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A Letter from Deb Caletti

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiDeb Caletti, the author of The Secrets She Keeps, a beautiful novel about three women coming to terms with love and marriage, has written you, her readers a note. Read on…
Dear Reader –

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years from my many book events, it’s this: We readers understand each other.  We can come from different parts of the world and have varying life experiences, but get us into a room talking about our favorite reads, our stack of books turning into a nightstand, and we are all from the very same place.  Let me tell you, friends, we can get pretty heated about whether one should fold down the corner of the page to keep our place or not.  We are deliciously book-greedy, and we rant and gush and get choked up about the words that have moved us.

I am a reader even before I am a writer, so when I sat down to write The Secrets She Keeps, coming from Random House on July 7th, it was with a reader’s desires as well as a writer’s.  I wanted to create a book that you’d read a little slower to make it last longer (do you know that feeling? I love that feeling!), with lines that made you think, and characters you related to and rooted for as the pages turned.  I really wanted that satisfying sigh at the end.

The Secrets She Keeps is about two sisters with troubled marriages who gather at their aunt’s now crumbling Nevada “divorce ranch.” The story is told in alternating time periods – one summer at the present-day ranch, and the summer of 1951, a summer of secrets, when high-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such  ranches to establish residency and secure difficult-to-get divorces.  The Secrets She Keeps reflects contemporary life and marriage as we know it, yet it is also full of Mad Men-esque glamour, desert dust and wild mustangs, cowboys and majestic scenery.  More than those things, though, it is a book about the power of female friendships, about self-discovery, and resilience.  It’s a story about love – its timeless troubles, and its stubborn, enduring joys.

Thank you for being part of The Secrets She Keeps, dear fellow readers.  I’m excited to share this one with you.  I hope, hope, hope you sigh at the end.  And, for the record, please fold down any corner that you wish.

Fondly,

Deb Caletti

No Place to Hide by Susan Lewis Discussion Questions

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

No Place to Hide_LewisFleeing her native England with her three-year-old daughter, Justine Cantrell gives herself a new name and a new life in America. In a quiet midwestern town on the shores of glittering Lake Maxinkuckee, Justine hopes to recapture the fleeting days of happiness in the long-ago summers she spent with her grandmother. And though her memories of that time are scant, Justine knows they must have shared a special bond. After all, the power of her grandmother’s love has pulled her back to this haven in search of a new beginning.
But fate has other plans. The more Justine gets to know the small town and its people, the more she realizes that her grandmother had her own devastating secrets—secrets that will soon threaten Justine just as surely as her own dark memories.

If you’ve been reading with your book club or on your own, let these questions help you get thinking about the novel…

1. The subject of violence among children is central to the plot of this novel. Discuss violence in schools. What causes it? How can it be stopped?

2. How well do you feel Susan Lewis captured life in America? How does her experience living in Britain color her view of American life? Does her “outsider” status afford her unique insight, or are there elements of midwestern life that must be lived to be understood?

3. What do you think of Justine’s decision to leave England? Would you have done the same in her position?

4. Who surprised you most in this novel? Why?

5. Justine’s memories of England and of summers spent with her grandmother in Indiana are driving forces in this novel. Describe the function of memory and the past. How do Justine’s memories influence her decisions?

6. Both Justine and Grandma May kept carefully guarded secrets. Compare and contrast their secrets and their motivations for hiding them. In what ways are Justine and her grandmother similar? How are they different? Are there any parallels between their experiences?

7. Discuss Justine and Matt’s relationship. What were its primary strengths? Weaknesses?

8. Discuss the themes of prejudice and bullying among schoolchildren that come into play in this novel. What, if anything, could have changed in order for Ben’s experience to be different?

9. How would you describe Justine as a mother? How is her relationship with Tallulah different from her relationship with Ben? How is it similar? Did Justine inherit any parenting styles from her own mother?

10. What is the community in Culver like? How do Justine’s friends in America differ from her friends in England? Are there any particular qualities they have in common?

11. The theme of escaping the past is prominent in this novel. Can we ever truly escape the past? Is it possible to have a fresh start, or do we always carry our emotional baggage with us?

A Conversation Between J. R. Moehringer and Tom Rachman

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanJ. R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Moehringer is the author of the bestsellers Sutton and The Tender Bar, and co–author of Open by Andre Agassi. Here he speaks with Tom Rachman, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.

J. R. Moehringer: Your new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, is wonderfully Dickensian. There’s a quasi–orphan protagonist thrown in among lovable scoundrels, some of whom become parental surrogates, plus a slew of eccentric minor characters with names like Mr. Priddles and Fogg. And of course there are sly mentions of Nicholas Nickleby sprinkled throughout. Having grown up in a bar called Dickens, I have to ask: How much were you reading Dickens, or thinking of him, while plotting and writing? And is Nickleby your favorite of his novels?

Tom Rachman: I do love Dickens. His characters were among the    first to imprint themselves into my imagination when I was little. I remember listening on audiobook during family vacations, while my sister (three years older) raced ahead in print, burning through another huge paperback. The main character in my novel, Tooly, is a bookworm like my sister—-the type who spends daylight in the -company of fictional characters, only to glance up hours later, startled to find a mere room. I wanted to show, as Tooly’s life unfolds, how one’s earliest stories condition how one encounters the world: what one -expects of strangers, whether one counts on justice, whether one veers into cynicism or veers back again. I chose to have Tooly reading Nicholas Nickleby because that book so memorably describes a wretched school—-and the joy of fleeing. All of which informs Tooly’s path in life. Or the path she thinks she’s taking.

