The shores of Lake Superior, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's the coldest winter the U.P. has seen in 50 years. Norah Labiner holes herself up in her friend's secluded cabin. Her mission? To finish the magnum opus, her first novel, five years in the making. And where else to do it, really--what more apt way could there be to produce the exquisite despair that is a first novel than to re-enact The Shining?
The cabin is heated by two wood stoves. The only other warm-blooded creature is her dog. Provisions consist of bread, frozen vegetables, and Alpo. The radio stations are full of school closings and snowmobile swap meets, the newscasters all have big hair, and the TV only gets one channel: CBS. Labiner wages battle against the muse while Tonya squares off against Nancy in the battle royal that is the Winter Olympics. Not much else to look at up here. Labiner is surrounded by the frozen lake and a blank horizon. She doesn't drive, and there's nowhere to go on foot.
Norah Labiner is in her element.
Alone, Labiner can write without distraction. She eats and breathes her book. Her regimen is that of a fully self-actualized masochist. She is to write a new chapter every morning and rewrite an old chapter every afternoon. It's about 60 pages a day, and as January turns into February the routine becomes harder on the typewriter than on Labiner. Soon the typewriter can only type in ALL CAPS. Letters begin to fall off, so she sets a code for herself: X=P. Two months pass. Labiner runs out of typewriter ribbon and heads back to Minneapolis--manuscript in hand.
Four years later and Our Sometime Sister has just been published by Minneapolis's Coffee House Press. Norah Labiner has joined the ranks of the few, the penurious, the published. She isn't quite sure what to make of it. "After five years of writing and three years of editing, I didn't ever really think it would get published," she says with a shrug.
She's thrilled, of course: When the book finally hits the stores, Labiner leaves work early to pick up a copy. And she makes a fairly conspicuous customer, as her own mug peers out from the front cover. When the author walks into bookstores, people smile and point: "We knew it was you right away." This is a difficult adjustment for a woman whose demeanor practically begs you not to notice her. Suddenly, the very private Norah Labiner is finding herself a little public.
That is the peculiar nature of writing. The act is deeply personal (see: fevered analogies likening a novel to a child, limb, or vital organ), the refuge of some pathologically solitary people. Yet in order to succeed, you must publish--which involves, by definition, exposure. Labiner says, "I'm pretty thin-skinned. I'm a private and secretive person but then I put this book out. It's not about me, of course, but it is the things I think."
Though Labiner has written all her life, the publication of Our Sometime Sister means that she is now an Author: Her thoughts are in the public domain, and her success depends on other people's judgment. And what they are judging is the core of her being. "I don't think I ever told people I was writing a novel," Labiner says. "It's so self-contained. I didn't tell my parents it was coming out until six months ago. It's bad, I know, but that's just who I am. I think I tend to compartmentalize my life--work, family, writing. Writing is what I do and everything else is auxiliary. The idea of people reading it is pretty terrifying." She grins. "It would take me years of therapy to uncover why."
1989. Norah Labiner is a senior at the University of Michigan where she studies creative writing and critical theory. She's been encouraged to apply to a graduate writing program, which is quickly growing in reputation. As decision time comes around, she reports, a professor calls her. She has been wait-listed for the program, he tells her. But there is still a chance. And he could, perhaps, see his way clear to admit her if she could (lean in closely, soften voice)...ahem, prove she wanted to be in the program. Know what I mean?
Norah Labiner does not attend this writing program.
Instead, she writes. What other way to deal with a world where dirty old men hold your fate in their hands--and, tenured as they are, seemingly have the discretion to do with it as they please? What emerges from this frustration is "Butternut," the first chapter (in chronology, not sequence) of Our Sometime Sister. The Butternut chapter is a reaction against authority, against the "wisdom" of elders and the injustices of being young and powerless.
