Interview: March 14, 2008
March 14, 2008
Katie Arnoldi's sophomore novel, THE WENTWORTHS, offers a peak into the dysfunctional lives of an unconventional, old-moneyed family from Southern California whose carefully constructed facade begins to crumble as an outsider attempts to become one of them.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Carol Fitzgerald, Wiley Saichek, Erin Quinn and Norah Piehl, Arnoldi discusses the similarities and differences between her fictional characters and her own family, and draws connections between this book's theme with that of her previous novel, CHEMICAL PINK. She also describes how some of her own fascinations and obsessions worked themselves into her writing, explains how and why she chose to narrate the story through several of the characters, and shares details about her next project, tentatively titled ALIENATION MY WAY.
Bookreporter.com: THE WENTWORTHS is your second novel. Can you talk about the thematic connections between your debut work and this one (besides the fact that the Wentworths apparently belong to the same country club as one of the main characters in CHEMICAL PINK)?
Katie Arnoldi: CHEMICAL PINK is a sort of PYGMALION story set in the world of women’s bodybuilding. It examines a rarefied sub-culture, a group of people who live by a set of rules very different from the rest of us. THE WENTWORTHS is also about an isolated subculture --- the ridiculously wealthy and privileged people who live on the Westside of Los Angeles. Their money, sense of entitlement and priorities are completely disconnected from the reality of most people’s lives.
I am fascinated by the distortion that comes with isolation, the false sense of security that occurs when one group separates from the general population. The Wentworths think they are the epicenter of the universe --- immune to the mundane dilemmas that face “normal people.” In their minds, wealth and power have created a force field that keeps the unpleasant and troubling aspects of life at bay. They live in a glass bubble and nothing can touch them. But, of course, they’re not invulnerable, and once faced with tragedy they find they’re not so different from anybody else.
Both books attempt to dissect these somewhat freakish subcultures --- one with muscles, one with money.
As for my CHEMICAL PINK character showing up at the Wentwoths’ country club: my characters just won’t die when I finish the book. They ride around in my head. Charles insisted on a guest appearance, and my guess is that he’ll be showing up in my next book too. He’s very pushy. So are the Wentworths.
BRC: This novel is told in a very engaging, multi-dimensional storytelling style, as the narrative bounces back and forth among the many characters. How did you go about constructing the narrative? Did you have an overall structure in mind first, and then utilize various characters' voices to flesh it out? Or did the story just unfold out of these multiple voices?
KA: I absolutely intended to write this novel in straightforward third person, past tense. I thought I would probably change points of view with the chapters, because I like to have the freedom of getting inside my character’s heads, but I envisioned a very traditional structure for the book. I had trouble with Norman almost from the very beginning. He kept insisting on addressing the reader directly. I tried to corral him, force him into my neat little novel. He wouldn’t behave. He did not want me to tell his story. He needed to be heard directly. And once he started spouting off, his sister wanted her say. So then I tried to tell the story in first person, but August --- the father --- isn’t much of a talker. Finally, I just let the story tell itself. Sometimes I got to participate as a narrator, but just as often, the characters took over.
BRC: The characterizations of this family are brutally funny and satirical because they actually bear an almost uncomfortable resemblance to things readers have seen in real life or in the media. Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed each character's personality?
KA: The question that drove this book, the thing that I walk around asking myself all the time, is, “How do people get so screwed up?” How do priorities get so confused? I think a lot of terrible behavior is passed down through the generations and I wanted to address that.
The Wentworth family structure mirrors my own family. I am the middle sister between two brothers. I grew up with two parents. So, the structure is familiar but this is not my family. Norman’s character was with me right from the beginning. He burst on the scene fully formed. His sister Becky started reacting to his behavior. Then the mother did. One character acts, another character reacts. I never know what’s going to happen when I sit down, and I’ve found that trying to make an outline or plan ahead shuts down the entire operation. My subconscious mind drives the boat. I don’t have a lot of control over the destination. I generally start with themes that I want to address, but the characters always take over.
BRC: The most "normal," promising people in the novel are those who are not related to the Wentworths or those who, like the youngest generation, are only half Wentworths (and half Joneses). The book also makes frequent references to genetics, mutations, etc. Are you suggesting that wealthy, powerful families like the Wentworths are doomed to collapse under their own weight? What about survival of the fittest?
KA: Excellent question! Norman makes those comments about evolution, genetics. He touches on cannibalism, makes reference to incest. He is constantly questioning the whole idea of a family structure, and I think he does see that his family is doomed to collapse in their present form. They have isolated themselves and become so detached from the rest of the world that they can’t possibly survive. They are an extinct species living in a world that doesn’t really exist. Tragedy bursts their protective bubble and brings them closer to reality.
BRC: How tied do you think THE WENTWORTHS is to the setting? Could the Wentworths exist outside L.A.? If not, what do you think this says about L.A.?
