Excerpted from How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper. Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Tropper. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, 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 Q&A with author Jonathan Tropper on his book, How to Talk to a Widower
What’s your typical writing day like? And what environment is most conducive to your process?
I generally try to treat writing like any other job. I wake up early and am at my desk before nine am. To further the illusion of a job, I don’t work at home, but commute to a local college about twenty minutes away. I find by treating it like a real job, I can attach a modicum of discipline to the whole enterprise. Of course, in a real job, you can’t say to your boss, “It’s not going well today,” and then blow off the afternoon at the movies, which I do sometimes. But for the most part, I try to write straight through from nine until two or so. Then I take a break, and then I revisit what I’ve written and do a bit of editing, so that I’m ready to break new ground the following day.
I also find I don’t write well in a quiet office. I do much better with the quiet bustle of a small college library or a quiet bookstore café.
Can you name the first book you read that inspired you in some special way? Why?
I’ve been inspired by numerous books, but the two books I always seem to come back to are Bright Lights Big City, by Jay McInerney, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges. Bright Lights is so tight, so concise, and yet so fully realized. It would take me twice as many words to say what McInerney says, and I still wouldn’t say it as well. And What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has such a wonderful cast of characters, so flawed and sympathetic and real, while still being odd and outrageously funny. Gilbert Grape was the book that made me want to be a writer. Whenever I get stuck, those are the two books I go back to for inspiration. In a wonderful coincidence, Peter Hedges, who has since gone on to become a successful screenwriter and director, is now writing and directing the movie version of my novel, Everything Changes.
Which came first: the characters, or the storyline?
For me, it always starts with the character. I may have a rough idea of the premise I want to explore, but it won’t go anywhere until I’ve really developed a complete understanding of who I’m writing about. I’ll write pages and pages about my protagonist, most of which will never make it into the novel. But by the time the novel is really getting underway, I’ll know him cold; his past, his present, his hurts, his dreams, and where I want to drop him off when the ride is over.
From the Hardcover edition.
Jonathan Tropper writes about his novel, How to Talk To a Widower
How to Talk To a Widower started out as a very different book. Before that, it started as a highly morbid and inappropriate dinner conversation. My wife and two of her friends had flown off on a trip to Los Angeles. That night, I was out to dinner with the two other husbands, enjoying a rare stag night, when someone mentioned that our wives were still in mid-flight. At some point, it occurred to me that if their plane crashed, we would be three young widowers living in the same neighborhood. My remark was met with shock and disapproval. How could you even say such a thing? But that’s what writers do, we allow ourselves to keep thinking, imagining, empathizing, and discussing past the point where other people have willed themselves to stop.
Inspired, I began writing a novel about three men living with their families in the aftermath of an horrific plane crash in which their three wives died. I created three very different men, and three very different marriages. And about a hundred and eighty pages in, I shared it with my publisher, and we all came to the same consensus: It wasn’t very good.
“It’s not very funny,” someone pointed out.
“Well, it’s about three men whose wives have died. I wasn’t really going for ‘funny.’”
“Still…” they said.
After meditating on it for a bit—and by that I mean obsessing about it, day and night, for weeks—I realized that the problem was not that it wasn’t very funny, it was that it simply wasn’t very interesting. It was sad, and well written, and ultimately pointless. The characters weren’t coming alive for me, and it showed.
So I took a beat and did some soul searching. The beat lasted around seven months, during which everything I wrote was crap. I asked for and received an extension and then I made the gut wrenching decision to throw it all out and start over again. There was one character, of the three men, who showed some promise for me, a twenty-nine-year-old widower named Doug Parker, wallowing in grief, marooned in suburbia, and saddled with a rebellious stepson, his dead wife’s son from her first marriage. And as soon as I started to write the book about Doug, it all came together. I liked what I was writing. It felt right and true and even funny. I called the book After Hailey. The publishers preferred How To Talk To A Widower. They never like my titles. I’m used to it.
People ask me why I seem to always write about screwed up people, and I always respond that no one wants to read about happy, well adjusted people. Happy, well adjusted people are boring. Doug Parker is not happy. He’s sad, angry, terrified, lonely, horny, and hopeful. Sometimes he drinks too much. Sometimes he sleeps with inappropriate women. Sometimes he gets into fights. And every so often, when you least expect it, he manages to get it right.
Since the release of How to Talk To a Widower here and abroad (it was actually a bestseller in the U.K.), I’ve heard from many widows and widowers who were moved to share their stories with me, and it’s been gratifying to hear that I’ve been able to a put a voice to some of their experience, that they found something to connect with in my character. For a fiction writer, there is no greater validation. I’m very proud of How to Talk To a Widower, even if I still can’t quite get used to the title. Sure, on the surface it’s about death and grief, but really it’s about life and love and family and the myriad ways there are to screw up all three.
I hope you enjoy it.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Doug suffered a tragic and sudden loss, but in the fall-out of this event hasn’t always behaved the way one would hope to if in his shoes. Do you empathize with Doug or is his self-destructive behavior a detriment to his character? What allowances would you give to someone who is grieving, and when do their actions become unforgivable?
2. What are Doug’s views on marriage both before and after meeting Hailey? Do they change after he loses his spouse? Do you foresee him eventually remarrying?
3. Following his stroke, Doug’s father underwent a personality change. Describe how this changed his relationship with his family, especially with his son. Does Doug see him as a role model; why or why not? Discuss the parallels between father and son after a traumatic event.
4. How would the story be different if it were not told in the first-person narrative? Is Doug’s omniscient perspective at the heart of the novel? How would the tone change if it was being told from someone outside looking in at Doug?
5. How does the novel’s suburban setting play a role? What is the author’s attitude about living in the suburbs? Do you think the portrayal of the town is meant to be satirical?
6. The author is a man–were you reminded of this while reading the novel? Would a female author writing this story have as effectively portrayed the macho attitude and competitiveness that exists between the male characters?
7. “I had a wife. Her name was Hailey. Now she’s gone. And so am I.” This passage appears on pages 74, 141, 282, 329, and 330 and serves as a mantra. When Doug repeats it, do you think this “reality check” provides him with comfort or is it destructive to his recovery? Does its’ meaning, or his reasons for evoking the mantra, evolve?
8. Do you feel that Doug overcomes his grief? Does it change him; if so, how? Does grieving necessarily change a person? Can it be treated like other ailments that one conquers, or is it a permanent part of the sufferer, something that continues to live within them, ever changing but present?
9. Discuss the significance of setting. How are family dynamics illustrated by their surroundings and locale? Is Hailey’s home and her belongings another character that haunts this story–the bra left hanging on the bathroom doorknob, the bottles of perfume collecting dust on her dresser?
10. How do the author and his protagonist use humor both in the sense of it being a literary tool, and as a way the characters relate to each other?
11. Doug’s extended family is as endearing as they are dysfunctional. How do they compare to your ideal definition of a family?
12. Compare Doug’s relationships with his two sisters–Claire, his twin, and Debbie, the youngest. What role does being a twin serve in Doug’s life? How does Debbie’s wedding bring out the individual struggles of many of the characters in the novel?
13. Discuss betrayal as it manifests itself across a wide range of connections–between spouses, friends, and siblings.
14. “The course of true love is never straight.” (page 338) This is true for several of the characters. Do you think it is a universal truth? Is love so simple that people turn it into something which is complicated, or is it as complex as the people it involves?
15. Are you optimistic at the end of the novel that life will improve for Doug?