Both Luc and Clare in Clare Loving are fascinating, complicated characters, and your portrayal of their troubled love affair strikes exactly the right note in The Beautiful Ships, the middle novella in which the two struggle over her pregnancy. How did you conceive of the book’s three-part structure in terms of these two characters and their evolution through time?
—Marianne Herrmann, St. Louis Park, Minnesota
Marianne, I want to explore this question fully because it really interests me, but I think I should give a spoiler alert for readers who haven’t yet read the book or advance publicity that reveals who Sylvie’s father is. If you’re a reader who wants to be surprised by the revelation of that key fact, which is an important answer Clare keeps from her daughter and readers until halfway through “Sylvie,” don’t read this until you’re at least at that point in the book.
OK. On to the question. As a character, Luc was a complete revelation to me. I had written a young priest into “The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter’s,” but he was a very incidental character. He was simply part of the parish and school background and someone Clare had noticed when she was the new child in school. He had no particular significance. I wrote “Sylvie” much later than my first draft of “Nuns.” I had decided that, since I wanted the focus to be on the mother-daughter relationship, it would simply be easier and clearer to do that with Clare as a single mom. I’m not sure how I decided to make her a single mom from the outset. I also don’t remember when and how I decided for her to keep who Sylvie’s father was a secret from Sylvie. I suspect I had some background memory of a single mother I knew who’d refused to tell anyone, including her daughter, the identity of her daughter’s father. That may have been floating around in my mind.
In any case, I had written maybe a third of “Sylvie” with this substantial unanswered question between mother and daughter when I realized there was going to have be some kind of pretty big payoff for readers when this question was ultimately answered so they would feel the story and the stakes were commensurate. It was one of those places in my writing life when I wondered if I’d backed myself into a corner. Then it occurred to me one day that Sylvie’s father had been a priest. I liked that idea immediately because it played off the old Catholic guilt that was already established in “Nuns.” I thought I was headed in the right direction, though it was one of those times that, as a writer, I realized the writing territory was going to feel a little uncomfortable (for more on this, there’s the answer to the Diane Craig question that covers my uncertainty about the advice Lorrie Moore gave me on “Swimming”), and that I would need to be careful not to let the story veer off into melodrama.
I plunged ahead, writing all of “Sylvie” with her father as Luc-Cristof Étienne, priest. At that point, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Luc was the priest from Clare’s childhood and St. Francis de Assisi’s. It was enough that he was simply a priest, which represented the ultimate transgression for Clare who, as a child, had been so earnestly Catholic. That was the material I was working with. I was exploring the way who he was had affected Clare’s relationship with Sylvie.
When I had completed drafts of both “The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter’s” and “Sylvie,” I knew I was in an even more difficult position from a writing standpoint. I had two big challenges, the first of which felt a little like writing with at least one hand tied behind my back. As I’ve indicated in the answer to Al Greenberg’s question, I had to create the middle of a story that already had restricting parameters at both the start and finish. I couldn’t just write in a way that would let the story develop in its own course, which is how I normally proceed. I had to make sure that everything fit, that it would track both forward and backward. And then there was the second challenge. I had to write Clare’s love affair with a priest and had to make it compelling enough that it didn’t torpedo the parts of the book that I’d already written.
Just the other day, I listened to a recorded performance of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet. Its middle movement has become famous everywhere as the Adagio for Strings and is usually played by a full orchestra. Though this is on a much smaller scale, I’ve sometimes felt that “The Beautiful Ships” in Clare, Loving has had an analagous fate. People tend to get more deeply into love stories of the romantic kind than into the love stories of similar intensity (child for mother, mother for child) that are the focus of the other two novellas in Clare, Loving. That is probably why one agent suggested I launch the book with its middle. It all feels a little ironic to me if “The Beautiful Ships” really is the star because the middle was the afterthought piece and the biggest stretch for me as a writer. Personally, I’d like to think it’s an equal member of the trio.
In writing “The Beautiful Ships,” I began with the image of the tall ship that Clare sees from the Indiana Dunes and its suggestion of adventure, a change of pace in her dutiful life. Then I wrote for a while until Clare meets Luc. When I wrote this beginning section, I still didn’t know he was the priest from her childhood. I added that later. And I had no idea how they were actually going to move from that first meeting, when Clare is with a group of graduate students in a bar, to two people who were having an affair. It was at about that time that I went to the Faulkner Society’s annual conference in New Orleans. I’d been a finalist in one of their categories and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that gave me for having an agent and editor look at some of my work and also to go to some of the panels. I’d never been to New Orleans before and was mostly aware of the fact I was going to the place that had recently been devastated by Katrina. But as I approached the city, I realized Clare was going to travel from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New Orleans and see Luc again there.
I was aware of that whole scenario the entire time I was in New Orleans and jotted down notes for myself like crazy, trying to absorb as much of the atmosphere as I could and to really get a sense of a city that’s unique in the United States. It really feels more European than any other place I’ve encountered here. It’s actually a sort of national treasure that we almost lost. Anyway, I was thinking about the business of a writing conference but was mostly focused on the city and what I needed to take from it as a writer. And I have to say that Rosemary James, who works so hard to put on the Words and Music conferences and is such a wonderful support for writers, absolutely solidified my intention to use New Orleans as an important part of Clare and Luc’s story when, in talking about New Orleans, she said that it’s always been known as a fling city.
When I got home, I went to work on the part of “The Beautiful Ships” that is set in New Orleans. Again, it wasn’t a comfortable writing experience. I felt I was taking a chance and I was definitely headed into unfamiliar territory in many ways. But by that point, the story had gained a certain feeling of inevitability. I was committed to it and as interested as I hope a reader will be in how the story played out. When I finished it, it was closer to being done than first drafts usually are for me, though of course it has needed various degrees of revision. But I realized when I’d written the last words, returning again to the beautiful ships, that any real changes in the story had to revolve around the center as I’d written it. And I had the sense that the particular compression that comes from putting the Clare and Luc story in a tightly wound interior of the book—and that sense you’ve referred to of wanting the words “to rearrange themselves on the page so all will be well”—may heighten the reader’s involvement in their story.
When that third novella was finished, I looked at the other two and started making the changes required to make the book a coherent whole. By this time, I knew that Luc was the same priest Clare had met as a child. That required some important changes to “Nuns,” which included small ways of making Father Étienne a bigger presence and the larger change of writing the actual bad confession Clare made to him on the May Day when she crowned Mary’s statue. When that work and some revisions to the way I’d arranged scenes in “Sylvie” were complete, so was the book.
This is the writer’s story of how Clare and Luc became Clare and Luc. I think it’s a different answer from what a reader’s sense of how their relationship evolves over time would be. That would likely be more about Luc as an anchoring reference point in Clare’s past who, because of their daughter, seriously shaped her future. But the fuller answer from that perspective is one I want to leave to readers who discover for themselves the importance of Luc in Clare’s life.