Interviewer Luan Gaines:Did any particular incident inspire your novel, No Direction Home?
Marisa Silver:No single incident inspired the novel. I conceived of a group of story lines that all circled around the same thematic notions: abandonment and loss. I was, and remain moved by the stories of immigration Ė of people who make the difficult choice to leave family behind and come to this country. In addition, I was moved by the numbers of families who suffer abandonment by one of the members, usually a parent. I thought about how much loss people bear, how brave they are in the face of it, and how I wanted to write about this bravery.
Abandonment by a parent has profound implications, the power to change lives. Why did you choose this theme for your novel?
This situation has now become so commonplace; it is now a nearly acceptable fact of life. The world is now so full of children and adults who, although functional, suffer with this sense of abandonment. There are reasons, often understandable and compelling, for families to break apart. Nevertheless, there is unavoidable fallout. People carry such deep, invisible wounds through their lives after they have suffered abandonment.
Los Angeles is the perfect city for such a story, a great melting pot of cultures on the West Coast. What especially appealed to you about L.A. as the focus of the story?
Los Angeles is a deceptive city. It is hugely diverse, yet the separate groups often rarely meet. In addition, it is a place to which many come to realize dreams Ė whether they be dreams of success and fame, or dreams of a better economic future. And these dreams are often dashed, and people are left here, trying to figure out how to piece together a life from the fragments of disappointments. And it is a city that inspires a certain kind of loneliness. You can go through whole days and not come into direct contact with people. You can be in your car, in your house. All these elements of the city provided a great backdrop for the emotional dislocation and loneliness of my characters.
Can you speak to the Caroline's abandonment by Victor and the boys' abandonment by Frank? Caroline's father has returned and she has an opportunity to make peace with him. Does she recognize this or is she stuck in the past, especially after what Frank has done?
As the novel opens, Caroline still feels the leftover rage engendered by her fatherís abandonment. She has not developed an adult relationship with him, nor he with her. Neither character has gotten past a sense of profound hurt, on Carolineís side, and guilt, on Vincentís. When Carolineís husband leaves her and her sons, she experiences this abandonment as a repercussion of her own childhood. She feels the same sense of helplessness, of rejection, the sense of guilt that come with being rejected. Part of Carolineís journey is to find ways to turn her lingering hurt into a kind of wisdom that she can use as she moves forward in her life so that she can make relationships that are not based on the sad acceptance of disconnection.
I believe it is Will who says "growing up makes everything that comes before it a big lie". How does this realization make life more difficult for small boy so recently without a father?
Willís realization occurs in a fairly prosaic way at his school: he goes into his old kindergarten classroom to find that it in no way matches his memory of what it was when he was little and it was his big world. Now it seems small, dingy, and he feels pathetic for once thinking it a kingdom. During the course of the novel, Will, now ten, must re-frame his entire sense of his life. His father leaves him. His eyesight is failing him. All the things that he thought he could count on, he no longer can. A knowing boy, and a boy who has recently suffered the loss of his father, he is burdened with the recognition that he cannot trust life. The world might pull out the rug from under him at any time. During the novel, and especially as his relationship with Marlene solidifies, he learns how to trust his life again, even if he retains the knowledge that, at any moment, everything he expects his life to be can change.
Caroline struggles to find a place for herself and her sons in L.A., but Erlinda has already owned the small details of everyday life without Amador in Mexico. In what way are these two women alike? In what way dissimilar?
Erlinda and Caroline are both women whose husbands have left them. They both react to the abandonment differently. Caroline pulls into herself. She has a hard time reaching out to others in her life for help. She tries to pour her energy into taking care of her mother, but she is helpless in the face of her motherís illness; she wants to make her mother better, and has a hard time facing the fact that her motherís condition will not improve. The abandonment weakens her. Erlinda, on the other hand, becomes somewhat stronger as a result of her husbandís leaving. Released from the burden of his guilt over the loss, many years earlier, of their first baby, she becomes more self-reliant, more capable of taking control of her life.
Rogelio makes judgments based on Amador's reactions to him, aware of the chasm between himself and his father, questioning "why love feels like hate". What message does Amador's ambivalence send to his son?
