Sorry for the delay in posting this second part of 5 (or so) Questions with Angela Woodward. I promise it is worth the wait! Let's get to it. Here is part 2 of Philip Graham's interview with Angela Woodward.
PG: I'd say that the book's effect, at least for me as a reader, was complicated. Sure, it is sad, at times frightening, but this is balanced by the imaginative building that the couple shares, which explains without needing to say so directly their attraction to each other.
AW: There might be another link to the compressed, miniaturist form, but I don't know if I can quite say it. I took something very personal and private, the dissolving marriage, and made it on a big scale, as this conflict between countries. I don't know if this is the same as, or the obverse of, some historical novel where the personal travails are allegorical for the historical pageant. I want to take what's extremely heartfelt, and what's very personal, and see it in a different way, non-traditional, not sentimental, but still felt. So moving the landscape out, talking about these competing cultures and rival political systems, rather than focusing on the everyday reality of two people in an apartment, was a way of doing that. It may seem incredibly oblique, but for me, that was the most direct way I could get at a mudslide of emotion, to make a pretty ordinary tragedy a lens onto an extraordinary world.
PG: You certainly succeeded there -- End of the Fire Cult is quite unlike any other book I've read. And yes, there is that mudslide of collapse, but even when relations between the couple's two "countries" go sour, I found myself hoping they might return to a more productive period of co-creation -- after all, they'd done that before, hadn't they? -- and at a certain point this gave the book an odd type of dramatic tension.
AW: For me, it was implicit in the first chapter, that after that, it seemed there was no way for the couple to continue on together. I saw them as doomed. She invented her country, and he asked her if he could contribute. She said no. If she had said yes, then you've got a much happier story ahead of you. But she said no, and I never thought she could come back from that. There is some gentler co-creating in the middle of the book, where they offer the stories back and forth. There's something of a respite there. But it's only a lull, before the bad thing happens. I'm talking about this as if it wasn't me who made all these choices that steered the plot. But I remember the day I wrote the part about the invasion, and I was surprised and devastated. I could see it coming, but I couldn't deflect it. I was so sad.
PG: You mentioned "Arachne" as a turning point in the novel. Could you talk about that a bit more?
AW: The "Arachne" chapter was one of the first ones I wrote, before I really knew what the whole story was. I was toying with Ovid's Metamorphoses. The book was always in the back of my mind when I was writing Fire Cult, but "Arachne" is the only chapter that actually lifts a story from it. This is I think the only place where you really see the narrator and her husband telling their stories together. He's made up this horrible, creepy brothel in the capital of his country, and she's uncomfortable with that. And then he tells her about a spider woman who's an attraction at this place. The wife interrupts him with a different version, which is the Arachne story from Ovid, where a weaver is turned into a spider for boasting that she's more skilled than the goddess. But he gets out his story, which is that the girl was cold-hearted and cruel, and becomes a spider when her lover curses her. It seems aimed right at the wife, that he's accusing her, and the whole chapter is dark, grotesque. Some of the earlier chapters are pretty dark too, but here he's used their game in a deliberately cruel way. I actually thought of leaving this chapter out, because it distressed me. But I couldn't. And this opens the gate to the more tender section that follows, that gentler middle section where you might have been feeling your hopefulness.
PG: Yes, I have to confess I'm a sappy optimist when it comes to relationships, but you do clearly portray the husband as someone whom the wife needs to escape from. Which reminds me of one of the most electrifying moments in the novel for me, the lovemaking scene where, early in the couple's relationship, the (not-yet) wife, already catching on to the potential menace in this man's behavior, "was only dimly aware at that point of how much farther in there was to me, to both of us, and what I would do to get away, to keep him out." Does this impulse to hide later transform into the building of her imaginary country?
AW: I think so. She's got this whole complex refuge from him, and from the ordinariness and somewhat trapped economic circumstances of their lives. In a way she owes her fertility to him, that she's created this marvelous world, which then gained a lot of clarity in the ways it plays off his imagination. There's a profound debt there. But there's also an awareness of his aggression, which comes out in that scene. Something erotic and tender is at the same time dominating, setting off this tension that seems to have played out through the whole rest of their relationship.
PG: I am, as you may have gathered, a huge fan. So I can't help asking, what are you working on now?
AW: I'm in the middle of something bigger, looser, and more complex than either Fire Cult or Human Mind. The working title is "The Disasters," which in part refers to my chances of pulling this off. I can describe it as a novel in the form of lectures on archaeology, very messed up, rambling lectures. Let me not jinx it by trying to explain more than that. I barely understand myself what I'm up to.
Thanks to Angela Woodward and Philip Graham for such a fascinating discussion. To read excerpts from End of the Fire Cult, pick up a copy of vol. 7, no. 1 in our webstore.