Set in the fictional college town of Darwin, Perfect Reader is the debut novel from Maggie Pouncey. When Flora Dempsey discovers a manuscript written by her late father, she must reckon with what the manuscript reveals about his life and what it means to her future. In our interview with Maggie, she tells us how much of her own background went in to creating Darwin and defines the “perfect reader.”
Q: Describe the idea of the “perfect reader.” Why did you choose this as the novel’s title?
A: This is a notion you sometimes hear, from both writers and scholars—I’ve heard Martin Amis described as Saul Bellow’s perfect reader, for instance. It’s the notion that there is someone in the world who can and will read a book exactly as the author hoped it would be read. It’s a recognition fantasy, the fantasy of being truly seen and known, and there’s something fascinating, and moving, and troubling about these fantasies of recognition we all travel around with, as a kind of antidote to aloneness. So for me, it was a way into the question of how well we can know another person. In Flora’s case, she becomes her father’s literary executor, where the job description as she sees it is to be, essentially, the perfect reader, and so the question becomes how well can—and really, should—a child know a parent.
Q: You grew up on a few different college campuses, the daughter of a professor and later a college president. How did the environment surrounding your childhood affect your writing of this fictional town of Darwin and of the world of academia?
A: I started writing stories set in the town of Darwin in high school, maybe fifteen years ago now. Darwin is at once everywhere and nowhere I’ve lived. The college campus is a place I know intimately, in my bones. I’m certainly not an academic, but I grew up watching and listening to academics, and I was always struck by their particular breed of humor, and disappointment. My upbringing caused me to draw a possibly false correlation between intelligence and depression; I wanted to understand why these impossibly smart people who seemed to have an ideal professional life, one that allowed for great leisure and great probing conversation and thought, seemed so dissatisfied. Anyway, I’ve been trying to sort it out ever since. It’s an obsession I’m hoping writing this novel has cured me of. Enough Darwin! as Flora herself might say.