Millennials, money and monogamy: "Having too many choices can be as much a curse as a blessing"

Salon talks to Hannah Tennant-Moore about these themes in her debut novel "Wreck and Order"

Published July 6, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Hannah Tennant-Moore   (Wyatt Mason)
Hannah Tennant-Moore (Wyatt Mason)

Hannah Tennant-Moore’s debut novel "Wreck and Order" is much more than the story of a privileged young woman trying to figure out her place in the world. In her book, Tennant-Moore boldly chronicles the adventures and misadventures of Elsie Shore, who, supported by a family inheritance, decides to travel instead of attend college. She repeatedly returns to a destructive relationship with her boyfriend, Jared—even during the period of time that she lives in New York City, when the reader thinks that maybe, just maybe, Elsie has decided to conform with society. Elsie, however, is a non-conformist and continually and futilely seeks out change.

Tennant-Moore’s writing never abandons its rawness and is wrought with detail and emotion. While fiercely tackling a gamut of subjects, Tennant-Moore takes the reader on Elsie’s brilliantly-written ride, as she tries to come to terms with the fact that she really is quite lost.

The main character in your novel, Elsie Shore, is a young woman struggling to find her true self. I know that sounds completely generic, and your novel is anything but (I’ll get to that soon!)—however, stripped of everything else, your reader is left with a lost soul.

Elsie is in her early 30s, and is frankly, quite privileged. She is supported financially by her father, and the small fortune that he inherited from his mother. Because of this, she never needs to worry about money even as she travels jobless from New England to California, to Sri Lanka, to New York City and back and forth and in-between. Because there are so many young female protagonists already sitting on bookstore shelves who fall under this “lost soul" label, and because Elsie’s whims are funded by her father, I could see her coming under attack by some readers. What led you to create a character vulnerable to criticism? What do you say to defend Elsie if/when she is criticized?

I specifically wanted to tie economic privilege to a sense of being lost. In many books about aimless or hapless millennials, finances are never mentioned at all, which always leads me as a reader to wonder: how can this character even afford her reckless lifestyle? I wanted to make it clear upfront that part of Elsie's confusion comes from having too much freedom: she lacks the strictures of financial responsibility or a stable relationship to organize her days. So she is able to give herself over to her desires of the moment, which often betray her spirit, what she truly wants in life. I also wanted to make it clear that I, the author, am well-aware that having the time for the kind of self-inquiry Elsie engages in, such as going on a meditation retreat, is a privilege that is accessible to only a very small population of the world. Elsie is also aware of this privilege, which makes her feel alternately guilty and determined to make something useful out of her free time. That said, Elsie is far from rich. She never has a stable job, but she does work. And when she gets offered a job for $40,000 a year, that sounds to her like a ton of money. I wanted her to inhabit a kind of no-man's financial land: she has no ambitions to make money since she knows she can ask her father to bail her out in a crisis, but she also doesn't have nearly enough money to settle down in a nice apartment or plan for her future. Her financial situation is "just one more way I was a stranger to what most people considered the real world," as she puts it.

Making a character who is vulnerable to criticism is a way of pointing out a particular human problem that is not uncommon in middle class society today: having too many choices can be as much a curse as a blessing. So I'm okay with Elsie being criticized. She is deeply flawed — and no one knows this better than she does. What makes her flaws and mistakes revelatory, rather than simply frustrating, is her self-awareness: she is genuinely interested in coming to terms with the ways that she hurts herself and others, and she wants to learn to be a decent person.

Yes, I find myself wondering on occasion how a character, and sometimes a real-life person, can afford a reckless lifestyle. It’s like Cake's "How Do You Afford Your Rock 'n Roll Lifestyle" song. The first time I heard that song, I was excited that I wasn’t the only person who wondered this about others. 

