In this interview, Caitlin Hicks converses about her novel A Theory of Expanded Love.
Why the title?
A Theory of Expanded Love is really at the core of the book; it begins as the parents’ reassurance to their children that they are loved, in spite of the neglect that is a de facto result of that many people vying for attention from two human beings. It is a noble sentiment, which also justifies the parents’ decision to continue to bring babies into the world according to the wishes of the Catholic Church, but it falls short in reality. Annie sees this in so many ways, and the journey of the book is sort of a test of that ‘theory’. There is a lot of love in the family, but there is also a lot of neglect. And yet, as the reviews are coming in, I realize there is a lot of love in the story itself, in Annie.
What was your inspiration for the story?
When I was quite young, I realized that our family situation was like a circus act: special, odd, unusual. I remember overhearing a conversation and having the ‘aha’ that I could write about it. I finally got around to it! I had been putting together a series of non-fiction articles, trying to get at what I ultimately achieved for myself in the writing of this story, but the writing felt flat to me. Then I remembered a humorist-writer in my own community, Andreas Schroeder wrote a novel about his family called Renovating Heaven, which I quite enjoyed. In it, he created a completely false event in the narrative to show his family that what he was writing was fiction. And then he wrote what he wanted, using his real experiences in the authentic details. I don’t know how much was fiction and I didn’t care. The story was rich with experience. I wanted to do that.
Schroeder’s fictional element that began the book was that the family won an island. What was the fictional element that got you going?
The pope dies. My husband/muse actually came up with the idea that a family friend is on the short list to become the first American pope. It was so preposterous and silly and I immediately got behind it. Annie simultaneously sensed the ironic potential and I never looked back. The rest is part exaggeration, part invention, part authentic details. Sure, we left someone behind on one of those family trips – but I don’t know who it was, or where we were. My husband, also from a big family, has the same stories from his family. I did have a cat, though, and she kept having kittens.
What are your biggest influences?
For this novel, voice is everything. The first book I really remember connecting deeply with was Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I loved the voice of that character and I remember writing an essay in that voice and getting an A+. Since I am such a mimic, I am careful not to read books that I consider written in some way that’s wrong, that sounds off to me, as I am afraid I will pick up the wrong voice.
Two Canadian writers wrote gems and I gobbled them up. Miriam Towes wrote “A Complicated Kindness” which has parallels because it is about a young woman coming of age, trying to figure out how her beliefs about God and her religion-of-upbringing still make sense. I just loved the rambling, off-beat quality of that book. I enjoyed it tremendously but I kept saying, ‘What is happening here?’ and then wham! the emotional import of the book sunk in. Also Heather O’ Neill in Lullabies for Little Criminals, a lovely book, a wonderful voice, I read it while writing Annie’s character.
What are your perceptions of Annie?
Annie is the bolder, more outspoken and brave person that I never was. At twelve there are so many things that Annie does that I would never have done. Hitchiking is one. Talking back to my parents is another. I think I pretty much observed everything at that age. I did my chores and interiorly railed against the unfairness of my younger sister being Mother’s favorite – and my older sister’s freedom in the world. In a Catholic family that prays the rosary every day, the opinions of the father are laid out daily and repeated numerous times in a variety of ways, so there’s little room for dissention. The order of the universe is explained over and over with a lot of ‘thy’s and ‘thou’s and ‘we beseech thee’s. Once I found Annie’s voice I realized I wish I’d had her sense of humor earlier in my own life – it would also have given me more courage to figure it out for myself while I was in the midst of them all.
Besides Annie, which character is your favorite?
Rosie. A totally fictional character inspired by my younger sister who was not speaking to me. So I created this small person who embodied all the love I feel for my younger sister. Rosie is a meditation, but I love her!
As a playwright, you wrote a well-reviewed, popular comedy/drama about life in an enormous family. Does Six Palm Trees relate to A Theory of Expanded Love?
Well, it’s more or less similar territory. The absurdity of growing up surrounded. The suffering of the low-status character, which is where all humor lies. A fictional story revolving around a real premise: an enormous Catholic family in Pasadena California in the Sixties. In the play, Annie is the family clown and entertains at a huge extended family reunion. So anyone reading Six Palm Trees, the play, (although written years before) could be seen as an extension of Theory -- Annie, grown up, years later, the family clown entertaining at a family reunion. For Theory I changed the number of characters and mixed up the sexes and the names and numbers a bit so no one in the family could take offense. In Six Palm Trees, there were no twins. But the drama of the play and the book are quite different. I think readers would find Six Palm Trees an interesting ‘sequel’. (www.fatsalmon.ca)
The sub topic of adoption and how young women were treated becomes a plot point of the novel. Why did you choose to write about this?
I have always been interested in birth. If you look at my other writing, Singing the Bones, Just a Little Fever (www.fatsalmon.ca) to name two, they both revolve around birth and motherhood. I feel that women have carried so much for the entire species on their backs because of their intimate involvement with bringing the next generation into the world. Even as a child I was fascinated with birth. I knew I would be a woman one day, and I would have to give birth. My mother held a lot of mystery and magic for me. In the Sixties it was easy to observe how our roles as women and men were not equal. And all the blaming of women for getting pregnant – when it obviously takes two – these are themes that I wanted to explore. To give voice to.
That women were still ushered off to have their babies and give them up because of any perceived ‘shame’ is appalling to me. And yet, this was done. After giving birth to a child myself I just don’t see how the mother can bear the sadness of leaving a child she has birthed. But it’s so complicated. I’m not against adoption at all, I think it is a good solution in many situations. But if you look into stories of the vast majority of women who gave up their babies during that time – it wasn’t their choice.