A Conversation with Dexter Palmer
On May 18, 2020 Dean Hollis Robbins spoke with acclaimed author Dexter Palmer, author of the critically acclaimed novel Mary Toft; or,The Rabbit Queen (2019), as well as two previous novels: Version Control, which was selected as one of the best novels of 2016 by GQ, The San Francisco Chronicle, and others, and The Dream of Perpetual Motion, selected as one of the best debut novels of 2010. Palmer holds a BA from Stetson University and a PhD in literature from Princeton University.
Hollis Robbins Introduction: I am Hollis Robbins, Dean of Arts and Humanities, and this is the first of our Zoom version of the Dean's Lecture series. We've been looking forward to having the excellent Dexter Palmer come to campus and talk about his latest book, Mary Toft or the Rabbit Queen.
HR: Welcome Dexter for our first Zoom lecture series! Good to see you. I should mention that we know each other from graduate school, when I was working on a dissertation having to do with bureaucracy and you were working on encyclopedic narratives?
DP: Encyclopedic narratives, the structures of novels by James Joyce and William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon - those were my three authors.
HR: Excellent. Did you know at the time you would turn into a novelist rather than an academic professor?
DP: I had no idea! I wrote much of my first book in graduate school just to.... sort of as an idle time-killing device.
HR: Really? I don't think I knew that. So while the rest of us were sweating away at our dissertations, you were writing Dream of Perpetual Motion?
DP: Yes. But my first book took a total of—from when I started writing it to when I published it—about 14 years.
HR: Wow. And it sold very well, not to be crass about it, right?
DP: It sold well enough for me to continue to have a career. So, yes.
HR: Excellent. A friend of mine once contacted me on Twitter and said, how do you know Dexter Palmer? Oh, my God, he's so famous! So, I thought I’d better start reading your books then. Version Control is fantastic. That was 2016?
DP: Yes, 2016.
HR: Was that the first book that would have been considered science fiction?
DP: Yes. I mean, my first two were shelved as literary fiction, but there's very clearly an element of speculative fiction or science fiction or whatever you want to call it, mixed in there.
HR: Wonderful. I mostly want to talk about Mary Toft or the Rabbit Queen. Describe what this novel is about. I guess it's a novel?
DP: It's a novel.
HR: OK, well, tell us about it.
DP: Well, it's based on a true story, something that I heard about actually in a class in graduate school, in an 18th century literature course that Jonathan Lamb taught, if you remember him.
HR: Oh yes.
DP: It’s based on a true story about a woman who convinced people in England in 1726 that she was giving birth to rabbits—one every few days, over the course of about four months, for a total of 17 rabbits. That's the story. But it’s more about how it is that so many people, many of whom had a sort of mantle of expertise, could be convinced to believe something that is so self-evidently false. Why did this story take over England for this brief period of a few months? Some people seem to think that it was, for instance, empirical evidence of the existence of God, which I found fascinating.
HR: Could ask you to read a little bit? A bit from the beginning, when the young man who ends up being our protagonist, Zachary, is at the carnival or caravan at the very beginning. There's a scrim up. He sees a girl that is brought out that Nicholas Fox, the man running the event, says is a girl with two heads.
DP: I have to get a copy of the book. Pause for a second?
HR: Ok. Now we're back. On page 21. Maybe start from at the bottom.
“Consider,” Fox said, “the woman with child who reads. Who seeks to occupy her mind with matters of art and science at a time when she is intended to embrace the role assigned to her by God, that of a wife, and of a mother. Who spends her days in the company of imaginary folk such as Moll Flanders and Roxana of the Fortunate Mistress, while her belly swells and her needle goes neglected. Who fails to meditate on her responsibility to the new life that grows inside her. Such a woman's thought is torn in two directions--is it no surprise that if she were to give birth to a child in such an afflicted state of mind, that it would assume the most hideous of manifestations?
“Behold,” Fox, said, “the woman with two heads.”
As the audience collectively drew in a breath, the translucent scrim billowed forward slightly as the woman behind it pressed her face--no, no, her faces--against it. She seemed to be roughly five feet tall, and her proportions beneath the waist, as indicated by her silhouette, appeared to Zachary to be close to normal, but her shoulders were disturbingly broad, and the two heads atop them were wedged tightly against each other. The leftward head was perfectly vertical, while the one on the right canted away from it, as if it were forever attempting to escape. Zachary tried to imagine what that must be like for her (for them? He didn't understand and couldn't decide): another ear constantly brushing against your own ear; another mind in another brain, eternally so close to yours, always forcing its own troubled thoughts upon you; the pace of your own heart speeding up because of another person's panic. Or perhaps there was only one mind shared between them; perhaps one of the woman's skulls held only dreams, or fog, or nothing at all.
