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    • By way of background, from Wikipedia, Siri's biography: Siri Hustvedt is an American novelist and essayist. Hustvedt is the author of a book of poetry, six novels, two books of essays, and several works of non-fiction. Her books include: The Blindfold (1992), The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), What I Loved (2003), for which she is best known, A Plea for Eros (2006), The Sorrows of an American (2008), The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010), The Summer Without Men (2011), Living, Thinking, Looking (2012), and The Blazing World (2014). What I Loved and The Summer Without Men were international bestsellers. Her work has been translated into over thirty languages.

      I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of Siri's newest book, Memories of the Future, which will be available on March 19, 2019. Siri also did the cover and interior illustrations as well. In the meantime, the book guided the below question & answer session, which we hope you enjoy.

    • Siri, thank you so much for joining us for this Cake Panel today. Your upcoming novel, Memories of the Future, is a fascinating one. Being originally from the Midwest myself (by way of Wisconsin) and moving to New York City six years ago, I could relate to the theme of relocation as portrayed in the work. The New York City of August, 1978 when the book begins was a very different place than the New York City of 2013. How did you go about building the world of our protagonist SH? 

    • The particular world-building you have in mind was pretty easy. I moved to New York City to attend Columbia University as a graduate student in English literature in 1978, and I have vivid memories of the city at that time. My heroine, S.H., has my initials and hails from Minnesota, as do I, but, unlike her author, she spends a year trying to write a novel before she begins studying for her PhD.

      The world of S.H. is lifted from the world of my own memories, but, as is repeatedly stressed in the book, our memories are shot through with fictions. There is no original memory in our brain that can be hauled out in tact. Memories shift over time. In neuroscience this is called “reconsolidation.” I am playing with the genre of memoir, a genre, I dare say, which regularly borrows heavily from the novel.

      How many memoirs have you read with page after page of dialogue, precise descriptions of clothing, faces, and rooms? Who remembers all of that? Just about nobody.

      On the third page of the novel, S.H. writes, “If you are one of those readers who relishes memoirs filled with impossibly specific memories, I have this to say: those authors who claim perfect recall of their hash browns decades later are not to be trusted.”

    • Having lived through my own "initial weeks in New York City as the Period of Nobody Real" - do you think that is a near-universal relocation experience? That jarring transition, merging into the freeway of experience here?

    • I think any person who moves from one place to another and has no contacts in the new city or country passes through a period of disorientation and loneliness, but for a young person the newness is also a promise of the future.

      And what is the future? The future is always a fiction made of wishes or fears about what might happen once you have arrived in that time, but, of course, one never arrives in the future.

      It is endlessly deferred. Tomorrow is the future today, but when I wake up tomorrow, it is no longer the future.

    • New York City brings its own unique vocabulary, most notably that of neighbors and the interactions with them that are underscored here in a way that's uncommon elsewhere. S.H's neighbor, Lucy Brite, begins as one of the most-annoying-of-all-NYC-phenomena, a loud talker who makes uncommon thumps, bumps and voices, but as S.H. becomes increasingly fascinated by her, transcribing her conversations and looking closer, we are drawn deeper into the mystery of who Lucy truly is and who she's talking to.

      She defies description and remains an engrossing enigma throughout the work. How did you set about creating her world and her character?

    • Lucy Brite, S.H.’s neighbor, is a strange character. In the beginning, she is only a voice through the wall. S.H. knows no one in the city, and Lucy is a form of human contact for her—words coming from next door. Lucy is a kind of living book—text only until the two meet. As time goes on and our heroine makes friends, the mystery of Lucy’s strange monologues and telephone conversations becomes a game of interpretation among them. Each friend has a different take on what Lucy is actually saying and what it all means.

      As a young woman living in a small apartment in the city, I did have some loud and occasionally alarming neighbors, although no one like Lucy. Characters have unconscious, dream-like origins. Lucy arrived in my consciousness, and I took her. Your word “enigma” describes her perfectly. She is an enigma who is then invented and reinvented throughout the novel by various people who think they have the answer. Exactly what the “real story” is, however, can only be guessed at.

    • S.H.'s apartment on 109th Street, the Hungarian Pastry Shop - are those or were those real places, or inspired by them? (I looked up the bookstores that she shares on page 7 in a wonderful list of places to loiter - the Coliseum, Gotham Book Mart, Books and Company - all were real, but are no longer operating - luckily the Strand is still with us).

