You Can Learn Everything from Fiction: An Interview with Rebecca Mead

In 2010, The New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead flew across the pond to absolve George Eliot of the hollow maxim, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” (Turns out, Eliot never said it.) That trip begat a New Yorker essay on Eliot and her classic novel Middlemarch, and then a book, out today, called My Life in Middlemarch. (Mead’s first book, 2007’s One Perfect Day, is a thorough and disturbing look at the American wedding industry.) Mead has been a devout reader of Eliot since devouring Middlemarch as a teen. She rereads the 800-page tome every five years or so; no book has ever come close to impacting her as deeply.

My Life in Middlemarch is equal parts biography and literary criticism, with a dash of memoir thrown in at key points. It’s keenly observed, thoughtful and thought-provoking regardless of your relationship with Eliot and Middlemarch—or lack thereof. Not surprisingly, the book has sparked a mini Eliot renaissance: Last December The Toast launched a book club tackling Eliot and Mead, and earlier this month, Kathryn Schulz wrote about Middlemarch for New York magazine.

Rebecca Mead and I met at a café in Fort Greene on, god willing, the coldest day of the year.

EVAN ALLGOOD: Was it your idea or an editor’s to turn your 2011 New Yorker piece about George Eliot into a book?

REBECCA MEAD: I had the idea to write something about George Eliot two or three years prior to the New Yorker piece coming out. I told my editor at The New Yorker that I wanted to write something about George Eliot but I didn’t know what it was; I just put my name down as wanting to do it. Then I spent a long time rereading the books and thinking about how I was going to approach this, and finally kicked myself into gear by taking the trip to England that I wrote about in the New Yorker piece, going to the place of her birth and meeting members of the George Eliot Fellowship and exploring the question of that quotation, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

EA: You never found any evidence that she’d said it, right?

RM: None.

In a way, the impetus to write the book was thinking about that quote and feeling like—you know, I was in my early forties and it transparently was too late for things to happen—and kind of hating the idea of that quote, and also hating the idea that if George Eliot had said it, I would have to take it seriously, because I take her seriously. If she’s saying it’s never too late, I’ve got to get over myself and do something else.

EA: Start writing fiction.

RM: Right. So I wrote that piece in a little bit more of a depressed and worried state of feeling the onset of middle age and the rest of it. The book was such a joy to do. Really, just such a joy. I wouldn’t say that it taught me that Oh, it never is too late to do something, but it certainly restored a kind of optimism about what I might do next or what I could do now.

EA: Did writing this book directly improve your perception of middle age?

RM: Yes, it absolutely did. Because I’d written a book before but I’d never written a book like this before, and writing the last book was in many ways a really miserable experience. One Perfect Day is a very different kind of book. It’s an exploration of something I was very skeptical of and in most ways hostile to, and what I didn’t realize before I wrote that was that living in that world for all those years that it took me to do it was going to be draining. After I wrote that book, I decided that if I was going to write another book, I wanted it to be about something I really loved. So I had this amazing experience with writing this book and being able to be completely immerse myself in something that I cared about enormously, and to find out why I cared about it.

I loved the process of writing; it was very, very intense. The first draft, which is not that different from what you have, took five months from the first day—January two years ago, to the very end of June. It was roughly five hours a day of the internet being off and me being in my room writing. And I wrote really fluidly and really fast and once I’d set aside the anxiety that one inevitably has—Nobody cares about this, nobody wants to read this—I just wrote it. I felt as I was doing it that I was writing it as much for myself as anybody who’s ever going to read it. I’d never written anything like that, so emotionally invested. I’d never written about myself. Although there aren’t that many stories from my life, it is completely imbued with my experience: I wouldn’t be reading Middlemarch the way I do if not for the things that had happened to me. So it was very intense, it involved my imaginative faculties the way my normal reporting doesn’t. Writers complain about how hard writing is or how much they don’t enjoy it, or give advice to other would-be writers: “If you can do anything else, do it, because writing is such a pain.” And I don’t find it terrible. Of course I get stuck sometimes like everybody else, but it’s joyful. I hope that some of that translates to the book as well.

EA: It does. On the flip side, I felt for you as I read One Perfect Day.

RM: I mean, I wanted to write that. The writing of that wasn’t horrible, and even all the reporting wasn’t horrible, but it was a time in my life when I was much more interested in writing about things that perplexed me and horrified me than things that delighted me or I admired. The position of the ironical skeptic is a valuable one, and it’s one that came very naturally. George Eliot did it too; she wrote these early essays before she started writing any fiction that were so acerbic and so critical and so devastating. But I think it would be odd not to grow out of that, in a way. I’m now more interested in finding out what motivates people, trying to understand them, and trying to find a point of sympathy. Not to give an article in a subject an easy ride, but one of the lessons of Middlemarch—I hate to think of it as having lessons—but one of the things that one knows from reading it is this idea of everybody having their own center of consciousness. Everybody is the center of their own world. Trying to understand how you see yourself at the center of yours and what your points of vulnerability are—not in order to exploit them but in order to empathize with them—is more interesting to me now than twenty years ago.

