The very first line of Next Life Might Be Kinder, by Howard Norman, is this: "After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me."
When the protagonist tells us his dead wife shows up on the beach every night and talks to him, is he being an unreliable narrator, or having a nervous breakdown, or is he…coping with the unendurable in a way people have done for eons?
Norman's new novel is witty and intelligently nuanced. I enjoyed the narrator’s counseling sessions, his recalled conversations with his wife, the unusual combining of pragmatics and that hint of the supernatural.
I heard Howard Norman describe his creative process when he spoke at Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore (now defunct) in 1998. Here’s how I wrote about that discussion in Writing in Flow:
"Howard Norman, whose earlier novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist were both National Book Award finalists, explained how The Museum Guard reached its pared-down and uncluttered form. In early drafts, Norman typed literally hundreds of pages describing every detail of a cemetery of which, in the finished book, we only see brief glimpses. Nearly all of that description was revised out of existence when he took active control of the novel. Not only that, but once the typed version of one of his novels feels complete, he then re-writes the entire manuscript by hand to get a fuller sense of control over style and voice."
Since that time, Norman has written the novels The Haunting of L., Devotion, and What is Left the Daughter, and now his latest, Next Life Might Be Kinder. He has received a Lannan Award in fiction, and he teaches at the University of Maryland.
I wondered if his creative process for this new novel was different in any way from the previous ones, and whether events in his life had led him to this topic in particular. So I asked a few questions:
How has your creative process changed in the past decade and a half?
HN: The "creative process" consists mainly of thinking. Thinking provides auditions for whole concepts for novels let alone individual sentences; these things are tried out in advance, rejected or accepted, and this never ends. The only thing that has changed is the different ways life intervenes: illness, deaths in the family, teaching, all the ways that writing gets set aside and life gets attended to. In that sense my writing life is typical.
Do you still write out the entire manuscript by hand?
HN: It is true that I write out a manuscript on yellow legal pads, then transfer that to a manual typewriter; the physicality of this is just part of my forty years of writing. Then a laptop computer comes in handy for editing. Nothing, however, can help the fact that my spelling is atrocious. Spell-check doesn't really help. Generally, you might say I feel antiquarian.
Are you religious at all?
HN: I was raised Jewish and feel very Jewish, which of course is a matter of highly individual assessment. To me there are no mandatory subjects that a Jewish--or any--writer should feel obligated to. A Jewish writer is a Jewish man or woman who writes. Sometimes what might be termed "Jewish themes" enter my novels; often by indirection, such as in The Museum Guard, where the main Jewish character was a woman in a painting.
Lately I've been working on--I suppose it can be called a book-length essay--about what I call a Theology of Birds. It has to do with the deep emotional chords struck by the sight and sound of shore birds, say at Point Reyes National Seashore, where I have spent time each year for forty years. The beach, ocean, whole coastal expanse as a spiritual place, if you will.
Have you ever had even a fleeting sense that ghosts are real?
HN: I sustain no "fleeting" sense of ghosts. I sustain a permanent sense of ghosts. But I don't mean ghosts in the Victorian, or any other sense, of malevolent or benevolent entities who insist themselves into your life. I more refer to the invisible world; mainly, I subscribe to the Inuit sensibility, where the world is replete with invisible spirits who affect you whether or not you fully comprehend how.
Of course as a child I loved "ghost stories." I live in a mid 19th-century farmhouse and have never felt the presence of a former occupant; then again, on one wall is a sequence of photographs of the family that built and first lived in the farmhouse—and now and then I do speak to them. Hoping they approve of how we live.
What made you choose these particular intense emotions on which to focus the novel, and what effect did writing the book have on you personally?
HN: Well, nothing is arbitrary about the ten thousand choices one makes in composing a novel. As for the effect the writing has on the writer: you intensely come to knowledge of yourself, your flaws and limitations as a writer (it is never the language's fault that you cannot say what you most hope to say), and, in the case of Next Life Might be Kinder, personally, I struggled with what I really thought about love and its demands and insistences, and the endless nature of its gift.
Setting the action in a hotel, and that Victorian chaise longue, and giving learning the lindy an important role: were those conscious decisions you made related to the semi-spooky tone you sought?
HN: I would not call the tone of Next Life Might Be Kinder semi-spooky, or at least I'm hesitant to subscribe to that term. "Semi" implies ambivalence; no, I definitely wanted a spectral atmosphere—not always but often enough to be provocative. Most of the novel is about quotidian life of the narrator Sam Lattimore. His murdered wife Elizabeth lines up books every night on a beach and speaks with Sam. That circumstance was never meant to be "spooky," which is a term best applied to children's stories. No, this is about adult love and not wanting to let go of it.