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Discussion Questions: The Pursuit of Pearls by Jane Thynne

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The Pursuit of Pearls_ThynnePerfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, here is the next thrilling historical novel featuring Clara Vine, the British actress and special agent who glides through the upper echelons of Nazi society, covertly gathering key intelligence—and placing herself in mortal peril.

Use the following questions when discussing The Pursuit of Pearls with your book club.

1.    Despite their seemingly different political inclinations, Clara visits her sister when she is upset by Grand’s suggestion of Leo’s death. Blood may be thicker than water, but do you believe, as Clara does, that it should be thicker than war?

2.    How does Clara’s status as an English spy change her relationship with Erich?

3.    Clara talks about all the things that have been rationed, such as coffee and meat, or made more difficult, such as easy travel. What do you think is the hardest thing for her to sacrifice? What would be the hardest for you?

4.    What advice would you give to Hedwig about the conflict between Jochen and her parents?

5.    Though Clara narrates the majority of the novel, we occasionally see events from Hedwig’s point of view. In what ways are the two perspectives similar? In what ways are they different?

6.    In part due to Clara’s mixed heritage many of her acquaintances ask where she would eventually like to settle down. Where do you think she should go?

7.    Conrad Adler knows that Clara is part Jewish, but she continues on with her life as always, even seeing Adler again. Do you agree with her decision, or would you have handled the situation differently?

8.    Themes of heritage pervade the book, often bringing into conflict ethnic, religious, cultural, and national identities. What do you think it is that makes you who you are?

9.    What do you think Conrad Adler means when he says that Clara has a look of “fire behind ice”?

10.  In a world of spies, secrets, and war, it is difficult to know who to trust, and Clara chooses her confidants carefully. Do you agree with all of her choices? Who in your life would you choose to trust if you were in Clara’s circumstances?

11.  Do you think Conrad Adler is a good man, or do you think he is as bad as the political party for which he works? Would you trust him? Why or why not?

12.  There are quite a few revelations as the final pieces of the book fall into place. What surprised you the most?

The Real Housewives of Nazi Germany

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The Pursuit of Pearls_ThynnePerfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, here is the next thrilling historical novel featuring Clara Vine, the British actress and special agent who glides through the upper echelons of Nazi society, covertly gathering key intelligence—and placing herself in mortal peril.

Here Jane Thynne writes about the inspiration for her novel, The Pursuit of Pearls.

When I first thought of setting a series of novels in prewar Berlin, I knew a few things. I knew that my heroine was going to be Anglo–German and an actress. I decided that she would be a spy who gains a valuable glimpse of the Nazi elite through the women around her. Yet while I understood a fair bit about the men and the politics of the Third Reich, I realized that I knew far less about the lives of the women in that regime. And increasingly, as I delved deep into the lives of women through their letters and journals, I became fascinated by what I came to think of as the Real Housewives of Nazi Germany.

Under Hitler, every aspect of a woman’s life was tightly controlled, from child–bearing, marriage, and social life, right down to her daily appearance. The ideal woman didn’t pluck her eyebrows, paint her nails, or dye her hair. Nor did she smoke. In the early days of the Reich, bars and restaurants throughout Germany were plastered with signs saying German women don’t smoke, and storm troopers who saw a woman smoking in public were advised to dash the cigarette from her lips.

But the control over women’s appearance didn’t stop at cigarettes and cosmetics. One of the first things Hitler did when he came to power in 1933 was to establish a Reich Fashion Bureau. He realized that fashion carries a potent political message and he knew exactly what image he wanted German women to project to the world. The female look should celebrate tradition, so the Bureau promoted dirndls, bodices, and Tyrolean jackets. Women should only wear clothes made by German designers, with German materials. By “German,” Hitler meant Aryan, which posed an immediate problem because the fashion industry and the textile trade of the time were dominated by Jewish companies. Hitler also frowned on Parisian couture, both because he disliked the French, and also because designers like Coco Chanel encouraged an unnaturally slender silhouette. A nation of women striving for slim hips and boyish bodies was certainly not ideal if Hitler was to achieve one of his major objectives—-to encourage prolific child–bearing.

In one of the many bizarre hypocrisies of the Third Reich, the woman chosen to preside over this Fashion Bureau was Magda Goebbels, the wife of the Propaganda Minister. Like many other aspects of Nazi Germany, Magda Goebbels’s participation was rife with contradictions, and Magda herself was the living, breathing opposite of everything the Bureau promoted. Famed for her love of couture, she changed several times a day, slathered on Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, chain smoked, and wore hand–made Ferragamo shoes. Her favorite fashion designers, Paul Kuhnen, Richard Goetz, Max Becker, and Fritz Grünfeld, were all Jewish.

Yet there was a far greater contradiction in Magda Goebbels’s life than her fashion sense. Before she married, she had a passionate involvement with a leading Zionist called Victor Arlosoroff, who returned to Berlin in 1933 aghast at his former girlfriend’s choice of husband. To me, the idea that the wife of the arch persecutor of the Jews, Joseph Goebbels, should have had an affair with an important Jewish agitator seemed astonishing. But it was typical of the ironies that reigned in that terrible, turbulent regime.

One question always at the back of my mind while I was researching the lives of Nazi women was the extent to which they themselves had exerted a political influence on their husbands. Did any of them act as the power behind the throne? In some cases, the answer was yes. Annelies von Ribbentrop and Lina Heydrich were both considered more ardent Nazis than their husbands. Yet others, like Emmy Goering, actively interceded with their husbands on an occasional basis to save friends. Henriette, the wife of the Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, was the only one who actually remonstrated with Hitler when she confronted him over dinner at the Berghof about the treatment of Jews in Holland. She was never invited again.

Women are so often the untold half of history and their perspectives are frequently ignored. I think it’s impossible to visualize the Nazi leaders as people without getting a glimpse of their private lives and their most important relationships.

For me, understanding the Real Housewives of Nazi Germany, from the wives of the elite to the ordinary women in the street, was the key to making history and, I hope, my novels come alive.

A Conversation between Anne Tyler and Anna Quindlen

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread_TylerA Conversation Between Anna Quindlen and Anne Tyler

When readers are asked about the novels of Anne Tyler, few of them will mention the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or the many months her work has spent on bestseller lists. But they almost always mention how much her books have spoken to their hearts. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe: For more than fifty years her work has been a literary touchstone on the subjects of family, love, loss, and resilience. To mark the paperback publication of this, her twentieth novel, she exchanged emails with writer Anna Quindlen, who recalled that when she published her first novel, Object Lessons, Tyler reviewed it in a thoughtful, kind, and teacherly fashion that she still holds dear.

Anna Quindlen: This novel, like so many of your others, is about the alchemy of family. Is there any point in writing about anything else, or is family really where the emotional action is in life, and in fiction?

Anne Tyler: I can’t count the number of times I’ve started a new book with the idea that this one will have nothing to do with families. But somehow, the minute I think of a character, I find myself considering the people he came from. I’ll bet that if I tried to write a thriller, I’d get sidetracked by the spy’s sibling issues.

