A Conversation Between Charles Bock and Tom Perrotta About Alice & Oliver:
Tom Perrotta is the author of eight works of fiction: Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Election, Nine Inches, and the New York Times bestselling Joe College, Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher, and The Leftovers. Election was made into the acclaimed 1999 movie directed by Alexander Payne and starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. In 2006 Little Children was released as a movie directed by Todd Field and starring Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly, and for which Perrotta received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best screenplay. The Leftovers has recently been adapted into a television series, airing on HBO. Perrotta lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
Tom Perrotta: People who know you know that there’s some autobiographical material in Alice & Oliver. What parts of the book are based on events from your own life? In what ways did you depart from a purely autobiographical narrative?
Charles Bock: In the summer of 2009, my late wife, Diana Joy Colbert, was diagnosed with leukemia; our daughter was six months old. We were in New Hampshire for the summer, and Diana spent the first month getting induction at a hospital there. My priority was to try and make sure Diana would be okay and our baby was taken care of. The notes I took at the time were for the purpose of being able to understand what was happening: names of drugs, what to do that might keep the swelling in her throat — one of the chemo side effects — under control. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m sure that Lorrie Moore’s short story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” was also rattling around (a key part of that story involves a husband telling his wife, who is a writer, to take notes while their child is undergoing treatment for cancer). So along with lists of things I had to get at a pharmacy, I jotted down details. To some degree, that’s part of the gig. Writers process the world like this, sifting through details, phrases, moments.. For sure, the roots of Alice & Oliver are autobiographical. It is a hugely dramatic situation, and the novel’s infrastructure—in terms of various procedures, reactions, and what have you—has real-life equivalents. For instance, Diana went through a three-day stretch of vision problems after a chemo treatment; Alice goes through a version of that.
But John Barth has this sentence: The story of us is not us, it’s our story. I thought about this a lot as I wrote. For this novel to be any good, I knew it would have to stand up as its own experience. Characters would have to stand on their own feet and have their own organic relationships with one another, form their own connections with a reader. So Alice Culvert couldn’t just be a stand-in for my late wife, who was a graduate student when she fell ill. Alice has to exist on the page as her own person—a freelance fashion designer who lives in a pregentrified version of the Meatpacking District, circa 1994. Similarly, Oliver can’t be me—his character emerges as a software designer trying to get a company off the ground. The love between these two has to be tangible and real on its own volition.
Pragmatically speaking, Diana went through two bone marrow transplants. Alice goes through one—her journey is intense enough with one. The novel also has temptations and plots that, thankfully, had nothing to do with real life. It has characters like Merv who are completely fictional. Moving the landscape of the city to 1994 also created something of a fictional terrain to play with and riff off. So in these and other ways, real events became both a grounding mechanism and a jumping-off point.
TP: Were you ever tempted to write a memoir about coping with illness and grief, and becoming a single parent? What made you think that a novel was a better way to handle this material?
CB: Honestly, I wanted to write about what Diana went through, and I was focused on that. Her struggle was wrenching, dramatic, and tragic; at the same time, her conduct, day by day through two and a half years, was as heroic as any definition I could imagine. It was hugely important to me write something my daughter could read when she’s fifteen, which would allow her to understand how much Diana wanted to be here—how much Diana loved her. How much she wanted to be her mother. Now, to a lesser extent this meant what I went through as well. So, then: a book about love, parenthood, marriage, and responsibility, all that stuff. What happens to those bonds when put under this impossible, unimaginable pressure? I couldn’t do this while events were happening, that was clear.
But I very much believe in fiction and its capabilities. I have faith in the writing process itself. If done correctly, the process makes time work for you. Even when I was deep in mourning, and trying to figure out how I was possibly going to start to write again, the veil of fiction gave me some room. This helped, I think: having more artistic and psychological freedom than if I were trying to match event for event, without any escape, any fun.
