February 17, 2018

LJ Talks to Betsey Osborne

By Rebecca Miller

Betsey OsborneIn Betsey Osborne’s debut novel, The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe (LJ 4/1/06), an elderly man finds his bike stolen, gets lost on his way to his office, meets a young woman named Alex, and finds out that his wife has been injured. What follows is an absorbing, nimbly portrayed tale of his self-investigation. LJ‘s Rebecca Miller talked to Osborne about her inspiration for this refreshing new work.

What drove you to create the character of Uncas?

I’d been trying to write a novel about the area where I grew up and about my family, but I’d never been able to do it. Then I wrote a first novel called The Think House and created the Metcalfe family. I don’t think that novel ever really worked, but it gave me this family – I’ve already written another novel with Uncas’s grandchild as narrator. For whatever reason, it really worked for me to narrate from a male viewpoint, so I took the father of the first novel’s main character and just went with it. My father used to have his bicycle stolen with some frequency. Posted on our refrigerator was a local political cartoon saying that the reason the thieves didn’t get away with it was that the seat was too high. I had that image in my head, and it just played out. Uncas is definitely inspired by my father, but it’s not he.

Uncas is a botanist, a student of the natural world, yet is utterly unaware of his impact on others. Are you trying to find a way out of that isolation for Uncas?

At the end, when Uncas finally says ‘This is of my own making. I did this,’ it’s the first time he really acknowledges that it’s he and not someone else doing something to him. Before, he always wanted to blame other people who he thinks are soft and confessional. I don’t know how that connects with the natural world, but his work has been a retreat – basically, plants don’t talk back.

Uncas has several truly terrifying scenes with a young man named Carl, yet your book is placed in a small, picturesque town in upstate New York. Why place this type of terror there?

Carl is created out of whole cloth; my younger brother says that he stands for everyone’s frustration with Uncas, which may be why he can unleash it and menace Uncas physically. Carl’s allowed to voice this frustration because he’s an outsider with nothing to lose. Carl tries to break through Uncas’s nostalgic idea of what a small town has provided him but isn’t at first successful; another outsider, Alex, has greater success, and I don’t think that Uncas could have come to the realizations that he did without Alex’s sympathy. Alex and Carl represent the teeter totter of the extremes of character that act on Uncas.

What about Uncas’s daughter, Fauna?

I was able to put in her mouth things that maybe I might like to say. I guess writers do that – create someone who can say whatever he or she damn well pleases. Fauna has made her choices and she is not going to live the way that her father expects her to.

Most of the characters in Uncas struggle with dual identities. For instance, Uncas sees himself as emotional yet seems cold and stoic and to people around him.

Once, someone got furious about a character in a short story I presented at college, and it always stuck with me. People have responded to both Uncas and Fauna very strongly. If they think Uncas is a good guy, they’re really annoyed by Fauna; if they are annoyed by Uncas’s silence, they think ‘Right on, Fauna; press his buttons.’ I think that if you are actually baring a character’s soul both elements exist. In the way we perceive ourselves and the way we’re perceived by others there can often be a great divide.

What were the particular challenges of thinking as Uncas?

If there is something typically masculine and typically feminine, it was more of matter of tamping down what might be perceivedas feminine rather than ramping up what is masculine. I grew up in family with four boys, and though in a way Mother was the stronger, more affectionate person, the house was run for my father. I’ve always felt a sympathy with men; I was something of a tomboy, and even now I have more close male friends than a lot of women that I know. The challenge was to make the male characters believable without being stereotypical. In fact, the age challenge was probably a little bit harder than the male point of view.