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The Virgin’s Daughter by Laura Andersen Discussion Questions

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Virgin's Daughter_AndersenPerfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, The Virgin’s Daughter is the first book in a captivating new saga about the next generation of Tudor royals, which poses the thrilling question: What if Elizabeth I, the celebrated Virgin Queen, gave birth to a legitimate heir?

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?

Ellen Sussman Discussion Questions: A Wedding in Provence

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Wedding in Provence_Sussman

When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.

The first to arrive is Nell, Olivia’s oldest daughter from her first marriage. Impulsive and reckless, she invites a complete stranger—an enigmatic man who is both alluring and a bit dangerous—to be her guest at the wedding. The next is Carly, Olivia’s youngest daughter, the responsible and pragmatic one. Away from her demanding job and a strained relationship, she feels an urgent need to cut loose—and for once do something brash and unpredictable. Then there is Jake, Brody’s playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody’s mother, who is coping with the fallout of her own marriage. And in the middle of it all is Olivia, navigating the dramas, joys, and pitfalls of planning a wedding and starting a new life.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, A Wedding in Provencecaptures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love.

Let these discussion questions guide your book club (or your own thoughts) about the novel…

1. A Wedding in Provence starts by introducing a happy couple on the way to their idyllic wedding. How did this affect your

expectations for the book? Were you nervous about how events would unravel?

2. Nell is clearly a loose cannon. What were your initial thoughts when she decided to bring Gavin to the wedding? Did you think he was dangerous, or just a fun-­loving, spontaneous stranger?

3. Were you surprised when Carly took off with Gavin? Why or why not?

4. In many ways Carly is Nell’s opposite, but the two sisters end up attracted to the same man, however briefly. Is it possible that they aren’t actually as different as they seem? Do you think they share any other similarities?

5. At the beginning of Chapter Sixteen, Olivia and Emily are discussing Nell’s vulnerability. Was Emily’s advice to Olivia helpful? How would you have suggested that Olivia manage her daughters’ differences?

6. After learning that Sébastien cheated on Emily, Olivia is clearly rattled. She says “We’re brave old fools. . . . We still choose love when we know everything that can happen,” (page 19). Do you think a marriage can survive infidelity?

7. What did you think of Sam leaving Fanny after fifty-­five years of marriage and refusing to come to Brody’s wedding? Were you surprised when you found out why?

8. Throughout the novel, Olivia and Brody are faced with numerous obstacles that threaten to ruin their low-­key wedding weekend. From Nell’s surprise guest to Carly’s disappearance and Sébastien’s infidelity, which do you think caused the biggest stir? Why?

9. Of all the characters in the novel, which one did you most sympathize with?

10. Even though Olivia’s big day is the backbone of the plot, the narrative rotates among her perspective and each of her daughters’. Was there ever a time when you felt drawn to one of the three points of view more than the others? When and why?

11. As Olivia and Brody get ready to commit to marriage, they witness their friends and family struggling with relationships. Is their love tested by these struggles? Do you think it’s hard to say yes to love when we know everything that might go wrong in a marriage?

12. Of all the themes present in this novel—­love, loss, starting fresh—­which resonated with you the most? Why?

A Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Amanda Eyre Ward

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Wedding in Provence_Sussman

When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.

The first to arrive is Nell, Olivia’s oldest daughter from her first marriage. Impulsive and reckless, she invites a complete stranger—an enigmatic man who is both alluring and a bit dangerous—to be her guest at the wedding. The next is Carly, Olivia’s youngest daughter, the responsible and pragmatic one. Away from her demanding job and a strained relationship, she feels an urgent need to cut loose—and for once do something brash and unpredictable. Then there is Jake, Brody’s playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody’s mother, who is coping with the fallout of her own marriage. And in the middle of it all is Olivia, navigating the dramas, joys, and pitfalls of planning a wedding and starting a new life.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, A Wedding in Provencecaptures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love.

Amanda Eyre Ward: Ellen, I love how A Wedding in Provence transported me to France. Can you talk about how the setting of Cassis inspired the story?

