“It’s like living inside a bubble,” says author Sarah Blake about her eleven months as an expatriate at the American Academy in Rome (she now resides in Washington, D.C.) “I guess an expat can also mean the opposite thing. You know, you start entering the alleyways and byways… Perhaps in that way you’re more open. Here, however we’re surrounded by Americans. Many people here never leave The Academy!”
Author of “Grange House,” a late-Victorian style suspense novel published in 2000, poet and novelist Sarah Blake spent nearly a year at Rome’s American Academy with her two sons and her husband, poet Joshua Weiner (winner of the 2004 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize). Plastered with dozens of her children’s finger paintings and drawings, family photos, bits of brochures, and peculiar objets trouvés, the walls of her family residence at the Academy are an explosion of color and ad hoc creativity.
As we begin to speak, seated at the dining room table where another dozen or so finger paintings await their turn for precious wall space, a ride-on lawnmower interrupts the silence that, Blake says, is another of the great advantages of staying at the Academy and another of the things that make it seem far removed from the “real Rome.”
It must be quite helpful for a writer, especially one in the middle of a new novel as you are, to live for a while inside a “bubble” of this kind?
Yes, it has been. Both Josh and I have been able to stay in the world of our work. The time difference between Italy and the States means that we get very few calls during the day. You know, this kind of undisturbed time is one of the great freedoms about living in an expatriate bubble. At the same time, the minute our work day is over we can enter into an entirely different culture. This combination of time to work and new sights and sounds right outside our doorstep has been extremely generative. When you go out, you never know what you’re going to hear or see. Often times you don’t even understand what you hear. You read people’s bodies and actions. It’s been great — very cocoon like and hugely exciting.
Of course, the Academy emphasizes the bubble effect. We’re surrounded by Americans up here and this whole building is American. Although, having the boys with us, we do live in a family apartment alongside the Academy proper. We cook for ourselves most of the time instead of going to the Academy dining room, and so there’s always the very entertaining market experience, which is probably our most intimate and regular contact with Rome and Romans.We go down to the market in Monteverde. I have a rapport with the meat man, the bread man, the fruit and vegetables man. My Italian is good enough so that I feel like I can express my personality a little bit through joking. I think that’s one of the hardest things about not speaking the language, your whole personality is caught behind bars and it sometimes feels as if it’ll never get out.
I’ve read some pages from the novel you’re working on now, set during World War II, and it strikes me that the bubble, as you put it, is something with which you were concerned even before coming to Rome.
Yeah, I think that’s true. It’s something that has become more sharply defined during my time here. Frankie Bard, one of the principle characters in my new work, has just returned from a Europe most Americans had no way of visualizing other than via the media at the time, during the late thirties, early forties. She is, or has been, a war correspondent and a very good one. When she returns to America, she brings the Europe of the Second World War back with her.
To be simultaneously seeing what she sees in New York and carrying what she carries with her creates the pathos of a situation in which you understand that two different worlds exist and you’re the one, maybe the only one, who has seen both. You’re the pair of eyes that holds them both. This idea really did become clear here. There’s always this thought in the back of your mind and, in our family, frequent conversations, about “what’s happening back there.” What’s so and so doing back there. There’s this idea of back there and over here, and you’re kind of in the middle.
This is a great burden for Frankie Bard. She has serious doubts about her ability to continue.
Yes, yes. That’s the beginning of the novel and after she quits her job as a correspondent she goes to this town, Franklin, and it becomes more and more clear that the three other women protagonists in the book live in different kinds of bubbles vis-à-vis the war. The novel ends up being an entanglement of all that they’re carrying with them.
Is the figure of Frankie Bard — this unique, tough woman doing a typically male reporting job — inspired by a real person?
