Reclusive movie star Jessica Lessing is finally coming out of hiding—to confront her father, a con man who has been selling her out to the paparazzi for years. On her four-day road trip to Las Vegas, she encounters three unexpected allies—Vivian, a teenager with newborn twins; Lynn, a dog shelter owner living in isolation on a ranch in rural Nevada; and Dana, a fearless ex-military bodyguard wrestling with secrets of her own. As their fates collide, each woman will find a chance at redemption that she never would have thought possible. MacKenzie Bezos’s taut prose, tough characters, and nuanced insights give this novel a complexity that few thrillers can match.
Excerpted from Traps by MacKenzie Bezos. Copyright © 2013 by MacKenzie Bezos. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Where did the idea for Traps come from?
A: It’s a little mysterious. I started with just an image of each of the characters at the beginning of the story—Dana stepping into the bite suit, Jessica in her kitchen with the ringing cell phone, Vivian hearing her babies crying in the next room, and Lynn searching the yard full of dogs for a girl. I didn’t have much more than this, but I felt they belonged in the same book. As I wrote and uncovered their stories, it became clear that they were unified by an idea I had been pondering for a while: that the things we feel most trapped by—bad luck, bad relationships, our own weaknesses or decisions—may in the end be essential to our good fortune. I was also very interested in the idea that our private struggles with our own demons and difficulties are all happening in parallel, and that without intention or recognition we might be playing important roles in one another’s dramas. The synchronicity of this—the design we might see if we were granted a moment of omniscience—is so beautiful to me.
Q: Did you know how the women’s stories were going to intersect from the beginning? Or did the writing process lead you to that connecting moment?
A: I knew from the start that they would intersect, but I didn’t know how. I knew both how the book began and how it ended. Figuring out the moment of intersection that would take each of them between those two points is where most of the difficult work was. But it was such a fun puzzle.
Q: Traps is your second novel, and it’s very different from your first. What was that like for you? And was it intentional?
A: Yes! This book is technically different from my first book in five ways—third person instead of first, multiple viewpoint characters instead of a single one, a much shorter timeline (four days instead of a year), present tense instead of past, and a very different ratio of exterior action to interior thought. It wasn’t intentional, but I do think my subconscious was probably doing me a favor. All of those new challenges made it a lot of fun to work on. And as much as I love Luther and his preoccupations, having four different main characters in Traps added a degree of variety to the process that I really enjoyed. They gave me more emotions to explore, more jobs and locations and problems to research. Every day with them surprised me.
Q: Did you find that one voice was easier for you to write? Or did you start to identify with one character more than the others?
A: No. I really loved all of them equally right from the start, which is part of how I knew using all four voices was right for the story. With my first book, I started out writing from multiple perspectives too, but the other family members’ voices were so much more difficult and so much less interesting to me, and the prose in their chapters was so much worse, it was clear very quickly that the whole book belonged to Luther. With Traps, I fell in love with all of four of them. Each of them felt real and fascinating to me from the start. I still think about them daily.
Q: The whole novel takes place over a span of just four days. Did you find that time constraint to be a challenge or was it liberating?
A: I loved it. Constraints give me a huge amount of excitement and creative energy, and I felt sure about the four day timeline from the very beginning. I always look forward to the moment in the process on a book when at least a dozen important elements feel too real to change. I love the puzzle that generates. The most interesting moments in a story often get forced by those limitations.
Q: What do you most hope that readers will take away from Traps?
A: One of my favorite things about books is the collaboration between the writer’s imagination and a reader’s personal experience. I can pick up book I read ten years ago, and it in many ways it will feel like a different story to me because my own struggles and preoccupations focus my attention on different things. I have no specific hopes about what people feel reading Traps except that they have fun, and that it feels real and powerful enough to them to affect how they see their own lives a little bit.
Q: Do you have a specific writing routine? Was it different for this second novel than it was for your first?
