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Robin Black Discussion Questions: Life Drawing

April 27th, 2015

Life Drawing2Life Drawing by Robin Black is a taut and suspenseful telling of a marriage in turmoil. The discussion questions below can help guide your book club through Augusta and Owen’s story.

1. Gus is the voice that guides you through Life Drawing. She’s in charge of how this story is told, including how you hear about her own missteps and failings. How do you think she feels about having had an extramarital affair? She obviously regrets hurting Owen, but does she seem to regret what she did, or just that she told him? Does her attitude toward that change over the course of the book?

2. Alison seems to hold an almost mystical power over Gus from the moment of her arrival. What are some of the things that make Gus so susceptible to the lure of a new friend—­and not just a friend, but someone to whom she tells her most intimate secrets? Gus has a history of disloyalty. Is it fair to say that she’s being disloyal to Owen again by telling Alison so much, or is it understandable that Gus would need a confidante?

3. How would you describe the condition of Owen and Gus’s marriage at the point of Alison’s arrival? What do you think would have happened to them if they’d just gone on living in solitude? Were the resentments bound to bubble up without a third person involved, or did they seem settled into a good life? If there were problems that were bound to come up, what were some warning signs?

4. Why do you think the “boys in the walls” ignite Gus’s creativity? Why does discovering the accounts of their fates and the photographs she finds feel so instantly meaningful to her?

5. Because Gus has neither a mother nor a child, everything about motherhood is filtered through her guesses at what it might be like—­from both sides. How does this lack of personal experience play out in the story? How does it affect her feelings toward Alison? Nora? Laine?

6. As Gus’s father, Sam, loses his memory, Gus seems to feel torn about the loss. There are clearly upsetting aspects, but she also describes the two of them as growing closer. Why do you think this is?

7. How do you feel about Nora? Is she scheming and selfish, or just very young; or maybe a combination of all? Gus herself describes two possibilities: forgiving her for being naïve and just one part of a complex tragedy, and blaming her for everything coming apart. Where do you think she falls on the line between the two?

8. How do Gus’s feelings about Laine change in the course of Laine’s visit and her critique of Gus’s work, and also afterward? What does that visit give Gus beyond a new view of her paintings? And do you think Owen’s reaction is fair, or is it time for him to let up a little bit?

9. Gus is surprised by the lengths to which Alison goes because she’s worried about Nora, and also by how much Alison has confided in her daughter. As Gus becomes furious over these things, what else may be fueling her anger besides the immediate impact? She seems so often to be jealous of that mother-­daughter bond. Is that jealousy present all the way through the story, or do other angers replace it entirely?

10. What do you think Ida’s role is in the story? Why was Gus so afraid of her judgment back when she was painting the shop? What or whom does Ida represent to her?

11. Do you believe Owen in his account of what has gone on between him and Nora? Gus only has his word that there was no sexual relationship, so that’s all the reader has too. Would he have told her if there were? Do you believe that she really helped him write? Could he have said that as payback to Gus, or does that seem out of character for him?

12. Toward the end, Owen describes their marriage as a “universe.” What do you think that means? Does that seem like a good way to describe marriages in general, or is it something more specific about the two of them?

13. Why do you think Gus has so much difficulty painting human beings? Are there any explanations to why she lacks “the life drawing gene” as she calls it? Do you think she has any theories about why that may be?

14. What do you suppose happens in Gus’s life a year after the end of this book? Two years? Can you imagine her staying out in the country? Moving back into the city? Falling in love? So much in Life Drawing is about the past. What do you suppose the future holds?

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A Note from Robin Black, Author of Life Drawing

