Longtime poet and first-time novelist Dale Kushner is the most sociable loner I’ve ever met. A resident of Madison since she came here for school in the 1970s, Kushner has been a fixture of the local writing scene for decades, but her renown has been for her widely published poetry and her role in founding the now-shuttered Writer’s Place on State Street. All that has changed with the publication of her debut work of fiction, “The Conditions of Love.”
It’s an engaging and unconventional work, written with an ambition and assurance that belie Kushner’s relative inexperience with novel-writing. “Conditions” chronicles the life of Eunice, who grows up most unusually in the Midwest in the 1950s. Eunice is raised by a glamorous, discontented young mother obsessed with the movies. After the two are separated under dramatic circumstances, Eunice is taken in by a loving but eccentric woman living an isolated, pioneer-like existence in the north woods. Ultimately, she finds independence and love with a man who is as unconventional as everything else about Eunice’s peculiar, fascinating life.
I interviewed Kushner recently at a coffee shop close to her west side home. “The Fifties are a really interesting time to me,” she said. “Things were really shifting around after World War II. There was a sadness, but also an overblown optimism.” The era served as a natural backdrop for a central character whose artistic, contemplative nature feels at odds with the cultural forces that surround her, and with her mother Mern’s unrealistic, Hollywood-based expectations for their lives.
“There weren’t so many forms of entertainment then. How people learned what they were going to be, what their dreams were going to be, was from the movies. You learned about love. You learned about seduction,” says Kushner. “In a way, 'The Conditions of Love' is a novel of education.”
Kushner introduces her reader to Eunice at a very young age and follows her through several geographic and familial dislocations: her mother’s near-marriage and their move to Northern Wisconsin (where Kushner herself spends a great deal of time writing at her family’s cabin); her de facto adoption by Rose, the woodswoman; her unhappy stint with a disapproving foster family; and finally, an intense adult romance with an older man.
Throughout, Eunice has an artist’s perceptivity and powers of observation despite her young age. Kushner says she once heard writer Phillip Lopate say, “If you’re writing about a 7-year-old, you don’t have to use a 7-year-old voice.” In Eunice, whose passion is for visual arts, Kushner has taken this advice to heart. Her story is as much one of an artist’s development as it is of a woman’s. Kushner describes “the difficulty between the creative and domestic self” as one of Eunice’s central dilemmas, and it’s easy to see she’s spent a lot of time thinking about this tension in her own life.
“I was a wife and a mother before I was a writer,” says Kushner, “and my relationships with people pulled me out of my writing.” She works in a studio off of her garage in Madison and in a cabin near Eagle River, where much of "Conditions" was written. “I’m very much a solitary writer,” she says. “When I’m working on something, I do have to go away for a bit.”
Now that the book is out in the world, Kushner’s family appreciates the work she has been doing for so long behind the closed door of her office. “That’s the coolest thing about it — that my family is ecstatic,” she says. Other readers she’s encountered have also responded with enthusiasm to Kushner’s story of a young woman’s artistic and personal growth, with its unexpected twists and quirky characters. The mother-daughter relationship that occupies the first third of the book has been a particular flashpoint; one book group she attended (which featured two therapists) spent a great deal of time “not so much asking me questions as asking each other,” says Kushner, “Does Eunice forgive her mother?”
“It’s so amazing to see that what you wrote, what’s been in your heart, jibes with other people’s experiences,” the author says. “That I’ve touched on something universal.” But don’t look for clues about Kushner herself in her fictional characters. She gently demurs when I ask her how much of Kushner ended up in the sensitive, creative Eunice. “I think this is a newer thing,” she says. “People are just as curious about writers as they are about their books.” She jokes that if J.D. Salinger were still writing, his publisher would tell him to “get on Facebook immediately.”
The experience of shepherding her first novel out into the world is radically different from Kushner’s cloistered, solitary writing process, but she seems just as comfortable chatting with strangers about her work as she does working alone in her office. “It’s a different job,” she admits, but one she seems to relish. “These characters are so real to me,” she says with a smile, “and (their story) deserves everything I can give it.”
Watch for Kushner at this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival, coming Oct. 17-20, where she will be appearing to talk about "The Conditions of Love."