Thursday, May 12, 1 p.m. ET
Off the Page
Thursday, May 12, 2005; 1:00 PM
D.C. writer Mary Kay Zuravleff discussed her new novel, "The Bowl Is Already Broken," a story which delves into the personal lives of people at an Asian art museum.
Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.
The Transcript follows.
Carol Burns: Hello Booklovers! And welcome again to Off the Page. Mary Kay Zuravleff is ready to answer questions... Hello, Mary Kay.
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Hello Carole. Thank you for having me.
Carol Burns: It's great to have you. Mary Kay, perhaps you could just begin at the beginning. How did The Bowl Is Already Broken come about? Do you remember the initial inspiration?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: I started this book in 1995 with both an image and a question. The image, pretty obviously, was that of a bowl tumbling down the stairs of a museum, and breaking into a million pieces. The question, or questions, were: How do things become valuable? What sacrifices are we willing to make to preserve the things we've deemed valuable? And what if you make extraordinary sacrifices, and whatever you've put up on a pedestal falls and is destroyed.
Washington, D.C.: Both "Frequency" and "Bowl" have intriguing and offbeat settings with fascinating technical detail, which can either draw the reader in or turn her off. How do you balance the two? Do you ever get sucked in to your own research and technical authenticity? I think of A.S. Byatt, who has had to overcome (or get beyond) criticism for erudition.
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Ah, balancing. I obviously enjoy details and intricate knowledge, which is not what everybody reads for. So my trick is to intrigue the reader enough, with language and character, that you'll follow my obsessions as you read the story. I often got lost writing this book, and even now, some have wished for more and some for less detail.
Carol Burns: Some of my favorite parts of the book were the bits from Rumi. How much did that inspire the bigger themes of the book? How much did Rumi inspire you? And can you recommend a book by Rumi, or about Rumi, for interested people to read?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Let's start with Rumi books, of which there are many to choose from. I was inspired by Coleman Barks's translations, which are actually his own paraphrasing of other folks' translations. Still, he speaks to me. I love the mix in Rumi of the logic games and how he aims at the gut. For example, he writes (and I'm paraphrasing), "Come to the garden in Spring. There are roses and pomegranates in bloom. If you come, none of this matters. If you don't come, none of this matters."
I found a poem of his about trying to talk to an embryo, and despite the beauty of all outdoors, the embryo says, "you must be hallucinating. I only know what I have experienced." That poem inspired me to invent an Islamic manuscript where the poem was illustrated and inscribed. Then Promise, the main character, "finds" an embryo in a manuscript she's studying (and it turns out, she's got an embryo cooking of her own and doesn't know it). And so the mystical and the daily are once again mixed, as they are throughout the book.
Arlington, Va.: What do your former colleagues at the Freer/Sackler think of your book? Are they angry? Pleased? Worried about the power of suggestion? Do they see themselves in your characters?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: This is such an interesting question. I consider this book a love letter to museums, warts and all. Because it's not a diatribe or an expose, I didn't think folks would be too upset. Still. Most have been lovely and excited, and they applaud my airing some of the complicated ethical questions they have to wrestle in real life. Many have enjoyed the humor, and a few have been a little protective of their turf. I had a great run at the Freer/Sackler for 8 or 9 years (depending on if you count all my leaves of absences)as an editor, and I left when my first novel was published.
As for the characters, the former director gave me one of the highest compliments to date, when he wrote me that, "It's amazing we didn't know these people at the museum--because we might have." Some people have said they think they recognize someone but someone else's words are coming out of his/her mouth.
Carole Burns: Are they right?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: I'm getting a little confused myself. I don't think they're right, because I needed characters to tell my story, and that wasn't a story that had played out with the people I knew.
Washington, D.C.: Like one of your central characters, you juggle children, career, and the arts -- both personal and professional. Can you talk about that? Was it fun to write about Promise's "chaotic" homelife? Cathartic?
Any thoughts on 21st century motherhood, while in search of the almighty dollar and your own art?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: It's exhausting to talk about the juggling, and people only pity you when they hear the crazy litany that is home/kids/writing life. I trimmed so much of what happens in a typical night when I wrote Promise's scenes. Otherwise, it reads like slapstick, even though on any given night, someone throws up while you're on the phone and a match is burning and the toilet doesn't work. One reader said that while she enjoyed the book, the domestic scenes seemed "exaggerated."
As for 21st century motherhood, we're just doing the best we can. I do not believe motherhood is a competitive sport,and so I don't worry about how elaborate birthday parties are or what my kids wear. This morning, my 4-year-old was wearing shorts and a t-shirt with a cowgirl outfit over it, which slid down her hips as we tried to cross Connecticut Avenue. I have a great excuse for the fact that her hair wasn't brushed--her mother's a writer.
Takoma Park, MD: Mary Kay - I may be your ideal reader, with a degree in Museum Studies and 25 years of work as an engineer.
Let me just say that I think you got the atmosphere and incidentals right in both of those instituions/professions.
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Oh, thank you so much. As my sweet book goes out in the world, I've been waiting to hear from folks who actually know something about the subject matter I'm dabbling in, and so I really appreciate your comments.
Carol Burns: Mary Kay, I understand that writing this novel was not exactly an easy task. With the benefit on hindsight, why do you suppose you had trouble? Was it the material, the structure, or just life?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Annie Dillard says "It takes 5 to 10 years to write a novel. Some people do it in a year, but some people can lift cars." I did have a struggle with this book, which is more complicated and ambitious than my first. One strange complication was, three years into writing about a woman who was pregnant and didn't know it,I was pregnant and didn't know it! (My editor says I'm the only woman who's ever gotten pregnant from writing.)