April 23rd, 2015

Writing is an odd profession. I sometimes startle when I realize how much of my time I spend fretting about people who don’t actually exist. Am I truly an adult woman playing for hours each day with imaginary friends?
It turns out that I am.
For me, it has been important to try and understand what drives a seemingly sane, even sensible, down-­to-­earth person to dwell in her own imagination so much of the time. What are the moments that have shaped this need in me? How does my fiction relate to my life, to the whole experience of living a life, as I understand it? How can my thoughts about my “real life” endow my written work with a life of its own?
Of course, I’m not the only person who wonders about these things. At events, in interviews, I am often asked, as I believe all writers are, about the creative process, about the interaction between daily life and that other world, the one that finds its way from an author’s imagination, onto the page; and then off the page again, as the reader’s imagination is engaged.
“Why do you write?” The truth is that I don’t have an answer—­yet. But I have a seemingly insatiable curiosity, myself.
So I have kept notes of a kind, written essays on the subject, trying both to understand for myself and to convey to others how this whole strange ­business works—­for me, anyway. How I think about myself as a writer, how those imaginary friends of mine and I interact.
I very much hope you enjoy the three pieces that are included here. They are glimpses at my process, at what lies behind Life Drawing, and at why it is the book it is, the one you are holding in your hand.
Finally, I share these essays with much gratitude to you, all readers, because without you every writer’s imagination, including mine, would remain forever trapped on the page.
Robin Black
November 2014
Origins
When I was ten years old, my maternal grandmother moved into our home.
Grandma was a tough cookie. Stetl born, Lower East Side raised, the second oldest of eight children, she had a reputation as something of a drill sergeant. “There’s a right way and wrong way to do everything,” she would say, and it was clear into which category her way invariably fell. But she was also a woman of contradictions, unexpectedly tenderhearted and always likely to side with the underdog, yet someone who hadn’t hesitated to smack around her own sons when she thought they’d stepped out of line. A good woman? A bad woman? A complicated woman. And, by the time she moved in with us, a seventy-two-­year-­old woman paralyzed from the waist down from spinal tumors for more than ten years, widowed for most of that time.
As a writer, it’s inevitable that you will wonder sometimes what made you the sort of writer you are: what periods of your life, what particular events, what people. And of course there is no one answer, but there are occasional little glimmers you can find, moments and exchanges that seem to explain something, if not everything.
Grandma’s move into our home offers such a glimmer for me.
During the initial years of Grandma’s paralysis, including after her widowhood, she lived alone, a couple of hours away from us. Her six sisters did her shopping, provided her with constant ­company, playing crucial roles in helping her maintain her independence. One of my earliest memories is of watching her wash the dishes, the gravity of her weight against the sink keeping her upright. She wasn’t exactly mobile, but she wasn’t exactly immobile either until something shifted the wrong way in her spine, robbing her of the ability to live alone. When she moved in with us she became entirely bedridden—­as she would remain until her death at nearly eighty-­three.
I was ten years old that first day, November 1972, and I wasn’t exactly a happy child. My father, alcoholic and depressive, had been institutionalized for several months in ’71, an experience preceded and followed by disorienting chaos in our home. I wasn’t carefree or untouched by sorrow, but I remember being giddy around my grandmother’s move into our home. It seemed like such fun, so cool to have her there. I wrote poems to commemorate the event and I raced my brothers in her two wheelchairs, and I made a lot of what I thought were very funny jokes about—­of all things—­an imaginary suitor for her.
Mercifully, I don’t remember the specifics of this long-­running joke of mine. He had a name, I know. He had a spiel. All of it now gone from my mind. But what I do remember, very clearly, is the evening when my mother took me into  the hallway and suggested that I stop. “You know,” she said, as gently as was possible, “if Grandma hadn’t been in a wheelchair, stuck in her apartment, she might have had a real suitor. She might have remarried after my father died. It may be a joke that makes her sad.”
My memories of that moment are painful still. What shame I felt, even horror, at my mother’s words. I had thought I was being funny, cheering everybody up, when in fact I had been causing pain. I sense even now the reverberations of a shattering at my foundation, a change at a molecular level of who I understood myself to be. No longer a child who could look at another person without wondering what their life was like, but someone with a need to know what other people’s stories might actually be. Really. What is truly happening. Below the surface. Not because I suddenly became a better person, but because I was terrified of again inadvertently being cruel.
And the impact goes beyond having had an empathic imagination shocked into me that night. When my story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this came out, I was asked repeatedly why I wrote so often about older women, women in their seventies and beyond. “I feel a commitment to reminding people that older women are still complex human beings,” I would say. A worthy goal? Of course. A lifelong creative penance for having been a little girl who hurt someone by forgetting that fact? Perhaps.
What does it take to write fiction? What determines our obsessions? What guides us toward the places and people by which our imaginations are sparked?
These questions are both unavoidable and unanswerable. But I know that all our lives are scattered with just such glimmers as the one I have described, shimmering shards of ourselves that can provide a glimpse of how we became who we are—­and that may always remain sharp enough to cut.
Lessons
For a long time now, I have suspected that there is a connection between regret and fiction writing—­beyond the obvious possibility that one might regret having started to write fiction.
Regret is among a very few emotions that cannot exist without an accompanying narrative. I wish I had gone on that trip because . . . I would have met the love of my life; I wouldn’t have set the house on fire; I would have seen Paris before I died, and been less sad at the prospect of mortality. All regret carries within it a particular kind of fiction, one in which the rules of causality and chance are suspended—­in favor of the certainty of a happy end. We, who should know better, convince ourselves that we can know what would have happened in the past . . . if only. Regret makes confident storytellers of us all.
It also makes us fans of bold action, retrospectively, anyway. Social scientists and psychologists concur that people are more likely to regret what they have not done than what they have done. It’s the missed opportunity that feels poignant. The road not taken. The challenge to which we did not rise. The one who got away.
And what does this have to do with writing fiction? Rather a lot, I think.
Often, with a project, I reach a point at which the whole structure suddenly takes on a moribund, fruitless quality. The narrative, once brimming with life and promise, has died. It’s a terrifying moment. I feel immediately despondent and also strangely trapped by the story itself, as I have written it. As soon as words are put on paper, they can take on an unhelpfully inevitable quality, cornering us: Here is what’s happened so far. Now what can you do to fix it?
But, as regret narratives demonstrate, what didn’t happen in a story may actually be a far greater resource for imaginative thinking than what did. These days, when I hit that frightening place, I go back to the pages, looking for an unexplored moment brimming with a character’s might have beens.
