Wrecked Upon this Shore (2011) is about the desire we have to feel whole, and to work through the unfairness of life by any means possible. It opens with Stephen on the last day of his mother’s life. Then through flashback, we see Stephen’s life, and learn more about his mother Pearl and her relationship with Mouse. Pearl is the character around which the story is centered and we learn that she needs substantial mending, but for various reasons is very hard to mend. The book is beautifully written with poetic language that twists and bends until the image is perfect. The characters are rich, honest and edgy and they tell a story about our need to be complete, and more importantly, the desire to understand each other in order to accept and love.
Mouse and Pearl’s story is one of love but also of friendship and it attests to the wholeness we seek through our relationships. Likewise, Stephen and Pearl’s relationship is so troubled and chaotic and yet they achieve such closeness especially when Stephen understands Pearl’s history. With the novel in mind, can you speak to how achieving wholeness sometimes means breaking off from parts of your life or people in it?
I think that circumstances and history inform this to a large extent. For Mouse, while she has mixed feelings about her parents and her childhood wasn’t perfect, the pain and so on that she feels as an eighteen-year-old are not insupportable. She is very close to her father, and their mutual love is direct and uncomplicated. Struggling with coming out (to herself, to the world) as a lesbian is very difficult, and informs her complicated relationship to Pearl; I don’t see Mouse as someone who is generally attracted to destructive people and situations. But by loving Pearl, she learns essential things about herself. And she needs to separate from Pearl to process all the trauma of that autumn. I think that the passage as an adolescent where you separate from your parents is very important, if often awkward and painful, and Mouse achieves this. And then finds a nice, ordinary closeness with her mother as an adult woman. And her connection to Pearl endures.
It’s more complicated for Stephen. Neglected kids sometimes have a hard time separating from a parent, especially if the parent (like Pearl) is narcissistic. Pearl is all he has. And her need, her self-absorption, means that Stephen didn’t get to do the ideal separation thing (emotionally and physically) as a younger person. He has a hard time feeling who he is, separate from his mother. And of course the family secret informs so much about who he is and how his life has unfolded, and yet he hasn’t had a clue as to the nature of the secret. For him, the truth really does set him free. It allows him to see Pearl as a separate person, and to become more fully himself.
Pearl cuts her whole family off. And in her case – given her history, the time period, and her family – I think she did the best thing. It allowed her to survive. That’s just my opinion.
The idea of the hands holding a secret or telling a secret that the rest of the body is trying to hide is so intriging. Can you talk a little about performance art and how emotions manifest in the body and movement?
People who have done “body work” (which can be chiropractic, cranial sacral, massage, etc.) are usually no stranger to this idea. Someone might be working on your shoulder, say, and you suddenly feel sad or angry. For me, this kind of experience more usually comes out when I am working on a performance piece. I think our bodies hold emotional information, and also visual images. Maybe some people hold music or other modalities (Stephen does; I don’t seem to; for me it’s mostly emotional and visual content). As a performance artist, I try to be as aware as possible of what my body tells me. And usually it is quite insistent. Then of course the main thing about performing is making sure that what you are experiencing with your interiority is communicable and interesting to the audience. For me, often the simplest movement – a turn of the head, for example – communicates most directly. It’s both very precise and a gamble when creating this kind of work. I usually use an outside eye (director, etc) to make sure it’s making sense.
Stephen likes Science Fiction and you’re currently working on a young adult fantasy novel. Why would Science Fiction be Stephen’s genre of choice?
This, I totally stole from my own life. As a kid, a lot of what I was experiencing felt overwhelming. Kids are survivors, so I found that disappearing into elaborate fantasy worlds got me through, although I suspect it made me very irritating for the adults around me. Many of these were based on literary worlds, fantasy and SF. I felt that Stephen was a similar sort of kid. He likes the sense of possibility in SF; anything can happen; there are other worlds and futures. Also, unlike me, he plays chess; he’s good at temporal-spatial geometry and strategy. The structural and technical aspects of SF appeal to him.
Your writing is poetic and lyrical with beautiful images and rhythms. Have you tried poetry? Can we expect a poetry publication from you in the future?
No, I am a lousy poet. I wrote one when I was 13, and another this year that was… bad.
I think poets are often good at pithy clarity, and encapsulation of images and experience (among many other attributes). I am not (see note re chess above!).
I’m a prose whore, all the way.
Can you speak to the relationship between performance art and writing?
I don’t know if I have one. When I get an idea/image, accompanied by the irresistible impulse to create something from the idea/image, I generally know right away whether it is performance or prose. They don’t seem to mix much (most of my performance does incorporate prose, too).
I have this idea that I am going to create a movement piece with one or two other dance artists that animates an aspect of the relationship between Pearl and Stephen (for a festival of local work called Emergency, run by the indefatigable Bill Kimball of Public Energy, a dance presenter). I’ve never done this before – gone from prose to performance. It will be interesting.
Do you have any recommended reading for Book Fridge readers?
I just re-read “Come Thou Tortoise” by Jessica Grant. Yes, she also said nice things about Wrecked but that’s not why I’m recommending it; it’s wonderful. Totally original and lovely and moving and funny.
I adored “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy but he doesn’t need my endorsement.
Anything by Ursula K. LeGuin, I’m there. Speculative fiction, historical fiction, book reviews, the works. I would love to read this woman’s grocery list. Seriously.
I just loved “The Tiger” by John Vaillant (non-fiction). If you are interested in cats, ecology, history, Russia, true tales of tragedy and derring-do, you will love this.