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Norah Labiner and the story you only think you’ve heard before

Maybe there are only a few good stories. Maybe we’ve heard this one before. Maybe there’s comfort in the familiar even in fiction, and we like a character that reminds us of someone else we’ve met before. The idea of enduring mythologies intrigued Norah Labiner so much that her fourth novel, “Let the Dark Flower Blossom” (Coffee House Press), revisits characters and themes we may have met before, somewhere else — but not in this combination, not told like this.

Spun out over a period of decades, Labiner’s tale first draws a set of compelling characters, and then connects them. Maybe we’ve seen these types before, but we haven’t seen them connected in quite this configuration. Even better, the reader gets to unravel a series of dark secrets and try to solve a murder, or two.

“I really wanted to write a story that was about old stories, about the kind of myths that are told over and over again — Leda and the Swan, the story of the girl, the birth of the divine child,” says the author, whose previous books, “Our Sometimes Sister,” “Miniatures,” and “German for Travelers” demonstrate precise and artful language, experiment with structure and style, and explore the complexity of human relationships and the trouble with making art. Add to that a pair of twins, an endless lineup of dead girls, a dazzling celebrity writer, and his best friend, that other guy in the paparazzi shots — the one who never got famous himself because he couldn’t tell his story.

Our celebrity fixation

“We’re still looking at gods and goddesses, with our society’s celebrity fixation, and George Clooney, I don’t know. The Royal Baby! We’re talking about the King of England, and it’s so absurd. But I guess we like it because it’s familiar,” says Labiner, who does not have a subscription to “People” magazine, and who used to write on a pair of old-fashioned typewriters and is still nostalgic for them. Her other books explore the idea that art-making and fame don’t go well together — writers, Hollywood, and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath show up in her pages. Even though fame and success have a clear hold on her imagination, she’s not that kind of writer she writes about. In fact, she has no readings scheduled right now.

“I’m not sure how I feel about readings at the moment. I’m pretty low-key, I’m not much of a performer. Standing in front of people — it’s painful for both me and the audience, so why not spare them?”

She does care about her audience, very much, though. While her celebrity writer character picks up dates at his reading events, Labiner woos her readers on the page instead.

‘I love the reader being involved’

author photo
Coffee House Press
Norah Labiner

“I like the idea of a book as a game or maze that the reader experiences and participates in. I like to be demanding on the reader and challenge them, I love the reader address, I love the reader being involved. I’m in it together with the reader,” she says.

“The idea in some books that the book is a pristine object that exists separately from the reader? No. To me, the reader is bringing so much to the story. It seems a strange thing, the idea that we are bringing the book to the reader. The reader is part of the process and the point and the story. So why deny it?”

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