For the boarding-school students in Pamela Erens‘s novel The Virgins, the meaning of love can’t be found in cliches.
Zola: The story is about the intimate relationship between Seung Jung and Aviva Rossner, yet neither of them is telling the story. Why did you choose to have another character, Bruce Bennett-Jones, narrate?
Pamela Erens: I had originally planned the story to be more conventionally narrated. Aviva and Seung, who weren’t even named (or very specifically imagined) then, would be in a relationship, and Bruce (also not named or imagined) would somehow insert himself. I was reading The New York Review of Books one day during this early sketching-out stage, and there was a piece on James Salter by Joyce Carol Oates. I love James Salter’s work, especially his novels Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime. In the piece Oates talked about the construction of A Sport and a Pastime, which is narrated by a male figure who hardly appears in the book. This narrator tells the story of a sexual affair between his friend Dean and a young Frenchwoman, and he even describes what goes on between them in bed, where of course he never was. He admits to the reader that he’s inventing their whole story, based on snippets of things he saw and heard or just wanted to believe. I suddenly thought: This is how I want to tell the story of my three characters, too. One would be the outsider-narrator, the other two would be living a story he has to guess at. And that led to all sorts of possibilities. I now had this narrator who could get inside of anyone’s head, because he was simply deciding what the other characters were thinking and doing and feeling.
Zola: Do you have firsthand experience with boarding school? What kind of research did you have to do to when writing about boarding school in the 1970s?
PE: I did go to boarding school for my last two years of high school. I made Aviva exactly the same age as myself so that it would be easy to nail down the cultural references. I have a good recall of which movies were playing in those years, what music we listened to, how people wore their hair, etc. Of course, my memory isn’t perfect, so I still had to look up some things to be sure–for instance, did the album London Calling come out in 1980 or 1981? Were there Walkmans in 1980? It also helped to look at old yearbooks to remember the look and feel of that time. I patterned the physical layout of my boarding school, Auburn Academy, after my own boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy, again for convenience’s sake.
Zola: Would you call The Virgins a love story? As they are often so wrapped up in lust and physicality, is love even in the equation for Seung and Aviva?
PE: It’s funny you ask that, because part of what the characters are doing in The Virgins is trying to define for themselves what love means. Aviva is worried that she doesn’t know how to love. She’s been told it’s this thunderstruck feeling, and she just doesn’t experience that. On the other hand, she is completely swept up by her relationship with Seung. She is very dependent on him in many ways. Is that love? Seung believes he’s in love because he does feel thunderstruck, but who’s to say? Perhaps he’s just infatuated. Perhaps the difficulties between him and Aviva keep him hooked–if things were easier, maybe he’d lose interest. Bruce doesn’t really use the word love and yet he’s fascinated by every aspect of Aviva–and Seung, too, for that matter. He notices the way they walk and talk, their gestures. He tries to get inside their heads and imagine their feelings and motivations. Isn’t that a kind of love? I’m not answering you directly because I think “What is love?” is precisely one of the questions the novel asks.
Zola: You were an editor at Glamour for a number of years before publishing your novels. Were you writing even then? What influenced your decision to make that career transition?
PE: I wrote fiction while working at Glamour, but only short fiction. I thought a lot at the time about getting an MFA in writing, but I loved my job and it seemed crazy to leave it. I took local writing classes and slowly started to send my work out. I did eventually go part time at Glamour so I could have more time to write. I never did get that MFA. When I left magazine editing it was because I’d had a child and I realized I didn’t want to be away from him for long parts of the day.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.