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An Interview with Mary Chamberlain

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Dressmaker's War_ChamberlainFor readers of Amy Bloom, Sarah Waters, and Anthony Doerr, The Dressmaker’s War is the story of a brilliant English seamstress taken prisoner in Germany during World War II: about her perseverance, the choices she makes to stay alive, and the haunting aftermath of war.

Mary, you were a professor of history for many years before you turned to writing fiction. Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction?

History and literature have always been my two great passions. History promised a more realistic career to support a family, so I chose that passion first. Despite being widely published as a historian, I never felt I could call myself a ‘writer’ until I had published a work of fiction. I wanted to be up there!

What was that transition like, from writing history to writing fiction?

I was (and remain) on a steep learning curve. On the face of it, there are crossovers between history and fiction. Both operate with prose, narrative, characters, with mentalities and context. But a historian’s approach is omnipresent, forensic and cerebral; a novelist’s approach is partial, fluid and involved. Historians have evidence to support their characters and context, and to present an authentic interpretation of what happened in the past. Novelists have to invent everything: characters, evidence and context to create that aura of authenticity. They need to inhabit the world of their novel in order to portray the illusion of reality, to invent detail that historians have no concern with. On the other hand, a novelist is not constrained by the evidence in a way that a historian is. A novelist can invent and circumvent, lie and speculate.

How did your background and knowledge of history inform the way you wrote The Dressmaker’s War?

South London seemed the natural location for my novel. My parents originated there and my childhood was filled with a repertoire of family stories set in the docks and markets, houses and streets of what they called the real London. I knew that historical and urban landscape, and its social topography. My academic specialism was the middle decades of the 20th century so setting my novel in that period came naturally, too.

I am passionate about history ‘from below,’ so it was natural for me to make my character representative of two historically disenfranchised groups – the working-class and women. There are other communities too, passed over by historians for being the wrong race, gender, ethnicity, faith or sexuality, or the wrong side of struggle. I do feel that history – and its ally, fiction – can help reclaim these hidden pasts. We need these correctives to enhance our understanding of what really happened—of the complex, varied, volatile and fragile world we inhabit.

Throughout most of The Dressmaker’s War, Ada Vaughan is tenacious in her ability to stay alive. But even after surviving Nazi imprisonment and wartime Europe, Ada is ultimately defeated by the justice system of her own country—unfairly, it seems! Why did they prosecute her so zealously? Would a woman like Ada have ever gotten a fair trail, at that time in England?

Ada did murder Stanley/Stanislaus. That was why she was prosecuted. Nowadays, a defense would plead extenuating circumstances and probably convict her of the lesser crime of manslaughter. But post-war Britain was a society divided by class, gender (and, increasingly, race.) The political and justice system reflected the prejudices of the time. There was no gender equality. Parliament was dominated by men. Similarly, the judiciary. There were no women judges (the first was appointed in 1962), very few women lawyers. Women could sit on juries but there was a property qualification which in effect barred them, for few women owned or rented property in their own name. Furthermore, lawyers cost money and the poor could not pay for a good lawyer. The legal odds were stacked against Ada.

So were the civil odds. Female murderers transgress social and gender norms. The cases of Edith Thompson, hung for murdering her husband in 1923, and Ruth Ellis, executed in 1955 for the murder of her lover, are examples of what would now be considered gross miscarriages of justice. Today, the court would have a more sympathetic understanding of the role of long-term abuse as a motive in Ada murdering Stanislaus, but at that time there was no such defense.  Ada was sexually loose, which again transgressed acceptable behavior and would be enough to discredit her evidence. She was working class, in a society riddled with class division and snobbery. She was independent, at a time when women were being forced back into the home as part of the post-war drive to ‘normality.’ Finally, the post-war narrative of victory had no tolerance for traitors, and stories of survival such as Ada’s blurred the lines between survival and collaboration. She became, in effect, a scapegoat.

What gave you the idea for this story? Were Ada, or any of the other characters, inspired by real people?

The starting points for my novel were two of my aunts. My aunt Ada, whom I never knew, left her husband and young children, who had to be cared for by my grandmother. In any age, that was a shocking thing to do, but in the 1920s it was unforgiveable. The family never spoke of her again – a silence amply filled by myth. Aunt Ada, we learned, had – depending on the time and the source – variously married the heir to a manufacturer’s fortune, run off with a Hungarian count, been rescued from behind enemy lines and smuggled out from the Iron Curtain. As a child, this was high octane glamour and excitement. Aunt Ada was, by all accounts, uncommonly beautiful. But Ada was a working class girl from Walworth, and the stories say more about the family imagination than the truth. Nevertheless, I wondered why she abandoned her family, and what happened to her.

And then there was Violet, another aunt, a linen maid from Southwark, plain as a pavement, in sensible shoes and horn-rimmed glasses. She became a nun. I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first learned that this soft-spoken, lisping, aunt had been interned by the Germans and spent the war caring for their old people. I was old enough to know of Nazi atrocities, not old enough to understand the complexities of war, especially for prisoners. She never mentioned it again, nor did I ever ask. Trapped in the convent in northern France and rounded up by the Germans, she was shipped by cattle truck across France – a journey that took days without water or rest – to an internment camp, from where the nuns were isolated and sent to look after the elderly, either in Germany or Vichy France.

In the mill of my imagination, in the writing of this novel, these aunts morphed into one and became my protagonist, Ada Vaughan, who ran the story in directions that would have both the sinning aunt and the saintly aunt turning in their graves.  But I wanted to write about the real Ada’s drive, about Violet’s wartime survival, about women during and after the war, about post-war Britain and its problems.

For a woman like Ada, growing up in that era, were there many career options available to her? Was dressmaking a way to transcend class divisions, or would they ultimately have constrained her?

Lack of education constrained most working class women and men from social advancement. A few won scholarships to high school which offered one route to social mobility, but most working class children left school at fourteen—the school leaving age was raised to fifteen in 1936. There was a real hunger for further education and Ada was typical in her desire for self-improvement. Institutions arose to satisfy this desire, providing evening classes in a range of vocational, academic and recreational classes. Career avenues for working class girls were limited to service, shop work, or the factory floor. A few acquired skills such as typing or shorthand which brought them into clerical work. Ada was lucky. She had a trade and secured a job with a ‘modiste’ which elevated her above the sweatshops of the East End. She was ambitious, talented, and hard-working. Perhaps, with luck and financial patronage, she could have fulfilled her dream of owning her own atelier. But opportunities would have been limited and the chances are she would have married, started a family and perhaps, to make ends meet, bought a sewing machine on hire-purchase and ran up the odd garment for a friend or family member.

