DATE December 20, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Alice Sebold talks about her new novel, "The Lovely
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our guest, Alice Sebold, is the author of the novel "The Lovely Bones," which
was been on the New York Times Bestseller List for nearly six months. Time
magazine described it as the `break-out fiction debut of the year.' The story
is about the rape, murder and mutilation of a 14-year-old girl. own book
critic, Maureen Corrigan, said the subject matter made her reluctant to pick
up the book, but reading it gave her a singular, disturbing and even
enlightening literary experience.
The author, Alice Sebold, is also the author of "Lucky," a memoir in which she
recounts being raped when she was a college freshman. "The Lovely Bones"
begins with the attack on the young teen who is raped, tortured and killed.
The rest of the novel is narrated from heaven, with the girl observing her
family and friends as they try to carry on after her death. Terry spoke with
Alice Sebold this summer.
TERRY GROSS, host:
I'm sure a lot of listeners are wondering, why write about something so
horrible, so unthinkable, the rape and dismemberment of a 14-year-old girl?
Ms. ALICE SEBOLD (Author, "The Lovely Bones"): Because it's part of life.
You know, that's the simplest answer, I think, for me. It's very much part of
the experience of what it is to live in this culture. It happens all the
GROSS: Now you were raped yourself when you were a freshman in college, and
that's the subject of an earlier book you wrote, a memoir. And reading those
two books back-to-back, I was really struck by the difference in the
descriptions of the rape. The rape, as you describe it in your memoir, is
very brutal, very detailed in its brutality. It's as if you're reliving every
moment and describing it like a journalist.
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm-hmm. I think they are very different books in my mind, even
though they both not only have violence but start out in violence. One of
them is factual and I tell every detail in some way in the memoir. And the
other one is a fictive voice and there's so much more being given in the first
chapter of "The Lovely Bones" in terms of getting to know her character and
some of the facts of her family and her background.
GROSS: I got the impression that the kind of moment-by-moment description of
the brutality that's in your memoir is something you felt didn't belong in
this new novel, in the description of the brutality that this 14-year-old
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah. I mean, the funny thing is that I did write the beginning
of "The Lovely Bones" before I wrote my memoir, so the violent crime that
occurs in Susie's life happened in terms of writing about it before a
description of my own rape was written by me later. I think in order to
separate the two stories to make sure that Susie was not doing any of my work
for me when I returned to the novel, I stopped to write "Lucky," and one of
the things that was very important for me to do was to get all the facts down
of my own case, so they had been written, they existed whole in a whole
'nother book and I could go back to Susie and she could lead me where she
wanted to take me and tell me her story in the way she wanted to tell it, as
opposed to me feeling perhaps that I needed to really tell the real deal about
every detail about rape and violence. I did that in the memoir as opposed to
the novel because I wanted my characters to rule the novel, not some sort of
desire to talk about rape and reveal rape to readers.
GROSS: Your memoir ends, `I live in a world where the two truths co-exist,
where both hell and hope live in the palm of my hand.' Is that, in a way,
where your novel picks up, with hell and hope or hell and heaven being side by
Ms. SEBOLD: Definitely. I mean, that's one of my major motivations in terms
of how I live my life. And also, though, why I see fiction as so incredibly
important, is to be able to give in a very short space the context for those
two things co-existing and co-existing in an honest way, where hope is really
springing out of something that was--is hard won as opposed to purchased in
the, you know, Hope to Cope section at the local bookstore.
GROSS: After Susie is raped and killed and mutilated, and this is in the
first chapter, she goes to heaven and the rest of the story is narrated by her
as she experiences this part of heaven and looks down on her family and
neighbors as they go on without her. What interested you in this idea of your
narrator being in heaven looking down on the people she's had to leave behind?
