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Authors

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.

You can enter the sweepstakes by clicking here.

Read an excerpt of the novel here.

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Watch the trailer:

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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A letter from Charles Frazier about his new novel, NIGHTWOODS

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Lost in the woods.  A dangerous phrase, but also with a resonance of folktale.  Hansel and Gretel with their bread crumbs.  Jack alone, roaming the lovely, dark, and deep southern mountains.  So, young people and old people being lost in the woods has always been interesting to me for those reasons.  And also because it happens all the time still.
Nightwoods-cover-small

Back when I was a kid, eight or ten, my friends and I lived with a mountain in our backyards.  We stayed off it in summer.  Too hot and snaky.  But in the cool seasons, we roamed freely.  We carried bb guns in the fall and rode our sleds down old logging roads in winter.  We often got lost.  But we knew that downhill was the way out, the way home.  When I grew up and went into bigger mountains, you couldn’t always be so sure.  I remember being lost in Bolivia.  Or let’s say that I grew increasingly uncertain whether I was still on the trail or not.  That’s the point where you ought to sit down and drink some water and consult your maps and compass very carefully and calmly.  I kept walking.  At some point, it became a matter of rigging ropes to swing a heavy pack over a scary white watercourse.   I ended up at a dropoff.  Down far below, upper reaches of the Amazon basin stretched hazy green into the distance.  Downhill did not at all seem like the way home.

Charles Frazier, photograph by © Greg Martin

Charles Frazier photograph by © Greg Martin

You’ll just have to trust me that this has something to do with my new novel, but to go into it much would risk spoilers.  I’ll just say that early on in the writing of Nightwoods, Luce and the children were meant to be fairly minor characters, but I kept finding myself coming back to them, wanting to know more about them until they became the heart of the story.  Some of my wanting to focus on them was surely influenced by several cases of kids lost in the woods in areas where I’m typically jogging and mountain biking alone at least a hundred days a year.  It’s part of my writing process, though I hardly ever think about work while I’m in the woods.  But I do I keep obsessive count of how many miles a day I go and how many words I write, lots of numbers on 3×5 notecards.  All those days watching the micro changes of seasons can’t help but become part of the texture of what I write, and those lost kids, too.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR BOOK CLUB

  1. Luce’s strategy for dealing with her troubled past is to withdraw from her community, her emotions, and in some sense from life itself. Does Luce find this an effective coping mechanism for dealing with trauma? How does it help her, and how does it hurt her? In our digital world, is it still possible for someone to withdraw in this way?
  2. Luce feels obligated to care for her sister’s children even though she admits she is not a maternal person and does not love the children. Discuss this choice. How is Luce’s sense of obligation informed by her relationship with her own mother and father?
  3. Think about Luce’s connection to her elder friends. What is it about Luce that draws her toward Maddie, old Stubblefield, and her grade school teachers?
  4. Think about the scene in which Luce tells Lit about the rape. Is he only being insensitive and rude, or is there a part of him that is actually trying to protect Luce from more pain and disruption, albeit in an insensitive way?
  5. Luce and Stubblefield are alike in some ways, and in others they are very different. Why do you think they are attracted to each other? Discuss which character changes the most over the course of the novel.
  6. Discuss the children, and their eccentric and violent behavior. Are they misunderstood? Mentally or emotionally disturbed? How do they function as a narrative engine? In today’s environment, a caretaker of these children would probably look for some kind of diagnosis. Apart from abuse, think about what might drive the kids’ behavior that may have been misunderstood in the early 1960s. What are the challenges of raising children without the medical or psychiatric support we take for granted today?
  7. Bud and Lit manage to form an unlikely bond. What is Bud looking for in Lit? And what is Lit looking for in Bud? What draws the two men apart, and ultimately leads to Lit’s death?
  8. Blood is a prominent symbol in Nightwoods. How does the metaphor of blood affect your interpretation of the story, and how does it shape Bud’s confused worldview?
  9. The beautifully rendered Appalachian landscape plays a central role in Nightwoods. Is the landscape merely a setting for the story? Or is it something more? A symbol? A kind of character? And what do you think the giant pit in the woods represents?
  10. In the end, Luce opens up to Stubblefield and accepts that he intends to be a permanent fixture in her life. The children also seem to have accepted him. What do you think of this  unlikely, cobbled-together family? What does it say about what makes a family? Will they be successful in making each other whole again?
  11. What do you think happened to Bud? Does he continue to represent a threat to Luce, Stubblefield, and the kids?

