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Reader's Guides

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Curtis Sittenfeld and The Rumpus’s Amy Gentry

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Sittenfeld_Sisterland “[Sittenfeld’s] gifts are in full effect with this novel, and she uses them to create a genuinely engrossing sense of uncertainty and suspense.”—Sloane Crosley, NPR’s All Things Considered

A Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld and The Rumpus’s Amy Gentry, August 2013

Amy Gentry: A lot of your female, first-person characters have an investment in conformity and flying under the radar. Why are you interested in those characters particularly? Because, especially in Sisterland, you had a choice. You could have written from Vi’s point of view instead.

Curtis Sittenfeld: I find people who, at first glance, appear to be typical or average, whatever that means, and then turn out to have hidden qualities, to be very interesting—much more interesting than someone whose eccentricities announce themselves immediately and can turn out to be superficial. So I think that that’s part of it. When I was younger—when I, myself, was a teenager—I gave people the benefit of the doubt, thinking, so many people that appear very calm and even boring must have all these wild emotions and crazy ideas. As I’ve gotten older I’ve unfortunately come to the conclusion that a lot of people who seem normal and boring are normal and boring. But in a novel, I have the privilege of making people more layered.

AG: You include a lot of finely rendered psychological detail. I wonder how that developed for you? Were you conscious of going after that psychological realism?

CS: I wouldn’t ever, while writing, think to myself, “I need a little more psychological realism.” I write what’s interesting to me, and so if I’m reading I like to have a very thorough idea of a character in a book that’s by someone else. I like it when characters are some combination of appealing and flawed or self-interested. I think in terms of scenes, and what I want a scene to achieve, and the psychological realism arises from that. It just kind of works its way up. I have my first-person narrators make a lot of observations, I have lots of dialogue, and so it bubbles up out of that.

AG: A lot of the psychological details tend to be these very fine observations that the character is making about the social interactions happening around her. Do you have a special interest in social dynamics?

CS: To some extent, I do. Tonight I’ll go with my family to a neighbor’s house for a little cookout, and it’s not as if I’ll be mentally taking notes. I would not be above borrowing something juicy if it happened, but I interact fairly normally in social situations. I think that a lot of people can be having these interactions, and then afterwards you make some observations that you weren’t even conscious of making in the moment.

AG: Did you ever wish that you were a twin?

CS: Yeah, I would have liked to have been a twin. I have a sister who’s two years older, a sister who’s five years younger, and a brother who’s nine years younger, so there was lots of sibling in my life already. But I will say that sometimes my sisters and I get mistaken for twins, and I always take it as a compliment. My sisters and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., and we got mistaken for triplets, and we were extra-complimented. At least I was. Maybe they weren’t, but I was.

AG: Why is that, do you think?

CS: I guess because twins have this mystique, and triplets—the normal sibling connection potentially can be very powerful, and there’s this idea that it’s even more powerful with twins. It really is not just someone like me, but another version of me.

AG: Did you talk to identical twins when you wrote the book?

CS: Yes. I’m friends with these twins who, they’re about to turn forty, and they don’t know if they’re identical or not. I guess they’ve never had the test, and I think they are, but I guess it’s not clear. By total coincidence, my British editor is an identical twin. So my friend Emily the twin—she’s a novelist, too, Emily Jeanne Miller—and my British editor read early drafts, and I specifically asked them to pay attention to any- thing that smelled wrong, twin-wise, and actually, neither of them had any twin concerns. Then the funny thing was, a magazine editor read an early copy, and I didn’t even know this woman was an identical twin. She said, “You nailed it.” But there’s a part where it’s New Year’s Eve and the twins are at a party and one of them kisses the other on the lips, and she said, “That was totally disgusting, but otherwise everything rang true.”

AG: Yet you kept it in.

CS: I did keep it in. I think by the time she read it, it was too late to change it. Being disgusting wouldn’t have deterred me anyway.

AG: Were you ever tempted to write from multiple points of view? From Violet’s point of view?

CS: No, I wasn’t. I understand why that question would come up. It’s funny, because readers like Vi. Some readers don’t, but a lot of readers think she’s refreshing and funny. But if she were the one telling the story, I think they would not like her. People would find her kind of obnoxious.

AG: Yeah, she’s a great character, but I can see where she’s better from the outside.

CS: Less is more.

AG: Part of what makes her great is how monstrous she is.

CS: Unapologetically monstrous—and the fact that she’s unapologetically monstrous, but she’s not a hundred percent monstrous. I think that she has very endearing qualities.

AG: Like what?

CS: She’s very blunt. She’s very entertaining. She’s unapologetic. She has an ability to enjoy herself.

AG: And yet you feel like if you were with her she might be enjoying herself more than you.

CS: Yeah, at your expense.

AG: Getting to the psychic connection the twins have, their powers—we never find out if there’s an entity behind their psychic abilities, and if it’s a force for good or evil. How did you make that decision, not to explain?

CS: The twins believe that they are psychic, and so essentially the book accepts that they are psychic, and neither the book nor the characters are trying to prove to the reader that they are. They just believe they are, which I think is much more natural. It’s almost like in life we’re most hell-bent on proving things that we’re not really sure are true. I didn’t want to present it in a defensive way, I wanted to present it in a matter-of-fact way.

AG: Is Sisterland your first exploration of nonrealist themes?

CS: It’s funny when someone says that, because now I know whether you believe in psychic ability.

AG: Well, do you believe in psychic abilities?

CS: I’m open to them. So you know, in the book, there’s the character Hank? He basically says there are a lot of things in the world that are weirder than psychic abilities, that we accept as true. There’s a lot that’s not explained about the universe. And so, psychicness is not stranger than that. And I’m in agreement with Hank. It’s not like I consider myself to have psychic abilities. I guess I consider myself at times to have intuition. But I also don’t feel the book is supposed to be an exposé about how psychics are frauds.

AG: I certainly didn’t read it that way. But at the same time it was interesting trying to suss out where the book was going to fall on that issue. I never thought that the book was debunking their psychic abilities, but there were times when intuitions proved to be slippery things.

CS: The book is obviously told in first person from the point of view of Kate, who believes that she has psychic abilities and believes that her sister has psychic abilities. And so the book allows for the possibility, no matter what I personally believe. But there came a point where I realized I do have to come down on one side or the other in terms of how much credibility I’m going to give both the sisters.

AG: Did you do a lot of research about psychics?

CS: I interviewed a psychic years ago for an article before ever writing this, and then I interviewed a different one while working on the book. I went to this New Age bookstore in a distant suburb of St. Louis, where I live. I basically went there thinking, “I’m doing research,” and then I un-ironically bought some crystals. There’s some confusion in my own mind about what I believe. Now that this is my fourth book, I know that writing a novel is not a way to sort out your confusion. I have some confusion about boarding school and what I think of having gone to boarding school, and it turns out that writing Prep did not help me sort out that confusion.