The story chronicles the life of young Butternut, trapped in boarding school and subject to the inane advice of careless adults. To comfort her after a traumatic assault, Butternut's guidance counselor sermonizes, "Sixteen is very young. You will see that what happened to you is very small. It will pass and when you understand life better it will seem, this small incident, very trivial." Butternut responds, "Understand life? But I've read Hamlet. What else is there to learn?"
For Labiner, Hamlet is all the evidence that's needed to understand our miserable ride round the sun. Here's Hamlet, she says, here's proof: Brothers are murderous, mothers are fickle, professors are lecherous, and no matter what they tell you, everyone dies at the end.
As Labiner keeps typing, Butternut's life begins to merge with those of other characters that Labiner has been writing about for years. And sometime during Labiner's grad-school tenure at the University of Minnesota, it begins to occur to her that all of these characters are a part of someone else's story--that is, they are from a novel someone else is writing. Labiner abstracts her experience one step further and turns a chapter written in the shock waves of anger into a component of a highly cerebral project. The novel that emerges becomes a reaction against an authority of a different sort: the practice of trying to discover the writer's life in the pages of fiction.
Our Sometime Sister begins with a letter written from Pearl, its protagonist, to you, the reader. Pearl has just completed a novel--called "Our Sometime Sister." This letter is the book's foreword; you, gentle reader, have her novel in your hands. Pearl set out years ago, she tells us, to write a novella--but the finished product was lacking...something:
Readers wanted to know and some even quite frankly asked aloud. Where is the writer in these pages? Will the real Pearl Christomo please stand up?...The first readers predicted what I had ominously begun to sense; in the process of detailing how my characters grew and how their lives changed with the words they spoke to each other, the lies they told and the years that passed, I had carefully and exactly excised the center and had left, as it were, a cutout, an absence at the very heart of the book. It was like one of those chalk drawings of a body at the scene of a crime, and it was in my own shape, hunched before a typewriter. I had no recourse. I changed my typewriter ribbon. I brewed another pot of coffee. I lay down in the chalk outline and wrote myself into the book.
Pearl's "Our Sometime Sister" alternates between her characters' stories and a fictionalized memoir of her life: her gradual disillusionment with her mother, her frustrations with her self-help mogul stepfather, her exile to boarding school. Along the way, Pearl plays with voice, tense, narrative; at times, she lets her memory take hold of her paragraphs and run amok. As Pearl says, it is a novel about learning how to write a novel.
Labiner's Our Sometime Sister is a first novel within a first novel, multivoiced, lushly literary, intellectually sportive. Pearl plays with narration; Labiner plays with Pearl. As Pearl steps into the spotlight of her own work, Labiner--retiring if not quite reclusive--tries to stay in the shadows. If she had her way, this article would be about Pearl.
Even Labiner's photograph on the cover of her book is an abstraction of sorts. The picture shows a pensive woman wearing dark colors against pale skin. She has dark eyes, black hair; it's all accurate, but somehow this composite doesn't quite represent Norah. The picture masks a mischief that simmers over in conversation: glinting eyes, youthfully rounded cheeks, a smattering of freckles, curls sneaking out from a bun. Though you instantly know what Labiner dislikes when she looks in the mirror, it is these same traits that lend her beauty.
This self-consciousness and self-doubt was bred in Labiner from the beginning: Hers is a family that used to run from the phone and hide from the mailman. In kindergarten, she put a staple through her finger and didn't tell anyone for three hours until she passed out. In high school, she was voted most likely to take over communist Russia.
Now the Soviet Union has collapsed and Labiner, 30, still avoids the phone. She's a writer. She thrives on the possibilities of the word and the luxuries of time and distance. In the personal sphere this can be a bit disconcerting. Labiner's editor at Coffee House Press jokes that she hasn't made eye contact with him in three years, and her friend Alison McGhee (herself the author of a fine small-press release called Rainlight) says, "Norah will only communicate through e-mail. It's a quintessential writer thing."
