Jennifer Dubois’ latest novel, Cartwheel, was included in at least eight best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Dubois attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and completed a Stegnor Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Missouri Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Cosmopolitan, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and others. She was the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award, and she currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.
In this interview, Dubois discusses sentence structure and style, her reason for telling a story from multiple points of view, and how she chose Buenos Aires as the setting for Cartwheel.
To read the opening pages of Cartwheel and an exercise on controlling narrative pace with sentence structure, click here.
The book is a whodunit thriller, and yet the sentences move at a deliberative, almost stately pace. The sentences rarely move in a smooth, straight line. In the first paragraph, for instance, four out of the five sentences contain a phrase that is literally offset by punctuation: commas, dashes, or hyphens. The same thing happens throughout the novel, and, as a result, I was forced to slow down instead of racing ahead to see what happened on the next page–which was a pleasurable relief. Anxious page flipping always causes me to feel as though I’m blindly devouring a jumbo bag of Doritos. I’m curious how aware you were of this sentence style. Was the pace purposeful or simply the way your voice appears on the page? Or was it something that began naturally but fine-tuned through revision?
I never thought of the book as a whodunit, or even really as a thriller. To me Cartwheel is more of a whoisit than a whodunit, I guess you could say: I wanted readers to experience a sense of suspense regarding the question of who Lily Hayes really was, and what they thought she was capable of; I wanted the plot’s twists and turns to stem not only from events, but from readers’ shifting interpretations of those events. And so the sentence structure wasn’t really a conscious effort to slow down the pace; I think I probably do tend to write long sentences anyway—and I definitely get a lot of mileage out of the em dash (case in point). And that tendency was probably amplified by the fact that each chapter is embedded so deeply in each character’s perspective. I really hoped that readers would be persuaded by the logic of each character’s thinking while they were with them, so I tried to capture that thinking in as much detail as I could—there’s a lot of time spent in each of their heads.
The novel is told from four different points of view: the accused murderer, her father, her boyfriend, and the prosecuting attorney. As a finished product, the novel seems whole and complete, but I imagine that in the early stage of writing it, you were unsure of basic things such as whose point of view to follow. There are other important characters in the novel, but their actions take place mostly off the page. Was it difficult to decide on these four viewpoints? Did you ever try writing from the POV of any other characters?
I knew from the beginning that I would include the prosecutor’s and Lily’s father’s point of view, since it seemed natural to hear from a character totally convinced of Lily’s guilt and a character totally convinced of her innocence. I also knew I’d include Lily’s point of view, but that her sections would end the night of the murder—I wanted her chapters to offer psychological revelations about her character, but not factual revelations about the crime itself. The fourth point of view, Sebastien’s, was the last addition. I liked the idea of hearing from a character whose sympathies weren’t necessarily so pre-ordained as the prosecutor’s or Lily’s father’s were. I also liked the idea of introducing another character whose behavior inspires wildly different reactions, and whose interiority doesn’t always match the way he’s externally perceived. I didn’t think Lily should be the only character in the book who is at the mercy of other people’s interpretations—because in real life, we all are. To misquote St. Francis, I wanted Lily not only to be misunderstood, but to misunderstand.
The novel has an interesting sense of place. It’s set in Buenos Aires, but most of the action takes place in a series of closed spaces, not just houses but rooms in houses: Lily’s bedroom, the parlor in her boyfriend’s house, the prosecutor’s bedroom, the rooms in the jail cell where Lily is allowed to talk to her family and lawyers, and the inside of a restaurant where Lily worked. The rest of Buenos Aires appears only briefly, through Lily’s photographs (or as she tours the city, photographing it) or the travels of the other characters to and from the prison. I can imagine beginning this novel and feeling the need to capture the city, to do a kind of travel-show introduction. But this never happens. Were those passages cut, or did you know from the beginning how to approach descriptions of the city?
That’s such an interesting observation and question—I never really thought about the number of closed spaces in the book, but you’re totally right. I think it relates to my sense of the book as being “set” in a hazy sphere of personal perception much more than in an objective external reality. There were a few reasons I selected Buenos Aires—I needed a city an American study abroad student might fall in love with, in a country with a judicial system similar enough to our own that said student might not be aware of some key differences. I wanted a country with a language that an American college student might have mastered sufficiently to feel overly confident in. I thought that setting the book in a Catholic country could provide an interesting dimension to its exploration of misogyny/ideas about female sexuality, and that setting the book in a country with such a fraught history with the U.S. could add an interesting angle to the questions about American entitlement/anti-American resentment. But ultimately I didn’t see Cartwheel as trying to depict a particular place as much as trying to depict four different characters’ minds. In a very fundamental way I think Cartwheel is a story that could have been set anywhere—this was very different from my first book, A Partial History of Lost Causes, in which the Russian setting is, in many ways, the book’s soul. And so that’s probably partly why Cartwheel doesn’t linger in the Argentinean setting very much; I hope that readers believe Buenos Aires as the book’s backdrop, but I think its real setting is in the characters’ heads (talk about enclosed spaces).
A lot of young writers tend to stick close to home with their work, but this isn’t the case for you. So far, your novels have been about characters who seem, at least on the surface, pretty different than yourself: an American exchange student charged with murder, a father, an Argentinean prosecutor, a Russian chess champion and political dissident. Plus, your novels have mostly been set in countries other than the United States. What draws your imagination to these characters and places? Are you drawing on the books that you read as a child? Were you a news and Time magazine junky as a kid?
I don’t think my own life has really been interesting enough to generate a ton of material for fiction—but even if it had been, I’m not sure writing about it would appeal to me very much. I’m in my own life and memories every day anyway, and there is a real limit to my curiosity about myself. For me, the fun of fiction writing is in imagining lives and experiences that are very different from my own, and in getting to explore ideas or situations that I think are interesting. And because I’ve always been interested in other countries–and in international politics in particular (I was a political science major in college)—that interest winds up showing up in my fiction, along with assorted other preoccupations and hobbies and fun facts and jokes and pet conspiracy theories, etc. If I’m curious about it, it’s going in.