EA: That reminds me of something George Saunders said in The Atlas Review—that everyone is born with the delusion that they’re the center of the universe and spend the rest of their lives trying to outgrow that. Do you think that’s sort of the point of reading books: to outgrow your self-centeredness, to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to boost your empathy?

RM: It’s funny. I think that, yes, that’s one of the things that some books can do, not all of them. But I think it’s so weird to think about the benefits of reading, as if it were like, what vitamins should we be taking? Making an argument for reading because it’s good for us is such an American thing. Trying to quantify the impact of reading literary fiction over, I don’t know, watching TV or maybe even reading thrillers—you know the studies I’m talking about.

EA: It lights up this part of your brain! It’s definitely good for you!”

RM: Yeah, and I just resist the whole idea that reading is good for you, like you should do it like you should go to the gym. It seems bizarrely utilitarian. There are other reasons I read, too. Right now I’m reading the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I’m loving it because of the characterization, but I’m also loving it because of the amazing sentences and incredible images. People read for a wide variety of reasons. The idea that we’re reading to improve ourselves… While I think it’s a side benefit, I don’t think it should be why we’re doing it.

EA: So you would still read if books were a vice?

RM: People used to think of novels as a vice, you know. Fiction was a vice, not even so long ago. Perhaps we should recast it as a vice to encourage more people to do it. My husband and I have a whole shelf in our house of what we’ve referred to as Not Quite Serious Social Criticism, cultural criticism stuff, and it’s always books that are like, the definitive book on this cultural problem or this political issue, and those things are fleeting. Occasionally there’s a book like that that endures, but is anyone going to be reading those in 150 years? No, they’ll be reading Middlemarch. You can learn everything from fiction. I’ve gone through periods where I read less fiction, and I often feel I’m reading something because I’ve been told to and it’s a waste of time. Maybe fiction isn’t so wrong. I feel better when I’m reading this St. Aubyn book than I do when I’m reading the newspaper, or anything else.

EA: Eliot was so ahead of her time as far as her views on god and marriage, among other things. How do you think she would fare in today’s literary world?

RM: I don’t know. I think that the things she was trying to do, novelists are still trying to do. Not all of them, obviously, but there are writers who very much take her as their inspiration and consciously think about continuing the effort that she was making. Somebody like Jonathan Franzen was clearly massively influenced by her. Or Adelle Waldman. She’s trying to bring that idea of the author’s large compassion while portraying people with narrow limitations. So George Eliot would probably still be doing that. I can’t tell you what she’d be writing about. I think she’d have a very hard time with the demands that are made—

EA: Twitter?

RM: She’d have a really hard time with Twitter because she couldn’t write anything in under 140 characters. No, she would not be a social media person.

EA: I kind of like being forced to compress things.

RM: What I like about it is that it requires you to use words that don’t have much currency in spoken or written language. There’s a kind of Latinate density to Twitter—you can say “whence” because it’s shorter than saying “from where.” I like having an excuse to use “whence” without it seeming like I’m being faux-Victorian or something. The English language is so incredibly rich. Looking for the perfect small word, rather than the three words. That’s the fun part for me.

EA: You mentioned Adelle Waldman a moment ago. One reason I thought of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. while reading your book was the moralistic effect. Because Waldman’s book made me reevaluate how I treat women, and George Eliot wanted so badly to have a positive moral effect on her readers. When you’re writing, are you conscious of the effect your work might have on readers morally?

RM: I don’t think, Oh, I want to make people better. It’s not like Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I didn’t want to write George Eliot’s Guide to Life As Told Through Me. But when I wrote the piece for The New Yorker I was really amazed and moved by the amount of responses I got from people who had felt personally affected by the piece, not in a moral improvement way necessarily, but they had responded to it and my experience. I was not aware that anything I’d written before had affected people in that way. As I said, I found a way towards optimism through writing it; it was sort of a way out of depression and into optimism. If I want my book to have any moral effect, it would be that I would hope to engender optimism. But it wasn’t written with that intent.

EA: Your book was encouraging to read. You and Eliot both said you were happier at forty-five than twenty-five.

RM: I think it’s true. I mean, I love that quote from her: “We are happier than when we were seven years old”—I’m not sure she’s right about that, because my eight-year-old is very happy—“And we shall be happier when we are forty than we are now.” What I love about it is that she says, “I think this is a doctrine worth trying to believe.” It’s not done in a kind of serious, moral way; it’s just, let’s hope for this, let’s reach for this. I think by the time you’re forty-five, you’re not worried about the bigger things that you were when you were twenty-five. When you’re twenty-five you’re so wrapped up in your own anxieties about where you’re going, what you’re doing, all the rest of it. By forty-five you’ve been exposed to more grief and more exhilaration and you know more about what the important, intense things in life are. Yeah, forty-five’s alright. Check back in with me at sixty-five or eighty-five; I don’t know how that’ll be. (laughs) But forty-five’s alright.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.