Carol Moldaw and Abigail DeWitt went to the same boarding school in Northern California a few years apart and then met at Harvard after a high school teacher suggested they look each other up. After college, their lives continued to overlap when both lived in Berkeley for a time before both moving back to the Boston/Cambridge area.
DeWitt has lived in western North Carolina since 1994 and is the author of two novels, Dogs and Lili. Moldaw has lived outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 1990 and has written five books of poetry, including The Lightning Field and So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems. The Widening is her first novel.
CAROL: When I look back on our early friendship, I remember a complete lack of competition, which was unusual at Harvard. Both of us knew when we entered college that we wanted to be writers, but we were a few years apart and I was focused on poetry while you were intent on fiction. I remember us both being very open with each other about our aspirations AND insecurities. I don’t know if you agree, but I think we also shared a certain diffidence and sense of being outsiders, attitudes perhaps honed by having gone to an ‘alternative’ school on the west coast and then moving east, into the heart of the establishment. I think all this is relevant not just because it gives a context to our conversation but because in both our books we strive to write about girls/women from a distinctly female perspective and our main characters, ‘smart bad girls,’ are both outsiders, not least because so much of their realities take place within their own heads.
In Dogs you write: “What other comfort is there between women than to say, yes, me, too, I have done that, too?” Was the idea of women revealing things to each other, things generally considered taboo, a motivation for writing Dogs?
ABIGAIL: Yes and no. What draws me to write is the hope of revealing what’s most hidden in the world. To do that, of course, I have to go into what’s most hidden in me, and to do that, I have to go into a dream-like state. So I never plan a novel or a story, in the same way that I never plan what I’m going to dream.
And I can’t really think about content or audience, or what taboos I may be breaking, because I worry to an almost pathological degree about what people think of me, and I live in a small, rural town. If I started thinking about audience, it would be all over. On the other hand, what’s more taboo than what’s hidden? So in that sense, absolutely—I write in hopes of sharing the unsayable with others.
I keep wondering if, for you, shifting from poetry to prose involved any breaking of a taboo? One of the things I love about The Widening is the way in which each chapter has the force and compression of a poem—and yet it’s very much a novel. I’d love to hear about your experience of turning from poetry to prose, and whether it made it easier to break the taboo of writing so intimately and directly about sex?
CAROL: Writing prose didn’t feel taboo to me, but it did feel daunting! Fortunately, the structure of discrete paragraphs, which felt like the best way to express the lack of continuity and sense of self the main character experiences, is very akin to the lyric strategy of isolating and highlighting singular moments. Having an episodic and disjunctive structure was in my comfort zone and it allowed me to foreground the character’s twinned preoccupations with sex and inner experience, which cause the rest of the world and life to exist only in the periphery of her consciousness.
I’ve written my fair share of erotic poetry, but have never written so directly and transgressively about sex (or anger or disappointment or humiliation) as I did in The Widening. My sense of the speaker of a poem being an “I” related to me can be restricting: my poetry doesn’t usually have that ironic distance of two not quite matched perspectives, which writing in the third person (or writing persona poems) allows. I found the narrator’s voice in The Widening—close to the character but not quite her, and not quite me, either—liberating.
Invention, especially of scene, was another discovery for me. In poetry, I’m often wedded to fact and to extrapolating meaning from it. Is it possible that invention itself, in fiction, is analogous to metaphor in poetry, that fiction writers invent characters and situations the way poets create metaphor?
ABIGAIL: Yes, absolutely, although I think many people don’t recognize novels as fiction unless the invention is very evident—unless it’s historical or crime fiction, or some kind of fantasy. But the point of fiction, the point of its invention, is not that it’s “make-believe”—the events may or may not have occurred in real life—it’s that the story—its shape and meaning—is separate and distinct from any events that may have triggered it, and the story is what matters. The story is the metaphor, and so, to a fiction writer, whether a story works as a revelation of the human condition is always more important than any facts.
