Author Alice Sebold
From its beginnings, the Book Sense marketing program has helped demonstrate the special relationships between independent booksellers and authors. BTW is excited to launch a new feature, "Book Sense One on One," in which the bookseller who has nominated a title for the Book Sense 76 interviews that title's author.
This week, Tripp Ryder, buyer for the Carleton College bookstore, in Northfield, Minnesota, interviews author Alice Sebold. In nominating Sebold's The Lovely Bones, Ryder wrote, "This remarkable first novel is narrated by Susie, a 14-year-old murder victim who watches from heaven as her family and friends struggle with their grief, pain, and desperation to understand. What could be maudlin is instead a spirited, devastating, and ultimately hopeful book about love and healing. Susie will enter your heart, and you will be enriched by her."
Ryder: Several of my favorite novels of late (for example, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; Shadow Baby by Alison McGhee; and now, most certainly, The Lovely Bones) are told from the point of view of a child. It gives the books a fresh, almost magical voice. How did you choose to tell the story from Susie's perspective instead of using a third-person narrative? Did you have her voice in your head first, or did the story come to you first and then her voice?
Sebold: Susie's voice was definitely first. She may be a child, but she was very bossy when it came to how her story would be told! I always feel like saying she wrote the first chapter in one sitting instead of I wrote the chapter in one sitting. It was that intense an experience. When I finished, I was shaking, and I looked up from the page and felt this intense connection with something. That something was Susie.
Ryder: When I describe the basic premise of the book to someone, he or she often responds by thinking it sounds terribly dark. And yet I found the book to be luminous with moments of grace, and to end with a sense of hope and redemption. Did you know all along that the book would move in that direction, or did that evolve as you were writing it?
Sebold: I have a deep belief that in the darkest, bleakest picture there is light. There is a beautiful chapel in Houston that has four gorgeous Rothko paintings, all very dark, and I remember I would sit in that chapel and stare into those dark, dark paintings and come away feeling light-headed because of the stories, the narratives, the light, I saw inside them.
Ryder: There is almost unimaginable sorrow and loss in The Lovely Bones. It feels so true. What was it like to live with that story while you were writing it?
Sebold: Pretty wonderful and comforting for me, frankly. I have a big problem with the idea that sorrow and loss are not a normal part of the everyday. Certainly we may not want them to be, but guess what? They are! So why not embrace them and give ourselves permission to feel these very real and very true emotions? It makes the moments of happiness and thankfulness that much more clean and honest, because they exist in the world alongside sorrow and loss, and not in opposition to them.
Plus, once my characters had had this experience, I felt a responsibility to sit with them and share their feelings and their journey.
Ryder: Your vision of heaven through Susie's eyes is so generous and compassionate. Your characters all have the capacity to care at such a deep level, in spite of the horror they have experienced. Are you optimistic about human nature?
Sebold: For a cynic like myself, someone who has earned the moniker Darkside among her friends, I am frighteningly optimistic. I think the reason relates to the above, to the idea that if we are honest about pain, we can be honest about joy. If you deny your pain or loss, then you actually muddy your experience of joy. If you go deeply into pain and loss then, baby, when you feel joy ... you know it! So yes, despite everything that goes on in this world every day, I remain thoroughly in love with humans and their natures. They are awesome, nutty, and fabulous after all!