The Limits of Fact and Explanation: A Conversation with Suzanne Berne

May 24, 2023

A photograph of author Suzanne Berne, who smiles at the viewerSuzanne Berne has received praise for her astute character studies of the psychological dramas underlying seemingly serene domestic settings. Her debut novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won Britain’s Orange Prize in 1999; A Perfect Arrangement, A Ghost at the Table, and The Dogs of Littlefield followed. Berne has also written Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew, a combination of biography and memoir, and she has published short fiction and essays in a range of venues, including the New York Times, LitHub, and The Guardian. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has taught creative writing at Harvard University and Boston College.

Her fifth novel, The Blue Window (Marysue Rucci Books, 2023), centers on three generations concealing secrets from one another and themselves. Lorna, a divorced therapist, is mother to Adam, a troubled nineteen-year-old who has left college for reasons he initially refuses to reveal. A member of the Dutch resistance during World War II as a teenager, his grandmother Marika later abandoned her husband and children when Lorna was a young girl, resurfaced shortly after Adam was born, and reappears in the family’s life during brief, infrequent, and awkward holiday visits. In this novel, the three are brought together in a remote cottage on Lake Champlain after a neighbor alerts Lorna to her mother’s failing health.

Renee H. Shea: In your essay “Why Write a Novel, Why Read a Novel, and Why Now?” you say that “writing a novel is often a long, crude, insecure business with a dubious outcome.” Yet, even seven years since your last book, apparently you still can’t resist. Why is that?

Suzanne Berne: For me, writing a novel is all about company. I find that having a long project is just that—company to come back to every day. Creating a bunch of characters who have a bunch of problems is a sort of engagement that I haven’t been able to find in any other way—or I would have because it does take so long! But I never stopped being interested in the process of this particular book, especially of figuring out the form and characters. I wanted the characters not just to have different perspectives on life but to actually sound different, to capture their different ways of thinking. That stayed fascinating to me.

The cover to The Blue Window by Suzanne BerneShea: The Blue Window is your fifth novel. Was there something new that drew you into writing this one, or are there questions you continue to explore throughout your fiction? Was there something about this time—the pandemic—that added urgency?

Berne: I started this book well before the pandemic, so the characters’ isolation, while it dovetailed with the pandemic, did not begin as a response to that, although I’ve had people tell me they feel like those characters stuck in that remote cottage echoed the feeling of loneliness during the pandemic. I saw this novel as another turn on some of the issues I looked at in The Dogs of Littlefield, which I thought of as a social comedy about menace. Characters felt great anxiety about the outside world and what they saw as global destabilization coming to their own small village. This new novel is connected to that because, at least in my mind, Lorna and Adam live in Littlefield. But this novel is also about anxiety. The Dogs of Littlefield was written during the Obama administration, and much of The Blue Window was written during the Trump era, so different kinds of anxiety stem from the larger political and cultural forces acting on the characters.

Shea: I have a number of questions that reference two essays you published since The Blue Window came out: “Why Write a Novel, Why Read a Novel, and Why Now?” and “The Craft in Writing Characters with Messy Psychology.” These seem to add a sort of meta quality to reading The Blue Window since both essays not only link but comment, if obliquely, on that novel. Do you see the fiction and nonfiction, in this case, as parallel, complementary, or simply coincidental?

Berne: “Why Write a Novel, Why Read a Novel, Why Now?” is my version of “No, the Novel Is Not Dead,” which needs to be written every so often, and it began as a lecture I gave last summer at the Rainier Writing Workshop where I was teaching. The second essay is about the idea that fictional characters might seem more “alive” if you allow them to remain unknowable in some way, if only to themselves. In a letter, Chekhov says, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” I love the idea of being with your characters for a little while, dropping in on them during a time of crisis or upset, and doing your best to follow them through it, and reveal how they have managed or not. But then, if you’re really doing your job as a novelist, you don’t answer all the questions you’ve created about them. Instead, you leave those characters in the midst of their ongoing lives. You allow them some open possibilities, beyond what’s on the page, and let them keep going after you’ve quit paying attention to them.

