This is a slightly edited version of a conversation I had with independent Philadelphia author Lawrence Richette about his latest novel, The Abyss.
1.) How much research did you do about hospital administration and about mental illness?
LR: "These are two areas I have personal experience of. I didn't have to do actual research. I was told the book was very accurate by a doctor."
2.) Do you see a parallel between artists and novelists? Or: Can medication used to calm personality at the same time hinder art? Doesn't the artist require pain?
LR: "If you're asking about the novel, I'd say the question is open. We don't know if his" (the character's) "paintings are any good! No one reliable tells us the paintings are any good. Gillian" (the psychiatrist) "didn't like one of his paintings."
"-- I think anti-depressants are dangerous. They create a false mood. They mask real emotions."
(King: Something used to correct a chemical imbalance?)
LR: "Doesn't work the same way. With anti-depressants they're trying to create an optimum level of feeling. Which no one knows what that is. It's a losing game."
(King: Who's your favorite artist?)
LR: "Matisse in the 20th century. Bonnard, obviously."
3.) Your books always have a great sense of place-- of Philadelphia. Is this an inspiring city to create in? How does it rank in your opinion with Paris, San Francisco, and other acclaimed literary cities?
LR: "It's inspiring for me because no one's really written about it. Philadelphia is virgin territory. Its civic culture has its own special feeling, like San Francisco. New York and Paris are world cities, so you can't compare them. Philadelphia's somewhat conventional but not stiflingly so."
"I'm trying to create a regional literature, focused on this region. I like to walk around and look at things. I don't drive that much. I see things at street level. Literature of the suburbs is impoverished because you don't have that intimate connection that you do with a city. Suburbs are so generic. Philadelphia is so compact, you can move from one world to another world in the space of a few blocks. Go ten blocks and you see all these different sub-cultures, which is wonderful for a writer."
4.) How discouraging is it that local media ignores hometown literary talents unless they're toothless or have been given the brand of approval by New York?
LR: "I used to find it more disccouraging than I do now. I'm used to being ignored. Philadelphia has a provincial attitude and doesn't trust its own taste. It looks for approval from New York. The most mediocre novel by John Updike automatically gets more attention than anything by a local writer. People in Philadelphia need to trust their own taste more, not depend on the tastemakers in New York. The local media is falling down on its duty to discover the best local talent. They should be ashamed of themselves."
5.) What novelist do you consider yourself closest to?
LR: "Norman Mailer, with his The Deer Park."
6.) What's the future of the novel?
LR: "It has a future. It's up to my generation of novelists to reclaim the novel. It's why I'm disappointed with my contemporaries. The only contemporary novelist I admire without reservation is Bret Ellis. And he hasn't published much lately. But he has the ambition a large-scale project requires."
7.) Back to your book: Are men and women hopelessly mysterious animals to one another?
Larry Richette will be reading at Philly's Center City Barnes & Noble on March 7th. I challenge Karen Heller and other local media types be in attendance. (That's not my usual kind of hangout, but I hope to be in the audience.)