LAURA FURMAN first came to Houston in the mid-'70s, an experience which was, for a New Yorker, "like coming to Mars," she said recently. Now Furman seems to have settled in, having married a Texan, journalist Joel Barna, last year. The couple lives in a stone farmhouse in the Hill Country outside Austin. There Furman is writing a second novel with the Guggenheim Fellowship she won after her first book, a story collection called "The Glass House," was published in 1980 to widespread praise. One recent afternoon we talked about her first novel, "The Shadow Line," and its Houston setting.
Q.: This novel is not what I expected after reading your short stories, in which much of the action is internal, and which don't rely heavily on plot. Why this change, a novel that has many of the elements of detective fiction, including a murder?
A.: For two reasons, I think. I needed a context in which to deal with the characters and with the power of money because that seemed to be what was going on in Houston. Houston's not like Dallas, where everyone is so grim about money, where they use it to buy Piaget watches so they can show how rich they are. Houston's on safari for bigger game; in Houston, it's the chase, the hunt, that's exciting, and Houston doesn't equate money with virtue. And there are a lot of murders in Texas. You know the classic Houston high-society divorce where one spouse ends up dead. I'd talk to my friends who grew up in that world and they'd tell me very disturbing stories about murders covered up as accidents or people not prosecuted. The interesting thing was that these stories were told completely without judgment on the part of the teller, as though it were just a part of life.
Q.: Why was that?
A.: Because it was just that, those were the stories they'd been told all their lives. I've been dragging around a quote from Jean-Luc Godard that Angela Carter uses as the epigraph for Heroes and Villains: "There are times when reality becomes too complex for oral communication, but Legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world."
Q.: And the mystery is very much a legendary form?
A.: Exactly. I felt that using murder -- whether literal murder or the murderous hold of one person on another or the murderous hold of money--would be a way to deal with Houston, which is vast, complex, and interesting.
Q.: Were you also interested in the mystery plot formally, in writing a more traditional work of fiction?
A.: Yes, I set myself the task of working with plot and description. The novella "The Glass House" and a couple of the stories were leading up to that, but I've always hated description, I've always felt compromised by it even though I've done it. Somewhere in the course of this book I guess I crossed my own shadow line into the world of the traditional novel. Now I'm writing a family saga that may go on for several volumes.
Q.: Are you a reader of traditional fiction?
Q.: Definitely. Anthony Powell is my favorite writer. But I'm such a dumb reader, I mean I've always felt slightly ashamed of myself in that I see the virtue of nontraditional, experimental fiction but I just don't get excited by it, it doesn't interest me. And as a writer, I think I've just gotten to the point where I have the confidence to take on the task of writing the kind of novel I like reading.
Q.: It seems to me that your attitude is less detached, that your involvement with the characters, particularly Liz Gold, the protagonist, is greater and therefore so is the reader's.
A.: Well, it's just the difference in what I'm able to do as a writer, I think. I was always terribly involved, but I held back, felt I had to keep it clean.
Q.: Does that difference have anything to do with age and experience?
A.: Sure, I'm 37 now, and happily married, and much more able to enjoy my work now that I've had a little success.
The characters in The Shadow Line are much less isolated. Liz Gold's out there in the world, functioning, even though in the beginning the past matters more to her than the present. She's diffident about everything, even her own husband's death. She's always been a witness, but then she's put into this environment that to her is completely weird -- there are Arabs in parking lots! But because of that she's forced to react, to participate. She becomes someone who has to act.
Q.: You leave that question unanswered, just what Liz will do.
A.: The central thing is that Liz learns that as an adult you have to make moral choices. She's been content to let things happen, now she's faced with a moral problem that can only be solved out of who she is. She hasn't known that before, but there comes a time in life when you'd better know. CAPTION: Picture, Laura Furman, Copyright (c) by Thomas Victor