Narrative 10

On the eve of the publication of The Last Laugh, Narrative has a few burning questions for the author.

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

In fiction, there are a few. Becky Sharp, for one. Emma in Emma, of course. Anna Karenina. Pip (Great Expectations), Fleur Talbot in the divine Spark’s Loitering with Intent, and her Mrs. Hawkins in A Far Cry from Kensington. Almost all of Frank O’Connor’s characters. Oh, this is impossible. Okay, in life, Beryl Markham; George Orwell, as himself, in his essays; V. S. Naipaul in Literary Occasions. Others too numerous to list.

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

“All I want to do is go on with the unbridled life I lead here: barefoot, my faded bathing suit, an old jacket, lots of garlic, and swimming at all hours of the day.” —Colette at sixty

I used this as the epigraph for The Last Laugh.

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

Frank O’Connor’s “The Sentry.” Taught me? It taught me that all true laughter has tears behind it. Wordsworth, all of Wordsworth: the divine wedding of sound and sense. Some of Tennyson: it settles the blood. It is simply beautiful.

4. Best part of the day?

The gloaming. Early evening. A glass of wine, watching the sunset.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

Shop. Talk. Talk and shop. See glass of wine above.

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

In life: For God’s sake! Unconscionable. Divine! Idiotic. I’m off for a walk.
On the page: And. But. The. A. An. Even. If. Said. Light. Dark.

7. What’s your current obsession?

Finding peace in old age, preferably near a warm sea. No maintenance, no obligations.

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

Ask yourself what obsesses you and write about that.

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?

If I’ve forgotten it, how on earth would I now remember it? If you’re asking what I wish I could still do or know or have that I did or knew or had at twelve, it would be the swirl and chaos of a large family establishment in what seemed like a physically free world. And also the hope that I’d be able to leave it when I wanted to and make my way in the world. The joy of climbing trees, and then singing up there at the top of my voice, singing into the future.

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

At best love is a gift that changes in time from enchantment, wildness, blindness, rage, and fury into sweet companionship. At worst it ruins your life.

Finally, is there a short passage from the new book you’d like to share with our readers?

Granny à go go: Greece

Now that we’re nearing the end of our year, I begin to count up all the things we’ve been free of here and don’t really want to go back to. Clearly, children aren’t one of them as they’ve been with us, one way or another, from the start. But what we don’t have is anyone wishing us a good rest of the day—at least not that we know of. Ditto, no one has been reaching out. And sharing is reserved for goods divided up. Telling someone the news is not sharing it; it’s telling someone the news. On the other hand, if you offer a drinker a glass of your wine, you are sharing, however inadvisably, not enabling. If your offer is refused, you’ll get a “no thanks,” not an “I’m good,” which answers a question that hasn’t been asked. Here we have problems, certainly, but not issues. Vegetables are not veggies. And at a restaurant, you won’t be asked if you’re enjoying your meal, certainly not whether you’re still working on it. Fortunately, we enjoy good health, no thanks to the wellness bulletins that come in regularly from our health insurers. “Let’s not go there” means, literally, Let’s stay where we are or go somewhere else. Parenting doesn’t happen here; neither does birthing. And when people die, they die. When they pass, they do so in a car or on foot, and, after they’ve passed, they’re still here, on earth (sic), which may also be a planet, but so what? Hopefully means full of hope (although I’m almost ready to give up on this one). And when you’re “on the same page,” you’re reading the paper together. The halt, the crippled, the feeble-minded, etc. may be challenged or differently abled, but they are also unfortunate. And when you sign off on something, you actually put your signature on a contract. For someone over the age of about nine or ten, things might be frightening, but they are not scary. They might be delicious, even fabulous, but they’re not yummy. I’ve already dealt with the plague of “love you,” so we can pass over that and onto a few of the words and phrases, once so alive in the black community, that suffer instant death when uttered by middle-class whites: “sistah,” “girlfriend,” even, God help us, “cool”—we’ve had none of this here. No one hitting the ground running either, not even at the end of the day or 24/7 BTW. And no one except tourists trying to be mindful. What we do love is the canopy of stars that show up every night. They make us want neither to lean in nor to reach out. We just sit out on our verandah with our glasses of ouzo and can of DEET, and if anyone says, “OMG, how cool is this?” we’ll give them a dose of it.