Samantha Harvey: "We don’t always have to write about women in the context of their relationships with men"

The "Dear Thief" author on why we're only just starting to see great novels about female friendship

Published January 22, 2015 8:00PM (EST)

Samantha Harvey      (Atavist Books)
Samantha Harvey (Atavist Books)

"Dear Thief" ties with Catherine Lacey’s "Nobody is Ever Missing" as the two best novels I read in 2014. It's a book that more people should be reading and talking about; a book that sort of slipped under the radar of the literary world despite a major review by James Wood in The New Yorker. Harvey’s tale about a complicated friendship and love triangle is told from the perspective of the angry unnamed narrator as she writes to the absent friend. Relaying the plot doesn’t do justice to the reasons "Dear Thief" is so remarkable. It’s the complexity of the sentences; the lush meditations on time and memory and betrayal; the attempt to see through “the gauze of this life.” I spoke with her about one of Leonard Cohen’s greatest songs, the role of memory in fiction, and the epistolary structure of the book.

I read a review in The Guardian that the book is based on Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and I was wondering if that was the original inspiration for the book—or did you realize it as you were writing it?

No, that was the original inspiration. In fact, the reviewer in The Guardian worked that out for herself. She was quite the canny reviewer. I had to tell my publicist that that’s what it was about. You know, it’s what it was based on. I don’t think she’d relayed that. So it was definitely worked out by the reviewer. But yeah, that’s what it was based on and I’ve kind of always been curious about the fact that we have cover songs, cover novels, so I thought I’m going to cover a song with a novel. I didn’t have the guts to actually call the book “Famous Blue Raincoat,” or the permission. Obviously I wanted to take it in my direction and it’s its own thing and it became much more robust as we moved along. But that was the initial starting point for it, yeah. Absolutely.

 Yeah, once I read that, I noticed all the references throughout the book. It was really cool to piece that together. So did you find yourself listening to that song a lot while you were writing it to kind of get in the mode?

I know it really well. So I could just sort of conjure it up in my head rather than have to listen to it, but I did listen to it a fair bit. I didn’t have it on in the background all the time. It’s a real virtue of the song that having spent two years writing a book that’s sort of based on it, I still like it and I can still listen to it.

That’s good! I was going to ask if it’s changed your feelings on the song at all.

It has. I think the song remains in this kind of voltage space. It can’t be changed by any mimicry that I might have carried out with my book.

 So much of this book is about the past, like mistakes that were made, friendships that have changed over time, but you also state that there’s a certain kind of freedom to the past. In one of my favorite paragraphs in the book, you write “The self you left behind lives in endless possibility.” I couldn’t help but think about Proust when reading that line and I’m wondering if he was an influence on the book at all.

No, he wasn’t. I mean, not in any conscious way. I’m just fascinated by the past. You know, both by the possibilities it holds and by the complete tyranny of it, the way it sort of keeps you in this stranglehold and makes you want things that you no longer have and you can never get back. It makes you yearn for a version of yourself that is gone and maybe even never existed anyway. It’s a fiction, and we live as much as we can in this fiction of the past, and how it’s both beautiful and terrible. I sort of wanted to make my narrator unreliable. That’s not predominately what she is. She’s just a human being, and we’re all deeply unreliable when it comes to talking about the past, not just because we forget but because we want to forget and we want to shape things to suit us and to cast us in the most favorable light or to make us the greater victim or whatever. So there is this kind of agenda that she has, whether she knows it or not, to do with creating the past that she wants it to be. And that’s why I’m fascinated by it, because I’m writing a work of fiction and the past is also a work of fiction that we’re all producing every day in our lives. That fascinates me.

Do you believe that there is a freedom in the past? I know we just talked about this, but is that a truth or is that something we tell ourselves because we want to believe that that’s true?

