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Reader's Guides

Reader’s Guide: THE ALL-GIRL FILLING STATION’S LAST REUNION by Fannie Flagg

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Flagg_AllGirls We love her and we love her some more. (And we know you agree!) Fannie Flagg’s latest bestselling novel The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is out in paperback next week. If you and your book club have it on the to-read list, then be sure to check out our discussion questions below. And stop by Fannie’s Facebook page to tell her hello! She loves hearing from readers like you!!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. A lot of Southern identity is wrapped up in one’s family history. “Now, just who are your people?” is an oft-quoted phrase around the region. Sookie’s biggest crisis comes when she realizes that her “people” aren’t actually who she thought they were. How does Sookie’s discovery of her true family affect her identity? How does your own heritage affect your identity?

2. Though Sookie tells us that Lenore’s nickname, “Winged Victory,” came from the way she entered a room—as if she were the statuesque piece on the hood of a car rushing in—how might “Winged Victory” reflect Lenore’s personality in other ways? Does her representation as a classical goddess serve to heighten the air of history and tradition that surrounds her? How might the image of a winged woman tie Lenore in with the ladies of the WASPs?

3. One of the things that we hear repeatedly from Sookie is that she can never stand up for herself—especially to Lenore. We see Fritzi, on the other hand, repeatedly breaking down barriers in her own time. How would you characterize the different kinds of courage that Fritzi and Sookie exhibit? In what ways are they similar and in what ways different?

4. Sookie’s best friend, Marvaleen, is constantly trying different suggestions from her life coach, Edna Yorba Zorbra. From journaling to yoga to the Goddess Within group, which meets in a yurt, Marvaleen tries every method possible to get over her divorce. How does Sookie’s approach to dealing with her problems differ from Marvaleen’s? Do you think her friendship with Marvaleen might have helped push her to confront the question of her mother?

5. In The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, we learn about a mostly unknown part of American history—the WASPs of World War II. These women went for thirty-five years without recognition because their records of service were sealed and classified. Were you surprised to learn about this? What parts of the WASPs’ story spoke to you?

6. As Sookie comes to terms with her new identity, so must the rest of her family. Sookie’s realization that “Dee Dee may not be a Simmons by birth, but she was certainly Lenore’s granddaughter, all right” becomes a comforting thought. Have there been times in your life when you have felt so connected to people that you considered them family? What types of circumstances can create such a bond?

7. Sookie tells her friend one day, “I’m telling you, Dena, when you live long enough to see your children begin to look at you with dif- ferent eyes, and you can look at them not as your children, but as people, it’s worth getting older with all the creaks and wrinkles.” Have you experienced this change yet with your own parents or children? If so, what were the circumstances in which you began to see them in a different light? How did this make your relationship even more special?

8. “Blue Jay Away,” Sookie’s brand-new invention, keeps Sookie’s house finches and chickadees fed, while also making Sookie famous. Who do you think have been the blue jays in Sookie’s own life? Has she learned to manage them successfully?

9. As Pat Conroy says, Fannie Flagg can make even the Polish seem Southern. A large part of Southern and Polish identity is found in their culture—the food, the music, the values. What are some of the things that are unique to your culture? How do they help bring people together?

10. Throughout the book, Dee Dee and Lenore often represent many characteristics that Sookie finds frustrating about being a Simmons, such as the time Dee Dee had to be driven to the church in the back of a moving van so that her Gone with the Wind wedding dress wouldn’t be messed up. Once Sookie gains perspective on her family, however, she comes to love and accept Dee Dee’s obsession with their history. Have there been times when your own friends or family have frustrated you with their opinions? How were you able to gain perspective and accept their differences?

11. A major theme in this book is accepting your home. Sookie experiences a homecoming many times—after she first meets Fritzi and returns to Point Clear, when she goes to Lenore’s bedside at Westminster Village, and when she flies to Pulaski for the All-Girl Filling Station’s last reunion. What is your favorite part about going home? Who are the people who make home a home for you?

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for Dean Koontz’s THE CITY

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Koontz_TheCity Diving into the latest Koontz this summer? Join us with these questions and topics for discussion. Happy Reading!

1. Jonah recounts his story beginning when he’s eight years old, but in present time, he’s an older man reflecting on and retelling the story of his childhood self. How do you think time and distance have affected Jonah’s retelling of his story? Do you find that the more time you are removed from experiences in your own life, your story—or your view of it—changes? If so, how? What advantages, and challenges, might telling the story from such a perspective bring to an author?

2. Jonah begins his story asserting: “The last thing I am is a closet pessimist. I’m an optimist and always have been. Life’s given me no reason to expect the worst.” As you read, you learn that Jonah’s life hasn’t exactly been easy and he’s experienced real tragedy. Why do you think he’s such an optimist? Which relationships in his life contribute to that? Do you find that your own difficult life experiences make you more optimistic, or conversely, more pessimistic?

3. Both Jonah’s grandfather and Mr. Yoshioka serve as father figures to him. How are their ways of relating to him similar? How different? What are the most important lessons and examples that each impart? What scenes best captured these central relationships? Describe Jonah’s relationship with his mother. What makes their relationship so special? What scenes between them did you find most telling? Most affecting? Do you see such a mother-child relationship reflected in other works of literature? In your experience?

4. Jonah calls his narration an “oral history,” as he’s recording himself “shooting off his mouth.” How do you feel about Jonah as a narrator? Did knowing that his recitation is meant to be more conversational than formal color your relationship with the story in any way? Do you feel more affected by a story told from such an intimate point of view, rather than a story told at a remove, say by an omniscient narrator? How would the story have changed, told from another perspective? Jonah also admits that he plans to edit his recording to “spare the reader all the you-knows and uhs and dead-end sentences, also to make myself sound smarter than I really am.” He says this in jest, but in what ways might we all be guilty of editing our own stories? Consider the way we present ourselves through social media and online profiles. Did this admission make Jonah any less trustworthy as a narrator, considering the things we might leave out of our own narratives? Or did it make him more authentic?

