This year, Bethany Ball’s debut novel What to Do About the Solomons took the literary world by storm, garnering a rave review from The New York Times and a short-listing for The Center For Fiction’s First Novel Prize. In What to Do About the Solomons, Ball writes a provocative, sexy, and darkly funny tale about a multigenerational family with origins in an Israeli kibbutz. She moves us between decades and continents, from lonely childhood to lonely adulthood to the home raid of an alleged money launderer. Perhaps all in a day in for this intricate family that moves simultaneously closer together and farther apart.
In this month’s interview, Dennis Norris II and Bethany Ball talk writing multigenerational families, awkward sex scenes, and more.
Dennis Norris (DN): Tell me about the origins of What to Do About the Solomons: Did you know, from the outset, that it was a novel?
Bethany Ball (BB): After I wrote the very first story, “Guy Gever Stands in the Fields,” I knew I was going to write a book about an Israeli kibbutz and that I was going to cherry-pick stories I’d already written, fashion them into chapters, and write in the connective tissue. I enjoyed this process. I felt it was most like life: random things happen, random people come together. You are randomly born into a family with people you would otherwise never associate with. In a way, it took out the artificiality of fiction and plot, which can sometimes feel manipulative. I’m writing my second book much more as a conventional novel and I feel like I have to be careful of this – the sort of plodding along of information and timeline, which I as a reader am suspicious of.
DN: Two of the many adjectives and accolades that have been used to describe this novel are “sexy” and “humorous” – and I agree! You have a very straightforward way of writing sex and sexual behavior, and of weaving it into quiet moments so that to a degree sexual energy rumbles underneath the surface at all times, in all points of view, with constant potential to bubble to the surface. How do you approach writing about sex and crafting it in such a way that it continues to echo throughout the narrative?
BB: One of the things Grove said to me when they signed me on was that they didn’t cringe when sex came up in the book. I take that as a high compliment. I like to say that writing awkward sex scenes is my superpower. There is something comical about sex, and to say we are obsessed with sex is like saying, in my view, that we are obsessed with water, or oxygen.
I studied the masters – Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, John Irving, Marguerite Duras, Henry Miller – and those favorites of youth in the ’80s, Clan of the Cave Bear and Flowers in the Attic. Like all young people everywhere, we were curious about sex, and of course there was no internet porn back then, but our parents had books and it was pretty easy to find the “good bits.” My only issue with the Solomons book is that the sex is generally not terribly satisfying to the participants. I’m consciously trying to remedy that in my second book. I feel duty-bound to write about sex in a realistic way, but I hope my next set of characters will find more pleasure in it.
DN: What about humor? Moments in this novel are laugh-out-loud funny. I’m thinking about the women in this book, several of whom are fierce and critical and witty in the way they observe the world around them. Shira when she’s in L.A., Vivienne seemingly all the time, and even Carolyn, in her almost catatonic state. How did you so seamlessly weave humor into a narrative that, really, is quite dark?
BB: Humor is tough. I really hoped people would find the book funny, but my sense of humor is dark. Like I’ll tell an anecdote and think it’s funny, but if I’m in the wrong crowd it doesn’t go over well. My Scotch-Irish-Southern mother had a very dark sense of humor. Her Southern Baptist upbringing was almost too much for her, and dark humor was her way of coping. Since all beings suffer, humor is what makes suffering bearable. I was just reading an interview with Kumail Nanjiani, who wrote and starred in [2017 romantic comedy] The Big Sick. He said, “Generally, comedy is a person in trouble; it’s a person dealing with a situation that they’re ill-equipped to handle.” That’s pretty much how I feel a lot of the time. I’m bombarded by situations I’m ill-equipped to handle. But I guess I also wonder: doesn’t everyone feel that way?
DN: I think you’re right in that humor often provides added nuance to suffering. It makes me think about childhood and the idea that humor and suffering are especially potent with regards to young characters and their distinct vulnerabilities. What was it like writing about the child Joseph, and the time spent away from his mother?
