Sandra Novack discusses how we cope with loss, the solace of storytelling, and the dangers of passivity.
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for Precious?
Sandra Novack: Although fictional, Precious was inspired by an event from my life, that when I was seven, my older sister Carole ran away from home and I’ve never seen her again. So the idea of disappearances and probably the image of the girl riding off on a bike were always there from the start, as was the town’s general setting and shape.
You open the novel with Vicki’s disappearance and Sissy’s ambivalence about her former friend’s fate. Does this ambivalence mirror Sissy’s confused feelings about her mother’s abandonment of Sissy’s family?
We are told early on that Sissy is a young girl who conflates things and she, like her mother, Natalia, is very prone to make up stories. Sissy feels betrayed by both her best friend and Natalia and those stories of loss and longing intertwine throughout the novel and then become further entwined with the last disappearance in the book.
Sissy was the last person to see both her mother and her friend, and she feels oddly responsible for their fate, as if she might have prevented bad things from happening. That said, she was angry with both as well. A large part of Sissy’s energy is taken up with those events and the complicated feelings that have become amplified as time passes.
What happens with Sissy’s doll, Precious, that contributes to the end of the girls’ friendship? Does this conflict reflect the theme of the novel?
Both girls fight over the beloved doll, placing it in a tug of war until the doll breaks. Although the main theme of Precious revolves around how we cope with loss, and how those who are loved—those precious—still abide within us and are remembered through our memories and stories, I do think the idea of being broken apart by conflicting forces is certainly a viable one. To my mind, children too often are placed in “tug-of-war” scenarios, particularly within families.
Can you explain the apparent casualness of Natalia Kisch’s decision to leave her family?
Some view Natalia as too casual or callous. Some even view her as the true antagonist in the novel. I tend to hinge on the word “apparent”, because what Natalia appears to be and what she is or how she really feels is usually different. She leaves her family in an effort to reclaim herself. There’s a part of me that understands her impulse. I know a lot of women - particularly those with young children - whose lives are suddenly overwhelmed by their new role as mother. I’ve heard women talk about how it sometimes feels as though they’ve lost all sense of themselves. Most find eventual balance. But Natalia doesn’t—she always feels overwhelmed. (There’s that realization on her part that, “children take and take, that they have no sense of mercy. They have no need for it.”) For all the good mothering she has done, Natalia is defined by and held accountable for one action, one mistake. What redeems her is the fact that she realizes her mistake and owns up to it. She comes back. Of course, whether or not her coming home does more harm than good is left up to the reader’s speculation and discretion.
Frank Kisch withdraws after his wife’s abandonment. How does this further emotional abandonment contribute to the chaos in the family? Why is it so difficult for Frank to communicate with his daughters?
When I invented Frank, he was like those types of blue-collar workers I grew up around, the kind who didn’t talk about how they felt at all. Instead, they worked. They provided. They were, during the ‘70s, still mostly the family bread winners. I never conceived of Frank as the type of parent who would be the most emotionally available with his children. So when Natalia leaves and he has to suddenly negotiate the role of “mother,” he hasn’t a clue how to be that. He assigns the task of mothering to Eva, with fairly disastrous results.
Girls go through an uncomfortable period in adolescence when a daughter begins exerting her independence from her mother. How does Natalia’s abandonment exacerbate this process for Eva? What is Eva’s response to her perceived powerlessness?
When Natalia leaves, Eva stops caring about the consequences of her actions. The hurt of that one event somehow liberates her and marks a final passage into adulthood. She asserts herself through the sexual encounters she has with the boys at school, and this leads to her having an affair with a married teacher. Of course the reader learns that none of Eva’s feigned control and power are real; for as much as she tries to negotiate the adult world, she is still a child herself in a great many ways.
Frank fails Eva in a very fundamental way. Without disclosing the plot, how does Frank’s inability to communicate with Eva deepen the rift between them? Does Eva have anyone to count on at this vulnerable time?
Frank makes a crucial mistake, and that incident marks a breaking point between him and Eva, one that is exacerbated because Frank fundamentally cannot deal with his anger or desires. Later, he can’t bring himself to bridge the topic with Eva because he’s too ashamed. When nothing is ever discussed, nothing can be repaired or mended between them.
