Rosecrans Baldwin on ‘You Lost Me There’
Rosecrans Baldwin’s debut You Lost Me There might be the first-ever novel to depict the romance between a neuroscientist and a Hollywood screenwriter who is friends with Bruce Willis. The book, one of the summer’s most-buzzed about debuts, follows the 30-plus-year marriage between Victor, an Alzheimer’s researcher, and Sarah, a Hollywood screenwriter whose fictional romantic comedy The Hook-Up becomes such a box-office behemoth that its success starts to overshadow that of her husband, and indeed their marriage itself.
But, as the novel opens, Sarah is killed in a car accident, and Victor is left with his memories of their time together—memories that, as he discovers while reading note cards his wife wrote that deconstruct key moments between the two, are distorted and disconnected from hers. When the novel switches to Sarah’s voice during these passages, You Lost Me There deepens from an affecting examination of marriage to a pointed statement on the fallibility of memory. Baldwin’s book would easily make a comfortable companion with two other recent ruminations on romance, both told from the male perspective: Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.
Baldwin, 33, spoke with BlackBook recently (just before a backyard southern barbeque at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that is) about his inspiration for You Lost Me There, the self-described “hack work” he did to pay the bills while writing it, and why he felt compelled to add Bruce Willis, of all people, into his marital mosaic. What did you know about Alzheimer’s before You Lost Me There?
I knew about Alzheimer’s from personal experience. My grandmother on my dad’s side died from it. When my grandmother was dying from it, it was a hard thing to watch her go through. A person in the throes of Alzheimer’s is going to be wheeling backwards through human development. You lose cognitive and physical functions that you gained when you were five. To see that happen to a person is awful. To then see my grandfather go through it, as her husband and caretaker…it’s just an awful reduction of a person.
There are many voices in this novel, and at one point you even try your hand at poetry. What was the transition like from journalist to fiction writer?
I would definitely say I’ve never been a journalist. I was an English major and concentrated on poetry in college. I left college hoping to become the Next Great American Poet. That lasted about a week. Maybe two weeks. I moved to New York and started writing a novel. When I finished it, it wasn’t really a novel—it was more of a collection of words on pages. But it was me taking baby steps in how to write fiction. I started another novel after that. And I would do whatever it took financially to do the three hours I blocked away every morning to write. For income, I would write whatever I could get. I wrote a column for a golf magazine on expensive watches for a while. I don’t wear a watch or own a watch. I’ve played golf once. I’ve just done hack work to pay the bills.
The book reminded me in theme of the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novels all seem to deal with memories and perception and how they get distorted over the years. People tend to think memory is definitive, but the characters in You Lost Me There come to find that isn’t true.
Exactly. Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers. Ishiguro is fascinating in that he seems to dig at the same problem in all of his books. Early Ishiguro, like An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day, have these characters that suspend themselves above their memories only to find the past eventually catches up with them and the supports they’ve established start to crumble. That’s a topic I find interesting. Personally, I find memory to be a pretty troubling thing. I constantly am grasping for names, dates, and figures. And I don’t know that I have an abnormal memory. I can’t claim to generalize, but I think it is a common problem for people.
Sarah is a screenwriter. What about that profession appealed to you? Have you ever written a screenplay before?
I’ve never written a screenplay before. I used to think it was lame when writers wrote about writers. And now, having written a book about a writer, I can see the sense in it. I think that as a film dork, and someone who is a lot more familiar with what it’s like to wake up everyday and try to write a piece of fiction than to go out a build decks or practice brain surgery, it made sense. But I can’t tell you if there was ever a moment when it crystallized that Sarah must and can only be a screenwriter.
You said you were something of a movie buff, so what movies inspired The Hook-Up in your mind?
There’s a scene when Sarah and Victor are dining with his boss, and the boss accuses Sarah of ripping of Sunset Boulevard. I remember having that film in mind when I was writing—that and Harold and Maude.
The scene you mentioned basically has Victor’s boss tell Sarah point-blank and unapologetically he did not enjoy her movie, and she just shrugs it off. Do you think if someone came up to you and told you they didn’t enjoy your book, would you be able to handle it as gracefully?
[Laughs] I would say I am learning to take it better. There is no shortage of opinions out there. I’ve learned very quickly this book is out in the universe and some people will love it and some will hate it. The balance is going to be unknown to me. But I hopefully would be very interested and gracious to that person. And when they walked away, I would flip them the bird.
I saw on your Twitter that you highlighted the fact that someone called You Lost Me There a book “for romantic intellectuals.” What do you think of that phrase?
[Laughs] I hope this book finds romantic intellectuals out there, and the rationally minded simpletons too. I’m just happy for the book to be read and be noticed. Anything they want to say about it is fine by me.
Have you sent a copy to Bruce Willis yet?
[Laughs] No, but I hope someone does!
I don’t know. It just came up. I like Bruce Willis, but I don’t have a fascination with him or anything. But once he started showing up, it was like I couldn’t keep him out of the book. He made too much sense. He had to be there.
I’m working on two books; one is another novel, which will probably take me 30 years to finish. The other is non-fiction, which is a travelogue about contemporary Paris and what it’s like to live and work there, called Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.
[Portrait of Rosecrans Baldwin via Susie Post Rust]