Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Jonathan Kravetz
The Fiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: The world that you created in “Dear Carlotta” blurs the line between fiction and a real-life possible end to the human race. The ending could be seen as semi-apocalyptic, or as transcendent. What aspects of reality did you use to influence what happens at the end?
Jonathan Kravetz: There are obviously many ways the human race can destroy itself, but I didn’t have any of those specifically in mind when I wrote Dear Carlotta. I had a simpler reality in mind: the nature of being human. What does it mean to be alive knowing you’re going to die? That your friends and lovers and parents and children will vanish from the earth. That nothing seems meaningful and yet, if you decide otherwise, every moment can be imbued with meaning that moves us to laugh and cry and love.
Thus, I was hoping to draw a parallel between a single human life and all of humanity: I picture a human life like a buoy bobbing up and down, experiencing joy and sorrow and loneliness and a lot of confusion about what it all means.
RR: We’re interested in the epistolary format for this story. How did you develop this format, and did you consider organizing this piece in another way?
JK: This story was challenging on a number of fronts. It was simply difficult to write “Dear Carlotta” letters that sounded like they came from actual people; it was difficult to answer those letters in a way that sounded like well-reasoned relationship advice from someone specific – Carlotta – who clings to romantic notions of what it means to have a human identity; and it was difficult giving all of that some kind of forward momentum. However, I did know from the moment I sat down to start this story that it was going to take the form of “Dear Abby” style letters set in the particular world in which the line between life and death has been blurred. As the story evolved and Carlotta began to talk about her own experiences with her daughter and husband I saw how the story would naturally move forward through her.
RR: We were drawn in by the way the story challenges the limitations of the concept of being alive and how dependent it is on having a physical body. Can you discuss how Carlotta as a character helps to explore these ideas?
JK: To begin with the obvious: Carlotta is alive when the story begins, dies part way through and then continues to “live” on in the “neuronet.” She herself, then, embodies the journey from being a physical being to becoming a sophisticated piece of software. Carlotta is also, of course, an advice columnist and as such is constantly trying to understand the ways human beings relate to each other. The new technology in the story is baffling to her and I’m not certain she always gives the best advice: she appears to cling to her idea of what it means to be human – to have a singular identity –longer than many others in this world. Being a series of ones and zeroes seems to have a stronger effect on others in the neuronet — making them less solid, less attached to identity, less happy – than it does on Carlotta. It’s only at the end that Carlotta, after living hundreds of years without her body, embraces a new sense of what it means to be a self. Her last letter might actually sound unfeeling to us poor humans, but she’s finally writing from a new perspective: she can no longer identify with the desperation – the clinging to self and the problems that arise from doing that – in her final correspondence.
JK: Fun fact: fans of Vertigo will understand what inspired the name of the main character.
RR: What is your process? When you start to write a new story, do you have an ending in mind or do you figure out where it’s going as you write?
JK: I occasionally wish I had a process that worked reliably every time I sat down to write a new piece. Alas, there have been times I knew my ending in advance and other times I had only an idea for a single character and other times I was inspired by a scenario or simply a theme. I’ve found that if I plan my stories out too rigidly, like I’m drawing blueprints for a building, the work will feel stale and I’ll end up designing a warehouse instead of some imaginative, towering skyscraper. I really had no idea where Dear Carlotta was going when I sat down; I thought only that it would be fun writing these kinds of letters in this fantastical world.
RR: What writers are your biggest influences?
JK: I find I’m as much influenced by culture and philosophy as I am by other fiction. Instead of answering your question directly, then, I’ll pretend I’m a politician and answer my own: Here are a few works along with their creators that directly influenced the writing of Dear Carlotta. China Mieville’s A City and the City is the perfect alternate world novel and I wish I’d written it. It’s a simple detective story and yet I think about it every time I ride the subway or walk the streets of New York: we really don’t see the cities within the cities unless we care to look. The film Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, is about a love affair a man has with his computer and yet manages to be one of the better romantic movies you’ll ever see. It turns out it’s pretty tough to have a relationship with a computer that can be everywhere in every moment and moves at the speed of light – even if she sounds like Scarlett Johansson. Charlie Kaufman wrote and Michel Gondry directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another great film about yearning and our desire to escape the pain caused by loss. I wonder if having your memories erased would be like living forever. I’ll end by mentioning one last book. If Dear Carlotta whets your appetite at all for reading Dear Abby style letters from an insightful writer whose prose is moving and poetic, I recommend Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar letters. You’ll see how her writing informs Dear Carlotta immediately.
Jonathan Kravetz’s work appears in Issue 5.3 here.