an interview with Maxine Chernoff      
photo of Maxine Chernoff

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What was your inspiration for writing this book? Did you start with the event or the characters?

I started with several different things, one being the idea of what happens when a child does some kind of violence, either accidental or not, to another child. I had that in mind for a strange reason: I saw a photograph on a magazine cover, like the book starts, of a child who had killed another child. He looked so much like my son Philip that it gave me pause; it made me think and feel creepy. That's part of what inspired this. Also at the time, five winters ago, I had just moved to San Francisco. I was spending six months here with my husband still in Chicago, trying to sell our house. I was the sole person responsible for nine-year-old twins, and I thought quite a bit about how hugely responsible not only parents are, but mothers in particular. Your child's fate is your fate. I started with the character of Nancy, the mother, who is in a different kind of isolation of being a single parent, and in a much more extreme condition than my being alone for half a year with my sons. I thought about what it would be like to be the mother of a child who has completely, forever, changed the lives of everyone around him.

I found it interesting that both Eddie and Danny came from broken homes--broken in very different ways. How responsible are parents for their children's actions?

There's so much that is in your control and at the same time so much that isn't. From the minute my twin sons were born they were so different, just like Eddie and Danny are so different. You realize when you have twins that a lot of aspects of a child's personality are not things that you've formed. As good a parent as you think you are being, there are things that have nothing to do with you about how a child ends up acting in the world. That's outside of all those other elements that are conditions of fate or chance or good or bad luck, as this book is about.

What is the message in A Boy in Winter? Is it fate that leads to things like this?

It's multiple factors, but I think often you are in a situation that you think you have more control over than you actually do. Nancy, for instance, imagined that if she were discreet about her affair, Danny wouldn't know what was going on, and it wouldn't touch his life. Even when they're doing things that aren't great ideas, like having an affair with the man next door, parents imagine that if they're good enough at parenting these things aren't going to affect what their children observe. But accidents happen; things happen without anyone's volition. At the same time that you imagine that you're the most careful, wonderful parent that you can be, all kinds of things can still go wrong. Human imperfection leads to a lot of problems, but people--children--are amazing in what they understand, how without your explaining everything, they know a lot. All this mothers' advice in the book, and all this sense of warning your children about a million dangers, sending them to safety classes or karate lessons, is not somehow going to change whether something bad happens to them. I don't think we can make people as safe as we would like them to be in this world.

It seems that tragedies involving young people have hit an all-time high in this country, though it could also be argued that the media has played a role--either by actually causing more tragic events to happen, or by heightening public awareness in the aftermath. Can you comment on this?

I imagine that in California during the Gold Rush people were dying in foolish and brutal ways, just as they do now. I doubt that there's more brutality and violence now than there ever was, but I think that we have become more aware of these things. Certainly having guns and weapons around makes it easier to perpetrate. Danny wouldn't have strangled Eddie to death, even if he was angry with him. As soon as a weapon's involved, the stakes go up to such a level that certain things that may be violent urges don't get controlled or stopped in a way that they otherwise would. There are a couple of problems, primarily that people seem to express more violence in this culture and that a lot more damage can be done by virtue of guns being so prevalent. In this case, it wasn't even a gun--it was a different weapon.

I found that an interesting choice too, that Eddie was killed by such an obscure weapon.

I didn't want this to be a book that asks, "Should guns be outlawed?" Personally, yes, I think they should, but the book didn't have to be about that. Instead the weapon is something that was conceived of as a gift--Frank was trying to be the best father he could be to Eddie. By being generous in a certain way, he gives Eddie something that ends up killing him. Again, what we imagine we're doing versus what fate deals to us is sometimes very different.

What was the motivation behind the last section of the book, in which Frank essentially kidnaps Danny and keeps him hostage?

