Steven Winn: Good morning, everyone–which we’ve never said at City Arts before. So you’re all a very special audience. I’m Steven Winn, this of course, is Rachel Cusk, and first of all thanks to all of you for getting up in the morning and coming to this program. We’re delighted to have you here and especially thanks to Rachel for breaking new ground and breaking the model with us, we’re really so pleased to have you here, you have many fans here and elsewhere, of course. We’re just so pleased that you made time in your schedule to do something unusual and unorthodox. So, thank you for coming very much. Before we give Rachel the microphone, you’re not here to hear me, but I just wanted a brief introduction.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with her work, or at least some of it. I’m not certainly not familiar with all of it. Her numerous novels include “The Bradshaw Variations,” “Arlington Park,” and “Saving Agnes,” which I think was your first?
Rachel Cusk: Yes.
Steven Winn: “Saving Agnes,” and of course the Outline Trilogy, as it’s known now– “Outline,” “Transit,” and “Kudos.”
Her memoirs include “A Life’s Work,” on becoming a mother, “Aftermath,” on marriage and separation, and she has, as I learned doing my homework, adapted “Medea” for the Almeida Theatre. So and she’s won numerous awards. So thank you, Rachel, again for being here. Let’s start, kind of dive right into the Outline trilogy and its–at the risk of sounding like a literary scholar, which I’m certainly not–but the formal innovation of it. How did you come up with this–well, first of all, let’s just orient people a little bit, to those who don’t know the books. I’m going to let you describe sort of what how it works formally and how you, how you kind of came up with what seems a remarkable innovation literarily.
Rachel Cusk: Well, it was a I mean, I think there’s some writers who are miraculously to me able to–well they begin closer to their goal than I did. And I seem to have taken a route of needing to experience things in order to know them and so much of my work is documenting sort of that process. So I guess you know this form was a kind of recoiling from the sort of brutal aspects of you know, that process of I suppose midlife kind of Jungian crisis and loss of sort of identity. So how to find a form that in which I could represent that, which is essentially sort of loss really. Loss of institutional forms of being. And the novel for me, the sort of conventional narrative novel, didn’t work for that. The memoir didn’t work for that.
So I really needed to find something that was neither narrative nor sort of autobiographical.
Steven Winn: So you hit on this idea of a narrator who through these three books, basically travels about to various places. She goes to Athens in the first book to teach, does some teaching. She later on goes to a writers conference in an unnamed city. In the last book, she spends time in London and various things happen to her. She renovates an apartment and things happen, but mostly what she’s doing is listening to other people. That idea seems, you know, the idea of that, sustaining that over three books, in what is essentially at least superficially kind of an episodic structure. Did you know going in this was a trilogy and that you were going to be able to sustain this? Did you see the arc of this and where it was headed right from the start?
Rachel Cusk: No, not at the beginning. I mean all I knew at the beginning was that for my purposes as a reader and as a writer and I think for all of us as human beings the sort of drift of language away from truth is incredibly problematic and it’s almost the first sign that something is seriously amiss in the sort of social fabric.
I encountered that feeling as a writer in terms of the conventional contemporary novel, which seemed increasingly to disavow any connection to the self and personal experience. And you know to me the need for the world to be verified to be able to say I, you know, I know this because because I saw it, because I experienced it, is really the sort of correct moral position for any artist.
And as I say, the novel has become a form in which making things up is highly valued. And distancing oneself and disavowing and disowning your material and saying not, you know, none of this is about me and none of this happened to me and, you know, these are all invented characters. That felt well, it felt like something I wanted to completely turn away from.
Steven Winn: Yeah, you’ve talked about the sort of disconnect between truth and story. Has story itself become sort of a suspect kind of, I don’t know what, kind of feigning in a way, as it were?
Rachel Cusk: Well, I think, I mean there’s definitely a theory and it’s a sort of Knausgaardian theory that we’re all sort of infected by essentially a century of narrative. I mean in film as much as in novels. Of sort of the story sort of interfering with our sense of reality. So I think what I wanted to get back to, and the reason for using this slightly strange, and when I wrote it, I thought unreadable, method of people speaking, of the novel essentially not knowing anything. So there’s no prior knowledge in the book and people speak the story. It seemed to me that that again, is a, the right of the individual, the native ability of the individual, to have this sense of one story, one form, which is their own. It’s their own witnessing, their own account of–
Steven Winn: I was just going to use that word. She’s a kind of witness, not only to the people that she meets, encounters, but to herself and her own discernment of what she hears from them. Is that a fair–?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, and I mean, you know, what began in “Outline” with me thinking okay, you know a person can be described by what they notice. That that, you know, I’m sure, I was sort of sure that that actually could work. You know, whether any anybody would be interested in reading that that process, you know, I wasn’t very sure but. In the end, I think the reason, in answer to your earlier question, to sort of go on with the second book and with the third book was really, you know, is the question of whether objectivity is ultimately attainable, whether it is possible really to free yourself from a sort of personalized story of reality. Answer: no.
Steven Winn: But you know, I mean fascinatingly explored in the books. You mentioned Knausgaard. I mean you have been linked with him and other writers like Sheila Heti and and St. Aubyn as part of a trend of autofiction. I mean, it seemed to me on the face of it that you and Knausgaard could not be more different. I mean the narrator of–
Rachel Cusk: In looks if nothing else.
Steven Winn: Yes, right. I mean the narrator of these books, her name is mentioned, I believe this is correct, exactly once in each of the three books, which is a wonderful trick. It’s sort of like a Nabokovian thing–see if you can find Faye and where she is–whereas Knausgaard does nothing but talk about himself. But is it–I mean is the term autofiction mean anything or meaningful to you, or is it something that–
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, I mean. As I said earlier, I think this this idea of verifying–I think that’s what autofiction is doing. Its saying in the end, the only thing morally that I can recognize as true or I can impose my moral being by using myself, and I think it’s a very misunderstood genre.