One of the questions I get most often is “Why does Molly [the main character in Dogs] have sex with so many different people? Doesn’t she know better?” And I know they’re worried or appalled, thinking that since Molly and I are the same age and have lived in the same places, I must be Molly—I must have slept with more people than I can count. But the truth is, setting aside the question of my resemblance to Molly, the sex in Dogs is as much a metaphor for Molly’s longing and blindness as it is actually about sex. With one important exception, what leads her to sex isn’t passion or desire or any kind of awakening. Although she keeps her sex life hidden from her family, being promiscuous is her way of being the kind of girl her father, who respects only prostitutes, would be proud of. And it’s also—and this is just as important—her way of being kind to men who remind her of the brother her father bullied.
CAROL: There’s a wonderful sentence at the end of Dogs, where Molly reflects that she’s “grown up in the empty spaces of my father’s heart, taken shape from all that he was missing.” It’s interesting how the fictional fathers in both books shape our characters’ sexual acting out. Although the father in The Widening isn’t nearly such a presence as the father in Dogs, who is crucial and pivotal, there is a certain extent to which the girl in The Widening is motivated to prove that her father doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he tells her that “promiscuous people are unhappy.”
ABIGAIL: Yes, and I love the way your protagonist stands up to her parents. Molly’s desire for her father’s approval when she’s growing up is limitless: if her father had respected violinists instead of prostitutes, Molly would have played the violin until she collapsed in exhaustion. If her father had rhapsodized about fine food instead of praising prostitutes for their independence, she would have been a cook. But to return to the question of promiscuity and happiness, would you say more about the word itself, “promiscuous”–what it means to both you and your protagonist?
CAROL: It’s funny, I never think of the character as ‘standing up to’ her parents; I think of her as engaged in essentially a life-and-death struggle of self-definition as she seeks to differentiate from them. She’s very touchy about the word “promiscuous,” which is used a few times in the book: first (repeatedly) by the father in the beginning; and next, in the second half, by a psychiatrist she goes to only once in college. It is perhaps on the basis of the psychiatrist’s use of the word promiscuous to describe her that she decides not to go back. They argue over the word: she, insisting it is tainted, judgmental; he asserting it is “innocuous, neutral, factual,” and accusing her of defensiveness. It is an open question why she takes the word so hard, but I think it is because it implies not just multiple sexual partners and a moral laxity but a lack of discriminating judgment. She is committed to the idea of freedom and experience and multiplicity; she makes a distinction between cheating on someone and being alone and sleeping around. But she knows that she herself has in fact lacked judgment, which she sees simply as her imperfect execution of her philosophy and is leery of exposing or admitting. I myself do think the word, culturally—in practical usage if not by definition—more often than not implies a negative value judgment. In the book, the last usage of the word is in her friend’s poem, an image of the sky “promiscuous with stars,” which liberates the word.
I know that the word “promiscuous” has very different connotations for Molly; would you talk about what it means to her—and to you.
ABIGAIL: You know, for Molly, it’s a good word! Like “slut” which she and her friends proudly use to describe themselves. Besides Molly’s limitless desire to please her father,
she also wants to be like her older sister, who has many partners (though I suspect she has fewer than Molly in the end—I don’t know because I haven’t written her story, but I think if I did I’d discover that she only had a handful of partners in her life). Like a lot of youngest children, Molly has a confused notion about what her parents and older siblings are up to, but knows that to be “cool” she has to try to be like them. She has never heard anyone use “promiscuous” in a negative sense, and in her mind, having innumerable sexual partners means being immeasurably cool. That’s what I mean about her not really being interested in sex for its own sake—and yet the sexual component of Dogs has been a real live-wire for readers, and I don’t mean to be coy about the effect of using sex metaphorically. It has been a live wire both for its own sake and, as I said, for the concerns it raises about me.