AQ: This is also, in part, a novel about a love affair, a love affair with a house. “Houses need humans,” Red Whitshank says at one point; the novel also reflects how humans need houses. Do you feel that way about your house? And, by the way, are we really talking about houses here?

AT: Oddly enough, I have no particular attachment to houses. A few years ago I moved out of the house my children grew up in and I never gave it a backward glance. But while I was writing A Spool of Blue Thread I tried to imagine the story from a workman’s point of view, and I felt pretty sure that Red would be upset by the notion of a house abandoned. (Also that—-like a plumber I once knew—-he would roll his eyes at “Harry Homeowner” shortcuts.)

As for whether we’re really talking about houses: When I’m in the middle of a book, I’m thinking very concretely. I really am talking about houses. It’s only afterward that I notice some other, completely unintentional significance, and I believe it’s better that way. I distrust any symbolism that’s been thought out ahead of time.

AQ: As an oldest child, I’m a believer in birth order. How much of the chemistry among and between the Whitshank children is a function of that?

AT: Oh, birth order is crucial! I don’t know how I would flesh out a character without knowing his or her birth order. Firstborn -Amanda’s certitude, secondborn Jeannie’s mildness, lastborn -Denny’s resentment when Stem arrives . . . They all make sense to me.

I’m intrigued that you, like me, are an oldest child, because I have a feeling that a disproportionate number of writers are. I wonder if the parents’ more intense concentration on a child, when there’s only one, fosters a more vivid imagination in that child.

AQ: In the novel, you write of the Whitshanks, “Like most families, they imagined they were special.” I think that’s so profound. It reminded me of a quote from Sir Walter Scott about Jane Austen that I think also applies to you. He wrote, “The big bow–wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” Did you ever want to be a big bow–wow? And do you think those who follow that path are afforded more credibility than their quieter, more domestic colleagues?

AT: During the several times I’ve read War and Peace, I’ve found myself skimming the war parts and concentrating on the peace parts. Which is to say: It’s not Tolstoy’s big bow–wow abilities that I envy.

Granted, though, I have often wished for the ability to see the larger scene. I’m like my reclusive artist character in Celestial Navigation: After I leave a room I am usually unable to reconstruct the room as a whole, but I can tell you exactly what the little screws looked like in the electrical outlet in one corner. I would love to possess, instead, the vision to write something like Faulkner’s hilarious panoramic description of the townspeople trying to catch a herd of wild horses in The Hamlet.

As for credibility . . . well, I do think that big bow–wow books are widely considered more important, at least than those confining themselves to a smaller canvas.

AQ: Do you therefore agree with the complaint that male writers tend to be taken more seriously than female ones?

AT: Only to the extent that it’s usually the men who write the big bow–wow books. I can think of some quieter male writers—-Kent Haruf with his Benediction, Stewart O’Nan with Emily, Alone—-who haven’t been taken half as seriously as I feel they deserved.

AQ: I was going to ask if you consider your work more character– than plot–driven, but it occurs to me that perhaps that’s the nature of all really good fiction. Your thoughts? Is character, or characters, where you begin?

AT: Sometimes it’s a character who sets things off—-a stranger I notice on a street corner or someone I overhear speaking in a restaurant. How would it feel to be that person? is what I’m wondering. What would it be like to live his or her life? But other times it’s an idle rumination, like Why is it that families generally seem to cherish just two or three handed–down stories, and discard some others?

The one thing I absolutely never begin with is plot, because the fact is that I am hopeless at plots, and have to rack my brain to come up with the simplest little event.

AQ: I once had the good fortune to sit next to Grace Paley at dinner, and at some point she said, “Think how prolific we would have been if we hadn’t had children.” Now that those years are behind you, do you wonder how you managed to combine mothering with writing?

AT: First I’ll have to quell my pangs of jealousy that you got to sit next to Grace Paley! But while she may have been right that we’d all have been more prolific if we’d been childless, I question whether we’d be writing as well. I think of it as a trade–off: When my own children were little they certainly derailed my writing life, but then when I was able to pick it up again I had so many more layers to me, and I felt I knew so much more about the world.

AQ: A Spool of Blue Thread moves back and forth in time: We begin in 1994, move forward to 2012, go back to 1959. Does that mirror the way we think about life when we are closer to its end than its beginning? In other words, as a younger writer might you have been inclined to be more linear in your approach to this?

AT: I’ll have to confess to a purely mechanical reason for the times when the novel proceeds backward: I had planned to go on writing it till I died. I positively hate finishing a book! I made up my mind just to describe one generation after another, endlessly. I worried, though, about running out of generations, so I decided to tackle them in reverse order. That way, I could take the Whitshanks back to prehistory, if I lived that long. But then I discovered that the Whitshanks before, say, 1920 were a meager–spirited lot, and I had to end the book after all.

AQ: Much of this novel, like your others, consists of pitch–perfect dialogue. Do you read your work aloud before you’ve finished?

AT: I do. I started that after computers came along, because I write all my drafts in longhand and it was hard to catch tiny alterations when I was shifting my gaze constantly between paper and computer screen. So I began reading my final draft into a tape recorder, and then I could follow on the screen as I played the tape back. What I hadn’t foreseen is that hearing my own voice saying the words would point out any false notes, loud and clear. Now my favorite piece of advice for beginning writers is to read their dialogue aloud.

AQ: I once read an interview with the novelist Amy Bloom in which she said that each novelist essentially has one subject, and hers is love. What’s yours, and why?

AT: Endurance, I would say, if I really had to pick just one. I have always been touched and fascinated by how human beings in general manage to just keep on keeping on—-how they don’t give up on each other and how they set out every day all over again, even when they know it won’t be any different from the day before.

AQ: This is your twentieth novel, a sentence I am tempted to write in ALL CAPS. What’s changed in your fictional concerns or technique? And what’s stayed the same, is built inevitably into Anne Tyler’s writerly DNA? Is there something you know now about writing a novel that you would love to confide to the woman working on If Morning Ever Comes?

AT: My essential concern with family has not changed, but much about my approach to the act of writing is very different now. In the early days, I used to think that novels were somehow less authentic if they were revised in any way. They should be spontaneous, I figured—-tossed off without a second thought. These days, I revise and revise; I love revising. I always feel I begin by writing a bad book and then I stretch it and add layers and texture to it so that gradually, over its many incarnations, it grows into a better book.

To my earlier self I would like to say, “Relax. The story will come in due time. Trust your characters. Let them tell you what happens next.”

AQ: I would assume that at this point your routine is set to music. (Is it, literally? I listen to music while I write, but many of my fellow writers say they find that impossible.) Could you talk a bit about time of day, length of stay, size of desk, method of composition?

AT: You must have amazing strength of character! The one time I tried writing to music I fell subject to a wave of sentimentality; I couldn’t seem to separate myself from the music’s influence.

What I do like listening to as I write is the sound of ordinary life out in the street—-children playing and workmen talking. I write at a bare white desk beneath a window that I keep wide open whenever the weather allows. As soon as I’ve finished my morning walk I settle there, whether or not I feel I have anything to say. If nothing comes to mind, I might putter around with notes and such but I don’t push it, and I give up after an hour or so. If something does come, I write it down on unruled white paper with a Pilot P–500 black gel pen—-that part is nonnegotiable. I don’t even want to admit how many dozens of those pens I keep in stock in case they’re discontinued someday.

