Interviews

‘A Theory of Love’ Is a Kaleidoscopic Look at Place

Margaret Bradham Thornton chats with Bethanne Patrick about the former's new novel.

Margaret Bradham Thornton has had experience enough to fill three rings under any big top. A graduate of Princeton, she worked on Wall Street for many years and is married to a former chair of Goldman Sachs, with whom she has four children. Bradham Thornton edited an acclaimed 856-page edition of Tennessee Williams’ Notebooks before publishing her first novel, Charleston, to good reviews in 2014.

A Theory of Love, her second book, was released in May 2018. Theory unspools the story of Christopher, a high-flying financier, and his younger, less-sophisticated wife Helen, an English journalist. As Christopher skates close to the edge of regulatory wrongdoing with his colleagues, Helen feels estranged from him and retreats into her own world of research. I spoke with Bradham Thornton by telephone from her Charleston home as she prepared for a morning of work on her third novel.

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Bethanne Patrick

Let’s talk about perspective.

Margaret Bradham Thornton

I think perspective operates in this novel on both a literal and abstract level. On the literal level is Helen’s discussion with William Pauling that takes place when she visits him in Djemaa El Mokra, Morocco. He shows her drawings of the European Summer Palaces in Beijing, built in the 1800s, and points out that they contain examples of both Chinese parallel perspective and the western converging perspective that was first introduced to China by the 18th century Jesuit priest Castiglione. Parallel perspective does not presume a fixed viewpoint, objects do not diminish in size because of their distance from the observer, and there is no vanishing point; the viewer can be anywhere, and the view is the same. Linear perspective, on the other hand, assumes a fixed point of observation, objects diminish the further away they are from the viewer, and there is a vanishing point. With linear perspective, perception changes whenever position changes.

This literal understanding of perspective shifts into a more abstract understanding when Pauling instructs Helen, “You see, the trick in life is learning how to see differently —to be able to see both ways and knowing when to switch.”

Helen applies Pauling’s advice to her and Christopher’s relationship. She rightly observes that, unlike objects in a drawing, relationships are not static; they are always moving so even if you adopt the Chinese perspective, perspective will change by definition because the position of the object is changing. Ironically, with the western method, the only way to keep the perspective steady is for the viewer constantly to adjust in relation to the movement of the object. So I think at the end, both Helen and Christopher come to understand that they are both going to have to make adjustments, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious.

Bethanne Patrick

Where did the idea for A Theory of Love come from?

Margaret Bradham Thornton

The idea of this book came from two places, a seagull and a circus performer. One day about five years ago I was walking on the beach and saw a seagull in the dunes. I thought it might have a broken wing, and as I approached, I realized it was dying, so I moved away. It made me think about how most animals live and die alone, and how humans have such a strong desire to form attachments and share lives and how universal this condition is. For example, even though China has a completely different sense of spirituality, culture, and language, marriage may be the condition it has most in common with the West. Why is that so? Wondering about this made me think more about unions and what it means to love someone.

In doing research on Havana in the 18th and 19th centuries, I found a memoir of a circus performer who had traveled around the US and Cuba in the 1800s. I was hoping to read about a life full of adventure. What I found instead was a record told in a voice that was flat and uninflected of all the places he had traveled in his 42 years in the circus along with the names of all the different performers. The circus performer had been an orphan, and he dictated his memoir at the end of his life to a friend. I came to understand that memory was a companion for this circus performer. Helen and Christopher discuss the memoir, she wonders if the circus performer reduced his experience to a set of numbers and dates as a way of making it accessible to others, but Christopher thinks lists gave immunity from loneliness. He seems to have a more intuitive understanding of the author. And it made me curious: If you’d had love withheld from you as a child, who would you be as an adult? What could be expected of you? Despite living two centuries apart, the circus performer was the inspiration for Christopher, and I thought a circus would be a good metaphor for the world of finance. I settled on short chapters with changing locations to give a sense of speed and dislocation.

Bethanne Patrick

That seemed to be an apt metaphor for a life of finance. Christopher feels so alone towards the end of the book.

Margaret Bradham Thornton

I think he is, but he has been alone all of his life. When he walks outside on that last night, he fully understands that he has been guarding his heart from both himself and Helen. “Life had emptied a place inside of him that he had not been willing to fill.” The key to the ending of the novel is the sentence about Christopher listening from too far away. He has come to understand the mistakes he has made, and he returns to be with Helen. Interestingly the novel wound up ranked at one point # 38 on Amazon under Divorce even though Helen and Christopher do not divorce, but I guess someone at Amazon thought that was where they were heading. I wrote the ending to be more hopeful, so I suppose the ending is a somewhat of a Rorschach test for the reader.

