A conversation with Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jenny Boylan:  So Myla, your new novel, The False Friend, brings us a woman who’s still trying to make sense of her own childhood, and trying to connect the person she’s become with the child she was.  Usually the search for identity is presented as joyful and uplifting in contemporary fiction– but here, as in Bee Season–that quest turns out to be harrowing. Do you think that, for your characters, self-knowledge is a dangerous thing?  Might they be better off with some of their questions unanswered?  

Myla Goldberg:  Anything worth having is dangerous, to varying degrees, but I’d like to think that the long-term benefits of self-knowledge outweigh the risk.  Everyone needs to be harrowed at some point in their lives.  Eve did the right thing, biting the apple.  All that galavanting around in the garden with no books to read would have gotten pretty boring after a few millennia.  In both Bee Season and The False Friend, we are with characters at incredibly stressful and difficult turning points in their lives, but it’s possible to imagine a happier and more fulfilled future for them as a direct result of the decisions we see them make.  In The False Friend, Celia’s life is in stasis and the only way for her to get herself out of it is to confront what she confronts.  In my experience, the saddest people are the ones who are either unable or unwilling to do that.  Life loses its meaning when you stop trying to move forward, which in Celia’s case means looking backward for a while.

JB:   False Friend is many things– an inquiry into character, an examination of how the choices made by children continue to shape the lives of the adults they become– but in some ways it’s also a mystery story.  Were there books that guided you as you wrote the novel?  Stories that served as lighthouses for you as you negotiated these waters? 

MG: Rather than specific books, there were three specific writers – Graham Greene, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan – whose work obsessed me during the five year period I was working on The False Friend.  I’m fascinated by the way Graham Greene’s characters inhabit moral grey zones, their search for the right action perpetually foiled by their own personal blind spots, as well as by the complexity of a larger world in which an action that genuinely helps one person invariably hurts another.  I covet the way Ishiguro can use a lone, idiosyncratic character to illuminate broad swaths of human nature, getting at the universal nature of regret, love, desire, and ambition all through a single pair of eyes.  Ian McEwan would be the closest I get to a mystery writer, per se.  His books are incredibly compelling reads, and he’s masterful at pacing a story in a way that makes you feel as if some crucial bit of information is lurking on the next page.  I can remember having an excellent time at a party, and still longing for the moment I would be back home, able to continue reading Atonement.  McEwan also really knows how to nail a scene.  Years after having read him, several scenes from his books persist in my mind like empty rooms that merely require my walking through the door in order to fully inhabit them again. 

JB:  I’m always interested in writers’ processes, which strike me as a strange mixture of pragmatic steps, on the one hand (like how to build a chair) and the mysterious realms of shamans on the other (like learning how to converse with aliens).  I often read about writers who plan out and outline their work before they write a word–especially screenwriters, but plenty of novelists do this too. On the other hand, I’ve always felt that you really have to live in the world of those characters, and their story, before you can know what they’re going to do, and before you can understand all their secrets.  Which means, for me at least, that outlining a story in great detail in advance ends up being kind of pointless.  I always figure it’s best to write a first draft, feeling your way forward. And then you can outline the story after that, if it’s so bloody important to have an outline.

MG:  I hate outlines.  If I knew in advance what was going to happen in a story, there’d be no point in writing the thing.  That said, for every book I’ve written, I’ve kept a notebook, in which I’ve brainstormed directions I think a story could take, or jotted down questions that I need to answer about a character.  And though I never know a whole story in advance, I’ll often know one or two major events that will happen down the line, just not when or how they’ll happen.  That was especially the case with The False Friend.  I generally write my novels linearly, but for The False Friend, I wrote two chapters – the scene between Celia and Lee, and the scene between Celia and Mrs. Pearson – very early in the process, having no idea when they’d occur in the story, and then wrote my way toward them.  On the way, my idea of when each meeting would occur changed considerably, but the essence of each meeting did not.  Some rewriting was necessary when its final place in the narrative had been established, but each of those scenes remained remarkably intact.  That’s never happened to me before.

JB: One of the themes central to the False Friend (and, come to think of it, a lot of your work) is the way we seek to re-invent ourselves, and whether or not that is wholly possible.  It’s a question American writers love to wrestle with, of course.  For The Great Gatsby, to pick an example, Jay Gatz was a personality he tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to shed, and Fitzgerald’s pretty insistent about the ways the tide pushes our boats back against all our dreams of reinvention. And yet for other authors, becoming one’s true self by shedding a past can be a matter of both morality and destiny– plenty of transgender writers, myself included, I suppose, view that shedding of our false selves as a story of triumph, even if it comes at a high personal cost.  How do you view the tension between younger and older selves in your book–not only with your heroine Celia, but for the three (or four) friends of her youth, all of whom have emerged into different selves in adulthood?

MG: In childhood, we simply are; then, at some point (a time which begins much sooner for some than others), we become aware of who we want to be.  Adolescence is largely taken up with the struggle of trying to bridge the gap between those two visions, and some people never manage it.  Though Celia is an adult in the most obvious ways, in this particular way she’s still an adolescent at the beginning of the book.  It’s such a difficult, complex thing.  Reinvention only works when it takes into account what is being left behind.  Fitzgerald’s characters tend to try to start from scratch, disowning all their earlier incarnations, and Fitzgerald is right to point out the futility of this.  For a character like Leanne in The False Friend, forging a new identity was essential for achieving a happier, more fulfilled life, but that required confronting what she didn’t like about her old self and working through it, a painful and difficult process that is ongoing.  Because Celia avoided that sort of internal confrontation, she’s at a personal stand-still, and spends The False Friend trying to start up the hard work that she put off for so long.