Steven Winn: It’s been sort of a sloppy term for autobiography?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah. It’s seen as sort of narcissistic or whereas In fact is completely the opposite of that. It’s using yourself. It’s almost erasing yourself. It’s basically saying I’m going to use myself to prove things about the world. And I mean I am doing something of that sort also, but it’s a yeah, I mean, I’m I’ve come at it from a much longer road of canonical, more sort of scholarly, I suppose, reverence for literary form and for the novel itself and you know that was kind of where I began, was in great reverence for what had been written in the past.
Steven Winn: Do you feel like you’ve left that behind, that you won’t write a, whatever conventional novel means, that it’s a slippery term, but a novel structured with its roots in 19th century more than what your–do you feel you’ve left that behind?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, I mean, I’m partly, because you know oddly even though my, you know, my influences, the works that I loved were mostly written by dead German men who bore no resemblance to the, my own sort of life or experiences, uh–
Steven Winn: DH Lawrence you often mention.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah.
Steven Winn: As kind of a key figure in your, in your reading life.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, and I think I think what that key was was his lack of bourgeois status. And so that voice coming through English sentences was so sort of upsetting and disturbing and revolutionising and freeing and because it was a different kind of voice, but coming through the same places.
Steven Winn: That’s still true, isn’t it? Reading Lawrence? Even now?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah. Yeah.
Steven Winn: He still, you still feel that.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah.
Steven Winn: That–
Rachel Cusk: Freedom
Steven Winn: Pushing against against convention and form. You mentioned Knausgaard–we both mentioned Knausgaard–one thing that seems to me that is somewhat similar between the two of you is that there’s this sort of folding in and out from the very specific and physical material world out to sort of broad, kind of very philosophical and kind of– does that chime for you? Does that seem right to you? Is that somewhat what’s going on in these books? In your books?
Rachel Cusk: In my books? Yeah very much so. And that for me was a process of kind of turning my work and my own sort of identity in my work, turning it inside out to an extent. And as I say, that was a life process as much as a sort of intellectual decision.
Steven Winn: We’re talking around this thing, but I want to read a quote that I forget where I found this, you said that,
“When I write a book, I don’t feel I should decide who’s allowed to read it. It’s put out into space and speaking is like that. That’s partly what I’m trying to do in these monologues in the book. I’m not interested in character because I don’t think character exists anymore.”
I wonder if you could drill down on that a little bit.
Rachel Cusk: Character does sometimes exist, but only in places where it can be noticed, because other things don’t change very much. I don’t believe that individuals are special in their character in the same way anymore because they can’t, their characters can’t affect. I mean, I live in a village on the coast of England and in that place character, you can observe it still working. Because how a, how this particular person is affects others in a consistent way. But I think that, you know, one of the ways that the contemporary novel has gone wrong is by almost treating character as, or being misled by the notion of it into talking about exceptions rather than rules. The thing that is extraordinary or there is only one, you know, I don’t believe that that is true to contemporary experience.
Steven Winn: So contemporary life has sort of has sanded character out of us in a certain sense, that the idea that that our character can be efficacious in some way in the–
Rachel Cusk: Well no, I mean I think much more that we’re not imprisoned. And you know, not so long ago, I mean even in my own childhood, parental authority for instance, the characters of one’s parents, could imprison you. And that is increasingly not the case, and I mean the sort of weeping and wailing that goes on among, I suppose, people who still who care about intellectual or artistic values, the decrying of social media, the feeling that that has sort of ruined language and expression. I don’t believe that at all. And I think it has liberated all of us from the authority, I guess, of character.
Steven Winn: There was a piece yesterday in the Times about Fortnite, a game that seems to have everybody highly agitated. Do your kids play Fortnite?
Rachel Cusk: My stepson does.
Steven Winn: Yeah and this, the argument in the Times was it sort of, you know, what you’re saying–is that as a, as older adults, we see kids fixed on the screen and we’re distressed by their lack of social experience and their just–when in fact she argues that playing Fortnite is a very social experience, both with the people that you’re playing with, who may live very far away from you, and from mostly young boys who get together and play these games and have this kind of social experience. That do you think that we older people like, older than you, but people of our generation tend to see social media and the digital experience as this kind of forbidding alien thing, when in fact we’re misperceiving it and that it’s something quite different?
Rachel Cusk: But I think there’s always a feeling that, because what we’re really talking about is authenticity, aren’t we, and there’s a feeling that something in the past was authentic and and it is now withered or died or gone away. But you know, you don’t have to read very far to find that in every single generation of humans that have ever existed part of the aging process is feeling that something’s been lost.
Steven Winn: Something’s been degraded and lost.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, and it may be that what has been lost for us is boredom. That when we look at our children, they’re not bored and we remember boredom as this extraordinary element, this kind of ocean that we, you know, you’re sort of swimming across, you know hour after hour after hour and they don’t have to do that.
Steven Winn: Hmm. Why have you chosen to live in a place that–where character operates differently than you see it operating? And you live in a village. What is good for you about that as a person and as an artist?
Rachel Cusk: I didn’t choose it particularly–my husband lives there. So I I did live in London before that. But I find, I mean now I enjoy it because it’s solitary and unfortunately part of getting older is finding, you know, information harder to deal with. So yeah, so I enjoy it because I can be on my own.
Steven Winn: One of the things I found in preparing for today was, I went back and started rereading the books, and it was like going down a rabbit hole. You start getting into “Outline,” I was a hundred pages in, and I said “wait a minute, I’ve got, I have other things I need to do,” but one of the things I thought we would do today is just put a little of your wonderful prose out into the room here. Even folks who have read it even recently, it’s just so rich in so many ways. So we sort of talked about two different bits. Is there something you would rather read first?
Rachel Cusk: No, we had we had a copy of “Outline” somewhere.
Steven Winn: Yes here. Yeah, I think this is more–so let’s set this set this passage up a little bit.
