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A Reader’s Guide: Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Juliet Grey on Writing

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow

A Reader’s Guide

Grey_Days of Splendor, Days of SorrowIt provided great pleasure, but also left me with a measure of sadness, to continue the story of Marie Antoinette’s life in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, because of course we know the tragic denouement. I felt that part of my role in this middle novel in the trilogy was to show how Marie Antoinette’s journey continued along its fatal path. It’s clear from the book’s epigraph, taken from a quote at the time she ascended to the throne as the queen consort of Louis XVI, that she was considered a liability. Add that to all the animosity that had built up against her, particularly within the French court, during the four years she was dauphine—an effervescent teenage girl making enemies right and left as she pushed with all her might against the rigid etiquette of Versailles.

One can go back even further to the 950 years of enmity that existed between France and Marie Antoinette’s native Austria, a political albatross hung around her pale and slender neck almost as soon as her betrothal to the future Louis XVI was arranged. When her mother, the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, sent her to France in April 1770, she exhorted her youngest daughter to make the French love her. With a few notable exceptions, that admiration came mostly during the late reign of Louis XV, who by then was roundly despised by his subjects. The charming (and morally upright) strawberry-blond dauphine and her husband were seen as the great young hopes for France’s future.

But Marie Antoinette’s popularity soon faded as the propa- ganda spread that she was not comporting herself with the dignity of a French queen and was, moreover, behaving like a royal mistress by decking herself out in increasingly elaborate jewels, gowns, and other accoutrements such as the outrageous (and outrageously expensive) towering “pouf” coiffures. Her subjects, convinced by propaganda disseminated from within Versailles itself, published by nobles she had angered by ostracizing them from her intimate circle, soon saw her as the queen of excess.

Marie Antoinette’s behavior predates the study and practice of psychoanalysis, but in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow I aimed to convey the genesis of her extravagance and what lay behind her increasing mania for pleasure. It was of course primarily a substitute for what she most desired—a child, especially a son and heir—not only for the security of the Bourbon dynasty, but be- cause she adored children. Her life might have taken a different trajectory had she conceived early in her marriage. Instead, her first child, a daughter, was born in the waning days of 1778, a frustrating and embarrassing eight and a half years after her nuptials—ample time for her enemies to recast the religiously devout and faithfully wed young queen as a promiscuous hedonist.

What happened on her wedding night was immortalized by Louis in his hunting journal with a single word: rien. Nothing—although the reference was really a notation that the bridegroom had not killed any woodland creatures that day because he’d not gone hunting. Not only was Louis shy and uncomfortable around his new bride, but he may have suffered from a mild deformity of the penis known as phimosis, where the foreskin is too tight to retract. This condition made intercourse, and even an erection, painful.

Historians’ opinions are divided as to whether Louis suffered from phimosis and underwent a minor procedure (not as radical as circumcision) in late 1773 to correct the defect (for narrative reasons I placed the event in 1774, after he became king); or whether his inability to make love to Marie Antoinette was purely psychological or psychosomatic. The latter is harder to believe because Louis admitted that he both loved and respected Marie An- toinette and found her very beautiful. While a number of present-day scholars vehemently dispute the phimosis speculation as being the pet theory of Marie Antoinette’s twentieth-century biographer, the Freudian Stefan Zweig, they cannot explain away the preponderance of correspondence that came out of the Bourbon court at the time. This included not merely the dispatch from the Spanish ambassador to his sovereign graphically discussing the issue of Louis’s penis (which could be dismissed as gossip), but a number of letters written between Marie Antoinette and her mother discussing whether or not Louis was prepared to submit to the operation, and the medical opinions of the various court physicians on the subject. The language of that correspondence most clearly refers to a physical problem. Whether it was compounded by psychological and emotional issues is also a possibility. Unfortunately, Louis’s boyhood tutor, the duc de la Vauguyon, had instilled in him a hatred of women and a particular distrust of Austrian females. But by 1773, the dauphin and dauphine had become close friends, and presented a united front against the duc’s malevolent influence. This was even truer by the time they ascended the throne in 1774.

The subject of Louis’s phimosis and how it was treated is one of a couple of controversial topics I explore in this novel. I do believe that he suffered from a mild physical deformity and that he underwent a corrective procedure. The operation detailed in the novel is taken from a procedure performed in France around 1780 so it is about as accurate a description as one can get of what Louis’s medical treatment might have been like.

