A Conversation with Monica Wood
Monica Wood was interviewed by her sister, Catherine WoodBrooks. The sisters grew up, one year apart in age, in Mexico, Maine, with three other siblings. Catherine is vice president for student affairs at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and remains her sister’s biggest fan. This interview took place at Catherine and her husband’s camp on East Grand Lake in northern Maine during the family’s annual “sisters only, no boys allowed” week.The interview was punctuated (and often halted altogether) by familiar laughter.
Catherine WoodBrooks: I got a big kick out of seeing all the names we grew up with in Any Bitter Thing–Blanchard, Levesque, Derocher . . . I even noticed a minor character named after my mother-in-law. So my ﬁrst questions is: How come you’ve never named a character after me?
Monica Wood: Hah! Cat, I could never do you justice. Besides, I’d never hear the end of it if I gave you, say, blue eyes instead of green.
CW: Hazel. Speaking of real life intruding on ﬁction, the obvious connection I made was our real-life uncle, Father Bob, who reminded me of Father Mike.
MW: One of the great pleasures of writing this novel, especially in the early stages, was revisiting some of our favorite childhood memories.
CW: I loved the scene where Lizzy and Mariette are playing “shoe store.” I could picture us in Mum’s bedroom, with all of the shoes laid out on the bed.You really captured Father Bob’s great sense of humor. It would have been just like him to come into our imaginary shoe store and ask for something as outlandish as “a badger.” I could see us collapsing in laughter just as Lizzy and Mariette did. It was as if you plucked a chunk of our childhood and dropped it into this book.
MW: I’m so glad you feel that way.The relationship between Father Mike and Lizzy is so critical to this story. I tried to capture the essence of what we had with Father Bob–that feeling of utter comfort and joy, that sense of being totally recognized and loved. I wanted my readers to understand what Lizzy loses when she loses him.
CW: Is it a coincidence that Lizzy loses Father Mike at exactly the same age you were when we lost Dad?
MW: Whoa. That’s an interesting question. So many of these connections occur to me only after a book is ﬁnished. But you’re right: a big loss at age nine, probably not a coincidence. But it was a subconscious choice on my part.
CW: I loved that Father Mike comes across as a real priest, too, not just a fun and doting uncle. I remember Father Bob telling us when it was time to read his Breviary. It seemed like hours, and we actually had to entertain ourselves for a little while.
MW: Did I ever tell you that the epigraphs that precede each of the Father Mike chapters came directly from the places he marked in his own Breviary?
CW: How could you read anything? His handwriting was illegible!
MW: No, no. I mean those silk bookmarks–remember those? When I inherited the Breviary, I just left the bookmarks where they were, and then picked something from the pages he’d left marked. But there were also a few little personal prayers written throughout, in his terrible handwriting. I left those private.
CW: How did the character of Father Mike evolve in your mind?
MW: All I knew at the beginning of this thing was that Lizzy had been in an accident, and that someone had both helped her at the side of the road and also left her there to die. It wasn’t until I began to explore her background that I realized her priest-uncle had raised her. From there, after the building process that evolved from my early memories of Father Bob, Father Mike began to take over. He became his own person. And the big irony of this book for me is that despite the fact that I was guided in a sense by my memories of Father Bob– and in a more practical sense by his Breviary–I could never have written this book if he were still alive.
CW (laughing): I can’t imagine Father Bob reading all the swear words, for one thing.
MW: And he’d be outraged by some of Father Mike’s decisions. On so many levels he couldn’t have read this book. He was such a devout, by-the-book priest above all else.
CW: Remember how he used to refer to the guys who left?
MW: “Jumping the league.”They “jumped the league.”That’s in the book. But despite all those little real-life notes, the two people–Father Mike and Father Bob–parted company for me very early in the writing of this book.
CW: When I read the ﬁrst chapter, even though I didn’t know much about Lizzy, I sensed this was going to be a story about a broken woman. She was running, for one thing.You sense her gaping loneliness right off the bat. If I were to deﬁne a theme here–and I know how you hate this–was it about abandonment?
