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On Painting Your Lobster: An Interview with Nell Freudenberger

by Michael Liss

By Michael Liss

Nell Freudenberger
's debut novel The Dissident explores the cultural collision of a famous Chinese artist/political activist and the Los Angeles family who hosts him during his artist's residency at their daughter's high school. The novel, which interweaves four points of view, was named a 2006 Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. It follows Lucky Girls, Freudenberger's acclaimed short story collection about Americans abroad in Southeast Asia and India, inspired by her experiences living in Bangkok and New Delhi.

Michael Liss: How did you first end up overseas?

Nell Freudenberger: I went to Bangkok after I graduated from college for the year, teaching at a government high school. I went to India for a couple of months after I finished, and then the following summer I went back to New Delhi and taught at a NGO school for slum kids.

ML: How did your time abroad change your perspective of America?

NF: It was the first time I ever thought about being an American in any kind of real way. There's something about our geographic and maybe political isolation that makes it hard to have any interesting thoughts about being American while you're here. In Thailand, I think there were 40 English teachers and the other 39 were middle-aged Thai ladies. I felt like I was kind of on display, that everything I did was something that all Americans must do. It just made me very conscious of what that meant.

ML: In your stories and in the novel, ex-pats seem to be dealing with themes of alienation and displacement. There's a disconnection for them.

NF: I think of the stories as an expression of the excitement and the beauty, my joy of living there. But in the first story, the character has to make a choice about staying or going. I don't think it's really a choice; I think you always go. It's hard for me to imagine staying somewhere and becoming enough a part of the place that you felt like it's where you belong.

There was one woman in Bangkok who taught a class on teaching English as a second language. She was a really big, redheaded Texan who had married a Thai policeman. We had been taught how to fit in culturally, but near the end she gave us this lecture about how you won't ever really fit in. She demonstrated it by taking us to her mother-in-law's house, a traditional Thai stilted house outside of Bangkok on a river. She came in and prostrated herself in front of the Buddha and did everything you were supposed to do, but it was very clear that she occupied a really special status in this family. She was never going to be the perfect Thai daughter-in-law. That's more interesting to me than how you might go about fitting in.


ML: The collection features American characters abroad, but with the novel you reversed that, bringing the foreigner here. What did you want to explore by flipping the equation?

NF: It's never like that when you're thinking of an idea. I was thinking I would write a novel that happened in L.A., where I grew up, and I didn't plan for it to have any Asian influence. Then I started thinking about my high school and this teacher who came to be a visiting scholar. He was a Chinese ink painter who didn't speak English. You started out by painting a rock, and if you did the rock okay then you could paint bamboo, and if you graduated from bamboo finally he let you paint a lobster. These classes were completely silent because no one spoke each other's language; it seemed bizarre at the time, but even weirder looking back. I loved those classes. I was a really ungifted art student, but I liked that he was the only art teacher I'd had who said, "No, you did that wrong." He'd tear off what you had made, crumple it up and have you start again. It made sense to me in terms of how I learned to write-that you would learn by copying something, doing it wrong over and over again until you finally came to something that was more your own.

ML: As you started writing through that character's point of view, did you surprise yourself with some of your observations of America and where you grew up?

NF: Yeah, and I think that's what you aim for with a fictional character. It doesn't have to be someone who's foreign, but you just want to get far enough or at a strange enough angle from your own experience that you don't recognize it as such.

ML: What was it like going from writing tight short stories to a multi-perspective novel?

NF: It was more comfortable for me than the stories. The pleasure is getting to spend three years with these characters, as opposed to a few months. On the other hand, stories are more satisfying because you finish them more often. I've always been more interested in writing novels. The book of stories came out of writing one and publishing it and having somebody say, "You should write a book of short stories." I thought, "I've always wanted to write a novel and maybe I should try to do that." But then people said, "Well, why don't you expand that short story into a novel," which is just a silly suggestion. That's not the way ideas work.

ML: How many trips did you make to China for your research?

NF: I went three times.

ML: Had you been previously?

NF: No. I'd been studying Mandarin and I'd wanted to go. Someone from the State Department approached me about doing a cultural exchange program, so I was able to get them to send me. I talked to students at different schools in different cities in China. The second time I did it as a reporter. I wrote an article about galleries and young artists in Beijing. The third time was for a book festival.