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Lisa Genova interviews Second Nature author Jacquelyn Mitchard

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Lisa Genova, who conducted this interview, is the New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice and Left Neglected. She graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband and three children.

LG: I love reading about characters who are forced to face huge, unusual, life-and-death obstacles. I think I love this because it’s a chance to see the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit, to witness powerful and meaningful change. You gave your main character, Sicily Coyne, one doozy of an obstacle. How did you come to imagine this woman who loses her face in a horrific fire?

Second NatureJM: When I was little, there was a fire on the west side of Chicago at a school called Our Lady of Angels. Everyone had a neighbor, a cousin, a sibling, a good friend who knew, and knew well, one of the 92 children and three teaching sisters who died there. People kept copies of the Life magazine cover photo of firefighter Richard Scheidt, carrying out the unmarked body of ten-year-old John Jakowski from the building. The picture is excruciating. Scheidt’s face is the personification of agony and mercy, almost like the mother of Christ. The child looks as though he has peacefully fallen asleep. That was the central image with which the book started, the firefighter giving his life so that a child might not die alone—in part, perhaps, because his own child survived, although terribly disfigured. The face transplant was a pretty natural idea because I was pre-med in college (unlike you, Lisa, I was undone by mathematics). I’m bewitched by science. Once I learned that this procedure could become simpler with practice (because everyone has a trigeminal nerve and an orbital floor in more or less the same place) I asked myself, what will be the next complication? And then the idea bloomed. What might naturally happen if someone’s beauty is restored, after a dozen years, in the bloom of her young womanhood? And that was the ethical mystery, the hinge of the story.

LG: Sicily, Marie, Beth, and Eliza are all strong, smart, stubborn Italian women. Where did the inspiration for these dynamic women come from?

JM: I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. All my boyfriends were handsome hoodlums, much prettier than I was. My godmother and godfather were first generation Italians, and so were my best friend’s parents, and much of the way I learned to make sense of the world (and to make great gravy) were as a result of days spent in my godmother’s kitchen. My own mother was star-crossed in many ways, but was a strong, smart, stubborn woman, much like Marie, Sicily’s aunt. In fact, physically and in her speech, my mother could be Marie, if my mother had not died very young. I didn’t realize this until you asked the question.

LG: Readers who fell in love with the Cappadora family in The Deep End of the Ocean and No Time to Wave Goodbye will be thrilled to see them again in SECOND NATURE. Had you always imagined that Vincent’s journey would lead him to someone like Sicily?

JM: Vincent Cappadora is just me, in so many difficult and also good ways—someone who wants badly to do the right thing and manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory half the time, and the other half of the time breaks the tape at the last moment. He may get what he wants, or even what he needs, but not without going through a significant patch of hell first. How Vincent turns out depends on the thing that is most difficult for most people, and that’s the willingness to crack open and be hurt.

***

Buy a hardcover or eBook of Second Nature,  available September 6th!

Alexandra Fuller on writing her African childhood: “I am African by accident”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogsfuller_alexandraThis week memoirist Alexandra Fuller publishes Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she returns to sub-Saharan Africa and the story of her unforgettable family that she first introduced to readers ten years ago in her stunning memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a book The New Yorker called “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring…hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling.” Below is an essay she wrote upon the publication of that book.

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My Africa

I am African by accident, not by birth. So while soul, heart, and the bent of my mind are African, my skin blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white. And while I insist on my Africanness (if such a singular thing can exist on such a vast and varied continent), I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realized in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.

