Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Iowa City in Literature: More questions about Stephen Lovely's "Irreplaceable"

Sure, we all know that Iowa City is now internationally recognized as a City of Literature, but I’ve long been interested in how Iowa City gets portrayed as a city in literature.

That’s really why I was so interested in Stephen Lovely’s new novel, “Irreplaceable,” which is set in a thinly fictionalized Iowa City called Athens. My column in today’s Press-Citizen (“Lovely’s debut novel has lots of heart”) focused on “Irreplaceable” as a heart transplant novel — which was appropriate since the reader I was interviewing is the recipient of both a heart and a kidney transplant.

But if I were to interview Lovely directly, these are the questions I’d ask:

* How do you describe this novel? Is it a literary novel — like those of your Workshop predecessors, a novel that will be studied in classes for generations because of its attention to language and form as well as plot and character development?

Or is it a didactic novel — a novel with a clear teaching purpose? And, if a didactic novel, besides length and readability, what’s the difference between the “Irreplaceable” and an extended, well-written pamphlet that provides a host of accurate information about the procedures and complications involved in a transplant operation? (Although my interview with Gregory Calvert would suggest that that “Irreplaceable” is simply too dark and complex for your average informational tract or pamphlet.)

* In a novel in which you go to great pains to be as detailed as possible about medical procedures, I find it interesting that you have to disguise the novel’s Iowa City setting while providing GPS clarity for where your characters are in Chicago. Why the need to change Iowa City to Athens, even though Iowa City residents can recognize the geographic features you describe so clearly?

Was the change of Iowa City to Athens in any way a nod to Larry Baker’s Iowa City novel, “Athens, America” (2005), in which Baker makes a similar change?

* The cover, title and first two paragraphs of plot description on the book jacket make “Irreplaceable” seems like it is going to be a romance. The next paragraphs show that its going to be — at least — a very complicated romance that involves a host of complicated characters and the consequences of their complicated decision-making. What steps to you take to ensure that you weren’t allowing yourself to fall into sentimentality when writing this novel? Or did you assume that the framework you set up would keep you from ever going too far into the sentimental?

* As the character responsible for the death of Isabel Howard, Jasper seems to be the character most prone to being a stereotype. You could have easily made him an upstanding citizen, a regular guy with a steady job and a stable life, and then explored how the guilt of causing the crash devastated him. But if Jasper was that kind of guy, he would have never approached Isabel’s husband or mother asking for information about who received Isabel’s heart — meaning that you wouldn’t have a story. To what degree is the completely socially inappropriate Jasper based on real people, and how much is he just a necessary feature of the plot?

* I’ve spoken with one transplant patient who said he knows stories — including his own — that would make the craziness described in “Irreplaceable” seem tame. Are you planning to continue writing about the group of people whose lives have been so disturbed and changed? Are you planning to branch out into, say, stories about people who have had face transplants? Or is this your definitive transplant tale?

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