Q&A with Ward Just

  • April 26, 2011

Ward Just discusses the story and characters of his emotionally potent new novel.

Questions for Ward Just, author of Rodin’s Debutante

I guess we’ve all heard an author say that a story “had to be told.” Is this true for you? Is there a fragment or kernel of truth in each of your books that catalyzes the whole?

I guess I’d say that the story cannot be told unless you tell it. For me, usually, the story begins with an encounter. For many years my favorite museum in Paris has been the Rodin, on rue de Varenne, a long five-iron from Les Invalides. One of Rodin’s heads that has intrigued me all these years has been the one of a Chicago dowager who lived 100 years ago, Mrs. Potter Palmer. A few years ago, looking yet again at Rodin’s dowager, I imagined her not at 65 but at 18. A lovely girl, and Rodin’s marble managed to capture all of that beauty and more besides. Hence, the novel called Rodin’s Debutante.

In Rodin’s Debutante, you begin the story with two of the most interesting characters, Tommy Ogden and his wife, Marie, and yet we never get a handle on the rest of their lives. We meet Tommy only once more, near the end of his. How was it that they did not intrude into the story? How could you not tell us more?

Each novel has its own shape. I think this shape is present somewhere even before the author writes a word. If asked what this shape is, the author probably couldn’t say; but it’s there. The shape of this book required that Tommy and Marie dominate the long first section. Marie disappears and Tommy returns but once. Their shadows are present here and there even without their names attached to them. To continue their stories would have made the novel about them and that was not anything that interested me very much. In life, as in art, people arrive and depart without warning, their future whereabouts often unknown

Ogden Hall students had no praise for Tommy Ogden. Seems like the early students would have gotten together to mythologize their founder. Is this school, in any way, based on a real place?

In my scant but vivid recollections of boarding school, I found the founders invisible. Even so outsized a character as Tommy Ogden would have be seen as just another old man with a dream, easily dismissed. Usually in fiction an institution, be it a boarding school or an army barracks, begins with some actual place. But by the fifth rewrite that place is mostly vanished and by the 10th rewrite it’s gone altogether to be replaced by a school of the imagination.

Lee Goodell’s life is fully realized in the story. He is a smart, football-playing, history-loving sculptor. It seems like his footprint would stretch far beyond Hyde Park, Illinois, but he is completely content. He’s an artist without hunger. Is he meant to be a foil for Tommy Ogden?

Lee Goodell is a lucky fellow, most happy in Hyde Park, the South Side of Chicago. He is not the sort of man to chop off his ear or move to Tahiti. I think of him more in the mold of the artist Edward Hopper or the poet Wallace Stevens.

Why doesn’t Lee venture inside Chez Syracusa, the bordello? He loves the music, hears it floating out into the night air. Is he chaste, simply uninterested or afraid of himself?

The time is 1952. Chez Syracusa is a brothel for adults, many of them well beyond 50 years old. Neither they nor the proprietor are interested in college boys. Lee would sense this. He would know perfectly well that he would be the wallflower at the orgy. He is neither chaste, uninterested or afraid of himself. He would simply understand that the brothel would not be for him, in the way that a boarding school girl of that era would most likely stay away from a five-cent cigar. This is rough and tumble Chicago, where you don’t go where you’re not wanted.

We meet some South Side characters in your story. You don’t describe them until well after the reader meets them. I didn’t know they were racially different from the other characters. Was this purposeful?  Why the delay? Or does “South Side” mean more than a place to a Chicago native?

To a Chicagoan, the South Side is African-American. Hyde Park, the university bedroom village, is mostly white.  I didn’t think it necessary to stress this, nor did I want to get into a sociological treatise. If a reader was a bit puzzled at the beginning of this section, that is okay; it all becomes clear later on in my view.

How well do you know your audience? How do they matter?

I don’t know my audience well. If I did know them, it wouldn’t matter much. These stories have an arc of their own, and as one works on the manuscript the only audience is the multitude inside your own head.

Why didn’t Lee wait for the embers to cool so that he could pull Rodin’s pseudo-Marie bust out of the rubble?

The bust is probably six feet down in the rubble. The rubble will burn for days. Even if Lee were able to find the bust, it wouldn’t look like much. He prefers to remember the bust as it was in the library alcove as opposed to owning a charred bit of marble, much of it melted.


BUY RODIN’S DEBUTANTE from Politics & Prose

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