Rachel Cusk: So this is the character called the neighbor, who’s Faye’s neighbor on the airplane that has taken her to Athens.
Steven Winn: And she’s landed and they’re having a second encounter now.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, so he has suggested a sort of seedy date on his boat and she’s–
Steven Winn: Anyone who’s read this I’m sure recalls the specifics of it, but it’s wonderful to hear it again.
Rachel Cusk: Anyway, she has yes, slightly passively gone along with him in his car, and they’re on their way to the marina.
We’d pulled out onto the broad six lane avenue along which the traffic funded ceaselessly through the city, where the heat and noise were extreme. The car windows were wide open and my neighbor drove with one hand on the steering wheel while the other rested on the windowsill so that his shirtsleeve flapped madly in the wind.
He was an erratic driver lunging from one lane to the next and turning his head entirely away from the road while he talked, so that red lights and the backs of other cars would come rushing up to the windscreen before he noticed them. I was frightened and fell silent staring out at the dusty lots and verges that had by now succeeded the big glinting buildings of the center.
We passed over an arching concrete intersection in a blare of horns and engine noise, the sun pounding on the windscreen and the smell of petrol and asphalt and sewage flooding through the open windows, and for a while drove alongside a man on a scooter, who had a little boy of five or six seated behind him.
The boy was clinging to the man with both arms around his middle. He looked so small and unprotected with the cars and metal palisades and huge junk-laden lories rushing inches past his skin. He wore only shorts and a vest and flip flops on his feet and I looked through the window at his unshielded tender brown limbs and at his soft golden brown hair rippling in the wind.
Then the arching road curved around and began to descend and there was the sea blazing blue beyond the khaki colored scrubland littered with low abandoned buildings and unfinished roads, and the skeletons of houses that had never been completed, where skinny trees now grew through the glassless windows.
“I’ve been married three times,” my neighbor said as the little car flew down the hill towards the glittering water. He was aware, he said, that in yesterday’s conversation he had only admitted to two. He had come here today vowing to be honest. There had been three marriages and three divorces. “I’m the full disaster,” he said.
I was thinking about how to reply when he said that another thing he needed to mention was his son, who was presently living at the family house on the island, and who was rather unwell. He was in an extremely anxious state and had been calling his father all morning. Those calls with no doubt continue over the next few hours and though he didn’t want to answer them, he would of course be obliged to.
I asked what was wrong with his son, and his bird-like face grew somber. Was I familiar with the condition called schizophrenia? Well, that was what his son suffered from. He had developed it in his 20s after leaving University, and had been hospitalized several times over the past decade, but for a number of reasons too complicated to explain, he was currently in his father’s care. My neighbor had judged that he was safe enough on the island, so long as he didn’t get his hands on any money. People were sympathetic there and still held the family in sufficient esteem to tolerate small difficulties, of which there had already been a number.
But a few days ago there had been a more serious episode, as a consequence of which my neighbor had had to ask the young man he had hired to be his son’s companion on the island to keep him under, as it were, house arrest. His son couldn’t bear incarceration, hence the constant phone calls, and when it wasn’t his son phoning, it was the companion who felt that the job was exceeding the terms of his contract and wanted to renegotiate his salary.
Steven Winn: One of the things that just happens just almost constantly is this extraordinary collection of sensory detail, and yet at the same time this narrative that’s sort of drawing us forward. We’re learning these things. There are three marriages instead of two, and so you’re drawn forward by the details, but then there’s that little boy on the motor scooter next to next to the car which just seems to sort of linger there as some– not a symbol exactly–but some component of Faye’s consciousness, that just are so wonderfully bound together. I mean, it’s hard to talk about it. Such organic wonderful writing. Does does this come readily to you? I know you’ve said that you spend a lot of time thinking about a book and then that they write relatively quickly.
Rachel Cusk: I do. I wrote “Outline” in three weeks, I have to admit.
Steven Winn: Oh my god. That’s criminal.
Rachel Cusk: It nearly killed me. But no, when I’m ready to write a book, you know, I know everything about it. So writing is literally writing it down.
Steven Winn: Heavily outlined or storyboarded or structured very clearly or written intuitively?
Rachel Cusk: No, I know everything that I’m going to do.
Steven Winn: You know all the encounters that Faye is going to have?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah pretty much. Yeah, but I’ve usually held that in my head rather than–I mean I got very used to, you know being the mother of children, and not being able to write when I wanted to, I got very used to holding enormous amounts of prose in my head and that, you know, even though they’re older now, I kind of still work like that.
Steven Winn: Argument for having distracting children for sort of a pressure.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah.
Steven Winn: Narrowing the aperture so much that you’ve got to pour a lot–
Rachel Cusk: It’s, I think it’s not very good for your health.
Steven Winn: Yeah, probably. True of the other books, also– they wrote as quickly?
Rachel Cusk: Yes.
Steven Winn: And when you say you wrote them in three weeks, is that a draft, or was that pretty much finished–
Rachel Cusk: No a full, a finished thing, yeah.
Steven Winn: Send it off to the agent after the, you know, type the last word?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah. “Kudos” I spent longer on. But I mean, that, you know your question about detail, and I guess that was my–those are the the road markers really for the places in which I am going away from narrative, from conventional narrative structure, because I’m trying to create associations that anyone could see. You know, I wanted in these books to write literally something that is, if somebody else was there, or passing or, they would have seen exactly the same thing. And it’s, you know, the only thing that the book does, or the narrator does, is notice. Notice a child on, a vulnerable child, on the back of a moped. Sort of at the same time as a man is telling you about his vulnerable child.
So it’s those kinds of links that to me seemed probably about as sort of unstructured as you could go, while still saying, this is a created work, a structured work.
