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A Conversation with David Liss

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissRandom House Reader’s Circle had the chance to ask David Liss, author of The Day of Atonement some questions about his research, history, and the differences between writing historical fiction and fantasy.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What was your inspiration for the novel?

David Liss: I first learned about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 when I took my first eighteenth–century literature class in grad school, and it’s one of those things that always stuck in my imagination. Though it’s not well known by Americans today, it was a consciousness–changing event for eighteenth–century European intellectuals, who couldn’t quite comprehend how one of the world’s great cities could simply cease to exist. Usually when I’m finishing a book, I know exactly what I want to work on next. But after The Twelfth Enchantment, I didn’t have a clear idea, so I decided that maybe it was time to finally look into the earthquake. I began doing a little bit of light research on eighteenth–century Portugal in general to see if there was a story that would draw me in, and I became instantly fascinated with the political corruption, religious injustice, and economic ineptitude of the period. From there, I simply kept doing research until the story began to take shape. Originally I planned to write a sort of post–disaster novel in which I set up events for the earthquake fairly quickly, and then explored the aftermath in the bulk of the book. As I began writing the book, however, it became clear to me that it was Lisbon before the earthquake, not after, that really fascinated me.

RHRC: Sebastiao is an exceptional character in terms of skill, determination, and focus. What made you want to tell his story?

DL: Once I was fairly well steeped in the research for this book, I knew I wanted to write a revenge story, which seemed like a natural narrative for such an unjust society. Sebastiao took shape as I tried to figure out what sort of character would work best for this world. I liked the idea of someone who had been utterly broken by the injustice he’d suffered, so I began working from there. Revenge is always a losing proposition, of course, since it invariably leaves the seeker feeling empty afterward, so I wanted to write about someone who was looking for something more than justice. Sebastiao, troubled as he is, understands that vengeance is a process for him, not necessarily justice against those who have done wrong.

RHRC: The Day of Atonement is a return to historical fiction, after The Twelfth Enchantment, a novel with magical and supernatural elements. Do you find there are major differences between writing historical fiction and writing fantasy? Which do you prefer?

DL: When I write fantasy, it tends to be of the historical variety, which is usually very research–heavy, so there’s really not that much difference. I’m still working within certain limitations of history and culture—-as opposed to the sort of fantasy that takes place in a totally imagined world. I’m not sure if I prefer writing either one. Each has its own pleasures for me. That said, the two genres, in my view, are closely related. When you write about
periods of time before film or photography or sound recording, you have to make a lot of guesses about what life was like for your characters. They are often educated guesses, but you are still engaging in world–building and constructing an imaginative world for your reader to inhabit. If the physics and biology of that world are the same as ours, it’s historical fiction; if not, it’s fantasy.

RHRC: What were some of the specific challenges you faced in writing or researching this novel?

DL: The Day of Atonement presented some very specific challenges because Lisbon, as it existed before the earthquake, is almost entirely gone. A great deal of the work I did for this book involved trying to understand what life was like in destroyed Lisbon for people from all the various social strata. The English of this period were highly literate (by contemporary standards) and fascinated with themselves, so eighteenth–century London is extremely easy to research. Lisbon, by contrast, is less well recorded, so there was a lot of archival and detective work involved.

RHRC: What was your research process like?

DL: I tend to work from the broad to the particular. When I’m researching a culture I know almost nothing about, as I did with this book, I first look for the very general surveys of the material—-popular histories, or even books for younger readers. I want to understand the basics before I get into specifics, because otherwise I don’t really know what I’m looking at. Once I begin to have a sense of what interests me, I’ll read more scholarly works, and studies of specific people or events, or of cultural movements. From there I go to primary sources: letters, diaries, contemporary travel guides, and whatever else is available. Finally, when I have a near–final version of the book, I visit the place I’m writing about. I find if I go too early in the process, I’m not sufficiently focused; if I go later, I know exactly what I need to look for or at.

RHRC: Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist of several of your other novels, makes an appearance. What made you decide to bring him back? Did it feel strange to be writing about him from a different character’s perspective?

