An Interview with Thomas Richards, author of Mrs. Sinden (Global Collective Publishers, 2023)
1- In the late 1990s, you were awarded the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. How did that help shape your writing career?
In my observation, the people at the Guggenheim try to find people who are in a crucible of development and support them at just the right juncture in their creative life.
This was the case with me. In my academic work with literature I had reached a turning point. The great freedom given to me by my Guggenheim year enabled me to pivot and write Zero Tolerance, my first novel, which was published by FSG in 1997.
2. You also lived in Hong Kong for 11 years, and your new novel, Mrs. Sinden, is set there. What experiences and observations during your time there contributed to the inspiration behind Mrs. Sinden?
Going through the SARS epidemic in 2003 was the experience that really bound me to Hong Kong. Many fled as the epidemic spread. My wife and I did not. We stayed. We were living on the Peak, and I remember thinking of Boccaccio’s Decameron at the time—a book about people in enforced isolation trying to escape from the plague by telling lots of love stories.
Love and death seemed very close at that time in Hong Kong. Families huddled together in their apartments. From time to time you would look out the window and see someone being carried off in an ambulance to the hospital. The streets were mostly empty. There was a different kind of fear in the air than with the COVID epidemic. With SARS, you didn’t have governments striving mightily to find a vaccine. No, it was more like the Middle Ages. People were more or less on their own. You went into hiding and waited for the disease to abate.
I tried to capture this sense of SARS in Mrs. Sinden. A sense of people helplessly watching the disease do whatever it does, then disappear. In this sense, the novel is closer to Camus’s La Peste or Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year than anything written now about COVID-19.
3. In Mrs. Sinden, you zoom in very closely to main character Jessica Sinden’s mind and heart, progressively revealing new aspects of her as seen through the eyes of other characters as the story unfolds. How did you, a man, channel her voice and essence in such vivid and credible detail?
Through her use of language, and through a careful building of interiority.
Language first. Her husband uses language evasively and is preoccupied with little puns. Her son uses it for idle amusement. Her lover is prone to aesthetic abstraction. But Jessica Sinden has a woman’s ability to accommodate speech to facts and emotional realities. This does not mean she is good at relating to people. She begins the novel is a severely unconnected state. But it means she is open to experience and what it will teach her. From the very beginning, she has something about her that very few people have, a strength of seeing that serves her well and a precision of expression, which, though not wholly accurate, has the virtue of being unerringly precise—which is the very wellspring of her development in the book.
As to her inner life. I tried to give Jessica Sinden an almost alarming self-consciousness. She has a strange and severe purity of self-examination, the sense of an intelligence examining itself with an an almost embarrassing directness. Cold as she may be at first, Jessica Sinden has the immediate appeal of absolute honesty. It’s what makes her so appealing to Philip Nye, who, right away, when he meets her in a hair salon, senses the sharpness and unerring accuracy of her self-image. She sees everything she sees with a force that is a kind of inerrancy. Part of why people think of her is cold is that she is so honest with them, though, for the most part, she saves her most ruthless honesty for the people closest to her, her children, her husband, her best friend, and her lover.
4. What interested you about writing from a woman’s point of view?
I wanted to show a human being changing. I think that women are better at this than men. My father became more rigid as he got older. My mother opened her mind and became more liberal, more loving, more inquiring. This is a pattern I have seen many times over, and since I wanted to take a 59-year-old as the subject for my novel, I knew my central character would have to be a woman.
Usually the central character in a novel changes in some way. Not completely, which would not be realistic; but just enough. I wanted to show realistic change, not the unrealistic sorts of complete transformation you often see in certain fiction and films. Jessica would become warm and kind, but only in her own voice and register. She would change considerably, but still, that change would be hard to interpret for those outside her. And this is just what makes her change seem all the more real to a reader. You end the novel feeling, not a false euphoria, but with a quiet sense of a life that has shifted in fundamental ways.
I also deal with her gender in part by having her play nearly all of the conventional gender roles very badly. She is a failure as a wife, a mother, and at taking on the conventional attributes of femininity. This does not at all prevent her from being concerned with how she looks, how she dresses, OR how her hair is being done. But it shows you what kind of woman she is by being unafraid of breaking the usual stereotypes of the feminine. She acts as a woman but not like a woman.
