Pamela Erens’ new novel The Virgins is an unflinchingly unsettling fresh take on the traditions of the boarding-school novel, in which a repentant narrator looks back on his past actions as a titillated but embittered bystander observing and provoking the crumbling relationship of a co-ed academy’s golden couple.
Where are you now?
Sitting at my computer in my house in New Jersey.
Where and when do you do most of your writing?
Nearly all of my writing is done in my second-floor office in my New Jersey home. The room is lined with bookshelves, but the shelves have run out of room (even with double rows of books), so there are now lots of book piles on the floor, along with bills that need to be paid and notes for things I’m writing and my knitting. I most often write in the mornings after the kids go off to school.
If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?
I check my e-mail and Facebook and a couple of websites I follow. This is known as ‘waking up’, because I’m not a morning person and if I sat straight down to write I’d instantly fall back to sleep. Then, partly woken up by the day’s communications, I make a cup of caffeinated tea and grab a square of chocolate to enhance the effect.
Full-time or part-time?
Part-time in that I generally don’t spend more than two to four hours a day on any kind of writing. (If reading, which I do a lot of, counts, then it’s more than two to four hours.) Full-time in that I don’t have any other job outside the home.
Pen or keyboard?
How do you relax when you’re writing?
I assume you don’t mean literally while I’m typing. But while I’m working on a project, which is always, I find reading and knitting and taking walks relaxing.
How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?
Teenagers at a US boarding school in the late 1970s discover themselves and their limits through sexual awakening.
Who do you write for?
That’s a hard one. Probably for some imagined individual who like me is interested in how people’s minds work and in situations that elicit strong and enduring feelings. And also in language.
Who do you share your work in progress with?
In the past, generally nobody at all. However, between the completion of The Virgins and the start of the novel I’m working on now, some friends asked me to join a small writing group that meets about every two months, and I’ve brought many pieces of my drafts to this group for critique.
Which literary character do you wish you created?
Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, from The Death of Ivan Ilyich. This guy is Mr Everyman, and yet Tolstoy makes him so individual and so comprehensible, and, in the end, so heartbreaking.
Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes” – a beautiful and frightening line from Emily Dickinson that has intrigued and instructed me for many years. I’m also a big fan of Lewis Carroll’s “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe.” I learned the whole poem by heart as a teenager, and I can still recite it.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Besides the fact that it’s a masterpiece, it’s a book that could have been written only by someone very mature, very wise, and able to see the deep comedy and deep tragedy of life. I’d love to be that person.
Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?
Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier; Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.
What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?
I’m about a third of the way into the first Patrick Melrose novel Never Mind by Edward St Aubyns, and am loving it. I plan to read the whole five-book series.
Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?
Moby Dick by Herman Melville; My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Which book/s do you treasure the most?
Middlemarch, for the reasons above. I first read it at age 19 and it has left the deepest imprint of any book I know, initially and through re-readings over the years.
What is the last work you read in translation?
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Wonderful.
Which story collections would you particularly recommend?
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; any collection by Alice Munro, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore or Deborah Eisenberg.
What will you read next?
The story collection When the Messenger is Hot by Elizabeth Crane, and the novel Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye.
What are you working on next?
Another novel, this time about grown-ups.
Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?
First of all I’d be terrified because I’m not the hostess type. I’d probably have all the wrong food and I wouldn’t know how to make the table look pretty. But to concentrate on the guest list: How many people can I have? I’d want Emily Dickinson and Tolstoy and Alice Munro and Deborah Eisenberg and Chekhov and William Maxwell and Wallace Stegner and Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. I would be tempted to add Proust and Henry James, except that I suspect I would find them insufferable in person. I bet Henry’s brother William would be delightful, though. And why not include Shakespeare and Chaucer, among other reasons because no one knows that much about what they were really like. It would be cool to find out.
If you weren’t writing you’d be…?
An editor at a magazine. That’s what I did full-time before my children were born, and I still love editing.
Pamela Erens‘ debut novel The Understory was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in publications including New England Review, Literary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. The Virgins is published by John Murray in hardback and eBook. Read more.