5. Music is such a powerful, pervasive, magical part of this story, and there’s a scintillating soundtrack in the background, transporting us to another time. How did this contribute to your reading experience? What types of music do you envision might reflect Jonah’s later life? Consider what music means to you. What songs or styles of music might comprise the score for the movie of your life?

6. Thinking back, Jonah says, “all children are prone to voodoo thinking because they’re essentially powerless and because they lack so much knowledge of how the world works….” Jonah, of course, believes in juju to some extent, deeming his pendant capable of providing the “ultimate protection,” and safeguarding treasured objects in the La Florentine box. Did you have any of your own superstitions as a child? Ones that may seem silly now or that you still cling to in whatever way? Did you have your own “La Florentine box” and if so, what are some of the objects you valued most dearly? How did Jonah’s beliefs play out thematically in the book? Is there a connection between these so-called “childish” beliefs and belief of a deeper nature, as reflected by Miss Pearl?

7. The “all-seeing eye” is a major theme throughout the novel. There’s the faux eye that must have sprung from a stuffed toy, which Jonah keeps, sensing it has “some ominous significance”; there’s the magazine clipping that Fiona Cassidy contributed to Jonah’s box, having drawn in the eyes with a color that matched her own; and there’s the Fabritius painting, The Goldfinch, the eye of which Jonah feels all of nature peering through, seeing all sides of him and all the lies he’s ever told. In each case, Jonah feels equally unnerved, as though these eyes are portals through which some presence can analyze and judge him. Does he seem to feel the same anxiety when being viewed through each set, or is there an important difference between them? In some ways, do you think he’s attributing his own self-reflection to these “artificial eyes?” Have you ever encountered a set of “eyes” that provoked something in you in the same way? That made you uncomfortable or brought you face-to-face with a truth you wouldn’t have seen otherwise? Can you name similar symbols in other works of literature?

8. What did you make of the haikus strewn throughout the novel? Were you surprised by how moments of great joy and sorrow are captured so sparingly? How did this help put order and simplicity in Jonah’s world, as he was coming of age during a time of such turmoil? What lessons did they instill? Was there one poem in particular that stood out as especially inspirational or beautiful?

9. Jonah remarks on the fact that there weren’t many heroes for him to emulate growing up, as most prominent African Americans in pop culture were either sports stars or musicians, never the champions who took down the bad guys, and “taking down bad guys is fundamentally what you want in your model of a hero.” That definition changes for him over time, and the everyday heroes he comes to worship include his mother, his grandfather, Mr. Yoshioka, and Vermeer, to name a few. How do these figures influence the person he becomes, enabling him to persevere in the face of hardships and ultimately inspiring him to maintain his optimism where others might have given up under the circumstances? Do you have your own unsung heroes who’ve inspired you to do the same? In what ways does the influence of such individuals ripple outward, extending beyond their immediate circles to the wider world, in the novel and in reality?

10. Consider the role of race and identity throughout the narrative, and what it means to different characters. Think about Jonah’s narration as an African American boy coming of age during a time of national unrest, when race riots were the norm. What special insights into the era did you gain from Jonah’s unique perspective? Did anything about his attitude or his family’s attitude about race surprise you? What did you make of Mr. Yoshioka’s Manzanar “posse” and the relationships among them? How did the core values of the various characters inform their approach to this element of their lives?

11. The question of fate versus free will takes center stage in this novel, with Jonah coming to believe that “There is no fate, only free will.” Consider the instance in which he decided to see for himself who Tilton was eating lunch with at The Royal, and wondered what course his life would have taken if he had followed his instinct to run instead. Have you ever been at a crossroad in your life where events could have gone very differently had you taken the road untraveled? Do you consider the outcome of these instances fate, or like Jonah, do you believe that it was one of the times that you listened to the “small voice” that “wants only what is best for us?” What are other critical moments of decision in the novel? How did you feel about the fates of the various characters? What did you make of Miss Pearl’s special relationship with Jonah and her actions toward him at the end of the novel in terms of the question of destiny?

12. On the interpretation of art, Amalia says, “when it comes to what it means, no stuffy expert in the world has a right to tell you what you should think about a painting. Art is subjective. Whatever comfort or delight you get from a painting is your business.” Do you agree with this? Do you think there’s a tendency for people to find art intimidating or prohibitive because they’re supposed to take a specific meaning away from it, or arrive at it with some type of context? Is it liberating to embrace this idea that art should stand on its own and that we gravitate toward certain pieces for a reason? Are there works that you’ve found particularly evocative or moving based on your own experience at any given time? Has there been someone in your own life responsible for introducing you to beauty in the same way that Amalia does for Jonah? Do you see the world of art, or music, or architecture, or other forms of artistic expression, any differently because of this story?

Author Spotlight: Robin Black and J. Courtney Sullivan

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Black_Life DrawingJ. Courtney Sullivan joins Robin Black to ask her a few questions about her upcoming novel, Life Drawing, on sale next week!

Courtney: Robin, I first fell in love with your work while reading your nonfiction essays about the writer’s life. In the novel, you extend these observations on the indecision, inspiration, and doubt that all artists experience. Was it therapeutic in a way to write about these ideas through your characters?

Robin: I’m so glad you’ve liked the essays. Thank you! I love writing about the creative process in essays, and blog posts, and also in fiction. And you’re right that in a way it is therapeutic to describe what it feels like to be consumed by a creative project or abandoned by one. Those states—both of them, the exhilarating and the depressing—are lonely ones. It’s been important for me to find ways of sharing the sensations since they so often define my daily life.

Courtney: The novel begins with two powerful epigraphs–one from Victor Hugo and one from George Eliot. How did you choose them? Were they part of the inspiration for the story, did they come first, or did you find them a fitting start to a tale you’d already created?

