Toward a Literature of Abuse

What inspired you to write This Gorgeous Game? What sparked your interest?

Well, the book is about a seventeen-year-old girl, Olivia Peters, who is stalked by a Catholic priest. There is never any sexual intimacy between them. The priest, Father Mark Brendan, falls in love with Olivia and pursues her in very intense, manipulative, insidious ways. While at first Olivia is excited about his attention—he is a famous novelist and lit professor and she wants to be a writer—it isn’t long before she is crumbling under the weight of his unrestrained need to see her, to be near her, to possess things that have to do with her. What was once excitement soon turns to disgust and repulsion and most of all, Olivia’s fear of telling on him, which isolates her from her family, friends, and boyfriend. 

Both in the first wave of press in 2002 about abuse in the Catholic Church and now during this second wave, we’ve talked very little about girls, and even less about stalking and the other kinds of abuse that people in power, in particular religious authorities, enact on the unsuspecting and the young. While we have a lot of journalists covering the scandal and talking to victims, we have very little in the way of “personal narrative” of what this experience is like. I hope this novel and Olivia’s first-person voice will offer a new perspective on the conversation.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Olivia’s story is really about unwanted attention and from a very powerful, older man. Being stalked, becoming the object of such attention, of obsession, by someone older—a mentor, someone with a lot of power over you, and on top of everything else also supposedly a celibate priest—is so complicated. Father Mark floods Olivia with letters and gifts and invitations and begins to appear at places he knows she’ll be; but he never lays a hand on her. What do you do if this person never lays a hand on you, but you know in your gut that something is deeply wrong? How is it that such behavior, behavior that can seem so innocent, can be so utterly destructive to a girl? The fact that Father Mark never touches Olivia delays her understanding of what is really going on (that he is in love with her and utterly inappropriately so), and makes it nearly impossible to tell someone. Because what, really, can she tell on him for? A bunch of letters? Some coffees? Invitations and meetings? None of these are illegal, right? I hope that these aspects of Olivia’s story open up conversation on this type of abuse in general, but also with regard to people with religious authority.

A colleague/feminist Catholic scholar friend who read This Gorgeous Game said she was struck after reading it that with all the conversation we’ve had about abuse, with everything in the media, we’ve yet to develop a “literature” of this situation, this experience, these circumstances, that puts us in the shoes of victims. I know this doesn’t sound pleasant, but I think it’s important. I hope that I have achieved this.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Anyone willing to step in and live the experience Olivia goes through.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

One of the things I’m most curious about in terms of reader response is the thread running throughout the book about Thomas Merton. People tend to have strong feelings about him and most for most colleagues and friends in the religion world Merton is rather beloved.

The Thomas Merton thread running through This Gorgeous Game is really critical and paints him as a villain of sorts, almost as a kind of prototype of Father Mark. In Merton’s journal, Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom (which Merton allowed to be published only after twenty-five years had passed following his death), Merton writes quite explicitly of falling in love with a very young nurse about thirty years his junior and with whom he had an affair—a consensual affair, but still. Merton refers to her as M., and I find the ways he talks about his love for her and the way he is acting because of that love incredibly upsetting.

So at the beginning of each major section of This Gorgeous Game is a quotation from Merton’s journals about the affair, and these quotations more or less follow the feelings of Olivia and Father Mark’s actions in the chapters that follow it. The story of Merton’s affair also plays a prominent, explicit role in the way that Father Mark justified to himself his behavior toward Olivia.

I really wonder how Merton lovers will react to this, if they will find my treatment of Merton rather unforgiving. And maybe it is, to a point. But I still think it’s a valid assessment.

What alternate title would you give the book?

Well, to be perfectly honest, the original, working title I gave This Gorgeous Game was “Confessions.” You know, as in St. Augustine’s Confessions. Because me and Augustine, you know, we’re so much alike.

