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A Note from Robin Black, Author of Life Drawing

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Writing is an odd profession. I sometimes startle when I realize how much of my time I spend fretting about people who don’t actually exist. Am I truly an adult woman playing for hours each day with imaginary friends?
It turns out that I am.
For me, it has been important to try and understand what drives a seemingly sane, even sensible, down-­to-­earth person to dwell in her own imagination so much of the time. What are the moments that have shaped this need in me? How does my fiction relate to my life, to the whole experience of living a life, as I understand it? How can my thoughts about my “real life” endow my written work with a life of its own?
Of course, I’m not the only person who wonders about these things. At events, in interviews, I am often asked, as I believe all writers are, about the creative process, about the interaction between daily life and that other world, the one that finds its way from an author’s imagination, onto the page; and then off the page again, as the reader’s imagination is engaged.
“Why do you write?” The truth is that I don’t have an answer—­yet. But I have a seemingly insatiable curiosity, myself.
So I have kept notes of a kind, written essays on the subject, trying both to understand for myself and to convey to others how this whole strange ­business works—­for me, anyway. How I think about myself as a writer, how those imaginary friends of mine and I interact.
I very much hope you enjoy the three pieces that are included here. They are glimpses at my process, at what lies behind Life Drawing, and at why it is the book it is, the one you are holding in your hand.
Finally, I share these essays with much gratitude to you, all readers, because without you every writer’s imagination, including mine, would remain forever trapped on the page.
Robin Black
November 2014
Origins
When I was ten years old, my maternal grandmother moved into our home.
Grandma was a tough cookie. Stetl born, Lower East Side raised, the second oldest of eight children, she had a reputation as something of a drill sergeant. “There’s a right way and wrong way to do everything,” she would say, and it was clear into which category her way invariably fell. But she was also a woman of contradictions, unexpectedly tenderhearted and always likely to side with the underdog, yet someone who hadn’t hesitated to smack around her own sons when she thought they’d stepped out of line. A good woman? A bad woman? A complicated woman. And, by the time she moved in with us, a seventy-two-­year-­old woman paralyzed from the waist down from spinal tumors for more than ten years, widowed for most of that time.
As a writer, it’s inevitable that you will wonder sometimes what made you the sort of writer you are: what periods of your life, what particular events, what people. And of course there is no one answer, but there are occasional little glimmers you can find, moments and exchanges that seem to explain something, if not everything.
Grandma’s move into our home offers such a glimmer for me.
During the initial years of Grandma’s paralysis, including after her widowhood, she lived alone, a couple of hours away from us. Her six sisters did her shopping, provided her with constant ­company, playing crucial roles in helping her maintain her independence. One of my earliest memories is of watching her wash the dishes, the gravity of her weight against the sink keeping her upright. She wasn’t exactly mobile, but she wasn’t exactly immobile either until something shifted the wrong way in her spine, robbing her of the ability to live alone. When she moved in with us she became entirely bedridden—­as she would remain until her death at nearly eighty-­three.
I was ten years old that first day, November 1972, and I wasn’t exactly a happy child. My father, alcoholic and depressive, had been institutionalized for several months in ’71, an experience preceded and followed by disorienting chaos in our home. I wasn’t carefree or untouched by sorrow, but I remember being giddy around my grandmother’s move into our home. It seemed like such fun, so cool to have her there. I wrote poems to commemorate the event and I raced my brothers in her two wheelchairs, and I made a lot of what I thought were very funny jokes about—­of all things—­an imaginary suitor for her.
Mercifully, I don’t remember the specifics of this long-­running joke of mine. He had a name, I know. He had a spiel. All of it now gone from my mind. But what I do remember, very clearly, is the evening when my mother took me into  the hallway and suggested that I stop. “You know,” she said, as gently as was possible, “if Grandma hadn’t been in a wheelchair, stuck in her apartment, she might have had a real suitor. She might have remarried after my father died. It may be a joke that makes her sad.”
My memories of that moment are painful still. What shame I felt, even horror, at my mother’s words. I had thought I was being funny, cheering everybody up, when in fact I had been causing pain. I sense even now the reverberations of a shattering at my foundation, a change at a molecular level of who I understood myself to be. No longer a child who could look at another person without wondering what their life was like, but someone with a need to know what other people’s stories might actually be. Really. What is truly happening. Below the surface. Not because I suddenly became a better person, but because I was terrified of again inadvertently being cruel.
And the impact goes beyond having had an empathic imagination shocked into me that night. When my story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this came out, I was asked repeatedly why I wrote so often about older women, women in their seventies and beyond. “I feel a commitment to reminding people that older women are still complex human beings,” I would say. A worthy goal? Of course. A lifelong creative penance for having been a little girl who hurt someone by forgetting that fact? Perhaps.
What does it take to write fiction? What determines our obsessions? What guides us toward the places and people by which our imaginations are sparked?
These questions are both unavoidable and unanswerable. But I know that all our lives are scattered with just such glimmers as the one I have described, shimmering shards of ourselves that can provide a glimpse of how we became who we are—­and that may always remain sharp enough to cut.
Lessons
For a long time now, I have suspected that there is a connection between regret and fiction writing—­beyond the obvious possibility that one might regret having started to write fiction.
Regret is among a very few emotions that cannot exist without an accompanying narrative. I wish I had gone on that trip because . . . I would have met the love of my life; I wouldn’t have set the house on fire; I would have seen Paris before I died, and been less sad at the prospect of mortality. All regret carries within it a particular kind of fiction, one in which the rules of causality and chance are suspended—­in favor of the certainty of a happy end. We, who should know better, convince ourselves that we can know what would have happened in the past . . . if only. Regret makes confident storytellers of us all.
It also makes us fans of bold action, retrospectively, anyway. Social scientists and psychologists concur that people are more likely to regret what they have not done than what they have done. It’s the missed opportunity that feels poignant. The road not taken. The challenge to which we did not rise. The one who got away.
And what does this have to do with writing fiction? Rather a lot, I think.
Often, with a project, I reach a point at which the whole structure suddenly takes on a moribund, fruitless quality. The narrative, once brimming with life and promise, has died. It’s a terrifying moment. I feel immediately despondent and also strangely trapped by the story itself, as I have written it. As soon as words are put on paper, they can take on an unhelpfully inevitable quality, cornering us: Here is what’s happened so far. Now what can you do to fix it?
But, as regret narratives demonstrate, what didn’t happen in a story may actually be a far greater resource for imaginative thinking than what did. These days, when I hit that frightening place, I go back to the pages, looking for an unexplored moment brimming with a character’s might have beens.
I look for lines like: I thought of telling him what had happened the night before, but decided against it. Or, I could have run after her and pleaded my case, but instead, went back inside. Or, She stared at the phone for a very long while, but never picked it up. In other words, I look for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret.
This happened to me with Life Drawing. Early in the novel Gus visits Alison after Alison’s former husband has made a horrible scene in the driveway; but in the earliest drafts of the book, I had Gus only consider visiting Alison, then decide against going. When I reread those drafts, though, it felt like an exchange between the two women was missing. A scene in which Alison might show some genuine vulnerability, in which Gus might be the one offering support—­or failing to, due to her own limitations. And so I went back into the book, searching for a moment at which someone had shied away from taking action; and sure enough! I found Gus staring at Alison’s home, thinking she ought to go check on her neighbor, and then turning away. So of course I remedied that, pushing her through Alison’s door.
I write about it now as if Gus were the one making decisions, but who was engaging in the avoidance, really? Gus? Or her creator? What if the scene turned out to be too complex to write? What if I lacked the finesse to make it both powerful and subtle, as it needed to be?
For an author, it’s tempting to keep things simple, to write the easiest path. When a piece is fresh I have something like a heat sensor that detects possible complications, the difficult exchanges, the entanglements that might arise; and my first instinct is to avoid such sparks and fires—­until one day I sit down at the computer to find a narrative that has taken on that deathly, immobile quality.
In real life, we don’t get to return to our twenties and step onto the airplane we were afraid to fly; or audition for the play that excited and scared us; or ask the beauty to dinner; or take the job in Boston. In real life, the past has passed and all we can do is tell ourselves poignant, intuitively well-­crafted stories of what might have been. If only . . .
But in fiction, what is done can be undone and what hasn’t been done can still be done. And maybe this is some of the joy of being an author, this magical ability to reach back in time and replace a poorly placed no with a well-­placed yes. And see what happens. See that something happens.
And, whatever happens, no regrets.
Intuitions
My tale begins with an abandonment. Mid 2009. A twice-­drafted novel, already sold while in progress as part of a two-­book deal. My dawning realization that it wasn’t very good, that it would never be very good, that it was, in fact, that banal yet terrifying thing I swore I would never create: the desk drawer novel. The starter novel. The learner’s novel.
I got going too late at this writing game to waste years on a practice book, I told myself. And the Heavens laughed.
I found myself still under contract with the directive to write a different novel, one I had yet to begin. In many ways, this was an enviable place to be, I know. But also not. Because it turns out that if you spent your forties writing short stories mostly under the assumption that no one terribly far outside your own circle of family and friends will ever read them, it’s not then so easy to write anything, much less a form at which you’ve already failed, certain that there are editors looking at their watches, marking days off on their calendars, peering over your shoulder, wondering what the hell you’re doing with your time.
It was an awful couple of years. The unfulfilled contract made me miserable. I woke up morning after morning physically ill with anxiety. In dark hours, I told my husband that I’d already said what I had to say in my eleven stories, that I was finished writing fiction. The well was dry. The need to communicate, sated. And that the novel was a dumb form anyway. This last bit mumbled while pouting and kicking at the couch. Stupid novels.
By January 2012, when I arrived at an annual retreat I shared with writer friends, I was a wreck. It had been nearly three years since I’d withdrawn my mediocre novel, and in that time, I had started and stopped at least four new projects. I hated them. They hated me. I hated myself. Oh, and did I mention, I had officially given up? Well, not officially. I hadn’t yet informed my agent or my editors, but deep in my heart I just knew. . . .
On the first night of that retreat, I told my friends that the whole project was doomed. Rather than write, I would use the week to goof off, reading and composing whatever—­prose poems, limericks, ad copy—­rather than keep trying to make a book appear from thin, unimaginably thin and ungenerous, air.
I spent the first five days of that retreat reading Ovid—­with no idea what led me there. I read about Medusa, and I read about Pygmalion and Galatea. I read about the woman who could turn people into stone and the woman who had once been stone herself. I imagined Medusa seeking out Galatea so she could ask for a report on what it was like to be a statue—­Galatea being the only person who could inform her about that state. So, about these people I keep petrifying, what are they actually going through? I felt sorry for Medusa, for her hideous visage, for her shitty future, for how ­everyone hated her. And I felt sorry for Galatea, too, awakening from eternity to find herself being fondled by some man whose appreciation of her perfection left no room for her choice, for her desires.
And then on day six of the retreat I put Ovid to the side and wrote the first five thousand words of Life Drawing—­five thousand words that have remained essentially the same through every revision. The next day, I wrote the next four thousand words.
I tell the story that way, with no real lead up to that happy turn, because that is what it felt like at the time. One day I couldn’t write a novel; and the next day I could write a novel—­a novel that over the following year poured out of me in a way no story ever had, as though all I’d had to do was remove the lid and tip the container just a bit.
But what had actually happened?
It is, of course, impossible to know. Creativity cannot be understood. It can be analyzed and maybe even quantified in some ways, but never understood. There were elements to which I can point as having likely helped. Wise comments from the women there with me, and also from other friends who were not. A sudden realization that having cut my teeth writing about families, I was tired of writing about families. But among those elements and more, it is the five days of reading Ovid to which I now return. Because in those ancient stories, my own obsessions were lurking, outside my anxieties about productivity, directing me back toward why I write.
The connection between Life Drawing and my reading then is clear to me now. Life Drawing is a novel about many things, but at its core lie questions involving the relationships between art and mortality, art and grief, art and redemption. What does it mean, as an artist, to give life to human figures? What does it mean when an artist cannot give life? And how does all of that relate to the human capacity, again and again, to renew our faith in others, in ourselves? As with the Ovid I read, these are the strands that are braided at my novel’s heart: mortality, forgiveness, and art.
So, when did I figure out that my reading about stone figures, mortal petrification, statues coming to life, and irreversible punishment, had any bearing on my book? Only today. The day on which the manuscript has been taken from my hands and sent off to the copyediting department for polishing.
And that is how novels are made.
Except it is not.
The next novelist to tell you the conception story of her book is unlikely to recount immersing herself in Ovid’s Metamorphoses for five days. She may talk about the bad marriage she needed to leave. Or writing longhand. Or traveling for research. Or doing yoga. Because none of our stories are the same. Some authors are great planners and plotters. Some know what they will write long before they ever begin, while I am a stumbler and a wanderer, often blind to my own motivations, ignorant about what pulls me along, clueless about what lights me up. I am a writer whose strength is not foresight, but intuition, a quality that this time—­thankfully, unexpectedly—­guided me just where I needed to go.

