Alice Shechter: What brought you to write this novel, your debut, Connected Underneath?
Linda Legters: The first glimmer came from a childhood memory. I grew up on a dead end street with a tiny cul de sac. Living on that cul de sac was a woman who, since she lived in the last house on the street, should have known least about her thirty or so neighbors, but always knew the most. When my mother asked her how, she said, “Oh, I watch everything through my kitchen fan vent. I can see all the way down the street.” And so, this suburban mother, who, by the way, never drove, stayed in touch by, essentially, spying. And she had no qualms about saying so. This stayed with me and bubbled up one day as a random sketch that turned into the narrator, Celeste, a wheelchair-bound woman peering at the world—I gave her binoculars—from her kitchen fan vent.
A far more serious underpinning is what so many parents fear: the disappearance of a child. Death, runaways, illness, rebellion, rejection. There are any number of ways to lose. In Connected Underneath, Theo, an ex-biker dad with an adopted daughter—one who secretly trades sex for tattoos—fears them all. I doubt that I’m alone in my awareness of the potential for loss that was at the back of my mind from the day each of my three sons were born. I don’t believe it interfered with my enjoying them, or raising them, but it was there. That visceral, primal love is both exhilarating and frightening. Although the manuscript started with Celeste at her fan vent, as the story developed, the fear of loss was at the heart of it. I wanted to capture—and work through—a love that could be so intricately woven with dread.
L.L.: The book went through multiple alterations, multiple experiments. At one point it was free indirect with Celeste at the center, at another omniscient. I tried a number of first person perspectives, first Theo, then Persephone, the 15-year old daughter . . . I kept coming back to Celeste, but nothing worked. A purely first person perspective was too narrow and third person kept the story at arm’s length.
Then, I was reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works, more specifically his chapters on narrator, what’s possible, and what I needed fell out of his pages. Essentially, he gave me permission to allow Celeste to narrate not only from her perspective, but from everyone’s, although always in first person. I haven’t found an example of this having been done before, but Wood’s analysis gave me the idea.
A.S.: Is Celeste unreliable?
L.L.: No, not in the way we think of that term. She never says she knows everything, and says from the start that she will try as hard as she can to be truthful. She admits it when she gets something wrong, and sets it right. As the story moves forward, she acquires more and more insight, and accumulates more and more facts. Letting her do this was liberating, and fulfilling, and felt like new ground.
We do tend to believe we understand the world in front of us. How would we function if everything and everyone seemed mysterious? Celeste wants to believe she has a full picture, and then discovers gaps, and works hard to fill them.
A.S: Theo tells us why he gave Persephone this name, and why he named his video store Delphi’s. But why did you, the writer? What were you telling us?
L.L.: Even as we know people are full of surprises, we tend to jump to standard conclusions. I had an aunt who lived on a small, isolated farm in upstate New York. I adored her, but it never occurred to me that she knew about anything other than cows and gardens. She chopped up pond ice for their cows during the long frozen winters, and grew begonias the size of dinner plates. But one day I discovered she knew American Sign Language. She had no recollection of how or why she could sign; in her mind, she’d been born knowing. On another day, she said she loved opera. Opera! She was very matter of fact about what seemed to her the natural dimensions of her life.
And so, Theo’s experience is layered by his father’s one-time profession—a Classics professor at Yale—and lingering profusion of books. In his case, he absorbed knowledge about classical literature, even as he was wary of it.
L.L.: Neglect can come in a variety of forms, from active to passive to accidental, but the result can be the same, in that, as a result, children can feel they aren’t known, haven’t been seen, are invisible. Just as we think of domestic abuse as overtly physical, we think of neglect as having children that are unkempt or unfed or unattended to. But children who are provided with materially may still be crying out emotionally, or spiritually.
In this story, mothers try and fail, as in the case of Celeste’s mother, or fail to try at all, as in the case of Persephone’s biological mother.
Mothers, of course, aren’t the only ones responsible for nurturing their children, but moms kept coming up over and over, as though by their own volition, as I wrote. Besides, as a mother, it was only natural to focus on what mothers do, or don’t do.
A.S.: Did you ever consider alternative outcomes?
L.L.: Well, without giving anything away, I tried and tried to have an alternate ending; I kept pushing this one away, but, in the end, it was the only one viable. When I discovered this, I even called a friend—Sara, to whom the book is dedicated. After a pause, she said, “Of course.” Until I gave in, I was unable to finish. Everything else felt fake, contrived.
A.S.: “Failing to do what we can should never be forgiven.” This is a huge and profoundly political statement, though in this story it is expressed in a fading, post-industrial upstate New York town with a relatively sparse set of characters. Why did you make that choice?
