An Interview with Baret Magarian
Words By Kaley Kiermayr
When you spoke with us in 2016, you told us that your immediate goal was to find a publisher for your debut novel. You said this could be difficult, as the novel was “a multi-layered affair and hugely ambitious.” How, in the end, did you go about finding a publisher for The Fabrications?
After I finished the novel, I very quickly (and miraculously) found a young and dynamic agent in London and was represented by him for a while, but he couldn’t swing it for me, despite his impeccable credentials. We came close a couple of times, but we were disappointed at the last minute. I had a particularly distressing experience with an editor who turned the book down, despite having written a rejection letter that was paradoxically luminous with praise. After this initial foray I decided to venture into the literary trenches alone—a harder scenario altogether. I revised the book after a long interval, on the advice of some people I trusted, and then submitted it again to more agents, who were all impressed but wary of the book’s ambition and scale.
At around this time I had moved to Italy and came into contact with Andrea Sirotti, a very fine Italian translator, who diplomatically asked to see the book—his faith in the novel rekindled my own belief in it and he suggested we approach some Italian publishers, but they too gave it the headshake. I knew by then that the book had merit, despite the rejections, and I had re-acquired something of the confidence I had lost from my London experience. So I developed a kind of terminator-esque bloody-mindedness and the new rebuffs were less painful. Finally, I showed the book to a colleague at a university and he was so impressed by the novel that he immediately wrote to his friend, Jack Estes, of New York’s Pleasure Boat Studio, who, along with his successor Lauren Grosskopf, accepted the novel. It was a very, very long process, a stormy voyage whose principal features were indifference and cruelty on the part of the elements, and bruised tenacity and defiance on the part of myself. But in the end, the sun pierced through the cloudy veils.
In The Fabrications, the novelist Bloch “rather more groundlessly” decides that his character of Oscar will have a cat and be an opera fan. It’s a serendipitous approach to character creation. (Bloch’s landlord just so happens to frequently blast opera, a thing that irks Bloch.) The Fabrications is full of rich characters. What was your process for creating the characters in this novel? Does it happen to include these serendipitous moments of real life becoming fiction?
Often a character’s genesis and origins can lie in his or her name. The name suggests some essential quality, some indefinable nuance. In the novel, the name Oscar Babel has symbolic connotations. Oscar, the protagonist, has a kind of Tower of Babel assembled around him, a domain of confusion and mayhem as his fame and myth escalate. The name Oscar also seemed ironically apt to me because the character begins as an anonymous cinema projectionist—inhabiting a world that lies at the polar opposite of the public glamor of the Oscars. Oscar’s connection to film is tenuous, even though he eventually becomes as famous as a film star. Other characters are borne from certain gestures, certain ideas, imagistic tropes.
Often there is a kind of “key” to a character—some emblematic detail that can unlock their deepest motivations and deepest self. A character, to be engaging, has to be multi-dimensional, has to surprise both the reader and the writer. A character who is predictable will only kill the story and the reader’s interest, that goes without saying. My goal in creating a character is to lend them an immediacy that eclipses even that of real life. A character must “compress” all the insights and dramas and tensions in a line of dialogue, in a gesture, in a throwaway phrase, must become the embodiment of a whole life, distilled, captured, refined into a still point, a fictional alcove. I am interested in those kinds of ideas, of creating a realm that transcends the limitations of the page and catapults the reader into another realm altogether—closer to witchcraft than literature. My rather romantic agenda is that whoever reads my fiction will be sent into a kind of trance by it. As to the question of real life becoming fiction, of course a writer is always drawing on life and experience, that is inevitable. But only certain moments and experiences lend themselves to that process of artistic recycling. It’s a question of a particular texture, insight, or energy: highly charged insights, moments of tension, inner transformations on a minute level; the way two strangers might regard one another on a bus, the haunting quality of a certain perfume, a moldy-looking chocolate muffin: these might all deliver precious material for a character’s realization and essence.
You told us last time that you began writing The Fabrications after you left university and that it took years for you to finish and then tinker with it. What were the real life conditions in which you started writing novel?
I had started various novels before I began to write The Fabrications. These earlier projects were never completed. Either the idea wasn’t strong enough or I wasn’t. In any case, I had had a kind of apprenticeship with shorter fiction—and I had written quite a lot, which I suppose gave me the confidence to attempt a longer narrative. I knew that the book was going to be big in scale, though I hadn’t reckoned on it being quite so big when I first started writing it. At that time I was living and working in London as a literary journalist. I went to a lot of literary events, book launches and so on, and these offered me some material for certain scenes in the book—the novel features a lot of satirical writing about the pretense of the art world and lampooning of vapidity. But I always felt as though I was on the fringes of that universe, which allowed me to observe it, I suppose, which is key to any writer’s development: the notion of careful observation.
I remember that I wrote the first draft in a year and it was a shambles—a very blurry, insubstantial skeleton but I knew more of less the trajectories of the narrative and the main ideas were there in essence. I remember a very key thing about the novel’s eventual realization—I knew the ending before I started writing a word of it and this was, I would say, fundamental in giving me a sense of the book’s direction. The next four years were spent in rewriting that first draft. My process broke down like this: the second draft concentrated on problem-solving, on weak transitions, unconvincing bridges, the third draft entailed “ballooning” the story and the characters and the final draft focused on style. I thought I had finished the book after all this tinkering, expansion, and revision, and indeed the book was accepted by an agent. However, after the novel’s rejection I began to see that it could still be improved, and I wanted to make the book as perfect as I could, so I went back and recast certain scenes, strengthened them and added parts to passages that I deemed to be flat or lacking in energy.