Labiner explains, "I'm terrified of extemporaneous speaking," while wryly suggesting that we forgo a second interview. Might I e-mail her any further questions, she asks. Labiner is fearful, too, to have anyone read her book. McGhee explains, "[Self-doubt] gets worse when the book is published. There's a great shame that it's out there and it's done and if only you had made it better..." This may be true, but Labiner's attitude seems less ashamed than modest and bemused: "It seemed impossible to me that anyone would ever buy it," she says.
Labiner has spent the better part of seven years getting used to the life of an unpublished writer. There's a certain perverse comfort in living through an endless series of by-the-hour jobs--work that has no relation to the passions you use to identify yourself. Labiner wrote and rewrote chapters in the hours when she was not frothing milk, mixing drinks, entering data, alphabetizing cards. Now she reads and indexes business articles in the top-floor offices of the James J. Hill business reference library. And suddenly Labiner is missing work for book tours and conventions. The change makes for a lot of overtime, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for Labiner to compartmentalize her life. She hasn't told anyone at the library about the book, but she concedes that "they're beginning to figure it out."
Labiner, as she has for some time now, rises at 4 a.m. to write. "I have a choice of being zoned out while I'm writing or at work. Work it is," she says. And dawn may be the only time Labiner can have real quiet; she shares a house with a recording studio run by her partner of 10 years, Mike Wisti (she calls him Michael), who sings with the local band the Rank Strangers. "The whole rock 'n' roll lifestyle goes on around me," Labiner says with a laugh. "I just write."
Labiner and Wisti seem to have reached a kind of reclusive symbiosis. "We have an understanding," Labiner explains. "I don't go to his shows and he doesn't come to my readings." But each talks about the other's talents with reverence and tenderness--and Labiner does play a quiet role in Wisti's scene.
A 1996 City Pages cover story on the Rank Strangers ("Strange But True," No. 792) made mention of Wisti's rather peculiar show announcements--plain white postcards imprinted with surreal text, sent out in mass mailings.
"Let me be brief," one typical sample starts. "I thought we had an understanding. Dear reader, I thought we were developing a relationship. One-sided, albeit; I spoke and you listened, but you said you were used to and comfortable in a submissive relationship. Now you go and--Let us speak no more of it. I forgive the weak and punish the vain."
The language here sounds suspiciously...
familiar, and, per Labiner's preference, I sent out an inquiry about the postcard via e-mail: Norah? Did you write those postcards?
Her response: Postcards? Hard to say. Each one is different. Like snowflakes. How sweet. It started with the thrilling concept that people really like to get mail. So we started mass mailing these very personally directed notes. My favorite was one that was hand-done--each card had only a misspelling of the recipient's name in multicolored magic marker but the trick was to try to think of the way the name would have been misspelled on a grade school valentine. Like "Brain" for "Brian." One year [in school] all of my little construction-paper hearts were addressed to "Norha."
Some answer. In fact, any question you ask Labiner will elicit a response both wonderful and barely reminiscent of the original query. Labiner's reply to most direct questions about her past or her book is, "Hard to say." In any other person, the obfuscation would be annoying, yet coming from her it seems natural. When Labiner answers hard to say, she means it. Indeed, her entire aesthetic is an argument against the reliability of memory: Labiner's fictionalized polemic against any authoritative truth seems rooted not just in theory but also personal experience.
How to understand someone whose view of the past is so elastic? We crave facts; we crave the concrete. And here Labiner provides voluminous detail. She's a collector--if mostly of things that technically have no value--and she surrounds herself with the bounty of the past. There it is, spread out on shelves and counters, all over the house: postcards; commemorative church plates; toys; anything miniaturized; robots; monkey paraphernalia; coffee cups with prophetic sayings/slogans/brand names; clocks; astrological glasses from Hardee's to celebrate our nation's bicentennial...
