Interview with Martha McPhee,
author of L'America
Martha McPhee is the author of the novels Bright Angel Time, a New York Times Notable Book in 1997, and Gorgeous Lies, nominated in 2002 for a National Book Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She teaches creative writing at Hofstra University and lives in New York City with her children and husband, the poet and writer Mark Svenvold.
A first kiss, do you remember? Gentle at first, his lips exploring every curve of her neck, then hungry, then greedy. . . . "Tu sei perfetta," Cesare whispered into her ear, and his words became all of her body.
Cesare is a cosseted Italian boy, raised in the wealthy town where his family has lived for five hundred years. Beth is an ambitious American dreamer, born to hippies and raised on a rural commune. In the brilliant sunshine of a small Greek island they meet—and begin a transforming love affair that spans two continents, two decades, and two lifetimes. As their passion struggles against the pull of culture and country, their story unfolds against the backdrop of a lush Italian landscape and the thrumming streets of New York, catalyzed by the events of September 11. A sensuous immersion in place, an acute exploration of the divide between old world and new, L'America is above all an evocation of the dizzying, life-changing power of first love.
The novel of an American in Europe has a long and lustrous pedigree. With this dreamily exquisite story Martha McPhee joins the ranks of its most impressive practitioners.
Q: In L'America cultural differences prevent two people from creating a life together despite their lifelong love. What inspired you to address such a sensitive issue—especially one that conflicts with the optimistic "love conquers all" concept?
A: One of the questions that propelled me to write this story was this: What happens if two people love each other so impossibly, but their love of patria, even if unwitting, is stronger? What do they do with the love? How do they fight against it? How do they come to terms with the amorphous, abstract love they have for their culture? How do they reconcile the two? I began writing this novel at a time when the entire nation grieved the loss of life that occurred on September 11 – not only the loss of life but the very attacks, of course. Everyone was wittingly patriotic. Patriotism was something I did not think about as a young woman, yet the pull of my culture was magnetic. It had a hold on me that defined me and shaped the direction of my life no matter what I thought I wanted. I suppose in some ways in writing L’America I wanted to understand that through the notion of love, precisely because of the cliché that love conquers all. In the case of my characters, Beth and Cesare, patria triumphs even when they both try to fight against it. Even though patria wins, their love still exists, this enormous, untamed force that coexists with them as they make their way across their lives. In theory I find it heartbreaking: to love impossibly but to love something abstract and amorphous more.
Q: Cesare is from Italy with five hundred years of family tradition to follow. Beth is from America—a land that disregards the historical roots of its inhabitants and purportedly judges its members by their actions—not those of their fathers. Do you think that modern Americans are naïve about the existence and importance of cultural differences between countries? That they do not and cannot grasp the concept that bound Cesare to his traditions—the very concept that separated him from Beth?
A: I don’t think I can answer for all Americans. I think we try very hard to understand other cultures. We are the melting pot, of course. But we also ask people to assimilate – the quicker, the better. In terms of my characters, Beth wanted Cesare to give America a chance because she understood that somehow he wanted to shape and define himself, pursue his own, free himself from the shackles of tradition and history. Cesare wanted Beth to come to Italy because he knew that ultimately he could not come to America and he thought it would be easier and better for her, safer. But he also knew he could not ask of her what he could not ask of himself. Ultimately, however, both are equally bound to and by their respective cultures and both underestimate the power of those ties.
Q: L'America is different from your previous novels in that the tone—at Cesare-inspired points—exudes the nostalgic feel of Italy and its history. You then switch tones to emphasize the more hectic lifestyle of America—Beth's world. How did you mentally and logistically approach writing the novel from these two cultural perspectives?