Bethanne Patrick

Some people believe that anyone in the world of high finance is craven. That’s not true, of course. But your character Christopher shows how close to the edge financiers often live, morality wise. Is that something you wanted to highlight? Am I getting that right?

Margaret Bradham Thornton

I wanted to document the world that I had known in the 1980s and early 1990s. I saw a shift in ways of behaving and that shift is represented by Christopher and Marc. If a person does not have a strong moral core, as I believe Christopher does and Marc does not, then lines are drawn not with respect to what is the right thing to do but with respect to narrow self-interest and greed. Also I wanted to document the way deals are talked about –much of what I have seen in movies and on television tends toward caricature.

When I first started working in Mergers and Acquisitions on Wall Street, none of the people I worked with had finance or economic degrees, in fact, some of the major firms wouldn’t hire you unless you had a strong background in the humanities. I worked with people who had majored in History or English or Comparative Literature or Classics and a number had advanced degrees in these subjects. The 1980s on Wall Street was a period of “midnight raids” where a company would make a hostile bid (generally at the close of day on Friday) for another company. We were often hired to defend the target company and secrecy was crucial and everything had code names often with historical or literary significance. I remember two taken from Henry James – Project Isabel, Project Strether. Most everyone recognized the references.

As the banks grew and leadership changed, banks began acting differently. Many economists and historians have pointed out that one of the major contributing, if not the major contributing factor, in the crash of 2008 was the practices and behavior of the big banks. And, of course, there are very moral, hard working people at these institutions, but when you read that since 2007, banks worldwide have paid over $320 billion in fines, of which the US banks have paid $204 billion, and that very few senior executives have lost their jobs, it’s no wonder that corruption was a big issue in the 2016 election and will continue to be.

Bethanne Patrick

In the world you remember, there are a lot of beautiful places—or maybe you have a different reason for including so many stunning locations in this novel.

Margaret Bradham Thornton

I wanted to give a sense of Christopher’s exotic, glamorous world, but I also wanted to show how disorienting these places can be and test how Christopher and Helen either change or don’t change in these locations. I also wanted to highlight the difference between her conservative, English, middle-class upbringing and his, which is transitory and ephemeral. In her world, friendships are made over a period of years, whereas in his, they’re of the moment and can be created or evaporate in an instant.

Some of the places (and some of the characters) relate to the research I did for my work on Tennessee Williams. For example, I traveled to Tangiers to interview Paul Bowles the year before he died. I visited the west coast of Mexico and traveled to the small island where John Huston shot some of the scenes of his film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana.

I once saw an exhibit of “phantom islands” which are islands that appeared on maps, in some cases, as early as the 15th century but are later found not to exist, and I thought: That’s what I want Christopher’s favorite place to be like, a lost island. Bermeja doesn’t exist, but I’ll make it the place he and Helen set out from, almost like leaving Eden.

Also, I think the idea of trust was important in this book. Travel to exotic, unfamiliar places requires trust. When Christopher and Helen first meet, he tells her he can look after her at a decadent party, and even though he is flirting with her and knows she can look after herself — he is in a way asking her to trust him, and he is showing his moral side. The philosopher Alfonso Lingis wrote, “to trust you is to go beyond what I know and to hold onto the real individual that is you.” Without being with Christopher in a foreign place, Helen might not have seen this side of him so clearly and so early.

Bethanne Patrick

Helen has a miscarriage, and I think it’s important to talk about a thing that is so often hidden. Except this time, it’s by choice. But is it the right choice? Did you want both of them to have something to hide?

Margaret Bradham Thornton

First of all, she’s angry at him, that he can’t even make time to know what’s going on with her. The space between them has grown so vast. And her anger stays with her, and then as time moves on, it feels stranger and stranger to her that she has not told him which makes it even more difficult for her to tell him.

The idea of Helen having a miscarriage came about indirectly as I knew the question I wanted Helen to ask Christopher at the end of the novel. When they are sitting on swings the morning after she arrives in Bermeja, she asks him if he thinks things would have been different between them if they had had a child. So that was the scene, the moment, I was working toward. The fact that she had been pregnant and lost the baby makes his response even more devastating, but also, it is when he is most vulnerable with her.

Bethanne Patrick

Relationships ebb and flow like tides, and most of the places Helen and Christopher inhabit are governed by tides. Was this deliberate?

