Deb Caletti, the author of The Secrets She Keeps, a beautiful novel about three women coming to terms with love and marriage, has written you, her readers a note. Read on…
Dear Reader –
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years from my many book events, it’s this: We readers understand each other. We can come from different parts of the world and have varying life experiences, but get us into a room talking about our favorite reads, our stack of books turning into a nightstand, and we are all from the very same place. Let me tell you, friends, we can get pretty heated about whether one should fold down the corner of the page to keep our place or not. We are deliciously book-greedy, and we rant and gush and get choked up about the words that have moved us.
I am a reader even before I am a writer, so when I sat down to write The Secrets She Keeps, coming from Random House on July 7th, it was with a reader’s desires as well as a writer’s. I wanted to create a book that you’d read a little slower to make it last longer (do you know that feeling? I love that feeling!), with lines that made you think, and characters you related to and rooted for as the pages turned. I really wanted that satisfying sigh at the end.
The Secrets She Keeps is about two sisters with troubled marriages who gather at their aunt’s now crumbling Nevada “divorce ranch.” The story is told in alternating time periods – one summer at the present-day ranch, and the summer of 1951, a summer of secrets, when high-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such ranches to establish residency and secure difficult-to-get divorces. The Secrets She Keeps reflects contemporary life and marriage as we know it, yet it is also full of Mad Men-esque glamour, desert dust and wild mustangs, cowboys and majestic scenery. More than those things, though, it is a book about the power of female friendships, about self-discovery, and resilience. It’s a story about love – its timeless troubles, and its stubborn, enduring joys.
Thank you for being part of The Secrets She Keeps, dear fellow readers. I’m excited to share this one with you. I hope, hope, hope you sigh at the end. And, for the record, please fold down any corner that you wish.
Fleeing her native England with her three-year-old daughter, Justine Cantrell gives herself a new name and a new life in America. In a quiet midwestern town on the shores of glittering Lake Maxinkuckee, Justine hopes to recapture the fleeting days of happiness in the long-ago summers she spent with her grandmother. And though her memories of that time are scant, Justine knows they must have shared a special bond. After all, the power of her grandmother’s love has pulled her back to this haven in search of a new beginning.
But fate has other plans. The more Justine gets to know the small town and its people, the more she realizes that her grandmother had her own devastating secrets—secrets that will soon threaten Justine just as surely as her own dark memories.
If you’ve been reading with your book club or on your own, let these questions help you get thinking about the novel…
1. The subject of violence among children is central to the plot of this novel. Discuss violence in schools. What causes it? How can it be stopped?
2. How well do you feel Susan Lewis captured life in America? How does her experience living in Britain color her view of American life? Does her “outsider” status afford her unique insight, or are there elements of midwestern life that must be lived to be understood?
3. What do you think of Justine’s decision to leave England? Would you have done the same in her position?
4. Who surprised you most in this novel? Why?
5. Justine’s memories of England and of summers spent with her grandmother in Indiana are driving forces in this novel. Describe the function of memory and the past. How do Justine’s memories influence her decisions?
6. Both Justine and Grandma May kept carefully guarded secrets. Compare and contrast their secrets and their motivations for hiding them. In what ways are Justine and her grandmother similar? How are they different? Are there any parallels between their experiences?
7. Discuss Justine and Matt’s relationship. What were its primary strengths? Weaknesses?
8. Discuss the themes of prejudice and bullying among schoolchildren that come into play in this novel. What, if anything, could have changed in order for Ben’s experience to be different?
9. How would you describe Justine as a mother? How is her relationship with Tallulah different from her relationship with Ben? How is it similar? Did Justine inherit any parenting styles from her own mother?
10. What is the community in Culver like? How do Justine’s friends in America differ from her friends in England? Are there any particular qualities they have in common?
11. The theme of escaping the past is prominent in this novel. Can we ever truly escape the past? Is it possible to have a fresh start, or do we always carry our emotional baggage with us?
J. R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Moehringer is the author of the bestsellers Sutton and The Tender Bar, and co–author of Open by Andre Agassi. Here he speaks with Tom Rachman, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.