I always envision Eva as the most alone, because she really has no one watching out for her. Even the omniscient camera eye fails her, because it roams from event to event and person to person. In seeing so much there are fundamentally blind spots in the expression of the vision.
What role does storytelling play in Sissy’s life without her mother? Does recalling Natalia’s stories frighten or comfort the nine-year-old? Does her avid imagination put Sissy in danger?
I always had it in mind that storytelling—for Sissy, and in general, for us, as people—offers a certain measure of solace. When we tell stories we remember those who we’ve loved and lost and miss. Our stories help give us meaning; they help define us and connect us to our history. We reclaim our humanity through the stories we choose to tell and re-tell.
That said, there is a danger for Sissy, in that her fantasy world sometimes disconnects her too much at times, and perhaps you could even argue that that detachment places her in harm’s way.
With Natalia gone, Eva is angry about the necessity of babysitting her younger sister. How does Eva’s abandonment of Sissy the summer of Vicki’s disappearance affect her younger sister? Which of the sisters is most vulnerable?
In the opening chapter, Sissy is left alone while Eva goes to meet her teacher, Peter. Sissy is afraid to be alone, in part because of Natalia’s abandonment, in part because her imagination gets the best of her as she dreams up all sorts of dangers in the house. Sissy is certainly vulnerable—any number of things can happen to a child left on her own. But in a strange way, I’ve always seen Sissy as far more resilient than Eva. Or even Natalia.
To my mind, Eva is the most vulnerable character in Precious. She’s at a precarious age where her beauty is tempting. I don’t think there is anyone she truly trusts in the course of the narrative, so she can never talk about what’s really bothering her. The closest Eva has is Sissy, who at least senses that something has happened, but doesn’t necessarily know what in any definitive way.
Eva is drawn to the forbidden - an affair with her married teacher, Peter. What is Peter’s role in this seduction? How does Peter, perhaps the most selfish character in Precious, justify betrayal of his wife and then his young lover?
Peter is someone looking for an “easy” affair. He knows that he can take advantage of his role as Eva’s teacher and the power differential that grants him. I suspect he’s always aware of how wrong that is, and yet he is someone who can lull himself into complacency and, by the end, denial. There are many times he blames Eva, particularly when things get too messy. He justifies things. He refuses to claim responsibility for his actions. Forgetfulness is key in him, too, and that idea runs throughout the book—deliberate “forgetfulness”, the kind we grant ourselves in order to move forward.
Vicki’s mother, Ginny, is the neighborhood outcast, an alcoholic now grieving desperately for her lost child. How would you compare each woman’s predicament, Ginny’s and Natalia’s?
I see Ginny as someone who is probably genuinely nicer than Natalia and who is also even less in control of her life. Both women had a lot of bad things happen, but Natalia chooses to make a change, and in doing so she defines herself. I don’t see Ginny as being so strong. Ginny escapes to whatever she can (in her case, booze) and finds solace in that. But she isn’t willfully mean or ambivalent. She’s just hiding. Because she doesn’t take much action, the world acts upon her. In the course of the novel, she’s the most passive character, and passivity, to me, can be just as dangerous.
Like Ginny, Natalia avoids the neighborhood ladies. Why? Is Natalia’s distrust reasonable?
Natalia’s distrust is born of self-protection, and I think that plays out in many ways throughout the novel and in particular with Sissy and Eva (and Eva’s final confrontation with her mother). Ginny is a little like Natalia in her avoidance, but to more muted degrees. Both are aware that they are talked about, and they, like most, have things to hide. I always envision both women as the types who only like to be around tried-and-true friends, or at least those with the potential for being that. I don’t know that their distrust is reasonable, though. Gossip exists in any given day. It’s part of communal life.
On top of everything else, Frank loses his job. What is his reaction? Does the loss of his job change Frank’s relationship with his daughters?
I wrote Frank’s job loss into the story because in the late 1970s, the steel industry was collapsing and there were mass lay-offs. That downturn resonated with me as being of contemporary importance, too, one comparable to what’s happening with the economy. For Frank, the lay-off is one of the final things in the course of bad things that cripple him, because work is the way he most fundamentally defines himself and his role within the family. If “father” for Frank is something he equates with “bread winner,” then by losing his job he must re-evaluate his role within the family.
Describe Frank’s relationship with Ginny. Does he learn anything about himself in his tentative outreach to his neighbor?
