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Between Words and Wordlessness. Interview with Elisabeth Harvor
by Krista Bridge

Elisabeth Harvor's fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, The Malahat Review, The Hudson Review, and many other periodicals, and have been anthologized in Canada, the US, and Europe. Fortress of Chairs won the Lampert Award in 1992. She has also won a number of other awards, among them the Alden Nowlan Award and a National Magazine Award. Excessive Joy Injures the Heart, chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The Toronto Star in 2000, is her first novel. Let Me Be the One, her most recent collection of stories, was a finalist for the Governor General's Award

Krista Bridge: In Excessive Joy Injures the Heart, you write of Claire's daydreams, about how her thoughts wander to "love, sex, tenderness, and the day she would prove to everyone who'd ever shown disdain for her that she was amazing." Your novel, as well as the stories in Let Me Be The One, is very much concerned with the idea of tenderness¨the hint of it, the longing for it, the lack of it. Often, your characters' needs for tenderness are fulfilled in moments by men on the periphery of their lives, while tenderness is withheld by the men who are most important to them. What are you suggesting about love, relationships, the inevitability of disappointment?

Elisabeth Harvor: It's odd, isn't it that these encounters on the periphery can mean more. But of course they also mean less. It's also fascinating that the flirtiness of strangers, even though it's so transitory and unreliable, can feel so deep and so pure. And so objective! Even if everything can be offered and nothing has to be delivered.

KB: If attention must be paid, and it's no longer being paid at home...

EH: Then it becomes a real thrill to have it so deeply (even if so fleetingly) paid by a stranger. One kind of flirting¨the crazy kind that's connected to inspired repartee and to people being really on the ball and alert and sweetly generous toward each other in a challenging and even almost an antagonistic way¨is really fun to write about, and really fun to do too, because it gives off sparks and it's also such a sexually mischievous acknowledgment of the other person. But then there's the other more serious kind where so much more can be implied: Longing, tenderness, sexual regret. It's hard to get the requisite daily dose of surprise and tenderness from a relationship that's been going on for a much longer time. When a relationship is just beginning, there's usually still enough euphoria bouncing around because it's still new enough to offer a high level of discovery, novelty, mystery, and mutual enchantment. But this passes, this almost always passes unless people are really, really lucky, and when it passes, there's disappointment. And so when you're not in an ongoing relationship (whether this has been for years, or it's only for an afternoon) it can become incredibly tempting to be open to whatever is offered to you by someone who doesn't know you. Or who barely knows you. Or who at least doesn't know you well.

KB: Are there other ways that your fascination with flirtation connects to Excessive Joy Injures the Heart?

EH: Yes, I feel so, since this novel in so many ways embodies the conflict between words and wordlessness, and in this sense might be described as a long and anguished flirtation between what's spoken and what's not, above all in the relationship between Declan Farrell and Claire. There are also more peripheral scenes in which this same theme comes in with the wash of the tide. The Florida tide, in one case, when Claire sits out in the cold Florida sun and reads in a book about herbs that "one great cause of nervousness is novel-reading," and then ponders why people who work with the body have such a "hatred for words." But then so much of life (and art) is flirting. The writer flirts with the reader, characters flirt with other characters, the form flirts with other forms.

KB: In "Freakish Vine That I Am", on the other hand, the narrator understands in an instant what you call, "the whole choreography of malice." It's fascinating to read, the way you layer a memory about the narrator's marriage upon a memory about her children upon perceptions about the world's pettiness and cruelty. You fit all this into a beautiful, almost musical riff just over two pages in length. You cast your eye backward and forward and outward, and what you write is funny and sad and astute all at the same time. As readers, we feel that you must have been in these situations and had such thoughts. Do you find that your readers identify with you through your writing, almost assuming that your characters are you and people you've known?

EH: Yes, they often do. Sometimes wrongly. But also sometimes rightly. They especially identify with the characters who've been given life by what's most private. Anointed by what's most private, you might even say. But whenever I put my most private experiences out there, via my characters, what I learn is that if I can go deeply enough into bitter resilience or a longing to mock, I can find the comedy in almost any encounter, I can alchemize almost any pain into joy. In fact, so many people so strongly identified with my narrator in "Freakish" that I felt both humbled and consoled. And since I also love jazz, the technical aspects of writing this story, the improvising parts¨the riffy and jazzy parts¨were a real high to do. And a real high to read aloud, too. When I was reading the "choreography of malice" scene at a bookstore in St. John's a few years ago, people in the audience were roaring with laughter, making themselves nearly ill from it. It was a really heady experience. They were also drunk of course.

