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Suzanne Berne
Suburbia is the setting for all three of your novels. What makes the suburban family setting such a fascinating source of material for you?
There's an odd isolation about living in suburbia that you don't find anywhere else. Part of this isolation is historical, I think. People have lived in cities and in the country for generations--there are established customs for relating to one's fellow humans in both places. Suburban life is relatively new. There is no town center, often, in the suburbs, or general store where people can gather casually. Everyone lives in his own little fiefdom of house, garage, yard, and does not, strictly speaking, have to relate to his neighbors. Does not hear their arguments through thin walls, does not need to ask for their help in harvesting his wheatfield. Extended family living nearby is rare in the suburbs. Eccentricity is less well tolerated than in the city, which has a diverse population, or in the country, where you 're pretty much stuck with whomever is there. You are truly on your own in the suburbs, and therefore more likely to be lonely. And since loneliness drives people to do desperate things, which makes for interesting stories, the suburbs are fertile territory for the fiction writer. At least for this fiction writer.
Cynthia and Frances share a family history but have very different versions of that history. In THE GHOST AT THE TABLE you depict this situation brilliantly. Did you write from personal experience?
Not really, except in the way that any writer writes from personal experience. Over the years I've noticed how often siblings disagree, sometimes radically, about their common past. One sibling thinks their parents were wonderful; the other insists they were awful. In families that get along well, there seems to be a tacit acceptance that no one shares the same experience of childhood. Often in families that become estranged, different members have tried to insist that only he or she understands the "true" version of the past and everyone else is deluded. I took the latter situation and heightened it, in Cynthia and Frances's case, to make it more dramatic, but I think it's a situation that crops up pretty often in families.
Robert, the father in the novel, is formidable even in his vulnerable state. Would you agree with Philip Larkin that “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”?
Yes and no. Parents can certainly make a terrible mess of their children's lives, though usually by being inconsistent and careless rather than cruel or perverse. But most parents try their best to prepare their children for the world, given what they understand of its demands. Children can also make a terrible mess of their own lives, regardless of what their parents did or didn't do. We are always more than the sum of our parents' mistakes, or successes for that matter.
You are often compared to Anne Tyler. How do you feel about these sorts of comparisons?
If I am often compared to Anne Tyler then I am very flattered, although I'm not sure how she would feel about it. As for comparisons in general, I think they're fine as long as they're reasonably apt. Literary comparisons mostly serve to steer people who like one sort of book toward a similar type of book, and I think steering people toward books for whatever reason is a good thing.
We always like to know, who are your literary influences?
Jane Austen, who is critical of her characters and compassionate toward them at the same time, who thinks human beings are absurd for what they do, but not for who they are. Alice Munro because she is so deeply perceptive about human contradictions and so extraordinarily persuasive in bringing those contradictions to life in her characters. William Trevor, who has captured the sense of human longing in stories in a way that is usually possible only in music.
What are you writing at present?
Something that, given the way my other novels have evolved, will undoubtedly bear little resemblance to my original ideas. It may even turn out to be non-fiction this time. Who knows!
Suzanne Berne

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