Q + A: The President in Person, Getting to Know Karen Lawrence by Suzanne Gray MFA '04
writing and reading
Least favorite (but still effective) method of writing a book:
I’ve been working on a book about Christine Brooke-Rose, an experimental novelist, for ten years, writing one chapter every summer because that was the only time I had to write. Literally, on my computer, the files are named “Chapter 1—August 1997” and so on. I finished the book this summer. It’s a hard way to work. You can’t remember what you were thinking last year. Then you read what you wrote, but you don’t like it anymore.
Why she wanted to write about Christine Brooke-Rose:
She offers many of the things that you go to novels looking for, but without other conventions, like predictable characters and coherent plot. Her last novel, Subscript, starts with one cell at the beginning of biological time, and traces the development of life up through early humans. A novel is usually about people and society, but she takes on the challenge of starting a novel before people and society even exist. Plus, I was intrigued by her command of language and her humor—she’s very adventurous and a good read. She’s not as well known as she should be.
Difference between writing about live authors versus dead ones:
They answer back more. James Joyce never asked me when I would finish the book. Christine Brooke-Rose, however, is very eager for the book to come out. I’m talking to publishers about it now.
The question she’d ask James Joyce, if the laws of physics allowed:
“If you could write another novel”—he died after Finnegans Wake, which took 17 years to complete—“what would it be? Finnegans Wake is a book to end all books, so what do you envision coming next?”
What she wants her students to understand about Ulysses:
That it’s funny. I want them to be able to relax into reading it enough to recognize the comedy in it, and to appreciate the astounding use of language. It’s a groundbreaking book—700 pages about one day in the life of three ordinary Dubliners. By the last page you know Leopold Bloom better than some of your friends.
Favorite classes in college:
One was my first encounter with Joyce, in a class on the epic. We read The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Don Quixote, and Ulysses in one semester—all incredible books. I was so struck by the brilliance of the teaching and the brilliance of Ulysses, and reading the epics gave a context for what Joyce was doing. My other favorite was a small seminar on the psychopathology of childhood, taught by Anna Freud. She was extraordinary. I’m not sure what I actually learned in the class—I was just so in awe to be in the room with her.
Best farewell gift for a famous professor:
My class with Anna Freud ended early because of the student protests about the Cambodian invasion and the trial of Bobby Seale, the Black Panther leader. Yale shipped Dr. Freud out of the area well before the protest so that she’d be out of harm’s way. At our last meeting, our class gave her a Yale sweatshirt, and she happily pulled it on over her old lady dress and took a photo with all of us. I was regretful that my class ended prematurely, but I was involved in the demonstration and supportive of the cause.
Position during Yale’s May Day demonstration:
I worked at a command post with other students, dispatching student marshals who were trained to keep violence from breaking out. It was meant to be a nonviolent protest. Some students did get tear-gassed by the National Guard. It was a scary time, and after Kent State, we realized it could have been much worse.
Why she went to graduate school:
As an undergraduate, I was deeply involved in reading and thinking about literature. I went to graduate school because I wanted to keep studying, but I stayed because I found that I loved teaching and writing. Graduate school isn’t the easiest time in anyone’s life—you’re working hard but don’t know what your future will be. I was lucky to forge a great career. Now I have the best job there is.
On the connection between academia and activism:
I became involved with reproductive rights and women’s leadership groups because much of my intellectual and academic life has been concerned with gender. The right to choose is so fundamentally important, and so embattled, that I decided that was where I should give the time I had for activist work.
Groups she’s been involved with:
I was a member of Utahns for Choice and the Utah Women’s Leadership Forum. In California, I was involved with Women in Leadership, a bipartisan group supporting pro-choice women aiming for leadership positions in government, corporations, and academia. I also served on the Modern Language Association’s committee on the status of women in the profession.
What she learned from being one of the first women undergraduates at Yale:
There was a 9:1 male to female ratio. I remember in a class on Milton, someone asked me for the woman’s point of view on the character of Eve. I didn’t know how to answer. There’s just no way an individual person can represent an entire group. No one should have to be a token or a model in that way.
Biggest difference between U.C. Irvine and Sarah Lawrence:
At Sarah Lawrence, I get to live on a residential campus. It’s exciting to be a part of the community in that way, and I look forward to taking part in campus life and getting to know students and faculty. It’s very different from being at a big public institution. There were 28,000 students at U.C. Irvine—I like the intimacy of Sarah Lawrence.
Biggest similarity between the two:
U.C. Irvine was intellectually exciting. Like Sarah Lawrence, it has a sense of innovation, of not doing things just because that was the way it was done. It isn’t academically rigid. I like the interdisciplinary aspects of both schools, and thinking about the connection between fields.
Hardest part of her former job:
Figuring out how to do new, creative things and get people to work together despite limited resources. There’s a natural tendency to be territorial when resources are limited, but if you want to do new things you have to work together. It’s always a challenge. But an exciting challenge, and well worth taking up.
Thoughts on living in a culturally conservative state for 19 years:
We lived in Salt Lake City and were connected to the University of Utah, which was crucial to our transition to such a different environment. But we loved it. We were part of a vibrant intellectual community and had great friends. Plus Salt Lake City was diverse enough that you didn’t feel like you were one of five people who shared your interests.
What she learned at breakfast meetings with campus staff during August:
I was surprised by the incredible loyalty that staff and faculty have for the College, no matter what their position. Everyone has a real concern for the financial situation, and wants to make sure that the College thrives.
Three films that are personal classics:
Babette’s Feast, Fellini’s La Strada, and The Godfather.
Recent movies she didn’t enjoy:
I was disappointed in The Simpsons Movie—and I’m a fan of The Simpsons. A half-hour show is great and funny, but I thought it just couldn’t sustain itself in the longer format.
Favorite entertainment indulgence:
Television. I watch more than most academics, I think. I’m interested in all kinds of culture, and TV is a part of that. But also I watch it just to relax. I like “David Letterman,” “Law and Order,” “CSI,” and “Big Love” on HBO.
The music that moves her:
I like jazz. I love Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Thelonious Monk. I also have a great album of Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian singer and composer, and one of Yo-Yo Ma performing Astor Piazzolla’s tangos.
Best moment involving James Joyce and her progeny:
When he was 8 or 9, my son Jeff came with me to the annual James Joyce symposium in Dublin. The group always plays Finnegans Wake charades, where you have to guess a phrase from the book. Somehow Jeff guessed the right answer for one round, which really impressed my colleagues. He hadn’t read the book, of course, but he still figured it out. Now Jeff is studying for a Ph.D. in comparative literature.
Why there’s a jukebox in her library:
I gave Peter a 1957 Rockola for his 40th birthday. I bought it from a vending machine place when we lived in Utah. I thought that the records would be included with the sale, but they weren’t, so for the birthday party, everyone had to bring a 45 as the price of admission.
Why she admires her husband’s profession:
I’m astounded by the long and complicated surgeries Peter performs. Vascular surgery is very satisfying because not only can you save lives, you can improve the quality of life. You can take someone who can’t walk because of problems with his arteries, perform bypass surgery, and he can walk again.
Family joke that’s guaranteed to make her laugh:
“The goat.” It’s a line from Addams Family Values. It doesn’t make any sense out of context, but it cracks us up.