Ellen Sussman: I lived in Paris for five years when my daughters were babies. We’d vacation every summer in Provence. (I know—­lucky me!) When I thought about writing a novel about a fiftysomething-­year-­old couple getting hitched, I knew immediately that the wedding would take place in Provence. I wanted a setting that was rich in sensory stimulation: The heat! The food! The smells! The light! That blue blue sea! Mix all that with love, and you’ve got a heady combination.

I had not visited Cassis until a few years ago. It’s a charming town on the coast, less touristy than many of the towns along the Côte d’Azur. I fell for Cassis in a big way—­in fact, I now dream of living there one day. When I walked in the mountains, when I kayaked in the calanques, when I feasted in one of the cafés along the sea, I could imagine my characters at my side, already coming to life in this fabulous setting.

AEW: I have started spending time choosing where each of my characters lives, even down to finding their house, where they buy their coffee, etc.

Did you visit Cassis for research, and if so, can you talk about how you research a setting? Do you walk around taking notes on the sky, or locate where each character will have a drink?

ES: On my first visit to Cassis, I just soaked it all up. I don’t think I even took notes. But my senses were on high alert—­I seemed suddenly able to see things, smell things, taste things with remarkable clarity. Then I wrote the first draft of the novel, pouring all of those observations and sensations into my story.

I went back to Cassis for a weeklong visit between draft one and two of A Wedding in Provence. (Yes, this kind of research is the most fun part of my job!) This time I knew what I was looking for. What did it sound like when it rained? What did it feel like to swim in that delicious sea? What might Carly have seen while sitting at the beach café in Cassis? (In fact, I did see a man surreptitiously taking photos of a lovely young topless woman on the beach—­while his much older wife prepared a picnic for the two of them. And that went right into the novel!)

So some of what happens in that research week is planned and some is dumb luck. I hadn’t thought of using the stormy weather in the novel until we experienced the wild winds of the mistral and I realized it was a perfect backdrop for the drama of my characters.

AEW: How does a novel come to you: fully formed, or in snippets? Does the character come first? Does this change for each novel?

ES: I never know very much about my novel when I’m first starting out. Sometimes it’s a scene that gets me going—­sometimes it’s a character. But I never know what’s going to happen at the end of the novel. I like working that way—­it keeps me curious and interested. I’m on a quest; I need to find out what’s going to happen. And I think that energy goes into the writing. I want my reader turning pages—­and if I’m writing to discover, then they’ll be reading to discover.

That makes for a wonderful first-­draft experience. I give myself free rein to follow my characters anywhere. They dictate what happens—­and I let them fumble their way through complicated situations. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts where the hard work takes place. Then I have to take a look at the world I’ve created and determine if I’ve shaped the novel well, if I’ve given the characters their full journeys, if I’ve explored this fictional world with depth and passion.

AEW: Any words of wisdom about plotting a book with love and relationships at its center?

ES: In A Wedding in Provence, I knew that I wanted to write a novel about a second chance at love. And I wanted to write about fifty-­year-­olds grappling with love and commitment and family. So I had one driving question that propelled me through the novel: How do you commit to love and marriage when you know so much about all the ways in which love fails?

I don’t start writing a novel with answers—­just questions. Again, I’m on a quest—­I want to learn and discover rather than to report on what I already know.

Once I created Olivia and Brody as the central couple, with their questions about love, I thought, Let’s shake up this world even more. So both of Olivia’s daughters struggle with love. Brody’s mother has just found out that her husband of fifty years has walked away from their marriage. Brody’s best man is de­termined to never fall in love. Olivia’s best friend discovers on the first night of this supposedly idyllic wedding weekend that her own husband has cheated on her. Can anyone get it right?

I gave myself a lot to work with. That’s when the fun begins. I didn’t know what would happen during this wedding weekend, but with so much conflict brewing, I was never at a loss to create drama on the page.

In the end, what did I learn about love? Maybe there is no real way to know that this time we’ll get it right. In the end, we close our eyes and dive in. I’m a love junkie—­I think we just go for it.

AEW: Do you write every day?