Ms. SEBOLD: I think I needed to find a way--and first I have to say that,
again, when Susie's voice presented it to me, she presented it completely and
she was already in heaven. So that was something when I got to the end of the
first 15 pages, which I did not know was going to be the first chapter of a
novel, I had my character, I had where she was and I had what had happened to
her. And because she was such a bossy main character, I had no choice. I had
to follow her. So though it was not a conscious choice to place her in
heaven, once I realized that she had put me there in some way, it is a
position from which she can tell a story to a reader and bring a reader to
places that they wouldn't have access on and that she wouldn't have access on
unless she were in heaven. And to see--referring back to the previous
question about heaven and hope or hope and hell, all those things, to see
those things put together in a context that is ultimately in some way horrible
but doesn't have to be so threatening that readers are afraid to read about
the truth or about the reality that a girl like Susie would experience.
GROSS: Can you describe the heaven that you've created for Susie?
Ms. SEBOLD: It's a heaven with what I'd say is a lot of open spaces. It was
much more detailed in early drafts of the book and it was an experience in
creating where I wrote much more than ultimately remained, knowing what to
take away so that people can bring their own ideas of things into the heaven
that remains. There's something probably strangely--like the open fields of
suburbia about the heaven that Susie inhabits, because in the book the heaven
would reflect a bit of what the person had experienced or known on Earth.
There are also silly things like the textbooks that she has are Seventeen and
Vogue because that, in her case, as a 14-year-old girl, would be a textbook
that she'd want to have. And then there are other things that are not, say,
fun or familiar, and those are the things to try to figure out how to rectify
the situation that she's in and look at the people on Earth and see them
really suffering, and how to cope and understand herself with that as they are
coping and understanding with her loss on Earth.
GROSS: You write about the burden of guilt on the parents in the novel.
Susie says, about her father, `Every day he got up, before sleep wore off, he
was who he used to be. Then as his consciousness woke, it was as if poison
seeped in. At first he couldn't even get up. He lay there under a heavy
weight, the guilt on him, the hand of God pressing down on him saying, "You
were not there when your daughter needed you."' Do you want to talk a little
bit about the guilt you imagine the parents feeling?
Ms. SEBOLD: It's an interesting thing. Some of the father--the father was
another character for me in the novel that was there very quickly, very
immediately, and he really, to me, is the heart of the family. I think
particularly with a sexual assault crime, whether the victim--if the victim is
a child, whether it's a male or a female child, fathers often feel extremely
responsible for what happens in that way to their children. They want to be
able to fix it very, very much and go out and do something. And it has become
somewhat stereotypical in movies and television that the father wants to go
and catch or kill the perpetrator. But the truth is, is that it's a
stereotype that reflects reality. In my own experience, I can count the
number of times that, you know, both my father, but also boyfriends, male
friends, particularly would say things like, you know, `I want to kill the
bastard,' just in this desire to do something and also to great shame because
the perpetrator is male.
And for the mother in "The Lovely Bones," it throws her into a whole
re-evaluation of what her life has been about. Obviously there have been
problems with her understanding of its value before this, but then in the loss
of her daughter, it throws her again into this questioning about what she's
done with her life and whether it was actually indeed what she wanted to do
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Alice Sebold, author of the best-selling novel "The
Lovely Bones." She'll talk more with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Alice Sebold, author of the novel "The Lovely Bones."
It's the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered, then goes to
heaven, where she observes her family trying to carry on without her. Sebold
is also the author of "Lucky," a 1999 memoir about being raped. She spoke
with Terry this summer.
GROSS: After you were raped, when you were trying to figure out what you were
doing with your life and dealing with all the wounds that this rape left you
with, psychological and physical, were you at the same time watching your
parents dealing with a different set of wounds caused by the same rape?
Ms. SEBOLD: Definitely, particularly my mother, I think. You know, it just
hits the entire family like a ton of bricks and trauma, especially when it's a
trauma that is not a well-known trauma, for those traumas that are well-known,
really there's so much to try to understand. I remember watching television,
say, with my sister after the rape when I was just basically lying on the
couch and trying to recover, and if anything came on that made her maybe think
about violence or whatever, she would stare back at me and it made me highly
self-conscious, but she was deeply trying to understand what my experience had
been. And I think one of my motivations for writing my own book, and
certainly also a motivation for writing the novel, is the desire to just put
it out there on the table, `This is what a rape can look like.' And if people
maybe know more about it, then the victim's not as alienated, nor is the
victim's family and nor are people who live across the street as afraid of
saying something really stupid because maybe they're more educated about what
the crime is.