I look for lines like: I thought of telling him what had happened the night before, but decided against it. Or, I could have run after her and pleaded my case, but instead, went back inside. Or, She stared at the phone for a very long while, but never picked it up. In other words, I look for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret.
This happened to me with Life Drawing. Early in the novel Gus visits Alison after Alison’s former husband has made a horrible scene in the driveway; but in the earliest drafts of the book, I had Gus only consider visiting Alison, then decide against going. When I reread those drafts, though, it felt like an exchange between the two women was missing. A scene in which Alison might show some genuine vulnerability, in which Gus might be the one offering support—­or failing to, due to her own limitations. And so I went back into the book, searching for a moment at which someone had shied away from taking action; and sure enough! I found Gus staring at Alison’s home, thinking she ought to go check on her neighbor, and then turning away. So of course I remedied that, pushing her through Alison’s door.
I write about it now as if Gus were the one making decisions, but who was engaging in the avoidance, really? Gus? Or her creator? What if the scene turned out to be too complex to write? What if I lacked the finesse to make it both powerful and subtle, as it needed to be?
For an author, it’s tempting to keep things simple, to write the easiest path. When a piece is fresh I have something like a heat sensor that detects possible complications, the difficult exchanges, the entanglements that might arise; and my first instinct is to avoid such sparks and fires—­until one day I sit down at the computer to find a narrative that has taken on that deathly, immobile quality.
In real life, we don’t get to return to our twenties and step onto the airplane we were afraid to fly; or audition for the play that excited and scared us; or ask the beauty to dinner; or take the job in Boston. In real life, the past has passed and all we can do is tell ourselves poignant, intuitively well-­crafted stories of what might have been. If only . . .
But in fiction, what is done can be undone and what hasn’t been done can still be done. And maybe this is some of the joy of being an author, this magical ability to reach back in time and replace a poorly placed no with a well-­placed yes. And see what happens. See that something happens.
And, whatever happens, no regrets.
Intuitions
My tale begins with an abandonment. Mid 2009. A twice-­drafted novel, already sold while in progress as part of a two-­book deal. My dawning realization that it wasn’t very good, that it would never be very good, that it was, in fact, that banal yet terrifying thing I swore I would never create: the desk drawer novel. The starter novel. The learner’s novel.
I got going too late at this writing game to waste years on a practice book, I told myself. And the Heavens laughed.
I found myself still under contract with the directive to write a different novel, one I had yet to begin. In many ways, this was an enviable place to be, I know. But also not. Because it turns out that if you spent your forties writing short stories mostly under the assumption that no one terribly far outside your own circle of family and friends will ever read them, it’s not then so easy to write anything, much less a form at which you’ve already failed, certain that there are editors looking at their watches, marking days off on their calendars, peering over your shoulder, wondering what the hell you’re doing with your time.
It was an awful couple of years. The unfulfilled contract made me miserable. I woke up morning after morning physically ill with anxiety. In dark hours, I told my husband that I’d already said what I had to say in my eleven stories, that I was finished writing fiction. The well was dry. The need to communicate, sated. And that the novel was a dumb form anyway. This last bit mumbled while pouting and kicking at the couch. Stupid novels.
By January 2012, when I arrived at an annual retreat I shared with writer friends, I was a wreck. It had been nearly three years since I’d withdrawn my mediocre novel, and in that time, I had started and stopped at least four new projects. I hated them. They hated me. I hated myself. Oh, and did I mention, I had officially given up? Well, not officially. I hadn’t yet informed my agent or my editors, but deep in my heart I just knew. . . .
On the first night of that retreat, I told my friends that the whole project was doomed. Rather than write, I would use the week to goof off, reading and composing whatever—­prose poems, limericks, ad copy—­rather than keep trying to make a book appear from thin, unimaginably thin and ungenerous, air.
I spent the first five days of that retreat reading Ovid—­with no idea what led me there. I read about Medusa, and I read about Pygmalion and Galatea. I read about the woman who could turn people into stone and the woman who had once been stone herself. I imagined Medusa seeking out Galatea so she could ask for a report on what it was like to be a statue—­Galatea being the only person who could inform her about that state. So, about these people I keep petrifying, what are they actually going through? I felt sorry for Medusa, for her hideous visage, for her shitty future, for how ­everyone hated her. And I felt sorry for Galatea, too, awakening from eternity to find herself being fondled by some man whose appreciation of her perfection left no room for her choice, for her desires.
And then on day six of the retreat I put Ovid to the side and wrote the first five thousand words of Life Drawing—­five thousand words that have remained essentially the same through every revision. The next day, I wrote the next four thousand words.
I tell the story that way, with no real lead up to that happy turn, because that is what it felt like at the time. One day I couldn’t write a novel; and the next day I could write a novel—­a novel that over the following year poured out of me in a way no story ever had, as though all I’d had to do was remove the lid and tip the container just a bit.
But what had actually happened?
It is, of course, impossible to know. Creativity cannot be understood. It can be analyzed and maybe even quantified in some ways, but never understood. There were elements to which I can point as having likely helped. Wise comments from the women there with me, and also from other friends who were not. A sudden realization that having cut my teeth writing about families, I was tired of writing about families. But among those elements and more, it is the five days of reading Ovid to which I now return. Because in those ancient stories, my own obsessions were lurking, outside my anxieties about productivity, directing me back toward why I write.
The connection between Life Drawing and my reading then is clear to me now. Life Drawing is a novel about many things, but at its core lie questions involving the relationships between art and mortality, art and grief, art and redemption. What does it mean, as an artist, to give life to human figures? What does it mean when an artist cannot give life? And how does all of that relate to the human capacity, again and again, to renew our faith in others, in ourselves? As with the Ovid I read, these are the strands that are braided at my novel’s heart: mortality, forgiveness, and art.
So, when did I figure out that my reading about stone figures, mortal petrification, statues coming to life, and irreversible punishment, had any bearing on my book? Only today. The day on which the manuscript has been taken from my hands and sent off to the copyediting department for polishing.
And that is how novels are made.
Except it is not.
The next novelist to tell you the conception story of her book is unlikely to recount immersing herself in Ovid’s Metamorphoses for five days. She may talk about the bad marriage she needed to leave. Or writing longhand. Or traveling for research. Or doing yoga. Because none of our stories are the same. Some authors are great planners and plotters. Some know what they will write long before they ever begin, while I am a stumbler and a wanderer, often blind to my own motivations, ignorant about what pulls me along, clueless about what lights me up. I am a writer whose strength is not foresight, but intuition, a quality that this time—­thankfully, unexpectedly—­guided me just where I needed to go.