Frankie is probably an amalgam of Martha Gellhorn and Margaret Bourke-White. I have been reading a lot of Martha Gellhorn, especially now with all that is going on in our current war world. She just seems to have the clearest voice, and she is completely unafraid to look directly at what she sees. Reading her I understood more clearly that I wanted to write about a character who looks but for whom looking becomes too hard. Frankie Bard feels like she has failed. She has failed everybody over there because she can’t continue. And also because she finds herself in a position of being asked for help by somebody who is trying to escape. She does help him but it goes terribly wrong.
The questions that interested me were basically these: When you’re in the position of being an onlooker, an observer, how long can you continue not extending a hand? How long can you sustain it? What does it mean to “get involved?” In this respect, my novel completely departs from Martha Gellhorn’s story. But it is her impassioned, completely simple, and unsensational reporting that has been a sort of a guide for me. Funnily, the book didn’t start with her. It started two years ago with this postmaster in the town of Franklin. Frankie Bard arrived last year. I had no idea that the book would be about her.
Has this novel been influenced in any considerable way by what is happening around us today?
Right after I finished “Grange House” I had this idea for the postmaster. So, I was writing that book, but it was not really going anywhere, I couldn’t quite figure it out. But then we moved to Washington, D.C. two weeks before Sept. 11th. And the experience of living in Washington in the three months right after Sept. 11 had a huge influence on what I was writing. Living in the middle of what I consider as the fear-mongering that was going on in the newspapers and certainly from the Bush/Cheney camp, both of whom live very close to where we live, provided a context in which I started thinking about my relationship with fear. You have a government telling you one thing and you’re trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do on your own. You really don’t know. At the time, there was the Anthrax scare. All our mail was being deposited outside our door, and we were all part of this very bizarre dance. Unlike a lot of the rest of the country, Washington and New York seemed still to be in the stewpot. The question came up almost every day: What is hysteria and what is just good sense?
And that’s when I started to think about Franklin, the town in my book. The people of Franklin are always thinking that the U-boats will land and that they will be invaded. What I found out through research was that the U-boats, in fact, were very much in sight of the entire coastline, and were watching Americans going about their business; they were watching Coney Island, all lit up and crowded with people. I was interested in the perceived threat versus real threat, in how people behave according to what their particular dance is with fear and the amount of danger they think they’re in. Then, of course, compared with what was going on in Europe, they’re not in any danger. It’s a psychological danger, or perceived threat.
Do you think Gellhorn’s effectiveness as a writer on war depends in some way on her being a woman?
I don’t think her clarity is gender-based. There were a lot of male writers, like Bill Shirer, who were noticing small particular details that were horrific and full of pathos. The difference lies in the fact that it was more difficult for women to report action on the front. It took two or three years before they were allowed onto the front lines by the American forces. There was a sense that this was no place for a woman. So her reporting implicitly takes on all of that extra weight. That said, even before she was officially allowed in she had been going all over Europe writing on the front lines. Whether or not she had permission, whether or not it was for a specific assignment. And she was not alone. There was Therese Bonney, a photographer, who went over there on what she called “truth raids.” A lot of women went over as fashion writers and winnowed their way in because they would cross borders into countries where they thought the action would be next, and then there they’d be — the only man for the job.
Is it difficult for you to read while you are writing? I wonder if reading may influence what you’re writing in ways that may not be helpful. Are you reading at the moment, for example?
I just finished reading Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain.” The writer that I always return to is Virginia Woolf, but I am finding in this moment that her voice is too diffusing, and that it has not been useful to read her while working on this book. So I think it depends on the writer. I’ve found that while doing this book I’ve had to read all men, with the exception of Martha Gellhorn.
The kind of voice and the writing that I’m trying to emulate in this book, that tight staccato writing is more evident in male writers. I’ve read a lot of Graham Greene this year. His work underlines that sort of psychological, expatriate wandering. And now I’m re-reading “The Scarlet Letter” because I’ve just realized that the end of this novel is going to be somewhat similar.
You’re a fan of Virginia Woolf?
