"By Blood" - A Conversation between Laura Miller and author Ellen Ullman
Laura Miller of Salon.com recently talked to Ellen Ullman, the award-winning author of By Blood, which the Los Angeles Times calls "a literary inquiry into identity and legacy... a gripping mystery."
Laura Miller: Although there’s nothing supernatural in By Blood, it has a Gothic flavor: The obsessive, rather morbid first-person narrator, the creepy faded elegance of the old building where he rents an office, and the voices coming out of the wall, speaking of dark, buried secrets. The fact that he keeps referring to his "nervous condition" as black crows is also redolent of Poe. Your first novel, The Bug, could be seen as a kind of monster story, with the monster being a software bug tormenting the characters. Do you think of yourself as writing in a Gothic mode, and if so, what appeals to you about it?
Ellen Ullman: Yes, I am aware of writing in a Gothic mode. Will I ever escape it?
I'm attracted to the Gothic first of all because of the books I love and keep rereading. My shelf is full of 19th-century novels. They're old paperback editions, pages all brown at the edges, smelling vaguely of mold. It seems right to re-read them today in that condition. Last week, it was Villette by Charlotte Bronte and Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.
And Poe: Yes, Poe. I was completely taken with him when I was a kid. "The Pit and The Pendulum." "The Fall of the House of Usher." "The Tell-Tale Heart." And of course, "The Raven," which we had to memorize in high school. Somehow I did not let them kill my enjoyment of it.
Then there are all those crows in the book. Where I live, South of Market in San Francisco, the bird neighborhood suddenly changed. The old west anchorage of the Bay Bridge, right next to my building, was demolished and rebuilt. Before this, there had been mourning doves and tiny wrens. They suddenly disappeared; legions of crows showed up. I assumed it was all the rats and mice the construction had unearthed. The crows unnerved me. I hated, and still hate, their cries and big beaks and slick black bodies. In By Blood, they became the incarnation of the "black drapery" of the narrator's life.
And finally there is the more personal side of it. The people closest to me know me as what you might call "a dark person." The narrator's voice came to me one night while I sat in my small writing office (in a building like the one portrayed in the book). I did not want to stay within the voice. I felt I had a long story ahead of me, he would divert me from it, and what kind of crazy person tells a story in which the narrator can't see anyone? But once I entered that voice (or it entered me), I understood it was the darker side of my nature demanding to speak.
Laura Miller: The narrator becomes obsessed with a woman he knows only as "the patient," who tells the therapist in the next office about being adopted and her desire to learn about her birth parents. Her origins lie in the murky world of Europe just after World War II, but By Blood itself takes place in the mid-1970s. The semi-apocalyptic tenor of San Francisco at that time definitely leaks into the story: the Zodiac and Zebra killers, the fall of Saigon, the upheavals in sexual politics that aggravate the patient, who's a lesbian. It seems like an intriguing period to write about. Wasn't that also a time when Americans were starting to really face what had happened in the Holocaust?
Ellen Ullman: I can't speak for the majority of Americans. I am Jewish and was brought up in a semi-observant home, but one in which my parents, especially my father, had a deep sense of Jewish identity. I mean, I went to Hebrew school for five years and got Bat Mitzvah'ed. So we had an unavoidable knowledge of the Holocaust.
I remember there was a book about the Holocaust in the living room bookcase. I was way too young for such a book. And I will never forget one thing I read: how the skin of the dead came off like gloves. The image horrified me for years.
I did see parallels between San Francisco in the 1970s and pre-War Berlin of the Weimar period: two wild cities, two economies in ruins, two countries humiliated at losing wars. I didn't set out to make the connection; it came to me as I went along, as the birth mother's story came into focus.
I think I set the "outer narrative" of By Blood in the mid-1970s because that's when I first arrived in San Francisco. I had the immediate impression of having landed somewhere a bit scary. I lived in the inner Mission when there was nothing cool about it. The police used to cruise the district and eye anyone who looked "suspicious." The cops hadn't found Patty Hearst. The Weather Underground was active. Women in overalls—a feminist uniform, see the "Zodiac" movie where the reporter's wife wears denim overalls—were politicos to the police, pinko New-Lefties who had made the U.S. lose a war. I saw a woman pulled into a police van for questioning. Creepy time. And that doesn't even get to the lesbian separatist community, as we called it, where women were struggling against dual prejudices: as women in general, and as sexual outcasts. It was a world invisible to most people, even to gay men, for whom the 70s were a grand time of liberation.
Laura Miller: As the title suggests, By Blood is about genetic (and other kinds of) inheritance—the desire to know it and the desire to escape it. Whichever path the characters take, they are often frustrated. What interests you about the concept of what's passed on by blood?
Ellen Ullman: Like the patient, I am adopted. My sister and I look nothing alike—in summer camp they didn't believe we were sisters. I know children often are not strikingly similar in appearance to their parents, but there's usually an aunt or uncle or grandparent somewhere who supplied this or that trait.
It seems trivial—appearance. But since genetics is inherent in all forms of life, if you don't share a thread of DNA with your parents, you can have this strange inner sense of discontinuity. I don't want to imply that adoptees or orphans have any special claims on existential angst. It's just that our situation enacts the basic human condition of being separate, individual creatures.
My mother hated that I talked about adoption. She was furious when she saw my New York Times Op-Ed about my "mysterious origins." She could not believe I would even think about it, let alone write about it.
One day near the end of her life, she shook her fist at me and spoke to me in the ugliest tone of voice I had ever heard from her. "Oh, I know you're going to talk about being adopted at my funeral. You'll promise me you won't do it. You will promise me!"
Laura Miller: The narrator is compulsively voyeuristic—to the point that he's gotten into some serious trouble. At the same time, he's just like a reader, wanting to know all the patient's secrets, rooting for her to decide one thing or another, interested in the details of her sex life. Do you think that reading, or literature, is inherently voyeuristic?
Ellen Ullman: Yes and yes. But not in the creepy sense of voyeurism. It's utterly natural to want to feel your way into someone else's existence, to have experiences beyond your own. And literature lets you do it without getting yourself locked up.
And let's not forget fiction-- writing, another inherently voyeuristic activity. You've got only so much of your own life. If you want to tell stories, you've got to steal bits from other people's lives. I am a horrible eavesdropper in restaurants. When someone tells me something peculiarly interesting, I warn them that, if they don't claim the material now, I'm going to find a place for it somewhere.
I think that literature—- essays, stories, poems—- is the one form where we can meet, imagination to imagination, without hosts of people in between, no directors and actors and set designers and so on. The medium itself is fairly transparent. You don't need equipment or electrical outlets. You can go off alone to read, and, if the work is good, you are then intensely close to other human beings.