The Challenges of Art and Life: An Interview With Nicole Haroutunian

Nicole Haroutunian

Nicole Haroutunian’s new novel, Choose This Now, wrestles with a lot of big themes in the subtlest of ways. This is a book about creative struggles, intimacy, and families both found and biological. Over the course of this book’s timeframe, its characters make decisions that are rewarding and emiently frustrating; they go to bizarre parties and embark on ill-concieved relationships. It’s an immersive work with the ebb and flow of life, and I chatted with its author about the project’s origins and her own experiences while writing it.

There’s a part in the very beginning of Choose This Now where the text moves from the first person plural to the singular. That felt like a very elegant way to foreshadow the multiple voices that ran throughout the novel, and I’m curious — at what point did that transition come into focus for you?

Thank you for noticing that little moment. That first story-chapter used to be much longer and was structured around Halloween 1999, Halloween 2004, and then Halloween about a decade after that. The first third centered around a college friendship, the middle third was around a new-to-New York City work friendship, and the last third was around the character’s husband and young child. I was interested in the way the character’s primary relationships shifted and evolved as time passed. I wound up exploding that story out until it basically became the whole book. So, although a lot about the structure and individual characters changed as I wrote and revised, one of the first elements of this book that I had was the idea of a very close, dear friendship between two college friends that morphs, loosens, stretches, and tightens again. It took me a strangely long time—years—to realize that these other stories I’d been writing were from the point of view of that first character’s friends, but once I put it together, the book began to coalesce. Part of what makes this book a novel-in-stories rather than a straight up novel or story collection is the way that each story-chapter builds and reflects on the others. I wanted each section to offer insight into all the characters, even if they weren’t the ones narrating.

Through the world that some of your characters move through, you’re able to bring up a number of real-world artists, including Ana Mendieta. How did you go about determining which artists you’d be referencing in this book?

I’m a museum educator and have worked, or still work, at places like MoMA, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Noguchi Museum. I spend so much of my time talking about art, artists, and art-making with museum audiences, colleagues, and friends. Some of those experiences are really sticky—I’ve never come together with a group around an Ana Mendieta artwork without an incredible conversation following. The same goes for other artists I included like Felix Gonzalez-Torres and David Hammons. While I didn’t reproduce any actual conversations with students or friends in the book, I did want to recreate some of the magic of those moments of encountering visual art. Artwork can also say so much that words can’t. Embedding it in my book, even if it has to be translated into words first, allowed me to say more than I could have without it. I’ve had readers tell me that they spotted a work they learned about in the book in real life and that’s been so cool.

This is a sillier answer but also true—I learn so much about the artwork I teach from, and then it goes off view, or the exhibition closes, or I move on to another job, and I don’t have anywhere to put all that information anymore. I included a sequence in the book about 18th-19th century posthumous portraiture, a subject I gathered an outrageous amount of detailed knowledge about for an exhibition back in 2015-6. It both fit the story and was a topic I wanted to hold forth on again!

..this is probably not a question, but as someone with a Halloween birthday, I appreciated the recurring scenes set on Halloween.

Same! I think you have a true Halloween birthday while mine is on October 29th. Getting my characters dressed up and outside of themselves allowed them to instigate changes they were too anxious to make when dressed as, and acting as, themselves. 

The novel covers a span of time just short of 20 years. Did you know going in that you’d be covering this timeframe? 

Yes and no. I did always have an initial span of about fifteen years so I could track how these specific relationships grew and changed across careers, art-making, and parenthood. For the college stories, I thought they needed to be set when I was in college myself because young-person culture changes so much and so quickly, I felt I could only convincingly write something close to my own experience. But then I wound up wanting to write about the beginning of the Trump presidency so the scope of the book stretched from 1999 to 2016-18. 

Were there any particular challenges that came from following these characters from young adulthood to not-quite-middle age?

I wrote and revised this book from about 2015-2022. I started it before I was a parent and turned in my last edits when my daughter was in kindergarten; it was published when she was in first grade. When I started the book, I still was able to get into the mindset of a young adult in a way that I’m not sure I’ll be able to access anymore as a mom in my forties. The Halloween markers helped me. I could remember back to what costume I wore when I was the age of the characters I was writing and that would snap some of that night and the experiences around it into focus. I wrote the newborn story in the book when my baby was about ten months old; I had a little distance from those wild early days, but I still remembered all the details. That’s how I tackled most of the book, writing about phases when I was past them enough to have a little perspective but not so far past that I didn’t remember the visceral lived experience of it. The book is fiction, though, so part of my technique of using myself as a model for the characters did trip me up when they diverged from each other as they got older. They needed to make different choices from each other, so they couldn’t both do what I would do. 