Robin: I found the epigraphs after writing the book. I hadn’t titled it yet and was cruising through quotations looking for relevant phrases, partly to spark title ideas, possibly to use a quote as the title. I think of these two quotations as representing the two gravitational centers of Life Drawing: one being about “our dead,” the ghosts and shades we all carry, and the other being relevant to the evolution and survival of long-time romantic relationships, what it means for a person to be loved in a clear-eyed, realistic way rather than idealized. When I found those two lines and they dovetailed so perfectly with these two aspects of the work, I just had to use them.

Courtney: Novelists have so many choices when it comes to structure. I’m intrigued by the decision-making that goes into such choices. We know about a very big plot point that comes much later from the first sentence of the book. Why did you choose to tell us about that up front? I think it’s a brilliant choice. Did you ever consider doing it differently?

Robin: Strangely enough, the first paragraph was originally the start of another piece of fiction about entirely different people, with a completely different plot. But seventy pages in, I had hit a wall, big time. A writer friend asked me what, if anything, I liked about the work and I said: “Just the first paragraph. ” So I lifted it and started all over. Then, as I was writing the novel that became Life Drawing, I forbade myself to change those lines or take out the plot disclosure. I liked the challenge of finding my way back to it, and I liked what I think of as the tautness of a circular plot. I’m hearing from readers now that many of them forget about opening, and I’m delighted that the early disclosure hasn’t seemed to limit the suspense or surprise of the book, because that was a risk.

Stay up to date with Robin Black on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: THE SLEEPWALKER’S GUIDE TO DANCING by Mira Jacob

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Jacob_Sleepwalkers Guide Gather round, book clubbers! We have some great discussion questions for Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Reviewers and authors alike are buzzing about this debut novel.

“Punchy, clever, and stuffed with delicious chapatis, Mira Jacob’s first novel jumps effortlessly from India to the States, creating a vibrant portrait of a world in flux.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure

Discussion Questions:
1. The book starts in India, but doesn’t go back. Why do you think the author chose to open the book there?

2. Why do you think Amina was unhinged by taking the picture of Bobby McCloud? Do you believe her own explanation?

3. What do you think compelled Amina to photograph the worst moments at the wedding?

4. Sanji is presented as different than the rest of the adults in the Albuquerque “family.” What might make her different and why?

5. Kamala is a very polarizing character in the book. Were you drawn to or repelled by her? How do you think the author feels about her?

6. Kamala and Amina seem at odds most of the time, but what traits do they have in common?

7. Amina uses the camera to express herself. Kamala uses her cooking. Is there anything that you use (cooking, art, music, work) to connect to your world and the people in your life?

8. Akhil is angry with America in a way that Amina isn’t. What is the source of his anger?

9. If Akhil had lived longer, who else would he have painted on his ceiling?

10. Do you think Sunil was really sleepwalking when he set fire to the house?

11. All of the Eapens go through tremendous change, though Amina’s are more subtle than most. What is the biggest change in Amina’s personality?

12. If Jamie and Amina hadn’t shared their past, do you think she would have been able to trust him?

13. When Thomas sees Akhil, he believes it’s a genuine visit, not a side effect of his tumor. When Amina sees Akhil, she thinks it’s a symptom of her depression. Which explanation are you more inclined to believe?

14. What invention do you imagine Thomas was last working on?

15. Why do you think the author titled her novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing?

Connect with Mira Jacob on Facebook and check out our new favorite reviewer, Zakir!

Reader’s Guide: THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE by Darcie Chan

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Chan_MillRiverRecluse This sensational New York Times bestseller and hot read of the summer keeps getting bigger! We have the questions and topics for discussion for Darcie Chan’s page-turning novel, The Mill River Recluse.

Don’t forget to stay in touch with Darcie on Facebook and Twitter!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Mill River Recluse is not written in a single timeline, but instead uses alternating timelines that link near the end. What did you think of this structure? Was it effective in driving the story forward, or was it disorienting? Did you prefer one timeline over the other?

2. Of all the characters in The Mill River Recluse, with which one did you most identify, and why? If you could meet one of the characters for coffee, who would it be and why?

3. The opening scene of the book is of Mary McAllister taking her own life to avoid having to suffer further agonizing pain and certain eventual natural death resulting from her metastatic cancer. Do you think Father O’Brien knew Mary planned to take her own life when he left the marble mansion that last night? What do you think about Mary’s decision to take things into her own hands? Did this scene give you pause?

4. How does Mary McAllister evolve from a shy teenager into a woman held prisoner by social anxiety and agoraphobia? Do you agree with the way in which Father O’Brien tried to help her? Would you have done anything differently had you been in his position?

5. Patrick McAllister is shockingly cruel, particularly toward the most vulnerable people and the animals in his life. Do you think that Patrick became the person he did because of his parents and their relationship with him?

6. Unlike Patrick McAllister, Leroy Underwood had a very underprivileged upbringing. During Leroy’s visit with Father O’Brien in the hospital, he sheds tears. Do you think his tears were a sign of remorse? Are he and Patrick McAllister different kinds of “bad people,” or do you think their character defects are of a similar nature?

7. Despite his animosity toward Leroy, Father O’Brien visits him in the hospital to offer him support and comfort. Can you describe a time in your own life when you had to put aside your feelings to do something that you knew was right?

8. Of all the potions Daisy concocts, is there one that you believe you could drink if you had to? How would you react if Daisy showed up at your door peddling her wares?

9. Father O’Brien has been obsessed with spoons his entire life, but the reason for his attraction to those particular objects is never discussed or revealed. Do you have any theories as to why he is so drawn to spoons—so drawn, in fact, that he is willing to break his vows and steal them—as opposed to some other kind of item? Do you believe he has truly kicked his “spoon habit”?

10. Claudia Simon’s struggle to eat healthy food is almost sabotaged by a box of Entenmann’s powdered sugar doughnuts. Is there a food that you have trouble resisting?

