Excerpted from Secret Language by Monica Wood. Copyright © 2002 by Monica Wood. 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 Monica Wood
Debra Spark is the author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint and
The Ghost of Bridgetown. She teaches fiction writing at Colby College
and Warren Wilson College's MFA Program for Writers.
Debra Spark: You dedicate this book, your first novel, to Anne
Wood, your sister, and, you write in the dedication, "my guardian
angel"? I know that two of your siblings (a brother and a sister)
are quite a bit older than you (and your other two siblings). Indeed,
Anne was your high school English teacher. Can you tell me
a bit about her and her influence on your writing?
Monica Wood: You just asked me about one of my favorite subjects!
Anne was my high school English teacher. She was--and
is--the center of our family.
Let me tell you a story about Anne, an emblematic story.
I grew up thinking I was some kind of child prodigy, and the evidence
for this was some letters I wrote to Anne, when I was five or
six years old, and she was in college. Over the years, Anne mentioned
these letters as proof positive of my talents. Recently, I was
going through my mother's cedar chest and found the letters. They
said things like, "Hi, Anne. How are you? I am fine. I miss you."
That was basically it. All of them were pretty much the same.
"Are these the letters you've been telling me about?" I asked her.
She said, "Oh, yes," all misty-eyed, and I'm saying, "Are these
ALL the letters?" I kept hoping there was a secret stash somewhere.
Debra Spark: Could you tell me a bit more about the rest of your
Monica Wood: It's an Irish-Catholic mill family from Mexico,
Maine. My grandfather, father, and brother worked all their lives
in the paper mill. My father was born and raised on Prince Edward
Island, and my mother's family also came from there, so
there's a strong Canadian influence. For example, we didn't grow
up with strong Maine accents--you can hear maritime Canada as
much as western Maine in our speech. Also, my family is kind of
unusual in that there are two generations of kids with the same
parents. Anne and my brother Barry are fourteen and nineteen
years older than Cathe, Betty, and me.
Debra Spark: One of the reasons I'm curious about your family
has to do with what your novel seems to say about families, about
how we are shaped--irrevocably--by who we come from. This
seems as much an issue of nurture as nature, since Isadora has inherited
so many traits from the father she never knew, and since
both Faith and Connie have been damaged by their parents and
saved--to a degree--by their childhood coping mechanisms which
continue into adulthood.
Monica Wood: The central notion in Secret Language is that
we're shaped more by shared experience than by blood. Isadora's
never going to fit in the way she wants to, because she didn't share
a childhood with Faith and Connie. They're going to take her in,
but that's not the same as absorbing her into their experience. Not
surprisingly, sibling dynamics have always fascinated me. For example,
I love my older brother, but because he joined the air force
the year I was born, I have a different relationship with him than
with my sister Cathe, with whom I shared a bed for eighteen
years. Because I never lived with my brother, he was always more
of an uncle figure than a brother figure. He has children my age.
On the other hand, because my brother and I are the musicians in
the family, we share something unique.
Debra Spark: You strike me--you'll excuse me for being personal--
as a very loving person.
Monica Wood: Oh, thank you.
Debra Spark: And yet your novel is about people who need to
learn how to love, who can't quite articulate either their needs or
their affections. I wondered where that came from, the interest in
Monica Wood: As I look at my work over time, I realize that a
recurring theme for me is of replacing things that have been lost.
People assemble families out of scraps sometimes, since everybody
needs some kind of family. For some people, family is the family
they were born into and never manage to shake. For others, it is a
family that they later assemble. Or a work environment that is
Debra Spark: Connie creates a family with Stewart.
Monica Wood: And Isadora, who is trying to collect on something
she thinks she missed out on. Life is a series of losses for
everybody, and we just keep filling up holes as we get older. Some
people have to start at a very early age.
Debra Spark: I happened to read your second novel, My Only
Story, before I read your first novel, Secret Language. They're very
different books, though I'm struck by one rather profound similarity.
In both books, there is a woman who is an observer of a
very connected, noisy family. In the case of My Only Story, it's
Rita, the hairdresser/narrator who wants very much to claim the
Dohertys as her own. In Secret Language, Faith marries into a
family very much like the Dohertys, and yet she's overwhelmed by
them. It all makes me think of the famous Tolstoy quote about
how happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are each
unhappy in their own special way. Do you agree with Tolstoy?
Monica Wood: Oh, no. I think happy families are happy in infinitely
varied ways and that happy families are not happy all the
time. Although I wouldn't want to write a novel in which a happy
family takes center stage, I love them as a counterpoint or backdrop
to the main character's struggle. A happy family can feel
burdensome if you're not happy yourself. No matter who you are,
you think of the world at some point in terms of insiders and outsiders,
and people rarely cast themselves as insiders. Feeling like
an outsider is a common human theme, and in my novels, it seems
to show up in the guise of a big family that's hard to penetrate.
