Oddly for an interview about a book suffused with the nature of a single place—in this case, the book is All Things Cease to Appear, coming from Knopf in March—my talk with author Elizabeth Brundage takes place everywhere and nowhere. She skypes from a corner of her apartment overlooking an old mill in New York’s Albany County, I talk from coastal Florida, and we immediately discover that we both come from central New Jersey. All Things Cease to Appear being a gorgeous but searing book with a murder at its heart, it’s lovely to discover that Brundage is relaxed and funny, as comfortable talking about White Castle hamburgers as about narrative experimentation.
After graduating from Hampshire College and attending NYU’s film school, Brundage was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she says she learned the fundamentals of storytelling. After an agent who read one of her scripts suggested that she try fiction—“She said she liked my sentences”—she got an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and three novels followed. Viking published The Doctor’s Wife (2004), Somebody Else’s Daughter (2008), and A Stranger like You (2010).
Brundage’s fourth novel, and her first for Knopf, All Things Cease to Appear is also her most complex book to date. Spanning nearly three decades and a variety of viewpoints, its narrative is at once a police procedural, a family drama, a bildungsroman, a love story, and a ghost tale. Brundage dislikes writing the same kind of book twice and embraces formal experimentation, and she is no stranger to fictional complexity. Still, she says, this latest work “put up a hell of a fight.”
The central action of the novel occurs in Chosen, N.Y., a fictional town in real-life Columbia County. One day in 1979, George Clare holds his young daughter in his arms when he arrives at his neighbor’s door, announcing that he has just found his wife murdered. The story’s seed was sown 24 years ago, when Brundage and her cardiologist husband, who was then a medical resident, were looking to buy a house. “I was standing in this room, looking out on the backyard, and there was this sort of oppressive darkness.” The realtor told her that a woman had been murdered next door with her three-year-old daughter in the house. “Her husband came home and found his wife dead and his daughter in her pajamas.” Brundage adds, “The finished novel is a completely invented story, but for years I couldn’t get that initial image out of my mind.”
Brundage has lived in the region about which she writes for several decades now, giving her a sure sense of its nuances and complexities. All Things Cease to Appear captures its contrasts: the collision of rural tradition and urban gloss as the failing farms of longtime residents are bought by more affluent outsiders, and the way the loss and change of human life is juxtaposed with the staggering natural beauty of the land. Shimmering at the edge of her setting is the vision of the Hudson River School painters, whose luminous and sweeping landscapes helped define the region in American culture. Brundage says she knew early on that Clare would be an art historian, but she was unsure of his focus. “I thought it might be Caravaggio until I saw some George Inness paintings that had been acquired by the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, near our home at the time. Then, soon after, in a moment of serendipity, my husband and I passed a sign advertising a lecture by an Inness expert named Adrienne Baxter Bell. Of course, I insisted that we go.”
Baxter Bell’s talk “opened up the book for me,” Brundage says. “Everything I use in a novel has some reason for being there. Inness’s connection with the Hudson River School allowed me to explore the beauty of the region’s landscape and to consider the land, and nature, as a prevailing spiritual force—a way to connect with God. Inness’s devotion to the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg made so much sense for the novel thematically—it was a way to address this question of an afterlife, ghosts and angels, where we go after death—it was an incredible gift.”
For someone who studies visual and philosophical transcendence, Brundage’s Clare has a distinctly dark side. He is suspected of killing his wife within pages of the novel’s opening. Yet Brundage wanted to make him “recognizable and ambiguous,” and she succeeds. “He has a kind of strange charisma,” she says. “He doesn’t ever apologize for his behavior, or really consider that he’s done anything wrong. In his mind he’s always just getting out of a difficult situation.”
Clare’s wife, Catherine, came in part out of the author’s own past. Brundage says that “Catherine has a 1950s sort of repression and insecurity—she lives by a kind of code that I describe as being ‘handed down like everyday china.’ But in the late 1970s, when I started college, women like her were also beginning, fighting, to change.” When Catherine and her feminist friend Justine hear Adrienne Rich reading from her 1978 book, A Dream of a Common Language, a pleasure Brundage herself experienced and has never forgotten, Catherine begins, however gropingly, to regain her own power. “I don’t really write about my own life,” Brundage comments. “But it’s fair to say that I’m sort of a combination of Catherine and Justine. I think a lot of women share that. We have this strong side, this powerful side, but we also have inside us a frightened, vulnerable person who doesn’t want to trust the things she already knows.”
Though it shares the readability and craft of its three predecessors, All Things Cease to Appear leaves behind their more topical themes, among them abortion, adoption, pornography, and PTSD. About her last book, A Stranger like You, Brundage says: “I had begun to venture into somewhat different terrain. I was really pleased with the experimentation I did in that book, but it didn’t do very well.”
Referring to her time at Viking, she adds, “I think it was probably a good time to move on for all of us.” Still, she has no regrets. “I was happy and grateful to be working with the team there,” she says. “A group of strong, incredibly smart women. I learned a lot from them, and they tried really hard with my work.”
The fact that Brundage’s latest novel was slow in coming offered another sort of opportunity. “I knew this book was different,” she says. “It seemed like the right time to readdress who I was as a writer, what I wanted to accomplish on the page. I was encouraging my students at Skidmore to write good literary fiction and to take their time, I realized, so why wasn’t I doing that? Why wasn’t I letting myself take the time to really do what I wanted to do, try new things, get away from worrying about what the book was or whether it would sell?” With that, the pages started accumulating.
“When it came time to sell the new book, I wasn’t really sure what I had,” Brundage says. In a discussion with her agent, she mentioned Gary Fisketjon at Knopf. “All my favorite writers have been edited by Gary,” she notes. “He’s like the guru. I didn’t think he’d want to work with me, but we sent it to him and, lo and behold, he liked it. His editing, his appreciation for the importance of every single sentence... it’s been miraculous.”
As I ask about what’s next, we are interrupted by Daisy, Brundage’s golden retriever, nestling against her leg—perhaps a sign that we’ve talked long enough.
“You have to be patient,” Brundage says in closing. “Writing takes its own time. It’s okay if it takes years. There’s no point in writing something that’s not good. I’ve learned that lesson—to really wait—the hard way. I was able to do that with All Things Cease to Appear. Whatever happens, I’m satisfied.”
Florida writer Suzanne Fox is the publisher of Stories of You Books.