L.L: Do you mean the sentiment or the setting?
A.S.: I suppose both. A different writer might have put the idea into a larger arena.
L.L.: What an interesting idea. For the setting, the relative isolation of Madena mirrors the isolation among its inhabitants. And I didn’t want the reader thinking about solutions that more affluence in a more urban place would suggest, such as therapy. These people are very much on their own, as we all are, at the bottom of things.
A.S.: And the statement?
I hadn’t thought about the statement as political until now, but certainly turning our backs at exactly the wrong moment can have huge ramifications. A Georgetown University decision made in 1838 came to light this week. The Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves into even more miserable conditions in order to keep the school afloat. Promises about keeping families together and giving them access to churches were all broken. I keep imagining the priest signing his name to the contract with a flourish, saving the school, but, perhaps, already knowing the truth.
Still, I didn’t have anything like this in mind, and I only had a story to tell, but many of my favorite books, such as John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, involve a small, fraction-of-a-second decision with far-reaching moral implications. All of my stories are influenced by this rather terrifying fact—that we change lives in a flash, and with motivations that might be unknown and are often unknowable. I reread Knowles’ story to see how he built up to the choice the boy makes—shaking the branch—and the way secrets are kept in the aftermath. Free will gone awry. Of course, Knowles’ book is also about World War II, and I wasn’t thinking in terms of history, only about human nature, but, of course, history is about human nature.
And, as you point out, individual choices do play out. If we don’t see the consequences of our actions in our small-sized lives, how are we supposed to recognize them in the big picture? Excuses and confessions, or attempted confessions, aren’t enough. I am sitting here wondering what I ought to feel guilty about.
You also have me thinking about the operas I’ve seen over the last couple of years, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD series. Although many are about big lives, many aren’t. And the emotions of the ‘common’ men and women are just as large, just as demanding. I’m reminded how, in ancient Greek theater, tragedies took place in royal lives. Comedies took place in common lives. But just as Wood traces the evolution of the novel, plays evolved to accept that profound and confusing emotions are universal.
A.S.: I’d like to end with a few questions about process. When did you first start writing?
L.L.: Quite young. But I didn’t consider writing fiction, or think of writing as something I could do, until I was in my 20s. For one thing, I’d always read the ‘big’ books, and for my English major, concentrated on 19th British literature. It would have been a huge leap to think I could produce anything like that. But one day, I picked up some Edith Wharton – I was especially caught by the dinner scene at the end of Age of Innocence—and also started reading short stories, New Yorker stories. Although it was still a leap, they did seem something closer to what might be possible. But by then I was working in New York, and so although I wrote nearly daily, it had no particular purpose or direction. I was in my 40s when I started to take the desire seriously. By some magic—I wasn’t on any mailing lists—a flyer from the Iowa Summer Workshop arrived in the mail. From then on, the writing world opened up.
A.S.: Has it always been fiction?
L.L: Yes, always fiction. A little of it veers close to creative nonfiction, but very little. I’ve never been tempted by memoirs or essays, as much as I admire many of the writers in these genres. I read a great deal of poetry, and I think that influences my prose, but I am too intimidated by it—by the perfection of Muriel Rukeyser, whose poem “Islands” provided my title, and Marianne Moore and so many others—to attempt one anywhere but in a journal.
A.S.: What are you working on now?
L.L.: I’m revising a novel I finished prior to Connected Underneath, and starting to frame a third. I have several short stories I may revisit over the summer, when I have a little more free time, but, right now, I’m more interested in elements and possibilities presented by novels.
A.S.: So you don’t think the novel is dead?
L.L.: By no means. It is very much alive, and constantly evolving.
A.S.: Do you consider yourself experimental?
L.L.: Not really. I try things out, but experimental too often becomes gimmicky. New approaches might be discovered in the process, but experiments in art for experiment’s sake, just to be outrageous, don’t interest me. Again, James Wood’s essays and books show how literature evolves in response to the climate that produces it. It evolves naturally, organically. How characters are presented have changed from the days when, to seem credible, novels were presented in the form of letters, as reports. Through the 20th century, discoveries and theories in psychology changed what readers need and expect. How will rapid-fire discoveries in neuroscience affect literature? How will these attitudes and insights affect the way we portray character, and motivation?
A.S.: I look forward to seeing what you do with this. Is there anything you’d like to add?
L.L.: Thank you for making me think about my own novel in new ways! I’ve done a few interviews now, and it’s amazing how little I knew about my own story. Well, I discovered a while ago that stories are smarter than we are.
Click here to read an excerpt from Linda Legters’s Connected Underneath.
Homepage image courtesy ninamansfield.com