Interview: February 4, 2005
February 4, 2005
Bookreporter.com Co-Founder Carol Fitzgerald and contributing writer Shannon McKenna interview debut novelist Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, author of THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT. Beverly-Whittemore talks about her inspiration for writing the book and addresses a central aspect of the novel that is likely to be a hot button issue with some readers. She also discusses the significance of the title, how her favorite writers have influenced her, and what her next project will be.
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to write THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT?
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: I started to write THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT because little Pru's voice kept tickling my ear. I knew she had a story that she wanted me to tell, but I also knew that something terrible was going to happen to her, so I resisted the pull of her voice for about six months, because I couldn't bear how sad this story inside me might be. But as I got to know Pru, I realized that her story was important and that Myla was there in the story too. I realized that through Myla, I could give the story of their childhood a sense of hope, in spite of tragedy. But it was Pru who inspired me. She seemed real, and many of her sections are exactly as I wrote them in the first draft.
BRC: In the past you have worked as a photographer's model. Did that experience help you convey the relationship between Ruth, the photographer, and her subjects, Myla and Pru?
MBW: Yes and no. Ruth, as a person, is in no way based on the photographers I've worked with. She's actually quite ruthless, insistent that her relationship with the girls should and does extend only as far as their photographic project together, even when it's obvious that from the girls' point of view, she is far more to them than an "artist." But in technical terms, I drew a lot from my own photographic experience. I've worked with photographers who use large format cameras, and that process has always fascinated me --- lugging these huge pieces of equipment around with you, the long hours spent in the darkroom, the crystal clear final images made from the 8 X 10 negative. I've found that people are touched by photographs made by such cameras, because those images are incredibly precise.
BRC: Did other pieces of your own life weave their way into the story?
MBW: It's the age-old question, isn't it? And the answer always seems to be, of course. I grew up in Portland, and Myla and Pru grew up there. My father is a professor, just like David (though my father has been infinitely more present than David is, and my mother is alive and well). But beyond the facts of my life and the Wolfe girls' lives is the larger, lurking fact of the similarity of my upbringing and the upbringing of Myla and Pru: starting at a very young age, I was involved in a series of artistic communities. In these various groups --- as an actor at a summer program, where I played my first role in Shakespeare at the age of nine; as a subject for two fine-arts photographers --- I learned that my own art mattered deeply. Adults always engaged me in intellectual and artistic conversations. This was a glorious way to grow up, and it wasn't until I was much older that I realized that most kids don't get the privilege of being treated with such respect. So I gave some of that to Myla and Pru.
BRC: A central part of the book is the controversy over the nature of Ruth's photographs of Myla and Pru, a topic that is likely to be a hot button issue with some people. What would you say to those who might question or criticize this aspect of the story?
MBW: I wrote this book in part because Americans have an impossible time separating sexuality and nudity. Which is a very silly thing when you think about it: everyone has a body, so each and every one of us knows from experience that our own bodies extend far beyond the realm of the sexual. Yet look at the advertising images all around us. Look at Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" and the ensuing controversy. Such images (and what they might "do" to other people) make us afraid of the body.
I was raised with no such apprehension or fear. My body was a fact. Likewise, Myla and Pru have bodies, and those young bodies are beautiful. A family friend makes art with those girls, with Myla, Pru and their father's consent. These images are in no way sexual. These images give the girls confidence. And yet the surrounding culture's fear about how those images might be interpreted, completely outside of the lives of these people, leads to tragedy.
I hope my book challenges people to see these issues in bigger ways. I know it will anger some folks, but I'm not concerned with that (1) because this story is made up, so ultimately its ability to provoke extends only as far as one woman's imagination can; (2) because we live in a country where our freedom to speak our opinions freely can and should be continued to be protected and (3) because issues like these are never black and white, and it excites me to think that books like mine will encourage ongoing discussions of challenging topics. I like to read books that make me think, that challenge what I believe. I hope THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT will do this for others.
BRC: The photos are black and white. Why did you choose to portray them like this and not in four-color?
MBW: With black-and-white photography, you have a much more hands-on process than with color, especially in the darkroom. I liked the idea of Ruth printing these images herself, without need of a color lab. It made the legacy of her photographs much stronger, much more personal.
BRC: Do you think if these had been paintings instead of photographs they would have been less controversial? If so, why?