Whenever I feel stuck—-when I come to a moment in a chapter where the characters simply refuse to go another step forward—-I’ve learned that I should just turn back a few pages and start copying those pages onto fresh paper, and eventually the fork where I made a wrong turn will become apparent. It seems merely reading something over allows mistakes to slide past me; actually forming the words again makes the mistakes all at once stand out.

I always feel I’m knitting a novel; it’s practically a handicraft, which is why I need to do it in longhand. If my right hand ever developed arthritis, I’d probably have to change careers.

My writing mind clicks off at about 1:00 p.m. at the latest, which is earlier than it used to be, but I take comfort in the thought that I seem to get more done in the time I do have. Then I put my work completely out of my thoughts and go on with the rest of my life. That’s something I feel most women writers are exceptionally good at—-partitioning—-because many have had to do it so often back when they had young children.

AQ: You are not a writer who has a Twitter account or a Facebook page, who goes on book tour or the Today show. Eudora Welty once said, “Writing fiction is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be put down little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address.” I know Welty is an influence on your work, and I wonder if that sentiment was an influence on your decision to keep a private address.

AT: I hadn’t heard that Eudora Welty said that, although it certainly makes sense to me. But my choice to stay as private as possible hasn’t been so much a conscious decision as a matter of personal temperament: I’m shy out in public, and nervous with audiences.

In recent years, as writers have been pressed to play more of a part in publicizing their books, I’ve undergone more interviews than I used to, and what I’ve learned from those experiences is that whenever I talk about writing, I can’t do any writing for some time afterward. I think it makes me too conscious of the gears creaking behind the curtain.

AQ: Some of your best-known colleagues have retired in recent years—-Philip Roth, Alice Munro. A BBC interview suggested that this would be your last novel. Say it ain’t so!

AT: I think that story got started because people misunderstood me when I said I planned never to finish A Spool of Blue Thread. But in fact there’s already a next novel, because the Vintage Hogarth Shakespeare series will be publishing my modern–day version of The Taming of the Shrew in 2016. I’m really not sure how I’d keep myself occupied if I didn’t have a pen in my hand.

Discussion Questions: My Name is Lucy Barton

Monday, February 29th, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton_StroutA new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.

  1. Lucy’s husband asked her mother to visit her in the hospital, and paid for her trip. Do you think that was a gesture of love on his part?
  2. What role does the gossip Lucy and her mother share play in the book?
  3. Do you think Lucy blames her mother for the more painful parts of her childhood? Could her mother have done better?
  4. WWII and the Nazis are themes that profoundly affect Lucy’s father (and hence her whole family), Lucy’s marriage to her first husband, and even her dreams. Discuss.
  5. Lucy expresses great love for her doctor. How would you describe that love?
  6. Lucy’s friend Jeremy told her she needed to be “ruthless as a writer.” Did she take his advice? How?
  7. Why did Lucy keep returning again and again to see the marble statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
  8. How has the poverty of Lucy’s childhood shaped her life and her work?
  9. What does living in New York City mean for Lucy? Do you think she feels at home in New York?
  10. What did Sarah Payne mean, when she said to Lucy: “We only have one story”?

Discussion Questions: Girl at War by Sara Novic

Friday, February 26th, 2016

Girl at War_TP_NovicFor readers of The Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See comes Girl at War by Sara Novic, a powerful debut novel about a girl’s coming of age—and how her sense of family, friendship, love, and belonging is profoundly shaped by war.

This is a book about war through the eyes of a young person, both a child and a young adult. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a having a child/ young adult narrator? Imagine Ana in her thirties. How might she tell the story differently now?
Ana’s father tells her the story of “Stribor’s Forest” after a particularly difficult day for the family. Do you see echoes of the story’s moral throughout the rest of the book?
In what other ways does storytelling or narrative become important for Ana?
The end of Part 1 features an aside about language—Ana says she grew up thinking all languages were ciphers, translatable by swapping out alphabets. Why is this important to the story? Why do you think the Nović chose to include it during a moment of extreme violence?
The novel’s four sections often end at times of high tension. Why do you think Nović chose to write the story in a nonlinear fashion?
While at the UN, Ana makes the statement that “there is no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia.” Given her experiences, what do you think she means?
A lot of minor characters help Ana to safety along the way—who was your favorite and why?
When Ana returns to Croatia, she and Luka wonder how long it takes to forget a war. What do you think?
How might the story have been more or less effective had Ana and Luka become romantically involved?
How would you say Ana changed as a person throughout the course of the novel?
This story has in turns been classified as “historical fiction,” a “war story” and a “coming-of-age story”—which of these resonates most with you?
The end of the novel is fairly open-ended. What do you think happens after the final scene?

    A Conversation Between Julia Glass and Sara Novic

    Thursday, February 25th, 2016

    Girl at War_TP_NovicFor readers of The Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See comes Girl at War by Sara Novic, a powerful debut novel about a girl’s coming of age—and how her sense of family, friendship, love, and belonging is profoundly shaped by war.

    Julia Glass: It is electrifying to see the words girl and war together in a title–and terrifying, too, of course. Equally chilling is the heroine’s statement “There is no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia. There is only a child with a gun.” That made such an impact on me. Because Ana’s point of view is so intimate and her everyday life as a child and then a young woman so palpable, I’m sure that every reader’s first question is this: How autobiographical is Girl at War? Did Sara Novic live a version of Ana’s nightmare herself? Of her escape and recovery?

    If not—and I note, from your biography in the book, that you were half Ana’s age when that war began–was your family living in Zagreb? What are your earliest memories of the war or its effects on your daily life? The details of day-to-day living are so poignant and vivid in the book’s earliest chapters: the way school and jobs and even the rituals of children at play persist despite the threat of sudden violence, the way parents try to maintain a sense of normalcy. Where did those details come from if not your own experience?

    Sara Nović: First, thank you, Julia, for reading the book and asking me these interesting questions. Having grown up in the States myself, the short answer is that Girl at War isn’t autobiographical. Ana’s story isn’t my experience, or any one person’s. The genesis of the novel came about when I went to live with some family and friends in Zagreb after I graduated high school. I think because I represented a kind of “middleman” to them—American, but still family—they were eager to share their experiences with me. This was in 2005, so the war had been over for a few years, and people were feeling disillusioned by the (lack of) intervention and aid from the West, and the new democratic government that was shaping up to be corrupted just as the old one had been. There was a sense of urgency in these stories, and a feeling that people wanted their voices heard. I’ve always been an avid journaller, so I recorded a lot of the anecdotes people told me right away. The opening scene with the cigarettes, for example, was an experience that happened to a friend of mine pretty much exactly as Ana experiences it.

