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The More I Owe You (Counterpoint), Michael Sledge’s novel about the Brazilian years of Elizabeth Bishop, was nominated for the 2010 Lambda Award in the surprising category of Lesbian Debut Fiction, and was the finalist for a number of other awards in 2010. In this Q&A, with author Sarah Van Arsdale, Sledge discusses humanizing the iconic Elizabeth Bishop, the failure of confined categories and writing past your fear.
SVA: First, I have to ask, how does it feel for The More I Owe You to be nominated in the category of Lesbian Debut Fiction? Are you planning to attend a Lesbian Debutante Ball?
MS: I’m very excited to be making my lesbian debut—in public I mean. A lot of my friends probably thought that was a long train a comin’. Remember that time you found me dancing cheek to cheek with your girlfriend and wearing only my boxer shorts?
SVA: Only too well.
MS: When I learned the novel had been nominated, of course I was thrilled, but honestly I didn’t really understand what the word lesbian was describing—was it supposed to be the author, or the character, or the intended audience, or was it something intrinsic to the book that made it “lesbian” fiction? Mostly I think it shows how the categories we’re so familiar with aren’t really adequate anymore to describe not just a creative work but some of our most basic concepts these days about who we are.
Lots of women write about men, but I suppose, unfortunately, it’s still a surprise when a man attempts to write about women with depth of feeling and sympathy and, hopefully, understanding of their desire. My favorite books have almost always been about women—especially those 19th century women on the verge of implosion from all of the societal and familial demands on them, when all they want is to just be able to have a self.
When I wrote this book, I wasn’t really thinking about sexual identity or, naively, even gender, I simply thought about the experience of love. I think one enormous falsehood about gay relationships is that just because you share the same gender you are actually anything like your partner. We are all total strangers to each other, just in different ways.
My favorite question I was asked in an interview was, how can a man who loves men write about a woman who loves women? Was it your relationship with your mother?
SVA: Ha. That’s hilarious. Was it someone who’s never read fiction? What on earth did you say?
MS: I said that I used my imagination. That’s the writer’s job.
But that was probably a lie. It just sounded good. It was my relationship with my mother. She made me the lesbian debut fiction writer I am today.
SVA: So other than your repetition compulsion with your mother, why write about Elizabeth Bishop in particular?
MS: From the beginning I was compelled by Bishop’s love story with Lota, and I wanted to explore, obviously, my own ideas about love, about the leap of faith any two people make when they throw in their lots together. One aspect of Elizabeth and Lota’s relationship that is particularly compelling to me is that, though it involved great tragedy, I still find it a triumphant, and profoundly moving, love story. Both of these women, at the height of their relationship, were amazing forces of nature. And that is what I wanted to write about.
SVA: You know I’m also a big fan of Bishop’s poetry. Was it her poems that first drew you to her as a possible subject for a novel?
MS: Like a lot of people, and a lot of writers, I’d always admired and studied her work, both poetry and prose, but it was reading her collected letters when they were first published that was decisive in terms of writing the novel. Elizabeth had lived an extremely private life, and it was a revelation to learn about her years in Brazil and about her love for Lota. The letters themselves are such an amazingly beautiful document—she is just so smart and funny and sort of wicked, and so honest about her struggles with her writing.
Also, it was incredibly poignant to me that while she was alive she was thought of—if anyone thought of her private life at all—as some sort of spinster poetess dedicated to the dry passion of her art, when in fact for almost twenty years she was having a passionate love affair in the lush jungles of Brazil.
SVA: That’s one of the great things about the book: it destroys that myth not only about her, but forces us to question that kind of silence about the real lives of any writers past.
MS: I definitely hoped to humanize her, but I also wanted to avoid gossiping about her private life. She’s such a compelling, complex character. Apart from the period of happiness she shared with Lota, she had an extraordinarily difficult life—she was orphaned at a very early age, battled physical illness and alcoholism—yet she not only kept chugging along, she produced these beautiful works of art. And she managed to maintain an incredible sense of humor and humility throughout, even if she wasn’t always easy to be around. It was this story that over time took on its own life in my imagination – until it felt somehow inevitable that I would explore it in fiction.
SVA: I’ve wondered about that. It was incredibly gutsy to jump into someone else’s life and imagine it onto the page—especially someone of the stature of Elizabeth Bishop. Did you worry about taking on that responsibility?
MS: I only felt worried about it from the moment I started thinking I would write the book until the present moment. She’s not just any writer, she’s Elizabeth Bishop!—she’s iconic! So many writers have told me how important she has been to them in developing their craft. So, yes, it did feel more than a little presumptuous to take her on as a fictional character. But what’s the option? Not to write something because it scares you? Isn’t that the best reason to write it?
SVA: That’s right. Sometimes it seems the depth of my fear about writing something is directly proportionate to the necessity of writing it. And your own life has taken some turns that are eerily similar to Bishop’s. Was that planned? Did living in Mexico help you to better understand Bishop’s experience in Brazil?
MS: It is quite strange what happened to me while I was writing the novel. My life began to parallel the life of my book’s protagonist. Like Elizabeth Bishop, I found myself living in an isolated corner of Latin America in a half-built house with no windows or doors. I even found out recently that we both had donkeys attacked by vampire bats. Also like Elizabeth Bishop, I found myself sharing this life with an unbelievably creative, energetic, and crazy (in the best way) Latin American.
Definitely this helped me understand her experience—of living completely outside of your culture, just how alienating and at the same time how rich it is. Latin America has such a lush and lyrical beauty, and a chaos that makes you think at times you will lose your mind.
For the book, I also went to Brazil. I wanted to arrive there just as Elizabeth had, somewhat clueless and not speaking the language, and stumble around, just experiencing the sights and sounds. It was a pretty great excuse to spend two months in that amazing country.
SVA: And so now you’re not only a lesbian debutante, but you’re kind of a reincarnation of Bishop. So what’s next? Will you keep living in Mexico? Are you working on another book?
MS: What’s next is I have to plant my cornfields before the summer rains come. Somehow I’ve turned into a farmer in rural Oaxaca, though I still spend time when I can in San Francisco. As far as new books go, I never thought of myself as a historical novelist but I’ve discovered another amazing true story that I can’t stop thinking about. In the 1950s, an Englishman who was obsessed with surreal art came to Mexico searching for Eden. He traveled all over with his Mexican lover until they found what he considered to be paradise, and there they built a surreal landscape in the jungle—300 organic structures that look straight out of a Dali painting or Atlantis. You can still visit them. Sometimes I think Elizabeth Bishop has reset my inner compass; all I want to write about now is Northerners who go south looking for a personal, passionate liberation.