Shea: In “Why Write . . .” you characterize yourself as an inveterate reviser, who deletes descriptions, events, sometime even characters in order to move the story forward. But I find your metaphor for that process a bit strange: “I sometimes think of my novels as built atop a graveyard of ideas, yet that is richly occupied soil.” How is that true of The Blue Window?

Berne: For me, it means that whatever is still there is connected to all sorts of other things that are no longer there—except I know they’re there. Whatever is still left on the page is the result of many thoughts and attempts, various paths that I’ve taken but then had to turn around and trace my way back and go a different way. That seems to me like life: what we see of each other may look put together, but it’s the result of all kinds of things you never see. Everybody has that density to them. I like thinking of my characters having a whole history beyond what finally makes it into the novel but that’s gone into the decisions they make in the course of a chapter or a scene.

I like thinking of my characters having a whole history beyond what finally makes it into the novel.

Shea: You’ve often commented on the difficulty of finding the right point of view for your novels. How did you settle on shifting perspectives—or multiple voices—for The Blue Window?

Berne: There are a lot of shifts! Lorna has more chapters than anyone else, though not by much. Adam is almost as featured as she is—and that happened kind of late. The novel that I began several years ago was only Lorna’s point of view told in first person. Originally, it started with a phone call from her mother’s neighbor saying, Your mother is missing, the police are looking for her; Lorna goes to Vermont and sits in the cottage waiting for news and looking at all the things in her house, trying to figure her mother out. At the time, that seemed a good idea, but it became incredibly boring: Lorna was just sitting there all alone. So I thought, why not put the missing mother right there: she’s still “missing” in that you can’t talk to her, she won’t explain herself, but at least she’s physically present for there to be interaction and conflict. That made things a little more interesting, but it still felt too hermetically sealed in that remote setting.

It wasn’t until I decided to bring in a third character that things got unstable in an interesting way: Lorna’s son, Adam. By then, I also had decided I wanted the viewpoint to be third person, to inhabit each of the characters’ minds and look at some of the same things going on from different perspectives to see how little it’s possible to understand what other people are thinking. If there has been one theme running through all my books, it is how hard it is to understand other people—what kind of assumptions we make and how wrong the assumptions tend to be. I think that particular issue is more dramatic in The Blue Window than I’ve ever been able to make it.

If there has been one theme running through all my books, it is how hard it is to understand other people.

Shea: So, Adam came last—but he has the first chapter, which I find by turns intriguing, confusing, sometime downright irritating, yet ultimately just right. Where did that chapter come from?

Berne: It wasn’t always the opening chapter. As I thought more about the difficulties these three characters have in talking about what is really going on while they are hiding huge secrets, I started to ask how I could make this struggle to communicate as literal as possible. Since I had already been playing around with Adam’s refusal to use the first person or the active voice, it seemed like what would make it a real experience for the reader would be to enter the mind of someone who is trying to erase himself. I was also feeling the weight of all the recent trauma narratives that are out there. What is not there is the one of the person who cannot tell the story of their trauma, who doesn’t trust others to hear it, who doesn’t want to think about it, or who actually no longer has the language with which to communicate it.

Adam is trying not to think about what happened and to protect himself; he feels disgraced by what he did. In some ways, he is like a young knight trying to regain a kind of honor, which is why he’s so strict and rigid. This language he uses is a hair shirt that he puts on himself. I want the reader to understand how seriously he is taking this, even though it may also seem ridiculous, even comic.

Shea: Humor is often a part of your fiction—a little dark, maybe sly or ironic, and at times downright hilarious. That scene where Adam captures the snake in a pasta pot and then isn’t sure what to do with it, so he kicks it outside, where the snake flies across the deck and is grabbed by a hawk flying by—almost slapstick. I’m not sure why that’s so funny, but it is—despite being right in the midst of real threats. How do you bring humor into such serious situations without trivializing the characters or what is happening?

My guideline when it comes to humor is that people do ridiculous things, but they themselves are not ridiculous.