    Later when I went back to the US and started college, I was shocked to find that most of my peers didn’t know where Croatia was, never mind what had happened there. So I started writing a short story about the war for a creative writing class in which I had accidentally enrolled. My professor encouraged me to expand on the topic, so I kept writing out in all directions, and that story lies pretty much in-tact at the end of part one of the novel now. Along the way I continued to ask a lot of questions of my friends and family back in Croatia—two of them were very good readers for me throughout the process of writing this book—and that, alongside with a lot of more “traditional” research, was how I made sure the details were accurate, which, even though the book is fiction, was important to me given the gravity of the conflict.

    JG: During the years of the Yugoslavian Civil War, I was in my mid-thirties, and news coverage of the atrocities against Muslims and other civilians was prominent in the New York Times and other western papers. As an American, I felt a sense of futile rage over the lack of intervention by European and American powers–but I also felt confused. I did not feel I could fully grasp the complex hostilities and ethnic biases fueling the war, which was clearly about more than disputed territory. Do you think most westerners understood the war? What might it surprise us most to learn about that conflict? What misconceptions do we have?

    SN: I don’t think most Westerners understood the war in Yugoslavia—the conflict was really complex and to grasp it fully would require a nuance that the mainstream media rarely provides. One of the big misconceptions about the conflict is the idea that it was an entirely ethnic-fueled war. On the one hand, it was about ethnicity, because there were territories that contained ethnic majorities; however, like any war, this one was mainly about power and money. For example, one big point of contention was road construction—the capital of Yugoslavia was in Belgrade (Serbia) so most of the country’s money went toward building roads horizontally so Serbs could get to the Adriatic Sea, while travel vertically within Croatia and Bosnia was very difficult and nothing was being done about it. It sounds mundane, but I think that kind of thing was at least as much of a factor in the split as the ethnic tensions were, though the media only focused on the latter part because it made an easier and more sensational story.

    JG: In Girl at War, there is a clear before and after–with devastating heartbreak and danger in the middle. Some readers would call it a “loss of innocence story” as much as a “war story.” (Or maybe that’s true of all war stories.) Certainly, I would call it a story about how human beings endure, even find a way to thrive, in the face of inconsolable loss; that’s what all the best fiction shows us. Do you still have family in Croatia or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia? Do you return there now, and how do people say their lives have changed? Is it ever possible to feel safe in a place where formerly peaceful neighbors turned on one another so violently?

    SN: I still have family and friends there and I try to go back in the summers, though I’ve missed this year. Croatia is now a very popular hotspot for tourists from around the world, particularly because of the Game of Thrones craze (they film some of the show there). The coast of the Adriatic is so beautiful; it’s sometimes hard to believe that a war took place there so recently. Overall I don’t think people really feel unsafe in the way that they fear their neighbors—you probably couldn’t get on with your daily life if you thought about that too much. But there are times when tensions flare up—for example when Russia recently vetoed the UN resolution to commemorate the murder of over 8,000 civilians at Srebrenica as a genocide. In many respects it’s still a time of transition. They’re still counting and documenting the names of the missing and dead. They’re still demining the more rural areas, removing undetonated cluster bombs. I think the way in which these wars get written about in the history books for the upcoming generation will really dictate a lot about the future of all the ex-Yugo countries.

    JG: Along with her reluctant testimonial at the U.N., Ana’s experience of living in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York takes her back to her war experiences, and it seems as if she feels even more estranged from her adoptive country as a result. I love the passage where she reflects, “The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans–that I–could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept.” Can you talk about what it means to you to be an American at this moment in time? Do you feel a sense of obligation to write about that?

    SN: Americans have the privilege of distancing themselves from war, which is of course due in large part to our physical distance from everybody else. Because of that, I think the natural tendency of a lot of people is to actively avoid talking about wars “over there”—it seems like the average American feels like it doesn’t concern him or her. But that wouldn’t make sense for a character like Ana; not when war is on her mind constantly, and the differences between experiencing war in Croatia and in America are so striking. When I workshopped a draft of this manuscript during the MFA program, I remember someone questioning whether I was “allowed” to write about 9/11. That floored me—wouldn’t it be way worse to have a character who had experienced a war in childhood, and was then in New York City on September 11th, and say nothing about it? I think I do feel a sense of obligation to write about these things, in this case for the purpose of making Ana a full and complex character. But in general it’d be beneficial if more Americans wrote about what it means to be an American today—that would require an examination of our personal and collective actions, which is always a good thing.

    JG: I have also been confronted with the illogical notion that fiction writers are somehow forbidden to write about current events as cataclysmic as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But if this is the stuff of our own lives—or even if we have merely imagined what it would be like to experience such a crisis—of course it belongs in our stories! In fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of powerful “war fiction” is being published these days–some of it by young veterans, even spouses of veterans, but some of it also by writers whose only “qualification” is an astute imagination. You have to wonder if this literary trend is in part a reaction to the national tendency to avoid talking about these distant wars, even when they are of our making. Never mind that newspaper headlines are relentlessly dominated by wars all around the world: civil wars, wars on terror, wars fought in part by children, wars where “allies” and “enemies” are not at all clearcut. Just to name a few powerful recent books, I’m thinking of To the End of the LandWhat Is the What, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime WalkYou Know When the Men Are GoneYellow Birds, and Redeployment. Extraordinary new stories are also being written about past wars: NostalgiaMatterhornThe Sojourn. I’m just scratching the surface. Can I ask if you feel like a part of this wave–and if you’ve read a lot of fiction about contemporary conflicts? What other fiction writers, in general, have made the greatest impression on you?

    SN: I didn’t really think of how I fit into a particular category while I was writing the book, in part because I was just so focused on Ana’s individual story, and in part because I didn’t really think of myself as “a writer,” or consider that this was a thing I’d try to publish, until I’d written well over half of it. That said, like Ana, I was lucky to have a couple professors at college who fed me books, so I’d read Hemon and Ugrešić in the early days of writing this manuscript. Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor, a nonfiction account of the conflict in Bosnia, and Ishmael Beah’s memoir about child soldierdom in Sierra Leone also influenced this project early on, as did some authors of Holocaust literature like Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski. And of course Rebecca West and Sebald play big part in Ana’s development, as they did for me as a reader and writer.

    One of my favorite writers unrelated to this project is probably Zadie Smith—I admire and envy how she weaves together such big stories with so many moving parts, and is simultaneously clever and funny. And lately I’ve loved Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—now there’s a woman who knows her way around a narrative!

    JG: I’m glad you brought up Sebald. When we meet Ana in New York, where she’s studying literature at NYU, you mention Austerlitz, along with other writing on the subject of “displaced persons.” Do you see yourself as “displaced”? Was writing Girl at War a way of trying to find your place?

    SN: I think that writing Girl at War was me trying to find my place in the way that an eighteen-year-old (when I wrote that first story) writing anything is doing it to better understand his or herself. I do identify with Ana in feeling “in-between,” though for me this comes more from falling between Deaf and hearing worlds and languages. I lipread well and can often pass in the hearing world, but I feel more comfortable in the Deaf world, where I can access 100% of what’s being said via American Sign Language (ASL). However, at the same time, I spend so much time immersed in English—speaking, writing, and teaching—that it’s often the language in which I have my more complex thoughts, and on the bad days, this feels more like having no intellectual home than having two.