Throughout the writing of this book, whenever I was beginning a new scene, it always happened: open a file and read through notes and, oh, Jesus—the memories would fall on me like a piano. The only thing I could do was get into bed and curl up into a ball. But after hour three, shock wears off, a bit. You begin to live with those details, might even start placing them. What does this scene need to do, anyway? Yes, I want my daughter to understand how much her mother wanted to be here, but doing this correctly means capturing the psychological process for a woman facing the unthinkable, which starts to get technical. I might start altering, adjusting, projecting. It has to break down into moments, scenes. By necessity, questions of form and aesthetic issues matter. How long can we stay inside her head before something needs to, you know, happen? Can the scene be done in dialogue instead of thoughts, and if so, then who is she talking with, and toward what end? What other plot points might intersect? Is there a more structurally clean way to do this? Are the emotions earned, is this wrenching enough?
Once you start thinking about it in terms of material, things open up. Fiction is the lie that is better than the truth—that’s what all writing teachers tell their students, right? So now the idea of a truly excellent reading experience is another goal, a desire running alongside wanting my daughter to know. And this new goal has so many components. Are characters properly alive on the page? What else might this scene need to quicken the pace, even as you want to stay accurate about medical events? I have ideas about empathy and generosity I might want to write about, and how these come into conflict with personal ambition—do those ideas connect to this moment? If so, how might they aid or augment what’s going on here? How do I best serve the core emotional power and moral complexity of both the given moment and the larger dilemma?
You start to have a number of different masters, different levels of intellectual and emotional engagement. A sort of three-dimensional chess game emerges. This kind of intellectual engagement was something I had a level of comfort with. A world where I could exist. Even as the subject couldn’t have more personal importance or emotional impact.
TP: Could you talk a little about Diana and Alice? In what ways are they similar? Do you see parts of yourself in Oliver?
CB: Well, Diana Colbert was just a tremendous person; anyone who spent any time around her would say as much. She inspired and made possible Alice Culvert, who is her own memorable, truly special character. They obviously have a kinship, possessing the same generosity toward others, the same gentleness, the same love of life, which can be wide-eyed in its excitement and innocence. Diana struggled with not being around our baby during long segments of treatment; Alice does as well. Diana did tai chi during treatment; she held the chemo bottles and welcomed them into her body right before they were hooked up to her. Like Diana, Alice also had tremendous support and friends around her. It’s a beautiful thing, introducing Diana’s voice—or elements of it—to readers.
But Alice is probably more shrewd, overall. Her voice is inflected with Diana’s kindness, without a doubt, but also might be more sly. Alice was raised in the Northeast, and had more access to big cities growing up than Diana; she’s someone whose interests intersect with fashion, who was partying pretty regularly at Pyramid and Limelight in the eighties. I purposefully gave her a little more sophisticated background than Diana’s, one that was sprinkled with a Breakfast at Tiffany’s wanderlust. This directly influences the plot and grew concurrently with my ideas for certain plot elements. Alice’s desire to live becomes a wildness. Diana had that desire to live, for sure, but how it manifests in Alice, and in this novel, is quite different. So the two are similar and then, in a few key ways, not at all.
As for Oliver, yeah, I do see parts of myself in him. I can be prickly, immediately judgmental, and even cynical, which can take a toll on the people around me. It’s not something I’m necessarily happy with, and I might have tried to exorcise that in myself, a little bit, with his creation, pumping up the volume on those traits in him. Meanwhile, he’s smart and funny, a scrapper and a hustler, always looking to prove himself. I’m no computer programmer, whereas he’s trying to get a software company off the ground, and stays with his project while Alice is sick. We both had to handle the financial and bureaucratic aspects of our spouse’s illness, and to be caregivers, bedside. The one key and overriding thing with him: his need to take care of the people he loves. This creates a sincerity, and also places him under enormous pressure. That pressure is something I really connected with, a clarity that helped me form and understand Oliver. I was always keenly aware of his contradictions, in terms of his arc: How might he veer out of control? What would the ramifications be?
TP: I thought it was a really interesting choice to introduce us to Alice on the day she’s diagnosed with cancer. It takes a while for the reader to get to know her as anything other than a character dealing with a life-threatening illness. Did you consider introducing her at a different moment in her life, when she was still healthy?
