An interview with Paula Champa, author of 'The Afterlife of Emerson Tang'

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Paula Champa, a Virginia Commonwealth University alumna, spent more than a decade crafting her debut novel, “The Afterlife of Emerson Tang,” and the resulting book reflects the care and intellect that was applied to create it. Booklist praised the novel, which was published this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as an “intellectual yet deeply human examination of what it means to live as well as to die.” The author Jonathon Keats called the book “stunning,” saying, “The raw emotion of (Champa’s) story and the restrained elegance of her writing together make for a literary tour de force.”

Beth Corvid, the narrator of Champa’s novel, serves as an archivist and caretaker for Emerson Tang, a wealthy, young man who is suffering from a fatal disease. The characters, who first met as kids, possess a surprising and complex attachment to each other that deepens as Beth helps Emerson navigate his final days. Central to the novel is a fictional classic car from the 1950s. Emerson owns the vehicle, but an aging artist, Hélène Moreau, desperately wants to acquire it because of its role in her personal and artistic history. A revelation that the car’s original engine was replaced sends Beth on a race to locate the engine before Hélène does.

“The Afterlife of Emerson Tang” spans a broad geographic scope, trekking from Manhattan, where Beth lives, to settings in Germany, Denmark, Italy and California.

Champa earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Department of English in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences in 1997. She has written about design and the arts for publications such as Surface, Intersection, American Artist, Print and I.D. Her fiction has appeared in several literary journals and in the anthology “The Way We Work.”

Champa answered questions from VCU News about her new novel and her career.

How did the idea for this relationship between Beth and Emerson emerge and what appealed to you about exploring this kind of unsentimental but poignant connection that they develop?

I was thinking about how often people serve informally as archivists to one another, maybe without being aware of that service — whether it’s tracing a family tree or making scrapbooks or photo albums, it’s a form of organizing and preserving pieces of your loved ones’ lives. Conversely, I thought that if the novel showed the role of a professional archivist or conservator in another dimension, looking after a person, it might prompt the reader to consider the normal definitions and importance of both activities in an expanded way. If I had written Beth as Emerson’s doctor or nurse, or as a friend or family member, her closeness to his death would have been completely expected and ordinary. Readers would have no reason to shift their frame of reference. But if the usual roles are twisted somewhat, it’s possible to see the human drive to conserve a little differently.

I envisioned the narrator, Beth, as a walking archive of her employer, Emerson Tang.

I envisioned the narrator, Beth, as a walking archive of her employer, Emerson Tang. While her professional role is to keep track of his photography collection and his papers, she becomes so bonded to him through this work that she begins to be involved in preserving the man himself: first, his physical body when he’s ailing, and then his personal history, after he’s gone. There are several different ways a reader could define Emerson’s “afterlife” by the end of the book, and one of them is how Emerson carries on through Beth’s grief and her attempt to live through him.

Making the narrator an archivist caused me to do some research on archiving and library science, and this ultimately led me to play around with the definition of an archive. The book itself, as an object, is an archive containing the evidence of several characters’ lives. The classic car that they’re all competing to own is another archive, because it symbolically contains the adventures and stories of its owners across 40 years. And the engine is an archive, because its role in shaping the modern era makes it a container holding the social and political history of the past century.

There’s one last point related to archives that came as a surprise to me after I’d drafted the book. Beth describes her own childhood death as having given her a sense of completeness and peacefulness similar to what someone might feel upon entering a magnificent archive or library. After the manuscript was finished, through some unrelated reading, I learned that there is an established trope in literature of “the heavenly album” that goes back to antiquity and rose to prominence in the Middle Ages. In late Roman prose, there are accounts of a single book or album that contains the names of the Gods or is sometimes referred to as the Book of Heaven — in other words, a collection of information and stories that are impressed upon the ether. This reached its ultimate form in Dante’s “Paradiso,” where the poet is guided to the heavens and observes a single light that seems to bind together all beings and aspects of existence. He describes everything that had been dispersed across the universe as now being “bound in one volume” by love. If this idea of a book or an undefined space containing millions of individual lives sounds far-fetched, think of Facebook: In a sense, what is that, if not “every person’s story” impressed upon the ether? It could be viewed as another extension of the same trope.

This book tackles the topic of grief, especially a kind of enduring grief that proves hard for characters to overcome. Was this a difficult topic as a writer to explore? What drove you to address it?

The challenge in writing about grief was deciding how to give it form on the page. Like most people, I’d had some experience with grief in different degrees and contexts, and I’d become aware that mourning is quite mysterious. We know the process works — in time, you’re eventually released from grief — but how? That question is what drove me to focus on the subject. As familiar as grief is in our lives, it’s extremely abstract and empty, not given to easy description. Using a car and engine as the focus of several characters’ grief was a way to make the subject concrete and explore it from a lot of different angles.