J. R. Moehringer: Your new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, is wonderfully Dickensian. There’s a quasi–orphan protagonist thrown in among lovable scoundrels, some of whom become parental surrogates, plus a slew of eccentric minor characters with names like Mr. Priddles and Fogg. And of course there are sly mentions of Nicholas Nickleby sprinkled throughout. Having grown up in a bar called Dickens, I have to ask: How much were you reading Dickens, or thinking of him, while plotting and writing? And is Nickleby your favorite of his novels?
Tom Rachman: I do love Dickens. His characters were among the first to imprint themselves into my imagination when I was little. I remember listening on audiobook during family vacations, while my sister (three years older) raced ahead in print, burning through another huge paperback. The main character in my novel, Tooly, is a bookworm like my sister—-the type who spends daylight in the -company of fictional characters, only to glance up hours later, startled to find a mere room. I wanted to show, as Tooly’s life unfolds, how one’s earliest stories condition how one encounters the world: what one -expects of strangers, whether one counts on justice, whether one veers into cynicism or veers back again. I chose to have Tooly reading Nicholas Nickleby because that book so memorably describes a wretched school—-and the joy of fleeing. All of which informs Tooly’s path in life. Or the path she thinks she’s taking.
JM: Clearly you have issues with the concept of linear time. As do many of your characters. (As do I.) I’m thinking of Gerda Erzberger, in your first novel, The Imperfectionists, railing against the “illusion of continuity” in our lives, lamenting that the past “won’t hold still.” It doesn’t hold still in your plots, either. In both your novels, the past is ever lurking, ebbing and flowing—-particularly for Tooly. Are you instinctively drawn to stories with this fluid and fractured sense of time, or is the choice more deliberate?
TR: I’ve sometimes used a collage effect, placing times side–by–side in a story, to investigate how personalities form, how they change, how they misunderstand one another. In life, we rarely contrast now and then with clarity. I’m thinking, for example, of when you encounter old friends after years apart. You find yourself noting how different they are, or how the facets which defined them are still present yet unexpectedly different in proportion, so that the giggliness has turned into giddiness or the determination has become courage. What you rarely consider is that, if your friends have changed, then surely you have too. Instead, we assume ourselves fixed in nature—-that only the rest of humanity shifts! But maybe we’re all ongoing stories, defined at various stages of life, or whenever people oblige us to declare ourselves. Fiction is marvelous for studying this, allowing the writer and reader to leap decades in a sentence. No other art lets you bend time as much.
JM: It strikes me that nearly every character in Rise & Fall has a powerful longing for home, and each of them has a radically different idea of what home means. Some are never quite sure what it means, though that doesn’t ease their longing. Is this just me projecting some of my own inner drama, or was the deep human desire for home running through your mind while you wrote?
TR: You’re right. In this novel, Tooly travels the world, watching all the stationary citizens, and wondering—-sometimes enviously—-what that life would be like, whether belonging can be attained, whether it’s a fallacy, and if you suffer by having no place. These are all thoughts that have occurred to me. I was born in London, raised in Vancouver, studied in Toronto, worked in New York, Rome, and Paris, and presently live in London again. I have family scattered from Canada to South Africa to China to Switzerland and places beyond. So what is home for me? It depends what one means by “home.” There’s the apartment or house or room that contains one’s bed. Then there’s the neighborhood or city or country that contains one’s identity. The first sense of home I establish easily. The second sense remains elusive to me after thirty–nine years. When I was growing up, this bothered me. I yearned to be from somewhere, and confident of it. But I’ve shifted. Now I prefer to adopt admirable features of the cultures I’ve passed through, without restricting myself to just one.
JM: Because of your background in journalism, and your years working overseas, it was easier for readers to imagine, rightly or wrongly, possible inspirations for certain characters and events in The Imper-fectionists. But I can’t imagine what the spark was for the remarkable character of Tooly, or her odyssey. (Unless maybe The Tempest? She and Humph have a strong Miranda–Prospero vibe about them.) I really want to hear that you met someone like her on a long flight or at a dinner party.
