In 'Meantime,' novelist Katharine Noel crafts rich, dynamic, dysfunctional families

JHU Writing Seminars lecturer reads from her second novel Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop

In Meantime (Grove/Black Cat), the second novel from Katharine Noel, Claire and Jeremy's marriage is tested after he survives a near-death experience. What initially drew them close to each other no longer feels strong enough to keep them together, and Claire watches, almost with an emotional detachment, her husband's restlessness after coming home from the hospital.

Image caption: Katharine Noel

It doesn't help her situation that Claire, the novel's narrator, grew up with an unusual example of marriage: When her father began an affair with a married woman, the two families moved in together for the sake of their kids.

Noel, a lecturer in Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars, brings an incisive observational richness to Claire. Moving from remembrances of an eccentric family life to acerbically droll observations about the gentrifying San Francisco neighborhood where Claire lives with Jeremy, Noel conjures a vulnerably familiar woman realizing that maybe she hasn't quite figured out what she wants out of her marriage and life in general just yet. It's a taut story, moving from tense hospital conversations between relative strangers to comically deadpan exchanges between intimates, delivering small emotional jabs every step of the way.

Noel reads from Meantime Thursday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Ivy Bookshop. The Hub caught up with her by email to chat blended families, revealing character through metaphor, and no-fault divorce.

I greatly appreciate how you bookend the book, and thus Claire's journey, with two scenes of her observing the reaction she elicits from others: Her humiliation at another seventh-grade girl's humiliation at having to sit next to Claire on the bus, and the—no spoilers—reaction of a different young girl to her at the very end. In the first, she's kind of watching something happening around her because of her presence; in the second, she's the one actively doing something to provoke a response, and this move from passive to active is one tiny part of her character's arc in the novel. Yes, her difference in age, and understanding of herself, accounts for some of that, but I'm wondering if you went with these two scenes for a reason. So I'm curious—how were you thinking about Claire's journey when you started writing? On one level Meantime is a novel about one woman's (re)understanding of what marriage and family means to her given an unusual adolescence—which we'll come back to in a moment—but in that process she also reconsiders a number of things about her life. Did Meantime start for you with this character, knowing this broad family tapestry was where it was headed?

I've begun each of my two novels, and the new novel I'm working on now, with no sense of where it would go, only a wisp of situation. Meantime began with the idea of a relatively young person—Claire's husband, Jeremy, is 37—who almost dies and then feels like he has permission, almost a mandate, to change his life. The only other thing I knew right away was that the book would be from the point of view of Jeremy's spouse.

"When I create a character, I often take a characteristic from myself or someone I know well and turn up its volume, making what might be a minor part of the real person into the defining characteristic of someone imaginary."
Katharine Noel, author of Meantime

Since I didn't have any idea what kind of person Claire was initially, I didn't know what her journey might be. (Both the first chapter, on the bus, and the last chapter came very late in the writing process, though I'm glad you saw that they faintly echo.) I started writing scenes, taking the small things I knew and having the characters try to deal with them. Claire had to be someone whose particular history and personality would mean she'd react to the situation in ways that didn't defuse its tension but complicated it. There's a back-and-forth: You figure out how a character reacts to a certain pressure and then, with what you've just learned, you create new pressures that will push his or her particular buttons. I wrote around a thousand pages and the finished book is about 260 pages, which means I threw away more than twice what I kept. I got to know the characters slowly, over many drafts and with plenty of wrong turns, and I built up Claire's family history that way, too.

Let's touch on that family life real quick, because though I haven't encountered the set up in a novel before, it wasn't one that seemed far-fetched, which may simply mean I grew up in the late 1970s and early '80s. When Claire's father begins an affair with the family's church minister's wife, the families move in together in one house rather than break their two families up. What attracted you to exploring this family situation? What kinds of questions does that raise for Claire as a teen and adult later on?

When I was growing up, there actually was a blended family in my church—four adults, five children, all living together because of a love affair. Two of the girls, one from each original family, were my age, but they seemed kind of tough and mean and I avoided them. This was, just as you say, the late '70s/early '80s, and our church was a crunchy, post-hippie place where Sunday school meant discussing Inuit mythology or looking at pond water under a microscope. No one at church made a big deal of this family arrangement—or at least, not in front of me—and so I didn't think of it as very remarkable. Sometimes during the writing of Meantime, I wished that I'd been more curious back then—but on the other hand, that I knew nothing meant I had to make everything up, which was probably freeing. The detail I used from life wasn't actually about the family but about my own reaction to them, my sense of the girls as scary and mean. I wanted go beyond that defensive surface to whatever vulnerability might be beneath.

