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Discussion Questions: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Hausfrau_EssbaumJill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, the striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

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?

Discussion Questions: The Promise of Home by Darcie Chan

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

The Promise of Home_Chan1. The Promise of Home rotates among the perspectives of several different characters: Karen, Claudia, Emily, and Father O’Brien. Were you drawn to any one of their storylines more than the others? Why do you think that is?

2. A significant portion of the narrative includes flashbacks to Father O’Brien’s youth. Why do you think the author chose to include those flashbacks when the rest of the novel takes place in the present day? What would the novel be like without them? How might the other sections change?

3. “The very hands that rested on his knees, the hands that were suddenly unable to do what he wanted them to, had held a rifle and ended a man’s life. Up until now, he hadn’t allowed that realization to sink in. . . . The weight of it, regardless of the man’s actions toward his mother, was immense” (page 70). This quote is from the moment Michael O’Brien begins to process what he’s done. Do you think he is too hard on himself, considering the circumstances? How do you think you would react in a similar position?

4. After deciding that it’s best to conceal what happened with the intruder, Frank says to a young Father O’Brien, “This is one of those tough situations, Michael, where there are no good solutions. It isn’t possible to do something right without somebody else getting hurt or paying a price. These situations will come up every once in a while during your lifetime, and you need to recognize them and choose which solution does the least harm and who should suffer that harm” (page 197). Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

5. After reading one of the letters from the briefcase, Emily learns that Father O’Brien killed a man and ultimately finds his actions, under the circumstances, to be “perfectly justified and understandable” (page 148). How do you think some of the other characters would react to the news? Why?

6. When Claudia goes in for a wedding dress fitting, Pauline offers her this piece of advice: “Falsehoods and little white lies never lead to anything good. And be careful when you decide what’s false and what isn’t. Sometimes things and even people aren’t what they seem” (page 82). How is this advice relevant at different points throughout the novel? Are there any moments in The Promise of Home when you would disagree with it?

7. Mill River is clearly a unique place to live. Why do you think so many people are drawn to it from other places, and why do you think so many people return after years away?

8. When Emily first meets Matt, she is offended by his advances and pushes him away. Do you think she is too quick to judge him based on her past experiences, or is she justified in her reaction?

9. When Father O’Brien suspects the worst has happened to Karen, he rushes to find her, putting his own health at risk. Can you think of other times when he acted selflessly? In what way(s) is he a pillar of the community? Give examples.

10. Throughout the novel, Karen struggles with suicidal thoughts and even acts upon them, but she is ultimately given a second chance. In what way do you think some of the other characters were afforded second (if less obvious) chances?

11. Claudia tolerates Misty, the rude girlfriend of her future brother-in-law, with a smile on her face, and she even bites her tongue when she realizes Misty is making inappropriate passes at Kyle. Where do you think she finds the strength and faith to stay out of the situation? What do you think her silence on the matter says about her character and her relationship with Kyle? Could she have made her concerns known to Kyle in a constructive way?

12. Frank makes some difficult decisions to help spare Michael and Anna more pain and difficulty. Do you agree with his decision to tell them that Grace died as an infant? Given his opinion of orphanages, were there any other reasonable options for him at the time?

13. What do you think of the title, The Promise of Home? In your opinion, does it fit the novel? Why or why not?

Six Best Places to Read and Write in Zürich

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Hausfrau_EssbaumIf I ask you to list “Europe’s Most Literary Cities,” you aren’t likely to lead with Zürich. But don’t let its tick–tock clockwork and bankable good looks deceive: this Swiss city has hosted its fair share of writers. James Joyce began Ulysses in Zürich and is even buried in a cemetery near the city’s zoo. Nobel laureate Thomas Mann spent time there as well. Did you know that Zürich is the home of the Cabaret Voltaire, which in its day was a haven for all avant–garde poets and artists, and the birthplace of Dadaism? Johanna Spyri lived in Zürich for several years (what’s more Swiss than Heidi?). And what’s arguably poet Paul Celan’s most famous poem, “Zürich, Zum Storchen,” is titled after an inn that overlooks the Limmat River.

I lived for a couple of years in a village just north of Zürich. During that time I spent many hours traipsing the city’s streets, roaming up cobbled paths, and marching down wending alleys as I hunted an elusive, intangible, and almost phantom element of art that all writers chase down somehow: inspiration. I have come to understand that more often than not, inspiration isn’t so much something to be sought as it is something that must be seen. And to truly see anything at all, we must stop, watch, and sometimes wait for it.

Perhaps you like to write. Or maybe you prefer to simply see the world as it moves through the motion of a day. Or maybe it is your pleasure to simply meditate on the here–ness of where you are. Whatever you desire, here are my picks for favorite spots in and around Zürich to sit and see, to stop and look, to contemplate, to watch. To write.

Zürich Hauptbahnhof

The city’s main train station is one of the busiest in all of Europe and the largest in Switzerland, serving lines from all the major European countries, as well as the local city trains. Wednesdays and at Christmastime the concourse is overflowing with local vendors hawking produce, cheese, confections, and other delicacies from temporary stalls. You will find no better place to people–watch. A warning: if someone’s running, step aside. Swiss trains leave when they say they will!

Zürichhorn

It’s almost a one–mile walk down the eastern shore of Lake Zürich from Bahnhof Stadelhofen to the part of the shoreline just before the lake begins to genuinely widen. You’ll discover a sprawling, open–lawn park and a Chinese garden that thrums with people on bright days. Walk to the shore and face south on those same dazzling afternoons, and you’ll get nothing less than a view of the outline of the Alps on the faraway horizon.

Platzspitz

You’ll find this quiet, landscaped park just north of the Swiss National Museum (itself worth a visit). It’s bordered on two sides by the city’s two rivers, which converge at the park’s north end. While in years past the park had a reputation as a hub for drug addicts, the problem has been resolved and the park cleaned up. Find a bench and write a poem.

The Kantorei

Sometimes a writer just needs a drink. The Kantorei is a café in a building with a long and storied past, well–deserving of its own blog entry. It’s the quiet ambience of the streets and the unassuming charm of this neighborhood café that sent me to it time and again, notebook in hand.

The Woods

Which woods? Any of them. Every Wanderweg will lead you somewhere new and unforeseen. I’m partial to the forest just south of the airport because it’s the one I hiked most often, but you can’t go wrong in any of them. There won’t be enough words to describe the trees, nor adjectives so precise as to name every shade of green.

The Train

Choose a city train—-any of the numbered S–Bahn lines—-and ride it end to end. Watch the commuters as they board and disembark. Imagine the landscape rolling underneath you. Psychically enter the houses you pass. Bless the sky under which you ride. Write it all down. Every bit.

Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, a striking debut novel about Anna, and American in her late thirties living in a suburb of Zurich with her Swiss husband. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Essbaum explores fidelity, marriage and the search for a life of meaning with Zurich and its suburbs as the background.


A Conversation Between 
Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Thunderstruck_McCrackenElizabeth McCracken is the author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, The Giant’s House, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, and Niagara Falls All Over Again. A former public librarian, she is now a faculty member at the University of Texas, Austin, and has received grants and awards from numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Academy in Berlin. Elizabeth is married to the novelist and illustrator Edward Carey.

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain’s Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co–owner of Parnassus Books.

Ann and Elizabeth discuss Thunderstruck & Other Stories….

Ann Patchett: What did you want to be when you grew up? I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, but answer it anyway. When you were Gus’s age, Matilda’s age (Elizabeth’s children are, at this moment, eight and six), did you have any vision of yourself in the future?

Elizabeth McCracken: Do you know: I don’t think so.

I have a memory of my fourth–grade self wanting to be the first woman president of the United States, but I think that has a lot more to do with my love of world records and reference books than a love of serving my country. It seemed a goal I could attain: surely by the time I was old enough to run (2001), the country would be ready for a woman president. If I were the first, I would be in reference books forever.

I’ve always been absolutely appalling about the future, but I sort of think that was my childhood religion. We were future deniers. You did your best in the present, which was all around you.

AP: Being a big believer in the present would be especially beneficial to the short story writer, both in terms of the story itself, because stories tend to focus in on the moment in which everything changes—-I’m thinking of Helen’s accident in “Thunderstruck” or the murder in “Juliet”—-but also for the writer and the reader. Novels are so dependent on the future, they take so much time, but even if life is overwhelming a person can usually find time for a story, whether it’s to write one or to read one.

EM: Hmm. I’m turning this over in my mind and, yes, I think so, though I’m always a sucker for short stories that play with time in a novel–like way: that jump into the future or climb into the past. (I’m thinking of stories by Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones.) I certainly think that my short stories these days are fixated on the present, on happenstance, on event, in a way that my older stories weren’t: the plots of my older stories were mostly fixated on the past. This isn’t an artistic decision: my life these days, and for the past decade or so, has been more shaped by the present, by happenstance, and by event than it used to be. I definitely believe that the ends of short stories are about the future, and generally the ends of novels aren’t.

AP: Do you ever think, I want to write a story that takes place in real time or happens backwards or covers a huge amount of time? I think about the movement of time constantly when I write novels, I’m obsessed with it.

EM: Your novels are all different timewise, aren’t they? And yet all page turners. I feel like I don’t understand time in novels, really. I bumble forward, is all. As far as stories go: I keep answering this question differently in my head—-Yes, No, and Who can remember? My old stories often took place over long periods of time, largely because in those days that’s what plot was to me: time passing. Even now I don’t think I could write a story in which the most important things all happened in a relatively short period of time: I need those trap doors to the past. I certainly feel like I can do things with point of view in stories—-point of view being, in some ways, just another way to bend time. Or to put it another way: it’s not that I wouldn’t do the same sorts of things with point of view in a novel, but before I started I would have to work out some sort of philosophy with point of view. In a short story, I do what I do. It does feel more elastic. Years ago, Bruce Holbert told me that coaching basketball was largely a matter of saying, “No, don’t stand like that—- Nice shot.” With technical things in short stories, that’s how I feel. I don’t care about formal perfection, or philosophy of form, or anything else.

That said, I am working on a story now which began because I wanted to write a story that was sort of inside out.

AP: The reason it’s good to have your friends conducting interviews—-

EM: Have we mentioned that we’re friends?

AP: No, we haven’t. This is all a fix. We’re old friends. But that’s helpful because friends know things that professional interviewers do not. For example, I know that three of the stories in this collection—-“Something Amazing,” “Some Terpsichore,” and “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”—-were once chapters in a novel you were working on. The novel didn’t work out, but you were able to go into the pages you had and make three very significant stories out of the characters and situations that were there. I think this is amazing. It’s as if the novel was burning down and you ran inside and rescued three stories. It took a lot of rewriting, and so I wonder, what was it like to rethink your own work in this way?

EM. It wasn’t that hard. Or at least, from this distance I don’t remember it being hard. I probably wept over the smoking wreckage of my novel the entire time.

What made it easier is that, for the first story, the wreckage was still smoking. I put away the novel at the very start of June 2005; a few days later Michael Ray, of Zoetrope: All–Story, e–mailed and asked if I had a story for his fall issue. Oh, I thought, somebody wants some writing of mine! I was in bad shape over having walked away from the novel so I clutched at this: when I’m in bad shape work is generally the only thing that makes me feel better. I took a piece of the novel and wrote a story from it. “Wrote a story” and not “turned it into a story” because I changed so much, including changing it from third to first person, which (as I tell students who blithely suggest narrator changes) is not minor surgery. I sent Michael “Some Terpsichore” on June 21; he accepted it the next day, and saved my sanity.

I think it took me another whole year to write another story from the ruins of the novel, and two more years for the third. I needed that much time between stories, I think: I couldn’t have done it all at once. I tried a fourth and it didn’t work; there’s still one plotline from the novel that I think about noodling around with, though if I did I probably wouldn’t actually look at what I already have written down.

Mostly, I think it’s a sign that the book wasn’t working as a novel. When I tell people there are three stories in Thunderstruck that were from the same wrecked novel, they want to guess what they are. Nobody has. There are no characters or timelines in common. They’re structured very differently. A good novel wouldn’t have pulled apart so easily.

AP: It would be a great parlor game, different teams making cases for which three McCracken stories had once shared the same novel. So now you’ve published two story collections, two novels, and a memoir, and as far as I can tell you’ve met with universal acclaim on all fronts. Is there one form that you think fits you particularly well? Has it changed over time, and do you think it could change again?

EM: Oh, not universal acclaim. I can remember every bit of whatever the opposite of acclaim is.

AP: Why do we always remember the bad reviews? I can’t remember anything from my good reviews, but I could do a very moving one–woman show reciting my bad reviews.

EM: I could probably quote verbatim the first review I ever got, from Kirkus. It was lukewarm and wounding.

Back to your question: now that I’ve been writing seriously for more than twenty–five years, I’m struck by how much does change: process, interests, habits. Fifteen years ago I thought I had mostly given up short story writing, but that’s because I’d come against the limits of what I knew about short stories. Fifteen years of reading and teaching, and I came up with some new things I could do. At the moment if you told me I’d never write another novel but I could continue writing and publishing short stories, I’d miss novels, but I’d find the trade–off acceptable. I think I would, anyhow. And if you told me I’d never write another memoir, I would embrace you warmly and say, “Yes, God keep me from memoirs,” because I would rather not have the material. You might feel the same way.

