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reed magazine logoSpring 2008
Of Art & Old Ladies

The college was a relief, and a new challenge. This young woman, who had been writing stories and making up characters since she was six, found that she couldn’t use her own voice in class.

“I always thought everyone was smarter than I was at Reed,” she remembers. “I was so intimidated that I never said a word.”

But she was listening…and writing. With no fiction-writing program to enroll in, Christensen majored in English. Looking back, she doesn’t regret that she wasn’t concentrating on fiction at that point in her life. “The influences I had were Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Dostoevsky. I was reading all these great writers and picking them apart and studying them, figuring out, in a writerly way, how a novel is put together.”

That Reed experience, she says, emerges in the structure of The Great Man. The gender bending, deception, and happy pairing-off of her protagonists owes a debt, she says, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Christensen might have been able to appreciate that literary construct in college, but she thinks she wasn’t old enough to write anything really good until she hit her 30s. Not that she wasn’t trying. After Reed, she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and started a coming-of-age memoir, which she gave up after a few chapters. She moved to New York and worked as an office temp, writing all the while.

Christensen’s first novel was rejected 27 times (give or take) before it found a publisher. And then it faced a different challenge. In the Drink is the story of a 29-year-old New Yorker, Claudia Steiner, who is everything that Christensen loves in a character: deeply flawed, sharp-witted, usually drunk, and bouncing from one bad relationship to another. Claudia had the misfortune of being introduced to the world just as a little book called Bridget Jones’ Diary hit the big-time. Christensen’s first novel was soon lumped with Sex and the City and Bridget Jones in a genre known as “chicklit.”

It helped In the Drink’s sales, but the label didn’t get her much literary respect. Christensen broke the mold, though, by making sure that her next two novels, Jeremy Thrane and The Epicure’s Lament, were told through the voices of male narrators. They’re still losers, of course, but at least losers living far off chicklit’s beaten path. Jeremy Thrane is gay, unemployed, a celebrity hanger-on forced out on his own. Hugo, in The Epicure’s Lament, is a misanthropic, failed poet who is slowly trying to kill himself.

Christensen’s heroes are simply not the kinds of people who win national awards and sit for interviews with their college alumni magazines.

She laughs when I point this out. And concedes that she’s been worried about the small measure of fame that a literary award can bestow.

“For writers and artists, it’s always a balancing act between wanting to be the center of attention and wanting to be invisible and watch what’s going on,” she says. “It makes you vulnerable to win an award. It’s nice to get the attention, but your neck is stuck out.”

Fortunately, she finished her next book before she heard about winning the PEN/Faulkner. Trouble is her first novel featuring Reed, although not by name. In it, two women forge their friendship at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s. Twenty years later, the fictional Reedies are both successful—one is a shrink in New York, the other a rock star in L.A. But, of course, they aren’t happy. If they were, she couldn’t ask the central question that runs through all her work: “What’s missing in a life? What didn’t you get that you wanted?”

With the PEN/Faulkner award ceremony in May, following right on the heels of The Great Man coming out in paperback, Christensen might have to face a different, but still unsettling, question. What happens when you get what you never dreamed of having?

Robert Smith ’89 is a New York correspondent for National Public Radio. His first-person account of covering Hurricane Katrina appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Reed magazine.

reed magazine logoSpring 2008