The book presented an issue right around there. I had a strong sense that Nancy would start the book, and after a while I had another strong sense that Danny should get to tell his part of the story. The real triangle in the book is Danny, Nancy and Frank, and in my first draft, there wouldn't have been a chance for the reader to get to know Frank better. He would have been one of the minor characters, which I didn't think he was. It's really a book about how a good-intentioned mother, Nancy, and a good-intentioned father, Frank, both set up a situation where this tragedy occurs. I think the reader needed to be with Frank, and I figured a lot of this out after a long period of not knowing what to do next. I tried to start Frank's part with a first-person point of view as I had done before. But Frank's problems and issues are at a pre-verbal level. He couldn't describe what was going on as it was happening, so I realized that I needed to speak for him, and I moved his section into the third person. Given that the triangle is so important to the book, Frank needed a way for us to see him better and he needed a way to work out what this all meant to him.

Whose story is this then? Does it belong equally to Frank, Nancy, Danny and Eddie?

It belongs to all of them. Almost everything I've written has characters sharing the narration in some way. I hope that by the end the reader can put together what they should have drawn from this, without my having to come in in a very harsh way to explain what we've just witnessed. The reviews of my book that have been good have put the story together in the right way. One review that didn't do this stated that the book was left unresolved, but I don't know what anyone can get back from this. You can't get back Eddie. You can get back all three of them (Nancy, Danny and Frank) because they've each found some basic consolation, and a way to live beyond this. In an illogical but emotional way Frank achieves this by taking Danny and then being able to give him up. Frank needed a way to trust his grief and come out of this, as did Nancy and Danny. No one's ever going to be the same from this, but I hope my readers are left with a sense that you can go through the most awful experience and come out of it in a way that gives you the means to continue living. That's what the characters achieve by the end of the book.

Do you have ideas about what happens in the aftermath of the story itself?

It's interesting, because one person who read it is my cousin, a film maker, whose husband is a judge. Their first questions were, "What happens to Frank next?" I asked the judge what would happen to Frank if he were real and Nancy was sympathetic. He's essentially kidnapped this child and taken him over state lines--would he go to jail for the rest of his life? The judge felt that it would be very much up to the trial judge to work out with the people involved, and that if Nancy felt as she did, probably Frank would get off. My sense is that somehow this is resolution, even though he shouldn't have taken Danny and run off to the woods with him. I never had in mind that he would get shot by the SWAT team.

Getting back to our earlier topic of recent tragedies, we have all these emergency systems available in our society, we have all these mechanisms to deal with the aftermath of horrible things, when really what's important about horrible things is the personal consequences and how people can understand what's happened and go on with life.

I agree, and I think you do a great job of making all of your characters sympathetic and multi-faceted.

No one means to be a bad anything in this book, even Marilyn, Frank's wife. I didn't want her to be such a bad mother that she's criminally negligent. I think she's just self-absorbed and maybe immature. Even Nancy thinks about her later in the book, wonders what has happened to Marilyn in the shuffle--she's just gone one day, like crumbs in your bed . She's lost her child and her husband, and that's a tragedy too, but not the one I wanted to focus on in this book.

Do you write people you know into your stories?

Little details of people--certain things my own children have said. Danny's quoted in the book as asking, "How did you know to have me on your birthday?" One of my sons asked me that when he was little. Nancy's mother is not my mother, but actual quotes of my mother's are in there. I think we put things together from people we know. I live here (in San Francisco) but I'm still setting a lot of my material in Chicago, because that's where I know the neighborhoods best and what the buildings look like and what a firehouse would look like. The neighborhood the characters were living in has a strong Irish-Catholic presence, and is an actual neighborhood in Chicago. It has more of a community feel to it than a lot of other American neighborhoods do, because of the ethnic connections there.

At the center of this Irish-Catholic community is Riley. Although he's a small character, he provides a lot of the connections in the book. He's the one who Danny confesses to, he's the one who saves Frank, he's the one Nancy relies on. I've been thinking lately that he's almost God. Riley's someone who can solve almost any problem; he is very much about consolation. Here I am, a Jewish writer writing about a Catholic guy who saves people. I wasn't thinking about the religion aspect as much as about how a community, and being a member of a community, can help people when they are in need of consolation.