Yeah, I do think she is at the bottom of almost all contemporary writers. No matter how people are writing, she’s the one they always refer to. More so than Joyce. The way in which she’s able to open and shut things is what I see repeated either in a psychological or lyrical way in almost all writers.
Is there a particular book that you think exemplifies this?
The one that is read least but I think is most interesting, is “Between The Acts,” her last novel. In some ways, it is interesting because it’s not very successful. It’s much more clunky than her better known books. But I also see it as a long, beautiful farewell cry to the world. It is really so beautiful. In “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To The Lighthouse,” the lyricism is contained in the characters. Whereas, in “Between The Acts” it really feels like the lyricism is outside particular characters.
You seem very comfortable reading your work and very good at it. Do you enjoy giving readings or do you see it as a cross writers have to bear?
No, I enjoy it. When I read I can hear the work actually exist. It’s tremendously helpful for me. Especially when I’m in the early stages. I don’t know why, but if I read it here in my room, it’s completely different to reading it aloud knowing that somebody’s listening. I love reading. I used to be a poet and the gratification of being able to finish something (and the added bonus if it actually got published) could happen in a relatively short time.
Now, writing novels, it’s a long, long dry time between, you know. “Grange House” came out in 2000. It’s now 2004. And sometimes you just start to go batty. So reading it is a kind of publication. That’s helpful. Reading your work along the way can help to keep you buoyant and excited about the work. Just having somebody say, “Wow that was great!” Or they don’t even have to say that. They can say, “Wow.” Or nothing. And you get this feeling like, yes, the work exists. Because it’s hard to just keep on keeping on in your little room.
What makes a good reading?
To be grossly general, bad readers are readers who, for whatever reason, are not listening to their own words, and so their words don’t get their due. Some people seem afraid of the words, I don’t know why it is, and it elicits the feeling that the writer is bored by his or her own work. So the words don’t float…. they are killed off at the inception.
Then there’s the kind of offhand reading that is not helpful to the work itself… I was going to say this is particularly true in poetry, but actually there’s nothing deadlier than prose being read badly. It becomes prosaic in the worst way. I think you have to manufacture, or in some way recover the excitement or the discovery that you felt while writing and you didn’t know how the paragraph was going to end. The reading has to recreate that.
Going back to your stay in Rome, I wonder if you have felt that the information Europeans have about the United States and its inhabitants is limited, or filtered somehow?
Absolutely, but it also works in the other direction. Last year , when [Donald] Rumsfeld talked about the old Europe and France and Germany’s opposition to America, it seemed, from the reports we got, that all of Europe was of one mind. I think this results from the media’s habit of simplification, of rounding everything off and packaging it so that situations become black and white. It is scary when, in the reports you get there doesn’t seem to be a plethora of opinions and points of view on both sides. American public opinion is not monolithic and neither is the European perception of America.
But honestly, most of the Europeans I’ve spoken to personally underline what most of the people I know in the States think. In some ways, maybe we’re European living in the States. In almost everyone I have spoken to here, and my friends and acquaintances back home, there is this general sense of incredulousness and a heightened feeling of alienation.
Has Rome has had any other influence on your work, apart from giving you clarity?
I’ve been to Rome before but only for short stays, and I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful and surprising cities in the world. The first time I came here I stayed at the American ambassador’s residence. He was a family friend. I was quite young at the time and, besides just how grand everything was, what I remember is Easter Sunday. There was a long table laid at his residence and there were all these baby chickens running around everywhere. I was like, Oh, My God. I had never seen anything like that before. Needless to say, I haven’t seen anything similar this time.
I can’t help but think that what influences how we work during our time here is the fact that this city has so many layers to it. You never know what you’re going to find. You may turn a corner, the same corner you have turned fifty times, and there all of a sudden you see a Madonna, or a particular color that has had who knows how many layers of paint, or some other particular.
Rome has a completely random, casual beauty to it. It’s not trying to be beautiful, it just is. I love taking the boys out walking, because you don’t know what you might see. Also, I have to say, not having gone to church much as a child, I do love going into churches and inhabiting the silence and space that’s particular to them.