AG: What are you working on now?

CS: Usually I’m very secretive about what I’m doing, but the British publisher HarperCollins has commissioned this project where they’ll have six contemporary writers rewrite each of Jane Austen’s six novels. I’ll be rewriting Pride and Prejudice.

AG: Wow, jackpot.

CS: It’s meant to be fun and amusing. It’ll be set in the United States in the present day. And of course I feel a little ridiculous talking about it, because I understand that I’m not Jane Austen, but it’s—sort of in the way that Clueless is fun, it’s meant to be fun.

AG: Is that a lot of pressure?

CS: It would be pressure if I were saying, “Now I’m going to officially step into Jane Austen’s shoes.” But I don’t feel like that’s what this is.

AG: Sure. And you’ve been at it a long time! You started writing very early.

CS: I did start early. Basically, I started writing fiction as soon as I knew how to read and write. So, whatever, five or six. Then I started being published when I was in high school, which is a double-edged sword. Yes, I have been at it for a while. Now I’m a crusty thirty-seven.

AG: What was the first thing you ever remember writing? The first piece of fiction you ever wrote.

CS: I saw the movie of Annie. I saw it in the theater for my seventh birthday. I remember after that, taking this piece of paper, and—it was actually very Freudian—leaving it on my dad’s desk. It was like: “I am an orphan. My name is Annie.” It was essentially plagiarism. But I believed myself to be writing a story. I would sometimes do research by asking my parents questions. One time I said to them—this was kind of dark—I said to them, “Are people that have cancer not hungry?” And they were very alarmed. They said, “Why?” “I’m writing a story.” I was definitely, obviously weird.

AG: What shaped your tastes as a weird young child writing stories?

CS: My parents would read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to us, and they also read Stuart Little. We were definitely a reading family, and I loved books. I still feel this way, that a book—and a magazine, too—is what’s interesting about life in this distilled format that you can hold, and there’s something very enchanting to me about that. That it’s interesting stories and pictures, and someone took all this time to strip away the boring stuff, and just give you this story and these facts. If I’m at somebody’s house and they have magazines on the table and people are chatting, I feel almost a physical urge to start reading the magazines instead of talking to people. Of course a magazine is usually more interesting than a conversation, because so much more time and preparation has gone into it.

Curtis wants to hear from you! Share your thoughts and let her know what you are reading on Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Johnston_ THIS ONE_ RMLTBret Anthony Johnston is the author of the award-winning Corpus Christi: Stories. This month, his debut novel, Remember Me Like This, hits bookshelves and this is one you must read! This gripping novel has the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels. It introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today.

Random House Reader’s Circle has exclusive book club discussion questions to share with you today! If you and your book club are planning a discussion of this novel, be sure to take a look at the below! And, stay up to date with the author on his Facebook page.

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. Remember Me Like This is rendered through the perspectives of various characters, but never Justin’s. Why do you think Johnston decided not to include his point-of-view? What did the alternating perspectives do for the story?

2. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Which character did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

3. Johnston alludes to the abuse that Justin endured during his “away life,” but a definitive answer of what he suffered is never offered. Why would he leave that information out?

4. The novel takes place over a hot summer in South Texas and Johnston asks the reader to pay a lot of attention to the heat and weather. How might these choices relate to the themes of the book?

5. What are the themes of Remember Me Like This?

6. Most of the characters have at least one significant secret in the novel. What role do secrets play in the book? Early in the novel, the reader learns that Cecil believes love can be shown through not disclosing what you know. Do you agree with him?

7. Are Eric and Laura good parents? Why or why not?

8. Each of the Campbells seeks different kinds of shelter in the book: Eric is involved in an extra-marital affair; Laura spends much of her time volunteering at Marine Lab; Griffin devotes most of his energy to skateboarding and Fiona; and Cecil retreats deeper into the grooves of his life. What do these shelters offer them? What do the shelters reveal about the characters? Do the shelters hold up?

9. Most of the novel takes place in Southport, a small coastal town, and on Mustang Island. Discuss the role of place in the story? Does the isolation of the landscape relate in any way to the characters? If so, how?

10. Which character do you identify with the most and why?

11. If you are a parent, which parent most resembles you in the novel?

12. Had Cecil’s plan worked, what do you think he would have done with Buford? Do you believe the story he told Eric about taking Buford into Mexico? Did he ever intend to include Eric in the plan? Why does he decide against including him?

13. Do you think Buford’s father was being honest with Cecil about just wanting one last day on the water with his family?

14. The novel ends with Eric imagining what might have happened to Buford. What do you think happened to Buford? Do you think Laura had anything to do with it?

15. Where you do you imagine each of the Campbells in a year? In five years? In ten?

A Q&A with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Brockmole_Letters from Skye Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell, sat down with fellow author, Jessica Brockmole, to discuss Brockmole’s debut, Letters from Skye.

A Conversation with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

KATE ALCOTT was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live. She is the author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell.

Kate Alcott: Your story maps the lives of two solitary souls who open up to each other in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without letters. How do you think the story of Elspeth and Davey would have played out in our Internet world?

Jessica Brockmole: There are some aspects of the story that I think could only work with letters, and with the specific era in which the letters were written: the social restrictions on a man writing to a woman, and the woman responding, the unhurried pace in which Elspeth and David’s relationship unfolds, the interruption of the war, the almost painful anticipation of waiting for letters sent in wartime, the desperate reliance on ephemeral pieces of paper to hold together a relationship.
Yet, in many ways their story is still relevant today. People fall in love online—whether through emails, instant messages, inter- actions on forums, or social media sites. They go through the early stages of a relationship, sometimes without a picture ex- changed, relying solely on the written word and the shared passions lying between the lines. Though they don’t often have to wait so long for responses, the anticipation is still there, as is the anxiety about building something through nothing more solid than sentences.

If Elspeth and Davey were telling their story now, via email, the lags might not be there. They wouldn’t have to worry so much about messages waylaid or messages lost (though, as we all know, emails occasionally do disappear into the ether). Yet there would still be counted moments between replies, joy when the replies finally came, anxiety about that first meeting, about hearing words spoken rather than seeing them written. The power of the written word exists no matter what the medium.

KA: What gave you the idea to tell your story solely through letters? Could you tell us more about the benefits and pitfalls of that structure?

JB: One reason that I decided to tell Elspeth and Davey’s story solely through letters is that I really enjoy reading real collections of historical letters. I’m fascinated by what’s said and what’s left unsaid, by the story told between the lines. I thought this would be an intriguing way to write a novel, limiting myself in format, yet allowing the story to unfold in a very organic manner.

