Virginia Reeves is a confounding author. How does someone who can capture the beauty of landscape and human relationships with such rich writing also manage to resist the expectations of what books about such things must be like? Just when you think you know how her stories will go, when you’ve seen the end of a traditional genre book in sight, she suddenly takes an unforeseen turn and something much more profound takes place. Your happy or predictable ending disappears and a new possibility emerges. It’s beguiling.
After I had the chance to review her latest novel, The Behavior of Love, I caught up with Virginia by phone at her home in Helena, Montana where she had just done a launch of the book. We talked about writing, relationships, and the freedom and challenge of living in the present. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Alex: So I can’t remember, are you from Montana originally or did you just move back there?
Virginia: Well, I call Montana home and my parents moved here right before I started high school. But I grew up in a little town called Ocean Shores, Washington. I was born in Oregon. So my parents moved around a bit in the beginning of my childhood but really kindergarten through eighth grade was in Ocean Shore and I graduated from high school here [in Helena] and ended up coming back and graduating from Carroll College, which is the little private Catholic collage here in town. I met my husband here, got married here, had both of our girls here, then moved to Texas for seven years and then came back. So, yeah Montana and specifically Helena is home at this point.
I’ve never been to Helena, but I can imagine it’s a beautiful place.
It is. It’s right in the Rocky Mountains. I mean, the town is literally perched on the mountains and we have a huge city park that is this huge mountain in the middle of town, Mount Helena. There are the trade-offs, of course, of living in an environmentally-beautiful place within a state that has more cows than people, which is true. But we trade-off in the beauty and remoteness for I would say diversity and culture, which I very much miss from being in Austin.
Here on the Eastern Shore, Virginia, we have a similar dynamic.
Well, thanks for giving me a chance to read the book. It’s a great book and I was really happy to be back in your head and your world for a while.
As I said in the review, you have this incredible ability to combine realistic portrayals of relationship with institutional history and big ideas. I’m not sure there’s anybody else who can do that like you do.
Well thank you, I don’t know what that means but I just keep going back to the institution.
It was inspired by my late father-in-law. My husband’s father died in 2012. His name was Mike and he was a behaviorist and he worked out in Boulder. He worked in this institution and he suffered an aneurysm and stroke in the prime of his life. So I had this true story that was very heart-breaking and very interesting and devastating and a lot of other adjectives.
I only knew Mike in the second version of his life, post-aneurysm and stroke, and I would hear all of these stories of the man he was. I was really, really envious of the people who had known him before because he just sounded like such a charismatic, amazing, powerful man. The Mike that I knew was, as the epigraph says, diminished in a way. He had a lot of challenges and he was disabled. There was a period though, where I was able to get out of that headspace and be able to look at and truly see Mike as a man in front of me.
The man that I actually knew taught me so much. He taught me so much about love and about unconditional love and about gratitude. He was the most present person I’ve ever met in my life.
I think we are, as people, often haunted by our past and we are fixated on our futures and it’s rare that we give the present the time that it really deserves and the attention that it needs. Mike wasn’t haunted by his past. His long-term memory existed. He remembered his life before the stroke but he wasn’t longing for it.
He also wasn’t really fixated on any kind of future. He woke up in the morning and if he had a full tank of gas and a pack of smokes and could see his son, or me, or our daughters, it was the best day. I realized what a gift that was. What a great lesson from him.
So that’s the huge back story of the beginning of this book. Maybe one of the hardest parts about writing this book was that I set out to write a novel and not to write the story of my father-in-law. So I had to essentially erase him in every iteration of this book. Mike got further and further away from the character that I based on him—Edmond.
I rewrote this book twenty four times.
Which is a little jaw-breaking. There were a lot of revisions and I may be a little grumpy at my editor still but it needed to be rewritten that many times. One of the things that I’ve realized is that rewriting can be a frustrating process when you think a book is done. But it was not only hard [in the sense] of “Oh, I’m not done with this work yet,” but it was emotional. It was a lot.
Every time, the main thing I had to do in those revisions was erase my father-in-law and, as we do with people we love, I was protecting him too much. I wouldn’t let Ed be fully himself. He would think about maybe doing something that would be frowned upon but he wouldn’t act upon it. So a lot of those characteristics of Ed, that are really true to his character—his feelings about prostitutes and how that has nothing to do with his marriage, for example, or his infatuation with Penelope—those were not parts of my father-in-law.
So that process was emotional because writing about Mike was also this way of bringing him back. He died seven years ago and getting to write about him was getting to have him near again and every time I had to go back, I had to erase him.
The title is a whole other story in itself. I started writing this book before Work Like Any Other was published. From the very beginning I was sure it would be called The Behaviorist. I was so happy with that title. Through all of the iterations, it was still The Behaviorist. Then it was finally done—draft 24—and it goes to marketing and marketing comes back and says, “We don’t think it’s The Behaviorist.”
They said it wasn’t that engaging of a title. As people started reading it, they were like, “This is a love story.”
I said, “No, it’s not a love story. It’s not a love story! I don’t know what kind of story it is, but we’re not calling this a love story and there is no way we’re putting love in the title.”
But I was having conversations with people and looking back at the book and realizing that it is a love story. I don’t know why that was so hard for me to say. I think that because we overuse the word love and I also didn’t want anyone else to be like, “Oh, it’s a romance novel.”
If you’re looking for a romance novel, this probably isn’t the one for you. But I realized that it is a love story but not a very traditional love story. When we stumbled upon The Behavior of Love, it was still a nod to that behavioral history and the behaviorist that Edmond [the main character] is. But it’s also the idea that love behaves very differently given the circumstance.
It’s obvious that the relationship is really key in this book but its obvious, too, that your way into it was, as in your last book, through the man’s character. Your answer kind of explains to me one of the other questions I had—how you made Ed a sympathetic character. He’s got obvious flaws, just like the other characters, but the fact that your father-in-law is behind the character says a lot about that and your experience of him. You have an incredible ability to get into the minds of the male characters. I’m remembering your description of yourself [in our first interview] as “part adolescent boy, part eighty-year-old man, mixed into a thirty-eight year old woman.”
Yeah, I would say the same answer for this interview, just a year older. That is the truth. And I think there is also kind of the preserving of humanity. I had an interview with my local newspaper recently and I said, “I am a thief.” I don’t know if all fiction writers describe themselves that way, but I am just constantly watching and observing and listening and then stealing a little. I never put anything in wholly how I see it, but I’ll catch a phrase, an overheard conversation, or I’ll see a mannerism and most all of my characters, even if they are originally based off of one specific person, become these great amalgamations of my observations and understanding of the world and the people that I’m seeing in it.
Preachers do the same thing, but it’s definitely true in writing.
The next segment of the Virginia Reeves interview can be found here.