JB:  But what makes the young Celia such a cruel child to begin with?  We think of children as innocents, unless they’re somehow victimized by the world.  And yet Celia, joining a glorious history of wicked child characters, has a streak of heartlessness in her that’s so shocking she spends much of her adult life trying to keep herself from seeing this younger self clearly.  I think in order to protect her sense of herself as a decent person, she has to seal off the nasty child she was.  I guess there are really two things I’m curious about–what was it that made Celia so cruel in the first place, and how is it she’s emerged as a  much nicer adult if she’s never confronted who she was?

Okay, and that leads to a third question–if she’s never confronted the monster she was, is her “nicer” adult self something of a sham as well?  Is the pleasant-seeming adult as much of a falsehood as the self that, say, Leanne’s younger self was for her?

Are the selves we create more real than the ones we begin with?  I mean, I know plenty of “created” selves who seem pretty shallow.  How do we know when a “created” self is authentic?

MG: You’re on your own regarding this whole “children as innocents” thing!  In my experience as a child and now as a parent, I’ve found that children have an innate capacity for both astounding kindness and intense cruelty.  Even a child who is basically “good” can exercise cruelty, given the right circumstances and opportunities, which is what I think happens in Celia’s case.  She’s basically a good kid, but she gets caught up in a chain of circumstances that leads her to behave in ways that are generally contrary to her kind nature.  Cruelty is a kind of power, and when children are presented a chance to exercise a new type of power, it’s invariably going to be attractive to them.  What bullied kid hasn’t grabbed the opportunity to pick on someone even weaker than herself?  What child wouldn’t jump at the chance to exploit another child’s weakness to gain the favor of someone whose favor she desires?  These behaviors aren’t limited to children.  Adults and corporations do this sort of thing every day.

As you rightly observe, Celia is so shocked by her cruel behavior that she “seals off the nasty child she was.”  The person that remains is not a fake or a construction: Celia is, at heart, a moral and kind person.  But because she has never acknowledged her capacity for cruelty, she now finds herself unable to move forward in life.  She’s scared of this buried cruel streak.  Rather than examine it, she has allowed her fear to prevent her from making commitments to people, in an attempt to avoid the possibility that she might end up hurting them in some way.

Okay, on to the “created self” question.  The word “created” implies artificiality to me; I think the process of becoming the person we each want to be is more a matter of nurturing than creating.  We nurture those aspects we relate to or value, and allow other aspects to atrophy or wither.  Nothing is invented wholesale; every aspect of a personality necessarily comes from somewhere inside a person.  I consider shallow people to be those who have nurtured very limited aspects of themselves, allowing the rest to fade away.  It’s not an artificial construction, it’s just a very narrow one.  Authenticity is in the eyes of the beholder, but I would think that an “authentic” personality is one that allows a person to engage the full range of human emotions and experiences that are out there, a personality that makes opportunity, emotion and experience possible rather than one that shuts a person off from these things.

JB:  The July issue of Granta focused on the theme of “going back,” and had a dozen writers explore places–both geographical and spiritual–they had taken leave of.  The False Friend, obviously,  is all about going back–both physically, for Celia, as she travels to the town she grew up in–as well as psychological, as she tries to confront the child she had been.  Would you be wiling to talk about the place you grew up, and how it shaped you as a writer?  Have you been back, and if so, what was that experience like?  In asking you this, I guess I wonder if it’s fundamentally a dangerous undertaking, going back, sort of like having a seance in which the main ghost you’re searching for is yourself?

MG: My parents still live in the house where I grew up, so I return there fairly often, especially now that I’ve got kids for whom a visit to suburban grandparents is an exciting and exotic thing.  I’ve got zero attachment to the place outside the fact that my parents are there, and if they decided to move tomorrow, I would not shed a tear.  From an objective standpoint, suburban Maryland was and is a fine place to raise a child, but it’s a dead place for me.  I’m not sure if I was born allergic to the suburbs, or if it was an intolerance that I developed over time.  Certainly by the time I hit my teens, I couldn’t wait to escape.  Rightly or wrongly, I’ve got a sort of baseline antipathy toward places I’ve left behind, even when they’ve treated me well.  I loved college, for example, but I would never ever ever attend a reunion.  I also don’t tend to re-read books, and I suspect these two tendencies are linked.  Life is short, and I hate the idea that I might miss out on something new because I spent time re-treading old ground.  It’s a faulty conception, one that I know causes me to miss out on valuable experiences, but it’s one to which I’m unnaturally attached.

The setting of The False Friend is actually a sort of Frankenstein creature that is one-quarter Montpelier, which is the name of the neighborhood where I grew up in suburban Maryland (in Laurel, to be precise), and three-quarters Binghamton, which is the town in upstate New York where my husband grew up, and which for the past ten years, I’ve been visiting about as often as I visit my own hometown.  There’s also a pinch of Johnson City and Endicott thrown in, which along with Binghamton form New York state’s Tri-Cities area.  For example, people driving into Johnson City pass under a stone arch that reads “Home of the Sqaure Deal,” which I stole and had re-engraved to use for Jensenville because it’s such a cool, weird thing.

At this point in my life, I don’t feel like going back to a place is so much a dangerous undertaking as it is a waste of time.  I feel like I’ve already squeezed all the juice out of the old places, so there’s nothing left for me there.  Celia, however, is very much still searching for herself, and her return home is as perilous as it is essential.  I don’t envy her.  Every now and again, I still have one of those dreams in which I find myself back in high school, or at summer camp, wandering around wondering why I’m there.  It is an enormous relief to wake up and find myself in my own bed.