The Tell

Hester Kaplan writes about marriage. Whether it’s stories about couples trying to figure out where they stand in a relationship with her award-winning The Edge of Marriage or most recently, with her new novel,The Tell, she writes about nuances that exist under the surface–the kind that make you question your own relationship after you’ve read her work.

Luckily for me, Hester and I have our own relationship. She was my professor/mentor at Lesley University where I got my MFA degree a few years back (and Miri’s as well), so I took the liberty to press her on some more personal issues. Like, how does her marriage factor in to her writing. And like any good author, she’s not going to tell you that–or me! (Oh come on, you think she would?!) But she does delve into the dynamics of her characters in The Tell: Mira and Owen have fallen into some marital trouble. A new neighbor, Wilton, an aging, yet charming former television star moves in next door to them. Unhappy with her life, and straddled by a failing non-profit art school for kids, Mira starts following Wilton to casinos. They both get something out of it: Wilton gets attention from lonely old ladies. Mira gets the thrill of the slots. Hester shares with us how The Tell came about and reveals her thoughts on relationships, betrayal and addiction.

You’ve been married for a long time and you love to write about marriage.

How much do you pull from your life? Or can you say?

 I’m interested in writing about marriage because it’s such a complex and delicate dynamic between two people.  There’s a certain acuity that being married requires—acuity in observing you own and your spouse’s behavior, sensing his mood, his desires, and of course, all the stuff that remains hidden and unsaid.  A marriage needs to take the long view, but is confronted by the million exigencies, compromises, and disagreements of right now.  That means marriage is not a static state.  My fiction pulls from my own experiences in marriage—but is never about my marriage.  I’m fascinated by how other peoples’ marriage work, in part because they’re something we can’t ever really know or fully understand.  All fiction,

I think, is a conflation of the writer’s life and the lives of others, so I keep my eyes and ears open.

You didn’t ask, but here’s my opinion on gay marriage.  Our freedom to marry whom  we want is one of our most fundamental rights.  Take away this right, and you’ve denied people the chance to understand who they are and what they are capable of.

There’s a theme that runs through the novel about people not really knowing each other. Many of the characters are surprised to learn intimate details, and some glaring flaws. What made you decide to write about such betrayal?

A tell in poker is a gesture or tic (throat-clearing, chin-scratching, hair-twirling, for instance) that gives away the player’s feeling about his hand.  I think we all look, consciously or not, for each other’s tell—that one clue that maybe we’re not hearing the whole story—in our quest to better understand one another. But we can’t ever read all the signals, the subtext, the tone—that’s

the wonderful, never-ending and slightly scary mystery of another person.

Betrayal–by a spouse, a friend, a colleague—is a deep wound to the betrayed. It leaves the betrayed speechless.  And the betrayer?  Can she ever fully understand the damage she’s done to another’s soul?  I took Mira and Owen’s marriage and put it under terrific stress because I’m interested in seeing how far betrayal can push two people before it ends in complete destruction.  Betrayal involves the betrayer and the betrayed meeting in the middle.

In the book, Mira becomes addicted to gambling, to the point where she practically loses everything. What drew you to this kind of destructive character?

I don’t think of Mira as a destructive character; rather, I see the slot machine as her weapon of destruction.  In researching the book, I was interested in why and how slot machines are addictive to

some people, particularly women, and not to others.  For Mira, it was a way at first to relieve her stress, then maybe an expression of her ambivalence towards family money and legacy, and maybe an ill-conceived way to save her school.  Pretty quickly though, her playing the slots was not about intention at all, but about the thrill of possibility and chance.   Casinos are fascinating places.  Just watch the face of a woman who’s been sitting at a slot machine for a long time—you can’t help wondering what she’s feeling.

Do you think Mira had this kind of past filled with other addictions—or do you think addictions sometimes enter someone’s life, as in, right place right time?