One of the strengths of "Wreck and Order" is its characters—they are dynamic, alive, and beautifully flawed. I want to go back to the quote you mentioned about Elsie, that she feels a stranger to what most people consider the real world. Aside from finances, she is also lost when it comes to relationships with men. Throughout the novel, she has an ongoing complete mess of a relationship with her boyfriend, Jared. For a short time, though, she settles into what most people would refer to as a "real world relationship" with a man she meets in New York, Brian. I felt guilty as I read for cheering Elsie on during this time because I wrongly wanted her to just marry Brian and be saved from herself. My guilt was due to the fact that I knew Elsie was so unhappy with him, and the general notion of settling down. When I think back on all of the characters in the novel, Brian strikes me as the one of the only, maybe the only character, who is “real world.” He has a somewhat normal family, a really nice townhouse, a great job—at least on paper, he’s got it made. What were you hoping to achieve by bringing Brian’s character into your writing?

This is such a smart way to situate Brian within the book, and you've read the relationship between Elsie and Brian exactly the way I hoped a reader would: thank you! With Brian's character — which is impeccable, as you say, "on paper" — I wanted to show how strong the pull of external security is, even at the risk of happiness. Brian is appealing to Elsie mostly because he would make her life look good from the outside, and she's weary of living in a way that is not all "impressive" or "successful" to others. Through their relationship, I hoped to show the danger of being so busy curating your identity that you stop valuing how your life feels from the inside. Brian has every characteristic of a typically desirable man, but he is not an active participant in his own life; it's as if he's following a script that was written long before he was born.

As for the notion of settling down, there was a wildly popular Atlantic article a few years back called "Marry Him!" by Lori Gottlieb, which urged women to "settle for Mr. Good Enough." And "Eat Pray Love" argued that you shouldn't marry your soulmate because it's too scary. And in "Trainwreck," the women agreed that the man with whom you have the best sex of your life is not husband material. So there seems to be a common argument directed at women that mediocrity and monogamy go hand in hand. It may be true for some women that stability is more important than passion or true love. But what my marriage has taught me is that sharing a life with someone requires so much energy and commitment and selflessness that I cannot imagine doing it with someone who was not my soulmate and my true love (and the best sex I've ever had). I'm lucky to have a mother who is single and has perhaps the richest, most stable, most interesting life of anyone I know. And some of the happiest times of my life have been spent in solitude. So I've always known, cerebrally, that I did not need another person to complete me. Even so, societal pressure to couple off is so strong that I used to feel I should seek out a man like Brian. Through Brian and Elsie's relationship, I wanted to show the dangers of that "should" feeling, particularly when it comes to love.

Elsie seems to have the urge to couple off constantly. If not with Brian, then with Jared, and even Suriya. She certainly tries solitude several times in the novel, the epitome of which was when she spent some time in Sri Lanka attempting to learn the ways of Buddhist monks. Why did you choose for Elsie to go to Sri Lanka? Do you think that people who struggle with this “should” feeling can overcome their obstacles and eventually accept themselves as suitable companions?

I wouldn't say Elsie's urge is exactly for coupledom. She certainly longs for intimate relationships, but often sabotages them when they threaten her freedom. But you're right that one of the main paradoxes of Elsie's personality is that she finds so much joy in solitude, but can't seem to stop getting caught up in complicated engagements with others.

Elsie's time in Sri Lanka was originally the whole framework for the novel, so that wasn't exactly a narrative choice, but more the impetus: I began writing the story of a young woman who returns to Sri Lanka as an act of desperation, survival, and the rest followed from there. I wanted to write a novel based in Sri Lanka because, during my solitary backpacking trips through the country, I'd found such richness in all aspects of daily life — from the landscape to the politics to the gender dynamics to the food — that my brain naturally began to create stories out of my interactions and experiences there. In terms of Elsie's interest in Buddhism and meditation, I wanted to show how spending time in silence, watching the mind's movements, can benefit an ordinary person in ordinary ways. But I certainly did not want to send Elsie on a cliche spiritual journey, in which a privileged, white woman finds inner peace in an ashram in East Asia. So while meditation gives Elsie a framework for getting to know herself, most of her insights and inner growth results from being out in the world — getting her heart broken, spending time with Suriya and her family.

