A Conversation with Perrin Ireland
Q: What inspired you to write Chatter?
A: I once heard author Doug Bauer say each book he wrote was an antidote to the one before, and that's certainly true for me in the case of Chatter. After the breadth of sorrow covered in my first novel, Ana Imagined, the major assignment I made for myself was to write a book with humor. And, unlike Ana Imagined, which was motivated by an urgent desire to "say something" about horrific events, I approached my second novel with a primary interest in the use of language and style.
I made a number of false starts, then one day for reasons unclear to me, I jotted down a bit of marital banter between a fictional Sarah and Michael. I liked the style, and I liked the characters—enough to live with both for the years it would take (me) to write a satisfactory novel.
But I needed a plot. I'd been fascinated by the story of an acquaintance of my husband who was tracked down by a son he never knew he had from his years in Vietnam. The father ended up leaving his American wife and children and moving in with his former Vietnamese lover. I took the frame of that story and bent it.
Q: Did you intend for the book to be about marriage?
A: No. But I've been married for over 20 years, so it bubbled up rather naturally, and seemed easier than speaking to one's spouse directly.
Q: But the book isn't always humorous—there's a dark thread.
A: Much as we, or I, try to shake them, I do think authors return to certain themes, and for me it's the elephant in the room—the unspeakable suffering that exists in the world that we don't allow to seep into our consciousness or conversation. To include our relationship with and culpability for said suffering.
Q: So you haven't purged yourself of idealism?
A: I'm working on it.
Q: Why did you title the book Chatter?
A: Books are Rorschach tests, of course, and everyone has come up with a different explanation for the title, which suits me fine. I settled on Chatter (and actually it wasn't a 'settle' as much as an 'ah!') because it linked the dialogue-dependent style of the novel with the terrorist 'chatter' subtext.
Q: How much of the book is autobiographical?
A: Much less than people think. I'm married to a businessman who was once in the Peace Corps in Latin America, but no children resulted from his time there. My husband is significantly nicer than the Michael character; I've explained to him that a kind, supportive husband in a novel would make for a very dull read, but I'm not sure he's buying it.
The Jacob character is pure fantasy, although now that I've written him I can see pieces of people I know, which embarrasses me. My women friends all adore Jacob and want to know where they can meet someone just like him. The other favorite character is the dog, a memorial to my dog's younger self.
I don't have a stepdaughter, but do have a stepson who has declined to accept my recommendations for his wardrobe. The Rachel character, a composite of several people I've known, was not intended to be part of the story at all, but because a friend was struggling with cancer while I wrote Chatter, she walked into the book and took over, as characters do.
Q: What does your husband think of the book?
A: He hopes it will be optioned for the movies and that we'll make enough money to buy a boat.
Actually, he's quite realistic about literary sales in the current environment, and finds the phrase 'publishing business' an oxymoron. I should add that he reads everything I write and offers wonderful suggestions, albeit with an unnecessary emphasis on typos.
Q: Do you always wear black?
A: Don't you want to know if I write in longhand or compose at the computer?