CB: My experience and memory of the events were shock and immersion. Even during the long stretch when we were waiting for blood tests to come back and a diagnosis, there was so much suspense. The truth is, it is an unimaginable happening: two or three days of not feeling well, you think it’s a bug, some bottoming out, okay. Then a doctor is coming back with blood tests showing you have to be hospitalized immediately. I’d had something like this happen to me when I was twenty-four and it was similarly impossible to digest. When I was trying to conceive this novel, that shock and immersion remained, and soon enough they translated into the question: Could I start this as a thriller? Just jump right into the crisis? It was sort of a writing challenge: a gripping page-turner from the word go that would absorb readers and have them breathless, right in the middle of this unimaginable crisis, experiencing the same shock as the participants. In the process seeds get planted, personality characteristics are introduced. With luck all the seeds grow, Alice’s life opens up, the many facets and complexities of her character—and others—start their bloom. By then you are in and ready for the whole ride, with all its dips and turns and meditative moments.
TP: Readers sometimes complain about stories being too dark or too sad (it’s another version of the complaint that some characters aren’t likable enough). What would you say to a reader who might be scared to pick up Alice & Oliver because the subject matter is “too depressing”?
CB: The whole time I was working on this book, I was afraid: Oh hooray, a four-hundred-page novel about cancer; I’m sure people just can’t wait to read this one. But when I’d show pages to people I cared about—who were also strong readers—they’d say: It’s about so much more than cancer. There is sadness, but it’s accompanied by huge amounts of love and tenderness, care, and even humor. Now, yes, this emerges in the face of something that’s really hard and really scary, and which ultimately every one of us has to face, in one way or another: mortality.
It’s understandable why someone might not want to take on a book they think will be emotionally hard. Life’s difficult enough, right? We want pleasure in our reading experiences. A serious novel means ten or fifteen immersed hours. How much do I want to invest in something that can strike in difficult places, a piece of writing that might affect me in a way that I can’t control? The real question being asked is: How am I going to acknowledge, feed, and allow the shaping of my interior emotional life? These are worthwhile concerns. I sure as hell have them. I recently read James Salter’s Light Years, for instance, and my heart’s still in my throat. The sentences and language in that book are gorgeous, and are justifiably celebrated, but they also had a cumulative effect. I was up at three a.m., tossing and turning. For one thing, I was so goddamn worried about the marriage at the center of that book. For another, I couldn’t help but think about mistakes I’d made in relationships, my own frailties. I also started thinking about the effect of time on a family, speculating about what things I’ll remember from my own daughter’s childhood.
I think the engagement of reading—a really excellent novel that’s firing at the higher levels of character and plot and language, that connects a reader’s mind with the rhythm of an author’s thoughts—to me, the rewards for this kind of investment make it totally worth the risk. They are great rewards, they are among the best we have. You move into what, I’d argue, is just a better, deeper idea of entertainment. A more engaged way of being.
So I’d tell that worried person to take the step. But then, I’m biased.
TP: I was really struck by how comprehensively and sympathetically you wrote about the ordeal of dealing with a serious illness. This book is a love story of sorts, but it’s also a medical odyssey, full of vivid portraits of doctors, nurses, technicians, bureaucrats, and patients. Did you do any research beyond your own experience? Looking back, how do you feel about the healthcare system and the people you met along the way?
CB: The two-and-a-half-year ordeal that Diana went through consumed me pretty fully in the world of doctors, nurses, technicians, bureaucrats, and patients. I accumulated lots of files and binders and books, and met a lot of people with stories and advice. Once I started writing, I did utilize those things and people. So, yeah, there was research (which included other studies, like reading deeply into Buddhism and its vision of enlightenment, and constructing a street-by-street map of stores and locations in downtown Manhattan, circa 1994). When I finished an advanced draft of the novel, a friend a with a medical degree and a specialty in medical writing looked the book over and straightened me out on a few things, helping to keep things accurate. (There was one process between nurses that I kept from post-1994, just because I remembered how striking the process was and wanted to capture it.) So, yeah, I did some research, but always in the hopes of wanting to be clear, as opposed to weighing down the reading experience.
As for the healthcare system . . . there are amazing people working in it, people busting their asses every day to save lives or help make people better. This is for sure. So let’s not pretend otherwise: life-saving, kind, decent, brilliant people. But there are also a lot of people with a lot of other agendas. The healthcare system is part of this novel and my feelings about its various components are certainly woven in there. Let’s just say I am a believer in universal, single-payer healthcare insurance.
