Hungry Ghost Theater: A Novel
An interview with Sarah Stone by Ron Nyren
Sarah and I met in 1996 in the MFA in fiction program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She’d recently been living in central Africa, where she’d been married to an American diplomat, teaching ESL, and writing multiple drafts of multiple novels (including one that would later be published as The True Sources of the Nile). I’d come from San Francisco, where I wrote short-short stories and coedited Furious Fictions, a flash fiction magazine.
My initial stories for workshop made her wonder if I might be a serial killer. But fairly quickly, we became close friends and helpful critics for each other, even though we had very different writing styles and favorite authors—she loved Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, and Iris Murdoch; I loved Jane Bowles, Yasunari Kawabata, and Bruno Schulz.
We’ve now been together for more than two decades, are each other’s first readers, and have co-written not only a textbook (Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers) but also the occasional passage of each other’s works of fiction. We discuss writing, reading, and teaching on long walks, and sometimes work out fictional problems by laying out
sections of our manuscripts in process to look at together (occasionally with the help of one of our neighborhood cats). We’ve been in three writing groups since graduate school: our current group has been together for more than a decade. So I have seen Hungry Ghost Theater evolve substantially over the years. Despite knowing this novel so well, I still had some questions for Sarah.
Ron Nyren: Your mother created amazing collages and assemblages. In Hungry Ghost Theater, the different chapters take place in wildly different realms—including a San Francisco warehouse converted into a performance space, a locked psychiatric facility, an assisted living home, Seoul, Zanzibar, six different hells, and a possibly haunted theater institute in the Santa Cruz mountains. What is the role of collage in your work? Would you talk about the way you mix realism and the fantastic, humor and seriousness, the political and the personal, mythology and science?
Sarah Stone: Everything my mother made turned into a collage, assemblage, or installation, and I’ve inherited that sensibility from her. Hungry Ghost Theater is a mix of invented personal reality, real political context, and various mythologies, told in different voices and modes. The book does have a throughline moving underneath all the stories in the book, making an arc from beginning to end, but my experience of life is that it’s quite surreal: connected in improbable ways and disconnected in others. Some of the most fantastic moments are based at least a little on the tangible details of life. I’m very interested in the reality/fantasy border: did that really happen, or is it the character’s imagining or delusion?
RN: Hungry Ghost Theater is very much a novel, and the Zamarin family isn’t your family, but they have certain commonalities. And the book does draw on the places you’ve lived and worked. What parts of this book reflect something in your own background?
SS: Many, but not all, of the family members in the novel are Jewish, or half-Jewish, like my own family. And, like my own family, some of the characters are artists, scientists, and/or activists. Some wrestle with mental illness and addiction issues. They are all very interested in the survival of the world and in finding a way to help make survival possible.
Though the people and events are fictional, I’ve lived in Seoul, traveled to Zanzibar, worked in a locked psychiatric facility and an outpatient treatment center, hung out with my family in psychiatric and assisted living facilities, studied performance, and spent a memorable summer working in an apparently haunted clothes optional retreat center and bodywork school in the Santa Cruz mountains, which in the book becomes an experimental performance institute.
RN: All of the chapters involve the Zamarin family, but some are told or seen through the points of view of other people they meet, like a performer who’s also a new bride who winds up on the same train as children from the family and observes them:
The middle girl, Eva, is out of place, nervous, as if she might be afraid someone will ask why they are traveling by themselves. Maybe these kids are homeless. Maybe they’re orphans. They look shell-shocked, like people who haven’t yet started to believe in their losses.
The little girl, Julia, is a peach, and a piece of work. When she sees that Sonja has chocolate, she smiles deliciously, half-closing her eyes, her long eyelashes against her cheeks. Sonja gives them all handfuls of plantain chips. She’s practicing having children: she could raise a whole house full of them. And Simon better get ready to prove her mother wrong. Sonja gives him a non-newlywed look.
Would you talk about how the different viewpoints in the novel work?
SS: I keep trying to tell the story of the group (a family, a theater troupe, inhabitants of different institutions, people who identify strongly as members of a country or subculture). This novel inhabits characters who share some experiences but each have their own concerns and beliefs. Because they each get their time at center stage, their views and lives become structurally intertwined. I think of the novel as an oddly balanced house with rooms piled up on each other, every which way. It all looks like it’s coming down at any moment, but each story supports the next, not always in visible ways. That was the image that stayed with me while I was writing.
RN: Throughout, the characters are wrestling with questions of agency and responsibility. How much free will do you think we actually have, and how much are we ruled by our biology, our addictions, or our subconscious?
