RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The new novel "Outline" by Rachel Cusk is in some ways just that - an outline of a woman as she spends a summer in Greece teaching a writing course. We know she has kids back in London and maybe a spouse but maybe not. There's a lot that's unclear. What fills in this silhouette is a series of conversations the narrator has with other people during this experience - strangers, friends, students. A picture slowly emerges of a woman trying to rebuild herself. Cusk has written about the repercussions of broken marriages before. Most recently, her own, in the memoir "Aftermath." The experience left her, like her narrator, in pieces.
RACHEL CUSK: Once this sort of family reality has broken apart, you're left with something much more fragmented and something in which your sort of encounters with other people are more objective, I suppose - that they tell you who they are, and you tell them who you are. And who you are isn't reflected anymore by your house or your sort of family situations.
MARTIN: That idea of fragmentation is then echoed in the actual structure of this book because it is a collection of conversations that the narrator has with other people, many of them are writers. And they talk about their craft. But as you say, they're also telling the story of their life. And in that is revealed some kind of truth about how honest we are when we tell those stories - right? - or dishonest?
CUSK: You know, human beings have an amazing gift for narrative when it comes to themselves, to the story of themselves. And this is something that I've listened to an awful lot as a teacher. So I suppose for me the sound of that - how people sound when they speak and how, in fact, formally correct they are, how artistically correct they are in the ways that they narrate their lives is something that I very much wanted to sort of replicate.
MARTIN: There's kind of an example of this. I'm thinking of one particular passage. At one point our narrator is having lunch with a writer friend and another person, a mutual acquaintance, a woman named Angelique (ph). And this woman starts to wax on about motherhood and what she sees as rather enslaving qualities. I wonder if you could read a little bit of that.
CUSK: (Reading) For many women, she said, having a child is their central experience of creativity. And yet the child will never remain a created object. Unless, she said, the mother's sacrifice of herself is absolute which mine never could've been and which no woman's ought to be these days. My own mother lived through me in a way that was completely uncritical, she said. And the consequence was that I came into adulthood unprepared for life because nobody saw me as important in the way she did which was the way I was used to being seen. And then you meet a man who thinks you're important enough to marry you so it seems right that you should say yes. But it is when you have a baby that the feeling of importance really returns, she said with growing passion. Except that one day you realize that all this - the house, the husband, the child - isn't important after all. In fact it is the exact opposite. You have become a slave, obliterated.
MARTIN: That's a big statement.
MARTIN: ...To say the least.
CUSK: It's in quote marks. (Laughter) Nothing to do with me.
MARTIN: This book, though, does reflect different parts of your own life. This is a writer. You are a writer. This is a person who teaches creative writing which you do, and it has informed this story.
CUSK: Oh, absolutely. I learned an awful lot in my memoir writing about - I mean, I suppose I found possibilities in it that I brought back to my novel writing. You know, the idea that when you fictionalize something you get further and further away from it in order to make it fake in some way. It has become a lot less interesting to me. So I've wanted to keep this - it's a kind of dangerousness as a sort of energy that's absolutely there in autobiographical writing.
MARTIN: Why look for that distance that a novel creates? Why not just write another memoir?
CUSK: I mean, I'm very clear about sort of why and when I would write a memoir. And for me it's to describe experiences that feel like you're the only person they've ever happened to. Sorry, that was an ungrammatical sentence. But having a baby is a very good example. The evidence is all around you that this is something women have done, you know, always. And yet, you have a baby, and you feel you are the only one. So that for me is what a memoir is really, really suited to is describing that precise quality of experience. In this book, I didn't want to do that because the circumstances of the novel are not like that. So it's not necessarily that the form chooses me. You know, it's that I choose it.
MARTIN: Your last memoir, "Aftermath," was the story of the end of your marriage. And then I read that you stopped writing for a while after that book. Is that right?
CUSK: I did, yes. I was very severely criticized for "Aftermath." I had a very intense experience of disapproval, I suppose - public disapproval. But it's just the idea, really - the idea that there ought to be some limit, you know, to autobiographical writing which, you know, I don't believe at all. So that was one reason. And also, I suppose it represented, I mean, just as the book is about the whole sort of mode and form of life that I live, you know, breaking apart. It takes time to reconstruct yourself after that. And it takes silence and waiting and nothingness.
MARTIN: So I guess how did you know that you were ready? I imagine it's not you just wake up one day and say today I will write the next novel.
CUSK: Well, I saw it. And for me I can't write something unless I see the form clearly and see that life has fallen in or arranged itself in a pattern that can be written about originally. And looking for that, you know, it's like somebody looking for some wild animal in a jungle. And anyway one day I just saw this book and realized for whatever reason things had sort of coalesced to a degree that I could actually write it.
MARTIN: The book is called "Outline." Rachel Cusk is the author. She joined us from the studios of the BBC in London. Rachel, thank you so much.
CUSK: Thank you.
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