AP: I am nodding in passionate agreement here.

EM: If life gave me material for another memoir—-I hope it does not—-I’d probably write one. I certainly wrote that book [An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination] more quickly and with more confidence and with less revision than anything I’ve ever written. Sometimes I think of my pal Joshua Clover, who told me after I played a great game of pool when we were fellows at Fine Arts Work Center, “When a thing goes well, people usually see it as a sign to keep going, but sometimes it was their peak experience.”

Maybe someday I’ll write a novel with that level of confidence (by which I only mean, when I’d finished my memoir I knew for good or ill it had found its final form). Then I won’t write another novel.

So yes: it does change, and I bet it will change again.

AP: Fond memory: you and I were once thrown out of a bar for discussing Salinger’s Nine Stories. It was the winter of 1990 and we were fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. We’d stopped in for a drink and were discussing, very discreetly I thought, which of the nine stories was our favorite and how the book (a marvel of a book) was put together. The lounge singer told us over the microphone to take a hike. I loved that! The short story collection was so important you could get thrown out of a bar for even discussing it!

EM: Us getting kicked out of that bar—-I believe it was the Townhouse—-is one of my happiest Provincetown memories. My memory is that the lounge singer thanked us directly into the microphone for all the time it took us to leave: “Thank you, girls. Thank you. Thanks, girls.” You told me she was dressed like Julie London; I didn’t know who that was. I love that book. It’s the best short story writing manual I know.

And of course there’s a story in my first collection named after that night. We passed it one day and I said, “There’s the bar of our recent unhappiness,” and you said, “That would make a good title for something,” and we had a race to see who could write something for it first. That’s probably the only writing race I ever won against you, though admittedly I was writing stories then, and you were writing a novel for which it would have been a highly inappropriate title [The Patron Saint of Liars].

AP: Which leads me to ask how you went about putting your collection together. Did you try it in several configurations? Was there a particular arc you were going for? I love the title story of this collection. Love it. It’s edging into novella country and certainly has novella heft. Stories that size are so hard to publish on their own. They really need a book. At what point in the process of putting this collection together did you write “Thunderstruck”? Did you want to have a longer story in the collection? I feel like it’s the book’s ballast, especially coming at the end. Did you ever read through the collection and think, What this is missing is X, and then sit down to write X?

EM: The fall of 2012 I had a semester’s leave, and I wrote hard and long and with intent. When I began the last thing, I knew it would be the title story, and I knew it would somehow be different than the others. The length of the story might just be because of the momentum of writing: I’d been well–exercised, and if it was the last story, if the spring semester was breathing down my neck, why save any compositional energy for later? At any rate, I knew less about that story than any other in the collection. Perhaps it was more like a novel in that way. Perhaps (for me) that’s the biggest difference between a story and a novel: how much I know ahead of time. It’s a bit unwieldy; I was thrilled that Story Quarterly agreed to take it.

AP: So what about the X factor?

EM: I don’t think I wrote stories consciously thinking, The book needs this, or that, but when I was selecting I was pretty merciless. I kicked one story out because it was too similar to another one in the collection—-there’s a lot of peril to children in the stories but there was a limit to how many children I actually wanted to harm in a single volume. Others just didn’t seem good enough. There’s a story in my first collection that I don’t think is particularly good. (I think you know which one.) I didn’t want to do that again.

AP: Honestly, I have no idea. I loved all those stories.

EM: In Thunderstruck I put the least realistic story first, since readers are the most open–minded in the first pages of a book, or at least their expectations are most plastic. After that, I arranged them so they would seem most various.

AP: I never thought about the fact that readers are their most open–minded in the first pages of a book! Such useful information, and it makes perfect sense. I once did a onstage conversation with Allan Gurganus (who was, at different times, a seminal and beloved teacher to both of us) and he said you should always put a color in the first sentence or two of a story or a novel because it encourages the reader to think visually. I said, Gosh, it would have been nice if you’d told me that when I was eighteen.

EM: Now I’m fascinated by the idea of Opening Pages Reader Hypnosis. Does this mean if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece in the opening pages, it’s even better if the gun is fuchsia?

AP: Exactly.

Your book recently won the Story Prize for the best collection of stories. It’s a wonderful award, and so well deserved. I love the fact that so many of the writers you adore, George Saunders, Steven Millhauser, Tobias Wolff, are among the previous winners. It’s the short story writers’ Hall of Fame. How do you feel about prizes? I know a lot of writers object to them, both to the competition and to the subjectiveness inherent in saying this book is better than that one, but as someone who owns a bookstore, I love awards. It gives me an excuse to put Thunderstruck back in the front window with a big sign that says, She won! Buy the book!

EM: Oh, prizes. I’m not sure any writer could say, Prizes are entirely terrible! Prizes are entirely great! I’ve just finished reading applications for the two MFA programs I teach in, and I’m so aware of how artificial it is to choose one piece of writing over another, how much one’s own feelings about a writer change with the weather, the time of day, the nearest meal. It’s all a lottery. Bad books get prizes and terrific books are overlooked and what wins the prize one year or even one day wouldn’t the next. There isn’t yet a machine that tests for literary quality. A good thing, too.

But I would be disingenuous in saying that the Story Prize didn’t mean a whole lot to me. This is my first published book of fiction in fourteen years. I felt that in publishing it, I was tossing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, without any real certainty that anything would happen after the initial kerplunk.

AP: A lot of good has happened. I feel like this is a book I needed to read.

Discussion Questions: Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Thunderstruck_McCrackenFrom the author of the beloved novel The Giant’s House—finalist for the National Book Award—comes a beautiful new story collection, her first in twenty years. Laced through with the humor, the empathy, and the rare and magical descriptive powers that have led Elizabeth McCracken’s fiction to be hailed as “exquisite” (The New York Times Book Review), “funny and heartbreaking” (The Boston Globe), and “a true marvel” (San Francisco Chronicle), these nine vibrant stories navigate the fragile space between love and loneliness.

1. Many of these stories center on someone dealing with extreme loss—-the death or decline of a child or partner. What are the different ways characters rise out of their grief? Similarly, what strategies does Elizabeth McCracken use to keep the book from being mired in tragedy?

2. In “Something Amazing,” we meet the ghost of Missy Goodby. What other characters in these stories could be read as ghosts?

3. In the conversation included here, Ann Patchett reveals that three of the stories were once part of a novel that McCracken ultimately abandoned. Can you make a case for any story trio or trios being part of a single narrative?