How much has this notion of class changed, from the England of then versus today?

Britain’s class system was (and is) by no means monolithic. Rankings and gradations existed which were finely and acutely observed. Class snobbery, often morally charged, could be found both within and across classes. Among the working class, this ranged from skilled workers and their families who lived comfortably, discreetly and ‘respectably,’ to the rough and tumble of casual and unemployed workers in sub-let rooms. The Poor Law (abolished in 1932) had classified the working class into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.’ The Trade Unions, on the other hand, helped to instill pride in the working class and their institutions, to secure a living wage, and to ferment the demand for, and the practice of, democracy.

Social disadvantage still exists, but ‘class’ as a concept has lost its political potency and its conceptual clarity. The discourse has changed, but attitudes remain morally charged. The ‘deserving’ or ‘respectable’ working-class are now lauded in the political rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’; the undeserving as ‘benefits scroungers.’ The reality is very different: low wages mean even those who work full-time are impoverished. Many of those hard-working families rely on benefits to survive. The Trade Unions have been decimated. The so-called ‘scroungers’ are often mentally, physically or socially disabled, or live in regions where unemployment is endemic.  Class, as a term or a concept, is rarely used either by politicians or social analysts, least of all as a banner of pride. In the England of today, poverty still hits women the hardest and society seems a harsher, more cynical place.

The descriptions of Ada’s dressmaking—the fabrics, the draping, the details—are some of the most evocative moments in the book. Did you have to do much research, to capture this world so vividly? How did you go about envisioning those creations, and writing those scenes?

My grandmother was a seamstress and my mother, though not a professional, made her clothes, and mine, and taught me how to sew. I grew up imbibing the mechanics of dressmaking, and the qualities of fabric. One of my daughters is now a costume designer so I had another generation to advise me. Not much research was needed on the practical side! Animating material was pure invention, and a lot of fun. I used the internet for finding period fashions and coupled these with memories from a misspent adolescence watching old movies on TV from the 1930s and 1940s. But I wanted to give Ada depth, to suggest that her passion for dressmaking was more than a passion for finery. She was well aware of the transformative power of clothes, on herself and others. This also enabled a human link, woman to woman, across the political divide of war.  The way she imbued the fabric with living qualities provided a foil to the war-torn world around her, and it gave her a metaphor of survival in the midst of brutality and destruction. At the same time, it emphasised the human cost of adornments, the superficiality of the women who demanded these luxuries and their indifference to the plight of Ada and other exploited labour.

You write so beautifully about the notion of “the twilight” in history, the real stories of what happened,  stories of women like Ada: “Ada’s war would be forgotten.” Do you think it’s a problem we still face, today?

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, the public narrative that prevailed in Britain was one of victory and valor. Stories which did not conform to this template were often ignored, not listened to, or believed. The subjugation and imprisonment of British subjects was one such. Male prisoners of war held a heroic place as resisters and survivors in the narrative. But women? There is, for the most, part silence. Collaboration was another toxic theme. This was not the pressing issue in mainland Britain that it was in other parts of Europe, but I wanted to raise some of these questions in my novel: what happened to women subjugated by the enemy? How were they regarded? What is collaboration? What is choice under these circumstances? Where does gender sit in this murky arena? Women charged with collaborationusually for sleeping with the enemy—were regarded particularly harshly. The nature and forms of collaboration with an enemy may take many forms, gradations of co-operation which may have little or nothing to do with sympathies for the occupying power and much to do with survival. Equally, the ethics of resistance are not so clear-cut: how right is it to carry out an act of sabotage knowing that the reprisals would be savage?

In the years following World War Two, people were desperate to put the hardship and suffering behind them and look to the future. The political environment had also changed; the Cold War brought with it the potential for nuclear annihilation. These were cosmic issues of survival which contributed to an amnesia of the war. I think many writers of my generation, born during or just after the Second World War and growing up in its aftermath, are still trying to make sense of our lives and the turbulent century into which we were born. Other tales now are beginning to be told, which examine a more ambiguous and ambivalent past. This is a rich seam to mine.

Readers seem to have a continuous appetite for stories from World War Two and stories of survival. How do you account for this?

Wars generate extremes–heroism and cowardice, generosity and selfishness, death and survival. Those extremes fascinate, but they raise fundamental issues. We all ponder, at some time, how we would behave faced with unimaginable danger or hardship. Would we kill or betray or connive for our survival or those of our loved ones? How far would we go? Stories of war – of other peoples’ heroism or brutality – allow us to make those decisions vicariously and let us off the hook for the time being.

Are you working on another novel? Can you tell us a little about it?

My next novel is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation during World War II, and in it I am exploring themes of betrayal and survival in the war, and their reckoning after the war. But I am also trying to invert – or subvert – some of the usual stereotypes, and tell the story through two very different characters and perspectives. Watch this space for more details in the future.

An Essay from Louis Begley, Author of Killer, Come Hither

Friday, January 8th, 2016

Killer Come Hither_Begley

From the master observer of upper-crust New York life comes a taut thriller that takes readers from the office suites of Manhattan to the tidy elegance of Sag Harbor and the rough-and-tumble western plains of Brazil.

Louis Begley writes about his inspiration for the novel and things he contemplated while writing…

There are interwoven themes running through Killer, Come Hither that readers may wish to consider.

One of them is violence—-immanent wherever there are human beings, ordinarily held in check by laws and custom and fear of retribution, but ready to explode without the need for any visible spark. Examples abound. ISIS, jihadist and Taliban terrorist attacks, mass shootings in the United States by hate–driven psychotics wielding assault weapons—-alas, they have lost the capacity to surprise us. Hardly a day passes without coming across the account of some such event in the newspaper or on radio and television news.

