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Author Talk: August 2006

August 2006

Former fiction editor Victoria Lustbader’s debut novel, HIDDEN, follows two disparate families during the tumultuous 1920s in New York.

In this interview, Lustbader discusses why she chose to set her story in that particular era of American history and shares her thoughts on sexuality and its impact on human behavior. She also describes her two-decade-long research and writing process, as well as the sense of liberation she feels from creating dark characters.

Question: Where did the idea for HIDDEN come from?

Victoria Lustbader: The idea came to me nearly 20 years ago. It grew out of elements in my family's history and its original focus was the rise of the labor movement on the Lower East Side in the 1920s, with the two diametrically opposed families representing the conflict between the upper and lower classes.

As I began sketching out the idea, delving into the history, my head began to fill with images and voices of characters, a whole host of them. I very quickly realized that while the history was fascinating, I didn't care about it nearly as much as I cared about these striving, struggling people.

I began writing the book, but I simply wasn't ready. I had a sense of the story, and the writing was good --- some of it made it into HIDDEN intact --- but I didn't know what the book was about. I wouldn't know for another dozen years.

Q: Why did you choose the period of the 1920s in which to set the story?

VL: The decade after World War I was the real wrenching shift from the Victorian to the Modern Age. There was change in every aspect of society: loss of faith in the rightness and power of previous beliefs, both religious and secular; a revolution in sexual mores and behavior; the rise of the United States as a world power; huge upheavals in the economy, in the garnering of wealth and material possessions; an enormous jolt to what people suddenly wanted out of life. All of it fascinating.

I might have set a similar story in the present. What people can't express or do hasn't changed as much as we like to think it has. But the 1920s were a time when the rules and expectations of behavior and morality were still black and white for some, while falling to pieces for others. It was a period of extraordinary and painful transition, but within families and classes there remained much that was absolute; and the still-strong Victorian influence allowed for greater drama.

The '20s was an era in conflict with itself. I saw it as an external representation of my characters' internal conflict between rectitude and the pursuit of happiness.

Q: HIDDEN is an epic period piece. How did you do the tremendous amount of research it required?

VL: I have never been a lazy person, but I can't imagine having tackled this project without the miracle of Google! I did of course have a trove of book sources which became my overall bibles, and through them I steeped myself in the times. In particular, AMERICA IN THE TWENTIES by Geoffrey Perrett, which I eagerly read cover to cover repeatedly both before and during the writing of the book. The rest, the myriad tidbits of information, all the delicious details, I tracked down in countless hours on the Internet, researching absolutely everything --- the subway system, slang of the day, spiritualists, clothing styles, Christian Science, the creation of the advertising industry, and on and on. The process was thoroughly exhilarating. Every new piece of information led to a new idea on how to incorporate the times into the story and deepen the authenticity and richness of my characters' lives.

Q: The historical elements in HIDDEN are woven seamlessly into the story, with a fine balance between character and setting. Was that difficult to do?

VL: I made myself a promise from the outset that even if the book stank, no one would ever throw it across the room and snarl, "Watch out. Here comes the research!" I didn't want to make the mistake of seeming to show off how much knowledge I'd accumulated or of imposing information upon the reader.

The history had to be as integral to the story as any character. It exists to illuminate them within the time and place they inhabit. I worked very hard to embed all the facts and figures within the characters' actions, circumstances, dialogue, etc., so that the effect of the time and place on them was what became important, and not the time and place itself. And I tried to be discriminate in the information I used. There is an urge to use it all because it's just so neat, but you can't.

I was so careful to not be obvious with the information offered in the book that the first question I asked my husband when he read the manuscript was whether or not there was any feel at all for where and when the book took place! It seemed so secondary to the characters that I was worried it just wasn't there. He looked at me as though I'd grown another head.

Q: There are two main protagonists, but the overall cast of characters encompasses three generations of two families. Each one has his or her own compelling story. How did you develop and orchestrate so many characters and intertwined stories?

VL: One of the most gratifying things about the positive reviews the book is getting is that they all comment on how real and unforgettable the characters are. I would love to be able to say how I made them that way, but honestly I don't know. Right from the beginning, they were all unique individuals. They appeared on the stage of my imagination and I saw them, I knew what they looked like, what they sounded like, their every gesture and expression. I knew everything about them. But, since they were so real to me, they did what real people do. They took control of their own lives and at times told me things about themselves that I didn't know.

The hard part, therefore, wasn't in developing them but in understanding fully why they were there, what purpose they had in the telling of the story; how they revealed or reacted to the main characters, and how their individual stories advanced the overall story and the book's themes. I had to know they weren't there simply because I liked them.

For example, I was nearly halfway through the book and I still wasn't sure why Brook was there. I adored him, but thought, Why do you need him? Maybe you should cut him out? I agonized over it, focused on everything I knew about him, and voila!, his role became clear.

On a purely practical level, however, I created and continually revised scene charts, which I taped to the walls and windows of my office. That way I could track the characters, make sure they reappeared in timely fashion, were getting their appropriate amount of on-stage time, and that their stories were advancing.

