When did you first read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Do you remember what you thought of it back then?
I decided in about fourth grade that I would read every book in the children’s section of the public library, in alphabetical order. I got J. M. Barrie’s Neverland and L. Frank Baum’s Oz, but when I reached Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland my project fell apart. Who can go beyond Wonderland? Wonderland betrayed everything I had learned so far about magic otherlands—which wasn’t very much, admittedly. But where Neverland was a giant playground (an early Disneyland, really), and Oz was more droll than dramatic, in Wonderland (and Looking-Glass world) Carroll provided my first glimpse of Dadaism. Kafka for kindergartners.
The disorderliness—the barely-veiled hostility and lunacy of Carroll’s absurdist fever-dream—it terrified me. Many years later when I saw Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL for the first time, I thought: Ah: Bergman had read Lewis Carroll too young, too. When World War I created the Lost Generation, ALICE IN WONDERLAND ceased to be a depiction of 19th century childish fancy and became something deeper: a prophetic, nearly Blake-ean glimpse of modern dislocation, disorientation, even existentialism.
Tell us about Ada—who she is, what she’s like, how she’s different from Alice. Why did you choose her as your way into Wonderland, as opposed to, say, Alice herself?
Very few children appear in the Alice books. The baby who turns into a pig, perhaps Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Most of the characters are insane, selfish adults, or animals as adult stand-ins. Alice, we know from the early passages in ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, has an older sister and she mentions, in one passage, two friends: Mabel and Ada. As Mabel is thought to be stupid, I decided to look in and imagine who Ada might be. (ADA is also the name of a novel by Nabokov, and that was appealing, too.)
All we know about Ada is that her hair goes in corkscrews. She seemed, therefore, quite open to my authorial suggestion that she be something other than Alice. Perhaps more compromised, more hemmed in (Alice seems very relaxed wandering around by herself in Wonderland!). If Ada proves to be a little more worldly than innocent, trusting Alice is, Ada may also better perceive the danger to Alice that Alice herself doesn’t notice. Ada is clumsy, Ada is jealous of her newborn baby brother whose infant health issues are occupying her family, and Ada has a slightly firmer grip on the possible sadness of the world. She’s my kind of gal. Grim and competent.
Do you have a favorite Wonderlander? And/or a least favorite?
Anyone to whom I’ve asked the question almost always answers “The Red Queen!” and I suppose probably I feel that way, too. But I always adored the grotesque Duchess, whose self-importance reminds me of some people in the pages of the Sunday Times lifestyle section, or Hello magazine. For genuine compassion, such as it is in Wonderland, I admire the feeble White Knight and the White Queen, who doubles as the maid in the Duchess’s house. They are the only ones actually to care about Ada. I have modeled them, in my own mind, on lovely older people who have cared for me all my life, and whose quiet decline I watch with a fresh and grave kind of wonder.
Along with the old favorites, I believe you created a few new inhabitants of Wonderland. What was that like, extending and improvising in Lewis Carroll’s world? I imagine it felt slightly sacrilegious.
I actually created only seven new characters, I believe, and I gave them rather small roles. The talking roses are (loosely) based on Carroll’s talking blossoms in THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, though I give mine names and baskets of syndromes. Then there are a few tin marionettes, because it always seemed to me the Red Queen’s garden party ought to have had some entertainers lined up. There were more, but I kept cutting them out. Not because they were sacrilegious, but unnecessary. Carroll’s characters supply novelty and, in one way only, consistency: they are nearly all on the verge of nasty. No need to add more nastiness, nor to change the character of Wonderland by providing sprites and deities and kindly spirits.
The point, as I went on, became to look at the actual Wonderland characters and see, if I could make them talk the way Carroll did, if they would say things that Carroll could not let them say—things about faith, about despair, about purgatory or even Hell. For I think Carroll’s Wonderland relies for its subversive power on cultural notions given us by medieval Christianity, especially as served up by Dante.
Did you do research for AFTER ALICE? Did you spend time in Wonderland, or at the very least Oxford?
I will say this: I remember my dreams almost every morning of my life, and have done so since young childhood. Whether that is evidence of psychosis or creativity or perhaps merely a tendency to stir in the bed-sheets, I don’t know. The way things shift in dreams, one thing into another and back again, seems like half the way I perceive anything at all. That’s very Wonderland.
