Rebecca Harrington's Penelope (Vintage Contemporaries, August 7, 2012) is one of the most entertaining debut novels I've read in a long time. Unfolding over the course of freshman year at Harvard, Harrington's Penelope encounters the expected array of preening, befuddled, and narcissistic characters. But there is a lot of empathy in the novel as well, and Penelope, who rides along on innocence and naivete, turns out to be very endearing. This is a highly enjoyable novel, which also provokes a lot of thought, and I look forward very much to what this accomplished writer will come up with in the future.
Shivani: Was there a triggering event in your Harvard career when you knew you had to write this novel? How did you begin, who encouraged you, when did you know you were past the initial hump?
Harrington: Well, at the end of my time at Harvard I was reading a lot of British campus novels -- Lucky Jim, Zuleika Dobson, Decline and Fall, etc, and I started to wonder if I could transpose some of the formal things I admired in those books to an American setting. There, of course, have been many fantastic American campus novels, but I liked the way British books viewed education as less a transformative experience and more of a series of embarrassing parties and unfortunate mishaps. That was something I related to far more! I decided to try and see if I could chronicle the Harvard experience in that style and Penelope was born.
Shivani: Tell us something about the publication history of the novel. Did you have a difficult time, or did things go easily? It sounds like the novel got a reception in England first.
Harrington: I was phenomenally lucky, I have to say. I have a brilliant agent Jane Finigan whom I met when I was in grad school. She worked with me very closely and guided me throughout everything. She passed the book around in the U.K. and my agent here passed the book around in America. My editors in the U.S. and the U.K. are both fantastic. I couldn't have been more lucky with everything and I am incredibly grateful for it.
Shivani: From the business end of publishing, what did you learn most as a first-time author?
Harrington: As a first-time author, it's totally hard to get your head around the business side of things. Listen to what your people tell you! They know what they are talking about.
Shivani: Why do you think campus novels are generally so much fun? Is it a last remaining form of pastoral, do you think?
Harrington: I don't know why! They are quite fun and such a venue for observant comedy. I think it is the fact that there are so many 18 year-olds piled in a small series of rooms together and pretending to be adults. You couldn't have a better atmosphere for satire, that's for sure.
Shivani: They say at Harvard (and similar institutions) everyone feels like an impostor. As if they got in by mistake. Even Harvard presidents have claimed that. Why is this sense of not belonging so great at places like Harvard? Do you think perhaps these institutions thrive on perpetuating this feeling?
Harrington: I absolutely think so! I mean, look at all the buildings. They are such an interesting combination of grand and austere. Architecturally, I don't think its is supposed to inspire much homeyness, more a sense of elevating moral purpose. I think you are faced, quite concretely, with the idea that you are supposed to be aspiring to things, not luxuriating in the person you are today.
Shivani: Was Penelope always the foundation of the novel? Were there major changes in your drafts of the novel?
Harrington: Penelope was always the foundation of the novel (her voice was in my head immediately) but the novel went through many drafts. I continually re-wrote the end -- I was originally convinced it needed to come far earlier in the year. I wrote a draft in four months but I rewrote the book for about two years before I submitted it.
Shivani: As a first-time novelist, what were the most important things you learned in terms of technique? In what areas did you grow the most? Where do you think you need to make the most improvement? What was the biggest mistake you made in the writing process?
Harrington: Hmm, well, I think I made about every mistake it was possible to make. This might sound odd, but I didn't really understand how long novels are before I wrote one. They are a lot of words and it is important to make them feel unhurried, so I spent most of my time trying to make the flow of the story seem leisurely and not like I was rushing. I definitely think I could improve on that however. The next time, I am going to try and do more up-front planning, but I am not particularly good at that either.
Shivani: I admire your sense of pacing, plotting, narrative precision. I think one of the things most lost in MFA programs is the ability to appeal to readers beyond the confines of the writing workshop. Did you have any exposure to writing workshops? Do you have any thoughts on literary fiction that works in the marketplace as opposed to literary fiction aimed predominantly at one's fellow students and teachers in writing programs?
Harrington: I took a writing workshop my senior year of college, but other than that, I have not had much formal writing instruction. My experience in a workshop really was great and I enjoyed it. I think what it really gave me was a new way of reading existent, published books. When you see how well someone like Ford Maddox Ford writes a sentence or P.G. Wodehouse plots a novel, it's quite instructive. Although I may have appreciated the aesthetics of their writing on some inchoate level, it wasn't until I had workshop experience that I was able to appreciate it like a tactician.
Shivani: I've been a lifelong fan of the campus novel. Lucky Jim was the first book that really taught me to laugh at myself. I enjoyed David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury too. And so many others. What are some of the campus novels you love?
Harrington: So glad you like Lucky Jim! I love that book! I love all the books I mentioned above and would add E.M Forster's Maurice to the list as well.
Shivani: Let's talk about the setting. The texture of Harvard comes through so well in Penelope. The relentless work ethic -- or shall we call it the pseudo-work ethic? The pressure to over-perform in extracurriculars. The constant anxiety over social status. The proportion seems just right, but did you struggle at any point with having too much description of the setting?