    JG: Your editor did mention to me that you lost your hearing at a very young age. Speaking from my own experience, I know that the ways in which I listen to and hear the world around me–and I’m not just talking about dialogue–feel indispensable to my relationship with language and even to my imagination. Would you talk about how, if at all, you think you write differently from hearing writers?

    SN: I think I probably do write differently than hearing writers, though I suppose I can’t know exactly how, because I don’t know what I don’t know—if that makes any sense. I’d venture to guess that I pay closer attention to small visual details; I’ve gotten comments from a lot of readers that Girl at War is “cinematic,” and I think this has to do with all the action and movement, and the way in which I take in the world visually. David and I were talking about this once, and he commented on the fact that it was odd how, though I’m Deaf, my writing on the sentence-level has a strong rhythm. But I think that’s because of my deafness—rhythm is the component of sound I still access just as much, or more, than a hearing person.

    JG: When you sit down to write, what is your favorite part of getting down your stories? Do you have any special rituals or routines? I’m not a planner, so I think my favorite part of writing is the moment when I get to see what a character will do next. And I don’t mean that in a wishy-washy, “a character takes on a life of her own and I just sit back and watch” kind of way, because writing is hard work, not magic. It’s more about the moment when a character is developed to the point where her actions and the subsequent narrative become inevitable.

    SN: In terms of routine and ritual, I write by hand, and usually in a public place. I wrote a lot of Girl at War on the NJ Transit train when I was commuting between Philadelphia and Columbia in NYC. Trains are great because you can’t go anywhere and procrastinate, so you have to keep your butt in the seat and work. On rare occasions when I am writing at home, it usually turns into me cleaning the kitchen, or pacing around the apartment with my baseball glove. (Like Ana, I grew up a giant tomboy.) These moments don’t look like writing, but I sometimes find that the more fully I can craft an idea in my head, the less chance there is to hit writer’s block when I sit down to put it on paper.

    JG: Those of us who loved this book are eager to know what you’re working on now. Do you think you will revisit the subjects and themes of Girl at War?

    SN: Thank you. I’ve only just started working on a new project, so I don’t know much about it, but it follows several characters at a boarding school for the deaf in Boston. It’s been presenting me with all kinds of questions, like how to represent ASL on the page, which has been an exciting and frustrating challenge. I think writing about the Yugoslav Civil war, and about the region in general, will always interest me, but I’m looking forward to seeing what these new, American characters will get up to as well.  And looking forward to reading your next book, Julia.

    Julia Glass is the author of the novels And the Dark Sacred NightThe Widower’s TaleThe Whole World Over, and the National Book Award–winning Three Junes, as well as the Kindle Single “Chairs in the Rafters.” Her third book, I See You Everywhere, a collection of linked stories, won the 2009 SUNY John Gardner Fiction Award. She has also won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her essays have been widely anthologized, most recently in Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, edited by Sean Manning, and in Labor DayTrue Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. She is a cofounder and literary director of the arts festival Twenty Summers, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and has taught writing workshops at programs ranging from the Fine Arts Work Center to the M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College, Julia lives with her two sons and their father on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

    Discussion Questions: The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

    Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

    The Dream Lover_BergElizabeth Berg has written a lush historical novel based on the sensuous Parisian life of the nineteenth-century writer George Sand—which is perfect for readers of Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Gilbert.

    1.    George Sand felt she was abandoned by her mother. Did being left with her grandmother at an early age make her stronger or weaker? In what ways would George’s life have been different if her father had lived?

    2.    George behaved boldly but was at heart very shy. Did you notice any other paradoxes in her character and life?

    3.    Two very different environments were important to George’s life and work: the city of Paris and her country home at Nohant. Which do you think was more important to her? What did each offer her?

    4.    How do you think George’s marriage affected her art? Do you think genetics or life circumstances contribute more strongly to the making of an artist?

    5.    George fluidly assumed both male and female roles. She often referred to herself as a man, yet Alfred de Musset called her the most feminine woman he had ever known. What was your perception of George?

    6.    The mother–daughter relationships depicted in The Dream Lover are particularly complex. Do you think Sophie was a “bad” mother? What about George herself?

    7.    What do you think George needed most from a relationship? How is that different from what she believed she needed?

    8.    George described herself as “very impressionable, carried away by my love of beauty, hungry for truth, faulty in judgment, often absurd, and always sincere.” Do you agree?

    9.    In her quest to live truthfully, George left her husband altogether and was away from her children much of the time. How do you feel about that? Was she motivated by necessity or selfishness?

    10.  George quickly became maternal with her male lovers. She said at one point that it was so they would become dependent on her and not leave her. What do you think of this statement?

    11.  One of the great sorrows in George’s life was her contentious relationship with her daughter. What might have improved her relationship with Solange?

    12.  The Dream Lover suggests that Marie Dorval was the great love of George’s life. How do you feel about Marie’s assertion that one seeks not the object of one’s desire, but desire itself? Could George have accepted anything but continuous passion in a relationship?

    13.  Nature and spirituality were important constants in George’s life. What were the sources of these affinities? How did they play out in her work and in her life? How did they affect her worldview? If she had been allowed to become a nun, do you think she would have stayed one?

    14.  Some people say that the hardest sorrow to bear is the idea of what might have been. What do you think?

    15.  Did you learn anything surprising about George’s famous friends, such as Chopin, Flaubert, Balzac, and Liszt?

    16.  At the end of the novel, George is quoted as saying in a letter to Delacroix that nothing dies, nothing is lost, and nothing ends. What sentiments or experiences do you think fueled that remark? How do you interpret it?

    17.  Do you think that George and the things she wrote about are still relevant more than 150 years later?

    18.  The Dream Lover invites us into the world of salons. Do you think that book clubs are the same kind of enriching, stimulating environment? Why do we need book clubs? What do they offer our spirits and psyches that reading alone does not? How can they be expanded to provide an even deeper experience?

    A Conversation between Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Berg

    Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

    The Dream Lover_BergElizabeth Berg is the author of The Dream Lover, a lush historical novel based on the sensuous Parisian life of the nineteenth-century writer, George Sands.

    Nancy Horan is the bestselling author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky.

    NANCY HORAN: I know you were strongly drawn to George Sand’s story but you resisted writing a novel about her at first. What made you jump in and go for it?

    ELIZABETH BERG: Well, the real answer, as you may recall, is that you wouldn’t! One day I read a little about George Sand on The Writer’s Almanac, and I got very excited about learning more. I especially wanted to know the “good stuff,” which is to say, deeply personal things about her character as well as her thoughts and feelings, even if those things were largely conjecture. I thought you would be the perfect person to write a novel about her; I so admired the way you provided intimate access into the character of Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank. So I called you to beg you to write about George Sand. I believe when you answered the phone I said, “Nancy! You have to write about George Sand! She’s so interesting!” You had just finished Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and you weren’t ready to begin another huge undertaking. And, of course, I assume you are like most writers and want to pick your own subjects, not have them thrust upon you. At any rate, you said, “You write it!” I told you I couldn’t possibly. But then the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I plunged in, buoyed up by the last words you said to me: “Oh, of course you can write it. It will be fabulous!”

