The Virgins: An Interview with Pamela Erens

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Pamela Erens’ second novel, The Virgins (Tin House Books, 2013), the tale of sexually abstinent boarding school teenagers Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung,  was included in several notable and best books lists of 2013, including both the New Yorker and the New Republic.  Erens will read along with Baltimore authors John Rowell and Jennifer Lee at the Ivy Bookstore’s Starts Here! reading series at Artifact Coffee on Monday, March 31st at 7:00 pm.  Starts Here! cohost Sandy Fink talked with Erens about The Virgins as well as her critically acclaimed first book, The Understory, and her first visit to Baltimore:

Sandy Fink:  Hi Pamela.  We’re really looking forward to hosting you at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore on March 31st.  Have you ever been to Baltimore?

Pamela Erens: Not really. I passed through on the way back from Charleston a few years ago.  I’m looking forward to coming back and meeting some readers and writers there. 

SF:  How can we make your reading event memorable for you?

PE:  I love it when more people show up.  The more people the better! And the Q&A is always my favorite part.

SF:  Well, I have to tell you, I was one-third through The Virgins and loved it so much that I ordered The Understory.  I was struck by how different the books are from each other; they are each brilliant and deal with some common themes, but are very different in style. The Understory, published in 2007, is about a single man in his forties who lives a solitary, obsessive life, and The Virgins, published last year, in 2013, is about several students at a boarding school.  Can you talk a little bit about how you see the books as similar and different?

PE:  I see them as similar in both dealing with issues of connection; how people do or don’t connect with each other.  Also, they are both short.  And they both display a great interest in what goes on in people’s heads.

SF:  What was your Inspiration for the narrator, the peculiar loner Jack Gorse, in The Understory?

PE:  He just came to me; the image of man walking through New York City at night.  Being an outsider, looking at all of the lit windows.

SF:  The whole time I was reading The Understory, I had the sense of being on a precipice, like the character was making, and had made, choices that would either make him satisfied or miserable.  Does that ring true to you?

PE:  It does, although that was not what I was trying to convey when writing.  But the book is, definitely, to me, about the fuzzy boundary between what’s normal and abnormal.

SF:  The main characters in The Virgins are students at a boarding school.  I know from John Irving’s review in the New York Times that you (and he) went to Exeter.  How did that experience impact your life and writing (beyond choosing that setting)?

PE:  Going to boarding school had a dramatic impact on my life. People see it as homogeneous and narrow.  But I had been at a small private school in Chicago, which was pretty homogeneous.  At boarding school, I was with kids from all over the country, including many from communities much less affluent than mine.  It was, relatively for me, diverse.  Intellectually, I realized that I had to up my game.  It made me push myself and was a great experience.  I really wanted to write about boarding school because I find it to be such a unique community.  There are not that many books about the girls’ experience in the 1970s because it was a transition time for boarding schools when they were moving toward being coed.

SF:  Do you have children, and would you send them to boarding school?

PE:  I am married, and have two kids, 17 and 15.  They aren’t interested in boarding school, but I would be open to it.

SF:  Two of The Virgins‘ main characters are Jewish and Korean, and they are seen by the other students as outsiders.  What is your ethic background and did that impact your experience at Exeter?

PE:  I am white and Jewish.  Actually, there were plenty of Jewish kids at Exeter.  But the school, like that in the book, did have a Wasp-y vibe.

SF:  I noticed that, in The Virgins, the three main families did not have happy relationships based in large part on the parents’ actions.  Now that you are a parent, how was that to write about this group of parents; did it in some reflect your reality?

PE:  Not really. The characters’ families revealed themselves as unhappy to me apart from my own experience, and, to paraphrase Tolstoy, it is not as interesting to write about happy families.

SF:  The students in the book seemed to have issues with love; do you think it came from their families?

PE:  I don’t see it that way.  I think that adolescents feel alone whether they are or not.  I think that this is exacerbated when they go to live hundreds of miles from their parents.  Teenagers, even with supportive parents, are struggling with many pressures. Adolescents figure it out on their own; we all have to do it alone.

SF:  I loved your description of Bruce Bennett-Jones [one of the main characters in The Virgins] as a grown man, reflecting on his failed relationships with women.  He says, “Before they leave, these women take the time, a great deal of time, to tell me exactly what is wrong with me, above all what they perceive as my failure to feel.”  Do you see this type of character as an isolated individual or more representative of a “type,” and do you see this book as a bit of a “cautionary tale?”

PE:  I don’t see Bennett-Jones as a type.  For me, characters have to be vivid in their individuality.  So, I see him as himself.

SF:  What inspired Bennett-Jones for you?

 PE:  In creating Bennett-Jones, I wanted a character who was an outsider to the couple.  And he had to be cynical, hard.

SF:  In a prior interview of yours, I noticed that you didn’t say anything about what you were currently working on; can you tell me now?

PE:  I would love to but I find it really hard to talk about things when in process.

SF:  Well, do you think your next book will have more happy characters in it?

PE:  (Laughs)  I really can’t talk about it.

SF:  What kinds of questions do you like to answer when you’re a reading with a Q&A?

PE:  Since it will be an audience with other writers, I really enjoy talking about the writing life and process.  There is, for me, a certain loneliness about being a writer. I write every day, aiming for three uninterrupted hours.  I’m also writing articles.  And I read a lot.  The other “free” time isn’t very social; grocery shopping.  Exercise.  I have a social life, but I spend a lot of time in my own head.  There is so much uncertainty and rejection in a writer’s life. It’s been a wonderful year, but the process doesn’t change.  And I also hope the discussion includes the topic of adolescence.  I find it to be a fascinating age and trying to convey the truth of it was a large part of why I wrote The Virgins.  It seems that we forget really fast what it was like.  For those of us with children, I think our memories get colored by anxieties related to our own children and their needs.

SF:  Thank you so much for talking with me.  The books are both great, although so different.  Although The Understory didn’t deal with adolescence, I think every adolescent should read it as they begin to make those choices that will determine so much of their future.  I look forward to meeting you on the 31st of March.  I’m sure I’ll have some more questions for the Q&A!

Don’t forget: On Monday, March 31, 2014, the Ivy Bookstore’s Starts Here! reading series continues with Pamela Erens, John Rowell, and Jennifer Lee at Artifact Coffee at 7 pm. For more information, visit our website

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