Another big reason was that I had just moved to Scotland, an ocean away from friends and family. We had to, out of necessity, shift our communication to the epistolary. We had to trust in our words. I found it intriguing how relationships could be held together with nothing but words and sentences (even though those words are mostly emailed these days), without touch and sound. I wanted to explore that in a book.

There were certainly difficulties in limiting myself to this structure. Description of setting and of character had to be approached carefully, so as to sound natural in a letter. Recounting events that involved both the sender and the recipient, such as the three times Elspeth and Davey meet, were tricky. The reader needed to experience those meetings, but both characters already had and didn’t need to recall every detail. I had to strike a balance between story and structure, between giving the reader the neces- sary information without sacrificing the authenticity of the letters.

KA: Were Elspeth and Davey based on real people?

JB: They weren’t based on real people, but I’m sure that both hold characteristics of myself. Like Elspeth, I’m hesitant to venture far from home. I’m sometimes turned so inward that I can lose hours to poetry. Like Davey, I use books as security in a turbulent world, as lucky charms to hold tight to when life seems uncertain. Like Margaret, I’m fascinated by family history. Like Finlay, I sometimes find it hard to apologize. I think it’s unavoidable when writing to prevent little pieces of yourself from sneaking into the story and the characters.

KA: What kind of research did you do?

JB: Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of letters and postcards written during the time, both from published works, from digital ar- chives, and from my own personal collection. I did read many between sweethearts—from soldiers on the field of battle and the loved ones waiting at home—but I discovered that those weren’t always the best representatives of epistolary voice from the era. Soldiers’ letters came with a filter. They were always subject to the censor and were often meant to be shared among friends and family at home. It wasn’t uncommon to read aloud a new letter to the larger family group. Many of these letters were polite and formal and careful, even to wives or sweethearts.

To really get a more representative feel for the epistolary language of the time, especially between correspondents who wrote for nobody but each other, I had to look at other exchanges. I read letters between siblings, between best friends, between young couples writing in secret. I read letters written outside of wartime, in the relative freedom of peace. I read letters from men and women, from those young, old, and in-between. The voices in these letters often felt more relaxed, somehow more true. They chatted casually and unguardedly. So, while the letters from the front gave me specifics about life in a warzone and the emotions carried through battle, all of the details needed for my story, many of the other letters gave me the language that I needed to tell it.

KA: You create a deep sense of place in your novel. What is it about Skye that drew you to that setting?

JB: When I visited Skye years ago, I was struck by the starkness of the landscape, but also by the rich beauty. The rain, the sea, the impossible green of the hills, centuries of myth tucked along the coast. Though I hadn’t written poetry for years, I wanted to then, as I felt ordinary prose couldn’t do the place justice. I began researching the island during the world wars and found more reason to set a novel there. There was such a strong sense of isolation, especially during the First World War, a feeling (at least among some) that the conflict was distant enough to not affect them. I thought this would be intriguing to explore, through a character connected to the war, but not initially expecting to be impacted by it.

KA: You’ve also framed your story between the universal truths and tragedies of two world wars. What do you hope your readers will take away from this novel?

JB: I’d like readers to think about the sense that history can and does repeat itself. Love happens, in and out of wartime. Family secrets and family quarrels happen, regardless of where in the world you are. A generation and a war apart, the same struggles exist. Reading through wartime letters, I see this over and over, the same sorts of heartbreak and worry and joy that people face today.

KA: What are some of your favorite novels—and why?

JB: Like Davey, my favorite book is very much a security blanket. It’s the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I love as much for its history and for its complex, real characters as for the role it plays in my life. It’s the last thing I pack in moments of upheaval—college, moves, hospital stays—and the first thing I unpack.

Apart from that steady favorite, my list changes often, every time I read something new that I can’t stop talking about. I read and enjoy a lot of novels contemporary to the eras I write, like All Quiet on the Western Front or Humphrey Cobb’s wrenching Paths of Glory. Though not contemporary to that era, I was blown away by Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, which brought me to laughter and to tears. I strive to write like that.

Other favorites from recent years include the often-reread Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk, and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. I love books with strong characters, with enduring love, with difficult decisions. And, of course, history.

KA: What are your writing habits?

JB: Though I do write every day, I don’t have a set routine. In fact, I intentionally mix things up to keep from growing complacent. I am constantly changing location, to various spots both in and out of the house. The few constants, though, are my music, which is always going in the background, and a cup of tea. Something about curling my hands around a steaming cup of tea really helps me to focus.

JB: I wrote the first draft of Letters from Skye in ten months of steady writing, and then gradually revised over the following several years. It was the first novel I completed and, as I wrote others and learned more about my process, I was able to apply that knowledge to Skye.

KA: Are you working on a new book? Can you share anything with us about your next project?

JB: I am! My next book is also set during the Great War and centers around a pair of artists—one Scottish, one French—trying to recapture a lost summer of innocence in the midst of war.

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with David Gilbert and Curtis Sittenfeld

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 1.22.15 PM New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld sat down with David Gilbert to discuss & Sons, a wonderful work of literary fiction on sale in paperback this month. Together, these two authors discuss the characters, plot twists, the novel’s title, and more in this Random House Reader’s Circle Q&A for you and your book club.

“In terms of sheer reading pleasure, my favorite book this year was & Sons, David Gilbert’s big, intelligent, richly textured novel about fathers, sons, friendship, and legacies. . . . From [A. N.] Dyer’s slacker sons to a J. Crew-wearing young seductress, every member of Gilbert’s cast of characters is perfectly drawn.”—Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of four novels, Sisterland, American Wife, The Man of My Dreams, and Prep. Her books have been translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.

Curtis Sittenfeld: The narrator of & Sons is a peripheral character. I love this choice, but it’s also surprising. What made you select the narrator you did rather than going with a more central character or just using a third-person omniscient point of view?

David Gilbert: I always knew I wanted to write the book in the first person but, in a tricky way, a sort of omniscient first person who by dint of his omniscience is unreliable. That’s Philip Topping. I have a soft spot for unreliable narrators, in the subtext they can generate, in the extra work the reader has to do in order to glean the “truth” of the story, in the pure fun of their uncertain claims; I also have a soft spot for outsiders peeking in through the glass, seeing a world they’re desperate to inhabit. In this book I wanted to have this question hang in the air: Who is the author of this story? Is Philip Topping truly in control? Does he have the artistic chops? If not him, then who? I wanted a certain kind of narrative shimmer, if that makes sense.

CS: Given that the focus of the novel shifts among a few characters, I’m wondering if you have a special fondness for anyone. In many books, the author’s favorite is obvious, but you’re very even-handed in making everyone flawed yet endearing.