    NH: I think creating a voice for a real historical figure, particularly for someone who lived nearly two hundred years ago, is rather tricky. How did you arrive at the voice you used for George Sand? Did you pull expressions from her letters to integrate into the dialogue? Did you stick to language as it was used at the time, or did you feel free to use more contemporary expressions?

    EB: You know, it is a tricky thing, and I did try hard to stay away from contemporary expressions, which, when you’re reading historical fiction, can take you right out of the story. In the end, I think the way the language thing worked for me was the way my other books have worked best: the less predetermined—-the less conscious—-things are, the better.

    When I was nine years old, my family lived in Texas for a while. It took me about thirty–five seconds to develop a Southern accent, to incorporate “y’all” quite naturally into my speech. I came in one night and told my parents my friend and I had to stop playing because Sherry was “fixing to eat.” My parents exchanged amused glances, and I thought, What? What’s funny?

    Anyway, what I mean to say is that things rub off on me. I have a tendency to imitate, to pretend, to dramatize, as I believe many fiction writers do. So when I read (i.e., “listen to”) a lot of a person, as I did when I read George Sand’s thousand–plus–page autobiography, Story of My Life, that person’s ways of thinking and speaking rub off. George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream of her; then, I thought, to dream like her. I know that might sound arrogant or at least unlikely. But I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.

    NH: I find the foreignness of the past attractive territory to explore. Modern lives seem more daunting to portray in a fresh way, since so much is familiar terrain. Do you agree? Can you talk a bit about the different challenges and attractions of portraying modern lives versus historical lives?

    EB: I agree that the past is wonderful to explore: evocative—-thrilling, really—-and quite necessary, when you’re writing historical fiction. But I find it much more difficult to write about the past than the present. I move through pages very quickly and easily when I write about modern times. When I’m trying to re–create something from so long ago, the pressure bears down upon me. So much to find out about, and to be responsible for! Clothes, language, the sounds of the streets, what bathrooms were like, how lamb was served, the tone of the newspapers, where one bought soap, the feel of a carriage ride over cobblestones. I spent a long time with my chin in my hands writing this book, wondering if I really should go on with it.

    NH: George was considered a scandalous woman for her time. What do you think was particularly unusual about her? Do you think her reputation affected—-helped or hindered—-her career as a writer? How did it feel to write a novel about such a controversial figure?

    EB: Henry James described coming up with the idea for a novel as creating a big “to do” around a character. When you write about someone real who was so controversial, the “to do” comes built in. But I am always interested in the backstory—-when someone is described as being scandalous, or out of order, or different, or demanding, especially when that someone is a woman—-and I am full of questions. What made her that way? What kind of vulnerability is behind great strength? What kind of sadness lives inside a person believed to be joyful? Or, conversely, what gaiety is there in someone viewed as being very serious? One of the things I learned in writing this novel is that the esteemed Russian writer Ivan Turgenev loved being silly. He was quite the party animal, as opposed to another of Sand’s close friends, Gustave Flaubert, who was like Eeyore the donkey in his depressive outlook.

    I think what was unusual about Sand was the way her male and female qualities existed side by side, the way she was fluid about assuming the character of a man or a woman, sometimes simultaneously. Also, she was a mass of contradictions: she advocated strongly for women but didn’t like being around them all that much (with one notable exception). She was called bold but in fact was very shy. Her strongest desire was for love, but she had a pattern of having (or making) relationships disintegrate. In her time and even now, she was both reviled and adulated. She created her own god, renouncing the ideas found in organized religion, yet in her youth she wanted to be a nun.

    Her reputation may have helped her as a writer, but I think it was mostly her great talent. And in any case, her reputation changed. In her own small hometown of Nohant, she went from being disapproved of—-even reviled—-to being called “The Good Woman of Nohant,” and she was deeply mourned by everyone from peasants to princes after her death.

    As to how it felt writing about her, one phrase will do: challenging but exhilarating.

    NH: George’s relationships with women, especially the women in her family, were very complicated. What connections do you see between George’s relationship with her mother, Sophie, and George’s subsequent relationship with her own daughter, Solange? With other people? With the actress Marie Dorval? Chopin? What might these relationships say about George herself?

    EB: This is a very complicated question with a simple, two–part answer, as I see it. If you do not get the love you so desperately need early in your life, you search for it ever after. And whatever your experience of love was in those young and vulnerable years, you tend to reenact it in future relationships. Sand’s mother was by turns loving and cruel, or at least indifferent; so Sand was with her own daughter. In Sand’s relationships with men, she tended to go quickly from being passionate to being maternal, because she felt that if men needed her, they would not leave her. For Marie, she served as a man who loved with the intensity and devotion and sensitivity of a woman. I think it takes an enormous amount of insight and hard work to make yourself step out of or away from dangerous patterns that you adopt unconsciously early in life, but it can be done. That George Sand was happy and at peace with herself in her later years (after so many years of experiencing deep depressions and suicidal ideation) attests to that.

    NH: Was it daunting to write about another writer? Did you reach any new understandings about the art of writing by studying Sand’s works and her comments on the subject? Do you see yourself any differently, as a writer, now that you’ve written this book?

    EB: It wasn’t daunting to write about another writer, but it was daunting to write about someone so fiercely intelligent, and whose prose was so startlingly lucid and precise. I didn’t reach any new understandings about the writing process; rather, I had my own methods validated. Sand did not plot, she was wildly prolific, and she wrote from the heart. I can, as they say, relate to that.

    NH: You re–create so wonderfully life in Paris in the 1820s and ’30s, and in the French countryside near Sand’s family’s estate at Nohant. What did you find about these places, this era, that inspired you? Was it liberating to write about an era different from your own?

    EB: It was great fun to imagine how the sights and sounds of the city of nineteenth–century Paris would collide with the pastoral life Sand lived at Nohant. My challenge was to present the charms and allure of both lives. Sand loved and needed the intellectual and artistic and political life she had in Paris, but she needed equally the gifts of nature that she found in Nohant.

    I was inspired by all the revolutionary goings–on in Paris at that time, and the way that roles of women were challenged, the way that socialism kept trying to assert itself, the way that artists—-writers, musicians, painters, poets—-gathered together in salons for entertainment that was the opposite of virtual reality. Would that we had such salons today! I wanted to be there in those salons, and one of the joys in writing this book is that I was.

    As for the scenes of nature, I’m a nature and bird lover myself, so all of that came pretty easily.

    NH: What do you hope that your readers will take away from this book, and from George herself? What do you feel is most important about her relevance today?

    EB: George Sand’s struggle to become and stay herself, in all her permutations, was of paramount importance, and that idea is still relevant today, whether you’re a man or a woman. How is it that we find our deepest truths? What directions in life serve to move us toward our highest purposes? How do we accommodate and respect changes in ourselves? What do we owe the earth, and each other? How can we focus on appreciating the small gifts we are offered daily, for free, and relieve ourselves of the never–ending quest for more, more, more? How can we honor (and use!) what makes us different from others, rather than be ashamed of it? What is the best way to love and be loved?

