Lisa Gornick: "My Characters Are Difficult."

Lisa Gornick: "My Characters Are Difficult."


The mothers, fathers, sons and daughters at the center of Tinderbox are deeply flawed. Author and psychoanalyst Lisa Gornick explains why that’s a good thing—and why there’s a bit of her in each of them.

Tinderbox book cover

Zola: Your novel deals with the fragile relationship between parents and caregivers, and you’re launching a consultation service aimed specifically at making that relationship smoother. How and when did you first get involved with this issue, and why do you think it’s so important?

Lisa Gornick: Like many new parents, when my husband and I first hired a caregiver we were surprised at how profound and complex the relationship between her and us was. Many years later, I came to know a babysitter who unraveled due to the intensity of her longing to be mothered, a longing stirred up by her interactions with her employer. Her story got under my skin. I altered all of the identifying information, keeping only the emotional heart of what had happened to her, which then became the kernel for Tinderbox. It was writing the novel and living for so many years with this character, Eva, and her employer, Myra, that led me to explore the subterranean layers between parents and caregivers. Shortly after I finished my novel, Susan Scheftel—a fellow psychologist and psychoanalyst—gave a lecture addressing the resistance parents experience to thinking about the emotional and reality circumstances of the women they employ to care for their children. The two of us began a dialogue on these issues and decided to launch a consultation service for parents aimed at helping them create a foundation for healthier relationships with their children’s caregivers.

Zola: Your third-person narrator is omniscient regarding most characters—Myra, Larry, Caro, Adam, Rachida… even the secondary Talis. The only exceptions are Omar and Eva, whose thoughts and circumstances we’re left to guess from dialogue, external behavior, or some other character’s assumptions about them. Why did you decide to go this route with them, especially considering Eva’s major role in the plot?

LG: In an early draft, I did have sections of the novel from the points of view of both Eva and Omar. An astute early reader suggested that eliminating Eva’s point of view would increase the suspense about what she might do, and the mystery about what she has done. With considerable reservations, I decided to experiment with a draft in which I stayed outside of Eva’s head—and immediately, I felt that it was more successful.  By not entering into Eva’s consciousness, the reader shares the experience of the other adults in the novel—that the extent to which Eva is unraveling is ambiguous—which then opens the door to exploring their resistance to recognizing what is happening to her. As for Omar, a child’s point of view is so compelling, and he is a particularly appealing child—but I wanted to constrain this point of view to allow for greater emotional intensity, particularly with Caro and Myra who carry the majority of the story.

Zola: The characters in Tinderbox struggle with parental or sexual traumas, and often a combination of the two: Myra grew up unloved, Adam’s frailness angers Larry, Larry’s own father thinks he lacks “soul,” and Caro’s shamed by her mother’s perfection. Meanwhile, many of her and Eva’s actions sprout from past sexual abuse, and Adam and Rachida struggle to embrace their sexuality. As a psychoanalyst, how much of your characters’ build-up do you attribute to these Freudian staples?

LG: Having trained as a psychoanalyst, I don’t think of these issues as “staples.” Rather, it seems to me that there are very few people who don’t have something to overcome: some damage or pain or constraint they’ve experienced during childhood. As children, our worlds are more delimited, and even for those of us who’ve been spared the extreme traumas of violence and starvation and severe illness and a parent’s death, the development of self-esteem and sexual proclivities is often thorny. As adults, it is our job to come to terms with the guilt and anger and fear we’ve brought from our childhoods, and to claim the freedom to create our own lives. One of the things that interested me in Tinderbox was how even Caro and Adam, children of a loving and empathic mother, have baggage to discard—and conversely how Eva, despite the severity of what she experienced as a child, is a survivor.

In your years as a therapist, you must have encountered many cases of so-called psychological resistance: a patient refusing to change their behavior or speak about certain things. Have you ever encountered “character resistance” as a novelist? That is, have you ever gotten to a point with a character in which they refused to behave the way you wanted them to—in which you felt you could no longer access them? If so, how did you handle it?

LG: I can’t say that I’ve ever reached a place where I couldn’t access a character, but there were aspects of my characters that at times I didn’t want to access! My characters do things that are not cocktail conversation: Adam uses pornography, Caro binge eats, Rachida struggles with revulsion for her husband. There are painful discoveries and painful events in the novel—and there are readers who have responded, “Not for me!  These characters are too difficult!” I’ve always rejected the idea that a novel doesn’t work because “the characters are unlikeable.”  That strikes me as akin to saying that literature should only include nice people and, even then, only their nice thoughts. My characters are, indeed, difficult, and there are aspects of them that are unlikeable, but they all have a capacity to love and change as, in my experience, do most people. In my view, what fiction can do is let us enter into the minds of other people and the parts of ourselves with which we are not comfortable—not with the aim of ratifying heinous acts, but rather, with the belief that understanding the psychology of a suicide bomber or child molester or our own murderous and perverse thoughts strengthens our ability to protect ourselves and others, and to exercise our conscience in choosing how we behave.

Zola: Early in the book, you describe Larry as a doer, Myra as an intellectual, Adam as a creator, and Caro as an engineer. In which (or between which) of these categories would you place yourself, and why?

LG: One of the wonderful things about being a novelist is that your characters can become collages of everything you understand about yourself and everyone else you’ve gotten to know intimately. I hadn’t thought about this before, but Tinderbox required all four of these stances: like an architecture project, the structure was deliberately engineered; it has intellectual strains; the research entailed a lot of doing; and, like all novels, it is an imaginative creation. I’d have to say that I fall equidistant between these categories.

Zola: Your protagonist, Myra, is working on a teleology of love—a detailed chronology of her personal passions, from the love of doing and learning, through the love of men and pain, to the love of music, nature, and grace. What is your own teleology of love? 

LG: Thank you for not including where Myra lands at the end of the novel. I’m going to leave that as a surprise here, but I will say that Myra’s discovery was for me one of the greatest joys of the book—that I came to feel that I’d landed in the same place.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.