Excerpted from Entering Normal by Anne D. LeClaire. Copyright © 2001 by Anne D. LeClaire. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.
A Conversation with Anne LeClaire
Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of A Theory of Relativity and The Deep End of the Ocean, and Anne LeClaire have been friends for many years. They sat down recently to discuss the finer points of Entering Normal, among other things.
Jacquelyn Mitchard: Anne, you were the mistress of the sexy psychologi-cal thriller. I loved your last thriller, Sideshow, and Bill Clinton, a man who knows about sexy psychological thrillers (or so they say), said he couldn't put it down. So then, after more than five years, you came back with an entirely different kind of novel, a drama that roved from the backyard fence to the courtroom rail. Why the change? Sideshow was your strongest book, so why did you choose to fix what wasn't broken?
Anne LeClaire: I don't think the switch is that dramatic. At least, it doesn't seem so for me. The themes of all my novels are related, so there was no conscious decision, no day when I sat down and said, "Okay, I'm going to take off and alter the form." For me, the story's form is instinctive. It grows from the characters and their situations. The idea for a novel comes to me, often in the guise of a dream or a short story. Then, I usually sit with it for a while to see if its back is strong enough to support the weight of a novel. Any book I write centers on those characters. They are my focus, first and last. I try to listen and let them tell me their stories.
JM: Why did it take so long to "Enter Normal," if you will? What was incubating in your transformation as a writer?
AL: Well, mostly it was because between the publication of Sideshow and the publication of Entering Normal, I wrote another novel that never drew breath, if you will. Or, at least it hasn't yet. It ended up on a closet shelf--and a closet shelf in a spare bedroom. Also, at the same time, I was beginning a nonfiction project about exploring the practice of silence, and I am still working on that book, too. So, here I was, writing both these works, when I dreamed a short story that pushed them aside in my heart (at least for the time being) and insisted on becoming Entering Normal. The themes that I was exploring--grief, the power of friendship, motherhood--are present in all of my previous works. I guess you could say I went into a deeper understanding of them in Normal.
JM: You did that in spades. I know they were much on your mind, as you came to terms with the death of your husband's dearest friend, your sister's death long ago, and your own struggles with your growing children-- and come to think of it, hand-feeding me through my multiple setbacks and frustrations with my family.
AL: All that was at the forefront--Jack, you know better than anyone that to surround yourself with living creatures is to enter the realm of risk and hurt, as well as joy and adventure. When you love, you court the possibility of loss. But otherwise, how do you live?
JM: You're entirely correct. But I would rather have the adventure and skip the risk.
AL: Wouldn't we all . . . but you learn from each loss, the depth of your core strength increases.
JM: Speaking of shallow, both of us started as reporters. And long after we became fiction writers, we both remain reporters. Why do you do that? I think I have a fear of unemployment. What about you?
AL: I find the roles of reporter and novelist to be complementary. You know that. Think of the research. The fear you don't feel--as an academia-based novelist might--of making the dreaded cold call. The job of both is to uncover the story, to ask questions and seek truths. One necessitates going out into the world and the other requires bringing that back and going into the exploration of the inner world.
JM: Let's not give up so easily on the subject of death. Or shallowness. Or celebrity. Do you have ambivalent feelings about a movie option on any of your novels? Or are you eager for the inevitable attention to your work a film can bring?
AL: Are you kidding? Don't you remember the night we were at Ragdale and you'd just completed The Deep End of the Ocean and everyone was saying, "I'd never let Hollywood TOUCH my book," and you spoke up and told about how you asked your children to pray every night, "God bless Grandpa, God bless Mommy; and please let Mommy's book be made into a movie"? I'm right there with you, sister. I'm imploring the universe for my book to be transformed into a retelling on the big screen. And yes, I understand it won't be "my story," as I wrote it. But that gives me a comfortable detachment because I know it won't be a literal translation and I'm not expecting that. And I never play that game of mentally casting actors for the various roles. The characters are already too fully formed. They're actors themselves.
JM: Do you read the reviews? Do you grieve the cruel reviews and celebrate the positive ones? I avoid both. One negative review sent me to bed for a whole day, only my eyes showing. You recall the phone call.
AL: I do. I think the healthiest thing would be to adopt a Zen-like sense of calm and acceptance and avoid reading reviews entirely. However, I'm not that sane. But I do ask my agent and publicist to shield me from any negative ones.
JM: Cheater, cheater. Don't you learn anything from the negative reviews?
AL: Only what kind of day the critic had! Seriously, for constructive feedback I trust my editor, my agent, and my readers.
JM: Entering Normal is about redemption, the excruciating process of relinquishing grief, which I know--from writing about some of the same issues myself--is sometimes more harrowing than the mourning itself. Can Rose ever really recover from the grief of losing her entire family, as well as her home?
AL: Every one of us experiences grief in our lifetime, and grief isn't something we ever recover from. What we do is to incorporate it, and reach some kind of accommodation with it. And it has a beautiful purpose in our lives.
JM: No, it doesn't! Wouldn't you rather be shallow?