Life Drawing_BlackWriting is an odd profession. I sometimes startle when I realize how much of my time I spend fretting about people who don’t actually exist. Am I truly an adult woman playing for hours each day with imaginary friends?

It turns out that I am.

For me, it has been important to try and understand what drives a seemingly sane, even sensible, down-­to-­earth person to dwell in her own imagination so much of the time. What are the moments that have shaped this need in me? How does my fiction relate to my life, to the whole experience of living a life, as I understand it? How can my thoughts about my “real life” endow my written work with a life of its own?

Of course, I’m not the only person who wonders about these things. At events, in interviews, I am often asked, as I believe all writers are, about the creative process, about the interaction between daily life and that other world, the one that finds its way from an author’s imagination, onto the page; and then off the page again, as the reader’s imagination is engaged.

“Why do you write?” The truth is that I don’t have an answer—­yet. But I have a seemingly insatiable curiosity, myself.

So I have kept notes of a kind, written essays on the subject, trying both to understand for myself and to convey to others how this whole strange ­business works—­for me, anyway. How I think about myself as a writer, how those imaginary friends of mine and I interact.

I very much hope you enjoy the three pieces that are included here. They are glimpses at my process, at what lies behind Life Drawing, and at why it is the book it is, the one you are holding in your hand.

Finally, I share these essays with much gratitude to you, all readers, because without you every writer’s imagination, including mine, would remain forever trapped on the page.

Robin Black

November 2014


Origins

When I was ten years old, my maternal grandmother moved into our home.

Grandma was a tough cookie. Stetl born, Lower East Side raised, the second oldest of eight children, she had a reputation as something of a drill sergeant. “There’s a right way and wrong way to do everything,” she would say, and it was clear into which category her way invariably fell. But she was also a woman of contradictions, unexpectedly tenderhearted and always likely to side with the underdog, yet someone who hadn’t hesitated to smack around her own sons when she thought they’d stepped out of line. A good woman? A bad woman? A complicated woman. And, by the time she moved in with us, a seventy-two-­year-­old woman paralyzed from the waist down from spinal tumors for more than ten years, widowed for most of that time.

As a writer, it’s inevitable that you will wonder sometimes what made you the sort of writer you are: what periods of your life, what particular events, what people. And of course there is no one answer, but there are occasional little glimmers you can find, moments and exchanges that seem to explain something, if not everything.

Grandma’s move into our home offers such a glimmer for me.

During the initial years of Grandma’s paralysis, including after her widowhood, she lived alone, a couple of hours away from us. Her six sisters did her shopping, provided her with constant ­company, playing crucial roles in helping her maintain her independence. One of my earliest memories is of watching her wash the dishes, the gravity of her weight against the sink keeping her upright. She wasn’t exactly mobile, but she wasn’t exactly immobile either until something shifted the wrong way in her spine, robbing her of the ability to live alone. When she moved in with us she became entirely bedridden—­as she would remain until her death at nearly eighty-­three.