I think you’re right, we do tell ourselves that. The past is open to all sorts of magical possibilities because it can’t be verified. It’s as we make it, so it seems to be entirely free. It seems to be completely up for grabs. But of course it’s not. There’s nothing free about it. I think it’s a great tyranny, really, the past and to go over the past too much. And I think we’re all slaves to it, aren’t we? And it’s a great virtue in trying not to get too attached to the past and what’s gone. But yeah, I really don’t think there is any freedom in it, and yet we’re addicted to it because we think that there is. In the past, for a start, we’re always younger. That’s just a fact. We always have things that we’ve seen as lost. So it seems so incredibly attractive, but in fact it’s a bind. That’s the sort of intention that I wanted there to be in the novel, that she’s sort of looking back and trying to understand things. Sort of trying to understand things, and sort of trying to let go and forgive. But she’s aware that she wants to let go of the past but can’t, and I think we’re all sort of in that stranglehold.

Why aren’t there more literary novels that deal with the complexities of female friendship? There are plenty of commercially-written books that talk about female friendship, but I feel like now we have Elena Ferrante’s books, which have been doing tremendously well, and really analyze female friendship in a way that I haven’t seen a lot of before. And now with your book too, it’s so refreshing to see this. But why do you think we don’t see more literary novels that deal with something that is incredibly complex, in some ways even more so than romantic relationships? 

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it’s more complex. It’s quite difficult to write about female friendship without it seeming to be a very niche subject. It’s a difficult balance. I think writing about female concerns is even now, even in the 21st century, we’re still very much living in a male context. And in writing a book that’s about – between two women, it’s almost without context. Where’s the romance? Where’s the man? And with whom do these women stand in relation? I think it’s just not easy to do. It’s not very easy to write about . . . I found this as I was writing the book, to write about anger as a woman and appearing sort of hysterical or dealing with a sort of very niche female emotion that’s just a sort of female hysteria, a female neurosis, and to make that a universal human condition. Men can write about it – or a woman can write about a man’s anger much more reasonably, I think, and a man’s rage and jealously, but when it’s women it always seems much more exclusive to the experience of being a woman rather than the experience of being human. So you know, it’s perhaps because it’s without a male context and that makes writers steer away from it. I honestly don’t know why there are so few books about it. Maybe there will be more as well. Maybe it’s becoming a more valid subject somehow, that we don’t always have to write about women in the context of their relationships with men.

Nina (aka Butterfly) is a memorable character and someone who is tremendously flawed. At times she can come across as full of herself, but she also really knows how to live. Some might find her—like you were talking about before—selfish and unlikable. Did you feel a fondness for her from the moment you started writing the book, or did she kind of grow on you? 

No, I felt great fondness, and I feel a fondness for all of my characters always. I think you have to be on their side, whatever they are, whoever they are, when you’re writing about them. You have to resonate with them. And because you know where they’re coming from, even if the reader doesn’t perceive them in the same way as you, you sort of understand them as a complexity. The difficulty was how to convey her virtues, or maybe virtue is the wrong word, but how to make a believable and complex character and not just a sort of absent, two-dimensional villain, I suppose. Because the other woman, I wanted her to be much more complex. Not necessarily likable. It’s not important that you like her. But graspable. There’s something there that you can look at and think “Yeah, I can sort of see . . . I can see some of myself in that. Or I can see the potential for myself in her.” So yeah, I like all of my characters always. If I don’t like them, they don’t last.

 Why is the narrator herself never named? Is that intentional?

Yeah. She did have a name originally and I got rid of it in the second draft because two reasons, really. The main reason is that I wanted to convey a sense of her being behind the letter. So the way the photographer is behind the lens and you can’t see them, I wanted her to be behind the letter and you could never see her. So Butterfly is obviously an absent presence, but the narrator is, too. She’s sort of absent because she doesn’t have a name and we never see her. She can never look back at herself. There are very few allusions to what she looks like. So I wanted it to be a novel of absence, the absent characters really, so it kind of . . . the balance is always against her, that she has no name and Butterfly has two names. It’s always Butterfly has twice the identity that she has. She just remains this kind of nameless woman who’s trying to make good what she has. So that was the idea, to sort of create an absence around her as well as around Butterfly. It’s difficult. I realized while I was writing it that it was a bit of a noose for my neck because when you talk about the book you have to keep referring to her as the narrator, and it starts to sound awkward. Then you think: “Why didn’t I just give her a name?” It’d be much easier at this point. But I had a principle, and I stuck to it.

When you were talking about the structure, this book being written as a long letter, did you find that structure of the book particularly challenging? Or was it freeing in some ways?

