Kate Christensen is the PEN/Faulkner Prize winning author of The Great Man, Epicure's Lament, and other lauded novels.
Her newest, The Astral, follows Harry Quirk, a Brooklyn poet in his mid fifties whose marriage and professional reputation are in decline. Set in contemporary Greenpoint, the first-person narrative captures the texture of Harry's consciousness with an uncanny facility and truth to life.
PH: To me, Harry Quirk represents New York bohemianism before it became irrevocably self-conscious. What about his aspirations and struggles moved you to portray this man so carefully, so inventively?
KC: There's a certain kind of New Yorker I don't see written about much -- the artist who keeps making art without any reward of money or fame -- the artist who reaches middle age in a state of scruffy, striving dedication. Successful artists of any stripe interest me far less than struggling ones. I know so many people -- painters, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians -- who are still in that state, middle-aged, living hand to mouth, no insurance, no savings account, still paying rent, trying to survive, but not giving up -- their lives have been shaped around their art. It's a quiet heroism. I'm inspired and moved by artists who do it because they have to -- because it's who they are -- and for no other reason. I admire their integrity, authenticity, and deep dedication. They are an unsung and crucial part of the city's character.
PH: What was the biggest piece of editorial advice you accepted on this novel, and the biggest piece of editorial advice you rejected?
KC: After he read the first draft, my editor, Gerry Howard, told me he wanted more back-story and history. He wanted to know more clearly who Luz was, and he wanted me to flesh out Harry's marriage, family, and friendship with Marion. His idea was to make Luz more sympathetic, to let us see her side of things as clearly as we see Harry's. I agreed with the first suggestion and rejected the second. I added seven or eight full scenes from Harry's past, which I felt helped deepen and shape the book -- but rather than making her sympathetic, I showed Luz as a controlling, cold, histrionic bitch. This was completely necessary to the novel; my editor agreed with me when he read the next draft.
PH: What have been turning points for you in terms of craft? What were the lessons you learned, the breakthroughs you made, the epiphanies? Did they come from your Iowa MFA, or a novel you read, or essays on craft, or elsewhere?
KC: The major turning point for me came when I was almost 30. I had spent the entire decade of my 20s writing stories and novel chapters that were simultaneously earnestly overwrought and callowly underdeveloped, an attempted imitative amalgam of Ann Beatty and William Faulkner. These were not terrible stories and chapters; I was encouraged to keep going in this vein by getting into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, winning the 1988 Mademoiselle fiction contest, and then, after I'd moved to New York, getting a series of handwritten New Yorker rejections asking me to keep submitting -- I thought I was on the right track.
But one day -- I remember this so clearly -- I looked over the thing I was working on and felt a profound revulsion, an aesthetic nausea. I couldn't stand it another minute. That was the day I started writing "In the Drink," the day I realized that my own voice was not the one I'd been writing in all these years. I realized I'd been faking it; I had a flash of what my writing was going to be. It felt so good to switch to my real voice. It felt like taking off the training wheels and flying down a hill for the first time with no hands -- freeing, euphoric, subversive.