The image of a young boy and his imaginary friend could be sweet or terrifying. It depends who's conjured up the kid(s). In Brian DeLeeuw's debut novel, In This Way I Was Saved, you know from page one that you are going to be scared, and held in suspense until the very last page. Below, my interview with Brian.
Jill Dearman: In This Way I Was Saved has a very complete and satisfying feeling—like a Hitchcock movie. It feels like it all came to you in one wild vision. But what was the actual genesis of the novel?
Brian DeLeeuw: At first I had the simple idea of writing a story from the point of view of a child’s imaginary friend. The idea was that this imaginary friend would narrate his own gradual disintegration, and eventual disappearance, as his creator—the child—grew up and didn’t need him anymore. I’d also always wanted to write something set in the beach towns of Fire Island, a string of summer communities built on a barrier sandbar off the South Shore of Long Island. During the winter the place is more or less abandoned, which I thought would be a nice setting for the kind of creepy stories I love. So I wrote a short story set out there in January from the point of view of this melancholy, gentle, devoted imaginary friend, and it didn’t work at all. The prose was purple; the story was directionless, desultory. I realized that instead of accepting his decommissioning, so to speak, the friend should instead fight back—should rebel against the kid who made him, and try to take over his life. That was when the plot of the novel, which is centered around this struggle, began to take shape.
JD: New York City plays a big role in the book. Do you think this story could've been set anywhere else or is the DNA of NYC simply embedded in the novel?
BD: I suppose the story could have taken place elsewhere—there really isn’t anything in the plot that requires it to be set in New York—but then somebody else would’ve had to have written it. From the start, I saw the book as happening primarily in and around the northern third of Central Park, on the far Upper East and West Sides. These are neighborhoods I know well, and they certainly seemed to be the only neighborhoods I could imagine Claire living in. The Conservatory Garden, too, on 105th Street and Fifth Avenue, was to me essential to the atmosphere of the book, although maybe in a personal way that isn’t necessarily apparent to anybody else.
JD: You edit at Tin House. How much does your work as an editor help or hinder your process as a writer?
BD: I honestly don’t think my editorial job has an enormous effect on my writing. For me, editing engages a different part of my brain; even the self-editing—i.e. rewriting and revising—I do with my own work feels totally separate from the editing I do for Tin House. I guess I could say the job helps my writing in an indirect way because it’s helpful to actually finish something—editing a piece, for example—and then see it out there in the world and get a sense of having accomplished a task. I say this because writing a novel takes two or three or four years, during which time the feeling of completing anything is conspicuously lacking, and, I think, greatly needed.
JD: The character of the mother, Claire, is quite an enigma. How did you develop her?
BD: I’ve always appreciated characters in novels and movies who exhibit a glamorous, decadent sort of madness, but of course this can easily slip into cliché. So with Claire I was trying to balance this Gothic trope of the “eccentric” aristocrat with a more realistic portrayal of bipolar disorder (without ever naming it as such in the book). This is not a novel that can be classified as “realism”—I’m clearly playing around with some classic Gothic signifiers and tropes here—but on the other hand I didn’t want to tip things over too far into a kind of genre pastiche. The character of Claire exemplifies the balance I was trying to strike: she’s larger-than-life, a bit lurid, maybe, but also hopefully identifiable as a sympathetic human individual.
JD: What's your daily routine like as a writer?
BD: I wish I could say I have an ironclad routine, but I don’t really. I generally like to write in the afternoon and evening. I hate mornings; I rarely do late nights. I get most of my writing done at a desk at Paragraph, a writing space on 14th Street, which is great, because I think I would lose it if I tried to work in my (very small) apartment every day. I try to write seven days a week; the reality is more like five. Coffee and techno music on the headphones help; the internet hurts.
JD: What books and authors have influenced you the most?
BD: Many different books and writers have been important to me at different points in my life, but during the writing of In This Way I Was Saved I found myself turning to a few specific books, each for a different reason: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for plotting and pacing; Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves for atmosphere; Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for tone. I reread parts of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica and V.S. Naipul’s A Bend in the River whenever I forgot how a good sentence is supposed to sound. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was important because it showed me what a total **bleep** you can make your narrator while still keeping the reader’s interest. But every book you read is an influence, really, even if it’s sometimes just an example of how you don’t want to write.
JD: For more on Brian, visit his website: http://www.briandeleeuw.com. For more on the craft of writing, visit my site http://www.bangthekeys.com or check out the book, Bang the Keys
Until next week, I leave you with the question: Have one of YOUR characters ever demanded you to put more of him (or her) on the page?