Interview: Siri Hustvedt, author of ‘The Blazing World’

Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt is not going to give up writing for making art. But she admits: “The fantasy is there.”

Hustvedt, who will appear Nov. 23 at Miami Book Fair International, has loved drawing since she was a child. “I knew I wanted to be a writer at 13,” she says from her home in Brooklyn. “Before that, I told everyone I was going to be an artist.”

Instead of pursuing that passion, however, Hustvedt has found other intriguing ways to explore art and its boundaries. She has written extensively on the subject, in such essays as those about painting in her collection The Mysteries of the Rectangle. She has lectured at the Prado and Metropolitan museums and was the Schelling Professor of Art at the Academy of the Visual Arts in Munich.

Art has also slipped into her novels What I Loved and, now, The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster, $16), one of the year’s best books. The Blazing World is the story of Harriet “Harry” Burden, an artist in her 60s who feels she has been passed over by a sexist art world (“I was over the hill and had never had a penis,” she laments).

So she plots her revenge: She will create three works but credit them to male artists (a young unknown, a gay performance artist friend and the mysterious art world star Rune). She will reap the praise, then triumphantly slap the art world with its own hypocrisy.

But Harry’s quest doesn’t play out as planned, and the consequences are disastrous. Told from many different perspectives — those of Harry, her friends and family, critics and collaborators — the novel is structured as an editor’s collection of diary entries, interviews and news stories, all offering conflicting points of view.

“That’s the way perception works,” says Hustvedt, who is also author of The Summer Without Men, The Sorrows of an American and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, and is married to novelist Paul Auster. “Each person does see the world in a different way. There is not a single, unifying, objective truth. We’re all limited by our perspective.”

Q. To write this book you had to conceptualize three separate, meaningful installations created by Harry. How did you come up with each concept?

A. I would see these works in my head and just describe them. I’m not sure this is wholly conscious, but I realized at some point that each one was a microcosm of an aspect of the novel itself. The first work was kind of a parody of the role of women in the art world. ... The second piece is really her own painful, psychic story of this little hermaphroditic creature trying to free itself. And the thing she does with Rune is a maze where you have to pay close attention to signs to get out. I thought of the novel as a maze that the reader has to make up his or her mind about.

Q. There are many different perspectives on art in this book. Harry feels one way, but others see things differently. Which perspective is closest to your own?

A. I think I’m kind of all over the place. I love Harry, but she has profound blind spots. Her view of the world is skewed by her own experience.

Q. What was it like writing from her perspective?

A. I’m deeply fond of her because she’s so full of energy and anger. It was kind of a tonic. It was really fun to be so angry. I kept thinking about the purity of emotion in Greek theater. Harry’s fury is like a kind of sword she’s carrying around. It’s invigorating. She keeps working, however blind and stumbling she is. She’s full of life. Once I hit this tone, it was fun. In many people, anger is often mixed with depression, but there’s nothing depressed about Harry.

Q. If you were reviewing Harry’s work, what would you say?

A. I’d say that these three works are explorations of Harry’s internal geography, her inner terrain. And that she could not have done it if she weren’t wearing the masks. Each mask brings out a different aspect of herself she didn’t know about before she put on the mask. This is very much like writing novels. What do novelists do? Don personas, put on masks and write as others. By doing that, at least in my own experience, you discover aspects of yourself that you couldn’t possibly have known.

Q. What did you discover that was surprising while writing The Blazing World?

A. I loved being Bruno [Harry’s lover]. But he has all these forms of what you might call benevolent sexism. He wants to rescue Harry. He does not seem to have been a particularly wonderful father to his daughters. He’s absolutely beside himself when he finally gets a grandson, his male heir. ... It’s very strange to put yourself in another person’s perspective. You see the world in a new way. I had no idea those sexist views were going to pop out of that character.

Q. The Blazing World deals with gender bias in the art world. Do you think there’s a parallel in the literary world?

A. I think it’s different in the art world. The numbers of women are fewer in the art world. But at the same time there are parallels. There’s a group that has done the numbers and keeps track of how many books by women are reviewed as opposed to books by men, and there is an inequality. I also think the idea of the female genius is an oxymoron in our culture. We like our geniuses white and male. There are distances to travel before the culture can think of a female voice as a representation of universality.

Siri Hustvedt will appear at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 23 in the Auditorium at Miami Dade College for Miami Book Fair International.