Talking to Rufi Thorpe about writing, understanding people, and Iris Murdoch

A writer with one book is to be celebrated. Two books, and they can be compared. But when a writer has three, or more, books, you can start to see the patterns of thought in a new way, the things that fascinate them. The threads that connect.

Rufi Thorpe just published her third novel, The Knockout Queen, with Knopf, which I reviewed yesterday (spoiler: I loved it). I pitched her on an interview where instead of talking about the new book, we talk about the themes that are in two or more of her works.

We talked over Zoom one recent evening. This transcript has been edited for readability and legibility.

Looking at your books there were a few things that I saw that showed up in either two, or maybe all three books. I wanted to ask you about a few of them. The first one I'm going to lead with is: traumatic brain injury.

The first time that I really had interaction with traumatic brain injury was because I had these two students when I was teaching composition to undergraduates who had both fought in Iraq, and they were in the same class together. One of them had a traumatic brain injury that was bad enough that he needed to record class time, because his short term memory was sort of just blasted. So he wouldn't be able to do the assignments if he didn't have a literal representation of what was said in class. He was still got an A in the class, he worked so hard, it was ridiculous. But talking to him about the experience of it, and what it was doing to his life and how he felt about being in the army was really interesting to me.

I had another friend that was a soldier who had traumatic brain injury, as well. Then sort of by coincidence, really, my husband is a neuroscientist and his first job right out of his PhD, he studied attention. Analyzing EEGs, electrical signals in the brain when you're paying attention or shifting attention. And then he worked in a developmental neuroscience lab, and then he got a job at a company that's building a robot headband that can diagnose both concussion and stroke.
 A lot of people, if they've had a stroke, they get picked up by an ambulance, and sometimes the ambulance thinks they're just drunk and so don't take them immediately to the stroke center. And you know, every minute is brain.

So, I think about it a lot. I wrote a whole novel about Bunny Lampert [one of the main characters in The Knockout Queen] like 10 years ago. It didn't have any of the same plot. She was a peripheral character in this group of linked stories. And so and the idea that I had first gotten for her was from a girl boxer that I met at a party who had really obvious traumatic brain injury, and had this kind of creepy little boyfriend who was her tender, because she was so out of it. I don't know if it was just being hit in the head too much, or if there was drugs involved, but she was out of it enough that she couldn't remember why she was there, what we were all doing, and he kind of would have to soothe her through the night. It was so scary to me and I felt so just scared on her behalf. It haunted me enough that I wrote two novels about her.

What is it about Orange County or that part of Southern California, those beach communities, that that are so dramatic or mean so much to you?

Well, I grew up there and I think that then my first experiences of people and families and reality are all hinged on that place. So that's part of it.

I was born in Texas and we moved to California when I was six. So most of my remembered childhood is in California. But my mother had lived here and she went to UCI and my grandmother had lived here and so a huge amount of her childhood and her life was spent here and California and everything that it represented to my grandparents, they were living in Arizona, and I think that my grandfather had just worked himself into sort of a really drunken, violent, dark place. The idea was that if they moved to California, he could be good and he could do better. And of course, that didn't happen. And they just continued to have a horribly destructive marriage for another decade. So California is symbolized so much in all the stories that I learned as the fairy tales of real life. Like, this is what happens to people, to women, to marriages are all somehow tied up with California for me.

There's a lot of class stuff there, too. It's a very opulent, rich area, it's been more working slash from the past, but a lot of your characters are facing against that economic disparity.

Well, and the other thing about Southern California is it's all about the real estate. You know, real estate plays an unusually a pressing role on everybody's consciousness. There was a big real estate market collapse when I was in, maybe, third grade, where everybody's dad was suddenly unemployed. My mom was a single mom so she always worked. All the moms came to her and were like, “can you teach me how to get a job?”

Especially with Corona Del Mar, the opulence I found really alienating because it changed so much. I mean the Fashion Island that I grew up going to as a twelve year old stealing lip gloss from Thrifty's was a completely different fashion Island than what is there now.

There was a penny arcade that we would play Mortal Combat at, we would eat at PF Chang’s. I mean it was like a normal mall at one point. Going to it now, it’s just unreal. I feel kind of the same way about Corona Del Mar. I guess that's part of why I was able to call The Girls from Corona Del Mar that, because I grew up there and I knew what current is.

Whereas when I started writing The Knockout Queen, we were just moving to El Segundo and the place had captivated my imagination, but I didn't feel like I knew it. I didn't know anybody here. We weren't even technically living here, yet.

When I decided to set it here, it was more just that the town fascinated me, as a small town dynamic where you could get this gossip going and this sense of community. And yet it had all the same features of Southern California that I was kind of already familiar with. Cause there's even, I mean Corona Del Mar should be a small town, but there's a weird, anonymous, zombie feeling to it. It's like people don't even really talk to each other, they just go work out.