But there is another kind of violence that one might call private. At night or during the day, on the back street of a quiet town, an intruder tries the front door of a one–family house. The town is one of those places that still exists where natives don’t think they need to lock the front door. So the doorknob turns; the door yields; the intruder enters. Once inside, he is in no hurry to kill. First he has his way with the old lady, or the old man, or, perhaps, an old couple. Were they asleep, preparing dinner, or watching the evening news? What will follow? It depends on what the intruder wants, what he got, and above all, on his mood.

Another theme concerns punishment and revenge. Suppose the old lady or the old gentleman is someone you love dearly. What will you do about the torture, the rape, and the murder? In our society, crimes are investigated by the police, and we like to think that in most cases the culprit is caught, brought to trial, and, if found guilty, sentenced according to the law. In the case I have posited, under the laws of a majority of American states, the murderer would stand a good chance of being sentenced to die. In the nineteen states that have abolished the death penalty and in the District of Columbia, imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole is not unlikely.

Unless, of course, the first–degree-murder charge for one reason or another doesn’t stick and the accused is tried for a lesser crime, or plea bargains his way to a lighter sentence, for instance, a term of years with parole not being precluded. Or, perhaps, after expert testimony, he is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Is trusting the police and that range of possibilities good enough for you, is your belief in the rule of the law that solid? And if it isn’t, will you heed the verses of Deuteronomy that enjoin us to leave retribution to heaven: “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense. . . .”?

To complicate matters, take the case of my protagonist, Jack Dana, a young man of about thirty, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and Force Recon platoon leader. His only living relative, whom he loved unconditionally, is the victim of such a crime. Jack has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan how easy it is to kill a man. He is a trained killer, and a match for the intruder. He thinks it would be a cinch to liquidate the intruder once he gets his hands on him.

A third essential theme animates my novel, that of corruption. The crime against someone Jack loved was committed in January 2012. Jack was wounded in Afghanistan in 2008 and afterward spent many months at Walter Reed Hospital being patched up by surgeons. When he looks back as a civilian on the two wars he has fought, he sees that they were botched, that the sacrifice of human lives and treasure was in vain, and that the country is indifferent to the sacrifices and suffering of men and women who fought for it. Money from extremist donors is flooding the political system. He believes that their influence reaches deep into Congress and the highest levels of the administration. Not even the FBI and the CIA seem to be immune. Alongside the corruption, he sees incompetence. Is there any doubt about how Jack will respond once he has gained the conviction that a colossally rich man who, in his opinion, is subverting the republic, is behind the crime?

These themes have coalesced in Killer, Come Hither. The story I tell is the fruit of brooding about them and facing some of my personal obsessions, including the fear of intruders and violence.

—-Louis Begley

Discussion Questions: Too Close to Home by Susan Lewis

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Too Close to Home_LewisFor readers of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf, and Elizabeth Flock comes a riveting and timely novel that delves into a modern family’s harrowing encounter with the complex world of cyberbullying.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Have you, or has someone you know, ever experienced bullying?

2. In what ways do you think the Internet and social media change the bullying culture in schools?

3. What can be done about this issue, in schools or at home?
Do schools have a responsibility to get involved? To what

4. What do you think prompts bullying behavior in teenagers? Can it be stopped?

5. Discuss Jack and Jenna’s relationship. What changed
between them after the move to Wales? Could they have handled their affairs differently? How would you have handled it?

6. What sort of consequences do you think bullies should face for their actions?

7. Why do you think the bullies chose to target Paige specifically?

8. Discuss the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of this novel. What did you think of Jenna’s parenting? How could she have handled Paige’s situation differently?

9. Discuss Paige’s relationship with Jack. How does the fact that he’s her stepfather influence the family dynamic?

10. Paige has a very complicated home life: her mother’s marriage is in jeopardy, they recently moved to Wales, finances are tight, etc. What other aspects of her home life may have heightened the stress Paige was under?

An Interview with Susan Lewis, Author of Too Close to Home

Friday, December 4th, 2015

Too Close to Home_LewisThe Research Behind Too Close to Home

An Interview with Kidscape

As many of you may already know, Too Close to Home deals with the difficult, even toxic issue of bullying. Its main focus is Paige Moore who, aged fifteen, moves to a new school in Wales where her life is turned into a living hell.

When writing this book Susan wanted to present very real scenarios experienced by children who are bullied. Dealing with such a sensitive issue, she had to be sure the research was thorough and was, therefore, extremely grateful to be put in touch with Claude Knights, CEO of Kidscape.

Kidscape is an anti–bullying charity in the UK that supports children from ages six to nineteen and we hope that after reading this you, too, will think more closely about this subject and those who may be in need.

In Susan’s book, fifteen–year–old Paige Moore falls victim to some ferocious bullying, both face–to–face at school and around the clock online. Have you noticed a significant increase in bullying since the advent of social media?

Social media has certainly added another dimension to the bullying landscape. The 24/7 aspect of online bullying as well as the sheer number of platforms add to the opportunities to dish out abuse. The disinhibition experienced by the bullies because they do not have to face the pain of their targets makes for very raw, thoughtless and relentless cruelty. At Kidscape we have found that young people who are vulnerable offline are often targeted online. Too many incidents of bullying remain unreported, but as there are an increasing number of channels for disclosing occurrences statistics would seem to point to an increase.

One recent study indicates that 69 percent of young people aged between thirteen and twenty–two had experienced cyber bullying and that 20 percent of those reported it as extreme. A robust finding across much recent research into the prevalence of bullying per se is that 46 percent of all children report that they have experienced some form of bullying during their time at school.

What are the signs that you advise parents to look out for?

Claude Knights of Kidscape: who is being bullied may exhibit some of the following signs and symptoms: they may be frightened of walking to or from school; refuse to attend school; feel ill in the mornings or on certain days discernible by a pattern; be truant; show a marked deterioration in their schoolwork; become anxious after using their mobile phone or computer; may become distressed or withdrawn; start stealing money (to pay the bully); refuse to admit that anything is wrong; have unexplained bruises or cuts; may become aggressive and unreasonable; and give improbable excuses for any of the above.

Do you feel schools are vigilant enough?

