On Inspiration

On Inspiration

This interview by author and editor Jeff VanderMeer appeared on the Amazon Editors’ Blog Omnivoracious on July 6, 2008.

Michelle Richmond on Borges, Graham Greene, and No One You Know

NYT bestselling author Michelle Richmond is a bit of a chimera: her novels certainly have mainstream, commercial appeal but there’s often a dark core to them, along with influences that include Italo Calvino and Paul Auster. This gives them a lot more depth than the breezy covers might suggest. Her latest, No One You Know, is as much Borgesian mystery as it is the story of a complex relationship between a woman and her sibling. Twenty years after the murder of Ellie Enderlin’s sister, Lila, Ellie acquires a strange book of mathematical equations that might hold the key to finding out who killed Lila. What follows is a fascinating exploration of the past, of family secrets, and of a centuries-old mathematical puzzle.

Richmond’s other books include The Year of Fog and Dream of the Blue Room. Her stories and essays have appeared in Playboy, Kenyon Review, and the anthology Logorrhea. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son. I recently interviewed her via email. She replied from her home office, “which is a small room in a small house ten blocks from San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. It’s chilly and foggy today, as it is most days in June, and there’s a bit of sea air coming in from one of the bedroom windows at the back of the house, which I had to open because I just burned a pan of cornbread. Really! I’m thirty-something years old and spent the first twenty years of my life in Alabama, and yet I haven’t mastered the art of not burning the cornbread. Books everywhere. Papers scattered about. The closet door has come open, and various things are falling out of it: a kiddie croquet set, an exercise step, and a Trader Joe’s bag filled with books I need to send out to people who have been nice to me. I’ve got Lloyd Cole playing on the computer speakers.”

Amazon.com: This is your second novel for Delacourte. Does writing a novel get easier each time?

Michelle Richmond: A little, maybe. There’s no formula for writing a novel, so in a way one reinvents the wheel each time. But I definitely write more efficiently now. I’ve become more focused over the years, less likely to write an entire chapter that is ultimately expendable. With The Year of Fog I cut upwards of a hundred pages in editing, but with No One You Know I ended up omitting only about fifty pages in the final draft. I rarely know how the novel is going to end when I begin it; I tend to figure out the plot as I go along. However, from the moment I begin, I do have a very clear idea about characters, theme, and structure, as well as a strong handle on what the emotional and intellectual centers of the book should be.

Amazon.com: Was there a particular spark or catalyst for the writing of No One You Know?

Richmond: It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific catalyst. However, I knew from the start that I was interested in the fine line between fact and fiction, and the way stories shape our lives. I was interested in the idea that the stories others tell about us can have enormous repercussions. I knew that I wanted San Francisco to be the setting for the book, but not as much a character in its own right as it was in The Year of Fog. And I also decided at the outset that I was going to tackle something I’ve avoided my entire life–math. The narrator, Ellie, is a coffee buyer, but her sister, who was murdered 20 years before, was a math prodigy. While I didn’t want the novel to hinge too much on mathematical esoterica, I did want the flavor of mathematics to be part of the book; so while the narrator is as math-phobic as I am, she is able to appreciate some of the stories behind mathematics with a layperson’s eye. I have always been drawn to “found texts” in fiction, so it was great fun for me to have Ellie come across Lila’s math notebook from her days at Stanford.

Amazon.com: Would it be correct to call this a lit. mainstream novel that happens to contain a mystery, or do you see it as a mystery novel?

Richmond: I see it as mainstream literary fiction that happens to contain a mystery. One of the reviewers called it a “literary thriller,” which surprised and delighted me. While I never specifically set out to write a mystery, there’s definitely a strong element of mystery at play in the book. I think there’s room in the world of literary fiction for writers to play with all kinds of genres. Fortunately, that’s something that is a lot more readily acknowledged and accepted these days–a blurring of the lines between mainstream, literary, fantasy, mystery, science fiction, erotica, etc.

Amazon.com: There’s a centuries-old mathematics puzzle involved in the plot. That strikes me as a slightly Borgesian element. Are there any ghosts of other writers lingering behind the pages of No One You Know?

Richmond: Ah, yes, I’ve been in awe of Borges for many years. Talk about fictional labyrinths, stories within stories! I was also reading Paul Auster at the time I was writing the book, and was fascinated by the idea of coincidences that he explores in The Red Notebook, as well as in his fiction. In the first chapter of No One You Know, Ellie runs into someone from her past–the man implicated in her sister’s murder–in a small cafe in Nicaragua. On the surface it seems strange that their lives should intersect at this point, but the day I wrote that passage, my husband called from London to tell me he had just run into a friend of ours from San Francisco at Heathrow. And I’ve had my own strange experiences of running into old college friends in Budapest, or bumping into a couple I’d met in Iceland at my favorite movie theater on the Upper West Side. Coincidence, probability–it intrigues me.

Before I started writing No One You Know, I had lunch in North Beach with a writer friend and teaching colleague, Juvenal Acosta. Juvenal mentioned how much he admired Graham Green’s The End of the Affair. I went right out and checked the book out from the library, and six months later it was still sitting in my office, full of post-it notes. Eventually I returned it, paid the fine, and bought my own copy, which I’ve marked up liberally. The End of the Affair provided an opening impulse for the book, in the line “A story has no beginning and no end. Arbitrarily one chooses the moment from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” This is the motto of Ellie’s sophomore English professor, Andrew Thorpe, who makes the huge ethical blunder of publishing a true crime book about Lila’s murder. Ellie wonders where her own story begins and ends. The End of the Affair is the story of a love affair gone wrong, with the mystery of the beloved’s death front and center, but it’s also a book about writing, about finding one’s story and figuring out the best way to tell it. I was definitely giving a nod to Graham Greene when I had Ellie recall bits of writing advice that Thorpe had given her when she was a student in his literature class.

Amazon.com: What part of the writing life is the most enjoyable to you?

Richmond: Coffee early in the morning, and a blank page. Figuring out the puzzle–how things relate to each other, what associations will be surprising or enticing or illuminating to the reader. Even when I’m having trouble with a scene or a plot point, there’s always something joyful about trying to get the story right. And I love being able to believe that there is always another book in my future. I think very few writers ever actually write the book they intended to write. There’s always something more you wanted to say, or some element of the character that got left on the editing room floor. So one is always looking forward to the promise of the next book, which has not yet been written and which, therefore, still holds the possibility of perfection.

Amazon.com: When a book comes out, what’s the most stressful part of the whole PR cycle for you?

Richmond: Readings! I actually enjoy giving readings, and I have a blast when I’m in front of a crowd, telling stories and connecting with the audience. Honestly, I think if I had the opportunity for an entirely different second career, I would have loved to be an actor. But there’s a lot of anxiety before a reading, because I never know if anyone is going to show up. It’s painful to stand in front of a room full of empty seats. Almost of my writer friends share this anxiety with me. So if you’re a reader who’s wondering whether you should make the effort to go to a reading and meet an author whose books you like…go! Please! They will be happy to meet you and thrilled that you made the effort. They might be so grateful they invite you over for dinner.

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