But the above-ground part of the novel takes place on a sunny day in 19th century Oxford. I have spent lots of time there over the years. For this book, I went with my middle-school daughter to Oxford two summers in a row, to walk around and look at buildings, light, trees, buskers, graduates, dons and scouts, and other waking nonsense. Of course C. S. Lewis was inspired by Oxford, and Tolkien wrote there, and Philip Pullman’s magisterial cycle, HIS DARK MATERIALS, starts and ends there. But Lewis Carroll got there first. I was trying to write under the influence.
What do you think draws you to working in this mode, reimagining existing stories, rather than making new ones out of whole cloth?
I have thought about this question for about twenty years, ever since the publication of WICKED, and the answer changes from time to time. Now, though, that I am in my early 60s, I am increasingly aware that—are we lucky enough to have a reading life at all in this age of the overstimulating internet—the books we adore as child readers continue to grow and change and mean new things to us as we grow and change. All my books aren’t hinged upon existing stories—but those that are sell well. It’s not a mercantile decision, I don’t mean that. I mean that leaning upon the common fence that has bordered all our childhoods is a way to honor whoever erected that fence.
Look, Lewis Carroll: 150 years ago you laid out the borders of Wonderland, and we still trip happily across that shifting margin! My books are homages to things that I love, to work that has meant as much to me—perhaps even more—as the great works of Emily Dickinson, and Shakespeare, and Franz Hals and the Beethoven of the late quartets, perhaps because the understanding of the concept of margins came to me in children’s books, earlier than I got the notion of Emily Dickinson’s “circumference,” of Shakespeare’s “full fathom five,” of Beethoven’s brave contemplation of mystery and mortality.
And as a follow-up, how would you compare your transformation-investigation-interpretation of Alice in Wonderland in After Alice to the way you dealt with Oz in Wicked? Were you, in any sense, performing the same operation? Wonderland at the very least seems a lot more chaste than Oz.
WICKED, I later realized once it was published, was probably modeled, subconsciously, on the plan conceived so wonderfully by T. H. White when he took the Arthurian cycle and decided to tell it again as if no one had ever heard of it before. What a brave man he was! THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING is not the last glimpse of Camelot, you may be sure. It is our glimpse. I tried to do something like that with WICKED: to tell the story of Oz as if it wasn’t already one of the most famous stories in the world. But, mind, the Arthurian cycle is partly oral history, messy and contradictory; and THE WIZARD OF OZ is contradictory too, if you consider the famous 1939 film and the 1900 novel side by side. And, however beloved the original Oz novel is, it’s not quite a work of genius.
The Alice books are. Yes. Works of genius. So my deciding to approach them was audacious. (Then again, Tom Stoppard had managed to make ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDERSTERN ARE DEAD in the shadow of the great HAMLET, so I have some brave souls for company on this foolhardy path.) My intention, of course, is not to “blow the whistle” on the seamy underside of Wonderland, not to make fun of Wonderland nor lodge a scathing expose, nor even to revise the Alice books by a single scrap. I simply want to offer readers a novel that can sit comfortably enough side by side with Lewis Carroll’s work in a companionable and respectful way. And perhaps shed a little more light on what makes Carroll’s achievement so monstrously amazing. And turn readers back to Carroll, in the end, to be refreshed and to wonder anew.
To what extent did you feel like you had to subordinate your style to Carroll’s, and to what extent did you write in your own voice?
I think, Lev, that sometimes writers can be ventriloquists without knowing it. I never decided consciously to write in Carroll’s voice—but I knew that if I was going to be persuasive about setting a story in the 19th century, I had to conform to certain speech patterns. Ih fact, I think I must have been picking up Carroll lingo and cadence by osmosis, since childhood. (I don’t puff myself up about this, mind.) The prose arrived without too much posturing, I think. (Perhaps I am really a 19th century don in my own way.) The text grew organically; I didn’t labor over passages to try to aerate them or over-egg them with MORE CARROLL FLAVOR THAN EVER BEFORE!
