In this interview with nonfiction MFA candidate Sarah Rosenthal, author Lisa Gornick discusses her latest novel, The Peacock Feast, as well as writing about real historical figures in fiction, the many overlaps between writing and psychology, how design and architecture can inform the writing process, and much more.
Lisa Gornick is the author of Louisa Meets Bear, Tinderbox, and A Private Sorcery. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, Real Simple, Salon, Slate, and The Sun. She holds a BA from Princeton and a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale, and is on the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. A long-time New Yorker, she lives in Manhattan with her family.
I’m always curious to know, what was your writing process for The Peacock Feast like and how was it different or the same as your other books?
Well, first of all, this book required substantially more research than anything else I’ve ever done, though my novel Tinderbox did require quite a bit of research. This book began with my seeing the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall. Someone had recommended it, and I went kind of skeptically because I’d never particularly liked Tiffany’s work: I thought of it as being kitschy lamp shades. I was floored when I saw how extraordinarily extensive and diverse and complex his work was–so beyond [just] stained glass windows. And the exhibit focused on Laurelton Hall, which was his mansion; it’s pretty well-described in the book. He designed all of it, down to wallpaper, every last detail. He was a bit of a control freak about it.
And I became fascinated by that. Also a lot of his paintings were there, and he was a damn good painter, and an innovative glassmaker. But what captured me was the photograph, which is the frontispiece in the galley that you probably saw, of the five girls. When I saw that, I thought, what the heck? What’s going on here? And who was this man? And I believe it must have been identified in the museum exhibit, I don’t recall, that three of those girls were his daughters. And I thought, “Who on earth would dress their daughters like that and parade them in front of this grouping of men?”
So I started to research a little bit and read, just out of curiosity, because at the time I was finishing revisions on another book. This was 2007, a really long time ago, I published two other books since then, but during all the interstitials–while publishing books, turns out there’s lots of down times while you’re getting an agent and you’re on submission– I kept doing the research and what finally clinched it for me was when I stumbled across this information that the middle girl in that photograph was Dorothy Burlingham, which is a name that was familiar to me because in an earlier incarnation I was a practicing psychoanalyst. Dorothy Burlingham is an important person in the history of psychoanalysis. She was essentially Anna Freud’s partner for fifty years. She was in analysis with [Sigmund] Freud up until a few months before his death, probably his longest ever patient, and it was her money as well as the money of an exotic woman named the Princess Bonaparte that helped get the Freuds out of Europe.
Once I saw that this actually intersects with another part of my life, and my obsessions with design and architecture, I just knew this was going to be my novel to write. But the first thing I had to do was to learn a great deal about the history of interior design, which sent me to the Cooper Hewitt library, where I learned about these lady decorators, one of whom was, in fact, Edith Wharton.
I especially like hearing how, as you delved into process, you found that “in” with psychology, because that’s something that was so fascinating in the book too. Not just Freud, but so much of [the book] revolved around memory, family, class, life, and death, and I wonder how your work in psychology and psychoanalysis has influenced your writing, both in this book and other books? And maybe vice versa, how writing has influenced how you approach psychology as a subject?
Oh, well, that’s such an excellent question, such a great insight. Those are totally intertwined for me, though I’m not a practicing therapist or psychoanalyst any longer. But I’m still involved with the Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute.
So, I’ll answer the first part: it’s my world view. It’s the way that I see everything, though I do my best not to look at my own family members that way [Sarah and Lisa laugh]; it’s not a very good lens to think about your children through.
But I certainly think about my characters that way, and that means that I feel like I need to know my characters with the same kind of depth with which I understood my patients. I just wrote an essay that’s going to go up on LitHub called “Furnishing My Characters’ Homes” in which I talk about the kind of detail I go into for planning and understanding the physical environment of my characters, and part of what I discuss there is that there’s a parallel with the way that I was trained as a therapist and an analyst.
There really are two schools of thinking for therapists about this, and I think it’s the same for writers too: that there are both writers and analysts who feel as though they need to have a pretty strong foundation before they set off on the work. As a clinician, it meant having a discrete evaluation period before I embarked where I learned a lot about the patient before I decided what I was going to recommend for the treatment. It’s the same for me with writing. I have to learn a lot about my characters before I begin what I call the writing.
Now, sometimes that means I’ve written, like, 200 pages of notes and scenes and descriptions but I never look at any of that when I sit down to do what I think of as the real writing. I sort of put that aside and keep it in the back of my mind. And that was the same for me as a clinician. I would rarely go back to the notes, but it was very important to me that I knew that someone had been hospitalized at eighteen months and their mother had not been allowed to see them for nine days or whatever–that information sat there in the back of my mind.
