Works in Progress: Sarah Layden on Memory, Indianapolis, and What Came Before the Internet: An Interview by James Tadd Adcox

Sarah Layden is the author of Trip Through Your Wires, a book that Michael Martone, author of Four for a Quarter, calls “a patient, powerful, and profound emotional unraveling”; and Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk, calls “a welcome antidote to despair.” In this, her first novel, Layden explores Guanajuato, Mexico, and Indianapolis, Indiana, through the eyes of Carey, a young woman struggling in the aftermath of her boyfriend’s murder. Sarah Layden reads in Chicago at City Lit Books on June 10 with James Tadd Adcox, author of Does Not Love

I think it’s probably worthwhile noting, at the beginning here, that you and I attended the same MFA program (Purdue University, home of the “Fightin’ Bartlebys”), so I got to see chapters from a fairly early version of this novel. If I’m remembering correctly, at that time the scenes in Guanajuato seemed to carry more of the weight of the novel, whereas in the novel now I feel like the present time narrative, which takes places in Indianapolis, carries a lot of that weight, with the past informing it. Am I right about this shift? Did you feel it occurring while you were writing and revising the book? And if so, what brought it about?

Home of the Boilermakers! Boiler up, remember? I’m the child of two Purdue grads, so Purdue Pete was a fixture in my young life. But Barlebys gives it a more literary flavor. Yes, you were witness/privy to my first few chapters of the novel. I think at that point I was working out the details of what went wrong in Guanajuato—the past event that would serve as the catalyst for all that would come later in the present narrative. The book always alternated between past and present, Mexico and Indianapolis, but the first few drafts were more heavily focused on Mexico. Figuring out the Indianapolis chapters came after a great deal of revision, and many suggestions from readers and editors; I realized that if I was going to persist with the dual narrative, the present action needed to be more compelling. It also helped for me to write through several drafts. Once I understood the plot better, and knew how the characters’ lives were changed by their experience in Mexico, then I could think about how that informed the present setting.

Plenty of readers indicated this in the very early stages, and while I understood the advice, I still needed to write the whole thing to the end before it became clearer to me. I wouldn’t call this the most efficient process in the world.

 I’m pretty sure no one has ever efficiently written a novel.

 I noticed a real difference between the voice of the Mexico and the Indianapolis sections. As a bright-eyed young MFA student, I found myself really focusing on and responding to the Mexico sections of your drafts. Now, years later, I find myself responding more with thirty-something Carey. How do you see those voices working?

Older Carey is more ruminative, and also mired in crisis and grief over the mystery of her boyfriend’s murder. As the pieces of fact and memory fall into place for her, she changes, and so does her voice. Of course, we’re looking back with her on the Mexico chapters, so that overlay has an effect on voice, too. It can be easy to look back on past mistakes and cringe, and maybe that’s where some of the empathy or response toward older Carey comes from: the younger self should’ve known better, but didn’t. Knowing better in hindsight is a cruel reality everybody encounters. I think of the past and present narrative voices as Carey in conversation with herself. That’s more or less what memory is: a conversation with yourself, about yourself.

I like the idea of the novel in conversation with itself. What other novels or stories do you see Trip Through Your Wires in conversation with?

Well, Don Quixote for one, but Carey hasn’t read it yet, despite the Cervantino Festival and museum in Guanajuato. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, in considering grief. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson—talk about voice. I love hers.

This is an interesting question. Writing a novel is such an internal thing. Now it’s out in the world, and readers are telling me about their experience of reading it, the book is becoming more and more external. It’s kind of pleasantly disorienting. Can I return to my reporter roots? What books or stories do you see it in conversation with? Or, how do you imagine such a conversation taking place?

 Kate Atkinson is great. Some of the stories in Not the End of the World read like novels that just happen to be complete in 20 pages.

 Is it weird to say that a narrative that I kept thinking about when reading Trip through Your Wires was Twin Peaks? Obviously there’s not the same surreality, no Black Lodge or backwards-talking dream people. But Ben, Carey’s old boyfriend, is kind of a Laura Palmer character: seemingly perfect, loved by all, hiding some potentially dark secrets—and dead from the beginning, known only through flashbacks and pieced-together memories.

I love that comparison. Twin Peaks was an obsession; it first aired when I was in high school, and a friend and I incorporated the show into the daily notes that we passed to one another. Kids, this is what we did before texting: Passed notes. On paper. There was a published book of Laura Palmer’s diary that I must’ve read fifty times. On one of my first dates with my husband, he ordered apple pie and coffee. Just like Agent Cooper! (He’s never seen the show.)

But yes: I’m very much interested in how we piece things together—or make meaning, make sense of things—long after the events are through. Especially tragedy. Everyone says time heals, but not if you’ve never dealt with the source of the trauma, like Carey.

 This is squarely a literary novel, but it plays some with mystery-novel tropes. Continuing on the topic of books in conversation with themselves: how do you see those two things interacting, the literary and the genre novel?

