Actually, the novel precedes “Lots of the Candles, Plenty of Cake.” I’d started working on “Still Life With Bread Crumbs” when the idea for the memoir came. The novel had brought me back to something I’d done with “Blessings” , in which one of the protagonists is 80-something. When you have a character who’s farther along in the span of life, it’s a richer vein to mine. You don’t just get the young woman — you get the young woman and the middle-aged woman and the older woman and the single woman and the mother all at the same time. I found that really rewarding when I wrote “Blessings,” so I was happy to revisit it with this novel.
Your new protagonist, Rebecca Winter, is a photographer. How is that profession important to the story?
The more I thought about two aspects of Rebecca’s life, the more it occurred to me that she was probably a photographer. One was this notion, in part inspired by how we live in New York City, about failing to see beneath the surface. The other was the idea of someone who had become well known not simply for her work but for what other people said about her work, which is often at variance with what she herself thinks.
Does this happen to you?
All the time. To some extent, it informed that aspect of the book. Is your work what you think it is or what other people tell you it is? When I was doing a column called “Life in the Thirties,” there was a lot of perfect-mother/perfect-life stuff that seemed entirely laughable to me since half the time I couldn’t find a clean pair of socks. But there was this sense that I was standing for something or, more correctly, that I was standing in for a lot of someones. The ways in which that makes people think about you can be a little disconcerting. A woman once came up to me after a reading and said, “Can you write: ‘For Mary, You’re my very best friend’ ”? So I did write that for Mary, who had gone to the trouble of coming to a book-signing. On the other hand, I have a very best friend, and her name is not Mary. But sometimes readers have really illuminated my work for me. They can plumb a kind of unconscious vein of thought in a way that makes it clear to you that’s what you were doing; you just weren’t entirely aware of it at the time.
In “Still Life With Bread Crumbs,” there’s a critique of photography — or any kind of art — as a way for an artist to distance herself from real life.
When I wrote about my life at home in “Life in the Thirties,” to some extent I was taking a messy existence that could be challenging and putting it in a neat little package that wasn’t messy and seemed to imply that the challenge had been met. That’s what we always do with art. And photographers hold a machine in front of their faces. But I do think there’s a certain kind of photography, art, writing, that is not so distancing because it contains within it a question and an engagement.
Your omniscient narrator knows more than all the characters could — and more than the writer of a nonfiction book could. Is that one reason you write fiction?
It is. In fiction, you’re liberated by invention. I loved being a reporter and a columnist, but I hewed very close to the blessed conventions of our business — that is, that you take the notes and you excavate the facts and you tell exactly what happened. With the novel, it’s not that I know Rebecca Winter. I become Rebecca Winter because to write about characters in that omniscient-narrator way, we have to be able to slip in and out of their skin. Sometimes I felt limited by journalism because, as we all know from hearing about the blind man and the various parts of the elephant, what really happened can often be determined by precisely where you were standing. Fiction offers me an opportunity to take everything that I’ve learned about the human condition through journalism and be all of the blind men at once.
Burns, editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between,” teaches creative writing in Britain.