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  • Written by Norris Church Mailer
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  • Windchill Summer
  • Written by Norris Church Mailer
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Windchill Summer

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A Novel

Written by Norris Church MailerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Norris Church Mailer


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: August 25, 2000
Pages: 416 | ISBN: 978-0-375-50572-0
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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–The Denver Post

“WONDERFULLY SATISFYING AND APPEALING . . . It’s the summer of 1969 in a place called Sweet Valley, Arkansas. Cherry and Baby [are] soon to be college seniors at the dinky university just a few miles away. . . . It all looks like a pleasant, predictable American life, but a long second look reveals that things aren’t exactly what they seem to be. . . . [Mailer] loves her characters, and we fall in love with them, too.”
–The Washington Post Book World

–Entertainment Weekly

“THIS WINSOME COMING-OF-AGE NOVEL OFFERS MUCH TO MANY. Cherry, the narrator, is my kind of woman: good-looking, straight-talking, and able to describe what it’s like to get amorous when you’re wearing ten thousand petticoats. Most important, she’s willing to decide for herself what’s true.”

–The New York Times Book Review

From the Trade Paperback edition.


1. Cherry

In July, even in the dead middle of the night, you can’t breathe the air in the Atlas pickle plant. You have to suck it. The smell is sharp and thick and sets the hairs in your nose on end and makes you feel like your lungs are getting as slicked over as your white Keds tennies, their laces green and pungent from dragging through puddles of pickle juice.

It was three in the morning, and it had been a bad night for Baby and me. Alfred Lynn Tucker—a tub of lard with bright red hair, glasses, and big, dirty-looking teeth, who was, unfortunately, our boss—had been on our case the whole night long. Not that he wasn’t on our case most every other night. Just tonight was worse than usual.

When we came on shift at eleven, he started us off squirting brine into glass jars full of cucumbers that rolled past us on a conveyer belt. The brine came out of an old black rubber hose contraption connected to a wooden vat, and had a nozzle kind of like a garden hose. I bet we weren’t on that job even fifteen minutes when he pulled us off, because we didn’t let go of the trigger on the hose between squirts and a lot of brine somehow got wasted on the floor. It was an old rusty squeezer that a big man would have had trouble pumping, much less a girl, and it was just impossible to keep letting up on it. Our hands would have fallen off. You’d think Alfred Lynn personally paid for the brine out of his own pocket.

Then he put us to setting empty jars on the automatic packer belt where they passed under a chute that poured the cucumbers into them, but the stupid belt went so fast that we had to practically throw them on, and a few got broken. Not that many—they only had to stop and clean it out twice. Which might have been all right, but on top of that, the speed of the jars passing by right under my nose made me sick, and I threw up on the belt. Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a problem with motion sickness, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Most of it went on the floor. Baby went and got me a Coke and I felt better, but Alfred Lynn had no pity whatsoever. He yelled at me, like I could have helped it or something, and then he moved us to the machine that cut pickles up into the little crinkled disks they use to put on hamburgers.

By that time, Baby and I were getting a case of the simples—which is not unusual for us at four in the morning—and we started giggling and throwing pickle slices at each other. I admit this time we were in the wrong. It’s just hard to take a job seriously that you know you’ll be leaving when September rolls around. I didn’t want to think about all the regular hands that have to work here the whole year, summer and winter, day in and day out, all their lives. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but can you just see Baby and me in forty-five years at the pickle plant Christmas party they hold in Sweet Valley’s concrete-block community room, stepping proudly up to the podium and accepting our Timex retirement watches? On our tombstones, it would say she was a good pickle packer. A whole lifetime spent putting pickles into jars. Not these girls, thank you muchly. It was bad enough working here in the summers to make enough money for a few school clothes.

Alfred Lynn passed by and, as luck would have it, got hit on the back of the neck with a piece of pickle. It stuck there like a round green wart. He had a really loud voice.

“All right, y’all two nitwits! You think this is fun and games? I’m going to show you fun and games. Y’all can just peel onions the rest of the night.”

“Oh please, Alfred Lynn. Don’t send us to the onion room,” Baby pleaded. “We’ll try real hard. We promise not to get in any more trouble. Please, please, please!”

I hated to see Baby grovel, but it was better than going to the onion room. Baby kneeled down on the floor and put her hands together like she was praying. I tried as hard as I could not to laugh.

