Five questions for Louise Wareham Leonard
Guy Somerset · 01 October 2015
52 Men in the life of the New Zealand-born novelist.
Louise Wareham Leonard was born in New Zealand and raised from the age of 12 in Manhattan. She later returned to live in New Zealand, before moving to the remote outback of Western Australia and currently upstate New York. She’s the author of three novels: Since You Ask (2004), Miss Me a Lot Of (2007) and the newly published “autobiographical fiction” 52 Men, which is comprised of 52 vignettes about the men the narrator has known in her life (including Lou Reed, Michael Stipe and Jonathan Franzen), followed by a coda about the pivotal part played by an abusive relationship in her childhood.
Fifty-two – that’s a lot of men. Were you surprised how many there were when you totted them up?
Actually, I was struggling to keep the number down. 52 Men has a nice ring to it, to me, but I have many more boys, teenagers, men, and lots of amusing stories. Anyone interested in publishing a handful – let me know.
The memories of them you present in the book are very distilled, sometimes to a single incident. Did you have to dig deep to find those memories again or were they near the surface?
Always in my mind is a certain British naval officer I met in the Virgin Islands, a police officer in Manhattan handing me his gun, a gangster throwing me down his stoop at dawn on New Year’s Day. Every story is a man and a memory that lives with me all the time. When I moved from New Zealand to the Australian outback in 2011, however, the memories got stronger. I was living in extreme desert conditions and as the months passed my old life – and particularly that in New York City, where I grew up – came to feel more and more mirage-like, some fantastic delusion of my own brain. I had a sudden sense of urgency to write these stories down, to tell these men’s stories and give them permanence – as if I might never otherwise get back to the world of my youth.
Each of the vignettes is brief and beautifully honed: is there much material pared away or were you focused from the outset on the things you wanted to capture?
I was focused. The childhood story in part two of the book is the bomb, the cause of all the other stories, and the 52 men are the fallout. Luckily, humour came to me – that little godsend – and I wrote all the men not as dire or dark but with affection and lightness. So the worst things ever said to me – “You remind me of everything I hate about women” (Michael Stipe) – or the saddest – “I care, but not as much as most” – and the sweetest – “you saved me from the jaws of despair” (from the gangster about to toss me down the stoop) – are also written in a way that makes people laugh. Also, I’m capturing the core of these relationships, or sometimes just the edge – when they blossom or fail. It’s very moving, these situations opening and closing.
Why autobiographical fiction and not memoir? Or just fiction? Are you comfortable with the uncertainty and speculation that come with mixing the two? Do they add another layer to the book? Or is it a subtraction?
Memoir didn’t allow me the freedom I wanted. Also, all truth is relative, and I don’t wish to hurt people in my family more than I have to. I like work grounded in truth that reaches higher – into the imagination, into re-creation of experience with all the skills we have to bear: perception, care. A book should be more than its facts, but rather – for me, at its best – a living thing with the life of the author in it. If I can’t sense you in your writing, I’m not likely to want to read too much of it. The childhood story in part two of 52 Men is emotionally true: it didn’t happen, but it was something that felt true to my emotional experience, that set up my character in the way my own childhood did. Only fiction and art offer us that freedom, to spin our truths into more than they are, to compress them for the greatest, most damning and most delicious effect.
Have any of your 52 men been in contact since the book appeared? Would they recognise themselves? Not Michael the “rock star” or Jonathan “the world’s most famous North American novelist” – they’re outed on the back cover. But the others.
I contacted many men before publication to see they were okay with the stories: Sergio, who at 15 wrote lists of ways to say sexual intercourse; Fazal, who tortured us schoolgirls with his beauty; Oli the naval officer who lifted me up in a sea pool. They were happy with their stories, it was fantastic, we all felt great. A few men who might be ashamed of their actions probably won’t come forward. A few I wish I could have kept private but I am not in a position to. My brother Dean* once told me the anger generated from memoir or writing from life will come from an unexpected place and he has been right about that. Man #52, who called himself the “most jaded man you will ever meet”, was angry at my story, genuinely wild. He remembered us having a much gentler time than I portrayed. I tried to tell him his story was not a portrait of him; it was slanted, as all the stories are, to show the damage done either to or by my alter-ego, Elise [the narrator of 52 Men]. It made me sad, in some way. He had always been someone I slightly feared and now he had surprised me and showed me, once again, that how we find others to be is often a reflection of our own generosity or fear or expectation. Mostly, though, so far, it has been a surprisingly happy experience: people love seeing themselves and they love laughing at themselves. Women have surprised me by how much they love the book, sharing copies with friends and, literally, with their mothers – with a warning, I’ve heard: “Watch out for the sex and drugs.” When you write something down, you make it last. And people want to endure. They want to last. I have a quote above my desk – “And does not loveliness last forever?” – by Euripides and that is a reminder to me about what I’m trying to do these days, and how I try to live.
* Louise Wareham Leonard is the sister of musician Dean Wareham, interviewed in this earlier ARTicle profile.