Valerie Martin is the author of three collections of short fiction, most recently The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories, and eight novels, including Trespass; Italian Fever; The Great Divorce; Mary Reilly, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story told from the viewpoint of a housemaid, which was filmed with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich; and the Orange Prize–winning Property. She is also the author of a nonfiction work about St. Francis of Assisi: Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis. She resides in upstate New York.
Valerie Martin: I think from very early on, although I didn’t realize it myself, I was really preoccupied with race relations and with slavery. And I didn’t consciously pursue that as a subject matter, but I was very interesting in equality and injustice, which is built into that system; and power relationships.
So I think that those old stories, which in many ways are dashing and romantic, are also full of horrific violence and just plain cruelty. I think that had a big influence on my writing, which is sometimes pretty gothic I guess, although I never can see it as much as other people seem to. It’s certainly writing that’s preoccupied with relationships of power.
Valerie Martin: Well some years ago, many years ago I wrote a book called “The Great Divorce”, and it has three stories in it. And one of the stories is a story about a woman who murders her husband. And it takes place in antebellum times on a plantation, and she turns into a leopard; very mysterious, and magical, and horrific.
In that story I wrote a little bit about one of her slaves and some things that happened to the slaves, and I described the plantation life a bit. I guess maybe 20 years later in reading about slavery, I thought perhaps I romanticized that a little bit.
One of my great missions as a writer has been to de-romanticize the world, because I think that Americans still receive a romantic education, and that it ill-fits them for life.
In looking back over my own writing thought I have romanticized something as important as important as slavery, I was very upset. So I set about to repair that and de-romanticize it, and that was really how “Property” came about.
Valerie Martin: Well it’s historically accurate that there were slaves that were in pretty bad conditions and then there were women who were maybe a cut above; and then there were White men who were always at the top of every scheme there is to oppress.
But I was not trying to suggest, as has been suggested in reviews and commentary, that this rather brutal woman, __________, is in just as bad condition as her slave, because she isn’t. In fact she can get a divorce. She can own property. Her slave is her property and can own nothing.
I think there is certainly a big difference between those two characters, but I’ve had many people talk about how they felt sympathetic for __________ because she was herself property. Well to some extent that’s true, and I’m glad to hear that they were able to feel that. It’s very hard to get Americans to feel sympathy for each other, really, in fiction.
But I was not consciously trying to suggest that she was in as bad a strait as the slave who she chases clear across the country in order to get her back again. She’s very jealous of the slave because the slave has children by her husband and she has no children.
Basically in setting up a novel like that where we have these degrees of power, and everybody owns something, and some people own people, more or less, I really just wanted to be so complicated that you pull your hair and think, “Where is the end of property?”
And so that’s why I think there is this parallel between degree of ownership: the woman who owns the slave; the slave who owns nothing; the husband who owns the wife, and so forth.
February 11, 2008