Life Drawing_BlackWriting is an odd profession. I sometimes startle when I realize how much of my time I spend fretting about people who don’t actually exist. Am I truly an adult woman playing for hours each day with imaginary friends?

It turns out that I am.

For me, it has been important to try and understand what drives a seemingly sane, even sensible, down-­to-­earth person to dwell in her own imagination so much of the time. What are the moments that have shaped this need in me? How does my fiction relate to my life, to the whole experience of living a life, as I understand it? How can my thoughts about my “real life” endow my written work with a life of its own?

Of course, I’m not the only person who wonders about these things. At events, in interviews, I am often asked, as I believe all writers are, about the creative process, about the interaction between daily life and that other world, the one that finds its way from an author’s imagination, onto the page; and then off the page again, as the reader’s imagination is engaged.

“Why do you write?” The truth is that I don’t have an answer—­yet. But I have a seemingly insatiable curiosity, myself.

So I have kept notes of a kind, written essays on the subject, trying both to understand for myself and to convey to others how this whole strange ­business works—­for me, anyway. How I think about myself as a writer, how those imaginary friends of mine and I interact.

I very much hope you enjoy the three pieces that are included here. They are glimpses at my process, at what lies behind Life Drawing, and at why it is the book it is, the one you are holding in your hand.

Finally, I share these essays with much gratitude to you, all readers, because without you every writer’s imagination, including mine, would remain forever trapped on the page.

Robin Black

November 2014


Origins

When I was ten years old, my maternal grandmother moved into our home.

Grandma was a tough cookie. Stetl born, Lower East Side raised, the second oldest of eight children, she had a reputation as something of a drill sergeant. “There’s a right way and wrong way to do everything,” she would say, and it was clear into which category her way invariably fell. But she was also a woman of contradictions, unexpectedly tenderhearted and always likely to side with the underdog, yet someone who hadn’t hesitated to smack around her own sons when she thought they’d stepped out of line. A good woman? A bad woman? A complicated woman. And, by the time she moved in with us, a seventy-two-­year-­old woman paralyzed from the waist down from spinal tumors for more than ten years, widowed for most of that time.

As a writer, it’s inevitable that you will wonder sometimes what made you the sort of writer you are: what periods of your life, what particular events, what people. And of course there is no one answer, but there are occasional little glimmers you can find, moments and exchanges that seem to explain something, if not everything.

Grandma’s move into our home offers such a glimmer for me.

During the initial years of Grandma’s paralysis, including after her widowhood, she lived alone, a couple of hours away from us. Her six sisters did her shopping, provided her with constant ­company, playing crucial roles in helping her maintain her independence. One of my earliest memories is of watching her wash the dishes, the gravity of her weight against the sink keeping her upright. She wasn’t exactly mobile, but she wasn’t exactly immobile either until something shifted the wrong way in her spine, robbing her of the ability to live alone. When she moved in with us she became entirely bedridden—­as she would remain until her death at nearly eighty-­three.

I was ten years old that first day, November 1972, and I wasn’t exactly a happy child. My father, alcoholic and depressive, had been institutionalized for several months in ’71, an experience preceded and followed by disorienting chaos in our home. I wasn’t carefree or untouched by sorrow, but I remember being giddy around my grandmother’s move into our home. It seemed like such fun, so cool to have her there. I wrote poems to commemorate the event and I raced my brothers in her two wheelchairs, and I made a lot of what I thought were very funny jokes about—­of all things—­an imaginary suitor for her.

Mercifully, I don’t remember the specifics of this long-­running joke of mine. He had a name, I know. He had a spiel. All of it now gone from my mind. But what I do remember, very clearly, is the evening when my mother took me into  the hallway and suggested that I stop. “You know,” she said, as gently as was possible, “if Grandma hadn’t been in a wheelchair, stuck in her apartment, she might have had a real suitor. She might have remarried after my father died. It may be a joke that makes her sad.”

My memories of that moment are painful still. What shame I felt, even horror, at my mother’s words. I had thought I was being funny, cheering everybody up, when in fact I had been causing pain. I sense even now the reverberations of a shattering at my foundation, a change at a molecular level of who I understood myself to be. No longer a child who could look at another person without wondering what their life was like, but someone with a need to know what other people’s stories might actually be. Really. What is truly happening. Below the surface. Not because I suddenly became a better person, but because I was terrified of again inadvertently being cruel.

