In “A for Alone,” your story in this week’s issue, Irene comes up with a kind of conceptual art project based on Mike Pence’s credo that, if you’re a married man, you don’t spend time alone with another woman. The story is set in the fall of 2017. What is significant about that time period, and what does working with recent history allow you to do, narratively?
There are two reasons I set the story in 2017. The first is that it’s not now—that depicting events in a time clearly before the pandemic means the characters can do things that once seemed unremarkable, like meet for lunch inside restaurants, without those actions needing to be explained. The second reason is that when Irene, the protagonist, refers to “an article about Mike Pence that got a lot of attention,” there’s a specific article I had in mind: it ran in the Washington Post on March 28, 2017; it was written by the journalist Ashley Parker; and the headline was “Karen Pence is the vice president’s ‘prayer warrior,’ gut check and shield” (yes, it was actually a profile of Karen Pence). Parker’s article refers to a 2002 article in another publication, The Hill, revealing that Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.” I believe that the Post article brought the Billy Graham rule into the wider cultural consciousness.
Irene sets about having lunch alone with various men to ask them their thoughts about the Mike Pence rule, and to have them fill out questionnaires about whether they spend time alone with women. These lunches give the story its structure. Is it a relief to light upon that kind of organizing pattern? Or does it feel somehow constraining?
Well, constraints can actually be a relief. The story’s structure is, indeed, very simple—though possibly misleading in the first half—and I made two choices that imposed additional constraints. I decided to give information about the protagonist only as needed, rather than preëmptively, and I decided to reveal central facts within dialogue, which is often considered taboo by writers. Or, even worse, it’s considered cheesy, the kind of crutch employed by, say, a soap opera: “Bernard, how can I run away with you when you’re the man who burned down my mansion and tried to run over my cousin?!” Naturally, I enjoyed flouting these supposed rules.
This is, in its oblique way, a political story. Much like two of your novels, “American Wife” and “Rodham,” it uses political facts and narrative to go off in its own direction. What repeatedly draws you to politics as a source for your writing? Are there novels or stories that you look to as examples of the form done really well?
In general, I’m interested in the discrepancies between our public selves and private selves, and those discrepancies can be particularly dramatic and intense in politics, which feature literal popularity contests. There’s just so much pressure on politicians, and those close to them, to act a particular way. I suppose I’m also drawn to fiction about politics because there’s an idea (that perhaps no one believes) that, in the political realm, personality is peripheral and policy is what’s being sold, debated, et cetera. But, of course, this pretense just makes personality more intriguing. As for overtly political novels that are done well, “The Line of Beauty,” by Alan Hollinghurst, is pretty perfect.
An irony of Irene’s project is that maybe Mike Pence is right. There’s a sense, though, that, even if Pence is right, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Tell us more about the ambiguity of that ending?
Perhaps the point of ambiguity is that it’s ambiguous? And a story should speak for itself? With that disclaimer out of the way, I definitely, unequivocally don’t think Mike Pence is right. I can’t imagine any adult disputing the fact that sometimes some individuals who are in monogamous relationships are attracted to people other than their partners. But that’s not Mike Pence’s insight any more than America was Columbus’s discovery. The part specific to Pence, Graham, et cetera. is how to behave in reaction to that fact. And their choice is wrong for a bunch of reasons, foremost among them that they’re imposing their will on other people in a way that (professionally and financially) disadvantages the others. They’re also ignoring the existence of anyone who isn’t heterosexual. Even as she tries to dismiss the Billy Graham rule, Irene is implicitly giving credence to it rather than simply ignoring it—and perhaps her inability to ignore it is due to her being a married heterosexual woman. But I actually don’t think the salient question is whether adhering to the Billy Graham rule achieves its goal. As Irene’s friend Maude reminds her at the end, that’s one way to live a life, but there are many others.