Orleanian I was naturally drawn to all things romantic, spooky, and gothic, but in reading Flaubert, and later Albert Camus and American realists like Stephen Crane, I felt a strong attraction to realism, both as a method and as a world view. I didn’t want to wind up like Emma Bovary.” To escape that fate, she became a novelist and, as she has put it, “set out on my quest to de-romanticize the world in my fiction.”
Though born in Missouri, Martin was raised and educated in New Orleans and now lives in upstate New York. She is the author of twelve works of fiction as well as a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. Martin won the Kafka Prize in 1990 for her novel Mary Reilly, which was translated into sixteen languages and became the subject of a film directed by Stephen Frears. Her 2003 novel, Property, narrated by a woman slave-owner in antebellum Louisiana, won Britain’s Orange Prize and was short-listed for France’s Prix Femina Étranger.
This interview was conducted on March 28, 2011, before an audience at Loyola University in New Orleans.
JB: The point of view in A Recent Martyr shifts throughout the novel from first to third person as the scene shifts from the woman’s perspective to the man’s. You seem to have a continuing ambition to explore the craft of storytelling itself.
VM: I do. And I think in those early novels I was really interested in point of view as something that could be played with a bit. A Recent Martyr was my third novel. The first two novels were published without difficulty—the same editor for both. But just as he moved to another publishing house, I sent in A Recent Martyr and he turned it down, saying there was no enthusiasm in the house. That is a really great expression to use in your own daily life: there’s just “no enthusiasm in the house.” So the book went around to publishers for eight solid years. At one point, we did find an editor who said he would buy it if I would put it all in the first person. The narrator narrates scenes that she couldn’t have seen but the reader knows she’s heard about. She imagines the scenes in the third person. It didn’t seem to me to be so outré. This editor’s request was a real test because I really did want to sell the novel and really didn’t want to change the point of view. After some dark nights of the soul, I did ultimately say, No, I won’t change it. Goodbye. So I guess I was committed to trying to have my own way, to tell the story in my own way.
JB: And you were writing The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories in that same period?
VM: Those stories probably started a bit earlier, and I think finished after. It takes me a long time to get together a collection of stories. They were originally called Dead Animal Stories because every story has a dead animal in it. But that title was quickly rejected.
JB: The Great Divorce also involves characters concerned with animals: a veterinarian, “The Catwoman of St. Francisville,” and other characters on the boundary between the world of animals and the world of humans. What do we have to learn from animals in your fiction?
VM: I think animals could teach us to chill out. They are clearly comfortable in nature, and we clearly are not. But it hasn’t done them any good to be comfortable in nature because they face extinction. The Great Divorce came out of reading about the inevitable extinction of lions and tigers, which my friend Susan Mikota, the zoo vet, calls charismatic mega-vertebrates. I felt sad, and I thought that I didn’t want to live in a world where there were no tigers or lions. But then I read about people who really do live in a world where there are tigers and lions, and I didn’t want to live there either. That is, I didn’t want to have a charismatic mega-vertebrate as a neighbour. I realized my great affection for tigers and lions was a kind of elitism. You know, it was very easy for me to give money to people who might save the tigers and lions, but it wasn’t so good for the people who couldn’t let their children outside because they would be eaten by tigers and lions. Whenever I find myself in a situation where I realize my own stance, though heartfelt, is actually hypocritical, I know that’s a good place to look for a novel.
JB: What kind of research did you do for The Great Divorce?
VM: It is my favourite book as far as research was concerned because I followed the vet at the New Orleans zoo around for a couple of months and I got to go to otter physicals and hold the anesthesia cone over the leopard while he got his implant put in—her implant, it was a birth-control implant—and watch the vet give inoculations to camels. Camels really do not want to be inoculated. It was great. One day—I think this was one of the most exciting moments of my life—I was standing in the cat house where the cats come in at night from their exhibits and go into their cages. To do this, they have to go down a hall, and they pass a door with a glass window in it. When one of the lions got to that window, he leaped up and gave a roar. And I was standing right there at the window. Very close. I recovered from the lion roar and went into the house. All the cats were in their cages on either side of a concrete hall, where I was standing—the big white tiger, a couple of lions, several leopards—all pacing around, not in a good mood, waiting for their dinners. I was looking at the white tiger, thinking, God, what a beautiful animal, when suddenly she charged the bars with a huge roar. I just fell down on the concrete. That was when I truly understood that I don’t want to live next door to a tiger.