Alfred Lynn’s face swelled up and turned blue-purple with rage, he wanted to hit Baby so bad. He would probably have done her some real damage if he had—Baby is only four-foot-ten and weighs eighty-six pounds with all her clothes on. She is Filipino, but you couldn’t tell if you only heard her talk. Her daddy was with the American army during the war, and somehow they ended up here in Arkansas when she was five. When she first got here, she couldn’t speak a word of English, and of course she learned from all the little redneck kids she played with—mostly me—so she sounds just like everybody else. She kids around about it—calls herself a Filbilly. Get it? A Filipino hillbilly? Well, I think it is funny. Whatever she is, she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life—cute little pug nose, creamy tan skin, and big chocolate eyes; long straight shiny black hair that hangs down to her waist. And she might be little, but as the guys say, she is stacked. She wears tight white short-shorts to work, and makes grown men nervous. Including Alfred Lynn, as much as he would hate to admit it. So, since he couldn’t hit her, he just sucked in his breath, clenched his fists, and gave us one more chance.

“All right. You get one more chance. I’m putting you out on the relish belt, and if you two don’t have sense enough to pick out the trash from the cukes and throw it in a barrel, then you will be peeling onions. And I don’t mean maybe.”

We followed Alfred Lynn out to the dock. He moved pretty fast for somebody that would’ve dressed out at three hundred pounds at the slaughterhouse. We tried not to follow too close. You could always smell Alfred Lynn fifty feet before he got to you. Him and his old daddy, Walter Tucker, lived together out in the bottoms by the Arkansas River in a tar-paper shack. It didn’t have running water or an indoor toilet, so I guess maybe it wasn’t all his fault that he didn’t wash more often. Or it could have been that his sweat had permanently turned into pickle brine from him being the night foreman at Atlas for ten years. Whatever it was, he sure did stink.

It was, at least, less like a furnace out on the dock. A conveyer belt ran the length of the concrete porch, under a roof, with the sides open to the warm night air. The smell was a lot better out here, too, even though we faced the back lot, with its giant wooden vats of pickles soaking in brine. Some of them had been out there for years, but supposedly they were still edible. At least they still sold them, and I’m sure they didn’t want to take the chance of poisoning somebody and getting sued.

Further on out, you could see the glow from the streetlights of Sweet Valley and catch the headlights of the occasional truck on Route 66.

We pulled up stools and joined the row of women who were halfheartedly picking out rotten cucumbers and pieces of trash and throwing them into barrels while the good-but-not-perfect cukes rolled on down the belt to be ground up in the chopper at the end and mixed with onions, peppers, and spices to make hot dog relish. Hunching over the belt made your back hurt, but it was the best job we’d had all night.

Linda Sue Miller sat across from me. She was our same age, twenty-one, but had gotten married in the eleventh grade and already had three kids. She had short, curly blond hair with dark roots and still carried around the extra fifteen pounds from her last baby. She was one of the year-round hands. Not much of an advertisement for young love.

“Hey, Cherry. Hey, Baby. Y’all have been on a go-around tonight, I hear.” She slapped at a mosquito. “These mosquitoes are eating me alive. They might just as well put regular lightbulbs out here—these old yellow bug lights don’t do a lick of good, and they make it hard to see what you’re throwing out. I sure as heck wouldn’t eat the relish that comes out of this place.”

“Oh, it’s not bad,” Mary Jo Bledsoe said, scratching her nose with the back of her wrist. “That brine purifies it. My kids eat it.”

“Your kids would eat a scalded dog, Mary Jo. They can’t come in my door without they eat everything that’s not nailed down. I never saw such a bunch for stuffing themselves. You’d think they never had a meal at home.”

Mary Jo’s four kids were famous for dropping in at the neighbors’ houses right at mealtime.

“Anytime my kids bother you, Linda Sue, you can just send them home. Although if you do, you might have to hire a baby-sitter or spend time with your three squalling brats yourself.”

“Would y’all please not fight? It’s bad enough out here without having to listen to y’all two ragging on each other.” I said it as nicely as I could. Apparently, the night had gotten to me more than I thought. My nerves were starting to get a little frayed. I changed the subject. “What do you hear from Robert, Linda?”