Another of my aims in writing the Marie Antoinette trilogy was to convey the humanity (and sometimes not) within these historical figures. Too often they have been depicted in film and literature as archetypes, stereotypes, or dusty relics of an era long past. As I breathed life into characters who to some readers may be little more than names from a history book, I saw them as vibrant and vital, complex and flawed. It was also my intention to depict some of the lesser-known (but equally fact-based) events of their lives. For example, the silk merchants of Lyon really did pay a call on Mesdames asking for their support after Marie Antoi- nette began to dress almost entirely in the muslin gaulles; Marie Antoinette really did suffer a terrible fall and hit her head, and Madame Royale’s shocking reaction to her mother’s injury, as well as the conversation she had with her father about whether he would have preferred a son instead of her, really happened. I was stunned when I first read about the incident in the many biographies because it revealed so much about the characters of the precocious and envious Madame Royale and the king, who was a tremendously sentimental man. Louis indeed adored his little girl from the moment of her birth and never resented her gender, de- spite the immense pressure upon both him and Marie Antoinette to produce a son and heir. The fact that both of them were such sentimental, vulnerable, and fairly hands-on parents made them quite anomalous, especially for royals, even in the Age of Enlightenment. In another fascinating moment “ripped from real life,” the queen did indeed summon Jean-Louis Fargeon to le Petit Trianon to create a perfume that captured the essence of her private idyll (I own a replica of the fresh, floral scent, which made my research all the more redolent!). And she did ask Fargeon to develop a unique fragrance for a man she described as “virile as one can possibly be,” that phrase, in translation of course, taken from the perfumer’s own diary. In a subsequent event, to be depicted in The Last October Sky, the third novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, many years later the aroma of that custom-made toilet water will come back to haunt Fargeon’s nostrils.

One of the central aspects of this novel is the developing relationship between Count Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette. Historically, there has been some controversy as to how far it went, whether it remained strictly platonic, whether (and when) it may have blossomed into a physical love affair, and whether Marie Antoinette ever violated her deeply held marriage vows and consummated her passion for Fersen.

I have a cardinal rule about writing historical fiction: If it could have happened, bolstered by solid research, then it’s fair game to be included in a novel. Stanley Loomis, in The Fatal Friendship: Marie Antoinette, Count Fersen, and the Flight to Varennes, offers enough compelling evidence for a relationship between them that may indeed have eventually been consummated. Biographers Antonia Fraser, Stefan Zweig, Vincent Cronin, and André Castelot share that opinion. We have the culture of the eighteenth century to thank for the plethora of diaries and memoirs left to posterity. Some may be more reliable than others. After Marie Antoinette’s death, Fersen’s beloved sister Sophie, to whom he was especially close, burned a number of his letters; and at some point (perhaps after his gruesome murder on June 20, 1810, which took place exactly nineteen years to the day from the royal family’s fateful flight to Varennes in June of 1791, an event that will be dramatized in The Last October Sky), his diaries were heavily redacted. However, enough of Fersen’s own words remain to obliquely hint at a relationship with Marie Antoinette that went far deeper than the proper bounds of a common friendship. We have his declaration to Sophie that he would never wed because he could not be united with the one woman he really loved and who loved him in return. As historians cannot document any abiding yet for some reason inappropriate or equally illicit relationship with another woman (his other love affairs, regardless of their duration, were fairly inconsequential by comparison), the conclusion is viable (certainly by a novelist), that he gave his heart and soul (and the case can be made for giving his body) to Marie Antoinette.

There is no denying that Fersen risked his life more than once to save the queen—and the king, of course, whom he also admired, possibly making his transgression all the more guilt-inducing.

The events that I used to build the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen are rooted in fact. As for the issue of privacy in a royal court, Marie Antoinette, who detested being surrounded by an enormous entourage while she was dauphine, immediately changed the rules when she became queen, reducing the size of her retinue (most of whom had been assigned to her upon her arrival in 1770) to a handful of trusted attendants. Moreover, she was roundly criticized for turning le Petit Trianon into her exclusive haven. Whereas Versailles had traditionally been open to the people, she had signage posted on the gates of her little château and about its acreage stipulating that entrance to the premises was by permission of the queen alone, and that all visitors had to be escorted inside by her servants or attendants.

The existence of the mechanical mirrored window shades that closed off the view inside to all would-be trespassers or intruders, who would find themselves staring at their own reflec- tions if they dared to pry, is a fact. At le Petit Trianon, therefore, it was simple enough to dismiss the servants from a room, to enjoy private tête-à-têtes with her confidants of both sexes, or even with a room full of people. It was precisely this exclusivity, and the maddening notion that all sorts of goings-on were taking place at le Petit Trianon to which they were not invited, which gave rise to the rumors spread by her detractors of Marie Antoi- nette’s rampant debauchery there. Ironic, isn’t it, how the very aristocrats who derided the queen for having a personal fairyland were so desperate to secure an invitation. They never received one because Marie Antoinette, who knew what was being said about her, did not feel the need to surround herself with, in twenty-first-century parlance, “toxic” people.