As familiar as grief is in our lives, it’s extremely abstract and empty, not given to easy description.

I based the characters’ stories on psychology’s view of the grieving process. Freud wrote that grief ends when the griever is able to achieve distance from the dead. But ironically, often the first response when something or someone beloved is gone is a desire to have it back, to feel closer than ever to what we’re missing. We try to keep the person or the situation alive in our minds and memories. It’s a natural response, but this paradox can make grief a serious challenge to overcome. We’re not excited about moving forward – of course not, we miss what we lost from the past and we want it back.

Focusing the story on a concrete object — a car — made it possible to put all the different characters’ reactions to profound loss onto one playing field, so the reader can see how differently they respond. Someone has separated the pieces of the car in a romantic attempt to move on from grief and achieve the kind of healing distance that Freud described. Others are unconsciously extending their mourning by attempting to reassemble the pieces. An erasure takes places on a defaced car-part when someone’s grief ends. The car is sold or given away at various times by other characters who are trying to stop their mourning. The car and engine can also be seen as a symbol for body and soul, allowing some metaphysical comparisons. So this one everyday object gave me a lot of jumping-off points to explore death and mourning.

Because the object is a car and I had done some reporting on green technologies and new concepts of transportation, I eventually expanded the scope of the novel to reflect on how grief and nostalgia might come into play at a societal level as well. The book is set at the end of the twentieth century, an era that was dominated by the automobile. By the late 1990s, the environmental issues related to petroleum and carbon emissions were being widely recognized, and progressive alternatives were being introduced. For the first time, society was offered the means to separate itself from the past in this respect. Yet I had observed as a reporter that there seemed to be much more excitement and uptake about developments in personal computing than there was in the area of transportation, even though the two are increasingly related. If progress in both is being offered, why was society much slower to get behind the technology and move forward when it comes to what we drive? There’s no simple answer, but depicting the situation in the book was a way to record the social turning point that I was observing, and allowed me to draw a link between nostalgia and grief. As with grief, we might recognize that it would be beneficial to move on, but it’s natural to be nostalgic about the past and to feel reluctant about change. With transportation, there are enormous practical and financial hurdles as well, but I was talking recently with an auto executive who conjectured that traditional car models gave people trust, and in a time when so much is changing and there’s no clear direction, trusted elements are comforting.

Can you explain your own interest in automobiles and why you think old cars have the power to captivate?

My interest in automobiles was largely accidental. When I was starting to make notes for the book, I was working at a design magazine and I was assigned some reporting on car design — something I knew almost nothing about. The timing coincided with the emergence of all kinds of new and green alternatives, and I found the reporting interesting because I was writing about progressive ideas for clean fuels and materials, not about horsepower or other traditional car subjects. I had sketched out some of the novel, but I hadn’t hit on a satisfying way to organize the characters’ journeys. At some point, the fact that a car engine could be taken out and replaced struck me as a way to frame a small mystery that the characters could navigate — a missing engine — and I began to plot their stories around it. Sending them all on a quest was also natural for a story about a car, because in broad terms a quest is always by nature a road-story.

There were two ideas from literary modernism that became helpful guides. One was William Carlos Williams’s exhortation, “no ideas but in things.” The car and the engine met this directive by giving all the ideas and sub-plots a physical anchor. Cars are especially useful in this respect because they’re capable of holding many associations — in semiotics, they’re an example of an “empty sign,” something whose meaning is highly subjective and variable. The other was Ezra Pound’s cry to “make it new.” The car has often been used in literature to represent the negative aspects of modern life, and portraying this turning point at the end of the century when groups of forward-looking people are trying to conceive them in a better way was a way to renew the usual portrayal of cars in society.

People often feel that certain cars represent their personal histories. This is true for classic cars as well, and one of many reasons why they’re so captivating. I began to tie all these ideas together. The car in the book represents both personal histories and social history. The fact that there was a Futurist movement in modern art that responded directly to the advent of the automobile gave me a way to shape the character of Hélène Moreau and to portray the excitement and great achievement that cars originally represented, so that the tension between the past and the present would be part of the story for the reader.

Cars, art and architectural design are ongoing concerns in the book. All are integrated into the story seamlessly. Did they arise organically as topics or did you know at the outset that these were topics you wanted to work with?