Linda’s husband was in Vietnam, like a lot of other boys we knew. He could probably have gotten out of it, because of the kids and all, but he felt like if he invested two years, he could make some good money and get benefits and education that he wouldn’t be able to get as a high school dropout. In a way he was right, because their last baby—which got started on one of his leaves—only cost them something like two dollars with the army paying for it. I wouldn’t have done it, though. Too big a gamble. Guys were dropping over there right and left. It was really depressing to watch Walter Cronkite every night on TV and stare at all the pictures to see if you recognized somebody you went to school with. Two boys from our class had already been killed, Jerry Golden and Bobby Richmond. Seven of our classmates—we only had fifty-four in our class—had been drafted or had volunteered to go over there in the three years since we graduated, but Bobby was the first to be killed. He hadn’t been over there even a week and was in Saigon at the dentist’s office fixing to get his checkup when a kid on a bicycle rode by and threw a satchel bomb into the waiting room. Ten guys were killed, plus the dentist and the girl who cleaned teeth. A little kid did it. Is that crazy or what?

Then Jerry Golden got killed by a booby trap somewhere, I think in Quang something, or someplace that sounds like that. I don’t really know a whole lot of details about it, but it was doubly horrible because he was the president of our class and a really great guy, and even though we liked Bobby a lot, Jerry was one of our gang. We had a big memorial service at the high school for him, and practically the whole town turned out. All of us kids took it hard, not to mention his parents, as you would expect.

That whole war is insane. I know there are a lot of people who are for it because of the fear of Communism spreading and all, but I mean, really, what does it matter if Vietnam is Communist or not? Cuba, which is a heck of a lot closer, is Communist and it hasn’t harelipped any Americans yet. And what about China? I didn’t notice us invading China when it went Communist. We didn’t study Vietnam at all in geography class. So now our guys have to go and die for a country they can’t even find on the map?

When they held that big peace march on the Pentagon year before last, in ’67, we had our own protest rally at the university. A lot of kids turned out in spite of the fact that it rained and there were rumors that the FBI had spies taking names and photographs with little hidden spy cameras. Most of the kids who came to the rally were art majors, like Baby and me, and English majors, but you saw science majors and even a few guys who were in ROTC. It was getting to where more and more kids were against the war, and Baby and I were two of them. I mean, who would be the next to go? The war hung over all our heads like the shadow of a hawk on the chicken yard.

Linda tried to act like she wasn’t worried, but she wasn’t too good at it.

“He was all right two weeks ago. At least that’s when the last letter I got was dated. He said he was going to send me a set of dishes and a Japanese movie camera. They can get that stuff real cheap from over there. He already sent me a cocktail ring and a Vietnamese housecoat, and little ones for the babies. It’s real pretty—red, with one of those stand-up collars. Lot of embroidery making out dragons and things on the back. I think it’s silk, or at least a real high-quality polyester.”

“Do you think he could get me a set of dishes?” Mary Jo wanted to know. “Can you pick out the pattern, or does he just have to take what he gets?”

“I don’t think so, Mary Jo. It’s just for the families.” Linda yawned and threw out her gazillionth rotten pickle of the night.

Baby yawned and so did I. So did Mary Jo and everybody else on down the line. A big drop of sweat ran down my neck, and I wiped it off with my shirt collar. Only two more hours until quitting time. A breeze came up. We all turned our faces for a breath of moving air.

“Oooh, feel it. Here comes the windchill.” Baby sighed.

Mary Jo snorted. “What are you talking about, Baby? It’s hot summertime. There ain’t no chill in that breeze. You won’t hear the weatherman talking windchill until way up in the winter.”

“I don’t see why they don’t,” Baby said. “It’s the same thing. All it means is that the weather is fooling you.”

“Fooling you?”

“Yeah. See, Mary Jo, like, there you sit, here in this pickle-plant shed, sweaty and hot as all get-out, when the old wind whips up, blows on you, and makes you think it’s got cooler. Of course that’s great, but then just as soon as you’re nice and comfortable, the wind dies down and the heat slaps you in the face again, and that makes it worse than ever.”

“So it feels good while it lasts but it was a lie all the time, right?” It made sense to me.

“Oh, I get it,” Linda said. “That’s cute. Well, I don’t care. I never minded a little lie if it felt good. Especially from a guy. Guys have been lying to me ever since I can remember.”

“Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger—you and all the rest of us,” Mary Jo put in. “Every man I know is a born liar. Not a one of them will ever be honest with a woman. You just gotta figure they’re all the time blowing hotter or colder than they say they are. And it’s durned hard to know which it is.”

We all agreed.