And the impact goes beyond having had an empathic imagination shocked into me that night. When my story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this came out, I was asked repeatedly why I wrote so often about older women, women in their seventies and beyond. “I feel a commitment to reminding people that older women are still complex human beings,” I would say. A worthy goal? Of course. A lifelong creative penance for having been a little girl who hurt someone by forgetting that fact? Perhaps.

What does it take to write fiction? What determines our obsessions? What guides us toward the places and people by which our imaginations are sparked?

These questions are both unavoidable and unanswerable. But I know that all our lives are scattered with just such glimmers as the one I have described, shimmering shards of ourselves that can provide a glimpse of how we became who we are—­and that may always remain sharp enough to cut.


Lessons

For a long time now, I have suspected that there is a connection between regret and fiction writing—­beyond the obvious possibility that one might regret having started to write fiction.

Regret is among a very few emotions that cannot exist without an accompanying narrative. I wish I had gone on that trip because . . . I would have met the love of my life; I wouldn’t have set the house on fire; I would have seen Paris before I died, and been less sad at the prospect of mortality. All regret carries within it a particular kind of fiction, one in which the rules of causality and chance are suspended—­in favor of the certainty of a happy end. We, who should know better, convince ourselves that we can know what would have happened in the past . . . if only. Regret makes confident storytellers of us all.

It also makes us fans of bold action, retrospectively, anyway. Social scientists and psychologists concur that people are more likely to regret what they have not done than what they have done. It’s the missed opportunity that feels poignant. The road not taken. The challenge to which we did not rise. The one who got away.

And what does this have to do with writing fiction? Rather a lot, I think.

Often, with a project, I reach a point at which the whole structure suddenly takes on a moribund, fruitless quality. The narrative, once brimming with life and promise, has died. It’s a terrifying moment. I feel immediately despondent and also strangely trapped by the story itself, as I have written it. As soon as words are put on paper, they can take on an unhelpfully inevitable quality, cornering us: Here is what’s happened so far. Now what can you do to fix it?

But, as regret narratives demonstrate, what didn’t happen in a story may actually be a far greater resource for imaginative thinking than what did. These days, when I hit that frightening place, I go back to the pages, looking for an unexplored moment brimming with a character’s might have beens.

I look for lines like: I thought of telling him what had happened the night before, but decided against it. Or, I could have run after her and pleaded my case, but instead, went back inside. Or, She stared at the phone for a very long while, but never picked it up. In other words, I look for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret.

This happened to me with Life Drawing. Early in the novel Gus visits Alison after Alison’s former husband has made a horrible scene in the driveway; but in the earliest drafts of the book, I had Gus only consider visiting Alison, then decide against going. When I reread those drafts, though, it felt like an exchange between the two women was missing. A scene in which Alison might show some genuine vulnerability, in which Gus might be the one offering support—­or failing to, due to her own limitations. And so I went back into the book, searching for a moment at which someone had shied away from taking action; and sure enough! I found Gus staring at Alison’s home, thinking she ought to go check on her neighbor, and then turning away. So of course I remedied that, pushing her through Alison’s door.

I write about it now as if Gus were the one making decisions, but who was engaging in the avoidance, really? Gus? Or her creator? What if the scene turned out to be too complex to write? What if I lacked the finesse to make it both powerful and subtle, as it needed to be?

For an author, it’s tempting to keep things simple, to write the easiest path. When a piece is fresh I have something like a heat sensor that detects possible complications, the difficult exchanges, the entanglements that might arise; and my first instinct is to avoid such sparks and fires—­until one day I sit down at the computer to find a narrative that has taken on that deathly, immobile quality.

In real life, we don’t get to return to our twenties and step onto the airplane we were afraid to fly; or audition for the play that excited and scared us; or ask the beauty to dinner; or take the job in Boston. In real life, the past has passed and all we can do is tell ourselves poignant, intuitively well-­crafted stories of what might have been. If only . . .

But in fiction, what is done can be undone and what hasn’t been done can still be done. And maybe this is some of the joy of being an author, this magical ability to reach back in time and replace a poorly placed no with a well-­placed yes. And see what happens. See that something happens.

And, whatever happens, no regrets.


Intuitions

My tale begins with an abandonment. Mid 2009. A twice-­drafted novel, already sold while in progress as part of a two-­book deal. My dawning realization that it wasn’t very good, that it would never be very good, that it was, in fact, that banal yet terrifying thing I swore I would never create: the desk drawer novel. The starter novel. The learner’s novel.

I got going too late at this writing game to waste years on a practice book, I told myself. And the Heavens laughed.

I found myself still under contract with the directive to write a different novel, one I had yet to begin. In many ways, this was an enviable place to be, I know. But also not. Because it turns out that if you spent your forties writing short stories mostly under the assumption that no one terribly far outside your own circle of family and friends will ever read them, it’s not then so easy to write anything, much less a form at which you’ve already failed, certain that there are editors looking at their watches, marking days off on their calendars, peering over your shoulder, wondering what the hell you’re doing with your time.

It was an awful couple of years. The unfulfilled contract made me miserable. I woke up morning after morning physically ill with anxiety. In dark hours, I told my husband that I’d already said what I had to say in my eleven stories, that I was finished writing fiction. The well was dry. The need to communicate, sated. And that the novel was a dumb form anyway. This last bit mumbled while pouting and kicking at the couch. Stupid novels.