I was ten years old that first day, November 1972, and I wasn’t exactly a happy child. My father, alcoholic and depressive, had been institutionalized for several months in ’71, an experience preceded and followed by disorienting chaos in our home. I wasn’t carefree or untouched by sorrow, but I remember being giddy around my grandmother’s move into our home. It seemed like such fun, so cool to have her there. I wrote poems to commemorate the event and I raced my brothers in her two wheelchairs, and I made a lot of what I thought were very funny jokes about—­of all things—­an imaginary suitor for her.

Mercifully, I don’t remember the specifics of this long-­running joke of mine. He had a name, I know. He had a spiel. All of it now gone from my mind. But what I do remember, very clearly, is the evening when my mother took me into  the hallway and suggested that I stop. “You know,” she said, as gently as was possible, “if Grandma hadn’t been in a wheelchair, stuck in her apartment, she might have had a real suitor. She might have remarried after my father died. It may be a joke that makes her sad.”

My memories of that moment are painful still. What shame I felt, even horror, at my mother’s words. I had thought I was being funny, cheering everybody up, when in fact I had been causing pain. I sense even now the reverberations of a shattering at my foundation, a change at a molecular level of who I understood myself to be. No longer a child who could look at another person without wondering what their life was like, but someone with a need to know what other people’s stories might actually be. Really. What is truly happening. Below the surface. Not because I suddenly became a better person, but because I was terrified of again inadvertently being cruel.

And the impact goes beyond having had an empathic imagination shocked into me that night. When my story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this came out, I was asked repeatedly why I wrote so often about older women, women in their seventies and beyond. “I feel a commitment to reminding people that older women are still complex human beings,” I would say. A worthy goal? Of course. A lifelong creative penance for having been a little girl who hurt someone by forgetting that fact? Perhaps.

What does it take to write fiction? What determines our obsessions? What guides us toward the places and people by which our imaginations are sparked?

These questions are both unavoidable and unanswerable. But I know that all our lives are scattered with just such glimmers as the one I have described, shimmering shards of ourselves that can provide a glimpse of how we became who we are—­and that may always remain sharp enough to cut.


Lessons

For a long time now, I have suspected that there is a connection between regret and fiction writing—­beyond the obvious possibility that one might regret having started to write fiction.

Regret is among a very few emotions that cannot exist without an accompanying narrative. I wish I had gone on that trip because . . . I would have met the love of my life; I wouldn’t have set the house on fire; I would have seen Paris before I died, and been less sad at the prospect of mortality. All regret carries within it a particular kind of fiction, one in which the rules of causality and chance are suspended—­in favor of the certainty of a happy end. We, who should know better, convince ourselves that we can know what would have happened in the past . . . if only. Regret makes confident storytellers of us all.

It also makes us fans of bold action, retrospectively, anyway. Social scientists and psychologists concur that people are more likely to regret what they have not done than what they have done. It’s the missed opportunity that feels poignant. The road not taken. The challenge to which we did not rise. The one who got away.

And what does this have to do with writing fiction? Rather a lot, I think.

Often, with a project, I reach a point at which the whole structure suddenly takes on a moribund, fruitless quality. The narrative, once brimming with life and promise, has died. It’s a terrifying moment. I feel immediately despondent and also strangely trapped by the story itself, as I have written it. As soon as words are put on paper, they can take on an unhelpfully inevitable quality, cornering us: Here is what’s happened so far. Now what can you do to fix it?

But, as regret narratives demonstrate, what didn’t happen in a story may actually be a far greater resource for imaginative thinking than what did. These days, when I hit that frightening place, I go back to the pages, looking for an unexplored moment brimming with a character’s might have beens.

I look for lines like: I thought of telling him what had happened the night before, but decided against it. Or, I could have run after her and pleaded my case, but instead, went back inside. Or, She stared at the phone for a very long while, but never picked it up. In other words, I look for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret.

This happened to me with Life Drawing. Early in the novel Gus visits Alison after Alison’s former husband has made a horrible scene in the driveway; but in the earliest drafts of the book, I had Gus only consider visiting Alison, then decide against going. When I reread those drafts, though, it felt like an exchange between the two women was missing. A scene in which Alison might show some genuine vulnerability, in which Gus might be the one offering support—­or failing to, due to her own limitations. And so I went back into the book, searching for a moment at which someone had shied away from taking action; and sure enough! I found Gus staring at Alison’s home, thinking she ought to go check on her neighbor, and then turning away. So of course I remedied that, pushing her through Alison’s door.

I write about it now as if Gus were the one making decisions, but who was engaging in the avoidance, really? Gus? Or her creator? What if the scene turned out to be too complex to write? What if I lacked the finesse to make it both powerful and subtle, as it needed to be?

For an author, it’s tempting to keep things simple, to write the easiest path. When a piece is fresh I have something like a heat sensor that detects possible complications, the difficult exchanges, the entanglements that might arise; and my first instinct is to avoid such sparks and fires—­until one day I sit down at the computer to find a narrative that has taken on that deathly, immobile quality.

In real life, we don’t get to return to our twenties and step onto the airplane we were afraid to fly; or audition for the play that excited and scared us; or ask the beauty to dinner; or take the job in Boston. In real life, the past has passed and all we can do is tell ourselves poignant, intuitively well-­crafted stories of what might have been. If only . . .

But in fiction, what is done can be undone and what hasn’t been done can still be done. And maybe this is some of the joy of being an author, this magical ability to reach back in time and replace a poorly placed no with a well-­placed yes. And see what happens. See that something happens.

And, whatever happens, no regrets.


Intuitions

My tale begins with an abandonment. Mid 2009. A twice-­drafted novel, already sold while in progress as part of a two-­book deal. My dawning realization that it wasn’t very good, that it would never be very good, that it was, in fact, that banal yet terrifying thing I swore I would never create: the desk drawer novel. The starter novel. The learner’s novel.

I got going too late at this writing game to waste years on a practice book, I told myself. And the Heavens laughed.

I found myself still under contract with the directive to write a different novel, one I had yet to begin. In many ways, this was an enviable place to be, I know. But also not. Because it turns out that if you spent your forties writing short stories mostly under the assumption that no one terribly far outside your own circle of family and friends will ever read them, it’s not then so easy to write anything, much less a form at which you’ve already failed, certain that there are editors looking at their watches, marking days off on their calendars, peering over your shoulder, wondering what the hell you’re doing with your time.

It was an awful couple of years. The unfulfilled contract made me miserable. I woke up morning after morning physically ill with anxiety. In dark hours, I told my husband that I’d already said what I had to say in my eleven stories, that I was finished writing fiction. The well was dry. The need to communicate, sated. And that the novel was a dumb form anyway. This last bit mumbled while pouting and kicking at the couch. Stupid novels.

By January 2012, when I arrived at an annual retreat I shared with writer friends, I was a wreck. It had been nearly three years since I’d withdrawn my mediocre novel, and in that time, I had started and stopped at least four new projects. I hated them. They hated me. I hated myself. Oh, and did I mention, I had officially given up? Well, not officially. I hadn’t yet informed my agent or my editors, but deep in my heart I just knew. . . .

On the first night of that retreat, I told my friends that the whole project was doomed. Rather than write, I would use the week to goof off, reading and composing whatever—­prose poems, limericks, ad copy—­rather than keep trying to make a book appear from thin, unimaginably thin and ungenerous, air.

I spent the first five days of that retreat reading Ovid—­with no idea what led me there. I read about Medusa, and I read about Pygmalion and Galatea. I read about the woman who could turn people into stone and the woman who had once been stone herself. I imagined Medusa seeking out Galatea so she could ask for a report on what it was like to be a statue—­Galatea being the only person who could inform her about that state. So, about these people I keep petrifying, what are they actually going through? I felt sorry for Medusa, for her hideous visage, for her shitty future, for how ­everyone hated her. And I felt sorry for Galatea, too, awakening from eternity to find herself being fondled by some man whose appreciation of her perfection left no room for her choice, for her desires.

And then on day six of the retreat I put Ovid to the side and wrote the first five thousand words of Life Drawing—­five thousand words that have remained essentially the same through every revision. The next day, I wrote the next four thousand words.

