Five questions for English alumna and author Yvonne Georgina Puig
Yvonne Georgina Puig, originally from Houston, received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2004. Her debut novel, A Wife of Noble Character, was published in hardcover by Henry Holt & Co in 2016, and in paperback with St. Martin’s Griffin earlier this summer.
She’s obsessed with Edith Wharton, whose work The House of Mirth provided inspiration for A Wife of Noble Character. She stresses that she’s not a Wharton expert, like others she met at Wharton’s home in Lenox, Mass., while working on her new novel. Recently, she discussed A Wife of Noble Character with the College of Arts and Sciences from her home in Santa Monica, Calif., where she lives with her husband.
You’ve been busy since graduating from CU Boulder. What have you been up to?
After graduation, I moved to Los Angeles and interned with Variety Magazine. It was a fun job to have right after college, and to move to L.A. from Boulder, because it’s so different. It was very unfamiliar. I was as an editorial assistant, so, I would just help with the general editorial part of making the magazine. But they had me covering events after work. So once or twice a week, at night, they’d send me to cover these parties for the events page. I also wrote some longer pieces that have been archived online.
But the editors would say, “Go here and cover this party for the opening of this thing, or that thing.” So that was really fun because I got to learn about the city and how to get around, and it forced me out of my comfort zone to go up to people like Steve Martin and say, “Hi, I’m Yvonne. I’m from Variety. Can I ask you about your movie?” which was terrifying and something I’d never done before. I got to meet some pretty amazing people. Francis Ford Coppola was one. I got to interview Barbara Walters for a longer piece, which was awesome. There were so many… Another neat interview was Janusz Kamiński, the cinematographer on a number of Spielberg’s films.
It’s funny that I’m remembering all this now. The actress who was in all the Bergman films, Liv Ullman… The funny thing about this at the time is that I didn’t even know how amazing it was to talk to these people, because I was 22, and didn’t fully appreciate it. It’s only now that I’m like, “Oh my gosh! I got to talk to Liv Ullman.” But at the time, I didn’t get it. But you know, that’s life. It was a really neat thing that I got to do at that time in my life.
Then I went to USC for grad school for writing, and I stayed on there, teaching composition for about seven years. I loved it. And along the way I did a lot of freelance writing. I recently had the opportunity to write on a documentary film, Given, about a family of surfers traveling the world. I loved doing that because the film is told from a child's perspective, my favorite perspective to re-live and imagine.
And now we have A Wife of Noble Character, which we know was inspired by Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. As a writer, what does Wharton mean to you?
I love that she could have lived an easy life but chose not to. She was born wealthy and had independent means her whole life. She did everything the hard way, and she learned so much, and was brave when she could have taken things easy. She did so many other things aside from writing some of the greatest novels ever. She joined the front during World War II and set up tuberculosis hospitals for soldiers and orphanages for children fleeing Belgium. She was a really brave person. She could have been a complete lady of leisure, but she had a zest for life and insatiable curiosity. I love that about her.
I had the opportunity to work as a writer-in-residence at her home, The Mount in Lenox, Mass. She actually built it and designed it from the ground up. She was also a brilliant architect and landscape designer, too. It’s a very quirky house. She could have made herself a grand mansion with a huge entrance, and from the outside it looks like a grand mansion, but when you go inside, the way she designed it is very private and eccentric and creative. I didn’t sleep in the house, but I and two other novelists stayed right around the corner from it for two weeks and wrote in the house every day, which was just one of the best experiences of my life, to write in the room where Edith Wharton wrote. She famously wrote in bed, with pages spilling to the floor.
Would you call A Wife of Noble Character an adaptation or an homage to The House of Mirth? What about that work, in particular, called to you?
I would say A Wife of Noble Character is a reimagining of The House of Mirth, because they both differ in significant ways. I first read The House of Mirth in 2008. I just loved the story so much. I really wanted to reimagine it in Houston. I can’t explain it. It was sort of cosmic. I just had to do it. It's one of my favorite novels. As a love story, it breaks my heart. It’s set in turn of the century New York, and obviously the strictures on women at the time were intense then and very different today, but the culture Wharton describes reminded me of where I grew up in Texas. I felt some striking similarities in terms of expectations for marriage. So that resonated with me, because in The House of Mirth, Lily Bart feels she needs a husband in order to be complete. It’s complicated. She’s in search of a rich husband and believes she can’t survive without one, and she can’t, actually. It’s a tragic love story.
So, The House of Mirth was my starting point. I wanted to place my story in Houston and imagine these social pressures, which are different but still somewhat similar, and envision how they might play out today. The protagonist in my story, Vivienne, has a similar conflict to Lily’s. She’s from a wealthy family, but they've lost a lot of their money. They’re not quite wealthy anymore. She grew up believing she would just marry rich, but she isn’t in love with a rich man. She has to reconcile these parts of herself, who she thought she was and what she needed, with who she actually is without destroying herself along the way, which is what happens to Lily Bart.
I just work where I can, as often as I can. I’m definitely a creative hermit."
She’s kind of realizing that she can’t love the man she falls in love with unless she changes, which is why I call A Wife of Noble Character a love story about losing your life in order to gain it. It’s about a woman who learns, at times against her will, to let go of her identity and shed all those things she thinks she needs in order to be happy. It’s as if she can’t have this man she loves unless she’s willing to not need him. But that’s what scares her the most. It’s a riches-to-rags story set in modern-day Houston.
Would you mind speaking a bit about your process? Did you discuss your work with anyone while writing it? Was finding a publisher quick and easy, or was it so painstaking at times, you didn’t know if you’d ever see it in print?
The book took about four years to write, but I wasn't working every day during that time. We live in a city apartment here in Santa Monica. I've learned I can’t be precious about it. I have a little nook that I work in. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop. Sometimes I write at the beach. When I was teaching, I’d go to the library. I just work where I can, as often as I can. I’m definitely a creative hermit. I don't show anyone anything until it's ready. I get too distracted by opinions. I see a work-in-progress as a sort of fragile baby—it needs protection in order to grow and become what it is.
Finding a publisher happened quickly, but it was also painstaking. Reminds me of the Hemingway line, "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."
Many people reading this will be writers, either teachers who write or students just starting out. Do you have any advice to give them?
This is always a tough question to answer, because I'm still figuring it out myself. Publication doesn't necessarily change this reality, although it was a major relief. Writing for so many years without knowing whether your book will ever see the light of day is hard. I'd say don't give up, really don't, and be willing to make sacrifices if necessary. But also, don't wrap your entire identity in publication as an end.
Anne Lamott said it best, “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
Speaking of teachers, though, I’d suggest recognizing those who support you and your work and adopting them as mentors, if they’re up for it. The great Sidney Goldfarb was my thesis advisor, and he is still a dear friend. He introduced me to so many authors who changed my life. Lee Krauth was on my thesis committee and one of my favorite professors. Both Sidney and Lee nurtured my confidence as a writer and believed in me when I wasn't sure of myself. I'll always be grateful for their wisdom and generosity.