Sarah Hoenicke talks to the author of All That’s Left to Tell, Daniel Lowe.
We know that stories have lives of their own, independent of their tellers. They wind and shape themselves differently in hearers’ minds, and then come out slightly transformed in retellings. In Daniel Lowe’s fiction debut, All That’s Left to Tell, stories create life, hope, pain, and they bend the mind, as story itself is investigated by the book’s telescoping structure of a story within a story, within a story.
This is the tale of Marc Laurent, a Pepsi executive whose wife has just left him, and who decides to take on a six-month business stay in Karachi, Pakistan. We find out early that he’s been kidnapped, and that on top of his separation from his wife, his daughter, Claire, has been murdered. All of this feels overwhelming because it’s revealed in such quick succession, but then the book saves itself. Lowe’s real talents become apparent very quickly once one understands that the plot of the story is perhaps its least interesting facet.
The conversations between Marc and his interrogator, Josephine, propel the story, as she tries to extract information from him in order to better know to whom to send a ransom note. Rather than torture him as one would expect her to, she tells him the story of his murdered daughter’s future as Josephine imagines it. In doing so, she makes him care about his life again.
Marc has his eyes covered with a strip of cloth during most of his sessions with Josephine. Lowe plays with this detail – putting us inside Marc’s mind and having the images project out onto the screen of the blindfold, which becomes a sort of safe space for Marc. “In the blindfold,” he thinks, it is easy to imagine his former life. Lowe takes this further. Eyelids have the same function as a blindfold, but different implications, as, by closing one’s eyes, one chooses not to see. Marc does this when, his sight uncovered, he closes his eyes and “sees” Josephine, whose image he’s never actually beheld. Claire does this, too, when she closes her eyes to shut out the world so she can remember.
The book truly takes off once, inside Josephine’s imagined version of Claire’s never-to-be future, the characters surrounding Claire begin to tell their own stories. The things that feel unbelievable, questionable – such as Marc’s exacting awareness of time passing during his imprisonment, or the strange echoes between the “real” story and the imagined one – are there for a reason. This is a book that is not fully understandable until one reaches the epilogue.
Lowe is constant in his anticipation of readers’ questions, and his ability to arrest the reader’s mind, to take her far beyond the details of life and even of the book, to consider deeper questions. Is there a meaningful difference between memory and storytelling? What’s the difference between imagining the future of someone who’s died and imagining that they still exist somewhere, but aren’t talking to you?
Lowe, a father of four, has taught English at a community college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for 25 years. He likes his work at the college because, he said, he’s “serving people who truly need help.” Lowe received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1983. That’s when he decided he was going to write fiction. A combination of family life and his work at the college, and “just simply drifting away from it over the course of years,” is how he only began writing seriously in his mid-forties.
S: You’ve got four children. Was family life something that kept you from publishing earlier? Or was writing something that you turned to later in life?
DL: There’s no easy answer to that. Before I started graduate school, I saw myself as more of a poet, and I sometimes wrote plays as well. I came to Pittsburgh for a teaching assistantship, and completed my MFA. Shortly after that I did get married and had my first child. Certainly, family obligations and raising children are time-consuming. But I would never want to present that as a reason that I didn’t do a lot of writing. Even through those years of raising children, I would write some poems, an occasional story, but without making a whole lot of effort to publish them. My work at the college is time-consuming – I teach five courses a semester. Unlike at a university or a four-year college, you’re not awarded for scholarships. What you’re rewarded and awarded for is teaching a large load.
About 15 years ago, I started writing seriously again. I worked my way through several individual manuscripts. I started by writing a novel, completed it. I then wrote a story collection, and then another novel, and then another story collection, and then I wrote this novel, All That’s Left to Tell. It was sort of a mid-life apprenticeship that I served to the craft. I had interest in those manuscripts, and certainly a couple of those stories were published here and there, but I never could place those manuscripts with an agent or a publisher. Part of that was my fault, I was maybe not aggressive enough. I could sit here and try to explain to you what is different about this book, or what was different about the process that I went through in terms of contacting agents, and so on, but in all honesty, it wasn’t that different. This manuscript was snatched off the slush pile of my agent’s agency and moved forward from there.
S: Do you have hope that those prior manuscripts will be picked up as well?