TP: It was an interesting choice to set the novel in Manhattan of the mid-1990s, in the worlds of fashion and software development. Could you talk a little about the historical aspects of the novel?
CB: I hope they give some relief and sweetness and fun to the reading experience. They also provide context, in terms of the continual impermanence of life, which I think matters to no end. The events of the book take place at a specific moment, late 1993 through 1994—then that moment passes. The events, which are monumental to the characters experiencing them, also pass. They may not turn out how we want, and they will have reverberations. But they will pass. I needed the structure of the novel, especially its ending, to reflect that.
I first came to Manhattan right before Times Square got cleaned up, back when they had all the haiku signs on the shuttered theaters of Forty-second Street as an art-beautification process. Tattoos were a national sensation but illegal within Manhattan’s city limits. That Manhattan still holds some romance for me. Placing the novel during that time gives me another layer of distance, another veil to work through: a time when you couldn’t transfer material written with WordPerfect files onto a Word program. Looking back, even grunge music seems naïve in its earnest and total defiance. I also felt this era had tremendous potential as a framing device: just having the AIDS struggle and the racial provocations of the Giuliani administration present, if simmering in the background, seemed appropriate, a subtle comment about how far we have come and, in some ways, how far we still have to go. Plus it gave me a chance to write some good jokes—for instance, a real estate agent blithely showing a Lower East Side apartment that’s actually an elevator shaft while the exasperated client screams, “THERE’S NO FLOOR!”
Meanwhile, the jobs we have are key to who we are, and how we see ourselves. So the fashion world, and time spent coming of age in Manhattan during the eighties, feels important to Alice and how she experiences a sense of purpose and identity beyond her illness. Even the clothes she wears—a personal sense of style with a myriad of styles and articles thrown together—invokes an idea of collage that had taken root in the eighties, from artists like Basquiat to pop icons like Madonna. It was a time of juxtaposition of all kinds, aesthetic and social: Alice is accustomed to a world where freaks and stockbrokers eat next to each other at Florent at four in the morning.
TP: Neither Alice nor Oliver is a perfect or completely likable character—in fact they both behave in disturbing ways over the course of the novel. Should we give them a pass for their transgressions because they’re under immense pressure? Does illness bring out the best or the worst in us?
CB: None of us is utterly consistent; we’re full of contradictions. We don’t always understand what we’re doing. Hell, I’m apt to change my mood based on whether I haven’t eaten in a while and am having a food spaz. And life-threatening serious illness is going to up the ante, challenge a person, turn someone volatile and moody. This becomes even more true, I think, as treatments and bed confinement and weakness and side effects take hold and events draw out. A person is forced to face every part of him or herself. This is both a tremendous and scary thing. I think Alice uses the illness to dig deep into herself, tries to really understand herself, even as she stays in denial about one or two key things.
Whether Alice and Oliver were fully likable or not was less important to me than whether they were compelling, whether I could invest in them and believe in them. And I always felt very invested in them, was always rooting for each of them, even as I could feel sick about certain scenes: No, are you really going to let her/him do this?
TP: Was it cathartic for you to write this novel?
CB: Through the writing of Alice & Oliver, I was raising my daughter in the little apartment where Diana and I had courted and dated, the place where Diana first brought our infant home from the hospital, and where Diana spent a fair amount of time while ill. The walls, every drawer, every cranny, were filled with memories. (Memories and bugs.) Yeah, it was hard sometimes in that apartment. The grief was huge; no matter where I looked, something triggered a memory or opened a huge hole. My daughter also looks like her mom, and sometimes just looking at her while she slept could be painful in fifty- eight ways. But being in that apartment, staring at my sleeping child, also could provide intense joys, feelings of love that were almost rapturous. So all this was hugely sad, and also had tremendous rewards, and I was suffused with both experiences, day by day, minute by minute. And, yeah, I was a mess. But I also came to a place where I wanted to embrace and remember Diana in every cranny, where the memories were welcoming. Writing this novel was a similar experience for me. I had to remember a lot. I had to come to terms with a lot. I can’t imagine a more difficult book to write. But I was also able to get so much onto the page that honestly matters. I’m so proud of the result. I love this book and am excited to share it with readers.