Author On the Bookcase: Kate Christensen, author of The Astral
Author On the Bookcase
I'm so excited to welcome Kate Christensen, author of The Astral. Kate's sixth novel relates the story of Harry Quirk, a male poet, and his failures. For decades he thought he created a happy home -- his wife, Luz, a nurse, and their two children: Karina, now a fervent freegan, and Hector, now in the clutches of a cultish Christian community. But Luz has found (and destroyed) some poems of Harry's that ignite her long-simmering suspicions of infidelity, and he's been summarily kicked out. Harry now has to reckon with the consequence of his literary, marital, financial, and parental failures (and perhaps others) and find his way forward—and back into Luz's good graces.
Kate shares her inspiration for The Astral and the book's central theme of "paradise lost."
The Astral was inspired by a building and a book.
The beautiful, enormous, and compelling Astral Apartments is a real rose-colored edifice in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the neighborhood I lived in for many years. Walking by it in the course of my daily life, I often wondered about its inhabitants, history, stories. Finally, I realized that I needed to write a novel about it.
From that real building came the character of Harry Quirk, a male poet in late middle age, cast out of his home in the Astral by his vengeful, irrationally jealous wife, like an old Adam banished by his Eve from a comfortable, domestic Eden. The entire tenor of the book is shaped around this image of paradise lost, and Adam alone, humbled and brought low and wanting nothing more than to get back to the Astral Apartments.
I still have not been inside; instead, I transformed it into an imagined version of its real self. As Harry walks toward the Astral at the beginning of Chapter Four, he sees
“…an enormous, six-story red-brick tenement castle-fortress that spanned a whole block of Franklin between India and Java. The place was compelling to look at from without, blighted from within. Great rock-face brownstone arches curved over the entryways; above them, arched windows were set into recessed arches that rose to the fifth floor of the façade, and above these were crenellated decorative rooftop embellishments. Three-sided bay windows were festooned ghetto-like with webbed metal gates, stubbled with air conditioners, made fancy-looking with decorative brickwork and lintels. The building’s huge corners were rounded and tower-like. No opportunity to decorate had been wasted; even the structural steel storefronts on the first floor, housing a café and a Laundromat, were gussied up by their own rivets. The place had been built by Charles Pratt in the late 1880s to house his Astral Oil kerosene factory workers; Astral Oil’s slogan had been, ‘The holy lamps of Tibet are primed with Astral Oil.’ To which they might have appended, ‘And the refineries of Astral Oil are primed with cheap labor.’ Some claimed that Mae West had been born in this building; I didn’t see why that couldn’t have been so.”
Harry Quirk was also inspired by the narrator of the classic 1944 English novel, The Horse's Mouth, by Joyce Cary. It’s set in the London neighborhood of Green Bank, on the Thames, and is narrated by down-on-his-luck painter Gulley Jimson, a philosophical old rogue. I discovered it in my twenties and have reread (and loved) it many times.
When the novel opens, Gulley is just out of prison and ready to get up to the same old tricks that landed him there in the first place. The opening passage is gorgeously sordid and transformative, the London neighborhood of Green Bank seen through a painter’s eyes: “I was walking by the Thames. Half-past morning on an autumn day. Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop. All bright below. low tide, dusty water and a crooked bar of straw, chicken-boxes, dirt and oil from mud to mud. Like a viper swimming in skim milk. The old serpent, symbol of nature and love…Thames mud turned into a bank of nine carat gold rough from the fire.”
The novel reminds us that a real artist is neither noble nor heroic, and the artistic life is a solitary, unsavory, scrappy ordeal that never lets up until you die. The best thing to do would seem to be to keep at it, through prison, poverty, and scandal, and when you die, go out laughing. This is a wildly brilliant portrait of the artist as an old scamp.
The Astral is my homage to the building and the novel that inspired it.
Thanks so much, Kate, for your thoughts on your novel, the inspiration, and artists and their "scrappy" life! The Astral has so many discussion points for reading groups -- marriage, art, identity, religion, parenthood, and "paradise lost."
".... Christensen takes a singular, genuine story and blows it up into a smart inquiry into the nature of love and the commitments we make, the promises we do and do not honor, and the people we become as we negotiate the treacherous parameters of marriage and friendship and parenthood."— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Kate Christensen is the author of five previous novels, including In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, The Epicure's Lament, and Trouble. The Great Man won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has written reviews and essays for numerous publications, most recently the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Tin House, and Elle.
Learn more about Kate and her books.