D: I’ve gone back and forth with that. There are things that I love about those manuscripts. I would never say I’m not going to go back and touch them, because I would. There’s a collection of stories I wrote just prior to this novel that were founded in a nonfiction book that was written about a hospital in New York that served primarily psychiatric patients. The hospital was open over the course of a hundred years. When they were renovating the place, and changing it to something else, they found suitcases in the attic of one of the buildings where people’s belongings were contained. I started writing this collection of stories from the perspectives of these people who were in the state hospital, and the stories emerged from the listing of those artifacts. I was very fond of that collection of stories, and I’ve shared it with others. It’s difficult to sell a collection of stories – they’re not as marketable as a novel is. I would like to see a home found for them, but I try to be forward-looking and forward-seeing and it’s always more interesting to work on something new than to go back and try to fashion something I’ve written into something that is either more appealing to the publisher or more marketable.
S: It has probably been interesting for you to do interviews with people who think this is your first novel, when it isn’t.
D: It is! I did an interview a couple of weeks ago and the person talking to me said, this can’t be your first novel, come on, and I had to say, yeah, it isn’t. What happened, for me, is that I’d get done with one and schlep it for a while, and people would say, this is close, or a small publisher would be on the verge of accepting it but then decline it, or an agent wanted to represent me but then disappeared—things like that happen in the industry. I consider myself a fairly seasoned writer – I’m almost 60 years old, this is a late-breaking novel in my life, but it isn’t my first novel.
S: How long did it take you to write All That’s Left to Tell?
DL: I took it up shortly after finishing that collection of stories. In thinking back, I’m surprised because I remember it taking longer than it did, but it was pretty much done in about two years. I learned from the writing of my other manuscripts what I could do well. When I completed this manuscript, I had no sense that this would have any more success than the others. I don’t know if that means I don’t have the appropriate amount of distance from my work, or what. It was a surprise when it was met so eagerly. Maybe I got lucky. I did get lucky. There are many fine writers out there who haven’t enjoyed any of this opportunity that I’ve had. It’s a matter of getting into the hands of the right person – that takes perseverance and fortune. I had some perseverance and a lot of fortune. I got a big break here. It could’ve gone another way.
S: I’ve never encountered a book with this kind of framing. Were there books that you read that made you feel this was possible? Or was this something you’d never seen done, and wanted to put out there?
DL: I would never claim purely original thought fired this novel up. There are books I’ve read since I wrote this novel that people said it reminded them of such as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I’ve always been interested in the edge between telling clear and true stories—I’m a highly self-conscious writer, aware of the act of storytelling—so also pulling into the writing of true and clear stories the recognition that this is something being deliberately formed and shaped.
There are the classic writers whose work I admire—Nabokov, Borges, Toni Morrison, and other writers who play within the form and recognise that they are working with readers who know that they are writers writing and telling stories about characters in the best ways that they know how. That kind of reading certainly influenced my own work. It’s always difficult for me to recall the novels I read while writing this book. But I am always reading, and trying to find new writers doing things differently, whose work will inform mine. Those writers did influence it.
I said to myself at the outset, that I’m going to try to tell this story. I’m going to have metafiction elements working in this structure that nests one story in another. Every reader is going to know that I am a novelist, telling a fiction. Yet there are several characters, principally Josephine, who create stories, too. The edges of those stories when they become independent chapters—when Josephine is sitting there with Marc and she starts to tell stories and then a new chapter starts and that story is there without the presence of Josephine or Marc—I was interested in blurring the lines, and for readers to think, okay, is she telling this story, word-for-word as it appears on this page, or might this be being said in some sort of other way. It was getting into those kinds of grey boundaries between the various stories that were told. I was very interested in readers having that awareness of construct.
Ultimately, my goal was that readers would care about the characters, whose stories were being told, with the simultaneous recognition that they were clearly being manipulated—not just by me as the writer, but also the characters in the novel were manipulating each other to feel and respond in certain ways—and yet, to care about those characters and the stories they had. To think, I’m aware that you’re fuzzing the lines, but I’m going along for the ride because the story’s compelling enough that I care about the characters, though I know through these several layers, it isn’t actually happening.
S: We’re all susceptible to story, and even the characters within your protagonist’s imagination have them. What do you think this susceptibility means for the time we’re living in now? How can we use story to shape our futures, and our political present?