JM: Clearly you have issues with the concept of linear time. As do many of your characters. (As do I.) I’m thinking of Gerda Erzberger, in your first novel, The Imperfectionists, railing against the “illusion of continuity” in our lives, lamenting that the past “won’t hold still.” It doesn’t hold still in your plots, either. In both your novels, the past is ever lurking, ebbing and flowing—-particularly for Tooly. Are you instinctively drawn to stories with this fluid and fractured sense of time, or is the choice more deliberate?

TR: I’ve sometimes used a collage effect, placing times side–by–side in a story, to investigate how personalities form, how they change, how they misunderstand one another. In life, we rarely contrast now and then with clarity. I’m thinking, for example, of when you encounter old friends after years apart. You find yourself noting how different they are, or how the facets which defined them are still present yet unexpectedly different in proportion, so that the giggliness has turned into giddiness or the determination has become courage. What you rarely consider is that, if your friends have changed, then surely you have too. Instead, we assume ourselves fixed in nature—-that only the rest of humanity shifts! But maybe we’re all ongoing stories, defined at various stages of life, or whenever people oblige us to declare ourselves. Fiction is marvelous for studying this, allowing the writer and reader to leap decades in a sentence. No other art lets you bend time as much.

JM: It strikes me that nearly every character in Rise & Fall has a powerful longing for home, and each of them has a radically different idea of what home means. Some are never quite sure what it means, though that doesn’t ease their longing. Is this just me projecting some of my own inner drama, or was the deep human desire for home running through your mind while you wrote?

TR: You’re right. In this novel, Tooly travels the world, watching all the stationary citizens, and wondering—-sometimes enviously—-what that life would be like, whether belonging can be attained, whether it’s a fallacy, and if you suffer by having no place. These are all thoughts that have occurred to me. I was born in London, raised in Vancouver, studied in Toronto, worked in New York, Rome, and Paris, and presently live in London again. I have family scattered from Canada to South Africa to China to Switzerland and places beyond. So what is home for me? It depends what one means by “home.” There’s the apartment or house or room that contains one’s bed. Then there’s the neighborhood or city or country that contains one’s identity. The first sense of home I establish easily. The second sense remains elusive to me after thirty–nine years. When I was growing up, this bothered me. I yearned to be from somewhere, and confident of it. But I’ve shifted. Now I prefer to adopt admirable features of the cultures I’ve passed through, without restricting myself to just one.

JM: Because of your background in journalism, and your years working overseas, it was easier for readers to imagine, rightly or wrongly, possible inspirations for certain characters and events in The Imper-fectionists. But I can’t imagine what the spark was for the remarkable character of Tooly, or her odyssey. (Unless maybe The Tempest? She and Humph have a strong Miranda–Prospero vibe about them.) I really want to hear that you met someone like her on a long flight or at a dinner party.

TR: I’m very fond of Tooly, but I’ve never met her. Despite what they say about writing what you know, I’m poor at converting real people into fictional ones—-whenever I’ve tried, they are the least credible parts of the story! My characters start from imagination and gather small traits from actuality as they (and I) go along. If people recognize a real–life feature or anecdote in a character, they might falsely assume that this means the entire character was torn from reality. But mine are hybrids, predominantly fantasy, with a few purloined chromosomes, and a good number of my own in each character. The settings, by contrast, I try to reproduce as authentically as possible. For The Imperfectionists, which is set at an international paper in Rome, I mined my past at various news organizations in various cities. For Rise & Fall, I had to research a lot more—-everything from U.S. embassy security in the 1980s, to international schools in Bangkok, to the look of the Welsh countryside.

JM: I also wish I could go to Tooly’s lovely bookstore, World’s End. Based on your previous answer I’m going to assume it’s not modeled on any real bookstore, alas, but maybe it combines some qualities of your favorite bookstores? And are you the type of person who feels a fierce loyalty to bookstores, who can’t visit this or that city without also visiting its landmark bookstore—-the Strand in New York, Another Country in Berlin, Daunt in London, Tattered Cover in -Denver?

TR: The bookstore in my novel is inspired by many that have given me hours of pleasure over the years—-be they wondrous giants (say, Powell’s in Portland) or cramped establishments that require you to edge sideways past the stock (say, the Community Bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn). Another influence was Hay–on–Wye, in Wales, a town devoted to bookstores: It’s just one after the other. When I first went there, I was agog. It’s an amusement park for bibliophiles.

JM: In your first novel, a dying newspaper is the emotional anchor for your characters; in the second novel, it’s a dying bookstore. Is it reasonable to accuse you of chronic nostalgia? Do you perhaps feel that you were born at the wrong moment in history?

TR: I consider myself a realist—-with a sprinkling of nostalgia. I’m fascinated by our times, all these amazing technological and political and cultural changes. And I’m not one of those woebegone fellows yearning for the good old days—-there was too much brutality and drudgery in the past to imagine it was all doilies and Chopin. The era we’re in contains betterment in many respects, and this leads people to assume that all tech–driven change is progress. Not so sure. The value of a smartphone is indisputable—-but who hasn’t felt slightly more harried, slightly more distracted, as a result? I don’t want to -declare contemporary changes either good or bad. I’d rather record a glimpse of them in my fiction, and encourage readers to ponder the torrent of change. Does our epoch define us? Or does one’s unique personality assert itself regardless of the period? In the background, the great powers of the world rise and fall, in politics, tech, everything. But one’s own strengths and influences rise and fall over the course of one’s life. That contrast is at the core of Rise & Fall: a tale of a book–besotted world traveler trying to figure out where and how and when she fits.