The topics came together after I had the idea of using a car as the central mystery. Then research helped me to make the larger connections. There’s no escaping the Modernist era if you’re writing about cars, because cars are part of the through-line for how modern life acquired its shape. Enormous and rapid changes in industry, warfare, and day-to-day life followed from the development of the steam engine and the internal combustion engine. In the arts, the subject of Modernism is so large and varied that it’s important not to oversimplify, but it’s generally viewed as being rooted in a loss of faith in Western civilization’s central institutions; the rupture of the world wars; a sense of alienation; and in a loss of interest in the elaborate styles of the nineteenth century. The push to move forward out of that past, combined with new materials and technologies, led to such great advances that progressive minds began to envision different forms for our cities and for the way we live.

I assigned a fascination with these ideas to the character Emerson Tang and to the grandson, Miguel Beacon (who is an heir to a defunct auto company). They see the value in this forward-looking mindset and want to revive an excitement about progress — in a sense, this yearning to revive forward motion is also what brings Beth back to life. For this reason, I made Emerson a collector of Modernist architectural photographs. It was a creative decision that allowed me to bring another piece of history into the novel. On the one hand, collecting old photos is equivalent to looking backwards to an era that has passed, but on the other hand, the houses continue to represent new thinking and progressive ideas about how we might live in the future. We learn that some of the characters are trying to apply this kind of progressive thinking to transportation.

An archivist asks: What should be saved from the past? What will be useful in the future? The characters are wrestling with those same questions.

An archivist asks: What should be saved from the past? What will be useful in the future? The characters are wrestling with those same questions. Emerson and Miguel revere the spirit and advances of the Modernist era, but at the end of the century they’re looking back and worrying that some aspects of this work have become stalled, just as an artist of the era, Hélène Moreau, has become creatively stalled. I didn’t see every connection at the outset, but working through the plotting and the characterization caused me to broaden the story’s dimensions.

You work as a journalist and have published short fiction. What drove you to tackle a novel?

It was really the other way around. All along, my work as a journalist and editor was in support of the desire to write fiction. My earliest jobs in magazines started as a means of supporting myself, almost like a waitering job for an actor: something that fits your practical needs while you’re trying to establish yourself in your art. And similar to how actors understand the value of being exposed to all kinds of people in their day job and then drawing on those personalities when they’re on stage or in character, I always appreciated that reporting and editing allowed me to hone my craft and constantly expanded my knowledge of the world and the subjects I could write about. Eventually, editorial work got me through graduate school and most of the years it took to finish the first novel. I continue to value this work enormously.

Did your experience at VCU help you write this book? Are there teachers or classmates who have been influential in your writing career?

My M.F.A. class (1997) was unusual in that there were only a few other fiction writers in the group. Most were studying poetry, though we all took the opportunity to write in both forms. Rather than being a disadvantage, the make-up of the class was a gift, because through our day-to-day association I got a deeper immersion in poetry than I would have otherwise. I was lucky to have known some enormously talented poets who were studying at VCU in those years, and their creative concerns and interests really raised the game for me and enriched my own thinking and reading more than I can say. Since then, I’ve continued to trade manuscripts with several former classmates, especially the poet Andrew D. Miller, who was an invaluable accomplice in this book, from talking through ideas and helping me restructure the earliest draft through to a couple of revisions.

I focused on writing short fiction while I was in graduate school because I wasn’t ready at the time to start the novel that I had in mind. I saw short stories as a challenge that would sharpen my writing, just by the sheer number of times you needed to work out the structure of a story, get in and out of it, and so on. The short form is not natural for me, so it was like boot camp. I had inspiring coaches in Tom DeHaven and, in those years, Marita Golden. Tom taught me that the rewards of writing are in the daily work, not the bound product, and he’s always spot-on about where you haven’t fully realized an idea or how you can handle something technically in a far more elegant way. Marita is an intuitive reader whose guidance made me a more courageous writer, and she began to include me in the profession by taking me to the PEN/Faulkner awards, inviting me to judge a national writing competition, etc. I worked closely with Professor Marcel Cornis-Pope for three years, studying literary theory and narratology, and we focused on various conceptual aspects of fiction. His teaching was uniquely influential and fed directly into the novel I eventually produced.  

What are you working on now?

I’ve been making notes on two other novels for the past couple of years, and I’m starting to draft the next one now. Like a lot of writers, I tend to mull and collect ideas for a long time, sketching out layers of the story and doing research and interviews until I have some critical mass. This next novel is shaping up to be somewhat comedic and also shorter than “Afterlife.” It’s a buddy-story of two men from very different backgrounds who are caught in the absurdities of the immigration system in a foreign country — something I have some insight into, having gone through the visa process several times when I was living in England. “Afterlife” took more than ten years to come together, but I learned so much in the process that I expect the drafting will go faster this time around.

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