HR: Oh, my goodness, well, we can stop there and talk for a second. I love that passage. It seemed to me a metaphor for so much of not just the book, but writing. I mean, when you're writing, how many heads did you have?
DP: Well, literally just the one. But I guess there's an instance in which I was thinking how this will look to a contemporary reader while also trying not to do something that irritates me when it shows up in historical novels, which is a consciousness in the text that the book presents to a reader in the future. I mean, sometimes you get a character who seems to know what the 21st century is going to look like...... And this was a constant balancing act that I was trying to sort of execute, and this has to do with just the composition of it on sentence by sentence level. I wanted to make sure that all the words in the text actually existed in 1726. And I believe that I executed that.
HR: I think you probably did. It would have been jarring if I had run across anything that didn't. So yes, I think so. I love this character, Zachary, who was I think 15 at the beginning? In Zachary, you create this character who is utterly believable and we see things through his eyes. But I also I feel like I understand Mary. I understand Zachary’s boss, the surgeon. I understand Nicholas Fox. I understand the other characters around that he meets. But Zachary seems to be the character that you would have been living with while you were writing. Is that correct?
HR: Does he have an analog in real life? Or did you make him up?
DP: No, he doesn't.
HR: He's just completely made up. The best ones are.
DP: And just primarily for an entirely practical reason: in order to avoid these long paragraphs of descriptions of the world, I just needed one character who doesn't know anything but who would ask. It's reasonable for him to ask questions and reasonable for him to have authority figures around him, who can explain how the world works. And once I had that character the rest of the narrative kind of fell into place between his journey of knowledge and self-discovery. Mary Toft is in the historical record, which was an interesting tale but also a constraint in some ways.
HR: Yes. And they interweave so beautifully. There were probably three places in reading this novel where I actually gasped. I gasped with shock and I gasped with surprise at your bravery. Once was where a whole bunch of rich people got together to have awfulness presented to them. I’m thinking of the scene with the cat. I was listening to this on audiobook and I had to pull over to the side of the road because it was so awful. I know people are going to have to go read this book now. How much did you fictionalize that part of it?
DP: Well, believe it or not. I actually toned down the bit with the cat.
HR: Oh, no, really?
DP: Yeah. I mean, I did find an instance of that happening in the historical record.
DP: There was just an enormous amount of animal cruelty, or what we would regard to be an enormous amount of animal cruelty. I've gotten a number of comments on that particular scene and this sort of idea that I think contemporary American readers have of cats, as sort of like quasi humans who have a treasured place in the household and for which you buy insurance. One of the things that I talked about with my editor during the editing process is sort of how truthful to the period should I be? And eventually we decided that it was best to be almost completely truthful to the period, that those scenes should register as being awful. We were pitching a certain awfulness to contemporary readers.
HR: Well, it's wonderful. I was thinking about Zachary’s story as a kind of Bildungsroman: a teenage boy on the verge of manhood from a small town who ends up going to London and seeing all sorts of awful, awful things and going home sadder and wiser—maybe a little happier and wiser. He understands how the world works. But all of this awfulness takes place in period we know as the Enlightenment. We are supposed to be thinking about how civilized and enlightened and rational we are. And yet this irrationality is as much of an historical fact as enlightened philosophy. Was that part of your goal at all or were you just telling a story?
DP: Yes, well, I did want to read the Toft case as a last sort of desperate backlash against encroaching rationalism and reform--Locke and all that. And also, when I was doing the initial research for this, it was easy to find material about civilized London. But once I started to get deeper into it, I started to see the cracks that suggested to me that the reason we can find so much about civilized London is because that's the story that we like to tell ourselves about what the past was like. I did end up wanting to tell a story that I see is different, but perhaps a bit more truthful even if it is in fact an actual novel.
HR: That's fantastic. I’m a 19th century scholar, so I spend quite a bit of time in London, in Dickens's London and Eliot's London, which is one hundred years after yours but not really much cleaned up.
HR: So, Mary Toft got rave reviews. What was your favorite review?
DP: Oh, gee. Let me think.
HR: It's fun to get good reviews, isn't it?
