In the opening chapter of Marianne Wiggins' most recent novel, The Shadow Catcher, the reader is introduced to an L.A.-based writer named, well, Marianne Wiggins.
For the award-winning author of nine novels and one short story collection, the self-portraiture was a difficult decision. Having been married to novelist Salman Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on the author, forcing him—and Wiggins—to go into hiding, Wiggins knows firsthand what it means to protect one's life and one's privacy. Just as important, Wiggins has spent her entire career delving into heavily researched, epic-like novels that reveal illuminating truths—about everything except, well, herself.
That Wiggins coupled this memoir-styled narrative (however fictionalized) with a re-telling of the story of Edward S. Curtis, the early American photographer of Native Americans and the American West, is even more intriguing. In advance of her gala reading at this weekend's Montana Festival of the Book, Wiggins spoke to us from her office at the University of Southern California about her new book, the properties of historical fiction and the narcissism of "I."
Indy: What are the origins of The Shadow Catcher?
Wiggins: I credit my daughter with that. She's a photographer and the photograph on the hardcover was one taken by her. It shows the mountain range of Telluride. In fact, that's my daughter's shadow on the cover, which makes it particularly special to me. About a decade ago, I was visiting her and she had a ton of photography books. There was one of Edward S. Curtis and—man! —was I knocked out. Photography and photographers have always been part of my work. In a way they can reinvent history. After I finished Evidence of Things Unseen [Wiggins' previous book, about the atomic bomb], I moved Curtis forward in my mind. I started thinking of a plan for a historical novel. I kept his self-portrait hanging up while I worked on the novel.
Indy: How did your opinion of Edward Curtis change while you worked on the novel?
Wiggins: The more I researched, the more disillusioned I became with him as a person. He knew how to use a camera, that's for sure. He understood its uses and its tricks. But, what he didn't know was the ethics of ethnology. He had a tendency to doctor his photographs, to reinvent the narrative of Native Americans. He airbrushed clocks and other modern devices out of his pictures, had his subjects wearing costumes they hadn't worn in decades.
Indy: Why did you choose to tell much of the novel from the point-of-view of Curtis' wife, Clara?
Wiggins: I wanted to find a way to objectify Curtis the way he had objectified the history of the American West and of Native Americans. I thought if I could I could show him through someone else's eyes, I could have a more texturally rich, a more complicated narrative.
Indy: It seems you could have easily written a single layer historical novel that delved deeply into the life of Edward Curtis. The metafictional work you've created, one that flips between past and present, is both grander in scope and cuts far more deeply.
Wiggins: Actually, it had been my original intention to write a purely historical novel. [However], the more exciting book was the one about the years following Curtis' photography. In that way, two narratives developed—one that was historical, this is Clara's lens, and the modern one, the one that speaks to what's happened to photography since Curtis' time.
There's a function to historical fiction. It keeps history alive in the present. [Since Evidence of Things Unseen], I've learned that most of my students don't know our country has two plants that produce plutonium. They don't know we were the first country to use a weapon of mass destruction. That's heartbreaking to me. Writing about the very near past is a way into a narrative, but it also serves a social function.
Indy: Why did you choose to write a version of yourself into your novel?
Wiggins: I really resisted it. In the American tradition it's usual for the muscle guys to do it: Roth did it, Mailer did it, etc. There was a certain "ick" factor for me. Yet, I'm always being addressed by readers who ask, "Where are you in this?" I've hidden my own biographical material. I've hidden it because I treasure my life, my privacy. [However], turning 60, I thought maybe I could do it. I talked to my sister about it at length. Did she mind that I was using elements of our family history? She loved it, in part because her children have some kind of record of our family history. Of course, much of it is still fictive. That's what I do. I write fiction.
I'm still not particularly comfortable with it. I'm not particularly happy I did it. I won't do it again. Part of the culture of the latter-20th century is fueled by narcissism, is fueled by the "I." If I'm teaching a creative writing class with 10 people, nine of them will be writing in the first person. The first person is now the default for modern American fiction. What I'm working on now has no first person narration. This new novel is told in the omniscient point-of-view.
Indy: Will you talk a bit about your new project?
Wiggins: It's about the water wars of this part of the country. Right now, I'm reading a lot of the naturalist writers: Stegner, John Wesley Powell. Water is going to be one of the most important issues of the West.
Marianne Wiggins appears with Kevin Canty and James Lee Burke for the Montana Festival of the Book gala reading Saturday, Oct. 24, at 7:30 PM, in the Wilma Theatre. Free.