Total Absorption and Abandon in LAMB: An interview with debut novelist Bonnie Nadzam

by Conor Broughan, Fiction Editor

Nadzam-150x150Bonnie Nadzam was born in Cleveland, went to high school in suburban Chicago, and has moved continually westward since then. She studied English literature and environmental studies at Carleton College, and earned an MA and PhD from the University of Southern California. Her fiction and poetry have been published in The Kenyon Review, The Mississippi Review, Story Quarterly, Callaloo, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and others. She taught at Colorado College, where she served for two years as the Daehler Fellowin Creative Writing. She is married to her childhood love and lives with him in the Rocky Mountains.

Be sure to read our review of Bonnie Nadzam’s debut novel Lamb here.

Sycamore Review: One of the most striking aspects of Lamb is the narrator who occasionally steps in to introduce Lamb as “our man” and Tommie as “our girl.” At one point, the narrator even invites the reader to pause to contemplate how Tommie’s parents and friends are reacting to her sudden disappearance. In a separate interview, I saw that you refer to this point of view as not strictly third person, but closer to a distant first person. Did you find that you had to utilize the distant first (or extremely close third) in order to inhabit the character  because a straight first person point of view would be too daunting for a character as deluded, manipulative and confused as David Lamb is in the book?

Bonnie Nadzam: When I wrote Lamb I was reading a lot of older literature, including many texts we now not only anachronistically call novels, but even novels with experimental narrators. At the time some of these books were written, however—like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones—the aim was not to write a realistic novel (whatever that means) or one that experimented with an as-yet unrealized “realism”; rather, the literary aims varied with the philosophical, political and spiritual backgrounds of each author. Fielding was a skeptic, and I found myself greatly intrigued by the way he deliberately inserted narrators/essayists/playwrights into his histories, essays and plays. He did so, I believe, not in any bizarrely early post-modern game, but because he was trying to instruct his readers and viewers how to read and weigh information, especially when mediated by some authority we perhaps ought not trust. Without the context of the time in which he was writing, it’s easy to criticize him for his “garrulous narrators,” for “shabby writing.” He is even still disliked because that quality of total absorption while reading (more possible with those who came later, like Austen) is not so possible—and I find that dislike so interesting.

Such absorption was then and has sometimes now been criticized too, for being dangerous (how those shameless women of the late Eighteenth Century neglected their duties of housewifery to read their novels!). I was equally intrigued—for personal reasons as much as scholarly reasons—by the very real danger of this total absorption and abandon that can happen when a story is really good/seductive. Or, since as a country we don’t read very much, insert “TV” or “video games” or their equivalent for what long ago were corrupting gothic novels…

While it may seem like a distastefully clever game to have taken Fielding’s lead on some of this in my own manuscript, it was in fact because I did not have the heart to present a novel or story to the reader “as if it were true” in the same manner that Lamb usually presents stories to Tommie. Of course we’re much more sophisticated/practiced readers of fiction than were readers two hundred years ago; still, I wanted there to be that gap, that toe-hold for the reader, should he or she want to stop (in a way Tommie does less and less as the story progresses) and say: hey, wait a minute. This story, however lovely and/or seductive, is being mediated by a person with motives, with limitations. Who is telling this story and why? What am I to take for truth (within the fictional story), and what am I to consider simply rhetorical manipulation designed to “suck me in” to the story?  What are the essential differences among lying, truth-telling, lying in a work of fiction, truth-telling in a work of fiction, and self-deception across the board? If Lamb were a less pathetic/criminal character, I may have bypassed all these questions, formally. As it was I felt compelled to give Fielding a nod, and the reader some respect and wiggle space for his/her own judgment.

Sycamore Review: Early in the book, Lamb describes his cabin in the mountains to Tommie and I made a mental note of how deluded the pastoral scene he described to her was, but was taken aback when they finally made it to the cabin and it was just as he described it to her. The moment forced me to take stock of just how honest Lamb had been with Tommie throughout the book. Deluded and manipulative for sure, but their relationship is also honest in a way most relationship couldn’t be, and probably shouldn’t be. At any point in the drafting process did you worry if the reader might sympathize with Lamb more than he deserves? What is the responsibility, if any, of the writer to judge a character like Lamb, or is that the reader’s judgment alone?west-150x150

Bonnie Nadzam: I don’t feel qualified to speak clearly or fairly about writers’ responsibilities other than mentioning the importance of bearing witness without flinching. I think if one examined the rhetoric of Lamb carefully, he or she would find a lot of authorial judgment. An embarrassing amount of it, really, tucked formally into the book no less humanly than in Lamb’s own manipulative games.  I tried to minimize it not because I thought or think an artist has some big bad set of responsibilities, but because I wanted to try to erase my own personal motives from the storytelling as much as possible. The more I revised, the less I judged Lamb as all-bad and Tommie as all-good. I don’t think I have the authority to make these judgments let alone impose them on others.