So life intervened in all its complicated ways. Then I kept rewriting the first part of the book, which turned out to be something of a burden, because I didn't actually know where the book was going until I'd finally finished a complete draft. There were chunks of time when I couldn't write, and then I'd have to relearn the book. Meanwhile, I was growing into the age of the main character (when I started I was 35 & Promise was 43. When I finished, she was still 43 & I was 44), and I'd learned a few things along the way.
Carole Burns: Do you think you've learned anything that will make it easier the next time?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Oh, I wish. I was at a writer's colony when I was beating this manuscript into submission, and I met Josephine Humphries, who has many novels under her belt. I asked her for some inspiration, and she said, "The first two are the easy ones. After that, you worry about repeating yourself."
Maybe I've learned to write all the way to the end, because I'm capable of spending a month getting a spring day just right on the page. When I finally found how that scene fit in, the season had invariably changed.
Washington, D.C.: "Frequency of Souls" (which I loved, BTW) was published in '96-'97. Can you talk about what has changed in bookwriting/ publishing in that time --- from both a business and personal, creative perspective? Was it hard to write your second book? Harder to get it published?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: As I said, it was extremely challenging for me to write this book. The good news is that it was immediately purchased by Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the same folks who bought Frequency of Souls. The last book was published in the 20th century; this one, in the 21st. That means that they took my author photo with a digital camera, I was expected to have a web site, there are literary blogs now, and I can check the ranking hourly on amazon.com.
It wasn't harder to get published, but it has been harder to get attention for the book. People read--that's not the problem--but fewer novels are reviewed. Fewer author tours are sponsored by publishers. There are more new books now than ever.
Carole Burns: Do you think it was also harder to get attention because this wasn't your first novel?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Probably. New can be more marketable. But I feel I have something of a track record. One friend said that the problem with my subject matters is that people don't know they'll like my books until they've read them. You want to read a novel about refrigerator designers in Rockville? Then I've got a book for you.
Washington, D.C. : Are you giving any readings in D.C.? Or elsewhere, for that matter? And what's your Web site?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: I'll be reading at the Freer Gallery of Art, (the museum that's fictionalized in my book) on Tuesday, May 17, at 7, and I'd love to see you there. There might be an interesting discussion afterward! My web site is www.marykayzuravleff.com, and the events page lists upcoming readings. I'll be in Chicago June 1; Iowa City June 15; Madison June 16. I really enjoy reading to groups, and so I look forward to more events.
Waynesboro. PA: The main character in your most recent novel, Promise, juggels objects to amuse her family. Did you learn to juggel to create such vivid descriptions of her efforts?
Also, do you think this is a metaphor for women who are as passionate about their work as they are about their families?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: My brother actually is the one who juggles in the family. In high school, he used to stand up in the cafeteria and just start juggling, even going so far as to grab an apple midair for a bite! But back to Promise. Yes, she juggles like crazy, and one of the reasons I enjoy that metaphor is because each of the objects in her orbit requires different care in order not to be dropped. You can't juggle a wad of paper, for instance,the way you juggle a rock, and yet you are the one responsible for keeping them both going around.
Foggy Bottom : I haven't read your work, but am interested. I'm intrigued by the idea that your book may have an underlying criticism concerning the commercialization of museums. Does it? (I picked that up from the intro prepared by Ms. Burns.)
Mary Kay Zuravleff: Are you sure you haven't read the book, because the commercialization of museums is exactly what it's about. In the second chapter (in the first, a bowl breaks), the director gets a memo from the Castle saying that "to better serve our audience" they're planning to send the museum's collection to the National Gallery and make the place a food court. And so the novel is a cautionary tale.
Silver Spring, MD: Did you ever work at NIST, or did you just know people who did, or what?
(in ref to your previous book)
Mary Kay Zuravleff: I presume NIST is the National Institution of Standards and Technology? No, I didn't. I didn't know anyone there either, but I was raised by a pack of electrical engineers.
Carol Burns: You were "raised by a pack of electrical engineers?" Were you an orphan found at a factory or something?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: What can I say? My mother actually is a wise woman who is the prototype for the Oklahoma mother in the novel. The men in my family and my early education (I started college as an electrical engineer and finished with a degree in math and English)are engineers, which is to say they are smart, creative, and not very socially engaged in the world.
Arlington, VA: As someone who dwelt in that world for a time, I am thoroughly enjoying the book (wasn't able to finish in time for this chat) and savoring the details. I find myself visualizing everything as I read, almost as if watching a movie and reading simultaneously. I find it adds another layer of richness to the underlying story and philosophical aspects of your book. Do you think about that aspect of the reader's experience as you write? Is it important to you?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: I enjoy when people say the book seems like a movie;I take that as a compliment regarding description. (I do have a movie agent, so who knows?) But whenever I even think about that, my logical side wonders how they'd dramatize the director receiving--what could it be--a MEMO!
Jamaica Plain, MA: Where do your ideas for novels come from? Do they come
from anecdotes, situations you want to explore,
characters? And how do you know if an idea is enough to
sustain a novel?
Mary Kay Zuravleff: My ideas come from my rich imaginative brain matter, which churns out millions of ideas a day. Then I find scenes from daily life, or adapted from daily life, that might carry those ideas along. Your last question interests me personally, because I wrote short stories for years. I love short stories, and I could work in that tight logical construction. Ultimately, I had a few stories going at once, and it occurred to me that if I braided them, as it were, I might have the complications necessary for a novel, which I hadn't thought I could write.
Mary Kay Zuravleff: This has been so much fun for me. I had no idea I would enjoy nattering on about myself to such an extent, and I wonder if we might do this daily now. Thank you for having me.
The daily Mary Kay show! Sounds good to me! Thanks so much, Mary Kay, for answering all these fine questions, and to our audience for asking them.
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