The Write Marriage
When it comes to literary couples, is two a crowd?
Last spring, after a year and a half of long-distance dating, my boyfriend and I decided to move in together. We knew the risks. We’d seen Sylvia. We’d read Tender Is the Night. We were both writers, and writers are notoriously difficult people, prone to moodiness, alcoholism, drug addiction and in the worst of cases, insanity. Yet writers—like musicians, painters and actors—seem drawn to one another, for better or worse. And since neither Aaron and I had any known addictions or mental illnesses, we were aiming for better.
He packed everything he could fit into his ’92 Ford Escort and drove cross-country from Seattle, Washington, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the meantime, I scoured the city in search of a suitable place—there was no way we were going to survive in the small, two-bedroom apartment my eight-year-old daughter and I had comfortably shared. I was busy trying to write my first novel, and he was struggling to put out the third issue of his literary journal, while attempting to finish a handful of short stories. So we found a spacious and sunny three-bedroom apartment we could both afford and positioned our desks at opposite ends of the extra room, which we immediately dubbed “the office” with high-fives and squeals of delight. Still, we knew the pitfalls of any literary pairing. “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other,” Katharine Hepburn once mused. “Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” Can smart, driven literary couples—in love and yet trying to steal time from each other to work—be productive and happy?
Take Nick Laird. He is, at the moment, best known for being the husband of Zadie Smith. With a collection of poetry, To A Fault, just out in the UK, and a novel, Utterly Monkey, to be published this May, it remains to be seen whether Laird will emerge from the shadow of his more famous mate. While at Cambridge, the two entered the same university writing contest: Laird won, Smith came in second. Yet in a recent interview, Laird did admit to feeling “more at home in poetry…Partly as well, because my wife is a novelist, obviously, and we sort of carved it up that that was her area and this was my area. And now it’s less clear—but I do give way. I think she knows more about it than me and is better than me.”
Comparisons to one’s companion are, like it or not, an inevitable part of the literary-couple landscape. Of course, it may be far easier in the early salad days, when both parties are still struggling. As happened with Jonathan Franzen and his ex-wife Valerie Cornell, many a writer couple have thrown in the matrimonial towel when one of its members (in this case, Franzen) suddenly finds their work being published, and the other (Cornell) does not.
It can be equally frustrating to find your literary successes credited to your spouse’s rather than to your own talents, as Vendela Vida discovered. Although already a published author when she met Dave Eggers—her first book, Girls on the Verge, came out in 1999, two years before his smash hit A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—Vida soon found her reputation inescapably tied to her husband’s cultlike fame (Vogue magazine dubbed her “the First Lady of Alt-Lit”). In the fall of 2003, while on tour promoting her second book, the novel And Now You Can Go, Vida spoke out in defence of herself in a piece she wrote for the Seattle Stranger. “Do we hear that Glen David Gold owes his success to his wife, Alice Sebold, or that Ted Hughes owed his to Sylvia Plath? Of course not. But sometimes we allow a certain middlebrow sexism when a woman is married to a man.”
While less ink may have been devoted to their plight, there havebeen husbands who were overshadowed by their more famous wives. Robert Browning, for example, was known almost exclusively as “Mr. Elizabeth Barrett Browning” while his wife was still alive. It was only after her passing that his poetry was read and heralded in its own right. And in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s reputation has so entirely eclipsed husband Graeme Gibson’s career that many readers are in the dark about the existence of his novels, prompting one American woman writer to anonymously tell the Independent, “Every female writer should be married to Graeme Gibson.” Thankfully, cases like that of poet Pat Lowther—a rising star in the early seventies who was murdered at forty by her abusive husband and fellow poet Roy Lowther—are rare.
Still, I can relate to Vendela Vida’s situation. Before Aaron moved to Michigan, I was accustomed to being introduced as “writer Elizabeth Ellen.” It was with great horror that I found myself, shortly after his arrival, being described to a table filled with male writers, editors and professors as merely “Aaron’s girlfriend.” I guess it must be easier to be the spouse of an esteemed writer when writing isn’t your first love. Ayelet Waldman, who was a criminal defence lawyer before writing a series of murder mysteries, has admitted that she would not be writing at all were it not for her Pulitzer Prize–winning husband, Michael Chabon. How is she not racked with jealousy with regard to his fame? “It would be like being jealous of Nabokov,” she wrote on her now defunct blog. “Michael is one of the best writers in the English language. He’s brilliant.”