Originally published by Salon in June 2014

Discussion Questions: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Lucky Us_BloomDisappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club in navigating this novel of heartbreak, love, and luck.

1. The day that Eva’s mother leaves her at her father’s house is the day that Eva loses one family and starts another. Have you ever been in a place where you have had to create a new family around yourself? What were some of the best parts? The worst parts?

2. Edgar’s mother once told him, “It’s good to be smart, it’s better to be lucky.” What do you think about that statement after finishing the novel? If you had to choose, would you rather be lucky or smart?

3. Iris’s ambition is what sets Eva and Iris on the road at the beginning of the novel. How does Eva’s ambition differ from Iris’s? Which sister, do you think, is more successful?

4. Eva and Iris find themselves having to constantly reinvent their identities as they travel around America. Has there ever been a time when you’ve reinvented yourself? Was it difficult to do?

5. Though so much of the novel focuses on Iris’s search for love, the relationship between Eva and Gus also becomes a central pillar. What do you think of their love for each other? How does their relationship compare with Iris’s experiences?

6. At one point, Eva says, “I looked for mothers the way drunks look for bars.” Do you think Eva ever found her mother figure? If so, who was it? If not, what family figures did she create instead?

7. Iris writes to Eva about memory: “I remember some things at a gallop, some moments from Ohio bearing down upon me in huge detail, and other things that are no more than small leaves floating on a stream. Memory seems as faulty, as misunderstood and misguided, as every other thought or spasm that passes through us” (p. 97). Do you think Iris is right about memory here? How do memory and forgiveness tie into each other?

8. Who was your favorite addition to Iris and Eva’s family and why? Francisco? Clara? Danny? Gus?

9. Each chapter is titled with song lyrics from the period, evoking the richness of the music during that era. What connection do you find between music and reading? How can music add new dimensions to a story?

10. The adventures of the novel begin after a few photographs on a beach surface. The novel ends with another photograph on a beach. How have the roles of Eva and Iris changed since then, and how has the role of photographs changed? Can a photograph ever fully capture a moment?

A Conversation with Deb Caletti

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiRandom House Reader’s Circle had a chance to chat with Deb Caletti about her new novel The Secrets She Keeps,a beautiful and profound novel of three women coming to terms with love and marriage on a divorce ranch in Nevada.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What gave you the idea to write a story centered on the “Reno cure” and divorce ranches of the mid–twentieth century? Your portrayal of
Tamarosa Ranch and the women who stayed there is so vivid, dazzling, and authentic. How did you go about bringing this place and this era to life, and from where did you draw your inspiration? Did you do anything specific to transport yourself into that world?

Deb Caletti: A few years ago, I came across a single line in a book that mentioned a “divorce ranch.” I’d never heard the term before, and out of curiosity, I looked it up. When I learned what they were, and understood the transformative experiences that were had there, I was intrigued. But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer–moments where your heart beats fast and you think: This. Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages supporting one another, and attempting to understand themselves and their relationships.
Bringing it to life, though, was trickier than I’d anticipated because of exactly what I’d found so thrilling—-how little there was out there about the ranches. Luckily, I discovered The Divorce Seekers, a stunning coffee table volume of photos and memories by a former dude wrangler at the famed Flying M. E. Ranch, Bill McGee. The images—-with their smoky, black–and–white, retro allure—-are what brought the time and place alive for me so that I could bring them to life in the novel. Not only was it an invaluable resource for information on day–to–day life on a divorce ranch, it also set the mood. I’d open the book to an image of two sleepy roommates in the middle of their Reno cure, wearing silky chemises, drinks in hand, or to a photo of one of “the gals” in her party–night finery, and I’d be just where I needed to be. Music of the time occasionally helped, too. As well, I researched the bestsellers of those years written by women, so I could get a feel for the female voices of the time. Sometimes I’d read a page or two in order to “get into character” so to speak.

RHRC: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about life on a divorce ranch?

D.C.: I was surprised how wild it all got on the ranches. When you think of that time period, you imagine a (literally) more buttoned–up experience, but no. The sex with cowboys, the drinking, the letting loose—-it all sounds a bit film–version–cliché but was very much the truth. Each generation thinks they’ve invented sex and rebellion, but we seem like over–sharing novices in comparison. Their experiences were not splayed out on every television and computer screen, and the language around it was discreet and even somewhat coy, but these were no trips to the convent.
What also surprised me—-and what became extraordinarily important thematically to the book—-was how timeless our struggles are in terms of love. I could see the story lines repeating over the generations. We battle the same old things they did—-bad choices, infidelity, abuse, career–versus–marriage conflicts, intruding parents. We move on too fast after a breakup; they’d go from the courthouse to the marriage chapel. We’re intrigued and tempted by a life not like ours; they’d buy ranch wear and try to bring home a cowboy. We’ve been taken (or we take); we’re endlessly hopeful (or fed up and jaded); we fall for the wrong person (or, finally, the right one). And so it was then. It was this baseline that led me, in part, to using the mirror images that begin and end each chapter. Hopefully, those brief repetitions underscore the idea that here we are, all over again.

RHRC: The Secrets She Keeps stars a true ensemble cast of women, each startlingly unique but all equally real. Was it difficult to create so many different, dynamic personalities and have them all sharing space, or did they come to you and interact with one another naturally?

