Skip to main content

Interview: January 18, 2002

January 18, 2002

In Anne Ursu's debut novel, SPILLING CLARENCE, a town is subjected to a chemical accident that causes its population to relive their suppressed memories... for better or worse. Join writer Kate Ayers' discussion with Ursu as they chat about sustaining multiple characters, revisiting memories, casting the book, pajamas, jazz, websites and more!

TBR: In SPILLING CLARENCE, you've created a small town coping with the aftereffects of a factory spill of Deletrium, a fictional drug which induces total recall in the folks exposed to it. You have five or six main characters and a host of lesser ones (lesser in the sense of attention given to them). How do you remain true to so many characters' personalities? There are quite a few histories here. Is it just fun creating backstories and inventing people?

AU: I was playing with a few characters before the novel itself was born --- I had just read the 1998 edition of BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES and, in the introduction, the editor said something about there being too many stories with single dads and too many college professors as characters. Somehow, in my perverse mind, Professor Bennie Singer and his eight-year-old daughter, Sophie, were then born. At the same time, my husband and I --- freshly married --- had moved to Old Town, Maine, for his masters degree. Old Town is in the middle of nowhere, it’s a paper mill town and it stank to high heaven. I was so in love with John that I was deliriously happy to be anywhere with him --- even there --- but it occurred to me how miserable I would be if it weren’t a good relationship. So Todd, Mansfield University graduate student, and his unhappy fiance, Susannah, were born. Among the first sentences of this novel I wrote were, “the first three principles of love: Location, location, location.”

When Clarence became Clarence, all these other characters just kept appearing because the story demanded them. I decided that the effects of the chemical would start with the elderly, and that’s how Madeline and Sunny Shadows Estates were born. And the supporting cast just came. They were designed to give the town the tapestry and texture, and I wanted the effects of the chemical to spiral through Clarence, for histories to keep popping up, so it would seem the novel could have taken any cross-section of characters and the result would have been the same.

The minor characters were fun, too, and were nice breaks in the action for me in writing the book --- they give the central characters and plot space to breathe.

TBR: Where did you come up with the idea for Spilling Clarence? Have you had experience with memory research or was this just an idea that popped into your head?

AU: I’ve always been very interested in memory and our relationships with it --- I wrote a terrible poem in ninth grade about it, that I’m terrified someone will unearth. One day my husband and I started talking about the power of remembering, and what would happen to a town if somehow their memories were stimulated. And through our conversation, the novel was born.

TBR: It seems the subject matter, of necessity, would lead to some personal introspection. Did you find yourself dredging up memories that surprised, delighted or maybe even disturbed you?

AU: Definitely. It was hard at times, especially the school yard scenes. I don’t think anything there really happened to me, but calling up the whole genre of school yard trauma isn’t pleasant. I also came across a few incidents that I honestly could not ---and still can’t --- remember if they were dreams or they actually happened, and that’s disturbing. Many of the memories that I needed to create for the novel were unpleasant ones, so I loved writing the chapter where Bennie meets Lizzie, his wife. I had the eyes-bug-out, heart-leap-from-chest thing with my husband, so calling up that for Bennie was a great deal of fun (which, at that point in the story, was psychologically necessary for me…)

TBR: Some parts of SPILLING CLARENCE reminded me of a screenplay. In the short bio I read, there was no mention of experience in that arena. Have you done any screenwriting in the past or has your style evolved from your days as a theater critic?

AU: Oh that’s interesting. I haven’t done anything with screenwriting at all, but there is a lot of the theater in Spilling Clarence. I was devoted to playwriting and theater in college, and then I worked as a theater critic for two years. I loved plays that really explored, exploited, and celebrated the theater --- as opposed to ones that would really be better off as a movie. The best shows reach out and grab you as an audience member, involve you by making you laugh and then you find you’re crying. I hated realism, those well-made, kitchen sink, fourth wall plays --- I wanted shows that play with dramatic telling in a way that reminds you that someone is crafting this story carefully and deliberately, self-consciously, every element is there for a reason, so you better pay attention to figure out what’s going on underneath the surface.

I’ve had a couple reviews imply that there’s no place for humor or irony in a serious novel, as if it were diminishing the book, or they seem to think the presence of humor means it’s supposed to be a humorous novel. This surprised me a good deal, as I am pathologically sentimental, and to me this is a very sad, very sentimental book. I think people expect books, especially by women, in the United States to be Deadly Serious or else Funny and Light --- I see this a lot in criticism and I find it frustratingly conservative.

