by Charlotte Rogan
Published by Reagan Arthur Books
288 pages, 2012
Charlotte Rogan is a superb writer invested in spellbinding fiction, ethics and the natural world.
Her most recent book, The Lifeboat, kept me awake at night. The first night to read straight through to the end. It was unthinkable to drift off to sleep not knowing how the story played out. The second night to read it again, focusing on the philosophical and ethical conundrums. The harrowing tale of Grace and her fellow travelers called to me again and again.
Rogan graduated from Princeton University in 1975. She worked at various jobs, mostly in the fields of architecture and engineering, before teaching herself to write and staying home to bring up triplets.
An old criminal law text and her childhood experiences among a family of sailors provided inspiration for The Lifeboat, her first novel. After many years in Dallas and a year in Johannesburg, she and her husband now live in Westport, Connecticut.
MaryAnne Kolton: Readers always crave more knowledge about the personal side of the authors they read. Can you tell us what books you read as a child? Who encouraged you to read and what was your home life like?
Charlotte Rogan: Story time was sacred when I was growing up. My family did not get our first television set until long past the time I was able to read for myself, and books represented the door to two magical kingdoms: the realm of the imagination and the world of education and ideas. My family cared about both. Part of the fun of visiting relatives was having an aunt or a grandmother read to whatever assortment of children she found piled on the couch or gathered at her feet. My grandmother, who was born in India, loved Rudyard Kipling; my mother, who was tough and adventurous, loved Robin Hood and The Call of the Wild; my father could recite “Jabbberwocky” from Through the Looking Glass and “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was excited by the stories, but I also loved the rhythm of the words and the distinct voices and interpretations brought to the texts by different readers.
The other sacred thing in our lives was the outdoors. My parents were self-taught naturalists, and it wasn’t unusual for me to open the freezer looking for ice cream and find instead a dead fox or woodpecker that my mother had found somewhere and planned to take to the nature center she and my father helped to start. My siblings and I looked under rocks and examined samples of water from the pond behind our house. We spent hours in whatever scrap of woods we could find, acting out stories we had read about in books.
Interestingly, the imagination implied in reading and writing was roundly squashed by my primary and secondary education. We read for detail; we wrote in a rigid format to answer specific and not very interesting questions; we knew there were correct answers to the questions, and I got very good at guessing right. On going to college, I was astonished to find whole departments filled with people who took creativity very seriously, but it took me until my mid-thirties to return to literature in an attempt to finally learn how to write.
What lovely, stimulating childhood experiences. So much better than television -- maybe with the exception of the frozen animals in the freezer...
You wrote three unsatisfying novels plus The Lifeboat over a period of several years without anyone knowing. Will you explain why you wrote in secret for such a long time?
In the twenty-five years since I started writing, I have completed a total of four novels besides The Lifeboat, but I wouldn’t call them unsatisfying at all. While the first is probably the typical practice novel and deserves to stay in its drawer and another is perhaps too quiet to find a wide audience, I think the other two have real possibilities. Time will tell whether I go back to them or not.
I imagine people vary greatly as to when they decide to declare themselves as writers, but I didn’t do it until I sold The Lifeboat to Little, Brown. For one thing, writing is a quiet thing -- I could either talk about it or I could do it. For another, I am not the kind of person who needs a lot of interim feedback on my projects. As anyone knows, there is a huge difference between a second-to-last draft and a last draft, so showing unfinished drafts to people didn’t seem like a useful exercise to me. Of course, once I had a professional agent and editor on board, I found their input extremely valuable in taking my work to the next level of completion.
As for the writing itself, I liked doing it, and I knew I was getting better with each attempt. That was enough to keep me going. Writing not only focused my reading, but it directed my research. Crafting a novel is like working a giant puzzle: it can be difficult and frustrating, but it is also a lot of fun.
In The Lifeboat, the heroine/anti-heroine is so wonderfully layered and exceptionally interesting. One could almost peel her like an onion. She gives the impression of being more intuitive than the other survivors, and yet, frustratingly indecisive as well. At other times, she was downright manipulative and calculating. Does anyone really know Grace well? Do you?
I love that readers are seeing Grace in so many different and often evolving ways. That phenomenon epitomizes one of the things I like best about fiction -- that readers become part of the story as they decide between competing interpretations of characters and events. Sometimes they make connections the author didn’t envision but that are no less valid, since we are all grappling with the same paradoxes of the human condition and since some of any writer’s impulses are unconscious.
Because we only have access to Grace’s thoughts and feelings and because she is highly aware of herself as an observer and actor in the lifeboat, she appears in much sharper relief than the other characters. While I don’t think she is smarter than all of them, she is certainly gifted when it comes to sensing social cues and nuance. It was fun to write about someone who refuses to conform to expectations and whose greatest strength can also be thought of as her greatest flaw: her ability to adapt. Does this make her inconsistent and unreliable or does this make her strong? Clearly, people who can adapt to new and extreme circumstances are more likely to survive them.
And if it makes you feel any better, even I don’t know everything about Grace. One of the things I learned by writing this novel is that there are opaque parts of a character even for the author. So when someone asks me to pin down one of the unanswered questions in the book, I can only answer, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Among other perceptions, The Lifeboat is a story of indefatigable conflict: class distinctions, male versus female, man against nature, convention as opposed to necessity. Was disharmony meant to be the core of the book?