4. The homes that punctuate these stories are often run–down, seedy, sad, or scary, and always unforgettable—-Joyce’s house on Winter Terrace, Stony’s rental, the property in southern France, the Blackbirds’ Victorian. What role do the structures they live in play in the characters’ emotional lives? Discuss the relationship between “houses” and “homes” in this collection.

5. Romantic love is not at the heart of this collection. Do you agree or disagree?

6. What is the role of travel in this collection? In what ways do foreign lands exist as fantasy for the characters, and in what way as reality?

7. What do you make of the end of “Thunderstruck”? Is Wes painting or is Helen? Discuss the interplay between the cynical and the miraculous in this story, and in the collection as a whole.

8. How do you interpret “Thunderstruck” as the title of the story? Which character is most “thunderstruck”? What about as the title of the whole collection?

9. McCracken is terrific at closing lines. Do you have a favorite? How would you describe the feeling it leaves you with?

A Conversation with Darcie Chan

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

The Promise of Home_ChanIn The Promise of Home, Darcie Chan, author of the Mill River Recluse, returns readers to Mill River, the charming town whose residents experience surprises and sorrows, witness acts of goodwill and kindness, embrace family love and friendship–and uncover age-old secrets and heartaches.

Random House Reader’s Circle: The fictional town of Mill River, Vermont, serves as the setting for all of your novels, and many characters overlap across all three books. What was the biggest challenge in creating and maintaining such an interconnected community?

Darcie Chan: Strangely, when I was writing the first Mill River book, I had no inkling that it would become the first of at least three novels with a common setting and many common characters. It was simply my first novel, one that I hoped would be published someday.

When it became clear that I would have the opportunity to write more books set in Mill River, I had to think carefully about how to proceed. Consistency is key. Characters who appear in more than one book must be consistent across, not just within, the books. At the same time, I think it’s vital that I continue to explore and develop those characters.

I also view the town of Mill River itself as a central character in my books, if not the heart of each story. It’s important to keep the details of the town consistent—-not only the physical details, such as the location of certain buildings and streets, and their positions in relation to others—-but also the town’s safe, cozy, and welcoming feel.

The residents of Mill River play a large part in achieving that latter goal. As I plan each story, I’m constantly focused on which of the townspeople should be involved, which would have some connection to or know about the events taking place, and what kinds of people I might like to meet were I to actually visit the town. Should I involve a character who is already known to my readers, or should I introduce someone new? What kinds of things might happen in a small town that would involve and intrigue the people there? And why would the people of Mill River want to live there in the first place?

In a way, building the Mill River series and maintaining its interconnectedness are much like trying to re–create the structure of a hurricane. The town itself, calm and peaceful, is at the center, with the actions and stories of the town residents swirling around. Everything is held together as part of a single, consistent system. And as with the path of a hurricane, what happens in a small town like Mill River can often be unexpected or unpredictable, as my readers well know.

RHRC: What is your writing process like? What helps you when you get stuck?

DC: Before I start writing a new book, I need to have the main characters and a central plot in mind. I must also know how the story will begin, how it will end, and a few “main events” that will take place in the middle. Unless I have that bare minimum of information, I don’t feel ready to put anything on paper (or my computer screen, as is more often the case).

Once I’ve planned out the basics, I try to do a brief chapter–by–chapter outline to serve as a roadmap. Some chapters start in that outline completely blank—-as was the case with my most recent novel—-and I end up filling them in as the plot unfolds and ideas come to me while I’m writing.

I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t yet had a serious case of writer’s block. I do two things to try to keep that from happening. First, I end each writing session knowing what it is that I’m going to write next. That’s hard to do sometimes—-stopping when I’m on a roll—-but knowing exactly how I’m going to start the next writing session makes doing it much easier. And second, before I start writing for the day, I read over and edit the pages I wrote the previous day. Doing so helps refine the draft and helps me to coast into writing whatever comes next in the story.

RHRC: Who was the first Mill River character you ever came up with? What was the inspiration behind him/her?

DC: Mary McAllister was the first character I developed, and she did indeed have a real–life inspiration.

In the 1940s, a Jewish gentleman named Sol Strauss fled Nazi Germany and settled with his mother in my hometown of Paoli, Indiana. There, he opened a dry goods store on the town square. Even though his business was successful, Mr. Strauss quietly lived alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population. Still, he considered Paoli his adopted community and its people his people. When Mr. Strauss died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it millions of dollars, which were to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the residents.

The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and additional necessities for needy children and an annual supply of new books for the high school English department. Residents of Paoli may also apply to the fund for assistance in carrying out a project that would benefit the town. The fund is the legacy of Mr. Strauss, who continues to be remembered for his extreme and unexpected generosity.

I had Mr. Strauss in mind when I was brainstorming ideas for a first novel. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to build a story around a character who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far removed from his or her community may be more special and loving than anyone could imagine. I liked the idea of an older woman peering down at a small town from her window and knowing that she was helping the people who lived there—-her people—-even though most of them knew little or nothing about her. This woman, of course, became the character Mary McAllister, and her life story became The Mill River Recluse.

RHRC: Do you have a favorite character? Why?

DC: I really love the character of Father O’Brien. Writing scenes involving his “spoon problem” are such fun! I also like the fact that he is an incredibly kind and gentle person, and that even at his advanced age, he’s an active and beloved member of the Mill River community.

I’m also fond of the character Emily DiSanti, first introduced in The Mill River Redemption. I suppose it’s because Emily shares some personal qualities with my youngest sister, Molly. Both love dogs—-Emily’s dog, Gus, is based on a dog my sister used to have. Molly has a degree in landscape architecture, so she’s very artsy and outdoorsy, with a skill set to match. I think it’s really cool that she can drive a dump truck and refinish furniture, and she has her own hip waders for trout fishing. Molly can also grow anything. She somehow managed to raise perfect artichokes during the short, cool summers in Green Bay, Wisconsin! I really admire my sister’s self–reliant, can–do attitude, and I wanted the character of Emily DiSanti to have that same state of mind.

(I should add that my other sister, Carrie, is also a fabulous person with her own set of unique talents . . . which might be borrowed for a future character!)

RHRC: Readers have met Father O’Brien before, but in The Promise of Home, they find out so much more about his backstory. When did you first start to think about the details of his personal history?

DC: Over the years, many readers have written to me wanting to know why it is that Father O’Brien is so obsessed with spoons. Once I was able to turn my attention to developing the plot for my third book, I realized that I wanted to give my readers an answer to that question. Gradually, a story took shape in my mind—-Father O’Brien’s story—-and it seemed it would make a good addition to the two Mill River books I’d already written. I wanted to let my readers see a bit of his childhood and learn what experiences shaped him into the priest they know. And, I wanted to contrast that historical portion of the book with events in the present to reveal how his past still had the ability to change his life.