I tell the story that way, with no real lead up to that happy turn, because that is what it felt like at the time. One day I couldn’t write a novel; and the next day I could write a novel—­a novel that over the following year poured out of me in a way no story ever had, as though all I’d had to do was remove the lid and tip the container just a bit.

But what had actually happened?

It is, of course, impossible to know. Creativity cannot be understood. It can be analyzed and maybe even quantified in some ways, but never understood. There were elements to which I can point as having likely helped. Wise comments from the women there with me, and also from other friends who were not. A sudden realization that having cut my teeth writing about families, I was tired of writing about families. But among those elements and more, it is the five days of reading Ovid to which I now return. Because in those ancient stories, my own obsessions were lurking, outside my anxieties about productivity, directing me back toward why I write.

The connection between Life Drawing and my reading then is clear to me now. Life Drawing is a novel about many things, but at its core lie questions involving the relationships between art and mortality, art and grief, art and redemption. What does it mean, as an artist, to give life to human figures? What does it mean when an artist cannot give life? And how does all of that relate to the human capacity, again and again, to renew our faith in others, in ourselves? As with the Ovid I read, these are the strands that are braided at my novel’s heart: mortality, forgiveness, and art.

So, when did I figure out that my reading about stone figures, mortal petrification, statues coming to life, and irreversible punishment, had any bearing on my book? Only today. The day on which the manuscript has been taken from my hands and sent off to the copyediting department for polishing.

And that is how novels are made.

Except it is not.

The next novelist to tell you the conception story of her book is unlikely to recount immersing herself in Ovid’s Metamorphoses for five days. She may talk about the bad marriage she needed to leave. Or writing longhand. Or traveling for research. Or doing yoga. Because none of our stories are the same. Some authors are great planners and plotters. Some know what they will write long before they ever begin, while I am a stumbler and a wanderer, often blind to my own motivations, ignorant about what pulls me along, clueless about what lights me up. I am a writer whose strength is not foresight, but intuition, a quality that this time—­thankfully, unexpectedly—­guided me just where I needed to go.

Friday, April 17th, 2015

The One That Got AwayThe Place We Call Home

I just wanted to write a love story.

As an incurable romantic, I’ve always had a soft spot for those stories that are as warm and gooey as the center of a molten chocolate cake. My lifelong favorite, over even Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, is the story of Anne of Green Gables’ Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. So that’s what was foremost in my mind when I started working on The One That Got Away. But what I soon began to realize, as the book developed, is that it’s equally a story about home.

Home is one of those simple ideas that gets more complicated the harder you think about it. On one hand, it’s such a universal concept that, in its broadest terms, it ought to mean the same thing to everyone—­a place of shelter, safety, belonging. Just the phrase “keep the home fires burning” conjures a place we can return to after wandering, where someone we love will be waiting . . . a place that will always be there. But, unthinkable as it is to ourselves as children, what happens to all of us is that our definition of home changes over time. And sometimes it changes more than once. The thing is, though, that each of our homes, and the people who share them with us, shape us in ways it takes years to fully understand.

Most of us begin with the same kind of home: Where we come from. Where we grew up. Our oldest, most fundamental place; the place we really began. It may not have been happy, but it’s still our origin, and for better or worse, we can’t forget it, or carve away the imprint it left upon us.

For me, this home was the ten acres in the Blue Ridge foothills where my parents built their dream house. Before then, we had been living among clinking sailboat masts and dapper white-­clad midshipmen in Annapolis, Maryland, and my six-­year-­old self utterly failed to see what had so enchanted my mom and dad with this steep and unruly hillside in the boondocks. By the time construction was completed, though, I was as bewitched as they were. And partly because the house had been designed according to my parents’ specifications, I was always aware of the way my physical environment reflected who our family was. One big bathroom for the three of us to share, but separate his-­and-­hers art studios for them. The spacious open-­plan living/dining room, because my parents disliked the tradition of separate “formal” rooms that sat mostly unused. The immense windows along the western façade, so we were seldom out of sight of the rippling blue silhouette of the mountain range that formed our horizon, thirty miles away.

My mother took her last breath in that house. Her blinds were often open as she lay in her bed; I can only hope the beauty of the mountains eased her pain. She had bright eyes and a joyful smile, and the kind of laugh that could make friends from all the way across a room. Her warmth drew people to her like a hearth fire in January. Since I was only thirteen when she died, we were robbed of the time for me to grow to appreciate her, not just as my mom, but as the vivid, kind, charming woman I now know she was. But in the time we did have, her love taught me to value myself, and to treasure beauty, and those two things have been at the core of every good decision I’ve ever made.

My second home, I wasn’t looking for. While I was studying in England during my junior year of college, everything my father had been struggling with at home collapsed. When my winter break came, I had no home to go to. My mother’s older sister, without question or hesitation, said, “You come here.” And her house has been my go-­home-­to place ever since. Because of the woman whose house it is, that place represents as big a part of me as where I came from. My aunt opened both home and heart to me, and her dead sister’s girl became her third daughter. With remarkable patience and more than a little tough love, she knocked a navel-­gazer, overly prone to whining and stewing, into a decisive and determined adult. I owe more than I can ever convey to my exposure to her challenging, sparky intelligence.

If you’re lucky, your own go-­home-­to place, the place you head for holidays and family weekends or just to take a break from being an adult for a couple of days, is still the same as where you come from. But for many people it’s not. Parents move, divorce, die, betray. Your go-­home-­to place may not even be where your parents or siblings are, but it’s a place that brings you comfort when you arrive there. It’s the place where you know all the stories and inside jokes that get retold, and where somebody will have your favorite meal waiting for you when you arrive.

Of course, like most of you, I also have my own home now. Mine is a sunny little aerie in Brooklyn, and I share it with my husband, whose dimples are the only thing that can coax me out of bed in the morning, and our cat, who travels from sunbeam to sunbeam as each day glides by. I made it partly with pieces of my other homes: artwork my mother painted, books my aunt has given me, furniture my grandmother bought in the fifties, which is beautifully scuffed with age and with my family’s use. But also, my home is made with pieces of who I am now. Artwork I drew, books my friends have written. Because I lost my mother’s gardens, I cram my windowsills with flowers, and because my husband loves to cook, I grow herbs to use in our meals. This is the place where I welcome friends and family, both my own and my husband’s. And every single inch of it is made of something I love.

Throughout The One That Got Away, Sarina is on a journey to find her home. The home she comes from is too laden with painful memories to be a welcoming place any longer, so she’s left Virginia behind and made a life for herself in Austin. She’s spent much of her adult life trying to find the right go-­home-­to place, where she truly belongs, and to build her own home at the same time. When the story opens, she believes Noah is the answer to both of those. Except, as Eamon points out, she’s never taken any steps to make her home with Noah a reality; she only thinks it’s her future because it looks like it should be. So what she has to find the courage to do, in spite of the risks, is to open herself up to the person she’s come to realize is the one who really belongs in that future, and in that home.

This is why the home you build yourself, in many ways, is the most rewarding one of all. You can fill it, and populate it, with whatever and whoever you wish. It can be whatever you want it to be, whether it’s the place you share with your partner, or your partner plus the colorful chaos of children (or the furry and malodorous chaos of pets), or just the solitary peace of your sofa, a good book and a big glass of wine. This home is the one you fill with your own family, whoever you choose them to be—­but the peace is in the choosing.

Rowan Coleman Discussion Questions: The Day We Met

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

The Day We MetFor fans of Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You comes a beautifully written, heartwarming novel about mothers and daughters, husbands and wives. The Day We Met asks: Can you love someone you don’t remember falling in love with? The discussion questions below can help guide your book club to answering that question and more.

1. A consistent thread throughout the novel is that of history repeating itself. Both Caitlin and Claire get pregnant young and without husbands, and Ruth must watch her husband and her daughter succumb to the same disease. What do you think Coleman suggests about fate? Do we have the ability to carve our own destiny? Can we be prevented from making the same mistakes that our parents and their parents made?