KB: In the story "Through the Fields of Tall Grasses", you address the issue of incest in an interesting way, drawing out the guilt of the brother and sister, but also their desire. You also draw out a connection between game playing and sexuality, as if Caitlin, the protagonist, is exploring the limits of her sexuality in the safe context of games. Did you find it difficult to write about such a touchy subject as incest? Because in so many ways this doesn't seem like a real incest story to me.

EH: I'm really happy to hear you say this because I never intended this story to be a victim story. The word "incest" suggests something so secret, so dark. But in this story there's no coercion, no rape, no intercourse, no love affair, no kissing, no forcing not to tell, no brother-sister obsession, it's much more a matter of forbidden games, genital games of sexual exploration and sexual complicity.

KB: It just occurs to me that you've written about children's sexual feelings in a few of the other stories in Let Me Be the One as well. In "There Goes the Groom", and also in "Invisible Target". Is this an area that fascinates you in some ways?

EH: The transition moment, the moment of first discovering sexual feelings in relation to another person, fascinates me. Just as the moments of first falling in love fascinate me. I've actually just sold a story to Event called "One Whole Hour (And Even More) with Proust and Novocaine" that deals with this theme. But I also have to confess that I was just as anxious as any other middle-class mother to create a diversion when my children occasionally got fixated on one of their sexual body parts. ("Hey, you guys! I've just had a great idea! Let's go to the Science Museum!") I think it's important to say, though, that in a society as sexually distraught as ours is, a society where there's a kind of Victorian hysteria circling any suggestion that a child might have even the tiniest sexual impulse, we have to remember that our longing to protect our children from the terrible things that can happen to them out in the world shouldn't allow us to put them at risk in other ways by making them feel either too inhibited or too afraid. And no matter how much the sexual revelations that we're now alert enough to take seriously are evidence of our willingness to break a horrific cycle, I do question whether they are material for any discipline beyond therapy.

KB: They are not material for fiction, then...

EH: Not if they only say "I suffered, I suffered, see how I suffered." Nabokov's first draft of Lolita was a disaster because his first Lolita was portrayed as a victim and a helpless shadow. It wasn't until he turned her into a smart and disdainful adolescent that the book became amazing. Not pornography but tragedy, a sassy and sad and brilliant tragedy that contains both comic and satiric elements.

KB: In Let Me Be The One's first story, Jessie ponders the maxim "Love begins with Pity." In the novel, when Claire first sees Declan, she hopes (because "there's something really quite sad about his shoulders") that he won't turn out to be her doctor. Are love and pity somehow inextricably linked?

EH: If you look into the face of a person who's been shocked into becoming vulnerable, I think your tendency would be to feel a bond with that person, or a kind of protective tenderness that might be experienced¨by both of you¨as pity. But you could also say that such a person's true self, or true beauty, might speak to you more strongly from such a position, since the ordinary social masks would be dropped. The problem with the word "pity" is that it has such pejorative undertones in our culture. In its worst guise, it's even a kind of sanctimonious compassion. I was using it the way the French use it¨this maxim is French, I believe¨in the sense that there can be an imaginative response to seeing a person being brought low, and this response can lead to feeling emotionally or erotically aroused.

KB: One of Excessive Joy Injures the Heart's reviewers wrote that it "dares to raise disquieting questions about the nature of attraction, about the responsibility for it and the complicity necessary for two human bodies to hover, be lured, and to connect." Was it your intention to raise disquieting questions about the nature of attraction?

EH: Yes, absolutely. I wanted not to judge Declan and Claire; I wanted to be right there with them all the way, but at the same time I wanted the relationship between them to finally topple into emotional disarray. As for disquieting questions, they are the outrageous and necessary questions you need to keep raising if you are a writer.

KB: I also can't help wondering how a medical doctor would look at this novel in which a former medical doctor battles against his escalating personal involvement with one of his women patients.

EH: An American doctor and poet has in fact recently critiqued the novel for a medical database for The Institute for Medicine in Contemporary Society at New York University. And he's made an intriguing comparison between Mr. Spaulding, that pompous naturopath, and Declan Farrell. He describes the way Mr. Spaulding's devotion to numbers and theories protects him from harm, as well as safeguarding him from any genuine care for his patients. Whereas what Declan does leads to tragic consequences. But Declan, he says, "at least understands the complexity of human need." Which is what, as a writer, I also want to continue to do. ˛


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