DL: There were certain similarities in the skill sets of the two characters, even though their personalities are very different, so I began to think it might be fun to have Weaver as a minor character in this book. Readers often contact me asking if I plan to write any more novels featuring Benjamin Weaver, and right now I have no intention of doing so, but it was interesting to think about him as an older, more settled figure. I’ve never had any interest in writing an entire novel about an older version of the character, so having him appear as a minor character here allowed me to imagine his life progressing without having to work a full narrative around it.

RHRC: The novel is set during a particularly tumultuous time in politics and religion. Do you see any lessons for the modern world in the realities of that setting?

DL: I tend to believe that every time is a tumultuous time for politics and religion—-which often serve, in my view, as an excuse for, rather than a cause of, aggression and animosity. I’m not sure there is any particularly insightful lesson to take away. There are always going to be those who will misuse and abuse power if given the chance. There are pretty universal occurrences, but I do find it interesting to see how they manifested in the past. Looking at these events through the lens of history can help to defamiliarize, and therefore shed light on, events in our own time.

The Scent of Secrets: Jane Thynne’s Inspiration

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

The Scent of Secrets_Thynne

Set in Europe, in 1938, during the tense run-up to war, and perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, this gripping historical novel features the half-British, half-German actress (and wholly covert spy) Clara Vine, who finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous game of subterfuge.

Jane Thynne talks about what inspired her to write The Scent of Secrets…

A few streets away from Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge stands the anonymous, shiny black door of a private members’ club. From the outside, you would never know that the club is for agents who served in resistance organizations during WWII and beyond. But when you enter and climb the stairs you pass numerous photographs of female spies who served—-and mostly died—-in the field. It is deeply inspiring.

When I began writing about a British agent in Germany in the 1930s it was with the bravery of these women in mind. I had always wanted to write a novel set in Berlin. It was a city that went in a matter of months from being the most exciting place in Europe—-the center of sexual and cultural freedom, of Expressionist film and Bauhaus art—-to the most frightening and repressive. The idea of placing a female British agent not just in Berlin but at the heart of the Nazi regime itself was irresistible.

Having been a journalist, both in TV and newspapers, for most of my career, I was keen on documentary accuracy, so even though I was writing fiction, I spent weeks tramping Berlin’s streets, exploring the prewar buildings that remained and picturing those that had been destroyed. It was a strange process in which my imaginary Berlin—-the 1930s version—-existed like a palimpsest alongside the hastily erected and often ugly postwar buildings. Parts of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry still stand, and the Babelsberg film studio remains in its entirety, as does Goering’s Air Ministry, but we can no longer see Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, and the bunker where Hitler and Eva Braun died is buried beneath a parking lot. Yet it wasn’t just the official buildings that mattered. Deciding where an actress like Clara Vine might live was just as important. In the end I chose Winterfeldtstrasse, a lovely tree–lined street in Schöneberg just a block away from where Christopher Isherwood wrote the novel that was filmed as Cabaret.

The streets of Berlin were the easy bit. The chief challenge of my research was that I was writing about women. There are barely enough libraries in the world to contain the books written about the male side of the Third Reich—-the leaders, the politics, the campaigns—-but the experience of German women seems to have gone largely unrecorded. What was it like to be in the League of German Girls? To attend a Bride School or a weekly Mother’s Course? And in the upper echelons of society, how did it feel to be married to a man who became a monster? Were the Nazi leaders’ wives complicit, or did they try to dissuade their men from their crimes?

The answers were not easy to find. No one has wanted to translate the memoirs of women like Lina Heydrich into English, so I brushed up on my German and spent time buried in the London Library, a beautiful Georgian building in St. James’s Square. And the information I found provided for me a whole new perspective on the private life of the Third Reich. The domestic details of the women’s lives seem so fragile and recognizably ordinary beside the war machine that their husbands were preparing. While I was researching the life of Eva Braun I read a few lines about her love of perfume, how she adored Worth’s Je Reviens and liked to create her own concoctions. This was, of course, just another irony of life in Nazi Germany—-cosmetics, especially French ones, were frowned on for ordinary women. Yet that detail, like a snatch of perfume itself, lit an idea in my mind. I thought about the power of scent to evoke feelings—-not just childhood memories, but unsettling emotions and fear too—-and I decided that perfume should be a theme at the heart of my story.