D.C.: Ensemble casts are something I like to do as a writer. It’s a challenge, and I think the varying perspectives bring layers to a story. I had an ensemble cast in two of my young–adult novels, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart (in which a young girl and her mother go on a road trip with a group of old people to reunite a pair of geriatric lovers) and The Secret Life of Prince Charming (in which a young woman and her sisters return objects their father has stolen to every woman he’s ever been in love with). So I’ve had experience managing those numbers before. Essentially, a character must sound like him– or herself, and this is true whether you’re writing one or twenty. I don’t find this to be particularly difficult. If you think about your extended family all sitting around a dinner table, you realize how different each individual sounds. In addition to what they say and how they say it, Mom and Aunt So–and–so dress like opposites, and while the uncles are both hardheaded, one still wears his class ring, and the other has that weird beard and bad habit of interrupting.

RHRC: Can you speak to the experience of writing a dual narrative that has one foot in the past and one in the present? What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of that process? Was it ever hard to switch gears from one story line to the next?

D.C.: The switching itself was rewarding—-going back and forth brings a freshness and energy to the work. It’s similar to the experience of reading alternating chapters, where you’re disappointed to leave the first set of characters but are eager to see what’s happened with the others since you last left off. I write chronologically, so sometimes that means waiting to write a big scene I’m looking forward to, or, in this case, waiting to get back to that exciting event in the past or present. Switching can provide tension and momentum for a reader, but it can do the same for a writer. And natural momentum makes a book a joy to write.
In terms of challenge, the past/present switching made for a ton of research. It was akin to writing a research–heavy contemporary novel and a historical one. When you go back into the past, every little thing must be considered and checked—-each item of clothing, every phrase, every piece of furniture and automobile. Kitchen supplies! Hair products! Restaurants in a city! Music! What kind of gun would they have had at the ranch then? When did cars first get radios? Was a certain slang expression used yet? Which hat did a man wear for work and which for dress? This brings us back to the rewards, though, because I learned about divorce laws through time, and obstetric practices, and the fact that ambulances were still not commonplace in rural areas then. I played virtual dress–up with the many beautiful outfits I discovered and drooled (or cringed) over the food of the time period. I am still seriously curious about those greengage plums packed in sugar–sweetened brandy.

RHRC: The mustangs play a huge role in the book, not only in terms of their sheer majesty but also their plight and the need to preserve and protect the land they inhabit. Are these larger issues something you already had a vested interest in exploring when you set out to write this book, or did that interest develop as you dug deeper into your research? Have you ever seen the mustangs running, yourself?

D.C.: This may sound hugely disappointing and unromantic, but like Callie, I have no experience with horses. I’ve never really ridden one and, prior to this book, knew little about them. I’ve never been to a ranch and have only been to Nevada once, in the backseat of the car with my parents when I was seven. As a writer, I often think about Lilly Tuck’s speech at the National Book Awards the year she won (and the year I was a finalist for Honey, Baby, Sweetheart). Her book was The News from Paraguay, and she began her speech by saying that she had never been to Paraguay, didn’t know much about Paraguay, and didn’t even really care to visit Paraguay. While I’d love to spend time on a ranch and was fascinated by all I learned, I understand what she meant. The adage urges writers to “Write what you know,” but if we did, there’d be many novels about us sitting home alone, pecking at the keyboard. Or else reading online reviews and becoming crippled with self–doubt.
That said, when searching for the story line, themes, and symbols that would bridge the two narratives, the mustangs were a natural choice. Campaigns to save the mustang began just before the book does, in 1950, when Velma Bronn Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) of Washoe County became involved in the campaign to save the wild horses after following a truck loaded with horses and dripping blood on its way to a slaughterhouse. (Yes, a certain scene in the book is a nod to her.) In 1951, photographer Gus Bundy also began shooting images that became instrumental in changing gathers by airplane. But in addition to lending historic accuracy, the horses are a physical representation of love itself: passionate, messy, unpredictable, and stunning. The complicated questions that surround them, the lack of clear answers, were also symbolically on the mark.
I may not have known anything about the mustangs before I began, but I developed a great respect for them and for the individuals on both sides of the question, particularly the land managers who must consider every corner of the issue. I was astounded at the care they take to balance the interests of the land (and the other living things on it) with the some fifty thousand wild horses and burros currently living in the western states.

RHRC: Callie is awed and humbled by her interactions with nature while exploring the Washoe Lake area, which lends such perspective to her life in Seattle. Living in Seattle yourself, do you find this reflects your own experience in any way? Do you prefer a city existence or the “of–the–land” lifestyle that Kit leads, or do you strive for more of a balance?

D.C.: Callie’s observations are mostly part of her personal process, where she eventually learns that you sometimes need to get out of your daily existence to appreciate the beauty of your daily existence. Still, I think there’s some truth to the differences she notices, in terms of the biking techies and hipster baristas and self–aware food versus “life like that—-the one going on right here right now, with men in cowboy hats, men with silver belt buckles, men with horses and guns.” We are very connected to nature and the outdoors here, too, but sometimes there’s an affected quality to it, a persona that’s worn along with all the right clothing from REI. Ranch life seems more straightforward, and the relationship to the land more pragmatic. That said, it’s also true that you’ll find some of the most stunning, breathtaking parts of this country in the Northwest, and we who live here do our best to appreciate that fact.
The city–or–not dilemma has always been large for me. The idea of sprawling acres of land and a small town has huge appeal. I used to live in a house on a salmon–running creek at the foot of a mountain before moving to the city when I remarried. I loved being near water, trees, and creatures. (Though I could’ve passed on the bear and the cougars.) I adored bumping my Jeep along the rugged dirt road, reveled in the awareness of seasons and the perspective nature brings. I still long for miles of windswept dunes, or a herd of cattle with room to roam, or a dock on a remote lake. But there is also the matter of little–black–dress literary parties, great restaurants, and the need for the nearness of a library. The perfect life would be a pair of old work boots next to the heels.

