INTERVIEW: Lauren Wallach, author of “A Higher Purpose,” now on Recommended Reading
by Maru Pabón
In this week’s Recommended Reading, “A Higher Purpose,” author Lauren Wallach draws from her experiences growing up in Brooklyn, a belief in lived symbolism, and strong female characters from Fellini films. The result is a strikingly intimate story, which I had the chance to discuss with her via e-mail.
Maru Pabón: In “A Higher Purpose,” the unnamed narrator seems to be fixated on occurrences of doubling in her own life: the peephole mirror, her relationships with Pablo and Paul, the co-lab stories. Could you talk about this recurring motif of pairs or doubles?
Lauren Wallach: After thinking about this question for a few days, I mentioned to a friend that I have been “doubling” and what to make of that, how to explain it. He responded, “like fractal geometry.” I didn’t know anything about fractal geometry, so I watched a TED talk, which provided a very interesting cauliflower analogy: when you break off a piece of cauliflower you don’t get a piece of cauliflower, you have a little cauliflower. The fractal shape is rooted in something called “self-similarity” in which the shape is made of smaller copies of itself. The copies are similar to the whole: same shape but different size. Fractals appear in nature, in art, in music, and maybe in this story!
That fractal geometry explanation is there to say that the doubling occurred for me in life–who knows why–and I observed it. Coincidences and parts of life that naturally “double” are a great fascination to me. And so is the continuous forgetting and understanding that nothing is as it seems. For example, the idea of looking through a peephole only to see oneself; this is not logical, it’s some sort of mistake, and this is something that appears as a symbol from life. The idea of reflecting, doubling, without explanation. I believe that symbolism can exist in lived life just as it might in art or literature.
One of my new favorite children’s books is by a Zen Buddhist, and it’s called “Is Nothing Something?”
MP: Your writing style also makes use of this doubling by repeating words and phrases. What might the repetition signify?
LW: I do repeat words and phrases a lot. It’s not a conscious decision. When I edit, a lot of repetition gets cut out. But some things that are repeated need to remain, like anything else that feels necessary for the story. So I am not sure why. But if I were to psychoanalyze why, I could say that perhaps it’s out of an unconscious need to ritualize certain moments or ideas, sort of like a an incantation, as if the more something is reiterated, the truer it will become. Or, our memories and minds are constantly repeating words, phrases, faces. It could be a natural progression putting what’s in a mind into words on a page.
MP: The story’s narrator often expresses a desire for someone to observe her or notice her. Do you feel there’s something about New York that brings out that desire to connect?
LW: I don’t think New York brings out a desire to connect more than any other place. I do think New York and certain other cities are unique in how one may be seen. It is very easy to be completely anonymous here. It’s also very easy to be seen in a place that is meant to be private. Sometimes, because of apartment/window proximity, it is very easy to see into someone’s home. You can see another person when they are completely alone, and they can see you when you are completely alone.
I think the narrator, on a certain level, has a sense of these differences. I think she would rather be seen through the messed up peephole in her room than have people stare at her in the restaurant on Halloween night.
MP: How did growing up in Brooklyn influence your writing?
LW: I’m not completely sure. I can think of one very specific story from my childhood in Brooklyn, involving a strange man that me and my friends called “The Comer”- a terrible name and not what it sounds like. He became a mythic figure for us. I was waiting for my friend one day on the stoop and no one was around and this man appeared and motioned with his finger for me to come towards him. Nothing happened though. We just stood like that for a little while, I pretended not to see him, even though we were just a few feet apart, and then eventually he wandered off. But he would always reappear. And my friends and I knew to look out for him. His presence evoked a lot of fear in me. When we’d see him we’d run away or if he was close or observe from a distance. Did Brooklyn cause me to become obsessed with writing about creepy, odd interactions? Maybe.
I do think topics that fascinate us are often themes that begin in our childhood. But as a child, my world was mostly within a few blocks radius. So more accurately I would say the block I lived on had an influence on my writing because of my experiences on that block.
MP: Why did you decide to reference in such detail the character of Cabiria from Nights of Cabiria?
LW: I was Cabiria for Halloween, and gave this moment to my narrator. Usually for Halloween I pick characters that I have an interest in and respect for. For Cabiria I have great love and respect. And I feel that is honored in writing about her and dressing as her. And again with the doubling, I had the outfit already, before I conceived of “becoming” her.
MP: Is that your favorite Fellini film? If so, when did you first watch it? Why is it important to you?
LW: It’s a close tie with La Strada. I love them both. I first watched Nights of Cabiria just about a year ago even though I had seen Fellini’s films years before. There are so many intricate reasons why this film is important to me and why I like it. One thing is I love contrasts in characters. Cabiria is a prostitute. And yet she longs for love. She also is more honest, loving, full hearted than anyone else in that movie. Bad things happen to her. Especially at the end. But she endures. She has this strange smile on her face and she is crying a little. Two scenes that stand out in my mind is 1. When she is hypnotized on stage at a magician’s performance and 2. When she is with a rich actor client and they go on the dance floor and she has a moment where she completely ignores him and does her own solo dance out of nowhere. She is always both honest and funny, completely herself. Cabiria’s pain feels meaningful. It’s what she endures for being able to be who she is, which is actually a gift.
MP: You teach a creative writing workshop for teenagers. Can you talk a bit about what that’s like? What is a piece of advice or caution that you often give to your students?
LW: The creative writing workshop for teenagers is a free workshop that I just began this summer at BookCourt. We meet once a week, and we might continue on into the school year. (They are wonderful writers.) The theme of the class this summer was “looking closely.” We’re exploring how the details from our memories and those around us can represent and reveal ourselves as writers. How the small details that you choose to give can allow the reader into the narrator’s mind. In our class we’ve already experienced quite a few moments where seemingly mundane details have emerged into something a bit more magical. There was one very hot day when only one of my students came to class. We both had never brought any food or drink of any sort to class, but on this day, we both had brought ginger ale for the other to drink. This was a powerful moment for both of us. And I think it was a great example. It’s being aware, being in tune. Once your mind is there anything can happen (on the page).
MP: What are you currently excited to be working on?
LW: I have been working on a collection of interconnected stories or linked passages that will take the form of a novella. I’m also beginning to embark on a variation of a horror story. The sort that stops short of the actual “horror.” (And yes it will involve lots of looking into windows…)