For readers of Ron Rash, Thomas H. Cook, and Tim Johnston, In Wildernessis a suspenseful and literary love story hailed by New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson as “heartbreaking, bold, relentless” and “the work of a true original.”
Diane Thomas is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Year the Music Changed. A lifelong resident of Atlanta and the Georgia mountains and part-time resident of the Florida panhandle, she now lives in New Mexico.
Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Orphan Train. Her other novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be,Desire Lines and Sweet Water. She is currently at work on a novel based on the iconic paintingChristina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth.
Christina Baker Kline: What inspired you to write In Wilderness?
Diane Thomas: The wild, unspoiled beauty of the north Georgia and North Carolina mountains in the 1960s inspired me. Back then they still held vast tracts of undeveloped land where a person might live virtually undisturbed. I wondered how an isolated existence in such a remote setting might affect people who were unused to it. Would they become more violent, more primitive? Or would they keep their civilized behaviors? Would the institution of selfless, romantic love, for example, unmask itself as something purely animal? Or would it survive?
CBK: You wrote your earlier version of In Wilderness (then called The Clearing) many years ago. How did it differ from the final book? What did you learn writing it that helped you write In Wilderness?
DT: The story that makes up In Wilderness happens in all the same places it did in The Clearing. The new manuscript also kept most of the same plot points. And yet the entire book is changed. The strength of Danny’s personality, so different from that of his earlier incarnation, changed all of Katherine’s interactions with him, and thus some aspects of her own personality. I also set In Wilderness further back in time (1966) than The Clearing, which takes place in 1973. Those few years—-encompassing the hippie era, the rise of feminism, and much of the Vietnam War—-made an enormous difference: The values and behaviors Katherine starts out with in In Wilderness were shaped by that earlier time. I was surprised how long it took me to rewrite—-perhaps longer than creating an entirely different novel would have. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s what I did: I created an entirely different novel.
CBK: Did the novel unfold as you expected it to? Did any scenes—-or plot points—-take you by surprise?
DT: The first version, The Clearing, came about primarily as a reaction to a period of extreme ill health; writing it enabled me to “escape” from my near–bedridden condition, and to distract myself from fears of dying. The ill health proved transient, and as no one took the manuscript, I set it aside and went back to my day job. When I returned to it thirty years later, I expected to find writing that was inferior but characters that held up. The opposite proved true, at least with the male character: The writing was good, but I did not find him engaging or believable.
The Danny of In Wilderness differs totally from his counterpart in The Clearing, who was a cultured, disaffected millionaire in his forties. In In Wilderness, he is a twenty–year–old mountain boy so traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam he has become almost feral. I made him the opposite of Katherine, the story’s protagonist, in every way. The only thing they have in common is that by the time they meet, they’ve both lost everyone and everything they ever loved. What surprised me most in this later version was how deeply I cared for this new male character. He was edgy, complex, perhaps the embodiment of evil. But in a strange way he was also an innocent. Time and again, I found tears running down my face as I wrote him.
CBK: You deal with some heavy subjects in this novel, from illness and loss to loneliness and healing. Did you draw on anything in your own life or family history as you crafted the story?
DT: In writing the first version, I was dealing with my aforementioned illness, which in itself was isolating. In what I later came to recognize as an attempted exorcism, I gave my symptoms to my manuscript’s protagonist and said, in effect, “Symptoms, be gone.” I also gave her my attitude regarding my illness: that one soldiers on as best as one can. All of this carried over from The Clearing to In Wilderness.
CBK: In Wilderness has a powerful sense of atmosphere. You lived in the South for most of your life. How did living there influence your sense of place? Did you ever live in a remote cabin, like Katherine and Danny?
DT: I’ve never thought of In Wilderness as a specifically “Southern” novel. Its story might have taken place in any large mountain wilderness in the latter 1960s. I instead see it as a “mountain” story. The mountain areas of the South differ markedly from the rest of the region: The land is too rugged to grow cotton, and thus historically few people owned slaves there. The inhabitants of the Southern mountains have always been fiercely independent; many of the South’s mountain counties were Union sympathizers in the Civil War.
