Can you talk a little about how you came up with the idea for Playing?
I’ve always been interested in how our childhood affects us. Two children growing up in the same house can have similar experiences and be affected in vastly different ways. With this swimming around in my head, I was listening to This American Life, a weekly radio documentary series. In one episode, the show chronicled a confession line. A man had set up an answering machine for anonymous confessions – the purpose of which was to unburden the confessor. Word soon got around and the machine was flooded with confessions, some silly, some heartbreaking. One involved a man admitting to something he had done as a small child that he had never told anyone and that had had a devastating effect on his family. I wondered about this man, what the pain and guilt of this act had done to him, and what kind of person he had become because of this one irrevocable moment. This was the impetus for the book and how I found myself into Josie’s head.
You are a woman married to an Indian man. Your character Josie is a woman involved with an Indian man. So even more than with other novels, readers will want to know, ‘How autobiographical is this novel?’”
I’m always entertained by this question, whether it’s being asked of me or another writer. There are two answers I particularly like to this kind of question, the first I stole from my husband, Vikram Chandra. He likes to tell the story of Elmore Leonard and how Leonard never does his own research, but instead sends a liaison to hunt down, observe, and bring back as much information on a location or subject as possible. The researcher brings back photos, books, articles, etc., and Leonard is able to create his very authentic worlds without ever leaving his study. I like this story because it illustrates how unimportant actual experience can be to a writer. The writer’s job is to create a believable story, and it’s how well he or she does this, not the methods used that are important. But in the confessional age we live in, we’re so interested in the truth behind the story – whether something really happened – and we assume that this reality is what lends the story authenticity rather than the ability of the writer. Still, I know this is an academic response to the question, so the second answer I like is the one Lorrie Moore gives regarding truth and writing: “…the proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook makes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard.” Let’s just say that my cupboard is full of all kinds of interesting experiences, but I’ll leave the reader to speculate if any of them made it directly into the book.
Your book addresses the taboo and – to some people – disturbing subject of S&M. What new light would you like your book to shed on the topic?
I’m reluctant to label Josie and Devesh’s sex as sadomasochistic, not because I’m afraid of the full weight of the term (i.e.: those who experience pleasure from giving or receiving pain), but because of the connotations associated with the word and the rigidness that comes from such a label. Both Josie and Devesh, but particularly Josie, receive pleasure and pain from their sexual encounters, not just pleasure from the pain. It’s this messy duality that is ultimately one of the things Josie must come to accept about herself – that she needs and wants both, that for her, the pain is just as important as the pleasure. More and more, people are being exposed to different kinds of lifestyles, so I don’t think the descriptions of Josie and Devesh’s sex life are anything new or shocking. If they are, perhaps readers who might have viewed this type of sex as deviant or perverse before reading the novel will be more open to the complexities of those who engage in it.
I do hope that readers won’t just focus on the sexual elements of the book. The duality of pain and pleasure weaves itself throughout the book and throughout our lives. Josie’s relationships with her mother, Mary, and Tyler are both painful and pleasurable, and this is a reality that Josie has to come to accept.
Your characters go through so much in the course of the novel. Was it difficult to let them go?
Absolutely. I went through what I imagine a parent must go through when their child leaves home – sadness at the idea of not having these people in my daily life anymore, excitement at the prospect of not having these people in my daily life anymore! I found it particularly hard to let go of Josie. We had traveled an emotional journey together.
What does Playing communicate about fate and choice, about how much we’re controlled by our circumstances and our past and how much we can control?
We live in a psychologically aware world, one where Dr. Phil and Oprah easily attribute what society sees as destructive or abnormal behavior to our past. Although Josie is powerfully affected by her past, who Josie is can’t be exclusively attributed to her childhood. As Devesh points out, “there’s not a reason for everything…some things just are.” Josie is as torn between these two explanations of how we’re formed as she is torn between wanting to be in and out of control. This struggle between taking and giving control also reveals itself in the form of ritual. Josie studies African burial rituals, Tyler’s endless measurements are a kind of ritualistic rites, and Devesh and Josie’s sex is very ritualized. All of these rituals serve as means of control – over the past and the present – some effectively, some less so. Josie struggles with this, just as she struggles with figuring out why she is the way she is. Ultimately, I think she realizes that the truth is somewhere in between, that “some things had reasons, and some things just were. Some things controlled you, and some you could control. But most were an amalgamation, lacing inside you like a lattice, snaking and spiraling and weaving within each other until it was impossible to tell one from the other.”