Bloom: Principles of Navigation is a book of surprises both small and large; at the end it isn’t the book it was at the beginning. What starts out as a domestic drama veers off into all sorts of interesting, often dark places. Did you have the book plotted in your mind when you started writing, or did it surprise you?
Lynn Sloan: I’d written stories, and like many writers before me, I wanted to write a novel, but I had no plot ideas. One night, at the opening reception for a sculpture exhibition, I watched well-wishers crowd around the artist, a handsome young sculptor with easy manners and a big laugh. Every few minutes a shy-looking young woman finagled her way through the throng to bring someone up to meet him, but she acted as if she wished she were somewhere else, anywhere else. She obviously wasn’t staff. I asked who she was: his wife. What had drawn these two dissimilar personalities together and how long would their marriage last? Answering this question, I decided, might launch a novel.
I still needed a plot. Since a plot requires conflict, I knew that something bad had to happen, and I wanted the conflict to come from inside the characters, not from external events. Unlike the couple I saw in the art gallery, Alice and Rolly don’t seem ill suited to each other at the beginning of my novel. They love each other. They’re close. But plot requires trouble, so I gave Alice difficulty conceiving a baby they both want. I still didn’t have an outline or a plan. John Barth said writers must keep adding “perturbations.” I love that word. As I added perturbations, I came to know Alice and Rolly’s deepest, secret needs, and the story took shape.
Bloom: There’s a lot of really good description in the book about a certain kind of tension in a relationship: who gets to make things and who doesn’t, who gets the attention and who doesn’t. Do you think that’s particular to two people who are artists, or is that everyone?
LS: I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that steady state harmony in any relationship is impossible. Marriage is such an intimate relationship, how could it not be riddled with tension? In most marriages, at least young marriages, each partner expects to be fully understood and validated by the other. My novel is about a particular marriage, between Alice and Rolly. Their self-absorption and their need for recognition hamper their understanding of the other, but I doubt artists are more absorbed by their own lives than others. Aren’t we all extremely interested in ourselves?
Bloom: One of your protagonists is a visual artist, and one is a writer. You’re both. Do the two kinds of creativity struggle for primacy in your creative life, or do they feed each other?
LS: As a writer, seeing is where I start, probably because I’m trained as a photographer. The reflected blue light of a phone screen on the worried face of a teenager makes me interested in what she’s looking at; an expensive, new skateboard protruding from an overstuffed trash can makes me curious whether it was rejected or lost; a dropped grocery list with the word “apology” below “bread/ soup/WD-40” makes me wonder “why?” and “to whom.” Wondering takes me to writing. Sometimes I become frustrated with writing, when I know a photograph would communicate in an instant what I want to express, while prose will take five thousand words, and those five thousand words won’t come close. But then words, one after another after another, can expose layers that no photograph can reveal.
Bloom: You also do a great job, without spelling it out, of delineating the friction between someone who works for pay and someone who makes things out of a pure creative process. You’ve supported yourself as a writer and photographer; do you feel that clash in your own life?
LS: To be truthful, I only supported myself as a photographer for a few years, during and after graduate school. Like most fine artists and literary writers, I’ve earned my keep as a college teacher. Print sales would not pay the mortgage. In my case, they wouldn’t pay the electric bill. As for writing, I have a slim file with photocopies of the checks I’ve been paid for my publications. My favorite is for $12.50. College teaching—yes, summers off, plus a day or two a week—has paid my way, and I’ve loved it. The friction I know isn’t about making money, but about professional competition: Who is doing the most interesting work? Who has been recognized in the best places? Who is getting the worldly rewards?
Bloom: Within your very realist novel, there’s one semi-fantastic element. Can you talk a bit about the Virgin Mary and how she came to be part of the story?
LS: Desperation and desire can drive anyone to act in unexpected ways. At the beginning of my novel Alice is vaguely superstitious, in the way of someone who reads her horoscope even though she doesn’t believe in horoscopes. But when her efforts to become pregnant fail, she seeks help wherever she can find it. She’s not a Catholic, she’s not even religious, but she seeks help from the Virgin Mary. Out of profound yearning and despair she creates the relationship she needs with the Virgin.
Bloom: Babies: Works of art or biological functions? Or both?
LS: Babies aren’t works of art. You don’t throw them against the wall when you’re angry, as Rolly does with his artwork. I don’t know one artist or one writer who hasn’t destroyed her own work out of frustration or shame. But many parents do treat their babies as if they are works of art. All the parent-chosen lessons and enriching activities are about creating the most perfect form of that child.
Bloom: The impulse to keep a journal is a pretty typical one for writers, and one that’s been well documented. In your blog, you mentioned keeping a commonplace book. How does that feed your creative habits? Are there certain items you revisit over and over, or is it all about saving things and then moving on?
LS: I gave up on journal-writing three weeks after my tenth birthday when I was given a white leather volume with “My Journal” embossed in gold on the cover. Three weeks of “Ate breakfast. Went to school. Came home. Ate dinner. Went to bed,” and I’d had it. A commonbook, on the other hand, collects things too good to lose track of. A soap wrapper, a postage stamp, jotted notes from a conversation overheard, a joke torn from The New Yorker. Pages in my commonbooks are like weekly diaries of my magpie gleanings. Sometimes I go back and look at them, for the pleasure of remembering, but not for inspiration. For this novel, I compiled several books into which I taped snapshots of landscapes, news clippings from the era, magazine pictures of people who served as models for secondary characters, moon-phase calendars. I drew floor plans for every interior, sketched the landscapes, and tucked maps of Norway and Indiana inside pockets I made.
Bloom: Rolly’s sculpted boats sound beautiful. Are they based on anything you’ve seen or made?
LS: The kind of visual art I’m drawn to attracts and repels, is both beautiful and scary. Those feelings are what I wanted Rolly’s sculpture to inspire. His work isn’t based on that of anyone I know, but I looked at a lot of Lee Bontecou’s work when I began to envision his boats.
Bloom: Who are your favorite visual artists to inspire and replenish you?
LS: Lee Bontecou, Nicholas de Staël, Aaron Siskind, Wayne Thiebaud, Louise Nevelson, Helen Levitt, Edward Burtynsky, for starters. I could keep going for days.
Bloom: And what writers?
LS: Kate Walberg, Colum McCann, Anthony Doerr, Yiyun Li, Kawabata, John McGahern, Andrea Barrett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kent Haruf, Louise Erdrich, Eudora Welty, with whom my great-aunt played bridge: their books are on the shelf by my desk right now.
But for nourishment and inspiration, I go to Alice Munro. After she won the Nobel in 2013, I began re-reading her books in order, beginning with her first, Dance of the Happy Shades. I’m reading very slowly. Soon I’ll begin Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.
Bloom: What are you reading right now?
Bloom: What are you working on?
LS: I’m thinking about my next novel, which involves a working class woman who runs a communal art space and has big real estate dreams.
Bloom: What didn’t I ask you that I should have?
LS: You’ve asked interesting and hard questions. Answering them has taught me things I hadn’t thought about until you asked.
Click here to read an excerpt from Lynn Sloan’s debut novel Principles of Navigation.