CK: Schools vary hugely in terms of how they acknowledge, respond to, and deal with bullying behavior. The support given to targets of bullying and their families has improved over the past decade, but there are still too many establishments that value exam results and reputation above the creation of an environment that does not tolerate bullying in any form and that investigates incidents that take place beyond the school gate. Schools have a duty of care to all their pupils that entails providing them with an environment that guarantees their safety and in which they can pursue their studies free of anxiety. Anti–bullying policies are mandatory, but to be meaningful in an active sense, they need to be understood and enforced by the whole school community. Pupils need to understand that bullying in all its forms is wrong and that there will be consequences if any anyone engages in this destructive behavior. At Kidscape we still have to deal with too many examples of bullying situations that have slipped beneath the radar and which have not come to light until a crisis point has been reached. There remains a real need to provide additional training in preventative strategies for teachers as well as the resources to sustain peer–support initiatives and workshops for parents.

What sort of advice do you give young people who contact you for help?

CK: We urge young people who are being bullied not to suffer in silence. If their school ignores the bullying, we tell them not to be resigned to becoming a target. We also suggest a wide range of strategies that include: telling a friend (A supportive friend can keep bullies away.); saying “No” assertively; not giving a reaction to taunts, giving the impression that you don’t care; thinking up creative responses in advance; trying to avoid being alone in places where you know the bully is likely to pick on you; practicing “walking tall” and looking confident so that the bully finds it harder to identify you as a target—-even if you feel small inside; and keeping a written record of all incidents. Advice specific to online bullying is also given, and this includes never sharing passwords; activating privacy settings; never sending out provocative or cruel messages yourself; and reporting abuse to the service provider and retaining evidence.

In the book, Paige’s mother, Jenna, is distracted by problems in her marriage. Do you find that children will try to protect their parents by keeping their own pain to themselves?

CK: We can quote a number of cases where children and young people have channeled much effort into protecting their parents by hiding the agonies caused by bullies for months and even years. In such cases the parent finds out what is going
on once a crisis point has been reached, e.g., an escalation into self–harm, attempted suicide, risky behaviors, etc. One memorable case study is one where the mother was suffering from breast cancer and her ten–year–old daughter, who was enduring extreme face–to–face bullying, was determined not to disclose her pain as she felt that there was already too much anxiety in the home. The mother found out the extent of her child’s agony when she happened to see her in the bathroom (the door was normally locked), and she caught sight of bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns on her back and legs. This revelation resulted in an anguished call to Kidscape. Some children tell us that they are ashamed to tell their parents, and that they feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse.

If a parent contacts you wanting to know how to help their child, what advice do you give?

CK: The advice would depend on the nature of the bullying, but information essential to all bullying situations would include the need for parents to encourage their child to disclose what they are going through by ensuring full support and a real sense that they are believed. The parent needs to find out the details of what has been happening, which entails talking to teachers, probably the head of school. Parents can help to “bully–proof” their child by emphasizing a positive outlook, including assertive body language and firm eye contact. Well–developed social skills, including the ability to listen to others, to ask questions, to smile when appropriate can be modeled and encouraged by parents. These are all protective behaviors, which help to prevent being assessed as a potential target of bullying.

Do you ever counsel the bullies themselves? If not, are there organizations that do?

CK: Some of the young people who attend Kidscape therapeutic sessions are both target and bully in different settings. Our literature addresses issues that underlie bullying and aims to stimulate reflection and provide strategies and motivation for changing that behavior. One of our major projects works specifically with young people who tend toward aggressive and antisocial behavior. The content includes modules on anger management, conflict resolution, and the development of self–awareness. It is a sad fact that in comparison to targets of bullying very few bullies come forward to ask for help. Kidscape’s aim is early intervention. If we are to challenge bullying, we need to work with both bullies and victims. There is certainly a need for more interventions that address the under-lying issues that lead young people to satisfy specific needs through bullying.

Discussion Questions: All of Us and Everything

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

All of Us and Everything_AsherFor fans of Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters and Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret comes a smart, wry, and poignant novel about reconciliation between fathers and daughters, between spouses; the deep ties between sisters; and the kind of forgiveness that can change a person’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

1. Augusta says, “Storms are one way to define people. . . . There are those who love storms, those who fear them, and those who love them because they fear them.” Based on how this plays out in the narrative, how would you define the Rockwells and why? Which category do you fall into?

2. Discuss the characters’ relationships with control. In what ways are the Rockwells always striving for it in their personal lives, their romantic relationships, and their approaches to motherhood? Are these relationships healthy? Do the characters eventually relinquish control and if so, what is it that frees them?

3. Augusta has attempted to spearhead numerous movements, none of which have gotten off the ground. Why do you think she has such a need to organize these campaigns, and why do they all inevitably fail? What’s the significance of her causes—-Mothers United for Peace, Raise Your Voices, The Movement’s Movement, The Self–Actualization Cause, The Individuality Movement, and The Personal Honesty Movement, to name a few—in relation to the story? Is there a commonality between them that’s essential to understanding her?

4. Instead of writing fiction, Ru decides to study an actual matriarchal society in an attempt to “borrow authenticity.” Do you agree with her statement that all nonfiction is “borrowed authenticity”? How does this differ from her approach to writing novels, or does it? What do you think Ru is trying to get at in her writing?

5. Ru wonders if sisterhood and motherhood are “[ways] to find versions of yourself locked away in others.” Do you think that’s an accurate way to describe these relationships? Do you see any of your own sibling and/or parental relationships reflected in the story?

6. The girls have each adopted a different method of coping with their father’s absence. Liv looks for comfort in other people’s families and relationships rather than her own, Ru holds onto the belief that her father really is a spy and makes it her mission to find him, and Esme has outright accused Augusta of sleeping with multiple men to satisfy her own selfish desire to become a mother. How do these assumptions shape each of them, their sense of self and responsibility? How does the reality of their father’s existence affect the very essence of who they are? Do they each seem to be on a path to healing, acceptance, and self–actualization after all?

7. What is Liv’s impetus for cherry–picking husbands from the engagement pages? Do you think she’s capable of real love? Did you empathize with her by the end and, if so, what lessons do you think she needed to learn in order to become a sympathetic character?

8. What were the different qualities Ru appreciated about Cliff and Teddy? Which qualities made Teddy the right man for Ru and, conversely, Cliff the wrong one?

