Midwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Sharon Solwitz about her book Once, In Lourdes, the process of growing up, influential coming-of-age stories, and more.
Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Sharon Solwitz: I was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Beachwood, a suburb of Cleveland, married and divorced a man from Chicago, remarried a man from Minneapolis. We raised our children in Chicago and still reside there, four doors north of Cubs Park. I seem to be Midwestern through and through.
MC: In Once, In Lourdes, four teenage friends—Kay, Vera, C.J., and Saint—make a pact to sacrifice their lives by jumping off a lake cliff, called the Haight, after they live the next two weeks to the fullest. What does their pact show about teenage friendships and stepping into adulthood?
SS: In adolescence, friendship supplants the interest in and reliance on adults. Your friends are your universe, and their opinions and tastes and love or lack thereof become the touchstone of yourself. I see adolescent friendships as an essential step on the road to adulthood. Teenagers have to relinquish their dependence on their parents in order to understand themselves. For some years they replace dependence and love for their parents with dependence and love for their circle of friends. There’s nothing wrong with dependence; we’re social beings and need one another. But to become an adult, you have to enlarge and vary your group, the wider the better. I see growing up in Jungian terms as a process of individuation, of gaining access to more and more distant or recalcitrant parts of yourself—which enables you to form wider connections with other people. There may be other paths for the human heart and soul, but I haven’t figured them out yet.
MC: How does the suicide pact change the way Kay, Vera, C.J., and Saint approach the supposed last two weeks of their lives?
SS: Good question. Really, the central question. It makes them daring—dangerously candid, self-revealing. If you only have two weeks to live, you are less afraid of telling the truth to your friends, enemies, loved ones. The only one who doesn’t tell the truth is Vera, with disastrous consequences. She was the one who started the process, who challenged them, but she never told the whole truth.
MC: While the four friends try to cement their friendship forever, America fights in the Vietnam War across the world. How do the events of the ’60s influence the tone of Once, In Lourdes, specifically on topics of violence?
SS: At first all the evils of the Sixties, the social injustice, assassinations, the pointless, devastating war, are background to the world these kids live in. Lourdes is a resort town, fairly wealthy, and even the least privileged of the four friends is safe from most forms of want and physical danger. Current events form a kind of bass line against the four-part upper register of the characters’ thoughts and actions. Although they occasionally refer to current events, they remain largely subconscious, rising only at the end to the level of actuality.
MC: Since Once, In Lourdes follows teenagers in the summer before their senior year of high school, one could categorize the book as a coming-of-age story. How do you feel Once, In Lourdes fits in with and differs from other coming-of-age books?
SS: Whoa! Beeg question. Coming of age requires an encounter with oneself and others. Books that accomplish this? Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, “The Bear” (from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.) All of these books place their protagonists in a situation where they have to come to terms with death. Holden Caulfield is sharp, humorous, suicidal and hates most of the world, at the end arriving at a kind of marginal acceptance. The sisters, distinct personalities, are obliged to face the death of one of their band while the Civil War rages on. Young Ike is made to witness not just the death of the seemingly all-powerful bear, but of the wilderness and the antebellum Southern life that the book depicts. In a way, all of these are my influences—Alcott’s four loving and questing sisters, Salinger’s alienated school boy. But Faulkner is my touchstone. I want to write something as monumental as Go Down, Moses.
MC: On sensitive subjects, such as suicide, how do you as a writer tread the line between honoring and exploiting the topic for storytelling?
SS: Frankly, I don’t think about exploiting, don’t try to avoid it or stay on the other side of it. My goal is simply to write the truth of my characters as honestly and fully and deeply as I can. So there is no question of exploiting the topic, no glamorizing, or making suicide seem like something other than a tragic mistake. The result of a confluence of mistakes.
MC: Once, In Lourdes takes place in Lourdes, Michigan, in the summer of 1968. Why did you feel the Midwest, particularly Michigan, was the most fitting setting for this story about friendship?
SS: In my central image for Once, in Lourdes, the four characters align on a bluff, holding hands, about to jump to their deaths. I once drove along the Michigan coast in search of a house I never found, and I came across a house with a peach tree in front. The backyard was high above Lake Michigan and at the same time eroding, grass that was once part of the lawn growing down the nearly perpendicular slope. It was uncanny.
MC: What sort of research did you perform to accurately portray this time period?
SS: Ha! Most of it came from memory. I was at Woodstock too. I lived on a commune and rode a horse through Afghanistan. Honest to God. As for research, I did some Googling, for Allen Ginsburg’s “America,” and for other famous figures in the battle of Chicago. Most of it got absorbed by the imaginary, though.
MC: What’s next for you?
SS: I’m looking for a publisher for Abra Cadabra, a novel in stories about a family in which a child gets cancer. I’m in the middle of work on Boy in Exile, which took me to Israel, where I may need to go again. In that book, 20-year-old Jacob goes to Israel and disappears, and his schoolteacher mom (whose husband has just left her), goes in search of him.
Sharon Solwitz’s novel Once in Lourdes just came out from Random House (Spiegel & Grau). She has also published a novel Bloody Mary and a collection of stories Blood and Milk, the latter of which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Awards for her individual stories, appearing in such magazines as TriQuarterly, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares, include the Pushcart Prize, the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and the Nelson Algren Prize. Her stories and essays can be found in numerous anthologies and creative writing textbooks, and in Best American Short Stories 2012 and 2016. She teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and lives in Chicago with her husband, the poet Barry Silesky.