DG: A. N. Dyer was a favorite, mainly because of his crankiness, which was enjoyable and perhaps all too natural to inhabit. Intelligence unhinged is always interesting and allows for particular flights of fancy through time. Plus it was fun to create all those unwritten novels, three hundred pages condensed into a paragraph or a line. The Andy sections were also a blast, what with the straight-ahead definition of his desire and the riff-like quality of his mind. And at the end of the day we’re both seventeen, only I’m wearing the mask of a forty-six-year-old.

CS: Although the book is primarily about fathers and sons, I admired your believable and well-rounded female characters, especially Jeanie Spokes. Do you have any favorite female characters created by either male or female novelists?

DG: I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Lily Bart and Isabel Archer, which is appropriate since their creators had such a deep friendship. I also love Matilda, especially from reading the book to my girls. And there’s Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. And Emily Dickinson, who seems like a character of her own creation. And all the women in Housekeeping. And . . .

CS: The novel includes a few dramatic plot twists, especially one at the end. Did you always know what was coming or did you surprise yourself as you were writing?

DG: I had things pretty well mapped out when I started and understood the route of the plot, the ups and downs and sharp turns. But there were smaller moments that surprised me, like when Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk in Central Park, suddenly flew into the book, as did a poem about an owl, and a certain statue at 70th and Fifth Avenue, and the Von Trapp Family Singers, and how much a pretzel resembles an ampersand, which resembles a strand of DNA, and the prologue and the epilogue—those small moments of discovery can be quite novel-affirming, an unexpected detail that opens up the story and confirms you are on the right track (forgive the pun).

CS: A. N. Dyer reveals a bombshell to his adult sons, who don’t entirely believe him. Do you want readers to believe Dyer’s claim, or did you intentionally leave it open to interpretation?

DG: Hmm, how to answer this, Curtis? I certainly have my opinion, though I do want it to remain open to interpretation, but since whoever is reading this has likely read the book (and by the way, thank you, and if you are skimming the back in your local bookstore, I highly recommend The Flamethrowers and Black Swan Green and Skippy Dies and Sisterland too). I can say that I think A. N. Dyer is quite unstable at this point and he is merely weaving another tale, another piece of fiction that he hopes somehow will bring his family back together and forgive his past and ease his future. He is a professional storyteller, after all.

CS: I can’t resist asking: What’s your opinion of J. D. Salinger in general and The Catcher in the Rye specifically?

DG: The thing about J. D. Salinger—the weird thing, once you’ve read the short stories and The Catcher in the Rye—is that he sort of becomes part of you, maybe because of the age in which you access his writing, those late teen years when you yourself struggle between the poles of public and private, which often invert, so that you can feel alone among friends or totally in touch with the pulse of the world locked up in your room, and Salinger writes to this, hears our call, and also fulfills our own immature dream of mammoth success followed by the fantasy of dying while still alive, of being present at our own funeral (hello, Tom Sawyer), of feeling beloved from a self-imposed distance, without the complications of actual contact and possible compromise—Salinger is adolescence, and reading him today is like watching a home movie as directed by a master: it is artful, often wonderful, but sometimes I have to look away, sometimes the sentiment is too awkward, too trapped in a sense of self-absorbed unfairness. Did I really look that way back then? I think the lack of material has done Salinger a favor. That said, I reread The Catcher in the Rye every few years, mainly to see how I have aged.

CS: Another reason I admired this book is that the New York it evokes simultaneously feels authentic and insiderish but not off-puttingly smug. (I say this having never lived there.) I believe you grew up in New York and live there currently, and I’m curious about your relationship with the city. Have you lived elsewhere? Did you worry at all that non–New York readers might miss some of the book’s references?

DG: I have a strange relationship with New York. It is my hometown. I have lived in other places for stretches of a few years, but I always seem to find myself back in New York. I married a New Yorker. I am raising little New Yorkers. I still live on the Magic Mountain that is Manhattan, unable to escape even to Brooklyn. I am doomed. And New York has changed from the New York of my youth. (Wait a sec while I put on my Old Crank hat.) New York oozes with money now, like an infected open wound. Oh, there has always been money flowing through the bloodstream of this city, but today it feels different, today it feels stifling, apocalyptic even, the walking dead of the rich. That said, there are still the museums (though art nowadays is equated with cash), and there is the theater (which on average costs around $100 per seat), and many movie houses (mostly playing blockbusters) and great restaurants (don’t get me started). Still, there is a surviving culture here, and by that I mean the culture of the street and the subway, the park, the packed-in people, the blunt edge of close inhabitation mixed with the collective cause of being trapped and toughened and oddly dependent on one another to remain cool, i.e., New Yorkers. There remains a self-generating energy, a great grand orgy of everyday desire. I could only leave New York for Berlin or Paris or Rome, Madrid maybe, but I don’t speak those languages. I speak New York. And I hope in this novel, no matter where you’re from, you can understand the words.

CS: The title of this novel is simultaneously perfect and kind of awkward, especially to say aloud. Did you have reservations about giving your book an unwieldy title?

DG: It was always going to contain an ampersand. The title kind of dropped in fully formed. And I twisted much of the novel around that shape, in the obvious narcissistic reflection in A. N. Dyer’s name, and in his first novel, Ampersand; even in the titles of his subsequent books, there is a hint of an ampersand. Growing up I also remember seeing old ghostly advertisements on the sides of building, often with only an “& Sons” visible, the father faint and undecipherable. So I was totally committed to the title and its lack of a solid foundation.

CS: Did you use any particular strategy for writing the sections of the book that are “excerpts” of A. N. Dyer’s novels? Did you feel pressure, given that these novels are supposed to be iconic?

DG: Like I said before, that was actually fun. I could write a whole novel in a snippet without the hassle of plot and character development and pages and pages of actual painstaking writing. It was different with Ampersand since there’s a large chunk of that novel contained within the book, and it’s so beloved and acclaimed by its readership (it won a Pulitzer, after all). I just kind of held my breath (and at times my nose) and dove in. I had the whole internal novel pretty well mapped out, to the point where it seems like I’ve written it. But it does set up as an easy target: This is meant to be great? Yeah, right. But I understood that going into the project, that there was that danger, and to be honest, it was thrilling to take on the challenge.

CS: This is your third book. What do you know now about writing and publishing that you didn’t know before your first?

DG: Unfortunately, not a lot. The first blank page is always a mystery. Maybe when I first started writing I disparaged plot, thinking it a hack’s course, but nowadays, we novelists have to compete with so many other easier (and frankly wonderful) entertainments, we need to remember the basics of story and plot and forward momentum and character and, most important, the pleasures to be found on that once blank page. We need to prove ourselves worthy of the most precious commodity: time.