I'm curious if the fictionalized El Segundo, and Corona Del Mar in your first book, are they in the same universe? Do all your characters live in the same world?

I'm starting to think so. I mean, I didn't consciously think about it really with the first two, although in a weird way I feel like Dear Fang and The Knockout Queen are more from the same universe than The Girls from Corona Del Mar. I couldn't even give you a conscious reason why I think that. But definitely the thing that I want to write next is I think going to be explicitly set in North Shore with some peripheral characters borrowed from other books.

Your characters often feel very Californian, but they're often, in the books, either not in California or have escaped, California.

I think sometimes it's easier to understand who you are when you're not at home. Maybe I only think that because of my life, because I grew up in California and then went to boarding school for high school and then went to college in New York and grad school in Virginia. And so I was always coming home and leaving again. So I think that those moments of being in a strange place and realizing that you're so Californian, or returning back to California and realizing the ways you don't fit in there those are compelling situations to me.

Which is brings up another topic: a lot of your characters have gone to graduate school, or are looking at things from a certain perspective.

I think one element of that is that plot and propulsive cause-and-effect storytelling is probably the thing that's been hardest for me, I think that I started and I really honestly think that one of the reasons I became a writer, and it was successful, was not because I perceived myself to be good at it, but because I found it irritatingly difficult.

I wrote songs, that’s how it started out. I played guitar and bass and I would write songs. And so then I started writing poetry, and then I went to this summer camp and there wasn't room in the poetry class, so I had to take the fiction class. I was like, how does this work? Are you kidding? I couldn't understand any of it.

They’re like “you know, just make someone up.”

I'm like, what do you mean? How? I can make up jibberish, if you asked me to just, like, fabricate words, I can do that. But what do you mean?

So you close your eyes — and then what do you do? How do you make someone up? How do you know you're making up the right thing and not the wrong thing?

It was like trying to describe how to go to sleep to somebody that didn't never slept. I just really didn't understand what I was supposed to do. I found story and causality to be really mystifying. How do you know that anything was not another thing? What's the difference between a sequence of events and a story? And Aristotle is really confusing on that point because a lot of the definitions are super technological.

My personal understanding of story, the part that I did feel like I grasped, was the way in which somebody's history made them who they are in their adult life. That I understood intuitively from knowing and loving people in my life, seeing who my mother was because of all the things that had happened to her and the life that she lived.

So, in some sense I think all of my books are an attempt to take people in a situation, and then go look at how they got there. The sense of time is almost always moving backwards, and then working towards the present. Instead of being interested in stories where it's moving into the future, and it's more concerned with one event causing another, that is inherently suspenseful in the sense of, like, a bomb is going to go off. I'm less able to write those.

That's really interesting because one of my questions was about the way that you build tension. You often will plant seeds, and then where a more genre-style writer would make it into melodrama, and build the tension — you often come in and undercut it. I find it extremely comforting. I like it because I always hated stories that pumped up the tension too much, and then they felt, it felt artificial. The story became about that tension line instead, of about the people in the story or the story itself.

I'm sure everyone else could have looked at my Iris-Murdoch-loving, David-Bowie-listening purple-haired self and been, like, “she loves melodrama.” But I didn't know that about myself until I was in grad school and one of my professors said “so, you have an addiction to melodrama that makes your work unpalatable.”

I don't think he used the word “unpalatable”, but that was the idea. He had a whole schtick about how he would define melodrama…it was something about the villain having a mustache and having a bowtie. I dunno, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I didn't figure out until then that I could leaven the melodrama with….

You know, my understanding of reality was that it was very dramatic. People have a certain quotient of weird that just exists in their bloodline. The things that happened to me, and everybody that I knew, were just very odd, and troubling, and violent, and super melodramatic.

So, sense of reality skews in that direction. And then it was, again, in grad school, and it was a writer — I mean, we weren't even really friends. I don't think that he liked me at all. And he was like, “I don't understand. You're such a funny person, why is your work so completely humorless?”

It just never even occurred to me that I could be funny in my work. And so then I decided to try that, and I found that that's what made it all start to work together. I should have known — I always loved comedic novelists. I was a big John Irving fan. I loved Kurt Vonnegut, you know, so that's sort of when I artistically felt like it was all jelling. So, to me, the comedy and the melodrama would go together.

Like Iris Murdoch, you don't write huge, large plot driven facades. You take people in their real lives and go deep and examine them This is another way I think you're a lot like her. You examine them — not from their internal point of view, although certainly do, and there's a little distrust there sometimes — but, often you look at people by how other people are talking about them.

