David Ebershoff: In Cartwheel you give us four characters – Lily, the foreign exchange student in Buenos Aires arrested for murdering her roommate; her father; Eduardo, the prosecutor determined to convict her; and Sebastien, the enigmatic young man who lives next door. Describe your process of structuring the novel through these four points of view.
Jennifer duBois: From the beginning, I knew that I wanted Cartwheel to be an exploration of the ways that different people can look at the same person or situation and arrive at radically divergent conclusions. The characters in Cartwheel view Lily Hayes so differently not only because they interpret information about her differently—though they do—but also because they have vastly different ideas about what kind of information is worth paying attention to in the first place. Perceptions of Lily hinge in large part on a few key details—a joke she makes in a store the day of Katy’s death, a cartwheel she does during her interrogation later on—that some characters view as benign and others view as damning. Andrew, Lily’s father, is inclined to view her sympathetically—for him, these small moments of callousness are blips, not representative of the real Lily. For Eduardo, the prosecutor, it’s exactly the opposite—he sees these details as significant and revealing, the moments when Lily’s mask drops and her true nature emerges. In Lily’s perspective, we get access to the gap between her actions and her intentions (a gap that exists for everyone, though hers is perhaps a bit wider than most); though we don’t see the night of the crime through her eyes, I wanted readers to have a very clear sense of her inner life. Because Andrew and Eduardo’s pre-existing biases about Lily arise inescapably from their roles as father and prosecutor—and because Lily, like all of us, is inevitably biased toward herself—I also wanted to include a character whose attitude toward Lily wasn’t so pre-ordained. That’s where Sebastien, Lily’s neighbor, came in—though he quickly introduces his own set of blind spots and prejudices and filters, of course.
DE: The three people who are looking at Lily most closely are men. Lily is the protagonist, but roughly 75% of the narration is through a male point of view. I’d love to know how you came to this decision.
JDB: That’s such an interesting question. When I first started writing seriously, all of my first-person characters were male—I was very drawn to these ironic, sort of curmudgeonly voices, and I always heard them in my head as men. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, in retrospect I’m sure that these choices were to some extent informed by my own unexamined assumptions about what sorts of characters invited serious consideration of one’s work (this is part of why it was so important to me to write an ironic, sort of curmudgeonly female narrator in A Partial History of Lost Causes). So it’s possible that the abundance of male voices in Cartwheel partly arises from that longstanding inclination—as well as some awareness that books by women are susceptible to being ghettoized as “women’s fiction,” no matter how many male characters they contain. At the same time, Cartwheel is tackling some of the same issues that shape these unconscious considerations—questions of how we perceive and judge women differently than men—and exploring Lily through the prism of three different male gazes (for lack of a better term), as well as her own, offered a natural way to investigate that phenomenon. The characters’ judgments about Lily are inevitably gendered: Eduardo views behavior in Lily as more damning than equivalent behavior in Sebastien; though Andrew views Lily’s behavior as fundamentally benign, some part of him blames her for not living her life with more awareness of the risks of deviating from traditional notions of female behavior. With Sebastien, it’s Lily’s gendered assumptions, more than his, that create difficulties between them—Lily is so thoroughly accustomed to a very particular dynamic between men and women, and she so completely assumes a certain set of assumptions in Sebastien, that she perceives his sincerity as a form of mockery. Gender isn’t the only variable shaping the divergent perspectives about Lily—there are also issues of class, privilege, American entitlement, anti-American resentment, plus the whole question of her personality—but it is an important one. I think the male-to-female point of view ratio in Cartwheel wound up providing a good mechanism to explore that issue, though the voices themselves arose organically.
DE: I’m curious if you think gender has been a variable in “shaping the divergent perspectives” on your novel or on your writing in general.
JDB: That’s a bit hard to say. When you’re thinking about perspectives on a book or an author, it’s tricky to isolate gender (or really anything else) as a variable—you only know what’s actually happened, and imagining what might have happened if any given reality had been different is just sort of a guess. I’m also wary of reflexively viewing the world through the prism of gender—sexism is so exhaustingly present in the literary landscape that it’s easy to let it become sort of an automatic explanation for all kinds of things, which isn’t really helpful. That said, I do think women have largely—though far from exclusively—been a bit more open to the idea that the themes in Cartwheel are worthy of serious literary attention. I’ve had a lot of incredibly lovely, thoughtful feedback from male readers, but it’s true that men have more commonly expressed surprise at the book’s intellectual scope—some have seemed to expect the book to be much more trivial than it is. I suspect that reaction has more to do with Lily’s age and gender than my own. A Partial History of Lost Causes didn’t seem to elicit that surprised response—whether or not it was their cup of tea, I don’t think many readers doubted that the story of a middle-aged Russian chess champion turned political dissident was a substantive subject for a novel. A book about an imprisoned young woman and the divergent judgments she inspires has perhaps seemed less obviously serious to men who haven’t read it yet; women have seemed a bit more inclined to intuitively understand that a situation like Lily’s has profound moral and philosophical implications.
DE: I totally agree. Switching subjects, what drew you to Buenos Aires for the setting?
JDB: I chose Buenos Aires for a few reasons. Most importantly, I needed to set Cartwheel in a country where an American student might study abroad. I wanted a city a young person might be enchanted by, even if she didn’t fully understand it; similarly, I needed a language that an American student might speak just well enough to not quite realize the limits of her comprehension. I also thought that setting the book in a Catholic country would be an effective way to explore the ways that views on female sexuality shape views on Lily Hayes more generally. And as I got further into the book, Argentina’s particular fraught and recent history with the United States wound up serving as a natural lens through which to examine issues of American entitlement and anti-American resentment.
DE: This isn’t a spoiler: Lily is in a Buenos Aires jail at the beginning of the novel. What real works of fiction would you give your fictional character to read while incarcerated?
JDB: Oh, that’s really interesting to think about. One book that immediately comes to mind is Anna Karenina, since I’ve been reading it for so long that I’m pretty sure it would take my getting incarcerated to finish it. Infinite Jest would be great to have—in addition to being long and deeply compelling, it offers some incredible portraits of human resilience—and so would Pale Fire, since it’s really about a dozen books in one. I would think reading Marilynne Robinson’s books would be consoling—you don’t have to be religious, I don’t think, to sense the essential soundness and wisdom in her writing. And then of course you’d need a bunch of books so intensely absorbing you might just forget where you were while you read them—novels by Donna Tartt, Zadie Smith, Gary Shteyngart, or Jennifer Egan, for example.
DE: All these writers would be welcome in my jail cell (note to the fate gods: this is a literary exercise, not a request). Congratulations on the paperback publication of Cartwheel. And good luck on June 9 at the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. In my book you roar!
David Ebershoff is Vice President, Executive Editor at Random House. He’s the author of four books, including the novels The 19th Wife and The Danish Girl.