Narrative 10

Narrative has a few burning questions for our 2016 Narrative Prize winner, Sara Houghteling:

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

In fiction, Jacques Austerlitz from W. G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz; in life, my ninety-six-year-old grandmother.

2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?

From Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, “Besides, what good would it have done if I had spoken to Gilberte? She would not have heard me. We imagine always when we speak that it is our own ears, our own mind, that are listening. My words would have come to her only in a distorted form, as though they had had to pass through the moving curtain of a waterfall before they reached my beloved, unrecognizable, sounding false.”

3. What story, book, or poem do you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?

John le Carré’s Smiley’s People. He taught me about pacing—that an exciting scene still requires the narrative voice to build up to it with gradual descriptions of weather, architecture, the topography of the streets, and the way in which the protagonist moves through space and perceives his surroundings in that particular moment. I think there is something almost nineteenth century about le Carré’s attention to background detail at the outset of a scene, and I love how these different styles (the stately, authorial voice of, say George Eliot; and the cold warrior/espionage novel) merge in his prose.

4. Best part of the day?

Morning, especially if I have resisted the urge to check my email.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

Caffeine. Reading poetry. Reading Charles Baxter’s essays on fiction writing (on my desk right now is his The Art of Subtext). Writing by hand. More caffeine.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

To answer quite literally? Probably: the, a, an, and, it, he, she, said, be, went. And I suspect it is the same for life. I am tempted to pick some more exotic words, but then common words rarely get any credit for the heavy lifting they do. Perhaps this is their chance.

7. What’s your current obsession?

The writings and recordings of pianist and author Jeremy Denk.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

Not to have my characters dash about too much from place to place, or grow angry or despairing too quickly or too frequently.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

I memorized reams of classical flute music (until about age fifteen, I had hoped to be a professional musician); I wish I had thought to write down my father’s stories.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

If I could write about romantic love as the great Shirley Hazzard does (in The Great Fire or The Transit of Venus) I would. In Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, his love scenes are indistinguishable from ekphrastic ones in which characters are playing and discussing Bach and Schubert. How does he do it? I’ve been trying to figure this out for the past decade.