“Her Job Is to Show How People Live”: Claire Dederer on Laurie Colwin

coverWe’re attempting to unravel the tangled web of literary influence by talking with the great writers of today about the writers of yesterday who inspired them. This month, we spoke with a writer who writes about literary monsters: Claire Dederer. Here, Dederer explores the kitchen sink domestic analysis of Laurie Colwin.

What drew you to Laurie Colwin’s work?

I have been a reader of Laurie Colwin since I was in high school in the 80s. That she could be so strongly voiced and so funny made me feel incredibly full of possibility in terms of my own secret and burning ambitions to be a writer.

coverI think the second thing that really made her important to me—especially when I was a young mother and I began writing books—was her emphasis on domesticity. The novels are intensely domestic, and she’s talked about how interested she is in how people live. And she has become even more famous for her food writing than for her novels and her short stories, but the food writing and the fiction share something, which is, it’s not a valorizing of domestic life, or saying domesticity is somehow positive or good. It’s just looking at domestic life, and it’s so deeply literary. For me, as a young memoirist, this idea of the importance of domesticity and the centering of domesticity as lived experience was a huge amount of permission. It made me realize this is something that I and a lot of other female writers are very interested in that can sometimes be shunted off or treated as unimportant because it has traditionally been a female experience.

In Happy All the Timecover Laurie Colwin she takes a traditional kitchen sink setup and then kind of plays with the gender roles in a nontraditional way.

There are ways Colwin can look a little bit hidebound. There’s a lot of money. There’s a lot of well-educated, genteel job-having. And there’s a lot of heterosexual romance between white people. But there’s something really interesting going on with the way the men and women interact. I think one of the reasons that she’s been so important is this reversal of these gender roles and this kind of inside-out quality where the men are sort of hapless yearners and the women are going about their lives.

cover Laurie ColwinI also think that one thing that’s a factor of her longevity is her refusal to moralize. One thing that her books really share is an almost gleeful and nonstop engagement in adultery. Most notably it’s dealt with in the novel Family Happiness. It’s not quite irony. She’s really thinking about what makes family happiness, and yet at the end of the book, she basically decides to keep having the affair. Colwin does not punish her heroines or make people suffer for falling outside the straight and narrow. That gives you an idea of how plot works with Laurie Colwin, which is to say not very much.

It’s an interesting way to explore a character. Rather than having them overcome major events, you simply see them exist.

There is a way that you picture her novels almost like a series of illuminated windows. My great-grandfather loved to play a game which he called simply, and a little disturbingly, “looking in people’s windows,” where he loved to walk around the neighborhood at around five or six p.m. when lights were on but before curtains were drawn and just see what he could see about how people lived. And I think that Laurie Colwin shares this intense interest. I think there’s a kind of genius in her allowing that to be sufficient.

I read an early review of Happy All the Time, and this reviewer really did not care for the book and talks about how it doesn’t tangle with its own themes—how should we live now—and it’s such a misreading of the book. I think Colwin’s job is to show how people live, and the sufficiency of just showing that—not moralizing, not overplotting, not sort of taking a theme out and trotting it around on a leash—I think there’s a real beauty, courage, and even a kind of genius to that. A reminder that there’s all kinds of people living all kinds of incredibly weird and fascinating ways around us, and that their humanity even exists is something we all struggle with on a daily level. The best writing shows us that.

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