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The Hopeful: On Selfhood, Anti-heroines and the Power of Manifesting “A Small Change”
An Interview with Tracy O’Neill
Tracy O’Neill was recently awarded The Center for Fiction’sprestigious NYC Emerging Writer fellowship.
Her debut novel The Hopeful is
forthcoming from IG Books in summer 2015. The Hopeful is at once a
lyrical confessional and an intimate coming-of-age portrait, detailing the harrowing story of a young figure skating champion who confronts the
boundaries of what is physically and psychologically possible within the conflicting
and yet overlapping realms of championship sports, personal obsession, and
addiction. What emerges is a tale of
hope, truth and resilience.
I recently had the chance to sit down with
one of Brooklyn’s exciting new voices and speak with her about the construction of her debut novel.
I. THE BODY AS A DIVORCED VESSEL FROM THE MIND
THE BELIEVER: I really loved the structure and voice of
the book. When I first got to
the chapter where your narrator, Alivopro, is speaking with the psychologist, it
reminded me a bit of a mathematical or psychological proof, where she’s trying
to talk to both herself and her therapist about issues of selfhood and
guilt. I thought of the
Didion book Play It As It Lays. I wondered
if you could talk about the decision in your book to work in this confessional
tone, where the main character, the kind of anti-heroine Alivopro, similar to
Didion, is speaking directly to the therapist/reader about how she might or
might not be responsible for her own undoing.
TRACY O’NEILL: One of the reasons I decided to weave this
narrative through the therapy scenes was so that this narrator could exist in two
time frames at once. When she is going
through her own moral reckoning, I wanted it to be happening in real time, whereas
the bulk of the narrative takes place in the past. I wanted there to be dialogue between those
BLVR: There’s a real levity and immediacy to those passages—especially
the first time the reader encounters them—where it almost feels as
though we are being confronted with those same moral questions.
TO: Part of that decision is that if we are to only see
Ali through the main part of the narrative—the middle of the frame—she can
be a lot more grating, and so we need the therapy scenes to see how, if at all, she’s changed. I think about that a
lot. For one thing, I ask myself: what
is a story? And one way of thinking
about a story is: a story involves a change. I wanted it to be a very subtle change.
There’s also the fact that, at the time, Ali could not have been having this
moral reckoning, and really, I think this character would only be able to do
that within this context I’ve created—where she’s essentially
institutionalized and sits around and is forced to think.
BLVR: And in some ways you confront that directly when the
therapist asks her: “How can you let go of the past? Why can’t you let go of
the past and instead envision a future where you forgive yourself?”
TO: This might be opening a whole can of worms but one of
the big things I was thinking about when I wrote this book was: 1.) What
constitutes the self? and 2.) Where is the self located? So, there are a number of theories about what
the self is. And I think that the mind-body divorce is very Cartesian in a sense. I think a lot of people accept as truth that somehow
the mind and the body are separate entities.
And then some people believe in a soul, which is sort of different also. But, as Ali is moving through this
story, part of the reason the body becomes important is that, to me, the body
is also a constant reminder of death.
And she’s dealing with the death of a particular self. We want to think about there being maybe more
than one self, which is something that I think she does believe. She believes there’s this self that’s tied to
the will. There’s this self that’s
metacognitive. There’s the self that’s
tied to the body. And the last two are
selves that really let her down.
BLVR: The book has this almost manic fascination with the body
as a divorced vessel from the mind.
There’s a line in the book where the father says, “The body is a
phase. The mind is permanent.” The father is this pseudo-intellectual guy
who is interested in PBS specials and wants his daughter to go to Harvard. So, in a basic sense, it feels like to crack
this book open is to talk about that mind-body schism. Is that how you thought about the main character, Alivopro?
TO: Yes. And at the
same time in the book I’m trying to grapple with the sense that maybe the self
is constituted by autobiography. By the
story. And that is something you can
trace back to a number of different thinkers in slightly different ways. Daniel Dennet talks about that, of the self
as being like a fiction, if not specifically a fiction. Antonio Damasio—who does more pop science—talks about the autobiographical self. I don’t really have an answer about what
the self is or where it is. But it was a
question which I was grappling with.
II. THE IDEA OF THE MEANINGFUL LIFE
BLVR: It’s really beautiful to hear you say that within that
Cartesian frame, or map, the self that let her down was really the one that was
located in the body. In that way, one of
the propellers of this narrative is the actual physicality of the sport of figure skating itself—which was beautifully written about. I’ve
read some of your other non-fiction for Rolling
Stone about skating and how that works.
But there was one particularly beautiful passage in the novel where you
describe skating as: “Frictionless flying.