11. Jean Wykowski struggles with middle age and a life that seems to have settled into a predictable routine. Instead of “borrowing” Mary’s ring, what advice would you give her to add a little excitement and variety in her life?

12. Near the end of the novel, the people of Mill River learn that they have actually had a kind of relationship with Mary McAllister for years, and that Mary is a very different person than many of them had imagined her to be. Are there other relationships in the novel in which one of the characters learns something new or unexpected about another?

13. Which character do you feel experiences the most personal growth throughout the course of the story, and why?

14. How did you feel upon finishing The Mill River Recluse? Did anything about the story or characters linger in your mind or change the way you view certain people or situations?

Join the conversation with Darcie on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: ISLAND GIRLS by Nancy Thayer

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Thayer_IslandGirls Kick back and relax with a Random House Reader’s Circle classic! Nancy Thayer brings us another entertaining tale from Nantucket. If this is on your summer reading list, then be sure to check out our questions and topics for discussion below! And feel free to connect with Nancy on her Facebook and Twitter.

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. Arden, Meg, and Jenny come from what can be called a “blended” family. Do you know any families like this?

2. Do you think the relationship of sisters in a family whose parents never divorce is easer/less complicated/more loving than that of sisters in blended families?

3. The flap copy of Island Girls says: “. . . the push and pull of family altercations make us whole.” Do you agree?

4. Did you identify with any of the three young women? If so, which one? Why?

5. Did you identify with any of the three older women? If so, how?

6. How would you match these qualities to these mothers:
Nora Justine Cyndi
Romantic Martyred Practical

7. Towards the end, the mothers get together at the Nantucket house and end up being friends, or at least friendly. Is this realistic or idealistic?

8. Was Justine justified in exiling the two girls? Was she right to keep the information about Jenny’s natural father from her? Would you have done the same?

9. One of the themes in the book is that of self-esteem. Meg’s lack of self-esteem prevents her from believing Liam could love her. On page 238, Justine’s lack of self-confidence made her want to get Meg and Arden out of her life. Do you think women let the lack of self-esteem influence crucial life choices more than men do?

10. Do you think the women of the Rory Randall fan club made the right decision about helping Marcia? What would you have done?

11. Arden, Meg, and Jenny all have work they love. Which woman do you think is most likely to have children? Which woman is least likely?

12. If you had three months—or even one week—to vacation on Nantucket, away from work, home, and everyday worries, lying on a beach in the sun or walking on the beach looking at the stars, would it change anything in your life?

A Letter to Readers from Darcie Chan, author of THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Chan_MillRiverRecluse Author Darcie Chan writes a letter to readers to share her experience moving from self-publishing her e-book to hitting the New York Times bestseller list to scoring a book deal with Random House. She also reminds us that you should always expect the unexpected,” and we couldn’t agree more! Her sensational story certainly reminds us of that.

Dear Reader,

The Mill River Recluse is my first novel. For most authors, writing a first novel is a learning experience and a labor of love. Trying to get a first novel published is quite another matter. Frustration and disappointment abound. The paths to traditional publication are paved with rejection letters from agents and publishers. Self-publishing these days also presents a host of difficulties. Producing a quality story on one’s own is just the first step; an author must then get that story noticed in an ever-expanding ocean of content. The Mill River Recluse has taken me down both paths, culminating in an amazing, roller-coaster ride that I never expected to experience.

My central story idea for The Mill River Recluse had a real-life origin. The basic concept for the book was inspired by a gentleman named Sol Strauss who lived in Paoli, Indiana, the small town in which I lived during high school and where my mother was born and raised. Mr. Strauss, a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany, operated a dry goods store in Paoli in the 1940s. Even though Mr. Strauss lived quietly alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population, he considered Paoli to be his adopted community. When he died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it a substantial sum, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the people of Paoli.

The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and other necessities for needy children and an annual supply of new books for the high school English department. Residents of Paoli may also apply to the fund for assistance in carrying out a project that would benefit the town. The fund is the legacy of Mr. Strauss, who continues to be remembered for his extreme and unexpected generosity.

I remembered what Mr. Strauss had done when I was brainstorming ideas for a first novel. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to build a story around a character who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far removed from his or her community may in fact be more special and integral than anyone could imagine.

I began writing for a few hours after work most evenings, and it took two and a half years to complete a first draft. I polished the manuscript as best I could, and I was ecstatic when Laurie Liss, an agent with Sterling Lord Literistic in New York, agreed to shop it around for me. Despite Laurie’s valiant efforts, though, my novel didn’t sell. I put the manuscript in a drawer and resolved that someday, I would write a second book and try again. Life went on.

I didn’t write much during the next several years. My job grew increasingly demanding, my husband finished his residency and accepted a position necessitating a move to a different state, and we had a baby. (I’m still trying to catch up on sleep missed for all those reasons!) But, when my son was a toddler, I started reading articles about how e-books had exploded in popularity. Even more interesting was the fact that apparently it had become very easy for an individual writer to self-publish a book in electronic form. I thought of The Mill River Recluse languishing in my drawer. I figured I had nothing to lose and released it as an e-book in May 2011.

Soon, I realized that no one would find my novel among all the other e-books out there unless I did some sort of marketing for it. After all, publishing companies invest in marketing and publicity for their books. As an individual with a modest budget, there was no way I could fund a major marketing campaign, but I arranged for a few inexpensive online ads to get my novel on readers’ radar screens. I kept the price of my book very low, to encourage people to take a chance on a story by a completely unknown writer. I also set up a website, Twitter account, and Facebook author page. And then, I waited.

Sales started to trickle in. During the first month, I sold around a hundred copies. I was so thrilled! To think, a hundred people had bought my book! My husband, Tim, and I grabbed up our little boy and did a happy dance in the kitchen. “Wow, maybe you’ll be able to sell a thousand,” I remember him saying. I doubted that, but I thought perhaps a few hundred more sales might be possible.