ES: Yes! I’m a very disciplined writer. I think it’s crazy to wait for the muse to sit on my shoulder—­I may be waiting a long time. Instead I show up and demand that she shows up too. So I work from nine till noon every day. And I write one thousand words a day. I treat it like a real job—­I get dressed (changing from my yoga pajamas to my yoga clothes), plant my butt on my chair, don’t answer the phone, disable the Internet. (There’s a software program, Freedom, that enables me to do that. And I need it!) I’m a tough boss—­if I haven’t finished my word count by noon, then I march back into my office after lunch. But most days I’ve managed to hit one thousand words, and then I head to the hills for a hike with my dogs.

Some of the best writing gets done during my nonoffice hours. I’ll take notes during that hike, or while waiting at the dentist’s office, or in the middle of the night. Since I write daily, the fictional world swirls in my brain at all times. You might say my characters are my constant companions.

AEW: Now, you have two lovely daughters, and so does ­Olivia. Is the book at all autobiographical?

ES: No! Yes! No! Yes! Here are some of the similarities between A Wedding in Provence and my personal life. I got married for the second time—­in France (though not in Cassis). I have two daughters, twenty-­six and twenty-­eight, the same ages as Nell and Carly. But that’s about it—­the rest is truly fiction. Nothing that happened in the novel happened at my wedding in France. (My girls were twelve and fourteen then. I’m quite sure there were none of the Nell/Carly sexual shenanigans at my wedding!)

My daughters are very different from each other—­though not in the bad girl/good girl roles that Nell and Carly assume. I’ve been fascinated by how siblings can be so strikingly ­different—­as if they don’t come from the same parents or the same set of familial experiences. I wanted to explore the sister bond, sibling rivalry, how kids define themselves in opposition to each other. In the end, I’ve created very different characters from my own daughters. But yes, my own very personal exploration fueled that quest.

And yes, the novel is peppered with tiny autobiographical moments. I really did turn the invisible key on my older daughter’s forehead so that she could turn off her thoughts and go to sleep when she was a child. And yes, my husband and I once stayed at an inn in Provence where the owner’s white retriever, Ulysse, became our lovable Rent-­a-­Dog for daily hikes.

AEW: What are you working on next?

ES: I’m a little superstitious about this—­I don’t talk about a new project until I’ve at least written a first draft. It’s too ­fragile—­or maybe I’m too fragile! If someone were to say: That’s a lousy idea, I might trash the file and never look back. So I keep my characters in a tiny protective bubble—­no one else knows them or what they’re up to.

But I can say this: I’m trying to strike out in a new direction. The new novel takes place in San Francisco. And it’s told in first person—­I haven’t done that before. I’m loving my characters—­they’re not like anyone I know. And so this journey—­for them and for me—­will take us places we’ve never been.

Thanks, Amanda, for taking the time to interview me. Great questions!

I’d love to recommend Amanda’s books to all my readers. She’s one of my favorite writers—­if you don’t already know her work, you’re in for a great reading experience. Check out her latest: The Same Sky. You’ll be wowed.

A Conversation with Jodi Picoult

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Leaving Time_PicoultFor more than a decade, Jenna Metcalf has never stopped thinking about her mother, Alice, who mysteriously disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident. Refusing to believe she was abandoned, Jenna searches for her mother regularly online and pores over the pages of Alice’s old journals. Desperate to find the truth, Jenna enlists two unlikely allies in her quest: Serenity Jones, a psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, the jaded private detective who’d originally investigated Alice’s case along with the strange, possibly linked death of one of her colleagues. As the three work together to uncover what happened to Alice, they realize that in asking hard questions, they’ll have to face even harder answers.

Random House Reader’s Circle had the chance to chat all about LEAVING TIME and writing with Jodi Picoult…

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

Jodi Picoult: I have three kids, and my daughter—-my youngest—-was getting ready to go to college, which meant I’d be an empty–nester. It was daunting, to say the least. Then I read a fact: In the wild, an elephant mother and daughter stay together until one of them dies. I thought, How enlightened! Why can’t we be like that? I began to do a little digging on elephants, and learned how advanced their cognition is. And when I discovered that they actually grieve and experience and process loss, I was completely hooked, and knew I would be writing about what it meant to be left behind . . . and also that I had my profession for the character of Alice.