Like the door of that secret agents’ club in London, the wartime lives of German women are easy to pass by. But you only understand how a totalitarian society works when you see it on the human scale. To me, glimpsing the personal lives of the senior men through their relationships with their wives and girlfriends only makes their activities more disturbing.

—-Jane Thynne

Discussion Questions: The Day of Atonement

Monday, September 14th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissThe bestselling author of such novels as A Conspiracy of Paper and The Whiskey Rebels continues his masterly run of “atmospheric” (The Washington Post), “page-turning” (The Baltimore Sun), “tremendously smart” (Newsweek) historical thrillers. In The Day of Atonement, David Liss blends meticulous period detail with crackling adventure in the tale of one man’s quest for justice—and retribution.

1.  Two big themes of the novel are vengeance and mercy. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? Can you be both vengeful and merciful at the same time?

2.  Discuss the meaning of the title The Day of Atonement.

3.  The novel ends before we know how Roberta responds to Sebastiao. What do you imagine she says to him? What would you say to him in her place?

4.  Do you see Sebastiao’s concept of justice evolve at all throughout the novel? If so, how, and what do you think prompts the change?

5.  Comparing his own deception to Roberta Carver’s, Sebastiao thinks, “The Carvers’ crime against Settewell had been unforgiveable. It was not a slightly unscrupulous take on usual trade—-it was theft, pure and simple. What I intended was, of course, much the same, but my scheme had the virtue of being retaliatory” (page 209). Do you agree with the idea that his actions are somehow more justifiable because they were preceded first by another crime? Is revenge ever justifiable?

6.  Which of the characters in this novel do you most identify with, and why?

7.  At the start of Chapter 1, Sebastiao declares, “I am not a kind person. . . . If I am a monster, however, I am monster made, not born” (page 19). What does this opening suggest about the nature of goodness and evil? After reading the novel, do you agree or disagree with his declaration?

8.  Compare and contrast Roberta and Gabriela. What do you think the two women represent to Sebastiao, and how do you see that change over the course of the novel?

9.  At the end of his final confrontation with Azinheiro, Sebastiao is faced with a very important choice. Were you surprised by the choice he made? In his shoes, do you think you would have made the same one?

10. How do you think your opinion of the characters might change if this were a book of nonfiction, and not a novel?

Discussion Questions: The Same Sky

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetFrom the acclaimed author of How to Be Lost—also a Target Book Club pick—comes a beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

1. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Carla’s mother left for Texas when Carla was just five years old. How does that experience shape Carla, for better or for worse?

2. Carla and Alice come from very different backgrounds, but their lives are ultimately connected. What qualities or personality traits do they share?

3. Carla’s journey to Texas is life-threatening and heartbreaking, but she never gives up. Where do you think she derives her strength and faith from?

4. Jake becomes very angry about the way Alice handles the situation with Evian. Do you think his anger is justified? Why or why not?

5. What do you think Alice learns from her relationship with Evian? How does it contribute to her broader outlook?

6. Through the different experiences of Alice, Jane, and Carla, the author explores three unique attitudes toward motherhood. What resonated with you about the experiences of all three characters as they reflected on the idea of motherhood and its role in their lives?

7. At various points in the novel, Alice and Jake disagree about whether or not they should continue trying to adopt. What would you do if your spouse told you that he or she couldn’t take the heartbreak of any more failed adoptions?

8. Despite her best efforts to protect him, Carla is ultimately left with no choice about what to do with Junior. Do you agree with her decision? Can you imagine what you might have done in her shoes?

9. After Alice and Jane lose their mother to ovarian cancer, and considering Alice’s own battle with breast cancer, Alice can’t understand why Jane still refuses to find out if she’s at risk as well. Jane maintains that she’d rather live freely with risk than miss out on certain parts of life. Which sister do you agree with? Why?

10. Throughout the novel the narrative alternates between Carla’s perspective and Alice’s. Was there ever a point when you wished you could find out what was going on with the other character? When did this happen and why do you think you felt such a strong pull?