A: A few things were the same—writing daily is important for me, and I always write first thing in the morning—but Traps was both easier and much more fun for me to write. I think this is partly because I had better guesses from experience about how to tackle challenges as they came up along the way—e.g. this is the kind of problem I handle best if I get up at 4 am; this is the kind of problem I handle best if I just skip forward and circle back on it later; this is the kind of problem that gets easier if I stop and do a little research, etc. I also increased my working pace to boost my engagement with and enjoyment of the story. Any story is duller doled out in tiny bites, and it turns out this is true whether you’re reading it or writing it. Another difference was a little motivational trick I tried on myself. I didn’t talk about it or show it to anyone until I was finished, not even my husband, and this injected a huge amount of energy and anticipation into the process. With my first book I noticed a side effect of describing the story to people was that each time I did it sapped me of some of the drive to get the story down, sort of like the difference between your excitement recounting an amazing personal anecdote for the very first time to a best friend the day it happened to you, and the abbreviated version you’re repeating to people for the fiftieth time years later at a cocktail party. I wanted to save that first telling excitement and energy for the book. This also gave me a really rewarding carrot for finishing fast and completely. The sooner I finished, the sooner I could share it and talk to my husband about these characters that had been taking up so much space in my head over the last year and a half. By the last three months, they were so real and important to me, I could start crying just thinking about them while driving to pick up the kids from school.
Q: What was it like to work with Toni Morrison at Princeton?
A: I admire her writing intensely, and fortunately it turns out she is an equally gifted and dedicated teacher. She taught me a lot of lessons I still reflect on frequently while I’m working, and she was unbelievably generous with her time and encouragement long after I graduated. She really cares a great deal about her students. She’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.
Q: Are you working on a new project now?
A: Yes! I’m really excited about it. I’m always happiest when I’m writing every day.
Praise for MacKenzie Bezos' Traps
“Bezos writes spare, present tense prose that lends her writing an urgency as the four women slip in and out of psychic and physical peril . . . The novel is driven by emotional epiphanies . . . The message is that women can overcome and learn from ‘weaknesses and mistakes.’”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A character-driven thriller that is both suspenseful and intelligent . . . Traps crackles with ready-made Hollywood drama.”
“Traps captures the ugliness of living as well as the beauty. And it explores in short chapters and simple, moving scenes how small incidents link us in ways we’ll never know . . . It leads us where we need to go. And gently persuades us to face the adversity of what we call living.”
“This cleverly orchestrated, cool-toned novel . . . explores how women respond to threats, and do it free of emotional overreaction . . . The novel isn’t short on conflict . . . but its drama is powered as much by conversation and the women’s interior thoughts. Each woman is impressively rendered . . . at a different level of flinty no-nonsensehood that Bezos implies is essential to avoid the ‘traps’ of life.”
“The story of four women in distress . . . Bezos deftly weaves these disparate stories together and creates a moving tale of redemption. Some of the traps release a little too easily, but the characters are involving and the pacing so right that it doesn’t matter.”
“Bezos galvanizes the mundane with a sense of dread, presenting four women trapped by sad circumstances and their own fallibility . . . Bezos creates a sad, melancholic, nearly melodramatic world, almost too hard to stomach until we begin to see what she sees: ‘Life is full of things that feel like traps . . . Sometimes later we see that they led us where we needed to go.’”
“Sweet are the uses of adversity, writes Shakespeare, and MacKenzie Bezos explores that proposition through four damaged lives as they intersect over four suspenseful days. Her characters are beautifully delineated and arrestingly original. There is a sparkling, chiseled quality to her writing that puts me in mind of a master sculptor who commands the most disciplined craftsmanship in pursuit of passionate artistic ends.”
“The four incredible women at the heart of Traps will linger in my psyche for a long time. Bezos’s gift is to take what seem to be disparate lives, separate worlds and weave them into a single tapestry—a remarkable kind of alchemy. The real life lesson here is one of interconnectedness, of strength and courage emerging not despite, but because of adversity. Traps is a page turner, a satisfying read. I didn’t want it to end.”
—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
1. In the novel’s opening scene, the narrator describes the sensation Dana feels each time she lowers her thick protective helmet over her head at the start of a mission. “It muffles her hearing, but right away (she will never understand this about herself, but she will continue to crave it) her heart rate slows and her focus sharpens.” How does this relate to your understanding of Dana’s character in the first chapter? Look also at her conversation with her supervisor about her heart rate and her performance during the exercise with the dog. What is it that eludes her understanding, and what is it that she craves?
