One of the things I most love about your novel is that it has this strong political and historical sensibility, and yet those things seem indistinguishable from your narrator’s inner life, from her personal story. This is in contrast, I think, to the many historical novels that read like fictionalized history lessons. How much, then, is the novel (in a general sense) tied up in your history, in the world’s history? And why do so many people perceive it as something separate from history?
My first novel, Bibliolepsy, took shape as the country’s revolt also took shape. There’s something in that: the novel is like a revolt happening in real time, with the end game hoped for but not known. Well, if the novel is a revolt happing in real time, an improvised thing, the interesting corollary is that history also is like a novel. History is surprisingly improvised, which is why tragedy happens. Why irony is at the heart of our experience. Aristotle called irony an element of drama; but it is an element of reality, in the sense that reality is a retrospective construction: it works like fiction.
We often forget this, but it was obvious to me, for instance, in 1986, when I was on the streets with a million people, wondering if the bazooka I just saw pass me by was going to kill me or not. We watched history happen, we were history, and it was like living in a novel, in the sense that we were in suspense about what would happen next. We are always in the middle of history, you know, if you think about it. We are always in some novel, wondering about the outcome. In 2000 with the election contretemps in Florida we were in a novel, we were in the middle of history, and the Supreme Court was a very bad author, creating a deus ex machina over something that, in hindsight, maybe we should have taken authorship of and rejected. It was a terrible day for democracy, and for the novel that is the United States of America, I think, when the election was decided by a Supreme Court verdict: that was a terrible plot. I still don’t know how we allowed that to happen, why we were so passive, why as citizens most seemed to think we had no say in the plot, in the story of our democracy. I still have theNewsweek cover story that came a year or so later, September 2011, on the summary of journalists’ investigations of Florida — I believe the idea was that if Gore had been allowed to pursue the case, the results would have shown he had won. Of course, that Newsweek story came out the week of 9/11. Aristotle would have noted the peripeteia in that — the reversal of expectations, the irony.