CAROL: The fraught relationship between fiction and life that you bring up is new to me and I find it vexing, even intimidating. One reporter, a punk-looking woman in her 30s who interviewed me for a local paper, shocked me by saying that if she thought I had the experiences of the girl in The Widening, she could never look at me the same way again. Some of the incidents in The Widening are culled and fashioned (a crucial distinction) from ‘life’ and others imaginatively grow out of those. One wants to have it both ways, to use life and deny an identification with lived life: sometimes it feels fraudulent to insist on the fictional distance that there is between me and the protagonist, but it is equally fraudulent to equate us. A man who knew me when I was the age of my protagonist wrote me that he “hoped that not too much of the protagonist’s pain . . . was mine.” I found that moving and thought-provoking—unlike the reporter’s comment!—and it brought me to what seems like a bottom line: the writing of that novel did originate from an enormous amount of unresolved pain and that pain is what is most importantly autobiographical. It’s also the pain–and the protagonist’s obliviousness to it, in herself and others –that makes me most uncomfortable, naked feeling and vulnerable, more than her behavior.
ABIGAIL: Oh, I would say the same thing. The pain in Dogs is absolutely autobiographical, as are Molly’s emotional blind spots, and they do make me feel vulnerable. Now that the book is out, I don’t care so much that many people think the events are autobiographical—though that would have stymied me while I was writing it—but it’s hard for me when people judge Molly harshly because her heart is my heart. It’s hard for me when any of my characters are judged harshly, because they’re all versions of me, whether or not their life stories bear any resemblance to mine. Everything I write comes down to the same story, really—the longing for love, the absence of love, and mercy—and those are, of course, my central preoccupations.
CAROL: Was it a difficult choice to write in the first person, which seemed to me a bold decision?
ABIGAIL: Well, I mentioned that writing is like dreaming for me, but it’s also like acting. When I write, I become my characters, which satisfies a lot of the same needs that acting did in high school. The first person doesn’t feel more exposed to me than the third person—the separation/connection between me and my characters is the same. I am always both the author directing things and the character suffering them—an admission which led, in one book club discussion, to a horrified reaction from the audience: “You become those characters??” It made me laugh—it seems that any connection I might admit to with my characters—either that they’re based on me or that I enter into their psyches or even just that I love them—is disturbing. But how could I write about them if they weren’t deeply compelling to me?
CAROL: I think by definition writing involves a double consciousness; the very weighing of words against what is inchoate that wants to be developed involves a moving back and forth between roles. Some writing disguises this, some highlights it, but it’s always an intricate process.
It took me quite awhile to find the form and the voice of The Widening, but once I did it allowed me into the character’s mind-set, saw me through the book’s first half, and was there again for me when I picked it up to write the second half years later. Using the third person was important to the book’s development. I knew that given the subject matter it would be confused with memoir, no matter how it was structured, but I’m still surprised and uncomfortable when it is misread as a kind of diary, as if it’s the journal her mother reads.
A memoir or a diary would look like something else entirely. Even a fictional memory would look like something.
ABIGAIL: What do you love best about your protagonist?
CAROL: God, what do I love about her? I suppose her vulnerability and naïveté, the things that also make me most uncomfortable. I love that she’s a blossoming writer, though I’m embarrassed that I made her one, as it’s so close to home.
I hope the book evinces a little more wisdom than its protagonist does, more ironic perspective. There’s so much that she, like Molly, doesn’t understand. I’m thinking of when Molly says “I didn’t know how to talk to men in any neutral matter-of-fact way.” Both Molly and the girl in The Widening are so conscious of the sexual potential of any encounter that they are virtually and sometimes comically incapable of interacting with boys and men without sexualizing a situation. But at the same time, Molly worries that she “won’t feel what everyone else does.” My character also has a preoccupation with “feeling too much” versus ‘feeling too little.” It seems to me that these difficulties are related, that the girls (before Molly becomes a woman) have almost too much sensibility to balance or handle. I think this is a real problem for many girls, particularly girls who are sensitive and know they are sexualized by others—they act out, bring to the table, what others are able to repress.
I’m interested in the idea of girls using sex and sexuality to express or act out ideas about life and society, which is what both our characters implicitly do. My character wants to be free, in the sense of being liberated from her emotions. She’s trying to find herself by trying to escape herself; she has an idea that nothing can harm the essential self if you learn from (observe) your experience. It’s an idea of invulnerability at the moments when she makes herself most vulnerable, and she finds it tough going.