Reader’s Guide: THE TELLING ROOM by Michael Paterniti

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Paterniti_TheTellingRoom In The Telling Room, Michael Paterniti showcases his storytelling craft to tell the tale of the world’s greatest piece of cheese.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. This book starts in a deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and leads to a small village in Spain, all in a quest for some cheese. What do you make of the author’s impulsivity, and does it resemble a seemingly random decision in your own life that somehow led to an unexpected result?

2. Do you agree with the author’s assessment of modern society as TK? If so, what might be a solution, short of moving to a small village in Spain?

3. When Mike first meets Ambrosio in the telling room, the cheesemaker expounds on the importance of taking time to cultivate food, to prepare it, to enjoy it, and — finally — to pass that food from our bodies as waste. How much do you agree with Ambrosio’s way of living? Do you believe that what we consume and the way we consume it has such a pronounced effect on our lives?

4. Ambrosio’s slow-food style of living proves deeply seductive to the author—carrying him back again and again to Spain. Would you say such a lifestyle is equally feasible in our convenience-oriented society? How might it be achieved?

5. Do you have a place that you return to, and if so, what is it that you find there?

6. On page 71, the author includes the following footnote: “I would soon find out that digression was a national pastime in Castile, that to get to the crux of any matter you had to listen for hours, weeks, months, years.” What do you think is his intention by including this note to the story? How did it affect the way that you read the footnotes that followed?

7. Ambrosio has a phrase, “the disability of memory,” which he defines by saying, “Everything is rushing forward, so I must go back.” In what ways is Ambrosio’s story emblematic of this idea? Why do you think this idea captured Mike’s imagination so completely?

8. Can you name some more of the many conflicts in the book?

9. When Mike first returns to Guzman, he writes that “[I didn’t] care to hold myself to the normal journalistic standard, for I wasn’t entirely playing a journalist here. I was playing myself for once.” Do you think that, by entering the story simply as himself, different opportunities were open to Mike than if he had maintained his journalistic distance? What issues might have been avoided had he been more of an objective observer? How might a more objective book about Ambrosio feel different than the one Mike ultimately wrote? Have you ever started something as your job that ultimately became something deeply personal?

10. In THE TELLING ROOM the idea of memory takes many forms, such as Luis’s keys, or the cheese itself. Why do you think memory becomes such an important theme as the book goes on?

11. When Ambrosio gives Mike a key to the telling room, he says that it’s where Mike will write “their” book. Who do you think the book ultimately belongs to? In what ways is the story more Ambrosio’s, and in what ways Mike’s? What does it mean to own a story?

12. What obligation does the writer have to his or her subject?

13. At the outset, Ambrosio is portrayed as a mythic figure, and is later revealed to be, simply, a man. How does this shift occur? What parts of Ambrosio the man have to be cloaked so that we can believe in Ambrosio the myth? Why does the author slowly pull back the curtain like this?

14. The idea of fatherhood is another recurring theme, and particularly the ways that children carry on the traditions, ideas, and lives of their parents. On page 195, Paterniti writes, “This was one form of enlace, too, the attachment of the child to the father, and with the passing of time the father to the child, so that even in death one lived on, carrying the ghost of the other like a baby inside.” How are Ambrosio and Michael each defined by their roles as fathers? As sons?

15. The whole of Castile shares a fascination with the legend of El Cid, a story that likely glosses over some harsher truths. How does the story of El Cid relate to Paterniti’s relationship to Castile? How does it relate to his relationship with Ambrosio?

16. On page 204, Paterniti describes a scene in which the mistranslation of a word – barber for sheep shearer – leads him to “float away with the myth,” imagining a barbershop for animals. What are some other instances of “floating away with the myth” in this book?

17. Sara, Mike’s wife, describes the idea that some people see the world as being clearly delineated (1 + 1 = 2), while other see it as a web of possible connections and fruitful contradictions. Do either of these outlooks match up with your own worldview?

18. Towards the end of the book, Paterniti describes the act of telling stories to his children as one that unites them as a family, and as “some way of saying, ‘History repeats.’ And: ‘You’re going to be alright.’” Do the stories you remember hearing as a child and the stories you tell now have a similar impact on you? What other ways do stories – and the act of storytelling itself – affect us?

19. Ultimately, what do you think of Ambrosio, the myth and the man? Do you think that the author finds what he’s looking for?

Are you planning a book club discussion for The Telling Room? Invite Michael Paterniti to join your chat. Email rhrc (at) randomhouse (dot) com to request a Skype visit from the author! Scheduling depending.

Reader’s Guide: SISTERLAND by Curtis Sittenfeld

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Sittenfeld_Sisterland Curtis Sittenfeld’s mesmerizing novel, Sisterland, covers a lot of bases: family and identity, loyalty and deception, and the delicate line between truth and belief. We’ve been raving about it amongst ourselves here since the hardcover came out last year. Today, the trade paperback hits bookshelves and we could not be more excited to continue sharing this book with you.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times raves, “Sisterland is a testament to [Curtis Sittenfeld’s] growing depth and assurance as a writer.”

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What and where is Sisterland? If you have a sister, do you see any of your own relationship with her reflected in the relationship between Kate and Vi?

2. The novel opens with a description of the 1811 earthquake in New Madrid, although everything that follows is set in the near-present. Why do you think the novel begins in this way? How does the historical context change how we see Kate’s story?

3. Do you believe that people can have psychic powers? Have you ever experienced strong intuitions about events that happened later?

4. Do you understand why Kate tries to escape her powers? Would you prefer, like Kate, to be normal, or to be special, like Vi?

5. Kate transforms herself from Daisy Shramm to Kate Tucker. How do names define and shape us?

6. Near the end of the novel, Kate and Vi make an important discovery about their “senses” that upsets everything they thought they knew. Were you as surprised by this revelation as the twins? How do you think it might change their understanding of their childhood?

7. Do Kate and Jeremy have a good marriage?

8. Were you surprised by Kate’s choices at the end? How will her family’s life in the future be different from what it was in the past? Do you think it’s plausible that she can continue to conceal her secret indefi- nitely?

9. Twins are intriguing to many people. Do you think the interest they elicit is justified? Have you known twins in your own life? If you are a twin, did Sittenfeld’s portrayal of them strike you as realistic?

10. Have you read any of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other novels? If so, do you think this one is like or unlike her earlier work?

Connect with Curtis Sittenfeld on Twitter and tell her what you’re reading with your book club!

Reader’s Guide: LETTERS FROM SKYE by Jessica Brockmole

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Brockmole_Letters from Skye

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What elements does telling this novel through letters add to the story? How would a conventional narrative style have changed your reading experience?

