Christopher Beha’s debut novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder has received rave reviews from publications ranging from New York Times Book Review to Vogue. In this meditative story, Beha, who is an associate editor at Harper’s and previously published the memoir The Whole Five Feet, brings us Charlie Blakeman, a floundering writer living with his cousin in New York, traversing the literary scene while not actually accomplishing much. His former college love Sophie Wilder reappears a decade after graduation. Now a devout Catholic, Sophie is struggling with her life as she faces decisions she’s made in the past. The beautifully written What Happened to Sophie Wilder asks whether we can ever really understand someone.
In between returning from a writer’s colony in Wyoming and heading to the Miami Book Fair, Beha took some time to sit down in his Brooklyn neighborhood and answer our questions about his novel, his writing, literary social circles, and where religion falls in the intellectual world.
Christopher Beha on What Happened to Sophie Wilder, 4 p.m. Sunday Nov. 18, with Pam Houston, Rachel Joyce, and Eleni Gage; building 8, room 8301 at Miami Book Fair International.
Salty Eggs: There’s a lot of discussion in What Happened to Sophie Wilder about using personal experiences for material. How much do you use in your writing?
Christopher Beha: I talk in the book about how writing has a one-to-one correspondence. It’s essentially a slightly fictionalized version of your own life. This book is definitely not that. I wrote a memoir before this book, so I’ve already written about my own life. Fiction to me is the process of using your imagination on the material you have. I always find it funny to read the legal disclaimers at the front of the book that say, “any resemblance of these characters to any people living or dead is completely coincidental.” That is such bullshit. That’s why you write these characters—they resemble living people. It all comes from somewhere. That is interesting to me, the process of how one’s own life is turned into fiction. The characters in my book have in many ways the same background that I do—they have the same level of education, they live in Greenwich Village where I work, and I know a lot of people who live in that neighborhood, but there isn’t a character in the book that is based on me.
Every reading I’ve given, someone has asked me “Do you have a Sophie Wilder?”—Sophie being Charlie’s lost love. The answer is no. If anything Sophie, rather than Charlie, is emotionally based on me. Or I might say they are two halves of myself that I have a hard time reconciling. A lot of the book was motivated by tensions within myself.
If you consider Sophie closer emotionally to you than Charlie, did you find it more difficult to write about Charlie?
Sophie was much more difficult to write. There was some very emotionally challenging material. I found it much more satisfying to write when I got Sophie right. I don’t like telling people how to read my book but there are parts of the book that I’m proudest of are all the Sophie chapters. Charlie is also a version of myself but a little more feckless than I am—sort of shallow, I think. It’s not meant to be a particularly admiring portrait of Charlie. Max, Charlie’s cousin, is funny and fun to listen to. I have friends like that. Who are a blast to be around, even if you don’t admire them all that much. They’re the people who are always entertaining and smart and stimulating to talk to. Yet, they use a lot of that intelligence to make excuses for their own behavior. Those parts of the book I had more fun writing.
The group that Charlie and Max hang out with is a young, arrogant literary crowd that takes themselves a little too seriously. Have you found yourself within that type of crowd in the past?
I was a member in every way. I was the one taking myself too seriously. This novel isn’t me looking around at the New York literary world and trying to make fun of them. I’ve been at those parties and had those conversations in the book. I’ve become acutely aware of the limits of those things.
Are you still a part of a crowd like that or do you feel you’ve outgrown it?
I wouldn’t say outgrown it, but I’m not particularly part of that crowd anymore, because of the circumstances of my life. I noticed that a lot of these people who go to these parties are having the conversations in lieu of working things out on the page. I found that the more serious I got about the work I was doing the less I found myself at parties where people talk about their work.
In the book both Sophie and Charlie have found themselves at a standstill with their writing. You’ve published a memoir. When you published that did you encounter the same sort of thing?
I have always written fiction. I wrote a novel before my memoir that was never published. The memoir was just happenstance. I knew when I was writing it that the next thing I would do would be a novel. The day after I delivered my memoir to my publisher I started working on this book.
All of your characters, including Sophie, are somewhat intellectual. When she converts to Catholicism she approaches it from an academic point of view. Do you think Catholicism and an intellectualism can go hand-in-hand?
It used to very much so. A lot of the very famous coverts of the 19th and early-20th century were intellectuals—such as Cardinal Newman, who was among the first of these British Anglicans to convert to Catholicism. I think there was very often an emotional element, but there was also an intellectual element. When evangelical Christians talk about conversion they talk about being saved. What that means is that something has been done to you, God’s grace has been extended to you and you’re not really in control. With a lot of Catholic converts there is a sense of moving along a path where you are guiding yourself. I grew up in a very devout Catholic household that was also intellectual. My father is a devout Catholic who also has a PhD from Harvard. The idea among secular intellectuals that going to church means checking your brain at the door has never made sense to me. I’m an atheist and I think there are at least as many intellectual challenges to atheism as there are in being religious. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t make sense. I think it’s too bad that we’ve lost a sense of an intellectual religious tradition. There is so much of the great culture of the modern Western world that has come by way of religion Yet, a lot of people who are creative artists or intellectuals of the modern era think of culture as something that is opposed to organized religion.