9. Esme admits to feeling the other life she could have lived with Darwin Webber, even while she was married to Doug, so strongly that it was like she was in touch with an alternate universe. Is it fair of her to blame her father for the current state of her life? Is it human nature to feel a connection to the path not taken? If you were in Esme’s shoes, would you have wanted to reconnect with Darwin and the life that could have been, or do you think that kind of wishful thinking is a recipe for disappointment?

10. Nick was involved in his daughters’ lives from a removed distance, but he certainly changed the course of events for them. Would you say he’s more parental or manipulative in that way? Could you pardon him, knowing his reasons for intervening when he felt he must, or do you think he should have stayed out of things? How is his relationship and involvement different with each of the sisters and why?

11. Do you think Nick is a good father? Is Augusta a good mother?

12. Did Augusta do the right thing by keeping so much about Nick from their daughters? Was there anything she could or should have done differently?

13. The sisters argue over whether they’re ultimately likeable versus loveable versus unlikeable. Would you agree with their conclusion that they’re unlikeable? Why or why not? Why do you think they see themselves that way?

14. The concept of truth is a muddled one for the Rockwells, who’ve lied to themselves and one another for various reasons. Why is it so hard for them to be honest? Is one lie more profound, even more destructive, than the others?

15. Why is it so important that Atty collect the complete set of Nancy Drew books by the end of the novel? What is the thematic significance of Nancy Drew in this story?

16. The weather is such a visceral piece of the narrative, almost like a character in and of itself. How did the storms affect the way you experienced the story? What did the Rockwells lose as a result of the hurricane and, ultimately, what did they gain? Why does it sometimes take a perfect storm to finally reconcile the past?

A Conversation with Bridget Asher

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

All of Us and Everything_AsherA Conversation with Bridget Asher, author of All of Us and Everything, a smart, wry, and poignant novel about reconciliation between fathers and daughters, between spouses; the deep ties between sisters; and the kind of forgiveness that can change a person’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

Random House Reader’s Circle: At the risk of asking what Ru would consider a “stupid question,” would you shed some light on where you got the inspiration for this novel? Do you agree with Ru that we should stop asking this question as a society?

Bridget Asher: Ru and I have a lot in common. We both have two older sisters, both write, both brood in similar ways. But, no, I don’t think we should stop asking this question. Honestly, some writers are struck by moments of brilliant illumination—-their skulls suddenly lit up with story. Each of my novels contains a million tiny flares, many of which happen while I’m living my life and scribbling notes and many of which happen while writing. But, also, it’s worth noting that some of the flares that made this novel have been around for a while. I once wrote a love letter for a stranger on a plane, a kind of win–back. (The essay appeared in Real Simple.) Liv, the cherry picker, has been a character I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I could never find the right place for her to land. And I’ve also written a little about the snowstorm that hit DC the night before Kennedy’s inauguration, using my father’s memories of that night, but I finally found the larger love story within it.

Society should keep asking, but, from me, one can expect a longer, more intricate answer.

RHRC: How is your authorial approach and perspective similar to or different from Ru’s? Was it surreal to bring another writer to life in this character?

Bridget Asher: It’s a relief to write about a writer. So much of our lives we can’t quite shove into the lives of characters with other professions, so there’s a feeling of ease in writing about a writer and a lot of opportunity to be comedic. Ru’s disastrous reading at the public library, well, let’s just say I didn’t have to rely wholly on imagination.

RHRC: You’ve written more than twenty books, but said All of Us and Everything is your favorite one to date. Why is that? How is this book different from your others and what was the experience of writing it like?

Bridget Asher: I’ve written as Asher, but also under Julianna Baggott and N.E. Bode, and people ask me all the time which of my own books is my favorite. The intent is often to find out which of my books they should pick up. I usually ask them what they like to read, rearranging the question so I’m not forced to answer. But All of Us and Everything is the novel that I want my really good friends and family to read, the people who know me very well and who’ve known me for a long time. In writing this novel, I had the opportunity to write out a kind of spirited take on sisterhood and motherhood that I’ve never allowed myself to do before.

RHRC: You paint Nick’s background as a spy with such finely rendered detail. How did you go about investigating that aspect of the novel?

Bridget Asher: I had the opportunity to interview someone who worked in intelligence for his entire career. Twenty years retired, he was able to answer questions; what I really wanted to know wasn’t about his assignments, but rather about the culture of the work, how love, marriages, and families operated within that culture. I asked him if he was nervous about divulging things. He said that he lived his life assuming that anything he said might be on the record. That was very telling.

RHRC: This book features a predominantly female cast. Did you find it different/exciting/challenging to focus pointedly on this singular matriarchal family while the men are so behind–the–scenes? Did you arrive at any new revelations about the relationships between mothers/daughters and sisters by zeroing in on the Rockwell women? Which aspects of their family dynamic do you think makes them universal?

Bridget Asher: I come from matriarchal family lines. My father was raised with his two sisters by a single mother and her sister. My mother’s mother was the clear matriarch of our family for most of my life. I would say that my own mother has taken her place in that role. I have a brother and two older sisters, and I have two daughters and two sons. This novel allowed me to really dig into the ways I’ve seen sisters operate: old scores, unwanted nicknames, family jokes and secrets, petty turf battles—-that don’t feel petty at all, some thievery, long memories, as well as incredible tenderness and love, the ties that bind sisters. This goes for friendships as well, people who’ve known you for what seems like forever. There is something about being known by others for an entire lifetime. When it comes down to it, these sisters are truly there for one another. Just the way in which these sisters—-and Atty too—-orchestrate a guy showing up for dinner is, I hope, familiar to a lot of people. I think that these kinds of politics, as well as clumsily expressed love, exist in many families.

RHRC: Did you relate to, sympathize with, or want to spend time with any of the Rockwells in particular? Which of them was the most fun to write?

Bridget Asher: I relate to Ru, absolutely, as the precocious youngest of three daughters, and as a writer. But Liv was the most fun to write. I love her edginess, her self–delusions, her strange acts of kindness and generosity. I miss her the most, though Atty is a very, very close second. She would always surprise me, offering up my favorite lines.