ABIGAIL: I do think it’s so interesting that both our characters worry about how much they’re feeling or not feeling sexually, how, as you say, they have “too much sensibility to balance or handle.” Both are such keen observers of their own thoughts and emotions, even as they fail to understand themselves. I’m fascinated by the tension between adolescent unconsciousness and consciousness (a tension, of course, that exists our whole lives!), and all of this—questions about the life examined and the life concealed—leads me to your character’s relationship to her writing. The scenes with her mother around her journal—both the initial violation and then the equally horrifying gift of the new journal—are so powerful, and seem to me every bit as central to the novel as the character’s sexual awakening and exploration.
CAROL: The thread of redemption running through the novel is definitely the protagonist’s slowly developing and strengthening vision of herself as a writer. It is her conduit to self-understanding, and to seeing herself as more than a sexualized being while at the same time accepting her sexual self. Writing is, among other things, an act of assertion.
I agree with you that the mother’s reading of the diary is central to the story. Many people have found it the greatest act of betrayal in the novel (though some mothers have said they would have done the same thing ‘to find out what was going on with their daughter’). There is also the further betrayal of her not revealing (while they are traveling) what she has done. In any case, the mother’s act somewhat mirrors the daughter’s willful behavior and becomes the biggest roadblock in her development as a writer, which means it ultimately is what strengthens her.
ABIGAIL: Do you think there’s a connection between sex and writing?
CAROL: Oh, that’s loaded! They’re both liminal experiences for me, altered states, and I do think that my conscious directive mind can get in the way of either one, but that when it doesn’t there is such a sublime feeling with each. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes sex elicits from me the desire to write–right then–certain little phrases pop up and I’m torn between getting my notebook out or just trying to remember them for later or just letting them go. I also think that both writing and sex took me a longer time to grow into than I expected or than I was ready to admit to: I wanted each to flow more naturally, more easily than either did.
How about for you? And I’m also wondering what you love best about Molly?
ABIGAIL: All creative acts—all truly vulnerable acts—are pretty much the same for me, I think. My mind gets in the way, and surrender is everything. Sex, meditation, writing, any kind of genuine intimacy, acting–in all of them, I am so naked and exposed.
What I love most about Molly and her brother, Ted, too—what drew me to their characters—is that (like dogs) they haven’t learned to “properly” cover themselves or their innocence.
CAROL: “Raw” is a word you often use to describe both Ted and Molly, especially when they’re young. I’d love to know more about what that word means to you.
ABIGAIL: I associate it with nakedness—anything in its original state, before it has been made presentable or palatable. I forget that “rawness” is most often associated with harshness and violence—something ugly. But extreme innocence isn’t pretty.
I’ve always been drawn to transitional states of being: the process of birth, the process of death, and adolescence. I think our innocence is most revealed when we’re disoriented, whether because we’re half-child, half-adult; or half in this world and half in the realm beyond. But acne-covered teenagers, wrinkled newborns, the nearly dead—none of them are pretty, though they’re all wildly gorgeous.
One of the scenes that struck me most powerfully in The Widening was the scene when the character touches herself and has her first orgasm. The first time I read it, it made me uncomfortable, which is funny, because Molly’s earliest sexual feelings are for a dog—but when I read it again, it seemed one of the strongest scenes in the book, and it occurred to me that a lot of the sex that’s all around us in the popular media and even in some very literary books isn’t especially naked, or even meant to be. I was reading a wonderful Aimee Bender story the other day in which a librarian has sex with 6 men in one day, but the point of the sex is that it’s dissociative, and so, even when the librarian asks to be fucked like a dog and Bender describes the penis ramming inside her, I don’t know that readers would be embarrassed.
I’m curious whether you agree that true nakedness makes people more uncomfortable than the simple mechanics of intercourse, and also if there were parts of my book that made you uneasy at first. (Or still!)
CAROL: Maybe it is the vulnerability that makes people uncomfortable; I think it is also the lack of authorial censure, that there are no overt negative consequences to their actions.
What made me most uneasy in Dogs was Molly’s unflinching and unquestioning love for her father most of the way through the book, when I, as a reader, disliked him from the beginning, a response I assume was intentionally designed! That disparity between what you had the reader see and what Molly saw—her inability to see him—made me very uncomfortable.