Steven Winn: Well, it may have a sense of reality, but it also, for the reader, I mean there’s an intense literary pleasure. And it also, I mean the writing is so–I hate to use the word beautiful because it makes it sound precious or sort of polished. It’s just so rich in detail, and while one of us might notice the child, we might not necessarily make the connection that you do implicitly between what your neighbor is telling you and what you see there, so.
Rachel Cusk: Well, I don’t agree. I think that you would. I think you know part of what this voice is is, you know, it’s not a young voice. It’s a voice of experience. It’s a voice, a woman who you know, you don’t need to know what exactly happened to her, all the details, because we, you know, it’s happened to all of us in one form or another. Our illusions, you know, our belief in reality has decayed in some way, and so that feeling of wisdom, I guess, or of the self as something that has accumulated knowledge–
Steven Winn: Has accumulated knowledge and the ability to make these kind of connections.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, and I think it is my deepest belief that that is what a human being is. That is what humanity is. That’s the point of–
Steven Winn: To notice.
Rachel Cusk: Of living in time and okay, you know, a lot of the time is something you want to try and manage or deny or compartmentalize, but it also has this very distinct beauty, which is the knowledge that comes from it.
Steven Winn: That we gain from it. Are you surprised when when reviewers or readers make judgments about what kind of person Faye is? I mean The Guardian said the following: how does she manage–speaking of you–to paint such an abominable picture of this woman with a series of apparently neutral reasonable observations. I was sort of stunned by that. I mean, do you find Faye unlikable or or abominable in any way?
Rachel Cusk: No, I’ve never heard that.
Steven Winn: Yeah, I was–people say all sorts of nasty things. Yeah, I mean again, not to make the mistake of that autofiction means identity between writer and person, but there are various details about your life–which we know from your memoirs, among other things, and interviews and events like this–that do, you know concur or rhyme with things in Faye’s life. To what extent should we be tempted to think or tempted away from thinking–?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah that was a really deliberate, completely deliberate aspect of the books, in that one of the things that I was saying earlier that, you know, I felt sickened by in the end, was the lengths writer and reader go to convince each other and themselves that there is no link between the book and the person who wrote it. And the overvaluing of this thing, imagination, where a writer says, “okay, I’m going to research brain surgery, and my narrator is going to be a brain surgeon, and I’m going to spend pages and pages convincing the person reading the book that I am in fact a brain surgeon,” you know that there seems something so dishonest to me in the end in that construction, both for writer and reader. It almost amounts to me to kind of pornography, I guess, where you know, I’m going to make things up and then I’m going to transfer those imaginings to your head so that you can imagine them too, you know, without anything passing through reality. So I just wanted to make the world of the book as indistinguishable from what someone might imagine my world looked like as possible. And yeah one consequence is that people, when they talk to me about the book, very very often say, “oh the bit when you,” you know duh duh duh, so that’s the price I pay is it’s completely assumed that I’m just, you know, writing about myself.
Steven Winn: But it’s the price you’re willing to pay, I take it.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah.
Steven Winn: Yeah. You’ve also written memoirs. You’ve also written in that mode. Tell me about that, about that choice to write some truth or some rendering of your experience in fiction, and some of it in nonfiction. What’s–
Rachel Cusk: Well, I mean, this was the end of that process, was the need to find one form. I think my view of the novel was constrained in some way, I suppose by my, as I said earlier, my reverence for literary form, and increasingly, as I sort of went through life and and experienced it in pretty ordinary ways, but distinctly female ways, I couldn’t see how to describe that in the novel as I understood it.
Steven Winn: As you understood up to then.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, and so–
Steven Winn: Memoirs were a way towards this?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, so I sort of reached for that form and used it, and it completely malfunctioned. That that’s sort of–
Steven Winn: Malfunctioned in what sense?
Rachel Cusk: It’s turned out that essentially without the cleverness of Sheila Heti, you know her use of sort of the memoir, you make yourself a target.
And so everything that I was putting, exteriorizing, in order to universalize it, to say that, you know, these are the aspects which is how my process works. These are the aspects of living that I think, you know, they’re true for me and I guess I sense that they’re true for others and so I’m going to externalize them. Instead because of the subjects– motherhood, divorce– have many taboos around them, and the memoir allowed, I suppose, people to distance themselves and reject the material and say I don’t feel that, I don’t feel that about, you know, she feels that but I don’t, you know about motherhood.
Steven Winn: Because it was because it was presented as a memoir, it was somehow–
Rachel Cusk: Yeah.
Steven Winn: It particularized your experience, allowing people to distance themselves from it.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah. Yeah, and they could say that there was something wrong with me, rather than something wrong with it.
Steven Winn: Well, they certainly did say that over and over again. You got some some pretty brutal treatment. The New York Times said that your first book was career suicide, and many other things were said. And you were never more ruthless than you were with yourself. I mean, I just want to ask you a little bit about about some of those things.
When you and your husband at the time, and the father of your children, were divorcing and there was an issue of of who was going to have custody, even though your husband had done a great deal of the of the care of the children, you asserted they were your children because you are a woman and you went on and your husband challenged you–you should be a feminist– and you said I’m not a feminist, I’m a self-hating transvestite. I wonder if we could–I mean, I know it’s been a while ago. But if I mean, if we could revisit some of that. Is that stuff that you regret now or did you feel–
Rachel Cusk: No no, not at all. I mean as you’ve described it, it sounds like a completely un–
Steven Winn: Yeah, oh yes I want to apologize for unnuanced–
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, it sounds like an unmediated just kind of bleh you know, yes, whereas in fact–
Steven Winn: In context, yes, of course, I should have said that indeed.
Rachel Cusk: I mean the book “Aftermath” is relatively impersonal and that particular aspect of it, the woman, the I in the book saying the children belong to me, is in fact, if you look sort of carefully, but I think I didn’t make it obvious enough because it’s frequently misunderstood. She says, “I can’t believe I think this, I can’t believe that I, a feminist, who have, you know, what is this primitive sort of, you know, feeling, when, you know, wanting to, believing that I own my children?” And so there’s an awful lot of self-criticism in–
Steven Winn: I thought it was fearless and I imagine–I don’t know how much you heard this from readers and maybe not from critics–that there must have been a lot of women who endorsed what you were saying. And did you hear that from readers?
