Monday through Friday, Jill Bialosky is an executive at a Manhattan publishing firm, shepherding the work of many prominent writers to press under the venerable imprint of W.W. Norton. But when the workweek ends, Bialosky morphs from businesswoman to creative artist. The magic happens in her own version of Clark Kent's phone booth — a car on the Long Island Expressway, headed toward the house she owns with her husband on the East End.
The author of five books of poetry, two memoirs and four novels, notably her latest, "The Deceptions" (Counterpoint, $26), Bialosky has been using her Bridgehampton home as a writing studio for more than two decades.
"During that last stretch of driving from New York City, when we're finally on 27, the whole sky expands and the workweek washes away. As a writer, I feel that Long Island is the 'room of my own' Virginia Woolf wrote about, a place where the mind expands and the imagination can wander," Bialosky said in a recent Zoom interview.
In 2018, the soundtrack for Bialosky's transformative commute was Emily Wilson's translation of "The Odyssey," recorded in audiobook form by Claire Danes. "I found myself thinking about the way the gods pluck out whoever they want and create havoc in their lives," she recalls.
Both the gods and the havoc found their way into "The Deceptions," which centers on an unnamed poet who teaches at a boy's prep school in Manhattan and has just sent her son off to college. As the novel opens, she confesses, "Something terrible has happened and I don't know what to do."
The terrible thing takes a while to unfold. First we learn that the poet has a new book, a sonnet sequence called "The Rape of the Swan," based on the Greek myth of Zeus' violation of Leda. She's heard that it will be reviewed in The New York Times, but fears she'll be assigned the reviewer who "eats women poets for breakfast." To avoid jinxing the process, she delays telling her husband.
Though it may sound like this character is autobiographical, Bialosky calls her "my most fictional creation so far."
"If I were her I'd have be on a very high dose of medication," she jokes. "She's extremely high-strung and she's dealing with intense conflicting emotions of rage, anger, guilt, love and desire, all sort of rolled into one relationship."
The relationship in question is a friendship with another writer, also nameless. The Visiting Poet, as she calls him, had a one-year residency at the academy where the narrator teaches. "He, too, is a larger-than-life character," Bialosky explains, "who embodies the privileges of the patriarchy."
As Bialosky was developing the relationship between these characters and creating the "terrible thing" that happens between them — "a five year process with many twists and turns," she notes — she had the uncanny experience of seeing some of her plotlines reflected in the daily news. There were the #metoo stories involving male authors and women who initially admired them and sought their attention. And there was a growing obsession with adaptation and appropriation, with the complicated ethical situation that arises when one artist is inspired by or incorporates the work of another.
"The Deceptions" deals with this theme on several levels, some of which can't be discussed without spoilers. But it's no spoiler to explain that this thought-provoking novel, sure to be a book club favorite, is built on a scaffolding of Classical art, with images of Hercules, Athena and Aphrodite from the Metropolitan Museum of Art reproduced in the text as the narrator revisits their stories and considers their implications for her own. "For my character, the museum functions as a kind of church, a place she goes for respite and inspiration," explains the author.
By including the images and exploring their resonance in the narrator's psyche, "The Deceptions" can be seen as a fictional analog to Bialosky's memoir, "Poetry Will Save Your Life," in which she explains the role of dozens of famous poems in her personal history, including some of her darkest hours. For example, before she had her son, who is now 27, she lost two babies shortly after they were born.
"The Deceptions" is dedicated to one of those babies, Isabel Elizabeth, who was born and died on Aug. 1, 1990. "She's always been a presence in my life, and I think about where she would be at every different stage and what would she might have to endure," Bialosky explains. "I imagined this novel as a kind of cautionary tale for young women, showing what happens when you allow the fear of ambition to limit your agency and your potential."