A Literary Genius Among Us: An Interview with Victor Lodato
About a month ago, a friend texted me about a writer from Ashland. He had just been to a reading in Portland from Victor Lodato, and was elated. “His writing has hints of Annie Proulx’s (The Shipping News) descriptive and Augsten Burrough’s (Running With Scissors) wit,” my friend wrote.
That is high praise—and intriguing. The next day, I picked up both of Lodato’s novels (well, one as an audio book) and, indeed, the part-time Ashland-based writer may not yet have the marquee name recognition, but he is a literary powerhouse, a playwright who has published two novels, each that read with wry wit and emotional yearning; both set in an adolescent voice struggling to find peace with loss. Lodato’s first book, Mathilda Savitch, was published in 2009 and was a breakout critical success, earning countless “best of” lists. He followed up with an equally strong, Edgar and Lucy.
The Messenger caught up with the writer who splits his time between Ashland and Tucson.
Rogue Valley Messenger: In both of your books, there is a gravitational pull from a character who isn’t there, who is dead. In Mathilda Savitch the older, beautiful sister has been killed a year earlier, and in Edgar and Lucy, the dad has died. Do you consider these ghost stories?
Victor Lodato: Yes, I suppose I do. I grew up in a fairly religious family, living with two grandmothers who kept candles and saints and photos of dead people in their bedrooms. No doubt that worked its way into who I am and how I think about the world. My grandmothers’ had a lot of important dead people in their lives, a lot of ghosts—and I suppose that, at this point in my life, I do too.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think my books are morbid or depressing. I might describe both novels as contemporary gothics; they’re about characters trying to figure out their pasts, their inheritance, who they really are. The novels are as much mysteries as ghost stories.
RVM: Both books also are the voice of an adolescent. What advantages and what limitations does that present for a narrator?
VL: I find it liberating to write in the voice of a child, from the perspective of someone who is still learning the world and interpreting its complexities for the first time. It enables me to address my own fears and anxieties and confusions in a very open and innocent way.
Of course, since both my novels are written for adults, there’s always a balancing act when writing from a child’s perspective. With Mathilda Savitch, it was sometimes tricky, in that we have only the child’s voice—and so I had to work really hard to figure how I could guide the reader to understand things that Mathilda wouldn’t necessarily understand, especially about her parents. With Edgar and Lucy, this was less of an issue since there are many adult perspectives mixed in with the voice of eight-year-old Edgar. Edgar and Lucy is much more symphonic in nature.
RVM: For the audio book version of Edgar and Lucy, you do the reading. Why did you make that choice?
VL: Like all my work, Edgar and Lucy started with the characters’ voices and the rhythms of their particular ways of speaking. When I write, I actively feel myself taking on all of my characters—performing them, really, while I work. I never write without talking to myself, without speaking the words aloud as I put them down. And because I had this very distinct sense of the voices in Edgar and Lucy, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to record the audiobook.
It’s funny, when I first said that I wanted to do the audiobook, the publisher told me, “Well, you can audition for it.” I actually had to fly to New York and audition for the job—which obviously I got. Having grown up in New Jersey, I know the territory, and so I think I nailed the accent. Of course, people in New Jersey talk really fast—and so, in the studio, I had to keep reminding myself to slow down.
RVM: As well as a novelist, you are a playwright. When writing books, do you miss presenting the visuals that a stage production allows?
VL: I definitely think that my work as a playwright has influenced the way I write fiction. In my novels, I want there to be that same feeling an audience has at a play—that this story is happening right now, right before the reader’s eyes. I want there to be a very present-tense theatricality.
And, ultimately, I feel like I can actually offer more in a novel than in a play. I get to imagine the world in an even bigger way—more sets, more costumes! I get to be not only the writer, but the director and designer as well. The controlling part of my personality loves that. The theater is its own beautiful animal, but it definitely requires a greater degree of collaboration, in which the writer has to give up a fair amount of control.
RVM: You split your time between Ashland and Tucson. Is there a balance there? What does each location offer?
VL: To be honest, I’ve been spending much more time in Ashland lately. I love the quiet here, and the intensity of my solitude and writing time. When I’m in Tucson, my days are busier, more social. In Ashland, I walk everywhere, but in Tucson I’m always in a car. I guess, in some ways, more things happen to me in Tucson, and I certainly do more. But then I come back to my quiet life in Ashland and process all these things—often by writing about them.
RVM: What are you reading this summer?
VL: I just reread the Old Filth novels of Jane Gardam—there are three of them. Jane Gardam is a British writer, probably around ninety now, who is much less well known in the U.S. than she should be. I think the Old Filth trilogy is brilliant. I also just read Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, which I found very smart. Next, I might pick up the second Elena Ferrante novel in her Neapolitan series. Last year, I finally read My Brilliant Friend and was deeply moved by it.
Also, I highly recommend The Light Years by Chris Rush, an astounding memoir that I helped to edit. I think it’s a beautiful and important book, and it was a great pleasure to work on it.