TR: I’m very fond of Tooly, but I’ve never met her. Despite what they say about writing what you know, I’m poor at converting real people into fictional ones—-whenever I’ve tried, they are the least credible parts of the story! My characters start from imagination and gather small traits from actuality as they (and I) go along. If people recognize a real–life feature or anecdote in a character, they might falsely assume that this means the entire character was torn from reality. But mine are hybrids, predominantly fantasy, with a few purloined chromosomes, and a good number of my own in each character. The settings, by contrast, I try to reproduce as authentically as possible. For The Imperfectionists, which is set at an international paper in Rome, I mined my past at various news organizations in various cities. For Rise & Fall, I had to research a lot more—-everything from U.S. embassy security in the 1980s, to international schools in Bangkok, to the look of the Welsh countryside.
JM: I also wish I could go to Tooly’s lovely bookstore, World’s End. Based on your previous answer I’m going to assume it’s not modeled on any real bookstore, alas, but maybe it combines some qualities of your favorite bookstores? And are you the type of person who feels a fierce loyalty to bookstores, who can’t visit this or that city without also visiting its landmark bookstore—-the Strand in New York, Another Country in Berlin, Daunt in London, Tattered Cover in -Denver?
TR: The bookstore in my novel is inspired by many that have given me hours of pleasure over the years—-be they wondrous giants (say, Powell’s in Portland) or cramped establishments that require you to edge sideways past the stock (say, the Community Bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn). Another influence was Hay–on–Wye, in Wales, a town devoted to bookstores: It’s just one after the other. When I first went there, I was agog. It’s an amusement park for bibliophiles.
JM: In your first novel, a dying newspaper is the emotional anchor for your characters; in the second novel, it’s a dying bookstore. Is it reasonable to accuse you of chronic nostalgia? Do you perhaps feel that you were born at the wrong moment in history?
TR: I consider myself a realist—-with a sprinkling of nostalgia. I’m fascinated by our times, all these amazing technological and political and cultural changes. And I’m not one of those woebegone fellows yearning for the good old days—-there was too much brutality and drudgery in the past to imagine it was all doilies and Chopin. The era we’re in contains betterment in many respects, and this leads people to assume that all tech–driven change is progress. Not so sure. The value of a smartphone is indisputable—-but who hasn’t felt slightly more harried, slightly more distracted, as a result? I don’t want to -declare contemporary changes either good or bad. I’d rather record a glimpse of them in my fiction, and encourage readers to ponder the torrent of change. Does our epoch define us? Or does one’s unique personality assert itself regardless of the period? In the background, the great powers of the world rise and fall, in politics, tech, everything. But one’s own strengths and influences rise and fall over the course of one’s life. That contrast is at the core of Rise & Fall: a tale of a book–besotted world traveler trying to figure out where and how and when she fits.
Originally published by Salon in June 2014
Disappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.
Use these discussion questions to guide your book club in navigating this novel of heartbreak, love, and luck.
1. The day that Eva’s mother leaves her at her father’s house is the day that Eva loses one family and starts another. Have you ever been in a place where you have had to create a new family around yourself? What were some of the best parts? The worst parts?
2. Edgar’s mother once told him, “It’s good to be smart, it’s better to be lucky.” What do you think about that statement after finishing the novel? If you had to choose, would you rather be lucky or smart?
3. Iris’s ambition is what sets Eva and Iris on the road at the beginning of the novel. How does Eva’s ambition differ from Iris’s? Which sister, do you think, is more successful?
4. Eva and Iris find themselves having to constantly reinvent their identities as they travel around America. Has there ever been a time when you’ve reinvented yourself? Was it difficult to do?
5. Though so much of the novel focuses on Iris’s search for love, the relationship between Eva and Gus also becomes a central pillar. What do you think of their love for each other? How does their relationship compare with Iris’s experiences?
6. At one point, Eva says, “I looked for mothers the way drunks look for bars.” Do you think Eva ever found her mother figure? If so, who was it? If not, what family figures did she create instead?