2. After watching Caitlin in a play, Claire realizes, “Being a mother is about protecting your children from every conceivable thing that might cause them hurt, but it’s also about trusting them to live the best way for them, the best way they can; and trusting that even when you are not there to hold their hand, they can succeed.” Do you agree? Was Claire right to shield Caitlin from the truth about her father? If you were Claire, what would you have done?

3. Why do you think Claire can confide in Ryan more easily than she can confide in the rest of her family? Why is an outsider more appealing to her at this time in her life?

4. At one point, Claire realizes that people have started seeing her as the crazy person, as “the one that no one looks in the eye anymore.” How do you think it would feel to be aware of being a pariah? If you saw Claire in her altered state, what would you think/assume?

5. Do you agree with Caitlin’s decision not to find out if she has the Alzheimer’s gene? What would you have done in her situation?

6.  If you and your loved ones were making a memory book of your life, what would you want to include?

7. How did you feel about Claire’s relationship with Ryan before and after it was revealed that he was Greg? Were you surprised? Was Greg right to mislead her? Why is it important that she have this experience?

8. At the end, Claire says, “I did write a book. We all did. We wrote the story of our lives, and I am here, among these pages. This is where I will always be.” Beyond an exercise assigned by her doctor, why do you think the book becomes so important to Claire?

9. If you knew you had early-onset Alzheimer’s, would you change anything about your life?

10. As Claire starts to lose her memories, she worries that she’s starting to lose hold of her identity. Do you believe identity and memory are intrinsically linked, or can they be separated?

A Letter From the Author: Rowan Coleman on The Day We Met

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Rowan Coleman Day We Met coverThe name of your first-born. The face of your lover. Your age. Your address…

What would happen if your memory of these began to fade?

Is it possible to rebuild your life? Raise a family? Fall in love again?When Claire starts to write her Memory Book, she already knows that this scrapbook of mementoes will soon be all her daughters and husband have of her. In her mid-40s, Claire is scared and increasingly confused by the world around her, struggling to hold onto her identity as thoughts of her mother, her daughters, and her husband grow fuzzier every day. Fearing what will happen if those memories fade altogether, her family’s gift of a red sketchpad is her most treasured possession. As they fill it with scenes from a joyous life lived together, Claire again experiences the ecstatic highs and terrible lows of a life well lived: full of heartbreak and love, tears and laughter.

 
 
Here is a letter from the author, Rowan Coleman, describing what this book means to her.


A Note From the Author

About three years ago I was sitting at my desk in my office, looking out the window, thinking about a dream I’d had years ago. It’s a very long story, but I first met my now husband, Adam, when we were both twelve, starting a new school at the same time. I fell in love with him at first sight, I actually did, just like they talk about in movies and books.

Years went by, years of nothing much happening between us (well, we were only twelve) and then around the age of sixteen there was a romance, and there continued to be on and off again for the next twenty-five years. But we never did quite get it together; something, maybe fate, would always conspire to keep us apart. Around fourteen years ago, after a really long time without seeing or hearing from Adam, and believing that that door was finally shut for good, I woke up from a dream so strong and so powerful that I had to check that it wasn’t real. I’d dreamed that I’d married him. I dreamed that a few years earlier, when we had been together, we’d run away and gotten married. And then things fell apart again. My head knew that that had never happened, we had never gotten married, but my heart believed it. My heart remembered how I felt about him, and how I always have felt about him, and it wouldn’t let that feeling go.

Another ten years would go by between that dream and finding him, quite by chance, again. This time we would not be parted, and four years ago we were married at last.

So as I sat in my office and thought about that dream, I thought about how even when life changes everything, everything around you, some things are so indelibly printed on your soul that they never go away. Love will always remain, whether you want it to or not. And that thought, that memory, was the very first inkling of the idea that would become The Day We Met.

There was another incident too: a few years earlier I almost lost my mother. My mum is an amazing woman; she was married in the fifties and was raised to be a wife and mother. For twenty-eight years that was what she did—until my dad left us. Mum had no choice but to change completely, change everything she knew. Battling grief and loss, she went out and got a job, supported my brother and me, and guided us single-handedly into adulthood. My mum brought me up to be strong and independent, to always try my best, to never give up, to believe that my gender would never prevent me from doing anything I chose to do. She encouraged me to take the chances that she never had, and she taught me how to be a mother. So when over a period of years she became increasingly ill, forgetful, and uncoordinated, with a severity that increased in slight but devastating increments, my brother and I feared the worst. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure, with having most likely suffered transient ischemic attacks (sometimes described as mini-strokes), but that never really felt right to me. I saw her change; I saw her personality descend into depression. There would be attacks when she didn’t know us, when she forgot that a friend had died and would insist on ringing his wife at three in the morning to prove that I was an “evil liar.” It was hard, and although she wasn’t even seventy, I believed that the relentlessly cruel disease of dementia was taking a grip on her and taking her away from me. Then one Christmas she became so ill that she was rushed (against her will) to hospital. They were on the point of sending her home, deciding she had overeaten, when I insisted on a CT scan. They discovered that there was a large cyst in her brain, and she was at once rushed to another hospital, where the cyst that was putting enormous pressure on her brain was drained. I will never forget walking into her hospital room just hours after the operation: my mum, the woman I loved and admired, was sitting up in bed, talking and laughing. I had my mum back, and I thank God for it every day since. But it didn’t stop me from thinking about dementia and Alzheimer’s and how this devastating disease is so little understood, and I knew that one day I wanted to write a book about it as best as I could—a book that would somehow open up the mind of a sufferer and show it to the world.

Well, on that day that I remembered my dream about Adam, these two ideas collided, and Claire was born. Several months of research, writing, and rewriting followed, and I found myself pouring my own memories into The Day We Met. Claire’s red wedding dress is my red wedding dress. Claire and Caitlin’s dance to Rhapsody in Blue actually happened when I was a girl. My mum sends me newspaper clippings every week. (Even though I see her in person more than once a week!) I watched my little girl dance and sing solo in the school play full of fear and anxiety and then relief as she came into her own and showed me a strength I never knew she had. Those are some of my memories that are in the book, and there are others too.

So, sometimes when you are working on a novel, there occurs, so rarely, a kind of alchemy that produces from a jumble of words and ideas, thoughts and emotions, something precious. And that’s how I feel about The Day We Met. I hope you do too.

—Rowan Coleman

Emily Giffin Discussion Questions: The One & Only

Friday, March 27th, 2015

The One & Only Cover

From The New York Times bestselling author, Emily Giffin, comes a novel about love and loyalty and an unconventional heroine struggling to reconcile both. Shea Rigsby has spent her entire life in a small college town. But when an unexpected tragedy strikes the tight-knit community, Shea’s comfortable world is upended, and she begins to wonder if the life she’s chosen is really enough for her. Like Emily’s previous novels, The One & Only will make you laugh and think at the same time.

Use the discussion questions below to help guide your book club conversation.

1. Have you ever fallen in love with someone your family or friends did not approve of?

2. Lucy asks Shea to choose between their friendship and her relationship with Coach Carr. Have you ever been faced with a choice between two people you care about?

3. One of the themes of The One & Only is forgiveness. Discuss some examples of characters who ask for forgiveness. In each instance, is forgiveness given? Is it earned?

4. Were you surprised by the relationship that develops between Coach Carr and Shea? Did you root for them to end up together?

5. Coach Carr texts Shea that “the best things in life only seem simple.” What do you think this means? Do you agree or disagree?

6. How does Connie’s death affect Shea? Compare and contrast Shea’s view of Connie to her relationship with her own mother.

7. Do you see Shea as an active or passive character? How does that change or develop over the course of the novel?

8. Do you think Shea was right to take the job reporting on Walker, even with her strong allegiances to the school? Where do you imagine her career takes her after the book is finished?

9. What would you do if you received a call like the one Shea receives from Blakeslee? Would you have confronted Ryan about Blakeslee’s accusations?

10. Shea lies about Miller being at the bar to avoid upsetting Ryan, and she and Coach Carr avoid telling Lucy about their romance for the same reason. Are these secrets justified? Do you think the final outcome in either situation would have been different if the people involved had been more honest?