In late June, a feature of my novel popped up on a large website that recommends e-books to readers. Within two days, another six hundred copies sold! After the feature ended, the pace of sales accelerated. Reviews from readers started coming in—and most of them were the kind of glowing, positive reviews that authors dream of receiving. I was hearing directly from those readers, too.

One gentleman sent me an email to tell me that he loved the book, but that he had had to wait until his wife had left the house to read the last few pages. The reason? He didn’t want his wife to see him become “a blubbering mess.” Another woman wrote to tell me that she had read my book aloud to her mother in the hospital, and it brought her mother great comfort during her last days of life. Both of those messages, as well as many others I received, left me in tears. And the emails and Facebook messages kept coming from readers of all ages throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

By mid-July, I knew something extraordinary was happening. I kept my agent in the loop, of course, but I was shocked when she called me in mid-August and left a cryptic message on my answering machine.

“Darcie, it’s Laurie. Check your email.”

I scrambled around and got to my computer. She had sent me an advance copy of the latest New York Times bestseller list.

The Mill River Recluse appeared on it at #12.

To this day, there are no words that are adequate to describe everything I felt in that moment. My novel remained on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for the next several months, and the wonderful notes from readers kept coming. I thought that surely, finally, things had peaked, but I was wrong.

In late November 2011, I was contacted by Alexandra Alter, a book reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She wanted to interview me for a feature story about my writing journey up to that point. Alexandra was cheerful and pleasant when she came to my home on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel at all nervous or odd about speaking with her until she told me that, during the previous week, she had gone up to Maine to interview Stephen King.

I am still mortified when I envision how far my mouth must have dropped open before I regained control of it.

The Wall Street Journal ran Alexandra’s article on December 9, 2011. It appeared on the front page of the Friday magazine, with a full-color photo spread inside and additional teasers on the front page of the whole paper. By late afternoon, the online version of the story had been picked up by Yahoo! News, and my photo was among those circulating on the Yahoo! homepage. Pandemonium ensued.

My phone began ringing off the hook. Other writers were calling, wanting advice or simply to get together for coffee. Other reporters were calling, wanting interviews. (I changed my number to an unlisted one immediately!) My website email inbox was accumulating emails faster than I could scroll down the page. My colleagues were incredulous, as most of them had no idea I’d written a novel years before and had recently, casually decided to self-publish it. Several of my clients emailed, sending me links to the article and saying things like, “Oh my God, is this you?” Laurie was fielding phone calls from publishing companies and film studios. My family and my closest friends, scattered in a half dozen states across the country, were calling and emailing ecstatic messages of support.

I was a quivering mess. All I could do was sit and hug my son. I knew that things had changed permanently for me at that point.

Within a few weeks, I received an offer from Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, to write two new novels. It was an offer to make my childhood dream a reality. The question was, could I continue to work as an attorney and write books in my spare time? Or, did I have to choose between the two?

I loved my legal career and the many colleagues with whom I’d worked for more than a decade. But I knew that I couldn’t live the rest of my life wondering whether I could have had a successful career as a writer, and there was no way I could give writing my best shot if I was constrained by the restrictions that applied to me as an employee of the federal government. It was a difficult decision, but I resigned my attorney position to write full-time in March 2012.

To date, The Mill River Recluse has sold more than 700,000 electronic copies and has been or will be published in nine foreign languages, in addition to its publication in English. The story of its self-publication as an e-book was featured in a documentary film called “Out of Print,” which was directed by Vivienne Roumani-Denn and narrated by Meryl Streep. But now, finally, I feel as if the roller coaster has slowed, and my life is returning to normal. A new normal.

In the short time that I’ve been a writer—which is a description of myself that I’m still getting used to—I’ve learned a few things. First, you should always expect the unexpected. And, there is sometimes more than one path that will enable you to achieve a dream. For me, being able to get my first novel in front of readers changed my career and my life. I will always be grateful for every person who reads The Mill River Recluse, especially those first e-book readers who gave it a chance and took the time to review it, mention it to a friend, or send me a note of encouragement. Those readers—my readers—made my dream of being an author come true. I only hope that this first novel and my future books return to them—and to you—the same great happiness and enjoyment I have experienced in writing them.

My very best wishes,
Darcie Chan
May 2014

Author Spotlight: Nancy Thayer on Sisters

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Thayer_IslandGirls Nancy Thayer’s Island Girls comes out in trade paperback this month. The friendships throughout Thayer’s novels are heartwarming and often demonstrate the bonds between friends and sisters. Thayer’s personal experience is no different. Here, Thayer shares her thoughts on sisters and friendships so close you could call them your sister in a Random House Reader’s Circle essay.

Not a bad jumping point for a book club discussion, either! Enjoy!

NANCY THAYER ON SISTERS

In a catalog, I read this message needlepointed on a pillow: “Fate made us sisters, Hearts made us friends.” Such a sweet sentiment, but to my way of thinking not entirely accurate. If I needlepointed a pillow, it would read: “Sisters are created by genetics . . . but also by shared memories, passing years, and forgiven arguments.” Okay, probably too much for a pillow.

My inspiration for Island Girls came from the realization that my nine-years-younger, blue-eyed, blond, spoiled little brat of a sister grew up to be one of my best friends. I was fiercely jealous of her when I was young. But as adults, we grew close, partly by sharing humorous memories about our childhood spats and our clueless too-strict parents.

On page 218 of Island Girls, Jenny thinks, “She had had so little of this fierce thrust and yank of family altercation, the daily squabbling, making up, hugging, laughing, bickering, fussing, stomping, snorting, and simple collapsing side by side on the sofa . . . Now she saw how it made people whole, how life was made of dark and light, yin and yang, quarrels and peace. This was how a person learned to forgive.”