Sliding. This was
self-actuality.” I was wondering if you could talk about these passages which
detail the actual sport of skating. Is
that coming from autobiographical experience?
TO: I did figure
skate when I was younger. And one of the
reasons I decided to situate this novel within the world of figure skating is
that it’s a bizarre sport that does very directly play out the problems of the
mind, the body and the soul. A number of people have asked whether figure skating should be
talked about as a sport or as an art.
BLVR: Do you feel that
the idea of the pursuit of perfection—or the obsessive pursuit of perfection—is a way of pursuing self-aggrandizement or pursuing death? There’s obviously a strong death instinct
within this character.
TO: I don’t necessarily think it has to be one or the
other. I think it’s also about the idea
of the meaningful life. It’s almost
become this cliché that we’re supposed to live meaningful lives and have
meaningful relationships and have meaningful work. And I think this character particularly
doesn’t understand what that means. I mean—who does! But she’s trying to seek this very physical understanding of it
because she is aware that the mind is couched in this body. She doesn’t think that the mind persists
after death. She thinks about this very
finite being that we have, this existence.
And she thinks that this is this ideal version of vitality and life and
BLVR: That’s interestingly mirrored in the backdrop of this
story. The voice of those sections is
very different. It almost sort of reminds me of an Alice Munro or James
Salter-esque voice writing about the
very quotidian, banal nature of everyday American life, her family. I wondered
how you thought about the creation of this family backdrop? Is it a play that’s going on in the background
that’s there to enliven these feelings that Ali is dealing with?
TO: The voice of Ali was really the beginning of the
story. When I first started working on
this it was actually a six-page short story.
It’s the middle section of the first chapter. It starts with her waking up and reckoning
with herself. I do believe
that most people are conducting their lives trying to find a sense of meaning
III. ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MAKES US HUMAN IS OUR ABILITY TO HOPE
BLVR: You talk in one section of the book about what you call “the privacy of
the self.” You talk about Ali’s obsession with watching the replay of figure
skating routines and her thinking that success in the sport all goes back to trying
to trap a child’s body in time. I
wondered if this desire to retreat to a child-like posture or body overlapped with
this other dialogue in the book about identity and adoption? Is there something about that idea of reverting to a child-like self that related
to being confronted, maybe unfairly, with having to meet this biological mother
and thinking, “Do I want to take on this new identity?”
TO: Definitely. When we’re kids, we might not even think completely of the self as a
thing at all. And that’s reflected in
the one character, Emma Closerman, who confuses I and You when she’s
talking with her mother. Part
of what Ali is doing throughout this entire book is talking about this
fractured identity: I’m not sure if my self is body, soul, or meta-cognitive
mind. I would like to retreat to this
childlike state where I can put those pieces back together and then maybe pull
them apart again. Go back to this sense
of wholeness that she has essentially mythologized.
BLVR: Could you talk about how that does or does not relate to
the adoption narrative and the choice you make to have her confront her biological
mother later in life?
TO: I thought about the
extent to which the self is a function of a family. Nature verses nurture. One thing Ali questions is: “Would I be a
different person if I had been raised by this other mother?” She has a sense of the body being destiny. But she’s not quite sure if the nurture
aspects are. I think that she is trying to find out what that alternative story
is because she also does feel that’s she’s made a mistake and she doesn’t want
to admit it.
BLVR: Interesting. You
started the interview by saying you wanted to show that she’d made a small psychological change. So, in your
mind, where does she end up at the end of the book in terms of the nature verses
TO: I think at the end of the story she still thinks of herself
as a self-made person. I would say the small change that happens in the story is
that she’s able to think of herself as being part of humanity and not an
uber-mensch, to understand that maybe one of the things that makes us human is
our ability to hope, and to not be so disappointed with being human.
BLVR: That seems to tie back to the origin of her name,
Alivopro. Her dad talks about the origin
of her name several times in the book.
She talks about her own name as kind of a guiding principle or a rubric
she needs to live up to. I love the name—it’s complex and lyrical and beguiling. It seemed in some ways it had to do with your
really intense understanding of language as a writer, how you make meaning out
of a sentence.
TO: Alis volat propiis
is a fairly well-known phrase in Latin which means “she flies with her own
wings.” It has this special history
which I talk about, which ties in with the dad’s college dreams for his
daughter. There’s also a sense of independence
in that sentence, and being an independent person is really important to Ali. Also,
I think figure skating is a lot like what we imagine flying to feel like. You
mentioned the word “frictionless” earlier, and I think part of what I wanted to
talk about in this book was that hopes can be frictionless, even when they
bring us into dark places. Many people
who have read this book have talked about how it is a very dark book. But I think for me, it’s sort of empowering
in the sense that I really love this idea that hope is limitless.