But le Petit Trianon was indeed a private idyll where Marie Antoinette could truly be herself. Insofar as being able to consummate a romance there with Axel von Fersen, a lawyer would no doubt concede that she had both motive and opportunity.

The more I considered what is essentially a love triangle with the queen at its apex (because I do believe that by the time Axel returned to France in 1778 Marie Antoinette and Louis had grown to love each other in a quiet, solid way), the more the three of them began to remind me of another trio of royals: King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Although those archetypal characters (who may have been actual historical figures) are En- glish, their story was first set down by Chrétien de Troyes, a French romance writer in the Middle Ages. The elements of Guinevere and Lancelot’s star-crossed love affair, and their shared affection for Arthur, as well as Arthur’s deep respect for Lancelot, are also present in the Louis/Antoinette/Fersen triangle.

At bottom is a very human dynamic that has played itself out countless times in myriad marriages, along with the woman’s struggle to reconcile the parts of herself that are satisfied by each of the men: the physical passion she finds with a handsome soul mate, and the solidity and devotion of a faithful husband to whom she is not sexually attracted. She must also battle the demons of guilt, betrayal, and remorse that cannot fail to rear their gargoyle-like heads once she has made the difficult decision to violate the marriage vows she had previously held so sacred.

Although Marie Antoinette was raised from the cradle to despise adulterers (because her father had a mistress, a relationship that deeply wounded her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa), I believe she ultimately became one. I imagine the emotional cost (not to mention the obvious risks) must have been enormous for her, to have spent her entire life up to a point with an unshakable view that is finally shattered by her own volition.

As to the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the French system of justice at the time worked in a fairly arcane manner. Defendants were arrested and incarcerated without being told what they were accused of or who their accusers were. They could hire lawyers but their attorneys were not permitted to be present during the inquisitions; they could only publish trial briefs which were based on hearsay (and which in this case were truly sensational). These trial briefs were little more than professionally penned scandal sheets that sought to exonerate their cli- ents by influencing not only the magistrates of the Parlement, the region’s judicial body, but the public as well—a public that was entirely ignorant of the facts of the case being investigated and tried.

To answer the inevitable question, “How many of the events of this book really happened?” nearly all of them are based on the historical record, both the larger picture as well as many of the more intimate details regarding the events of the characters’ interrelationships, with the exception of the sexual relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, where, as a novelist, I chose to explore the possibility propounded by numerous biographers that their friendship blossomed into an affair. Although this position is controversial, when all is said and done, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow is a work of historical fiction.

Yet their friendship, as well as the other interrelationships in the novel, has been thoroughly researched. In some instances I even put actual quotes into my characters’ mouths; die-hard Marie Antoinette aficionados may spot them. To that end, much of the correspondence in the novel is based on the genuine letters as well. In a couple of cases I moved things around; for example, the letter that opens chapter four was in reality written exactly a year earlier. And with regard to the events leading up to and surrounding the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the movements of the key and supporting players are so complicated they could merit an entire novel of their own. So I truncated the timeline just a bit and excised a few of the supernumeraries because they weren’t germane to Marie Antoinette’s knowledge of events.

For narrative flow, I also combined the circumstances of two of Marie Antoinette’s miscarriages into a single tragedy. In actuality, the miscarriage brought on by the coach ride was a separate incident from the one that occurred on her birthday. And Marie Antoinette’s renovation of rooms within her own apartment at Versailles for Axel von Fersen, complete with a Swedish stove, occurred in October 1787, rather than during the spring.

A third aim in writing Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow was to set forth some of the real reasons France was financially bankrupt by the time the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789. Discontent had existed for well over a generation—for several decades, in fact, going all the way back to Louis XV’s expenditures on the Seven Years’ War (1756–63); although it was his mistresses’ ex- travagances, particularly those of Madame de Pompadour, that angered the French just as much because these were tangible, vis- ible reflections of excess: the clothes, the jewels, the amount of money lavished on furnishings and interior design, and of course the construction of le Petit Trianon, which later became a code phrase for the debauchery that was corrupting the nation, thanks to the outrageous behavior that the anti–Marie Antoinette propa- gandists ascribed to the queen.

Both Louis XV and Louis XVI emptied the treasury to fight foreign wars, which cost the French exponentially more than any royal mistress (or Marie Antoinette) ever spent, even at the zenith of their acquisitiveness. Americans might want to look long and hard at this period of history because if Louis XVI had not supplied the colonists with so much financial and military aid, including providing soldiers, sailors, and ships, throwing the might of France’s navy into their struggle for liberty, the British might have ultimately prevailed.