What makes a sister? There are a few women friends whom I consider my sisters, and not just because we’ve shared all-night laughing, sobbing, confessional sessions involving wine and chocolate. Not even because we’ve seen each other through seriously heartbreaking ordeals. Along the way, we’ve also had serious disagreements and snarling arguments—the sort of harrowing tests that make or break a tight connection.

I have a best friend, Jane. In our thirties, Jane and I were hiking in Scotland when we got hopelessly lost. She insisted on reading the map when I knew I could read it the right way. We were hungry, thirsty, cranky, and sure we’d never find our way out. We’d die among the trees, our starved bodies trampled by Highland coos and pecked clean by ravens.

I finally plopped down, exhausted, behind a bush. “Go on,” I told her. “Just go on.” Jane stomped off.

I thought of all the things about her that made me furious— how she’s disorganized, impatient, and bossy. Then, after a time, I admitted to myself that I’m also disorganized, impatient, and bossy. I staggered through the thickets and eventually found the way out, and my friend was waiting there. We looked at each other with dirt on our faces and leaves in our hair and burst out laughing.

But when we travel, she still insists on reading the map. Jeez Louise!

I have a crush on Russell Crowe. Jane calls Russell Crowe “greasy.” What? Greasy? Russell Crowe? She thinks the same of Sandra Bullock, which drives me out of my mind, because I adore Sandra Bullock. She thinks I don’t get off Nantucket enough. I feel she never comes to visit me on the island. (She was here last week.) She loves jazz. I don’t. She wants to change—in her mind, correct—the punctuation in my books. I want my prose and commas just as they are. She hates breakfast and stays up till one in the morning. I love a hearty breakfast and am snug in bed at ten. Oh, yes, and like my birth sister, she’s younger, blue-eyed, and blond. Eye-catcher. Not that I’m jealous.

Jane is brilliant, articulate, and incredibly generous. She’s endlessly kind. Most of all, she’s hysterically funny. My husband always knows when I’m talking on the phone with Jane because I’m shrieking with laughter. Best of all, we share memories of days long ago when we were divorced from our first husbands and were single women with little children in a conservative town. I babysat her daughter the day she got divorced. She traveled with me to Milwaukee where I spoke about my newest book for a library. Later that day, as we crossed the wide street in front of the library, a policeman roared up on his motorcycle and, nearly spitting with fury, arrested us—for jaywalking. She’s the only person with whom I’ve ever been arrested. A definite bonding moment.

She is, as they say, like a sister to me. We share memories, we’ve had disagreements, we’ve laughed till our sides ached. I would do anything for Jane, and I know she would for me—except watch a movie starring Russell Crowe and Sandra Bullock!

But these are minor disagreements. Many women I talk to say that the more profound issues of money, men, and children can be relationship breaking points. If your sister marries a wealthy man who buys a mansion and treats his family to educational cruises to the Galapagos while your own husband has lost his job and your child needs expensive physical therapy, can you still remain true sisters? I asked my daughter, who has only one brother, what makes a sister.

She said, “Tactlessness.” I would like to think she meant honesty, and if so she’s right. You can say to a friend, “That dress makes your butt look big,” but only to a sister can you say, “Um, could I point out . . . the clothes you buy for your daughter accentuate her weight problem.” If we can share the pains and sorrows, if we can fight and then forgive, if we can admit we have differences but promise we’ll still be there holding hands in the hospital room or retirement home, if we can be our truest worst and best selves together, we are sisters.

In my new novel, Nantucket Sisters, I explore these questions of belonging, insulting, arguing, separating, and forgiving. Two young women, one wealthy, one not, meet as children and dis- cover they’re kindred spirits. In Island Girls, three women manage to forgive and overcome and forge a lasting sisterhood. In Nantucket Sisters, that wonderful bond is tested by different stresses— circumstance and class and money and men! That’s taking an age-old conflict to a whole new level. Fasten your seatbelt, sister.

Reader’s Guide: Jennifer DuBois’s Five Favorite Fictional Journeys

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

DuBois_Cartwheel In Cartwheel, Lily Hayes, an American exchange student in Buenos Aires, is arrested for murder. Since the novel takes place abroad, the author wanted to share her five favorite fictional journeys in literature. Do you have any you’d like to add to this list?

TRAVELERS ABROAD—FIVE FAVORITE FICTIONAL JOURNEYS by JENNIFER DUBOIS

PRAGUE, Arthur Phillips
Arthur Phillips’s smart, sharply funny first novel follows a group of expats in post-Communist Budapest. Collectively, they are plagued by the creeping suspicion that real life is elsewhere—in the past, perhaps, or just possibly in Prague.

THE QUIET AMERICAN, Graham Greene
A prophetic critique of the folly of mapping simple theories onto complex realities, The Quiet American is also a broad reflection on the dangers of innocence itself; innocence, Greene writes, is “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

DEATH IN VENICE, Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann’s classic novella follows a German academic’s consuming obsession with a young boy he spots while traveling in Venice. As his quest to attract the boy grows increasingly grotesque—and the threat of a looming cholera outbreak grows increasingly real—the story’s surreal dreaminess becomes a nightmare’s.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, Mohsin Hamid
This nuanced meditation on nationality, allegiance, and home is structured as a conversation between two travelers: a Pakistani speaker called Changez, and the unnamed (and possibly armed) American who listens to his story.

PALE FIRE, Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire is full of exiles: there is American writer John Shade, exiled from his own epic poem by the long-winded footnotes of academic Charles Kinbote, himself an exile from the mysterious land of Zembla, whose commentary increasingly concerns the story of Zembla’s own exiled king. A prismatic exploration of narrative itself, Pale Fire is a book that somehow becomes a universe—making dazzled voyagers of us all.

Join the conversation with Jennifer DuBois on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Colum McCann and Liz Strout

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 10.48.41 AM Two Random House Reader’s Circle literary greats, Elizabeth Strout and Colum McCann, get together to chat about McCann’s TransAtlantic, which is on sale in paperback this month! These two have so much to share…read on!