I was so frightened. In fact, the keepers invited me to go out and look at the exhibit where the cats spent their days and, you know, see what the world looks like from the tiger’s point of view, but I couldn’t bring myself to go because I was convinced that somebody would accidentally open the latch and let the tiger into the exhibit and I’d be killed. So I never did do that bit of research. This is far from your original question, which has to do with what animals have to teach us. I guess I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve always loved the idea of the wild, and I have more and more the sensation that in losing the wild, we live in a different way and that we’re no longer animals. We’re something else. That was the question that generated The Great Divorce: “Are we animals or are we something else?”
JB: Though you never did live next door to a tiger, you did find yourself living next door to somebody who changed your career—
VM: Yeah, a lion.
JB: As a good New Orleanian, you got some cake and brought it next door to your new neighbour. And that piece of cake changed everything.
VM: Well, that was Margaret Atwood. I was living in Tuscaloosa—Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I taught at Tuscaloosa one year because a friend of mine divorced her husband in order to marry his best friend—a really good Southern story—and the husband left, so the university had an open position. I went for a year, and at the same time Margaret Atwood had accepted the writing chair there. We lived not exactly next door but a few blocks apart, and our daughters were the same age. I was part of the welcoming committee, and I escorted her around, so we got to know each other. She actually was a much better baker than I am, a fact that was ultimately very annoying because my daughter would go to her house to play with her daughter and Margaret would have baked scones or baked, you know, pie or cookies or something. When they came to my house, I bought cake. One day my daughter said to me—I was already feeling so inferior to Margaret Atwood that I was actually probably a few inches shorter—she said, “Why don’t you bake as much as Margaret?” That said it all. However, it turns out that all Margaret can do is bake; she actually can’t cook much at all. Baking is her only skill; I can make gumbo. In spite of the baking, we did become friends, and I was the first person to read The Handmaid’s Tale because she finished writing it in Tuscaloosa. She brought me the manuscript, and there are two versions of what I said after I read it. Her version is that I read it, and she said, “Well, what do you think?” And I said, “I think there’s something in it.” Which is just laughable, because what I really said was, “I think you’re going to be rich.” It was the first time I accurately predicted the future. Then she asked to read my book. By that time, I had been rejected so often that I had three unpublished novels—actually two novels and a collection of short stories. And she took them and read them, and she said, “Well, I’m going to give them to my editor,” who was Nan Talese. Nan is still my editor. And so it was, yes, thanks to Margaret Atwood moving to my neighbourhood that I actually published all the rest of my books.
JB: And the third unpublished book you had at that time was Mary Reilly?
VM: The third unpublished book was called The Perfect Waitress, which has never been published. It’s the story of a waitress who murders the owner of Commander’s Palace. I really liked that book. It was part of a three-book contract, which, to me, was just an amazing thing to have signed. The first two books were published—it just takes years for books to actually be published—and in the meantime I had started another book, and that was Mary Reilly. My editor moved from Houghton Mifflin to Doubleday, and when she saw the first fifty pages of Mary Reilly, she said, “Let’s just disappear that book from the contract and use this as the third book of the contract.” So The Perfect Waitress got disappeared. It was literally put into a box and disappeared.
JB: The book that was published in its place, Mary Reilly, is a retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but is told from the point of view of a maid whom you noticed lurking in the background. How did you come to write that book?
VM: Well, I taught The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde many times when I was at UNO. If you haven’t read it recently, I can’t recommend it to you strongly enough. It’s a wonderful little book, published in 1886. It’s quite extraordinary, just formally, and of course it’s Robert Louis Stevenson, so the style is utterly charming. Everyone everywhere knows the story of Jekyll and Hyde. Within five years of its publication, Stevenson took a trip to America by freighter, and on that freighter were two sailors, one of whom was tall and smart and the other of whom was small and swarthy; they were known to the crew as Jekyll and Hyde. That’s how rapidly the characters entered the language. I don’t think there’s any language where the names Jekyll and Hyde don’t have currency.
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