RHRC: Hadley keeps a saucer of foil–wrapped confections by her typewriter to “tempt the muse.” As a writer, do you have any habits, processes, or, like Hadley, treats that get your creative juices flowing?

D.C.: Hmm. Wonder where I got that? I confess that I’ve gone beyond the saucer to an actual drawer. Occasionally, a little self–bribery is useful. I usually start the writing morning with strong coffee and a shortbread cookie, the kind in the red plaid box that are all butter, glorious butter. Other treats in the drawer—-Red Vines, Hot Tamales, chewy butterscotch, a bit of good chocolate. Full disclosure: I considered lying when answering this question.

RHRC: Nash and Lilly bond through the trading of beloved books. In that moment, Lilly asks, “Don’t you wish you could live inside a book sometimes?” What book(s) would you live inside if you could?

D.C.: A Moveable Feast would work nicely. Paris in the 1920s, with Ernest Hemingway and pals like James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein . . . F. Scott Fitzgerald reading Hemingway the first draft of The Great Gatsby at their neighborhood café, La Closerie des Lilas . . . Ahh. I’m also drawn to books like Under the Tuscan Sun, where a woman goes to a foreign country, remodels some crumbling villa, makes friends with villagers while walking her charming dog, all the while eating fabulous food.

RHRC: Of all the women you’ve brought to life in this novel, which would you say most resembles yourself? Or who would you most like to resemble? Who would be your partner in crime if you were to spend time at the Tamarosa Ranch?

D.C.: Almost every character has a bit (or more) of the author in them, I think. Callie and Shaye reflect my own yin/yang: settled and restless, steady and unsteady, cautious and occasionally heedless. I have the aspirations of Hadley, and I’ve had (past tense) the naïveté of Ellen’s and Lilly’s unfortunate taste in men. I have Nash’s leanings toward solitude and open air, her book love, and her appetite. I’d most like to take on her realistic, calm worldview, though, and the strength she’s developed over her years. Veronica is least like me and, therefore, probably the one I’d want as a partner in crime. During a six–week cure, you’d need a Veronica to encourage a little mischief. And to push you toward the life that’s truly yours.

What’s in a Book Title?

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_Rachman Tom Rachman discusses how he came up with the unique title of his novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers….

Naming a novel is painstaking, agonizing, delicate. But does the title matter?

It certainly feels consequential to the author. After several years’ battle with your laptop keyboard, after 100,000 words placed so deliberately, you must distill everything into a phrase brief enough to run down the spine of a book. Should it be descriptive? Perhaps make it catchy. It has to be expressive, too. And honest. And serious. And amusing. And . . .

When writing my latest novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (I’ll explain that title shortly), I filled a pad with notes on my expanding story: character histories, timelines, plotlines—-plus a single sheet of possible titles. The page remained bare throughout my first draft. By the second, I had a dozen possibilities. By the third, the page was crammed with contenders, every line occupied, titles curling up the margins, pushing each other aside, thrusting themselves forth like forefingers poking my breastbone. Some were all right—-yet not quite right. Others were perfect—-but not for this book. Many were stinkers.

Then a flutter went through me. I had it.

I wrote this one down, hung quotation marks on either side, as if to plump it up for scrutiny. The title of my previous novel, The Imperfectionists, had produced a similar effect, redounding within the book itself, accentuating ideas I’d previously only sketched in. That title and this one guided me during subsequent drafts, identifying which lurking details merited more space and which deserved the snip.

Some books start from a title alone, but I’d guess that these are rare. You’d risk drafting a concept rather than a novel. Better to allow the writing to bolt out at first—-to be gathered and groomed and artfully tamed later. A name is best attached, I think, only once you know the story well.

However, choosing the title is also a matter of fashion. A glance at nineteenth–century classics reveals a propensity for naming books after the protagonist: Madame Bovary or Oliver Twist or Anna Karen-ina. Writers of the twentieth century employed poetry: Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, citing Robbie Burns); A Handful of Dust (Waugh, quoting T. S. Eliot); For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway, lifting from John Donne). Nowadays, one vogue is for the quirky–lyrical—-titles such as (and I’m making this up) The Strange Tenderness of Mr. Plimpsol’s Songbook. The clunkers are pretentious and vague; the best are intriguing.

Turning to my novel, it is a book about a bookseller, Tooly Zylberberg, who runs a dusty shop in the Welsh countryside, surrounded by millions of pages but few customers. Her past is odd: She grew up around the world, whisked from one country to another by a peculiar trio of adults. They fed her, taught her—-then disappeared. In the years since, she has never understood her own past. Then someone from the old days messages her, prompting Tooly—-a lifelong lover of stories—to piece together the story of herself.

Now to my title.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers has three meanings. It refers to the rise and fall of powers over the course of life, as one gains in strength as a kid, reckons with oneself during adulthood, declines in old age—-all of which are stages that key characters confront in this novel. A second meaning is the rise and fall of influences during one’s life, be they relatives whom you once overlooked but later admire or ideas that once enchanted you that now seem preposterous. Finally, “great powers” has the traditional sense too, meaning the empires or forces of political change that sway the world—-and which characters in this book watch, wondering what role if any they hold in their own times.