ML: On your first trip did you already know you were researching this novel?

NF: I was starting to write this novel and I thought it would be great, but I didn't have much of a story. I just had this guy's voice. The first time I was just looking around. I remember very clearly being in Kunming. There's a very beautiful lake that people dance and do tai chi around at night. I walked around and thought, "Maybe this novel's not going to work. Maybe it's kind of stupid to think I could write something from this point of view." And I got into the elevator in the hotel and there was a woman holding a bush baby, which I'd never seen before. [Laughs.] It was such a strange moment and I thought maybe it's a sign. I'd already started writing about the bush baby, so it was kind of amazing to see one after I'd put it in.

ML: How fictionalized is your representation of the Beijing East Village art scene in the novel?

NF: The works are made up, because I felt like I couldn't steal their really beautiful performance projects. Theirs are much better. The book that really helped me was Rong Rong's East Village. I was really inspired by these photographs, and when I saw them I knew what the past of the character would be in a way that I didn't before.

ML: I once heard you say that fiction writers steal from the lives that they know a little of, and then make a pattern in the writing of it.

NF: I don't know about other writers, but it was like this with every story. Somebody who I knew, but not my best friend or a member of my family, would tell me a little bit of a story, and especially because I didn't know the whole story and didn't know the person very well, that would get me started. It's similar to how I started to think about that visiting scholar and then started writing from his point of view.

ML: When your first story was published in The New Yorker, a lot of attention was given to your youth and looks. Do you think there are different standards by which younger female and younger male writers are published and judged?

NF: There are ways that publicity departments "package writers", and I think they aren't blind to gender. I think most critics don't write reviews like that, which is a good thing, but if you start reading literary blogs, it's all over for you as a writer. You'll probably never write anything again.

ML: Not to get into Curtis Sittenfeld's comments about you specifically, but here's a general comment that she made in the Times, "Basically, I'm not convinced that female writers can transcend their hotness."

NF: I think Curtis is funny. I definitely have enjoyed her articles that are not about my author photo. I know a lot of really cute young male writers, but I haven't read any articles about their author photos. But there are a lot of young female writers where that gets mentioned, even in a glowing review of their book.

ML: Though Sebastian Junger did once pose topless while chopping wood.

NF: Right. I made this argument at a reading in Minnesota and some guy raised his hand and said, "What about Sebastian Junger?" So maybe he's the exception.

ML: But there's clearly a huge difference between taking your shirt off chopping wood and-

NF: Yeah, I've never done that. Especially when photographers are around.

ML: So you're not pitching that Maxim cover for your next book, then?

NF: [Laughs.] They're not calling me, no.

ML: Do you read your reviews?

NF: I haven't read that many. I was a lot braver last time, but I remembered every negative thing with perfect clarity and not really the positive ones. And it gets in the way while you're writing. You think, "Oh, am I doing that thing The Washington Post said I do?" That's not a good way to think about writing.

ML: I'm interested in a line you wrote in a New York Times Sunday Book Review of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. "There's got to be a way to write fiction that pays attention to people at the same time that it represents the breadth and complexity of the kinds of societies we live in now."

NF: I don't like the distinction people make between "traditional" character-driven fiction and fiction that's about ideas, or that's stylistically daring. I don't think it makes sense or that most books fit clearly into one category or another. What I admired about that book was that it was very unified. It all took place in this small English community, and it was about 13 months in the life of this boy. But it also manages to say something about England at that time. I think it's an outward-looking book in spite of its narrow focus. And that's really different. He's a writer who is obviously passionate about making characters, and that's my favorite kind of novel. It's the kind of novel I hope to write. I don't think you should sacrifice having something to say about the larger world outside your character's experience.



Nell Freudenberger's collection of stories, Lucky Girls, was a New York Times Notable Book and won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2005 Freudenberger was the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. She lives in New York City.

Michael Liss works a day job, does business development and film programming for the Vail Film Festival and sometimes pretends he's writing a novel. He leaves the country as often as possible and the rest of the time is in New York.

Michael Liss' photo

Michael Liss works a day job, does business development and film programming for the Vail Film Festival and sometimes pretends he's writing a novel. He leaves the country as often as possible and the rest of the time is in New York.

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