Margaret Bradham Thornton

I hadn’t made that connection, but it’s accurate. The idea behind oceans in this book came from a woman at a book signing on Edisto Island for my novel Charleston. She told me that her husband, who “goes across oceans all the time,” says he could be blindfolded on a voyage but know where he was by the color of the sea. I started to think about color as compass and how memories are very connected to our emotions. I think modern life with all its pressures and demands and freedoms and choices requires that successful partnerships have elasticity and an understanding that there are rhythms that can’t be resisted.

Bethanne Patrick

Let’s talk about Tennessee Williams, and your work in editing his notebook. How did the task become yours?

Margaret Bradham Thornton

I like to think it came about through a kind of serendipity. Though I could equally admit that no one else wanted to take it on. The first time I met John Eastman, a friend of my husband’s, we had an animated discussion in which I defended the character Isabel Archer from The Portrait of A Lady. It turns out John was the attorney who created the novel argument which prevailed in a landmark case in England that gave artists the rights to their music. Had I known that he was such a formidable lawyer, I would not have been so outspoken. After that dinner whenever we saw each other we often talked about books. In the mid 1990’s, John asked me if I would look at Williams’ diaries; he had been Tennessee Williams’s lawyer and was the lawyer for the estate. He presented me with this pile of 14 inches of very badly copied journals, written in blue books or unremarkable journals, kind of the dime-store variety. They were not contiguous; some were dated, some were not. Sometimes the date would be wrong. It was an amazing emotional and creative record. I told John that I thought they should be published with extensive footnotes and annotations.

To get it right took so much time. It took a year just to date everything he’d ever written. This mattered. For example, I discovered one “Thomas Lanier Williams” had entered a playwriting contest for writers under 25—when he was 28! From that point on, after he received a Distinction in the contest, everything he submitted was under the name of “Tennessee Williams.” So I knew anything with “Thomas Lanier Williams” was pre-1939.

Bethanne Patrick

How did this major amount of work fit in to your career as a creative writer?

Margaret Bradham Thornton

I was already writing fiction when I accepted the project; Charleston was half written. Given that I was missing so many deadlines for Notebooks, I had to stop working on my novel as writing fiction required such a different way of thinking. But in many ways, my ten years editing and annotating The Notebooks was an apprenticeship of sorts. Because Tennessee Williams wrote about his work and saved everything- there are over 3,000 unpublished manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts – I could see how he progressed as a writer. I saw how “inefficient” writing was for him. For example, he wrote over eight different endings for The Glass Menagerie as well as a number of different final scenes for Blanche including one in which she throws herself under a train Anna Karenina style. I also saw that not everything he wrote was great, that the quality varied. I saw how dedicated he was to writing and that he was constantly giving himself pep talks and advice: “I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do — then go ahead and do it with ease. Don’t maul, don’t suffer, don’t groan — till the first draft is finished. Then Calvary — but not till then. Doubt — and be lost — until the first draft is finished.”

And it took him a long time to find his voice.  After twelve years of writing poems and short stories and plays, he wrote, “My next play will be simple, direct and terrible — a picture of my own heart — there will be no artifice in it — I will speak truth as I see it — distort as I see distortion — be wild as I am wild — tender as I am tender — mad as I am mad — passionate as I am passionate — It will be myself without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life that will leave no room for trepidation.”

Ultimately, I believe, that is what distinguishes a writer — his or her voice.

9780062742704_f6289

FICTION
A Theory of Love
By Margaret Bradham Thornton
Ecco
Published May 8, 2018

Margaret Bradham Thornton is the author of Charleston and the editor of Tennessee Williams’s Notebooks, for which she received the Bronze ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in autobiography/memoir and the C. Hugh Holman Prize for the best volume of southern literary scholarship published in 2006, given by the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. She is a graduate of Princeton University and lives in Florida.

Bethanne Patrick is a writer, author, and critic whose author profiles and book reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post and NPR Books, as well as The L.A. Times, TIME magazine, and Publishers Weekly. She is a contributing editor to Lit Hub, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Virginia Center for Literary Arts. Her anthology The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections from Authors, Artists, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People (ReganArts/Phaidon, 2016) benefits 826 National, the writing philanthropy founded by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Patrick, who hosted an author interview series for WETA-PBS, launched three bookish startups, and was the books editor at Washingtonian magazine, is now working on a memoir for The Counterpoint Press. Her work has or will appear in VQR Online, Elle.com, The Rumpus, and Longreads.

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1 comment on “‘A Theory of Love’ Is a Kaleidoscopic Look at Place

  1. Fascinating chat. It is so interesting to read how this author is forensic in describing the ever changing dynamics of human relationships.

    Like

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