In my imagined household, the grown-ups are trying to balance conflicting desires. The couple in the extramarital relationship want to live together, but they—and their spouses—want stability for the kids. The left-behind spouses don't want to show hurt or bitterness, because those feelings don't fit with their intellectual understanding of the situation, but then hurt and bitterness still leak through, in deformed and deforming ways.

In other words, all four adults want to act in ways that are selfish and also in ways that are selfless, which seems very human to me, if not super healthy. The kids in the family, Claire and her "siblings," are trying to understand this very complicated vision of sexual desire and fidelity and what it means to be a family before they're old enough to process it well, and with adults who can't afford to acknowledge the difficulty of what they're asking of their kids. And so Claire insists that she's too cool and smart and superior to be upset, an identity that makes it very hard for her later in life to admit that anything might throw her. She's so committed to unsentimental honesty that it becomes its own kind of dishonesty, one that disowns sentiment.

One detail I would have loved to be able to work into the book: in real life, after the blended-family arrangement ended, I went to the eventual wedding of the couple who had fallen in love. They were each walked down the aisle, and then given away, by their ex-spouses.

There's a protective edge to Claire, and it's something that seems to be there throughout her life. And because she's the narrator, her figures of speech offer a window into how she sees the world: she thinks the features that make her dad look handsome make her "look like a snapping turtle"; Janis Joplin has "a deep scrape of a voice"; loneliness wafts off a single mother "like body odor." Was Claire's personality set when you started the novel, or did it develop in the writing process?

It's nice to hear that you noticed the way Claire notices detail and turns, always, to metaphor. When I create a character, I often take a characteristic from myself or someone I know well and turn up its volume, making what might be a minor part of the real person into the defining characteristic of someone imaginary. Then I watch how that person moves about in the world.  

Claire and I don't share a lot of characteristics or descriptors. She works with her hands, she doesn't really like kids, she's politically disengaged, she has this damaging family history she won't call out as damaging because she doesn't want to whine. But something we sort of have in common is that in college I was very intent on appearing effortlessly cool when actually I was incredibly self-conscious. I remember the feeling vividly, and so that similarity was my way into understanding Claire. And of course, the way Claire notices detail comes out of the way I notice detail—whereas most of my characters don't have that trait, so when I write them I turn down the volume on that part of myself.

Tell me a bit about Claire's relationship with her ostensible stepsister, Nicole. On the one hand, she's in some ways everything Claire isn't—Claire sees her as conventionally pretty, popular at school, etc. On the other hand, Nicole is also the only other person who can relate to Claire's family life, and they have the kind of complicatedly intimate relationship of blood siblings. And I'm curious: Was Nicole always going to play such a prominent role in Claire's story? Because in their first few passages together I'm wondering if Nicole is a bit of a foil to Claire, but their relationship becomes more compellingly dynamic as the novel develops.

You're right, Nicole might have gone either way in terms of her presence in the book. In the first draft, the sisters didn't live on the same coast: Nicole was part of Claire's life, but in an occasional and not totally essential way. In other words, she was from the past, not the present. But in my own life, I'm very close to my sisters and we have a shifting, agile relationship, one that draws on the past but isn't stuck there. I wanted to try to capture some of that dynamic—what you accurately call the complicatedly intimate relationship of siblings.

I don't want Nicole to be a foil for Claire, but I do think Claire sees her partly in that way, that Claire defines herself in contrast to Nicole. The two of them are very close, but until very late in the book, Claire still sees Nicole through the scrim of their early relationship, when it seemed like things came easily to Nicole, and therefore can't fully grasp that Nicole's loneliness is as real as her own.

Finally, I'm just curious: there's a divorce in the novel, and the two parties involved download separation filing papers from the Internet. "Irreconcilable differences" and "incurable insanity" are named as the only two legal grounds for no-fault separation in California, and by this time in the novel reading those two options deliver a sad-funny moment. Did you know those were the only two legal options available and were able to write a scene that worked that in, or did you research it and think, Oh, I can use that?

I didn't know for a long time that that divorce would happen. Again, it came about through writing. Then I had to research to be sure that the scene I'd written about filling out paperwork at a Starbucks was feasible. Luckily, for me at least, I have a friend who'd gone through a no-property, no-children, no-fault divorce in California, and she pointed me toward the right legal sites. Most of what I had written about the process worked, some had to be changed.

When I write, I turn off my Internet so that I can't research, because I find that "research" can too easily turn into looking up people I knew a million years ago or window-shopping for boots. I keep a list of things to look up at the end of the day, and while sometimes this practice leads to unpleasant surprises—e.g. that I've written something that doesn't make practical sense—it also can sometimes mean that I end the day with new information that allows me to know exactly where I want to start writing the next day. When I found that accidentally poetic language in California's divorce forms was one of those lovely moments.