The fundamental human conflict is with nature, and all other conflicts grow out of that. I started writing The Lifeboat after reading some case law about shipwrecked sailors who were put on trial after being rescued. The idea that we try to fit the human struggle to survive into legal and moral structures so we can punish and reward stayed with me, and not too long after that, I started to hear Grace’s voice in my head.
The minute you confine a group of people to a small space, all sorts of conflict are bound to arise. Human beings do not get along very well, and they get along least well with those who are most unlike themselves. You don’t have to look very far to see evidence of this us-versus-them mentality -- both history and the news are rife with it. In a world that has been reduced in size through population growth, immigration, and advances in technology, understanding of and tolerance for the other will be crucial if we are going to survive without more and deadlier conflicts.
While I find this sort of conflict fascinating, I did not write The Lifeboat with an agenda. The core of the book evolved organically as I imagined how my characters might react as the days in the lifeboat turned into weeks. Of course, I bring the person I am to the project of writing, so the things that interest me -- the natural world, gender issues, law -- are bound to come out.
The Sea and its fierce, unpredictable majesty is definitely a main character in the book. Your descriptions truly gave it a life of its own.
I read that you have spent a great deal of time on the water. Hopefully, not under these conditions.
I grew up in a family of sailors, so the sea was a large presence. My father was highly competitive and liked to race with the other boats we saw, which had the effect of turning a casual family outing into a high-stakes, all-hands-on-deck game.
While I never experienced any truly dangerous conditions, I vividly remember encountering terrible weather and feeling both exhilarated by it and afraid. Our boat had a small cabin, and we children could go down there to escape the rain. But being below decks while the boat pitched and rolled made us sick, so my sister and I would usually ride out a storm hunched into our slickers and trying to stay out of the way. It was these experiences that allowed me to imagine what those weeks in the lifeboat must have been like for Grace.
Publishers Weekly wrote about you: “Rogan ‘circles around society’s ideas about what it means to be human, what responsibilities we have to each other, and whether we can be blamed for choices made in order to survive.’”
The opportunity to dine on this complex meal of philosophical and ethical ideas is one of the most captivating aspects of The Lifeboat. Did bits of your architectural training affect the addition of these structural considerations?
A story certainly has structure. The author chooses how the relevant information is presented, and the reader moves through the chapters the way he or she might move through a series of rooms. This dimension might be thought of as the plot. The basic building blocks of the novel are of course words -- a set of sounds endowed with both music and meaning. Through the words, the reader can see a character performing some sort of action -- perhaps interacting with another character or moving toward some goal -- but the words can be evocative of other things, either startling the reader or working to enrich the meaning in more subtle ways.
But I think of the third dimension -- the depth -- as probably the most interesting one available to a novelist. At any moment in a person’s -- or character’s -- life, there are a hundred things going on, and fiction can get at these in a way that non-fiction or film cannot. The character is, both consciously and unconsciously, motivated by past successes and failures, by deeply-held and sometimes conflicting beliefs, by loves and disappointments, by things he or she has learned or heard about, by unarticulated hopes and fears. The best fiction works on many levels at once, so that readers are drawn in by the action but find themselves making connections and asking questions far beyond -- or maybe beneath -- the level on which that action takes place.
How difficult was it to write a novel and raise triplets at the same time?
Triplets sound very exotic, but after the first year or two, they are pretty much the same as any set of three small children in terms of what they require. Having children really focused me. I stopped thinking I could accomplish many things and turned my attention to two: my family and my writing. I also gave up any grand ambitions I might have had and became satisfied with smaller things. I can’t remember who said: “No mother can write a novel, but any mother can write a chapter.” Life is all about juggling and prioritizing, and I got good at saying no to other things.
Organized. You must be incredibly organized!
You have said:
“Writing is my attempt at reverence -- for the natural world and for the thing in people that will sometimes do the right thing in spite of the consequences to themselves and in spite of the cacophony of voices claiming privileged insight into what the right thing is.”
How did you come by this bit of philosophy? Can you elaborate on why you feel this way?
To write about the world, you have to observe it very closely. That alone is an act of reverence. Choosing words that do justice to the beauty around us is another way of paying tribute to it. The best writing opens a person’s mind rather than closing it. Understanding people like ourselves is no great trick, but fiction can put us in someone else’s shoes and allow us to question our assumptions in a way that makes us better people. Mostly, doing the right thing starts with asking questions rather than blind obedience to dogma, and one of the things fiction does best is to ask questions.
You appear to have a very naturalistic point of view and you describe it beautifully. Are you working on something new and would you care to share anything about it with us?
I am superstitious when it comes to talking about unfinished projects, but I will tell you that it is set in South Africa. My husband and I spent the better part of a year in Johannesburg, and we fell in love with the country and the people. | August 2012
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, Anatomy, Her Circle and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The 2011 Glass Woman Prize. Her work has appeared most recently in Her Circle, The Literarian/City Center, January Magazine and The Los Angeles Review of Books. MaryAnne’s public email is firstname.lastname@example.org. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.