A Conversation with Bridget Asher, author of All of Us and Everything, a smart, wry, and poignant novel about reconciliation between fathers and daughters, between spouses; the deep ties between sisters; and the kind of forgiveness that can change a person’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.
Random House Reader’s Circle: At the risk of asking what Ru would consider a “stupid question,” would you shed some light on where you got the inspiration for this novel? Do you agree with Ru that we should stop asking this question as a society?
Bridget Asher: Ru and I have a lot in common. We both have two older sisters, both write, both brood in similar ways. But, no, I don’t think we should stop asking this question. Honestly, some writers are struck by moments of brilliant illumination—-their skulls suddenly lit up with story. Each of my novels contains a million tiny flares, many of which happen while I’m living my life and scribbling notes and many of which happen while writing. But, also, it’s worth noting that some of the flares that made this novel have been around for a while. I once wrote a love letter for a stranger on a plane, a kind of win–back. (The essay appeared in Real Simple.) Liv, the cherry picker, has been a character I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I could never find the right place for her to land. And I’ve also written a little about the snowstorm that hit DC the night before Kennedy’s inauguration, using my father’s memories of that night, but I finally found the larger love story within it.
Society should keep asking, but, from me, one can expect a longer, more intricate answer.
RHRC: How is your authorial approach and perspective similar to or different from Ru’s? Was it surreal to bring another writer to life in this character?
Bridget Asher: It’s a relief to write about a writer. So much of our lives we can’t quite shove into the lives of characters with other professions, so there’s a feeling of ease in writing about a writer and a lot of opportunity to be comedic. Ru’s disastrous reading at the public library, well, let’s just say I didn’t have to rely wholly on imagination.
RHRC: You’ve written more than twenty books, but said All of Us and Everything is your favorite one to date. Why is that? How is this book different from your others and what was the experience of writing it like?
Bridget Asher: I’ve written as Asher, but also under Julianna Baggott and N.E. Bode, and people ask me all the time which of my own books is my favorite. The intent is often to find out which of my books they should pick up. I usually ask them what they like to read, rearranging the question so I’m not forced to answer. But All of Us and Everything is the novel that I want my really good friends and family to read, the people who know me very well and who’ve known me for a long time. In writing this novel, I had the opportunity to write out a kind of spirited take on sisterhood and motherhood that I’ve never allowed myself to do before.
RHRC: You paint Nick’s background as a spy with such finely rendered detail. How did you go about investigating that aspect of the novel?
Bridget Asher: I had the opportunity to interview someone who worked in intelligence for his entire career. Twenty years retired, he was able to answer questions; what I really wanted to know wasn’t about his assignments, but rather about the culture of the work, how love, marriages, and families operated within that culture. I asked him if he was nervous about divulging things. He said that he lived his life assuming that anything he said might be on the record. That was very telling.
RHRC: This book features a predominantly female cast. Did you find it different/exciting/challenging to focus pointedly on this singular matriarchal family while the men are so behind–the–scenes? Did you arrive at any new revelations about the relationships between mothers/daughters and sisters by zeroing in on the Rockwell women? Which aspects of their family dynamic do you think makes them universal?
Bridget Asher: I come from matriarchal family lines. My father was raised with his two sisters by a single mother and her sister. My mother’s mother was the clear matriarch of our family for most of my life. I would say that my own mother has taken her place in that role. I have a brother and two older sisters, and I have two daughters and two sons. This novel allowed me to really dig into the ways I’ve seen sisters operate: old scores, unwanted nicknames, family jokes and secrets, petty turf battles—-that don’t feel petty at all, some thievery, long memories, as well as incredible tenderness and love, the ties that bind sisters. This goes for friendships as well, people who’ve known you for what seems like forever. There is something about being known by others for an entire lifetime. When it comes down to it, these sisters are truly there for one another. Just the way in which these sisters—-and Atty too—-orchestrate a guy showing up for dinner is, I hope, familiar to a lot of people. I think that these kinds of politics, as well as clumsily expressed love, exist in many families.
RHRC: Did you relate to, sympathize with, or want to spend time with any of the Rockwells in particular? Which of them was the most fun to write?
Bridget Asher: I relate to Ru, absolutely, as the precocious youngest of three daughters, and as a writer. But Liv was the most fun to write. I love her edginess, her self–delusions, her strange acts of kindness and generosity. I miss her the most, though Atty is a very, very close second. She would always surprise me, offering up my favorite lines.
RHRC: Channeling the spirit of Augusta and Atty, if you could lead a personal movement of your own, what would it be?