I was fascinated by my research into living during the Great Depression. It was a time of struggle, when little was taken for granted. Children grew up much more quickly and were expected to do more at a much younger age. Father O’Brien, or Michael, as he was called back then, certainly would have experienced this, and I think that reality is borne out in this third book.

RHRC: How did you decide which Mill River residents you wanted to focus on in The Promise of Home?

DC: Once I came up with a story and plot for The Promise of Home, I knew that Father O’Brien, both as an elderly priest and as a teenager, would feature heavily. Since this book was to be crafted as the third in a series, I thought it was important to continue with certain previously established plotlines and characters. Kyle and Claudia appeared in the first two Mill River novels, and their relationship continues to evolve in this one. Both DiSanti sisters from The Mill River Redemption are put through an emotional wringer in that story, and I wanted to follow their journey—-especially -Emily’s—-in this new book.

Of course, I am always striving to further develop the town of Mill River itself. New characters help expand and enrich the fictional community and play important roles in this new story. And I always like to let established characters make cameos in new books, even if they’re not heavily involved in the plot. My readers like to find out how and what they’re doing, and so do I!

RHRC: Do you think of your novels as having any overarching messages or themes?

DC: Although I can see certain themes—-particularly emphases on the importance of kindness, family, and community—-in the finished books, I don’t sit down to write a new story with any particular message or theme in mind. Rather, they seem to take shape along with the story.

I’ve often wondered why these themes have emerged in my writing. Each of them is important to me personally. But I think the real reason is my feeling that our society has changed over the years, and is continuing to change, in a way that isn’t good. I think an argument can be made that in many places, kindness, family, and community are under siege. Crime and racial tensions are often in the news. Families of all kinds are struggling economically and socially. At school or neighborhood events, people who manage to leave work early to attend, and who might once have struck up conversations and gotten to know each other, now sit silently glued to their smartphones. For all the digital and electronic interconnectedness in our current society, I sometimes feel as if we’re actually disconnected from one another and from a focus on human qualities and in–person relationships. Even in Mill River, life is neither easy nor perfect, but an effort to be kind, to help families thrive, and to develop relationships that foster a strong sense of community could make life more meaningful and enjoyable for many people.

RHRC: What is your favorite thing about Mill River?

DC: My favorite thing about Mill River—-other than its wonderful residents—-is the way it offers a sense of safety, comfort, and community. If I close my eyes, I can easily picture its quaint houses and shops and its neat, quiet streets. I can imagine peering out the window of one of those houses, listening to crickets and tree frogs singing on a summer night or the howling wind of a blizzard during the winter. I would feel cozy and safe, surrounded by neighbors I knew in a community steeped in kindness and caring. Mill River really is the little town of my dreams, a place I wish existed in real life. I would move there in a heartbeat!

Discussion Questions: Secrets She Keeps by Deb Caletti

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiFrom bestselling author Deb Caletti comes a beautiful and profound novel of three women coming to terms with love and marriage—sure to move and delight fans of Kristin Hannah, Liane Moriarty, and Anna Quindlen.
“You don’t grow up on a divorce ranch and not learn to take a vow seriously.”

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club…

1. Imagine you were doing a six–week stint at one of the divorce ranches of yesteryear. If you could choose which women (past or present) you stayed on with, who would they be and why? Who’s your favorite of the characters at Tamarosa Ranch under Nash’s watch?

2. Of course, the divorce ranches weren’t all fun and games for women seeking quickie divorces, but as in The Secrets She Keeps, there’s a definite spirit of liberation, indulgence, spunk, and camaraderie underlying it all. What part of checking into a divorce ranch could you get used to, if you had to? What would be the hardest thing about it? How are these pros and cons addressed in the novel?

3. The notion of home plays a major role throughout the book. Callie loved her house so much that she’d “put up with almost anything if it meant not losing that brick pathway [she’d] planted with perennials.” Veronica, on the other hand, doesn’t know where she’ll call home once she’s officially divorced Gus. What does home mean or come to mean for each of the characters? Discuss the larger statement the novel might be making about home when human nature seeks both permanence and change.

4. At one point, Callie wonders, “What heedless actions would you change if you could read the future,” going on to say, “I don’t have the answer to that even now.” By the end of the novel, do you think Callie should want to change any of her “heedless actions”? Would you wish for the opportunity to edit your own life in such a way, or like Callie and Nash, do you believe in fate instead?

5. Callie and Shaye find it hard to believe that Nash never got married. Why do you think Nash never joined the ranks of married women? Would it have changed your impression of her if she ever had?

6. Jack tells Nash that seeing the wild horses changes a person; that it’s a message from nature that leaves you transformed. How does seeing the horses change Nash and Callie in fundamental ways? Can you describe a similar event in your own life that had the same effect on you?

7. Shaye’s love life, with its many conquests and questionable “dark storm clouds,” is completely at odds with Callie’s enduring marriage and domesticity. But they’ve both ended up at a crossroad in their lives and relationships, where they seem to be searching for the same thing. What is that thing and have they each managed to find it by the end of the novel? What lessons did they learn from each other’s disparate experiences and approaches to love that they might not have realized on their own?

8. How did it affect your read to have Callie’s marital issues set against the interwoven stories of the divorcees at Tamarosa Ranch? Did you see her problems as more trivial in comparison to those experiences or tantamount? How might you have seen her and the book in general differently if this were Callie’s story alone?

9. “Every person must come full circle to his or her rightful life, Nash knows. Sometimes, you have to make that same trip more than once.” Discuss how this sentiment applies to the journeys undertaken by the central characters.

10. One of the major things Callie grapples with is the expansiveness of life and its endless possibilities. At one point, she remarks that being in the desert “was a whole slice of life I knew nothing about, which makes you realize just how many such slices there are.” Later, she says, “There were so many possible lives to lead. Every day, you chose your life, even if you could forget that.” Do you think Callie finds this position liberating or maddening? Does the limitlessness she sees before her actually stunt her in some ways? On the flip side, why did she have to step outside of her little slice in order to be satisfied with it, and what made her choose that life in the end?

11. Did you realize all along that Callie was undergoing a legitimate midlife crisis or did this come as much as a surprise to you as it did to her? Why do you think she was able to hide it from herself for so long? Was it easier to see Thomas’s actions as more indicative of a midlife crisis for some reason?

12. Nash offers such comic relief to the story, even though she’s the one facing her own mortality. Do you think her clear–eyed, straight–shooting nature is a result of her nearing the end of her life, or do you see glimmers of that personality from her earlier years? What was your favorite life lesson learned from Nash? Does she remind you of anyone you know?

13. What did you make of Jack as a character? Nash says she fancied the idea of him rather than the man himself. Did you get the sense while reading that he functions more as an idea for her than a man? Or as a means to some
end?

