Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Skyler White about her latest novel, In Dreams Begin, which tells the story of a modern woman, Laura, who is channeled into the body of Maud Gonne and falls in love with W.B. Yeats . She is also the author of and Falling, Fly (see my reviews of Skyler’s books here). Both novels explore such themes as creativity, body image, and true love — all of which are fertile ground for conversation… Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of In Dreams Begin.
KELLY: Reading In Dreams Begin, I couldn’t help but notice the character of Olivia Shakespear. Between her first name being Olivia and her last name being also a literary name, I was sure you’d put her in there as a manifestation of the Olivia from and Falling, Fly… and then I did a little poking around online and found that she had actually existed and been Yeats’ mistress… and I was thinking, “Wow, what a fun little coincidence!” So I’m partially wondering if you did end up envisioning her as “our” Olivia despite her having been historical…
SKYLER: ::grin:: Olivia Shakespear literally made me laugh out loud when I found her. No, she was just bonus. I toyed with working her as our Olivia, but it felt forced, so I just left that alone, but I did make sure she made it into the book as a little Easter egg for close readers. The research for this book just turned up so many overlaps and coincidences and oddities that I got to the point of half-believing my own fiction.
One issue raised in In Dreams Begin is the question of how much of your inner self to reveal to a partner. Several characters note in this book — and Olivia also noted in and Falling, Fly — that in our modern times we reveal too much, talking about every little deep dark secret until there’s no mystery anymore. Then again, I definitely got the sense that Laura couldn’t fully fall in love with Amit until she integrated with her shadow-self, the part of her that was clumsy and insecure and in pain.
I keep wondering about that too — how much of yourself to show a person… It’s funny having two books out in the public sphere, and feeling like the other parents at my kids’ school and folks I meet for the first time at conferences etc. all have a kind of insight into my soul that I don’t into theirs. Although the books are odd enough that the simple fact that they don’t connect to everyone tells me something about those with whom they do. I have felt both more exposed and more connected than I would have expected. But it’s tricky, yes? Especially in the early stages of a relationship, or if you’re dating someone who seems to think you’re better than you think you are. And I think that’s the tension that’s most interesting to me… the conflict between who I think I am and who I aspire to be. I like books as sample ways of being, and the idea that other people — real, historical or fictional — can inspire and alter us. And I don’t know if it’s a shameful lack of confidence or an admirable flexibility that makes me so interested in alteration. And yes, I think you got it exactly, that Laura has to integrate Ida before she can really give all herself to Amit, who really is able, even eager, to love even those unattractive, mangled parts of her.
I’m really interested in the phrase “books as sample ways of being.” Because they are. They let us vicariously live lives we wouldn’t necessarily choose to live in reality, or sometimes, try on a life and decide we want our real lives to be more like that. I’ve had major revelations about my own life and what I needed to do with it by reading fiction and having something resonate.
Me too! And there are books I go back to again and again and find something new in them each time — that something different resonates. People are so different one from another, but there are enough overlaps that we can wear each other’s clothes. Not every person fits — or is even interested in trying on — all clothes, but we all, for the most part, need armholes and legholes and poking our heads through a different neck can show you amazing things about yourself. It feels like that writing too, sometimes. On the really good days. You get these compound sensations of imagining what it would feel like to be a different person, how the world might look to them, what things might hurt or help you.. and at the same time altering and determining the eyes they see through and the things shaped them. It was part of what I was playing with in having Laura inhabit Maud, how I felt inhabiting Maud, and Laura for that matter, pushing my awareness into edges of another’s being. Looking out from behind their eyes.
And Laura, when she’s inhabiting Maud, is trying on a sample way of being too. It’s partially “what would I do if I’d been born into this whole other time period?” but Maud is different in other ways too, from her body type to the fact that she, unlike Laura and Will and Amit, is not an artist.
Right! Maud’s lack of imagination is fundamental to Laura’s ability to possess her. And yes, that “what is the Victorian era like from both inside and out” is very much something I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to do both the “fish out of water” experience of seeing the time and its conventions with new eyes, and I wanted to be able to look at it from within. It’s one of the reasons I wanted Ida as a second POV character.
But of course when Laura gets into Maud’s head, she puts her own “stamp” on her anyway, and Will falls in love with the Maud who talks to him about art, not the one who’s fighting in the revolution. So even when she’s trying on this whole other life, she’s still Laura in a very essential way.
Exactly. Because we are not our bodies. That which is essential, to use the word you so aptly chose, isn’t corporeal, and isn’t what is loved in the kind of perfect love she has with Yeats. And I wanted to explore that too — what it would feel like to be loved not because of or in spite of how you look, but simply without any regard to that at all.
And speaking of body type, I keep thinking of how Laura spends a lot of time worrying about her own body— working out and playing soccer, then thinking she looks too athletic — but when she gets into Maud’s body, which she realizes is “fat” by today’s standards, she feels really comfortable in that skin nonetheless, and sees it more as a means of feeling sensations rather than something to be brought under control.
I really think that’s historically right. And I think that’s why she feels more comfortable in it. Because it’s hers for feeling through rather than other people’s for looking at. When she is able to experience her body (Maud’s body) directly and not at the one step remove of wondering how it looks to others, she enjoys it more.
(Random aside: I’m now remembering that I used to have a couple of Yeats’ lines about Maud, or ostensibly about Queen Maeve, on my LiveJournal profile, to help inspire body confidence. “She could have called over the rim of the world any woman’s husband to be her lover/and yet had been great-bodied and great-limbed, fashioned to be the mother of strong children/and she’d had lucky eyes and high heart”)
One of the best Maud biographies is titled “lucky eyes and a high heart,” and I actually considered the calling any woman’s husband line as a chapter header. I love how powerless Yeats perceives men to be in that equation. Weird, if you think how little power women actually had. But yeah — Maud was hugely tall, six feet even, way, way more than was fashionable a hundred years ago when average for both men and women was smaller than today. But her height was clearly part of her beauty and appeal, and she was proud of it. More about how much power there is in story, yes? If height is heroic, and strong and magical, as Maud believed and Yeats wrote, how could you not love to be tall?
Right, because the Sidhe were tall! Maud would have embraced any aspect of herself that helped align her with the legends, I think. Even today, we still idealize height and expect our idols to be tall. So you get that *blinkblink* moment when you meet someone famous and they’re shorter than you imagined. Height is bound up in glamour, I think… which brings us right back to the Sidhe, doesn’t it?
Thanks for chatting with us again, Skyler! I always know I’m going to have my brain tickled when I read one of your books.
FanLit readers, you too can have your brain tickled! Comment here for a chance to win an advance reader copy of In Dreams Begin.