a conversation with Yona Zeldis McDonough      


How did this book come to be?

I don't feel that I ever decide to write a book; I feel that a book comes to inhabit me. The characters start talking to me. They talk very urgently, and they say, "I want to tell you something very important and it's your job to get it right." When it's going really well I don't feel like I'm even writing it; I feel like I'm transcribing it from some other source. I know that source is me—I'm not delusional. Oscar was the first character who came to me; I actually thought this was a short story when I began it, and I wrote what is now pretty much the first chapter of the novel. I gave it to a friend who is also a novelist and said, "I'm totally stuck. Now what?" She said, "I think you have a novel here." People say that a lot; I don't think novels and short stories are that much alike. I think they're quite different. She asked me, "What if you had Ruth's point of view? Or Ginny's?" And that's how the book began.

What is your history with the ballet?

I was an aspiring dancer for many years in my youth. I applied to, and much to my shock I was accepted to, the School of American Ballet when I was twelve. I don't think I would have lasted there for very long; it was fiercely competitive, and I was neither talented enough nor driven enough. I was driven enough to find another dance studio that no longer exists, on West 56th Street, where I went every day, six days a week and sometimes two classes a day, from the time I was twelve until the time I was seventeen. For those years I was deeply immersed in it, so a lot of this comes from that part of my life. When you leave ballet, you leave it behind for good. I didn't understand that when I was 17. There's no going back.

Is that true of ballet or of every childhood passion?

Ballet, or anything physical like that. There's a moment that you have to seize. Once it's gone, you don't come back when you're twenty-five or thirty. It's a very unforgiving discipline.

Did writing this book help you to put closure on that part of your life?

Absolutely. I needed to write about it and I was grateful that I got to write about it. Most of the time, when we leave something behind it is gone. As a writer, one gets to do something else with the past.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

I like them all. I like Ginny, even though I know everyone thinks she's awful. I had to tone her down a bit; she went through some revising. But I really do like them all.

What purpose do William and Ben [Gabriel's brothers] serve?

I wanted Ruth to be a woman with three sons. I have a son and a daughter. I had my son first. I knew I wanted a daughter, too. I thought about that a lot as I was thinking about having children and watching other people. Nowadays not a lot of people have five or six children. It was not that common when I was growing up and it's certainly far less common now. Among my acquaintances I have no friends with a houseful of children. Everyone has one or two, I know a couple of people with three, but that's already unusual. William and Ben were part of who Ruth is; she's someone who wanted girls and got boys. Boys are strange [laughs]. I love my son as deeply and fiercely as I've loved anyone, but it's different than loving a daughter. There's a greater divide. A little girl will say, "Mommy, I love your earrings, I love your shoes, I love you!" A boy talks to you about very different things. That's a long-winded way to answer your question.

Long-winded is good. The theme of motherhood has so many different manifestations in this book, some a little twisted, and some more conventional. What can you say about that?

I'd hoped that would emerge as one of the book's major themes. I think that for women who don't have children, this is a different story entirely. I'm not speaking to them or for them. To have had children is to have your life change utterly and completely. There is no going back. You can not be the person you were before. You just can't. What interested me as the book went along was in part the bonds of marriage, what would test them, and what would or wouldn't be tolerated. The thing that drives Ruth is not what has been done to her, but what she feels has been done to her son and his life, and to her grandchild.

Would Ruth have responded this way if she'd had daughters, even one daughter in addition to Gabriel?

It's hard to say; she would have had a different relationship with that person, and maybe the closeness that she sought would have been more possible than what she was offered. I'd originally thought that the novel would end differently, but then Ruth told me otherwise.

How concrete are your mental images of these characters' appearances?


Ginny's the one who baffles me. Is it crucial, as a writer, to be able to picture your characters?

I think so. I picture them all the time and I hope that other people do as well. What's most important to me about Ginny is that she's not beautiful in the way that Penelope is beautiful, or in a conventional way. She's beautiful in the way dancers are, which is that they make themselves beautiful. There's a kind of beauty that's a gift, determined by gene pool. It astonishes you and dazzles you. People from time immemorial have been in awe of beautiful people, men and women. Dancers make themselves into supremely beautiful creatures with hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. But it's not a beauty that's given, it's a beauty that's made.

