Go Forth (Vol. 33)

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Go Forth is a series that offers a look into the publishing industry and contemporary small-press literature. See more of the series.

The Hopeful: On Selfhood, Anti-heroines and the Power of Manifesting “A Small Change”

An Interview with Tracy O’Neill

Tracy O’Neill was recently awarded The Center for Fiction’sprestigious NYC Emerging Writer fellowship. Her debut novel The Hopeful is forthcoming from IG Books in summer 2015. The Hopeful is at once a lyrical confessional and an intimate coming-of-age portrait, detailing the harrowing story of a young figure skating champion who confronts the boundaries of what is physically and psychologically possible within the conflicting and yet overlapping realms of championship sports, personal obsession, and addiction.  What emerges is a tale of hope, truth and resilience.  

 I recently had the chance to sit down with one of Brooklyn’s exciting new voices and speak with her about the construction of her debut novel.

—Ann DeWitt 

I. THE BODY AS A DIVORCED VESSEL FROM THE MIND

THE BELIEVER: I really loved the structure and voice of the book. When I first got to the chapter where your narrator, Alivopro, is speaking with the psychologist, it reminded me a bit of a mathematical or psychological proof, where she’s trying to talk to both herself and her therapist about issues of selfhood and guilt. I thought of the Didion book Play It As It Lays. I wondered if you could talk about the decision in your book to work in this confessional tone, where the main character, the kind of anti-heroine Alivopro, similar to Didion, is speaking directly to the therapist/reader about how she might or might not be responsible for her own undoing. 

TRACY O’NEILL: One of the reasons I decided to weave this narrative through the therapy scenes was so that this narrator could exist in two time frames at once.  When she is going through her own moral reckoning, I wanted it to be happening in real time, whereas the bulk of the narrative takes place in the past.  I wanted there to be dialogue between those two chronologies. 

BLVR: There’s a real levity and immediacy to those passagesespecially the first time the reader encounters themwhere it almost feels as though we are being confronted with those same moral questions. 

TO: Part of that decision is that if we are to only see Ali through the main part of the narrativethe middle of the frameshe can be a lot more grating, and so we need the therapy scenes to see how, if at all, she’s changed. I think about that a lot. For one thing, I ask myself: what is a story?  And one way of thinking about a story is: a story involves a change. I wanted it to be a very subtle change.

There’s also the fact that, at the time, Ali could not have been having this moral reckoning, and really, I think this character would only be able to do that within this context I’ve createdwhere she’s essentially institutionalized and sits around and is forced to think. 

BLVR: And in some ways you confront that directly when the therapist asks her: “How can you let go of the past? Why can’t you let go of the past and instead envision a future where you forgive yourself?”   

TO: This might be opening a whole can of worms but one of the big things I was thinking about when I wrote this book was: 1.) What constitutes the self? and 2.) Where is the self located? So, there are a number of theories about what the self is. And I think that the mind-body divorce is very Cartesian in a sense. I think a lot of people accept as truth that somehow the mind and the body are separate entities. And then some people believe in a soul, which is sort of different also. But, as Ali is moving through this story, part of the reason the body becomes important is that, to me, the body is also a constant reminder of death. And she’s dealing with the death of a particular self. We want to think about there being maybe more than one self, which is something that I think she does believe. She believes there’s this self that’s tied to the will. There’s this self that’s metacognitive. There’s the self that’s tied to the body. And the last two are selves that really let her down. 

BLVR: The book has this almost manic fascination with the body as a divorced vessel from the mind. There’s a line in the book where the father says, “The body is a phase. The mind is permanent.” The father is this pseudo-intellectual guy who is interested in PBS specials and wants his daughter to go to Harvard.  So, in a basic sense, it feels like to crack this book open is to talk about that mind-body schism. Is that how you thought about the main character, Alivopro? 

TO: Yes. And at the same time in the book I’m trying to grapple with the sense that maybe the self is constituted by autobiography. By the story. And that is something you can trace back to a number of different thinkers in slightly different ways. Daniel Dennet talks about that, of the self as being like a fiction, if not specifically a fiction. Antonio Damasiowho does more pop science—talks about the autobiographical self. I don’t really have an answer about what the self is or where it is.  But it was a question which I was grappling with. 

II. THE IDEA OF THE MEANINGFUL LIFE

BLVR: It’s really beautiful to hear you say that within that Cartesian frame, or map, the self that let her down was really the one that was located in the body. In that way, one of the propellers of this narrative is the actual physicality of the sport of figure skating itselfwhich was  beautifully written about.  I’ve read some of your other non-fiction for Rolling Stone about skating and how that works. But there was one particularly beautiful passage in the novel where you describe skating as: “Frictionless flying. Sliding. This was self-actuality.” I was wondering if you could talk about these passages which detail the actual sport of skating.  Is that coming from autobiographical experience? 

TO: I did figure skate when I was younger. And one of the reasons I decided to situate this novel within the world of figure skating is that it’s a bizarre sport that does very directly play out the problems of the mind, the body and the soul. A number of people have asked whether figure skating should be talked about as a sport or as an art. 