A Conversation with Colum McCann and Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Burgess Boys and Olive Kitteridge, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the national bestseller Abide with Me; and Amy and Isabelle, winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in London. She lives in Maine and New York City.

Elizabeth Strout: I love the wide range of your narratives, how you dare to cover so many aspects of world events through the personal stories of those involved. How do you make the decision to end where you end, and begin where you begin? Is this an intuitive sense for you?

Colum McCann: Writing is very much about the intuitive, the gut instinct, the shotgun leap into the unknown. Most of the time, I don’t necessarily know where I’m going. I have a general goal, an end-line, but I’m not sure how it is that I’m going to get there. Being too conscious of a journey brings a malady to it. You can overthink it sometimes. It’s better to go with the gut feeling. I think it’s very much akin to being an adventurer or an explorer. You know you want to find new territory. The nature of its newness makes it inherently exciting. You cast yourself out in a small boat in the hope that you will get somewhere. Most of the time you end up capsizing or catching the wrong current or, even worse, shipwrecking. But every now and then—when the words are moving, and the sentences begin to align themselves, and the imaginative intent has caught fire with language—you strike new land. A sort of Galápagos of the imagination, I suppose. This is where the real exploration begins. You walk out and you meet new characters. And, in the best writing, you might create what amounts to a new theory.

And there ’s something about the explorer in the reader too. You are casting into a new land, a new way of seeing. That’s how I feel when I read your work—when I got to explore Crosby in Olive Kitteridge, it was that sort of journey, it just opened me up. I love when that happens. So for me it’s all about intuition. And beyond intuition lies what is hopefully a deep intelligence that we were looking for all along.

ES: You have a great understanding of how to use “real-life” events, and people, within the texture of the novel. What is your sense of fact versus fiction, and why do you think people tend to believe they are so different? I always get a kick out of people who say they don’t read fiction because it isn’t “true.” I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

CM: Ah, yes, what about all those embarrassing parties where you have to introduce yourself? You meet a couple and say, or rather admit, that you’re a writer of…stories. The woman’s face lights up and she says she loves to read fiction but her husband (always a little comfortably smug) looks beyond your shoulder and says he doesn’t read fiction at all, as if to put an end to the conversation—he only reads nonfiction because he is only interested in “fact.” It happens so often, I’m amazed by it. “Oh, yes, I don’t read fiction at all.” As if it’s a strange badge of honor.

But this line between fiction and nonfiction is a solid indicator of where we are right now, where so much of our national thinking occurs. If we watch Fox News, do we really think that we are witnesses to “fact”? If we allow our politicians to send our children off to war, do we really take on face value the “fact” that the offending nation has chemical weapons? What is fact? What is fiction? It’s one of our great political and social conundrums.

I suppose one of the reasons for writing TransAtlantic is that I wanted to question the gulf between what is “real” and what is “imagined.” Is there any difference at all? Can the imagined be considered real? And vice versa? Is Tom Joad not “real” because he was imagined by Steinbeck, for instance? Does this mean that the book we consider to be iconic in relation to our understanding of the Great Depression is actually irrelevant? To me, a much more interesting word than fiction is story, and then the word truth. Steinbeck allows us to know the Great Depression precisely because he fictionalized the truth. It is this way with so many of the great books. Why do I understand early-twentieth-century Ireland? Because I read Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Why do I love turn-of-the-century New Orleans? Because I read about Buddy Bolden in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter.

A story is a story whether it is based on real-life characters or not. A “real” person should be as fully fleshed as an “invented.” I have a duty to all my characters. And I want to braid the tapestry together so that “fiction” and “nonfiction” get confused.

Another question that fascinates me is the way in which we construct fictions around “historical” figures. Who owns history? Who has a right to tell it? What about the smaller, more anonymous moments? Aren’t they the glue of history? What about the little guy? Where is his or her voice? And when the little guys get together to shout, do they have a loud enough voice to topple the microphones of the ones who supposedly own history?

ES: Wonderful! Yes, real people should be as fully fleshed as invented people (and who isn’t invented, I ask you?). The women you invent feel as fully fleshed as anyone. It seems clear to me that you are just as invested in their stories as in any man’s. Is this a conscious decision? Or more of that gut working intuitively?

CM: I think we all know that women are so often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world. In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. I wanted the women to own the novel. To say that their stories matter, not only to themselves but to history too. And, frankly, I like women. I like writing about them, I like imagining them, I like spending time with them as characters and as people.

There’s a symmetry in the book—three male “nonfiction” narratives, three female “fiction” narratives, and then a lone voice at the end, almost as if she has been narrating the whole novel. There’s a meaning behind this madness, I hope…it is, after all, a fairly anonymous woman, or rather a supposedly anonymous woman, who gets to have the last say. “We have to admire the world for not ending on us.”

ES: One of my favorite parts of this book involves Frederick Douglass going to Ireland. I think a lot of Americans may not realize he took this trip, and yet it is such an amazing tale. Was this something that you wanted to write about for a while, or did it arise out of the history of Ireland as you were rendering it?

CM: Douglass led me into the book. That was the original impetus. Not many Americans knew about his trip to Ireland and England, but not many Irish people even knew who Frederick Douglass was. He was largely omitted from the Irish history books, at least up until the 1990s (150 years after his journey), when scholars started to re-discover him when shaping up narratives that examined the history between the Irish and the Africans and the African Americans. Most people had relegated the story to the footnotes of history. But it was an incredible journey and a tremendous insight into the depth and character of Douglass.