So really, it’s a very similar process, and again, you know, it’s my world view. And to your second part, about how being a writer impacted my being a clinician, I used to feel that was really my main skill as a clinician, that kind of attentiveness to language and understanding how, as I’ve phrased in essays I’ve written, emotion is congealed in language. There would be times I just heard a phrase that someone would say, and you could just tell, like in a poem, that if you push on that, that there’s something more there. And that attentiveness to language was really so much more important than any kind of theory that I could learn to understand that connection.
That’s great. The idea of the character study and getting all of the information on a person as a character before you begin definitely relates to both fiction and nonfiction research. It’s such a deeply important part of the work [of writing].
Just to add one more thing. The paradox is, the initial story is never the real story.
You have to also, in the same way that a patient might tell you all their family history or what’s troubling them, realize what is one way at the beginning always becomes something different. And ditto with a novel. No matter how much planning one does it should change and you should learn things and be deeply surprised in the process. So there’s a kind of dialectic between that. For me, the planning and the foundation are what allow for the surprise.
Another really unique part of this story is that the book’s structure and design, even the sentence structures, are just as ornate as Tiffany’s designs. At one point Prudence, who I consider the main protagonist, bemoans that so much of interior design is merely decoration rather than artistry, which I thought was such a great point. My question is how you [decided to] approach design ideas and the history of decorative arts and architecture in this novel, and what was your relationship to art and design before and during the writing process?
Again, you’ve bored in on things that are really key to me. I have come to believe that what’s most key is to understand the architecture of a book before you commit.
I recently heard Kate Atkinson interviewed on Pamela Paul’s podcast and she talked about how she starts with structure, not plot or character, and I realized I’ve sort of moved in that direction too. Once I know what the structure of the book is going to be, the plot, even though I may know it, may change, or the characters may develop. With The Peacock Feast, I knew what the structure was before I began the “writing.”
I knew there were three stories. One is the present story that takes place during a week, and it starts on a Sunday and ends on a Saturday. It’s the encounter between Prudence, who is 101, and this young woman who arrives and turns out to be her brother’s grandchild. She hasn’t seen or talked to her brother since he was 14 and she was 11. So that was sort of the frame. And then I needed to tell, or I wanted to tell, Prudence’s story from her first memory, which is from when she’s two, and is, in fact, the Peacock Feast.
I told her story in chronological order, then I wanted to tell Grace, her great-niece’s, story too, but I decided that, as far as Prudence is concerned, her great-niece’s story really begins with what happened to Prudence’s brother.
And so it begins, that third thread, that third strand (I think of it sort of as a braid), that third strand begins when Randall, Prudence’s brother, leaves New York at 14. That thread goes through his story, his son’s story, who is Grace’s father, and all the way up to the present, with Grace, and at one point, when we begin to reach about two thirds into the novel, the three strands begin to braid together, so that Prudence knows what Grace knows and what they’re talking about in their encounters starts to become one plait.
That was very helpful to me. And once I had that structure, I was often befuddled about how to handle something, but I never felt lost, I always knew where I was going, and I basically knew where the book was going to end.
That makes sense. Thinking about how structure can create a certain kind of architecture for the book itself makes it a lot easier to fill in the rest. Did you write this story as braided to begin with? Or did you maybe begin with writing each character [separately] with this structure always in mind?
Well, no, I wrote the book in order, though some of the chapters got changed around because there were so many revisions of this book. I think I counted once. Every time I finish a draft I print it out and then I edit on the hard copy and I save all of those drafts in notebooks, and I think when I counted it was 29 drafts.
Wow! That is inspiring!
And that doesn’t even count that there were revisions that happened within each draft! But, part of what happened was that earlier versions of this book had many, many more characters and subplots that got weeded out. And there were parts that were too much of one story, one story line, and had to be broken up. So I always had to approach the book in order because each story is told chronologically, and to some extent, I tried to keep them as one longer chronology, but there was a great deal of juggling. And you also asked did art and design precede this book. And yes, in that I’ve done quite a bit of home renovation over my life, in part because I have, unbelievably, been through two fires and have completely renovated homes at times.
Oh my god.
Yeah, a little bit creepy. One of my books is also about a fire. So I’ve spent a lot of time with architects and thinking things through on that level. One of the things I have discovered is that the most important thing for me in figuring out the color scheme for a home is to see the whole. I don’t figure it out room by room. I figure out what it is that I want the whole to be like and then the rooms become variations on that theme. Now, lots of people don’t work that way. But it’s the same for me with fiction, I need to have some sense of what the aesthetic whole is going to be.
I love that. That’s so helpful, thinking about how something is going to work as a whole and the variations within it. It’s fascinating to think about the way we design our lives and how we interact with colors and how in your case, it can explicitly bleed into your writing.
In so many ways, writing is really an act of design. Characters, sentences, relationships, all of it.