Oh yeah. I'm very interested in that. I'm interested in how people see each other and their misapprehensions of each other are super interesting to me. And the ways that we see each other change over time. The way that you can think of someone as one person and then ten years later you think you can't even remember how you used to see them because you see them this other way. And I'm always interested in those kind of lapses.

Iris Murdoch was so obsessed with infidelity and it made me so anxious reading her books. That was always the hard thing for me because I loved Iris Murdoch and this is so I first started reading Iris Murdoch when I was, I guess, eighteen, and at the time I was living in New York with my first serious boyfriend. For my birthday he had visited every used bookstore in the city, and bought every Iris Murdoch novel he could find. Then he’d hidden them everywhere in our apartment.

Months after my birthday, I would open up the closet and an Iris Murdoch book would just fall out. He didn't even know how many he had. So I read all of them, and it was this big gush of just Iris Murdoch. I don't think I read anything but Iris Murdoch for six months when I was eighteen or nineteen. And I found her so thrilling because I loved all the philosophy, and I took a lot of philosophy classes in college and really loved approaching the world that way. And yet I found the behavior for characters to be so scary that I would get kind of sick to my stomach reading, but I couldn't stop.

There are these people who talk about Iris Murdoch and especially males, traditional older male British critics who have this very, you know, kind of tsk-tsk look at her and her approach to things, especially because of her many love affairs and the people that she was in love with. Like, she was in love with Raymond Queneau really early. I don't know if you've ever read these letters, she wrote to him amazing letters. He was married and he didn't want to have that kind of relationship, but he kind of mentored her as a writer. She wrote these before she was published about how she was horrible and should never be published. And it was this incredibly vulnerable person sharing these moments with someone they want to get close to.

And I'm hearing that from Iris Murdoch now, who, you know, knowing where she went was is so fascinating, but I always thought it was like her ability to fall in love with people that made her so compassionate to people. She was never judging anybody. It was always about compassion or getting to know them better and fascination and acceptance. And that's maybe another something you share with her, that you're caring. You don't let your characters off the hook for things they do, but you're also get close to them at same time. You don't, you don't push away from them because they're being bad.

Well, that's always been sort of one of my problems. What do you do with the fact that you love bad people? I think I write about it because it's been a thing that I had to figure out in my own life. You know, in my personal biographical life, but even the stories that I was sort of raised up on my grandparents who were super abusive and horrible alcoholics, but my mom was always “my dad was just the best.” And I'm like, yeah, but he was also horribly abusive to you.

“Well, he was a really fun guy.” She loves him and he was horrible to her, and ruined her life. How he could be a monster — and not just a monster to other people and you can pretend it's not happening but a monster to you! — and then you still love him and see everything that was good in him and everything that was broken?

So I knew always that you could see it, that you could let your compassion go all the way with someone, even the worst person. But then there comes a point where you have to decide let this person keep being in your life? And that was sort of the part that I had to figure out in my own life.

I kind of fall in love with anybody, you know, I especially like the more broken someone was really, the more likely they were to tell me about their past. And then I could understand the way that they were. And so then how can you not love someone once you see why they are the way that they are? I didn't understand what the difference was. And so understanding that I should be seeking romantic relationships with people I admire was a late dawning concept. But even outside of romantic relationships, in friendships and in familial relationships, we often wind up entangled with someone who's going through the big bad shit and is being bad and we know why, and yet they're still being bad. And that conflict is a big one for me.

What are some other themes that I haven't touched on? Are there things that you think about throughout your work that you either do consciously or you notice yourself writing about later that come back at you?

Worrying not only about loving people who are bad, but worrying that you're a good or a bad person is always there. Misunderstandings and misapprehensions of other people. I like secrets, longstanding secrets. Also, I guess like bad parenting, I think there's a lot of questions of bad parenting.

Young parenting, like people who are very inexperienced and thrust into suddenly being parents.

My mom got pregnant with me from a one night stand, and was just like, “well, why have an abortion? I don't think I'm going to get married and have the life I thought I was going to have and so why not?”

So she raised me on her own and then I, as I started publishing books, I had just had my first babies and was sort of understanding how much work being a parent is, and how lonely those years must have been without anybody to coo over — you know, I mean that's the best part is seeing your child be so cute and then having somebody to be like, “aren't they cute?” with.

Sharing loving your kid is this huge way I get through the day in my life, and the idea that she was alone with it and that she didn't have anybody to tell when I said something funny, just broke my heart. So I think about that. I think about how ill suited to being a mother my grandmother was. She just never should have done it. She hated children. And she was old. I mean I think she was 43 when she had my mom, maybe it was 41 when she had my mom's older sister. So she became a mom really late and then was like, "oh, this is really getting in the way of my drinking.”

And so I'm always a little bit interested in stories about women failing to be good women. Not being able to perform the role as they understand it.