11. Were you surprised by how things turned out for Carla and Alice? Why or why not?

12. The issue of undocumented immigration is clearly essential to the plot of The Same Sky, and is a hugely polarizing part of the American experience today, but it doesn’t overpower the other themes in the novel. How do you think the author achieved that balance?

13. In addition to undocumented immigration, The Same Sky deals with issues of love, motherhood, personal health, rape, adoption, economic inequality, and many more. Of all the themes addressed in the novel (whether explicitly or implicitly), which was the most thought provoking for you? Why?

Chasing Down the Amazons with Anne Fortier

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

The Lost SisterhoodReaders often ask me to pinpoint the very moment I decided to write a book about the Amazons. The truth is, there was nothing sudden about it; those fiery warrior women have roamed my imagination for as long as I can remember. Not only did my mother make sure I was well versed in Greek myths from the earliest age, but Myrina’s and Diana’s parallel journeys of discovery have deep roots in my own lifelong experiences as a scholar and traveler.

When I was fourteen years old, my mother took me on a holiday trip to Tunisia—-the northernmost country in Africa. One week was all she could afford, and had she been alone, she would probably have preferred to spend it in Italy. But Mom knew I was fascinated by the Sahara Desert, and she was, as always, prepared to leave her own comfort zone to nourish my interests. I still remember her telling the travel guide that I was writing a novel set in the desert, and I certainly remember the bemused disbelief in the guide’s eyes. Little did he know that, indeed, three decades later, many of my impressions from that amazing time in Tunisia would eventually find their way into The Lost Sisterhood.

I can still recall the mélange of exotic smells that struck me the moment we stepped off the plane in the tourist hub of Monastir in central Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast—-the jasmine and wild spices, the sizzling hot asphalt, the musky cologne . . . all completely different from the rather sedate scent palette of the Scandinavian climate in which I had grown up. And I still fondly remember the friends I made that week: shy Habib, who taught me to write my name in Arabic letters (and to always check my shoes for scorpions); fun–loving Mohsen, who took me on a breathless horseback ride through lemon orchards; and of course, above all, the nameless, unsmiling sheikh who pulled me up on his horse and galloped off with me . . . because Mom paid him two dinar for the privilege. Thus our motto “what doesn’t kill you makes for a great novel” was born.

Four years later, my friend Line and I went backpacking in Greece in order to finally explore all those ancient excavation sites we had learned about in high school. Even at eighteen we were already aspiring classicists, and the character of Rebecca in The Lost Sisterhood is very much modeled on Line. It was on this trip, standing on the Acropolis in Athens for the first time, that it occurred to me what an extraordinary thing it was for the ancient Greeks to have allowed the Amazons—-filthy, uncivilized warrior women that they supposedly were—-a place on the Parthenon frieze. And frankly, as Line and I stood there in all our grimy splendor, feeling rather hardened and nomadic among the color–coded group tours, I’m sure we both felt a growing kinship with our Amazon cousins once removed.

During our month in Greece and on Crete, Line and I had many close calls that still make us shiver. As we keep saying to each other, we’re lucky to be alive! One night, after zigzagging all over Piraeus and taking multiple buses in wrong directions—-Line was already a pro at ancient Greek, but unfortunately, bus tables hadn’t been part of the school curriculum—-we noticed we were being followed. It was not merely in our imagination; wherever we went, the Man went, too. He was not particularly big or threatening to look at, but what was so eerie about him was his complete lack of shame in following us: he didn’t even try to hide the fact.

As chance would have it, we were headed up a lonely hillside that night, in search of a restaurant rumored to have genuine Greek live music and folk dancing. As we walked up the narrow path in near darkness, we were trying to figure out what to do. What was the Man’s plan? Was he going to jump us? Or did he want to see where we were spending the night before calling his friends? I still remember the ominous sound of his footsteps behind us in the darkness; I had never been so afraid in my life.

In the end, Line and I decided that we had to confront this lowlife, and so we stopped, picked up some sticks, and waited. Our fear was turning into anger, and I remember visualizing precisely how I was going to hit him if it came to that. And so we waited. And listened. But there were no more footsteps. Nothing.

We never saw the Man again. I still believe it was our decision to turn and fight that drove him away. Somehow he sensed that his prey had turned into Amazons.