BB: I really walked a fine line with Joseph. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I don’t think I could do anything really terrible to a child in my fiction. In my MFA, I remember teachers casually handing out stories where a child is brutalized, or something awful happens to him or her. It seems like the new way to be shocking, or cutting edge, which I respect. But after having my own children, it is pretty difficult to read that kind of thing, much less write it. It’s the reason I can’t read Cormac McCarthy even though he’s a brilliant writer; I read Outer Dark and that was as much as I could take. So, I wanted Joseph to be in trouble, but I didn’t want it to be too harrowing.
I know that people often say Shira is a bad mother, but I don’t quite see it that way (I love all my characters, as I’ve said before). She is self-absorbed, she makes mistakes, but she’s on her own and she’s doing the best she can. Being a mother is incredibly hard. She didn’t leave Joseph on purpose! That would be a bad mother.
DN: I completely agree, and I had similar thoughts about Shira as I read – that in fact, she is a good mother given her circumstances. Both Shira and Carolyn are fascinating examples of women navigating motherhood and working life. I’m curious about the way in which what you consume as a reader has evolved since becoming a mother. Are there ways in which your writing has changed because of motherhood as well?
BB: My writing has definitely evolved since having children. It is one thing to be the child of someone. You see motherhood as having your needs met, or not met. It’s another thing altogether to be both the child of someone and a parent. When I workshopped the “Smaller Than Tears” chapter (where Carolyn is dealing with her father’s visit), a young woman in my class thought that Carolyn was a bad mother because her child had asked for a snack and Carolyn had forgotten about it. I was kind of floored by that. I’ll just say that by the time I was the age of the children in my novel, it never even occurred to my mother to get me a snack, and therefore, I never asked her for one. I knew to get my own. Ditto my own glass of water. But children these days are different, or maybe my working mother was different from the other mothers back then. It’s difficult for me to say anyone is a bad mother, maybe because it seems too easy for our culture to label women “bad mothers.” I think the whole movement of attachment parenting, fears of not meeting children’s needs all the time, and not trusting kids to be on their own for even a minute has been used as a way to put women right back in their place.
DN: I’m curious to know more about the form of this book, which looks very traditional at first, and then quickly exposes itself as … not exactly experimental, but definitely very modern. Can you describe your process of taking stories already written and fashioning them into chapters?
BB: I’ve never wanted to write an experimental novel. Or maybe I did, so long as the novel was deeply concerned with character. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Jeanette Winterson, and maybe Roberto Bolaño are as experimental as I enjoy reading. I care about those novels because I care so deeply about the characters.
For me, I would write a short piece of fiction and the writing of it would run on momentum. The writing stopped when the momentum stopped. Pushing out the stories into a novel was pushing through these sort of arbitrary boundaries. It’s fun to end a short story with a soldier at the door. It ends with a kind of bang, and I don’t have to answer any more questions. When I decided to push the stories out into a novel, I took the story “Imaleh” and I answered the question, “Who is at the door?” It was almost like the original story I used in the book was a mystery I had to solve. Life feels exactly that random to me, and at the same time also magically coincidental. Since the book began to take shape after I wrote the first chapter, I had to figure out who Shira was, and Maya, and Guy Gever. Marc was added to that story retroactively. I had a lot of fun. It is very difficult to maintain momentum for 80,000 words. Writing the book in this way was an interesting process for me, as the writer. There were sparks between stories that didn’t have much to do with one another.
DN: That is so real.
I’m wondering about place in this novel, because it spans multiple continents and countries, and it moves between them with such ease and clarity. And a big part of place in this novel is a certain kind of public space. The kibbutz, for instance – where the community is very close-knit – and the Solomons’ more suburban community in L.A. What interested you in this aspect of community, and how did you approach place?
BB: I’m interested in the kibbutz and community because I grew up largely without a cohesive community, or extended family. Neither of my parents had family in Detroit. My parents met in group therapy in the 1970s (as they liked to tell people). [They] felt very modern — [they felt] that family was an old-fashioned concept. So they would have friendships that would feel like family, but if there was a falling out, or if they “outgrew” each other, those people would vanish out of our lives.
