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A novel by the author of Reunion

Written by Therese FowlerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Therese Fowler



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On Sale: February 12, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-50462-3
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group

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On Sale: February 26, 2008
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Meg Powell and Carson McKay were raised side by side on their families’ farms, bonded by a love that only deepened as they grew. Everyone in their small rural community in northern Florida thought that Meg and Carson would always be together. But at twenty-one, Meg was presented with a marriage proposal she could not refuse, forever changing the course of her life.

Seventeen years later, Meg’s marriage has become routine, and she spends her time juggling the demands of her medical practice, the needs of her widowed father, and the whims of her rebellious teenage daughter, Savannah, who is confronting her burgeoning sexuality in a dangerous manner and pushing her mother away just when she needs her most. Then, after a long absence, Carson returns home to prepare for his wedding to a younger woman. As Carson struggles to determine where his heart and future lie, Meg makes a shocking discovery that will upset the balance of everyone around her.

Excerpt

One

Reminders. Meg didn’t need more of them, but that’s what she got when her father let her into his new apartment at the Horizon Center for Seniors Wednesday evening. He held out a plastic grocery bag.

“What’s in there?”

“Notebooks, from your mother’s desk,” he said. “Take ’em now, before I forget.”

He did more and more of that lately, forgetting. Idiopathic short-term memory loss was his doctor’s name for his condition, which right now was more an irritation than an issue. Idiopathic, meaning there was no particular explanation. Idiopathic was an apt term for Spencer Powell, a man who lived entirely according to his whims.

Meg took the bag and set it on the dining table along with her purse. This would be a short visit, coming at the end of her twelve-hour day. Hospital rounds at seven am, two morning deliveries, a candy-bar lunch, and then four hours of back-to-back patients at her practice—women stressing about episiotomies, C-section pain, stretch marks, unending fetal hiccups, heavy periods, lack of sex drive, fear of labor. And still four hours to go before she was likely to hit the sheets for five. An exhausting grind at times, but she loved her work. The ideal of it, at least.

“So how was today?” she asked, taking the clip out of her shoulder-length hair and shaking it loose. “Are you finding your way around all right?”

“Colorful place,” he said, leading her to the living room. He sat in his recliner—why did old men seem always to have one, fraying and squeaky, with which they wouldn’t part? “Pair o’ guys over in wing C got a great system for winning on the dogs.”

The greyhounds, he meant. “Is that right?” she asked, looking him over. He looked spry as ever, and his eyes had regained the smile she’d never seen dimmed before last fall. His hair, once the brightest copper, had gone full silver, making him seem more distinguished somehow, silver being more valuable. Distinguished, but no less wild than before—a man whose mind was always a step ahead of his sense. His diabetes was in check, but since her mother had died suddenly seven months earlier, Meg felt compelled to watch him closely. She was looking for signs of failing health, diabetic danger signals: swollen ankles, extra fluid in the face, unusual behaviors. All his behaviors were unusual, though, so that part was difficult.

The other difficult thing was how he kept confronting her with random pieces of her mother’s life. A pitted chrome teapot. Stiff and faded blue doilies from their old dining hutch. Rose-scented bath powder, in a round cardboard container with a round puff inside. Last week, a paper bag of pinecones dipped in glitter-thick wax. Trivia from a life forever altered by the sudden seizure of Anna Powell’s heart, like a car’s engine after driving too long without oil.

“Yeah, those boys said they win more’n they lose, so what’s not to like about that? Hey—my left kidney’s acting up again. Steady pain, kinda dull, mostly. What d’ya s’pose that’s about?”

“Call Dr. Aimes,” she said, as she always did when he brought up anything relating to his kidneys. “Tomorrow. Don’t wait.” He looked all right—but then, she’d thought her mother had too. What a good doctor she was; she should’ve seen the signs of runaway hypertension, should’ve known a massive heart attack was pending. She never should have taken her mother’s word that she was doing fine on the blood pressure medication, nothing to worry about at all.

