An Interview with Margaret Vandenburg by Rachel Abramowitz
Interview by Rachel Abramowitz
It would not be an exaggeration to say that during my years as a student at Barnard College, I followed Margaret Vandenburg around. Whatever class she taught, I took, even if I had only a passing interest in the subject. It takes, for example, an exceptional professor to convince a roomful of late-semester seniors in a 19th-century American Literature class that James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers is a relevant, let alone rewarding, read. And yet, even without the desperate ramping up of theatrics to which many teachers resort (myself included), Vandenburg managed to reveal the artfulness and lyricism (and yes, relevance) of not only these early, earnest Americans, but of her beloved Modernists and, as she recently confessed to me, of her new love, the Postmodernists.
The Permanent Press will publish Vandenburg’s two latest novels, The Home Front and Weapons of Mass Destruction, later this year. Her first novel, An American in Paris, was published in 2000 by Cleis Press. She is also the librettist for Ada, an opera which explores the life and work of Ada Lovelace Byron. We conducted this interview in her office at Barnard College, where she has been a faculty member since 1998.
Rachel Abramowitz: Tell me about the origins of these two books, because they’re related, they both have war themes, right? What inspired you to write them?
Margaret Vandenburg: I still think literature matters—that it can save the planet, or at least tell us what the hell is wrong with it. Right before I started writing Weapons of Mass Destruction, I finished a novel about the prescription drug industry (called Brave New York), about how prescription drugs are flattening out the range of acceptable behavior. So I got that out of my system. And I thought, what’s really getting my goat now? It was in the middle of the Iraq War and Bush was still president, or was it Cheney? It’s all a blur now. The war seemed inescapable, even from a civilian point of view, since it was our paranoia—not just the president’s—that got us into that mess. I knew people would say it was ridiculous, but I was too outraged to write about anything else.
RA: Ridiculous in what way?
MV: Ridiculous because you’re supposed to write about what you know, whatever that means. Guess what? I knew I was outraged and, at the same time, I was complicit. But I didn’t want to make it all about me, the way the good old U. S. of A. tends to make global politics all about them. Us. So I set out to write a combat novel. And there’s something ridiculous about that, too, trying to get inside of combat. Inside the heads of soldiers doing our dirty work. I wanted to address our complicity by expressing my outrage. That’s probably why I’ve always liked war novels—their outrage—and I’ve read a lot of them and they’re almost never about combat. The Naked and the Dead is a notable exception, probably because Norman Mailer served more as a cook than a soldier in World War II. The greatest novel of the Vietnam War, Going After Cacciato, has very little actual combat in it. That makes sense to a certain extent because Vietnam was a sort of surreal war—almost psychedelic—and Tim O’Brien wrote in a style suited to the Sixties. But I missed reading about combat. I guess that’s what civilians need to hear about. It’s almost like O’Brien didn’t need to write about it—maybe couldn’t bear to write about it—but we need to have our noses rubbed in it. As much as I admire Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, war novels set in drawing rooms, I wanted the war to happen in Iraq, not New York City. Women in particular seemed to shy away from writing about combat, as though it were a particularly ridiculous subject for them. Alas. Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termitehas some powerful battle scenes in the Korean War, but it’s ultimately about two kids orphaned by the war, not the soldiers who orphaned them. So I dove down the rabbit hole, which in this case meant reading every Iraq War memoir I could get my hands on. Talking to veterans, including family members…