Sycamore Review: After Lamb and Tommie arrive at the cabin they go for a hike and we learn that Lamb “smelled the sun block and his own sweat and knew that the end of the story had already begun.” There is also a recurring theme of a young girl saving an old red horse that begins with a story Lamb tells about the two taking the elevator down from the top of a city office building where “outside on the street was even worse. Steel cars and concrete and noise and girl leaned over the horse and she promised to get him home.” Lamb is obviously at the end of his rope when the story begins and is resigned that his story will end, but he also believes that if he can save Tommie from herself, then maybe she can save him as well, but only if they leave the city. In your mind, is there a correlation between the corruptions inherent to life in and around a city with the corruption of children, specifically young girls in this country? There is a certain tension in the novel based on the fact that I didn’t want Lamb and Tommie to travel any further west because of the frightening potential of their fledgling relationship, but I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Lamb’s need to return to nature and desire to introduce nature to Tommie. How cognizant were you of these two opposing forces as Lamb and Tommie ventured west?

Bonnie Nadzam: Unfortunately I don’t think the corruption of children is particular to any region of the country, or, indeed, to any country. My older sister works with abused children, and I was with her once in a very nice shoe store in the rural western town where she lives. She was taking shoe donations for these children, and the owner of this particular store was very receptive and looking forward to helping out/ collecting shoes. A woman who happened to be shopping in the store at the time was sincerely surprised, then shocked, then visibly upset. “What?” she said. “That sort of thing happens to childrenin this town?

I think in terms of Lamb, the West is a place where he believes he might yet be able to salvage something of his masculinity and see himself as a hero in a story about good and evil.  He’s pretty bereft when we meet him, and has this great opportunity, really, to own up and take responsibility. Instead, he starts weaving a new narrative that is utterly like the old one that has just unraveled. In this new narrative-about-David-Lamb, being a good force in Tommie’s life relies on being out West, for he convinces himself he can show her a “better” America she wouldn’t necessarily get to experience without the help of his own time and resources.

Like you, I sympathize with Lamb on some of these counts. It’s as much a heartbreak that the West and the wildness he is seeking are already gone as it is that he’s hurting Tommie so irreparably. I think at his best he really believes there’ll be some healing power of “returning to nature,” but it’s not something one can easily do in the U.S. , and certainly not something Lamb and Tommie do. I don’t think they are any better or worse off out there than they are in her impoverished Chicago suburb. There’s no new horizon except an internal one, and it’s precisely this that Lamb is running from.

Lamb-150x150Sycamore Review: Many readers of Sycamore Review are also writers and I wondered if you could share a little on your process of writing your debut novel. How many drafts did you write ofLamb? Was a huge rewrite ever necessary (POV, cut characters, setting changes)? What advice did you receive during the drafting process that proved the most helpful?

Bonnie Nadzam: There was a lot of re-vision in the process—tons. And I mean re-visioning, not editing or proofreading. Whenever I got stuck, I printed out the manuscript, deleted it from the computer, and started re-typing in a new blank document. Something about that wide-open blank page—it’s so unconcerned. Such a good listener. It sits there with its eyebrows raised, its face open, ready for anything. The all-accepting blank. I did get awfully sore hands and arms though. Too much typing.

I think the best advice I had when writing this manuscript had little to do with writing, per se. I remember the time as one thick with reading, and self-doubt, and self-incrimination, and shame, and a lot of worry that I was wasting my time and fooling myself. Not about being a writer, which I still don’t really consider myself, what’s one book, but about writing this novel as a way of getting closer to whatever it is we seek when we open a book of poetry. The advice was twofold, and I must precede it by saying while it sounds a little hippie-dippie, the advice was serious, and I pass it on seriously: Love yourself. Trust yourself.  The writing, publication—that’s all secondary stuff. I think.