Ever since I can remember, the southern Appalachians have held a deep and abiding fascination for me. I spent most of my life in Atlanta, and sometimes, when my work as a freelance business writer led me far into the city’s northern sprawl, I could see them, misty in the distance. Years ago, I was stranded in an Atlanta taxi during a flash flood with an old driver who’d been born and raised in those mountains. I asked him what that had been like, expecting a few idyllic recollections. Instead, he told me how, shortly before World War II, when he was five years old, a pretty little blond girl his same age was brutally raped by a neighbor. Fearing justice would not otherwise be done, the local people kidnapped the man, took him deep into the woods, and burned him at the stake. Every man, woman, and child from miles around was present, and before the burning each person was made to contribute at least one piece of wood to the pile. The taxi driver’s mother gave him a small branch, led him by the hand up to the stake, and told him to place it there. Then she took him down by the nearby river, where he could neither see nor hear what was about to happen, sat with him, and gave him a piece of cornbread. I had never known a people capable of carrying out such vengeance. They seemed the pure embodiment of myth and story.
I never lived in a remote cabin like Katherine. But the taxi driver’s narrative knocks around inside me still. As does a single childhood visit to my great-aunt Mattie, in her two–room cabin with its logs joined with wooden pegs. She lived in a place called Startown, and my child’s mind conjured stars spinning great Van Gogh whorls in a black sky. Not long after—-I think I was seven—-I wrote a poem about “a cozy cabin right among the pines.” Three decades later, I gave that cabin to Katherine. These days, when people ask me where I’m from, I say if home is where my stuff is, I’m from Santa Fe, but if home is where my heart is, I’m from the southern mountains. They and their people inform my writing even now. To my mind, that’s where my sense of place comes from and any atmosphere I might bring to it.
CBK: Throughout the novel, Danny woos Katherine by leaving her books. How did you choose those particular books? Were there any others you wanted to use in the novel, but didn’t?
DT: Despite his identification with Gatsby, whom he encountered in an English class during his one college semester, Danny tends to think of works of fiction as fascinating but pretty much interchangeable; without his friend and childhood mentor, Jimbo, he might not have read much of it at all. The bookshelves lining the walls in the library of his burned–out house, where Peyton Place might stand next to The Odyssey, reinforce this concept. Danny reads these books in the order they are shelved. He likes the randomness, the unexpectedness of it; to him it’s like life. He can’t get into E. M. Forster’s Room with a View, decides it might be better appreciated by a woman, and passes it along to Katherine when he leaves the peaches on her porch. The books mentioned in In Wilderness came up as I was writing. Sometimes they have significance, and sometimes, like life, they came up at random.
CBK: You are in your seventies. Do you think you write differently now than you did when you were younger? If so, in what way?
DT: I believe that, generally speaking, the older one gets, the longer one’s view becomes and the more context and authority one is able to bring to it. Also, there’s a greater sense of urgency: When you have something to say, you want to get it said, said right, and said immediately, because you never know if that chance will be your last. Yet at the same time I believe I now write closer to the bone, more to the point than ever.
CBK: Living alone, Katherine discovers a latent artistic ability. Are you a visual artist as well as a writer?
DT: I minored in art in college, which led me to realize what little talent I had for it. Several years later I became the film reviewer for The Atlanta Constitution, then that city’s morning newspaper, which was perhaps a way for my interest in things visual to express itself indirectly. I should note that each of my three novels, including the one in progress, began with a mental image. For The Year the Music Changed, it was a black female disc jockey inside a radio station control booth doing her show in the middle of the night; it ended up near the book’s conclusion. For In Wilderness, it was Katherine walking into the dull winter forest in her bright red coat, which was near that book’s beginning. My novel in progress, set in two different time periods, has somewhat of a two–pronged beginning, with an image from each era.
CBK: In Wilderness opens with a failed pregnancy and closes with a new life. What role do Katherine’s fertility issues have in her psychology and her development as a character? How does becoming a mother change her?
DT: I don’t have children of my own, but I’m very close to my stepson—-close enough to have some inkling of how fierce motherhood can make someone. When Katherine got pregnant the first time, she quit mourning for her lost love and “came back to herself in a fierce way,” to love and protect her child. That same energy remains a primary aspect of her character, and her protectiveness comes into play during her second pregnancy, with deep consequences.