Rachel Cusk: No I don’t think anyone dared.
Steven Winn: Really!
Rachel Cusk: Well they do now, they do now.
Steven Winn: They do now, I’m sure.
Rachel Cusk: And the same is true of my motherhood book, which everyone went completely mad about as well. But that was slightly pre-internet. So it didn’t sort of reach so far. But yeah time is much kinder.
Steven Winn: You have a book of essays coming out this summer in which you–it’s an essay based on “Aftermath,” so you haven’t entirely left it behind. I mean, you still want to put that material out there in some ways, is that right?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah.
Steven Winn: And explain that–having in some ways having worked through this–why revisit it again, why put it out again?
Rachel Cusk: Well, it may be that I’ve made a terrible mistake in doing that. My belief was that most of the criticism of “Aftermath” came from people who hadn’t read it. And so I wanted to re-present an opportunity to read because it’s began as a yeah, an essay.
Steven Winn: And it reads wonderfully. I read it– I must confess, I did not read the entire book of “Aftermath,” but I read enough. And your qualifications about it are quite fair and important. That it seems again, I think, really remarkable grappling with things that we tend to think about in sort of categorical conventional ways now–that you’re supposed to feel certain things about motherhood and marriage, that it’s somehow seditious to to say otherwise.
Rachel Cusk: Well I seem to be magnetized by these particular areas in which, you know, I’m as interested in whether I also lied to myself, or deny things, or, you know, my use of myself as an example is completely thorough. You know, I have no particular interest in kind of my own story other than as an opportunity to, I guess, catch myself in, you know, making the same errors that anybody else does.
Steven Winn: Well Faye does some of this too. I mean, she’s constantly weighing things and reconsidering and being affected by what she sees and hears and thinking that things are not as she originally thought. She’s constantly re sort of calibrating her experience through all the books. It really–in a much, you know in a very wonderful way.
Let’s talk a little bit about your past. You were born in Saskatchewan and spent some part of your childhood in LA. Is that where–you’ve talked about the mediocre Catholic School you went to. Was that there?
Rachel Cusk: No no.
Steven Winn: That was back in England.
Rachel Cusk: No no so we moved to England when I was eight. I’m one of four children and we were dispatched to boarding schools. So that was a rather shocking change from a sort of freewheeling Californian sunlit world.
Steven Winn: You were here until you were eight, is that right? Mhm. Do you remember much of it?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, and that I didn’t return to LA between the ages of eight and fifty so.
Steven Winn: Ah.
Rachel Cusk: And I was sent there on a book tour and it was– because LA is fairly unmistakable in its light and colors and sensory atmosphere–so arriving there was lifting the lid off the tomb of, and there was, yeah, eight years of pretty intact childhood memory.
Steven Winn: So it really triggered those memories.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah and so I go back quite often now.
Steven Winn: Mmm. Yeah. You said you recently spent some time out here on the coast. You’ve talked about feeling that, among your siblings, that you were sort of the firebrand in a way, but that you remember that time of powerlessness a child, and I wonder when that feeling of powerlessness started to lift for you, and if writing was a way to take control in some ways. To assert power or to take control of your experience in a way that you didn’t feel you had as a child.
Rachel Cusk: I think–why do people become writers? Very often it is a real impatience with the version, the version that is played out in front of you for all sorts of reasons. And in my case, it was yeah, a big dominating family and dominating parents who I guess I listened to them. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever sort of moved really much beyond that. Of experiencing things alongside other people and then hearing what they had to say about it, and thinking, that’s not right, you know, that isn’t what happened. So I think writing very early on became my way of correcting, and the first sort of form that I chose was the diary, as everybody does.
Steven Winn: And when–you did that as an adolescent? You were writing?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, and I guess that was my first experience of publication, and it was very similar to my other experiences of publication, in that someone stole my diary, everybody read it, it was shown to the headmistress and I was expelled, so.
Steven Winn: What was in it that that was so implicated?
Rachel Cusk: I can’t really remember but.
Steven Winn: Saying nasty things about the nuns, or.
Rachel Cusk: Maybe anyway, it was.
Steven Winn: Has having had siblings helped to sort of triangulate your experience, that you can confer with your siblings about your growing up? And where are you in the sequence?
Rachel Cusk: Second.
Steven Winn: You’re the second. Have your siblings over the years–did they, have they helped sort out, “no that that’s not what happened with Mom and Dad, it was this?”
Rachel Cusk: Well I think, siblings, it’s a really interesting relationship because you are not friends quite. You’re people stuck in the elevator together, as it were, and it’s a sort of enforced maintaining of relationship. So it requires self-control and tolerance and the four of us have succeeded in keeping those, you know maintaining those bonds, rather against our tyrannical parents. So it’s–they don’t, I think that, I didn’t think I would be able to–in fact, this is, I’ve never thought about it before, so I’m thinking about it for the first time right now. I believe I would not have been able to write anything had they objected to it or tried to control my view of life. They’ve absolutely never done that so yeah, because it belongs to them too.
Steven Winn: They remain–there’s a great phrase, which I learned from reading your book of essays, “being sent to Coventry,” and wonder if you would explain what that means. It’s a kind of wonderful thing, awful wonderful thing.
Rachel Cusk: Yes, so to be sent to coventry in English-English is people decide that they’re going to stop speaking to you. So you’re given the silent treatment. And I don’t know why it’s coventry that you get sent to. I told you earlier that I never Google things and so I haven’t Googled it. Waiting to find out, but I honestly–
Steven Winn: I guess it’s kind of like being ghosted online, sort of the same kind of thing that you’re just–the guy who takes you out never calls you back and you’ve been ghosted and you don’t necessarily know why, you’re left to guess.