For years, when I’d describe what Trip Through Your Wires was about, people would nod and say, “So it’s a murder mystery.” And a sad trombone would play in my head and I’d say, “No, not really.” Though of course it is a mystery, among other things. Mystery—in whatever form—keeps us reading to find out what happens next. I thought about this a lot while working on the book: why did I not want to call it a mystery? Maybe because I didn’t feel qualified to write one, but mostly it was that any genre label can be so reductive. Experimenting with other tropes, other genres, can have the opposite effect: the work expands, experiments, becomes something harder to classify. I’m thinking of the critical conversations about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad—was it stories? a novel? then why’s there a PowerPoint? We want the label, and at the same time want the new, groundbreaking thing we can’t immediately categorize. Same thing with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was not well received by the critics. Now we laud it as the first science fiction novel and teach it in high school and college literature seminars. There’s room for much interaction between literary and genre works—as long as there’s enough plausibility, I’ll suspend my disbelief any time.

You and I have both written about Indianapolis, a city that’s often missing from the literary landscape. From reading Trip Through Your Wires, I get the feeling that your Indianapolis is a very different place than mine in some ways. What’s Indianapolis to you? How does it compare—as a landscape, as a literary town—to Chicago, which also makes a brief appearance in your novel?

Yes, I have the same sense. I wonder if our differing versions of the city have to do with when and how we lived here. Indy is more or less my hometown, and I moved away for a decade, for college and then a job. I was seriously homesick for much of that time; as much as I liked the adventure of being elsewhere, I longed for home. My family is here. We moved around when I was young, but Indy was where we stayed. The city changed in the time I was away, and turned into a much more vibrant place than the city I’d left. It’s a very livable place—lots to do, plenty of green space, affordable. Good bands and writers and artists come to town, or live here permanently.

Chicago is one of my favorite cities. We visit fairly often. Before Indianapolis, my family lived in Bourbonnais, IL, about an hour outside of Chicago. (For a long time, I was the proud owner of a wax bust of Abraham Lincoln from the Museum of Science and Industry. It smelled terrible.) Chicago is much larger than Indy, and its literary presence seems more established. From what I can tell, the city is big enough that you might have a wide variety of groups or writers or communities spread out everywhere. Chicago has been written about or traveled to or makes the best-of lists. Indianapolis is getting there, and the literary community is growing and growing. There are many people here excited about books and writing and conversations about both. Still, Indianapolis has a little bit of a Chicago complex. Arts, sports, culture, you name it. It’s as if the shadow of the Willis Tower reaches all the way down I-65.

I wanted to call it the Sears Tower, out of nostalgia, which made me think of my penchant for calling our old football stadium the Hoosier Dome, not the RCA Dome. Then I remembered it doesn’t even exist anymore; the Dome was imploded, as was Market Square Arena. That seems like an apt metaphor for a city trying to invent itself. Just blow it up. Start over.

I spent some time during my twenties in Indianapolis without really knowing anyone there, and found it flat, strange, kind of ghostly—a sense of the city that possibly affected my reading of the Indianapolis in your book. Even though Carey grew up in Indianapolis, I get the feeling that she’s something of a stranger to her own town.

 People influence landscape, too. “Without really knowing anyone there” also describes Carey back in Indianapolis, years after Mexico and Ben’s death, and after she couldn’t pull it together in Chicago. Her parents, in their own marital crisis, are like strangers to her. The west side of Indianapolis has become more diverse, more Latino, and it’s almost as if she’s returned to her experience in Mexico. The remove she feels from her town has more to do with her state of mind than with the town itself.

Did you recreate the Indianapolis of Does Not Love from memory, or did you go back while you were writing it? There’s a very surreal and dreamy quality to the way you wrote about the place, which fits the story completely. Did the story come first, or the setting?

I knew it was going to be in Indianapolis from the beginning—there was something about the tone of the city that fit the book I wanted to write. I spent some time driving around the outskirts of Indianapolis with my sister, taking pictures of run-down hotels and getting lost in the occasional cornfield. There was a particular type of Indianapolis I was looking for. I had the pictures from that day and a soundtrack to work from, trying to capture that tone: Margot and the Nuclear So-and-Sos, Los Campesinos, The Mountain Goats. Do you write to music at all?

I love music, am obsessed by it, but can’t write to it. I either need quiet or white noise. Trip Through Your Wires takes place in the mid-90s and in 2003; in my mind it’s set to Nirvana, The Pixies, Radiohead, The Sundays, Counting Crows. The title takes its name from a song on U2’s Joshua Tree album. Sixties music plays a role, too: Joni Mitchell, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Guess Who. And Mexican pop as well, like Cristian Castro and Maná. I have a Book Notes playlist at Largehearted Boy if you want some of the backstory on any of this.

Did anything happen in the course of writing this book that surprised you?

There were surprises around every corner, because I began this book with a.) no idea how to write a novel, only that I wanted to try, and b.) just the smallest seed of idea for what the book would be about. It grew and grew and unraveled and re-raveled as I discovered what the characters wanted. That was probably the biggest surprise, though I’d heard people say as much: the characters would develop lives of their own, and that would be one thing driving the plot. That happened throughout the course of writing and revising Trip Through Your Wires. When I returned to Guanajuato on a research trip, I visited the Cervantes museum and saw a painting of Cervantes writing at his desk, with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza looking over his shoulder, bossing him around. It wound up in the novel, through Carey’s visit.

This is a wholly unfair question to ask of a 250-page novel, but I like this question, so I’m going to ask it anyway: in one word, what’s the beating heart of this novel? What does this book care more about than anything else?

Grief.

What are you working on now?

I have a YA novel out on submission right now, and this summer, I’m working on a second draft of a new literary novel. This is the baby novel, as in: it’s about babies. And infertility. My own boys, now 4 1/2 and 2 1/2, are my other big projects. Works-in-progress, as are we all.

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