 I think that addictions can enter someone’s life at any time when they are vulnerable to it.  We all have things we fight against on a daily basis—food, drink, cigarettes—and sometimes we’re stronger than at other times.  Mira was susceptible and the timing was right.  It takes a while for someone to recognize their own addiction—denial and rationalization come first—and it definitely takes a while for Owen to admit what’s going on with Mira.  As a culture, we’re fascinated by addicts because we sense they are our fallen selves.

I’ve always thought in situations where a partner is being so self-destructive and the spouse claims “not to know” (whether it’s an affair or gambling addiction in this case) that they are in fact lying to themselves. Do you see it this way with Owen? Do you think marriage sometimes becomes a place where we lie to ourselves to get by?

To me it’s not really about lying to one’s self, but about a refusal to lay out all the pieces and see what they add up to when they’re put together.  It’s about an inability and unwillingness to give actual words to—and in that sense make real and concrete—a suspicion.  I think our psyche protects us—it will not waste its time and deliver what we won’t be able to see.

I love your question: does marriage sometimes become a place where we lie to ourselves to get by?  The answer is yes, to greater and lesser degrees.  The perpetrator lies to protect herself and her spouse; the spouse lies to protect himself from the truth.  (And don’t underestimate the power of inertia in a marriage.)

Owen certainly had all the evidence that Mira was in trouble and lying to him, but along with allowing himself to admit it came the question of what he would do next.  Now that he saw the form and depth of his wife’s betrayal, he had to decide to forgive her or not.  And he had to figure out how to reestablish their relationship.

I want to discuss this exchange between Owen and his friend Mike. Owen is disclosing some details about he and Mira’s separation with his friend Mike.

Owen:  “A person’s wife, it turns out, is someone he doesn’t know very well.”

Mike: “Well Christ, whose wife is?”

Mike’s statement feels like a snarky, yet generalized complaint that men have about women (and vice versa), but it also feels like maybe

this is an assertion that you, the author, are making about marriage. Am I off here?

 You’re dead on about how these characters feel—but that’s not necessarily how I feel.  I’m writing about made-up people in a made-up situation.  But, in this bit of dialogue, I am giving Owen some slack.  After all, he’s not the first spouse to be lied to.  I think a lot of people look at their significant other some days and think, “Who the hell is this person?”  I make no assertions about marriage, not even mine.

The relationship—or non-relationship—between Anya and Wilton is also so fascinating and convoluted. I know you have such an incredible relationship with your kids. What makes you decide to explore such an estranged father/daughter relationship?

 Wilton is intractable in many ways (though he likes to give the impression of flexibility and openness), and so I wanted to present him with the one thing he could not charm his way out of.  I’ve seen people totally transformed by becoming parents, and I’ve seen it sometimes happen years later.  Looking back on what he’s made of his life besides reruns, Wilton sees Anya.  She’s not going to be easy to win over.  Wilton will have to fight his way back to her, and part of this means he’s going to have to tell the truth—to her and to himself.

Lastly, since you mentioned to me that you revised some of your sex scenes after taking my “sex scene” class at Lesley, I wanted to say that the sex scenes are fantastic. They’re dirty, they’re desperate and they feel completely in tune with the characters. How did you feel about writing sex scenes for the book and how important are

they to your characters?

When it came time to rewriting my sex scenes, I reread my notes from your seminar.  The sex itself must reflect the character’s mood, you said, and it must express something beyond the lust.  Perfect advice.  Sex scenes aren’t easy to write (well, no scenes are easy) but the writer risks making a fool of herself.  A character’s sexual tastes are as individual as the character himself, but who in real life goes around broadcasting how exactly he likes to do it? Still, the reader wants to feel that she’s being let in on something deeply private (in a way, it’s a different kind of threesome.) Sex is important to my characters because it expresses, I hope, a sense of troubling intimacy and desperation.

More on Hester Kaplan, click on her website here.

(Image: Harper Collins)