Larry Baker writes about memorable characters, and he is something of a character himself.
Baker earned his doctorate at the University of Iowa and is a former member of the Iowa City Council. He is included on Iowa City’s Literary Walk and is the author of six novels.
He possesses an outsized personality that he employs gleefully, if self-mockingly, for the promotion of his work. He is by turns funny and erudite, and both characteristics find their way into his work.
His new novel, “From a Distance,” takes readers inside the publishing world and inside the mind of a mentally ill woman. Bobby and Ellie have an unbreakable bond, but his family and her illness threaten to keep them apart. It’s a quirky story of doomed love, and that quirkiness extends somewhat to Baker’s answers in this e-interview about the new book.
Q: Tell me about the origin of this particular story. What was the initial idea that sparked the novel?
A: This was my most difficult book to write. I finished a 300-page first draft, revised and then tossed the entire thing. I could not get the alternating chapter idea to work. I have always been fascinated by the importance of point of view in a story. Some books have multiple points of view, but I wanted to experiment with the difference between first- and third-person point of view. Two people, two different forms of point of view — and one is trying to hide the existence of the other.
My first version used the movie business and an older woman/younger man secret love affair.
It was incomprehensible and unbelievable. So when I started to rewrite I realized that I wanted to write about the book business, something I sorta know about, but not about a writer. Writers as characters are too common.
How about an editor? I am also fascinated by issues of class and geography. Call it the Pat Conroy angle. Finally, I loved Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” told from the point of view of a dead girl. Why not do my own version, add some Southern context, and end the book on 9/11?
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Q: Many of your novels find characters reflecting at length about the past and trying to make sense of the present. You also appear to have an ongoing interest in questions of mental health — particularly in relation to your female characters. What interests you most about such things?
A: The past? A foreign country? The older I get, the more of a past I have. This is one of the most universal themes in life: “How did I get here? What does it mean?” Mental health? Life is 99.9 percent mental. That is certainly a subject in “From a Distance” and my earlier novel “Love and Other Delusions,” where the main subjects are women, but I also think that some of my male characters have their own issues — Harry Ducharme in “A Good Man,” for example.
My interest is simple: we are all a reflection of our minds. Our actions come from thought, most of the time. As a writer, I know that plots are always a reflection of the minds of the characters. Mental conflicts lead to external resolutions. And the best characters, for me, are usually the ones with mental issues.
Q: In this book, the American South is somewhat romanticized. At this particular political moment, how do you anticipate readers will relate to characters who seem to long, if somewhat ironically, for the Old South?
A: I anticipate that reaction to the book. That is why I have two main characters from the South, Bobby and Sally, and Sally is quick to point out how Bobby seems to be stuck in the old romanticized genteel version of the South, while she is from the New South. Plus, Ellie certainly lives in a cruel and vulgar world in Charleston. And, without giving too much away here, one of the first lessons that Bobby learns is that his family’s status in the Old South might be based on a lie.
Q: What challenges did you face as you crafted Ellie’s voice and her account of her history?
A: A lot. This is the first book of mine for which I had to do a lot of outside research, especially about mental illness. Ellie is a victim of sexual abuse from her early childhood, compounded by schizophrenia. I had to talk to a few therapists about the long-term effects of that history on a child as she grows up, plus I learned a lot about medication effects, good and bad. And since her “story” is told from the first-person point of view over a long period of time, I had to show how a child’s voice — language and syntax — evolves over time, becomes more sophisticated, but still maintain the inherent instability of the speaker. And I am not even revealing here the difficulty of writing Ellie’s “last” chapter.
In addition, I had to research a lot of Charleston history in general. For example, I had a call with a “Church Lady” at St. John the Baptist Church in Charleston, and coaxed her into imagining that she was lying down on a pew, and describing to me, over the phone, the details of the ceiling of her church. I wanted to “see” what Ellie would have seen for a particular scene.
Q: You make a cameo in the book, as does Harry Chapin — who is to you what bears are to John Irving. Tell me about those sorts of inside moments and your ongoing use of Chapin as a symbol or touchstone.
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A: Me, in the book? Excuse me? I am an objective outsider. Of course, my publisher Steve Semken does show up as Sully Semken, the graphic arts person for Windsor House Publishing. Me in a cameo? Nope. But — that scene where Sally describes a first-time author being introduced to the Windsor staff and seeing his book cover for the first time — I stole that from my own experience at Knopf as Sonny Mehta introduced me to his staff. Fact is, of all my books, “From a Distance” has very little of me in it.
Harry Chapin? A hero of mine, and my small homage to him is to include a reference to one of his songs into everything I write.
All of my books have at least one Chapin song mentioned. In this case, Ellie’s use of “Tangled Up Puppet” is a perfect analogy to how one character, an older father figure, was “tangled up” in her.
Q: What’s your next project?
A: I am a hundred pages into something new. A different kind of writing, a historical novel that spans Florida history from 1865 up through the 2016 election. And a possible murder mystery. My own version of the Cain and Abel story. I suspect this might also be my longest book. And my last.
l What: Larry Baker will read from his new book, “From a Distance”
l Iowa City: 7 p.m. Monday at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.
l Cedar Rapids: 7 p.m. Tuesday at Next Page Books, 1105 Third St. SE
l Cost: both events are free