GROSS: Now you said earlier that it was only after writing the beginning of
your novel "The Lovely Bones" that you decided to go back and write a memoir
about your rape, and you said it was because you wanted to, like, tell your
own story so that your own story wasn't superimposed on your character's
story. I'm interested in how your memory functioned of the incident because,
you know, when--after something that's about as traumatic as it gets happens
to you, on the one hand you really want to forget it so that it's not
obsessing you and haunting you all the time. On the other hand, I suppose in
a lot of ways you don't want to lose the memories that have been recorded so
that you can continue to comprehend the experience. So did you find that you
had, like, vivid memories of it, vivid enough to write an almost journalistic
account of it, or did you have to work to regain memories that you had tried
Ms. SEBOLD: I would say my memory for the rape itself and the incidents
surrounding the rape, like the trial, was better five to seven years after the
actual event, even up to 10, than it was in the first three or four years
afterwards. You know, I very directly went into therapy right after the rape,
all miserable experiences, and then I didn't do anything like that for about
the next 10 years, and I found a lovely therapist who had the, you know,
uniqueness of being free in New York and worked with her. But one of the
things that was the funniest thing for me is that I've written an article for
The New York Times Sunday Magazine about rape and had been quoted in a book
called "Trauma and Recovery," which is an excellent book, and I bought it
because I'd been such a miserable failure as a writer in my 20s that it was
one of the few, like, places I had appeared in print. And on the subway home
with the book I realized that I was quoted in the first half, which was called
Trauma, instead of the second half, which was called Recovery, and that
strangely inspired me to read the whole book. And by the time I got to the
end of the book, I realized that I had post-traumatic stress disorder and went
So only after, I'd say, a full 10 years away from the rape was I able to face
the rape and deal with the clear memories of it. Luckily, one of the things I
did right after the rape, because I was a kind of, you know, morbid, poetic
kid, was write verbatim accounts of exactly what had happened to me physically
and what the light had been like and things like that in a journal of mine.
GROSS: What did you do with the journal? Did you lock it up and put it away?
Ms. SEBOLD: It was in my parents' basement the whole time I lived in New
York, so I--you know, that's when you just love your parents for having a
waterlogged, messy basement.
GROSS: So the book was--the journal was still readable.
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah, the journal was readable, yeah.
GROSS: And what was the experience of opening up the journal after a period
of years had elapsed and reading it in the voice that you had a few years ago,
reading the description?
Ms. SEBOLD: I would say it was mind blowing for a couple of reasons, and not
the least of which was to realize what I had actually experienced. Because I
think while you're going through it, you just--especially if you have the
chance of going through a trial, which I did, you need to keep your eye on the
ball, you need to be focused. You can't really drift off into maximum pain.
So to go back and look at the accounts of what was actually happening, you
know, I have to say I just thought like, `Hey, kid, you did OK.'
GROSS: You were already interested in writing when you were raped. You were
a freshman in college. Later in college, you were studying with the poet Tess
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And one of the assignments she gave you after she realized about this
trauma in your life was to write a poem that started `If they caught you...'
Ms. SEBOLD: Right.
GROSS: I could see you responding one of two ways to that. One way to go,
`Oh, give me a break,' and the other to actually write a great poem. Tell us
what your response was to that.
Ms. SEBOLD: I think with Tess, who was one of those teachers--I mean, I have
taught and I have had wonderful teachers, and I believe that atmosphere,
particularly for those students who are going through anything traumatic, can
be an incredible atmosphere. And Tess did not shy away with dealing with a
student who I'm sure a lot of people just thought like, `Eek, keep her away
from me. She might explode on me.' She forced my hand on that. I had
written a vague kind of poem about rape. We had a discussion in her office.