7. Iris writes to Eva about memory: “I remember some things at a gallop, some moments from Ohio bearing down upon me in huge detail, and other things that are no more than small leaves floating on a stream. Memory seems as faulty, as misunderstood and misguided, as every other thought or spasm that passes through us” (p. 97). Do you think Iris is right about memory here? How do memory and forgiveness tie into each other?
8. Who was your favorite addition to Iris and Eva’s family and why? Francisco? Clara? Danny? Gus?
9. Each chapter is titled with song lyrics from the period, evoking the richness of the music during that era. What connection do you find between music and reading? How can music add new dimensions to a story?
10. The adventures of the novel begin after a few photographs on a beach surface. The novel ends with another photograph on a beach. How have the roles of Eva and Iris changed since then, and how has the role of photographs changed? Can a photograph ever fully capture a moment?
Random House Reader’s Circle had a chance to chat with Deb Caletti about her new novel The Secrets She Keeps,a beautiful and profound novel of three women coming to terms with love and marriage on a divorce ranch in Nevada.
Random House Reader’s Circle: What gave you the idea to write a story centered on the “Reno cure” and divorce ranches of the mid–twentieth century? Your portrayal of
Tamarosa Ranch and the women who stayed there is so vivid, dazzling, and authentic. How did you go about bringing this place and this era to life, and from where did you draw your inspiration? Did you do anything specific to transport yourself into that world?
Deb Caletti: A few years ago, I came across a single line in a book that mentioned a “divorce ranch.” I’d never heard the term before, and out of curiosity, I looked it up. When I learned what they were, and understood the transformative experiences that were had there, I was intrigued. But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer–moments where your heart beats fast and you think: This. Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages supporting one another, and attempting to understand themselves and their relationships.
Bringing it to life, though, was trickier than I’d anticipated because of exactly what I’d found so thrilling—-how little there was out there about the ranches. Luckily, I discovered The Divorce Seekers, a stunning coffee table volume of photos and memories by a former dude wrangler at the famed Flying M. E. Ranch, Bill McGee. The images—-with their smoky, black–and–white, retro allure—-are what brought the time and place alive for me so that I could bring them to life in the novel. Not only was it an invaluable resource for information on day–to–day life on a divorce ranch, it also set the mood. I’d open the book to an image of two sleepy roommates in the middle of their Reno cure, wearing silky chemises, drinks in hand, or to a photo of one of “the gals” in her party–night finery, and I’d be just where I needed to be. Music of the time occasionally helped, too. As well, I researched the bestsellers of those years written by women, so I could get a feel for the female voices of the time. Sometimes I’d read a page or two in order to “get into character” so to speak.
RHRC: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about life on a divorce ranch?
D.C.: I was surprised how wild it all got on the ranches. When you think of that time period, you imagine a (literally) more buttoned–up experience, but no. The sex with cowboys, the drinking, the letting loose—-it all sounds a bit film–version–cliché but was very much the truth. Each generation thinks they’ve invented sex and rebellion, but we seem like over–sharing novices in comparison. Their experiences were not splayed out on every television and computer screen, and the language around it was discreet and even somewhat coy, but these were no trips to the convent.
What also surprised me—-and what became extraordinarily important thematically to the book—-was how timeless our struggles are in terms of love. I could see the story lines repeating over the generations. We battle the same old things they did—-bad choices, infidelity, abuse, career–versus–marriage conflicts, intruding parents. We move on too fast after a breakup; they’d go from the courthouse to the marriage chapel. We’re intrigued and tempted by a life not like ours; they’d buy ranch wear and try to bring home a cowboy. We’ve been taken (or we take); we’re endlessly hopeful (or fed up and jaded); we fall for the wrong person (or, finally, the right one). And so it was then. It was this baseline that led me, in part, to using the mirror images that begin and end each chapter. Hopefully, those brief repetitions underscore the idea that here we are, all over again.
RHRC: The Secrets She Keeps stars a true ensemble cast of women, each startlingly unique but all equally real. Was it difficult to create so many different, dynamic personalities and have them all sharing space, or did they come to you and interact with one another naturally?