11. Do you believe that Ryan did the things he was accused of? Do you see him as a good person? Do you think he, or people generally, can change?

12. Do you think Coach Carr acted appropriately when Ryan’s college girlfriend, Tish, told him Ryan had attacked her? Why do you think he responded the way he did? If you disagree with his handling of the situation, can you forgive him? Do you agree with how Shea handled things with Ryan? Should she have done more?

13. Another major theme in the book is the idea of following your passion. When is it good policy to base major life decisions around your passions? Does that strategy ever become misguided? Can you find examples of both in the book?

14. “It’s about loyalty,” Coach Carr tells Shea. “It’s about commitment to the people you love. Your wife. Your family. Your friends. Your team.” Discuss the concept of loyalty throughout the book. How is loyalty toward a person or relationship depicted as the same or different from loyalty toward a team? How do different characters react when their loyalties are in conflict?

15. Over the course of the novel, Shea learns to follow her heart, both in the romantic sense and as a broader approach to life. Can you think of a time you followed your heart even when it wasn’t necessarily the safe or easy decision?

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

ESSBAUM_Hausfrau

Hausfrau is a daring novel about marriage, sex, fidelity, morality, and most especially, self. Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno – a banker – and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

Here are some discussion questions to help guide your book club conversation.

1. That Anna. So—really—what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?

2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?

3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self-centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two-shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more-Anna-than-Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?

4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?

5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?

6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?

7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?

8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?

9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?

10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?

11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?

12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?

13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life?

14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—become characters in their own right Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?

15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?

16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post-Anna?

Disaster-Proof Party Popcorn – Recipe

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Disaster-Proof Party Popcorn
Serves up to 12 for cocktail snacks

3 T peanut oil
¾ c popcorn kernels
3 T nutritional yeast (this will be with the dietary supplements at your local Whole Foods or health food store, and while it sounds like a strange addition, it has a nutty flavor that is reminiscent of parmesan cheese and pairs great with popcorn…if you can’t find it, you can substitute grated parmesan)
1 t ground mustard powder
1 ½ t salt (and more to taste)
1 t dried thyme leaves (or herbes de Provence or Italian herb mix)
½ t garlic powder
¼ t espelette or cayenne pepper (optional)

Mix all of the spices and herbs with the nutritional yeast in a small bowl.

Put oil and popcorn in a large pot, shake to be sure all the kernels are coated, cover pot with tight fitting lid and turn the stove burner on high. Popcorn should start to pop within a couple of minutes. Leave the pot alone until you hear the popping slow down, and then give it a shake or two just to be sure that you are getting all the kernels popped. When the popping slows to two to three seconds between pops, turn off the heat, remove the lid, and pour the popcorn in a bowl large enough for you to mix it around easily. Sprinkle hot popcorn with about 1/3 of the yeast/spice mix and toss popcorn thoroughly. Taste. Add more yeast mix and salt until you get the flavor you want. Once you have the right balance, either eat right away, or let the popcorn sit uncovered at room temperature until completely cool. Store in Ziploc bags or Tupperware containers for up to 36 hours. You can toast on sheet pans in a 400 degree oven for 3-4 minutes to recrisp or if you want to serve warm. The herb mix can be stored in a small Tupperware container for up to a month.

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Discussion Questions: China Dolls by Lisa See

Friday, March 13th, 2015

China Dolls

San Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Use the discussion questions below to guide your book club conversation.

1. The novel opens with the below quotation:


Only three things cannot be long hidden:
the sun,
the moon,
and the truth.

What does this quotation mean in the context of China Dolls? Lisa’s novel is filled with secrets—some hidden and not revealed until late in the novel. What were the most important ones? Why were they hidden? Did you agree with how and when they were revealed?

2. “In just these few minutes I’d learned two things about myself: I would never lower myself by faking an accent like my dad did (or Charlie Chan did in the movies), nor would I work naked as a hoochie-coochie dancer. All right, so I had pride. But what price would I have to pay for it?” (p. 11). This is something Grace realized about herself when she just started out as a performer. How did her outlook evolve throughout the novel?

3. Grace’s father brutally abused her when she was a young girl. Although Lisa never excused his behavior, how did she gradually reveal to the reader some of the factors that made him the man he was? Did you ever accept him for who he was? In what ways did the abuse Grace suffer at the hands of her father shape her subsequent relationships with men?

4. How did your perception of Ruby shift throughout the story? Did the hardship and discrimination she experienced affect the rest of her actions, whether commendable or not? How did Ruby’s ambition differ from that of Grace’s?

5. Ruby could have had any man she wanted—and she often did. Is it fair to be critical of the way Ruby tried to hide her early relationship with Joe from Grace? Why did she choose Joe, especially in light of Grace’s crush on him? Was this betrayal ultimately helpful to Grace in some respects?

6. How did you react to the way Ruby hid her Japanese ancestry as World War II began? How did you feel about her relationship with her parents? Did you think Ruby’s parents were Japanese spies? Could you tell one way or another? Did it matter to you whether they were verifiably innocent or guilty?

7. Helen’s narratives were filled with traditional Chinese sayings. Which are the most important in the novel and why? What aspects of Helen’s life made her situation fundamentally different from that of the other girls? When Helen’s past was revealed, were you surprised? How did it affect her approach to friendship?

8. Helen’s and Grace’s fathers share many similarities in how they look at their daughters and women. In what ways do their personal backgrounds make the two men different from each other?

9. What important elements did Eddie bring to the novel? Would you have married Eddie if you had been in Helen’s situation?

10. Ruby says to Grace, “You want an American life. I want an American life. Even Helen wants an American life” and then thinks to herself “And all of us, in our own ways, were doing the best we could to erase who we were” (p. 301). What do you think an “American life” meant for each woman, and why did they have to erase themselves to achieve it? Who were you rooting for most in the novel—Grace, Helen, or Ruby? And why?

11. Did you think Grace’s relationship with Joe was significantly different after the war? If so, how? In what ways had Grace changed? Joe? In reality, could they have changed as much as they did in the novel?

12. How was Helen’s betrayal of Ruby different from her betrayal of Grace? Which betrayal was worse? Why? Would the final confrontation scene have been different if it had been entirely narrated by Grace? Or by Helen?

13. While there are big betrayals in the novel, there were also moments of great resiliency and hope as the girls helped each other. In what ways did Grace, Helen, and Ruby support one another?

14. Perhaps more than in any of her other novels, Lisa has written in great detail about clothes and fashion. Why do you think she did that and what was she trying to say?

15. “China doll” or “China dolls” are phrases used often in the novel. What are the most important meanings behind this phrase? Which are positive? Which are negative? At the end of China Dolls,Tommy’s daughter criticized Grace’s career as one that promoted racial stereotypes. Was that criticism fair? Why or why not?

Q&A: Lisa See, author of China Dolls

Friday, March 6th, 2015

China DollsSan Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Read the insightful Q&A below between Lisa and the real life China Dolls!

I first met Jodi Long, an actress who made her Broadway debut at age seven in Nowhere to Go But Up and now stars in Sullivan and Son on television, when she came to one of my book events. She gave me a copy of Long Story Short, a documentary she produced about her parents, who were nightclub performers. Larry Long was from Australia. He danced as a solo artist, teamed up with Paul Wing, and later married Trudie Kim (née Kimiye Tsunemitsu), who had been interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center. After they married, they put together their own song, dance, and comedy act. On May 7, 1950, they were among the first Asian-American performers to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 2011, I did two interviews with Jodi and Trudie together. I offer these excerpts so you can get a sense of how I do research and then how the truth and details of real-life stories inspire me.

Lisa See: How old were you when the war started?

Trudie Kim: I was nineteen. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New York City when I got out of the internment camp in Idaho.

LS: When you were in the camp, you wrote letters to people, asking them to sponsor you to leave. How did you know who to write to?

TK: I knew that several people were writing for newspapers in New York; they were nightlife people. Not Walter Winchell, but others. So I
wrote, and I said I was in camp and I didn’t want to stay there. I said, “Why am I here? I’m an American citizen.” I couldn’t get out of camp unless someone agreed to give me a job.