14. “When it comes to sisters, it seems that one stays and one goes, one remains bound and the other is set free. [Nash] is who she is in good part because of who Gloria isn’t. In order to be herself, in order to be different from her sister, she had to take what was left over, the opposite, unchosen road.” Compare the sister relationships in the book. Does this statement hold true in all cases? Does it apply to your relationship with your own siblings?

15. Discuss how the past and present are contrasted in the book, both in terms of character foils and times, mind–sets, customs, etc., either changing or staying the same. Do you wish any of the old, forgotten ways as portrayed in this story were still preserved? Like Nash, do you think we’ve come light–years from the bygone era of divorce ranches, or like Shaye, do you think those days might not be as far in the past as we’d like to believe?

16. Nash and Lilly exchange books in an act that bonds them as friends. Have you spoken the love language of books with your friends, and which are the stories you’ve gifted? Which book would you have given Lilly if you were in Nash’s place? Which would you have given Nash?

17. The opening chapter told from Nash’s point of view establishes the expectation of “a doomed mission of the heart.” Did you have any preconceived ideas about what Nash’s mission entailed, and if so, were you surprised by the revelation of her actual secret in the end?

18. Nash says she doesn’t know if she believes in happy  endings but that the story goes on. Do you think this particular story has a happy ending, or that things are left open-ended? What do you hope for these characters if that’s the case?

A Conversation Between 
Jill Alexander Essbaum and Gina Frangello

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Hausfrau_Essbaum Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, the striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

Gina Frangello is the author of four works of fiction, including Every Kind of Wanting and A Life in Men. She co–founded and served as the executive editor for many years at Other Voices Books, and has also been the fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown and the Sunday editor of The Rumpus.

Gina Frangello: I’ve known you for many years, and I published the first excerpt of Hausfrau on The Nervous Breakdown when you were first working on it and unsure you’d even finish it. You’ve been successful as a poet—-you’ve had two NEA fellowships—-so let’s back up to what made you want to write a novel to begin with. Is it something you’ve always had a secret hankering to do? Have you experimented with fiction in the past but abandoned it, and this time stuck to it? What was the watershed moment that made you start writing in a different form?

Jill Alexander Essbaum: Oh, as a kid I had those fantasies of being a famous novelist. And I wrote stories. And they were awful and they were wonderful in the way that a baby–beginning writer’s stories are both awful and wonderful at once. And I went to college and studied writing (French too—-because I also thought I might like to move to Paris at some point and take up with a yet–to–be–determined lover who would probably be named Michel and would almost assuredly be a sculptor because of course he would be). I took some poetry workshops and it turned out that I enjoyed writing poems—-and I was good at the “game” of poetry. I’m using “game” as a shorthand for things like maximizing the economy of language in a piece, working with rhyme and meter—-working against rhyme and meter, puns and wordplay, the whole shebang. And so that’s what I wrote for a long time. I here–and–thered essays for journals for a while, but it took returning from a few years living abroad before I thought seriously about writing in a different form. Chiefly because when I returned from Switzerland, the things I wanted to write, the descriptions and the memories and the sites and the sightings, felt terribly untethered when I put them in verse without any context. So I redirected. Stanzas became paragraphs. Eventually, the “I” of my poems became the Anna of Hausfrau. Who is not me. But of course, who in some ways is. As we all write from a spot that we recognize even if it’s only distantly.

GF: The novel is being called a kind of contemporary Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, and one thing critics talk about is that the options available to women are generally speaking so radically different now, yet somehow your protagonist, Anna Benz, although living in a contemporary world, inhabits a similar passivity and isolation—-to the frustration of her therapist, and perhaps the reader, at times. Yet it’s important to state that the limited scope of Anna Benz’s world is not at all “unbelievable” or even unusual. Anna is an expat in a country where she has no strong ties and isn’t fluent in the language, and to some extent that “explains” her circumscribed world . . . but I have known so many women with small children who lead similar lives of emotional and social claustrophobia, even in their countries of origin. I’ve heard women talk openly about not being “fulfilled” but putting their lives “on hold” for their children, with the implicit assumption that this is both normative and noble. Many women still relocate for their husbands’ careers, and, despite advanced degrees or prior work experience, leave the workforce to become stay–at–home moms in new cities where they have little in the way of a support network. And obviously many of these women are entirely happy with these choices, and make new friends and have vibrant lives with their kids and their communities . . . but others of course are deeply isolated, frustrated, depressed, and guilty for their “failures” to be either happy homemakers or liberated career women. Can you speak about how conscious you were in writing Hausfrau of purposely deconstructing and illuminating ways in which the situation of the contemporary “housewife” has and hasn’t changed?

JAE: It never occurred to me that I was making a statement about anyone’s situation other than Anna’s (and, to a degree, my own). On the surface, that’s an extremely naïve thing to have thought, so boo on me. On the other hand, if I’d come to the page with a wider agenda, there would be the issue of writing a story that becomes ordinary and vapid simply because of its inclusivity. Do you know what I mean? One of the things that I think gets readers going about Anna is how improbable she seems. I say “seems” because the truth is, a life such as hers isn’t improbable at all. Many women live it, or a version of it. But the bigger picture is her experience of isolation, you’re right to point to that. And I think ultimately that’s the thing that people respond to. We are made separate by the things we do or do not do. Responsibilities of all types curb us. Desire betrays us. No wound is ever truly petty. And there are so many ways to be locked apart from the rest of the world. In our mothers’ era, clinical depression was not usually named as such. The thing about Anna is, she doesn’t put her life on hold for her family. She’s actually not living her life at all. She’s going through her life’s motions. She’s taking no responsibility for it. I suppose in that way I am making a statement. She knows she’s in peril. She’s consciously avoiding acting to save herself. She knows better. And sometimes, some of us, in some things, we do know better. When we know better, I think it’s imperative that we do better. Otherwise we’re perpetuating myths that have for centuries done us no good. Men and women alike. No one is exempt from being called into consciousness.

GF: Anna uses sex as a diversion and a salve and a means of acting out. You write: “Anna loved and didn’t love sex. Anna needed and didn’t need it. Her relationship with sex was a convoluted partnership that rose from both her passivity and an unassailable desire to be distracted. And wanted. She wanted to be wanted.” Psychoanalysis—-on which you draw heavily in the novel—-infamously long held theories that female desire centered (depending on the theory) on either the desire for a child (which convolutedly itself stemmed from so–called penis envy) or the desire to be desired. Do you think that women, even in an era where people broadcast every matter of their wild sex lives in tell–all memoirs, blogs, and social media streams, are still deeply and intrinsically taught that sexual desire is largely about the desire for other things: love, attention, motherhood, approval? How comfortable is the contemporary woman with the desire for sex for sex’s sake—-and with desiring others, rather than “reacting to” others’ desire for her?