D.C.: Ensemble casts are something I like to do as a writer. It’s a challenge, and I think the varying perspectives bring layers to a story. I had an ensemble cast in two of my young–adult novels, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart (in which a young girl and her mother go on a road trip with a group of old people to reunite a pair of geriatric lovers) and The Secret Life of Prince Charming (in which a young woman and her sisters return objects their father has stolen to every woman he’s ever been in love with). So I’ve had experience managing those numbers before. Essentially, a character must sound like him– or herself, and this is true whether you’re writing one or twenty. I don’t find this to be particularly difficult. If you think about your extended family all sitting around a dinner table, you realize how different each individual sounds. In addition to what they say and how they say it, Mom and Aunt So–and–so dress like opposites, and while the uncles are both hardheaded, one still wears his class ring, and the other has that weird beard and bad habit of interrupting.
RHRC: Can you speak to the experience of writing a dual narrative that has one foot in the past and one in the present? What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of that process? Was it ever hard to switch gears from one story line to the next?
D.C.: The switching itself was rewarding—-going back and forth brings a freshness and energy to the work. It’s similar to the experience of reading alternating chapters, where you’re disappointed to leave the first set of characters but are eager to see what’s happened with the others since you last left off. I write chronologically, so sometimes that means waiting to write a big scene I’m looking forward to, or, in this case, waiting to get back to that exciting event in the past or present. Switching can provide tension and momentum for a reader, but it can do the same for a writer. And natural momentum makes a book a joy to write.
In terms of challenge, the past/present switching made for a ton of research. It was akin to writing a research–heavy contemporary novel and a historical one. When you go back into the past, every little thing must be considered and checked—-each item of clothing, every phrase, every piece of furniture and automobile. Kitchen supplies! Hair products! Restaurants in a city! Music! What kind of gun would they have had at the ranch then? When did cars first get radios? Was a certain slang expression used yet? Which hat did a man wear for work and which for dress? This brings us back to the rewards, though, because I learned about divorce laws through time, and obstetric practices, and the fact that ambulances were still not commonplace in rural areas then. I played virtual dress–up with the many beautiful outfits I discovered and drooled (or cringed) over the food of the time period. I am still seriously curious about those greengage plums packed in sugar–sweetened brandy.
RHRC: The mustangs play a huge role in the book, not only in terms of their sheer majesty but also their plight and the need to preserve and protect the land they inhabit. Are these larger issues something you already had a vested interest in exploring when you set out to write this book, or did that interest develop as you dug deeper into your research? Have you ever seen the mustangs running, yourself?
D.C.: This may sound hugely disappointing and unromantic, but like Callie, I have no experience with horses. I’ve never really ridden one and, prior to this book, knew little about them. I’ve never been to a ranch and have only been to Nevada once, in the backseat of the car with my parents when I was seven. As a writer, I often think about Lilly Tuck’s speech at the National Book Awards the year she won (and the year I was a finalist for Honey, Baby, Sweetheart). Her book was The News from Paraguay, and she began her speech by saying that she had never been to Paraguay, didn’t know much about Paraguay, and didn’t even really care to visit Paraguay. While I’d love to spend time on a ranch and was fascinated by all I learned, I understand what she meant. The adage urges writers to “Write what you know,” but if we did, there’d be many novels about us sitting home alone, pecking at the keyboard. Or else reading online reviews and becoming crippled with self–doubt.
That said, when searching for the story line, themes, and symbols that would bridge the two narratives, the mustangs were a natural choice. Campaigns to save the mustang began just before the book does, in 1950, when Velma Bronn Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) of Washoe County became involved in the campaign to save the wild horses after following a truck loaded with horses and dripping blood on its way to a slaughterhouse. (Yes, a certain scene in the book is a nod to her.) In 1951, photographer Gus Bundy also began shooting images that became instrumental in changing gathers by airplane. But in addition to lending historic accuracy, the horses are a physical representation of love itself: passionate, messy, unpredictable, and stunning. The complicated questions that surround them, the lack of clear answers, were also symbolically on the mark.