MW: Theme–as I’ve told you a million times–comes afterward, something you recognize after your story gets laid down. I think abandonment is accurate, though–speciﬁcally between fathers and daughters. Mariette and Lizzy have that in common. But abandonment shows up in more subtle ways, too. One of the most interesting relationships in the book, for me, is the one between Father Mike and God.Talk about abandonment! And Vivienne–not to give too much away here–works her own form of abandonment later on. Lizzy herself, feeling abandoned by Drew and Mariette, abandons them in turn by seeking out Harry Griggs.
CW: Speaking of abandonment . . . do you remember the Patty Duke Show, which we used to watch once a week–
MW (laughing):Till Mum made us give it up for Lent.
CW:Yeah, that was a tough one, but a good lesson actually. She wanted us to understand the concept of sacriﬁce. Anyway, I’m thinking of the episode where Patty decides to be a novelist and ends up weeping in her garret over thousands of pages, and when her father asks what’s wrong she says–
MW: She says,“I just killed Reginald!”
CW: That’s how I felt ﬁnishing your novel. I was so sad that I would never see these people again.
MW: That’s how I always feel, too, except my sadness is tinged with relief. By the time I’m done writing the novel, they’ve given me so much trouble for so long that I’m kind of glad to say good-bye.Thrilled, to be honest.
CW: Let’s talk a little about the complexity of these characters without giving away the story.You get so far below the surface of your characters. I could easily describe each character’s traits and ﬂaws. How do you fully develop these people? Is this a stupid question?
MW: No, but hard to answer. I live with my characters for quite a while–three to ﬁve years, usually–before I ﬁnally understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. It takes almost as long to get to know a ﬁctional person as it does a real person. Harry Griggs is a great example. For the ﬁrst year of this novel, his name was William Austin, and he was an art dealer from New York City who lived in one of those fancy condos on the Portland wharf.
CW: So how did you get from Mr. Fancy Pants to Harry Griggs?
MW: Mr. Fancy Pants began to bore me silly, is what happened initially. His white apartment, his wet bar, his view of the water, his everything. I never did get much below his surface, because I didn’t understand him. I’ve succeeded in the past with characters that I don’t understand, but they were interesting enough to me for me to take the trouble to crack their code. One day I just got sick enough of William Austin that I changed his name–to Billy Austin. That alone altered him profoundly. Have you ever heard of an art dealer named Billy Austin? Then I moved him from the Portland Wharf down to Hanover Street–a far more colorful neighborhood–and he became Harry Griggs, a barely functioning alcoholic for whom I had nothing but empathy.The whole book got easier after that.
CW: So you’re telling me that this novel was originally about Harry Griggs?
MW: It was about a woman named Lizzy, and the man who hit her in his car. That was William/Harry. For about two years, Harry was the actual hit-and-run guy. But then it became more interesting to have him do a good deed that wasn’t, strictly speaking, a good deed.
CW: Right, the “bad Samaritan.” One thing I love about this book is that nobody is just one thing.
MW: It wouldn’t be very much fun to write otherwise.
CW: The book is so full of surprises. Did you plan them all out?
MW: I followed my characters into a huge yarn-ball of plot, and then spent about three years ﬁguring out how to unravel it.
CW: I’m sorry, but I just do NOT understand how you do that. And I think most people can’t imagine how hard this process must be. But having you as a sister, I have to chuckle when I hear someone say they would like to take a year off to write a book. It’s amazing how many people think they could do what you do if they just had a spare year.
MW: Do you remember the time we were in a grocery line, and you took a magazine off the rack that had a story of mine in it, and showed it to the grocery clerk? She looked at it and said,“I’d be a writer if I had the time.”
CW (laughing): I resisted the urge to strangle her.
