Pamela Erens

Year of Graduation: 
Pamela Erens

"In times of distress, my tendency is to overthink and over-feel; reading a book like Middlemarch slows me down to the pace and rhythm of the sentences."

We can all think of a book that entertained us, moved us, or inspired us to think or act differently. For Pamela Erens ’81, that touchstone piece of literature was George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch. In her new book, Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life— part of Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series, in which writers examine a work that has shaped their life — Erens melds memoir and literary criticism as she examines the impact Eliot’s novel has had on her as a college student, as a young mother and as a mature writer in her own right.
Throughout, Erens leverages Eliot’s insights as lessons in empathy, in the benefits of community, and as a reminder of the world’s broad canvas.
Erens, who published her debut novel, The Understory, in 2007, has published three more critically acclaimed novels since. Between them, her books have garnered a terrific range of recognition, from being finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, to receiving NPR Best Book honors.
We spoke with her about her latest work and just how words from 1872 remain relevant and inspire her writing today.

Part of the message of Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life is that books not only transport us, but, at times, rescue us. At one point you write, “I know what it is like to be saved by sentences.” How did Middlemarch rescue you?

Before I started writing this book, I was already aware of the way in which slowing down and reading sentence by sentence had helped me, especially in early decades of my life. Following the sentences of a writer like Eliot requires you to pay attention. The formal quality of her writing brings you into contact with beauty, and I find that really restorative. In times of distress, my tendency is to overthink and over-feel; reading a book like Middlemarch slows me down to the pace and rhythm of the sentences, but it also keeps me alert and engaged in a positive way.
Eliot gives you this picture of a much larger world, a vaster canvas and a wider context. In a moment of crisis when the world narrows down to that crisis and you can’t see anything else, a book like hers is a reminder that history is long and full of tragedy, but time keeps moving on, people keep going. It doesn’t diminish the pain of truly extraordinary things like the challenges of COVID, but it reminds you that human beings tend to muddle through everything for better or for worse, that we do what we can do to get through.

You discuss so many wonderful elements in Middlemarch— the way Eliot writes about community, how she approaches her characters. Did you learn something about empathy from her?

I hope I did. It’s certainly something I’ve always been drawn to in her work — that incredible generosity and that compassion and understanding for all her characters, even the quote-unquote bad ones. You hear people talk about Eliot’s narrator as God-like — omniscient, sort of a busybody, has a comment about everything, talks too much. But what truly makes her God-like is that she has the compassion that comes from understanding as much as possible about every facet of her characters. It’s the compassion that the rest of us could have, and Eliot comes about as close as a human being can come to that largeness of vision.

You are a graduate of classic psychoanalysis. Are there elements from that experience that you apply in your writing?

Yes. There’s an affinity between the free-association process and how I begin a piece of fiction. In the early stages of drafting or when I’m creating something new for an existing draft it’s a semi-dreamlike state. It’s not like I’m not conscious of being in a chair at the computer, but it’s a state where I’m allowing my mind to drift and catch stray images or words and just write them down. At that point, they don’t have to make sense to me; they don’t have to seem relevant. I trust that there’s some relevance to them because I’ve associated to them, and I think analysis taught me to be comfortable with that process.

 At Exeter, were there particular experiences that shaped you?

I took Mr. [Fred] Tremallo’s “teacher’s choice” class senior year and he had us read Proust. I was blown away — it was different from anything I’d ever read. When I think about it now, it was a forerunner to reading Middlemarch because Proust is so dense, with these long, long sentences, that force you to slow way down. I remember reading Swann’s Way in the library, the unfamiliar syntax and the way that Proust analyzes things. It was like inhabiting someone else’s brain; I was so excited by that possibility. And I remember being in Mr. [Peter] Greer’s class, him talking about Milan Kundera’s newly published The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and me running to the Exeter Bookstore, buying it and reading it. My time at Exeter definitely shaped me as a writer, by exposing me to amazing literature that really sparked a passion for more.

Is there a recent time when you reminded yourself why you wanted to be a writer?
In the past few years, I’ve had periods when I was writing less, partly because I’ve taken on more freelance editorial work. And when I get back to writing, every time I think, “Oh, I’ve forgotten how right it feels!” I feel very centered when I’m writing. The writing doesn’t have to be good— I produce a lot of crap — but when I’m doing it, I just feel right. I realize that, for better or for worse and regardless of the quality of what I’m writing, I do it just because it’s what I need to be doing.

And what was it like, writing about Middlemarch for your latest book?
As I wrote the book, my interest ended up circling around the issue of narratives and how sometimes we invest in a narrative and then we discover we can’t sustain that narrative anymore. What do we do when that happens? It felt really important to me as a subject —maybe it’s just the age that I’ve reached, or what was going on for me at the time I was writing, plus COVID. That is probably at the heart of what I wanted to convey: that it can feel devastating when we have to give up or revise a narrative, but we can survive that. That’s very much something that Eliot’s talking about in Middlemarch.
I would love to think that my book would get a few more people to read hers. It’s a novel that everybody’s heard of but that many people haven’t read. People seem to be intimidated by it because of its length and the seriousness associated with it. It’s not serious in a dreary way; it’s extremely absorbing and at times quite funny. So much has been written about it already, but I hope I still had something relevant to say.

- Daneet Steffens '82

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.