Alice Sebold waxes prosaic
Best-selling author tells Zellerbach audience about her photo of the Princess Elizabeth, and what it’s like driving Charlie Rose insane
| 03 December 2003
“The way I work makes no sense,” said author Alice Sebold, by way of introducing a rapt Zeller-bach Hall audience to the topic of her lecture, the creative process. While Sebold’s approach may make no logical sense, by speaking about favorite items she keeps on her desk for inspiration, the author offered insight into both the reasons why she writes and her intuitive approach to the task.
Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, has occupied a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list for more than 70 weeks, catapulting its author into the international literary spotlight. Sebold appeared at Berkeley (as part of Cal Performances’ new “Strictly Speaking” series) on Nov. 14, in her only Bay Area lecture engagement since the novel’s publication.
The narrator of The Lovely Bones is Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who has been raped and murdered by her next-door neighbor. From a place called the InBetween that’s neither Earth nor heaven, Susie watches her family as they endeavor to cope with her death. She also observes her murderer, Mr. Harvey, as he charms and escapes the police. Sebold paints an indelible, heart-wrenching, even occasionally humorous portrait of her characters without ever succumbing to pathos.
The novel’s disturbing subject matter was informed by Sebold’s own rape at the end of her freshman year at Syracuse University, in the same location where another student had been raped and murdered. Afterward, Sebold descended into a nine-year depression that spanned most of her twenties, during which time she tried to obliterate the pain by abusing heroin and alcohol while also engaging with multiple sexual partners. She detailed her harrowing rape and its effects in her memoir, Lucky, that she referred to in her Berkeley talk as “a way to get me out of Susie.”
In the photographs on her book jackets, Sebold appears both beautiful and delicate. At Zellerbach Hall, wearing mostly black garb and sporting tinted, black plastic-framed glasses, she looked urban, relaxed, and hip — a cross between the East Village and SoCal. During her talk she revealed a dry, quick wit and a charming streak of self-deprecation.
Where inspiration begins
Sebold keeps her desk piled high with art books by Modgliani, environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, and English gardener Tasha Tudor, as well as with various other tomes by the likes of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Colette, art historian Robert Hughes, and the little-known novelist J.L. Carr.
She described Carr’s 1983 novel A Month in the Country as “a beautiful and imperfect novel under 200 pages” that serves as a reminder that “imperfection is the goal.” She knows a lot of writers, she said, and “we all get obsessed with writing the perfect book or writing the book.” Though book reviewers use the words “small, slight, or slim” to diminish books, for Sebold, “these are very wonderful words.”
An index card with the word “crank” is displayed above her desk, because one of the characters in her new novel “is in a really bad mood throughout the entire novel.” She continued: “There’s this idea that we should soften our edges and be nicer all the time. I think that crankiness brings out this arc of articulate language when we’re really mad. So, I’m pro-crank.”
Sebold keeps a photograph of a very young Princess Elizabeth of England tacked to a fiber-core board on her wall, a photo that she says challenges her to “try to follow that root into the unimaginable life” of her characters. She finds the image especially potent, since the present queen “has always been the woman in the suits with the hat and the Corgis.”
To trace Sebold’s roots, one would have to start with her mother and the author’s own upbringing in the suburbs. Sebold described her mother as a woman with a panic disorder who envisioned “danger, horror, and imminent death around every corner.” With a little laugh, she added, “And the fact is, her daughter provided her with verification that she wasn’t always wrong.” Growing up, she explained, she and her sister would anticipate how a given event might play on their mother’s fears and imagine describing the circumstances that led to its occurrence. This “made us a little bit of nervous wrecks as kids,” said Sebold, “and it also forced us to always think in a narrative fashion.”
Though her father would sometimes accuse Sebold’s mother of being “insane,” Sebold said that “things have happened to verify her beliefs.” For example, her parents have had five people die on their front lawn as a result of car accidents. “They always land on our lawn,” said Sebold. “Nobody’s else’s lawn.”
When she was 21, Sebold moved to New York City, where she wrote a couple of novels set in Manhattan, neither one of which was ever published. This forced the author to reconsider the source of her material. On a visit to her parents’ home, she realized that the suburbs she had formerly spurned are a place “where beauty is manufactured and horror is hidden.” The writer had found her subject.
Reasons to write
Sebold keeps a sign on her desk that reads “Revolution of Beauty.” Her approach, she said, is not to draw attention to her message by being loud and bombastic. While Sebold is not shouting that message from the rooftops, it’s her hope that “putting out beauty quietly into the world” will serve her desire “to get narratives out there with voices that I’m not hearing, or maybe not hearing enough.”
“I think finally I have to say the thing I do it for is to be possessed by a voice,” she went on. When she appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, Sebold said, she thinks she “drove [Rose] insane” trying to explain this concept.
“He wanted to understand what that meant,” Sebold continued, “and the problem was that I don’t know myself.” Her best explanation is that “you cede control to another being, the voice of that novel.”