2. Discuss Dana’s relationship with her colleagues. Look in particular at the descriptive passage on page 8, which begins, “Velasquez is another of the firm’s agents—he has worked protective shifts with Dana a hundred times—and Corey Sifter coached her through a high-speed-emergency driving course and an evacuation simulation in a smoke- and flame-filled room, but neither man has ever been shown a photo on her BlackBerry or heard her describe a movie she saw over a weekend or watched her drink a beer.” How much does Bezos reveal in the course of the novel about the provenance of Dana’s issues with intimacy and personal boundaries? Are there hidden psychological reasons for Dana’s caution and unease? How much of her self-protectiveness at work do you think has to do with her gender?
3. Discuss your impressions of Ian. He is unlike any other character in the novel and, indeed, might be considered Dana’s polar opposite. Are they truly opposites? Are there any unexpected similarities between them? What do you think binds them together? Given Dana’s need for control, do you find it odd that she would be drawn to such a free spirit?
4. One of the first things we learn about Jessica is that her father is subjecting her to an extreme form of emotional blackmail. How has this altered and narrowed her life? What do you think of the choices she has made for herself and her family? The life she describes to her husband on page 28 is rich in familial connection and love: “I am not hiding! I’m more social than you are! I’m with people all the time…I’m sharing what we have! I’m making this a place the girls can be proud of. A beautiful shared community with a huge homemade extended family.” Is she lying to herself or is this true? How much of Jessica’s life is shaped by fear?
5. What are your impressions of the relationship between Jessica and Akhil? What are their perceptions of each other? Look especially at Akhil’s ruminations about Jessica’s inner beauty on page 25, concluding with, “If Akhil is her hero, Jessica is the closest he has to any religion…” Jessica holds Akhil in similarly high esteem, and has since the moment of their first meeting, which Bezos describes in detail on page 28. What special qualities does each bring to their marriage?
6. What is your sense of Vivian’s predicament in the first scene with Marco? She is very different from the other characters in the novel, and yet her circumstances correspond in fundamental ways to the plights of Bezos’s three other principal characters. How?
7. What information does Bezos impart to us about Lynn’s life by inventorying the items left behind by Charlene, and the array of similarly itemized and marked boxes in Lynn’s closet?
8. The objects in Lynn’s desk drawer are similarly revealing of her character, her struggles past and present, and the parameters of her life. Discuss the list that appears on page 50.
9. Discuss the novel’s structure. Why is it broken up into four days? How might this relate to Bezos’s themes?
10. Lynn and Dana manage their feelings of vulnerability by becoming exceptionally self-reliant. Jessica and Vivian are tormented by unwanted callers that force them to confront something painful in their pasts. Are there other correspondences between their respective predicaments? What do they all have in common? What traits do you think Bezos feels they share? Discuss.
11. How does Carla Bonham’s first message inform your perception of Vivian’s circumstances? Carla appears in the novel only once, in the novel’s final section, yet she performs a vital function. How has MacKenzie Bezos managed to create such an appealing and significant character through a series of brief telephone messages?
12. Discuss the scene in which Lynn reads the clipping from the Southern Nevada Gazette dated October 29, 1972. What does the reader learn about Lynn in this scene? How and why is this relevant to her present life?
13. Why does Lynn decide, on putting the clipping back into a weathered manila envelope, “it’s enough for now—a start.” What exactly has she commenced?
14. “Then she takes a marker from the drawer below and along the box of spools with her empty bottle and juice glass she writes ‘Lynn’ and opens the closet door, and sets it on a top shelf with the others.” How is this action symbolic? Why is it important, and what do you think it symbolizes?
15. Discuss the climactic scene in which Jessica and Lynn see each other for the first time. This is one of the novel’s most emotional and cathartic moments. How did you feel when Lynn read her list of all the ways in which she had hurt Jessica? Can there be forgiveness after such calamitous errors?
16. On page 177, Jessica tells Lynn, “I could have skipped it. All the grief he’s caused me and my family.” Lynn responds, “Apparently not.” What does Lynn mean? How does this relate to the novel’s themes? What do you think MacKenzie Bezos is suggesting about the nature of misfortune?
17. Discuss the passage about Dana, from Day 4, that begins, “On the drive home, how is she different?” In what sense could this question be asked about each of the four women? What has changed, specifically, for Dana?
18. “Sweet are the uses of adversity, / Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” This is the novel’s epigraph, taken from Shakesepeare’s As You Like It. How do these lines express the novel’s central themes?