Berne: My guideline when it comes to humor is that people do ridiculous things, but they themselves are not ridiculous. Characters may create absurd situations for themselves and say absurd things or make absurd gestures, but the longing and fear—and hope—that are behind what they say and do are not absurd. Behind any silly behavior is a serious intention, which is what makes humor so heartbreaking and deeply interesting to use in fiction. From a craft standpoint, I think of a quote from Susan Sontag: “Sometimes the most beautiful effects are gained when the material and the form are at cross purposes.” So if you’re going to write about something serious, sometimes you need comedy.

Shea: Although Marika’s backstory takes us to Amsterdam during World War II, most of The Blue Window occurs in Vermont on Lake Champlain. You’ve spent a great deal of time on Cape Cod ever since you were a child, so a setting there would not have been unexpected. I’m wondering if you have a special connection to Lake Champlain—or why you chose that setting.

Berne: The view from Marika’s house I took from friends of mine who have an old family camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I just loved this little rectangular house filled with windows looking out over the lake—the whole view was water and movement. I loved going to Lake Champlain for the same reason: these funny little houses hanging over the lake. The thing that made me want to set the novel in such a place is the contrast between the closedness of the life Marika has, with almost no past or future, and how open her everyday view is. All the light at that window where she sits has to somehow make up for how dark her mind is.

Shea: Is that view what brought you to the title?

Berne: Yes, it came from that big window Marika is looking out of as she’s trying to look into a life she can’t really participate in. But it also comes from the Matisse painting The Blue Window, a painting I love. I didn’t purposely take specific images and put them in the novel, yet all of that blue, all of the sky, things that are inside and outside the open landscape are there. In that painting, inside the window seems as open as outside, which should be impossible—except maybe in dreams.

I read that Matisse was very attached to the plumb line, something carpenters use to figure out the center of gravity, to determine a true vertical; even in his most abstract work, Matisse’s verticals are always perfectly straight. For me, the plumb line in a novel is something very basic that runs straight through it, something “true,” so basic it may look like a cliché, and for that reason it’s embarrassing to admit that it’s an anchoring idea. Love your neighbor. All we have to fear is fear itself. Only connect. That sort of thing. It’s the true line you try to complicate in all sorts of ways, but that you can also return to if you get off track. For this novel, the plumb line was: How can you possibly understand another person, particularly ones who are hiding from you? That question helped make Adam and Marika so difficult. I wanted them to be very hard to understand and provide real antagonism for Lorna, who is trained to understand people.

The plumb line in a novel is something very basic that runs straight through it, something “true.”

The title also represents an idea that I have had for a long time, and that’s a response to my core question—that if you’re going to try to understand other people, you’re going to have to wonder about them and at the same time accept that you’re never going to know for sure that anything you’re wondering about is true. The end of the novel for me is a way of marking how much movement has happened for all three characters but especially for Lorna. Instead of wanting an explanation of what happened to her mother and why her mother left her, Lorna has decided to wonder about what might have happened if her mother’s life had been different, to move into a different way of thinking about a woman who in the beginning she couldn’t think about at all, she could hardly bear to think about. She even tells her son that there are things you can decide not to think about—a terrible piece of advice, by the way.

But in the last scene, after a lot of frustration and strife, she finds herself able to think about her mother in a way that is much more generous than she has ever before been able to manage. That kind of spiritual movement was really interesting to me—to see if I could move all three characters from a place that was closed, though in different ways, to something more open, even if there’s only little bit of movement, which is the case with Marika.

That kind of spiritual movement was really interesting to me—to see if I could move all three characters from a place that was closed, though in different ways, to something more open.

Shea: In “Why Write . . .” you said that “as the characters become more complicated, their situations are also defamiliarized” so that readers are no longer sure of how they feel about them. What do you mean by that process of defamiliarization?

Berne: Readers start by having certain assumptions about the characters that writers have handed them. They are following in the beginning something that looks like a type. The experience of being defamiliarized about a type you think you know—of thinking this is going to be a story of a family who all come together after a period of estrangement by opening up to each other—and then not getting that is not only engaging, but it makes you alert to all the stories that you’re not getting out there.

As a writer, I started with these three characters who fall into certain categories: the troubled college student, the sensitive mother trying to help (too much!), the cranky old lady. These are such broad archetypes, in some ways clichés. That’s one of the things I find most exciting about writing. I think of clichés as an invitation to walk through a kind of door that anybody could walk through; here’s the cliché: here’s what you think you know. But it’s part of the writer’s job to detonate those expectations.