Labiner's love of kitsch goes hand in hand with a giddy delight in pop culture. This, too, is concrete. Labiner loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "I think the guy who writes Buffy is a genius. I watch each episode and think, what is he doing? He's operating on so many levels, completely satirizing the genre, and yet making it entirely accessible to teenagers." She loves horror movies: "I'm fascinated by the whole Scream phenomenon. I was there at Scream 2 on opening night." And every year on her birthday, June 26, she picks the worst possible movie, then buys a ticket. Last year it was Batman and Robin. This year, Dr. Doolittle is a chief contender. ("If it's anything like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," she says, "sign me up!")
How to explain this interest? Maybe it's a fascination with the production of stories; maybe a driving need to understand popular mentality; maybe a stubborn resistance to the idea of high and low culture. Maybe she just likes them. Whatever meaning there is to extract, Labiner is a woman who gushes about the esoteric psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan the way your mom talks about Elvis, and it's delightful to see her revel in the programming of the WB. And these are the details that become fodder for analysis when your life falls out of the slush pile and into print.
This fall was a fortuitous one: Labiner's manuscript was accepted at the first publishing house she sent it to--Coffee House Press. Since publication, Our Sometime Sister has been accepted for Barnes & Noble's "Discover Great New Writers" program--a coup for marketing. In the opinion of this profiler, the novel is extraordinary--engrossing and suspenseful in an unexpected way. In the opinion of its editor, Chris Fischbach, the book is perfect.
Since the manuscript landed with the mail on his desk three years ago, Fischbach has given it his feverish support. Now he has made it his personal mission to see that it is read. He wants you--yes, you--to read this book, and afterward he'd like to buy you a cup of coffee and sit down and talk about it. He'd also like you to tell two friends about it, and then they'll tell two friends, and then they'll tell two friends, and then...
Well, it's hard to know what will come next for the book in the marketplace, and on the scant pages given over to literary fiction in the press. If the prospect of a novel by an unknown author from the nation's hinterlands weren't off-putting enough, for some readers Labiner's central conceit may risk obscurity. The easy mistake for a reader--and a reviewer--is to take Pearl, the dreamy and hyper-literary first-time novelist, as Labiner's doppelgänger. And that would be to miss the point entirely. The plot-obsessed Kirkus Reviews missed it. Its review concluded, pointedly, "A novel of promise, undone by ambition."
"That line bothered me at first," Labiner says, "but then it grew on me." "She fooled them," Fischbach grins. "She liked it because she fooled them." For it is Pearl's ambition that's in question in the novel, not Labiner's. To further the potential for critical sniping, the book features conscious mistakes in craft. Pearl rambles. In some passages narratives shift elusively between memories, words, and images. That's how memories work. And how a first novel works. So does Labiner think that Pearl is a good novelist? "No," she answers. "But she is learning to be."
The choice to include evidence of this process--that is to show flaws in the prose--requires confidence. For though she is reticent, Labiner does want you to read her book--perhaps almost as much as her editor does. It's a game for you, the reader, written to celebrate the fun in active reading. And the notion that the reader will fail to understand (or appreciate) the rules of this game inspires in the author something close to panic.
Pearl feels this anxiety too, though she expresses it more dramatically than Labiner ever would (or perhaps ever could). In a letter to the reader, Pearl writes,
It no longer embarrasses me to see myself so blatantly in these pages. But now, I am ashamed to admit, there is something else, something worse. I no longer worry so much about the book being artistically pure. It is finished. That sort of thing is for others to decide. I worry instead that you won't like it, and in not liking my book, you won't like me. Isn't that an ironic way to end a six-year struggle? My bags are packed, my manuscript retyped and filed away...and I worry about that anonymous day in the future when you get home with your copy of the book from the public library or book store. I worry that you will say in the lamplight as you shut the book, it was nice enough, but what was the point.
But for all Pearl's worries, she's written the book to be read, to be experienced. Like Labiner, she's written it for you, and her letter finishes, "[I]t is, for me, over... for you, how lucky you are, how I envy you, how I have always envied you, it is only just about to begin. Please, turn the page."
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