Bridget Asher: Tolerance. If we could allow others to live as they choose, to be who they are, to honor and celebrate our rich diversity, and not perceive others as a threat, I believe the world would be a safer place.
RHRC: Atty’s observations on life and her family lend such comic relief to the narrative. Did she spring from a conscious effort to explore the ways we interact with social media today, or is she just a product of her time?
Bridget Asher: One of my husband’s first jobs was at a boarding school in Delaware, and that school and certainly the spirit of being a faculty brat living on campus is something I’ve always wanted to write. I didn’t set out to make a statement on social media. Atty arrived pretty whole, live–tweeting from the get–go.
RHRC: You’ve written some epic win–backs in this novel. Have you ever had to script one in real life?
Bridget Asher: Well, in addition to the win–back that I wrote for the stranger on the plane, I do write win–backs in various ways. I still believe that words are powerful and change someone’s way of thinking, change their mind, as well as possibly win their heart. When my mother hands you a letter, you know that she has something to tell you that she can’t tell you without crying. The tradition began there, perhaps. The truth is win–backs don’t always work. My oldest sister, actually, is the one who’s tried to tell me that I always think I can fix things with words. Sometimes words fail. But when they win, it’s a beautiful thing.
RHRC: What is the most important message you’d like readers to take away from this story?
Bridget Asher: I want people to see pieces of themselves, their sisters, their mothers, their best friends, the loves of their lives. I want people to find lines that nail some emotion or thought or family dynamic so hard that they have to share them with someone else. After my father read the book—-he was one of the first—-we had an immediate set of catchphrases, a secret language of inside jokes. I want this book to do that for people.
RHRC: Are you a Nancy Drew fan yourself? What shaped your own reading tastes as a child? What sorts of books do you gravitate toward now?
Bridget Asher: I liked stranger, more magical stories. My love of Roald Dahl quickly turned into a love of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then Lee Smith and, for family dynamics, Anne Tyler and John Irving. I also saw a lot of theater as a kid and that may have been even more influential than what I was reading in terms of developing my ear.
RHRC: What’s in the works next for you?
Bridget Asher: I want to write a Paris novel. I loved writing The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted and, of course, doing the research it required. I’d love to find an excuse to go to Paris for a little while. Who wouldn’t?
Perfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, The Virgin’s Spy is award-winning author Laura Andersen’s second novel about the next generation of Tudor royals—a mesmerizing historical novel filled with rich period detail, vividly drawn characters, and all the glamour and seduction of the fabled Tudor court.
1. Discuss Elizabeth’s marriage to King Philip. Can you envision any scenario in which their marriage might have survived? Or were their religious differences and political responsibilities insurmountable?
2. What do you think motivated Elizabeth’s revelation about her suspicions regarding Lucette’s true parentage? Was her choice political or personal? How might she have handled the situation differently? Discuss the long–term impact of her decision on Lucette and the Courtenay family.
3. Which character surprised you the most? Why?
4. In what ways are Anne Isabella and Elizabeth similar? In what ways are they different? Compare and contrast the two, both as women and as leaders.
5. Discuss the relationship between Minuette and Elizabeth. In what ways has it evolved, and in what ways has it remained the same?
6. Elizabeth plays many roles—-that of wife, friend, mother, and queen most notably. Discuss these different facets of her personality. Do you see a difference in her behavior in each of these contexts, or does the monarch necessarily overshadow the other roles?
7. At one point, Lucette asks, “Should not love between spouses be absolute? How could one ever love a second person as much as the first?” Do you agree with this sentiment? Is it possible to feel romantic love for more than one person in a lifetime?
8. Renaud tells Lucette: “You are so afraid of not being wanted, you will not put it to the test, and thus create the very distance you fear.” Do you agree with his assessment of Lucette? Can you think of anyone else in the book to whom this sentiment applies?
9. Discuss Julien’s motives for becoming an English spy, taking into account the events of 1572. Do you find his reasons compelling?
10. Before leaving England, Philip says to Elizabeth, “I indulged myself in a dream these twenty years because I loved you and because I hoped persuasion would be of greater influence than force.” What do you think his dream was? How could Elizabeth have handled the situation with Spain differently? At this point, do you think there was anything she could have done to dissuade Philip from carrying out his plan?
11. Compare and contrast Nicolas and Julien. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? Did you sympathize with Nicolas at all by the end?
12. If you read The Boleyn King Trilogy, compare and contrast the relationships between Kit, Anabel, Pippa, and Lucette to those between the previous generation: Elizabeth, William, Dominic, and Minuette.
