The Beatrice Interview: Sylvia Brownrigg (1999)
Sylvia Brownrigg’s debut novel, The Metaphysical Touch, is an intellectual romance with decidedly postmodern twists. Emily Piper, better known as “Pi,” is working on her doctoral degree in philosophy when all her possessions—including her dissertation on Kant—are destroyed in the catastrophic 1991 fire in Oakland, California. Shattered, she ends up staying with Abbie, a friend of a friend, and her young daughter, Martha. She acquires a computer and goes online, where she stumbles upon the writings of JD, who’s posting something of an extended suicide note to the world, fully acknowledging the melodramatic nature of his gesture: “I do know how self-indulgent this is, by the way. Writing and posting all this, treating the world on the Net like it’s my therapist.” What happens when the two come into contact with each other is both thought-provoking and engrossing. I met with Sylvia Brownrigg in the basement café of Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company.
RH: How did you decide to bring together the Oakland fires and the LA riots with your characters to form this narrative?
SB: I started with JD’s story, so I knew more about him first, had his voice first. It was a while before Pi’s situation came into the story, but once I had the idea of a philospher who lost all her books and her dissertation in a fire, the Oakland fires ground the situation in a particular time, one which worked well with the Internet themes and setting. And then I realized that the LA riots were only six months after that. It wasn’t my original plan to end the novel that way, but once I knew that event was there, it became impossible not to write towards it. It gave the novel a shape that wouldn’t have
existed without that historical coincidence.
RH: Had you been spending a lot of time on the Internet?
SB: Not so much. And I haven’t had an experience like the one in the novel. But I was writing about JD at a time when I had just gotten online and was doing some explorations myself, coincidentally during a period when I was unwell for several months, when it was difficult for me to leave my flat. What I could do in my flat was read, write, and find out what the Internet was. And, too, I had to know enough about the Internet so that what I wrote reflected what was real and possible.
RH: Have you been through what one author I interviewed called “the autobiographical accusation”?
SB: In all different kinds of ways. People are bound to be curious, and there’s always some surprise at the extent to which novelists invent things. Even though I write, as a reader I’m still shocked sometimes when something that feels so real turns out not to be a veiled memoir. I’m not sure how many people think I’d have written this novel if I’d met and fallen in love with somebody off the Internet, but in any case that’s not what happened. I do email a lot, but my relationship with email has been in order to enhance relationships I’ve already had. I very rarely reach out into the ether like Pi does.
And I did not, in fact, lose my disseration in a fire. Though as you can imagine I was incredibly obsessive while I was writing the novel. Making sure there were copies everywhere, keeping drafts in other people’s houses and so on. I could just imagine people saying, “How ironic—she was working on that story and then she lost it in a fire…”
RH: For philosophically inclined people who spend any prolonged amount of time online, questions of identity and persona inevitably arise, just as they do for your characters.
SB: The Internet has afforded people an opportunity to try on different selves, explore different aspects of themselves than the ones they present to the physical world. My story doesn’t address those issues as wildly as some other stories have done; it’s not a story about a man pretending to be a woman online, for example. The novel’s story is more abstract—it’s about a person projecting a different self, or perhaps recapturing an aspect of the self that was lost. There are a lot of different kinds of philosophical ideas in this novel, though, and actually more about metaphysics than there is about self and identity.
RH: It seems like there are more and more authors willing, as you are, to tackle the “novel of ideas” again, rather than writing novels that are more like screenplays waiting to happen.
SB: As somebody who’s been interested in ideas, I’m glad that the world of ideas is now seen as a world that fiction can be a part of again. But any of these fashions in fiction…there are always going to be readers who would rather have stories of family situations, or romances, or novels of ideas. I’ve always liked books that spoke to me on different levels, that give me something to think about as well as a story to get involved in. Milan Kundera’s been writing this kind of story for years, and it seems to me that he’s never gone out of fashion. Maybe he has, but he’s always been a writer that I’ve liked a lot.
RH: Any other, um, novelists of ideas that you’ve admired?
SB: “Novel of ideas” is such a funny phrase, really, because I’m not always sure what counts.
RH: Sure. Robertson Davies wrote novels that were packed with ideas, for example, but were also straightforward, adventure-filled narrative tales.
SB: Or William Gass, who’s a philosopher, and even though there are fictions of his where I wouldn’t say that the philosophy is readily apparent in the novel, I do love his work. And then you have English authors like Julian Barnes who’s clearly an intellectual writer, which may be somewhat different than writing a novel of ideas.
I like being intellectually stimulated by what I read, but I would never want to sacrifice the level of story and character—either as a reader or a writer.
RH: Have philosophy and fiction always been dual driving interests for you?
SB: They were, except until perhaps recently, when I started thinking about philosophy more and more through the writing of The Metaphysical Touch. At one time, I kept wondering if I would go back and do graduate work in philosophy, pursue the academic career. It was an option I kept open for a long time, and in fact after I got my MA in writing, I did a year of graduate work in philosophy. But at that point I realized that my writing was too much of my life for me to be able to do it alongside philosophy. That’s why I’m aware of William Gass—if you’re interested in both writing and philosophy, you become aware of the writers who straddle both fields, because there aren’t that many of them.
I don’t study philosophy anymore, and I’ve found that if I’m not studying it, I don’t particularly choose to read it. So I’m not up-to-date on the philosophical debates of the moment, though I do keep in some touch through friends who are actively studying in the field.
RH: The story presents a structural challenge—it features two different main characters, who are both doing a lot of reflection on their pasts as well as living through their presents.
SB: I’ve been looking through notebooks for something I’m working on now, and I came across notes I’d written about how I would structure this. I’ve always been interested in structure; I’m
quite a formalist in that way. I wanted JD and Pi to have their identities and their pasts fully formed before they encountered each other. There’s so much movement towards the two of them communicating, but I wanted to be sure that they had space to develop before they actually met.
RH: The intricacies of communication play an important part in the novel, as do the intricacies of gender. You handle them in a very matter-of-fact way, where Pi’s sexuality is only an issue when she chooses to tell somebody else about it, not something that’s constantly nagging at her.
SB: I didn’t want that to be a prominent, attention-getting part of the story, though I eventually realized that it was important for her to have the dual impulses [in her relationships with JD and Abbie]—which may not be equal, necessarily, but are both very important parts of her. I didn’t really know that about Pi until I was quite far into the story. That is, I didn’t quite know how it fit into the story until I discovered it as I went along.
RH: The outcome of Pi and Abbie’s relationship is one of the many unresolved threads at the end of the story.
SB: At one of the readings, I was asked if any of these characters were going to appear again—and then another person specifically asked about Martha, which led to general agreement that I have to write another novel about Martha at some point so they could find out what happened to her. So I have no specific plan, but I more or less committed myself in front of a roomful of people to writing more about Martha someday. (laughs)
What I am working on now is a novel set in London which is completely different from this. And I have a collection of short stories, Ten Women Who Shook the World, which had been previously published in England and is coming out here in 2000. Those stories, too, are very different in tone from the novel, very fable-like and surreal.
RH: You’ve been in England for about five years. Do you intend to stay?
SB: I might move back at some point. It’s been a great place to be for this period, and seems to be a good place for me to pull my resources together as a writer. I lived there when I was younger, and it’s always been a place I’ve gone to throughout my life. But I’ve also usually come back, so it’s openended.