Kate Christensen on Gossip, Bach, and the Emotional Darkness of Brooklyn
Kate Christensen is a truth-teller. Whether it’s in her criticism and essays (see her soon-to-be-seminal take on unleashing your inner dick as a female writer), or in her six acclaimed novels, the PEN Faulkner winner says everything you wish you could say but are afraid to out loud, in an artful, elegant, and wise way. She is a singular voice in American fiction.
In her latest work, The Astral, her male narrator — the funny, flawed and eccentric Harry Quirk — is ejected from his Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment by his wife Luz. She suspects him of an affair he didn’t actually have. She trashes the only draft of his new book of poetry, and with that, he is homeless, but also free. Free to say and think what he wants. And drink. And cause trouble. And this is where the fun begins.
From her home in the New Hampshire countryside, Christensen spoke with us about the emotional darkness of Brooklyn, her extensive musical background, and why gossip is both pleasurable and destructive at the same time.
The audiobook of The Astral was voiced by Donald Corren, a Juilliard-trained actor who has appeared on 17 episodes of Law & Order as a forensic technician character. And his voice is smooth as silk. Do you think at all about how your books sound when you write them? Harry seems to be a very aural character.
Harry is a poet, and words to him are like colors to a painter, musical notes to a composer. Spending so much time in his head, I started to feel how language shapes the reality of a poet differently from a novelist — for me, it’s all in service of the story. For Harry, the sounds and mouthfeel (as they say in the food business) of words are as important as their meanings. His descriptions of Greenpoint, which run through the whole books as a leitmotif, came from this sense I had, and are meant to be read aloud.
This is the most fun of all my novels for me to read aloud. I think it also has to do with Harry’s voice, which is conversational, or, as you say, aural.
One of the things I love about The Astral is how accurately you nailed the way gossip flows through a community. It seems everywhere Harry goes, the rumors about his affair — which he didn’t have — precede him. How do you feel about gossip? I believe being a writer and being a gossip go hand in hand, but I know there’s a downside to it all too.
Novelists study people and try to understand them. We are curious and nosy. All my life, I’ve watched and listened to and paid close analytical attention to people — obsessively, in fact. I understand my characters as if they were real people, and sometimes writing about them feels like a form of gossiping about them.
In real life, however, gossip is like electricity — friendly gossip lights up a conversation. To talk about my friends with other friends in a loving way is heartwarming and pleasurable, like a cozy lamp on in a house at night, a heater by your feet in the wintertime. But gossip can also be a cruel, scary thing, a powerful current of destructive energy running through a group of people. It feels very bad to be a maligning gossiper. It’s like emitting a really negative charge; being gossiped about feels decidedly worse. I’ve been maliciously gossiped about; it’s horrible, a waking nightmare. Being the subject of ignorant, judgmental, smug, negative gossip is akin to a public psychological scourging. I learned a lot from it — that no one knows the truth, usually, but people love to act as if they do. I learned who my friends are.
I’m not a judgmental person, to put it mildly. I imagine few novelists are, since we’ve had to hone our empathetic imaginations in order to understand all our characters at once, so we naturally see every side without didactic interference from any moralistic godlike judgment. I have always believed that negative gossip is a form of ignorance: as soon as you know the other side of the story, it’s impossible to feel anything but empathy and compassion. Being judged and knowing I’m being gossiped about always shocks me; I can’t seem to lose my naive faith in people’s innate fairness and open-mindedness.
You are known for your deep immersion in your characters. At the end of The Astral, I felt as if I had been walking with Harry for weeks, seeing what he saw, learning what he knew. And if there is a detail about your character not on the page, I would wager you still know it. For example, we don’t know what kind of music Harry likes, but I bet you have a soundtrack for him.
I sense that Harry isn’t particularly musical, even though he’s a poet, but he loves old jazz, Delta blues, and English folk rock. Mingus, Coltrane, Monk, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy — these are his favorite records. I imagine him listening to them on vinyl, on an old record player, before Luz kicked him out, and loving the scratches and skips in the old records. Maybe he sang along tunelessly to “Who Know Where the Time Goes” and tapped his foot to “A Love Supreme.” He misses his records now that he’s kicked out.
I think he has a particular fondness for female singers. He loves Cecilia Bartoli — he swoons to her, actually — in particular the album of Italian songs. As far as new music goes, when he encounters it around Greenpoint in coffee shops and bars, he likes the huskier, moodier, darker singers — Cat Power, for example. Kate Bush freaks him out, but he’s always arrested by her voice when he hears it although he isn’t sure who she is.
Harry is not an indie rock man. Nor is he down with his black self. He hates rap and hip-hop, in fact. He feels assaulted by them. Another of his favorite old records was Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau singing Brahms’s “Liebeslieder Walzer.” His voice is almost feminine. Harry swoons to him, too.
What music have you been listening to lately? You are a musician yourself, so I suspect you have very particular tastes.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Bach lately — the choral music, which is amazing. My mother recently sent us the complete sacred choral music collection, about 22 CDs worth. It’s conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It’s a German release, and it’s fantastic. When I was writing The Astral, I was listening to Beethoven’s Last Quartets, Schubert’s “Der Winterreise,” Mozart’s Requiem, Villalobos’s “Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” and “Fantastia for Saxophone.” Lots of dark, beautiful, melancholy classical stuff.
I come from a musical family. My mother was a Juilliard-trained cellist, until she quit playing about 10 years ago. My father is a jazz buff and Bach aficionado who sang choral music for many years and for all I know still does. My great aunt was about to make her piano debut at Carnegie Hall when she went suddenly, cruelly deaf. My youngest sister is a genius of a pianist and songwriter. My sisters and I all sang as kids, because our parents loved to sing, and we learned songs from them. We all play instruments. I studied the violin for 10 years, then switched to the viola just before college.
I’ve sung and/or played in a lot of bands — folk, noise, funk. I love playing noise viola, plugging into effects boxes and letting it go free. I love singing harmonies, folk and bluegrass especially. My real love, though, is choral singing. I started in high school. I belonged to three different choruses. As a depressed, homesick teenager, I sang and sang and sang. Along with writing, it saved me. Singing with people is intensely joyful, communal.
When I moved to New York, I auditioned for and got into the then-fledgling Russian Chorus up at Columbia. They were doing contemporary Russian music as well as the traditional stuff, and it was challenging for me, because the language and notation were unfamiliar. I hung in there until the conductor humiliated me in front of the whole chorus. He was a manic, megalomaniacal asshole. Then I ran into the night and never went back. I haven’t sung choral music since, and I miss it.
Speaking of running into the night: a few years ago you left North Brooklyn, where you had lived for many years. I know that you wrote part of this book in a villa outside of Florence, and part of it in the New Hampshire countryside. How did the different locations impact your writing process?
Leaving New York was a good thing for me, and also for this novel. Living in bucolic isolation, I wrote out of memories of Willliamsburg and Greenpoint, the neighborhoods I lived in for most of the past 20 years, and reimagined them from a distance. I think it gave the novel a nostalgic, bittersweet feeling that might not have been there if I’d written it in Greenpoint.
As Harry walked the streets thinking about the past, I was there with him, awash in remembered joy, regrets, sadness, and relief that I was gone from there. North Brooklyn is a dark place. Greenpoint especially exerts a powerful force on everyone who lives there. Italy is dark, too; so is New England. All these places are haunted, all of them contain layers upon layers of the past, of time, but Italy and New England were unfamiliar to me, and therefore my own past wasn’t around me as I wrote. It made it easier to envision Harry’s life, to conjure a fictional world out of the real one I knew so well.