This week’s story, “Hello, Goodbye,” is about two friends, Nina and Katie, who met in their freshman year at Berkeley and are still close thirty years later. Did you want to write a story about friendship?
I didn’t plan to write a story about friendship, but friendship must have been on my mind, because—now you asked it, Cressida, I just realized that my most recent writing, including four short stories and two novel-length projects, all centers around friendship. It is a relationship less confined and less defined than that between spouses or partners, or parents and children—this of course is a flawed generalization, but perhaps I have been looking at characters’ lives with friendship as a constant and a variable in mind these days.
Nina is married to a nice, decent man and has two children. Katie, who married later, did not have children and is about to divorce her boorish, older husband. When they were younger and working in Silicon Valley, the women imagined they’d soon be founding their own companies. Do you think it was easier for them to imagine a future of I.P.O.s than it was to envisage the reality of their middle-aged lives?
Imagination tends to be easier and more manageable if there is a narrative model available. When Nina and Katie, in their twenties, envisioned their future, they were looking beyond the Silicon Valley success stories and entering the realm of fairy tales. They were old enough not to believe in the happily-ever-after of marital love; they were also young enough to let their imagination latch onto a different happily-ever-after, with I.P.O.s of their own companies.
Of the two, Katie has always been the storyteller and the person who remembers the details of their shared past, whereas Nina likes to live in the present, reluctant to see either the past or the future with too much clarity—“one could lead to undue nostalgia, the other to unwarranted alarm,” she thinks. Do you think Nina’s approach is wise? As a fiction writer, do you need to have a clear-eyed assessment of the past, present, and future of your characters?
I admire Nina’s approach. It’s good wisdom, good enough, and it has the pragmatism of middle age: nothing is perfect; many situations, flawed or limited, are not in anyone’s control; but, as long as you muddle through with an approach like this, that’s better than wrecking things by adopting more extreme measures. That is why she is good at distracting her children instead of confronting them, and also why she did not voice her misgivings when Katie first decided to marry her husband. I suspect that I admire Nina also because I can neither live nor write with that wisdom! I am obsessed with being clear-eyed, which makes me feel like a dragonfly: perhaps all fiction writers aspire to the vision of dragonflies.
The story takes place against the backdrop of the pandemic. Forest fires are burning in California, turning the sky orange and filling the air with smoke. For Nina and Katie, who are in their forties, this is one summer out of many. How do you think Nina’s daughters are experiencing this? How fearful is Nina of their response to it?
When Nina and Katie were young, life wasn’t rosy for either of them, but the hardships felt more personal—it’s impossible to see either of them pointing a finger at the entire older generation, blaming them for messing up the world and their lives. Nina’s daughters, as the younger generation, articulate their indictment, and they have every right to do so. Still, my guess is that Nina is feeling ambivalent. She sees the calamities looming in the future, where her children will have to live; she also sees that the calamities the children are engrossed with are like the fairy tales of her youth. A narrative is often neater than real life.
Katie tells Nina about her cousin Jock, who was tormented as a child by a teacher who bullied him, and Nina thinks that it’s easier to tell a story about tragedies and catastrophes, because they have an ending, whereas the experience of enduring unhappiness is harder to convey. How important is Jock’s story within the larger story? Does it represent something finite?
Jock’s death as a young man is a tragedy, and yet there is little room for uncertainty in that death, which is why Katie, as a young woman, found it easy to tell the story of his death. Only in middle age does she revisit Jock’s life, instead of his death, which is less finite. Jock’s story feels to me like a companion to the shoplifting incident, in which Nina’s daughter questions the usefulness of adults’ strategy in approaching something with a moral certainty. Jock died, but the girl who shoplifts is still living, without a narrative being set in place for her.
Nina and Katie talk about how appealing it would be if they could just say a quick hello and goodbye to sadness. Is that ever possible? Is it possible to think that their friendship goes some way toward helping each of them do this?
I love the notion that, in their friendship, Nina and Katie are learning how to say hello and goodbye to sadness without lingering. Not lingering does not mean that the sadness is no longer there—their doubts and pains and struggles are always going to be there, in various forms—but to say hello, goodbye to something unresolvable is to both acknowledge the situation and not give too much space to the unresolvable. In that sense, I admire them and feel hopeful for them.
During the pandemic, you led an online book club devoted to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” A Public Space, the club’s organizer, has now published a book, “Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li.” Did that immersion in Tolstoy find its way into the fiction you wrote during the pandemic? Is Tolstoy present in “Hello, Goodbye”?
There are so many things I have learned from reading Tolstoy! In “War and Peace,” Kutuzov, the Russian military commander, calls time and patience “the strongest of all warriors.” I have always put more faith in those two words than anything else, but the pandemic—and writing during the pandemic—has reinforced that faith.
Is Tolstoy present in “Hello, Goodbye”?—I hope so! I love how Tolstoy wrote about minor characters. Instead of constructing characters and making up life stories to go with them (as he did with some of the main characters), he simply dropped the minor characters into the novel, trusting that there is enough space for those minor characters to fully exist in their own selves. I like to imagine that I wrote Nina’s daughters with Tolstoy’s minor characters in mind. I’m very fond of them; they are funny, precocious, childlike, and they just happened to wander into my story for a visit.