The Fall 2019 Lab Intern Andrew Harrington interviewed on-time Labber Terry Gamble, author of The Eulogist.
ANDREW HARRINGTON: Your wonderful novel The Eulogist takes place just before the Civil War. It’s a character driven novel, but it’s also historical. How did you balance character development and research? What was your researching process?
Photo: Cristiana Ceppas
TERRY GAMBLE: I have a lot of false starts to novels, so I spend time poking around in anything that interests me, and if character and story start to suggest themselves, I'll stick with it as long as I can. Once I became enamored with the story of Cincinnati, I fiddled with several narrative voices. It was Olivia who prevailed. It required a lot of background to understand her situation and her trajectory, but once she was established, I continued to research along the way. Research is so much fun... but it can be so distracting.
AH: Your protagonist Olivia Givens has two siblings, Erasmus and James. You expertly portray them all as very distinct individuals and give them believable sibling relationships. What was your process for generating their personalities and making that fit into their unique family dynamic?
TG: James and Erasmus grew out of archetypes from the era. Cincinnati was a burgeoning town that invited entrepreneurship, and so James was born to embody the scrappy, ambitious up-and-comer who wants to make his mark. And the religiosity of the times suggested a persona for Erasmus who is at once profligate and dissipated while simultaneously prone to spiritual zeal. The two brothers have agency in their lives in ways that are off-limits to "respectable" women, with historic figures such as Frances Trollope and Fanny Wright being notable exceptions. Once I had Olivia banging around in my head, I knew exactly how she'd relate to these men who are, in most respects, her intellectual inferiors. I knew they loved each other and that family ties were important if often strained. Each would have to relinquish something of value in order to live out his or her destiny: James, his love of books and ardor for Julia; Erasmus, his son and his liberty; Olivia, her place as a respectable wife and matron.
AH: During the most recent cycle of “The Lab,” we considered the barriers that our characters have to fight against and overcome. Your character Olivia faces barriers. She’s unconventional: an unmarried woman, more grave robber and scientist than churchgoer. Today she might place herself in the LGBTQ community. A woman, an Irish immigrant, labeled a “spinster,” she dealt with discrimination and saw the discrimination others faced (most notably people forced into slavery). The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “'The Eulogist' winds its elegantly nuanced way through the immigrant experience in America, the complex rivalry and love of siblings, the challenges of being female, questions of religion and faith, slavery and abolition, and the ever-impossible balance between protecting one’s family and standing against societal wrongs — a story of the past that could not be more relevant today.” Did you have the today’s relevance piece in mind when writing? What were your hopes in writing a character that resists the status quo, yet who still struggles with heavily defined gender roles?
TG: My expectation was that I would be writing about a time that was very different from ours. I couldn't have been more wrong. In the ten years it took me to complete The Eulogist, we saw the emergence of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, an emboldened religious right, emergent technologies causing financial and social upheaval. Olivia (who is, in fact, briefly married) probably wouldn't have labeled herself as lesbian. That she would find friendship and comfort in another woman wasn't apparent even to me until I was close to the end, although clues kept emerging in the way she regarded Julia, for instance. What became apparent in the course of writing the book was how many issues from the 19th Century are still being litigated today.
AH: Why did you sign up for “The Lab?” Did you work on The Eulogist there? Were there specific elements of your craft you had hoped to strengthen? Or was it something else?
TG: I had heard about "The Lab" through Matthew and others. Finding myself "stuck", I signed up with the hope that it would help me decide whether to abandon the book or persevere. I was looking for honest feedback more than I was intending to strengthen my writing. That the latter occurred was a bonus. Plus, I finished the book.
AH: What lessons or sessions from “The Lab” have helped you most in your works-in-progress?
TG: Matthew's voice is now with me constantly. I can hear him say, "Can you use less words?" I am always tightening as I go along.
AH: Were there any authors/artists that you studied in your cycle that particularly spoke to you?
TG: It's been a few years, but I remember a lesson that featured the work of sculptress Ursula Von Rydingsvard. Visual arts can be analogs for writing -- the gathering of material, the building up of surfaces, the subsequent manipulation and removal of materials that create richness and depth that can't be achieved through a shortcut. It is a good lesson to remember when you look at your own writing and think, "This is crap." It's all useful. It all builds toward the result.
TG: I've been in a number of workshops in which participants critique each other's work. This can result in a group-think "pile on" whether it be with praise or criticism. Matthew's approach is to suggest a prompt or exercise to get us scribbling, and then have students read a short excerpt from which everyone reads back a phrase or sentence that strikes them. It can be a far more positive way to hear your writing in that it subtly suggests a direction without saying "This is right or wrong."
AH: What was helpful about being among other participants (Matthew calls us “Labbers”) at “The Lab?”
TG: See above.
AH: In Week One of the most recent cycle of “The Lab,” we discussed the art of Lyle Ashton Harris. He makes collages out of objects and pictures that encapsulate moments: he refuses to shy away from what some might consider ugly realities. Iké Udé says of Harris’s work: “Lyle elected to use his camera as a mode of intervention, inquiry, investigation: to make pictures that are question marks…By turns furtive, casual, a shade mean, judicious, calculative, poignant, poetic, sly, and charming, Lyle whipped out his camera to get these images…These are perhaps examples of perfectly inspired mischief, curious voyeurism, anxious sympathy, and charming cruelty.” Your book tackles tough topics and seems to be investigative. You show your characters for exactly who they were during a time when this country was set to go into the Civil War because of slavery. What contemporary themes were you hoping to illuminate when writing characters that act in ways that are clearly problematic?
TG: I wasn't thinking so much about contemporary themes as I was about universal characteristics such as racism, sexual predation, cruelty, class, vanity, ignorance, or desperation. As writers, we need to understand the context of a character's actions and attitudes and not be judgmental from the vantage point of the present. "Wokeness" sounds preachy as well as inadequate when you turn your lens on a world in which owning another human being and selling off his or her children was seen as a common business practice. Nevertheless, cruelty is cruelty. I had to remember, for instance, that the notion of sending black people back to Africa was, at the time, considered a humane solution to an intractable problem. That these views still exist in our current immigration policy is a harsher indictment of today's morality than it may be of the past. We should know better, and yet, here we are.
AH: The Eulogist weaves through vast time spans with ease, with some chapters jumping years from the last. How did you decided which years of Olivia’s life to dramatize, and which ones to summarize?
TG: I have pages and pages of "mulch" or discarded episodes of characters' lives. If they don't add to the story or if they interfere with the pacing, they have to go. I know other writers who are masterful with including every detail and making it fascinating (eg: Karl One Knausgard or Janet Fitch), but I have to be judicious. I envy writers who can create a novel that takes place over a few hours or days. I tend to focus on multi-generational change and the arc of history, so I MUST make choices. I'm not Tolstoy.
AH: In “The Lab,” we wrote about settings that continue to captivate us long after we’ve left them. Are there any settings in The Eulogist that you’ve found a similar fascination with?
TG: I think I will always love driving along the Ohio River. What amazing stories have emerged from those shores! From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Beloved, those waters are haunted and rich.
AH: Do you have any works-in-progress that we might soon see?
TG: When you say "soon" do you mean "years"? Because that's what it usually takes me. I'm currently hanging out in L.A. in the forties and listening to Benny Goodman (isn't "Sing, Sing, Sing" one of the best pieces of music ever written?). And I'm completing a story about Mary Magdalene for an anthology. Don't get me started on how we use myth-making to affect change. I could talk about it for hours.