By January 2012, when I arrived at an annual retreat I shared with writer friends, I was a wreck. It had been nearly three years since I’d withdrawn my mediocre novel, and in that time, I had started and stopped at least four new projects. I hated them. They hated me. I hated myself. Oh, and did I mention, I had officially given up? Well, not officially. I hadn’t yet informed my agent or my editors, but deep in my heart I just knew. . . .

On the first night of that retreat, I told my friends that the whole project was doomed. Rather than write, I would use the week to goof off, reading and composing whatever—­prose poems, limericks, ad copy—­rather than keep trying to make a book appear from thin, unimaginably thin and ungenerous, air.

I spent the first five days of that retreat reading Ovid—­with no idea what led me there. I read about Medusa, and I read about Pygmalion and Galatea. I read about the woman who could turn people into stone and the woman who had once been stone herself. I imagined Medusa seeking out Galatea so she could ask for a report on what it was like to be a statue—­Galatea being the only person who could inform her about that state. So, about these people I keep petrifying, what are they actually going through? I felt sorry for Medusa, for her hideous visage, for her shitty future, for how ­everyone hated her. And I felt sorry for Galatea, too, awakening from eternity to find herself being fondled by some man whose appreciation of her perfection left no room for her choice, for her desires.

And then on day six of the retreat I put Ovid to the side and wrote the first five thousand words of Life Drawing—­five thousand words that have remained essentially the same through every revision. The next day, I wrote the next four thousand words.

I tell the story that way, with no real lead up to that happy turn, because that is what it felt like at the time. One day I couldn’t write a novel; and the next day I could write a novel—­a novel that over the following year poured out of me in a way no story ever had, as though all I’d had to do was remove the lid and tip the container just a bit.

But what had actually happened?

It is, of course, impossible to know. Creativity cannot be understood. It can be analyzed and maybe even quantified in some ways, but never understood. There were elements to which I can point as having likely helped. Wise comments from the women there with me, and also from other friends who were not. A sudden realization that having cut my teeth writing about families, I was tired of writing about families. But among those elements and more, it is the five days of reading Ovid to which I now return. Because in those ancient stories, my own obsessions were lurking, outside my anxieties about productivity, directing me back toward why I write.

The connection between Life Drawing and my reading then is clear to me now. Life Drawing is a novel about many things, but at its core lie questions involving the relationships between art and mortality, art and grief, art and redemption. What does it mean, as an artist, to give life to human figures? What does it mean when an artist cannot give life? And how does all of that relate to the human capacity, again and again, to renew our faith in others, in ourselves? As with the Ovid I read, these are the strands that are braided at my novel’s heart: mortality, forgiveness, and art.

So, when did I figure out that my reading about stone figures, mortal petrification, statues coming to life, and irreversible punishment, had any bearing on my book? Only today. The day on which the manuscript has been taken from my hands and sent off to the copyediting department for polishing.

And that is how novels are made.

Except it is not.

The next novelist to tell you the conception story of her book is unlikely to recount immersing herself in Ovid’s Metamorphoses for five days. She may talk about the bad marriage she needed to leave. Or writing longhand. Or traveling for research. Or doing yoga. Because none of our stories are the same. Some authors are great planners and plotters. Some know what they will write long before they ever begin, while I am a stumbler and a wanderer, often blind to my own motivations, ignorant about what pulls me along, clueless about what lights me up. I am a writer whose strength is not foresight, but intuition, a quality that this time—­thankfully, unexpectedly—­guided me just where I needed to go.

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April 17th, 2015

The One That Got AwayThe Place We Call Home

I just wanted to write a love story.

As an incurable romantic, I’ve always had a soft spot for those stories that are as warm and gooey as the center of a molten chocolate cake. My lifelong favorite, over even Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, is the story of Anne of Green Gables’ Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. So that’s what was foremost in my mind when I started working on The One That Got Away. But what I soon began to realize, as the book developed, is that it’s equally a story about home.

Home is one of those simple ideas that gets more complicated the harder you think about it. On one hand, it’s such a universal concept that, in its broadest terms, it ought to mean the same thing to everyone—­a place of shelter, safety, belonging. Just the phrase “keep the home fires burning” conjures a place we can return to after wandering, where someone we love will be waiting . . . a place that will always be there. But, unthinkable as it is to ourselves as children, what happens to all of us is that our definition of home changes over time. And sometimes it changes more than once. The thing is, though, that each of our homes, and the people who share them with us, shape us in ways it takes years to fully understand.

Most of us begin with the same kind of home: Where we come from. Where we grew up. Our oldest, most fundamental place; the place we really began. It may not have been happy, but it’s still our origin, and for better or worse, we can’t forget it, or carve away the imprint it left upon us.

For me, this home was the ten acres in the Blue Ridge foothills where my parents built their dream house. Before then, we had been living among clinking sailboat masts and dapper white-­clad midshipmen in Annapolis, Maryland, and my six-­year-­old self utterly failed to see what had so enchanted my mom and dad with this steep and unruly hillside in the boondocks. By the time construction was completed, though, I was as bewitched as they were. And partly because the house had been designed according to my parents’ specifications, I was always aware of the way my physical environment reflected who our family was. One big bathroom for the three of us to share, but separate his-­and-­hers art studios for them. The spacious open-­plan living/dining room, because my parents disliked the tradition of separate “formal” rooms that sat mostly unused. The immense windows along the western façade, so we were seldom out of sight of the rippling blue silhouette of the mountain range that formed our horizon, thirty miles away.

