Interview by Sue Bond
Do you have a background or special interest in visual art? Your descriptions of Bailey painting and of her grandfather’s photographs are exquisite.
Thank you! I’m very flattered. Other than the one class I took in Art History in college, I do not have a background in visual art. That being said, I love color, texture and design, and think that what visual artists do is amazing. I worked with several experts to imagine the fictional art in my novel. One was a friend of mine who is a painter. She read an early draft of the story, one that had Bailey painting pretty scenes of the beach, and she said, “No, no, no! Someone getting an MFA would never paint like this,” and then she dumped a huge pile of ArtForum magazines on my doorstep. I paged through and tore out images that inspired me, and began to develop a sense of what Bailey would have painted and how she would have painted. A prominent art dealer in Los Angeles added to the mix by talking about how the best art is usually very personal. That’s how I came up with the idea of Bailey painting portraits of her boyfriend. This art dealer also had an opinion about the kind of art that might be plucked from an MFA show – and it was from her input that I developed the collage Bailey makes from the destroyed canvas. As for the photographs, I re-appropriated the buffalo photo from an oil painting that hangs in the Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The other images, I just imagined from my knowledge of the country, and from the kind of photos we all know by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. My father was a professor of environmental studies at UCSB and we spent a great deal of time in the wilderness when I was growing up. Those landscapes are seared into my brain.
What are your thoughts on the origin of genius? Is it inherited, nurtured, both?
People are clearly born with various capacities and talents, but no matter what you bring to the table, you can’t become a genius painter or musician or economist unless you are brought up to believe that these things matter. Being around people who value these activities is critical. Feeling a personal sense of permission to do the activities is even more important. It’s not enough to have the raw material of genius; you have to commit to shaping the talent – and then you have to have good luck.
Following on from that, I notice from your website that you are aware of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book The Outliers in which he argues that ‘geniuses’ get that way through working much harder than everyone else of the same ability (amongst other factors). What do you think about this?
I am indeed in the middle of reading The Outliers right now (you sure did your homework!) and I have to say that it’s ringing very true to me. Our culture loves the idea of the prodigy, the savant and even the cheat who figures out how to game the system, and we tend to downplay the idea of plain old hard work. Gladwell talks a lot about hard work, but he also examines the cultural biases that help or hurt our chances of achievement, and of the importance of good timing or good luck.
Do you think that being a ‘genius’ excuses everything i.e. irresponsible or unkind behaviour towards others?
No, I don’t. That being said, I suspect that there may be a point at which `genius’ morphs into something else entirely – a sickness or a disease. I read Twenty Eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Aconcella, the dance critic for The New Yorker, and her portraits of truly great dancers, writers and artists showed that many of these people suffered enormously. Their prodigious talents, in other words, were very costly in terms of their relationships and their sanity. Maybe being a `genius’ makes you more susceptible to that kind of imbalance and that kind of behavior. In my story, though, I didn’t imagine Paul Switzer being that close to the edge. I think he was just irresponsible and unkind.
Claire’s life has been marked by (her perception of) her father’s neglect. Do you think people should be able to ‘get over’ this, as Harrison suggests at one point? Or, put more positively, work through it, coming to some peace? Is it always possible, even?
One of the things I was trying to do in this book is explore that very question. Family dynamics are incredibly complex, and how they play out over the generations is hard to predict. In a perfect world, people would get over imperfect parents; they would learn how to recognize what happened to them, figure out a way to forgive, and move on — but the world is hardly perfect. I have seen people work through the neglect of a parent, either perceived or real, and arrive at a place of piece. It’s something I find incredibly admirable, and something I wanted to celebrate through Claire’s story.
Bailey is self-absorbed and quite hard on her mother I felt, and seemingly unmindful of her mother’s conflict with her famous father. To a certain extent, Harrison is also exasperated by his wife’s inability to cope with this conflict. Is this because Claire’s perception of her photography as inferior is starkly at odds with how other people see her work?
I’m interested in the ways that self doubt can get in the way of creativity. I wanted to make Claire fully capable of making beautiful art, but psychologically stuck by her own lack of faith. To serve as a contrast, I gave Bailey complete faith in her own gifts – which sometimes came across as cockiness. I always imagined that Bailey would be especially unsympathetic to her mother’s plight because she would be thinking, “Just get over it.” She wouldn’t realize that her mother was struggling against a lifetime of doubt because Bailey had never experienced such doubt. I made Harrison callous for a similar reason: now Claire would be wondering about herself as a mother, a daughter, a wife, and an artist. It was a perfect storm of self doubt.
Harrison says to Claire early in the novel that the worst thing is to lose a parent. Do you think this yourself?
My parents are both alive and well so maybe it’s not entirely fair for me to answer this way, but no, I don’t think so. It’s the natural order of things for parents to die before their children. I think there are probably many worse things.
Bailey obviously experiences that state of getting into the zone, or ‘flow’ as described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Do you do that yourself regularly? (I would love to!)
I read Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow, many years ago. It’s a wonderful book. Sometimes, yes, I definitely feel as though I get in the zone, or the flow. It’s a feeling of knowing that you are doing precisely what you are meant to be doing – that you have the power and the capacity to do it. For me with writing, it’s almost as if there is no lapse between my brain and my fingers on the keyboard: the words just come, they just appear. It’s a great feeling – and as I said in one of the above answers, I think it’s mostly a matter of feeling that you have permission to be in that place. It’s a matter of faith. It’s actually exactly what The Only True Genius in the Family is about – a woman who is looking outside for the permission she needs to become an artist, and finally realizes that she’s the only one who can give herself the go-ahead. I come across a lot of people who want to write, and believe that in order to do it they need a “cabin in the woods”, or a 5-hour block of time, or a room of one’s own or whatever. More than all that, they need faith in themselves and faith in the whole noble enterprise of storytelling, and then they need to sit down and do it. That’s where Gladwell’s hard work comes in.
The jealousy that Claire feels for her daughter is a touchy subject, but fascinating. What do you think about this? Are we not allowed to be jealous of our children? Or not allowed to admit it? Is it a taboo?
I think it’s incredibly taboo to admit that you are jealous of a child, but I also think that it’s hard to remove jealousy entirely from any relationship. In Claire’s case, she sacrificed so that her daughter could make art and be creative. She was the facilitator of Bailey’s success. Perhaps she used that drain – of faith, of energy – as an excuse for not making art herself. Or perhaps she was unwilling to be that vulnerable for her own art. Holding back in that way would inhibit her own creative genius, and that would make anyone jealous. Mothers put themselves into this pickle all the time. They give and give and give and then end up with nothing that’s their own. Then you’re standing there looking at this child who has had all these opportunities and you think – Huh. I wish I had some of that for myself. I do this all the time, though not in the artistic realm; for me it’s more in the realm of time. Just the time I give versus the time I take. But the jealousy I feel – like all jealousy – isn’t really about my kids; it’s about me.
About the interviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at http://geckowriting.blogspot.com