RHRC: What kind of research about elephant behavior did you do to write the novel?

JP: For research, I was privileged to first spend time at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, meeting their elephants and learning what the caregivers do and how the sanctuary operates. I also went to Botswana and spent a week with a researcher, tracking herds in the wild, much like Alice does in the book. I learned to track elephants by footprint, to tell them apart, and to observe their behavior and mannerisms. I also gathered stories about evidence of elephant cognition and the unbreakable bond in elephant relationships. For example, the researcher I worked with found a male juvenile whose trunk was caught in a snare. He wouldn’t survive without the trunk, so a decision was made to have the Wildlife Management folks euthanize him. The researcher drove the Wildlife Management worker to the elephant in a vehicle, but the worker was inexperienced and shot the elephant in the forehead instead of behind the ear. This left the elephant in even more pain, trumpeting. At that moment, a huge matriarch charged down the hill at the vehicle. This young male had been ejected from the herd already—-he was in his teens—-but his mother heard his distress and came running all the same. She stood over him, like a mother stands over a small calf for protection, until he died. Another example occurred in Pilanesberg, South Africa, where a reserve existed for elephants that were orphaned after culls for population control. It was a social experiment—-they thought these teen elephants would bond into a herd, but that didn’t happen, because there was no matriarch. So a decision was made to bring two older females, Durga and Owalla, back to Africa from the United States where they had been working and training. It was a success—-the two matriarchs formed two thriving herds. However, Owalla got bitten by a hippo sixteen years later and couldn’t be anesthetized for medical reasons. They knew she was going to die, if not treated. So Randall Moore—-Owalla’s former trainer—-was called in. He found the herd, got out of his vehicle, and called Owalla by name. The younger members of the herd scattered, terrified of this human contact. Owalla came forward and greeted Randall, and then lifted her trunk and her leg according to his commands, letting the vets treat her without any anesthetic. After sixteen years of being completely wild, she remembered him, and his commands.

RHRC: Is there a favorite thing you learned about elephants during your research?

JP: Elephants are among the few species in this world (including humans) that show cross–species empathy—-they will help out another animal in distress even if there is no biological advantage. Their grieving rituals are remarkable, too—-an elephant will have a change in behavior if it comes across the bones of another elephant. They get quiet and reverential, and their tail and ears droop. Elephants will return to the site of a herd member’s death for years afterward, to stand quietly for a while before moving on. They have been known to break into research facilities and take bones of an elephant that are being used by a researcher, and to bring them back to the site of that elephant’s death. At The Elephant Sanctuary, I met Sissy, an elephant who survived the 1981 Gainesville flood by being submerged for twenty–four hours with only her trunk above water. When she got to the sanctuary, she was traumatized and took to carrying around a tire, like a child’s security blanket. Eventually she bonded with an elephant named Tina and they were fast friends. But Tina died, and when she did, Sissy stayed with her—-and remained by her grave for a few days. Finally, she placed her tire on the grave—-like a wreath—-and left it behind, never to return to it, almost as if she believed Tina needed the comfort more now.

RHRC: You’ve said in other interviews that the endings of your books still sometimes surprise you. Did you know how Leaving Time would end?

JP: Yes. It has a KILLER twist and I needed to know exactly what happened or I wouldn’t have been able to write the book the way I did. That’s all I can say without giving anything away!

RHRC: Leaving Time, like many of your novels, is told in shifting perspectives from multiple characters’ points of view. What’s it like to inhabit so many different voices during the writing process?

JP: I always think of the narrative as a stream, and there are a bunch of different Wellies lined up on the side of the bank. Writing in a certain character’s voice is a little like stepping into one of those pairs of boots. They feel different than other boots might as you step into the narrative stream, and catch it at a given moment, and it informs how you think and speak and move. Then you step out and try on another pair of boots. I really like letting the voices flow through me while I’m writing. In that sense I guess I’m a little like Serenity.