KA: I grew up in L.A. with the Wentworths. They went to my high school, we attended the same parties, we use the same dry cleaners, shop at the same supermarket, and their kids went to kindergarten with my kids. I know them but I’m not one of them. They have a whole different value structure and their concept of “old money” cracks me up. The idea that you are superior because your great, great-grandfather made a fortune and established the family name is ridiculous. Snobbery is such a bunch of hogwash. Of course, that elitist attitude is prevalent everywhere in this country, especially on the East coast, but it’s a little different out here in L.A. We’re a young city and dominated by Hollywood, but there is a small subset of people --- mostly Republicans --- who consider themselves the aristocracy. They don’t associate with “those gauche Hollywood-types.” They’re sophisticated, with old world manners. Educated. Or they think they are. Yes, the Wentworths are definitely a product of Southern California.
BRC: As you were writing THE WENTWORTHS, who did you find yourself thinking about the most? What character(s) means the most to you as the storyteller?
KA: I feel like I shouldn’t have favorites, but I love Norman Wentworth the most. If you want to know how my mind works, listen to him. I see him as the soul of the family, the only one with a true moral compass. He’s a little crazy but he has such a good heart. I liked it that he could weigh in on any issue at any time. He’s a big thinker in his own way. Norman expanded the scope of the book. I love to hear him talk. He is, hands down, my favorite character.
BRC: Obsession is a major theme in your work. What fascinates you about the various types of obsession? What are you obsessed about?
KA: I’m fascinated by the distortion of perception that comes with obsession. How the world narrows when you fixate on something. I guess my favorite type of obsession is other people’s sexual obsession. It is certainly a strong theme in all my work. I can’t get away from it. (I don’t really want to.) Fetishes delight me --- foot fetishes, Ponyism, Baloonism. What happened in these people’s lives that they got stuck on a certain trigger? I like to try to get inside their heads and understand. But even straightforward “normal” sex is a huge obsession for many. (Most?) It’s an endlessly interesting topic for me.
BRC: THE WENTWORTHS is a quirky read. What was your early reader reaction?
KA: Most of my early readers have been close friends who are familiar with my life and this territory. I’ve been very gratified to hear them say that they think I’ve pretty much “nailed” the Wentworth mentality. Thankfully, I haven’t been asked if this is autobiographical (it is not), but I’m sure that question will come up. How could it not when you’re writing about a family?
People seem to appreciate that I’m not just writing about the Wentworth family. There are a lot of characters surrounding the Wentworths, and each one of them has a family that they are reacting to. Some are running away, some are running towards their parents or children. THE WENTWORTHS is about the destructive and redemptive aspects of family --- all kinds of families.
BRC: Titles are hard to develop. What process did you go through to choose THE WENTWORTHS as the title? Could you share any alternate titles that were kicked around?
KA: Titles are very hard, and I struggled a lot with my first novel. I had about 20 alternatives before I settled on CHEMICAL PINK. But there was never any question in my mind that this novel would be called THE WENTWORTHS. This family is so self-involved, so obsessed with their little kingdom, how could any title possibly compete with their name? No, the title was the very easiest thing about this book.
BRC: There was a seven-year gap in between the publication of your first novel, CHEMICAL PINK, and the publication of THE WENTWORTHS. Why so long between books?
KA: When CHEMICAL PINK came out, New Line Cinema optioned the book and hired me to write the screenplay. It was a big job and I was thrilled to get it. The problem was that I’d never actually written a screenplay --- I’d never really even read one. So I had my work cut out and a lot to learn. It was a very difficult and time-consuming process. Art Linson was the producer back then and he basically taught me how to adapt my novel, but it took forever. So that’s one reason for the delay.
THE WENTWORTHS took about five years to write. The structure of the book --- with all those different voices --- was very complicated for me. It was hard to get the right balance. I often felt like I had just too many balls in the air. Sometimes a character would take over and drown out the rest of the story. There’s a character called Jack, who I think of as a hero. At one point, I kind of fell in love with him and gave him way too much page time. I had to keep a big set of pruning shears next to my desk and a stun gun just to maintain order. It was the balancing that took so long.
BRC: What is going to happen to the movie version of Maggie Halliburton's bestselling novel, now that Heath Ledger has died?
KA: I feel terrible about that. Obviously his tragic death occurred after the book was published. If there’s another printing of the book, of course I’ll change the casting choice. I wish I could do it now. The whole thing makes me very sad.
BRC: What are you currently working on?
KA: I’m working on a new novel that might be titled ALIENATION MY WAY. My lead character is a beautiful young woman called Ellis Gardner. She’s a total outlaw and my hero. She’s very independent and strong, but has a hard time fitting into her life. The book is very different from the last two, but deals with similar themes of isolation. I’m a sucker for the misfits.