A Conversation with author Brandi Lynn Ryder,

By Brandi Lynn Ryder
Published August 8, 2011 by Viking Penguin

1.) Like your character Karen Miller, you dreamed of being a writer since childhood. What other traits of Karen Miller/Gisèle Mourault do you see in yourself?

I’m often asked if my characters and stories are autobiographical. Given the nature of some of my characters, I hesitate to go down that particular rabbit hole! I will say that I can relate very much to Gisèle’s search for identity. She is as trapped in the role of Karen Miller as she later is as Gisèle Mourault. She moves from the dysfunction of her family to being Tristan’s prized objet d’art. While my circumstances were certainly different, I was something of a chameleon as a teenager; I’d slip into various guises to suit my surroundings. Eventually, I was able to pinpoint this as a fear of self-revelation, a need to establish “identity” through the affirmation of others. Like Gisèle, my redemption was art. In it, I found honesty and authenticity to be the only signposts—pivotal to any true sense of self or deep relationship to others. Throughout the novel we see Gisèle only as she is defined by those around her, which is why she’s given no point of view in the novel. But I think she was on the brink of the self-definition she sought in her art, that she would have continued down this path and ultimately succeeded. By the end, the truth has become something for which she’s willing to face great risk and sacrifice.

2.) You took your novel’s title from a Rimbaud poem that also serves as the book’s epigraph. How and why did you choose it?

I love the language and have long admired the emotional charge of Rimbaud’s work. There is a lot of courage in his poetry, a raw honesty. In First Evening, one finds an unabashedly objectifying seduction scene. There is a clear disparity between the speaker and the young woman, the object of his desire: probably in age, certainly in power and experience. He chronicles the effects of his actions on her as one might analyze an insect under a microscope. Combined with this calculated remove, I find his amused, patronizing tone chilling and very well-suited to the themes of the book.

3.) Much of the evil in your novel seems to emerge from something other than malice -- eroticism, selfishness, or some kind of cowardice. Are you suggesting that we need a more complex understanding of the word “malice” than we typically use?

That’s a great question. Even in the translation from French, “malice” is a rather controversial interpretation of Rimbaud’s “malinement,” but I personally love this choice. I feel A.S. Kline masterfully captured the true spirit of the poem. In common usage, malice is typically used to describe evil intent, and in legal terms an “absence of malice” lessens the offense. One of the things I’d hope to accomplish with this novel is to encourage readers to look hard at the intent of each of the characters and the apologies they offer for their crimes and decide for themselves. I suppose I am suggesting a deepening and expansion of this word, of the way we weigh motivation and responsibility. It seems to me there is definite malice in repeatedly—and knowingly— harming others for one’s own reasons, whether sexually motivated or simply as a result of cowardice. Selfishness is unconsciously malicious. However, I use the actual word only once in the novel and in relation to only one character. It’s an intentional marker—a clue for close readers.

4.) Although the debt is paid off with interest later in the novel, the early scenes of IN MALICE, QUITE CLOSE owe a great deal to Nabokov’s LOLITA. How did you keep your novel from standing too much in Nabokov’s shadow?

I’m afraid I’m bound to be credited with either great audacity or great courage, more likely the former. The theme, even semantically—a “Lolita affair”— belongs to Nabokov. To be perfectly honest, I had not read LOLITA when I wrote the first draft of MALICE. I’d read and loved much of his other work, and of course had a cultural awareness of LOLITA, but I was not directly influenced by it. When I’d finished this novel, I did decide to read LOLITA because I knew the comparison was inevitable. And at some point, I toyed with decreasing the similarity by making Tristan American. Unfortunately, he completely refused to cooperate. He is quintessentially French in his sensibilities and by then his accent had permeated my brain. Karen’s age, too, was vital to her character. Her youth and naïveté make her uniquely vulnerable to Tristan. She is a work in progress. Suffice to say, I feel the Lolita affair in this novel is a small element of the larger story and themes and I hope any similarity will be seen as a respectful homage. My intent was never to rival Nabokov or attempt to retell a story so brilliantly told. I do feel the entire field of human experience should remain open to writers, as indeed I imagine there are painters still intent on capturing the light, and that Monet would heartily approve.

