Tuesday, November 15, 2011

We can’t escape our past

Novelist SAMANTHA BRUCE-BENJAMIN talks to ERIC FORBES about the inspiration behind her first novel, The Art of Devotion, a story set on a sun-drenched island in the Mediterranean from the turn of the twentieth century to the late 1930s

Author photograph by JIRAIR TCHOLAKIAN

GROWING UP IN SCOTLAND, Samantha Bruce-Benjamin was lucky to spend her summers in the Mediterranean, the landscape of which provided the backdrop for her first novel, The Art of Devotion. Born and raised in Edinburgh, where she lived until she completed her master’s degree in English Literature at The University of Edinburgh, she moved to New York after being accepted to study drama at the prestigious and renowned American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA). “I had studied with the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama since I was a child, and thought it might be interesting to explore further learning opportunities in New York, rather than London, as I had lived in America for several months when I was seventeen and loved it.” However, after only a term, the harsh realities of the acting world deterred her from continuing, as she found that she was far more interested in how plays were constructed from an authorial perspective than in the actual performance of them. She then decided to put her degree in English Literature to use and applied to Random House for a job in publishing.

Thus began her career as a book editor at Random House. She was lucky that her first job as an editorial assistant was at a prestigious literary imprint, Doubleday Broadway, where she got to work with such writers as Gore Vidal and Muriel Spark. “When you’re in the presence, however removed, from writers who have, justifiably, been lauded as geniuses, you learn a lot about how things should be done. I am grateful for the experience: it subsequently informed everything I ever attempted as a writer.” As she moved up the editorial ladder, she edited literary, historical and commercial fiction. A little bit of this and that crossed her desk, which was unusual as editors tend to specialise, but she was fortunate to be able to dabble in various genres.

Art of Ruthlessness
Samantha drew on her editorial experience when writing her début novel. “I think that what any former editor who becomes an author brings to the editorial desk is an understanding of how difficult the process of being published actually is and, as a consequence of that, a determination to be as easy as possible for an editor to deal with!” In fact, she was so happy that, despite a challenging publishing climate, she had managed to get her foot on the authorial ladder, that she simply wanted to enjoy the path to publication.

“The greatest lesson I learned as an editor that may have benefited my writing was the art of ruthlessness in terms of characterisation. A fundamental awareness of how to realise a novel to its maximum potential that begins, and arguably ends, in a negation of the ego on the part of the author and cold-blooded, dispassionate ruthlessness in terms of characterisation.” As an editor, she often witnessed books with great potential fail and, in returning to the reasons why, as all editors must, a familiar cause would present itself: the hero or heroine was often a thinly disguised, invariably exalted, depiction of the author. Many authors ruin their work by succumbing to authorial preciousness, interpreting editorial suggestions made to balance the character as a personal attack. “The objectivity necessary to remedy the flaws in characterisation proved lacking because they could not separate their own personality from the equation. In short, they believed the character and, by extension, themselves, to be flawless, despite idiosyncrasies that would prove off-putting to readers. As a consequence, coming up against this dangerous perception time and again ultimately proved the cautionary lesson I have never forgotten, which is why none of the characters in The Art of Devotion bear any resemblance to me. I am entirely dispassionate about all of them, and approach them as a reader might, judging them accordingly.”

As an editor, Samantha found herself working so closely on some novels that it was almost as if she had written them herself, which gave her the confidence to attempt a novel of her own. She took a year off from work to pursue her literary ambition, and wrote two pages a day for five months, and at the end of that period she had a first draft of her novel. “That was the beginning of it all. I’m lucky to be able to write full-time now, which is a dream come true.”

Getting Published
It took her three years, however, to get her manuscript published, but she wrote another novel during that time. Initially, she was represented by an agent in London, who sent out a first draft that was well received, but did not succeed in securing a publishing deal. She then started on her second novel, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had not served The Art of Devotion well by putting it aside. She therefore returned to it two years later, and completely revised the story over the summer of 2008. At that point, the manuscript went out on submission, and was sold to Simon & Schuster shortly.

Samantha, surprisingly, had no designs whatsoever on becoming a writer. During her university days, she wrestled with her prose style and was constantly consumed with self-loathing. She remembers ripping up half-written essays and starting all over again. However, in her final year at secondary school, “we were called upon to submit four short stories for our English exam, and they attracted some attention from the teachers.” That was the first time anyone had ever complimented her writing, but it didn’t register with her then. “I adored reading, but I had such admiration for my favourite authors that I had no confidence to try it myself; in fact, I wrote nothing creative until I arrived at Random House four years later.” It is surprising to her that she ended up pursuing this career path because now she cannot imagine ever finding such fulfilment in any other profession.

Typical Day
A typical day in Samantha’s writing life begins early in the morning. She starts writing at around 7:30am and that’s where she remains until around one in the afternoon, or longer. “For me, it’s all about discipline, although I do dither about a lot.” As she has written more, she has learned to be more forgiving of herself, and she recognises that some days are more creative or productive than others. “Even if I cannot find a thing to write, I usually generate an idea or feel so frustrated that I am impelled to try even harder the next day. What I have found, however, is that I am always, to some extent, writing, because I never stop thinking about the story I am working on.” Even when the computer is switched off and she is officially ‘finished’ for the day, the work continues, mentally.