My mother—hard-living, glamorous, intemperate, intelligent, racist—introduced my siblings and me to Shakespeare before we could walk (my sister maintains that her existing horror of reading stems from having Troilus and Cressida recited to her when she was still in utero). My father—taciturn and capable—sat outside on hot summer nights with a glass of brandy and sang us Bizet’s Carmen and explained to us the story of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The cannons of the piece (crackling on vinyl records over the throb of a diesel generator) blasted into the heat-thick night and Dad raised his brandy to the sky. “Bloody marvelous,” he shouted, and far away beyond the river the hyenas shrieked their reply. Vanessa, my sister, taught me the survival skill of self- reliance. We occasionally pottered away the long hours of a yellow summer afternoon pasting old magazine pictures of the British royal family into scrapbooks or holding pretend (if very proper) tea parties for the dogs.

Fuller title page photoWe were poor and we had a knack for picking bad-luck patches of land on which to farm, but (and this was supposedly to our advantage) we were of very particular British stock. My maternal grandmother maintained that we held a better pedigree than the English queen (who is German, after all, while we were part highland Scot), and my mother frequently reminded my sister and me that we were “well bred.” “Well bred” ensured buckled noses, high-arched feet, a predisposition to madness, and an innate knowledge that it is more polite to say “napkin” than “serviette.” “Well bred” assumed a working knowledge of the construction of a decent Irish coffee, the appropriate handling of difficult horses, and a pathological love of dogs. “Well bred” meant, most specifically,an innate belief in our own unquestioning superiority. This archaic way of thinking coupled with Africa’s tumultuous history may make for wonderful literature, but it also made for chaotic living.

By the time I came to Rhodesia in 1972, Africa—Kenya, in particular—had been home to three generations of my family. With the exception of a great-uncle who had shocked his relations and scandalized the European community by going to live with the Nandi people of Kenya (and who became the first person to document their language in the written form), my people were the sort of European stock who brandished their culture before them like some devastating scythe.

In spite of this, Africa—as an idea—dawned on me gradually. I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Africa, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me. As the land and people around me began to make sense, I was like a snake itching off the excess of an extra skin in the dry season and finding myself milky-eyed, and dangerously blind, in the rarefied, free air of the new order in Africa. From Ghana to Mozambique to Angola, independence had rippled down Africa’s spine, and now it had come to us—to Rhodesia. Whatever happened next, I knew that I had to be either a part of this new world—a working, active, feature of it—or forever apart from it. I could either celebrate the new opportunity we as Africans had been given at independence, at the birth of Zimbabwe, or forever lament the loss of Empire. I would either fight for a new world of political equality or become a servant to the regimes that had assumed the strangling mantle of colonialism.

*

When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with an American (he had come to Zambia as a river guide), and I went with him to live in North America after our marriage and the birth of our first child. I mourned Africa daily (I still do) with something like a physical ache even while I luxuriated in the relative security and peace of a Rocky Mountain life. And it was here, in the high bright air of a Wyoming winter, that the need to write my life became overwhelming for me.

At the start, I tried to write my life as fiction. I wrote eight or nine spectacularly unsuccessful novels. I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth. I wrote and rewrote the characters of my childhood and I wrote the landscape I loved over and over again until the smells of the place burned on my palate. But the novels still felt like lies because in them I had tried to soften the voices of the whites I had known and to write into full life the voices of the black men, women, and children who had been silenced by years of oppression. These works of fiction, I eventually realized, were the writings of a woman who was scared to look the world in the face, and if there was one thing Africa had taught me, it was to shout above the sting of a dry-season wind loud enough to be heard from one end of a farm to another.

I made the decision, then, to write my life exactly as it had been: passionate, wonderful, troubled, oppressive, chaotic, beautiful. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the story that was born of that decision. It is not a political story or the story of Empire. It is the story of how one African came to terms with her family’s troubled history; it is a love story for the continent.