A few years after my big trip with Line I was back in Turkey, once again poking around in ancient ruins and dreaming about the past. This was when I almost literally stumbled across the name “Myrina” for the first time. As it turns out, the modern Turkish city we know as Izmir was once called Smyrna—-named, some theorize, after the Amazon Myrina. And lo and behold, a few hundred kilometers farther north is the site of ancient Troy where, according to Homer, a local hill was named after this mysterious Myrina, too. While it is true that many place names in the Aegean region bear semblance to legendary Amazons, the unusual thing about Myrina is that she belongs to a different strain of the Amazon legend—-a strain normally associated with North Africa and with a long–lost civilization that was, over time, swallowed up by the Sahara Desert.

Partly because of my own love of North Africa, and partly because we know so little about her, Myrina was always the Amazon who intrigued me the most. According to one ancient historian, Myrina was a warrior queen who commanded a near–invincible army and made innumerable conquests not only in North Africa but also throughout the Aegean region. While it might have been interesting to fictionalize this particular account, I do find that endless tales of conquest and war tend to get monotonous after a while. And so instead, I chose to focus on Myrina’s link with the Greek Amazons we know so well from classical literature and to use her as an eyewitness to a bygone world that has inspired poets and artists—-and the rest of us—-for centuries.

As a consequence of this perennial fascination with Antiquity, hardly a year goes by without a new Hollywood blockbuster about the Trojan War, sun–bronzed gladiators, or related swashbuckling demi-gods. The cinematography has improved over time, and so have the special effects, and yet the stories hardly appear to have evolved at all. This is not necessarily a criticism, because I’ll be the first one to confess that I do love traditional tales of heroism, but it does -puzzle me that so few have dared to break the old Homeric mold—-especially now, with modern science and scholarship constantly expanding our knowledge of the past.

The figure of the mounted, bow–slinging Amazon is a good example of a stereotype that hasn’t changed much since Antiquity. After living with them for so long, I felt these extraordinary women deserved a renaissance that didn’t just apply another coat of veneer to the existing myth, but rather stripped it down to the frame, took it apart, and reassembled it all over again in a new, more thought–provoking form. So too with the Trojan War, which has never ceased to haunt us, perhaps precisely because of all the still–unanswered questions, contradictions, and downright improbabilities of the -classic version of the legend. Rather than simply regurgitating the Homer-Hollywood archetype, I felt it was time to give voice to some of the experts who have long challenged the established opinion about what actually happened at Troy.

The problem of espousing controversial ideas, of course, is that readers get bewildered and wonder what is true and what is fiction. In fact, this confusion applies to historical novels as a whole. To what extent, we wonder, is the author working on the basis of trusted sources? Is the book a sincere attempt at re-creating the past, or is the story merely inspired by past events? Such questions are important, and the answers are rarely short and simple.

In the case of The Lost Sisterhood, a good part of the novel is set in a prehistoric era, which by definition rules out the existence of truly trustworthy written sources. Our knowledge of the period is largely based on archaeological finds and literary hearsay. In other words, we know more about the journey of a chipped clay dish than we know about the life of our warlike Queen Myrina—-worse, we can’t even prove she ever existed.

To make up for the fact that Myrina’s world is spun from myth and scientific guesswork, I injected the modern–day story with as much theory as I thought it could carry. Whenever Diana and Rebecca discuss the past, their thoughts reflect the opinions of scholars currently working in the field—-some more controversial than others. And hopefully The Lost Sisterhood will inspire readers to delve into other books about the great mysteries of Antiquity and—-as I have done—-walk the ruins, breathe in the past, and feel the connection to our heroic ancestors, whether real or imagined.

Discussion Questions: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions: The Promise of Home by Darcie Chan

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six Best Places to Read and Write in Zürich

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

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

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

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

Zürich Hauptbahnhof

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


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


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

The Kantorei

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

The Woods

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

The Train

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

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

A Conversation Between 
Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken

Monday, August 10th, 2015

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

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

Ann and Elizabeth discuss Thunderstruck & Other Stories….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM: Have we mentioned that we’re friends?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP: I am nodding in passionate agreement here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP: So what about the X factor?

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

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

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

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

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

AP: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions: Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

Friday, August 7th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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