In the following interview, Sebold discusses her narrative choices in The Lovely Bones and her plans for her next novel.
[Darby]: Your memoir [Lucky] focused on rape-your brutal rape when you were a student at Syracuse University in 1981. Your novel, The Lovely Bones (reviewed on p. 40), is about a rape and murder. Was it a relief, or a horror, to re-imagine a rape?
[Sebold]: Oddly, it was a delight, because I loved my main character so much and I liked being with her. It was like having company. I was motivated to write about violence because I believe it’s not unusual. I see it as just a part of life, and I think we get in trouble when we separate people who’ve experienced it from those who haven’t. Though it’s a horrible experience, it’s not as if violence hasn’t affected many of us.
The reader learns on the first page that your narrator, Susie Salmon, has been murdered. But how did you come to place her in heaven?
Chang Rae Lee says, “Competency kills.” Well, I was working on another, perfectly competent novel, but it didn’t have any life to it. I read poetry all the time-poems free me-so I went off and read some poetry, and when I came back to my desk, I wrote the first chapter of The Lovely Bones almost exactly as it stands, with Susie in heaven. It was what writers pray for. You just become the channel for a voice.
So what is your idea of heaven?
For me, heaven would be a lack of alienation. The whole time I was growing up, I felt comfort was inherently evil. I think that for me heaven isn’t about couches and milk shakes and never having a troubling thought again. As opposed to a place that is just blinding comfort, I gave Susie a place to investigate, a place where she could come to understand the world and the people in her life.
The reader also learns early on who murdered Susie. Why did you make her murderer a builder of dollhouses?
In a way, it was self-indulgent. I’m fascinated with structure and buildings. But it also fits his character, as something that helps him give his life structure. I think people who commit these crimes often try not to. One of the ways he tried to control himself was to work on these complex structures. He had all these tricks, like setting alarms and timers, to help him control his universe.
Little, Brown seems to have embraced this book. What is your relationship with them like?
My story with Little, Brown is unusual. My novel was acquired and orphaned twice within 10 months, so it should have been a catastrophe. Yet it wasn’t. The book was embraced by a variety of people within the company by the time the complete draft was handed in, including Michael Pietsch [senior v-p/publisher]. Michael has said that things keep happening in a very nice way, and that’s the way it happened in-house. It’s a little bit of a come-from-behind thing.
Is Little, Brown taking any unusual steps to publicize the book?
This is my first novel, so I don’t know what’s usual. My publicist Heather Fain, who’s great, called up a couple months ago to tell me that normally she’d be calling to say there’d be no tour, but instead they were sending me on an eight-city tour. Then two other cities were added. Little, Brown had to print a thousand extra copies of the galleys for BEA, and Anna Quindlen mentioned The Lovely Bones during her summer reading roundup on The Today Show.
Have the movie rights been optioned?
Movie rights have been optioned by Luc Besson and Film Four, a British production company. The script is just finished, though I haven’t read it. It was written by the movie’s director, Lynn Ramsay, and her writing partner. It strikes me that they’ll make their own movie out of it. I have hopes that with a small company based in Europe, the movie will be driven by their vision rather than by a committee.
Are you working on a new novel for Little, Brown?
Yes, I’m about 200 pages into this one, and I have my characters and my story.
Does the success of The Lovely Bones set the bar too high for your next book? Does it make you nervous?
I’m only worried about having to take time off. I wanted to be a novelist for so long. My husband [Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil] and I failed for a long time before we succeeded, so we cherish the success.