13. What did you think of the revelation at the end of the book? Any predictions for the sequel?
In this thrilling new novel from the author of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen again demonstrates her talent for creating spellbinding period pieces.At the Water’s Edge is a gripping and poignant love story about a privileged young woman’s awakening as she experiences the devastation of World War II in a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands.
Use these discussion questions to help guide your book club’s discussion of the book.
1. The novel takes place during World War II. Is the war setting a distraction or does it contribute to the success of the novel? Would changing the time frame change the meaning of the novel? How did the austerity of the times affect Maddie, who was used to a life of luxury? Have you ever discussed what things were like during the Great Depression and World War II with family members who lived through it? What stories did they share with you?
2. “What I learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight.” Monsters come in all different forms in At the Water’s Edge. What are some of the monsters in the novel? How are they different from what you might expect?
3. Throughout At the Water’s Edge, Maddie transforms from a woman who is spoiled, naïve, and helpless to one who is brave and capable. What and who are the major influences that led her to change? What are the biggest lessons Maddie learns throughout the course of the novel?
4. Discuss the novel’s ambiguity concerning the supernatural. How does Sara Gruen blend mystical elements into the narrative’s realism? Did Ellis and Hank find the Loch Ness Monster after all?
5. Do you think Maddie and Ellis were ever truly in love? What did you think of Ellis? Did you sympathize with him? Did Ellis change as a character in the course of the novel or did the changes all take place within Maddie?
6. How did you feel about Hank? Did he evolve during the course of the novel or did his character remain the same?
7. The idea for At the Water’s Edge came to Sara Gruen during a visit she took to Scotland. She became fascinated with the ruins of old castles, the wild beauty of nature, and Scottish history and folklore. Discuss the role that the landscape and atmosphere of Scotland plays in the novel.
8. Discuss the evolution of Maddie and Angus’s relationship. What were some of Angus’s qualities that Maddie grew to most admire? At what point do you think she realized she loved him?
9. At the Water’s Edge explores humanity at its most base, as well as its most noble. Can you give some examples of both from the story? In the end, what kind of statement do you think Gruen makes about human nature?
10. Before she goes to Scotland, Maddie only has Ellis and Hank as friends. How do the female friendships she develops in Scotland shape her in new ways?
Sara Gruen, author of the new release At the Water’s Edge, shared some insight into her writing process and what led her to set her latest novel at the edge of Scotland’s Loch Ness during World War II.
Brandi Megan Granett: How did the story for At the Water’s Edge unfold for you? What drew you to writing it?
Sara Gruen: I had a long–standing fascination with the Loch Ness Monster, starting when I was twelve and first visited Urquhart Castle and was convinced I was going to see it, and a random news article rekindled my interest. The idea of incorporating my favorite castle in the world with the looming prospect of the monster was irresistible, so I booked research trips without having any idea of what my story would be. Ultimately, it came to me in a rush when I was standing at the Water Gate in Urquhart Castle (a location that has great importance in the book), and I spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That day was definitely one of the highlights of my writing life!
BMG: Both Jacob in Water for Elephants and Maddie and Ellis in At the Water’s Edge suffer a sort of fall from grace at the start, losing access to a once guaranteed future. What do your stories say about making life your own?
SG: In the broadest sense, almost all stories begin with an upheaval of some sort, because normal people doing normal things does not a good story make! I think the stories that appeal to us as readers are those in which people have to examine what’s really going on in their lives, or face a huge change in circumstances, and then see what they do going forward. In the case of At the Water’s Edge, Maddie and Ellis both face enormous changes in circumstance and their understanding of life as they know it, and react in nearly polar opposite ways to the truths they find.
BMG: What roles do travel and research play in your writing? When does imagination come in?
SG: I love the research part. One of the best things about this job is that I get to find something that fascinates me and that I hope will be fascinating to others, and then I completely immerse myself in it for a few years. It happens in different ways for different books, but in this case the location came first, and after a few weeks of full immersion in the Highlands, the story came to me. It happened while I was standing at the Water Gate, and all the little amorphous bits that were floating around in my brain started to take shape, so I sent my guide back to his car and spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That’s one of those writing moments you hope and dream will happen, but very rarely do. I still have the files on my phone. They’re taking up a huge amount of space, but I can’t bring myself to delete them.
BMG: Your books draw richly on the history of the times; in At the Water’s Edge, World War II frames the narrative. What do you think it takes to accurately portray a time period? How do you balance telling the story and setting the historical scene?