In The Imperfectionists, I wrote intimate stories with a backdrop of the clash between the digital age and the old ways. In The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, I’m again telling an intimate story at the margins of the world, now with a backdrop of the past quarter–century, from the ’80s, when the Cold War was ending; to the turn of the millennium, during the peak of American dominance; to the radical tech and social changes of today. The story leaps back and forth among these three periods, contrasting where we were and where we’ve ended up.

My editors, very sensibly, asked whether a nonfiction–sounding title risked confusing the reader. And, they noted, it recalled the title of a bestselling 1987 history by Paul Kennedy. What if Web searches caused my novel to vanish behind this twenty–seven–year–old volume on world politics? Was the title—-no matter how resonant for me—-worth the risk?

Even the upstanding George Orwell once changed the name of a novel, The Last Man in Europe, to his publisher’s preference, 1984. Apparently, The Great Gatsby could’ve ended up as Trimalchio in West Egg. And Catch–22 started out as Catch–11, only for the number to be doubled for marketing reasons.

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Wouldn’t To Kill a Mockingbird read as sweet if it were Atticus, as Harper Lee once considered calling it? One grafts names onto objects and people, then experiences the titles as inevitable, just as the name of one’s mother (think of yours now) seems to encapsulate her, though she’d have been the same woman were she Hilda or April or Millie.

But no! Your mother was never Hilda or April or Millie—-she couldn’t have been any name but her own! A book title can feel as indelible.

Nevertheless, upon hearing my editors’ concerns, I turned to my original page of possible titles and reconsidered each in turn. I even mocked–up book jackets with alternatives, to see how they looked.

None other felt right. When people read this novel, I hope some might contemplate its name, perhaps discuss it with friends, possibly perceive extra shades of meaning because this is The Rise & Fall of Great Powers and nothing else.

So I stuck with it. It just seemed like the title. And now it is.

Originally published by The Huffington Post in June 2014

Discussion Questions: Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Lisette's List_Vreeland

From Susan Vreeland, bestselling author of such acclaimed novels as Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Luncheon of the Boating Party, and Clara and Mr. Tiffany, comes a richly imagined story of a woman’s awakening in the south of Vichy France—to the power of art, to the beauty of provincial life, and to love in the midst of war.

1.    Why did the novel need to begin with Lisette meeting Pascal? How was he an important presence throughout the novel and an influence on Lisette’s deepening character?

2.    What were the differences in the qualities that Lisette appreciated about André and Maxime? Did these differences affect her love for both of them? How?

3.    As Lisette becomes more comfortable in Roussillon, what does she find in it that she likes, or even loves? As a reader, did you want her to make this adjustment, or were you holding out for a complete and speedy return to Paris? If she had moved back to Paris right after the end of the war, what would she have lost in addition to the paintings?

4.    Why is Lisette so conflicted about Bernard? What allows her even to speak to him? Since every gift he gives her has consequences, should she have rejected and destroyed each one as she does the stockings? What did you think of Bernard? Did you sympathize with him?

5.    Should Bernard have been punished for his actions during the war and removed from his post? In your opinion, did his motives in siding with the Occupiers justify his stance? At one point Lisette says, “I could charge you not just as a thief but as a collaborator.” Why doesn’t she? Do you consider André’s mother, Héloïse, to be a collaborator? Why or why not?

6.    In Chapter 23, Maxime speaks at length about what makes a painting great. Do you agree with his assessment? Is there any criterion that he overlooks? Select a painting you love by any painter and apply Maxime’s criteria to it. What insightful observation about life or the world or yourself does the painting offer you?

7.    How do the peripheral characters—Maurice, Sister Marie Pierre, Héloïse, Louise, Odette, Madame Bonnelly, Aimé Bonhomme—complement one another in influencing Lisette?

8.    The letter by Marc Chagall to the artists of Paris is historically accurate except that it mentions the cause of Bella’s death. What effect does this letter have on Lisette, not just in terms of her emotional reaction but also on her subsequent thinking and -actions?

9.    In what way does Lisette’s List of Hungers and Vows differ from the popularized “bucket list” of contemporary usage? What is its purpose for her? Why wasn’t “Participate in the art world in Paris” on her list?

10.  In Chapter 16, Lisette considers whether it might be a higher art to invent a painting by assembling elements from one’s heart, as Chagall did, rather than by painting only what one actually sees. She imagines such a painting of her own. What elements of her own life are reflected in her painting? What elements in your life might be reflected in such a painting if you were to paint your own Chagall?

11.  What are the biggest lessons Lisette learns throughout the course of the novel? Do they concern art or life? Does learning about art teach Lisette to live a fuller life? Or does living a fuller life teach her to better understand and appreciate art?

The Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer: Discussion Questions

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Guest Cottage_ThayerNancy Thayer whisks readers back to Nantucket in a delightful novel about two single parents who accidentally rent the same summer house—and must soon decide where their hearts truly lie.

Sensible thirty-six-year-old Sophie Anderson knows her role in life: supportive wife of a successful architect and calm, capable mother of two. But on a warm summer night, as the house grows quiet around her and her children fall asleep, she wonders what’s missing from her life. After her husband leaves her, she impulsively rents a guest cottage on Nantucket and leaves Boston for a family vacation, minus one.

Also minus one is Trevor Black, a software entrepreneur who has recently lost his wife. Trevor did not imagine himself raising a little boy like Leo—smart and sweet, but grappling constantly with his mother’s death–on his own. Hoping a quiet summer on the Nantucket coast will help him reconnect with Leo, Trevor rents a guest house on the beautiful island from his friend Ivan Swenson.