Amador is plagued by his sense of guilt over the death of his first infant son. When he and Erlinda have their next child, Rogelio, he is unable to love this new child unencumbered by his guilt and his sense of failure. As people often do, Amador projects his anger at himself on Rogelio. Rogelio, as a result, grows up with the sense that he is not pleasing to his father, that his mere existence does not engender love. And yet, he is a boy who loves his father fiercely, who misses him deeply, and who cannot reconcile these passionate, needful feelings with the anger he feels because Amador has left him. His inability to deal with these conflicting emotions puts him in grave danger.
The intuitive Will perceives that language is like blindness for Amador. How does this knowledge help them both in their current circumstances?
Amador is new to English and picks his way through the language hesitantly, never sure he is expressing exactly what he wants to say. Will is losing his sight and quite literally must pick his way through unfamiliar landscapes since his move to Los Angeles. Will finds a certain comfort and solace in the presence of Amador, who, despite his uncertainties with the English language, possesses a kind of assurance and calm, qualities that Will would like to have.
Is it Amador's own loneliness recognizing that Caroline is "cold on the inside"? Why doesn't Vincent notice this about his daughter?
Vincent made a choice to leave his family earlier in his life and, although he returned, he has never been able to genuinely confront the consequences of his action. Unmanned by his daughterís anger, he essentially gave up trying to have a relationship with her. He has not even visited her in her home in the Midwest where she moved, married and had her children. He left the relationship up to his wife. But now that his wife can no longer be the intermediary in his relationship with Caroline, now that she can no longer make the visits, or take Carolineís phone calls, he finds himself confronted with a choice: he can either maintain this non-relationship with his daughter, or he can begin to know her and find some path to her. But he is a man with a large ego that has been largely crushed over the years, so it is not easy for him to be vulnerable to his daughter. In the end, it is Caroline who forces him to see who she is, but by that point, he is ready.
Amador believes that the only person in the U.S. who really knows him is Eleanor, a lady who suffers from progressive dementia. What does this say about the solitary life he endures in L.A.? Has imposing this state upon himself lessened Amador's burden or added to it?
Amadorís solitude is not only a function of being an immigrant and having no family near him. He is also a man who is haunted by a long-ago loss that has made him leery of connecting to people. He feels like a man who has failed his family, and he doesnít trust himself in relationships. The language barrier is really a metaphor for his self-imposed isolation. And of course, the isolation is a burden. He feels cut off not only from his family in Mexico, but from anybody in Los Angeles. Except for Eleanor, who, because of her lack of memory, offers him the chance of momentary reinvention. But ultimately he must confront the consequences of his leaving his family. He cannot invent himself anew in Los Angeles, he must take responsibility for his past.
Erlinda eventually realizes that Rogelio has gone to find his father in Los Angeles. How does her belief in Rogelio's safety contrast with Caroline's fear and uncertainty about everything in her life? What is Caroline missing?
Erlinda has a kind of faith in life, and in fate, that Caroline lacks. Having been abandoned twice in her life, Caroline trusts nothing. Erlinda has been able to cope with the loss of her child and her husbandís leaving by grabbing onto her life, forcing herself to experience the ordinary moments by living in them, not avoiding them. As saddened as she was by the death of her infant son, she has been able to invest in the lives of her three other children. She has been able to live fully, to occupy each moment of her and their lives. She has a trust in the future that Caroline lacks.
If Eleanor still had her faculties, would she behave more like Erlinda, careful and circumspect, or Caroline, impulsive and insecure? Why?
The clue to who Eleanor would have been, had she not suffered from dementia occurs in the scene where Vincent remembers when he returned to the marriage. When he asked to come home, Eleanor, an otherwise compliant, formal woman who is not given to emotional excess of any kind, demands that he never leave again. Her resolve reveals a strength of character and a sense of her own value that was hidden underneath a prim and proper exterior. She would have been a woman who quietly got what she wanted.
You avoided an easy solution for Caroline and Amador, opting for a more realistic resolution. Were you tempted to write a happily-ever-after ending?
There was no temptation to write the happy, happy ending. I think it would have rung false and would have undermined what the book is about: that we find ways to bear our losses. We donít ever forget them. We remain scarred by them. But we preserve ourselves by finding people or situations to fill in the gaps opened up by loss. Humans are amazing in that way. We suffer so, but by and large, we find ways to take the next step forward.
