The self-interview seems like a particularly appropriate form to discuss your—our—new novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
How is that?
Well, the book is structured in such a way as to constitute a kind of dialogue with itself: alternating chapters from different points of view, telling different but related stories that can be understood as being in conversation with each other.
I suppose you’re right.
But it’s not just that.
Go on, then.
The two main characters, Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder, built a relationship on long conversations. As the book opens, the two have been estranged for several years, and Charlie’s chief problem seems to be the feeling that he’s been left talking to himself, since the one person to whom he can really speak is gone.
I’ll buy that.
What’s more, Charlie and Sophie are both writers who have struggled, in different ways, to write works that are in dialogue with the world, that speak in some way to other people and their concerns, rather than just talking to themselves.
But if I understand you, that would mean that the book’s subjects include the risk of solipsism—risky precisely because it is so appealing—and the way that people can be damaged be getting stuck talking too much to themselves, instead of extending themselves to others. In which case, the self-interview isn’t particularly appropriate, but just the opposite.
I suppose that’s another way of looking at it.
So aren’t you going to ask me any questions?
Is that what I’m supposed to be doing?
Well, you got to speak first, and your words are going to appear in bold type. It seems only fair that you would at least try to engage me a little bit, rather than just, well, talking to yourself.
Okay, okay. Tell me a little bit more about this book.
Not a question.
Picky. What’s your book about?
Better. As you will have gathered, What Happened to Sophie Wilder is about two young writers, Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder, who were once in an all-consuming relationship but have since fallen out. As the book begins—it takes place about a decade ago—they are living in different neighborhoods in New York and have had no contact for years. Sophie has married. She has also converted to Catholicism, for reasons obscure to Charlie. Charlie, meanwhile, is living more or less the same kind of life they lived together, only doing it without her. Then Sophie returns to this life rather abruptly. Once she has entirely upended Charlie, she departs just as abruptly, but does so in a way that creates an obligation for Charlie—namely, the obligation to find out: what happened to Sophie Wilder.
Another question. Supposing I hate books about young writers living in New York. Will I hate your book?
I’m glad you asked. Not necessarily! As some of our discussion above suggests, the book is not at all an insider-y look at making it in the Manhattan literary scene. What Charlie does discover about what happened to Sophie has nothing to do with the success of her first book, or her failure to write another. Instead, it has to do with the time she spent caring for her husband’s dying father, and the way the watching him suffer has changed her. That is, it has to do with the world’s hard realities. Which is to say that the book is aware of, and at least attempts to overcome, to limits of the inward looking novel about writers writing.
But if I might say so, there’s also enough of the sad young literary man business to please people who like that sort of thing.
We do want to have it both ways, don’t we?
That’s the nice thing about a dialogue with yourself: you don’t have to pick a side.
A strangely appropriate form, as someone once said.
Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, and the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. His first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, will be published in the spring by Tin House Books.
Adapted from What Happened To Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Beha. With the permission of the publisher, Tin House Books.