Little Rat Makes Music
24 January 2012
Taking wine and words to new places
7 February 2012

Fernanda Eberstadt on being an American writer in Europe

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Fernanda Eberstadt is the American expatriate author of five acclaimed novels, Isaac and His Devils, Low Tide, When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth, The Furies, and her latest – Rat. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Commentary. Her nonfiction book Little Money Street is about the struggle of Gypsies in southwest France, where she lived with her family before returning to London. We look forward to welcoming her to the Library on Wednesday 1 February at 19h30. She writes:

I’m thrilled to be appearing at the American Library and will be talking about the delights and perils of being an American writer in Europe and in particular about my most recent novel, “RAT.”

The novel is named after its heroine, a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in the French countryside, raised by a feckless, charmingly narcissistic single mother. Rat has never met her biological father, who lives in London. The person she loves best in the world is her adopted younger brother—the son of her mother’s best friend, an ex-prostitute who died of AIDs—and when her mother’s boyfriend begins to take a sexual interest in the kid, Rat decides it’s time for her and her brother to leave home in search of her father.

Like all my books, RAT is about family.

For years, I’d been haunted by the subject of a child who grows up obsessed by a father she’s never known, and finally sets off to find him for herself. My heroine Rat’s fantasy is that once she’s reunited with this unknown father, he will somehow give her all the steadiness and sense of belonging she’s always lacked.

But of course the reality turns out to be quite different: Her father was a twenty-something-year-old Englishman on a beach-holiday, who had sex one night with a local girl he met in a nightclub. And felt completely outraged when his one-night pickup not only got pregnant, but insisted on having the baby, without his consent.

He goes on to marry a suitable wife to whom he never mentions this traumatic episode; they have a child. And then fifteen-year-old Rat shows up, like Banquo’s ghost, ruining the domestic feast.

The irony of the book is that in the end, her father comes to love this girl he wished had never been born, and to recognize an affinity with her almost deeper—certainly more involuntary, more agonizing–than what he feels for his “real”, lawful family.

RAT raises a lot of crucial contemporary subjects: what is the nature of biological identity, of genetic inheritance? If women have reproductive rights, do men, too? What happens when children are obliged to parent their own parents? What makes a family? (It’s significant that the only “family” in which Rat and her brother feel completely at home is a bunch of anarchist squatters they meet in an abandoned dynamite factory.)

RAT is set in the French Pyrenees, where I spent six crucial years; my children got most of their education in a village school there. We were living on a vineyard half-a-mile from the Mediterranean. The tourist image of the South of France is of Gold Coast glamor, and yet in fact, for all its natural majesty and blessed climate, this area is poor, down-and-out, blighted by political corruption, a honky-tonk stretch of trailer parks and fast-food stalls that are boarded up nine months a year.

In my last book, LITTLE MONEY STREET, I wrote about Gypsies and Arabs in this area. This time, I wanted to write about the white French families who have drifted down here in search of a cheap place in the sun.

One of my aims in this novel was to create a heroine who is genuinely heroic. Surrounded by dangerously needy adults, Rat is obliged from a young age to become a kind of mother to her younger brother, feeding him, clothing him, protecting him from harm.

I’ve always loved children’s books. One thing I’ve noticed, reading aloud a whole new generation of writers to my own children, is that the world of children’s literature is astonishingly dark. The best children’s writers are tough-minded: they do not shrink from exposing their characters to wrenching ordeals and moral dilemmas. Yet, unlike the heroes of most contemporary “adult” fiction, those of children’s books tend to meet adversity with pluck and resourcefulness. You read Philip Pullman’s Lyra trilogy, and you want to be as brave as she is.

I wanted to do something similar in RAT: to create a heroine who raises a reader’s spirits.

RAT is my own way of grappling a very particular cultural problem. I think of myself as being a New York writer. Yet for most of the last twelve years, I’ve been living in rural France, my children have been going to school in French, and our outside life has been largely conducted in French. In 2009, we moved to London. Closer, but still not Manhattan.

Which means that the daily sights, sounds, smells, opinions, attitudes, pop culture that have been feeding my fiction for the last decade-plus are a European mishmash. The world is indeed becoming Americanized, but the music Rat and her friends listen to, their language and expectations and cultural assumptions are not the same as American kids’. The “New York” of my imagination, the New York in which I grew up, is by now about as archaeological a relic as Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Warsaw.

RAT is written in American English, but it’s my first work of fiction whose characters and setting are a hundred percent European.

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