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A Look at Paradise with Novelist Barbara Klein Moss

A Look at Paradise with Novelist Barbara Klein Moss
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By Vickie Fang

Barbara Klein Moss has written a fascinating new novel set in New England in the 1830s, The Language of Paradise. In it, Gideon, a brilliant young clergyman, Sophy, his artistic wife, and Leander, a charismatic man of unknown origins, try to create a strange and passionate Utopia. I think it’s going to be a big hit, and I’m excited to have a talk with its author.

Fang: You’ve written a novel about people living in fairly dreary circumstances seeking Utopia. How much sympathy do you have for that longing for paradise.

Moss: I think the longing for a better world, a more perfect place, is in everyone. I grew up in a small rural town, and like many writers, always felt I had been dropped by mistake into the wrong place. When I was young, I used to imagine a city populated with like souls. There weren’t many in the town I grew up in.

I’ve lived in a lot of places since then, and I realize that Utopia isn’t a place you can possess permanently. There are perfect moments, but if you grip too hard, they slip away. I’ve had beautiful times with my husband and daughter, and memorable encounters with close friends.  Sometimes even sitting by the fire with a book is blissful.  But my most dependable Utopia is a good writing day.  If the work goes well, the whole world seems more radiant.

Moss, Barbara Klein (c) Megan Evans Photography_100dpi

Fang: Is Language of Paradise, in part, a cautionary tale about “gripping too hard”?

Moss: I think it is. Gideon obsesses about inhabiting a world he believes he has glimpsed — a world clearer and more vivid than the life he wakes up to each day. He is a visionary, always gazing at far vistas, but he doesn’t really see the people around him. He believes he loves Sophy and his son, but  comes close to destroying them. Sophy is the opposite: someone who savors earthly joys, who paints the world she sees. At one point she accuses Gideon of not really seeing her — of regarding her as an idea he hasn’t written down yet. It takes her a while to realize that he isn’t capable of loving her for herself, as she loves him.

Fang: You’ve created a world in which there is so much to see. I’m struck by how sensual the home of a strict 19th century New England clergyman manages to be. There are Sophy’s paintings, of course, and also Micah’s furniture and carvings, the gardens, the young people themselves, even the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and of course the nearly constant unspoken sexual tension. Are you deliberately inviting the reader to see more than Gideon does?

Moss: The book is very visual, and the way people see is a strong motif: Sophy’s “innocent eye” that Gideon and Leander make much of; the ominous Scripture passage about the single eye on the back of her rocking chair; Gideon’s visions of an Edenic world that is clearer and brighter than ours; and Leander’s uninhibited, indulgent delight in beauty in all its forms. I was interested in the contrast between the repressed Calvinist culture that surrounds Sophy and Gideon and the sensuality that still managed to find expression.  Sophy’s stern minister father takes joy in his art, and rhapsodizes about the “shapeliness” of the Hebrew language he loves. Then there’s the way women dressed.  Sophy is slender, but she wears stays in public to compress what flesh she has and keep her posture upright.  Strict standards of modesty prevailed, and yet, people had pulsing desires that couldn’t always be contained. Leander is the most overtly sensual character, and in the way he glories in the physical, he’s a man ahead of his time. As Sophy perceives, he’s at home in his body as Gideon will never be. For Sophy and Leander, earthy characters, the body is enough; for Gideon even ecstasy is a cheat because it ends. It may seem like a paradox, but it’s very sexy to write about repression.  The body is a mystery to be unveiled.

Fang: You’ve certainly made it sexy. And you’ve given us a very powerful image of wanting to hold on to something fleeting. I was stuck by how some of the characters seem to become old at a very early age after making a failed attempt at Utopia or a grand marriage, while I get the feeling that Leander is eternally young. In a subtle way, is this book about returning to the Garden of Eden also about time and aging?

Moss: Maybe any book about Eden is inevitably about time and aging. We’ve all been expelled from the garden, and that angel at the gate is still waving the flaming sword. Aging and death are the conditions of our lives. But the characters in the book age differently, just as we do in real life. After Gideon’s experimental Eden is destroyed, he’s a shell of a man. Sophy’s sister-in-law is a master of cosmetic surfaces, but her loveless marriage shrivels her. Sophy goes through severe trials, but becomes more substantial as she weathers them; as time passes, she grows into her true self.  Leander is an ageless character — a shape-shifter. He’s known death in his early life, but he never stays long enough in one place for it to find him. His fate is uncertain for a reason.

Fang: Leander keeps us guessing. At the exact center of your novel — the turning point — Leander tells us that he “is the spark.” Was he an exciting character to create?

Moss: Leander definitely sparked me! He came to me at a point of discouragement when I was wondering if I should go on with the novel. It was summer, we were driving to Maine for vacation, and in the midst of my dark thoughts, suddenly this name was in my head: Leander Solloway. The character just seemed to emerge from the name, like a genie out of a bottle. I knew exactly what he looked like, how his voice sounded, how he would dress. At that time I was still thinking of him as a counterpoint to a character in the modern story, but he was always his own man. I loved writing him; it was actually fun. He changed the direction of the novel, but also set it back on course. Sophy might have thought of him as a serpent, but he was an angel for me.

Fang: Yes, he’s fascinating, yet Sophy is the real backbone of the novel, isn’t she?

Moss: Yes, Sophy endures loss and disillusionment, and becomes stronger. She’s first portrayed as an innocent, spirited but naive, playing at painting but with no faith in her own talent. Gideon is an angel in her eyes, but when he turns out to be something quite different, she accepts the reality, takes the reins of her family’s life, and leads them, if not to a land of milk and honey, to a life of quiet joys.

Fang: “To a life of quiet joys!” Yes, I think that comes through very clearly. And speaking of how successfully she ages, can you tell us something about your own middle age? You’re coming out with a debut novel in what we like to call “the cocktail hour” of life. Do you see yourself as becoming stronger and more daring as you grow older?

Moss: Absolutely. To beat that metaphor to death, I’m still fizzing — or at least I like to think I am. In some ways this is the most exciting time of my life. I started an MFA program when I was over 50, saw my story collection published several years later, and now the novel. I’m doing the only work I ever wanted to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to see it between covers. There’s a wonderful quote from Katherine Anne Porter: “Practice an art for love and the happiness of your life — you will find it outlasts almost everything but breath.” For me that’s been true, and I think it would be valid for any work that’s also a passion. Agonizing as writing can be day to day, uncertain as the profession is as a whole, I can hardly wait to start the next project.

 

 

 

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