Jamaica Kincaid, whose novel “See Now Then” is her first in 10 years and widely presumed to be auto- biographical, wanted to set a few things straight, and she speaks to Felicia R. Lee of The New York Times about the (lack of) links between her life and her work.
First, unlike the fictional Mr. Sweet of the novel, her former husband, Allen Shawn (also short and also a composer), never used an expression like “off the banana boat” to describe Ms. Kincaid, who is from Antigua. Nor did he compare her to Charles Laughton or create a nocturne called “This Marriage Is Dead.”
“It would be very wrong to think that the person I was married to would say that or things like that,” Ms. Kincaid said sternly.
Still, the book, which comes out on Tuesday, uses the quotidian details of domestic life — a life in some respects like hers once was — to meditate on big issues like parenthood, loss and time.
“The thing I was trying to do in the novel,” she said, “was to get at the unknowability of another person, the person you have the deepest intertwining with.”
Now 63, Ms. Kincaid moved to California from Vermont in 2009 to teach creative writing and literature at Claremont McKenna College. That was seven years after her 1979 marriage to Mr. Shawn officially ended in early 2002. In “See Now Then” Mr. Sweet tells Mrs. Sweet that he’s in love with someone else, but Ms. Kincaid insists that the book sprang from her imagination and a desire to chew on ideas rather than to recount her breakup.
Indeed, while talking at length about her life, her two children with Mr. Shawn and “See Now Then” (her fifth novel and one of 13 books she has written or edited), she never mentioned Mr. Shawn by name. (Since remarried, he declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“I wanted to write about the life of children and the lives of their parents without everyone thinking it was about me and my children and their life,” she said. “And of course, everyone thinks it is. It is not. I maintain it is not.”
Aside from her irritation, Ms. Kincaid was in good form: funny, warm, energetic and, as usual, funky, with a red cloche over her short hair, a long skirt, and white ankle socks paired with dark shoes. And if she is outspoken, it’s in keeping with a career that included a high-profile falling-out with Tina Brown, then the editor of The New Yorker, where she had published for over 20 years — and whose onetime editor, William Shawn, was her father-in-law.
“I’m so used to being misunderstood,” she said. “They say, ‘She’s angry.’ ‘Her sentences are too long.’ One reviewer accused me of not dealing with race and class. I think in my next novel I should say, ‘They’re black and they’ve been beaten,’ something like that.”
The words “See Now Then” are repeated throughout the 182-page novel, which is as much mythological as domestic. There is little dialogue and no real plot. The Sweets’ home life and the earth itself are unpredictable. Mrs. Sweet, like Ms. Kincaid an avid gardener and writer from the Caribbean, at one point reads her son, Heracles, a story about 100 million years of rain.
“Time is the main character,” said Ms. Kincaid, who started writing the book in 2005 but got the structure to jell only after coming up with the title about a year later. “It interested me, the passage of time: how you perceive time, what it means. It will be really hard for people to inhabit that because the thing that everyone wants to know is: ‘Well, you were married. Did your husband dump you?’ ”
Philip Fisher, a professor of literature at Harvard, first met the couple when Ms. Kincaid began teaching there in the 1990s. He described “See Now Then” as her best work to date, an intensification of the poetic, nonlinear style that’s been praised in earlier books like “The Autobiography of My Mother,” and “Mr. Potter.”
“People will talk about it and comb through what is exposed here, what is explained here,” Mr. Fisher said. “The answer is that things overlap, but her lyrical writing creates a distance from everyday events and never raises gossipy curiosity.”
Early newspaper reviews have been more mixed, with Hector Tobar calling the book “mesmerizing” in The Los Angeles Times, while Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal described it as “little more than chunks of Ms. Kincaid’s autobiography lumped onto the page like unshaped clay.”
Certainly Ms. Kincaid is known for the autobiographical strands in “Autobiography of My Mother” and “Lucy,” which follows a young woman who comes to New York to be an au pair. (Born Elaine Richardson in Antigua, Ms. Kincaid worked as a nanny on the Upper East Side as a teenager.)
And for all her chafing about comparisons with her private life, Ms. Kincaid constantly winks at readers in the new book. There’s brief mention of a character named Jamaica. The fictional couple, like the real one, are different colors, from very different backgrounds, and have a son and a daughter. Mr. Sweet finds a note from his father describing how to lead his life with “two households; two wives, two sofas, two knives.” (William Shawn had a decades-long secret romance with Lillian Ross, a New Yorker writer.)
When Ms. Kincaid read from the book last summer at a writers’ institute at Skidmore College, the mostly student audience peppered her with questions about “whether the novel is a suitable vehicle for working through the personal this or that,” said Robert Boyers, the director of the institute.
“She did not want to get drawn into any particulars about her marriage,” he said. In this she’s hardly alone: “A lot of writers refuse to deliver the goods,” he said.
While happy to be in California, Ms. Kincaid still calls her colorful Bennington house her true home, and often returns there. Her “faux Craftsman” near the Claremont campus is too small for all her books, though it allows a view of the San Gabriel Mountains and is surrounded by colorful flowers and shrubs. Nature is so ever-present, she said, that it is “superfluous” to garden except in pots. It’s in Vermont that she still maintains her one-and-a-half-acre garden.
Indeed, the whole family is smitten with the West. Recently her 28-year-old daughter, Annie, a songwriter, and 24-year-old son, Harold, a songwriter and music producer, came to live with her. She seemed uncertain about whether they had read “See Now Then.” But she didn’t seem worried about their reaction: growing up with artists, she said, they knew the difference between truth and fiction.
“There has been a big shift in coming out here — I grew up in a way I hadn’t before,” Ms. Kincaid said. “There is a loneliness and melancholy to it that I treasure and I hope to make a permanent part of my imagination.”