During a recent promotional tour book tour, author Maude Epman granted me some time for an interview. We sat in the shaded portion of a park near the bookshop in a western suburb of Chicago where she had conducted a reading and book signing of her new novel, Shadow Bender.
Me: It’s a standard question, but I’m sure many people are interested in how you became, or were inspired to become, a writer.
Epman: Even as a child I realized that telling lies was far more interesting and entertaining than telling the truth. I’m not saying I intended to be dishonest, but I learned by watching the reaction on my parents’ faces that the truth suffered when compared with a good story.
Me: So story-telling is no better than telling a lie?
Epman: In essence, even though great story-telling brings us closer to truth than fact.
Me: The old adage, then?
Epman: Certainly. Fiction speaks truth, even if it’s just the writer’s truth.
Me: Your fiction has been praised for strumming universal chords of human experience. So it seems you’ve been successful in speaking beyond your truth alone.
Epman: That’s especially rewarding. And also a testament to the commonality of human experience. We relish in the fact that each of us is an individual, but the nature of our existence shows the repetition of so many similar feelings, emotions and sentiments. Nothing new under the sun, except for the manner in which that is expressed.
Me: That segues nicely into my question of how you toy with the classic form of the novel. Is it fair to say that the techniques you employ, dual narrative and parallel but disparate plot lines, abets the truth that you wish to express?
Epman: That word, toy, is perfect for what I feel I do. It’s play at work. In Shadow Bender I explore that mechanism. I carefully chose the title to make the reader play with the notion of trying to bend a shadow. If you puzzle over it long enough, you reach the conclusion that the only way to bend a shadow is to toy with the object and the light that cast it.
Me: Your novels have described as puzzles for the mind. Is that fair?
Epman: No more than day-to-day existence is a puzzle for the mind. There’s nothing linear about someone plodding through an average day. Thoughts leap back and forth. What-ifs occur constantly. Fantasies bloom at the oddest and most inopportune times. Yet writing fiction that parallels true experiences tends to upset folks.
Me: Maybe they’re seeking in fiction what they can’t achieve in their lives.
Epman: Escapism? I think the way they act outside of my books is far more escapist than what they might read within them, although I suppose if someone writes me and says I’ve patterned their life precisely in what I’ve written, then I’ll feel as though I approached perfection. No, I think people, not all but many, read to eliminate the distractions, those digressions we entertain throughout the day, little paths away from what is or should be demanding our attention. Demands that often bore, anger or enrage us. So, now I’ve come full circle. Linear writing is escapist!
Me: But not yours?
Epman: I suppose by my own words, no. I want to clutch the reader and fly her as close to the sun as possible that she gets uncomfortably warm but never burns.
Me: I like that image.
Epman: Thank you. It’ll reappear somewhere in my work, I’m sure.
Me: You often have male protagonists and you write them convincingly.
Epman: You’re going to get me into trouble, I can tell.
Me: There’s been so much made about women writing men, or maybe men writing women, and falling short of standards and expectations.
Epman: Doesn’t that really depend on the character? I mean, I could take the bait and profess that men are such simpler creatures that it’s easy to write them, but that’s so simplistic only a man would think of it! (She chuckles). But the character challenges the writer with is, or her, complexities. I can create a shallow, clueless male or female character, or a layered, shaded, and unfathomable one. Both have their place in fiction, serving the truth, or one of its variations.
Me: The main character in Shadow Bender is man who seems tempted by the paths not taken, those digressions you mentioned earlier.
Epman: Harassed or haunted might be a better way to describe how he deals with his choices, how he second-guesses them. Phelan explores those options more graphically than others might, even going so far as attempting to live as though he had made different decisions, taken some of those different paths. The reason he considers the other paths is because they might lead to outcomes better or more satisfying than the ones he has. Presenting the reader with a glimpse of the path not followed can be frightening, even dangerous. It can display an array of emotions she’d rather not consider.
Me: Do you consider linear fiction inferior or less authentic?
Epman: Not necessarily. I suppose I enjoy my form more than traditional, realistic fiction. I like putting a character in the position of doubling back and choosing the other path, of foregoing all the memories, the happiness and sorrow, if given the opportunity. I find myself straddling the line with characters between self-absorption and self-awareness. They confront restrictions and either capitulate or overcome them. If I succeed, then they achieve selflessness.
Me: What motivates you? Do you have choices you wish you could revisit? Decisions you could undo?
Epman: What most frustrates people is that choice by its nature involves exclusion. So I, too, fantasize and envision what my life might have been like had I made different choices. Not in the abstract, but specific choices. About love, career, values. Diving into the particulars creates an atmosphere far more tactile than generalized speculation.
Me: Thank you for making time to talk with me.
Epman: You’re welcome.