Don’t Write Alone | Interviews

Liz Harmer Is Working Out Thorny Moral Questions

Jean March Ah-Sen interviews Liz Harmer about her new novel ‘Strange Loops,’ crises of faith, and the mysteries of existence.

Strange LoopsThe AmateursStrange Loops

Strange LoopsConfessionsThe Passionate HeartStrange Loops

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: The sexual politics at work in the novel are complex. Francine begins a relationship with an adult while she is a teenager, and then with her own student when she is teaching at a university in her thirties. Francine is positioned as both victim and victimizer. Why was it important for you to have a protagonist who was capable of slipping in and out of these identities?



JMA: You describe Francine as a kind of “anarchic cynic” and as someone who has a desire for self-annihilation. Francine is aware that engaging in an affair in the throes of motherhood and while running a successful business with her husband threatens to upend her life. Is her decision to be unfaithfulbased on her temperament, couched in unfulfilled desire or trauma, or, as Francine herself suggests, an inevitability that is likely to incur the wrath of God?

JMA: Francine’s PhD dissertation involves a biblical passagein which Mary Magdalene—one of Jesus’s followers and, in some interpretations, his consort and lover—wanders through a garden and is visited by the resurrected savior after his crucifixion. Francine returns to this scene many times during the novel—what is it about this piece of scripture that provides her with so much spiritual sustenance and guidance?

Discipline and Punish noli me tangere

JMA: The novel could be described as being about losing one’s faith, or the search for meaning that can replace this loss. Do you think that this rupture is at the root of the problems that Francine and Phillip seem to be experiencing, albeit in different magnitudes?

JMA: You’ve said that the book is an examinationof how scapegoat dynamics in the public sphere can become intertwined with misogyny. Why did you feel that this subject matter could be the basis on which to structure a novel? Do you view the book as a Me Too or post–Me Too novel?

yourtheirshe him him

JMA: You use a kind of dual structure in that alternates between the twins’ emotional and spiritual trajectories, often examining the same events from both of their perspectives. What were the advantages of writing a story that would be presented “in stereo”?

JMA: You are known for doing exhaustive research in preparation for your books. Can you describe how discovering the shared terrain that your projects will occupy is conducive to your writing process, or helps to clarify the shape and form that a book might take? seems to be at least in part a conversation with Roland Barthes and Anne Carson, for example.

Strange Loops Madame Bovary

Eros the Bittersweet Sula

JMA: You had a Calvinist upbringing, and I am wondering if this religious structure in your life—regardless of whether you are writing explicitly on religion or not—has found its way into your writing endeavors. Did religious instruction help to develop your skill as a reader of meaning and metaphor as much as it did your abilities as a writer? 


JMA: The book you are working on now is a memoir dealing with the overlap between religion and the “boundaries of madness.” You’ve been quite open about your hospitalization as a teenager and the mental health challenges you have faced. Can you describe this project and how the book might differ from your novels?

Interpretation Machinethis really happened to me