DP: Yeah, it is. It is. I mean, I was pleased that The New York Times actually got someone from the U.K. to review who I think referred to it as ‘cracking,’ which is good, because I did have concerns. I was worried about getting called out for not being a historian and I'm very careful to mention that I'm not one. But I also was worried about getting called out for being an American. I did have some UK readers who read it.
DP: I made one concession or decision, which is that I used American spelling for the text, because I was writing for an American audience. But other than that, I tried to sort of have everything be as faithful to the details as possible.
HR: Probably because we overlapped in graduate school I did note some familiar texts we must have both read there, like Aristotle's Masterpiece [the source of Fox’s claim in your book that an infant is influenced by what the mother is thinking about when she’s pregnant].
HR: And I should say for our audience that Aristotle's Masterpiece was not written by Aristotle. It was a midwifery guide that was also pornographic and circulated in 17th, 18th century America as the only good midwife’s guide. But because it was kind of pornographic, it encouraged or enticed young married couples to read it and have more sex and thus people the nation, as it were. I didn't know too much about its circulation in England.
DP: So if I remember correctly, the major source that I used for just the straight narrative of Mary Toft, is a book by Dennis Todd, the historian [Imagining Monsters, (1995),] and he mentions Aristotle's Masterpiece and I ended up finding a scan of an addition from 1724, or 1728. Like this text was similar enough to what my characters would have seen, because there are like six or seven or eight editions by then. It just kept sort of circulating and being revised. And in fact, I don't know what the history of the text is by the time it gets to America, because my knowledge was narrow enough just to get the book out the door.
HR: Well, it played a really interesting role, actually, in the midst of a pandemic. Jonathan Edwards, known for “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was fired as pastor of a church in in western Massachusetts, in Northampton. Some of his teenaged parishioners had gotten a copy of Aristotle's Masterpiece and were reading it outside the church.
DP: Oh that's fascinating.
HR: And so he called everybody into the church, including parents, and yelled at them all. People were so mad that they fired him. This is known as the “Bad Books Case.” So Jonathan Edwards was fired and this is how he ended up down in Princeton, where one of the first things he did was take an inoculation for smallpox, which killed him.
HR: So in some ways, the death of Jonathan Edwards is due to Aristotle's Masterpiece.
Anyway, a couple of more questions. The reason I had invited you to Sonoma State to talk to our students is that we've been thinking about focusing as a school on questions of science, speculation, speculative fiction, imagination and technology. How do we, as a school so close to Silicon Valley, imagine technology and imagine lives in the future? How could we encourage students in creative writing and the sciences to think about speculating about our future? So it’s a kind of open ended question. Were you always interested in speculative fiction? How can this be encouraged in students?
DP: So I grew up reading a lot of what would now be considered the golden age in science fiction. Like a lot of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert a little bit later. They influenced the way that I think about constructing imaginary worlds. So I wrote Mary Toft after finishing Version Control, partly just for a change of pace, but also because in 2016 or spring 2016, I should say, it was difficult for me to see what the future would play like. And then as I begin to work on the novel, the future became sort of increasingly unpredictable until we got to the present moment.
When I've talked to other science fiction writers we've all just sort of said, “I have no idea how to write this sort of thing right now,” which isn't something that you want to hear if you're, if I'm supposed to be saying, how do you write science fiction? I've been trying to come up with my own answers for that in this environment.
The question of how technology might help us out and move us forward—here, I am a little bit stuck, but I think I'm getting there. I do think if I write any more speculative fiction, if I were to start something like, say, this year, it would probably be set in the far future, like, say, one hundred years from now where over a larger time scale, when sort of what I see as the immediate problems that we're just having to deal with day to day, have either incorporated themselves into the framework of society or they've just sort of evened out or disappeared or something like that. I will say that the danger of writing that sort of thing as I try to think through it, is that I feel like there are some kinds of science fiction that end up better as being period pieces. There's subject interest and their interests and their boundless optimism in certain science fiction of say like the 1960s. Did we talk about The Three Body Problem [by Cixin Liu]?
HR: I love it. Goodness, it's the best ever. I've read all of the trilogy. Yes.
DP: Yes. So I find those books super, super fascinating. That was my first exposure to contemporary Chinese science fiction. And they resemble like sort of Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction to me in a way that I found very entertaining, but also as if there hadn't been anything that had followed Clarke. That he was responding to.
HR: Oh, yes. They were sort of sui generis.