RHRC: Channeling the spirit of Augusta and Atty, if you could lead a personal movement of your own, what would it be?

Bridget Asher: Tolerance. If we could allow others to live as they choose, to be who they are, to honor and celebrate our rich diversity, and not perceive others as a threat, I believe the world would be a safer place.

RHRC: Atty’s observations on life and her family lend such comic relief to the narrative. Did she spring from a conscious effort to explore the ways we interact with social media today, or is she just a product of her time?

Bridget Asher: One of my husband’s first jobs was at a boarding school in Delaware, and that school and certainly the spirit of being a faculty brat living on campus is something I’ve always wanted to write. I didn’t set out to make a statement on social media. Atty arrived pretty whole, live–tweeting from the get–go.

RHRC: You’ve written some epic win–backs in this novel. Have you ever had to script one in real life?

Bridget Asher: Well, in addition to the win–back that I wrote for the stranger on the plane, I do write win–backs in various ways. I still believe that words are powerful and change someone’s way of thinking, change their mind, as well as possibly win their heart. When my mother hands you a letter, you know that she has something to tell you that she can’t tell you without crying. The tradition began there, perhaps. The truth is win–backs don’t always work. My oldest sister, actually, is the one who’s tried to tell me that I always think I can fix things with words. Sometimes words fail. But when they win, it’s a beautiful thing.

RHRC: What is the most important message you’d like readers to take away from this story?

Bridget Asher: I want people to see pieces of themselves, their sisters, their mothers, their best friends, the loves of their lives. I want people to find lines that nail some emotion or thought or family dynamic so hard that they have to share them with someone else. After my father read the book—-he was one of the first—-we had an immediate set of catchphrases, a secret language of inside jokes. I want this book to do that for people.

RHRC: Are you a Nancy Drew fan yourself? What shaped your own reading tastes as a child? What sorts of books do you gravitate toward now?

Bridget Asher: I liked stranger, more magical stories. My love of Roald Dahl quickly turned into a love of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then Lee Smith and, for family dynamics, Anne Tyler and John Irving. I also saw a lot of theater as a kid and that may have been even more influential than what I was reading in terms of developing my ear.

RHRC: What’s in the works next for you?

Bridget Asher: I want to write a Paris novel. I loved writing The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted and, of course, doing the research it required. I’d love to find an excuse to go to Paris for a little while. Who wouldn’t?

Discussion Questions: The Virgin’s Spy

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Virgin's Spy_AndersenPerfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, The Virgin’s Spy is award-winning author Laura Andersen’s second novel about the next generation of Tudor royals—a mesmerizing historical novel filled with rich period detail, vividly drawn characters, and all the glamour and seduction of the fabled Tudor court.

1.  Discuss Elizabeth’s marriage to King Philip. Can you envision any scenario in which their marriage might have survived? Or were their religious differences and political responsibilities insurmountable?

2.  What do you think motivated Elizabeth’s revelation about her suspicions regarding Lucette’s true parentage? Was her choice political or personal? How might she have handled the situation differently? Discuss the long–term impact of her decision on Lucette and the Courtenay family.

3.  Which character surprised you the most? Why?

4.  In what ways are Anne Isabella and Elizabeth similar? In what ways are they different? Compare and contrast the two, both as women and as leaders.

5.  Discuss the relationship between Minuette and Elizabeth. In what ways has it evolved, and in what ways has it remained the same?

6.  Elizabeth plays many roles—-that of wife, friend, mother, and queen most notably. Discuss these different facets of her personality. Do you see a difference in her behavior in each of these contexts, or does the monarch necessarily overshadow the other roles?

7.  At one point, Lucette asks, “Should not love between spouses be absolute? How could one ever love a second person as much as the first?” Do you agree with this sentiment? Is it possible to feel romantic love for more than one person in a lifetime?

8.  Renaud tells Lucette: “You are so afraid of not being wanted, you will not put it to the test, and thus create the very distance you fear.” Do you agree with his assessment of Lucette? Can you think of anyone else in the book to whom this sentiment applies?

9.  Discuss Julien’s motives for becoming an English spy, taking into account the events of 1572. Do you find his reasons compelling?

10.  Before leaving England, Philip says to Elizabeth, “I indulged myself in a dream these twenty years because I loved you and because I hoped persuasion would be of greater influence than force.” What do you think his dream was? How could Elizabeth have handled the situation with Spain differently? At this point, do you think there was anything she could have done to dissuade Philip from carrying out his plan?

11.  Compare and contrast Nicolas and Julien. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? Did you sympathize with Nicolas at all by the end?

12.  If you read The Boleyn King Trilogy, compare and contrast the relationships between Kit, Anabel, Pippa, and Lucette to those between the previous generation: Elizabeth, William, Dominic, and Minuette.

13.  What did you think of the revelation at the end of the book? Any predictions for the sequel?

Discussion Questions: At the Water’s Edge

Monday, November 16th, 2015

At the Water's Edge_GruenIn this thrilling new novel from the author of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen again demonstrates her talent for creating spellbinding period pieces.At the Water’s Edge is a gripping and poignant love story about a privileged young woman’s awakening as she experiences the devastation of World War II in a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands.

Use these discussion questions to help guide your book club’s discussion of the book.

1.       The novel takes place during World War II. Is the war setting a distraction or does it contribute to the success of the novel? Would changing the time frame change the meaning of the novel? How did the austerity of the times affect Maddie, who was used to a life of luxury? Have you ever discussed what things were like during the Great Depression and World War II with family members who lived through it? What stories did they share with you?

2.       “What I learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight.” Monsters come in all different forms in At the Water’s Edge. What are some of the monsters in the novel? How are they different from what you might expect?

3.       Throughout At the Water’s Edge, Maddie transforms from a woman who is spoiled, naïve, and helpless to one who is brave and capable. What and who are the major influences that led her to change? What are the biggest lessons Maddie learns throughout the course of the novel?

4.       Discuss the novel’s ambiguity concerning the supernatural. How does Sara Gruen blend mystical elements into the narrative’s realism? Did Ellis and Hank find the Loch Ness Monster after all?

5.       Do you think Maddie and Ellis were ever truly in love? What did you think of Ellis? Did you sympathize with him? Did Ellis change as a character in the course of the novel or did the changes all take place within Maddie?