Shea: Marika left her children and lived in ways that most would consider selfish, yet you offer enough glimpses that make her (at least to me) more sad than reprehensible. Is that part of the defamiliarization you’ve talked about—in this case, the type of the bad mother come to life?

Berne: Narratives involving bad parents often leave out the confusion, shame, and fear behind their bad choices. Selfish people are usually lonely people, in one way or another. Along those lines, I’d say any story that complicates a type, that makes you stop and wonder about a character, that makes you question your assumptions about “that sort of person,” is working with defamiliarization. I’m glad that you found Marika more sad than reprehensible!

Shea: I’m curious about what I read as your skepticism in this novel about “facts” and “explanations”—and their limitations. Adam at one point longs for “provable, physical facts.” Then he decides that what was “wrong” with his mother was that “she was always looking for an explanation.” Can you talk a little about “explanations” and why they don’t work for any of the three main characters?

Berne: I think what links Adam and Marika is their shared sense that there is no way to explain what happened to them that is commensurate with the actual experience. Even though they are far apart in age and experience, both of them believe that—and it’s what unites them against Lorna, who is doing her best to connect so they will tell her what happened. They’re both miserable and tormented, and she wants to know why—she wants an explanation. Her whole training is to help people put themselves in some sort of context. She’s been able to do that with her clients, but not her son and mother, who are both resisting her, in some ways for good reason. Whenever people are trying to explain what happened, the listener needs to be aware of what they can’t say and what they’re likely to leave out. To believe that you can turn people’s lives into a series of facts is to miss most of their lives.

Shea: Although I’m not suggesting that this wonderful novel verges on memoir, I can’t resist asking about your mother, herself a successful therapist. How did growing up with a mother-therapist influence your development of Lorna?

Berne: Having a mother who is a therapist does not solve the ancient teenage problem of feeling your parents don’t understand you; in fact, it may intensify it. Discovering that your mother—the one person who should be able to see into your soul—doesn’t “get it” about whatever is going wrong in your life is a shock for anybody. But it’s probably a bigger shock for teenagers with mothers who are known for being psychologically astute. You’re really on your own then. At the same time, being a therapist who can’t understand her own child must be a huge shock. So those shocks, some of which I knew firsthand, certainly fed into the relationship between Lorna and Adam. Their state of mutual incomprehension might feel a little less acute if Lorna were a CPA or a podiatrist instead of a shrink.

Shea: Near the very end of the novel, Lorna concludes, “People love how they can.” Do we read that as reproach, resignation, solace, all—or none—of the above?

Berne: It’s a recognition—and I think it’s true. Again, this is how we get straitjacketed by ideas of how things should be: that there’s one way to love your child, parent, spouse. We all have limiting factors in our lives as well as things that free us up. I think if we recognize that people for the most part are trying to love the people they’re supposed to love, it would be an easier world to live in. By the end of the novel, Lorna’s letting go of a fair number of ideas she’s had and moving into a much more dialectical way of thinking—and that will be necessary if she is going to take care of this woman who did not parent her.

Shea: I’m intrigued by your assertion in “Why Write . . .” that “writing a novel offers an extended experience of not getting to the point. So does reading one.” But then why do we read novels?

Berne: I’ll go back to Sontag. In Against Interpretation, she wrote, “The knowledge we gain through art is an experience of the form or style of knowing something rather than the knowledge of something (like a fact or a moral judgment) in itself.” It’s not that reading a novel only gives us a lot of information, such as what life was like during the War of 1812. There are as many ways of knowing something as there are people in the world, so being within somebody else’s way of knowing, their way of taking in information and experiences, is pretty profound—and has to start to shift your own way of being in the world. Most people have had the experience of being caught up in a book; when they look up from the pages, for a little while, the world actually looks different. They’ve been so caught up in the narrator’s perspective or the way the writer has written something that’s it’s changed their own perceptions of what’s right in front of them. It may not last long, but cumulatively, it makes you more porous, so you take things in in a different way than you might have otherwise.