    • S.H. lives in the apartment I lived in after I moved to New York, same address, same floor. I was often at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and conversing with fellow students about what in heaven’s name a philosopher meant by this or that statement.

      Every place mentioned in the book was real at the time. The “facts,” to use a popular word of the moment, are not altered.

      John Ashbery read at the Ear Inn with Michael Lally on September 16, 1978.  Paul de Man gave a lecture at the Maison Française on November 1, 1978 on Shelley and Rousseau, which I attended. The stories in the book about the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven are also all factual.

      There was a tugboat strike. Garbage did build up downtown, and there was a rumor that raced around the city about a rat attack on Anne Street.

    • Our protagonist S.H. moves to NYC in the summer of 1978 as a fresh college graduate with the goal of writing her book. The story within Memories of the Future is a multi-layered one: we have a personal journal that recounts the firsthand experiences of SH, we have the story-within-a-story of teenage detectives, with additional poignancy and depth added by memories from the past and present. What was the initial layer (journal, story, or memory) that you began with?

    • There was no initial layer of the book. All the layers were there when I began writing. The essential frame of the book is a dialogue between an old self and a young self. The young self is present in the texts she wrote in 1978-79: the journal she kept and the novel she is trying to write, which are set off with their own typeface. The old self contextualizes the young self, interrogates her motives and meanings. The real subject here is time, an ineffable subject, to which the narrator returns again and again. The time of physics is not the time of subjective human experience. The time of the reader reading a novel is not the time inside the novel. Memories always take place in the present, but books can outlast their authors. This is made explicit at the very beginning of the last chapter: “We all suffer and we all die, but you, the person reading this book right now, you are not dead yet. I may be dead, but you are not.” We all suffer and we all die is a line borrowed from the narrator’s mother, which is repeated in various contexts throughout the book and through the repetitions changes meaning. I suppose what I hope for is that the reader participates in this strange adventure of time, one in which the so-called real and the so-called imaginary continually overlap.

    • S.H.'s nickname, given to her by her friend Whitney, is "Minnesota" to reflect her Midwest origins and appearance - tall, blonde - and in return, S.H. describes her sophisticated friend Whitney as "She is the city. She is New York." With the idea of places as people, what else would you want readers to notice?

    • Whitney embodies the city for Minnesota—sophisticated, glamorous, bursting with future possibility. She is Minnesota’s dream of urban glory. This is a constant theme of the book: the imaginary shapes the real. On the novel’s second page, there is a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: “He had filled his imagination with everything that he had read, with enchantments, knightly encounters, battles, challenges, wounds, with tales of love and its torments, and all sorts of impossible things, and as a result had come to believe that all these fictitious happenings were true; they were more real to him than anything in the world.”

      My heroine is a reader. My heroine’s imagination and her perceptions of the world around her are shaped by her reading. Her grubby, roach infested apartment, her run-down garbage strewn neighborhood, her best friend are all illuminated by thoughts and ideas she has culled from books. They are rosy with ideas. At a particularly grim moment of hunger and misery, S.H. invents an imaginary character she calls The Introspective Detective, or I.D. or Id, as in Freud’s id to cheer her up.  Through the auspices of the old narrator, the Introspective Detective comes alive later in the novel, no longer young, and the two older women carry on a dialogue about the Dada artist and poet the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, a key figure in the book.

    • Symbolism of certain objects becomes crucial to the work, in particular keys, wands, and knives. On page 37 it states "Memory is a knife." This becomes increasingly symbolic and important throughout the work and is even featured in your art on the cover. In a way, S.H. becomes a knife herself - cutting through the obstacles in her path to self-expression. Another important symbol is that of a key (whether door key or computer keys) - turning, opening up ideas, perspectives, that were previously closed off, preventing the locking away of passion and potential - or wands - harnessing, empowering. What was the inspiration behind including these symbols, and were there other symbols that perhaps we should keep an eye out for in the work?

    • There are many images and sentences that are repeated in the book. I would like the reader to take note of these phrases and note the drawings I made for the book. I know it is unusual for an author not writing for children to make illustrations for her own book. It seems to be so unexpected that interviewers don’t even mention them. There are drawings! They are important as visual punctuation for the novel as a whole. If I didn’t want them to be seen, I wouldn’t have put them in the book! Some of the images contain clues and secrets.