RHRC: Like Leaving Time, your novel Second Glance also contains a supernatural element. Do you believe in psychics and ghosts? Did your beliefs change at all as you were researching and writing these two books?

JP: One of the things I learned during the research of Second Glance was that ghost hunters appreciate skeptics—-they keep everyone else honest. To that end, you shouldn’t believe in the paranormal unless you have a valid experience. I did research with Chip Coffey, a U.S. psychic, for Leaving Time. He has a TV show called Psychic Kids, in which he helps parents deal with kids who have paranormal abilities as a child, as he did. A lot of Serenity’s voice comes from Chip, who is such a fantastic guy—-one of the first things he said to me was “I’m gay, I’m Catholic, and I am a psychic. . . . I hit the trifecta!” That funny irreverence was part of what I wanted to give Serenity. When I first met Chip, I gave him permission to tell me anything that “came across” during our time together. At that meeting, my grandparents were still both alive. Chip mentioned something about my grandmother that no one knows—-not even anyone in our family. It’s not something you can Google about me, for example. That was impressive. But I was MORE astounded when, six months later, I was writing and I called Chip out of the blue to ask him a question about Serenity. In that interim period, my grandfather had died at age 101. My grandmother had been having a tough time and was crying at night and saying my grandfather was sitting on the edge of her bed. Before I could even ask my question about Serenity, Chip interrupted, “Your grandfather wants your grandmother to know it’s not her time, and he’ll come and get her when it is.” Now, Chip couldn’t have known I was going to call that day. Might he have been stalking the New York State death records? I guess so, but it seems unlikely. I was pretty amazed by that insight!

RHRC: At the heart of this story is the bond between a mother and a daughter. As a mom, is this a more personal novel than some of your others?

JP: I like to think of it as a love letter to my youngest—-the one with whom I share a bond of writing, since we co–authored a YA novel called Between the Lines. The happy ending here, though, is that Sammy called me after she was at college for a few months to say she missed creative writing . . . and that she wanted to co–write the sequel to our YA book that summer. So not only did I get to spend an entire summer working with her—-I get to promote Off the Page with her this year, too!

A Conversation between Ruth Reichl and Emily Giffin

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Delicious_ReichlRuth Reichl’s bestselling fiction debut about sisters, family ties, gourmet food, and a young woman who must finally let go of guilt and grief to embrace her own true gifts is a dazzling addition to Reichl’s beloved memoirs that have long illuminated the theme of how food defines us.


Emily Giffin: What made you want to try fiction?

Ruth Reichl: Fiction is my passion, my addiction, the thing that has gotten me through every tough time. I can’t imagine life without it. When I was a child, people used to joke about me always having my nose in a book. I’m so grateful to all the authors who gave me entire worlds to vanish into, and I’ve always hoped that I’d be able to pass that gift on. But as a longtime journalist, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I started saying that if I didn’t have a day job, I’d try writing a novel. And then, there it was: Gourmet was gone, and it was time to try. You, of course, already knew this, but I found that writing fiction, creating an entire universe, was pure pleasure.

EG: You set the novel in the world of food magazines. How much of the book is based on your experience at Gourmet?

RR: The scenes at Delicious! are invented, but they certainly reflect what took place at Gourmet. The test kitchen, for instance, is very much like the one we had at the magazine (except that there was no mean Maggie). The Delicious! Guarantee is completely made up (although I do think it’s a good idea), but Mrs. Cloverly’s first complaint is real. The call (from an anonymous reader), came long before my time at Gourmet, but it was a story that Zanne Stewart, the executive food editor, loved to tell. Beyond that, the Gourmet staff was both quirky and kind, and I like to think that if Billie Breslin had shown up at the magazine, we would all have fallen in love with her and taken her under our wings.

EG: Food plays such a vital role in all your work, and seems inextricably tied to the understanding of the characters themselves. How is food a portal to a character’s essential nature?