Debra Spark: I wonder if you could say something about your title.
It refers, of course, to the secret language that Stewart mentions
on p. 154, the supposed secret language that indicates the
special understanding of siblings. It seems to me that many people
in your book speak a secret language. Connie and Faith. Connie
and Stewart. Even Billy and Delle, to a degree.
Monica Wood: My original title for this book was Muscle Memory.
My editor said, "You can't call this book Muscle Memory. It's
just stupid." But I actually think the original title describes some
aspects of the novel more precisely than Secret Language. When
you do something often enough for long enough, your muscle retains
the motion. Emotionally, that's what Faith is up against;
she's been closed off for so long it's almost impossible for her to
exist any other way. But Secret Language is a decent title, too, because
the notion of a secret language filters down to all the characters
in one way or another. Joe and Faith have their married
way of speaking long after the divorce; Connie and Stewart have
the banter of exhausted singles on the prowl; Billy and Delle have
their scripts and song lyrics--the only thing that seems to satisfy
them at all.
Debra Spark: I read somewhere that you feel your fiction is getting
more, rather than less, autobiographical, and yet I do notice a
significant autobiographical detail in this novel. So let's talk birds,
for just a second. Faith is an avid birder. She can even do that
trick of getting a black-capped chickadee to land on her finger.
I've seen your house. I've seen the bird feeders outside and all
those ornithology books inside. So, first, a personal question. Can
you do that chickadee trick?
Monica Wood: Yes.
Debra Spark: You can?
Monica Wood: I do it exactly the way I describe it in the book.
The first time I did it I was in the woods in New Hampshire, on a
beautiful fall day. This chickadee--well, they're fairly tame anyway,
not that you can reach up and pluck them off a branch or
anything--this chickadee perched just over my head and I
thought: "He's tame." I put up my hand and he landed briefly. I
silently thanked the woman--I was sure it was a woman--who
had tamed this guy at her feeder in Maine or Massachusetts or
Quebec, who knows where.
Debra Spark: A simple read of the birds in your book would be
that they demonstrate Faith's ability to love. She's sufficiently
damaged by her parents that she can't articulate her emotions
very well, even when Joe, her husband, needs her so desperately to
say what she feels. But what else do you think Faith's birding
reveals about her?
Monica Wood: Well, for her, I think all the birding--and the
flowers that she tends and her house--exhibits her natural instinct
for connection that has been blunted by other circumstances in
her life. I don't want to get too heavily symbolic with the birds.
They arrived in the book because I love birds. And they stayed in
there because I wanted to give this poor woman something to animate
her. After all, she's a tough character in a lot of ways.
Debra Spark: Three of your characters--Billy, Delle, and Isadora--
are all performers. They are also narcissistic, rather manipulative
people. Do they strike you as incapable of love?
Monica Wood: I think Billy and Delle really are. They're in love
with the idea of themselves like ...I hate to say it ...a lot of people
in that profession. They're also in love with the idea of themselves
with two perfectly beautiful children. But I do have affection
for them. They're talented. They're emotionally outsized. There's
something perversely attractive about them. Isadora is a whole other
problem, though. She's willing, she's capable, but she is also ...to
say self-involved would be putting it mildly. But she's not just a user.
Her motivations are more complicated than that. There's something
really appealing to her about having instant sisters.
Debra Spark: You're a singer yourself. Can you say a little about
your performing experience? Is there a reason you never pursued
a career more seriously?
Monica Wood: Well, let me tell you something . . . singing in bars
at night gets old really fast. You're breathing smoke all night long.
You're lugging equipment around. I did it for a few years. Now I
don't really do much performing to speak of.
Debra Spark: For eight years, you were a high school guidance
counselor. For me, some of your novel's most affecting material
concerns the years when Faith and Connie are in high school, surviving
as virtual orphans. I wonder if the characters of Faith and
Connie were drawn from something you came to understand
about adolescents when you were still working at Westbrook
Monica Wood: I was still at Westbrook when I started the early
versions of this book. Or it was right after I left. It's hard to remember
how a book starts. One thing about being a high school
guidance counselor is you see every kind of kid there is, and you
see kids in groups, which is different from interacting with your
own kid and your own kid's friends. You learn different things
about kids' hungers and fears. I did have kids who seemed to have
been born forty, like Faith. They broke my heart, but I admired
them deeply. They were able to somehow manage in the most
Debra Spark: Could you tell me a bit about the storytelling tradition
in your own family?
