Patricia Ketola is interviewed by Petar Odak, editor and reviewer.
Late blooming in the world of literature is not that rare: Toni Morrison published her first novel when she was thirty-nine, P. D. James when she was forty-two, and Penelope Fitzgerald and Frank McCourt started in their sixties. Still, it is quite unusual for the debut novel to be published by a writer in her early seventies, especially as it deals with the questions of sexuality, incest, female power and political terrorism. Of course, it would be unfair to limit Patricia Ketola’s first novel Dirty Pictures just to this set of controversial topics. No, this hidden little gem is a powerful, if quirky, contemplation on love, life and death. Unable to find a publisher in the USA, this American writer found its home with the independent Dublin publisher Betimes Books. Intrigued by the novel, we decided to talk with Ketola about her writing and the way it relates to our current political and cultural situation.
Petar Odak: Your novel transcends genres; it is impossible to fit in one box. Was this your aim from the beginning, or did the novel develop its own logic through time, maybe even surprising you in the end?
Patricia Ketola: In Dirty Pictures I was writing about subjects that interest me and I didn’t have any particular genre in mind. My aim was to fill every page with lively, exciting material. As you suggest, the piece did develop its own logic over time. I was not surprised by the end result, but I was surprised when some
readers thought DP was an unusual take on a Romance novel.
PO: Although Dirty Pictures is undoubtedly a fun and exciting novel, many key points of the story actually deal with death; it opens with the death of a protagonist’s mother, follows with a pretty rational and not-at-all desperate suicide of a friend and then finishes with the protagonist’s partner chopunch a osing to spend his last days surrounded by his loved ones instead of enduring the tortuous, exhausting and often hopeless procedure of chemotherapy. It seems thus that your novel suggests a different view on the natural cycle of life and the inevitability of death. What is your opinion on that?
PK: When I started writing DP, I was mourning the deaths of several significant people in my life. I was writing out of a sense of loss and that is probably why death figures so prominently in the novel. At my age death is the next big adventure, and I believe one should approach it with grace and acceptance. I don’t think people should suffer unnecessarily, or be coerced into needless treatment by the Medical/Pharmaceutical industry. If this idea is outside the norm, so be it.
PO: After the ‘Punch a Nazi’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCnPOEJDWIk) video went viral, there was a heated debate among the liberal left regarding the use of violence when dealing with fascists. Your protagonist, Martel, does not seem to have doubts about that, willingly helping her friend to murder Preston Greylander, CEO of a huge agri-business combine noted for “trying to gain the world’s food supply” and for participating in “genocide in Africa”. Yet when dealing with the attempted burglars at Madame Lillian’s house, Martel steps in to prevent further torture. What are your feelings about using violence against violence?
PK: I don’t approve of the video at all. That kind of action seems stupid, callow, and cowardly. I don’t know anything about the debate among ‘leftists’, so I can’t comment on it. As for Martel, she believes that people who commit genocide and attempt to control the world’s resources for profit are the enemy. Although she would not have initiated the action herself, she takes Terry’s point and agrees to help him. If he had asked her to help torture Preston to death, she would not have participated. I certainly draw a firm line between assassination and torture, as illustrated by Martel’s defence of the burglars.
As for violence against violence, who knows? Not everyone one can be a Gandhi, or espouse the fine ideals of Tolstoy. Humans seem to have difficulty being peaceable and are not adept at developing their higher natures. Maybe we are just a bunch of predators who like to fight and kill.
PO: Your novel is filled with anti–establishment and anti–capitalist political statements, even including some acts of left terrorism. There are some ironic remarks on the political situation in United States as well. What is your stance on Trump’s America?
PK: I was brought up in a tough neighbourhood by a working class family that had socialist views. In fact, it was rumored that some of the relatives were actual Communists. This background, combined with my natural rebellious spirit, led quite naturally to social criticism. Unlike many of my acquaintances, I hold no particular hatred towards Donald Trump. I doubt that he is any worse than what we had before.
PO: There is a lot of eroticism in your book including some explicit sex scenes. Martel is also a keen observer of the male body and often joyfully describes it to the reader. I must say, I found it refreshing to see the subverting of normal gender roles when it comes to sexuality in literature. Did you feel that there was a need for female characters to be more open about their enjoyment of sex?
PK: No, I didn’t feel the need for a female character to be more open about enjoyment of sex. I like writing about sex because it is so difficult. Putting such emotions and feelings into words is damn near impossible and I’m quite proud of my efforts.
PO: Martel is a straight-talking, brash female character who, for many readers, is a rare find. Do you feel that we need more female characters like Martel in literature, TV, film etc. who are unapologetic about their lifestyle? Or do you fear that by doing so such characters will be overused and possibly become another female trope?
