Envy: A Novel

Many reviewers, I said, increasingly seem to confuse the book's author with the book's narrator or any of a number of a book's characters.

"True, and strangely unsophisticated for people who are supposed to be reviewers or critics. I remember when my first novel came out, which was very autobiographical, it was sort of tempting waters about the whole thing. And some guy in the audience at a bookstore saw it, and he asked me, 'What does your father think about this stuff?' I thought, 'Hey, this is a novel. You can't ask me that question. I made the whole thing up, supposedly.'

"But he was totally uninterested in any such distinction. He just kept repeating the question actually until somebody from the bookstore took him away, for which I was very grateful. But, yes, it is peculiar.

"I'm very disappointed when I don't get a couple of reviews that say that I'm twisted or disgraceful or a degenerate in some way, because I'm not interested in writing something that leaves people lukewarm. I've always tended to have people who are either strong supporters or who strongly dislike my work. In the same day, Envy got an amazingly different review in the The New York Observer and The Washington Post. The guy who reviewed it for the Post , I can't remember his name right now, but he basically held me responsible for the decline in literary fiction. And then he went on to renounce me and the book in every possible way."

"I think it's important -- and fun -- for women to break the taboos about how and what women should write. Breaking those taboos can make some readers quite angry."

"I love seeing how angry they get."

"Envy. How did you come up with that title?"

"Well, not for any honorable reason. I think it probably would be better titled Betrayal, but I so clearly remembered that Pinter screenplay. I guess it was a play too with the name; there's something about this stuff that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The book has a fairly suspenseful, even in places sensational plot; it has that 'beach read' quality, so I wanted it to have that kind of title, and Envy seemed to fit the bill. It just popped into my head.

"I title things last and I can't say that I believe I'm very good at it. I don't think it's a strength. I think making up titles and writing are separate talents. There are a lot people who come up with good titles and are not particularly wonderful writers. I hope that I write well enough, but I don't think I'm a good thinker of titles."

When she begins a book, Ms. Harrison said, she usually has a "fake title. I know it's a fake title, but it reveals itself to be the wrong title. There was the title of Pandora because of Jennifer having a Pandora quality. And, of course, Pandora's Box -- that was shot down pretty quickly."

In Envy is a character who may or may not be the narrator's daughter. He doesn't know. About that character, Ms. Harrison said, "She was a complete surprise. I think that, usually in the course of a novel, except for the first one, which was autobiographical, that the characters were disguised or 'slightly shifted,' real-life people. Usually there's this one, very forceful female character who arrives and...either takes over the book, but in this case Jennifer was not part of the plan in any way, but she just arrived with sort of a smart mouth. She's not a very admirable person, but I like her a lot. I like having written a bad girl that gets away with everything."

Envy's narrator is male. About writing from a male point of view, Ms. Harrison said, "I really like it. I remember reading Joyce Carol Oates's book, I think it's What I Lived For. It's written from male point of view. It was pretty masterful. I closed the book -- it was a good ten years ago -- and thought, 'What a tour-de-force in terms of writing as a man, when you're not a man.' I thought, 'I could never do that.'

"Then I tried it out. I realized, 'I'm starting a book from the point of view of a man.' Instead of looking down at the tightrope and saying to myself, 'Uh oh,' I thought, 'Okay, I'll have Colin read it at the end, and if I've made any terrible mistakes, he'll let me know.'"

"Did he? Had you?"

"No, not really."

What surprised Ms. Harrison, she said, was this: "When I finished Envy, seeing it as I hadn't been able to see it while I was writing it, I thought 'Oh, of course again I'm writing about me and my mother.' A person who's in a very sort of cold, punishing climate where it's really hard to sustain life and he's pursuing a female object that comes and goes at her own discretion without ever speaking to him, and she will allow him to touch her and penetrate her but only so far -- she never allows him any access to what he believes is her soul.

"I thought, 'once again, I am writing about my experience with my mother.' And at that point I realized that it actually is very familiar to me, to be in the position of longing for a withholding elusive female. As a child I experienced my mother as not only desirable but I was very aware of her sexuality, I suppose because was she was so young and because my father disappeared when I was 16 months old, so she was dating and all that.

"So I was aware of her dressing for dates and being involved with young men of whom I was jealous. I understood that she was desirable in terms of her flesh and the way she looked, so I too desired her.

"It feels natural to me to be writing as a character in pursuit of a female object. I actually began this book from a woman's point of view, from the mother's point of view, after a child drowns. I got totally bored. I thought it was sort of distasteful. I thought 'Oh, well, maybe I'll do it from the father's point of view.' I don't know how he turned into a shrink.

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