5.) In your novel, Robin Dresden tells an interviewer he doesn’t mind that critics look for meaning in his work; indeed, he hopes they find it. How do you feel about this when it comes to your own work?

For me, everything has meaning. That is the great thrill—and great challenge—of being alive. And certainly the great thrill and challenge of art. That said, I think the very worst thing an artist can do is to dictate the meaning of their work to others! I can’t tell you how many songs have been ruined for me by a rather prosaic explanation of the lyrics by the songwriter. Art lives in the mind of the creator, but equally in the minds of those who perceive it. I expect this story will have as many meanings as it does readers.

6.) Your descriptions of the Gisèle paintings were some of the most spectacular passages in your book. What paintings did you have in mind?

Thank you. To be honest, I had no “real-world” inspiration for the Gisèle paintings. I just saw them as I felt the painter would see herself: fragmented and abstract, searching, unflinching, critical. Self as object. To refer back to the Rimbaud poem and the speaker’s analytical remove as he studies the object of his desire—Gisèle studies herself with this analytical remove. She has been all her life an object of male desire; in her art she reenacts this objectification. And I like to feel that she reclaims herself in the process.

7.) The setting of Devon, Washington, is captivatingly rendered—an Eden with more than one serpent. What real-life places did you draw upon?

I draw a lot of inspiration from nature and knew the backdrop had to be the Pacific Northwest. It’s nature on a grand scale—wild, raw, utterly beautiful—and the perfect ironic counterpart to all the human attempts in the novel to harness and cultivate the beauty that one finds in Devon. I suppose it’s evident even from the name that I was inspired by England and the charm of the English village, which always seems to hide so much behind its quaint façade. Closer to home, I was very influenced by the lovely town of Carmel in my home state of California, which I mention in the novel and where I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time. And yes, the galleries there nearly outnumber the residents!

8.) One of the many subtle touches of IN MALICE, QUITE CLOSE is that the chapter titles are taken from paintings by the great impressionist masters. What effect were you attempting to achieve?

The intent was to bring Tristan’s collection—which is almost a character in its own right—to life for readers. Like many people, I have an ongoing love affair with the impressionists. The works are exquisite and the titles often evocative. It is a vital aspect of Tristan’s character that he’s grown up surrounded by this great celebration of beauty on the walls. The aesthetic entitlement he feels, not to mention ownership over such a collection, is a thing most of us cannot imagine. There is an online “gallery” of the works on my website and I hope readers will go and experience a bit of Tristan’s world for themselves.

9.) You’ve said that one of your muses is your cat—an attribution that may surprise writers whose cats mostly play with the wires of their word processors and demand to be fed. Care to comment on your feline inspiration?

Well, most of my writing is done with my laptop perched precariously on my knees while Murphy occupies my lap and flourishes his tail in my face, so I absolutely identify with the frustrations! But, quite simply, my cat inspires me. He’s 16 now and has overseen most of my serious writing—all the drafts and revisions and endless stabs at finding the perfect turn of phrase. He’s remarkably verbal and talks me through the down times. He’s been known to take a bite out of a manuscript that deserved it. And he is simply a living study of grace, elegance, and self-possession. Mark Twain said it best, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve the man but deteriorate the cat.” I’m offered proof of this daily, but Murphy’s remarkably tolerant and good-natured about it.

10.) Word has it your next novel will take us back to Devon. Care to offer a preview?

I’d love to! The next book is tentatively titled LIKE A GUILTY THING, and is taken from Hamlet: “It started, like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons…” In this case, the summons is an invitation to an art exhibition sent anonymously to each of Robin Dresden’s elite group of art students, who are mentioned obliquely in this novel. Previously unknown works of the artistic prodigy, Daniel Ekland, surface five years after his death and spell out events that each of the students—and Robin—would rather keep secret. Ultimately, the paintings unravel the riddle surrounding Daniel’s mysterious death, in which everyone is more than a little guilty. The novel takes us deeper into Robin Dresden’s world of art and illusion and the dangerous philosophies he passes on to his students, which have effects that even he cannot anticipate.

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