“In fact, I think most men would rather lie, even if the truth would serve them better,” Linda added.

“Amen.” We all nodded. Wisely. Like we had a lot of experience. I nodded too, even though I probably had the least experience of us all. I didn’t have a boyfriend at the moment, and it was sort of embarrassing.

More cucumbers rolled down the line.

“Looky here, Cherry. There’s an old rotten potato. I swear, I think Alfred Lynn throws junk in these cucumbers just as a test to see if we’re asleep or not.” Baby reached out to take the potato, then pulled her hand back.

“Baby, why didn’t you get that old thing?” Now I’d have to get it when it came by me. “You are just worthless as a trash picker. I’m going to tell Alfred Lynn on you.”

I reached out, but Baby put her hand on my arm to stop me.

“I don’t know what it is, Cherry, but it’s not a potato. What are those little things sticking up out of the sides? They look kind of like . . .”

“Legs! Baby, it’s a rat!” I have to admit that I screamed my head off. I never was too crazy about mice, much less rats.

When I started screaming, so did everybody else. Stools went flying, and Baby jumped up on top of me and knocked me over. We both landed on the grimy concrete as the rat drifted by above our heads on the conveyer belt. It was lying on his back, legs stuck straight out of its bloated belly like black twigs. Its mouth was open and a blue, swollen tongue was wedged between its sharp little teeth.

All of us huddled together and watched in silence as it slipped off the end of the belt into the grinder. There was a sick, soft pop. Foul-smelling pink spew sprayed up. With a gritty screech as the steel blades bit into its bones, the machine stopped. For a minute more we stared, our mouths open, not moving a muscle. Then, like a group of dimwits, we all turned, as one, to see Alfred Lynn thundering down on us like the wrath of God.
Norris Church Mailer|Author Q&A

About Norris Church Mailer

Norris Church Mailer - Windchill Summer

Norris Church Mailer was the author of two novels, Windchill Summer and Cheap Diamonds. She was also the mother of two sons, two stepsons, and five stepdaughters, as well as grandmother to two and step-grandmother to nine. Mailer died in 2010 at the age of sixty-one. 

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Norris Church Mailer

Kim Harington is a former high school English teacher, a member of two book groups, and a book reviewer for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Like Norris Church Mailer, she is a native of Arkansas, and married to a nov-elist. She and the author have discovered a number of commonalities, among them a shared birthday. Harington is at work on a novel herself.

KH: While Windchill Summer is glorious in imaginative detail, it is set in Sweet Valley, a town not unlike your own hometown of Atkins, Arkansas. Did you feel the need to disguise Atkins as Sweet Valley? You call My Lai by its actual name.

NCM: Sweet Valley is probably closest to Atkins, population 1,391 when I was there, but has characteristics of several other Arkansas towns, plus quite a lot of made-up details. I didn't want to be bound by reality, or to imply that the fictitious events in the book actually happened by putting them in a real place.

On the other hand, the events described in the novel did indeed take place in My Lai, or did as closely as I could ascertain from my research. At one point, I considered giving the village a fictitious name, calling the officers by other names, and making it a My Lai-like event, but I didn't be-cause My Lai was a turning point in America's consciousness of the war, and a big part of history.

Q: You have stated that a writer of fiction draws from real life experiences, research, and imagination. How much of you is in Cherry?

NCM: Warren Beatty once said that if an actor has even five percent of a character in him, he can successfully portray that person, and I think the same holds true for a writer.

Just as Sweet Valley was a composite of several places, Cherry is assembled with bits and pieces and quirks of people I know (like a friend who is obsessed with her big feet), and her sensibilities are filtered through mine. But then, so is everyone else in the book, even the bad guys!

Obviously, I have more than five percent of Cherry in me, but Cherry's life and ideas, while not too far removed from mine, are certainly her own. She is probably a lot nicer than I am, maybe a little more naive, and she certainly held on to her virginity longer.

Q: (laughter) But Cherry has a tendency to underestimate her own strength and her intelligence. Her self-reflective statement comes to mind: "I never pretended to be deep." Is this not contradicted by the wisdom with which she views the people and events of her narrative?

NCM: I wrote that with secret irony, because, although Cherry totally believes it--that self-effacement is part of her charm--she is, in fact, a deep person. She deals with death, war, religion, and love--subjects, I believe, anyone would say are deep. In her own way, Cherry is a philosopher, having the courage to ask questions of her religion, country, and friends that don't have hard and fast answers, and to make decisions herself.