Monica Wood: I learned early on that if you were going to tell a
story, you had to do it in a certain way. It had to be suspenseful or
funny or compelling or flat-out eye-popping or nobody would
bother repeating it. When someone starts to tell a big story in my
family, we all sigh, "Oh, here goes Mrs. McCarn," referring to
one of the many Prince Edward Island eccentrics we grew up
hearing about. Apparently this woman couldn't tell a story without
grabbing a coat off a rack or a pan off the stove, roaming the
room to act out all the parts. We make fun of this storytelling
method, but we all do it. My mother was the champion, but my
sister Cathe and brother Barry are right on her heels. They can tell
a hell of a story.
Debra Spark: One thing I admire about your novel is how you
handle time. Both how you move forward in time, and how you
make time itself (memory and the past) part of your story. When I
finished your novel, I thought of the optimistic Grace Paley quote
about how characters should be allowed "the open destiny of
life." I have a rather happy sense of what may happen next to
your characters, though I realize there are questions left up in the
air. Certainly your novel feels done, and yet I wouldn't mind re-meeting
these characters in another novel or story. Have you ever
felt tempted to go back to them? Or indeed to return to any of the
characters in your finished work?
Monica Wood: Never. Never. By the time I finish with a novel, I
have spent so much time with these people that I love them dearly,
but I never want to see them again.
Debra Spark: Your own formal education in writing was relatively
brief--you attended a month's worth of writing workshops
with George Garrett--and yet you yourself are a rather famous
writing teacher in Maine. Your students speak of you with great
affection and admiration, and you've written several books about
writing. How does teaching writing influence your own writing?
Monica Wood: I love to teach writing, because it keeps me in
mind of the fundamentals and reminds me what I know--and
don't know--about craft. Just this morning I was struggling with
a scene in a new novel, not getting what the scene was about, but
stubbornly writing and writing, all this lyrical folderol. Then I
asked myself how I'd advise a student in my situation. I ended up
doing one of my favorite exercises: rewriting a scene using words
of only one syllable. Once I dispensed with the fancy stuff, I got to
the heart of something that had been bugging me for weeks.
Teaching prevents me from getting overconfident about my abilities
just because I'm experienced. Probably the opposite is true:
The more experience you have the less you can rely on your past
1. When Faith remembers her wedding, she believes "that if she had only been able to warm herself, if she had only stayed inside her body as she pledged forever and true, she might have learned to live with a man like Joe, a man who loved her." What is Faith acknowledging about herself here? Does it seem like a fair self-assessment?
2. Why is it so hard for Faith to be part of her husband's family? After Joe confesses his affair, Faith speaks of an "unpleasant but strangely welcome feeling: her old, frozen self, finally delivered from the terrible trouble of love." Why is the feeling unpleasant? Why welcome? What has been troubling, for her, about the love that Joe--and the Fullers--seem to offer and, perhaps, demand?
3. What kind of mother is Faith? What kind of sister? What kind of wife? What kind of love is she adept at? What kinds of love mystify her?
4. What characters seem to speak a "secret language" in this book?
5. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy holds that art is the means of transferring feeling from one man's heart to another. Where does Wood best convey the feelings of her characters?
6. A pleasure of fiction: We can understand another person's version of the world, even if it isn't our own version of the world. When did you trust a character's version of the world, even if you didn't agree with it? Did you ever fail to trust a character's version of the world when you disagreed with it? I.e., did your disagreement ever make you feel that the character wasn't believable?
7. What does Isadora James mean to Connie? To Faith? How do you interpret Isadora's interest in finding her half-sisters and maintaining a relationship with them?
8. Faith and Connie are clearly damaged by their past. What, exactly, is it that they can't seem to escape about their past? Are they doomed to re-enact the past forever, or does the story suggest a way to move beyond childhood damage?
9. How would you describe Connie and Stewart's relationship?
10. Connie and Faith are very different people, yet Connie, too, struggles with love. What is hard for her about love? Faith, we know, fears love, as if it might kill her. Does Connie have a similar fear?
11. When Connie is in the hospital, Isadora whispers to Faith, "I wish I had to be here, Faith. Some burdens are good." Given Isadora's later behavior, it is hard to take this sentence at face value. Is Isadora in earnest? Does she seem to be speaking the truth, whether or not she means it?
12. Secret Language circles back to memories of Granny (memories of Granny's home start the book and memories of Granny seem to resolve the sisters' altercation in Part VI) and to significant performances. (Part I ends with the line, "It is opening night," and Part VIII is titled "Opening Night.") Why does the novel circle back this way? What does the novel seem to be suggesting about memory and the influence of the past?