RR: If you watch what people eat, you can find out so much about them. Eating is learned behavior; one of the ways cultures define themselves is by teaching children what to eat. That’s why most religions have rules about food. But as we grow older, we also begin to make our own food choices, and they are equally telling. If I tell you that I love very spicy dishes, I’m not just talking about food; I’m telling you that I’m an adventurous person. If I tell you that I don’t eat red meat, I’m giving you an important piece of information about myself.

As a writer, you know how useful this is; food is an easy way to telegraph information about a character. Say you’re writing about two mothers: One feeds her children Happy Meals every night and the other makes homemade baby food from organic vegetables. You’ve told your readers a great deal about these women in very few words.

EG: Your heroine, Billie Breslin, is in her early twenties. Why did you choose to explore this particular time in a woman’s life? Was there a real–life inspiration for Billie?

RR: Billie is completely invented. But when I started writing Delicious! I was consulting for Gilt Groupe, where I was surrounded by young women who were smart, hard–working, interesting, and completely different from my own generation. I really admired them, and I wanted to explore how it felt to be twenty–one right now. It’s such an important time for a woman, a time when you end up making so many choices that impact the rest of your life.

EG: You have given Billie a perfect palate. She can parse taste like grammarians parse sentences, yet she is phobic about the kitchen. You write so movingly about this situation, almost as if you experienced it yourself. Did you?

RR: In my early twenties I suffered terribly from phobias (although cooking, happily, was not one of them). But I was trying to convey how debilitating they are. You never know where the phobias come from or when they will appear, so you live in a state of constant dread. The fear of the phobia might even be the worst part, and each time you get through it, you feel that you’ve experienced a miracle. There is still no good science on phobias, but my own feeling is that they’re a way to avoid thinking about your real problems, a way you keep yourself from getting on with your life.

EG: Billie’s relationship with her sister, Genie, was a powerful anchor for her, but she was also in her sister’s shadow. How does this loss lead to Billie’s growth as a person?

RR: We all have someone in our lives whom we admire—-and who makes us feel small. Moving out of that shadow is one of the steps in growing up. For Billie, having a big sister as accomplished as Genie was a terrible burden. Although much of the time this was only in her own head, Billie always felt that she was being unflatteringly compared to her wonderful big sister. For Billie to be able to see Genie as she really is, to understand that Genie is not perfect, is extremely liberating. It means that now she can, at last, see her own self clearly too.

EG: What did Billie learn about family (and food!) while working for Sal at Fontanari’s?

RR: Sal Fontanari is one of the first people who really sees Billie in all her wonderful complexity. He understands her talent, is drawn to her passion for food, and wants to pass his own knowledge on to her. And Sal is the opposite of perfectionist Genie; for him the important thing in life is savoring what is right in front of you. Sal teaches Billie to live in the moment, to love your work, your family, and every minute of your life.

EG: New York’s Greenwich Village and Little Italy are like characters in the book. What drew you to these particular neighborhoods?

RR: I grew up in Greenwich Village, and spent my weekends wandering around Little Italy. I love everything about that part of New York, from the old family businesses (like Di Palo’s, the model for Fontanari’s) to the new artists and immigrants who keep this historic neighborhood young.

EG: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Billie’s discovery of Lulu Swan’s letters to James Beard. Where did this idea originate?

RR: I’ve always been fascinated by the way America ate during World War II; because of rationing, it was the one time in the history of this country that we all ate at the same table, ate the same food. It was also a time when women came into their own power, and America has never been the same. So I’ve been collecting cookbooks from that era for a while.

Then, when Gourmet closed, I went into the magazine’s library and took one last look around. (It was nothing like the wonderful Delicious! library—-it was just a windowless storeroom.) I noticed a file cabinet I’d never seen before, and when I opened it up discovered that it was filled with letters going back sixty years. I thought they’d be interesting, but sadly they were mostly complaints and recipe requests. I was meant to be packing up my office but for some reason—-I can’t really explain it—-I sat down right then and wrote the letters I wished I had found.

It was a gift, really. Lulu came to me fully formed. Having her write to James Beard was natural; in the early years he wrote for Gourmet. I spent an entire happy afternoon channeling Lulu. Then I put her letters away, and didn’t think about them again until I started writing the novel.

