What can you tell our readers to expect from your new novel Seating Arrangements?
You can expect to read about some characters who desperately need to loosen up, some very ill-advised naughtiness when they do loosen up, lobsters, gin and tonics, island breezes, a drunken aunt who knows too much, detours into the past, and a dead whale.
Where did your inspiration for the novel come from?
Through various twists of fate, when I was in my early twenties, I found myself with friends who had summer houses in coastal New England and belonged to fancy, old-school social clubs in Boston and New York. I grew up three thousand miles away in Southern California, so I took kind of an anthropological interest in this particular breed of upper crust New Englander, which I would describe as über-WASP. Where I come from, people tend to show off status and wealth through conspicuous consumption: big, new cars; big, new houses; Hollywood-style clothes and jewelry and gadgets. But in über-WASP culture, status is indicated through a confusing system of sometimes contradictory signals. People might spend a lot of money on education and vacations, but they’re traditionalists about their houses and clothes, which tend to be understated, high quality, and well-used, even shabby. People say “write what you know,” but I like to write about characters and settings I want to know. Exploring these characters was a way to investigate a subculture that fascinated me.
Why did you decide to set most of your novel in New England? Is this somewhere that is important to you?
It’s a fictional mash-up of several New England vacation spots, but it’s most directly drawn from the island of Nantucket, which is thirty miles offshore from Cape Cod. Nantucket is one of my favorite places—it’s absolutely beautiful, and I love its nautical vibe. I lived there for eight months when I was writing the first draft of Seating Arrangements. Since none of those months were summer months, it was a much more windswept, grey, cold, and empty place than Waskeke is in the book. Most of the houses, shops, and restaurants were closed up, so I took lots of long walks with my dog and went to the beach in the snow and did my best not to lose my mind. The solitude was challenging, but I got a lot of work done and became much tougher about being alone.
What made you want to write a book about a man who is second guessing his choices?
People who are second guessing are interesting to me because they’re daring to open themselves up to regret. There’s something courageous about Winn Van Meter, the book’s protagonist, choosing to realize he’s made mistakes after decades of stubbornly insisting he’s done everything the exact right way. Although he’s very privileged and coddled and there’s a lot about him that’s borderline ridiculous, I tried to treat him with compassion. He’s about to become a grandfather, and at the same time he’s messily trying to make sense out of his life. I felt sorry for his bewilderment and the smallness of the world he’s created for himself.
What is your writing background?
I started writing when I was nineteen. In college, I was studying English and American Literature and had the opportunity to take a fiction workshop. My first attempts were abominably bad, of course, but I took another workshop and then wrote a collection of stories in place of a research thesis my senior year. After I graduated, I was pretty adrift—I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I lived with friends and worked part time at a law firm and applied to a master’s program in fiction writing more or less on a whim, thinking I would be rejected and then would apply again the next year. Miraculously, I got in, so I moved to Iowa, in the very big, very flat middle of the country, and wrote short stories for two years. After that I had a little bit of fellowship money, so I went to Nantucket and wrote Seating Arrangements. I’ve been extremely fortunate, actually, to have had a lot of support from institutions that nurture early-career writers. Stanford University gave me a fellowship for the two years after Nantucket, and this winter I did a three-month artist residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.
What plans do you have for the future for your writing?
My first priority is to be able to keep doing it full time. I’ve written a second novel that’s mostly about ballet dancers. It covers thirty years, involves a Soviet defector, and takes place in California, New York, and Paris. I also want to keep writing short stories—that’s a really helpful way to try out new techniques and also to write about subjects and settings that intrigue me but couldn’t sustain a whole novel. Writing a novel is an insane time commitment and absolutely endless slog; stories offer much quicker gratification.
There are many novels centered around a wedding. Why is yours set apart from the rest?
I always try to be as honest as possible when I write, so I think this book is on the darker side for a wedding novel. Characters behave badly and grapple with regrets and doubts. The action doesn’t involve the bride and groom but lurks around the periphery of their celebration. Everyone’s always looking for ways to get away from the wedding and for places where they can be unobserved.
Weddings are predisposed to chaos, did you enjoy writing the stories that formed around this?
Absolutely. Certainly a little bit of chaos is helpful to generating momentum and interest within a book, and it’s entertaining to write about. If I’m bored writing something, the reader is going to be bored, too. I like to write from multiple points of view, and a wedding is a setting where lots of different people are all experiencing pretty much the same thing but probably have very different takes on it. By switching between the characters, hopefully I conveyed the sense that a lot was going on all at once. Everyone was having their own little dramas, and then the little dramas would get shuffled around or merge into one another.
Where did your inspiration come from for the characters?
The characters are all primarily invented, but I spiced them up with bits and pieces borrowed from real people: choice phrases, descriptive details, a delightfully strange first name. Sometimes a name or a line of dialogue is enough to give a character shape, especially at the beginning. I was collecting names before I even started writing the book. Several of them came off a plaque I saw at an old-fashioned seaside resort that listed summer lawn bowling champions from the 1950-1990, like Frost and Fenn and Winn. Another detail taken from life is Agatha’s messy purse, which only serves to heighten her allure to Winn. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who was very sexy and whose bag was always a disaster, full of spilled makeup and random shiny objects and crumpled bits of paper. Her carelessness was part of her appeal—it was so cool how she just didn’t care. Eventually, though, through revision, the borrowed bits and pieces get crusted over with layers of invention and eventually lose all connection to that poor real-life source who was unwise enough to talk to a writer at a party.
Female First Lucy Walton