5. Did the process of writing a female main character change you at all? How?
I began to get much better at hearing and appreciating ambivalence. One of the sentences in the novel I like best is not a sentence at all, but a look at ambivalence as an experience and the hesitancy this can lead to:
“No, well, yes, I mean, still, somewhat.”
I’d often heard women I know express themselves in similar ways,, but it took me some time to inhabit the richness of this kind of statement. Think of it: all at the same time, the person saying this—in this case, my character Jessica Sinden—is disagreeing, agreeing, expressing uncertainty, qualifying herself and changing her mind! I love the multiple layers of thought and emotion statements like this reveal, and I hear women making them often.
What you take away is not so much a thought as a sentiment about a state of mind. Going after the vagaries of those states is what I learned most from working with a central woman character.
Through the process of discovering this, I also learned to be a better listener and pay much closer attention to women—and to men.
6. Mrs. Sinden is also a powerful story of love and self-discovery set against the backdrop of the SARS outbreak in China and widespread death—including that of Jessica Sinden’s oldest daughter. How do you see love and death as intertwined?
Eros and thanatos—love and death—they’re always very near to each other. Love is the only thing we have against the building presence of death in our lives. Love is always social, whereAS death, as William James says in a wonderful passage in his Varieties of Religious Experience, is utterly individual: “Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony.”
In Mrs. Sinden I always see a lonely death creeping up on life, and pushed away in various ways by people being social, sociable, or in love. Jessica does both. Her lover dies, but then she finds another temporary stay against death in the small family that she creates, along with Aspidistra, at the end of the novel.
7. In Mrs. Sinden you also zoom in closely to the perspective of the expats—or, more accurately, the colonists—still living in Hong Kong after its transition from British to Chinese rule in 1997. What interests you about their mindset?
With a few notable exceptions, the large forces of history do not make great novels. The first and second world wars were bigger than the minds of writers. It takes a smaller nest of activity for a writer’s mind to encompass it fully. It’s usually little random pockets of intense social activity that are small enough for a writer to create a complete and rounded world. Bronte’s Thornhill, Rhys’s Dominica, Lowry’s Quauhnahuac, Camus’s unnamed city in North Africa, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Hemingway was right to say that “the best kind of war for a writer is civil war,” precisely because a civil war is a kind of extended family affair that pits brother against brother, sister against sister, in just the kind OF contest for inheritance that the novel specializes in.
A postcolonial novel often takes place in a fairly small place in a smaller country. The Dominica of Jean Rhys or the Mexico of Malcolm Lowry, the South Africa of Alan Paton. Given this intense concentration of historical energy,
But right from the beginning the postcolonial was defined, by Frantz Fanon, as a psychological state as much as a historical one. The distinction is crucial. The colonial situation makes for what Fanon calls the “ineffaceable wounds” to be seen represented Rhys’s Antionette, Lowry Geoffrey Firmin, and Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen. The postcolonial is thus always not just a history but a pathology and a trauma, and in a very real sense, as seen again and again in postcolonial fiction, a kind of madness. This is because the postcolonial again and again confronts not just the domination of one society by another, but the active superimposition of one society on other, resulting in a variety of strange fusions to be seen all over the world, whether slavery, apartheid, caste systems of various sorts, or the strange ghettos of the the leftover colonizers themselves (the subject of Jean Rhys’s wonderful Wide Sargasso Sea), one of which I take as my subject in Mrs. Sinden.
I lived in Hong Kong for eleven years. I came to know a lot of expats quite well because we all lived in the same places and spoke the same language. The majority of English-speaking expats I met were British, which put them more completely in a postcolonial mode than I was, as a newcomer, an American. But it also put me in a position to be a good observer. Many of the British families I knew in Hong Kong had been there a long time. Many had only tenuous connections to Britain. And many, like Jessica Sinden, preserved attitudes that are no longer characteristic of contemporary Britain, but of the time they left Britain and even well before.
These people, and their lives, were my starting point.