There’s a moment partway through the novel where one of the protagonists did something that surprised me — without getting spoilery, I’ll only say that it involved fire. To what extent did you have a sense of these characters’ lives, and to what extent did they surprise you?

I think that moment surprised her, too. But for me, it was very calculated and added in after many drafts. For a long time, she had this internal shift during that moment, but outwardly, she didn’t do anything to express it. She just had a lot of feelings. I came to think that she should externalize them. There’s a second little reveal about that moment much later in the book that, I hope, gives the reader extra insight into why she reacted the way she did in the aftermath. In general, because I revised this book so, so much, if I ever surprised myself, I think I revised the surprise right out of it! 

One of the book’s chapters focuses on Cleo, a character whose connection to the larger narrative seems unclear, right up until the moment when that connection becomes very clear. What prompted you to tell this section from this particular perspective?

Thank you for asking this. I wanted to give the reader a glimpse of one of my protagonists from the outside. The book is so intimate. I thought a break from that, and a new perspective, could be interesting to read. It is also an outside view of motherhood from someone who is thinking very hard about it but from a different angle than the rest of the characters. Cleo is a teenager and has been an only child for fifteen years—her life is about to change because of her parents’ decision to have another child. She’s grappling with that.

I did have another reason for including it, though, which I hesitate to bring up since no readers have mentioned it. But I will. Near the very end of the book, the two central characters attend the March for Our Lives and they have this—to me—very painful conversation about gun violence and the desperate, and sadly realistic, fears they have for their children in the face of our country’s inability to enact gun control. (Melt the guns.) This is very morbid and a terrible thing to put out there if readers aren’t already thinking it, but I was thinking of the teenagers in this story as ones who could have been killed in a school shooting at some point after the camera of the story leaves them. Just these sweet, normal kids with friendships, worries, and first loves. There’s a half of a line in the last story where I hint at this, but no one has brought it up, so it might just be in there for me. 

Another sequence that got under my skin — in a good way — was the masked party, and these of disorientation it created for both the characters and the reader. It also felt like a deeply unsettling event to attend; what led to its presence in the narrative?

At a party a few years ago, a woman told me a story about a suburban party she had been taken to, with no preface on the part of her friends that brought her there. It involved unsettling masks, themed rooms, and at least the suggestion of unexpected illicit activities. As she was talking, I started writing this story in my head. I asked her if I could steal that premise, and she said, by all means. At this point, I don’t remember what she told me and what I invented; the imaginary party in the book subsumed the real one she recounted. It does a lot of work within the arc of the book. It is the only time in a book filled with costume parties that a character is at a costume party totally against her will, and that allowed her to break down some of the novel’s central themes and dynamics in a way that felt, I think and hope, authentic. She delivers this little internal soliloquy about the meaning of masks, which I don’t think I could have gotten away with had she been at a costume party where she felt totally comfortable and in control. The faux-anonymity of the masked party also allowed several interactions to take place that the characters wouldn’t have had the courage go through with unmasked.  

In your acknowledgments, you mention finding peers who balanced creative work and parenting — which is something that’s a running theme throughout the novel as well. Were there any challenges in terms of translating some of those themes into your fiction?

I wrote and revised a lot of this book during hours I’d dedicated to the Artist Residency in Motherhood, the artist Lenka Clayton’s idea for a self-directed, open-sourced residency for mothers. To participate, you just declare your time and get to work. For a while, a big group of us were doing it twice a year, sometimes supporting each other from afar, sometimes getting together in person. I spent a lot of ARIMs with my friend who spearheaded the idea, Stella Fiore, in Staten Island. We are still a very active and supportive crew. Because I was learning to balance, or even integrate, writing and early parenthood, I devoted a lot of brainspace to making it work, and I tend to write about whatever is in my head most. Writing during those moments, in community with other mother-writers, shaped the book both inside and out. It felt like the easiest topic for me to write about, the most obvious concern for me to give my characters. 

I think the challenge might have been after I did the writing. The subject wasn’t necessarily compelling for some of the agents I sent the project to and they didn’t think it would sell. Luckily, my manuscript landed with Noemi Press, among editors who did think that a quiet story about friendship, art-making, and motherhood was worthy of publishing.


Photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

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