    All of these questions percolated in me as I wrote about George Sand, and I would be happy to have people who read the book take away the idea that answering such questions is not only our duty but our great pleasure. I would also like readers to consider whether it is true that we owe it to ourselves, and to those we love, to live in truth, even when it’s hard—-perhaps especially when it’s hard. If I could wish for one more thing, it would be that George Sand’s prose would be appreciated again, and that she would be understood as someone who was a bit more than the ruthless cigar–smoking nymphomaniac she is often portrayed as.

    Finally, honestly, I will tell you that I hope readers will finish the last sentence of The Dream Lover and think to themselves, Boy! That was a good read!

    A Conversation Between Diane Thomas and Christina Baker Kline

    Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

    In Wilderness_Thomas For readers of Ron Rash, Thomas H. Cook, and Tim Johnston, In Wildernessis a suspenseful and literary love story hailed by New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson as “heartbreaking, bold, relentless” and “the work of a true original.”

    Diane Thomas is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Year the Music Changed. A lifelong resident of Atlanta and the Georgia mountains and part-time resident of the Florida panhandle, she now lives in New Mexico.

    Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Orphan Train. Her other novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be,Desire Lines and Sweet Water. She is currently at work on a novel based on the iconic paintingChristina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth.

    Christina Baker Kline: What inspired you to write In Wilderness?

    Diane Thomas: The wild, unspoiled beauty of the north Georgia and North Carolina mountains in the 1960s inspired me. Back then they still held vast tracts of undeveloped land where a person might live virtually undisturbed. I wondered how an isolated existence in such a remote setting might affect people who were unused to it. Would they become more violent, more primitive? Or would they keep their civilized behaviors? Would the institution of selfless, romantic love, for example, unmask itself as something purely animal? Or would it survive?

    CBK: You wrote your earlier version of In Wilderness (then called The Clearing) many years ago. How did it differ from the final book? What did you learn writing it that helped you write In Wilderness?

    DT: The story that makes up In Wilderness happens in all the same places it did in The Clearing. The new manuscript also kept most of the same plot points. And yet the entire book is changed. The strength of Danny’s personality, so different from that of his earlier incarnation, changed all of Katherine’s interactions with him, and thus some aspects of her own personality. I also set In Wilderness further back in time (1966) than The Clearing, which takes place in 1973. Those few years—-encompassing the hippie era, the rise of feminism, and much of the Vietnam War—-made an enormous difference: The values and behaviors Katherine starts out with in In Wilderness were shaped by that earlier time. I was surprised how long it took me to rewrite—-perhaps longer than creating an entirely different novel would have. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s what I did: I created an entirely different novel.

    CBK: Did the novel unfold as you expected it to? Did any scenes—-or plot points—-take you by surprise?

    DT: The first version, The Clearing, came about primarily as a reaction to a period of extreme ill health; writing it enabled me to “escape” from my near–bedridden condition, and to distract myself from fears of dying. The ill health proved transient, and as no one took the manuscript, I set it aside and went back to my day job. When I returned to it thirty years later, I expected to find writing that was inferior but characters that held up. The opposite proved true, at least with the male character: The writing was good, but I did not find him engaging or believable.

    The Danny of In Wilderness differs totally from his counterpart in The Clearing, who was a cultured, disaffected millionaire in his forties. In In Wilderness, he is a twenty–year–old mountain boy so traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam he has become almost feral. I made him the opposite of Katherine, the story’s protagonist, in every way. The only thing they have in common is that by the time they meet, they’ve both lost everyone and everything they ever loved. What surprised me most in this later version was how deeply I cared for this new male character. He was edgy, complex, perhaps the embodiment of evil. But in a strange way he was also an innocent. Time and again, I found tears running down my face as I wrote him.

    CBK: You deal with some heavy subjects in this novel, from illness and loss to loneliness and healing. Did you draw on anything in your own life or family history as you crafted the story?

    DT: In writing the first version, I was dealing with my aforementioned illness, which in itself was isolating. In what I later came to recognize as an attempted exorcism, I gave my symptoms to my manuscript’s protagonist and said, in effect, “Symptoms, be gone.” I also gave her my attitude regarding my illness: that one soldiers on as best as one can. All of this carried over from The Clearing to In Wilderness.

    CBK: In Wilderness has a powerful sense of atmosphere. You lived in the South for most of your life. How did living there influence your sense of place? Did you ever live in a remote cabin, like Katherine and Danny?

    DT: I’ve never thought of In Wilderness as a specifically “Southern” novel. Its story might have taken place in any large mountain wilderness in the latter 1960s. I instead see it as a “mountain” story. The mountain areas of the South differ markedly from the rest of the region: The land is too rugged to grow cotton, and thus historically few people owned slaves there. The inhabitants of the Southern mountains have always been fiercely independent; many of the South’s mountain counties were Union sympathizers in the Civil War.

    Ever since I can remember, the southern Appalachians have held a deep and abiding fascination for me. I spent most of my life in Atlanta, and sometimes, when my work as a freelance business writer led me far into the city’s northern sprawl, I could see them, misty in the distance. Years ago, I was stranded in an Atlanta taxi during a flash flood with an old driver who’d been born and raised in those mountains. I asked him what that had been like, expecting a few idyllic recollections. Instead, he told me how, shortly before World War II, when he was five years old, a pretty little blond girl his same age was brutally raped by a neighbor. Fearing justice would not otherwise be done, the local people kidnapped the man, took him deep into the woods, and burned him at the stake. Every man, woman, and child from miles around was present, and before the burning each person was made to contribute at least one piece of wood to the pile. The taxi driver’s mother gave him a small branch, led him by the hand up to the stake, and told him to place it there. Then she took him down by the nearby river, where he could neither see nor hear what was about to happen, sat with him, and gave him a piece of cornbread. I had never known a people capable of carrying out such vengeance. They seemed the pure embodiment of myth and story.

    I never lived in a remote cabin like Katherine. But the taxi driver’s narrative knocks around inside me still. As does a single childhood visit to my great-aunt Mattie, in her two–room cabin with its logs joined with wooden pegs. She lived in a place called Startown, and my child’s mind conjured stars spinning great Van Gogh whorls in a black sky. Not long after—-I think I was seven—-I wrote a poem about “a cozy cabin right among the pines.” Three decades later, I gave that cabin to Katherine. These days, when people ask me where I’m from, I say if home is where my stuff is, I’m from Santa Fe, but if home is where my heart is, I’m from the southern mountains. They and their people inform my writing even now. To my mind, that’s where my sense of place comes from and any atmosphere I might bring to it.

    CBK: Throughout the novel, Danny woos Katherine by leaving her books. How did you choose those particular books? Were there any others you wanted to use in the novel, but didn’t?

