‘My precise answer to the question of whether my novel is autobiographical is 57.8%”: Janice Pariat

The author of ‘The Nine-Chambered Heart’ makes no bones about how much of her own life – and love – is in there.

Janice Pariat follows up her book of short stories, Boats on Land, and her first novel, Seahorse, with a novella titled The Nine-Chambered Heart. Nine of the people who loved or have been loved by one woman gather to recall their memories of her. Their stories form a partial portrait of a woman the reader never hears from.

What makes some kinds of love fragile? When does it begin to fray? Can one tell what will last? Can one circle back and expect a different outcome? These are some of the questions the novella wrestles with. Pariat spoke to about origami, the ease of love, the one lover who doesn’t appear in The Nine-Chambered Heart, and her relationship with her readers. Excerpts from the interview:

Origami becomes an activity for the solitary, for the self-guided. What prompted an insight into a person’s resistance to being taught art, into a person’s preference for reading instructions on craft in the solitude of their mind?
It tells us she’s the kind of person who requires, prefers even, instruction. And, sometimes, honestly, who wouldn’t? To be certain, amidst the inexactitude of life, that following a set of rules, neat and precise, will reward you with what you sought from the beginning. No unpleasant surprises, nor rude awakenings. You get what you are promised. “Art” (or at least the kind of art the teacher encourages in the book) cannot give you that. It calls for leaps of faith and imagination, a comfort with the unknown and unfamiliar, an ease with spontaneity. At this point in her life, our protagonist is uncomfortable with that freedom. Also, she’s plainly quite terrible at painting.

The epigraph to the book is by Anais Nin and reads, “It is easy to love.” Can you talk to us a little about this choice of words?
It is easy to love because we often love a version of someone and not the person themselves. We love them for who we think they are, for the need or lack within us that they fill. We love the version of someone we construct in our heads, sometimes the version they portray to us, the one they think we will love. We love selfishly, and hence easily.

When I was reading your book, I was struck by the idea that all narrators are writers. It made me wonder – are there others who loved her or whom she loved that we don’t hear from because they’re not as articulate or prone to telling the stories of their lives?
In my head, there is one who is silent because he still cannot bring himself to talk about their time together. Because they both believed it wouldn’t end. And it did. And now there is nothing to say.

“You don’t say much…” At times, there’s a reticence ascribed to the woman they’ve loved. Did you consciously choose someone who divulges information selectively and sparingly as the person all these voices would revolve around?
You forget she is viewed entirely through the perspective of other people who are talking about themselves. And how much people enjoy talking about themselves! So yes, she is quiet by nature (hence often remaining elusive both to the narrator and the reader), but also, she may not be given much space to speak. The one she most converses with is her fellow female flatmate in the city with a river. With the men, usually they do most of the talking. An experience, I’m afraid to say, I’ve taken from life.

You’ve written a few times about how one of the questions that is asked of you most often is “How biographical is your writing? How much of it really happened?” What are some questions you’re never or seldom asked that you wished you had the chance to answer?
Actually, I’m hoping someone asks me if The Nine-Chambered Heart is autobiographical. Because this time I’m armed with a very precise answer: 57.8%.

When did you start writing The Nine-Chambered Heart?
Precisely, July 2015. When I was at the end of what I thought would be a long-term relationship, which prompted me to think about the trajectory of my life in terms of the people I’ve loved, lost, fallen out of love with. It explains why The Nine-Chambered Heart is a fictional biography told through love.

When and where do you usually write?
While working on a manuscript my writing schedule is one of 9 to 5 drudgery. I’m at my writing desk all day, day after day. When I’m not, it’s all mightily scattered and erratic and unpredictable.

In the last few years, writers have led (partially) public lives in the form of social media. Have you personally found it to be a way to interact with your readers?
Readers getting in touch generally make me happy. Particularly, of course, when they say they’ve enjoyed the book, or that a particular character or story moved them. Amidst all this though are messages that read “Loved Boats on Land. Love your eyes.” So, like with everything, it’s a mixed blessing.

When I see the photographs on your Instagram, I am struck by your pursuit of a creative life. There’s knitting, pottery, baking, making your own soaps, growing flowers on your terrace, block-printing. How does nurturing other kinds of art besides writing contribute to your life?
I pursue these “other kinds of art” because I long to create with my hands rather than only my head. To work with something tangible. Something that rewards more instantly than writing. I find these “crafts” engrossing, meditative – especially in their careful, almost mundane need for repetition. It’s a different process of creativity; an employment of an alternative part of my mind that relishes a long focus on something other than words.

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