8. You’ve suggested that colonialism will never truly end. Why?
I think I said this more clearly in a book of mine called The Imperial Archive. There I said, “An empire is partly a fiction. No nation can close its hand around the world; the reach of any nation’s empire always exceeds its final grasp” That is, an empire is always partly an imaginary entity, and many colonists are quite capable of living inside the imperial imagination even after an empire is over. All the Sindens live in an imaginary world in which they are still part of a white upper class in Hong Kong. Little pieces of it are real, but most of it is in their minds. And so colonialism goes on and on, even though it’s no longer there, diminishing but not entirely disappearing. This is part of the tragedy of which Fanon writes so compellingly in the The Wretched of the Earth. It is also what I saw when I was there, in family after family, which I why I was able to render it in such concrete terms in Mrs. Sinden.
9. In addition to novels, you have written several screenplays. Tell us about the experience and how it helped you as a novelist.
Writing screenplays gave me a clarity of visualization. My descriptions in Zero Tolerance are extremely concrete but they tend to have the blurred character of memories. That is, the things seen and remembered have a completely individual quality to them. Basing setting on memory makes setting a function of individual perception, and makes seeing always seem somewhat unreliable.
But in screenplays, everyone sees the same setting. There is an establishing scene that gives you, say, the White House, then a sense of moving in closer and closer on whatever is going on in the White House. The setting of Mrs. Sinden is very stable in this way. The reader sees Hong Kong, or a place in Hong Kong, then the camera moves in plane by plane to the scene of interest. Writing screenplays both gave me this clarity of movement into the scene, and a sense that the book is, in some basic way, a book about Hong Kong.
10. Mrs. Sinden is structured around three “hook” chapters. What does that mean, and what effect does it have on readers?
This is the formula of the action movie. In Hollywood they call it “three disasters and an ending.” The hero has to survive the disasters, of course, but it is the fact of all these disasters coming at the hero that creates the fast pacing of action movies.
I used this formula, not for the overall structure of my novel, but as an opening gambit. In quick succession you get three crises and a sex scene: Jessica and her dying lover, their first sexual encounter, Jessica’s daughter committing suicide, and the Inquest about the suicide.
Each scene is intrinsically important to what follows, but each scene also sustains interest in and of itself. After the first burst of scenes I can then slow down a bit with a series of chapters that show Jessica interacting with the other main characters of the novel, her children, her best friend, her lover, his ex-wife. Through these the reader has a sense of what is coming, which pressurizes the middle of the novel by creating a framework of expectation. Novels tend to go soggy in the middle, which, though usually slow, is nevertheless essential developmentally for the exposition of character. Once the reader cares about the characters, there is a much greater stake in the story as it builds to its climax.
11. You’ve mentioned Tolstoy as one of the most important influences on your writing. Why?
I can’t do without Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I can’t remember how many times I have read them, and each time, I have taken away what the great critic Erich Auerbach calls “the unqualified, unlimited, and passionate intensity of experience of the characters portrayed.”
How Tolstoy does this has been endlessly debated. His characters have an immediacy of experience that make us feel like we are seeing them through a clear pane of glass. Tolstoy manages to have this directness without falling into the trap of being too literary. I love Tolstoy, because, in reading him, HIS novels seem almost styleless. The style is in the characters and the characters live through the style rather than because of it. Everything about a character hits you at once, as if there is no mediating prism of representation between writer and reader.
Here it must be remembered how much of literature is mannered. Every style has a rhetoric embedded in it. Even Hemingway has one, too, once you begin to see his plain speaking as a manner. But Tolstoy seems almost mannerless; no matter what he writes, he never sounds literary. He seems to be able to write as if no other literature before him had ever existed, unblunted by influence of any kind. The form and the content are so perfectly matched that you lose all consciousness of his art.
I knew I would never be able to make my writing influenceless. I had been far too carefully trained for that. But I tried to give my narrations transparency and objectivity, by which I mean, not a groundless impersonality, but a capturing of her eyesight in any given moment. The sophistication I was after is not in style (which, as a writer of English in these latter days, I can hardly avoid) but in a complete phenomenology of access to the mind and sensorium of Jessica Sinden. What I took from Tolstoy is the effort to GIVE naturalness to this access. I didn’t want to use standard literary techniques like interior monologue. So I softened the technical edge of a literary style to give the sense of ease of access to the mind I so admire in Tolstoy.