CBK: Why did you leave the South and relocate to Santa Fe? How has living there shaped your writing?
DT: For several years, my husband and I actually did live in a lovely mountain community north of Atlanta. The last thing I wanted to do was leave it. But the area’s dampness and humidity caused me severe mold allergies, so we came West seeking drier air. I doubt I will ever presume to write about Santa Fe, the desert, or other aspects of New Mexico as any more than a place a character once lived in or is passing through. Though its history fascinates me, and I’ve made wonderful friends and have never seen such a nurturing environment for creativity, I know so little of this place compared to what I know of the southern Appalachians. I know that part of the country through my heritage, bones, DNA. My father’s people settled in view of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1700s. My mother’s people came to western North Carolina around the same time.
When I left the South I was sixty–seven. With the exception of two school years in New York getting an MFA at Columbia University, I had lived entirely in the South since I was three. I love the South and always will, I can’t help it—-even though it seems a lot like loving a mother with borderline personality disorder: She’s beautiful, charming, generous, welcoming, and kind—-until she veers off without warning into something unimaginably ugly and dangerous. But you love her nonetheless, even though you can’t forgive her and often barely understand her—-she is, after all, your mother.
There’s a long tradition of writers leaving the South only to spend most of their remaining lives writing richly and insightfully about it. Willie Morris comes immediately to mind, as does Truman Capote. Leaving makes you realize you know things about the South you didn’t know you knew—-like how, even in winter, when the central heat stays on, your bedsheets are always just a little damp from the humidity; or how, failing thunder, you never know it’s going to rain until it falls on you, because you can’t see the weather in the distance for the trees; or how “y’all” might one day serve a vital purpose in the English language, which unlike, say, French or Spanish, does not have a plural for “you”—-and that these things matter.
CBK: When she’s living in Atlanta, Katherine is debilitated by her illness. Through solitude and nature she is able to heal. The mind–body connection seems important in transforming Katherine’s health. Can you say more about the connection between psychological and physical wellness?
DT: It’s true Katherine feels empowered by her wilderness existence in ways she did not in the city. She suffers from environmental illness, as do I, which was virtually unheard of in the sixties. It’s a physical condition, although many members of the medical profession have been slow to accept it as such since many times its symptoms can be neurological (dizziness, mental confusion, short–term memory loss, seizures). Its onset is often triggered by exposure to one or another chemical compound; in Katherine’s case, it’s a pesticide. Petrochemicals and artificial fragrances are generally the biggest offenders in environmental illness and, since Katherine’s wilderness environment contains neither, her strength improves from her first day in the forest, as does her mood. Gradually, she becomes less afraid—-of both her illness and her aloneness. Before long she plants a garden, a metaphor for becoming involved with her new surroundings and taking responsibility for her life there. Soon she realizes she’s getting better. She is becoming whole, physically and psychologically.
CBK: What are you working on now?
DT: On what I hope will be a novel in short stories. Part of it takes place in the early 1970s and part during the “Great Recession” that began in late 2008. Readers of In Wilderness’s epilogue will know where the new manuscript is mostly set. It’s still in its early first–draft stage, but two of its short stories are nearly complete and my excitement over them is absolutely shameful.
For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
Use these discussion questions to guide your book club discussion of When Breath Becomes Air…
1. How did you come away feeling, after reading this book? Upset? Inspired? Anxious? Less afraid?
2. What did you think of Paul’s exploration of the relationship between science and faith? As Paul wrote, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue. Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.” Do you agree?
3. How do you think the years Paul spent, tending to patients and training to be a neurosurgeon, affected the outlook he had on his own illness? When Paul wrote that the question he asked himself was not “why me,” but “why not me,” how did that strike you? Could you relate to it?
4. Paul had a strong background in the humanities, and read widely throughout his life. Only after getting a Master’s in English Literature did he decide that medicine was the right path for him. Do you think this made him a better doctor? A different kind of doctor? If so, how? How has reading influenced your life?
5. What did you think of Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a child, in the face of his illness? When Lucy asked him if he worried that having a child would make his death more painful, and Paul responded, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did,” how did that strike you? Do you agree that life should not be about avoiding suffering, but about creating meaning?
