An Interview with Paul La Farge
Words By Dani Hedlund
What was the inspiration behind The Night Ocean?
The Night Ocean grew from a conversation I had with poet Robert Kelly back in 2005. I had just started my residency or teaching, I can’t remember which, at Bard College. Robert took me out to dinner as a gesture of welcome. We got to talking about H.P. Lovecraft and I was little embarrassed to admit I was a Lovecraft fan as a child. Robert is a tremendous knower, a human library. He knows a great deal about some things, and something about everything. It turned out he knew a lot about Lovecraft. He started discussing the story of Lovecraft and R.H. Barlow. He told me the barest outlines: Barlow had been a fan of Lovecraft and Lovecraft had gone to Florida to spend a considerable amount of time with Barlow. Barlow was Lovecraft’s literary executor and he’d gone on to have a very interesting life on his own, first as a poet and then as an anthropologist and scholar of Aztec civilization in Mexico City. That’s how it started. I went home and looked up Barlow on the internet and I thought, wow this guy is fascinating. I had read a lot of Lovecraft’s work, yet I didn’t know anything about Barlow. I didn’t know much about Lovecraft’s life either. I started reading around and puttering, playing with the idea for this book. I got somewhere but not very far; I hit a dead end and shelved it.
I came back to the project in 2013 because I had an amazing fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers to spend nine months at a desk in the New York Public Library. Who gets to do that? I was really happy to receive the fellowship and I had applied to work on the Lovecraft project. My thought was, I had this draft, and it stalled, but I would just pick it up again. I had already done research and I would mainly use the time to write. I thought I would sit at my little desk and get over the hump and write this book. In fact, what happened is that I went to the library, and, on the second day I was there, I thought I should probably ask for a book so that it would look like I was doing something. I read the book and it turned out that the material on Lovecraft, Barlow, and their worlds was vastly richer than I imagined. In the end, I spent the whole nine months reading and doing only a little writing. I threw away the draft I had begun and I used my time to make these crazy, obsessive notes. I wrote biographies for all the characters. I made a forty-five-page timeline starting with Lovecraft’s birth and going through the 1950’s, when most of these people had become inactive. The Night Ocean grew out of that. It was something I wouldn’t have thought to do, or been able to do, if I hadn’t spent so much time reading first.
Where did the framework for your book come from?
I borrowed the structure of my book from Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote a short novel called “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. It wasn’t published during his lifetime and he didn’t think very highly of it. I like it, I think it’s an interesting book. The prose is relatively restrained for Lovecraft and the subject matter is quite frankly biographical; in a way I think it discloses more of him than much of his more popular writing. It has a five-part structure with a frame narrator who describes Charles Dexter Ward’s descent into madness as he comes into contact with the historical past. The book has been described as an allegory for doing too much research; you’ve learned too much and the past comes to life. I was interested in the structure and the subject matter was strangely relevant to my existence in my little box in the library. The idea that there would be a frame narrator describing somebody else’s descent into madness as they discover this story came out of that structure. I played around; a lot of this book was trial and error. I fiddled with many different kinds of frame narrator. A number of them didn’t work. In the end, Marina’s voice felt the most compelling because she is level-headed. She is somebody who is not likely to lose her mind; she can ground us in a world of eccentric people.
Did you feel that the metafiction of the book was somehow inescapable? Did you lose your mind a little bit in the research as well?
I was surely losing my mind whether it was due to the research or other causes. For me this book is about a lot of things; it’s a book about love, intimacy, trust, and betrayal. It’s also a book about reading and the dangers of believing a story that you read. One of the aspects of Lovecraft’s work that continues to be foregrounded is that there are these forbidden books. The horror of his stories is often linked to the horror of learning something, specifically to the horror of learning it by reading. There is something “Lovecraftian” about picking up a book that opens a door to a world where things are a little dangerous and scary, and your sanity is a little shaky. I wanted to capture that.
Where did the line between your research and the licenses you took as a fiction writer begin to blur?
What I know for sure is that I wanted to stick close to the research in a lot of places because I became fascinated by the texture of it. Biographies have a structure that is not novelistic. Often people’s lives are full of disconnections and recombinations a novelist wouldn’t have invented. I wanted to follow that structure so this book might also have the quality of being surprising in the way that actual lives can be surprising when you read about them. I don’t know if I succeeded in that but my goal was to get out of the enclosed space of my imagination and my sense of aesthetics, and into what feels like a larger space populated by historical figures and historical knowledge.
Did you ever feel insecure about whether or not you were upsetting the Lovecraft community when you produced this book?
When you’re writing a book, you insulate yourself. You vanish into the space of the book. You are very focused, like running a marathon, not thinking about the ads you pass on the side of the road. You must keep going. I wasn’t thinking about upsetting the Lovecraft community in that sense. I knew of its existence and the history of misconceptions surrounding Lovecraft but I wanted that to be a part of my book as material. Now of course I am thinking about upsetting the Lovecraft community as something that may happen to me.
This book is about a number of people who are trying to understand Lovecraft. Each in their own way, they access the available data for themselves to create a picture of who this person was. What we know about him is that he was a complicated person. He held beliefs that were at odds with his practices. He was this horrible racist and sexist anti-Semite in his letters. He was also completely against homosexuality, deeply homophobic. But in his life, he was surrounded by Gay Jewish men and he married a Ukrainian Jewish woman. His life doesn’t necessarily bear out the convictions that he expresses in his writing. His fiction is both informed by the beliefs and the writing. It’s hard to look at the pieces of his story and say, I get who Lovecraft was. My characters are trying to understand him and as a writer I was trying to do the same thing. The Lovecraft I present in the book is of course fictitious but I did the best job I could to present Lovecraft the way I imagined he might have been.
How does the writing of The Night Ocean line up with previous books you have written? Is it radically different because of the research? What was the experience like?
This book was paradoxically more difficult and faster. It was more difficult because it contains a lot of people. We made a list when the book was being copyedited of all the characters, historical and imagined. I think it’s six single-spaced pages of characters. Also, there were a lot of historical and geographical things that were going on and I wanted to make those seem as convincing as I could. It was hard but also quick because I did the planning beforehand.
What is the one thing you wanted to say in this book?
There are places in the book where I feel a truth or message surfacing. One message emerges in this scene in the middle of the book when Barlow has gone to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house. They throw a party on the anniversary of Trotsky’s murder. Rivera gives a speech and he says “No great man can be killed; no great man is ever truly dead. No one who gives, dies. No one. They give and give.” Of course the language is sexist because it’s Rivera’s language, and it’s the language of the time. But there is something in the book about how if you tell a good enough story, it does keep giving. Telling is a kind of giving which feels true to me in the way that other parts of the story are historically accurate. I would fight for that message. I would get on a soapbox if I had to, to make that point again. Lovecraft’s tragedy was that he was capable of that giving as a writer and in other ways, he wasn’t as a person. Barlow’s tragedy was that he was the opposite. As a person he was capable of giving but as a writer, his gifts were scholarly.