In a weird way I always thought Frank might be better off with Ginny, as opposed to Natalia. I always believed there was something between them that was good but which he ignored, because fundamentally Frank is true to Natalia, as she is true to him (the narrative plays this out, with her belief in Frank, rather than Eva). I’m not sure Frank learns anything by reaching out to Ginny, though; I suppose I’d leave that for readers to decide.
Natalia states: “I cried all my tears when you weren’t watching. Not even God knows everything.” Does Natalia have any regrets, guilt or expectations when she returns home?
In this regard, I think Natalia is a little like Peter: She willfully turns her gaze from what she knows is displeasing, and what damage she knows she has caused. She tries to make do. But unlike Peter, we see (I hope) the benefit of time with Natalia—how time’s passage makes her re-evaluate the past, and her actions. This is particularly true by the end of the book, and I’d like to think she realizes her mistakes and that the audience is sympathetic towards her because of her immense regret.
Natalia’s leaving opens a deep chasm in her family, a quiet earthquake; her return is greeted with a surfeit of emotion. Which is more significant, the abandonment or the homecoming?
I think it’s up to the reader to decide which is more significant, or even more damaging. As a writer, I don’t have that answer. I suppose that if someone says, “I’m leaving” or “I don’t care anymore” and then they do leave and stay away for good there is at least congruence between word and action. But when someone says all that and then returns again to say, “No, I do care; I always did!” there is less congruence, and more confusion.
Frank and Natalia take a drive in Frank’s restored Chevy when Natalia returns home. What does this drive reveal about Frank’s internal anguish?
A lot of Frank’s memories with the car are tied up with courting Natalia. If anything, I think that chapter, given late in the book, shows the shift in him, that he’s willing to take a drive with Natalia, and he perhaps is willing to talk and have a go at things again. Unlike Natalia, though, who wants to recapture what’s been lost between them, Frank knows that the past is the past, and that if they move on, it has to be from the present moment, which is always a redefining one.
Natalia’s adventure, so carelessly begun, ends tragically. In a family, everyone suffers the consequences of another’s actions. Who are the real victims in Precious?
Always the children, for me. As writer—as a person—my heart is always with children, even though I don’t have any of my own. Children are always forgivable and I can seldom fault them on the page. They are often victims of circumstance, simply because they can’t run off on their own, and start their own lives. They have to live with whatever conditions are present in their families. Sometimes those are great conditions, of course, and sometimes not.
What did you find most challenging in writing Precious? Most rewarding?
The most challenging thing was trying to get at an emotional truth in the book. There were several times I shied away from that, because I am a person who prefers to dwell in my head and not my heart. The other thing didn’t have to do with writing per se, but with putting the novel “out there” in the larger world (beyond my friends and husband and agent and house). Fundamentally, I’m a pretty private person. I almost always write for myself, to quell the silence and find my voice, and then I have to hope that that voice and vision will resonate with the larger world in some way.
The most rewarding thing is accepting all that—my own vulnerability as a person, as a writer—and writing on, to the next work. Knowing that I have many books within me helps. Knowing that new friends and fans are already waiting on the next book is a gift beyond measure. It’s a growing process.
Precious is your debut novel. Are you currently writing another? If so, can you tell us something about it?
Right now I’m working on short stories for the contracted collection with Random House, and I’m also working on a new novel, tentatively titled “Resurrection Fern.” It’s set in a small rural Southern town, has an old man who has died three times and come back to life, a boy who sustains him in his loneliness and who has the power to heal and “see” things, and another man who comes back to town with a secret, a crime he committed and got away with thirty years before. The boy gets tangled up in all that, of course.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Never be afraid to risk, and never be afraid to fail. Few if any start off being brilliant writers. But every writer has got to keep at their craft to reach success, however they define that. And that means embracing perceived failure along the way. Also: If you want to write, read. Learn from that fiction, and those stories. Published authors are often the best mentors of craft. Finally: Never take yourself too seriously, because if you write, you need to have a sense of humor about things.
Sandra Novack’s fiction has appeared in
The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, and
Mississippi Review, among other publications. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and holds an MFA from Vermont College. She is the author of the novel Precious. Novack currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, Phil, and many animals.
Contributing editor Luan Gaines interviewed author Sandra Novack, author of Precious (see accompanying review), about
her book for curledup.com. Luan Gaines/2009.