The Correspondence Artist
A Novel by Barbara Browning
How I Came to Write This Novel
I had long written poetry and non-fiction – particularly experimental ethnography – before attempting fictional narrative. My academic books were often described as having a strong lyrical or narrative strain, but it wasn’t until about 2004 that I began writing fiction in earnest. I think I was moved in part by the catastrophically sad state of global affairs after 9/11. This country’s political response sunk me into a despair I felt I could only write my way out of. I was also the single mother of a wryly ironic son (11 at the time) who dropped devastating one-liners on my lap the way some cats gift their owners with dead mice.
My first manuscript was called Who Is Mr. Waxman? Agents and editors said they liked it but it didn’t really have any plot to speak of so they wondered who would buy it. I turned it into a podcast for my own diversion and so I could move on (www.whoismrwaxman.com). I wrote a second novel – about a spiritist healing clinic in Brazil, led by a guy who channels Dr. Scholl, the famous podiatrist. It was a little weird. I titled it after an obscure biographical tome on Scholl: Man or Myth?
Meanwhile, proving that life is stranger than fiction, my first manuscript (and some poems) brought me into contact with an illustrious international figure who inexplicably wanted to meet me. One thing led to another, and after a series of awkward miscommunications, tender rapprochements, a climactic catastrophe and a rather disappointing denouement, I found myself feeling yet again that the only way out of a sad situation was to write another novel. Writing a fictional work about love, I began to realize how inherently fictional love always is. It was a big relief.
There was one other incident that provoked the idea of the structure of the book. I saw Sophie Calle’s installation, Prenez Soin de Vous, at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. It was about a break-up e-mail she’d received from her lover on her mobile phone (he ended it: “take care of yourself”). She asked 107 women to help her interpret her lover’s e-mail. She said analyzing it from all those perspectives helped her to take care of herself. Right afterwards my son and I went to Harry Mathews and Marie Chaix’s apartment for a glass of wine and I told them, “I have an idea for a novel.” Harry said he thought it sounded like a terrible idea.
Who Might Want to Read a Book like This?
Because it mixes high-brow (Lacanian psychoanalysis, French feminism, obscure art film) with low-brow (Yahoo!, Cameron Diaz, Mötley Crüe), it will appeal to over-educated readers who aspire to a pop sensibility, and less erudite readers who aspire in the other direction. Because it’s the story of an ordinary 45-year-old woman who gets to sleep with four, count them four, international sex symbols, it will appeal to a lot of 45-year-old women.