MW: I know! I thought: Be my guest,Toots. See how you like it. I’m lucky if I get a page a week.
CW: Enough about you and your writing process. Let’s talk about what was so familiar to me. That scene where they’re sewing shoes!
MW: Did I remember that right?
CW: Right down to the scent of the leather softening in the water, waxing the thread–should we say something about our neighbors?
MW: I guess we should. Our wonderful neighbor used to have her girls and us help her with her piecework.
CW: She got two dollars for a case of shoes–I think there were thirty in a case.
MW: That was a lot of work for two bucks. But don’t you remember it as the most fun thing we ever did?
CW: We’ve done a lot of fun things, Mon.
MW: I’ll put those in the next book, okay?
1. As the novel opens, Lizzy says, “I tell this with the authority of memory.” A page later, she says of the girl who hit her,“She tells the cop she thought she hit a deer. She tells her parents she thought she hit a deer. She tells the judge she thought she hit a deer. Eventually, I guess, she thought she hit a deer.”Shortly after that,she observes,“The human craving is for story, not truth. Memory, I believe, embraces its errors, until what is, and what is remembered, become one.” What is the author implying about the nature of memory, and the nature of this novel?
2. This novel is, in part, the story of a marriage.What do you see as the turning points in Drew and Lizzy’s marriage? Do you think Lizzy and Drew are well matched?
3. Father Mike was both a father, small “f,” and a Father, capital “F.” How well do you believe he fulﬁlled both these roles? How did one role enhance the other, or diminish the other?
4. 1Vivienne tells Father Mike, “Faith has nothing to do with the Church.” Is this true? Does Father Mike’s faith fail him, or save him? What about the Catholic Church–does it fail or save Father Mike?
5. Would you describe Lizzy as an emotionally guarded woman or emotionally generous?
6. What do you think is the essence of Lizzy’s bond with Harry Griggs? Why does she turn to him instead of to her husband or friend? Is he more than just a stranger who will listen? Why did Lizzy defend Harry to his daughter, Elaine?
7. Is Vivienne a good woman or a bad woman? Do you blame her for her crime? Was her behavior in the aftermath merely an instinct for self-preservation, or more than that? Has she paid enough of a penance?
8. Is Mrs. Hanson a villain? What would you have done if you had seen what she saw?
9. One of the most moving passages in the book is Father Mike’s lament about being an accused person: “You wonder what made your love so desperate and gushing.What impelled you to admire her child’s body in the bath, the seal-slick purity of it, the strength it seemed to be acquiring, its miraculous shape-shifting? You wonder why you loved her sweaty socks, her smell as you tucked her in, her breath after she ate a plum. How can you help but wonder? You could not pass her in a room without touching your hand to her head, your thumb to her chin. What did all that mean? Tainted, all of it, your dearest memories stained for good.” Are Father Mike’s parental feelings every parent’s feelings, or do his unusual circumstances make for unusual feelings?
10. When Father Mike refers to Lizzie’s calloused hands as “the working girl’s stigmata,” how does this colorful phrase suggest several layers of pride? A similarly layered observation comes at the end, when Lizzy begins to see Father Mike’s “latter-day self bleeding through the veneer of his present-day self,like a painting beneath a painting.” Do you think Lizzy is beginning to heal in this moment, or is she merely connecting to a time when she felt the most safe, the most loved?
11. Lizzy and Father Mike are, in one sense, innocent victims of circumstance. But how does Father Mike bring about his own downfall? After Vivienne’s confession, he has no choices. But could he have made choices long beforehand that could have prevented his undoing–a choice to listen to Vivienne when she “wishes to talk about Ray,” for example, or a choice to confront Ray rather than turn a blind eye?
12. What does Lizzy see in Andrea that makes her a favorite student? Do you think they are much alike?
13. What will become of Lizzy and Mariette’s friendship now that they understand the full truth of the people they loved? Is a shared childhood enough to sustain a friendship for life? Is there really such a thing as unconditional love?