Q: When you were Cherry's age, how conscious were you of the events taking place in Vietnam? How concerned were you?

NCM: I started this book in a creative writing class at Arkansas Tech, while my first husband was in Vietnam and I was finishing my degree, pregnant with our son, Matthew. The war was an obsession with me, as it naturally would be in that situation, and I was glued to the TV and the mailbox. Although those first pages I wrote were vastly different than this finished book, they were the genesis of it, and it was helpful to me at the time to channel some of my fear and frustration into the work. Like Cherry, I went to anti-war rallies and believed it was a horrible war--as if any wars are not--but as Tripp says, some wars are more honorable than others, and it was hard to find any honor in the Vietnamese war. We didn't take land or give it back--we just killed people.

Q: Have you, by the way, heard from any Vietnam vets who have read Windchill Summer? If so, what stands out among the comments?

NCM: Most of the veterans I have spoken to aren't happy that My Lai was the defining incident in the book, but I felt like I was pro-soldier, although anti-war, in the tone. I wanted to understand and portray the circumstances that might build up and lead young boys of eighteen or nineteen to eventually commit the events that happened at My Lai, and I think I succeeded to some degree, at least to myself. Besides this, most of the vets I spoke to thought the portrayal of the war, the language, and the feelings were pretty true to life.

Q: Did you enjoy the necessary research you undertook in order to write authentically of the Vietnam experience? You made a trip to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to research the novel. How helpful was that visit?

NCM: There is so much good research material out there that it would have been possible to write this book without going to Vietnam, but the book is a lot richer because of the trip. Just to get my hands in the dirt, smell the air, and go into the Cu Chi tunnels was worth it. One of the tunnels has been turned into a tourist attraction, with a bored former VC tunnel fighter as a guide. It has been made larger, for the fat American tourists, with lights along the way, but even so, the feeling of claustrophobia and fear of what lies ahead is pretty easy to visualize from in there.

Q: I'm wondering, is there a character closest to your heart?

NCM: That is a little like asking which is your favorite child, but, aside from Cherry, if I had to pick one I loved, it would be Lucille, because she lives out loud and does exactly what she wants to do without any self-consciousness or shame or guilt, which neither Cherry nor I am able to do. I called my friend Aurora in Arkansas after I had written Carlene's funeral scene, and said, "Can you believe it? Lucille wore a pink dress to the funeral!" The characters were that real to me.

Q: Carlene's story--her romance, early motherhood, her father's death, her secrets--is especially dramatic and quite poignant, far more than the lives of Baby or Cherry. Did you have a special fondness for Carlene?

NCM: Yes, I did, more and more as she developed. She was the operative definition of "Nobody Ever Said It Had To Be Fair," the personification of our own dreams and our worst nightmares--that bad things can happen to good people through no fault of their own. I had to let Carlene go to Heaven with Jerry, though, in all fairness. That was a particularly favorite passage of mine. I cried the whole time I was writing it. Carlene's death was also a metaphor, for me, of the senseless killing in war--at the same time she was killed, thousands of innocent people were dying over in Vietnam.

Q: What happens underwater and underground in tunnels and caves is significantly symbolic of the secrets your characters hold. Did you consciously decide at some point to make effective dramatic use of underworlds--water and ground--to represent secrets, the unknown? Or did this connection spring up as a function of the mysterious and illusive creative process?

NCM: Much to our annoyance, there are times when someone will say to a writer, usually with the great excitement of discovery, "You don't know what you've written!" and although my first comment would be, "Yes, I do! I wrote it, didn't I?" sometimes we, as writers, aren't always aware of all the connections and elements of our work until it is viewed through the fresh perspective of another's eyes. I never consciously said, "Oh, the cave and the lake are such great metaphors!" but obviously they are.

Lakes and caves have always been fascinating to me, dangerous and mysterious and somehow other-worldly. I have gone several times to Blanchard Springs Caverns, up in the Ozarks, and ever since I read Tom and Huck, I loved the idea of an adventure taking place in a cave. An Indian skeleton was actually found in the Blanchard Springs Caverns, too, so I appropriated that for Bean's cave, and we could possibly find many layers of symbolism in that!

The Philippine stories of the Aswang mermaid and her underwater world fed nicely into Carlene's death and journey from the lake to Heaven, and it made the lake a bit more sinister as a backdrop for The Water Witch, Baby's family, and Frank's houseboat.