JAE: I think that sex for sex’s sake is not possible. Or, if you will, it’s not practically possible. In theory, sure. Bodies rubbing against each other? Great. Let’s go! But. It’s never just that, is it? We aren’t engines, we aren’t machines. There’s limbic intent behind every kiss, every caress. Simply because it’s a person who’s doing the kissing or the caressing. It’s a daredevil act, to let someone fuck you—-to fuck someone—-with whom you don’t have at least some emotional connection. You’re teetering on a tight line. Because you’re naked and unguarded and vulnerable and at the peak of orgasm you may well believe you are invincible. And sex is violent even when it’s gentle. The truth is in the vocabulary. Thrust? Penetrate? Those are words of war. What that means to me is that even when there don’t seem to be stakes—-there are stakes. For example, even the most grown–upiest of grown–ups still have feelings and sometimes feelings get the better of us. And then get in the way.

GF: You’re a Christian, which comes out more overtly in some of your poetry than in Hausfrau, although some interrogations of faith do come up in the novel. However, one thing that struck me strongly in reading Hausfrau—-without giving away too many spoilers—-is the way Anna is . . . well, ultimately tortured in the narrative. One way of reading the novel would be that she pays the ultimate price for her indiscretions—-her sins—-and that the novel serves as a cautionary tale about the retribution a woman can face for lapses in fidelity and maternal virtue. Were you hesitant to lead Anna into such ruin for possessing the same shortcomings male characters are often portrayed as possessing with glib aplomb? Do you worry that some readers will see Anna as “getting what she deserved” and the book will be read as a tale of moral reinforcement for the status quo?

JAE: In one of the last scenes in the novel, Anna asks a priest if he believes in predestination. He then gives her an analogy to do with setting up dominos and knocking them over, the punch line of which is “God gives us the dominos, it’s up to us to set them in line.”

I understand why people think it’s a morality tale. But I think the issue is with the word “morality.” It’s very loaded. What it is, I think, is a tale of what happens when you live your life unconsciously. If you sleepwalk through your days, you will bump into things. If you drive a car blindfolded, you will wreck it. It’s easy to say the novel’s serving as retribution. I did struggle with that in my writing. But the blunt fact is—-there are things we cause to happen, there are things we can prevent from happening. And there are things that can’t be prevented at all no matter what we do. No bony finger from the sky points down and damns her to hell. She calls her own self into final account. It’s a sad moment of ultimate consciousness.

The dominos were dealt. She set them up. She knocked them down. In this case.

GF: You write, in one of the most harrowing passages in the novel, about the “three kinds of tears” and “three kinds of grief.” Can you talk a bit about this, and also about your interest in grief, and whether these extremely poignant and wise observations were archetypal or personal for you?

JAE: Incredibly personal. After my father died I suffered from what is known as (and explored in Hausfrau) “complicated grief” for close to two years. I literally cannot remember what happened during that time—-except I must have eaten a lot because when it was done I was really fat. It’s grief on a carousel—-you ride a horse that goes absolutely nowhere. I can’t even say how it ended except that one day it was gone. I believe it was an act of mercy from a sometimes indifferent universe.

As far as tears—-oy vey. My tears and I have come to a mutual understanding and it’s this: I am to let them fall. I’m forty–three years old. I think I’m pretty much the person I’m going to be. I cry. If I shove the tears down, all they do is rally forces and come back stronger and harder. In fact, one of the first things I tell my classes is not to freak out if I start crying in the middle of workshop—-it just means they’re moving me.

GF: You lived in Switzerland for a time. The novel makes much of national characteristics of the Swiss, and in the end, the fact that Anna is not a Swiss citizen, whereas her husband is, seems to play a crucial role in how she imagines what the outcome of her life will be. In what ways are the roles of women different in Swiss culture than in the United States? Americans often imagine that Europeans are infinitely more liberated and sophisticated and worldly than themselves, but aspects of Swiss culture as you develop it seem highly traditional and almost provincial. Now you live in Texas! Keeping in mind that this is of course just one writer’s subjective opinion and that we don’t wish to start a Swiss–Texan war, where is it easier to be a woman? Or at least, where is it easier to be yourself?

JAE: You know what? It is easier to be a woman now, today, here in Texas at forty–three years old and remarried, than it was then. It’s so hard for me to say anything that isn’t colored by my own rough going at the time I lived there. I was very much like Anna in that I was extremely isolated and had absolutely nothing to do with my time (except write). My husband was in school and, while not Swiss, did have his own set of friends and circumstances and reasons for belonging. And yet I’d longed to live an expat life since girlhood. I made the best of it. I was miserable, mind you, but I wouldn’t trade that misery for the world. It’s crucial to my development as a writer, as a soul.

GF: Anna thinks, “. . . if love is not infinite or eternal? Then I want nothing of it.” What are your own opinions on this quote? What is the nature of love—-finite or infinite—-and should we want anything of it? How have your views on love changed over your lifetime?

JAE: Sappy time. I’m not sure I understood what it felt like to be loved before I met my husband, Alvin. This is not to say I hadn’t been loved before. I’m not speaking to that. Our relationship has instructed me that—-to at least one person—-I’m lovable. And likable. That’s a big one with me. It’s far easier to love someone than to like them. It’s a treasure to have both at the same time. How did I get here? Happy accident. Grace of God.

GF: Anna is very skeptical about making a female friend in Switzerland, but eventually becomes close to Mary. I was fascinated by the ambivalent nuances of their relationship. Our mutual colleague Emily Rapp has written (in an essay for The Rumpus, actually): “Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, ‘bonus’ relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.” And you, of course, as a professor, a mentor, and a woman who has been twice divorced and spent a fair amount of time living independently without relying on any man, have led a highly different life than your character Anna’s. I’m interested in your own feelings about female friendships and their role in your life and writing.

JAE: I’m still quite close with a couple of women whom I’ve known since first grade. We still have sleepovers sometimes. I have another friend who has (on more than one occasion, I am not as embarrassed to admit as I ought to be) rushed to my house in the middle of one of my panic attacks just to peel me off the ceiling. Emily Rapp herself has sent me a text or two at a crucial moment of chaos. The poet Jessica Piazza is my first and best reader, and I’ve never laughed so hard in my life as I do with her. We go to these conferences and we have each other’s back (and feet—-we share matched tattoos). My husband is important to me. It’s the central relationship in my life. As it should be. But the first thing I did when I met him was pass him under the eyes of all my girlfriends. As much as I liked him, I told them that if they gave him a thumbs down, I would listen because they knew me and loved me. There’s a whole huge sisterhood that undergirds my life. You’re in it. All the women we teach with are in it. The wives and girlfriends of the men we teach with are in it. Our students are in it. The women we read, the women who read us, your children, my nieces, Emily’s baby girl—-all of us. I got your back, gal. You know it.

