Past Reading: An Interior Life by Katherine Blake

Published in 1990 and never re-issued, AN INTERIOR LIFE is one of those (many) good stories that has become all but invisible, buried in the heaps and piles and mountains of newer releases.

However, it’s still available used via Amazon, I see. Many copies are going for just pennies, though evidently you can pay upwards of $40 if you really want to. Luckily my copy is in fine shape. As far as I know, Katherine Blake never published anything else.

Oh, hey, I see on Goodreads that another commenter says: Jo Walton had recommended it and that the author was Dorothy J. Heydt.

Looking up Dorothy Heydt, I see she has written in the Darkover universe and that she has a standalone called A POINT OF HONOR, which in fact seems to mix contemporary with fantasy in yet another way. That’s interesting. *Buys copy*.

As it happens, AN INTERIOR LIFE recently came up in some comment thread somewhere, sorry, don’t remember where, but in a general “I’ve never met anybody else who’s heard of this wonderful book” sort of context. It is worth hearing about, so here:

Sue had two kids, one husband, a lovely home, and a boring life. Sometimes, when the PTA meeting proved that a committee is a life form with many feet and no brain, or when her husband was even more inattentive than usual, or when the realization that the kitchen would never be clean for more than two hours at a time would hit her, she just wanted to escape. To get out of her incredibly mundane world and live a little.

So she did.

And found that an active fantasy life can be a very dangerous thing . . . and very real . . .

This story is not only good, it’s unusual. It’s actually two stories that braid around each other: a story about Sue, a Typical Suburban Housewife, getting her life together and, as it were, finding herself without moving a step; and it’s also a story about Marianella and Lady Amalia, who are trying to stop the Darkness spreading over their land, and Aumery, unwilling servant of the Darkness.

So, two stories. It’s actually rather rare that a single page doesn’t contain a bit from both. Let me show you the first transition, which happens just four pages into the novel. I’m going to rewrite it just a tiny bit so it will read smoothly, since I want to show how this works without retyping the entire beginning of the novel. Anyway:

The chocolate scurf on the front burner had softened, and Sue leaned hard on the sponge and scrubbed away . . . she dropped the sponge into the bleach solution and looked out the kitchen window again. The sparrows had taken fright at a dog, cat, or toddler and flown away. The lucky stiffs. Above the pyrancantha, something glinted in the sky, a 747 maybe, or a sea gull, the sun bright on its wings, high above the sparkling sea. She stood at a white-washed wall, chest high, that ran along the top of the cliff north and south from the sea-keep. She could feel the grittiness of the mortar under her fingers, and the pressure against her breasts as she leaned far over the wall to see the shore below. A strip of clean sand ran along the cliff’s foot, smooth and white.

Sue is now in the persona of Marianella, who has just arrived with Lady Amalia at the abandoned keep. The story is going to shift back and forth from this point on, but the lines between the worlds are going to blur even more than the bit above makes it seem, because Marianella and Amalia comment freely on the details of Sue’s life: what she could cook for supper, what kind of dress she should wear to an important party, how to extricate herself from an awkward situation with her husband’s boss.

Sue can also peek into the other world almost at will, shifting pov between Marianella and Amalia to keep track of what’s going on. She can comment on events that are occurring there, just as the others can comment on her life. When Amalia meets a suspicious character who spins her a tall tale about his past, Sue comments, “And if you believe that, I have a bridge I can sell you.” And she knows that Amalia doesn’t believe him either, because at that moment, Sue is simultaneously in her own pov and in Amalia’s pov.

Now, the situation confronting Lady Amalia and her world is dire. Here we have a pretty standard fantasy plot: a terrible threat, heroism and last stands, romance and star-crossed lovers, all that. It’s a good enough story, but what’s surprising is how juxtaposing this story with Sue’s ordinary life makes all the tiny events of her life somehow much more interesting. Sue does confront real problems, but they are very ordinary problems. Yet reading about her life does not slow the story down or bore the reader; quite the reverse, as the reader actually becomes invested in Sue’s life at least as much as in the fate of the fantasy world. (At least, that was my experience as a reader.)

As it happens, I like a story where someone gets her life in order and comes to understand herself better and grows in confidence and realizes she does actually still love her own husband. Even so, without the fantasy story braided in with Sue’s contemporary life, the latter would be boring. But put the two stories together, and somehow Sue’s personal story becomes more interesting and appealing than the violence and adventure and heroism of the fantasy. This isn’t my favorite book ever, but it’s good. As a writer, I think it must have been fun to write. A challenge, but fun. I definitely think it’s worth picking up if you have room on your no-doubt-tottering TBR pile.

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7 thoughts on “Past Reading: An Interior Life by Katherine Blake”

  1. I thought The Interior Life was also pretty cool. Katherine Blake is a pseudonym for Dorothy J. Heydt. She wrote several short stories and one other novel, A Point of Honor, in 1998. I don’t think she’s written recently, though.

  2. Hi, Robert, yes, I found out about the pseudonym a minute after I posted, because a commenter on Goodreads mentioned that. So I updated to show that. I also picked up A Point of Honor, because it does sound interesting.

  3. I reread INTERIOR LIFE recently and it held up very well – I prefer it to POINT OF HONOR. I’ve also run across some shorts Heydt wrote. She has the gift of writing about music such that I can (almost) hear it, and would really like to be able to for real. Not Darkover stuff, I don’t think I ever read Heydt’s shorts in that universe.

    She’s in poor health, chronic fatigue + age, IIRC and says she was never good at self-promotion, and prodding editors and agents. I think she’s said there was meant to be a f/u to PoH, but it never got published.

    Incidentally, In TIL, could you tell there were three different fonts used to mark the various worlds? One only turns up at the end. She once asked readers, and I think over half of those who’ve read it said they didn’t notice. She grumbles about the typographer who looked at the issue as a specialist, instead of a reader, and chose fonts that looked way too similar to the non-specialist.

  4. I would certainly grumble about the typography if I were her. I’m another reader where I noticed the fonts eventually, but definitely not right away. Considering what a pain it is to consistently switch fonts when you’re writing, it’s a shame that didn’t show up better in the finished product.

    Too bad about the chronic fatigue etc. It would be easy enough for her to bring out a sequel herself and not worry a lot about promotion. Maybe mention the sequel to Jo Walton and a few other fans and let it go.

  5. Well, and me, for not noticing the Goodreads comments before hitting Post instead of after…

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