2. Fear is a prevalent theme throughout the novel. How are the characters restrained by their fears? When and how do the characters overcome them?

3. On page 46, Elspeth touches on the idea of female empowerment and suffrage ideology. Do you see any changes in the behavior of the female characters between the World War I correspondences and those during World War II?

4. How is Margaret similar to Elspeth? How is she different? Do you think the same thing could happen to Margaret and Paul that happened to Elspeth and Iain? Why or why not?

5. What is your opinion on long-­distance relationships? Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with someone you’ve never met, or stay in love with someone who lives continents away?

6. Elspeth loves Davey and Iain simultaneously, but differently. Can you love two people at once? What is different between ­Elspeth and Davey’s relationship and Elspeth and Iain’s?

7. Do you think that Elspeth and Davey’s letters could be considered cheating? If not initially, when did it become a threat to ­Elspeth’s marriage? How would it be considered in today’s world? Do you agree with Elspeth when she says “we can’t help who we love?”

8. On page 216, Margaret explains the idea of true love as “a given, a constant, an expectation.” Do you agree with her interpretation? Have you ever experienced this type of constant?

9. Books provide immense comfort for both Elspeth and Davey throughout the novel, and sharing books with each other brings them closer. Do you have any books in your life that provide comfort like Davey’s Huck Finn?

10. Describe Harry and Davey’s relationship. What is the significance of exchanging their socks? How does their friendship grow? Does Elspeth have somebody in her life equivalent to Harry?

11. The characters are often concerned with meeting the expectations of their family, friends, and community. How does this affect their behavior? Does it change over time?

12. How do Elspeth and Margaret’s lives reflect the emerging globalization of the twentieth century?

13. Imagine that instead of letters, Elspeth and Davey conversed through email, instant messaging, or Facebook. Could this story still have happened in the twenty-­first century? Has new technology surpassed the romance and intimacy of snail mail?

14. Of all the themes in this novel—­devotion, war, betrayal, family, etc.—­which resonated the strongest with you?

Reader’s Guide: THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Atkins_ThenandAlways The early feedback for THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins has been stellar! Readers and book clubs alike are flocking to this book. The suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat page after page, and the conclusion leaves plenty of room for book club discussions.

Here at Random House Reader’s Circle, we have the book club questions and topics for discussion to get your conversation going. Be sure to mark your calendars for May 20th- this is a read you won’t want to miss!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Three accidents seem to shape this novel. To what extent is Rachel’s future affected by events outside her control?

2. Why do you think Rachel feels so responsible for the outcome of the restaurant accident? Do you think she would feel differently if Matt had died in Jimmy’s place?

3. Would you feel differently about Rachel if the book began as she woke up in the hospital? Why do you think the author chose to begin the novel where she did?

4. What did you think really happened when Jimmy showed up in Rachel’s hospital room? Did you question your logic throughout the novel?

5. The characters encounter mirrors and reflections at several points during the story. Do you think the idea of mirror images relates to the way the author organizes the novel?

6. Which of Rachel’s relationships do you think is most im- portant to her in her personal life and in her career? Does that change over the course of the book?

7. How do you interpret the seeming intersection between fate and free will in this novel? Do you believe in fate? Or do you believe we control our own destinies?

8. Rachel has deep feelings for Jimmy even when she is with Matt. Do you think it’s possible to be in love with two people at the same time?

9. Despite their imperfections, did you feel any sympathy for Matt or Cathy by the end of the novel?

10. Were you surprised by the ending? Do you think there is more than one way to interpret the events at the end of the book?

11. Did you pick up on any of the specific clues in the novel that foreshadow the ending? What were some clues that
you noticed?

12. Did you ever come to a crossroads in your life when you felt the choice you made impacted your life in unimaginable ways? If you could go back, would you choose differently and why?

Join Dani Atkins on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Bill Dedman, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., and Patrick McCord

Friday, April 25th, 2014

Dedman_Empty Mansions

PATRICK MCCORD, OF THE EDITING COMPANY: What are the themes of Empty Mansions?

BILL DEDMAN: The main threads running through the lives of W. A. Clark and his daughter Huguette include the costs of ambition, the burdens of inherited wealth, the fragility of reputation, the folly of judging someone’s life from the outside, and the tension between engaging with the world, with all its risks, and keeping a safe distance from danger. Huguette chose a path that seemed to us to be embodied in the old French fable she memorized: “To live happily, live hidden.”

PM: Paul, how did you approach your conversations with Huguette? Did you tell her you were writing a book? Did you try to interview her, or just to have conversations between cousins?

PAUL CLARK NEWELL, JR.: My first letter to her told her that I was picking up my father’s unfulfilled hope of writing a book about W. A. Clark and the family. In our conversations by phone over the years—we spoke perhaps half a dozen times a year—I refrained from aggressive inquiries. I enjoyed these conversations and wanted them to continue, and was wary that any inquiries she might find threatening could easily leave me blocked without means of future contact. She had never given me her phone number. I would call her attorney, and she would call back ask Huguette, but not at the risk of losing access.

PM: Bill, what would you have liked to ask Huguette?

BD: I think Paul was wise not to quiz Huguette. Of course, I would have liked to hear her describe what it was like to move from Paris to New York at age four, growing up in the Clark mansion, the biggest house in the city, with 121 rooms for a family of four. How would she describe the personality, the temperament, of her father, so famous or infamous, and her mother, so lively in private and so distant in public? And Huguette’s view on money—how she used it to provide comfort, and privacy, and the role of her great generosity in her life. Her view on relationships— here was a woman who was reclusive, shy, yet she maintained friendships that lasted decades, including with her ex-husband Bill Gower and with her friend (and fiancé?) Etienne de Villermont in France. Everyone close to Huguette describes her as happy—not a sad person at all. She was clearly managing a social unease. How would she have explained her choices?

PM: Huguette dearly valued her privacy. Your reporting and writing have stripped that away from her. Do you feel guilty about that?

BD: Not if we’ve told her story honestly and fairly. Paul certainly has affection for his cousin, with whom he shared many conversations and a friendly correspondence. He found her to be elegant, intelligent, quite lucid, with a good sense of humor, a lovely member of the family—not at all the deficient person she had been presumed to be, even by most of her relatives. You can hear her personality in the audiobook, and see it in her correspondence, her collecting, and her painting. We have portrayed her in a positive light, not because we’re bending over backward to be kind, but because that is how we found her.

PCN: Bill’s initial articles for NBC News, bringing Huguette’s name to public attention, were a lark, a mystery of the unused mansions. But his further investigative series looked at a situation that seemed quite serious: a woman who had hidden herself away, whose property was being sold off quietly. It seemed reasonable to ask if this was a case of elder abuse, and it was a good thing that the district attorney stepped in to check on Huguette and her finances.