Q: You are also a painter, and with this novel have joined a small but select group of creative people who split their talents between the verbal and visual arts. Windchill Summer is inarguably visually powerful. Do you feel your visual sense stems from your hands-on art?

NCM: I had a double major in college, Art and English, and since I believed I had small chance of earning my living in Arkansas as either a painter or writer, I got a teaching degree in both subjects. It must be said that teaching Art was a lot more fun. I always kept an easel in the classroom, doing my own work at odd moments, and after I moved to New York, I had nine one-woman shows of my paintings and numerous group shows.

Painting does teach one to observe details, and visualizing a scene is richer for the elements that might also go into a painting. I believe the two disciplines are the same, and that only the tool is different--a picture is created with a brush or with words. Thinking in these terms, one scene of the novel in particular comes to mind--where Carlene is molested by her father. As she lay on the ground afterward, it was so clear to me, through her eyes, that I could see the curl of the rusted beige siding on the trailer (burnt sienna); the cloudless blue sky (cerulean mixed with a little cobalt and white); the dirt smeared on her hands and elbows (burnt umber and yellow ochre); the blood laced across her legs (alizarin crimson and Chinese red); the sap green of the pine trees . . . I could paint it now.

Q: While writing Windchill Summer, were you obsessed with your work? How would you characterize your writing habits?

NCM: It did take me over completely, especially toward the end when the story became involved and I was on a roll. I hated to stop for the day and go downstairs to cook dinner. My poor husband ate cereal a lot, or cooked himself. Since he is a writer too, fortunately he understood.

My habit is to take care of the minutiae of life in the morning, have lunch, and then start work around two in the afternoon and work until six or seven. I try to treat it like a job, and even if I am not in the mood, just the act of sitting at the computer and reading what I wrote the previous day usually primes the pump for new work.

Q: And did you find that during the writing process you experienced a number of emotions?

NCM: Of course! Writing a scene such as the rape of Carlene by her father, or her death, or My Lai, or Cherry's first sexual experience with Tripp, are powerful, emotional scenes and in creating them, a writer, like an actor, has to experience the emotion--at least the first time it goes down on paper. The next time the writer goes over the scene should be done with the cold clear eye of the writer-as-editor, which polishes the writing, but leaves the power and emotion of the scene intact.

Q: To me, one of the novel's major strengths is the interconnectedness of its characters and their entwined secrets. Subplots bump up against each other deliciously. Equally complicated is the handling of time in the novel's development. The reader gets information in a piecemeal fashion, as you juggle the past and present, and reveal events as though they were part of a jigsaw puzzle. What informed your sense of the effective unfolding of events?

NCM: As unbelievable as it might seem, the chapters unfolded pretty much as they are in the book. There was no real diagram, just a gut instinct and the characters leading me on. I did work hard to keep the events clear as to time and place, which is why I used the name and little drawing in the chapter headings--so readers would know at a glance who was going to be the focus of the chapter before they began reading it.

Q: The characters led you on, yet none of them know all. They know only bits and pieces of what has happened in Sweet Valley. The reader, though, is privy to all details, a powerful technique and one that grants the reader a certain power. In this way, the reader feels a sense of participation. Was that your objective?

NCM: Very much so.

Q: Cherry struggles with the concepts of sin and wrong-doing coupled with her own recent pleasurable experiences. How did your own religious background prepare you to write this novel?

NCM: I was raised in the Free Will Baptist church, which is somewhat like the Holiness church Cherry attends, but rather more reserved. As a child, I did frequent a Holiness church with my cousin, and it was so much more exciting than ours because they spoke in tongues, and played guitars, and had healing services where everyone fell down on the floor, and people shouted and danced in the aisles. I chose to make Cherry Holiness, I admit, because it was more interesting to write about, although the questions she struggles with could be found in any religion. I wanted to treat the religious aspects with the utmost seriousness, and to not make fun of any of it, because it was serious to Cherry and it is serious to me.

Q: You have been married to Norman Mailer for more than twenty-six years. What is it like for a first-time novelist to be married to such a famous and distinguished writer?

NCM: I had aspirations to be a writer when I met Norman, and in fact had written over three hundred pages of a novel that was the genesis for Windchill Summer, but I suppose at that time I wasn't secure enough in my own writing abilities to pursue it. However, I continued to write on various levels and gain experience--plays produced at the Actors Studio, screenplays, film treatments, and a short piece for a magazine. Living with Norman over the years has been an ongoing education in writing, too, because I have read each draft of all his books, been part of the editing process, and have seen what it takes to go to work every day and be a professional. I think I became a better writer almost by osmosis.