My mother took her last breath in that house. Her blinds were often open as she lay in her bed; I can only hope the beauty of the mountains eased her pain. She had bright eyes and a joyful smile, and the kind of laugh that could make friends from all the way across a room. Her warmth drew people to her like a hearth fire in January. Since I was only thirteen when she died, we were robbed of the time for me to grow to appreciate her, not just as my mom, but as the vivid, kind, charming woman I now know she was. But in the time we did have, her love taught me to value myself, and to treasure beauty, and those two things have been at the core of every good decision I’ve ever made.

My second home, I wasn’t looking for. While I was studying in England during my junior year of college, everything my father had been struggling with at home collapsed. When my winter break came, I had no home to go to. My mother’s older sister, without question or hesitation, said, “You come here.” And her house has been my go-­home-­to place ever since. Because of the woman whose house it is, that place represents as big a part of me as where I came from. My aunt opened both home and heart to me, and her dead sister’s girl became her third daughter. With remarkable patience and more than a little tough love, she knocked a navel-­gazer, overly prone to whining and stewing, into a decisive and determined adult. I owe more than I can ever convey to my exposure to her challenging, sparky intelligence.

If you’re lucky, your own go-­home-­to place, the place you head for holidays and family weekends or just to take a break from being an adult for a couple of days, is still the same as where you come from. But for many people it’s not. Parents move, divorce, die, betray. Your go-­home-­to place may not even be where your parents or siblings are, but it’s a place that brings you comfort when you arrive there. It’s the place where you know all the stories and inside jokes that get retold, and where somebody will have your favorite meal waiting for you when you arrive.

Of course, like most of you, I also have my own home now. Mine is a sunny little aerie in Brooklyn, and I share it with my husband, whose dimples are the only thing that can coax me out of bed in the morning, and our cat, who travels from sunbeam to sunbeam as each day glides by. I made it partly with pieces of my other homes: artwork my mother painted, books my aunt has given me, furniture my grandmother bought in the fifties, which is beautifully scuffed with age and with my family’s use. But also, my home is made with pieces of who I am now. Artwork I drew, books my friends have written. Because I lost my mother’s gardens, I cram my windowsills with flowers, and because my husband loves to cook, I grow herbs to use in our meals. This is the place where I welcome friends and family, both my own and my husband’s. And every single inch of it is made of something I love.

Throughout The One That Got Away, Sarina is on a journey to find her home. The home she comes from is too laden with painful memories to be a welcoming place any longer, so she’s left Virginia behind and made a life for herself in Austin. She’s spent much of her adult life trying to find the right go-­home-­to place, where she truly belongs, and to build her own home at the same time. When the story opens, she believes Noah is the answer to both of those. Except, as Eamon points out, she’s never taken any steps to make her home with Noah a reality; she only thinks it’s her future because it looks like it should be. So what she has to find the courage to do, in spite of the risks, is to open herself up to the person she’s come to realize is the one who really belongs in that future, and in that home.

This is why the home you build yourself, in many ways, is the most rewarding one of all. You can fill it, and populate it, with whatever and whoever you wish. It can be whatever you want it to be, whether it’s the place you share with your partner, or your partner plus the colorful chaos of children (or the furry and malodorous chaos of pets), or just the solitary peace of your sofa, a good book and a big glass of wine. This home is the one you fill with your own family, whoever you choose them to be—­but the peace is in the choosing.

Rowan Coleman Discussion Questions: The Day We Met

April 16th, 2015

The Day We MetFor fans of Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You comes a beautifully written, heartwarming novel about mothers and daughters, husbands and wives. The Day We Met asks: Can you love someone you don’t remember falling in love with? The discussion questions below can help guide your book club to answering that question and more.

1. A consistent thread throughout the novel is that of history repeating itself. Both Caitlin and Claire get pregnant young and without husbands, and Ruth must watch her husband and her daughter succumb to the same disease. What do you think Coleman suggests about fate? Do we have the ability to carve our own destiny? Can we be prevented from making the same mistakes that our parents and their parents made?

2. After watching Caitlin in a play, Claire realizes, “Being a mother is about protecting your children from every conceivable thing that might cause them hurt, but it’s also about trusting them to live the best way for them, the best way they can; and trusting that even when you are not there to hold their hand, they can succeed.” Do you agree? Was Claire right to shield Caitlin from the truth about her father? If you were Claire, what would you have done?

3. Why do you think Claire can confide in Ryan more easily than she can confide in the rest of her family? Why is an outsider more appealing to her at this time in her life?

4. At one point, Claire realizes that people have started seeing her as the crazy person, as “the one that no one looks in the eye anymore.” How do you think it would feel to be aware of being a pariah? If you saw Claire in her altered state, what would you think/assume?

5. Do you agree with Caitlin’s decision not to find out if she has the Alzheimer’s gene? What would you have done in her situation?

6.  If you and your loved ones were making a memory book of your life, what would you want to include?

7. How did you feel about Claire’s relationship with Ryan before and after it was revealed that he was Greg? Were you surprised? Was Greg right to mislead her? Why is it important that she have this experience?