Kidding aside, “Confessions” was the novel’s first title, but mostly because it is written in the first-person and is confessional in nature: it’s the story of a girl chronicling deep, dark secrets, and these are secrets about a priest who is pursuing her with romantic intentions so at first. But “Confessions” was a terrible title in the end because I would not dare try to evoke an affinity between my book and Augustine’s; but most of all because to ‘confess’ is to admit guilt, and my protagonist is innocent. It is the priest who pursues her to the point of stalking her that is guilty—if anyone needs to confess it is him.

The novel’s actual title, This Gorgeous Game, is a piece of the epigraph in the book, which is a quotation from Thomas Merton’s journals where he is reflecting on the young nurse with whom he fell in love and had an affair at the very end of this life:

I simply have no business being [in] love and playing around with a girl, however innocently… After all I am supposed to be a monk with a vow of chastity and though I have kept my vow—I wonder if I can keep it indefinitely and still play this gorgeous game!

Chilling, right? I feel upset every time I read those words.

How do I feel about the cover?

I love the cover. It is inspired. The designers at FSG/Macmillan did an amazing job. I think it is a physically beautiful book, but it is also incredibly layered and symbolic. The way the girl is posed; curled up and cowering in the corner, or is it that’s she’s glaring? One minute you look at her and think she might be frightened, the other, angry and glaring. Maybe she is looking up and out at you, the reader, or perhaps at her stalker. Or maybe she’s not cowering at all, but getting ready to spring and fight back.

Then look at the type. See how the word “Gorgeous” goes straight across the girl’s body, like it’s labeling her as gorgeous. Also, there’s the fact that the words “This Gorgeous Game” are across her body, as if she is marked, as a hunter would mark her as his “game,” which is a running them in the novel, about how Olivia feels hunted. Lastly, see how all the words on the cover together form a cross? It’s subtle, but once you see it you can’t un-see it. Olivia’s stalker is a Catholic priest, and so it’s as if she’s penned in by the cross, by a man of the cross. The image evokes so much of the feeling embedded in the story and Olivia’s voice, how she feels as the pursued, how haunted she becomes, how tiny and curled up, but also how angry and defiant. I am grateful to FSG for their vision.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

There are so many. Too many to mention. But if I had to pick a recent one, I’d pick Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. What a masterpiece of a novel! It’s funny, I almost didn’t read it because everyone and their mother and Oprah, too, are talking about it; which is a silly reason not to read a book. But anyway, I read it and loved it so much I almost can’t express the ways.

But the reason why I’ve picked The Help for this answer is because that novel is a truly extraordinary example of voice. Each of the three main character voices is so strong you can literally hear them speaking. Wow. I can’t think of another story where the voices are that strong. And when it comes to writing novels myself, I’m all about the voice. My greatest wish is that a reader can pick up This Gorgeous Game and immediately hear Olivia’s voice. It is through voice that I build my character and the story. So when it comes to admiring the voices in The Help, I will bow down in admiration.

What’s your next book?

It’s a novel called The Survival Kit and it will be out in 2011 from FSG.

Last August, I was sitting outside at a coffee shop, and it popped into my head that if my mother were still alive, I’d probably be at home in Rhode Island helping her with the annual survival kit-making event in my family. My Mom was a nursery school teacher and every year she made these parent survival kits, which were a series of symbolic items she’d place inside a paper lunch bag, designed to help parents manage this transition of seeing their little three-year-old kids go off to school for the first time (the parents used to cry way more than their kids, Mom used to say).

As I remembered this, I began to wonder, what if my mother had made me my very own survival kit for after she died: what would she have put in it and why? And what, in my experience of mourning her death, do I now wish I would have had inside that paper lunch bag to help get through that first year after her death? It occurred to me that this would make a really good frame for a story.

So my new novel, The Survival Kit, begins (on the very first page) with the protagonist, Rose Madison, escaping into her mother’s closet—it’s a week after her mother’s funeral—and searching out a dress she’s always loved of her mother’s. “Rose’s Survival Kit” is tied with ribbon to the hanger. Rose going through the items inside, living them one by one over the course of the year after her mother’s death, is what propels the story. It’s a very bittersweet story for me. It is about to go to copyediting, which means it is virtually done, too, so I am excited. I can’t wait for it to come out.


Read an excerpt from This Gorgeous Game here.