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March 22, 2024
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'Helen Bonaparte'

D’Stair’s sophomore novel, Helen Bonaparte, follows the titular character as she explores Italy and becomes obsessed with her tour guide. BookLife Reviews praised D’Stair, saying that she “brings poetic vigor to Helen’s imaginings and occasional pushing of boundaries, deftly mingling desire, tension, and the feeling that things could go very wrong” in this work of “erotic suspense.”

What was your inspiration for Helen Bonaparte?

As cliché as it may sound, Italy itself was a magnificent inspiration. I visited there several years ago and existed within its spell for some time. I hoped the novel would capture what it felt like to be enveloped within that magnitude of art, like being speechless and effusive at the same time. The idea came about after a foot injury that kept me homebound for almost six months. I filled the hours reading short stories by Patricia Highsmith. I also read the incredible French writer Violette Leduc, whose prose feels like bursts of compressed energy. It was exciting to blend Highsmith’s tense interiority with Leduc’s indulgently sensual prose. I suppose I was also dreaming of Italy while sitting inert on my sofa, so the pencil started moving and Helen’s strange world came to life.

Does your poetry influence your prose?

I want to say “yes,” but a more accurate statement would be that it’s the other way around—the prose influences the poetry. My earliest writing was intended to be traditional storytelling, but it always came out more like a series of poeticized moments of awareness. Eventually, I thought, “Well, if I’m writng what sounds like poetry anyway, why don’t I just write verse?” So I did. And it was satisfying but, to me, not as much fun as giving that same poetic voice to a character navigating the fatedness of their own narrative. There’s something terrifying and exhilarating about an unalterable timeline. I like to watch characters wriggle and wrestle within that kind of anxiety.

What research did you do to ensure cultural and historical accuracy?

As I noted, I had traveled to Italy and visited most of the places mentioned in the novel. Luckily, I took lots of pictures and wrote random notes along the way. I also consulted travel guides and books on the Italian Renaissance. Italian noir cinema also may have played a part in some descriptions, especially when Helen and her tour-mates walk around cities at night. I wanted the novel to be rooted in as much precision of place as possible to counter Helen’s fantastical experience of it all.

Who would be your ideal reader and why?

I am grateful for anyone who engages with Helen’s weird state of mind, even if her story is not their cup of tea. However, if I were to consider an ideal reader, I suppose it would be someone who enjoys being surprised by a turn of phrase, someone who won’t judge Helen’s character but instead would relish all the secrets she reveals. Helen’s existence barely escapes the present moment, barely exists outside of what she adores about the Sistine Chapel or the way the tour guide’s hands move when she talks. I think my ideal reader would see those moments as just as significant as some of the more tantalizing parts of the story.

Can readers expect more from you soon?

Late Marriage Press is about to reissue my first novel, Central Valley, which explores young life in the harshness of California’s small agricultural towns. I also recently finished another novel, titled Abstract, which follows a woman who writes abstracts of legal documents for a living. She begins to abstract the world, reducing everything to its most compacted form and, in turn, feels like the world abstracts her back. It’s different from Helen Bonaparte but continues a similar interplay of story and language. It also has a cat character named Chloe whom I absolutely adore.