GF: Hausfrau beats with the heart of a poet. So many lines slice like lines of poetry. “She had confused herself with the actress who portrayed her.” “Make no mistake: everything has a variant. Like versions of truth, like versions of love, there are versions of sleep.” You also have a deep passion for wordplay, which evokes Lorrie Moore in the fiction universe, but is, for those who know your poetry, absolutely one of your trademarks. What’s next for you in your literary life? Do you have any burning desire to write another novel? Are you back to poetry actively, even as Hausfrau is burning down the house? Will you be polyamorous now between the two?

JAE: I’m finishing a collection of poems right now. I think the old gal might have another novel or two in her—-I confess, I do like writing fiction. Don’t tell poetry. She’ll know I’ve been cheating on her!

This interview originally appeared on TheRumpus.net.

A Note from Susan Lewis

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

No Place to Hide_LewisSusan Lewis, author of the novel, No Place to Hide–an intimate and deeply moving story of one woman’s desperate attempt to escape a troubled past–and the haunting mystery she’s forced to confront–has written a letter to readers about the joys of writing the book. Read on…

Dear Reader,

The question I’ve been asked most frequently since I began the research for this book, and throughout the writing of it, is, “How on earth did you, a Brit, come to choose Culver, Indiana, for a setting?”

It’s a good question, given that my experience of living in the States has, to date, all been in Los Angeles, and the US cities I’ve visited are all major centers in their
own ways.

However, I never seem to tire of reading about smaller towns and communities in the States, particularly those in the Midwest, when I get a real sense of who and what America is really all about. As I’m British, it would be hard for me to do full justice to that without going to live in a small town for a considerable period of time, so in this instance I enlisted the help of a dear friend in LA, Chip Mitchell, to set me on the right road.

It took no time at all, for when I asked Chip if he could recommend a small town in the Midwest to set my story, he immediately put me in touch with his aunt and uncle, Dorry and Channing Mitzell, who have a long history with the Culver Academies and continue to live in Culver. I had no idea at that time what an absolute jewel of a place he was connecting me with, how unusual and inspirational it would turn out to be, or how enthusiastically his family and their many friends in Culver were going to embrace the story. Actually, I shouldn’t really have been so surprised, as I’ve met many Americans during my travels around the world, and so have much experience of just how engaged and even gallant they can be. (I’ve been rescued from many a tight corner by an American, from Morocco to Manila, but that’s for another time!)

So I traveled to Culver, hoping and praying that I was doing the right thing. After all, I’m not American, and the way of life in the Midwest was surely going to be very different from anything I’d experienced in the States to date. I needed to have no fear. Within minutes of arriving I found myself standing on a secluded beach at the top end of town, gazing out at the mesmerizing waters of Lake Maxincuckee toward the glittering, multimillion–dollar homes on the far shore. (If you’ve already read the book, you will know that it is from this spot that I chose to begin the story). It was impossible not to be moved by such a peaceful and yet intriguingly different setting from the one I’d envisaged in my mind’s eye. There was already something about this place that was getting to me.

Within a very short time I found myself, thanks to the Mitzells, actually meeting characters I’d already devised in my head: Susie Mahler, owner of Café Max and real estate agent; Jeff Kenney, editor of the Culver Citizen; Wayne Bean, chief of police; Marcia Adams, writer and longtime resident of Culver; and Sallie Jo Tardy Mitzell, who so generously took time from her busy schedule in Indianapolis to cruise us around the lake in her boat and introduce us to her family’s dreamy cottage on the South Shore.

Among the many experiences and enlightening conversations I enjoyed during my stay, there are two that stand out as firsts for me: giving a talk to a creative
writing group from the Culver Girls Academy, wonderful students, an absolute privilege to spend time with. And the invitation to be part of an exercise that would never happen in Britain, and one can only feel sad that it does in the United States: shooter training at the local elementary and high schools. That really was a surreal experience.

Another surreal but totally divine experience was Dorry Channing’s coffee cake, so good that it has a mention in the book, and I can only hope she bakes again the next time I’m in Culver.

Though many of my earlier books have whole chapters set in various parts of the States, this is the first time I’ve located so much of a book in a place I didn’t know before. I’d love to write more set in America, so I’m very interested to know how well, or not, you feel I have portrayed this small town and the mainly fictional people I’ve used to bring it to life.

A very warm thank-you for reading this one, and  I hope it’s left you interested enough to explore some more of my books.

-Susan

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Discussion Questions

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanFollowing one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years,New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.

Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.

Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.

Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.

Use these discussion questions to take your book club’s exploration of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers to the next level…

1. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers opens and closes with the character of Fogg. Why do you think this is? What does seeing Tooly through Fogg’s eyes do for us as readers? What do you imagine lies in their future?

2. Tooly keeps twenty–first–century technology at arm’s length. How do you think her upbringing might influence her relationship to technology?

3. Do you understand Humphrey’s dislike of “made–up stories”? What is the effect of having a character express this opinion within a novel?

4. Tooly wonders what it would have been like to live in “an important era.” Do you agree that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first was an era of “relative calm, after all the proper history had ended”? What do you think makes an era important?

5. Tooly worries that there isn’t a “pure state of Tooly–ness.” Did you find Tooly an exceptionally malleable character? Do you think all people have the capacity to take on new personalities? Have you started anew at any point in your life?

6. Tom Rachman deliberately withholds plot information from the reader through nonlinear storytelling. When did you first begin to piece the story of Tooly’s life together? When were you truly surprised?

7. What are some of the different con games characters play on each other? Can you think of instances when a con was mistaken for love, or love mistaken for a con? Are there any moments when you felt that Tooly crossed a moral line?

8. This book is full of fathers and father figures: Paul, Venn, Humphrey, Duncan. Who do you think is the best father? The worst? How might each man’s own childhood have influenced his ideas about family and duty? Who do you think shaped (or engineered) Tooly the most?

9. In 2011, Duncan and his friends are leading very different lives than Tooly expected them to in 1999. How did their dreams as college students and their realities as adults diverge? Why does this surprise Tooly? In what ways is she unlike them?

10. Venn is described as “a being wrought of his own will, belonging to nothing.” What do you think is most important to Venn? Why do you think he drives Tooly away at the end?

11. Do you agree with Venn that Tooly was in love with him?

12. Humphrey calls Tooly “the favorite person of my life.” What are the limitations and the strengths of their relationship? How would Tooly describe what Humphrey means to her in 1988? In 1999? In 2011?

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