In “The Conditions of Love,” debut novelist Dale Kushner tells an epic tale of one woman’s experience of love, from troubled familial relationships to a devotion threatened by disaster.
The book is narrated by 13-year-old Eunice, who is growing up in the 1950s with an emotionally unstable mother and absent father. Her story is told in three sections, each focusing on an important relationship in her life. Kushner, who lives in Madison, set most of the story in fictional Wisconsin towns.
Kushner spoke with the State Journal about her inspiration and how a poet ended up with a 384-page novel.
State Journal: How long did “The Conditions of Love” take to complete?
Dale Kushner: It took quite a while, because, and this is really the truth, I didn’t realize that what I was doing was writing a novel. I think that’s because my master’s is in poetry, so all my writing had been poetry. I didn’t really deliberately think I was writing a novel. I just was sort of playing around. It was incubating for a really long time, and took about five or six years of truly concentrated effort when I knew where I was going with it.
SJ: What inspired you to tell this story?
DK: Some writers think of a historical event, or a historical person, or they’re compelled to tell something from memory. That’s not how my work started. I started hearing this character in my head. When I began to take it seriously and write it down, I realized it was a character who had a voice and a story.
I’ve had an interest in how people survive emotional difficulties. I think I was looking for a form to tell that story. Poetry wouldn’t have been a good form for that. I think it was an inner pressure to explore some big themes about emotional survival under difficult circumstances and relationships around love because all of us have them. That’s the core issue.
SJ: Was it challenging to write in the voice of a young girl?
DK: Sometimes. It was sometimes challenging not only to write in the voice of a young girl but to write in the voice of a young girl in the ’50s. Jargon changes so much. How would someone refer to a handsome boy, for instance. Is he cool? Is he neat? Is he hot? I don’t even know what 15-year-old people say now. In your writing, of course you’ve got to get that right. If it’s an anachronism you’ve lost the reader.
SJ: Reading your book reminds me of “American Boy” by Larry Watson. He sets his books in the ’50s as well. What is it about this time period that is so appealing?
DK: I don’t know. What do you think? What’s appealing to the reader?
SJ: I think it’s really evocative of a simpler time. One of your characters, Sam Podesta, he’s like one of the Three Stooges. I can totally see that guy shaking his fist and yelling, “Why I oughta ...”
DK: I know (laughs). He came fully formed, it was hysterical. That’s the absolute magic of writing, especially fiction, because you don’t know what’s in your head, really. All of the sudden these characters have so much personality. They’re kind of conglomerates of people you’ve met, people you’ve heard. Unless it’s quite autobiographical, which mine isn’t, you can’t really trace those roots.
I’m interested in that notion that the 1950s was a simpler time. It was in some ways, mainly because of the lack of technology, and people’s routines in their lives, and how they experienced pleasures. Going to a fair would have been a big thing because they didn’t have a bazillion other opportunities for entertainment. We forget how sophisticated that makes us.
SJ: How does your poetry background inform your fiction?
DK: Mightily. I feel as though it’s been a blessing to have that background because every word counts in a poem. One becomes very meticulous. Is this verb the absolute right verb for this line? In a way it can drive you crazy. That’s part of why it took me a long time to write the book. The nuances of words, the sounds of words, the sounds of whole paragraphs really mattered to me. I think it hugely informed my work.
SJ: You spent so much time with Eunice. Do you still sometimes see the world through her eyes?
DK: These characters are absolutely indelibly real in my psyche. I don’t see the world through her eyes, but she’s definitely a presence. These characters really have mattered to me.
SJ: What sort of themes do you think people will pull out of this book?
DK: I guess it’s a bit of a Rorshach, it means something different to every person. The reader co-creates the book in her head. Everyone is interested in love. The novel covers the difficulties of the love with families, it covers friendship, it covers erotic love and devotion. I can’t imagine what life hasn’t been touched by these themes.