SG: For me, I need to take an almost obsessive approach to research. When I’m at the writing stage, I pass through a kind of creative portal every day and feel like I’m really in that other world I’ve created, and so it has to exist right down to the trowel marks in the plaster, and I’m a stickler for detail. The saying “the devil is in the details” is absolutely right.
BMG: This is your fifth book; what have you learned about your writing process as you gained more experience? What stayed the same for you and what has changed?
SG: I’ve realized that I can’t structure my work time and progress quite as rigidly as I would like to. For my first couple of books, I aimed for (and got, even if it nearly killed me) two thousand words a day. Then I moved to two thousand words a day or eight hours, whichever came first. Now, I feel like if I show up for work and put in an honest day, I’ve done well. Because I can’t force the creative process. Sometimes I am typing as fast as I can all day, and have to drag myself away because there’s more to be done, and other times I stare glumly at my open file all day, which is okay, because I’ve come to realize that when I can’t get any words out, it means there’s something I need to figure out and change in the storyline, and even if my fingers aren’t busy, my brain is.
BMG: Out of all the characters you created, who is your favorite and why?
SG: Before this book, I would have said Rosie, but now I have to say Maddie. She changed so dramatically from what I imagined her to be—-coming to life in the way that characters do—-and she was so willing to look at things that she had never examined before, in an open–minded and big–hearted way, and she showed courage and resolve in a situation that was utterly impossible, and became increasingly so.
BMG: I read that you needed an Internet–free zone to write Water for Elephants. Zadie Smith spoke about using a computer program to block herself from the Internet while writing her novel NW. How do you keep yourself from going down the rabbit hole of cyberspace?
SG: I wrote a large chunk of Water for Elephants in a walk–in closet, because at that time we didn’t have Wi–Fi and it pre-vented me from obsessively checking my email, shopping on eBay, and basically blowing an afternoon watching cats in boxes on YouTube. Then I used Zadie Smith’s method—-I know the program she’s talking about—-but I found a workaround, and so that ended up being no help at all. And just in case she ever reads this, I’m not going to say what that workaround is because I do not want to be single–handedly responsible for the delay of a new Zadie Smith book.
From the Diary of Minuette Courtenay
30 August 1561
Elizabeth’s summer progress has brought her to Warwick Castle for a fortnight, a visit that might very well bankrupt Ambrose Dudley. It is, of course, a mark of great favour to host the queen—-but the wretched man apparently had to build an entirely new timber structure in which to house her, seeing as the castle itself is in such poor repair. Perhaps that is why our queen never chooses to stay with us at Wynfield Mote—-she knows that we would not go to such lengths to impress her.
But as Warwick is only ten miles distant, Elizabeth has come to us for this one night only.
There have been rumours, of course, since almost the moment she made her wedding vows last December. But I said I would believe none of them until Elizabeth herself told me. And so she did, as we sat alone together after dinner.
“I am with child.” She delivered the news as abruptly and matter–of–factly as though she were commenting on possession of a new book or piece of art. But I know her too well to be deceived.
“I am glad of it,” I replied, with real pleasure. “Have you been ill? Tired? Uncomfortable?”
“I cannot afford to be ill, breeding or not.”
“Philip must be pleased.” I called him by name deliberately, to separate the husband and father from the King of Spain.
“Naturally he is pleased. It means he has done his duty. Now he can return to Spain for the winter.”
“I do not think you are only a duty to him, Elizabeth. And nor will his child be.”
But my friend has refused to be sentimental since the death of Robert Dudley. “We cannot all be as fortunate as you, Minuette, with your adoring husband and perfect brood of children. For it is no secret in this household that you are also set to deliver another before spring.”
There is no such thing as perfect, I wanted to snap. What does Elizabeth know of the price Dominic and I continue to pay for our past sins? Does she know how my husband retreated to Tiverton after Stephen’s birth last year and did not communicate for so many months I began to think he had left me? He loves me, I know, and he loves Lucette equally with Stephen—-but love does not preclude pain.
As Elizabeth knows well.
27 February 1562
Elizabeth is safely delivered of a daughter.
She is named Anne Isabella, for her Boleyn grandmother and her Spanish great–grandmother. If there is disappointment that the newborn is not a son, it is masked for now with relief that the queen is clearly capable of bearing healthy children. King Philip will return in the spring to meet his daughter, yes, but also to begin the business of the next child.