Rachel Cusk: Well, I mean in the, I mean the English-English schools are great breeding grounds for bullying and so it very much is a thing that comes from the English boarding school, you know how to drive a person mad. Everyone pretends that they’re not there.
Steven Winn: But it’s your parents who sent you to coventry.
Rachel Cusk: My parents did indeed send me to coventry.
Steven Winn: And have you ever worked it out or–?
Rachel Cusk: I think that I’m becoming more and more interested in what you might call the female voice, and particularly that female voice when, as it emerges from its various institutionalized incarnations of motherhood for example, or marriage or. Um, and I’m particularly interested in the ways in which parents and mothers in particular are in the background of expressive or creative, possibly upset, women of my generation. So that’s something that I’m just sort of feeling my way towards now, but in that is a pretty big accusation that I suppose I see someone of my generation as breaking a chain, breaking a, you know. Our mothers were harsh and failed to explain to us something totally fundamental, which was how it was clear we had to live lives that were very different from their lives. But at the same time we had to conform to all of the things that they felt constituted femininity. We have to still play by the female rules while you know, winning by the male rules.
And I mean that’s something I’ve written about in the past, but what that becomes once you’re out of–when you’ve done all that you’re meant to do and had your children and tried to have your career, and what that mother figure looks like, because you’ve been very nice to your own daughters and and treated them very differently. Yeah, so I feel a sort of harshness I guess.
Steven Winn: People often say they hear coming out of their mouths things exactly that their mothers or their fathers said to them. Is that true for you, or have you very carefully modeled yourself against the kind of mother that you experienced yourself, or have you taken aspects of it, or?
Rachel Cusk: I guess I’ve had this sort of sad experience of when I arrived at those moments, that of which there are many obviously, because the scenario of looking after children is, you know, often repeated, you know things are repeated. And I arrived at moments that I remember living as a child, and now I’m the parent of the child and I’m amazed that my mother reacted in the way that she did.
Steven Winn: In the way she did.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, because I feel so differently.
Steven Winn: We talked a little bit before about having children forcing you to write quickly. You said at one point if you hadn’t had children you’d have been a different kind of writer, a sort of a minor lyricist, and I wonder how, if you could just talk a little bit about how having children has made you the writer that you are in some ways.
Rachel Cusk: I think I mean what I said earlier about unfortunately being one of those people that has to experience things in order to know them. The extraordinary knowledge that has come by that, you know, very hard path. Because obviously the kind of work that I do is antithetical to looking after children, and you know, I haven’t been the kind of person too I suppose compartmentalize those things. So it’s all been very meshed together and meshed together in what I’ve–in the fact that I’ve also written about these things as well. And you know, I look at a writer like Grace Paley for instance, who similarly stayed very much in these areas and I guess didn’t have- I mean because really this is about power and you know, you can take your power sort of early on, but someone like Grace Paley, I feel her gaining power the more time passes, the more I–and Natalia Ginzburg is another example–you know, these people are becoming, you know, they’re dead, but they’re becoming more significant as more time passes. Yeah.
Steven Winn: Are there other writers that you look to as examples or inspirations, both as writers and as the way they’ve lived and the way they’ve?
Rachel Cusk: Well I think I’ve slightly kind of gone–I seem to have sort of left that terrain to an extent with these books, and I don’t know if I can ever come back to being the kind of reader that I used to be.
Steven Winn: Kind of reader you were before. Yeah. I understand that. People have asked and I guess you’ve given an answer to this, that “Kudos” is the conclusion of this, but might there be another book? Is it necessarily a trilogy or?
Rachel Cusk: No there can’t be. There definitely can’t be. I could write–I literally could write 500 boooks in this form, because now that I’ve understood how it works.
Steven Winn: Yeah. It’s no spoiler alert for how “Kudos” ends, but. Well both– “Transit” has an interesting ending, which people have speculated was you sort of leaving a certain kind of–that great domestic scene, that quarrelsome party that happens at the end of “Transit”–was a kind of aubade or a bidding farewell to a certain kind of writing you’ve done in the past. Is that, does that seem right to you in any way?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, I guess at that point I was becoming very interested in bringing the sort of affectless, more diplomatic voice that I was using, where you know, I found I was able to say, to present much of the material of, for instance, my memoirs. To use the same material and instead of people going mad and getting furious they danced around and were happy, you know and really pleased and so, you know, that was kind of interesting. But in the end I still wanted to land my punches and I still wanted to say what I knew of this world that I describe,and a big part of that is about cruelty, and cruelty to children, and cruelty of social, the social sort of structures that people live in. And I guess that, I mean “Transit” is the bitterest of the three books, and it was indeed the hardest to write because I so didn’t want to go back in the house, you know, having been put out of the house and gotten used to it. I didn’t want to go back in and yeah, yeah.
Steven Winn: One thing that’s said, and this seems, the cruelty theme is certainly there, but also these, so many people that Faye meets– and it’s true for her also–are about trying to cast off false selves, or trying to find their way to the truth, even if inadvertently or unwittingly. Does that seem right to you?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah and I think it is not true for everyone, but it’s true enough that that process is a process of loss. Of losing things and having to change, and that change–and I mean really that is the question of “Kudos,” of this last book–is, does, you know, what is the value of suffering and does it confer honor? You know, is it an honorable route? There are so many suspects and discredited ways of thinking, you know, including religion and psychoanalysis. That, well not discredited exactly, but, you know, we all know that telling a story in order to reassure yourself that, you know, afterwards, that the things that happened to you had some kind of meaning. Trying to heal yourself by saying, this is what happened to me and it’s made me, you know, the person I am today. If that isn’t true, you know, where are we? And yeah, that’s it. Those are important questions to me anyway.
Steven Winn: Well speaking of questions, I can’t believe an hour’s past. It’s just flown by. We’re going to open it up for questions from you now. I know we have a small group, but this will be on the radio. So your voices are much valued. If you do have a question, please raise your hand, we have someone with a mic.
