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Books without Borders
Benedict is currently writing a new novel set in Iraq. “There were whole inner layers that I came to understand that were more intuitive,” she says. “What do you feel when a prisoner throws excrement on you, when your sergeant is making passes at you all day long, when someone you thought was a friend assaults you?” About half the novel is narrated by an Iraqi woman. It’s a nervy choice, but Benedict, who conjured the voices of a Dominican teen mother in Bad Angel (1997, Plume Press) and Greek islanders in Sailor’s Wife (2000, Zoland Books), is unfazed. “Writers have been crossing cultures and genders and ages and times forever,” she says. “I think we’ve gotten narrow about that, maybe because of all this PC business.”
The Edge of Eden’s third-person narrative dips freely into the minds of a wide range of characters. “I didn’t want only the British point of view,” Benedict says. “In old-fashioned novels, the natives, quote unquote, are never full human beings.” Here, Sechellois Marguerite Savy assesses her British employer: “At times Penelope reminded her of the local cattle egrets, stalking around on spindly yellow legs, eyes wide and empty, with no clue as to what they were really seeing.” (Marguerite may be shortchanging Penelope, who can look at her onetime lover and his wife and notice “his hand resting on her plump shoulder with the casual possessiveness of a man holding his bicycle.”) Benedict’s prose glints with such deft observations, along with vivid evocations of a landscape where even the plants appear oversexed.
Imagination at Work
In 1960, when Benedict was eight, her family moved to Seychelles. “My father was an anthropologist and my mother became a de facto one, helping him with his fieldwork,” she says. “I had this whole rich experience and many memories and had never used them in my writing in my whole life, partly because I shy away from anything autobiographical.”
Though Zara, the older daughter whose dark fixations precipitate some of the novel’s most wrenching twists, is the same age Benedict was during her family’s stay in Seychelles, her fictional family is based on London classmates whose parents were sent away during the Blitz, raised by nannies, or farmed out to boarding schools. “How do people learn to be parents if they were exiled from their homes and basically grew up without a family?” she asks. “That began to fuse with the kind of decadent way European adults behave when they’re in the tropics. Even at age eight, I was definitely aware of that with the British adults in Seychelles.”
Benedict’s approach to fiction is largely intuitive: “I never think out novels in that much detail. The imagination that’s at work when what you’re actually writing is so much more intelligent than the brain that plots and plots. I tend to just pour out a novel and see what happens, do it really fast, then spend years rewriting.”
O’Connor and Columbia County novelist Rebecca Stowe are always her first readers. Benedict shares her work “when I get blind to it—when I know it needs work but don’t know what.” Her husband concurs, adding, “We literally started our relationship showing each other our work, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Several years ago, on vacation in France, O’Connor set himself a challenge. “I decided to write 14 lines of verse every day. My only requirement was that it could not make sense,” he says. “I was sick of the way I’d been writing. I wanted to explode out of my voice, smash my voice. I’d sit down to write poems and I had to surprise myself with every line. I found I was getting at material I’d never gotten at in my life. It completely changed the way I wrote.” He just sold a story collection to Free Press for publication in June 2010. He’d published many stories in magazines but found little interest in a new collection until “Ziggurat” appeared in the New Yorker. His agent sold the book that weekend.