So girls don't go into ballet because they've always been told they're beautiful, the way one might go into acting or modeling.

Right. You can see girls that look very plain in class or on the street who are breathtakingly beautiful when they dance.

Penelope is one of the most intriguing characters in a novel full of intriguing characters. The color white becomes an obsession for her; at one point she explains that white is actually every color, rather than the absence of color. It's also the purest of colors, and she's such an impure person. Why white?

I've done some reading about obsessive-compulsive disorder and I've had personal experience with a family member. I didn't think of this at the time, but I did when I was revising. People now speculate that Emily Dickinson had a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She also chose to wear only white. I don't think it's such an unusual choice, but the color matters less than the fact that it's only one color, that there's this rigidity, and this inability to tolerate anything outside of it. The obsessive-compulsive person is defending against a sea of feelings so painful and so chaotic that the only way they can impose order is by erecting these rituals and behaviors that make them feel safe. The rituals also function to help the person with OCD avoid thinking about things that are painful to them, because they're very preoccupied. A common manifestation of OCD is the need to wash one's hands. If you need to wash your hands one hundred times a day and think about washing your hands— the soap, the drying—imagine all the time you are not thinking about something else. It occupies a lot of your mental life, how you're going to wash your hands, when you're going to, is the hand washing going to be satisfactory, is it going to live up to all of the things that you've prescribed for yourself. I'm not sure it was "white" as much as just the idea that she couldn't tolerate anything else.

Ginny and Penelope are both fatherless, from very different circumstances. What does that mean to you?

There's a kind of damage to growing up without a father. Even though things are changing, the configuration is still mother, father, child. Most people expect that, or some version of it. Ginny never had a father, so there wasn't something she lost. Penelope had a father whom she loved and lost. While I don't think that's what made her who she was—plenty of people have lost a parent and grown up without these types of problems—some people don't survive that, and she didn't.

Interestingly both women chose the same man as the object of their affections, a man who does have an intact family.

Yes. He's from a stable unit, although even that is not as stable as it seems. After thirty years, and never having been unfaithful, Oscar cheats. My mother, when she read this, was upset by that, "How could he do that after thirty years? How could he possibly?" The reality is that people do.

You were the editor and a contributor to The Barbie Chronicles. Ginny collects Barbie dolls. What does Barbie represent to you?

I had to put Barbie in somewhere. I love her and always have. I didn't think too much about her after I'd grown up, but she came back into my life when my son started to go to birthday parties. I wanted to buy Barbie dolls for these little girls, and all the moms in Park Slope said, "No Barbies!" Either they didn't allow them or they hated them and didn't want any more. What's happened to Barbie? I had such a good time with her all those years ago. She's gotten a bad rap, and I actually think Barbie is a very creative, wonderful, and yes, feminist toy. You give it to your little girl and she has to enact the whole thing. She has to animate Barbie—make her talk and think and act and do anything she wants her to do—she has to invent the whole story. I think that I became a novelist because I played with Barbie. I played with her in the most passionate of ways when I was a child. My friends and I would invent stories—like soap operas—and they would go on for weeks. We'd get together and pick up where we left off the day before, and we'd act out these whole dramas with the dolls. It was very compelling for us—we couldn't wait to get back to it. I just knew that Ginny was someone who would probably have collected Barbies, would like the perfection of them.

I can understand the feminist outrage that Barbie promotes poor body images in young girls. But she's a doll. Her proportions are not real, nor are they meant to be. How do you feel about this?

I think the fact that she's unreal is sort of the point. She exaggerates female body characteristics; she's not supposed to embody them literally. People misunderstand the source of women's body images. I had a mother who was very beautiful and who looked nothing like Barbie. She was Bohemian and exotic, with long black hair and big earrings. She wore turbans and caftans; she was a very glamorous woman. I thought she looked great—it never occurred to me for one minute that she was supposed to look like Barbie, or that I was supposed to. Had I been queried about it, I would have said, "That's a doll, and that's a person, my mom." Neither is supposed to look like the other.

