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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.

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.

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