DL: Stephen Colbert used the word “truthiness,” a few years ago, talking about how we measure the accuracy of what we’re saying. Something can be sort of true, something can be more true—of course that’s a disturbing concept. A couple times, I’ve thought, we’re being pulled politically – we always have been, but even more so now – by stories. These lies or fantasies are being presented as truth.
When I was writing this books, of course, it was prior to the rise of ISIS, I very much wanted the stories that Marc and Josephine were telling to be possibly redemptive, or possibly constructive. They’re telling these stories, and Marc is attempting to find solace in them. At the same time, I also wanted there to be the recognition that the stories we tell ourselves have great possibility of being destructive. We want to control the stories that we tell, but we have only so much control over them. They are crucial, whether they are factually true or not, to how we greet the world. This may be a bit of an overstatement, but probably there are people who would give up their lives before they would give up their stories. History is replete with examples. That’s how important story is to us. There’s a certain violence in losing one’s story. One of the initial premises of the novel was that everybody suffers grief and deep wounds in their lives; what do we do with that? What stories do we tell as a result?
S: It must have been a harrowing task to keep the separate story lines straight. How did you manage and stay organized?
DL: One of the things I have trouble with sometimes is recalling how I was thinking when I was writing the book. You get intimately involved in the writing. For me, one of my challenges throughout the period in my career when I wasn’t placing manuscripts, was writing in such a way that I would gain satisfaction from what I was working on, but not lose readers in the process. I had to learn that lesson as I was working towards this book.
There were times when I was working on a certain section of the novel when I would then have to say, now wait a minute. Did I screw something up? Did I forget something happening in another chapter? I could feel the blurring of the lines of the story. But it was crucial that in every line of that book, that I be certain I knew what was going on. The real challenge was to draw the threads of the various narratives into a single narrative without betraying the characters or the stories themselves by overplaying or including a detail that destroys the conceit, or unravels the tapestry I was trying to put together. I would have occasional moments when I would have to go back and redo a sentence so it was consistent throughout, but for the most part I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t have to work too hard to keep the various narratives straight. The great pleasure of working on this book was to remain faithful to what I was doing. I ask: What can I get away with formally, and still not betray the characters or the reader?
S: Throughout the book you anticipate readers’ questions and immediately allay any concerns that might have arisen because of the multiple stories and their overlaps, as on page 65 when Claire notes a stranger’s unaccountable knowledge of her life. You were not only able to keep the story straight for yourself, but when you did sense the blurring of lines and those gray boundaries you spoke of, you keep your reader with you by soothing that sense of worry that something’s falling apart.
DL: There were moments when I wrote myself into traps with certain things that happened, and I wouldn’t discover those traps until I’d pushed on into the next chapter. Then I’d go back and say, oh boy. What you just described may have been one of those moments when I said, how can this be, when this happened? I would have to figure out a way out of that. There weren’t a lot of those moments, only a few.
S: They reinforced my awareness of being told a story, which is something I felt, as a reader, you wanted me to be aware of. It also engaged me with the characters because even those who have been imagined by the other characters have this sense of themselves.
D: Reinforcing the consciousness in their lives of the stories that they’re telling—I had to do that as I worked deeper into their stories. The stories always had to turn in on themselves, again and again, as opposed to spinning away and bursting outside the borders of the novel and beginning to unravel. That was enormous fun to do. These stories are often somber and serious, and sometimes violent, but the structure of the novel, and the way it’s working was what was fun for me—engaging.
S: Talk to me about the blindfold. It feels very significant to storytelling, that the listener, in this case, Marc, be without sight.
DL: That was something that I thought of very early. I had initially thought that he would never see Josephine, but my editor and agent convinced me that there needed to be a moment when he saw her, so I wrote that into the novel. That was extraordinarily important to me. We are a culture that’s far more cinematic than traditional 19th century storytelling. I’m aware of that when I write. That blindfold, for Marc, even though there are times when it’s removed, it becomes a kind of screen on which he can see these stories unfold in his mind, without visual distraction. For Josephine, it becomes an instrument of seduction because she needs it there as much as he does. Toward the middle parts of the novel, he almost looks forward to being blindfolded. Even when he knows he can turn and look at her, he doesn’t. He sometimes closes his eyes, looks away—he wants to see the story unfold in his mind. I knew I wanted to work with that device early on. It was, again, a proposition: If you were being interrogated and then told stories, and you were blindfolded and bound, how much more sharply felt would those stories be?