A: L’America is also different from the first two novels also because it has nothing to do with my family. My family is not the seed of inspiration here. That was a tremendous relief. I had so much more fun writing this book than the previous two and it was much faster to write as a result. I love Italy. I lived there for a couple of years. I have great friends who are Italian. My sister, Jenny, is married to an Italian, has two Italian boys. In my twenties I loved wildly an Italian man. I speak Italian fluently. I cook Italian food like an Italian. I make my own pasta and polenta. Indeed, I feel that I am half Italian. It was fun and also second nature to sink into this subject.
Q: We know very early on that Beth will not survive, and yet there is only one brief instance where you mention the probable cause of her death. Was there a particular reason why you chose this approach? Is her manner of death less important than the other aspects of the novel?
A: I believe there are a few more brief instances where I allude to September 11 and the way in which Beth died – chapters 1, 3, 6, and 8. But it is very subtle and it is not the focus of the novel. I started writing L'America in earnest in the months after September 11 and as I worked on the first chapter the calamity appeared without me directing it. It made sense, however, because as much as the story was going to be a love story it would also be a story about the intersection of the public and the private, about the historical and the personal meeting. We lead private lives but history can kill us. We think we are not a part of history but even so, it can kill us. I knew the moment I realized that September 11 would be a part of the novel that I would not address the day head on. I wanted to explore the life of my character—the myths that shaped her—not her death. I did not want her death to ultimately define her. There has beeen so much written now in both nonfiction and fiction about the death on that day. I knew that would not be a focus of mine, rather life would be the focus. I believe anyone making art today in any shape is colored and influenced to some degree by that devastation. In any case, I was. I questioned my choice, struggled with it, if you will. Ultimately it felt dishonest to try to find some other event to stand in the place of September 11. There is no other such event for this country in this historic period.
Q: Would you characterize L'America as a sad love story?
A: I suppose, but if they lived happily ever after there really would be no story. The story lies, for me, in their predicament. At the same time, they experienced a fabulous, impossible love that ends up sustaining them across their lives without stopping them from marrying and having children and loving others—living. That I can’t characterize as sad. As I think about it, indeed I find they are very lucky to have and hold that experience in their hearts. Surely it expands their hearts. (I’m talking about these characters as if they were real and as if I am psychoanalyzing them. All of this analysis does not happen when I am writing. But it is fun to think of them as living, breathing people whom I can make judgments about and comment upon.) Their lives are bigger for the experience and I find that hopeful even if they don’t ultimately get to be together physically.
Q: The Cellini fresco that hangs in Cesare's ancestral home figures prominently in the story of Cesare and Beth's relationship. Which of the fresco's characters epitomizes Beth—Valeria or Benvenuto?
A: Beth and Cesare, Valeria and Benvenuto are lovers everywhere – their love frozen, just as love stops time.
Q: Did being nominated for a National Book Award (Gorgeous Lies) very early in your writing career affect your approach to writing subsequent novels?
A: No. It was a wonderful day when I got the call telling me I had been nominated. Gorgeous Lies was a very painful book to write. It took me six years. I doubted it. I wanted to give up writing. Shortly before learning of the nomination I received a terrible New York Times review. I have never been able to read it because I couldn’t handle any more pain regarding that book. The nomination would have been magnificent in any light, but because of my history with this novel it was particularly resplendent. But I can’t say it affected my approach to writing novels. that would be a mistake because it would mean I was relying on some outside circumstance or notion. I always have and I always will want to write the best that I possibly can. I can say that I have learned that not everyone is going to like what I write and, at times, the opinions can be diametrically opposed and thus I also have learned that the only thing to do is to keep on moving forward, writing that which compels me, that which is most urgent to me.
Q: What are your plans for future projects? Will you continue exploring how culture affects relationships?
A: My next novel is all about money and I am hoping to take the subject on with a sense of humor. I do, however, think different cultural responses to money will inevitably seep in. I feel I learn the most when I hold a familiar situation up against a foreign one.
MARTHA McPHEE is the author of two previous novels, Bright Angel Time and Gorgeous Lies, which was a National Book Award Finalist. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She teaches at Hofstra University and lives in New York.
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