How important is the old maxim that we learn in writing classes, to write about what we know?

It's very important, and I just thought of another thing that is actual: the house that I describe Nancy as buying had a lot in common with the house that we bought from an old couple. It had a lot wrong with it--things that you wouldn't want to know about. I think that every writer starts close to their experience, if not close to their frame of reference.

This morning I read about a woman who's written a novel about Captain Ahab's wife. The author isn't married to a sea captain who's chased a great white whale, but she does have the sense of being a woman in this world attached to a man who's performing actions that she has no control over. Sometimes at an instinctual level we choose subjects that are important to us, though we don't immediately know why. A lot of my writing tends to be about how fragile people are--there are a lot of lost children in my stories, people missing a child. I don't know what I'm worried about but I keep writing about it. I think this has a lot to do with my being the mother of twin boys.

As dangerous as the world can be for girls, boys sometimes create more of their danger. I've been focused on how dangerous it is to be a boy, and how a lot of the dangers are based on how boys grow up, their own personalities and curiosity. Not that girls can't be curious, but danger seems to be more typical of a boy's experiences. My sons have had more injuries in the first years of their lives than my daughter's had in twenty-two years. As someone who's trying to take care of someone else in the world, you think about this a lot, and then when you explore this in your writing, your imagination is filled with the dangers that exist out there for people. My writing reflects what it means to be a mother and what it means to be responsible for the safekeeping of others. I write about the safety of people--as a writer you have to bring your characters to safety in some way, and you have to find a way for them to solve the problems you've created for them. The tricky thing about writing is knowing how to solve the problems you create.

At what point did you first start to feel like a successful writer? Was there a specific turning point in your career?

I've been a writer for a long time. I started as a poet, and in my twenties was getting poems published in nice places like The Paris Review. I think the turning point for me was realizing that I valued what people say to each other and how people solve problems and articulate their issues in life more than I was finally interested in how to line up language on the page, as I was doing through poetry. I moved to fiction and allowed myself to write characters, because I was reticent for a few years. I'd think, "How can I give someone a name and create their character?" I finally trusted myself enough to do that and found that I had the ability to use dialogue and create realistic characters and a good dynamic between people in a situation. My turning point was simply knowing that I could write fiction and that my interest in social relations and how people get along could be explored there instead of in poetry, which I was first drawn to.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A lot of people think that they don't have time to write or can't find time. I've been a mother as long as I've been a writer, so I've always been very busy. All of your life is a suggestion for what you might write about. People who decide that they're too busy or can't write for this or that reason are often not thinking about what their best material is, which is with them every day. The very stuff that people think is keeping them from writing is probably what they could use in their stories.

How does one 'practice' writing? Is it something that can be learned?

The more you write and show your work to other people, who have a sense of what you want to accomplish, the more you'll speed up the process of becoming a better writer. It can't make you a writer if you're not, but assuming you know you are and they know you are, this can work. People can help one another become stronger writers, by telling them ways that they're not exploring a topic or understanding where the story is going. I have students who write really interesting things that seem like the preface to the story. I tell them, "Your story starts on page fourteen, where it ends; now we know everything about what happened." Sometimes you have more material than you need, and it's a matter of knowing what story you want to sculpt out of it. It helps to focus.

Do you have any private rituals or special environments that you need to create in order to write?

If I can manage it, when I'm working on a novel I like to only be working on that novel. I would never try to write a novel and stories at the same time. Everything's going into the novel and the characters in it become as important to me as the people around me. It's a funny answer to your question but I was telling someone recently that I noticed when I was finished writing A Boy in Winter that we had two dining room chairs left--all our chairs were broken. While I was writing the book I really didn't care that we had nowhere to sit for about six months. When I finished I thought, "Oh dear--look what's happened to this house while I was away writing this book!" Of course I was in the house writing this book the whole time.

