The eighty-five year old Lore Segal launched her new novel, Half the Kingdom with a reading at Housing Works. She was joined by her publisher, Valerie Merians of Melville House, and Harper’s Magazine editor James Marcus lead Segal in conversation.
Set in a hospital, Half the Kingdom contains an assorted cast of characters interwoven in a soup of drama, including several who have appeared in earlier works. Segal, who has taken up to eighteen years to complete a book, expects this to be her last full length novel.
Segal read a portion of the novel focusing on a character who ends up with a head wound on a beach, and like the other characters, passes through the emergency room. She reads with a slow and steady precision. She has a light accent. But she also has a notable sense of comedic timing and elicits laughter from the audience as well as some murmurs as she describes the injury.
When she wraps up reading, James Marcus begins by asking her about the origins of the multitude of characters populating the book. She explains that the story she read from was based on a newspaper clip she had saved forty years earlier. The article, a clip about bodies on a beach, portrayed for her an image that stuck with her, and that she wanted to expand on. The characters all seem to have evolved from her own experiences.
Marcus follows up asking about the narrative architecture: with this many characters woven together, the story is a complex web. Segal seems to dislike narrative structure saying that “the architecture was a hard thing to come by,” and adding that it may not even be correct. That’s not the point–the accumulation of characters’ experience is the objective.
“Most of my books are written as ideas or themes, and only secondly as chronologically,”
“Most of my books are written as ideas or themes, and only secondly as chronologically,” she explains. Only in Her First American did Segal set out to construct a novel chronologically. She confesses she is not the best architect of stories and her first novel took eighteen years to complete.
In Half the Kingdom, her recurring character, Ilka Weissnix (also known as Ilka Weisz), makes an appearance. Twice before Ilka has materialized, and Segal describes her as “my left rib.” She is however, perhaps more like a lens that Segal looks through. “Ilka is the person to whom life happens and in that sense, she represents me,” Segal says. But what is clear is there is still distinction between author and character. Though Ilka my experience many things that Segal has, her reactions and decisions are not Segal’s.
“there is no non-fiction; there is always a degree of fiction.”
Some of her previous books have flirted more closely with reality. However, Segal insists, “there is no non-fiction; there is always a degree of fiction.” She always writes to some degree by drawing on the real world; “I am not a good inventor.”
Early into writing Half the Kingdom, Segal spent a year researching dementia and found it to be a nightmare. Many of the characters end up entering the hospital mentally sound but physically broken, and then leave the opposite of that. They are physically functional, but mentally deficient. Its not an attack on anyone or the healthcare system, Segal says, but a commentary on how modernity allows the preservation of the physical form but not mental powers.
The hospital setting does provide the novel structure. The hospital is a shared experience all the characters are enduring. “Nothing is as alien as a hospital,” she says, explaining that walking into the hospital from the real world means disconnecting from it.
At eighty-five, she’s beginning to see the changes of age, and it seems to be where the inspiration is coming from. Ilka first appeared as a young girl at nineteen, a “know nothing,” Segal says, and now Ilka, like Segal, has aged.
“I’m not sure how to stop writing,”
Aging hasn’t changed Segal’s writing habits. Of writing, she says, “even in old age, its a lot of fun.” She writes every morning, from eight until one in the afternoon, as she has, she says, for the last seventy years. “I’m not sure how to stop writing,” she explains, saying that as long as she goes on seeing things, she will want to turn those experiences into words.
“There is a moment in writing where something has gelled and two ideas have met each other and dovetailed and the world suddenly seems explicable,” she says.