But I can care about Elizabeth only in brief snatches between my own joy and exhaustion. Three days ago I was also delivered, almost a month before my expected time, and gifted by God with two beautiful children. A girl and a boy. Philippa, we have called our daughter, after Dominic’s mother, who died last year in blessed peace. We considered naming her twin Jonathan, after my father, but Dominic kept looking between the two babies with a crease in his forehead as he pondered.
“Christopher,” he finally announced.
I blinked, somewhat surprised, for there is no Christopher in either of our near families. But then Dominic gave one of his rare, open smiles and said, “I like the way they sound together. Pippa and Kit. What do you think?”
I think I love you so much my heart is near to breaking, I thought.
3 May 1562
The children and I leave for Wynfield Mote next week. Dominic will not be with us. He has been summoned to court. Elizabeth has tried summons before this, but Dominic has always ignored them. What can she threaten us with? Taking away Tiverton and the duchy of Exeter? It would be no punishment, for Dominic serves his people from duty rather than ambition.
This time, Elizabeth took another tack. Please, she wrote to both of us, I have great need of a friend. Not for myself. For my daughter.
The closer he came to London, the more tense Dominic Cour-tenay grew. He had not been anywhere near the city since his imprisonment in the Tower five years before. At least Elizabeth had sense enough not to summon him to Whitehall. Indeed, he did not actually have to enter the city at all, for the queen awaited him at Nonsuch Palace, fifteen miles southwest. The distinctive octagonal towers rising before him made Dominic catch his breath before he ruthlessly banished memories of previous visits. Visits when Elizabeth was merely Princess of Wales and William . . .
Tension made him curt, but he had never been a man of many words and Elizabeth’s guards and stewards passed him along swiftly enough to the queen’s privy chamber. To his surprise, she greeted him alone.
“No counselors today?” he asked her. “No clerks or ambassadors begging your attention for the great matters of state?”
“There is no matter of greater importance to me than what I am about to ask you.”
“Why bring me all the way here simply to tell you no? I am finished with courts and royals, Your Majesty. You know that.”
“But you are not finished with loyalty. Nor will you be so long as you draw breath.”
“What do you want, Elizabeth?” If she was going to pluck at all the most painful chords of his past, he would treat her not as queen, but as the girl he’d known since childhood.
She matched his tone. “I need you, Dominic, to stand as Protector to my daughter.”
All the breath left his body. He’d known a Lord Protector once, and no way in hell was he going to follow in the footsteps of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford.
Elizabeth didn’t wait for his refusal. “I am not asking you to run the government, Dominic. You are entirely too honest for such a task . . . although I suspect Minuette would be quite good at it.”
“That is not—-”
Elizabeth overrode him. “Let me be frank. My life is all that stands between security and chaos in England. My life—-and now that of my infant daughter. An infant whose father would gladly seize whatever power he could in this nation.”
Dominic had learned a few things from his wife, including sarcasm. “That is only occurring to you now?”
Her eyes darkened, and he realized that there was real fear beneath her royal composure. “For a man so eager to keep apart from politics, that is a rather piercing opinion to voice.”
He raised a hand in conciliation. “I apologize. What is it you want from me?”
When she spoke again, it was entirely as Queen of England. “If I should die during my daughter’s childhood, England will have need of a strong government during her minority. That responsibility would lie in the hands of Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham, as well as a carefully composed council of men I trust. I am not asking you to protect England in such a case—-I am asking you to protect Anabel.”
It was that last word that moved him, the realization that Elizabeth had given her daughter a pet name. Even though he suspected her of using sentiment against him, it worked. There was only one thing more she could try, so Dominic asked before the queen could. “May I see her?”
He followed Elizabeth to a separate suite of painted and gilded chambers attended by soft–footed ladies who looked more suited to royal feasts than caring for a baby.
Anne Isabella, the Princess of Wales, lay in a cradle beneath a cloth–of–gold canopy embroidered with her mother’s personal falcon badge. The baby looked a little bigger to him than did his own twins, but the plump cheeks and finely pursed mouth were familiar childish traits. The infant had her mother’s distinctive red–gold hair and stared up at him with a curious intelligence he told himself he was imagining.
“She’s a pawn, Dominic,” Elizabeth said softly, next to him. “A Spanish pawn. If I die young, Philip’s men will spare no effort to lay hold of her. She must not fall to Spain. Promise me, Dominic. Promise me that if anything happens to me, you will take Anabel into your care. I trust few men with my government—-but only one man do I trust with her life.”
The last royal who trusted me with his life is dead, Dominic thought bleakly. In the end, it was the memory of Will, as much as Elizabeth’s plea, that decided him.
“I will protect her, Your Majesty. As though she were my own.”