Tin House Books Interview with Christopher R. Beha
TH: The two main characters in What Happened to Sophie Wilder have both written first books—one is successful, the other dies quietly—did writing your own debut novel push you to imagine these scenarios?
CB: I was aware of the traps that first-time novelists often fall into, particularly solipsism and a certain degree of formal preciousness—traps that I wanted to avoid. I found myself creating characters who had already fallen into these traps and were trying to escape them. Both Charlie and Sophie are in need of being pulled out of themselves and pushed into the world. Writing about this struggle was one way of pushing myself out into the world. I should add that if Charlie’s first novel was something of a failure, my “first” novel was an even bigger failure, insofar as it remains in a drawer and is unlikely ever to see the light of day. This isn’t any great tragedy, and I’m happy to think of What Happened to Sophie Wilder as my real first novel. But I did have the experience to draw from.
TH: In a wonderful scene, Sophie points out partygoers to Charlie, identifying each as a character in Charlie’s recently published novel. Charlie realizes that even though he wrote with Sophie in mind, he ended up writing “the kind of book she hated so much: real-life experience thrown down on the page without any transformation.” What kind of balance between invention and experience do want to strike in your work?
CB: This tendency toward unimaginative autobiography is one of the first-novel traps I’m talking about above. As it happens, there is very little autobiographical material in Sophie Wilder, except in a demographic sense. A census taker, collecting information about our ages, education levels, professions, geographical and economic backgrounds, would be unable to distinguish me from these characters. But the same could be said of a lot of people who don’t resemble me in the slightest.
TH: The novel seems to tenderly mock reverence for the literary elite, but at the same time, clearly finds these writers important. Do you have the same ambivalent feelings yourself?
CB: Our culture works hard at times to embarrass people who take certain books or movies or pieces of music seriously. In response, one develops a self-protective irony toward one’s own tastes. I’ve seen lots of people do it. I do it myself, although I wish I did not. It’s an important part of Charlie’s point of view mostly because I don’t know anyone at all like Charlie who doesn’t fall prey to the habit.
But note: Sophie shows far less of this tendency. It’s part of what makes her so strange to Charlie upon her return to his life. One of the many things that religion offers is a framework for talking about big questions that isn’t considered pretentious or embarrassing. Both Charlie and Sophie are looking for such a framework. It is Charlie’s tragedy that he has not found one; it is Sophie’s tragedy that she has. And it is my own tragedy that even as I write those words I anticipate undermining them with a wink or a joke.
TH: You strike a wonderful balance between the hopefulness and audacity of your characters as college students and the aimlessness they display in their post collegiate decade. What is it about the years immediately following college that interest you?
CB: One of the reasons I wanted to write about Charlie’s and Sophie’s college years and also the years immediately after is that there is a level of intellectual engagement and enthusiasm that is allowed and even encouraged in college that is far less acceptable out in the world. To discover this can be a real disappointment, particularly if you come to believe, while in college, that this level of intellectual engagement is a common feature of “adult” life, only to discover that “real” adults find it rather childish—touching, perhaps, but also somewhat laughable.
Beyond that, there is a line from Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That, which I will quote in full here, since I have had it inscribed in my heart since the first time I read it: “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.” This is roughly Sophie’s and Charlie’s age during the main events in the book, and the discovery that not all promises are kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable, is among the novel’s primary subjects. I’m reluctant to say that the novel is “about” any one thing, but if forced I would say that it is about how one lives with this discovery.
TH: Did you do a lot of research for Sophie’s spiritual transformation? What did you call on from your experience or what did you read to get that right?
CB: I did a fair amount of research. I read about the experience of conversion, from Paul to Augustine to Ignatius Loyola to Thomas Merton. But I was mostly drawing from my own spiritual experiences, as one raised Catholic, one who took my beliefs very seriously and considers it something of a personal disaster that somewhere along the way I lost the ability to sustain that belief. I can’t exactly say that I wish I still believed, since that would mean wishing that nearly every part of me were different than it is. And I think my treatment of Sophie shows that I am not under any illusions that having the capacity for belief solves everything, particularly as one might well live in fear of losing that capacity again.
TH: You reveal the personality of your characters wonderfully through their choices of literature. Why is Sophie specifically drawn to T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday ? The Book of Job?
CB: The thing I find most striking about Eliot’s poem is the sense of exhaustion, not just in the famous line that Sophie quotes, “Because I do not hope to turn again,” but in the poetic voice that asks itself, “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?” It’s amazing to think that Eliot was still in his thirties when he started writing this poem, almost as amazing as it is to think that he was my age when he wrote The Waste Land. It’s even comical, in the way that Didion’s youthful ennui can seem comical. But this premature exhaustion is an important element of Sophie’s character, so I understood that she would be drawn to the poem. It also happened to be the first major poem Eliot wrote after his conversion, and the problem of writing after conversion is rather urgent for Sophie. To really convert—to turn—means naturally not to hope to turn again. It means wanting the journey to be over. And yet writing is turning, journeying.
As for the Book of Job, it is the part of the Bible to which one is routinely referred when faced with the problem of suffering in the world, despite the fact that its answers to this problem are breathtakingly unsatisfactory. I’ve always found Job’s wife to be a rather underappreciated character. Of course, she tells Job to “curse God, and die.” This response to catastrophe makes a lot more sense to me in many ways than Job’s does. Not incidentally, it’s Bill Crane’s response in my novel. If I bring the Book of Job into the novel at the time that Sophie and Bill are stuck in a battle of wills together, this is the resonance I most mean to be sounding out.
TH: Charlie and Sophie worry about their “follow-up” novel. Was the idea of a second novel already knocking around while you were working on this one?
I wouldn’t say it was in my mind in quite so pressing a way as it was for them—I still had the first one to worry about. But I was aware that there were certain peripheral characters in the book whose stories would be worth telling, and I have recently started a new novel that tells some of those stories.