8. At the end, Claire says, “I did write a book. We all did. We wrote the story of our lives, and I am here, among these pages. This is where I will always be.” Beyond an exercise assigned by her doctor, why do you think the book becomes so important to Claire?

9. If you knew you had early-onset Alzheimer’s, would you change anything about your life?

10. As Claire starts to lose her memories, she worries that she’s starting to lose hold of her identity. Do you believe identity and memory are intrinsically linked, or can they be separated?

A Letter From the Author: Rowan Coleman on The Day We Met

April 6th, 2015

Rowan Coleman Day We Met coverThe name of your first-born. The face of your lover. Your age. Your address…

What would happen if your memory of these began to fade?

Is it possible to rebuild your life? Raise a family? Fall in love again?When Claire starts to write her Memory Book, she already knows that this scrapbook of mementoes will soon be all her daughters and husband have of her. In her mid-40s, Claire is scared and increasingly confused by the world around her, struggling to hold onto her identity as thoughts of her mother, her daughters, and her husband grow fuzzier every day. Fearing what will happen if those memories fade altogether, her family’s gift of a red sketchpad is her most treasured possession. As they fill it with scenes from a joyous life lived together, Claire again experiences the ecstatic highs and terrible lows of a life well lived: full of heartbreak and love, tears and laughter.

 
 
Here is a letter from the author, Rowan Coleman, describing what this book means to her.


A Note From the Author

About three years ago I was sitting at my desk in my office, looking out the window, thinking about a dream I’d had years ago. It’s a very long story, but I first met my now husband, Adam, when we were both twelve, starting a new school at the same time. I fell in love with him at first sight, I actually did, just like they talk about in movies and books.

Years went by, years of nothing much happening between us (well, we were only twelve) and then around the age of sixteen there was a romance, and there continued to be on and off again for the next twenty-five years. But we never did quite get it together; something, maybe fate, would always conspire to keep us apart. Around fourteen years ago, after a really long time without seeing or hearing from Adam, and believing that that door was finally shut for good, I woke up from a dream so strong and so powerful that I had to check that it wasn’t real. I’d dreamed that I’d married him. I dreamed that a few years earlier, when we had been together, we’d run away and gotten married. And then things fell apart again. My head knew that that had never happened, we had never gotten married, but my heart believed it. My heart remembered how I felt about him, and how I always have felt about him, and it wouldn’t let that feeling go.

Another ten years would go by between that dream and finding him, quite by chance, again. This time we would not be parted, and four years ago we were married at last.

So as I sat in my office and thought about that dream, I thought about how even when life changes everything, everything around you, some things are so indelibly printed on your soul that they never go away. Love will always remain, whether you want it to or not. And that thought, that memory, was the very first inkling of the idea that would become The Day We Met.

There was another incident too: a few years earlier I almost lost my mother. My mum is an amazing woman; she was married in the fifties and was raised to be a wife and mother. For twenty-eight years that was what she did—until my dad left us. Mum had no choice but to change completely, change everything she knew. Battling grief and loss, she went out and got a job, supported my brother and me, and guided us single-handedly into adulthood. My mum brought me up to be strong and independent, to always try my best, to never give up, to believe that my gender would never prevent me from doing anything I chose to do. She encouraged me to take the chances that she never had, and she taught me how to be a mother. So when over a period of years she became increasingly ill, forgetful, and uncoordinated, with a severity that increased in slight but devastating increments, my brother and I feared the worst. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure, with having most likely suffered transient ischemic attacks (sometimes described as mini-strokes), but that never really felt right to me. I saw her change; I saw her personality descend into depression. There would be attacks when she didn’t know us, when she forgot that a friend had died and would insist on ringing his wife at three in the morning to prove that I was an “evil liar.” It was hard, and although she wasn’t even seventy, I believed that the relentlessly cruel disease of dementia was taking a grip on her and taking her away from me. Then one Christmas she became so ill that she was rushed (against her will) to hospital. They were on the point of sending her home, deciding she had overeaten, when I insisted on a CT scan. They discovered that there was a large cyst in her brain, and she was at once rushed to another hospital, where the cyst that was putting enormous pressure on her brain was drained. I will never forget walking into her hospital room just hours after the operation: my mum, the woman I loved and admired, was sitting up in bed, talking and laughing. I had my mum back, and I thank God for it every day since. But it didn’t stop me from thinking about dementia and Alzheimer’s and how this devastating disease is so little understood, and I knew that one day I wanted to write a book about it as best as I could—a book that would somehow open up the mind of a sufferer and show it to the world.

Well, on that day that I remembered my dream about Adam, these two ideas collided, and Claire was born. Several months of research, writing, and rewriting followed, and I found myself pouring my own memories into The Day We Met. Claire’s red wedding dress is my red wedding dress. Claire and Caitlin’s dance to Rhapsody in Blue actually happened when I was a girl. My mum sends me newspaper clippings every week. (Even though I see her in person more than once a week!) I watched my little girl dance and sing solo in the school play full of fear and anxiety and then relief as she came into her own and showed me a strength I never knew she had. Those are some of my memories that are in the book, and there are others too.

So, sometimes when you are working on a novel, there occurs, so rarely, a kind of alchemy that produces from a jumble of words and ideas, thoughts and emotions, something precious. And that’s how I feel about The Day We Met. I hope you do too.

—Rowan Coleman

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