6. Were there passages or sentences that struck you as particularly profound or moving?
7. Given that Paul died before the book was finished, what are some of the questions you would have wanted to ask him if he were still here today?
8. Paul was determined to face death with integrity, and through his book, demystify it for people. Do you think he succeeded?
9. In Lucy’s epilogue, she writes that “what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” Did you come away feeling the same way?
10. Lucy also writes that, in some ways, Paul’s illness brought them closer – that she FELL feel even more deeply in love with the “beautiful , focused man” he became in the last year of his life. Did you find yourself seeing how that could happen?
11. How did this book impact your thoughts about medical care? The patient-physician relationship? End of life care?
12. Is this a book you will continue thinking about, now that you are done? Do you find it having an impact on the way you go about your days?
For readers of Amy Bloom, Sarah Waters, and Anthony Doerr, The Dressmaker’s War is the story of a brilliant English seamstress taken prisoner in Germany during World War II: about her perseverance, the choices she makes to stay alive, and the haunting aftermath of war.
Mary, you were a professor of history for many years before you turned to writing fiction. Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction?
History and literature have always been my two great passions. History promised a more realistic career to support a family, so I chose that passion first. Despite being widely published as a historian, I never felt I could call myself a ‘writer’ until I had published a work of fiction. I wanted to be up there!
What was that transition like, from writing history to writing fiction?
I was (and remain) on a steep learning curve. On the face of it, there are crossovers between history and fiction. Both operate with prose, narrative, characters, with mentalities and context. But a historian’s approach is omnipresent, forensic and cerebral; a novelist’s approach is partial, fluid and involved. Historians have evidence to support their characters and context, and to present an authentic interpretation of what happened in the past. Novelists have to invent everything: characters, evidence and context to create that aura of authenticity. They need to inhabit the world of their novel in order to portray the illusion of reality, to invent detail that historians have no concern with. On the other hand, a novelist is not constrained by the evidence in a way that a historian is. A novelist can invent and circumvent, lie and speculate.
How did your background and knowledge of history inform the way you wrote The Dressmaker’s War?
South London seemed the natural location for my novel. My parents originated there and my childhood was filled with a repertoire of family stories set in the docks and markets, houses and streets of what they called the real London. I knew that historical and urban landscape, and its social topography. My academic specialism was the middle decades of the 20th century so setting my novel in that period came naturally, too.
I am passionate about history ‘from below,’ so it was natural for me to make my character representative of two historically disenfranchised groups – the working-class and women. There are other communities too, passed over by historians for being the wrong race, gender, ethnicity, faith or sexuality, or the wrong side of struggle. I do feel that history – and its ally, fiction – can help reclaim these hidden pasts. We need these correctives to enhance our understanding of what really happened—of the complex, varied, volatile and fragile world we inhabit.
Throughout most of The Dressmaker’s War, Ada Vaughan is tenacious in her ability to stay alive. But even after surviving Nazi imprisonment and wartime Europe, Ada is ultimately defeated by the justice system of her own country—unfairly, it seems! Why did they prosecute her so zealously? Would a woman like Ada have ever gotten a fair trail, at that time in England?
Ada did murder Stanley/Stanislaus. That was why she was prosecuted. Nowadays, a defense would plead extenuating circumstances and probably convict her of the lesser crime of manslaughter. But post-war Britain was a society divided by class, gender (and, increasingly, race.) The political and justice system reflected the prejudices of the time. There was no gender equality. Parliament was dominated by men. Similarly, the judiciary. There were no women judges (the first was appointed in 1962), very few women lawyers. Women could sit on juries but there was a property qualification which in effect barred them, for few women owned or rented property in their own name. Furthermore, lawyers cost money and the poor could not pay for a good lawyer. The legal odds were stacked against Ada.
So were the civil odds. Female murderers transgress social and gender norms. The cases of Edith Thompson, hung for murdering her husband in 1923, and Ruth Ellis, executed in 1955 for the murder of her lover, are examples of what would now be considered gross miscarriages of justice. Today, the court would have a more sympathetic understanding of the role of long-term abuse as a motive in Ada murdering Stanislaus, but at that time there was no such defense. Ada was sexually loose, which again transgressed acceptable behavior and would be enough to discredit her evidence. She was working class, in a society riddled with class division and snobbery. She was independent, at a time when women were being forced back into the home as part of the post-war drive to ‘normality.’ Finally, the post-war narrative of victory had no tolerance for traitors, and stories of survival such as Ada’s blurred the lines between survival and collaboration. She became, in effect, a scapegoat.