Unfortunately, few writers are as grounded (or as seemingly awestruck) as Waldman when it comes to comparing notes with a bedmate. In the now infamous essay “Envy,” Kathryn Chetkovich humourlessly details every pang of envy she ever felt toward her boyfriend, Jonathan Franzen. Reading this essay, which attempts to blame his success and her failure on their respective sexes (“Women’s books are still not talked about in the same way men’s books are, and women are still sensitive to that”), I wanted to smack her with the very journal in which her essay was published. Then I’d ask her if she’s ever heard of Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt, Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates, while lobbing their fat books at her head.
Despite entertaining tales of jealousy run rampant and overshadowed part-
ners, the vast majority of today’s literary pairings seem happy, much to the chagrin of their eventual biographers. This is especially true in the Canadian scene, where couples seem to possess a high degree of normalcy and stability. “We support each other in many different ways. I get a lot of assistance from Claire, and she gets some from me. It’s a mutual enterprise,” said acclaimed nature writer Farley Mowat of his wife Claire, herself a young-adult novelist. And Lorna Crozier’s partnership with husband and fellow poet Patrick Lane has often turned creative (they’ve edited books together and co-authored a radio play). This sort of support, however, can be pushed to naughty lengths. Last September, novelist André Alexis withdrew from a major award’s jury only when it was discovered that Catherine Bush—with whom Alexis is “involved”—had a novel eligible for the award.
These sorts of happy couplings are not limited to Canada. Back in San Francisco, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida contentedly divide their time between their respective editorial projects (his, overseeing McSweeney’s books, the McSweeney’s quarterly and the website; hers, co-editing the Believer literary journal), teaching at 826 Valencia (a non-profit organization they founded, where kids can drop in for after-school tutoring and writing classes) and working on personal writing projects. Britain’s Claire Tomalin says that she and Michael Frayn are “deeply sympathetic to each other’s problems.” And in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King states, “The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me…has made the continuity of my working life possible.” It should be noted that the self-reliant woman in question, Tabitha King, is, of course, a writer.
It’s clear that, for all the manifold sources of frustration, there are great advantages to having a literary bedfellow. After all, a qualified editor is never more than a staircase away. Some couples, like Aaron and I, err on the side of gentleness when it comes to critiquing one another’s writing. But Waldman and Chabon “hack each other’s work to pieces. We are brutal. Mean sometimes…When my friends who are writers see my manuscripts after Michael has marked them up—sprinkled them with ‘do betters,’ and ‘icks’—they are vaguely nauseated; but I like it. And what goes around comes around. I do the same to him, despite the fact that he is, of course, a much better writer than I am.”
In fact, it may seem the only gripe about today’s dynamic literary duos is that the creative support for one another and the social good deeds are somewhat boring when compared to the cataclysmic unhappinesses of their predecessors. Where are the F. Scott and Zeldas? The Ted and Sylvias? Where are the relationships that, like that of Canadian poets Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn MacEwen, are short but spectacular storms (the Acorn–MacEwen marriage lasted less than two years). These days we have to settle for clashes like the one that occurred between young writer Evelyn Lau and her much-older ex-boyfriend W. P. Kinsella (of Shoeless Joe fame). Feeling apparently betrayed by the continued attention he gave his previous girlfriends, Lau published an unsparing, tell-all account of their relationship. “Kinsella was old,” she wrote, “strange-looking—the light through my living-room window illuminated his yellow teeth, his jowls, his thin, straggling hair.” She declared herself “disgusted” by their lovemaking: “He had the body of an old man.” Yikes.
In the end, the success or failure of literary relationships may have less to do with notoriety and careers and everything to do with the complex relations between men and women. In spite of it all—the personal conflicts, the almost-inevitable cropping-up of professional envy, the practical constraints—Aaron and I sit at opposite ends of a room that is too small, with our backs to each other. And if it doesn’t work out, we can always heed Ms. Hepburn’s advice: I’ll move down the street from him, write about what went wrong and visit often.