Harrington: Not really. I'm not much of a describer. If anything, I usually have to add back in as opposed to edit out. One thing that was rather bulky was the finals club stuff. I definitely had to cut down on my descriptions there. Luckily The Social Network came out and made the clubs slightly more of a part of popular culture so I had less of a burden in that regard.
Shivani: Harvard puts tremendous pressure on people to stand out, resulting in some exquisite craziness. Normal is not appreciated. People are forced to adopt extreme stances. It's liberalism -- or perhaps political correctness -- gone haywire. I think it encourages a lot of hypocrisy too. Your characters -- Penelope's roommates Emma and Lan, Penelope's dormmates at Pennypacker, Nikil, Glasses, Eric Adorno, the proctor Jared -- all illustrate this phenomenon. The danger is that one loses any measuring rod for normalcy. Would you comment?
Harrington: I think that is true, although I also think that most of the characters have an ideal of normal in their heads that they are desperately trying to live up to. Nikil and Glasses think their behavior is totally normal. So does Jared! Unfortunately, most of them are so anxious and not quite aware of their surroundings that they come off as completely fringe. But I think they consider themselves merely normal hardworking geniuses, trying to live in a high-pressure world that is set against them. Which is rather extreme when you think about it, I suppose.
Shivani: Did you meet many people at Harvard like Gustav -- the Argentinian-British-German aristocrat-playboy who toys with Penelope? I liked very much how you handled the conclusion of his relationship with Penelope.
Harrington: Thank you! I did know a certain amount of people with a similar background to Gustav but no one nearly as devastatingly handsome or charming. He was also based on a kind of stock English farce type, but I tried to ground him in quite a bit of naturalistic detail.
Shivani: I really like how you start and end with Ted as the likeliest romantic interest for Penelope. The way you manage this is for me the most important quality about your novel: the fact that despite everything a powerful institution like Harvard can and does throw at you, you have a pretty good chance of emerging whole, even new and improved, with a little bit of luck and a modicum of sense. It's a matter of Penelope regaining her equilibrium. You can't ever go home again, but perhaps you can call home a bit more confident. Can you comment?
Harrington: That's so nice of you to say! I think Ted is a very important part of the plot. He is just a normal, slightly immature kid, who likes Penelope and can't quite express it. In a world of odd, highly calculated people, he, I think, does reflect a more innocent understanding of the world.
Shivani: Which characters did you have the most fun writing about? Which were the biggest pains?
Harrington: Well, Gustav obviously was the most fun. Lan was fantastic. I also loved writing Penelope. I found her very endearing. I probably had the hardest time with Emma or Jared, but generally, I end up loving all of my characters and feeling very attached to their little speech patterns.
Shivani: I love your satire of fluffy core courses like Ec 10, Expos., Counting People, Dinosaurs, etc. It is hilarious! In my day there was much talk about replacing the core with a more substantive curriculum. Did that ever happen?
Harrington: No! At least when I was there, the Core was implacable in the face of change.
Shivani: What about Caligula as a central motif in the novel? Do I need to go to the library and get a hold of Camus? Are you hinting toward the limits of existential freedom?
Harrington: Actually yes. Without becoming endlessly boring about the philosophical underpinnings, I certainly feel like there is a kind of fetishism of aloneness in existentialism which has been both limiting as an aesthetic milieu and sad as a concrete social practice.
Shivani: I was thinking how dating in college has changed dramatically because of technology. Email was just coming on at the end of my time. We had no cell phones! Has anything been lost in romance since the pre-technology days?
Harrington: Oh definitely. Can you imagine getting texted all the time? What does anything mean anymore? Before, you had to endure real embarrassment and hardship to communicate with someone. You had to call on a pay phone or talk to someone's parents or roommate. Now you can just text. The ease of it is sort of startling and therefore rather confusing, because intentions, necessarily, are far less clear that way.
Shivani: What, in your opinion, is the thing that Harvard does best? What does it do worst? If you had to change one thing about Harvard, what would it be?
Harrington: Harvard has the most incredible classes. I went to some lectures that absolutely changed my life and made me think totally differently about the world. I really had such a good experience there I'm not sure I would change much. I feel so grateful I got to go there.
Shivani: Are you writing another novel? Do you want to write a different kind of novel? Which contemporary writers do you read to get inspired? How would you like to grow as a fiction writer?
Harrington: I am starting a new novel! I'm just in the tossing ideas around phase right now. Nothing too definite. I like writing social satires so I will probably stay committed to growing that and developing it. In terms of contemporary authors, I adore Kazuo Ishiguro. I love J. Courtney Sullivan, Jennifer Close and Maggie Shipstead. I really liked this sort of recent novel called The Honeymoon by Justin Haythe. But I generally read older books. I really admire the careers of classic wits. I would love to be able to grow into a funnier joke-teller, a more empathetic observer of human nature, and a better crafter of plots. Hopefully, I get the chance to do it!
Anis Shivani's debut book of poetry is My Tranquil War and Other Poems (NYQ Books, Sept. 7, 2012). His other books are The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). His debut novel, Karachi Raj, is being published in 2013.