Q: Who is your favorite character? Why?

VL: As any author will tell you, I love all my characters. And I am totally in love with David. But my favorite character is, without doubt, Jed. He's the true tragic figure in the book, the one who struggles and struggles and can't find a way to be happy. I feel for him the most and sympathize with his unbearable yearnings for things he believes he can't have. And in his way, although he can't figure out how to get what he wants, he is the most self-aware, the most sensitive, open-hearted and the most passionate of all the characters. When he does finally let it all go, he doesn't hold anything in reserve. He is also the most emotionally fragile; he doesn't know how to protect himself. He's an innocent. I want to ride off into the sunset with David, but Jed is the one I want to save.

Q: The element of homosexuality is an unusual one for a historical family saga. How did it make its way into the book?

VL: It was essential that Jed's hidden desire be something truly potentially ruinous. His wishing to be an artist, for instance, or marry beneath his class, would have been woefully insufficient. I don't think there is anything that influences human behavior, and can both exalt and destroy, as efficiently and powerfully as sexuality. The first moment I saw the two boys in my mind, I knew Jed would fall in love with David, and that his torment was to suffer the consequences of an unacceptable, unrequited love.

The subject of human sexuality, in all its forms and expressions, is compelling to me. It's a subject that will have a place in everything I write, I'm sure. The history of homosexuality and lesbianism in our society interests me greatly as well, perhaps because I have always had gay friends of both sexes and have been deeply involved in their lives. I wanted to explore its place in that tumultuous era along with the other aspects of society.

Q: The villain of the story is someone who today would undoubtedly be diagnosed as a dangerous sociopath. Was he frightening to write? How did you get inside his head?

VL: Well, I don't know what this says about me, but I loved writing Monty! It wasn't frightening, it was liberating. The passages from his point of view gave me a safe opportunity to get in touch with a darkness that exists in all of us but which most of us never go near. Human beings carry every emotion and desire there is inside them, but only a few ever get expressed. Through Monty, I could be crude, lewd, selfish, murderous, vulgar, grasping, scheming, dissolute, remorseless --- all without retribution.

Q: There are an equal number of men and women characters in HIDDEN, all full-bodied, vivid and authentic. Did you find writing male characters different from writing women? How do you create strong characters of either gender?

VL: Everyone has aspects of the opposite gender embedded in their genes and in their personalities that never get expressed, just as with emotions and desires that are considered unseemly or worse. Women are rarely encouraged to exhibit traits considered masculine and learn to repress or sublimate them; likewise feminine traits in men. More's the pity. I inherited and absorbed as much from my father and my two older brothers as I did from my mother and my grandmother and aunts. But that masculine side of me that gave me my drive, my boldness, my belief in my abilities was tamed and tempered by a more timid, compromising feminine inheritance. By the time I was ready to write HIDDEN, which is so much about not being afraid to be your whole true self, I was ready to let the two aspects of myself get to know one another better.

I didn't find it strange at all to delve beneath the surfaces of my male characters. I loved them, I knew them, I knew how they were different from the women, what their burdens and desires were. I think I've been around long enough to have a grasp on the differences between men and women, and the similarities they share. And, just like letting go and writing Monty, writing all the characters, both male and female, was a freeing exploration of various pieces of myself. But being that I am a woman, and one who is very fond of men, getting intimate with my male characters was also a delicious way to create men the woman in me could lavish my emotions on.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you actually began writing?

VL: Yes and no. Overall, I always knew how it would end in that I knew what David's and Jed's fundamental journeys were meant to be, where they would begin and where they would finish. Their journeys are the core of the story, and I had to understand them from the outset. But what exactly the end would look like, what was going to propel and befall each character along the way, that I didn't know. The story evolved, as life does, and was very much created by the characters as they revealed themselves to me.

For example, I had no plans for Monty beyond him being Zoe's alcoholic, abusive husband. Imagine my surprise when, early in the second third of the book, I realized he had pushed his way into the catalytic role of the villain. Similarly, I didn't know what would happen to Philip and Sally until I was two-thirds through and had lived with them long enough to know what they really wanted and were capable of.

Q: Reading HIDDEN is an intensely visual experience, as if watching an epic film unfold before one's eyes. Can you comment on that aspect of your writing?

VL: Yes, many readers have said it should be a movie, that they saw everything so clearly. And they all have their own casting preferences! I write so visually, I imagine, because I see my characters and everything they do with a Godlike totality and complexity. I lived with them, in their world, while I wrote the book, and continued to for months after I was done. At times the world and people of HIDDEN were more real to me than my own life.

Before I write a scene I sit with it in my head and visualize every aspect of it: the setting, the lighting, any smells or sounds in the background, the characters' positions, etc. And then often I will literally act it out, become the characters and speak their words, listen for the tones of their voices, make their facial expressions and body movements. Feel what they feel. You can't translate all of that into words --- someone's exact sound or look --- but you don't need or even want to. If a writer gives readers enough, their own imaginations become engaged and then the world and the characters become theirs.