These months have been very good, very productive, though I don’t think I could stay for much longer than a year. It’s not Rome, just that I’m not sure I could be away from my own language for a long time. If I were better at Italian, I’m sure things would be different. Again, it’s analogous to turning a corner and not knowing what you’re going to see.
One of the great things about being home is that you never know what you’re going to hear, you never know what characters you’re going to overhear. The conversations are maybe the same all over the world. You know, he said this and she did that, but the way people put them together is always different. It’s not even the vernacular, it’s just hearing your language spoken, hearing how people pause, how they use silence, how and when their tone rises. I’m not sure I could be away from that for too long. Even though I’m not writing anything contemporary. I don’t know what it’d be like to write a piece set in contemporary times. “Grange House” was set in 1896. I made a conscious effort to use the Victorian vernacular and different sentence structures and it was a lot of fun. This one, I think, has a little bit of the forties staccato, you know, that is very different from “Grange House.”
So, I don’t depend so directly on hearing contemporary speech for my work. Nonetheless, I think this contact with my own language is what I would miss if I were away from home for a long time. And I do miss being on the inside. It’s a little hard to watch the country from this distance looking like it’s getting madder and madder every minute. But I don’t know, maybe in this moment, it’s a blessing not to be there now. From here, it looks like America is drifting off alone into the universe, as if it too were existing at this moment inside a giant bubble.
Excerpt from Sarah Blake’s “August, 1941”
In the bar at Grand Central Station, the whoosh of the revolving doors let couple after couple into the busy crowded room full of smoke and chatter. The old man watched them in the long mirror stretching above the length of the bar. The men in suits raised their fingers to the maitre d. signalling how many, the women turned aside and studied the room. Some men, like himself, were alone and made directly for the bar, where they shrugged off their jackets and folded them across their laps. Every time the doors moved, the distant hammer of trains in the station outside chugg chugged and moaned, the mechanical beams of industry crossing and recrossing the luncheon hour. It was hot as hell and the fans overhead moved the damp shirts of the men from right to left, cooling against their skin as it moved.
“Hello, Boss,” she said, and dropped onto the stool beside him.
It was a characteristic of Miss Frances Bard that she always seemed to appear without warning — though he had been sitting here waiting for her — as though she’d merely stepped through the veils dividing one moment from the next. She was not a female’s female. Short and square and old as the century, she was the one your eye flicked over on the street. Once, he laughingly accused her of having an advantage over other reporters. Because I am nothing to look at? she had asked him. Because they forget you’re a woman, he’d answered. That’s what you think, she had smiled at him then.
“Yes,” she nodded up at the bartender. “Whatever he’s having.”
She turned to the old man, conspiratorially. “What are you having?”
“Bourbon and water.”
“One never should drink Bourbon before six o’clock,” she observed.
“Scotch,” she tipped her glass gently against his, “is for the servants.”
He shot a look at her. Though her tone was light, she looked exhausted and wary, like a cat who has narrowly escaped a bath. She’d been over there since ’38, following the war as it raced through country after country, the whole goddamned continent going up in flames. She had gotten in everywhere and pulled out story after story. Then a month ago, Joe Link of Reuters had called from London and said Max ought to pull Frankie off, and bring her home. She’d done something. There’d been some incident on a train Max couldn’t get. But he couldn’t get ahold of her either, not anywhere. Jimmy, Roger, even Ed — none of them had seen her or heard from her and London was full of eyes and ears. Hell, they were the press corps. But Frankie seemed to have disappeared until this morning, when she’d called him at his desk and told him she was back and she was through.
They drank in silence. Their long association had taught him to be quiet until there was something to say. And often, there was nothing at all to say other than the four or five sentences that had brought them together. Most people he knew, his wife included, wouldn’t make it through an hour on the promise of four sentences. But Frankie Bard was like a camel. She could hold her words for days — as long as she could watch the goings on.