BLVR:  Do you feel that the idea of the pursuit of perfectionor the obsessive pursuit of perfectionis a way of pursuing self-aggrandizement or pursuing death? There’s obviously a strong death instinct within this character.   

TO: I don’t necessarily think it has to be one or the other. I think it’s also about the idea of the meaningful life. It’s almost become this cliché that we’re supposed to live meaningful lives and have meaningful relationships and have meaningful work. And I think this character particularly doesn’t understand what that means. I meanwho does! But she’s trying to seek this very physical understanding of it because she is aware that the mind is couched in this body. She doesn’t think that the mind persists after death. She thinks about this very finite being that we have, this existence. And she thinks that this is this ideal version of vitality and life and meaning. 

BLVR: That’s interestingly mirrored in the backdrop of this story. The voice of those sections is very different. It almost sort of reminds me of an Alice Munro or James Salter-esque voice writing about the very quotidian, banal nature of everyday American life, her family. I wondered how you thought about the creation of this family backdrop?  Is it a play that’s going on in the background that’s there to enliven these feelings that Ali is dealing with? 

TO: The voice of Ali was really the beginning of the story. When I first started working on this it was actually a six-page short story. It’s the middle section of the first chapter. It starts with her waking up and reckoning with herself. I do believe that most people are conducting their lives trying to find a sense of meaning or extraordinariness. 

III. ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MAKES US HUMAN IS OUR ABILITY TO HOPE

BLVR: You talk in one section of the book about what you call “the privacy of the self.” You talk about Ali’s obsession with watching the replay of figure skating routines and her thinking that success in the sport all goes back to trying to trap a child’s body in time. I wondered if this desire to retreat to a child-like posture or body overlapped with this other dialogue in the book about identity and adoption? Is there something about that idea of reverting to a child-like self that related to being confronted, maybe unfairly, with having to meet this biological mother and thinking, “Do I want to take on this new identity?”   

TO: Definitely. When we’re kids, we might not even think completely of the self as a thing at all. And that’s reflected in the one character, Emma Closerman, who confuses I and You when she’s talking with her mother. Part of what Ali is doing throughout this entire book is talking about this fractured identity: I’m not sure if my self is body, soul, or meta-cognitive mind. I would like to retreat to this childlike state where I can put those pieces back together and then maybe pull them apart again.  Go back to this sense of wholeness that she has essentially mythologized

BLVR: Could you talk about how that does or does not relate to the adoption narrative and the choice you make to have her confront her biological mother later in life? 

TO: I thought about the extent to which the self is a function of a family. Nature verses nurture. One thing Ali questions is: “Would I be a different person if I had been raised by this other mother?” She has a sense of the body being destiny. But she’s not quite sure if the nurture aspects are. I think that she is trying to find out what that alternative story is because she also does feel that’s she’s made a mistake and she doesn’t want to admit it. 

BLVR: Interesting. You started the interview by saying you wanted to show that she’d made a small psychological change. So, in your mind, where does she end up at the end of the book in terms of the nature verses nurture debate?   

TO: I think at the end of the story she still thinks of herself as a self-made person. I would say the small change that happens in the story is that she’s able to think of herself as being part of humanity and not an uber-mensch, to understand that maybe one of the things that makes us human is our ability to hope, and to not be so disappointed with being human. 

BLVR: That seems to tie back to the origin of her name, Alivopro. Her dad talks about the origin of her name several times in the book. She talks about her own name as kind of a guiding principle or a rubric she needs to live up to. I love the nameit’s complex and lyrical and beguiling. It seemed in some ways it had to do with your really intense understanding of language as a writer, how you make meaning out of a sentence.

TO: Alis volat propiis is a fairly well-known phrase in Latin which means “she flies with her own wings.” It has this special history which I talk about, which ties in with the dad’s college dreams for his daughter. There’s also a sense of independence in that sentence, and being an independent person is really important to Ali. Also, I think figure skating is a lot like what we imagine flying to feel like. You mentioned the word “frictionless” earlier, and I think part of what I wanted to talk about in this book was that hopes can be frictionless, even when they bring us into dark places.  Many people who have read this book have talked about how it is a very dark book.  But I think for me, it’s sort of empowering in the sense that I really love this idea that hope is limitless.

Ann DeWitt’s writing has appeared in NOON, Guernica, BOMBlog, Esquire’s Napkin Fiction Project, The Believer Logger, art+culture, Everyday Genius, The Faster Times, elimae, and Dossier Magazine, amongst others, and is forthcoming in the anthology, Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, edited by Alan Ziegler due out in 2014.  Ann holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia School of the Arts.  She was a Founding Editor of Gigantic: A Magazine of Short Prose and Art in 2008.  She currently teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University and in The Art and Design History and Theory department at Parsons, The New School, and her first novel is forthcoming from Tyrant Books.  For more of her work, please follow her blog at:  http://talllikethreeapples.wordpress.com.