    DT: Despite his identification with Gatsby, whom he encountered in an English class during his one college semester, Danny tends to think of works of fiction as fascinating but pretty much interchangeable; without his friend and childhood mentor, Jimbo, he might not have read much of it at all. The bookshelves lining the walls in the library of his burned–out house, where Peyton Place might stand next to The Odyssey, reinforce this concept. Danny reads these books in the order they are shelved. He likes the randomness, the unexpectedness of it; to him it’s like life. He can’t get into E. M. Forster’s Room with a View, decides it might be better appreciated by a woman, and passes it along to Katherine when he leaves the peaches on her porch. The books mentioned in In Wilderness came up as I was writing. Sometimes they have significance, and sometimes, like life, they came up at random.

    CBK: You are in your seventies. Do you think you write differently now than you did when you were younger? If so, in what way?

    DT: I believe that, generally speaking, the older one gets, the longer one’s view becomes and the more context and authority one is able to bring to it. Also, there’s a greater sense of urgency: When you have something to say, you want to get it said, said right, and said immediately, because you never know if that chance will be your last. Yet at the same time I believe I now write closer to the bone, more to the point than ever.

    CBK: Living alone, Katherine discovers a latent artistic ability. Are you a visual artist as well as a writer?

    DT: I minored in art in college, which led me to realize what little talent I had for it. Several years later I became the film reviewer for The Atlanta Constitution, then that city’s morning newspaper, which was perhaps a way for my interest in things visual to express itself indirectly. I should note that each of my three novels, including the one in progress, began with a mental image. For The Year the Music Changed, it was a black female disc jockey inside a radio station control booth doing her show in the middle of the night; it ended up near the book’s conclusion. For In Wilderness, it was Katherine walking into the dull winter forest in her bright red coat, which was near that book’s beginning. My novel in progress, set in two different time periods, has somewhat of a two–pronged beginning, with an image from each era.

    CBK: In Wilderness opens with a failed pregnancy and closes with a new life. What role do Katherine’s fertility issues have in her psychology and her development as a character? How does becoming a mother change her?

    DT: I don’t have children of my own, but I’m very close to my stepson—-close enough to have some inkling of how fierce motherhood can make someone. When Katherine got pregnant the first time, she quit mourning for her lost love and “came back to herself in a fierce way,” to love and protect her child. That same energy remains a primary aspect of her character, and her protectiveness comes into play during her second pregnancy, with deep consequences.

    CBK: Why did you leave the South and relocate to Santa Fe? How has living there shaped your writing?

    DT: For several years, my husband and I actually did live in a lovely mountain community north of Atlanta. The last thing I wanted to do was leave it. But the area’s dampness and humidity caused me severe mold allergies, so we came West seeking drier air. I doubt I will ever presume to write about Santa Fe, the desert, or other aspects of New Mexico as any more than a place a character once lived in or is passing through. Though its history fascinates me, and I’ve made wonderful friends and have never seen such a nurturing environment for creativity, I know so little of this place compared to what I know of the southern Appalachians. I know that part of the country through my heritage, bones, DNA. My father’s people settled in view of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1700s. My mother’s people came to western North Carolina around the same time.

    When I left the South I was sixty–seven. With the exception of two school years in New York getting an MFA at Columbia University, I had lived entirely in the South since I was three. I love the South and always will, I can’t help it—-even though it seems a lot like loving a mother with borderline personality disorder: She’s beautiful, charming, generous, welcoming, and kind—-until she veers off without warning into something unimaginably ugly and dangerous. But you love her nonetheless, even though you can’t forgive her and often barely understand her—-she is, after all, your mother.

    There’s a long tradition of writers leaving the South only to spend most of their remaining lives writing richly and insightfully about it. Willie Morris comes immediately to mind, as does Truman Capote. Leaving makes you realize you know things about the South you didn’t know you knew—-like how, even in winter, when the central heat stays on, your bedsheets are always just a little damp from the humidity; or how, failing thunder, you never know it’s going to rain until it falls on you, because you can’t see the weather in the distance for the trees; or how “y’all” might one day serve a vital purpose in the English language, which unlike, say, French or Spanish, does not have a plural for “you”—-and that these things matter.

    CBK: When she’s living in Atlanta, Katherine is debilitated by her illness. Through solitude and nature she is able to heal. The mind–body connection seems important in transforming Katherine’s health. Can you say more about the connection between psychological and physical wellness?

    DT: It’s true Katherine feels empowered by her wilderness existence in ways she did not in the city. She suffers from environmental illness, as do I, which was virtually unheard of in the sixties. It’s a physical condition, although many members of the medical profession have been slow to accept it as such since many times its symptoms can be neurological (dizziness, mental confusion, short–term memory loss, seizures). Its onset is often triggered by exposure to one or another chemical compound; in Katherine’s case, it’s a pesticide. Petrochemicals and artificial fragrances are generally the biggest offenders in environmental illness and, since Katherine’s wilderness environment contains neither, her strength improves from her first day in the forest, as does her mood. Gradually, she becomes less afraid—-of both her illness and her aloneness. Before long she plants a garden, a metaphor for becoming involved with her new surroundings and taking responsibility for her life there. Soon she realizes she’s getting better. She is becoming whole, physically and psychologically.

    CBK: What are you working on now?

    DT: On what I hope will be a novel in short stories. Part of it takes place in the early 1970s and part during the “Great Recession” that began in late 2008. Readers of In Wilderness’s epilogue will know where the new manuscript is mostly set. It’s still in its early first–draft stage, but two of its short stories are nearly complete and my excitement over them is absolutely shameful.

    Discussion Questions: When Breath Becomes Air

    Monday, February 8th, 2016

    When Breath Becomes Air_KalanithiFor readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

    Use these discussion questions to guide your book club discussion of When Breath Becomes Air…

    1. How did you come away feeling, after reading this book? Upset? Inspired? Anxious? Less afraid?

    2. What did you think of Paul’s exploration of the relationship between science and faith? As Paul wrote, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue. Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.” Do you agree?

    3. How do you think the years Paul spent, tending to patients and training to be a neurosurgeon, affected the outlook he had on his own illness? When Paul wrote that the question he asked himself was not “why me,” but “why not me,” how did that strike you? Could you relate to it?

    4. Paul had a strong background in the humanities, and read widely throughout his life. Only after getting a Master’s in English Literature did he decide that medicine was the right path for him. Do you think this made him a better doctor? A different kind of doctor? If so, how? How has reading influenced your life?

    5. What did you think of Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a child, in the face of his illness? When Lucy asked him if he worried that having a child would make his death more painful, and Paul responded, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did,” how did that strike you? Do you agree that life should not be about avoiding suffering, but about creating meaning?

    6. Were there passages or sentences that struck you as particularly profound or moving?

    7. Given that Paul died before the book was finished, what are some of the questions you would have wanted to ask him if he were still here today?

    8. Paul was determined to face death with integrity, and through his book, demystify it for people. Do you think he succeeded?

    9. In Lucy’s epilogue, she writes that “what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” Did you come away feeling the same way?

    10. Lucy also writes that, in some ways, Paul’s illness brought them closer – that she FELL feel even more deeply in love with the “beautiful , focused man” he became in the last year of his life. Did you find yourself seeing how that could happen?

    11. How did this book impact your thoughts about medical care? The patient-physician relationship? End of life care?

    12. Is this a book you will continue thinking about, now that you are done? Do you find it having an impact on the way you go about your days?

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