EG: How did Lulu’s discovery about her father help Billie come to terms with her own loss?

RR: There’s no “right” way to feel about loss, but there’s almost always an element of anger. And with that anger comes guilt: How can you be angry at the dead? Lulu and Billie had both idealized people, and then learned a terrible truth about them. As Lulu relates her father’s story, she’s able to admit that she is furious at him. It is an important moment for Billie: Lulu’s anger helps her come to terms with her own conflicted feelings about her sister.

EG: I was so touched by Billie’s relationship with Sammy, the travel writer at Delicious! Their developing friendship—-a twentysomething young woman and a seventy–plus gay man—-is one of the novel’s great pleasures. How would you characterize that friendship?

RR: I think of Sammy as Billie’s fairy godfather. He waves a wand, takes her on a magic carpet ride, saves her from herself. But it’s not until she saves him right back that their friendship really flourishes. What’s important about their friendship is that they begin to feel so safe with each other that they can risk being vulnerable. You can’t really be friends with anyone until you’re willing to trust them.

EG: What’s next for you?

RR: I have a cookbook coming out: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. I’m working on a memoir about the Gourmet years. And I’ve started my next novel.

Jodi Picoult Discussion Questions: Leaving Time

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Leaving Time_Picoult

For more than a decade, Jenna Metcalf has never stopped thinking about her mother, Alice, who mysteriously disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident. Refusing to believe she was abandoned, Jenna searches for her mother regularly online and pores over the pages of Alice’s old journals. Desperate to find the truth, Jenna enlists two unlikely allies in her quest: Serenity Jones, a psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, the jaded private detective who’d originally investigated Alice’s case along with the strange, possibly linked death of one of her colleagues. As the three work together to uncover what happened to Alice, they realize that in asking hard questions, they’ll have to face even harder answers.

Speaking of questions and answers, below are some discussion questions that can guide your book club discussion of Leaving Time.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Despite their different backgrounds, Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil form a sort of unconventional family together. What do you think brings them together? Have you ever had a similar experience of finding support from an unlikely source?

2. Alice says that 98 percent of science is quantifiable, leaving 2 percent “that can’t be measured or explained. And yet that does not mean it doesn’t exist.” (p. 392) Do you agree or disagree? Can you think of examples from the book or from your own experience of something that fits into that 2 percent?

3. Virgil grapples with helping Jenna when he suspects discovering the truth might be more painful to her than never knowing. Have you ever been in a situation where you knew a truth that it might hurt someone to hear? What did you do?

4. Serenity’s fake psychic readings are successful, she says, because people look for sense in the nonsensical. Do you agree or disagree? If a psychic reading brings someone comfort or helps them grieve, do you think it matters if the message is faked?

5. Jenna meets up with another character at the very end of the book. (pp. 394–395) Were you surprised to see who that was? Why or why not?

6. Alice describes some amazing examples of elephants appearing to exhibit grief and empathy, which are drawn from real–life research. Discuss some of the ways elephant grief is depicted. How is it the same as human mourning? How is it different?

7. One of the major themes of Leaving Time is loss and how to cope with it. Discuss some of the ways the characters in this novel deal with their losses. Do you identify with any of these coping mechanisms more than others? How do you approach loss?

8. Do you think Thomas’s erratic and upsetting behavior justifies Alice’s affair with Gideon? What would you have done in Alice’s place?

9. Jenna compares her search for her mother to Captain Ahab’s search for the whale in Moby-Dick, or Javert hunting Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, saying they are all three defined by their search. Do you agree with this assessment? Have you ever felt defined in this way by something you wanted?

10. Why do you think Serenity loses her gift? And why do you think Jenna is able to help bring it back?

11. Do you believe in ghosts? If you could communicate with anyone who has passed away, who would it be?

12. Discuss the significance of the title Leaving Time. What is the literal meaning that Jenna ascribes to the phrase as a baby? What are some other ways the title could be interpreted?