Alexandra Fuller
Jackson Hole
, Wyoming
August 2002

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Henry House, the “practice” baby: Reader’s Circle interviews Lisa Grunwald

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Irresistible Henry HouseLisa Grunwald’s novel, The Irresistible Henry House, is now available in paperback.

Random House Reader’s Circle: When you talk to people who’ve read The Irresistible Henry House, what’s the first question they usually ask?

Lisa Grunwald: It’s almost always whether the story was actually based on a real practice, whether people actually used real babies to teach college classes on mothering. The answer is yes, but I’ve sent a lot of incredulous people to the Cornell University website where I first found the photograph that helped inspire the novel.

RHRC: How did that discovery come about?

LG: In 2005, I was doing research for an anthology of American women’s letters. Specifically I was hoping to find a letter from a home economics student. There was an online exhibit at the Cornell website called “What Was Home Economics?” Among other photographs was this captivating image of a baby called “Bobby Domecon”—the last name a combination of “Domestic” and “Economics.” (Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg at Cornell told me that it’s pronounced “Dough-me-con.”) I quickly learned that at Cornell, from the 1920s through the 1960s, babies supplied by local orphanages were used to teach mothering skills to students, who would take turns bathing and feeding and dressing their charges. Last time I checked, the site was still up at www.cornell.edu, and it’s well worth a look.

Irresistible Henry House baby

RHRC: Did you ever think about tracking down some of the real children?

LG: I certainly thought about it. Before I was a novelist, I was a journalist, and the reporter grunwald_lisain me was really drawn to the idea of writing a nonfiction book. But two things changed my mind. First, I just loved the idea of the practice house as the premise for a novel and as the starting point for a fictional character. How would he ever learn to trust someone? How would he feel about women? How would he ever be able to draw a distinction between being loved and being used? And where might all that lead him—romantically, professionally? It was just—yes, irresistible to me to ponder these questions. And the second thing? Well, I suspected that it would be virtually impossible to find enough of those now-grownup children to make a nonfiction book complete. After their time in the practice houses, the babies were returned to their orphanages and adopted like any other children, or put into foster care. Very few records were kept.

RHRC: Since the novel’s publication, have you heard anything more about the practice?

LG: I did find a series of articles about a case at Eastern Illinois State College, where the superintendent of the Child Welfare Division had objected to the practice. This didn’t

deter a home ec teacher named Ruth Schmalhausen, who passionately defended the practice. At the time—this was the mid-fifties—it was really very common. The program was available at some fifty colleges around the country. In relating the Schmalhausen controversy, Time magazine took what I thought was a somewhat snarky position about the superintendent’s objections, writing “Heaven only knows how many neuroses little David might develop.” It was one of those moments during the research when I really felt the distance we’d come in the way we think about childhood.

RHRC: Some critics have compared Henry to Forest Gump and T. S. Garp. How accurate do you find those comparisons?

LG: Those are extraordinarily memorable characters in fiction, and to think that Henry has been mentioned alongside them just thrills me. But certainly some of the comparison

comes from the fact that all three novels are centered around young men whose stories coincide with, and in certain ways reflect, the changes that occurred in this country’s social and cultural history.

RHRC: Did you have to do research on those changes, too, or are you and Henry of the same generation?

LG: I’m a half-generation younger than Henry. He was born in 1946, and I was born in 1959, so many of the cultural milestones he encounters are things I encountered, but from a much younger perspective. And I loved doing the research. As Henry grows up, we see the new childcare book by Benjamin Spock and the new magazine Playboy from Hugh Hefner. We hear music from Bing Crosby and the Beatles. We witness the March on Washington, the riots at Berkeley, the opening of Hair and the release of Yellow Submarine.

RHRC: And ultimately what does all that have to do with Henry?

LG: It’s the chaotic but passionate backdrop against which he tries to find a place and a person with whom he feels authentic, trusting, and trustworthy. It’s a journey.

RHRC: And do you know how it ends? What happens after the last page?

LG: If I know, I’m not telling.

Shoe
Bertelsmann Media Worldwide