Her father frowned in annoyance, as he always did when she wouldn’t diagnose him. “What good are you?”

“If you go into labor, I’ll be glad to help out. Otherwise, tell Dr. Aimes.” She would remind him again when she called tomorrow.

His apartment was modest—one bedroom, one bath, a combined dining–living area, and a kitchen—but comfortable, furnished mostly with new things. He’d sold the business, Powell’s Breeding and Boarding, along with the house and all the property, in order to move here. She didn’t know the financial details because he’d insisted on handling that part of things himself. But he assured her he could afford to “modernize” a little, as he’d put it.

Meg looked around, glad to not see much of her mother here. Memories were like spinning blades: dangerous at close range. Her mother’s empty swivel rocker, placed alongside the recliner, would take some getting used to. If her father would just stop regurgitating things from the farm—or send them to her sisters, all of whom wisely lived out of state—she might be able to get comfortable with the new order. Was that his strategy, too? Was he giving things away so that he didn’t have to be reminded of his loss every time he opened a closet or a drawer? He certainly wasn’t much for facing the past, himself. The past was where all his failures lived.

Well, they had that in common.

He pulled the recliner’s lever and stretched out. “So yeah, I’m doin’ fine. Why’nt you bring Savannah over Sunday; we’ll have dinner in this establishment’s fine dining room. They just put in one of them self-serve ice cream machines, you know what I’m talking about? Toppings, too. Y’oughta see the old farts elbowing each other to get there first! If I’d known this place was so entertaining, I’d’ve moved Mom here. This would be her kind of place, don’t you think? Lots of biddies around to cackle with.”

“Sure, she would’ve liked it a lot,” Meg said. The farm had overwhelmed her mother perpetually, even after Brian and his father— officially Hamilton Savings and Loan—forgave her parents’ mortgage as promised. In the years afterward, Meg liked to take her mother out to lunch for a break and a treat; she offered her spending money (as she secretly did her sisters too), but the reply was always, “Oh, heavens no, Meggie. You’ve done so much as it is. Besides, you know your father.”

She did. Though cursed with a black thumb for profits, he was too proud to let her put cash in their hands. He hadn’t been too proud, though, to let her—to encourage her—to take Brian’s offer. That was different; no money changed hands. Meg hadn’t had to give up anything—Carson didn’t count. It was her choice anyway, that’s what he always said.

“Hey—why’nt you bring our girl over here for dinner Sunday?” He said this as if the idea had just occurred to him.

She stood next to his chair, noting how his invitation didn’t include Brian—intentionally? “I’ll do that,” she said. “Right now I need to get going.”

“Okay, fine, go on, Miss Hectic Schedule. I know, you got things to do. Y’oughta enjoy the ride a little more, though. Now that you can. Don’t you think? I’m fine here, everything’s settled. I don’t know why you don’t just get on with your life.”

Now that she could? What was he talking about?

He continued, “You’re not happy. I’ve known that for a long time. Move forward, Meggie, while you’re still young.”

She looked at him quizzically—he didn’t always make sense, but he hated having it pointed out—and kissed him without pursuing it. “I’m fine, Dad,” she said. “It’s just been a long day.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Therese Fowler|Author Q&A

About Therese Fowler

Therese Fowler - Souvenir

Photo © Elena Seibert

Therese Fowler is the author of Souvenir, Reunion and Exposure. She has worked in the U.S. Civil Service, managed a clothing store, lived in the Philippines, had children, sold real estate, earned a B.A. in sociology, sold used cars, returned to school for her MFA in creative writing, and taught college undergrads about literature and fiction-writing -- roughly in that order.  With books published in nine languages and sold world-wide, Therese writes full-time from her home in Wake Forest, NC, which she shares with her husband, four amiable cats, and four nearly grown-up sons.