The novel is written in what is called close third, a third person style of narrative in which the narration is rarely or never omniscient. Some of the chapters open with large blanket statements, but then they go right away into the world as it is seen and felt by one or other of my characters. Part of doing this well is being disciplined about whose consciousness you are in. It’s easy to let yourself drift from perspective to perspective, but what you LOSE from these glimpses is the coherent building of character than can only take place in one mind. This is definitely something I learned from Tolstoy, though of course there are other writers who do it as well. It’s just that I admired how effortlessly his prose moves along. It seems devoid of literary artifice, which can shed a sudden ray of illumination on a character, but is rarely good at keeping the light of the narrative fixed, clear and stable. Stability is certainly something I love in Tolstoy’s prose, and I wanted to give Jessica Sinden a sense of solidity in the mind of the reader.
12. Which of Tolstoy’s books stand out as having most impacted you?
Anna Karenina. Anna is of her class without seeing to be a paralyzed representative of it. In literature, typology is paralysis. Virginia Woolf came every close to typifying a bourgeoise with Clarissa Dalloway in The Voyage Out, where she is a type, but broke the mold in Mrs. Dalloway. Tolstoy himself began Anna Karenina with an idea of Anna as a type of woman—the adulteress—but soon began to find more in her. Even her husband, Karenin, surprises us at times. I know what this is like. I began with Aspidistra Benning as a sly appendage of her mother, and in the end she became one of the central characters of the novel. So, like Tolstoy, I let myself find unexpected things in my characters. My feeling is that he was often surprised by what his novel was becoming. I was, too.
13. You have several sex scenes in the novel. How did you decide to handle them?
We all know the classic shot: a dress drops to the floor and the camera follows it. And we all know exactly what happens next, even though the camera cuts away to the next scene.
This convention, a staple of old black-and-white movies, largely leaves sex to our imagination. Although it censors a sex scene, it does one thing right. It does a good job of maintaining the integrity of the characters. For sex scenes all too easily can become generic. In fact, the more explicit they are, the more generic they become. A limited amount of nudity in film is much easier to handle than a sex scene, which always carries the danger that it might extend into pornography.
Partial sex is how most writers have come to deal with sex between their characters. In modern literature, the integrity of a character is usually well established before there is much sex between them. The form of pornography invariably flattens character, offering flat characters almost by definition. But the form of the novel draws out character, rounding it out, and folds sex into the mix only gradually. Read D. H. Lawrence, James Salter, James Joyce, or John Updike. Their mastery of these scenes is that the characters remain fully themselves instead of shading into the generic territory of the sex act. Though they at times might be explicit, they are rarely complete in showing a sex scene from beginning to end.
I worked with several of these partial sex scenes in my latest novel, Mrs. Sinden. Mrs. Sinden is a middle aged woman who has never had much experience of sex, and this hesitancy is the mark of all the sex scenes in the book. My aim throughout was to have her remain fully herself while doing something that, after all, nearly everyone else does.
14. Mrs. Sinden is written in a very different style than Zero Tolerance. Why is this? How did you change?
When I was younger, I liked complexity for its own sake. I became interested in literature because of encyclopedic novels like Ulysses. I liked that to read one book I had to carry around a glossary that was bigger than the book itself. And I liked that you couldn’t just read the book once and be done with it. You always needed to be reading the book.
But writing with that kind of complexity did not come easy to me. I had to add the complexity layer by layer and character by character. The complexity of Zero Tolerance turned out to be a complexity of plot in which the characters are all trying to figure out what the plot of the novel actually is. They all have some kind of connection to the Bureau of Reclamation. They all know that it is not just a faceless government agency. Each chapter probes a secret history of the Bureau in a different way using a different character with a different set of memories and perceptions. Everything about the novel is realistic except for what they find. Is what they think happened what really happened? Different characters in the novel have different degrees of certainty about this. But, as a writer, I always come back to one thing in my mind about Zero Tolerance: a high degree of complexity is always fairly uncertain. The novel ends with the narrator quite uncertain if any of it was at all like what he has been told, or has been telling.
I still like complexity, but now it is psychological. I like the complexity I find rather than the complexity I create. I’ve found that the world is large and varied enough that I do not need to make it any more complicated than it is. In literature, stylistic complexity tends to lead writers away from the real world. I wanted the complexity of a psyche in a real setting. I had evolved to a point where I didn’t want any more than the world I saw in front of me. Once I had arrived at that point, I was at last in the world I lived in, which at the time was Hong Kong. At last I was able to look around me; observe people; become open to my own experience, which I never use in Mrs. Sinden, but which is something like the datum of the novel.