Really freeing, yeah. I’m a writer who likes to have constraints and I feel quite freed up by those constraints because writing is . . . the possibilities when you’re writing are almost endless. There are many ways to go about a story. And if you give yourself some formal constraints, it just makes the job so much – maybe easier isn’t the right word, but because you know your boundaries, you can just play within those boundaries much more so it’s much more fun to do. You have to shut down certain possibilities, it’s elective, so that brings its own formal constraints and possibilities.

So I loved it. I loved playing with the form, and I’m sure that the fact that the Cohen song is a letter is really what drew me to that song as opposed to any other because I loved the sense of – actually a monologue, but an exchange between two people that everyone else is shut out of. It’s a very intimate, private thing, a letter, and I love that about it. Its intimacy and its urgency. You know, the words are always going somewhere. They’re always landing somewhere. Even if that letter isn’t sent, there’s always an imagined other that the words are being directed towards. And I love that. It gives them an energy that they wouldn’t have if they were just falling onto the page for no particular person. I always happily write in the second person. For another book, I’m not going to, but I would happily do it. I love doing it.

 At one point you say: “How do you tell the difference between a person made of flesh and one made of words?” What did you mean by that? 

Because the novel is ostensibly a written document, it’s being written by the character within it, so there’s so much kind of metanarrative going on in it for me. It’s a book about writing as well. So much of her process is reflecting on my own process of writing. This notion that I have that words are kind of all-powerful and wonderful and creative, and you can do anything with words. I can write anything and I can create any world that I want to. And if I can do it, then I can transport other people there and they’re all-powerful and at the same time they’re nothing. They’re completely dead. They’re just black squiggles on a page; they’re nothing.

I’m fascinated by that, by the pure potency of words and the pure impudence of them as well. And that question for me, how do you tell the difference between something made of flesh or concrete or whatever and something made of wood is really something I think about quite a lot. And how do you know? We can invent anything. Where would we be without words in order to do that? They’re a route out of reality, and also a route deeper into reality too. They’re just symbols; they’re nothing.

You know, I’m constantly fascinated by it. More and more, the more I go on writing, the more I think this is an amazingly strange thing to spend your time doing.

You talk about time and how it breaks us into pieces. Do you think of our lives as fragments of memories that we revisit over and over again?

This is a question I posed to myself when I was writing "Wilderness". If we are – if what we are consists in our memories and then we lose our memories, what are we? Nothing. We don’t appear to be nothing once we’ve lost our memories, so what are we? I fervently hope and believe that we are more than the sum of our memories but I think that memories, like I was saying before, are such a highly-creative force. You know, memory isn’t just a tool of recall; it’s a tool of invention and inquisition. So I think we are more than the sum of our memories because we curate our memories and we fashion them into something that’s acceptable to us or that helps us make sense of things.

So I think it’s not as fragmented as that, because it’s not that we just get one memory coming after another and that’s all we are. It’s a curated process, a very heavily curated process, and one that involves a huge amount of imagination on everyone’s part. It’s quite similar to the process of writing in a way. So I like to think that we are more than that, but I do see time as a medium. You know, it’s not just a way of measuring events but it’s a medium that we’re all passing through. And we pass through it quite violently, I think. It’s quite a bumpy journey, isn’t it? It’s not that we just transition from one phase of life to the next in a totally smooth and seamless way. It’s quite violent and it can be quite bruising.

So time is a sort of quite difficult medium that we move through, and it seems to get more and more difficult as we get older, and becomes more disorienting and moves at different speeds. It’s not quite so fluid. Who are we in all of that as we move through that medium? How do we retain a sense of identity? And I think it is in constantly exerting this creative force over our own identities and shaping what we are now out of what we remember of the past and what we want for the future and so on. But it’s not just passive; it’s a very active role that we take with regards to the things that happen to us. So I don’t know, but I just think we are not only the sum of our memories. We’re much more. We’re all sort of amazingly imaginative and creative beings when it comes to the material of our own lives and the way we shape it and use it. And I think that is left. Even when memories are gone, I think that that remains.

By Michele Filgate

Michele Filgate's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Vulture, Capital New York, Time Out New York, The Star Tribune, O: The Oprah Magazine, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation and other publications

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Books Dear Thief Samantha Harvey