A Conversation with Dale M. Kushner, author of THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE

Q: THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE is your first novel.  Did you always know you wanted to write?  What made this moment right for your debut?

A: I never thought of becoming a writer until after I was married and had children, but I’d read voraciously as a child and reading saved my life. Luckily, I lived in a house filled with books, a strange mixture of highbrow and lowbrow stuff. We also had a set of World Book encyclopedias given to us by a wealthy cousin, which I pored over. Many writers, myself included, attached themselves to books early on, but not every ferocious reader becomes a writer. One of the things that probably contributes to the transformation from reader to writer is the presence of an inner pressure that seeks expression in language. I think it’s the unsayable demanding to be said. When I acknowledged this demanding spirit, I signed up for an MFA in poetry. Some time after I graduated, I realized I needed a more expansive format than lyric poetry and turned to fiction. 

Q: At the beginning of your book the protagonist, Eunice, is a young girl.  Did you find it challenging to write from the changing perspective of a girl as you followed her story into young adulthood?

A: Eunice’s evolving consciousness occurred organically. Her childhood loneliness, her sense of being an outsider and her sensitivity were evident at the beginning. During her time with Rose, her voice began to change. I could feel her struggling to let go of her mother and to become an adult, but she’d lapse into grief and nostalgia. (She heard Mern’s voice in her head.) One of the novel’s themes is how the past continues to shape us. I wanted to chart the difficulties we encounter as we struggle to separate from our families and assume our individual nature. By the time Eunice moves in with Fox, she’s on the cusp of being a woman. One thing I had to remain aware of while writing is that the fifties was a more innocent time. By “innocent” I mean children were not as worldly or psychologically savvy as they are now. The perimeters of their experience were narrower. The challenge was to make sure Eunice remained a child of her time and not to endow her with twenty-first century sophistication.

Q: From the title, readers can already tell that THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE has a central theme of the power of love in our lives.  But what they might not realize is that you address every variety of love, not just romantic.  Can you tell us a little about the various kinds of love you explore in this story and how the type of love we seek evolves over time as we age and mature?

A: A friend once said, “Earth is a heart ward and we are all here to heal from the wounds of love.” That sounds pretty accurate to me! Eunice is a student of love. While she suffers under her mother’s capricious care and watches her ruin one relationship after another, Eunice remains loyal to Mern until her own life is endangered. Eunice’s charm and winning personality endear her to Sam and Mr. Tabachnik, who provide both the maternal nurturing and paternal wisdom she needs. All these characters, including Eunice’s absentee father, form an interconnected web in which not only the light but also the shadowy aspects of love—jealousy, betrayal, abandonment—are played out. Our human nature is full of contradictions; the difficult aspects of love are part of the human condition. And I’m not only talking about the dark side of romantic love, but the negative aspects alive in friendship and kinship. Rose, too, supplies Eunice with good mothering, but the quality of love between Eunice and Rose is the affection of a student for a cherished teacher or guru. That Rose’s love for Eunice is tinged by her own losses reminds us that even the wisest among us carries bits of love’s shrapnel. With Fox, Eunice discovers Eros—desire—and uncovers her artistic nature, which is home. Maybe searching for love IS searching for the thing we call home—the place we belong and where we feel whole.

Q: Eunice is a complex character who experiences many unique circumstances before she even turns eighteen.  Some of the events of her young life are hard to imagine (e.g., experiencing a flood, losing a parent, just to name two), but you describe them so vividly!  Is any part of this book based on your personal experiences?

A: The novel is entirely fictional. I didn’t lose a parent while I was growing up, but my father had a heart attack when I was nine. I found him unconscious and thought he was dead. He actually lived another twenty years, but my world was forever after altered.
I’ve never lived through a flood. In Wisconsin we get tornadoes. The sky flips upside down and turns a wicked purple-green. I’ve read accounts of the devastations–cows stuck in trees! Growing up in New Jersey we had hurricanes. One blew my father to the corner while he was trying to bring in the garbage cans. Some of Eunice’s experiences may seem fantastical, but then life is more fantastical than we choose to believe.