MBW: Who's to tell? On the surface, my answer would be yes, because I think we're much more concerned about actual depictions of nude bodies than representations of them. It's much easier to separate the person from the body when they are being rendered on canvas with paint. Then again, in the universe of this novel, I think it depended on my own will, which is part of why it's so much fun to write fiction. If I'd wanted to write about a painter, I would have. But to a reader, I think a novel about a painter depicting nude girls might not have been as interesting.
BRC: There are many references to lighting and to light and dark throughout the book, many of which refer to other people and places, not just the photography. Light is a very strong metaphor. At what point did you come up with the title for the book?
MBW: Very late in the game. The working title for this novel was CAMERA OBSCURA, which is a device that has been used by artists for centuries. My publisher felt that such a title might alienate some folks, so we went back to the drawing board. THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT is actually a derivation from an Ansel Adams chapter heading: "the effect of light on the negative." I like the word play on photography and on the idea of shedding light on one's past, which is what Myla is doing as she revisits her childhood and deciphers what really happened.
BRC: David's theories on art, history, and time are wonderfully thought-provoking. Are these topics that interested you before you began writing the book, or did they come about as you researched and wrote?
MBW: As I mentioned before, I've been very lucky to have a family that often discusses ideas around the dinner table. Some of David's theories derive from that ongoing conversation, in particular with my mother. But once I knew a bit about Myla and Pru and their dad, I realized he was going to need to be somewhat of an out-there thinker, a philosopher. That's when I started doing research in earnest, and much of what is in the book is based on the specifics of that reading.
BRC: Each of the three parts that make up the novel --- the descriptions of the photographs, which are called "Proof;" the sections narrated by Pru, and the sections set in the present --- contribute to the overall story. Did you write these concurrently or did you go back to add the "Proof" descriptions?
MBW: The Myla and Pru sections were written at the same time; in fact, the first draft of the novel had them sharing equal time on the page. Once I took control of the fact that this was going to be Myla's story, I had a few people read it, and they kept asking me what the photographs looked like. So I realized that I had these very clear images in my mind, but because I'm not a visual artist myself, I would never be able to put them on the page. So I developed them with words. These became the seven Proof sections, which are placed between every third chapter in the novel.
BRC: How do you think readers will view Myla? Do the chapters narrated by Pru give the reader more insight into Myla's character?
MBW: The present-day Myla we first meet in the novel is a very lonely, sad, defensive person. She's not particularly likeable, so she's incredibly lucky to have Mark as a best friend, Samuel as someone who is interested in her, and Jane and Steve willing to open their home to her. Pru offsets this bitter, modern Myla by giving us a glimpse of her mightiness as a girl. The Myla of the past is funny, bossy, proud and gentle, and I think it urges the reader to go on, to decipher how a child like that could grow into such an isolated woman. Ultimately, Myla's journey is to return to the person she was in Pru's eyes.
BRC: Who are some of your favorite writers? How have they influenced you?
MBW: I love Ian McEwan, especially ATONEMENT. That book offers extraordinary insights into how a novel can be constructed, and it is ultimately incredibly moving, because it places in the readers' hands a knowledge that these characters will never be able to go back to that edenic first section that they are all so eager to grow up and out of.
I love Rose Tremain, especially THE COLOUR, because she is unafraid to write about strange and disparate topics. She makes me feel braver to try new things.
I love Anne Carson, especially THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, because she experiments so well with form. And her language is so precise and tiny that I am always amazed that with so few words she can paint such a huge picture of the world.
I return to Shakespeare again and again, as well as Virginia Woolf's TO THE LIGHTHOUSE. And I always look forward to the next Michael Cunningham novel. Reading THE HOURS was utter bliss.
BRC: Who are some of your favorite artists and photographers?
MBW: Van Gogh. I love van Gogh. Jacques-Henri Lartigue, a wonderful photographer who got his first camera at the age of eight in the early 1900s and was full of an incredible joy for life. John Coplans, who, for the past 30 years, has taken fascinating photographs of his own body. And Xiaoze Xie, who makes beautifully rich and politically charged large-scale paintings of newspapers.
BRC: What are you working on now and what can you tell us about it?
MBW: I'm working on a novel. This one is about another family, but is much more of an ensemble piece. There is a lot of betrayal in it, but, as I write, I'm finding there's also redemption.