 

 

 

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Therese Fowler


Question: As the title implies, one important element of Souvenir is, so to speak, the remembrance of things past . . . But it’s also very much a book about seizing the present, despite mistakes and regrets. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of the novel?

Therese Fowler: Early on, Meg, who anchors the story, thinks about how her father doesn’t like facing the past because “that’s where all his mistakes live.” They have this in common, as she’s made some questionable decisions of her own and has preferred to avoid thinking about some of the more troubling results.

When she begins reading her late mother’s diaries, though, she has no choice but to recall her past–which also manifests itself in the form of her old love, Carson, returning to their home town, where she still lives, in order to plan his wedding.

Ever more, and in unexpected ways, Meg is forced to decide whether she will live consciously or let the power of regret continue to dictate her life. It’s more than just her life that’s involved, though; Meg has a teenage daughter who, more than anyone else, will benefit–or suffer–from her decisions.


Q:Souvenir is told from the point of view of three strong characters: Meg Hamilton, Carson McCay, and Meg’s daughter, Savannah. Could you tell us a bit about these characters? What goes into the decision to make a particular character a point-of-view character, and how important is that to the success of the novel?

TF:Point-of-view is a matter that readers rarely pay attention to, yet it’s one of the most important story decisions an author makes. Your experience of the story depends upon my rendering of it.

When I first conceived the novel, I knew Meg’s story began with her as an essentially “good” but naïve young woman who faced a loyalty dilemma. And I knew Carson, well-meaning but similarly naïve, was the man on the losing end. Then I thought about the effects of Meg’s dilemma and realized that giving both her and Carson a voice was essential–because you can’t really know Meg’s story without knowing Carson’s story, and vice versa.

Making Savannah a point-of-view character gave me the opportunity to create an interesting and dramatic parallel to Meg’s past and present. And the more I worked with Savannah the more I understood how her story was inseparable from the others’.


Q:Souvenir is your first published novel–how did you go from aspiring writer to published writer? Any tips for readers hoping to follow in your footsteps?

TF:I got here by pretty much the same route all the novelists before me did: determination, rejection, perseverance, and a LOT of writing. Trust me, there were many times when I wondered why I was trying to have a career in one of the most capricious industries in existence–but there I was, in my late thirties, finally seeing that I had a real aptitude for writing, I loved writing, and I wanted so much to make it my profession.

Taking myself seriously was a huge first step in the right direction. That led me to apply to a graduate writing program, which led to a teaching assistantship (which would give me the credentials to teach if writing wouldn’t pay the bills), and what I like to call protracted immersion in the art and craft of fiction writing.

There are as many routes to writing success as there are writers who got there. My advice, however, applies across the board: read widely, learn the craft by whatever means you can–workshops and writing programs are ideal, but even self-study can work–apply what you learn, and persevere.


Q:Are you the kind of writer who plots her books out extensively beforehand? How much freedom do you give your characters within the plot structure?

TF:I only ever have a vague idea of the plot ahead of time. I’ll know where the story starts, and have a strong idea of where it will end, but most of what happens in between arises organically as I get to know the characters.

It’s like this: as I write a scene, I’ll discover something about the character that hadn’t occurred to me previously. That will, in turn, influence how I direct the story–the process is in essence a continuous series of exploring if-then possibilities, peppered with that ephemeral writing magic–small epiphanies that enrich the story in ways even the author doesn’t expect.

Q:That’s certainly evident in Souvenir. It’s hard to steer clear of spoilers when talking about this aspect of the novel, but I think it’s fair to say that the book contains elements that at first seem familiar, if not conventional, but then takes these elements in unexpected directions.

TF:I consciously aimed to create a story that both fits and overturns convention, because as a reader I love such stories best. Predictability is boring! I want a book to take me someplace I haven’t been before, show me sights I haven’t seen, make me ponder questions I may not have pondered before.

The writing process, though, was filled with surprises. While I knew that I wanted to create such a story, I wasn’t sure how I would do it.