      The knife is a returning image that shifts meaning as the novel unfolds. There is a real knife, a switchblade, in the book, a knife Minnesota names “The Baroness” because the Baroness was a rebel, a woman who early in the 20th century boldly cut through the smothering expectations that women  face, that they behave nicely, are never angry, and defer to men. Memory is a knife when the memory is traumatic. The traumatic memory cuts through time in flashbacks, which S.H. experiences after an assault. The flashback is a reliving or reenactment of a terrifying event. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that this kind of memory is stored in a very different way from ordinary autobiographical memories. It’s a volcanic upsurge of the earlier terrible experience in motor-sensory and sometimes visual form. It is rarely accompanied by words.

      The knife then becomes the image or mutating symbol of the heroine’s rage, rage that she has great difficulty expressing. Some of her childhood memories reveal her repression. Anger was forbidden in her early life. She needs the knife to say what she cannot say—yet. I’m glad you mentioned the keys, too. The young woman in concert with the old woman search for a key to unlock the reason for the pain they have suffered over time. Despite the high comedy and literary high jinks that also run through the novel, the story is about trying to find a way out of an impossible position. I think your words “turning, opening up ideas, perspectives” and “locking away passion and potential” are exactly to the point. The book is looking for a solution to the pain.

      There is a little ditty the old narrator writes that encapsulates the book’s movement:


      There is a knife, and there is a key

      .There is a lady who boils the tea.

      Open the book and learn the spell.

      There is a story I have to tell.


      The keys needed are on the keyboard. The writing of the book itself, which tells Minnesota’s story of blindness and passivity and pain and rage and ultimately liberation through her imagination is the key. She writes her way to freedom by reimagining herself. That is the magic of fiction.  

    • The "side hustle" that allows S.H. to sustain herself while working on her book and running low on funds is helping wealthy aspiring author Elena Bergthaler write her fantabulous-sounding memoir "The Rebellious Debutante" - but in the process, S.H. - even as she's financially sustained - is creatively marginalized, feeling like an outsider at the party for the book she essentially wrote. Do you think this encapsulates an ongoing quandary?

    • When I was young, I had lots of crazy jobs. I drew on those experiences for Minnesota’s employment in Memories of the Future. Some of those writing and editing jobs made me feel, well, obliterated. Elena is a rich woman who can afford a ghostwriter, but the humiliation S.H. feels is not in the ghostwriting as such. She suffers because Elena presents her as the memoir’s typist! This is an old story that repeats itself over and over. It is a problem of power. Minnesota has to eat, and because she has to eat, she has to compromise.

    • The novel also tackles aspects of oppression faced by our protagonist or those close to her: starting with her own family, with S.H. memorizing the bones from Gray's Anatomy as a young girl, to which her father responds "Oh, you'll make a fine nurse" which leads to the self-realization of S.H. in the line "I want to be a hero. I am not a hero. I am a girl, and it is bitter." S.H. continues to fight empty "Great Men" lecturers, Romanciere as a dismissive, and violence both physical and psychological, oftentimes starting as small, troubling incidents and then growing into situations that are unbearable on every level. S.H. repudiates this with her entire being, and finds strength in the words of another character, Patty, who states: "Don't turn away from your gifts. Don't apologize for them...And remember this: the world loves powerful men and hates powerful women. I know. Believe me, I know. The world will punish you, but you must hold fast." S.H. at the end, is triumphant, as are we, the reader accompanying her on this journey.

      What words of inspiration would you want our readers to take with them? 

    • Yes, many of the particular moments you mention are examples of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence.” It is an apt term. Bourdieu claims in various books and papers that the victim of symbolic violence participates in that violence by not recognizing it for what it is, that he or she unwittingly reinforces and strengthens the societal hierarchies that maintain power. Minnesota, however, does feel the misery of this soft violence even though as a child she can’t name it. There is an incident of real violence in the book that leaves a psychic wound, which Minnesota must work at healing. My character, Patty, (whom I love) isn’t always right, but she is right about powerful women facing hatred and punishment. There is a lot of work on this phenomenon in social psychology. It’s usually called “backlash.” I have felt it often. There is a reason why women apologize, defer, smile (and sometimes grovel) regularly as they make their way through life. They do it to avoid punishment for assuming their authority. They have learned that in a woman, power is not attractive, that it is perceived as emasculating, that it incites “feelings moral outrage—anger, contempt, and disgust.” (Okimoto and Briscoll, “The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians, 2010).  

      After many years, I have discovered that it is better for me to face backlash than to disfigure and contort myself into a desirable but innocuous thing. It is hard to offer advice to anyone. But I can say that my refusal to play that dreadful female game of hiding and silence and pleasing has made me braver, freer, funnier, and happier.