She asked me if it were based on anything that had actually happened to me in
my life. I told her and then she suggested that. I admired her greatly as a
poet, she was an extremely empathetic teacher and out of that I decided, `OK,
she's forcing me to do something. It feels a little weird,' but it was a
great thing to do. And they caught him a week later, so who knows. There was
a little magic in that assignment.
GROSS: People often wonder if writing is therapeutic. If you're writing
about a trauma, does that help the pain of the trauma recede? I mean, Susie
in the novel says something about--oh, I forget exactly what she says, but
it's something like every time she tells her story, like a drop of the pain
Ms. SEBOLD: Right.
GROSS: But as a writer yourself who's written about your own trauma and then
written a fictionalized version of a similar trauma, is writing therapeutic or
do you think that that's really the wrong way to approach it anyways?
Ms. SEBOLD: My feeling, and it's pretty, you know, rigorous, is that therapy
is for therapy and that writing can be therapeutic, but therapeutic writing
should not be published. My job as a writer is to go through the therapy
myself, and if I manage to get through it and I feel I have something to share
from that, to share it with my audience or my readers, but I don't write
novels and seek to have them published so that I can get therapy from having
written them. That's really the responsibility of an individual to do outside
the context of their published work.
GROSS: Before you wrote your memoir, when you went back and re-read the
journal that you'd written shortly after the attack, what was that writing
like compared to the writing in the actual book?
Ms. SEBOLD: You know, pretty horrible. Again, if it's judged from a--was it
worthy ever of being published? No. It was extremely staccato, very direct.
What I would say is it's like somebody taking a few moments out of being in
the middle of a storm just to jot down the temperature, the angle of the wind,
things like that. So it was all very factual, flat, uninflected writing which
just told the facts of what was happening.
GROSS: And what did you want to do to it for publication?
Ms. SEBOLD: I didn't want to do--I mean, I never used that as a draft of
anything. Basically, I went back and read it and it brought me back to the
time. And what I would say is that it was a way of waking up my memory just
as, when you walk down the street you smell a certain smell, it might bring
you back to the state fair when you were four or something. It had that same
kind of--to evoke the memories, not to stand in for them.
GROSS: Writers usually have to have some kind of empathy and understanding of
each of their characters, the good guys and the bad guys. Do you feel like in
your novel you had to have empathy for the rapist, who's a man from the
neighborhood, he's a man that the family knows?
Ms. SEBOLD: Definitely. I don't--I mean, in my own personal belief, you
can't write a good character unless you have both compassion and respect for
them. So Mr. Harvey, who is the killer in the book, yes, I have great
compassion for him. There are moments where he attempts to try to do things
other than what his drive or his instinct is telling him to do by counting
things obsessively or building things. So he resists up until the point where
he's no longer able to resist. And, you know, that is a--you can have
compassion without forgiveness, and I think that's what I would say.
GROSS: Were you able to find that kind of compassion for the man who raped
Ms. SEBOLD: I would say eventually, certainly not immediately. But, you
know, we're all born into this world in very different ways and we have
different experiences of it, and I don't know a lot about him, but some of the
things I do know led me to feel compassion for him. There are also many
people who had much more worse circumstances than he did that had managed not
to go out and rape people. But that doesn't mean you can't have compassion
for them. I don't forgive him, but, you know, he's a human being. You have
to move on. You know, it's just as simple as that. And so you find a way to
move on, and having compassion for people just in general is a good way to
live in life.
GROSS: Well, Alice Sebold, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SEBOLD: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Alice Sebold is the author of the new novel "The Lovely Bones."
She's also the author of a 1999 memoir called "Lucky."
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Coming up, director James Foley and actor Alan Arkin talk about
working on the film "Glengarry Glen Ross." The 1992 movie is coming out on
DVD. It's about a group of men working in a real estate office enduring
cut-throat conditions in order to survive.
(Soundbite of music)
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