SS: As we say when we’re teaching and don’t have the answer, that’s a good question. I’ve seen people conquer their addictions or manage their mental illnesses (and then go under again, and then climb back up). Almost always with massive help from family, friends, professionals, programs. So much of what we used to see as sin now looks biological, physiological, a result of misfirings in our brains. That doesn’t mean there’s no accountability. Right now, we’re in a very dark political time, with people in power wreaking real harm on the vulnerable. As people in power always have, but this time in more open, shameless ways. Power is another kind of addiction. Some of the idealists in this book don’t use their own power as well as they might, even as they’re trying to grapple with making political theater that’s often about abuse of power. I believe in Dr. King’s famous quote: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Not automatically, because, of
course, he also wrote, “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.”
As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, people have to do the hard work of waking up and moving away from darkness, toward the light. Not so much in his Inferno, where they’re really stuck with the choices they made. The Inferno blames its sufferers: I’d like to fight with the great poet about that.
RN: Can you talk about the Dante connection in the novel?
SS: Hungry Ghost Theater is the first, standalone book of a trilogy, and as I worked on all three of the novels, back and forth, I realized they were becoming an homage to and fight with Dante. I read and reread the Divine Comedy as I worked, and more resonances crept in, and then I gave way and let myself admit that I was doing something that felt ridiculous, writing a book in conversation with this great, massive poem. Hungry Ghost Theater has nine pieces, and each of them correlates in an off-kilter way to the appropriate sin in Dante’s Inferno. A couple of the characters do wind up in six different hells for a while. It’s not dependent on Dante. The connections are mostly in my own mind.
A friend from our writing group said, “I’ve never read Dante, so I don’t know whether I’m missing something I should be getting with this book,” and I told her that one of my imagined readers is an enraged Dante scholar, crying out, “What on earth does any of this have to do with Dante?” and flinging it across the room. (Even the Dante scholars in my head are performative and temperamental….)
RN: You have such compassion for your characters, even when they’re being impossible with each other. And most of them seem to have a lot of self-awareness about the flaws they struggle with. I’m thinking of this moment between Julia and her sister Eva:
Eva had said once, “Oh, Julia, why are you so smitten by every huge narcissist you meet? I swear, you collect these people,” and I’d answered, “I like to be around people who revel in being themselves.” And when she sighed, I asked, “If you don’t like narcissists, how do you stand being a part of this family?” She laughed, not happily, and pulled a strand of my hair.
How do you reach a state of compassion for your own characters; how do you hold the complexities of their strengths and weaknesses as you write them?
SS: Thank you. I try, but I don’t always succeed in that. It’s strange how we care for our characters and feel as if they’re real people, how we want to tell them off sometimes and then excuse them at others. I’ve been imagining this family, and the people whose lives touch theirs, since 1993. They’ve come to have layers for me through multiple versions and drafts. The hardest moments to face as I write are when I’m giving the characters my own faults. That’s true for a lot of writers, I think. Being able to be both compassionate and dispassionate, or as much as possible, takes some extra work in that case. Then, as I was working on the book, there was a lot of death in my family: that affected the way I saw the world and the way I write.
Early readers of the novel have told me, “Julia is the heart of the book, of course,” or “Arielle’s struggles are what make the novel,” or “Naturally I love Katya best.” One friend wrote me half a dozen different letters, almost all about Eva. So some people have a clear favorite, and they also believe that other readers will feel the same way about that character. Sadly, so far, Robert is no one’s favorite. I’m attached to him, though. He can be truly awful, but I admire his ferocity and vision.
RN: This book gives us a window into the creative process through Julia and Robert’s experimental dance-theater collective. For example, in “News of the World,” a member of the collective describes an early performance that’s not connecting with the audience until Robert, “in a moment of inspired desperation,” picks up a newspaper and begins reading from it. This book evolved over a long period—some of the pieces had entirely different characters when I first read them in early drafts. What was the writing process like for this book; what were some moments of desperation and inspiration?
SS: I’ve thrown out entire sections and plotlines of the trilogy. I’m an inefficient writer. But most writers have to grapple with self-loathing and despair. I think those of us who keep going have developed a little distance, or even a sense of humor about the ups and downs. We have to go on believing it is going to be a book, even when there’s not much evidence for it.
The book also took a long time to write because I’m obsessive about teaching: the writing of other people matters just as much to me as my own fiction. I used to be embarrassed about this, but I’ve come to accept that this is how I work. It takes longer to write a book when you’re spending a lot of time reading and critiquing other writers, but it gives you a timeshare interest in so many different books.
I’ve had the great good fortune to get responses to my drafts from wonderful readers. It takes time to find a real writing community, to keep going through the years of trying to trade with people where it doesn’t quite click. But at this point, even if I’m having a hard day or week (or sometimes month) with my writing, things may be going well for you, our writing group, our writer friends, or the writers I work with. And I love the work that WTAW Press is publishing and feel very connected to my fellow writers at the press. So, no matter what’s happening with my work, someone in the writing ecosystem is having a wonderful writing day, or my favorite writers, whether I know them personally or not, are publishing new books. There’s always some cause for hope.
Ron Nyren’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, The North American Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. A former Stegner Fellow, he’s a freelance writer and teaches fiction writing for Stanford University.