AL: Really, it does. It opens us to compassion. As Rose says, grief doesn't break a heart in half, it cracks it wide open. One of the quotes I taped to my computer during the time I was writing Entering Normal was from Oscar Wilde: "Where there is sorrow, there is sacred ground." His words helped me open to a wider view of the role grief can command in our lives.
JM: You've been called a writer with a strong sense of magic, even New Age spiritualism. Is this the reason for Opal's obsession with signs, charms, and crystals? And what are her dolls? Are they intended to be Opal's children, or souls she calls forth?
AL: Like Opal, I believe we are surrounded by mystery to which we do, or must, largely remain blind. I love your idea of Opal's dolls as souls she calls forth. She sees in them personality as a mother would see in a child. I saw her dolls, also, as her specific mode of expression. They gave her the power of creativity, which, as we know, is transformative.
JM: It's transformative all right, for good or for ill. Still on the subject of the life within, let me ask you about something not very many people know. Twice a month, you keep silence. Are these your best days for creativity regeneration? Or are they a retreat from "the shop"?
AL: I do write on Silent Days. Often those days are my most productive. Silence is restorative. It rejuvenates me and enhances my concentration and fertilizes the deep place inside that is the creative prairie. It is the spring that feeds that place. It also has taught me to listen with greater focus.
JM: You are an active listener. In fact, you are the most patient listener I know. But I know sometimes it's difficult not to reach out, to cry out. Writing is the loneliest craft. It doesn't even make any noise. How do you militate against the loneliness? Can writers, who must compete in an increasingly tighter and more narrow marketplace, actually work together, offering each other support with a generous spirit? Or do you have to hold back, even with your sister writers?
AL: Publishing is competitive and we are raised to believe that in a competitive model, only one can win. I have had to learn another model. While it might run the economic system, competition is a straitjacket for artists. I know we've talked a lot about this. I remember one time when we were taking about this subject with our husbands and your Chris said, borrowing from a TV character, "To compare is to despair." I know from experience it's true. It also robs you of the fellowship of writing, and it is my friendship with you and other writers that sustains me and alleviates the loneliness. There are a few people who are always, always, on my side.
JM: What if Manette or I or another friend then blows you off the bookshelf? (I have this experience quite frequently with my dear friend Jane in Wisconsin.) What do you do with suffering? Or do you refuse to waste time on envy?
AL: I think it was Cynthia Ozick who called envy "the wasting disease." I usually feel the bite. I'm human. But only for a day, maybe two, and then I come back to something I read, written by a Buddhist monk. He wrote that when we fall deep into envy we have lost faith in our own lives. That has a profound ring of truth for me. I don't think faith in one's own path and envy for another's path can exist in the same space. To remind myself of this is the best antidote to envy I've ever encountered. I've tutored myself to hold firm to my belief in my own path, which is good practice. In writing and in life.
JM: But I want you with me. I want us both to be at the top, not practicing getting over envy. Don't you, secretly?
AL: Only secretly. But truly, some of the best readings I've ever given were the times our publishers let us read together, even though we theoretically were competing. That was so affirming . . . of everything.
JM: What is the process of writing about for you? Why bother with something so painful and difficult unless you're going to learn something as well as teach? What do you learn?
AL: The most painful parts of writing for me are the periods of self-doubt when the gremlins who live in my head whisper ugly stuff, fears that pollute my mind and silence me. But I think in writing we are in the act of constantly facing our own demons and penetrating the deep regions. It is the great gift writing gives us, and the aspect that makes it the most difficult.
JM: Are you at your peak as a storyteller? Or do you aspire? What do you need to learn, and are you learning it in your upcoming novel? I heard you had trouble deciding in which direction this book would go, quiet reminiscence or scintillating coming-of-age saga with mysterious twists? How did you decide?
AL: My aspirations always exceed my grasp--or what's a heaven for, huh? But, really, I think that's a good thing for a writer. The best thing I can do for myself is to get out of my own way and trust the truth of the story. And then write to that truth with as much insight, honesty, and heart as I am capable of giving.
JM: What other cul-de-sacs and mazes of human experience do you hope to explore? Who leads, you or the characters?
AL: I'll probably revisit familiar terrain: the ties of family, the things that bind us--one to another and to nature--the contradictions and complexities of the human heart, the pain of loss, how hate is born, the hold our dreams have on us, whether forgiveness must be earned, the redemptive power of friendship and love. Arriving at some understanding of these and conveying that to readers is the lifework of writers. And preachers, for that matter. Musicians and poets, too.
JM: It's a mouthful. It's a life-ful.
AL: No doubt. I'll never achieve it to the degree I wish I could.
JM: I don't believe it when fictionalists insist that characters become "real" to them. Are yours "real" to you?
AL: They are completely. I experience totally their sorrows and joys, their ambitions and yearnings, their disappointments and hopes, in the same way I would those of a friend. There were days when Rose's grief for Todd weighed so heavily in my heart I actually couldn't eat. So, in that way, the characters do live for me. Sometimes I wonder how they are getting on with their lives, in that parallel universe. However, I don't think about getting the phone and ringing them up, if that's what you mean.