DP: And it may be because I myself wasn't picking up on some of the I may not be picking up on the political context for these books because I feel like it was clear to me that I would need to know more about contemporary Chinese history than I do or have to fully parse these books. So I did find them interesting. But part of the reason I found them interesting is because they seem to have been written in an alternate past. If that makes sense.
HR: And they were terrifying.
DP: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
HR: You really got the sense that we have no idea what's coming? None. And there's a certain humility that comes with that, because if you don't know, anything is possible, if you think you know, you're pretty limited in a way. Your second book, Version Control, jumps back and forth in time, which is fantastic. And it is literally many versions of the same story, all of which who are possible or could be possible. This one is a past that you speculate on how it could have been to create an idea of what you would have thought perhaps, or learned or understood had you been there. Do you think you want to think more about the future? Not just being transported one hundred years from now?
DP: I'm thinking of toying with something that was going to like something that's like, say, 100, 150 years from now. This idea gave Cixin Liu a lot of room to work with and a lot of room to do something that is in some ways closer to fantasy. But a lot of it gave him room to sort of think about interesting ideas that you can if you're sort of rooted in something that takes place. And like our particular present, I guess the sort of thought experiment that I was in part during with Version Control is that I had this idea that. If you had a novel that was set in the near future, and by the time the future arrived, if it perfectly predicted that future, then it would be indistinguishable from, say, like a Jonathan Franzen novel or something like that. If you took like, say, Franzen’s The Corrections and sent it back in time, 50 years, it would appear to be this astonishing science fiction novel.
HR: That's kind of cruel, actually. And right.
DP: So there would be all of these persistent technological developments, like cell phones that were so deeply integrated into the culture that nobody really even noticed they were there, right? And in fact the book just sort of ends up being like a character study.
HR: I have to go back and read it, except I don't really want to. But let me ask you one more question – maybe we can end on something close to this. What I find very true about your books is your characterization, your evocation of human nature. All of your characters with all their flaws and foibles and strangeness--and even with their cruelty--ring true. We probably have just as much of it here today in the 21st century, just maybe hidden. If you set a novel a thousand years in the future, would the humans have the same nature?
DP: I think they would. I think that well there are two reasons for that. There's both what I actually believe in what makes formal practical sense to do. What I actually believe is that humans don't actually change that much. Technology changes around them, but they essentially have the same desires for food and shelter and self-improvement and things like that. And what surrounds them might filter the way they express that. But I think those wants and needs and desires are the same. The sort of the practical formal reason that I would do this is that readers largely when they're reading about humans, they map their own thoughts onto the thoughts of the characters and try to figure out what they're doing. And to do something that's completely alien can work, but it's not the sort of thing that I personally would want to do right this second. And there are other writers who are more deeply ensconced in the field who could probably give you a very good example of some sort of a novel where the creatures in it behave completely orthogonal to human nature. But even then, you would perceive this because you'd be measuring your own behavior against the behavior of the characters. So even then, there's a certain sort of humanness baked into that.
HR: Sure. Yes, I think that's right. I agree with you. I like to think that we change, but we don't change. We're the same. Thank you for having this conversation! We'd like to bring you out. I mean, definitely when this is over, do you have any sense of when this is over? Offer some speculative fiction.
DP: I could hope. Geez, maybe like 2022?
HR: 2022? Well I'd like to think it's 2022. It would be really wonderful. I mean who knows what the audience will look like. We could be just sitting far apart and socially distanced. We could have you up on a big screen and I mean maybe we'll all be doing things by zoom then. But any advice for what I should be reading for the next year?
DP: So I've been reading or rereading these novels by a science fiction writer or speculative fiction, again, depending. Gene Wolfe do you know of him?
HR: I have him on my shelf. I’ve not read him yet.
DP: The Book of the New Sun is super fantastic. My next plan is to read Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American life.
HR: Oh, fantastic.
DP: But I think it would play differently now.
HR: Same. And have you read much China Mieville?
DP: Mieville? Yes. I've read him.
HR: Which one do you like?
DP: The City and the City.
HR:. I love that. Oh, my God. That's the best book ever.
DP: Yes. And he wrote this great nonfiction piece about the London Olympics, I think is really quite good, right? There is a short version of that was published in The New York Times, but then I think circulating around there was like a longer version of it. But as he when he writes nonfiction, I think it's very explicit in an interesting way.
HR: Fantastic. All right. I'm going to sign us off now. Thank you very much!
DP: Good to do this. My pleasure.
[this transcript has been edited slightly for clarity]