An older interview about Trespass
Cambridge, Massachusetts December 11, 2001
1. You were a research biologist working with silk worms when you started writing fiction. What caused you to make this change? Had you always been writing fiction when you were not in the laboratory?
No, it was quite sudden. I was happily immersed in biology, doing post-doctoral research in a lab devoted to how genes are turned on and off. I read novels in all my free moments, but in 1984 I was also reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and I was struck by his discussion of physicists changing their views of the world from Newtonian physics to the theories of Einstein. It occurred to me that I had no idea how we change our private minds, on the personal level. I wanted to investigate this, but I didn’t want to go back to school and study psychology. I’d been to art school and then all the way through in biology; I thought that if I could write a novel about changing one’s mind I would at least look closely at how we do it. So I spent a couple of years writing that novel in the interstices of lab work, and during the summers. It went through many revisions, and when I finally let other people look at it, I began to see how awful it was. So I jumped out of biology, and began the long apprenticeship of learning the craft of writing. That first novel is still in the back of my closet.
2. How does your background in biology affect your fiction?
As a biologist, I spent my days in darkened rooms, with light- and electron-microscopes, looking at the structure of the eggshell of the silk moth: a microscopic temple of natural engineering, complete with columns supporting twisted plywood-like structures made of dancing strands of protein, decorated with elaborate chimney pots–all on something the size of a poppy seed, or a sesame seed. All of the images, all of the understanding, depended on focus, attention, the quality of light or electron beams. I spent a decade and a half looking for order and pattern in insects. Now I look at humans, but still the quality of light is all important.
3. Do the silk worms come into your fiction?
Silk worms and also silk cloth did work their way into my first book, Silk, which is a collection of stories set in Provence, Paris, Japan, Singapore, and Cambridge.
4. Describe Trespass.
Trespass takes place in Southeastern Massachusetts. It opens as Maggie Gifford finds a stranger, Grenville, bathing in her basement. Maggie’s husband is off on his sailboat; Maggie’s cousin, Jake, is silently but obsessively in love with her. Jake is a ne’er do well, a self-educated scrounger and mail order minister, whose only predictable income is the remittance his proper Newport family pays him to stay away. Maggie and Jake and Maggie’s family who come for their annual summer visit find themselves transformed by the shadowy presence of Granville, who haunts the ramshackle boat sheds on the family property, walking in and out of marriages, disrupting all.
5. Is Trespass autobiographical? Where did the idea for the book come from?
Good lord, no. None of my fiction is autobiographical; that is, I try to keep it away from aspects and events of my own life as much as possible. My characters are definitely not me; they know some things I know, and much that I do not. Sometimes we share obsessions. The idea for Trespass came from Conrad and Hawthorne. I’d been thinking about The Secret Sharer and also about a perverse and disturbing story of Hawthorne’s called “Wakefield,” in which a man steps out of his life for a day and stays for twenty years, taking up residence around the corner from his wife, never making his presence known. It seemed that something linked these two tales: an unusual sort of trespass. In one a man inserts himself uninvited into another’s life, and in the other a man absents himself from his own. In both cases some strange boundary of being is crossed. I wanted to see if I could make sense of them, or illuminate them for myself by joining the two sorts of boundary crossing.
6. Jake Beecher is described as loving the margin between land and sea; in other ways, too, he is an extremely marginal character. What is it that you find interesting about the margins?
Oh, that’s where all the interesting folk are. The ones who aren’t easily categorized, so that in their unfamiliarity you really have to look at them, to pay attention. Then, too, for those who exist at the margins, boundaries make up a large part of what they see; trespass is a necessity of life for them, always possible, inviting, imminent.
7. Why did you call it “Trespass”?
Trespass is everywhere in this novel as it is in life, and not all of it is bad. Some is even necessary: towards the end of the novel, for example, when Jake trespasses on his parents’ property to commit a sort of kidnapping–and finds a strange and upsetting way that his parents have trespassed on his own past. Grenville, of course, walks in and out of marriages. Maggie even trespasses on her own property when she spies on a couple in flagrante. In writing this book it became clear to me that life is full of trespasses, we can not exist without them, and if we consider the roots of the word–to pass beyond, or die–it contains our mortality as well as our most vivid transgressions. So I felt I needed the grammatical ambiguity of the title, wanting the imperative form as well the nominal–in essence exhorting the reader to live.
8. Both in Trespass and in your earlier book, Silk, your characters never seem to get punished, even when they do awful things. Why is this?
You know, I don’t think I should hand out retributions, like ribbons, at the end of the contest. I don’t see my role as that of judge; I just try to show how they live, what they do. Life will give them their rewards, just or undeserved; or god will; or their own moral sense. It is not up to me to do that for them. That would be overstepping.