This decision cost the French crown in more ways than one. Many of their aristocrats fighting in North America returned not only victorious, but infused with the spirit of liberty, watering the seedlings that had already begun to sprout in the fashionable salons and coffeehouses of Paris and behind the gilded paneling of the Palais Royal—spearheaded by the king’s cousins, the duc d’Orléans and his son, the even more ambitious duc de Chartres, who inherited his father’s title in 1785. Their radical ideas were bolstered by the writings of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that all men had equal rights under God, no matter the circumstances of their birth.

By July 14, 1789, the storm clouds of revolution had already gathered over Paris, but just a few leagues away at Versailles, the monarchs were convinced that the republican fervor was no more than a temporary ill wind. How they met the realization that the world as they had always known it was changing all about them, with a velocity they neither predicted nor were equipped to handle, will be dramatized in the final novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, The Last October Sky.


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. France and Austria had been at odds for more than 950 years by the time Marie Antoinette married Louis. This was a huge weight to bear at the age of fourteen. In what other ways was her marriage to Louis troubled before she even moved to France?

2. “I am terrified of being bored” and “I felt so useless.” These statements seem to be at the root of Marie Antoinette’s struggles. Do you think that if she’d been able to have children earlier in her marriage this general sense of ennui would have been as prevalent? In what ways do you imagine things in the royal world would have been different if she had been able sooner to fulfill her dream of becoming a mother?

3. Marie Antoinette comments that she felt pressure to keep up with the fashion and luxury of Paris. Do you think that she ever felt truly guilty about her overspending and debt-accruing ways? Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? What parallels do you see between the financial troubles in France and those of the United States and other countries today? What about the political climate?

4. Do you think that Marie Antoinette’s interest in getting involved in the politics of the monarchy was a direct result of the problems that she and Louis had in their marriage? Was Marie Antoinette too strong-willed for Louis? Was Louis threatened by her? How did you interpret the dynamics of their relationship?

5. In what ways was le Petit Trianon a symbol of who Marie Antoinette was? If she had been more open to interacting with the public, do you think she would she have ended up so alienated from her people?

6. Were you cheering for Marie Antoinette’s kiss with Count Axel von Fersen or did you feel that she should have been loyal to her husband regardless of their problems? Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow takes a controversial approach in positing, based on circumstance and some of Axel’s letters to his sister, that Marie Antoinette and Axel consummated their affaire de coeur. What do you think really happened?

7. At the zoo, Marie Antoinette says that the tiger is her favorite animal there because it reminded her of her mother. If her mother is a tiger, what kind of animal would Marie Antoinette be? What kind of animal do you think that she herself would identify with?

8. In what ways were Marie Antoinette and Louis alike? In what ways were they different?

9. Do you think the punishments meted out to Jeanne de Lamotte-Valois, her husband, and Cardinal de Rohan following the Affair of the Diamond Necklace were just? Were you surprised by how easy it was for Marie Antoinette’s detractors to convince the public that she was at fault?

10. “I will not believe that Frenchmen would rebel against the Crown,” Louis says. How do you think he was able to remain so naïve about what would happen to France?

11. Do you think the French Revolution was inevitable? If there was any one moment at which Louis and his advisors could have turned the tide of public opinion, what was it? After reading Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, how much responsibility for the revolution do you attribute to Marie Antoinette’s actions?

12. What scene in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow surprised you most? Do you feel more sympathetic toward Marie Antoinette than you did before reading this novel? Why or why not?

Read a letter from Jennifer duBois, author of A PARTIAL HISTORY OF LOST CAUSES

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Jennifer_DuBois_credit_Ilana-Panich-LinsmanMy father became ill with Alzheimer’s disease when I was twelve, so I grew up thinking a lot about the ways in which we are summoned or driven to behave when we’re fighting a battle with a pre-ordained outcome. What does a situation like that demand of us? What, perhaps, can it give us? I watched my mother take care of my father over the course of his thirteen-year decline with an astounding amount of devotion—a devotion that baffled people sometimes, since there was no turning the disease around, and, at a certain point, no way of knowing what my father was experiencing. Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease takes a particular kind of strength, I think—not only because the person is never going to get better, but also because he is not going to be able to register or remember what you’re doing for him. Your love becomes utterly solitary. The courage that my mother exhibited over those years was so quiet, so bottomless, so often unacknowledged. And, in a narrow sense, one might consider it futile: after all, my father was going to die whether he was shaved every day or not. But I’ve come to believe that, in a broader sense, that kind of bravery is the most important quality humans have going. It enables our existence, after all; it’s shared by anyone who finds joy and meaning in a finite life.
A Partial History of Lost Causes follows two characters whose situations require extraordinary amounts of this sort of strength. Aleksandr Bezetov is a chess champion turned political dissident running an improbable presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin; Irina Ellison is a young woman with Huntington’s disease who rouses herself from her post-diagnosis inertia by going to St. Petersburg and joining Aleksandr’s cause. Both characters struggle with the value of waging battles that are probably—or certainly—not winnable, and both characters can be fatalistic at times. But I hope that the book subverts their fatalism in many ways, from the characters’ attention to the beauty of the world around them to their commitment to a quixotic political movement to the way that they come to respect each other’s alternative versions of courage. In the pursuit of their respective lost causes, Aleksandr and Irina encounter the most morally resonant demands of their lives. They also find a rare connection in each other. Irina’s challenge is Aleksandr’s challenge in microcosm, after all—the dimensions may be different, but the questions are the same.