ABIGAIL: Oh, yes, I can see that that might make a reader squirm! Until the end of the book, Molly is utterly blinded by her own desire for her father’s love and attention, as well as by the high esteem he’s held in.
I’ve asked you what you loved most about your protagonist—what do you love most about the novel itself?
CAROL: I love the way the concision, metaphoric thinking and precision of poetry flowed over into my prose. The writing of it had many phases and was a difficult pleasure, a challenge, and on a micro-level I’m very proud of it, with a poet’s pride: I think it reads well.
I’m pleased that it is an honest and nuanced attempt to imaginatively enter into a young woman’s unresolved and messy experience of her early sexuality, and to write in a head-on way, without apology, reservations or rationalizing explanations, about the vulnerability, irresponsibility and sense of lostness which that can imply. It would be (is) easy for me to become self-conscious about the book’s pre-occupations, but I firmly believe they’re important. There’s a line in the very first chapter—“nothing and no one had prepared her”—and I’ve always thought that was key: that the whole book can be read as an extrapolation of what can happen, positively as well as negatively, with often the two mixed together, when a girl comes of age without any clue or cultural support. I love how closely the book is able to hew to the girl’s point of view and to express her observations, insights and feelings, without being absolutely identical to her. I’m disturbed that the subject matter seems to overwhelm the response to it and I worry that it’s too ‘sincere’ with no filter, or what seems to many readers, no filter, but as Boris Pasternak wrote to Marina Tsvetayeva (this is from Letters: Summer 1926), “a book is nothing but a cube of hot, smoking conscience.” I like that, and hope that’s what The Widening ultimately is.
Will you talk more about dogs and how you see them? I loved that you named your novel that.
ABIGAIL: Oh, that’s perfect—the “cube of hot, smoking conscience.” I think it describes The Widening exactly.
About my title, I couldn’t imagine calling it anything else, though it has disappointed a lot of dog lovers who thought they were going to read a feel good novel about canines. Dogs mean so many things to me. Throughout my life, I’ve had these pitiful dogs, who have been abused, who are desperate in their seeking of love, and totally blind to the irritation they trigger in a lot of people. Dogs who just follow people around no matter what. So there’s that. And when I was a pre-teen, before I had braces, boys used to say I was a dog, and my father used to say the world was “going to the dogs,” so all of that is in there, too. But really, when I think of dogs, I think of a Rumi quotation about how a pack of dogs howling for God is God’s answer to the dogs. The longing for love, or for God, IS love, is God. Beckett has been a huge influence on me and I see in his characters’ disbelief a tremendous longing, and in that longing, that absence, a definition of what is longed for. When Molly talks about having grown up in the empty spaces of her father’s heart, and being the negative of him–that’s what I mean. His absent heart defines the shape of hers– her longing for what is not there in him defines love–in the way that a dog’s howling defines the shape of the thing it longs for. So bleakness defines its opposite. And in coming to that, Molly comes to a recognition that a dog who follows everyone around is not pitiful–that love that vulnerability is really a great and good thing.
As far as the subject matter overwhelming the response goes, I think you’ve nailed it for both of us, and that’s what breaks my heart somehow. I find myself so often defending Molly’s promiscuity—along with her cigarette smoking! (As if people might suffer from second-hand smoke by reading about her.)
But when you mention the absence of filters, the sincerity, in The Widening, that–along with the language–is precisely its triumph, as I see it! So maybe the squirmy responses we’ve gotten are good. Maybe they are an indication of being at the bone.
Do you think people would respond to these novels much differently if the protagonists had been boys? Or maybe a better way to put it is, how different would these characters be if they had been born male?
CAROL: I think both characters could only be female, that their issues and concerns and very beings are absolutely, within the context of our society, female. I partially modeled The Widening on the picaresque tradition, and certainly people respond differently to those protagonists, even when they are cads!