Now that I have children, I watch them play. My son played with what in effect are dolls, but they're called "action figures." They have hugely exaggerated male bodies, with thighs like tree trunks, and muscles in their arms—nobody looks like that, outside of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I don't think this is promoting a bad self-image for my boy. I think he was interested in it because it exaggerated male body types, and he had figured out that he was a little male. What's so thrilling about Barbie, or what was for me, is those breasts! You've got all these dolls that are flat-chested, or babies, and suddenly you've got "Va-va Voom!" She was thrilling. She focuses on the female characteristics that are of great interest to little girls. For good reason!

The people who view her so negatively seem to assume that young girls have no other positive female role models, that this is where they're learning everything.

Yes, and that somehow this will make them feel badly about themselves. It didn't happen to me. My daughter has more Barbies than I ever had. When I'm lucky she lets me play with them. So this is where Ginny's hobby was born.

How do you choose your characters' names?

They just come to me. I have a very unsolicitous and ugly name—or an odd one, at least. I'm very conscious of names; I divide them into two categories, worse than mine or better than mine. Most are better than mine, but I do occasionally find one that's worse. "Kornblatt" is a terrible name. It's one of a whole series of God-awful Jewish names. I actually read in passing that at many points in history Jews were given intentionally humiliating and goofy names. There were all kinds of restrictions on Jews, where they could live, what kind of jobs they could have, restrictive clothing, of which the yellow star was only the last and most recently hateful vestige. Names were part of this; there were certain names that Jews were not allowed to have. I have a very dear friend, a teacher of mine in college who has become a friend and mentor to me, who had an uncle named Oscar Kornblatt. That name reverberated in my mind. There were always Oscar Kornblatt stories. The character in no way is his uncle, but the name always stuck with me.

What do you want readers to walk away from your book knowing?

A greater sense of forgiveness or tolerance. I didn't think Ruth would do what she did, but the bonds of family were stronger than she was. She could not tear her family apart. What happened to her family was bad, but she still wanted her family to be together, even in its imperfect, flawed form. This is the only form anyone ever gets anyway.

At the end of the book the title plays a quiet but significant role. Had that been in your mind from the onset of your writing?

No, that was a later addition. I had a lot of trouble with the title; sometimes they come fully formed and other times you struggle for them. I struggled for this one for a long time. After I had the title, it felt appropriate; though there are five main characters, Penelope is not quite as central as the other four. I did go back and add the section where I described what the Four Temperaments are.

You saved me a bit of research.

Good. It didn't seem like an unnatural addition. It's a Balanchine ballet, the book is about a dancer, and Balanchine figures very importantly in her imagination and in her thinking. To add something about a specific ballet kept the book cohesive. Now I'm very happy with the title.

Your book has been described as "women's fiction." Is there gender-specific writing?

I don't mind that it's being described that way; I think that's probably an accurate assessment of it. There are guys' books and gals' books, and hopefully some cross over. I'm supposed to, but I really don't want to read Cormac McCarthy. I know he's brilliant and wonderful, but it's just not what I want to read. To talk about women's fiction in a way tends to marginalize it, but I am a Pollyanna by nature. There's a very positive spin on this, and that's that for years women had a choice between having a family or having an artistic life. Emily Dickinson had no children. Colette had one and she didn't raise him; he lived in the country and she saw him once a year. The Alcotts, the Brontës, no children. People wrote about the experience of being mothers and how that changes you so utterly, and they weren't the people who had been changed by it. They were men writing from the outside or women surmising about it. Now there is a whole generation of women who are both mothers and very experienced writers. Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mary Gordon—all women who have had children. This is astonishing, that there is now literature by people who have had children. It's such an amazing part of life. It's not the only path—I certainly respect people who choose not to have children, and God knows there are so many children in this world that you shouldn't have them unless you really want them. But if you do want them, you're going to be a different person than you were before you had them. That person is an interesting person to know and to tell her story. There's now going to be all this literature written by people who have kids, and that's a good thing. If that's what women's literature is, I'm very happy to be part of it. I could not have written this book without having my own two children, despite the fact that they figure nowhere in it. I absolutely owe this to them.

What are you working on now?

Something that started as a story and will hopefully find itself as a novel. It's set in a different time and place, but the characters are talking to me. That's what I hope for, for the characters to talk to me and tell me their stories.

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    Photo credit: Anthony Parmelee