“I should have but failed to include in the front matter of this novel something along the lines of: “The characters in this work are fictitious and have no relation to real persons.” But I’m glad I didn’t do that particular bit of lawyerese. It’s entirely true, but not.” – Melissa Malouf
We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s edition of Thursday Fiction Corner, we have an interview with Melissa Malouf, author of More Than You Know. Enjoy!
Dalkey Archive Press: In More Than You Know, the main character, Alice, drives cross-country from California to Vermont. This is a very “American” experience. Hannah, who Alice is driving to confront, is Swiss. What made you make her foreign?
Melissa Malouf: Hannah Jensen, international transfer student, initially strikes Alice Clark as someone who needs her help, her friendship, her tutoring, her guidance on an American college campus. But the ways that Hannah turns out to be “foreign” have little to do with her country of birth, yes?
DAP: Alice refusing to play into Hannah’s game becomes a game unto itself. She has been dwelling on the death of her friends for far too long and the game truly feels like it has lasted 30 years. The Jensens, too, have been waiting all this time for Alice to come visit them in Vermont. I can’t help but wonder what the Jensens have been doing for the past 30 years. Did they have their own trajectory, their own story that you never wrote down?
MM: I can write down only what Alice finds out. And one of the things she finds out, from the policeman Burt Gonzales and from the Jensens themselves, is that THEY have continued, for all these years, to make room for boarders.
DAP: Who and what inspired the places and characters Alice meets along the way?
MM: Once I knew that Alice was going to make the trip across country, I had to figure out a route that she could manage.
I went to AAA and got several possible TripTiks. Alice is not a traveler, is not on an eat, pray, love mission, is not, as she says, “modern.” So the trip had to make sense. And I suppose this is where the characters she meets along the way come in: she may be making the “American” road trip, but she is, as they remind her, sometimes helpfully, an “innocent abroad” (and has been — not Hannah — all along?)
DAP: What were some of the inspirations for this book?
MM: I should have but failed to include in the front matter of this novel something along the lines of: “The characters in this work are fictitious and have no relation to real persons.” But I’m glad I didn’t do that particular bit of lawyerese. It’s entirely true, but not.
DAP: When you began writing More Than You Know, did you expect to have it end the way it did?
MM: No, not at all. I prefer to write stories that tell me a story I don’t know in advance. I had a couple of “events” that had been gnawing at me for a long time, but no “experience” to go with them, to put me inside.
Through Alice, I was able to make up the experience. In a way, the title is about what I don’t know. (But it’s also about the creepiness of “whether you’re right, whether you’re wrong, man of my heart, I’ll string along.”)
DAP: I like that response: “I prefer to write stories that tell me a story I don’t know in advance.” In order to get where you are, in order to know what you know, you have to go by way of ignorance, of not knowing. In many ways, writing this book was like Alice’s journey. There’s excitement, new adventures, but what keeps coming back is fear. As a writer: what do you fear?
MM: Yipe! I fear questions like this one. I know that I don’t fear not knowing where a story is going, what happens next. I don’t fear endings that are not resolutions. I fear dumb sentences and predictable dialogue. I fear letting what I think undermine what I can imagine. Alice’s story — Alice herself — would have been so different had I “thought things through,” so to speak. Had I taken the advice, for example, very early on in the writing of this book, to make Alice much younger: i.e., “thinking things through” about a “book” rather than the adventure older Alice was itching to take to me on.
DAP: Let’s end where we begin: with the cross-country journey. Something thing that struck me was that Alice drove from California to Vermont. Often times, people drive from east to west. California is somehow the treasure at the end of the journey. Manifest destiny, modernized. Alice going from west to east: was this an autobiographical touch or was there something more to it?
MM: Ah, I love it that these questions are such a challenge. A challenge because the answers are either not obvious or not what I hope readers of Alice’s story will take away. That said, about California: when I’ve been asked to talk about a story from my first book, “The Golden Robe,” I invariably end up guessing that the golden robe (which in the story is an actual luxury item owned by the employer of an illegal immigrant in Southern California), the thing desired beyond reason, is of course itself but also California, and all of its sense of promise. Not so for Alice, nor for me. I grew up there (spent childhood, adolescence, went to college and graduate school, but grew up much later than all of that), so there is that bit of “autobiographical touch.” I visit family in California, but do not miss living there, not in the places that are most familiar to me, though I admit to some nostalgia about the Riverside, California of the 1960s that Alice describes. But Alice ‘s reasons for heading eastward are not mine. Her destiny — her future — has everything to do with her past, with the Jensens who finally “reel her in”. And I can’t say more without a spoiler alert.