6.       How did you feel about Hank? Did he evolve during the course of the novel or did his character remain the same?

7.       The idea for At the Water’s Edge came to Sara Gruen during a visit she took to Scotland. She became fascinated with the ruins of old castles, the wild beauty of nature, and Scottish history and folklore. Discuss the role that the landscape and atmosphere of Scotland plays in the novel.

8.       Discuss the evolution of Maddie and Angus’s relationship. What were some of Angus’s qualities that Maddie grew to most admire? At what point do you think she realized she loved him?

9.       At the Water’s Edge explores humanity at its most base, as well as its most noble. Can you give some examples of both from the story? In the end, what kind of statement do you think Gruen makes about human nature?

10.       Before she goes to Scotland, Maddie only has Ellis and Hank as friends. How do the female friendships she develops in Scotland shape her in new ways?

A Conversation with Sara Gruen

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

At the Water's Edge_GruenSara Gruen, author of the new release At the Water’s Edge, shared some insight into her writing process and what led her to set her latest novel at the edge of Scotland’s Loch Ness during World War II.

Brandi Megan Granett: How did the story for At the Water’s Edge unfold for you? What drew you to writing it?

Sara Gruen: I had a long–standing fascination with the Loch Ness Monster, starting when I was twelve and first visited Urquhart Castle and was convinced I was going to see it, and a random news article rekindled my interest. The idea of incorporating my favorite castle in the world with the looming prospect of the monster was irresistible, so I booked research trips without having any idea of what my story would be. Ultimately, it came to me in a rush when I was standing at the Water Gate in Urquhart Castle (a location that has great importance in the book), and I spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That day was definitely one of the highlights of my writing life!

BMG: Both Jacob in Water for Elephants and Maddie and Ellis in At the Water’s Edge suffer a sort of fall from grace at the start, losing access to a once guaranteed future. What do your stories say about making life your own?

SG: In the broadest sense, almost all stories begin with an upheaval of some sort, because normal people doing normal things does not a good story make! I think the stories that appeal to us as readers are those in which people have to examine what’s really going on in their lives, or face a huge change in circumstances, and then see what they do going forward. In the case of At the Water’s Edge, Maddie and Ellis both face enormous changes in circumstance and their understanding of life as they know it, and react in nearly polar opposite ways to the truths they find.

BMG: What roles do travel and research play in your writing? When does imagination come in?

SG: I love the research part. One of the best things about this job is that I get to find something that fascinates me and that I hope will be fascinating to others, and then I completely immerse myself in it for a few years. It happens in different ways for different books, but in this case the location came first, and after a few weeks of full immersion in the Highlands, the story came to me. It happened while I was standing at the Water Gate, and all the little amorphous bits that were floating around in my brain started to take shape, so I sent my guide back to his car and spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That’s one of those writing moments you hope and dream will happen, but very rarely do. I still have the files on my phone. They’re taking up a huge amount of space, but I can’t bring myself to delete them.

BMG: Your books draw richly on the history of the times; 
in At the Water’s Edge, World War II frames the narrative. 
What do you think it takes to accurately portray a time period? How do you balance telling the story and setting the historical scene?

SG: For me, I need to take an almost obsessive approach to research. When I’m at the writing stage, I pass through a kind of creative portal every day and feel like I’m really in that other world I’ve created, and so it has to exist right down to the trowel marks in the plaster, and I’m a stickler for detail. The saying “the devil is in the details” is absolutely right.

BMG: This is your fifth book; what have you learned about your writing process as you gained more experience? What stayed the same for you and what has changed?

SG: I’ve realized that I can’t structure my work time and progress quite as rigidly as I would like to. For my first couple of books, I aimed for (and got, even if it nearly killed me) two thousand words a day. Then I moved to two thousand words a day or eight hours, whichever came first. Now, I feel like if I show up for work and put in an honest day, I’ve done well. Because I can’t force the creative process. Sometimes I am typing as fast as I can all day, and have to drag myself away because there’s more to be done, and other times I stare glumly at my open file all day, which is okay, because I’ve come to realize that when I can’t get any words out, it means there’s something I need to figure out and change in the storyline, and even if my fingers aren’t busy, my brain is.

BMG: Out of all the characters you created, who is your favorite and why?

SG: Before this book, I would have said Rosie, but now I have to say Maddie. She changed so dramatically from what I imagined her to be—-coming to life in the way that characters do—-and she was so willing to look at things that she had never examined before, in an open–minded and big–hearted way, and she showed courage and resolve in a situation that was utterly impossible, and became increasingly so.

BMG: I read that you needed an Internet–free zone to write Water for Elephants. Zadie Smith spoke about using a computer program to block herself from the Internet while writing her novel NW. How do you keep yourself from going down the rabbit hole of cyberspace?

SG: I wrote a large chunk of Water for Elephants in a walk–in closet, because at that time we didn’t have Wi–Fi and it pre-vented me from obsessively checking my email, shopping on eBay, and basically blowing an afternoon watching cats in boxes on YouTube. Then I used Zadie Smith’s method—-I know the program she’s talking about—-but I found a workaround, and so that ended up being no help at all. And just in case she ever reads this, I’m not going to say what that workaround is because I do not want to be single–handedly responsible for the delay of a new Zadie Smith book.

From the Diary of Minuette Courtenay from The Virgin’s Spy

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Virgin's Spy_AndersenFrom the Diary of Minuette Courtenay

30 August 1561

Wynfield Mote

Elizabeth’s summer progress has brought her to Warwick Castle for a fortnight, a visit that might very well bankrupt Ambrose Dudley. It is, of course, a mark of great favour to host the queen—-but the wretched man apparently had to build an entirely new timber structure in which to house her, seeing as the castle itself is in such poor repair. Perhaps that is why our queen never chooses to stay with us at Wynfield Mote—-she knows that we would not go to such lengths to impress her.

But as Warwick is only ten miles distant, Elizabeth has come to us for this one night only.

There have been rumours, of course, since almost the moment she made her wedding vows last December. But I said I would believe none of them until Elizabeth herself told me. And so she did, as we sat alone together after dinner.

