Excerpted from Last Call by Laura Pedersen. Copyright © 2003 by Laura Pedersen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Laura Pedersen
Julie Sciandra and Laura Pedersen have been friends and occasionally colleagues
for more than twenty years. They walk each other’s dogs and also bowl
together. Julie usually wins, but Laura insists that this is because Julie’s family
owned a bowling alley in Buffalo, and thus she has had an unfair advantage.
Julie Sciandra: Did you always want to be a writer?
Laura Pedersen: I was a slow starter, basically a turnip in a sleeper the first
few years of my life, and I didn’t come on strong academically until
much later. Just learning to read was a huge accomplishment for me. I
would say the prospect of telling stories first arose in seventh grade. An
only child and pathologically shy I realized I had to do something to facilitate
interaction. So I started telling a few jokes and funny stories,
and found a positive response that led to friendships. After getting
yelled at for talking during class, I was forced to start writing and passing
JS: When did you first receive recognition for your writing?
LP: In middle school I won an essay contest for writing about Teddy Roosevelt.
And then I won a prize in the declamation contest for a speech
about Carrie Nation. But it wasn’t until high school that I really hit it
big—I was sentenced to community service for a poem I’d written that
contained a hidden message.
JS: How do you set about writing a novel like Last Call?
LP: I hear a lot of writers say they start with the seed for an idea, such as a
character or one particular event, and they don’t know where it’s going
to lead them. That could never work for me. I don’t start a book unless
I have the beginning and the end. Only the middle is something I can
work out as I go.
JS: Do you write every day?
LP: I definitely write checks every day. But I probably work on what will
eventually become a book or short story about four days a week, usually
between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., with an hour break for lunch and a
few other breaks for running errands or playing with the dogs. I have a
very short attention span and work best in spurts, then I need to do
something else for a while, like go Rollerblading or play basketball with
JS: How long does it take you to write a book?
LP: That’s a real time-motion study, like how long between when a traffic
light in Manhattan turns green and the cab driver behind you leans on
his horn. But I’d say a book takes me a year, while doing other things. I
suppose that if I sat down with a freezerful of burritos and a vat of
chocolate, I could write a novel in eight weeks.
JS: Where do your ideas come from?
LP: From daily life. I live “hard” in the sense that I enjoy being on the go
and having lots of experiences. For instance, I went to the floor of the
stock exchange shortly after I turned eighteen. That environment created
the foundation for my first book, Play Money. Journalism has taken
me to exotic places like Russia, Turkey, and Cuba. If you want to tell a
story but you don’t have an idea, I think it’s best to go out and do something
and then write about it. There are a lot of things I’d love to do
but haven’t had time yet, and so I’ll occasionally imagine a character
doing them and use that in a novel. But at the end of the day, my stories
are always about living, loving, and dying.
JS: Are the characters based on people you’ve known in real life?
LP: I borrow bits and pieces from different individuals and then create new
people, sort of like a medieval dwarf going from house to house in the
middle of the night and stealing the essences of the townsfolk. For instance,
my friend Peter Heffley’s ninety-year-old mother, Mildred, is
the patron saint of worriers and pessimists. We actually look forward to
her negative pronouncements and often attempt to evoke them just for
entertainment. (Hence the catchphrase, “Who put the dread in Mildred?”)
I know if I say, “My, that’s a lovely orchid, Mrs. Heffley,” she’ll
retort, “It’s just about dead.” Or if Pete says he has the Fourth of July
party all organized, she undoubtedly replies, “There’s a storm heading
this way.” So for the character of Diana in Last Call, who is unlike Mrs.
Heffley in every other way, I borrowed the fretfulness along with some
of her best lines. And many of my charaters are built on a small slice of
me that I then exaggerate. For example, in Beginner’s Luck Hallie plays
poker, goes to the racetrack, and trades in the stock market. Gil likes
plays by Tennessee Williams, Craig is an only child, Olivia is a vegetarian,
and Bernard is optimistic and enjoys humor. Those are all based
on my own experiences or personality. Plus, I’m a lazy researcher.
JS: How does being a minister influence your writing?
LP: I’m an ordained interfaith minister (we respect all paths), but I don’t
have a congregation, and I don’t give sermons, except to the teenaged
Michael. In the not-for-profit world it helps to accomplish things if
you’re a minister or a politician. As for organized religion, I’m a lifelong
Unitarian Universalist. Most Sundays you’ll find me sitting in a pew
on the far right over at All Souls in Manhattan, reflecting on the
UU Trinity—reduce, reuse, and recycle.
JS: But there’s a lot of religion in Last Call, especially Catholicism.
LP: I’ve always had an interest in religion, especially since it’s been the
cause of so many wars and so much strife. Also, my earliest childhood
memory is of my mother yelling, “Jesus Christ, is it ever going to stop
One of my favorite stories is how in the late 1300s there were two
dueling popes, Clement VII and Urban VI, both busily excommunicating
each other. Finally, a council was called to decide between
them. Pietro Pilarghi, who helped bring about the council, made himself
pope and told the others to take a hike. Neither did, and so then
there were three popes.