JM: The dead child, Todd, remains a character throughout the novel. Does his mother, in a sense, find a way to take him with her when she leaves her life behind?
AL: Yes, because her love for him remains alive in her despite her paralyzing grief, and in spite of additional loss and disappointment. That is the triumph of love. It endures beyond the grave, and because of that, Todd--and your Dan, and my sister--will always be there, with us, as with Rose. Another of the quotes I had taped to the computer during the years I was working on the book was Patsy Cline's epitaph: "Death cannot kill what never dies."
1. When the novel opens, Opal is truly "Entering Normal." What is the significance of the novel's title? What is Opal's sense of the town, in contrast to the viewpoints of Rose and Ned? Is the locale aptly named? Why or why not?
2. Entering Normal shifts between points of view, giving voice to Opal, Rose, and Ned. How does this narrative choice impact the story? Do you feel that the story is evenly divided between these three characters? Why or why not?
3. Opal takes most of the significant steps of her life--from her dalliances with men to her move from North Carolina--because of signs. Are these real or imagined guideposts to her life? How do other characters in the story use signs in less explicit ways?
4. How is the theme of "fate vs. choice" explored throughout the book? Are Rose, Ned, and Opal vibrant participants in their own fate, or do they let life choose for them? How?
5. Rose immediately labels Opal as a girl who "sucks trouble to her." Is this assessment true, or is Opal more a product of circumstances? How does Rose's instant reaction to her new next-door neighbor shed light on the feelings she harbors about herself and those around her?
6. From the start of Entering Normal, Ned and Rose's marriage is in trouble. How have their different approaches to grief driven them apart? From their separate memories, how do you envision their lives before Todd's death?
7. Although Rose patiently waits for her dead son, Todd, to return and refuses to let go of his memory, her only glimpse of him is in a flashback. Why does the author use this technique? What do we learn about Rose's character--and about her relationships--from the episode?
8. Ned discovers that Rose has withdrawn from her writing class, and then lied to him about it. Why doesn't he confront her about this deception? How does Ned's assumption that Rose has been chastised as an inadequate writer shed light on his perception of her?
9. Although she's an unwed mother, Opal views Zack as the one perfect element to come out of her relationship with Billy. How does this view compare and contrast with Rose's relationship with Todd and with Ned?
10. In what ways is Opal similar to Rose as a mother, and in which ways would their parenting techniques diverge? How does Zack remind her of Todd, and in which ways is Zack different?
11. Neither Zack nor Todd ever had a sibling. Ethel, Ned's sister, is depicted as selfish and terrible. How is the motif of only children significant in the novel? How would each of the boys' lives have been different if he had been raised with a brother or sister?
12. In one of the book's most pivotal events, Rose lies to the doctor at the hospital, insisting that she was present when Zack fell and broke his arm. What would compel Rose to reach out to Opal? In what ways, other than motherhood, does she identify with her neighbor?
13. When Zack injures himself, Opal blames herself for not being able to control her "hunger." What types of hunger, both food-related and otherwise, spur conflict in the novel? How is Zack's fractured arm a symbol for larger destruction?
14. A snowstorm forces Zack to stay with Ned and Rose on New Year's Eve. How is that night a turning point for all of the characters? How does the friendship between Zack and Ned affect Rose? How does it hint at the coming relationship between Rose and Zack?
15. Opal first becomes involved with Ty because of a sexual longing; Rose hasn't slept with her husband since her son's death, and she flees when Anderson kisses her. How do each of these attitudes impact the women's lives? Is sex viewed as a necessity or a luxury in this novel?
16. When Billy files for custody of Zack, Opal dismisses Billy as someone who wants what he cannot have. How accurate is this judgment? In which ways is Opal similar to Billy?
17. When he visits Trudy's diner, Ned consciously compares his wife with the waitress. Trudy admits her jealousy of Ned's wife; how is Rose, in turn, envious of Trudy? How has Trudy dealt with the death of a loved one, and how does her attitude compare to that of Rose?
18. The writing teacher, Anderson Jeffrey, won't stop contacting Rose. In your opinion, what parts of their relationship exist in reality, and which lurk in Rose's imagination? What elements of Rose's personality are unleashed by Anderson's attention and by her writing? What other outside influences shape Rose's transformation?
19. In the custody hearing, Opal's own parents side with Billy about her incompetence as a mother. What reasons would they give for their actions? In which ways is Opal a product of the failings of her own childhood? How does Melva's relationship with Opal compare to Opal's with Zack?
20. Ned is expected to recover fully from his heart attack, but he unexpectedly passes away. How does this event parallel the death of his son? How does Ned's death provide a catalyst for Rose's rebirth?
21. While Opal wins custody of her son, she must return to her hometown. How do you envision that Opal will assert her own independence while living under the thumb of her parents and brother? How will Rose help her attain that goal?
22. Why do you think that Rose volunteers to go to North Carolina with Opal and Zack? Do you think that Rose is truly free of her ghosts, whether real or imagined?