BD: As it worked out, the DA found no one to charge with any crime. One can certainly reach the conclusion that the gifts were excessive, but Huguette was writing the checks. No one was stealing from her. Nevertheless, whether or not one finds a fire, checking out the smoke is a public service.

PM: What might Huguette have thought of the legal settlement, which gave more than $30 million of her estate to her relatives and even took back $5 million from her nurse?

BD: Huguette told her best friend, Suzanne Pierre, that her relatives were out to get her money, and it turned out she was right. Based on her stubbornness and fierce protection of her privacy, it wouldn’t be surprising if she would be upset that her will was being questioned, that her nurse didn’t get what she had promised her, and that most of her relatives were telling the world that she was mentally ill and incompetent.

Perhaps a settlement was inevitable, as both sides had disabilities. The relatives found no evidence to support their claim that Huguette was incompetent. Moreover, the first edition of this book was out on the eve of trial, allowing the jurors to see Huguette’s paintings, to learn of her generosity, even to hear her voice in the audiobook. Her purported last will and testament, on the other hand, was being represented by an accountant who was a felon, and by a lawyer who had hardly met his client. Her nurse would be grilled on the huge gifts she received. And the hospital’s scheming for donations would be a liability, although there was no evidence that it influenced the will. The long trial would have been bare-knuckled and expensive. As the trial date approached, consultants for the proponents of the will met with mock juries, presenting each side’s case in brief. Two out of three test juries decided in favor of the will, but the wise course was to settle. And as we point out in the book, a settlement is the only way to be sure all the lawyers get paid.
Some solace for Huguette might have come from the fact that the settlement, in the end, followed the will in one major detail: creating an arts foundation at her beloved Bellosguardo, the Clark summer home in Santa Barbara.

PM: Bill, were you concerned about teaming up with a relative, who might naturally try to protect the reputation of his cousin, Huguette, or of the famous man in the family, her father, W.A.?

BD: First, Paul was not financially conflicted—as a cousin, not a nephew, he didn’t stand to gain from any inheritance; he was not a party to the legal action—so that wasn’t a concern. More broadly, I was impressed from the start by Paul’s devotion to the truth, to getting the story right, even when it led into uncomfortable family history. Our goal was not to wallpaper over W.A.’s political scandal, nor the effect of his mining on the environment. People should hear, for example, Mark Twain’s memorable denunciation of W.A. as “a shame to the American nation.” And they should hear of Twain’s own financial conflict when it comes to W. A. Clark and copper.

PM: Paul, how do you view the political scandals of Senator W. A. Clark, your great-uncle?

PCN: We agreed that our narrative should be based solidly on facts, and that the behavior of the Clarks should be viewed contextually, in the times and culture in which they lived. In our young country’s early days, corruption and violence were endemic, especially in the lawless territories on the western frontier. Clark and his arch enemy, Marcus Daly, held the money and power to influence political processes. Both were accused of blatant bribery. To this day the very wealthy can purchase public office, or influence the public to elect, but the means are ostensibly legal, including massive TV campaigns. Whatever this is, it’s not democracy at work.

PM: How did you reconstruct so many details of the family life—for instance, the houses and the clothes?

BD: We soaked up every detail from old photos and new, including family photos from Huguette’s albums and old snapshots she sent to Paul. We sat with a professor of art history to discuss Huguette’s paintings and the role of women painters in the early twentieth century. We hired a landscape designer in Southern California to identify trees and plants in modern photos of Bellosguardo from the estate. A professor of the history of fashion helped us get the details right on a hobble skirt, a cloche hat. These details helped us try to re-create the world of the Clarks in the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age.

We also had the documents, in overwhelming numbers: twenty years of Huguette’s medical records and nurses’ notes; the testimony of her inner circle among fifty witnesses in the estate trial; thousands of pages of correspondence found in her apartment after she died, including four thousand pages that we had to have translated from French. Without these documents, we wouldn’t have known of her longtime friendship and correspondence with her ex-husband Bill, or her long-distance love letters to Etienne in France. Often the documents and the photos worked together to illuminate a detail. One small example: Her correspondence showed the auction lot numbers for two antique French dolls she bought, for $14,000 apiece, leading us to a Sotheby’s catalog from London with photos and descriptions of those dolls.
Details emerge from public records that help us understand character. For example, Ancestry.com has ships’ registries listing passengers, and old passport applications. W.A. was said by his children to be no taller than five feet five inches, maybe five feet six with his boots on. But his passport applications show that he listed himself as five feet eight, even five feet ten, as his political power and wealth grew.

PM: Can we talk about your writing process? Did you do the research first, and then write?

BD: The research never stopped. Even late in the editing, we had a graduate student searching Paris for records on Huguette’s friend Etienne, documenting that he had not been a marquis, as he had been called in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.

Our method in reporting was to explore every side street, enjoying where it led us. Huguette and her family were being revealed to us, too, in those details. If we don’t go to her hospital room, long after she died, we don’t get the photo of the desolate view from her window. Another small example: If we hadn’t found a book about the company that made the magnificent pipe organ in the old Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue— the one bought for $120,000 (in 1910 dollars)—we would never have found the story about that pipe organ being sold, when the Clark man- sion was demolished in 1927, for the price of one good cigar.

Our approach to the writing was to try to be clear, to let the story tell itself. The main obstacle was to balance the twin stories of W.A. and Huguette, to deal with the fact that our protagonist was off the stage, not yet born, during most of her father’s colorful business and political career.

PM: Many writers of historical nonfiction “assist the storytelling” by inventing situations or even dialogue that seem logical. Why not make up a few scenes to link up the deep factual reporting of this family epic?

BD: We believe that nonfiction should contain only information that’s true. Journalists and nonfiction authors can’t know what a person thinks or feels or believes—they know only what the person says and writes and does. If an author tells you someone’s inner thoughts, move that book to the fiction shelf. We didn’t put any thoughts into anyone’s heads, we didn’t psychoanalyze. If a word or action suggests what Huguette or another character might have thought, the reader doesn’t need us to point that out. Although we did offer in the epilogue a summary of Huguette’s life, “a life of integrity,” we tried to give readers plenty of room to make up their own minds about the motives and ethics and feelings of Senator Clark, his younger wife, Anna, and their daughters, Andrée and Huguette, as well as the relatives seeking Huguette’s fortune, the hospital and doctors, and the $31 million nurse.

PM: Bill, the book begins with your family’s quest for a house, during which you discover Huguette’s $24 million Connecticut estate, unused since the 1950s. We never hear how that turned out. Did your family buy a house?

BD: Yes, though not in Madame Clark’s price range. Somehow we’ve been able to manage without fifty-two acres and a room for drying the draperies.