LS: Your parents let you go?

TK: We were in camp! We lived in barracks. The whole family lived in one room. They evacuated us from the West Coast. A lot of people lost property, farms, and so forth, but we didn’t own anything like that. They sent us there, and when we got out of the train, we put our hands up like this and we couldn’t even see our hands because that’s how dusty it was. When I got there, I said, “How in the hell do I get out of this joint?” I spent all of my days going up to the placement office, which wasn’t even settled at that point, in a spot two or three miles away. I’d walk up there, and I’d say, “How the hell do I get out? Give me the papers.” It took me weeks. Lee Mortimer finally answered. He was a writer for the New York Daily Mirror. He was the nightlife editor, or whatever. He used to take out Asian girls. He used to take out Noel Toy. She was a bubble dancer. I think he took out Florence Ong. She was Korean, and she was sort of an opera singer.

LS: What did you think when you first got off the train in New York?

TK: I didn’t have a soul to help me. I got off at Penn Station. I had read about the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which was on Lexington and Sixty-third. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. I started to look for a job. I went to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Best & Co., Arnold Constable, and Gimbel’s. No one would hire me as a saleswoman.

LS: Do you think that was because of the war?

TK: Probably. But they probably weren’t hiring any Asian people, anyway, at that time. No one said that. That was just my intuition. No one offered me a job—not even in the storeroom. I wasn’t fussy. I just wanted a job.

Jodi Long: I think what’s really interesting is that she couldn’t get a job in any of those places, but the one place that gave her a job was the American Bible Society as a file clerk and a typist.

LS: [To Trudie] You must have been a bit of a dreamer.

TK: I thought, Gee, I might be a singer. When I first came to New York, someone said, “Let’s go to the Hurricane Nightclub, where Duke Ellington is playing with Johnny Hodges.” Someone said, “Go up and sing.” I sang a few bars. Duke Ellington didn’t really listen to me, but it was an entrée.

LS: How did you get your job at the China Doll?

TK: Lee Mortimer took me out. That’s how I met everyone. He used to call me at the American Bible Society and say in a very low voice, “You want to go out tonight?” I used to go to nightclubs with him. When the China Doll opened, he had some pull in trying to get Asian people into the show. He is the one who suggested that I go down there to audition. “Go down there and audition. Maybe you’ll get a job!” I wanted to try out, but I was afraid that I might lose my job at the ABS, even though the pay was only seventeen dollars a week. Let me put it this way. The girls at the China Doll were making seventy-five dollars a week, so I talked to my boss at the ABS. “They have an open call for chorus girls. They make much more money than I do here. Would I be able to go down there and not lose this job here?” She said, “Go and try for it. Don’t worry about your job here. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, come back. I’ll hold the job for you.”

LS: So this was your first experience dancing?

TK: You go in, and he looks at you. The next day, they show you—do this and do that—which is absolutely nothing much. I guess he wanted to see how I looked onstage—presence, walk, and so on. It wasn’t too long, otherwise my boss wouldn’t have let me go. And then he decided. “Okay. I’m going”—like in the movie The Black Swan—“I’m going to pick you, pick you, pick you. The rest of you, thank you very much for coming.” When I went back to the dressing room, I said, “I got the job!” The other girls said, “You did?” I shouldn’t have bragged, but I was so excited. I wasn’t that clumsy, I guess.

JL: This was so much about survival. Performers like my mom and dad grew up in the Depression era. They saw Hollywood movies and somehow they got in their minds that they could do that, whether they had any formal training or not. Like my mother—​she didn’t have any formal training. Some of them did, like my father, who was taught how to tap by a Caucasian woman in Australia. The person who really took him under his wing was an African American man who was putting on music-hall shows in Australia. How interesting that that guy got from Africa to America, learned tapping, and then went to Australia and gave it to a little Chinese boy. I think it was really, “Oh, I can do this, and who cares what anybody thinks? I can make more money doing this.”

TK: Back home I used to work for fifty cents an hour in a grocery store. The big thing for me was, God! I can make seventy-five dollars!

JL: Tell Lisa the story about the guy, who, when you girls sat with him at the China Doll, he always took the money out of his socks.

TK: He was a Chinese guy. He worked on a big boat, going back and forth, with lots of passengers. I don’t know what his function was. I know he wasn’t just a sailor. I don’t think he was a cook, either. Maybe a steward. He used to come in regularly when he came back to shore. He would have all the girls sit at his table. When I say “girls,” there were a lot of us—six or so. We’d order food and drinks. That’s what we did after the first show. We used to sit and eat!

LS: What was your favorite thing to eat?

TK: I just wanted food. We didn’t go home and cook. When the tab came, he used to get cash from his shoe, from the heel, and pay for it. There were no charge cards back then. One time, he came in and said, “Oh, you girls want some shoes?” About four or five of us said, “Sure.” We went to his hotel. I thought, Oh my God. What’s going to happen? Let’s go get them and get out as fast as we can. He gave us shoes and some of us went home. I don’t know if anything happened with other girls. We used to stick together because we were all so young.

LS: It sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie with the other girls. Were there rivalries and jealousies and competition too?

TK: I don’t think so, not rivalry. The only thing I really didn’t care for and I really didn’t like was that three-quarters of them were Chinese, and they spoke Chinese most of the time in the dressing room. I didn’t like it.

LS: Did you feel they were doing that to leave you and the others out? Did you feel they were gossiping?

TK: I felt sometimes they may have been talking about us. I just didn’t like it. They probably weren’t talking about us, but who knows? When you’re young, you always think someone’s talking about you. Still, that was one thing I detested.

LS: All this time, were you writing to your parents? What did they think?

TK: I didn’t write to my parents. They didn’t read English, and I couldn’t write Japanese. Who used the telephone in those days? But they might have thought, Ah! What is she doing? It’s not traditional. The only worry they probably had was, Is she getting along?

JL: My grandparents couldn’t provide my mother with anything. They were in an internment camp, after all.

TK: I don’t know how my mother felt. She used to iron shirts in the Laundromat and she would work really hard, and she would send me ten dollars every once in a while.

LS: When you were working at the China Doll, what did you do when the night was done? Would you just go home or did you go out with everyone?

JL: Tell her about how you used to go to the drugstore after the show.

TK: Hanson’s Drugstore was across the street, and everybody hung out there. It was on Seventh Avenue, right across Fifty-first Street. [To Jodi] Your father always used to be there.

LS: Was Larry considered a headliner, a big star?

TK: Yes, he was a headliner at the China Doll.

LS: So he saw you and thought you were cute?

TK: I was the only one who listened to him! He hung around. I used to take a cab home to Seventy-fifth Street, but he’d make me walk all the way up to Seventy-fifth Street. I’d say, “Cryin’ out loud. I could have taken a cab.”

JL: Because he couldn’t afford a cab? Right?

TK: Right. Exactly. Sometimes we used to stop at Reuben’s, which was a pretty big restaurant; a lot of people used to go after the shows. Lena Horne was there one time, in the next booth. That was on Fifty-seventh Street.

LS: So Larry comes to the club; he’s got an act; he starts following you around . . .

TK: No. He was in an act.

JL: We should back up a little bit and give the backstory to that. Paul Wing was in a dance act with his partner, Dorothy Toy. [Wing & Toy were considered the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.] They were married at one point. Dorothy, even though her last name was Toy, was Japanese. According to the stories that I’ve heard, and I think it was Dad who told me, Wing & Toy had a Hollywood contract and another performer, who will remain nameless, ratted her out and told the people that they were hiring “a Jap.” The other performer was Chinese, and she got the job instead. That’s when Paul and Dorothy split up their act, because now that her cover was blown, she went on the road with her sister. Paul was on his own in San Francisco, and that’s when my father got up to the Forbidden City and they formed the Wing Brothers. Paul went from being Wing & Toy to the Wing Brothers. Even though all the pictures make them look like they were like the Nicholas Brothers—with all this tap dancing—my father was a tap dancer, but Paul didn’t really tap.

LS: He was more like a ballroom dancer.

