The Virgins by Pamela Erens – Q & A

The Open Bar

Tin House Books: Where did the idea for The Virgins come from and which character did you start with? Did you always know that Bruce would narrate the story, or did you begin with Aviva and Seung and work backward?

Pamela Erens: I’d long wanted to write a novel that captured something about the 1970s and being a teenager then. Most teenagers in the seventies were born in the sixties—that is, they were the first American kids to be surrounded from the very start by all kinds of new ideas about freedom and sexuality. I had all three of my characters from the beginning, but my original idea was that there would be a more traditional love triangle. Somewhere pretty early on I came across an article by Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Review of Books on the work of James Salter. I am an enormous Salter fan and I had read his story collections and his novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. The Oates article reminded me of the setup of A Sport and a Pastime—a male narrator tells the story of a romance in which he doesn’t take part. That narrator describes encounters and events he couldn’t possibly have been a witness to. Suddenly I knew that was what I wanted to do with my own novel.

THB: I was fascinated to see a female author get inside the head of a male narrator who is himself attempting to inhabit the consciousness of a female character; it’s an interesting form of puppetry. Can you talk about the challenges that go along with this device?

PE: I’m not sure I saw it as all that challenging. For some reason I find it easier to get into the head of a male narrator than a female one. Or at least I experience it as easier. My first novel, The Understory, also had a male narrator. I guess one risk with The Virgins is that readers could reject the idea that a male narrator would be able to imagine the intimate experiences of a teenaged girl. But I don’t know why an imaginative guy shouldn’t be able to picture what a girl might be thinking and feeling. Also, remember that Bruce is telling the story as an adult, not as a teenager. He’s had more experience of people and he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the clues Aviva and Seung left behind.

THB: You attended an elite boarding school yourself—Phillips Exeter. How much did your experience there inform the fictional Auburn Academy?

PE: Mostly I stole two things from Exeter: the physical layout of the place and the humble material details of late- 1970s life there, like the smelly pay phones in the dorms. I have really poor spatial perception and memory. What I mean is that it’s very hard for me to invent places or accurately remember the ones I’ve been in. So I pretty much always have to copy my settings straight from life, either by visiting them (and taking notes and photos) or researching them. The layout of Auburn is very close to the layout of Exeter: where the dorms and athletic fields and woods are, etc. The atmosphere of Auburn is also very close to what I remember the atmosphere of Exeter being in my time: the gleeful antiauthoritarianism and somewhat rambunctious sexuality and drug-taking.

THB: In so many ways the book is about outsiders: Aviva is a female in a traditionally male institution; Seung is a minority in a traditionally white institution; even Bruce is something of a social interloper. At the same time, they’re all members of an extremely privileged class. Can you talk about that dichotomy?

PE: It’s absolutely true that Aviva and Seung and Bruce are insiders and outsiders at the same time. Insiderness and outsiderness are relative qualities; it depends on the environment. What’s interesting about the time period in which the novel takes place is that Aviva and Seung are members of groups that are on their way up in American society: women, Jews, Asians. Bruce, as a Wasp, isn’t exactly on his way down, but his kind is realizing that there’s a whole lot more competition out there for status and other social goods than there used to be. Some years back I attended my twenty-fifth reunion at Exeter, and someone from the administration gave a talk about admissions to my class. He basically said that most of us sitting there wouldn’t have gotten into Exeter if we’d applied today. The school I describe in The Virgins is beginning to be pried open by the “interlopers” and become more of a meritocracy. Now there are even more former outsiders who have access, rightfully so, and the competition is even fiercer and more meritocratic. The mix of outsider-insiderness is probably even richer now.

THB: The teenage characters in The Virgins seem to be driven equally by the fear of and desire for the “adult world”— sex, drugs, even their own futures—so much so that the feelings seem like two sides of the same coin. In your mind, or in the world of the book, how do these two feelings relate?

PE: I think most of the things we strongly desire in life we also strongly fear.

THB: So much of the tension in this book hinges on sexuality, and the characters’ attempts to come to terms with it (both physically and mentally). The book is set in 1979, a decade after the sexual revolution and not long after these types of schools started going co-ed. How do you feel that the time period affected the teenagers’ approach to sex?

PE: The time period is crucial to the way the characters deal with sex. Even though the book takes place in 1979 and 1980, Aviva and Seung and Bruce and their peers are much closer to the sixties than the eighties in their expectations of sex. They’re coming of age just before a new turn in the culture. I remember that the kids in the classes behind mine—I graduated in ’81—really did seem different. They were a bit more conservative politically and in the way they dressed and so on. The early 1980s brought the herpes epidemic, and on the heels of that came AIDS. Ever since that time, kids have been unavoidably aware of certain threats associated with sex. Of course, before the pill and sex education and legalized abortion, there were other threats associated with sex. So the teenagers in The Virgins exist in this very brief window of time when sex wasn’t, or didn’t seem to be, particularly dangerous. All of a sudden it supposedly could be unencumbered and all about joy and pleasure. Except that even when the unnecessary dangers are removed, sex is still connected to deep and complicated human needs and longings and fears. So it’s rarely unencumbered, especially when you’re just starting out. That’s what the characters in The Virgins find out.

THB: The Virgins is composed of fifty-seven chapters—most a few pages long, some as short as a single sentence. How did you strike upon this structure, and what purpose does it serve?

PE: I don’t remember making any conscious decision about the structure. Things just naturally fell out this way. The book seemed to want to consist of fairly brief episodes, one after another.

THB: Do you feel that you’re writing in a particular tradition or lineage of writers? Are there any authors to whom you feel an overwhelming debt, or is there a novel that served as a kind of model?

PE:   I don’t know about a lineage, but I’ve always gravitated to writers who make the inner life transparent on the page. Writers do that in such a vast array of styles. You have the great traditional psychological novelists like Tolstoy and George Eliot and Edith Wharton. And then you have writers like Kafka or Bruno Schulz or Denis Johnson or Jane Bowles or Lydia Davis who reveal the inner life in entirely different ways. I feel an overwhelming debt to more writers than I could possibly name: I’m always marveling at what writers manage to do, what they can make me see and experience. What they give me permission to try. That said, there were two books in particular that I went back to again and again in writing The Virgins: James Salter’s Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime. I loved the dreamlike and mythic qualities of those novels and the way they convey something of the mystery and grandeur of sex. Come to think of it, both of those novels are episodic and have many short chapters; that’s clearly the answer to the previous question. I was copying Salter.

Pamela Erens was raised in Chicago and attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, where she concentrated on literary theory and women’s studies. For many years she worked as a magazine editor, including at Glamour. Her editing and freelance journalism have won national awards.Erens’s first novel, The Understory, published in 2007, was the winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize and a finalist for both the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Erens has also published short fiction, poetry, and essays in literary journals and magazines ranging from Chicago Reviewand New England Review to O: The Oprah Magazine. She is the recipient of two New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowships in fiction and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.