Marrying into a large-ish family was quite a revelation to me. I know people think the Solomons are especially dysfunctional, and I guess they are, but it seems to me that a lot of families are, too; maybe not to the same degree, but brothers and sisters do awful things to one another, and there are fallings out and then forgiveness, and the whole thing cycles again. There is also a lot of support, and love even, I’d argue, in the Solomons, that I didn’t feel growing up. That said, your community can define you in ways that can be restrictive or even damaging.
The lonely suburban L.A. family of Marc and Carolyn Solomon was closest to the [type of] family I know intimately. The neighbors who barely know one another. No extended family. This is much more familiar to me, and for whatever reason, much harder to write about, and it’s something I was able to explore more in depth in my second book.
DN: That makes a lot of sense to me. I would definitely say that loneliness is a theme here, particularly in populous contexts. While the world can move quickly and chaotically around your characters, they are so often left with their thoughts and a sense of isolation. Is that intentional on your part?
BB: I have suffered, probably like many writers or even most, from awful loneliness. Maybe I’m able to grapple with it now in my fiction because I’m writing from the opposite place: I have a great community. I used to think the balm to salve my lonely soul was a large community and family. But I realized after living on the kibbutz that what people look for is connection. It doesn’t matter how big your family is or how large your community if you don’t feel connected to them. It doesn’t matter how supportive your people are if you can’t reach out when you’re struggling, like Marc. I wouldn’t say Guy Gever is lonely. He is truly supported by his community and large family (perhaps offstage), to my mind. But when a couple is going through something difficult together, it’s extremely hard to be supportive of one another. You’re just trying to get through the day, which I think explains Carolyn and Marc and their isolation. What also isolates them is their sense of shame. Whether Marc did anything wrong or illegal or not, everyone assumes he did. And he’s smart enough to know it.
DN: I’m really interested in your use of time, and how it’s braided intimately with place here. You aren’t linear in your use of time. You have an ability to move us through decades in the space of a sentence. How do you think about place, and time, in your writing?
BB: This question gave me chills! My friend and former teacher Nelly Reifler was working with me on a story I’d written where time was kind of a mess. She said that she found that whatever a writer wasn’t succeeding at was usually what they were most interested in. Your questions kind of verified that for me! Time is a struggle with me. Both on and off the page. I lose track of time easily and often don’t have a good sense of how long a task will take to complete. I’ll show up to a dinner party a day early, because my personal sense of time doesn’t jibe with real time. As well, as I get older, I realize that I am the same person I was at 20, at 16, at 11. I was wiser at 11 than I was at 20. Now I am wiser at 45 than I was at 11. In part because paradoxically I’m the same person and yet at any given moment I’m a different person altogether. So yeah, my sense of time is skewed. Buddhists believe that there is no permanent self, that our self is in constant flux. I think this book is pretty close to how I experience time and self, or selfhood.
That said, I didn’t start this book out to explore these things. It was simply what would keep my interest as a writer and a reader: to have many characters, to jump around in time and place. Not to get too wonky, but a Buddhist friend of mine once said that everything is actually happening to us all at once. Time is just an illusion to help us process and learn from what has happened to us. If you think about time like that, it’s easier to feel like you can get away with a book that jumps around so much and also has many, many characters.
DN: Just out of curiosity, what’s next for you? Tell me about your next book, if you don’t mind.
BB: I’m working on my Detroit book, which is a little closer to my actual roots. It takes place during the last few weeks of 1999, and deals, in part, with the hysteria that surrounded Y2K. It’s a novel about a young broke woman in New York City, who works in Y2K compliance, and her parents, an inner-city teacher mother and auto factory worker father back in Detroit. It’s really about poverty and struggle, and I hope, though I’m never sure, there’s humor, too. Late ’90s New York City was both a great and terrible time for me. Because of Prince, a lot of us were convinced, since the ’80s, that the world was going to end. Y2K helped hype that myth. I wanted to capture something of that era and that period of my life. I’m nearly finished and it will come out in 2019, with Grove, exactly 20 years after the events of the novel take place.
Dennis Norris II is a writer, editor, and co-host of the popular podcast Food for Thot.
Photos by Bethany Ball.