The girl in The Widening wants to have the freedom to express herself as freely as she imagines boys do, and as nonchalantly, but when she comes close to this—“like a man she never wanted to see him again”—is when she feels that she has betrayed herself by not paying attention to her actual feelings–to her nature. She always has a sense, which I think is culturally at least very female, of compulsion–of being compelled–to finish something she has supposedly or actually started. (Was there anything worse than being known as a cock-tease?) There is no room for indecision, for changing her mind, as she finds out on an isolated road near Leon in the 1st half of the book. Molly too is more concerned about men’s feelings than her own, and I found myself thinking of her as a temple prostitute, a tradition that existed in India of women who gave men sexual favors in the temple as a sacred act. But the problem for both of the characters is the problem of self-knowledge.
ABIGAIL: Which is why your protagonist’s evolution as a writer, and Molly’s backward-looking narrative, are so important, I think. They allow the characters to make sense of what they have lived. And though the moralistic responses we’ve received are baffling, I know we’ve both heard from lots of women that they identified with our characters and were really grateful for the novels’ insights. It’s so easy for me to zero in on and become obsessed with discouraging responses, but ultimately I think it’s more important to attend to the positive ones.
CAROL: One woman remarked to me that ‘I’d written everything she had tried to forget’!—a kind of compliment, I guess. The review that angered me the most was a short paragraph that dismissed it as ‘a book that has as many lovers as short chapters,’ or something like that. As if it were a catalogue of lovers, and not a story with pain and growth and insight and even, a bit, catharsis. After I finished it, it occurred to me that college women might relate to it, that it might even be appropriate for women’s studies literature courses, because of the way it deals head-on with emerging female sexuality and cultural norms. But I think what might limit it from being perceived the way I saw it is in the book’s very structure: neither the character nor the narrator make any sweeping claims—the girl never pronounces that she is trying to live as if there is no double standard, that she is trying to create a standard of behavior out of whole-cloth, even though that is what she is in essence doing. I think the fact that her experience isn’t altogether positive is also out of sync with the so-called hook-up culture.
Tell me what you love most about your novel–that would be a positive note on which to end.
ABIGAIL: What I love most about my novel is the central problem it tries to solve: Molly’s love for her father. I really understand how that love could make someone uncomfortable—it was definitely the hardest thing to write, and it may be that I love it the most because it gave me such trouble! It was important to me that her father not have redeeming qualities that would “justify” her love, or soften the difficulty of her reckoning with that love. At the beginning, Molly feels guilty for loving someone who has done so much harm—as if loving him implicated her in his crimes. She reviews her whole life, starting with the early years when she was actually blind to his true nature and just trying to win his approval, through her discovery of who and what he was and her attempts to distance herself from him, and on through to the end, when she refuses to go into the room where he’s dying. But all of those attempts are balanced against her inability to close her own heart, and so, whether she’s in the room with him or not, she struggles with the shame of loving him. On some level, she will always be the child adoring her father and so, because she can’t loathe or punish him, she loathes and punishes herself. Ultimately—and this, for me, is the redemption in the novel—she recognizes that the way she loves people, even those who don’t deserve it, is a good thing—that the point is not whether or not the object of one’s love is deserving, the point is that one loves. It’s like the notion—a notion I very much believe in—that the death penalty is bad not only because it kills people, but because it makes murderers of us all: so love is good not only or not necessarily because of its effect on the beloved, but because it redeems the one who loves. Molly is a person who loves, and in that she is like a dog—no longer in the “pitiful” sense of being willing to take abuse, but in the sense of loving instinctually. And she can see, at the end—or she’s starting to see—that that’s a good thing. That’s what I love best about the book.
I also really liked being inside Molly’s profane, seeking, sometimes funny voice—my favorite line from a review was from Library Journal: “Who knew that a “bad girl” could be so innocent, so smart, so complex?” That made me feel like I’d written the book I wanted to write, because I’ve always been moved by the innocence of so-called bad girls—the almost virginal quality of girls who have hundreds of one-night stands. I am most moved by my characters’ contradictions—and I would have to say that that’s what excites me most about being alive in the world: all the contradictions of the human condition.
CAROL: The Widening kind of leaves its protagonist hanging on the verge of self-acceptance, but in Dogs Molly’s acceptance of her loving nature, her embrace of it as essential and positive, is an immensely redemptive vision, all the more moving for the intensity of her struggle. I love that phrase, “the innocence of so-called bad girls”—it about sums it all up.