Originally, after Let the Great World Spin, I wanted to write another sort of book altogether, a piece about contemporary surveil- lance cameras, believe it or not. But I just couldn’t catch that book, in fact I hated it, and I kept coming back to the idea of Douglass in Ire- land. And the fact that his trip coincided with the beginning of the Famine. I was corralled. The only way I could shake it would be if I wrote about him. That’s how it is—we write towards our obsessions. And I was especially taken by this notion of a young black slave land- ing in Ireland and having enough experience to say, “Lo! the chattel becomes a man!” Then he looks around and knows that there are many forms of chatteldom. He struggles to become himself, as we all eventually do.

I hope my Douglass is texturally true. Facts can be misdirected and shoehorned in. Texture is a different story. It relates to an idea of general honesty. I wanted my Douglass to be authentic. I wanted him to emerge in all his complications.

ES: You do even more, though, which is to carry this up to the present day, and that’s so important, I think, to show the continuum we are all existing on.

CM: I suppose I wanted to write about Douglass because he could lead me up to examine some issues in contemporary Ireland…especially the peace process and the idea of the Celtic Tiger, our collapsing economy. The peace process in particular is crucial to our ex- perience of the twentieth century. So I began with Douglass…and ended up with Senator George Mitchell. Two incredible statesmen who had made significant transatlantic journeys.

From there I began to try to weave all the stories together. The novel, therefore, I suppose, tries to become an alternative way of telling history. We cannot understand the present unless we dissect the past.

ES: How long do ideas tend to germinate in your mind before you find yourself setting them down on the page?

CM: I wish I knew! Douglass had been hanging around for a couple of years. Mitchell too. But you never really know what it is that fires them into the front of your brain. Perhaps it is desperation, or perhaps it’s inspiration. Most likely a combination of both.

ES: There is clearly an enormous amount of what one would call research that goes into this book. Did you write with one hand and read with the other? Or do these two parts of the process take place quite separately for you?

CM: I love research. That’s the part of the “job” that fires me up. I generally write towards something I want to know. I hope that I am learning all the time. Stepping out into new territory. But you can do too much research sometimes and it can begin to hinder the novel. So one has to be very careful. I always look for the “divine detail” in my research, that one thing that only an expert might know but the gen- eral public can recognize as being true.

For example, I give Douglass a pair of barbells when he is in Ireland. I know for a fact that he had barbells later in his life because they are on display in Washington, D.C., but I have no idea whether or not he brought them with him to Ireland. In fact, he probably didn’t. But it says so much about his character—his vanity, his stubborness, his awareness of his body in space, his forward thinking, his stamina. Furthermore, I have the barbells made from old slave chains. This is poetic license, but hopefully poetic enough that it rings true.

So the research blends in with the imaginative act until, really, they are one and the same.

ES: Of course, I am always interested in the concept of home, and the changing face of home. I wonder what you feel about this, having been born in Ireland and living in New York. Is writing about Ireland a form of love?

CM: I like this concept of trying to understand what is “home,” and I think you do it beautifully, whether that be the coast of Maine or the meadows of New Hampshire, and I love those writers who make me rethink my notions of home, whether they be a physical place or an imaginative space.
I was born in Dublin, but—right up until TransAtlantic—I had only really mentioned Dublin in one short story and a small section of Let the Great World Spin. That’s twenty-five years of writing and I had more or less ignored the town where I spent my first twenty years. This baffles me, and I have no real answer for it. Of course, I do go back in TransAtlantic, but even then mostly as a visitor. I wish I could understand this better, but I’m forced to say that I’m stumped. I’m much more comfortable being “elsewhere.” Of course, New York is my home now, and I have a family here.

I like the notion that we can belong in many different places, what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels” of the world.

ES: Tell us about the nonprofit organization Narrative 4 that you are involved with; it sounds fascinating to me. I’ve always thought of novels as powerful social tools that can teach through empathy what it is like to be another person.

CM: In 2012, a group of about twenty-five writers and activists got together and began developing a story exchange program where we wanted to develop notions of radical empathy. We wanted, as writers, to give something back. To be socially engaged. To push the parameters. And, quite frankly, to be relevant. We were all of the opinion that one of the big failures we have in the world these days is the failure of empathy. And so in 2013 we founded a group called Narrative 4.

What the group had in common was our love of storytelling, and we knew that storytelling legislates the world in so many ways. Stories are our vast democracy. We all have them. We all need them. They cross all boundaries. And so we wanted to concentrate, at first, on young people and have them step into each other’s shoes. The goal is to get young people together to tell one another’s stories. The kid from Belfast with the kid from Detroit. The teen from Nazareth with the teen from Haiti. For them to get together and share one another’s stories and walk in one another’s shoes. To have a responsibility for someone else’s life—if even for just a moment, which, if we do this correctly, will move through a lifetime and become part of a global narrative. The key to transformation lies in the sharing: when you hear someone else’s story deeply enough to inhabit it and retell it as if you’ve lived it, you become “the other” and see the world through his or her eyes.
I personally don’t think that literature or stories can necessarily change the world—but they can become a wall against the general despair.

ES: Narrative 4 sounds like an amazing organization, very exciting. I wonder if there is any one moment in your career that stands out when you felt you experienced your work as, as you say, a wall against despair.

CM: Oh, absolutely. Just last year I had a moment that floored me, humbled me, taught me—I don’t really know how to describe it, except that it went to the heart of my ideas about literature. Shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook, I got a letter from Lee Keylock, a high school teacher in Newtown. He said that he and a couple of other teachers had been searching for a book to help navigate the grief of the older students. They chose Let the Great World Spin. I was stunned. It seemed to validate so much of what I had been saying about literature for years: that we enter into these narratives to learn and to heal. We move beyond empathy to experience. In April 2013, I visited the school and sat with those kids. But I didn’t end up teaching them anything—they taught me. They were the ones who talked about morality, about finding light in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available for that is to me a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career. It was a difficult experience but profoundly touching. Lee is now a significant part of Narrative 4. The story goes on. Once again, the world doesn’t end on us….

Read more about Colum’s visit to Newtown, CT here

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