I think what happens is that I really concentrate my energy on pulling the story out and when I'm finished I can go back and see what's broken. Rather than needing a special environment, I set my vision in a way that I need to realize my book, and I don't pay a lot of attention to the things that make normal, everyday life simple, like having somewhere to sit at dinner.

What do you do when you're not writing?

When I'm not writing I'm buying my chairs (laughs). When I'm not writing I'm getting ready to write the next thing. I'm not yet sure what my next novel will be about and I'm arguing with myself over ways to think of it. I'm again somewhat obsessed with issues of violence. I've been thinking a lot lately about the two very prominent killings in the news a few years ago: when Ennis Cosby was killed by the Russian emigrant kid, who apparently was a racist and also wanted to rob someone who had a Mercedes; and I still think about O.J. Simpson, and what he seemed to get away with. I plan to combine these ideas into a story, but I'm not quite sure how I'm going to do so yet.

I look forward to that. Do you have favorite writers or works that inspire you?

When you become a teacher of writing , all you really get to do is write your own books and read your students' writing. When I used to read, I always loved Grace Paley for her short stories. I love Virginia Woolf because of her abilities with voice; my stories have always been very voiced in terms of character. A Boy in Winter is the first time that I've managed to get a plot in as well. My other stories focus so much on characters' voicing what they need to say that the story elements haven't been as strong. This time I was determined to do what I know I can do, which is to take different voices but to also have a traditional plot. Paley and Woolf are very important to me, but I read tons of people and teach different stories and novels. As far as who made me into a writer, those two did in terms of fiction more than anyone else.

Do you have any non-writing inspirations?

In my classes I talk more about movies than I do about books. My husband and I tend to see all the strange, independent films; even when we're in a theater that shows all independents, we're usually in the room with the fewest seats. I see a lot of foreign movies and some American movies, like Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven which is a hugely voiced film, and his new one, The Thin Red Line. I was so excited for that one to come out. I liked it, but I always go back to Days of Heaven and think how effective that is as a narrative. Both films and books give me inspiration for narrative.

Do you have aspirations of making your work into films?

I think A Boy in Winter recommends itself best for film out of everything I've written, but because I share points of view, this may not be particularly easy to achieve. I don't know many films that see through three or four different people's eyes, unless one stylizes the movie as Quentin Tarantino does, cutting back and forth. That wouldn't really work for this story. I have had interest from some people already in turning this into a film; if they can figure out how to do it, I'd like that. I would worry that if it weren't told in multiple points of view, it would become a melodramatic story--a boy kills another boy, the families have problems.

For me, it brought to mind the book and film The Sweet Hereafter, which is told through multiple viewpoints.

That and Affliction are both strong stories and grimmer than most movies that get made today. Atom Egoyan made The Sweet Hereafter, and if I had a choice, this would be similar in that the story wouldn't become less complex by its being made a film. The stories that are interesting have complexity in how different characters in the same situation have their own views, issues and motivations. When that gets removed, you're left with about six or seven plots that have been redone throughout history.

Who is the boy referred to in the title A Boy in Winter?

The book was originally called Thaw, which is a word that is important in Danny's telling his story about someone coming to thaw him out. We'd played with the title for weeks and arrived at the concepts of winter and the child. What's nice about the title we landed on is that there are a number of ways to read it. Danny is a boy in winter and by the spring he's a different person. I don't know if he's a man by spring, but he's a different person--he's changed. Eddie finished being a person completely when he was a boy in winter. Winter is also important in terms of the ritual of hunting, which ultimately leads to the death. It also has resonance in my mind about how we remember things and how we tell stories. Danny talks about this terrible thing that happens, the story of how the first hunting trip went, which would have been the big story that got told again and again. Frank and Eddie would have shared that and would have hunted many more times. As long as someone is alive there's the possibility of the story being added to and enriched and changed. When someone's life ends the narrative ends. Somehow A Boy in Winter captured both senses of where the story ended; something finished and something ongoing.

--interview by Laura Buchwald
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    Photo credit © Kerry Klayman