Audience Member 1: Thank you for writing and all the enjoyment I got out of it. I was wondering how you navigated the difficulty of incorporating material from your very personal life, and the consequences of doing that, and if there are ever things that you’ve kind of held back on, or did you feel that were so important that, so salient, they had to make it even though it might have consequences for you in real life?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, that about sums it up. No I’m pretty, what’s the word, sort of practical I guess when it comes to deciding sort of what my material is, and I don’t seem able to consider myself as a social being when I’m kind of making those decisions. It, and by the same token I– probably 90% of my life is not of any use in my writing. I mean, you know I’ve mentioned, because you asked, the school that I went to, boarding school.
Steven Winn: Never written about it.
Rachel Cusk: And yeah, occasionally people said, oh you should write about that, and I think well, that’s the lie, you know, because that doesn’t happen to very many people, and unless I could find a way of, sort of metaphor for it, you know, some other kind of institutionalized life that everybody would recognize, I would never write about it. So yeah, and then in reverse I suppose there’s a sort of very un-careful use of material that, yeah don’t, can very definitely upset people and cost me relationships.
Steven Winn: Do people say that to you a lot–what you should write about, or have suggestions for you?
Rachel Cusk: Not anymore.
Steven Winn: Too hot. Let’s have another question.
Audience Member 2: Hi, thanks. This is this is really interesting. I’m curious how you think about setting? The settings in the first two books were sort of specific and named places. And then in the third book wasn’t named but seemed just as specific, so I’m curious about that.
Rachel Cusk: Um. Well, I mean, there’s two very important sort of points to–. I mean one is location and one is time, and those two things together are how I locate, how I have located, each of the three books. And the time points is a very important one, in that it’s brief periods of time when this woman is not looking after her children. And you know, one thing that I’ve sort of worried about, that has, I’ve occasionally kind of got the impression that people read Faye as a person who sort of is never with her children, and has kind of abandoned them in some global way, whereas in fact the books are very specifically a few days spaced over quite a few years when she happens not.
Steven Winn: And “Kudos” takes place seemingly quite a bit farther on in time, ten years, maybe huh something like that.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah. So that point about time then also determines the location, in that very often the– I mean what I was sort of after was a quality of transience and sort of anonymity that I felt did characterize this sort of glimmering bit of life that I was very interested in trying to kind of get hold of, and I felt that for a lot of people that was, that would be quite familiar. And even though I’m not, you know a person who has a job or– I think people do recognize these spaces, these kind of non-times and non-places, where you’re, you’ve gone somewhere for work for a few days. You meet people and have rather strange conversations with them. Very occasionally you’ll meet one of them again somewhere else. So that, location-wise, that was what I was after, and the anonymity of of that in “Kudos” is, I suppose, an attempt to take flight from the specificness of my own material.
Steven Winn: Yeah anybody’s ever been to a convention of any kind can identify with that sort of placeless weird– although people, readers can’t resist trying to work it out. I mean, I read somewhere some, one review confidently asserted that “Kudos” takes place in Lisbon, which I won’t ask you to confirm or deny, but I want to ask you if people do try to work out who people are in the book. Oh, that’s so and so.
Rachel Cusk: Okay. I mean Knausgaard–talking of Knausgaard–he makes at least four appearances according to–so um yeah there’s. And of course, you know, all of these things were to be expected, given that I didn’t make everyone brain surgeons.
Steven Winn: Right.
Rachel Cusk: If I’d made everybody into brain surgeons then this argument be going on in the brain surgery community and none of us would know anything about it.
Steven Winn: Right. So do you maintain an enigmatic silence on all these points?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah.
Steven Winn: Ok good. Another question? Over here.
Audience Member 3: Hi, I was just wondering, when people get upset about what you’ve written, are they mad about the characters’ choices, or that you’ve written about it at all?
Rachel Cusk: Well, the things that people have got upset about are the memoirs that I wrote, and that level of anger has never been aroused by the novels. And yeah, I mean the, I mean, I think I was saying earlier that I’m just as interested in myself being hypocritical about such things, as you know.
I have a woman friend who has recently had a baby, having talked for literally 10 years about how much she wanted this to happen, and then it happened, and almost as soon as it did she began to complain about how awful it was having a baby. And she’s a very very honest person and an artist and I admire her greatly, but I even felt in myself a twinge of annoyance, of, you know, you wanted this baby and how can you now? And it really really interested me to feel that, and I thought okay, that’s still part of the human. So you know, I think I just have an unfortunate ability to, in wanting to prove these things, I make myself the way that they can be proved, and, you know, in what I managed to do in these books was, I suppose, to an extent reverse, simply turn that around, so that me proving things was happening at a different end of the process, and I was not visible as a target. And that kind of seemed to work much better.
Steven Winn: You think there’s a kind of–it’s a conspiracy of silence or, but a–some sort of secret pact among parents to glorify parenthood and not acknowledge that it’s often unbelievably tedious and boring and sometimes more than that? A celebration of childhood?
Rachel Cusk: I think we would need several more hours to get to the bottom of that. And in fact I’ve written an essay sort of vaguely about this stuff, which is in the same collection, which says that yes, that’s true. There is a conspiracy, until the children become adolescent, at which point suddenly it totally changes, and everyone starts telling you how awful it is and how terrible, whereas actually for me, that was like the really good bit.
Steven Winn: When your kids grow up and they actually start engaging with an adult.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah. Yeah, teenage children.
Steven Winn: It does seem to be parents either goone of two ways with that. Either they feel their children become aliens when they turn thirteen or something, or they welcome them as actual participant humans, a different way.