Q:Again, not to give anything away, but did you ever encounter resistance from your agent or editor on these points? I can see how readers might find your choices, or rather the choices of your characters, somewhat controversial!

TF:No, no resistance at all. In fact, my agent sent the book out to editors two days after reading it–she didn’t ask me to change a thing. And judging by the number of interested publishers we had, I’ll venture to guess that the controversial aspects were considered a plus.

I’m delighted to be working with people who, like me, believe that good fiction should ask something of the reader. The history of storytelling isn’t one of simply entertaining the masses but of also advising, instructing, challenging the status quo. Think of the controversy Mary Shelley explored, and incited, with Frankenstein–which, as those who’ve read it will know, is far more a domestic tale about the tragic effects of an arguably honorable intention than the Hollywood-ized story it’s become. Readers are smart; we should strive to offer them smart books.

Certainly I will have readers who, because of their personal and/or religious convictions, will disapprove of certain choices my characters make. I understand that. My hope, though, is that the story will spark some dialogue, get those people to at least reconsider their views.

Q:Is the novel based at all on your personal experience?

TF:In some ways, yes. I lost my mother in 2004; she died, quite suddenly, while staying with me to undergo cancer treatment at the Duke University Medical Center. The loss was crushing, and I so wished she had left behind some sort of diary or journal, some tangible piece of herself that would immortalize her, even if just to our family. Souvenir explores the power those left-behind words can have.


Q:You mentioned your MFA in writing . . . What are the benefits and drawbacks of entering a writing program? Does it really help in the quest for publication?

TF:The primary benefit for me came from the study of literature, which is at the core of every program, combined with critiquing my classmates’ stories and having mine critiqued. Like learning architecture by studying the greatest works and then also designing one’s own structures, earning an MFA gives a breadth and depth of study most writers can’t get by other means.

The main drawbacks are, for many people, the expense and the time commitment involved. I was fortunate that my husband could carry the primary burden of earning our living, and fortunate to win a teaching assistantship, which covered my tuition and paid me a small stipend.

Inasmuch as a writer applies what she learns and does the necessary pavement-pounding, then yes, the programs do help lead to publication. But by no means is an MFA a kind of publication carte blanche. Whether there are initials after your name or not, you still have to tell a good story and tell it well.

Q:How did working as a writing teacher effect your own writing?

TF:First, it forced me to quantify things I knew only by instinct. I’d never studied writing at the nuts and bolts level, and so in preparing to teach it that way, I gave myself a crash course using the same writing text I was assigning to my students.

I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve ended up doing things in what most people would say was the wrong order. And yet it’s a system that seems to work pretty well for me. In this case, learning those writing basics in concrete, teachable terms elucidated the craft in ways my graduate workshops never had. Suddenly I understood the hows and whys, which then helped me teach effectively and, I suspect, write more effectively.

Q:How do you juggle the responsibilities of being a spouse and parent with the creative demands of writing?

TF:I learned to juggle real objects in Mr. Greathouse’s junior-high science class–I gather it was an exercise in following specific instructions (important in the sciences), but what it demonstrated, to me at least, was that even something as complicated as juggling could be mastered if one approached it systematically.

I can’t say real life is as easy to manage as a trio of colored balls, and I’m certainly no model of efficiency, but I do try to give each facet its due attention. I write mostly during regular work hours, then do the mom and spouse stuff after work and on weekends, just like people with more standard jobs.

Like everyone, I sometimes drop a ball. Fortunately my sons are teens now and becoming more self-sufficient. And they, along with my husband, are wonderfully supportive.

Q:Like many writers today, you maintain an active web presence via blog (Making it up, http://theresefowler.blogspot.com/) and website (www.theresefowler.com). Has the Internet made writing a less solitary occupation in some ways? And is that a good or a bad thing?