Shea: You also say that as a writer, you think of your reader as an “unknown guest . . . who requires your care.” Becoming more “porous” surely requires care, but is another kind of writerly care inching the reader to be more generously patient or perhaps to recognize the benefits of patience?

Berne: I think so, especially right now when speed seems to be everything. It’s doing something to our brains to have so much information coming at us so fast all the time and to be expected to turn around and respond immediately. I think the novel is one of the few places that is still pushing against that kind of speed—and against this insistence on efficiency, expedience, and productivity. A novel takes a long time. To give yourself over to that is to move at a different pace than the rest of life right now.

April 2023

Editorial note: This conversation occurred in April 2023 over Zoom and email. Full disclosure: Renee was Suzanne’s ninth-grade English teacher at the Madeira School in Virginia.

An Excerpt from The Blue Window

by Suzanne Berne

Marika lived on the northeastern shore of Lake Champlain five miles from the Canadian border, six miles from the nearest town, on a tapering stretch of land called the Neck. Most cottages along the Neck were invisible from the road, announced by names painted on gray boards or canoe paddles nailed to tree trunks. Names that grew fewer as the pine, spruce, and oak trees grew denser. Lorna didn’t recall this part of the lake as being so heavily forested or as feeling so remote, and began to think they were lost.

But just as she decided they should turn around, she spotted a boulder on the left side of the road painted in flaking white paint with the number she was searching for. At the end of a narrow rutted driveway was a one-story, brown-shingled cottage with green trim, deeply shaded by trees.

It was more or less the cottage she remembered from her visit years before, though more weathered, the shingles speckled with lichen and the roof so thickly carpeted with dry pine needles that it looked almost thatched. They parked beside a pile of stacked wood and got out of the car. Except for the creak of branches and the intermittent calls of small birds from somewhere high above, it seemed extraordinarily quiet; the air was clear, and there was a feeling that comes sometimes with being on a northern lake, that it looked the same as it had fifty, even a hundred years ago.

Leaving Adam to give Freddy a walk, Lorna made her way to the back door. Through the baggy screen the kitchen was dark and empty. “Hello?” she called. After knocking twice, she tried the door handle and found it unlocked. “Hello?” she repeated, stepping inside. “Anybody home?”

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim kitchen, which smelled sharply of mildew. A linoleum counter materialized, knotty pine cabinets. Dripping faucet. And then she made out a closed second door, next to the refrigerator, glowing around the edges and leading to the rest of the house.

“Hello?” Lorna had a hand on the latch of that second door, already preparing herself for Marika’s protests: Shouldn’t have come all this way. A lot of fuss over nothing. And to say in return: Oh, no, it was no trouble. Glad to give you a hand, glad to get Adam out of the house. But even as she lifted the latch, it was impossible to ignore that what she really wanted to do was turn around while there was still time and head back out to her car.

“Hello?” she called again, opening the door.

A flood of late afternoon sunlight struck her full in the face, pouring through a picture window overlooking the lake, shining off the water and into the house, reflecting off the ceiling, walls, floorboards. All the windows were closed and in that brilliant, shut room the mildew smell from the kitchen mingled with woodsmoke and something faintly sulphurous. Lorna put up a hand to shield her eyes. Only then could she see an armchair, positioned to face the lake, and in it a dark motionless figure.

How long did she stand in the doorway before saying, “Marika”?

Excerpted from The Blue Window, by Suzanne Berne. Copyright © 2023 by Suzanne Berne.
Reprinted by permission of Marysue Rucci Books / Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Renee H. Shea, formerly professor of English at Bowie State University in Maryland, interviews contemporary authors for World Literature Today. She frequently contributes to Poets & Writers, most recently a profile of Camille Dungy (May/June 2023) and “Dreaming up Her Own Salvation: A Profile of Safiya Sinclair” (November/December 2023). She is currently doing a series for the American Book Review on “The Laureates.” The initial interview with J. Drew Lanham, poet laureate of Edgefield County, South Carolina, appeared in the fall 2023 issue. She also coauthors English language arts textbooks for Bedford, Freeman & Worth.