As for making Rosamond a Catholic, when I was growing up outside
of Buffalo in the 1970s, eighty percent of the population was Catholic.
As James Joyce famously said about his faith, Catholicism means “Here
comes everybody!” Catholics live out loud in a terrific way. So every-
where you turned there was a big church, battalions of habited nuns,
outdoor celebrations on feast days, and of course the Friday fish fry.
(Word of the Vatican II council that ended in 1965 apparently
hadn’t yet reached Buffalo. Cowboy comedian Will Rogers once explained
that he wanted to be in Buffalo when the world ended because
it would happen there five years later.) So my friends were constantly
dashing off to Mass, confession, religious instruction, and CYO (Catholic
Youth Organization). Having had so much exposure to that particular
faith, I thought it would be interesting to set up a sort of fictional showdown
between an atheist and a Roman Catholic. Also, if Rosie had
been a Theosophist, I don’t think the story would work as well because
there aren’t the lifestyle constraints and concept of an afterlife to work
with. And worse, I would have had to do research.
JS: I notice you have a pair of snazzy new red-and-blue bowling shoes. Is
there a big game tonight?
LP: Not tonight, but I haven’t given up on my idea of bringing about world
peace through bowling. It’s a sport that allows almost everyone to play,
regardless of race, religion, economic background, and body type. You
can wear a sombrero, burka, kilt, saffron robe, or whatever you like.
JS: So what’s next? I’ve seen you scribbling on your jeans, which usually
means a new book is in the works.
LP: After Beginner’s Luck came out people asked, “What happens to Hallie?”
It was open-ended, so I’ve written a sequel called Heart’s Desire.
Hallie has finished her first year away at college and returns to the
Stockton household for the summer, which is in a greater state of chaos
than usual, if that’s possible. Gil and Bernard have broken up, and Ottavio
is pressuring Olivia to marry him. Meanwhile, Hallie is contemplating
that age-old teenage dilemma: Should she or shouldn’t she?
1. Have circumstances driven Diana to become more overprotective and
fretful than she might be if life were easier at the moment—if she had
more money and a nice husband, and if her father wasn’t ill? Have you
ever gone through a rough period when you felt like a person on the
verge of a breakdown due to events beyond your control—when life
temporarily eclipses your true personality, or at least the person you
want to be?
2. Is Hayden a good or bad influence on his grandson? Is Hayden helpful
in counteracting Diana’s coddling of her son, especially now that he’s
almost a teenager? Or is Hayden the one making Diana anxious in the
3. Does Hayden’s appreciation of the freedom and opportunity he’s found
in the United States, combined with fierce pride for his homeland,
bring to mind the mixed attitudes shared by immigrants you know?
4. Does it matter what religion, if any, Joey becomes when he’s older? Or
have Hayden and Rosamond imparted other valuable lessons?
5. Do you know people who have fallen out over religion, or decided not
to marry because of the issue? Would you agree or disagree that there
are certain situations where the differences and difficulties just can’t be
6. Has Rosamond truly lost her faith, or, as a woman coming to the end of
her childbearing years, is she suffering from a vacuum of human affec-
tion? Is it possible to live a rich and full life and not know physical
7. Why does Diana suddenly allow Joey to play baseball after her sister’s
stepson dies in a freak accident? Shouldn’t this event serve to make her
more fearful that Joey will be injured?
8. Is Hayden really an atheist or does he have his own spiritual program
to live a good and full life—perhaps “Haydenism”? Would you say that
you subscribe to all the tenets of a specific faith or that you’ve assembled
your own guidelines?
9. Is it possible that any events in the book were meant to be miracles? Or
are they just life’s typical accidents and coincidences?
10. If you wanted to find biblical equivalents for the characters in Last Call,
who might have the most in common with Bobbie Anne?
11. Being a good parent often involves making difficult choices and personal
sacrifices. What are some real-life examples of this made by people
12. Rosamond lost her mother when she was young. Hayden lost his father
and had a difficult youth because his family lost their farm. Joey’s parents
are divorced and he no longer sees his father. Do you think such
childhood events forever change the way we see and react to the world?
When you look back, is there anything you experienced early on, good
or bad, that you’d say has had a tremendous impact on later decisions,
or the way you’ve chosen to live your life or raise your family?
13. Diana and her sister, Linda, appear to have had a pleasant childhood,
complete with two parents who love and provide for them. Yet the sisters
don’t get along. Why do family tensions often arise even when
there’s no apparent reason for it? Are there siblings in your family who
aren’t close and it’s hard to determine when or why it all started?
14. By the end of the story has Rosamond converted Hayden or vice versa?
Or are they both able to love in their own way and stay true to opposing
15. Is it possible to overcome some religious differences by focusing on the
16. Why does Rosamond return to the convent at the end of the story?
17. What do you think Rosamond and Hayden would say about I Corinthians
13:13: “There are three things that will endure: faith, hope, and
love, and the greatest of these is love”? Is it true that love can transcend
everything, including religion and even death?