TF:Creating a blog connected me to a terrific community of like-minded readers and writers–I love that! Writing full-time is very solitary, but because of the so-called blogosphere, I can always find someone to visit with when I have a few minutes. We’ve discussed how our blogs are like virtual kitchen tables or, depending on our moods, bar tables. My blogmates or blog pals, as I like to call them, bring in welcome questions and ideas and perspectives.

Q:On your blog, you mention that Souvenir is a hybrid between literary and commercial fiction. What did you mean by that?

TF:Maybe because I came to writing as primarily a reader of popular fiction, I’ve never had much patience with the high-mindedness of some in the literary world. Not everyone has the privilege of higher education, not everyone has an elevated vocabulary. Esoteric as a quality standard isn’t sensible for the book industry–which only exists because readers buy books.

So even while earning my MFA, my approach to storytelling was to imbue my work with literary elements–vivid prose, emphasis on character, universal themes, symbolism, etc.–while telling stories that I hoped would have broad, i.e. commercial, appeal. This approach is not always well-received in MFA programs.

But I think the literary-commercial chasm is a false divide. Some “literary” works sell phenomenally–which makes them, de facto, commercial.

I believe in accessibility. Does that make me a sort of literary populist? I also believe that readers should get a quality product for their money, no matter what genre they prefer.


Q:Are you working on another book? And if so, can you tell us anything about it?

TF:Yes, I’m hard at work on my next novel. Like Souvenir, it’s a love story; this time I’m writing about a woman who gets a second chance with an old flame, only to inadvertently fall in love with his son, who’s nine years her junior. It’s a story of old conflicts, long-held secrets, upended expectations, and the question of what makes love true.


From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Did Meg realistically have a choice about whether or not to marry Brian? Even if her parents pressured her into it for reasons of their own, was anything stopping her from refusing?

2. Meg sacrifices her happiness for the sake of her parents . . . But do you think she embraces the role of martyr a little too zealously? And do you think the prospect of attending med school and becoming a doctor entered into her decision at all?

3. Does Meg ever come to grips with the fact that her parents have betrayed her by pressuring her into a loveless marriage solely for financial gain? How does this affect the kind of woman she becomes, as wife and mother?

4. Is there a chance that Meg’s decision to marry Brian had something to do with her feelings for Carson? Is there evidence in the novel that she was afraid of the intensity of those feelings and was looking for a way out? What other reasons, besides what Meg consciously believes, could have influenced her decision?

5. William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” How do those lines pertain to Souvenir?

6. Did Carson give up on Meg too easily back in 1989? What more could he have done to win her back?

7. Are Meg and Carson trapped by the past? Are their memories and regrets preventing them from moving forward?

8. Do you think Carson and Meg find some peace and happiness by the novel’s end? What has the price of that been for them and for those close to them? Was it worth it?

9. Did you find Meg to be a likable character? Why or why not?

10. How would you face a diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease? Do you think Meg makes the right choice, all things considered?

11. Does Carson do the right thing by breaking off his engagement with
Val? Isn’t he treating her the same way that Meg treated him years
earlier?

12. What do you think made Savannah so vulnerable to Kyle’s advances
and to his introduction of drugs and sex into their relationship?

13. Does Souvenir accurately portray the dangers of the Internet, or does
it exaggerate the threats?

14. Truths are revealed and documented in Anna’s notebooks and Meg’s
journal. Meg is determined to write only the truth in her journal, even
if she is unable to tell the truth in real life. How is the written word
liberating and restrictive? What purposes do the notebooks and journal
serve to their authors and readers? Are Carson’s lyrics his form of
journal, a means of catharsis?

15. Is Meg a good mother? How does her relationship to her own mother
color her relationship with Savannah?

16. The question of Savannah’s paternity plagues Meg throughout her
marriage–yet, when she has the chance to know the answer, she’s no
longer so sure she wants it. Is this ambivalence understandable? In
her shoes, would you choose to know?


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