A Conversation with Paula Champa
about The Afterlife of Emerson Tang
Q. What made you write a novel about people searching for a vintage car engine?
A. I was interested in writing about grief, and in particular a debilitating type known as “complicated grief,” where mourning is so severe that people can’t move forward in their lives. I was looking for a concrete way to frame a condition that millions of people experience abstractly.
At the time I was assigned some reporting on car design, and I was struck by the idea of a car’s engine being separated from its chassis, which happens a lot with vintage cars. It echoed the division between body and spirit that some believe occurs at the time of death. To me, it also suggested the emptiness of grief, when your own animating force or engine feels missing — or is replaced by another’s through your intense longing for that person. I thought that by constructing the plot around a missing engine I could serve all of the characters’ stories.
Q. Were there any personal experiences or influences that informed the book?
A. Like most people, I’ve had some experience with grief, so I was able to draw on that. The detail about the narrator not having fingerprints was inspired by an incident with a scanner when I was applying for a foreign visa, and I thought that a character with no fingerprints would resonate with the idea of not having a firm human identity.
As far as cars go, I tend to use public transport, and I knew very little about cars when I started to draft the book. At that time, around the year 2000, a lot was changing. Carmakers were proposing new concepts for alternative vehicles and environmental issues were getting more attention. As I was writing about this, I was fascinated by the advances and the complexity of the challenges. I could see how much certain cars and eras mean to people, and I wanted to reflect that passion. I also wondered if there wasn't something about nostalgia that relates to mourning, in that both look backward — when, ironically, as discussed in the novel, the Futurists' whole obsession with cars came from a desire to move forward, out of the 19th century.
It's like we've come full circle with cars, where something that was once new needs to be made new again, and there are many groups of forward-looking people, represented in the book by the grandson, Miguel, who are trying to do that. To an optimist, it could be the start of a new golden age. I wanted to portray this crossroads.
Q. Is the artist Hélène Moreau based on a real person?
A. No, but I wanted one of the characters to be from a generation that knew the thrill of speed when it was new. She would have been too young to have been a Futurist, so I imagined her as an heir of the Dadaists in being absurd and provocative — slashing canvases with steel blades attached to racing cars.
Her female predecessors would have been artists like Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), who painted on cars with a color scheme she devised, and the Dadaist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943). In practice she might be closer to Yves Klein (1928-1962), who recorded human physical energy with paint, using bodies as brushes, and created canvases that bore the impression of rain, as well as “fire paintings” made with a blow torch.
It's mentioned in the novel that the artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) famously slashed canvases, though he worked in a controlled way and was focused on very different artistic concerns than the character Hélène Moreau.
Q. Did you consider how other authors have treated the automobile in their books?
A. I recognized that when cars have featured in literature it’s typically been in the context of a “crash” or an accident. Cultural critics have written about this as a phenomenon that goes back to the early twentieth century, when there was not only excitement but also a lot of anxiety about this new and potentially dangerous aspect of modern life.
There are cautionary or symbolic crashes in The Wind in the Willows, The Great Gatsby, and many other novels up to the present day. More contemporary authors have portrayed parts of auto history — corruption in the 1970s U.S. auto industry in Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, Jeffrey Eugenides’s account of Detroit’s early auto history in one chapter of Middlesex. Some have shown the car as an agent of destruction, like the car that goes on a killing spree in Stephen King’s Christine, or in J.G. Ballard’s transgressive novel, Crash.
It was Ballard who observed that the car is often used as a negative metaphor for modern life. Following the Modernist directive to “make it new,” I wanted to consider the car from the perspective of the other end of the century it dominated, and to portray this turning point through the personal stories of four individuals who are struggling to move forward, just as society is.
Q. Why did you decide to make the narrator an archivist?
A. I liked the idea of taking an everyday trait that a lot of people share — collecting souvenirs or keepsakes — and extending it to a noble professional sphere. Archivists and librarians are the custodians of most everything that humans have created and valued. The narrator, Beth, is the keeper of her employer Emerson Tang’s physical body as much as she’s the keeper of his records and collections, and she becomes the keeper of his story, too. I think a lot of people perform a similar role for their loved ones, acting almost as a personal archivist without realizing it.
It also made sense for the narrator to be involved in conservation, because the central questions of the book are those of archiving: What should be saved from the past? What will be needed in the future? They're questions that apply to individual lives as much as to organizations and societies. I was thinking about conservation and stewardship as a form of progress: the positive and active preservation of something, including the natural world, as opposed to the negative preservation of outworn memories or ideas.
The question of saving — or resuscitation — also comes up for every character at some point, whether it's reviving a life, or the past, or a company — and those situations ultimately shape each of the various "afterlives" that Emerson can be seen to have by the end of the book.
The engine is another unconventional form of an archive, because it symbolically stores the characters' memories as well as some of the social and political history of the past century.