PK: Current feminism is not sympathetic to a character like Martel, so I doubt we need to be worried about overuse.
PO: Are you as passionate a lover of art as your novel suggests and as your characters undoubtedly are?
PK: Absolutely. I’ve lived my life in pursuit of art and beauty and the transcendent experience. I tend to become slightly ecstatic when I view a great work of art. My appreciation is not limited to one period, school, or culture. Personally, I would like to see a lot more public art. Not everyone can visit a museum, gallery, or cathedral, but everyone deserves to get a glimpse of the beautiful and profound.
PO: With your background in art, travel and cultural anthropology this novel must have been a labour of love to research. The detail you give to each characters’ clothing and musical and artistic preferences is extraordinary. Did this require extensive research or were you already very familiar with and happy to write about the various fashion labels and musicians?
PK: I don’t do much research. My personal experience is such that I have a lot of information stored in my brain. When working on a piece, I make a big collage of pictures relating to the subject matter and look at it for inspiration. Prior to writing I listen to music, in this case gypsy guitar and Chet Baker.
PO: The world of art dealing plays a very important role in your novel. Does Martel’s ambivalence – she enjoys working with art pieces, but at the same time despises her rich and often uneducated customers – reflect your own critical stance or at least some kind of reticence when it comes to the money-oriented art market?
PK: Western Art has always been about power, money, or religion. Most of the old masters were working for dukes or kings or princes of the Church. Painters like Rembrandt were working for the rising bourgeoisie. The production of paintings and statuary only became art for art’s sake in the 19th century, and a lot of artists lost their sponsors because their work was considered too radical by the buyers and sellers. As a result, many ended up unrecognized and living in poverty. I hate the fact that a brilliant artist like Modigliani died neglected and broke, and that in current times his works are praised to the skies and sold for millions. The realities of today’s art game are grotesque and scandalous, but it’s nothing new. The billionaires of today want to be like the big shots of yesteryear, and the dealers and auctioneers are only too happy to accommodate them.
PO: How did you go about researching the European places mentioned in the novel? You write of Amsterdam (and indeed other places in the Netherlands and in Europe) as if you were a local. Have you in fact lived there before or did you have to visit the city, its museums and galleries and go off the beaten track a little to experience the “real”?
PK: I’ve never actually lived in Europe, but I used to visit twice a year. I usually find a city I love and visit it year after year. I try to make a spiritual connection with the place. Once I went to Barcelona to see the architecture, but I couldn’t make a connection and I’ve never been back. I find that odd, because I should have loved the place.
PO: This is perhaps a predictable question, but still I must ask it: how does a woman in her early seventies come to write a novel full of drugs, sex and violence? Would you even be surprised to read a novel which deals with these topics which was written by one of your peers? Or should people not be surprised by this at all? Is this actually part of a larger issue that society has with hearing older voices, particularly female, whereby we assume that they would never speak of such topics?
PK: I started writing this piece when I was seventy-one or seventy-two, and it has gone through many revisions. People were quite astonished when I began writing. I was told that creativity diminishes starting around age fifty and that I didn’t have a chance at producing anything worthwhile. Although several friends were supportive of my efforts, others were shocked by the topics I chose to explore.
I know that Jean Rhys published a novel when she was seventy-six and it was quite the hit. She explored madness and sexual exploitation. Anna Kavan wrote the brutal and visionary Ice, a novel I admire, when she was in her sixties.
PO: Including detailed recipes in a work of fiction is unusual for authors to do. Yet, as mentioned previously, Dirty Pictures has a wonderful use of detail for characters, props, smells and sound. Why did you decide to give such description to how Martel cooked those dinners in Amsterdam? Are they your own recipes or are they inspired by others?
PK: The procurement, preparation, and sharing of food has always been one of my great pleasures. For me, a carefully prepared meal shared with family and friends is an expression of fellowship and celebration. In the novel Martel’s humanistic approach to food is presented in direct opposition to the Greylander Corporation’s soulless attempts at food control.
The roast chicken was from Julia Child, but I didn’t bother to look up the recipe. The rest is just basic stuff that I am familiar with.
PO: Dirty Pictures is your first novel. Do you have any unpublished material written before this novel?
PK: Even though I didn’t start writing until late in life, I’ve got tons of unpublished stuff: novellas, short stories, another novel, even screenplays. I was writing fast and didn’t have any outside distractions. My themes are basically the same as those in Dirty Pictures. I like to think some of my work is humorous, even farcical.
PO: What are you working on now?
PK: I have one hundred fifty pages of a novel called Surfers. It’s about a group of drug dealers who work out of Southern California in the 1960s. At the moment my personal situation is such that I can’t give the novel my full attention, but I would like to add some bits about the entertainment industry and its early attempts at mind control.