Q:  THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE is as much a book about love as it is about loss.  It seems that Eunice often learns what she needs from a relationship (be it with a pet, a parent, a friend) only once it’s gone.  Do you see the two as inherently intertwined?

A: Everything and everyone we love will pass away. Our most difficult lessons in life revolve around love and loss; we are continually buffeted between the two. The Buddhists teach that our attachment to what is impermanent causes us suffering, and yet we continue to love despite the awareness of our mortality. Eunice is heroic in her loving. She may have been born under the wrong star, but she never withdraws, never becomes embittered, never closes her heart. Mr. Tabachnik states it best: From the terrible the beautiful can come. Without the belief we can transform and transcend our sorrows, I don’t know how any of us could go on.

Q:  The power of the imagination is a major theme in your book.  Eunice has many ongoing conversations with her absent father as well as her pet turtle, neither of whom can talk back to her.  Why is imagination so important to Eunice?  What do you think it gives her?  What do you think it prevents her from seeking outside herself?

A: Imagination is our saving grace. It acts as a complementary mode of perception to our rational, linear-thinking brains. It conjures new forms and possibilities out of the unknown and dreams us into new ways of being. In Eunice’s case, imagination is one of the tools she uses to survive her despair. Through imagined dialogues with her lost father she intuits his true nature and resolves to let him go. When she imagines conversations with her pet turtle the loneliness of her present reality lifts. Later in the book, Rose appears at crucial moments of danger and offers help. In my thinking, the membrane between imagination and the visionary can be very thin.

Q: When Eunice discovers a romantic love interest, he becomes a bit of an obsession that overshadows other relationships in her life.  Do you think that is simply the natural progression of a teenage girl’s emotional development, or do you think Eunice is hoping that romantic love will make up for other absent loves (i.e., familial, etc.) in her life?

A: An interesting question. I don’t believe one aspect of love substitutes for the absence of another kind of love, though certain deficits in childhood might later induce us to make choices that reduce the pain of the initial loss. But then I wouldn’t call that choice “love” as much as psychological reparation. It’s true that Eunice is at first mesmerized by Fox, but her feelings are more than a teenage crush. She’s enchanted, and the enchantment blossoms into a lasting love. Fox is equally obsessed with Eunice. Through loving her, he manages to transform a long-held grief from his own childhood. Eunice and Fox embody a true love story, one that adapts to brutal changes through resilience, devotion, friendship, compassion and erotic love. Eunice and Fox live according to their own unconventional rules. Together they create a world.

Q:  Who is your favorite character in THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE and why?  Do you see yourself in any of the characters?

A: Oh I do adore them all. They’ve been with me forever. I see myself in most all the characters. I aspire to be as wise as Eunice Turtle!

Q: What writers have inspired or influenced your work?

A: I read widely and wish I had more time to read. I’ve been a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s for a very long time and am glad to see her work honored now. Other authors who’ve been important to me are Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen, and Marquerite Duras. The work of Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich inspires me and is also crucial to our understanding of ourselves as a country. The Israeli author David Grossman breaks my heart. Michael Ondaatje is a wonder. All these writers are superb storytellers but they also love language, its rhythms and song, which is evident in their prose. Poetry and nonfiction have influenced me as well. Where would I be without Rilke and Adrienne Rich and Carl Jung?

Q: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?

A: At the moment I’m working on two projects. One is a nonfiction book on living a creative life. A creative life doesn’t necessarily require us to become writers or artists, but it does require us to identify and embrace the core passions that give meaning to our existence. Yearning, faith and doubt, diligence, and silence are some of concepts I’m pondering—Rilke’s “terrible angels,” we might say—and their relationship to feeling alive and connected to a responsive universe. The second project is a novel currently called Digging To China. I’m in the discovery process now and can’t say very much about it except that I’m haunted by something Jung wrote. To paraphrase—what we don’t make conscious comes to us as Fate. Also that we often live out our parents unlived lives. I’m interested in how ancestral trauma is passed down through a legacy of madness, and I’m enormously curious about the early days of Atlantic City. I think there’s another mother and daughter at the core of this new book, but how it will all come together I haven’t a clue!


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