It’s a little bit like the way, if you’re just a little bit tipsy and singing the early Beatles, you tend to sing in a Liverpudlian accent. It comes naturally if you got it young enough.
Of the historical personages who make cameos, who was the most fun to write and why? If I were a betting man I’d put my money on Queen Victoria.
You ought to be a betting man. Queen Victoria ADORED the Alice books and named one of her children Alice, I believe. She also did complain, as I have her do, that her childhood had been more or less stolen from her because she was groomed as a potential queen from the age of 5 (according to Lytton Strachey, anyway). Victoria’s very name has become synonymous with middle-class piety and propriety in English and American life, and yet ALICE, which was published just about in the middle of that great monarch’s realm, more or less blew the whole notion of childhood propriety sky-high. (In the best possible taste, of course.)
I’ve always found Carroll, or I guess Dodgson, to be elusive as a biographical subject. Despite having read and reread his work, I have no sense of who he was. Did you get a personal sense of him, as you worked on the book?
It seems clear that Dodgson had a natural sympathy for younger children, in much the same way some people are dog people and some people are cat people. (And I’m not being facetious here: many people are utterly cold and clueless when it comes to kids actually qualifying as human beings, and self-important people are often the worst offenders, or should I say the ones who suffer that ailment the most.)
In his uncanny way, Dodgson (Carroll) captured not only Alice but the nature of childhood’s ferocious stolidity and get-on-with-it-ness (I guess that’s called fortitude). And resilience. I try to pay homage to Carroll’s arresting understandings about childhood in a late paragraph about the nature of Alice herself: that she leaked childhood as if through porous membranes while never being diminished. As Carroll was able both to see and to communicate this, I say that the only thing that can be truly known about him is that he was a genius. That he was unmarried need not be a clue to aberrant sexual tastes (see below); he was an Oxford don and that was de rigueur right up into the 1880s, as I understand it.
Dodgson is somewhat infamous for having had a dodgy interest in photographing young girls. Was that something you felt like you had to deal with?
I wanted to nod to the notion of photography and girls but turn it on its head, which is why I have Lydia, Alice’s sister, taking a picture of Dodgson, and catching something peculiar in him. (He is not naked, but naked of expression, of artifice.) As it happens I have an old though not original print of the photo of young Dodgson posing on the window-ledge of some vicarage or college, and while that famous portrait likely pre-dates the Alice years, it is that photo that I envisioned being taken in the chapter when Lydia operates the shutter and catches something immortal in him.
All this said, I won’t agree to be scandalized about Dodgson’s photographs. Nor will I agree to give him a pass. It is hard to walk back a century and a half, to the start of a new art form, and then to feel confident that you can know everything important about how those photographs came to be. No scrap of scandal and no hint of disapproval of the girls’ families has emerged. Yes, the photos make me uneasy. So too do the photos of naked young children by the contemporary photographer Sally Mann. That doesn’t mean I think their intention, subliminally or overtly, is pornographic. It means I am bidden to consider the nature of childhood in all its mysteries.
Finally, a confession: I’ve never succeeded in getting any of my children interested in Alice, except my oldest daughter, and that was only via the Tim Burton movie, which doesn’t really count. Somewhere around the caucus race they just wander off. Does Alice still have something to say to children today?
I now think the Alice books really only work as a guide to childhood and maturity after you have made the trip and are looking back. Like reading up on the French cathedrals you visited long after you’ve gotten home and unpacked the pastis from duty-free and poured yourself a glass. Tim Burton’s vision has a glorious hard-shell brilliance to it, but it too tries to cram the hellish inconsequentiality of Wonderland into a conventional plot with a beginning and a middle and an end. The point about Wonderland is that it is eternal. The Red Queen cannot be subdued and chained, even if she is really Tim Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter. It is her nature to be a rogue element, and for a Wonderland interpreter to insist on consequentiality for the purpose of a Hollywood plot is, I fear, to pervert Wonderland.
As to the natural readers of ALICE: Better to save the great Alice books and discover them in college alongside of Camus and Sartre, I think. And this, in the end, is why AFTER ALICE is published for adults. It is a reflection on the great masterwork of Lewis Carroll as perceived by a shambling White Knight dallying on the edge of his own dotage.