Reading Group Questions for Discussion:

1. Are Irina’s actions ultimately courageous or cowardly? Do you see her ending as happy?

2. In some ways, Irina’s and Aleksandr’s situations are similar—and in many ways, they are very different. What do you think brings Aleksandr and Irina together as friends? What do you think they learn from each other?

3. The character of Misha challenges Aleksandr’s vision of Russia’s democratic future. Is there any merit to his argument about the pragmatism of slower change? How do recent events in the Arab world speak to this argument?

4. Irina treasures her intellect, and fears that she will not be herself anymore once she begins to lose it. What do you think makes you “you”? Do you feel there’s some essential quality that makes you who you are—and that, if you lost it, you wouldn’t be the same person?

5. Why are Aleksandr’s sections written in third person, while Irina’s sections are written in first? How does this decision inform your reaction to the book? Did you find you connected more with either Irina or Aleksandr?

6. What do you think would have become of Ivan if he’d lived?

7. Irina can often be sardonic and fatalistic. Are there any examples of her behaving in ways that subvert this cynical pose?

8. Beyond Aleksandr’s political career and Irina’s disease, do you see other lost causes in the book? Have you been faced with a lost cause in your own life, and how did you react to it?

9. How does chess work as a metaphor in the book? Is the structure of the game itself mirrored in the structure of the book?

10. Do you think that Aleksandr’s chess brilliance ultimately made him a better or worse person?

11. What role does Irina play in the reunion between Elizabeta and Aleksandr? Do you that they might have reconnected if Irina had never come to Russia?

12. After Misha’s letter to the editor is published, Boris decides to abandon Aleksandr’s campaign, while Viktor decides to go with Irina to Perm. If you were Boris or Viktor, what decision do you think you would have made?

Dubois_A Partial History of Lost Causes

Q&A with Dan Barden, author of THE NEXT RIGHT THING

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Dan-Barden-©-Liz-Pinnick

Jennifer Egan, author of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, interviews Dan Barden about his new book The Next Right Thing.


The Next Right Thing seems both to honor the conventions of the mystery genre, and to bend them in thrilling and amusing ways. Are you a mystery buff? Talk about your relationship to the genre, and if – and how – it moved you to write this novel. Do you see it as a mystery novel?

Yes, I’m mystery buff. Thrillers, noir, hard-boiled crime novels — the whole bag. Hard-boiled, particularly. It’s the kind of book that always goes to the top of the pile. When I was out in the wilderness between novels, I thought really hard about what I wanted to write, and I kept pushing away the idea of a crime novel. I didn’t feel worthy of the genre — it gave me too much pleasure, it was too important to me. But then I went to school on many crime novels that I loved. I typed up the books that I wanted for models — yes, that’s right, I typed up at least five novels, got them into my blood and bones. I was trying to write the best story possible, and I borrowed as many elements from the genre as I could. I’m wary to claim this as a thriller because I don’t want to show up at the door of that club and have someone like Lee Child or James Ellroy or Laura Lippman kick me out.

The central relationship of the novel – one that I’ve never seen explored in fiction before – is that of a recovering alcoholic to his sponsor; indeed, the mysterious death of that sponsor is what sets the story in motion. Talk about the quality of a recovering addict’s relationship to his sponsor, and what made you think of investigating the richness of that relationship here.

I have a lot of friends in recovery. I’m sure they might all answer this question differently, but I’ll tell you what I’ve seen: an alcoholic comes into the process of recovery and he is probably at the lowest point of his life. And into this weird, desperate vacuum comes a sponsor who not only introduces him to his new life, but also to a new community. The situations that I’ve seen are just so wildly beautiful. People are accepted into the community just because they’re standing there. Not because they are lovable or kind or smart or any of those things that they thought were important. My protagonist, Randy Chalmers, says it well in the book. He says, “You just have to be a still-breathing alcoholic.” When I was getting sober, I had a guy like that, too. He told me that I was in much worse shape than I thought I was, but that I was also better than I thought I was. I can’t imagine my life without knowing him.