Reviewers have compared The Art of Devotion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. “I find it funny—but extremely flattering—that reviewers have drawn this comparison. The truth is that I did not consider the classic during the entire process of writing the novel.” It was only later when she had to come up with an epigraph for the front matter of the book that she thought to include the final line of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, which seemed to encapsulate perfectly one of the central themes she had attempted to explore in her novel, that is, “each character’s inability to escape their respective past.”

On publication, however, she was given a review which favourably compared her to Fitzgerald, and, as a result of that, many have suggested that she was influenced by him. “Obviously, as Fitzgerald is my favourite author, and The Great Gatsby is my favourite book, he is an inspiration to me, but I did not make a conscious decision to attempt to replicate his narrative style: I would never have thought myself capable, for a start! It is fascinating how an author’s influence on a writer can filter into the work, unwittingly, almost by a process of osmosis.” All authors are the sum of the parts of their predecessors to which they add their own unique voices: “It’s a wonderful debt to owe to our literary forebears.”

Writing in Exile
Perception and exile are some of the dominant themes she explores in the novel. As a European living in New York, she often feels as if she is writing in exile, in that she is so far removed from the much-loved landscape of her youth. “As much as I enjoy living in New York, I have never considered it home, although I have lived here for over a decade.” So, in writing The Art of Devotion, she indulged in a game of mental travelling. “I wanted to revisit that Mediterranean locale, and re-examine its culture through a prism of detachment, which is why the four female protagonists in the novel narrate their experiences in the present, looking back to the past: all are exiled from the lives they once led.” Furthermore, she has a long-standing love of the sea and islands, such as those she has known in the Mediterranean, and they have always struck her as being governed, to some degree, by the whims of the Gods: “There’s something precarious about their unparalleled beauty, almost as if they could be consumed by the sea at any moment. Onto that stage, I wanted to place characters who, by their very nature and existence, inhabit a world in the late 1930s, from our contemporary perspective, that we know is inherently fragile; a world so rarefied and refined—of grace and favour and privilege—that no longer exists.”

Yet, within that brightly lit framework, she wanted to examine the shadows founded on two further themes: the nature of gossip and idolatry, which, she believes, are inexorably linked. “By creating a novel around four distinct voices and examining the same set of events from each different perspective, I was able to play with the idea of unreliable narrators and readers’ allegiances: the characters present themselves without authorial interference because there’s no third-person narration. All the reader knows is what they are told by the characters themselves, in their own voices, and it is entirely up to the reader to decide whom they choose to align their sympathies.”

Universal Emotions
She also wanted to examine universal emotions with which readers would readily identify: grief, love, devotion and each character’s divergent approach to them. Most crucially, there’s no authorial judgment throughout the story: “I want readers to believe what they choose, to align their affections accordingly, to agree or disagree with the characters, based only on their own perceptions. Yet, in subverting every single thing the reader believes to be the truth at the end of the novel, I also wanted to cast doubt over the blithe assumptions we ritually make: do we believe what we hear or trust what we know and, if so, why?”

As a reader and writer of fiction, Samantha believes that good fiction lies in the writing. “I can forgive any flaw of plot if the author’s voice or narrative style proves compelling.” She once had somebody influential counsel her, ‘Don’t bother about the writing. It’s not important. Just concentrate on getting the story right.’ She has never disagreed with anything more viscerally in her life. “For me, everything is about language. When I look back to my most beloved books, it’s not the artistry of the novel’s architecture or facts of the story that spring to mind when I consider why I love them, but those sentences, that, when recalled, seem to encapsulate the entire book and what it conveyed on first reading.”

On whether creativity or imagination is inborn or can be taught, she says, “As a former editor, I think that you can teach the tenets of plotting and pacing—the architecture of a novel—but the language, the ability to find and express ideas in unique and memorable ways, is something that I don’t believe can ever be taught.” For her, the interplay between the life of the mind and the way in which it translates itself into language on a page is an innate gift, unique to each writer. “I think there comes a point where language and plotting can be overworked, especially in workshop settings, hitting formulaic marks that detract from a piece of writing’s originality.” Flaws, she believes, are sometimes necessary to convey the author’s intent; sometimes they are what make a novel interesting. “I don’t think any author can score a perfect ten every time they set out to write a book.”

Samantha has completed writing her second novel, The Last Party, which focuses on the ‘last party’ of the summer season, held by a fabled society hostess in the Hamptons, as it unfolds in the moments leading up to the Great Hurricane of 1938, and is deep in the throes of editing it. And when she is not busy writing, reading or editing, she loves to watch the sea for hours, and all of her favourite films, over and over again. Beyond that, she likes to eat. “Especially meringue!”

Reproduced from the October-December 2011 issue of Quill magazine


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