“I am with child.” She delivered the news as abruptly and matter–of–factly as though she were commenting on possession of a new book or piece of art. But I know her too well to be deceived.

“I am glad of it,” I replied, with real pleasure. “Have you been ill? Tired? Uncomfortable?”

“I cannot afford to be ill, breeding or not.”

“Philip must be pleased.” I called him by name deliberately, to separate the husband and father from the King of Spain.

“Naturally he is pleased. It means he has done his duty. Now he can return to Spain for the winter.”

“I do not think you are only a duty to him, Elizabeth. And nor will his child be.”

But my friend has refused to be sentimental since the death of Robert Dudley. “We cannot all be as fortunate as you, Minuette, with your adoring husband and perfect brood of children. For it is no secret in this household that you are also set to deliver another before spring.”

There is no such thing as perfect, I wanted to snap. What does Elizabeth know of the price Dominic and I continue to pay for our past sins? Does she know how my husband retreated to Tiverton after Stephen’s birth last year and did not communicate for so many months I began to think he had left me? He loves me, I know, and he loves Lucette equally with Stephen—-but love does not preclude pain.

As Elizabeth knows well.

27 February 1562

Tiverton Castle

Elizabeth is safely delivered of a daughter.

She is named Anne Isabella, for her Boleyn grandmother and her Spanish great–grandmother. If there is disappointment that the newborn is not a son, it is masked for now with relief that the queen is clearly capable of bearing healthy children. King Philip will return in the spring to meet his daughter, yes, but also to begin the business of the next child.

But I can care about Elizabeth only in brief snatches between my own joy and exhaustion. Three days ago I was also delivered, almost a month before my expected time, and gifted by God with two beautiful children. A girl and a boy. Philippa, we have called our daughter, after Dominic’s mother, who died last year in blessed peace. We considered naming her twin Jonathan, after my father, but Dominic kept looking between the two babies with a crease in his forehead as he pondered.

“Christopher,” he finally announced.

I blinked, somewhat surprised, for there is no Christopher in either of our near families. But then Dominic gave one of his rare, open smiles and said, “I like the way they sound together. Pippa and Kit. What do you think?”

I think I love you so much my heart is near to breaking, I thought.

3 May 1562

Tiverton Castle

The children and I leave for Wynfield Mote next week. Dominic will not be with us. He has been summoned to court. Elizabeth has tried summons before this, but Dominic has always ignored them. What can she threaten us with? Taking away Tiverton and the duchy of Exeter? It would be no punishment, for Dominic serves his people from duty rather than ambition.

This time, Elizabeth took another tack. Please, she wrote to both of us, I have great need of a friend. Not for myself. For my daughter.


The closer he came to London, the more tense Dominic Cour-tenay grew. He had not been anywhere near the city since his imprisonment in the Tower five years before. At least Elizabeth had sense enough not to summon him to Whitehall. Indeed, he did not actually have to enter the city at all, for the queen awaited him at Nonsuch Palace, fifteen miles southwest. The distinctive octagonal towers rising before him made Dominic catch his breath before he ruthlessly banished memories of previous visits. Visits when Elizabeth was merely Princess of Wales and William . . .

Tension made him curt, but he had never been a man of many words and Elizabeth’s guards and stewards passed him along swiftly enough to the queen’s privy chamber. To his surprise, she greeted him alone.

“No counselors today?” he asked her. “No clerks or ambassadors begging your attention for the great matters of state?”

“There is no matter of greater importance to me than what I am about to ask you.”

“Why bring me all the way here simply to tell you no? I am finished with courts and royals, Your Majesty. You know that.”

“But you are not finished with loyalty. Nor will you be so long as you draw breath.”

“What do you want, Elizabeth?” If she was going to pluck at all the most painful chords of his past, he would treat her not as queen, but as the girl he’d known since childhood.

She matched his tone. “I need you, Dominic, to stand as Protector to my daughter.”

All the breath left his body. He’d known a Lord Protector once, and no way in hell was he going to follow in the footsteps of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford.

Elizabeth didn’t wait for his refusal. “I am not asking you to run the government, Dominic. You are entirely too honest for such a task . . . although I suspect Minuette would be quite good at it.”

“That is not—-”

Elizabeth overrode him. “Let me be frank. My life is all that stands between security and chaos in England. My life—-and now that of my infant daughter. An infant whose father would gladly seize whatever power he could in this nation.”

Dominic had learned a few things from his wife, including sarcasm. “That is only occurring to you now?”

Her eyes darkened, and he realized that there was real fear beneath her royal composure. “For a man so eager to keep apart from politics, that is a rather piercing opinion to voice.”

He raised a hand in conciliation. “I apologize. What is it you want from me?”

When she spoke again, it was entirely as Queen of England. “If I should die during my daughter’s childhood, England will have need of a strong government during her minority. That responsibility would lie in the hands of Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham, as well as a carefully composed council of men I trust. I am not asking you to protect England in such a case—-I am asking you to protect Anabel.”

It was that last word that moved him, the realization that Elizabeth had given her daughter a pet name. Even though he suspected her of using sentiment against him, it worked. There was only one thing more she could try, so Dominic asked before the queen could. “May I see her?”

He followed Elizabeth to a separate suite of painted and gilded chambers attended by soft–footed ladies who looked more suited to royal feasts than caring for a baby.

Anne Isabella, the Princess of Wales, lay in a cradle beneath a cloth–of–gold canopy embroidered with her mother’s personal falcon badge. The baby looked a little bigger to him than did his own twins, but the plump cheeks and finely pursed mouth were familiar childish traits. The infant had her mother’s distinctive red–gold hair and stared up at him with a curious intelligence he told himself he was imagining.

“She’s a pawn, Dominic,” Elizabeth said softly, next to him. “A Spanish pawn. If I die young, Philip’s men will spare no 
effort to lay hold of her. She must not fall to Spain. Promise me, Dominic. Promise me that if anything happens to me, you will take Anabel into your care. I trust few men with my government—-but only one man do I trust with her life.”

The last royal who trusted me with his life is dead, Dominic thought bleakly. In the end, it was the memory of Will, as much as Elizabeth’s plea, that decided him.

“I will protect her, Your Majesty. As though she were my own.”

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