13. “Negative moments get remembered. Traumatic ones get forgotten.” (p. 12) What do you think this means? Do you agree or disagree? Have you ever experienced something and discovered later that someone else remembers it completely differently?

Robin Black Discussion Questions: Life Drawing

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Life Drawing2Life Drawing by Robin Black is a taut and suspenseful telling of a marriage in turmoil. The discussion questions below can help guide your book club through Augusta and Owen’s story.

1. Gus is the voice that guides you through Life Drawing. She’s in charge of how this story is told, including how you hear about her own missteps and failings. How do you think she feels about having had an extramarital affair? She obviously regrets hurting Owen, but does she seem to regret what she did, or just that she told him? Does her attitude toward that change over the course of the book?

2. Alison seems to hold an almost mystical power over Gus from the moment of her arrival. What are some of the things that make Gus so susceptible to the lure of a new friend—­and not just a friend, but someone to whom she tells her most intimate secrets? Gus has a history of disloyalty. Is it fair to say that she’s being disloyal to Owen again by telling Alison so much, or is it understandable that Gus would need a confidante?

3. How would you describe the condition of Owen and Gus’s marriage at the point of Alison’s arrival? What do you think would have happened to them if they’d just gone on living in solitude? Were the resentments bound to bubble up without a third person involved, or did they seem settled into a good life? If there were problems that were bound to come up, what were some warning signs?

4. Why do you think the “boys in the walls” ignite Gus’s creativity? Why does discovering the accounts of their fates and the photographs she finds feel so instantly meaningful to her?

5. Because Gus has neither a mother nor a child, everything about motherhood is filtered through her guesses at what it might be like—­from both sides. How does this lack of personal experience play out in the story? How does it affect her feelings toward Alison? Nora? Laine?

6. As Gus’s father, Sam, loses his memory, Gus seems to feel torn about the loss. There are clearly upsetting aspects, but she also describes the two of them as growing closer. Why do you think this is?

7. How do you feel about Nora? Is she scheming and selfish, or just very young; or maybe a combination of all? Gus herself describes two possibilities: forgiving her for being naïve and just one part of a complex tragedy, and blaming her for everything coming apart. Where do you think she falls on the line between the two?

8. How do Gus’s feelings about Laine change in the course of Laine’s visit and her critique of Gus’s work, and also afterward? What does that visit give Gus beyond a new view of her paintings? And do you think Owen’s reaction is fair, or is it time for him to let up a little bit?

9. Gus is surprised by the lengths to which Alison goes because she’s worried about Nora, and also by how much Alison has confided in her daughter. As Gus becomes furious over these things, what else may be fueling her anger besides the immediate impact? She seems so often to be jealous of that mother-­daughter bond. Is that jealousy present all the way through the story, or do other angers replace it entirely?

10. What do you think Ida’s role is in the story? Why was Gus so afraid of her judgment back when she was painting the shop? What or whom does Ida represent to her?

11. Do you believe Owen in his account of what has gone on between him and Nora? Gus only has his word that there was no sexual relationship, so that’s all the reader has too. Would he have told her if there were? Do you believe that she really helped him write? Could he have said that as payback to Gus, or does that seem out of character for him?

12. Toward the end, Owen describes their marriage as a “universe.” What do you think that means? Does that seem like a good way to describe marriages in general, or is it something more specific about the two of them?

13. Why do you think Gus has so much difficulty painting human beings? Are there any explanations to why she lacks “the life drawing gene” as she calls it? Do you think she has any theories about why that may be?

14. What do you suppose happens in Gus’s life a year after the end of this book? Two years? Can you imagine her staying out in the country? Moving back into the city? Falling in love? So much in Life Drawing is about the past. What do you suppose the future holds?

A Note from Robin Black, Author of Life Drawing

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

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

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

It turns out that I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Black

November 2014


Origins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, whatever happens, no regrets.


Intuitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what had actually happened?

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

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

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

And that is how novels are made.

Except it is not.

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

Friday, April 17th, 2015

The One That Got AwayThe Place We Call Home

I just wanted to write a love story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowan Coleman Discussion Questions: The Day We Met

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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