TBR: If you were writing this for ultimate movie production, who would you cast as your main characters: Bennie, daughter Sophie, mom/writer Madeline, and the young couple Todd and Susannah? Maybe even dapper old Calvin.

AU: I love casting books. I’ve been pretty set on having Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward play Madeline and Calvin for a while, though I’m always willing to compromise. I love Alyson Hannigan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; she has the most expressive face and I think she would be a terrific Susannah, although she doesn’t have the hair for it. It took me a long time to find a Bennie, we couldn’t settle on anyone, and then I started watching West Wing and discovered Bradley Whitford, who is just perfect. I even sent him a book, though oddly enough, I have yet to hear back from him.

TBR: SPILLING CLARENCE is your debut novel. It must be thrilling for you to see your work published. For the many writer hopefuls out there, what is the most important piece of advice you can give?

AU: This is a good question. It’s so important for the manuscript to be in the best possible state before you send it off. I worked with Bharati Mukherjee once and she told me, “Don’t be in a hurry,” and that’s just right. Put your manuscript away for a while, let it sit, give it to a couple readers that will give you real feedback. I think one should pay particular attention to the nagging feelings in the pit of your stomach --- to me those always signify the things that have to be changed that I really don’t want to change. But the novel is always better for it.

TBR: Many interviewers ask whether there is a special time or place that you write. Following in that tradition, can you tell us what works best for you? Have you a writer's aerie or does your creativity stem from a special pen, lucky sweater, background jazz, or what?

AU: It’s funny that you mention jazz, I did listen to a lot of vocal jazz standards while writing it --- and to me the Clarence soundtrack is all Cole Porter and his ilk. I’ve decided Bennie and Lizzie’s song is “Tea for Two.” I never would have written anything if it hadn’t been for my husband, who one day announced that I had to write five pages a day --- and each day I would earn two mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

I write in the afternoons, in between periods of procrastination. I have a Powerbook, which I’m thinking of having strapped to myself surgically, and now I station myself around various points in our little condo to write. I wear the most comfortable clothes possible. I read somewhere that Oprah Winfrey has a closet full of pajamas. This is my dream. I already have the love of my life, a great family, perfect cats, and a dream career. If I could have a closet full of pajamas, I would have everything.

TBR: Your book is so unique, it is hard to find any other author's influence stamped on it. Despite that, who most inspired your writing? Who do you read in you spare time?

AU: I like writers that really seem to work with their heads and their hearts. Ann Patchett is a goddess to me; she wrote one of the most beautiful, touching books I’ve ever read in THE MAGICIAN'S ASSISTANT and then turned around and wrote one of the smartest in BEL CANTO. Her craft gets better with each book, and she started pretty darn well. I love playful fiction like Charles Baxter’s THE FEAST OF LOVE, some of the pomo hits like THE CRYING OF LOT 49 or Don DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE, and books with indelible characters --- AMY AND ISABELLE by Elizabeth Strout or COMING BACK TO ME by Caroline Leavitt.

I really like British women writers such as Kate Atkinson, Penelope Lively, and early Jeanette Winterson because they write with a certain theatricality that I love --- for some reason U.K. women writers tend to be a little more experimental, I find. I’m also addicted to nineteenth century writers --- Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot. I love historical fiction --- I think a lot of it tends to be very theatrical—like CITY OF LIGHT by Lauren Belfer, AFFINITY by Sarah Waters, THE DRESS LODGER by Sheri Holman, and A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION. And I recently read THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, which I was awed and humbled by.

I also watch a lot of television, particularly Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

TBR: The book cover tells us you're at work on your second novel. Are you involving any Clarence citizens in this or is it totally unrelated?

AU: No, it’s a whole new book with new characters and a rather different world.

TBR: By the way, great website! How much of a hand did you have in it? Is Jonathan Van Gieson the web whiz and you added the words?

AU: Jonathan is a dear friend of mine from college who has a web hosting and design company, He did the most amazing website for a mutual friend, who has a theater company devoted to performing classical theater with vending machine plastic ninjas as actors. The site,, is the best theater website I’ve ever seen, and it made me want him to do my author site. I’ve always known he’s a terrific designer and, even better, he’s creative and very funny, and I knew he’d do something terrific. I wrote three of the bios, but he did all the rest. The site’s not actually done; he’s designing a “factory tour” that will be a tour through some memory games.

TBR: What can we expect from you next?

AU: My second novel will be out from Hyperion/Theia next January, the same time as the paperback release for SPILLING CLARENCE. The book is called THE DISAPPARATION OF JAMES and it's about a family and that’s all I’m gonna say because I could change it at any moment. I’m also just beginning a new novel which will be historical, and I’m absolutely terrified.