Likewise, your use of West Coast recovery culture is sublime and unexpected. Was there research involved?

Barden_The Next Right Thing

The research was my life. I’ve had many friends in recovery for many years, and I lived in California until my late twenties. The recovery scene out there is amazing. It’s a big culture. And they really walk to the beat of a different drummer. They have a lot of fun, too. Big wild conventions. A.A. meetings with thousands of people at them.. I’m so glad you think it worked.

I was struck repeatedly by the humor in your novel. How did you achieve it? Whom do you look to for funny writing you can learn from?

In writing this book, one of my great discoveries was that I could write in the voice of someone funnier than I am. I’m not as funny as my friends, for example. I have one friend in mind. I call him once a week just hoping he’ll have time to tell me stories about his life. He’s been sober a long time, too. So, at one point, I just decided to write in his voice. And that worked really well. As far as other models go, Steve Hely’s How I Became A Famous Novelist was a book that totally cracked me up. That was another novel I typed up, just a chapter or two. There’s a certain kind of brilliantly self-involved mind that always gets me. What else? Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. God, that was funny book. Jonathan Tropper is a master of droll narration. I studied him, too.

Randy Chalmers, your detective figure, is a sensational mix of incongruous qualities. Talk about his genesis; how did he take shape in your mind? Do you plan to write about him again?

First of all, he’s grief-stricken. He’s lost his best friend, the man who made his life possible. I know about this kind of grief. The man who got my ass sober died of a heroin overdose himself. For me, it was like getting hit in the face with a shovel. I got very angry about my friend’s death, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I wanted someone who could cause trouble in a way that I couldn’t — so I made him an ex-cop with an anger management problem. But Randy also has a big heart. He loves his friends to a fault. He is incredibly loyal. He also has the grace, sometimes, to see what a problem he is to himself and others. He struggles mightily against himself. He is a beast and an angel. He’s also an artist — a home designer, to be precise — and that’s something he discovered in his recovery. He’s a guy who pulled a lot of precious gifts from the wreckage of his life. I am writing about him again for sure. I hope to be finished with a second book very soon.


When I read mysteries, I often find that there comes a point when the exigencies of plot crowd out the more literary aspects of the story. That never happened in your book. In writing it, did you experience tension between genre requirements and literary goals?

I’m so glad that you feel that way! Yes, that was the big challenge. I’m sure that’s always the challenge in a book like this that gets its energy from both genre and literary impulses. I worked very to make a book that functioned as a mystery/thriller/crime novel. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the literary part of the story. The trick was to deliver the questions — and answers — that would satisfy an audience looking for a more action-packed experience. That was the prize that I’ve always dreamed of: a compelling story wrapped around characters who seem alive in the real world.

Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

MWF Seeking BFFI couldn’t put it down.” – Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project

When Rachel Bertsche first moves to Chicago, she’s thrilled to finally share a zip code, let alone an apartment, with her boyfriend. But shortly after getting married, Bertsche realizes that her new life is missing one thing: friends. Sure, she has plenty of BFFs—in New York and San Francisco and Boston and Washington, D.C. Still, in her adopted hometown, there’s no one to call at the last minute for girl talk over brunch or a reality-TV marathon over a bottle of wine. Taking matters into her own hands, Bertsche develops a plan: She’ll go on fifty-two friend-dates, one per week for a year, in hopes of meeting her new Best Friend Forever.

In her thought-provoking, uproarious memoir, Bertsche blends the story of her girl-dates (whom she meets everywhere from improv class to friend rental websites) with the latest social research to examine how difficult—and hilariously awkward—it is to make new friends as an adult. In a time when women will happily announce they need a man but are embarrassed to admit they need a BFF, Bertsche uncovers the reality that no matter how great your love life is, you’ve gotta have friends.

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Win a copy of Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Peach Keeper TP smallThis giveaway is now closed. Thanks to the many of you who entered!

Coming to paperback January 10th!

“[Sarah Addison Allen] juggles small-town history and mystical thriller, character development and eerie magical realism in a fine Southern gothic drama.”—Publishers Weekly

It’s the dubious distinction of thirty-year-old Willa Jackson to hail from a fine old Southern family of means that met with financial ruin generations ago. The Blue Ridge Madam—built by Willa’s great-great-grandfather and once the finest home in Walls of Water, North Carolina—has stood for years as a monument to misfortune and scandal. Willa has lately learned that an old classmate—socialite Paxton Osgood—has restored the house to its former glory, with plans to turn it into a top-flight inn. But when a skeleton is found buried beneath the property’s lone peach tree, long-kept secrets come to light, accompanied by a spate of strange occurrences throughout the town. Thrust together in an unlikely friendship, united by a full-blooded mystery, Willa and Paxton must confront the passions and betrayals that once bound their families—and uncover the truths that have transcended time to touch the hearts of the living.

Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, interviews Téa Obreht about The Tiger’s Wife

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

JenniferEgan9780307477477Jennifer Egan is the recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was also awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the author of The Keep, Look at Me, The Invisible Circus, and the story collection Emerald City. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and sons in Brooklyn.

The following is an excerpt. To read the complete interview, click here.

JE: One of the central powerful relationships in the book is between Natalia and her grandfather: it’s not the type of relationship we usually see as the primary relationship in a novel.  Could you talk a little about that grandparent-grandchild relationship, your feelings about it in your own life and how it became central in this novel?

TO: I grew up with my grandparents on my mother’s side, and they essentially raised me.  As a kid, you resist the idea of your own parents having had lives and pasts of their own.  Snuff me out if I’m wrong here, but I see that as something prevalent in your novel A Visit From the Goon Squad: a sense of the parent-child relationship being very tense and of children not wanting to live in their parents’ shadow.  When you’re growing up, the lives of your parents aren’t that fascinating, but there is this fascination with grandparents.  Because of that great amount of time that has passed between their youth and yours, and the fact that they lived entire lives before you even got there, you can’t really deny their identity as individuals prior to your existence they way perhaps you can with your parents.  There’s also an awareness that the world was very different when they were living their lives.

JE: Animals play such an enormous role in the novel: the tiger, the dog, Sonia the elephant, Dari?a who seems to be part-human, part-bear. You write so movingly about animals that I found myself close to tears every time you wrote about the tiger from the tiger’s point of view.  Do you have a strong connection to animals in your life?  How is it that animals end up figuring so enormously in this story?

obreht_teaThe Tiger's Wife NBA sealTO: I’m definitely, it turns out, the kind of person who’s a total National Geographic nerd.  I’m there for all the TV specials.  As I’ve gotten older I think my awareness of the natural world and animals’ relationship to people – both culturally and biologically – has grown.  It was fun to write from the point of view of the tiger, and emotionally rewarding, but I think the animals also serve almost as markers around which the characters have to navigate.  I don’t think that was something I did consciously, it just sort of happened.  There is something jarring about seeing an animal out of place: there’s a universal feeling of awe when you see an animal, particularly an impressive animal, out of place.

JE: There are really two worlds in the book which mingle and sometimes intersect: there’s the present day political, medical, scientific situation in which Natalia operates, and then there’s this more mystical, folkloric world of the grandfather’s past.  How did these define themselves in your mind?  Was it hard to move between them?

TO: Pretty early on in the writing I realized that mythmaking and storytelling are a way in which people deal with reality.  They’re a coping mechanism.  In Balkan culture, there’s almost a knowledge that reality will eventually become myth.  In ten or twenty years you will be able to recount what happened today with more and more embellishments until you’ve completely altered that reality and funneled it into the world of myth.

**
Watch a video: Téa answers questions about The Tiger’s Wife
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Téa Obreht answers questions about The Tiger’s Wife

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Read Tea’s interview with Jennifer Egan
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Win a paperback of The Tiger’s Wife!

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

*This giveaway is now closed. Thanks to the over 2,000 people who entered!*The Tiger's Wife TPobreht_tea

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction

One of the year’s best novels is coming to paperback November 1st!

“[Obreht] has a talent for subtle plotting that eludes most writers twice her age, and her descriptive powers suggest a kind of channeled genius. . . . No novel [this year] has been more satisfying.”—The Wall Street Journal

“So rich with themes of love, legends and mortality that every novel that comes after it this year is in peril of falling short in comparison with its uncanny beauty.”—Time

Win a trip to the film premiere of THE DESCENDANTS!

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

The Descendants MTIRandom House Reader’s Circle has partnered with Fox Searchlight, United Airlines, Fairmont Hotels and Parade Magazine to offer you and a friend the exciting chance to attend the movie premiere of The Descendants (starring George Clooney) in Los Angeles, including free airfare and a $500 American Express gift card! Trust us—after you read this incredible, hilarious, and deeply moving debut novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings (originally published in 2006), you won’t want to miss the movie.

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Read an excerpt of the novel here.

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An interview with Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Brigid Hughes is the founding editor of A Public Space, a Brooklyn-based independent magazine of literature and culture that debuted in 2006. Previously she worked at The Paris Review, where she succeeded George Plimpton as editor upon his death in 2003.

Brigid Hughes: To get things started, can I ask you about influences? You mention William Trevor in your acknowledgments, and you published an essay in Tin House about his influence on your work. What authors or books have mattered to you?

li_yiyunYiyun Li: I like to think that one writes stories so they could go out and talk to other stories. William Trevor’s stories have made space for my stories to venture out to the world, to be on their own, so my stories talk to Trevor’s stories constantly. For instance, the title story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” was written especially to talk to a Trevor story, “Three People.”

