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Hilary Sloin, author of the genre-bending novel Art on Fire (Bywater Books), is a prolific writer of short stories, essays, and screenplays. Her debut novel has been short-listed for numerous awards, and is so fully realized that it was mistakenly awarded the non-fiction prize in the Amherst Book and Plow Competition.
The novel is framed as,
[…] the apparent biography of subversive painter Francesca deSilva, the founding foremother of “pseudorealism,” who lived hard and died young. But in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed novel Pale Fire, it’s a fiction from start to finish. It opens with Francesca’s early life. We learn about her childhood love, the chess genius Lisa Sinsong, as well as her rivalry with her brilliant sister, Isabella, who publishes an acclaimed volume of poetry at the age of 12. She compensates for the failings of her less than attentive parents by turning to her grandmother who is loyal and adoring until she learns Francesca is a lesbian, when she rejects her. Francesca flees to a ramshackle cabin in Wellfleet, Mass., working weekends at the flea market. She breaks into the gloomy basement of a house, where she begins her life as a painter. Much to her confusion and even dismay, fame comes quickly.
The novel is at once a humanizing portrait of a gifted lesbian artist and a satirical look at both the art world and the academy.
Sloin is a self-proscribed half city girl and half country girl. She lives “way out in the country” in a “sort of cabin with a magnificent stone fireplace” with her Jack Russell Terrier, Pluto, and a “great pick-up truck.” Fortunately for writer Julie Harthill Clayton, Sloin tore herself away from the fireplace and her “bad antiques hobby” for this interview.
What was your inspiration for writing Art on Fire?
I really can’t say. It began as some sort of sardonic detective story. I was in the middle of a sad breakup, I remember, and once I moved out of the place where my lover and I lived, I just started writing and writing, the paintings first, then the story draped around them. But I have to say: I’ve always been a huge appreciator of Nabokov and he is such a playful writer. And then there is E. Annie Proulx. I had just finished reading The Shipping News and was completely blown away by how gentle and subversive it was. So I think those two authors gave birth to Francesca and her family.
Are the characters in Art on Fire modeled after anyone in particular?
Well, I was living in a rented house at the time and next door was this very Italian family, a blended family, with an older daughter from the father’s first marriage and a young daughter that the father and current wife had made together. And there was a sadness about the older daughter. I wanted to know her, but I have always been awkward around kids. That is only now starting to change, by the way. Anyhow, he was an Italian Literature professor and she was a DA and they had this very good-looking, high-powered quality about them. They fascinated me. The first draft used all their names, and then I changed them, which let me walk away from the characters.
Francesca is based somewhat on me, as is Isabella. And Vivian is definitely based on my mother. And Evelyn is not even thinly disguised. She is my grandmother; if I’ve done my job as well as I tried to do. My grandmother was a delight!
What was your greatest fear in writing this novel?
I was afraid to have my mother read it, but she passed away a year ago, lived just long enough to learn it would be published, but not long enough to read it. She always feigned interest in reading the manuscript, but I knew where that would end up–me hurt and frustrated–so I never passed it on to her. Also, I want to be able to write about lesbians and straight people. I think the differences and similarities are so fascinating. So I don’t want to be ghettoized. I don’t think my work is what a lot of lesbians are looking for.
In thinking about differences and similarities, do you feel that there is a lesbian literary sensibility?
I am a bit grumpy on this issue, I’m afraid. I think lesbians are so marginalized by society. Even within my own family, the fact that I published a book matters so little because it is about a lesbian and was published by a publisher that seeks to reach a lesbian audience. But I think lesbian literature needs to aim higher. I think we need to write about lesbians who are doing things that somehow speak to the entire human experience. This would be good for us, as lesbians, but it would also help us gain visibility and importance in the reading community and the community at large. I was not a huge fan of The Kids Are Alright, but I was glad it was made because it showed that lesbians are, first and foremost, flawed people who are not essentially different from every other demographic.
The truth is, I don’t read much lesbian literature. Some of Marilyn Hacker’s work blew me away, probably because I felt she tackled a lot of these issues. She wrote good literature and placed the quality and content above the “lesbianness” of the material. I am a huge fan of Annie Proulx who I knew was a lesbian immediately upon reading her book. We write differently. We don’t have to write about lesbians; we have to write about the world from a lesbian perspective.
How much of “you” is in Art on Fire?