And you asked about the sentences. One of the things my wonderful editor, Sarah Crichton, said to me at one point is that, “you need to go through the book and make sure you weed out anything that is a kind of loop-de-loop”:anywhere in my long sentences where someone would get lost in the circle. I had to make sure that each of them tracked. I like long sentences because we think in that way, with one thing leading to another, but I needed to hold myself to the rigor of making sure that nowhere did the reader get lost. And I also love the kind of counterpoint between short sentences and long sentences–and that sense of dynamic contradiction happens for me within paragraphs, within sections, in chapters. And that’s always on my mind, how one thing is playing against another.
Absolutely. And to shift gears slightly, a lot of your characters are interacting with historical figures, as you talked about earlier. It can be really intimidating to think about working with real historical figures in writing. How did you approach writing real people as characters in your book?
This was the first time I’d done that, I think. I never questioned the strategy I took, it never occurred to me that I could. It’s a good question, and I’ve since seen that many people are much more inventive.
I felt as though I had to hew as close as possible to all the historical facts. So, if Dorothy Burlingham moves to Europe in May of 1925 in reality, that’s when she’s gonna move in my book. I didn’t feel as if I could be as presumptuous as to invent a history for people who’d actually lived or to do anything that seemed to me out of character with what I imagined about them. I read as much as I could about all of them.
On the other hand, since they are interacting with fictional characters, those are, obviously, fictional scenes. You know, there was no real scene with Prudence and Anna Freud, but I felt that, were she to have visited Anna Freud, had she really existed, that the discussion that happened was in line with what I understood about Anna Freud.
And Dorothy, of course, never met Prudence but there are letters that she wrote that I read late in the writing process. A year ago, I went to the Freud Museum in London, and they allowed me to read the correspondence between Dorothy and Anna. There were 146 pieces of correspondence that they had written one another during a separation they had in 1939-1940. And I was delighted to discover that the voice I had created for Dorothy in the fictional letters I’d already written was very consistent with her actual writing style.
There are living relatives of all of these people, and I considered sending them drafts of things and I decided I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to feel beholden to anyone. I wanted to write it as I imagined it and not have it vetted. But I think that I created fair portraits of everyone.
I have one last question for you. You mentioned a very long revision period and all of this research, but what did you find to be your biggest challenge in writing The Peacock Feast?
Well certainly the research was very extensive and challenging and arduous. And getting the pacing right was also challenging. Not getting bogged down in too many stories. In an earlier draft, there were many more historical characters, if you can believe it. I mean, Jerry Garcia was in the book, and Ken Kesey was in the book, and Larry McMurtry was in the book, and Allen Ginsburg had an appearance! An early reader said, “Too much, too much.” And my agent, very helpfully, said, “You need to just tell us the stories that are important to Prudence and Grace.” So I think not going overboard, because there were so many things that were exciting and interesting to me, and allowing the novel to be dictated by the emotional core, which is this relationship between Prudence and Grace and the history they both brought to bear on it. So another challenge was just, you know, getting rid of my darlings, cutting a lot of pages that I had written.
And actually, I have one more question, if that’s alright with you. One thing I love asking writers when are publishing a book is what advice would you give an MFA student as they approach writing a novel or book for the first time?
The first thing I would say is read. And I consider reading part of my work. I just read an interview with Rebecca Makkai where she says she schedules some of her reading, which I do too. I sometimes have a list of books I know I have to read. I consider reading them part of my work. And think very carefully about your reading diet, why you’re reading. I’m often reading for inspiration. I’m reading because there’s a certain kind of language I want to get in my head or I’ve heard that someone has done something new and innovative and I want to understand what they’ve done. So that would be one thing.
The second thing I would say is: unplug. It’s really key. There is this kind of meditative, deep state that you have to go into to concentrate, and I can’t, and I don’t think anyone can [get there], if you’re listening to pinging texts and doing Facebook at the same time. Just commit to a certain amount of time that you’re unplugged and do whatever you have to: do like Jonathan Franzen, put a hanger inside your hard drive, whatever you have to do, do that.
And the third thing that I would say is revise. Revise, revise, revise. And understand that there are a lot of phases in the writing process that are different for each person and approach each of them with a slightly different mindset. The phase of free-wheeling generation of ideas and thinking is very different from how you approach editing your own work, which should hopefully be done with the same sort of precision and critical eye as you would use to look at someone else’s work.
So those would be my main pieces of advice. And my fourth one, which I just recently figured out, is that the publishing industry is really diverse. It’s as diverse as the food industry: you don’t expect to get the same thing out of a McDonald’s hamburger as you do from an innovative, locavore restaurant in Brooklyn where they are experimenting with new ways of making vinegars. Figure out what your own goals are, and don’t bemoan that one part of the industry doesn’t deliver what another does. It’s diverse, with different goals.