I do believe that people can overcome inner obstacles to contentment. Buddhism teaches that there is no particular person or event that can rescue you from suffering; true happiness is not dependent on circumstance. Of course, this is an ideal, one that comforts Elsie even as she is unable to live up to it. Even those of us who are lucky enough to live in the most favorable circumstances — enough food, comfortable shelter, not surrounded by daily violence — put up barriers to our own sense of ease in the world, telling ourselves that we will not be okay if we do not get a husband or a promotion or a new hair color. And then we get those things and we're still not happy! Real change, real redemption does not result from a circumstantial transformation (the drunken sex addict becomes a happily married Buddhist!), but from a much subtler shift in the way one experiences everyday life — a sense of openness and relaxation toward moments as they unfold. Through Elsie, I wanted to show how meditation and self-reflection can change an ordinary, damaged, confused human in ways that may not be readily apparent from the outside.

My favorite parts of the book were those spent with Suriya and her family. You said that you spent time in Sri Lanka yourself. Was Suriya inspired by anyone you met during your travels? She is such a great character, with so many admirable traits.

I'm so glad to hear that you appreciated Suriya's character! She was difficult to write because I wanted her to be genuinely good and kind, but also complicated and interesting. Suriya is loosely inspired by a dear friend of mine, whom I met on my first trip to Sri Lanka six years ago and with whom I have stayed close. Although the village setting and Suriya's manner of speaking come from time spent with my friend and her family, the details of Suriya's life and the action scenes in Sri Lanka are nearly all invented. My friend does not have a brother in the military or an abusive father, etc. When I told my friend that I was writing a novel based partly in her village but that I had made up most of the events and dialogue there, she said, "Of course. My life is interesting to you, but it is boring to most people."

I was reading in some background information from your publisher that you started taking notes for this book on a trip to Sri Lanka soon after you completed your MFA program. Did you have a goal, or hope, to be inspired enough to write when you set off for this trip, or were you completely surprised that a book came out of your travels there? How long did it take you to complete the book all together—from the initial note taking to the completed manuscript?

I had no ambitions at all for my first Sri Lanka trip, aside from appreciating the country and the rare chunk of free, solitary time I had to spend there. This of course made for a very special trip. There was no context for my life in Sri Lanka — nothing particular to do — so I got to just observe and marvel. And what I observed was such richness in all aspects of daily life — the landscape, the politics, the gender dynamics, the food — that I ended up filling up notebooks with my impressions. I had no plans for these notebooks, until the initial thread of "Wreck and Order" came to me on my 28th birthday, several months after I returned to the States, and then I used my notes to create a sense of place. I returned to Sri Lanka twice during the writing of the novel, those times with the intention of doing research into customs and rituals and getting to know locals' stories about the civil war. It took me about two years to complete a first draft of "Wreck and Order," and then another year-and-a-half to edit it on my own. Then I sent the manuscript out and began the final editing process with my agent and editor. All in all, it's been five-and-a-half years since I first began writing.

I would suspect that those subsequent trips to Sri Lanka were slightly more constraining as your initial trip because at that point you had the book in mind. Do you have any plans to go back to Sri Lanka again now that the book is complete?  

You're exactly right: on my last two trips to Sri Lanka, there was a calculated purposefulness to my observations and experiences that detracted from the joyful, easy self-forgetfulness of my first trip. I am looking very forward to going back now that the book is finished, and I will once again have no goal but to connect with the place and the people I love so much. I don't know when I will be able to return--my work is more constraining now that it was a few years ago and my first baby is due in June--but I know I will make it happen before too long, perhaps this time bringing my family.

Five and a half years is a long time to be with a book, or really any all-encompassing project. Were you relieved to send "Wreck and Order" off onto bookshelves at that point, or were you more hesitant after spending so much time with it?

Watching "Wreck and Order" enter the world has been as scary as it is wonderful. The best part so far is when someone like you reads the book with care and engages me in a thoughtful conversation about it. I am relieved to have seen the project through to the end, so that I can now focus on my second novel, a book I have been researching and thinking about for close to a decade. But there was a lot of sadness, too, when I completed my last major edit of my first novel: it had been my constant companion for so long, and now I had to let it go have its own life, independent of me.

By Rebecca Silber

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