What gave you the idea for this story? Were Ada, or any of the other characters, inspired by real people?
The starting points for my novel were two of my aunts. My aunt Ada, whom I never knew, left her husband and young children, who had to be cared for by my grandmother. In any age, that was a shocking thing to do, but in the 1920s it was unforgiveable. The family never spoke of her again – a silence amply filled by myth. Aunt Ada, we learned, had – depending on the time and the source – variously married the heir to a manufacturer’s fortune, run off with a Hungarian count, been rescued from behind enemy lines and smuggled out from the Iron Curtain. As a child, this was high octane glamour and excitement. Aunt Ada was, by all accounts, uncommonly beautiful. But Ada was a working class girl from Walworth, and the stories say more about the family imagination than the truth. Nevertheless, I wondered why she abandoned her family, and what happened to her.
And then there was Violet, another aunt, a linen maid from Southwark, plain as a pavement, in sensible shoes and horn-rimmed glasses. She became a nun. I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first learned that this soft-spoken, lisping, aunt had been interned by the Germans and spent the war caring for their old people. I was old enough to know of Nazi atrocities, not old enough to understand the complexities of war, especially for prisoners. She never mentioned it again, nor did I ever ask. Trapped in the convent in northern France and rounded up by the Germans, she was shipped by cattle truck across France – a journey that took days without water or rest – to an internment camp, from where the nuns were isolated and sent to look after the elderly, either in Germany or Vichy France.
In the mill of my imagination, in the writing of this novel, these aunts morphed into one and became my protagonist, Ada Vaughan, who ran the story in directions that would have both the sinning aunt and the saintly aunt turning in their graves. But I wanted to write about the real Ada’s drive, about Violet’s wartime survival, about women during and after the war, about post-war Britain and its problems.
For a woman like Ada, growing up in that era, were there many career options available to her? Was dressmaking a way to transcend class divisions, or would they ultimately have constrained her?
Lack of education constrained most working class women and men from social advancement. A few won scholarships to high school which offered one route to social mobility, but most working class children left school at fourteen—the school leaving age was raised to fifteen in 1936. There was a real hunger for further education and Ada was typical in her desire for self-improvement. Institutions arose to satisfy this desire, providing evening classes in a range of vocational, academic and recreational classes. Career avenues for working class girls were limited to service, shop work, or the factory floor. A few acquired skills such as typing or shorthand which brought them into clerical work. Ada was lucky. She had a trade and secured a job with a ‘modiste’ which elevated her above the sweatshops of the East End. She was ambitious, talented, and hard-working. Perhaps, with luck and financial patronage, she could have fulfilled her dream of owning her own atelier. But opportunities would have been limited and the chances are she would have married, started a family and perhaps, to make ends meet, bought a sewing machine on hire-purchase and ran up the odd garment for a friend or family member.
How much has this notion of class changed, from the England of then versus today?
Britain’s class system was (and is) by no means monolithic. Rankings and gradations existed which were finely and acutely observed. Class snobbery, often morally charged, could be found both within and across classes. Among the working class, this ranged from skilled workers and their families who lived comfortably, discreetly and ‘respectably,’ to the rough and tumble of casual and unemployed workers in sub-let rooms. The Poor Law (abolished in 1932) had classified the working class into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.’ The Trade Unions, on the other hand, helped to instill pride in the working class and their institutions, to secure a living wage, and to ferment the demand for, and the practice of, democracy.
Social disadvantage still exists, but ‘class’ as a concept has lost its political potency and its conceptual clarity. The discourse has changed, but attitudes remain morally charged. The ‘deserving’ or ‘respectable’ working-class are now lauded in the political rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’; the undeserving as ‘benefits scroungers.’ The reality is very different: low wages mean even those who work full-time are impoverished. Many of those hard-working families rely on benefits to survive. The Trade Unions have been decimated. The so-called ‘scroungers’ are often mentally, physically or socially disabled, or live in regions where unemployment is endemic. Class, as a term or a concept, is rarely used either by politicians or social analysts, least of all as a banner of pride. In the England of today, poverty still hits women the hardest and society seems a harsher, more cynical place.