Of course stories, like people, can’t just stay sheltered by those to whom they feel close kinship. Stories also like to have ­discussions and sometimes arguments with other stories. A few writers who have been constantly on my mind when I write: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, John McGahern, J. M. Coetzee. So they have been influencing me too in each of their own ways.

BH: Can I ask what specifically “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” and “Three People” were talking about with each other?

YL: “Three People” [from Trevor’s collection The Hill Bachelors] is, as the title suggests, a story about three people: an aging father; his unmarried, middle-aged daughter; and a man close to the family who the father hopes will propose to the daughter so she will not end up in solitude after her father’s death. Unknown to the father—I don’t want to give too much away of the story—the daughter and the man shared some dark secret between them. The final passage of the story goes like this: “The darkness of their secrets lit, the love that came for both of them through their pitying of each other: all that might fill the empty upstairs room, and every corner of the house. But Vera knows that, without her father, they would frighten one another.”

Gold Boy Emerald Girl TPWhen I started to work on Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I imagined writing a story about three people too—an aging mother, a grown-up son, and a woman—and the mismatch between the latter two would not be any better than between the couple in “Three People.” The story is set to a tone similar to that of “Three People,” though I do remember writing toward the end and feeling overwhelmed by the bleakness and fatalism of “Three People,” working on the final line of my story to catch the same music but with some gentleness: “They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

BH: Do you think your characters in the new stories are lonelier, or rather more isolated, than in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the first collection? I’m thinking of that opening line from “Immortality”—“His story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were born”—and that sense of being part of something bigger than oneself, history, or community, which seems much less the case with the new stories. Do you notice differences between the two collections?

YL: I would like to think that the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl were more mature than the stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers!

But I know exactly what you are asking about. “Immortality” was the first full-length story I wrote, about nine years ago, and I was very aware at the time of how China and its past (and pres­ent) cast a long shadow over at least two or three generations of characters. Many of the stories in the first collection were written out of meditations on the inescapable fate of many of the characters being trapped by political and ideological turmoil in the past century.

Are my characters lonelier or more isolated now? In a way, yes. In choosing solitude, my characters are also trying to regain some of the control of their own fates—rather than being members of a chorus, they allow themselves to become outcasts, sometimes illogically, sometimes stubbornly. But I don’t think they are passive characters. I like to imagine that some of the characters in the first collection (in “Persimmons,” for instance, or “Immortality,” or “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”) allowed themselves to be carried away by history and politics as long as they did not drown—and one tended not to drown if one did not fight against that torrent. Many of the characters in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl made the decision of not letting themselves be swept away. They held on to anything—loneliness, isolation, and even death—to be themselves.

BH: Is that also what Professor Shan is saying when she tells Moyan, in “Kindness,” “The moment you admit someone into your heart you make yourself a fool. When you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you”?

YL: By forbidding Moyan to fall in love with anyone, in a way Professor Shan is acting as cruelly and inhumanely as the unfair and harsh world from which she is trying to shelter the girl, though the latter, in following the advice of the older woman, also defies her in her own way. Twice in the story—at the beginning and at the end—Moyan says, “I have never forgotten any person who has come into my life.” And indeed she is able to remain true both to her words and to her promise to Professor Shan: She is able to love without making herself a fool.

BH: When you emigrated from China, The Letters of Shen Congwen was one of the few books you brought with you to the United States. He wrote about, and was criticized for, his disinterest in politics and lack of commitment to the class struggles of his time. You recently translated some of those letters, and in an introduction wrote that “relevance is always a useful tool for lesser minds to attack true artists.” What is the connection between the politics of the present day and fiction—does one inform the other in any way? What does it mean to be a political writer?

YL: I have always resisted being called a political writer. Take Shen Congwen as an example—his commitment to his arts was not influenced by the ideology of his time, which, in one sense, made him apolitical, but in another sense his resistance was also highly political. Once I was asked by an editor to write something relevant to our time—in his letter he framed relevance with examples of a Mumbai slum, or a Chinese sweatshop, or a war-torn zone in Africa. Certainly we need stories from these countries, these places, but his letter reminded me of the criticisms Shen Congwen received in his time.

BH: How would you like your books to influence the reader?

YL: If books are like people, mine are not the prettiest ones, or the loudest ones, or the quirkiest ones one meets at a party, nor are they, I hope, too frivolous or too scared of truths to matter to the readers. I would like to imagine that the readers can have a conversation with my books—they can agree or disagree with the characters fairly and honestly.

*****

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is now available in paperback.

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