The world’s rapid advance into technological ease had gained incredible momentum in the meantime and I decided that the book needed to be (on a superficial level) “updated” in order to accommodate these changes but when I had first conceived and written the book I’d been very careful to create an essentially timeless story with universal resonance and relevance. Having, in my opinion, done this, I knew that I had a novel which would NOT date on the level of story and idea. The essential story that I conceived of years ago remains the same and so my “novel-boat’s” journey down the difficult waters of the publishing world has not been accompanied by the onset of rusting (or gangrene) because the book is not merely journalistic or topical: though there are many satirical moments.
Did the multi-layered structure of The Fabrications evolve over time, or did you have a clear vision of the structure from the beginning?
As I said earlier, I knew the end of the book and I also knew the essential arc of the narrative before I started it. But the details and the fine points of the story evolved, progressed, morphed, and were subject to many changes and alterations. It was an incredibly intricate process involving the taking of hundreds of pages of notes, constructing diagrams, doing much research and so on. I also discarded around 250 pages of actual material, some of it pretty good, but most of it untenable or insufficiently connected to the rest. But I needed to write those extra discarded pages to find the outline of the real story within, buried like the form the sculptor sees in the original block of marble.
As the story grew and the characters evolved, I began to see the thing in a clearer way and I began to realize that my original ideas were expanding into more ambitious ones, so that the book grew as it was written. I knew that I wanted to craft a very rich narrative with symmetries, mirrors, cross-referencing. I liked the idea of a book with many different plotlines and characters and with a large canvas. I also knew that I wanted the book to be carnivalesque and funny and outrageous. I wanted the novel to change in tone a lot, moving from farce to tragedy to satire to philosophy, and, finally, arriving at territory that can only be described as mystical. My ultimate goal was to write a novel that had at once a cosmic dimension on the one hand, and was intimate and human on the other. The cosmic aspect is hinted at by the fact that the events of the novel “occur” in Bloch’s fictional story before they do in real life; so in some ways the human drama unfolds against the landscape of the metaphysical— there is always that other level, relativizing and contextualizing the human story.
In this novel, your writing style incorporates some very visual qualities. Could you talk a bit about the influence of cinema, art, and music on The Fabrications?
I love cinema very much—cinema really is the true gesumptkunstwerk because it combines all the arts in such a fantastic way: music, words, images, photography and so on. Certain key film makers influenced the book a great deal, such as Fellini, in particular Eight and a Half, Welles’ The Immortal Story, Lost Highway by David Lynch and Persona by Ingmar Bergman. I am a very visual person and so I tend to write scenes that are alive with visual detail. Almost all of the novel’s scenes are, I would say, accompanied by strong visual ramifications, and the settings have what might be described as visually memorable elements: the murky, dingy box of a cinema projection room, a florist’s shop filled with colorful plants, a public swimming pool at whose bottom rests a saloon car, a painter’s sun-filled front room, filled with easels. I wanted the novel to be very visual—I don’t know if this element came from cinema or not but I wanted the reader to “see” the scenes of the novel and to be transported into them as much as possible. And all these visual elements cross-fertilize with one another and details from the worlds of plants, water, and painting creep into the characters’ lives and dwellings as though the novel is an interlocking imagistic echo chamber. For example, part one of the novel begins with Bloch looking down from his perched-up high flat, observing voyeuristically the activities in the waking city of London below. This motif of observation is recapitulated at the beginning of the third part of the book when Oscar observes the people walking along London’s King’s Road from his perched up high hotel suite. Oscar in a sense completes an action started by Bloch earlier—this kind of symmetry is very musical in essence and I am interested in giving my writing some of that thematic and symmetrical richness. This may come from my own musical ambitions and instincts, I am not sure. Wagner’s Tristan and Iso plays an important function in that it is an opera that Oscar eventually becomes obsessed by. I chose that particular opera because it is about sexual love and transcendence, and Oscar/Bloch’s message to the world in his eventual messiah incarnation is that sexual love is the closest we can get to the divine here on earth.
Congratulations on accomplishing what you told us last time was your immediate goal: to publish The Fabrications! What are your next goals in terms of both craft and publication?
My next goal is to go on developing my voice and style and writing as much as life will allow me. I would very much like to finish a second novel which lies at the polar opposite of The Fabrications—I just need to find the mental space and peace that I need in order to do this. When the “window” of the mind is grimy and dirty, one can’t see into the “garden” of creativity that lies beyond it—so that window has to be cleaned, at which point one can discern what lies beyond—that’s how I think of it. And cleaning that mind, for me, entails getting away from everyday problems and being at peace with myself as much as possible. That’s when things start to happen. I have a book of short stories coming out shortly in Italian translation which I am very pleased about and I am also working on an idea for a stage play—a rather complex idea, it has to be said, but as you have probably gathered by now complexity is my thing!