The descriptions of Ada’s dressmaking—the fabrics, the draping, the details—are some of the most evocative moments in the book. Did you have to do much research, to capture this world so vividly? How did you go about envisioning those creations, and writing those scenes?
My grandmother was a seamstress and my mother, though not a professional, made her clothes, and mine, and taught me how to sew. I grew up imbibing the mechanics of dressmaking, and the qualities of fabric. One of my daughters is now a costume designer so I had another generation to advise me. Not much research was needed on the practical side! Animating material was pure invention, and a lot of fun. I used the internet for finding period fashions and coupled these with memories from a misspent adolescence watching old movies on TV from the 1930s and 1940s. But I wanted to give Ada depth, to suggest that her passion for dressmaking was more than a passion for finery. She was well aware of the transformative power of clothes, on herself and others. This also enabled a human link, woman to woman, across the political divide of war. The way she imbued the fabric with living qualities provided a foil to the war-torn world around her, and it gave her a metaphor of survival in the midst of brutality and destruction. At the same time, it emphasised the human cost of adornments, the superficiality of the women who demanded these luxuries and their indifference to the plight of Ada and other exploited labour.
You write so beautifully about the notion of “the twilight” in history, the real stories of what happened, stories of women like Ada: “Ada’s war would be forgotten.” Do you think it’s a problem we still face, today?
In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, the public narrative that prevailed in Britain was one of victory and valor. Stories which did not conform to this template were often ignored, not listened to, or believed. The subjugation and imprisonment of British subjects was one such. Male prisoners of war held a heroic place as resisters and survivors in the narrative. But women? There is, for the most, part silence. Collaboration was another toxic theme. This was not the pressing issue in mainland Britain that it was in other parts of Europe, but I wanted to raise some of these questions in my novel: what happened to women subjugated by the enemy? How were they regarded? What is collaboration? What is choice under these circumstances? Where does gender sit in this murky arena? Women charged with collaboration—usually for sleeping with the enemy—were regarded particularly harshly. The nature and forms of collaboration with an enemy may take many forms, gradations of co-operation which may have little or nothing to do with sympathies for the occupying power and much to do with survival. Equally, the ethics of resistance are not so clear-cut: how right is it to carry out an act of sabotage knowing that the reprisals would be savage?
In the years following World War Two, people were desperate to put the hardship and suffering behind them and look to the future. The political environment had also changed; the Cold War brought with it the potential for nuclear annihilation. These were cosmic issues of survival which contributed to an amnesia of the war. I think many writers of my generation, born during or just after the Second World War and growing up in its aftermath, are still trying to make sense of our lives and the turbulent century into which we were born. Other tales now are beginning to be told, which examine a more ambiguous and ambivalent past. This is a rich seam to mine.
Readers seem to have a continuous appetite for stories from World War Two and stories of survival. How do you account for this?
Wars generate extremes–heroism and cowardice, generosity and selfishness, death and survival. Those extremes fascinate, but they raise fundamental issues. We all ponder, at some time, how we would behave faced with unimaginable danger or hardship. Would we kill or betray or connive for our survival or those of our loved ones? How far would we go? Stories of war – of other peoples’ heroism or brutality – allow us to make those decisions vicariously and let us off the hook for the time being.
Are you working on another novel? Can you tell us a little about it?
My next novel is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation during World War II, and in it I am exploring themes of betrayal and survival in the war, and their reckoning after the war. But I am also trying to invert – or subvert – some of the usual stereotypes, and tell the story through two very different characters and perspectives. Watch this space for more details in the future.
From the master observer of upper-crust New York life comes a taut thriller that takes readers from the office suites of Manhattan to the tidy elegance of Sag Harbor and the rough-and-tumble western plains of Brazil.
Louis Begley writes about his inspiration for the novel and things he contemplated while writing…
There are interwoven themes running through Killer, Come Hither that readers may wish to consider.