Tons. I am all over the two main characters. I would even say I have quite a lot of Lisa Sinsong and Shanta Wall in me, and maybe even a bit of Lucky Perkins on a trashy day. I put everything I had into this book, stayed with themes even when they stumped me, wrote from the darkest places and tried to find the humor to make even the most painful feelings knowable, communicable.
Do you have a writing “process?” If so, can you share some of it?
It’s pretty simple. I write long hand usually, and only with one of my three fountain pens, in a journal. Then I transcribe that onto the computer and edit while I do that. I print it out and mark the hell out of it, add stuff, take stuff out, and usually end up going in a completely different direction. At some point I start to figure out what I’m writing–short fiction or long fiction or, occasionally, an essay. But I always like to be good and hyped up on coffee to write. I can’t write when I’m sleepy.
Which character did you like most in Art on Fire?
My favorite character is Isabella. She touched me.
What is it about Isabella’s character that you love?
She is so flawed and tormented and spoiled rotten, but you can feel that she wishes it were all different, that she recognizes there is something wrong with her and wishes she could change it. I loved writing Isabella. The words just flowed–and there were a lot of words. She is quite loquacious, particularly in her mind. Plus, I am fascinated by the pain she feels about having to be alive.
What are your thoughts on the state of LGBT fiction? Fiction in general?
I wish that LGBT fiction would incorporate more literary fiction and not be afraid to play to a wider audience, which brings me to your next question. No one reads anymore–even I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. People just don’t have the quiet time and the attention span. And everything is made into a movie the moment it becomes a success. Seeing the movie is so much easier than reading the book. It’s very, very sad. But I think some of this is the fault of publishers, too, who are so concerned with sales that they will not take any chances on riskier work. Riskier work will make people read; that is my opinion.
When thinking about shrinking audiences and shrinking attention spans, why do you think it’s important to keep writing?
I have to write because I have things I want to say and writing keeps me from getting all bottled up and confused. I think that anyone who has something to say and the desire to write should write because I think writing is a great tool for exploration. As far as shrinking attention spans, reading demands attention and focus and quiet–these are good things. I have trouble with them myself. It is easier for me to write fiction than read fiction much of the time. I think that literary fiction has the potential to reach a wider audience. I don’t suggest we dumb it down, but I do suggest some of it could be more engaging, more enjoyable to read. I think of The Shipping News, The Color Purple, the stories of Raymond Carver and Chekhov and Alice Munro. I love reading these writers and return to them over and over again. They teach me how to write honestly and engagingly.
What is currently on your nightstand?
A book by Pauline Kael, A Life in the Dark.
Does Kael’s film criticism influence your writing in any way? I’m thinking in terms of her appreciation of both the high and low?
I just like her. I don’t know if she informs my writing, but she certainly informs the way I watch film. I am a pretty staunch critic of pop culture, particularly film and TV. My friends are often stunned by what does and doesn’t offend me. For example, Rescue Me, which was rampant with misogyny and homophobia, was, in moments, kind of brilliant, in my opinion, while other shows that are more politically correct bore me and seem to possess a lack of freshness and chutzpah. I wonder what Pauline Kael would say about Sandra Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing, one of my all-time favorite films.
Do you have an all-time favorite novel?
Oh, Jeez. That’s tough. I think The Color Purple may have been the greatest book ever written. I guess I would choose that with the caveat that I wish I could mention about ten others.
What 5 books have most inspired/moved you?
The Shipping News, Pale Fire, The Color Purple, Portnoy’s Complaint, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. So many others. It’s a crime not to mention Tolstoy here. He’s one of my heroes.
How does Tolstoy inspire you?
I love Tolstoy. He was concerned with the common man but he knew he wasn’t the common man and he didn’t pretend to be. He recognized the injustices in the way Russian society was set up–both for peasants and for women. He wanted to write about peasants and the bourgeoisie and he also focused on the difficulty of love relationships and the imbalances inherent in them. It’s been a long time since I’ve read him, but I loved Anna Karenina and Resurrection. War and Peace, not so much. It was too sprawling for me. Plus, I just don’t like art about war for the most part.
What else would you like the readers to know about you?
They will learn tons about me by reading my book. I am a very naked writer. I think I’m so clever and all that, but it’s not hard to see why my characters do the things they do and my opinions on academia are apparent, as is the truth: that I think the darkness is the funniest place of all if you can survive it.