What are the most significant contrasts between the men in No Direction Home, Victor, Frank and Amador? The women, Caroline and Erlinda?
Victor, Frank, and Amador are all men who have, at one time, made the choice to leave their families, but for many differing reasons. Victor left Eleanor because of his growing sense of failure. He never made it as an actor, and his anger and self-loathing caused him to reject her. He focused his rage on his marriage, as though it and its constraints were what kept him from succeeding in his career. Amador left both for economic reasons and to escape the guilt he feels about having allowed his first child to die. He cannot face his life and his new children burdened by this failure. Frank suffers from a depression that makes it virtually impossible to respond to the needs of a wife and children. What ties all three men together is that they all leave to escape themselves, which is, of course, impossible.
The novel begins with Frank, lost in his own world, disconnected from those nearest to him. Of all the male characters, he is the weakest. How does Frank's weakness separate him from Victor and Amador?
Frank is unable to make the journey through his particular pain. He, more than the other two, chooses the most drastic measure Ė to completely abandon a family, to cut off all contact. It is the choice of someone who suffers so greatly that he cannot envision the possibility of a better future.
Marlene and Rogerio are especially courageous, running off in search of their fathers. Is this sudden bravery the only alternative to despair and rage? Can you explain the dynamic behind their actions?
Marlene feels trapped in a life where a kind of complacency is almost expected of her. Her mother, in an effort to protect Marlene from the pain of disappointment, wants her to lower her expectations. But Marlene feels that half of her life is unknown to her Ė the half that comes from her father. She feels she cannot be who she is meant to be without knowing this man. And she cannot accept her motherís alternative, which is essentially to want nothing, and so avoid being hurt. Rogelio is driven by his intense need for his father. He has grown up at a remove from Amador, because Amador has not been able to have a relationship with Rogelio that is not burdened by his sense of guilt over the death of his first child. Rogelio is compelled to make his journey because it is imperative to his survival that he reach into the heart of his father and find the love he needs.
When you create your characters, are they alive to you?
Thatís such a good question! Yes, as I write characters, they are alive to me. They live in scenes, I feel their movement, I hear their words, I feel their feelings as I write them. But every once in a while, I step back and remind myself that they are inventions, that they do not live except on my pages. But the wonderful thing about storytelling is this sleight-of-hand Ė making completely fictional characters seem so real, that a reader thinks about them and talks of them as though they are actual people. And how wonderful it is to allow yourself to be swept away by a story so much so that the line between what is real and what is invented blurs. Thatís why we loved fairy tales as children. It is wonderful to be allowed not to be rational!
What did you find most rewarding about writing No Direction Home? Most challenging?
What was rewarding was also what was challenging: finding a way to weave together these seemingly disparate stories. I knew that they all occupied the same thematic territory, but making them work together in a compelling dramatic sense, so that a reader would, on some level, intuit why they were being asked to move from one story to the next and then back again, was the real challenge.
Who are the writers who have most influenced your work?
This is a question that is next to impossible for me to answer. I read widely, variously Ė I donít think my choices would necessarily make much sense to anyone trying to understand my influences. But when I read, I pay close attention to craft. Iím interested in how authors handle issues of craft: voice, point of view, dramatic movement, or character development. I read not only to enjoy a narrative, but to figure out how other people do it!
Are you working on a new project now? If so, can you share something about it with us?
I am working on a new novel but Iím careful about talking about new ideas. At the beginning of a project, ideas are fragile, they are still forming, still trying to find their way towards cohesion. Iím not ready to, quite literally, ďgiveĒ my ideas away because I do not fully own them yet.
Do you have any advice for struggling writers?
Tenacity is nine tenths of the game, as far as I can tell. Just keep writing. And, hard as it is, try not to look for outward approval to validate what you are doing. Approval is a fickle thing, and one can waste a lot of time waiting for it, time better spent doing the work. And a writer isnít a writer because he or she is published. A writer is a writer because he or she writes. So write, put the work out there however you can Ė whether that means getting published, or having work appear in journals, or simply sending your work to the people you know. Donít wait for others to give you permission to do the thing you love. Do it because thatís what you do: you write.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines
conducted her interview with Marisa Silver via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read her review of No Direction Home.