One of them is violence—-immanent wherever there are human beings, ordinarily held in check by laws and custom and fear of retribution, but ready to explode without the need for any visible spark. Examples abound. ISIS, jihadist and Taliban terrorist attacks, mass shootings in the United States by hate–driven psychotics wielding assault weapons—-alas, they have lost the capacity to surprise us. Hardly a day passes without coming across the account of some such event in the newspaper or on radio and television news.
But there is another kind of violence that one might call private. At night or during the day, on the back street of a quiet town, an intruder tries the front door of a one–family house. The town is one of those places that still exists where natives don’t think they need to lock the front door. So the doorknob turns; the door yields; the intruder enters. Once inside, he is in no hurry to kill. First he has his way with the old lady, or the old man, or, perhaps, an old couple. Were they asleep, preparing dinner, or watching the evening news? What will follow? It depends on what the intruder wants, what he got, and above all, on his mood.
Another theme concerns punishment and revenge. Suppose the old lady or the old gentleman is someone you love dearly. What will you do about the torture, the rape, and the murder? In our society, crimes are investigated by the police, and we like to think that in most cases the culprit is caught, brought to trial, and, if found guilty, sentenced according to the law. In the case I have posited, under the laws of a majority of American states, the murderer would stand a good chance of being sentenced to die. In the nineteen states that have abolished the death penalty and in the District of Columbia, imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole is not unlikely.
Unless, of course, the first–degree-murder charge for one reason or another doesn’t stick and the accused is tried for a lesser crime, or plea bargains his way to a lighter sentence, for instance, a term of years with parole not being precluded. Or, perhaps, after expert testimony, he is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Is trusting the police and that range of possibilities good enough for you, is your belief in the rule of the law that solid? And if it isn’t, will you heed the verses of Deuteronomy that enjoin us to leave retribution to heaven: “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense. . . .”?
To complicate matters, take the case of my protagonist, Jack Dana, a young man of about thirty, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and Force Recon platoon leader. His only living relative, whom he loved unconditionally, is the victim of such a crime. Jack has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan how easy it is to kill a man. He is a trained killer, and a match for the intruder. He thinks it would be a cinch to liquidate the intruder once he gets his hands on him.
A third essential theme animates my novel, that of corruption. The crime against someone Jack loved was committed in January 2012. Jack was wounded in Afghanistan in 2008 and afterward spent many months at Walter Reed Hospital being patched up by surgeons. When he looks back as a civilian on the two wars he has fought, he sees that they were botched, that the sacrifice of human lives and treasure was in vain, and that the country is indifferent to the sacrifices and suffering of men and women who fought for it. Money from extremist donors is flooding the political system. He believes that their influence reaches deep into Congress and the highest levels of the administration. Not even the FBI and the CIA seem to be immune. Alongside the corruption, he sees incompetence. Is there any doubt about how Jack will respond once he has gained the conviction that a colossally rich man who, in his opinion, is subverting the republic, is behind the crime?
These themes have coalesced in Killer, Come Hither. The story I tell is the fruit of brooding about them and facing some of my personal obsessions, including the fear of intruders and violence.
For readers of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf, and Elizabeth Flock comes a riveting and timely novel that delves into a modern family’s harrowing encounter with the complex world of cyberbullying.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Have you, or has someone you know, ever experienced bullying?
2. In what ways do you think the Internet and social media change the bullying culture in schools?
3. What can be done about this issue, in schools or at home?
Do schools have a responsibility to get involved? To what
4. What do you think prompts bullying behavior in teenagers? Can it be stopped?
5. Discuss Jack and Jenna’s relationship. What changed
between them after the move to Wales? Could they have handled their affairs differently? How would you have handled it?
6. What sort of consequences do you think bullies should face for their actions?
7. Why do you think the bullies chose to target Paige specifically?
8. Discuss the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of this novel. What did you think of Jenna’s parenting? How could she have handled Paige’s situation differently?
9. Discuss Paige’s relationship with Jack. How does the fact that he’s her stepfather influence the family dynamic?
10. Paige has a very complicated home life: her mother’s marriage is in jeopardy, they recently moved to Wales, finances are tight, etc. What other aspects of her home life may have heightened the stress Paige was under?