Interview: Peter Cameron

Friday, August 21, 2009

A few years ago, I was scanning the fiction section of a bookshop and stumbled upon a little novel titled, Andorra. After reading the back cover and deciding it seemed pretty interesting, I bought it. Flash foward to the present, Andorra is so dogeared and highlighted that you would think it were a textbook and not a novel.

Peter Cameron is hands down one of the best writers of his generation. Every word he writes cuts deep into the bone. His complete mastery of the English word proves that god is in the details.

For this weeks Thank Goodness for Books, I had the supreme privilege of speaking with Mr. Cameron concerning his new (and amazing) novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You.

Hi Peter! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us! We loved Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. Could you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea?

Many of my early stories, written and published in the 1980s, featured adolescent first-person narrators, and as I got older and morphed into a novel writer, I thought I had left that material and voice behind. But I hadn't: one day when I was stuck between books, with no ideas for a new book and feeling desperate, I decided to concentrate on sentences rather than books, and just try to come up with a good first sentence for a novel. And what came to me was "On the day that my sister Gillian ..." And the book rose out of that first sentence.

What is your typical writing day like?

I don't have a typical writing day. Many days I don't write at all, especially when I am between books -- months or years can pass when I don't write at all. When I am working on a book, I write slowly, and only for a few hours a day. But I'm always thinking about the book at some level of my consciousness.

Which is your favorite character in the novel? Which was your favorite to write, if different?

James, and James. But I also like the grandmother and enjoyed writing her, because I was thinking of my own grandmother.

What were you like as a teenager? Do you share any similarities with James?

I was as socially awkward and shy as James, and felt the same terror and depression that he feels, but I managed to participate and actually flourish in school. I was very active in student politics, academics, extra-curricular activities, and athletics. I still dream often about High School. Those intense years made an indelible impression on my psyche.

We really love Nanette. Did you grow up with a grandmother like her?

Yes, I was thinking about my own grandmother quite a bit as I wrote Nanette. They are similar in terms of temperament and attitude, but otherwise very different: Nanette is chic and urbane, and my grandmother was not those things.

Let’s talk a little bit about Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. September 11th seems to affect James more than he realizes. Do you feel that this is one of the contributing factors that leads to his wanting to live outside of New York?

I didn't think of that when I was writing the book, but it certainly makes sense to me now that you mention. Because of what happened he doesn't feel safe in New York in some very primal way and so wants to get away. The problem is New York is the only place he could probably function.

Out of curiosity, since James did go to Brown, what did he study?

I don't know. I don't think about, or imagine my characters, beyond the scope of the book that contains them. But I guess with all that reading he was doing, he would probably end up as an English major.

Do you feel that James will ever be able to resolve his issues with his family?

Does anyone ever resolve his issues with his family?

Are you working on a new project? If so, any hints you can give us?

I'm working on a book that I think will be two separate novellas, quite different from one another.


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