PM: Your book is filled with incredible stories. When you are asked to pick one, what is your favorite to tell?

PCN: Though the stories of Huguette’s eccentricity and lavish spending are fascinating, her generosity is more surprising. This shy artist, a recluse occupied with her dolls and castles, was relentless in her charity to friends and strangers.

Think of the home health aide Gwendolyn Jenkins, who never met Huguette but who had taken care of someone Huguette knew. Gwendolyn was surprised at home by a lawyer bearing a beautiful card. As she said, “I was telling my daughter that night, I couldn’t believe how this woman, an older woman she was, had written such a nice card, a proper note….And she included a ‘little gift,’ she said—a check for three hundred dollars! I couldn’t believe it. I was going to tell them all about it at Bible study. I’ve been blessed! And my daughter, she said, ‘You’d better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!’ ”

BD: Huguette lived a life of many charities, down to having an account at the corner grocery in Normandy so she could send telegrams ordering treats for her friends. The book raises many questions for the reader to ponder, but a central one is “If I had been born with the same advantages and disabilities, would I have lived the same way that she did?” Few of us would make the same choices she did—it’s easy to see that we would travel more, would choose a beautiful view, would wear those jewels and fine clothes. But would we also be as generous as Huguette was?

Reader’s Guide: EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Dedman_Empty MansionsWhen Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions, a New York Times bestseller, is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance.

This book is great for a book club discussion! If this is in your book club’s queue, then we have the perfect discussion to help frame your chat. Enjoy!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Huguette Clark and Paris Hilton: compare and contrast. Using the theme of the burdens of inherited wealth, in which era would it be easier or harder to be a young heiress, the 1920s or today? Can you imagine being that wealthy and not sharing your opinions and daily adventures on social media?

2. The authors reject easy explanations for Huguette’s eccentricity and reclusive nature, emphasizing that she was always shy, living a life of imagination and art. As they say in the epilogue:

We will never know why Huguette was, as she might say, “peculiar.” The people in her inner circle say they have no idea. Out- siders speculate. It was being the daughter of an older father! It was her sister’s death! Or her mother’s! The wealth! It was autism or Asperger’s or a childhood trauma! Easy answers fail because the question assumes that personalities have a single determinant. Whatever caused her shyness, her limitations of sociability or coping, her fears—of strangers, of kidnapping, of needles, of another French Revolution—Huguette found a situation that worked for her, a modern-day “Boo” Radley, shut up inside by choice, safe from a world that can hurt.

Do you accept the authors’ embrace of complexity and uncertainty? Or do you think of Huguette’s reclusivity as springing from a single cause—e.g., failed romances, her sister’s death, a mental illness?

3. What is your reaction to nurse Hadassah Peri and the $31 million in gifts Huguette gave to her family? Do you agree with readers who say her behavior was despicable, that it’s unethical for a caregiver to receive such gifts, that she should have refused the gifts? Or do you agree with readers who say Huguette certainly knew what she was doing, that Hadassah was her patient’s closest caregiver for twenty years, that the gifts were only a small share of Huguette’s net worth?

4. Was Huguette’s life a happy one? What are the ingredients of a happy life? If you find her life to be sad, how do you reconcile that with her apparent lack of sadness?

5. If you had been on the jury deciding the battle over Huguette’s will and her $300 million estate, would you have
found that she was incompetent and defrauded? Would you have given all her money to her Clark relatives? Or would you have followed the will, giving it all to the nurse, the Bellosguardo Foundation for the arts, the attorney Bock, the accountant Kamsler, Dr. Singman, Beth Israel Medical Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, her goddaughter Wanda, and the personal assistant Chris? Which of those people, on either side, do you trust?

6. Was W. A. Clark an admirable man? Or was he admirable only early on, when he was like a Horatio Alger character working arduously in dangerous circumstances to build a copper fortune? In light of the times in which he lived, was W.A. Clark justifiably vilified for his methods in seeking a Senate seat? Was he actually a robber baron? Is he accountable for environmental waste today from the copper mines he developed in the 1870s? Or was this simply business as usual in the sordid world of politics and development on the Western frontier? If Clark had been as generous to public charities as Carnegie or Rockefeller, would he have been absolved by history, as they largely were, of the sins of his business career?

7. Empty Mansions is based on facts, documents, and testimony. That leaves mysteries in the lives of its characters. Did the uncertainties add or detract from your enjoyment of the story? Would you have preferred that the authors psychoanalyze Huguette, creating dialogue and filling in missing scenes as a screenplay would? Considering the limits of what the authors could learn, what do you most want to know about W.A., about Anna, about Huguette? If you could
have had conversations with Huguette, as author Paul Newell did, what would you have asked her?

8. Is there more to the American Dream than financial security? Does it require making a contribution to society? Did W.A.’s American Dream get out of control? Is Huguette an American Dreamer of another type?

9. On Huguette’s death certificate, her occupation was listed as “artist.” Beginning with W.A., consider what part creativity and imagination play in this story. Was W.A.’s imagination the source of his power? What did Huguette inherit from her father in the way of tastes or interests or capabilities? From her mother? Consider the words of the founder of Huguette’s prep school, Clara Spence, who urged her students:

I beg you to cultivate imagination, which means to develop your power of sympathy, and I entreat you to decide thoughtfully what makes a human being great in his time and in his station. The faculty of imagination is often lightly spoken of as of no real importance, often decried as mischievous, as in some ways the antithesis of practical sense, and yet it ranks with reason and conscience as one of the supreme characteristics by which man is distinguished from all other animals. . . . Sympathy, the great bond between human beings, is largely dependent on imagination— that is, upon the power of realizing the feelings and the circumstances of others so as to enable us to feel with and for them.
Did Huguette follow those words? What role did imagination and sympathy play in her life? What role do they play in yours?

10. Did you like Huguette? Were there points in the book where you were frustrated by her and/or felt sympathy for her? By the end of the book, did you feel as if you knew her well? Did your view of her change throughout the book?

11. Many characters in Empty Mansions have moral dimensions of both good and bad. Do you believe W.A. was more good than bad? What about attorney Wally Bock? Accountant Irv Kamsler? Nurse Hadassah Peri? Personal assistant Chris Sattler? Dr. Henry Singman? Were there any characters who seemed to be simply good or rotten in their relationships with Huguette? Were you engaged or frustrated by the authors’ insistence on showing the good and bad in characters?

12. If Empty Mansions were made into a movie, what actors would you like to see in the major roles? What movie that you’ve seen should it be most similar to? Would you make it a psychological drama? An epic family saga of Western bonanza wealth? A Gilded Age study of manners and family relationships? What scenes would be the most delicious to write?

Bill Dedman is on Facebook! Join the conversation with him.

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