Best-laid plans run awry when Sophie and Trevor realize they’ve mistakenly rented the same house. Still, determined to make this a summer their kids will always remember, the two agree to share the Swensons’ Nantucket house. But as the summer unfolds and the families grow close, Sophie and Trevor must ask themselves if the guest cottage is all they want to share.

Discussion Questions for The Guest House by Nancy Thayer

1. On page 80, Sophie thinks to herself, “When one door closes in your life, another door opens. But what if the entire house comes down?” For Sophie and Trevor, a summer in Nantucket holds so much more than fun in the sun. They resolve unfinished business, get to spend time with their kids, and even learn to love again. Do you think any of this would have happened if they hadn’t had to share the guest cottage?

2. Living under the same roof, Sophie and Trevor are forced to compromise. Do you think they’re the better for it? Have you ever thought of a compromise you’ve had to make as an opportunity to grow?

3. Compare Trevor and Sophie’s parenting styles. What do you think each of their approaches say about them? What do they do differently? Do you think they learn anything from each other?

4. At Sophie’s dinner party in chapter 19, Connor tells the story of Wooly Bully, a stubborn bull that his wife succeeded in taming on their farm. Why do you think he tells this story to the Andersons and the Blacks?

5. On page 238, Trevor muses that perhaps the traditional family “never existed except on Christmas cards.” Do you agree with Trevor?

6. Similarly, in chapter 32 Trevor’s son Leo asks Sophie, “Are you my family?” How do you define family? How do you think it is defined in The Guest Cottage?

7. Sophie admits that she never loved Zack as much as she loved music, and Trevor acknowledges that he was drawn to Tallulah for superficial reasons. Do you think their reasons for marrying the first time were similar or different?

8. On page 204, Trevor observes that sometimes “people marry the wrong people to get the right children.” What do you think about that statement?

9. When Sophie sees the piano in the music room, her dreams of becoming a concert pianist come flooding back to her. Although music has always been her first love, she hasn’t played a note since she froze on stage as a teenager. Why do you think Sophie froze? What do you think enables her to play again?

10. Have you ever rediscovered something you were passionate about? What made you revisit it?

11. Throughout The Guest Cottage, Leo struggles to play the song his mother used to sing to him on the piano. Why do you think Sophie is the one who recognizes the song he is attempting to play?

12.  Sophie rents the guest cottage with help from the inheritance left to her by her unsinkable Aunt Fancy. Aunt Fancy was a woman of many mottos. “If I’ve gotta go down, I’m gonna go down in style,” Sophie remembers her saying. Even in memory, she inspires Sophie to love life and take chances. Does Aunt Fancy remind you of anyone who tells you, in one way or another, “If the horse throws you, climb right back on”?

Discussion Questions: Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Nantucket Sisters_ThayerFriendship takes center stage in New York Times bestselling author Nancy Thayer’s captivating, emotionally charged novel featuring all the tenderness and wit, drama and romance that readers have come to expect from this insightful, much-loved writer.

1. Maggie and Emily come from two different worlds—-while Maggie’s family lives on Nantucket year round, Emily is whisked off to a very different island, New York City, at the first sign of the summer’s end each year. Although the two girls build a world of their own each summer as “Nantucket sisters,” eventually the outside world lets itself in. Do you think Maggie and Emily are their best selves together? Have you ever had a friendship with someone from a different background? Did it make you see the world differently?

2. Emily and Maggie spend golden summers together building castles in the sand, creating magical worlds of their own, and forging grand plans for their future. What other relationships in Nantucket Sisters take place far from the eyes of the outside world? Why do you think they do?

3. Do you find yourself identifying more with Maggie or Emily? Why?

4. Emily’s mother, Cara, always disapproved of Emily’s summer friendship with Maggie and Ben, whose mother is a local seamstress. She encourages Emily to take sailing lessons and attend fundraisers where she will associate with “summer people” instead. How do you think the environments we grow up in and parental expectations affect us later in life?

5. Emily is passionate about the environment, especially that of Nantucket, and environmental preservation is about keeping the past and the future alive in Nantucket Sisters. Why do you think Emily lets her passion for the island fade? Does it correspond with emotional changes in her life?

6. Similarly, we find out in chapter 22 that against his family’s wishes Ben plans to build on the land his stepfather, Thaddeus, left him. What motivates his decision? Do you think he’s trying to block out his memories of Emily or be what she wanted him to be?

7. In chapter 10, Ben and Emily fight over expectations for their engagement. On the surface, the fight is about money, a source of tension that affects many relationships in Nantucket Sisters. Ben and Emily have gotten past this issue before—-what do you think is really at stake?

8. Maggie and Emily approach their pregnancies very differently—do you think the choices they make about raising their children reflect their personalities? What do you think you would do in either of their places?

9. Maggie’s grandmother Clarice has a motto, “You can’t keep a good woman down.” Clarice seems to grow more and more resilient as she ages, remaining a lively, supportive presence in Maggie’s life. Does she remind you of anyone you know?

10. Tyler comes back into Maggie’s life unexpectedly. Have you reconnected with a friend or a crush, years later? Did it surprise you?

11. As girls, Maggie and Emily work on a novel together, Siren Song, and Maggie grows up to be a writer, working on her novel on cozy winter evenings. What roles do you thinking writing and storytelling play in Nantucket Sisters?