I may not have known anything about the mustangs before I began, but I developed a great respect for them and for the individuals on both sides of the question, particularly the land managers who must consider every corner of the issue. I was astounded at the care they take to balance the interests of the land (and the other living things on it) with the some fifty thousand wild horses and burros currently living in the western states.
RHRC: Callie is awed and humbled by her interactions with nature while exploring the Washoe Lake area, which lends such perspective to her life in Seattle. Living in Seattle yourself, do you find this reflects your own experience in any way? Do you prefer a city existence or the “of–the–land” lifestyle that Kit leads, or do you strive for more of a balance?
D.C.: Callie’s observations are mostly part of her personal process, where she eventually learns that you sometimes need to get out of your daily existence to appreciate the beauty of your daily existence. Still, I think there’s some truth to the differences she notices, in terms of the biking techies and hipster baristas and self–aware food versus “life like that—-the one going on right here right now, with men in cowboy hats, men with silver belt buckles, men with horses and guns.” We are very connected to nature and the outdoors here, too, but sometimes there’s an affected quality to it, a persona that’s worn along with all the right clothing from REI. Ranch life seems more straightforward, and the relationship to the land more pragmatic. That said, it’s also true that you’ll find some of the most stunning, breathtaking parts of this country in the Northwest, and we who live here do our best to appreciate that fact.
The city–or–not dilemma has always been large for me. The idea of sprawling acres of land and a small town has huge appeal. I used to live in a house on a salmon–running creek at the foot of a mountain before moving to the city when I remarried. I loved being near water, trees, and creatures. (Though I could’ve passed on the bear and the cougars.) I adored bumping my Jeep along the rugged dirt road, reveled in the awareness of seasons and the perspective nature brings. I still long for miles of windswept dunes, or a herd of cattle with room to roam, or a dock on a remote lake. But there is also the matter of little–black–dress literary parties, great restaurants, and the need for the nearness of a library. The perfect life would be a pair of old work boots next to the heels.
RHRC: Hadley keeps a saucer of foil–wrapped confections by her typewriter to “tempt the muse.” As a writer, do you have any habits, processes, or, like Hadley, treats that get your creative juices flowing?
D.C.: Hmm. Wonder where I got that? I confess that I’ve gone beyond the saucer to an actual drawer. Occasionally, a little self–bribery is useful. I usually start the writing morning with strong coffee and a shortbread cookie, the kind in the red plaid box that are all butter, glorious butter. Other treats in the drawer—-Red Vines, Hot Tamales, chewy butterscotch, a bit of good chocolate. Full disclosure: I considered lying when answering this question.
RHRC: Nash and Lilly bond through the trading of beloved books. In that moment, Lilly asks, “Don’t you wish you could live inside a book sometimes?” What book(s) would you live inside if you could?
D.C.: A Moveable Feast would work nicely. Paris in the 1920s, with Ernest Hemingway and pals like James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein . . . F. Scott Fitzgerald reading Hemingway the first draft of The Great Gatsby at their neighborhood café, La Closerie des Lilas . . . Ahh. I’m also drawn to books like Under the Tuscan Sun, where a woman goes to a foreign country, remodels some crumbling villa, makes friends with villagers while walking her charming dog, all the while eating fabulous food.
RHRC: Of all the women you’ve brought to life in this novel, which would you say most resembles yourself? Or who would you most like to resemble? Who would be your partner in crime if you were to spend time at the Tamarosa Ranch?
D.C.: Almost every character has a bit (or more) of the author in them, I think. Callie and Shaye reflect my own yin/yang: settled and restless, steady and unsteady, cautious and occasionally heedless. I have the aspirations of Hadley, and I’ve had (past tense) the naïveté of Ellen’s and Lilly’s unfortunate taste in men. I have Nash’s leanings toward solitude and open air, her book love, and her appetite. I’d most like to take on her realistic, calm worldview, though, and the strength she’s developed over her years. Veronica is least like me and, therefore, probably the one I’d want as a partner in crime. During a six–week cure, you’d need a Veronica to encourage a little mischief. And to push you toward the life that’s truly yours.