JL: Yeah. Exactly. They did lots of jokes and patter and that stuff. They brought that to the China Doll, and that’s when my mother met my father. The Wing Brothers broke up somewhere in there, and my dad stayed in New York. I think because he gambled all his money away and couldn’t get it back!

TK: That’s true, because after work, not every night, but on certain nights they would play pai gai.

JL: They would stay after the show—not just at China Doll but also at the Forbidden City—to play cards or mahjong or whatever.

LS: [To Trudie] What was it like working with your husband?

TK: Putting the act together wasn’t just overnight.

JL: My father was a real stickler. He’d come see me at my show. “Did you know somebody was moving during your punch line? Tell them to stop moving.” He probably did that with my mom too.

TK: He’d say, “You moved!” “I moved?” I did move. [To Jodi] You went through that too? I didn’t dance, so I was faking when we did the tap dancing.

LS: I’ve seen the clip of you on The Ed Sullivan Show. You looked like you were dancing to me.

JL: If you really watch her feet [on The Ed Sullivan Show], she’s really good from here up. If you really watch my father’s feet, he’s tap dancing. My mother’s just stepping. It’s really funny to go back and watch it. She’s just doing the moves. She’s a good faker.

TK: I’m a good faker!

JL: Yes, you are!

LS: [To Jodi] What’s your earliest memory of being in a nightclub?

JL: I remember the waitresses. They used to take care of me when my parents were onstage. I remember I would sit sometimes in the audience, if it wasn’t too late. I specifically remember that you had to go through the kitchen to get to the dressing rooms. We’d be going through the kitchen with all those cleaver-wielding chefs, and that was scary. They’re all barking Chinese and wanting to pinch your check, and you’re like, “Ugh!” You’re running through the kitchen and getting backstage. The backstage area is still so clear in my mind. There were two staircases that went up. One to the women’s dressing room and one to the men’s dressing room. I also remember a stripper at the Forbidden City. She used to babysit me backstage. I used to play with paper dolls, and I liked to cut out the dresses myself. One day, she cut all the paper doll dresses out of the book. She thought she was doing me a favor. I was so upset. And I remember as a child thinking, “Why is she doing that?” Thinking about it later, she was giving my dolls clothes, even though she didn’t wear them. That’s pretty strange. She was putting clothes on my paper dolls!

TK: You used to run around backstage with Michael.

LS: Another boy?

JL: Yes. Larry Ching’s son. [Larry Ching was billed as the Chinese Frank Sinatra.] He was my first crush. A few years ago, we did a movie together up in San Francisco. It’s six in the morning, I’m in the makeup chair, some guy’s supposed to be playing my brother-in-law and I’m hearing him talk about how his father was a -performer at the Forbidden City. I’m like, What? I look at him, and I say, “Your father worked at the Forbidden City? So did mine.” He goes, “Oh, yeah. What was your dad’s name?” I say, “Larry Long.” I say, “What’s your dad’s name?” “Larry Ching.” “And what’s your name again.” He goes, “Michael.” I go, “Wait a second. You’re not the Michael I went to the San Francisco Zoo with?” He goes, “Oh my God! You’re Jodi.” It was unbelievable. It was just too weird. We’re still friends.

LS: One thing that struck me was how people were billed: The Chinese Fred Astaire; the Chinese Sophie Tucker. What was the reason or thinking behind that? Why would they get those labels?

TK: They called Toyet Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker because she was heavy, I think.

LS: And she had a big voice.

TK: Yeah. Kind of. With the Wing Brothers, when your father and Paul Wing danced together, the newspapers used to call them the Chinese Nicholas Brothers.

JL: I always thought they did that for the Western audience to go, “Oh, I know what that is!” You look at certain actors, and they’ll look like Errol Flynn or whomever, and there’s a context already when you see them on the screen. You recognize what that stands for. It contextualizes the performer. I think in the performing arts that’s somewhat useful. But it’s also why it’s been hard for Asian Americans when you get to that other level of breaking into television or film. There’s not quite been a context for it. “Now I know what that is and I’m not completely shocked.” Seeing my parents on The Ed Sullivan Show, what’s always so amazing to me is that they start out doing the chinky-Chinaman kind of thing, but it contextualizes them and it makes their act almost acceptable for the audience, because that’s the way the audience is looking at it. When they take off their Chinese robes and they’re just Western-style performers, it’s like, “Oh!”
LS: How did that come about—being on The Ed Sullivan Show?

TK: I have no idea. I didn’t handle any of that stuff. All I know is we were going to perform there.

JL: Ed Sullivan had scouts who would go to all the nightclubs and all the vaudeville places, and that’s how they would see you and then they would want to book you.

LS: I would have been excited and terrified too.

TK: I really can’t remember if I was excited or not. I was trying to be very careful of what I wore. I had something I had already made. Everything matched. I even had green hose.

JL: Mom made all her own costumes. But it was always about the career and putting it out there. It was the only way you were going to get ahead. That’s the performer’s dilemma. There will always be that Broadway show, that television show, that movie part that will put you over.

LS: But maybe people really did think there was a chance. “I’m at the top of what I’m doing as queen of the nightclub acts.”

JL: You’re right. There is that glass ceiling. Completely. And it is still here for us now. There’s always that vague hope that one day that one thing is going to happen that’s going to change something. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe it does for half a second, and then you’re back to square one. That was really what I wanted to say about these performers and how they were perceived. The times were different. In those days, you could make a lot more money in entertainment than the average Joe putting wires into a transistor, slinging hash, or typing.

Jodi Long brought her memories of the Forbidden City, her parents, and all the amazing performers she grew up knowing to her narration of the audio version of China Dolls. On June 13, 2014, Trudie Kim Long passed away at the age of ninety-one, exactly two weeks before the publication of China Dolls. In the memorial card Jodi sent to her friends, she used the following lines from an Eskimo legend:

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky. But rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.

The Quick: Discussion Questions

Friday, March 6th, 2015

The QuickLauren Owen’s thrilling first novel introduces an utterly beguiling world. London, 1893: James Norbury is a shy would-be poet, newly down from Oxford and confounded by the sinister, labyrinthine city at his doorstep. Taking up lodging with a dissolute young aristocrat, he is introduced to the drawing rooms of high society and finds love in an unexpected quarter. On the cusp of achieving a happiness long denied to him, he vanishes without a trace. In Yorkshire, his sister Charlotte – only in her twenties but already resigned to life as a rural spinster – sets out to find her brother. Her search for answers leads her to one of the country’s pre-eminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the richest, most ambitious men in England. Trying to save James – and herself – from the Club’s designs, Charlotte uncovers a secret world at the city’s margins populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Dr. Knife.” As emotionally involving as it is suspenseful, The Quick will establish its young author as one of contemporary fiction’s most dazzling talents.

Use the discussion questions below to guide your conversation with your book club.
 

1. What genre (or genres) would you say THE QUICK falls into? How does it embrace or subvert the conventions of those genres?

2. What literary influences do you see in THE QUICK?

3. Emily Richter figures into many of the book’s most pivotal early scenes. How much do you think she knows or doesn’t know about James and Christopher’s relationship, and about Eustace’s change? Why do you think she tells James to “be careful”?

4. Discuss the figure of the owl throughout the book.

5. Characters agree to the Exchange for different reasons. Why reasons do you think Adeline’s fiancé, John had? Are there any reasons that would tempt you to join the Aegolius Club?

6. Why do you think Mrs. Price turns children? How does their group compare to other family units in the book?

7. Why do the Club members refer to the living as the “Quick”?

8. How does Mould change over the course of the book? Do you think he remains a man of science to the end? Why might Edmund have delayed so long in giving Mould what he wanted?

9. Charlotte’s quiet life is altered drastically by the book’s events. In what ways does it change for the better? When in the book do you think she is happiest?

10. Had you heard of a priest hole before reading THE QUICK? Why do you think Owen chose to begin and end the book there?

11. The ending of THE QUICK seems to beg for a sequel. What do you think happened to James? What directions could you imagine a sequel going in? Whose stories might it follow? When and where might it take place?

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