Rachel Cusk: But I mean, you know, that’s, I think, the sort of inside and outside of parenthood is, or family life, anyways, it’s really interesting. It’s something that kind of fascinates me, because it is a form, and I guess the pressure of, you know, the ways in which people inhabit that form. Partly because you’re not entirely conscious this is a form and yeah, you know you vaguely think, oh I’m saying these things that, as you said earlier, that I remember my parents saying this to me, and you get these little glimpses of the fact that you’re actually–bit like, you know, the Truman project, that film where everything is–.
Steven Winn: It turns out you’re living inside a vast bubble.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah. So and, you know, another thing, I mean in that same Coventry essay about silence, I think I make the point that you know, people start to verbalize when they’re around, you know, babies, dogs, you know, they start to talk out loud. And this is something that families very much also do– they enact themselves for others to view them. So, you know, what is true and what isn’t, what people say and what they feel, what you know, that there are big big big mysterious opaque areas.
Steven Winn: Well speaking of forms and and life as theater in certain way, I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about your experience of working with “Medea” and how that was, and if it is something that you would like to do again, to work in in the theatrical form.
Rachel Cusk: So I think the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life was sitting in the seats of a theater like this one, watching the play.
Steven Winn: What you wrought.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah being enacted. And I suppose I’d never really thought about how much, how much hiding and concealment is involved in writing and in reading. Both ends of the process and and it was so, you know, the nakedness of theater was completely terrifying to me.
Steven Winn: Caught you by surprise that that happened?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah it really did so. And yet it has this kind of dynamic power. I mean in the week of rehearsals and dress rehearsals–and I was literally writing new material because the actors were saying, oh I it would really help if there was a line duh duh duh. Writing this material, giving it to them, and then it was enacted. So that felt like a very, yeah, powerful and exciting.
Steven Winn: In your version Medea does not kill the children?
Rachel Cusk: No.
Steven Winn: Is that right? We’re ready for an explanation of that? Why was that? Why did you not go where the play goes?
Rachel Cusk: Because it seemed to me that we know from Freud, and we’ve known for ages, that these are not literal events, they are psychological stages and psychological predicaments, and what it means now for a woman to kill her children. I mean if a woman kills her children now she is–there’s something very wrong with her. And that’s a very unusual thing to happen. And to write a play about that, or anything about that, you would be writing something about a very very rare and unusual event. In the world of Medea, in Euripedes’s world of it, it doesn’t have the same–it doesn’t mean the same thing, and the play is not about a woman who feels things about motherhood that lead her to kill her children.
Steven Winn: It’s about her betrayal.
Rachel Cusk: Yeah it’s about revenge. So the book is–the play is about divorce. The play is about people arguing. Two people fighting. And to me the killing of the children is the damaging of children in the divorce scenario.
Steven Winn: Once you got over your terror of opening night, how did it go for you? How do you feel about it now?
Rachel Cusk: Yeah, it interested me that for the first time my children and their friends showed an interest in my, or sort of knew about, my work. So it became clear to me that theater has a attraction for young people. It can do something for them that that novels can’t do. And so I felt very impressed by that.
Steven Winn: The great story, a story about a woman who sort of kills her children really being attractive to your children. That’s a great breakthrough all the way around.
Rachel Cusk: Well in fact somebody wanted to make a film of exactly that. Yes.
Steven Winn: Wonderful.
Rachel Cusk: I’m meant to be writing something about it.
Steven Winn: Well, we’re almost out of time. I’m going to ask if we could go out with you reading something from “Kudos” that you’ve selected so we can have your voice in prose at the end, and afterwards Rachel will be signing books at the table in the back. So here we are. And maybe you should set this up so we know where we are.
Rachel Cusk: Yes, I’m just going to read a little bit at the end of the book when the narrator is spending time with two women, and they all talk about their experiences of marriage and motherhood. And anyway, this is sort of at the beginning of that when they’re walking through the city and the woman Paola is taking her to a place that she wants her to see.
It is a little strange what we are about to see, Paola said as we walked. I found it by chance a few years ago. I was passing nearby and the strap of my sandal broke, and so I needed somewhere to sit and fix it. I saw that this church was open and I went inside not thinking anything about it, and I got quite a shock.
Some 50 years before, she said, the church had been ravaged one night by a terrible fire, whose intensity was such that the very stones had lifted and the leading of the windows melted away and two of the firefighters had lost their lives putting it out. But instead of restoring the church, the decision was made simply to repair the structural aspects of the building, which continued to be used as a regular place of worship, despite the disturbing extremity of its appearance and the violent events to which that appearance testified.
Inside it is completely black, she said, and the walls and ceiling are warped like the inside of a cave where the layers of stone have expanded, and the fire, even while it devoured whatever paintings and statues had been there, left everywhere a pattern of its own, in which one believes one can glimpse ghostly images.
Everywhere, everywhere, there are these strange half shapes, like melted wax, and then in other places, sheared areas where the stonework was split into two by the heat, and empty plinths and alcoves where things are missing, and the texture of the whole thing is so densely affected that it is almost no longer man-made, as if the trauma of the fire had turned it into a natural form.
I don’t know why, she said, but I find the sight of it extremely moving. The fact that it has been allowed to continue in its true state, she said, when everything else around it has been replaced and cleaned up has a meaning that I’m not quite able to understand or articulate, and yet people continue to go there and act as if everything is normal.
At first I thought that someone had made a terrible mistake, she said, in letting it stay like that, as if they thought no one would notice what had happened. And when I saw people inside praying or hearing mass, I thought it was indeed possible that somehow they hadn’t realized, and this seemed so awful that I wanted to scream at everyone there and force them to look at the black walls and the emptiness.
But then I noticed, she said, that in certain places where statues had obviously been, new lights had been installed, which illuminated the empty spaces. These lights, she said, had the strange effect of making you see more in the empty space than you would have seen had it been filled with a statue.
And so I knew, she said, that the spectacle was not the result of some monstrous neglect or misunderstanding, but was the work of an artist.
Steven Winn: Rachel Cusk, thank you so much for being here, it has just been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.