The obvious question is: Did Norman help get my book published? The short answer is No, since we decided he wouldn't read it until it was in hardcover, but it would be folly not to acknowledge that because of him I knew a lot of people in publishing, and they were curious to read my manuscript. Still, no matter who writes a book, publishing houses have their reputation to consider, and if they don't believe a book is good and will make money, they won't publish it. I went with Random House, my husband's publisher, but in fact there were several other offers, which was gratifying.

Q: So tell me this: Is publishing an act of courage?

NCM: Of course I would say yes, but really, the first time you show your work to anyone, preferably someone who loves you, is scary. If they like it, as you suspect they will, then you have to gather the courage to show it to an agent or publisher who could turn you down and crush several years of your work, life, and self esteem.

Then when, wonder of wonders, they decide to take it, you have to hand the manuscript--which has known no other hand but your own--over to an editor, and then, once it is published, critics who, you believe, hardly read it much less understood it, take it apart in print for everyone to see. It all requires courage. Still, the thrill of holding the first book in your hands, like a newborn baby, makes it all worth while.



--The Denver Post

"WONDERFULLY SATISFYING AND APPEALING . . . It's the summer of 1969 in a place called Sweet Valley, Arkansas. Cherry and Baby [are] soon to be college seniors at the dinky university just a few miles away. . . . It all looks like a pleasant, predictable American life, but a long second look reveals that things aren't exactly what they seem to be. . . . [Mailer] loves her characters, and we fall in love with them, too."
--The Washington Post Book World

--Entertainment Weekly

"THIS WINSOME COMING-OF-AGE NOVEL OFFERS MUCH TO MANY. Cherry, the narrator, is my kind of woman: good-looking, straight-talking, and able to describe what it's like to get amorous when you're wearing ten thousand petticoats. Most important, she's willing to decide for herself what's true."

--The New York Times Book Review
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. If you were to tell a friend about Windchill Summer, how would you describe it without giving away a single detail of the plot?

2. Why do you think the author chose to write Cherry's chapters in the first person while writing all the other character's chapters in the third person?

3. From your point of view, is Cherry indeed the central character? Explain why or why not. Does another character "steal the show"?

4. If you were to pinpoint the novel's essential theme in only a few words, what would it be?

5. Nguyen, Bean's Vietnamese lover, could be said to represent Bean's wartime experience, symbolic of his fears. The violent act he commits in Sweet Valley is meshed with his confused memories of her. Was Nguyen created strictly for this purpose, to serve as horrific memory, or is she a character in her own right? How believable is Bean's distortion of reality?

6. Two women in the novel, the mothers of Cherry and Carlene, feel constricted in their marriages. Cherry's mother, married to a very religious man, takes pleasure in jewelry, cosmetics, and movies her husband would not approve of, while Carlene's mother is a free-spirited woman who communes with nature in order to escape. What, if anything, do you think the author is saying about the state of marriage, the essential nature of women, or the need for individualism? How do these two characters differ in these respects from Baby's Manang?

7. In what way did the reading of Windchill Summer change your view of the Vietnam War?

8. Do you find the title of the novel an apt one?

9. While Cherry's voice is one of wit and affability, there are other passages far more somber, such as Jerry's letters from Vietnam or the worrisome troubled edge that Baby brings to the story. How did such variation in tone affect your reading experience?

10. How does the author use humor in this novel?

11. Which character do you find most sympathetic and why?

12. Consider the main characters as they each undergo a change or experience a revelation during the course of the novel. In what way do each of them change? Whose transformation is most dramatic? Whose is most startling or unexpected?

13. Mysticism plays a role in the understanding of Baby's heritage. How does knowledge of her family's past affect her?

14. Friendship is at the core of this novel, setting the stage for the exploration of trust, secrecy, loyalty, betrayal, and reunion. Is there any message about friendship that you take away from your reading of Windchill Summer?

15. Carlene's circumstances are particularly difficult. What, given the confines of her situation, might she have done differently? Does she have other viable choices? How does her relationship with her mother shape her direction? Her relationship with Jerry?

16. What passages in the novel are especially riveting for you? In what ways does the author engage our senses?

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