12. Nantucket Sisters begins and ends with “a morning in heaven” on the beach. Is there a place that has always been special to you? Why is it meaningful to you?

A Conversation Between Mira Jacob and Joanna Rackoff

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing_JacobsWith depth, heart, and agility, debut novelist Mira Jacob takes us on a deftly plotted journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the dot.com boom. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is an epic, irreverent testimony to the bonds of love, the pull of hope, and the power of making peace with life’s uncertainties.

Celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen has been sitting on his porch, talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a photographer living in Seattle.

Reluctantly Amina returns home and finds a situation that is far more complicated than her mother let on, with roots in a trip the family, including Amina’s rebellious brother Akhil, took to India twenty years earlier. Confronted by Thomas’s unwillingness to explain himself, strange looks from the hospital staff, and a series of puzzling items buried in her mother’s garden, Amina soon realizes that the only way she can help her father is by coming to terms with her family’s painful past. In doing so, she must reckon with the ghosts that haunt all of the Eapens.

Joanna Rackoff: This novel, I know, was a decade in the works. What was it like to work on a project of this scope? Did you ever despair of finishing it? Or was it more the opposite, that working on it sustained you?

Mira Jacob: Oh, those questions really get to everything all at once. Let me answer the easier question first. Yes, I did despair of finishing it at several points. I worked a series of corporate jobs while getting this book done, and most of the time I wrote from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., when my young son (and the rest of the world) was asleep. I’m pretty up front about the fact that this book took me ten years to write, because I think there are a lot of people like me—-people with dreams bigger than their day jobs—-and I want them to know they are not crazy for keeping at it.

As for the scope and the scale—-the spooky truth is that when I started the novel, I thought I would be writing a purely fictional book about a father receding from the world. I imagined him -having -Alzheimer’s, or maybe just some kind of nonspecific dementia. I had a great father character in the original draft, and I was putting him through those paces when my real–life father was diagnosed with cancer. You know what isn’t the easiest thing in the world? Writing a father character into demise while your own father is growing weaker every day. So I put the book away for three years, and in those years I watched my father die slowly and painfully, and, well, it took a toll. Just how much of a toll it took became evident a year after he died, when I tried to go back to the book I had been writing, and instead of writing the father as a character, I kept writing my father—-his mannerisms, his way of moving through the world. At first I tried to resist it, but then I just gave in, and it was cathartic. I realized much later that it was my way of getting to say goodbye on my own terms.

JR: Most annoying question ever: You mention, in the acknowledgments, that you hope no one will mistake your mother and brother for Kamala and Akhil. Does the novel draw from your own cultural, geographical, or familial background? Is the world of the novel the world from which you come?

MJ: The world of the novel is absolutely where I come from: Syrian Christian South Indian living in the American Southwest, to be specific. Given that, and the fact that I put my actual father in the book, I felt like I needed that disclaimer in there, especially for my mother, who was a very cool force of culture and feminism and political thought in my life—-quite the opposite of Kamala. And my brother, while heavily into metal, never had the identity problems Akhil had.

JR: The story arc of the novel is somewhat unusual. What novels, or other works, influenced you in its development?

MJ: I like a novel with an emotional mystery at its center. To that extent, books like Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao were great guides. But as far as the structure goes—-the unwinding of parallel story lines—-that was something I stumbled into when initial drafts weren’t going over well. In short, I was told to remove the entire high school section of the book because it came as one big, long chunk in the middle of the narrative and slowed down the pace. I talked to my husband, who is a filmmaker, and he told me about storyboarding, which is something I had never tried before. I sat down one day with a bunch of colored Post–its and the tandem story lines became beautifully clear.

JR: This is obviously a story about first–generation Americans, their struggles and conflicts. Do you see this as a universal story or a specifically Indian one?

MJ: It’s funny, because I know that reviewers have latched on to this as an immigrant story—-which it is, of course—-but in my mind, it’s mostly a people–dealing–with–loss story. That was at the heart of this for me: how to move forward in a world that keeps erasing itself behind you, how to find your footing in a slippery future when you haven’t made peace with your past. It’s also about relationships in families, those very specific dynamics that happen between people you can never get away from. And the reaction from readers has been surprisingly gratifying in this respect—-the number of nonimmigrants who have reached out to say, “You told the story of my family,” has been stunning.

JR: The novel, of course, is very much about sleep, and tries to get at the complex dynamic between our sleeping and waking lives. One character sleepwalks and, in doing so, finds the courage to do all he can’t in his waking life. Another, similarly, falls asleep when tensions rise. How did you become interested in sleep? How does sleep function in the novel?

MJ: Sleep is a human universal, something we all have to do to function no matter where we are located or what else is going on in our lives. In its best moments, it’s restorative, regenerative, and in its worst, it becomes a subconscious reckoning. All of the Eapens on either side of the globe spend their days contorting around their realities—-whether that’s being stuck in a life they can’t stand or a country that won’t see them—​so it made sense to me that at night, when their guards are down, sleep would wreak havoc on their lives.

JR: This is also very much a novel about the complex emotional web between parent and child. You became a parent while working on the novel. Did this affect your depictions of the parents and children in the novel?

MJ: Both my father’s death and my son’s subsequent birth had enormous ramifications on my perspective while writing the novel. It’s a little simplistic to say one devastated me and the other rebuilt me; the truth would be closer to saying that both of them were deeply untethering and also very bracing. They put me in my current bones. So, yes, it very much affected the novel, adding new layers of perspective, disappointment, fury, and forgiveness. You know, life.

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