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A Conversation between Anne Tyler and Anna Quindlen

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread_TylerA Conversation Between Anna Quindlen and Anne Tyler

When readers are asked about the novels of Anne Tyler, few of them will mention the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or the many months her work has spent on bestseller lists. But they almost always mention how much her books have spoken to their hearts. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe: For more than fifty years her work has been a literary touchstone on the subjects of family, love, loss, and resilience. To mark the paperback publication of this, her twentieth novel, she exchanged emails with writer Anna Quindlen, who recalled that when she published her first novel, Object Lessons, Tyler reviewed it in a thoughtful, kind, and teacherly fashion that she still holds dear.

Anna Quindlen: This novel, like so many of your others, is about the alchemy of family. Is there any point in writing about anything else, or is family really where the emotional action is in life, and in fiction?

Anne Tyler: I can’t count the number of times I’ve started a new book with the idea that this one will have nothing to do with families. But somehow, the minute I think of a character, I find myself considering the people he came from. I’ll bet that if I tried to write a thriller, I’d get sidetracked by the spy’s sibling issues.

AQ: This is also, in part, a novel about a love affair, a love affair with a house. “Houses need humans,” Red Whitshank says at one point; the novel also reflects how humans need houses. Do you feel that way about your house? And, by the way, are we really talking about houses here?

AT: Oddly enough, I have no particular attachment to houses. A few years ago I moved out of the house my children grew up in and I never gave it a backward glance. But while I was writing A Spool of Blue Thread I tried to imagine the story from a workman’s point of view, and I felt pretty sure that Red would be upset by the notion of a house abandoned. (Also that—-like a plumber I once knew—-he would roll his eyes at “Harry Homeowner” shortcuts.)

As for whether we’re really talking about houses: When I’m in the middle of a book, I’m thinking very concretely. I really am talking about houses. It’s only afterward that I notice some other, completely unintentional significance, and I believe it’s better that way. I distrust any symbolism that’s been thought out ahead of time.

AQ: As an oldest child, I’m a believer in birth order. How much of the chemistry among and between the Whitshank children is a function of that?

AT: Oh, birth order is crucial! I don’t know how I would flesh out a character without knowing his or her birth order. Firstborn -Amanda’s certitude, secondborn Jeannie’s mildness, lastborn -Denny’s resentment when Stem arrives . . . They all make sense to me.

I’m intrigued that you, like me, are an oldest child, because I have a feeling that a disproportionate number of writers are. I wonder if the parents’ more intense concentration on a child, when there’s only one, fosters a more vivid imagination in that child.

AQ: In the novel, you write of the Whitshanks, “Like most families, they imagined they were special.” I think that’s so profound. It reminded me of a quote from Sir Walter Scott about Jane Austen that I think also applies to you. He wrote, “The big bow–wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” Did you ever want to be a big bow–wow? And do you think those who follow that path are afforded more credibility than their quieter, more domestic colleagues?

AT: During the several times I’ve read War and Peace, I’ve found myself skimming the war parts and concentrating on the peace parts. Which is to say: It’s not Tolstoy’s big bow–wow abilities that I envy.

Granted, though, I have often wished for the ability to see the larger scene. I’m like my reclusive artist character in Celestial Navigation: After I leave a room I am usually unable to reconstruct the room as a whole, but I can tell you exactly what the little screws looked like in the electrical outlet in one corner. I would love to possess, instead, the vision to write something like Faulkner’s hilarious panoramic description of the townspeople trying to catch a herd of wild horses in The Hamlet.

As for credibility . . . well, I do think that big bow–wow books are widely considered more important, at least than those confining themselves to a smaller canvas.

AQ: Do you therefore agree with the complaint that male writers tend to be taken more seriously than female ones?

AT: Only to the extent that it’s usually the men who write the big bow–wow books. I can think of some quieter male writers—-Kent Haruf with his Benediction, Stewart O’Nan with Emily, Alone—-who haven’t been taken half as seriously as I feel they deserved.

AQ: I was going to ask if you consider your work more character– than plot–driven, but it occurs to me that perhaps that’s the nature of all really good fiction. Your thoughts? Is character, or characters, where you begin?

AT: Sometimes it’s a character who sets things off—-a stranger I notice on a street corner or someone I overhear speaking in a restaurant. How would it feel to be that person? is what I’m wondering. What would it be like to live his or her life? But other times it’s an idle rumination, like Why is it that families generally seem to cherish just two or three handed–down stories, and discard some others?

The one thing I absolutely never begin with is plot, because the fact is that I am hopeless at plots, and have to rack my brain to come up with the simplest little event.

AQ: I once had the good fortune to sit next to Grace Paley at dinner, and at some point she said, “Think how prolific we would have been if we hadn’t had children.” Now that those years are behind you, do you wonder how you managed to combine mothering with writing?

AT: First I’ll have to quell my pangs of jealousy that you got to sit next to Grace Paley! But while she may have been right that we’d all have been more prolific if we’d been childless, I question whether we’d be writing as well. I think of it as a trade–off: When my own children were little they certainly derailed my writing life, but then when I was able to pick it up again I had so many more layers to me, and I felt I knew so much more about the world.

AQ: A Spool of Blue Thread moves back and forth in time: We begin in 1994, move forward to 2012, go back to 1959. Does that mirror the way we think about life when we are closer to its end than its beginning? In other words, as a younger writer might you have been inclined to be more linear in your approach to this?

AT: I’ll have to confess to a purely mechanical reason for the times when the novel proceeds backward: I had planned to go on writing it till I died. I positively hate finishing a book! I made up my mind just to describe one generation after another, endlessly. I worried, though, about running out of generations, so I decided to tackle them in reverse order. That way, I could take the Whitshanks back to prehistory, if I lived that long. But then I discovered that the Whitshanks before, say, 1920 were a meager–spirited lot, and I had to end the book after all.

AQ: Much of this novel, like your others, consists of pitch–perfect dialogue. Do you read your work aloud before you’ve finished?

AT: I do. I started that after computers came along, because I write all my drafts in longhand and it was hard to catch tiny alterations when I was shifting my gaze constantly between paper and computer screen. So I began reading my final draft into a tape recorder, and then I could follow on the screen as I played the tape back. What I hadn’t foreseen is that hearing my own voice saying the words would point out any false notes, loud and clear. Now my favorite piece of advice for beginning writers is to read their dialogue aloud.

AQ: I once read an interview with the novelist Amy Bloom in which she said that each novelist essentially has one subject, and hers is love. What’s yours, and why?

AT: Endurance, I would say, if I really had to pick just one. I have always been touched and fascinated by how human beings in general manage to just keep on keeping on—-how they don’t give up on each other and how they set out every day all over again, even when they know it won’t be any different from the day before.

AQ: This is your twentieth novel, a sentence I am tempted to write in ALL CAPS. What’s changed in your fictional concerns or technique? And what’s stayed the same, is built inevitably into Anne Tyler’s writerly DNA? Is there something you know now about writing a novel that you would love to confide to the woman working on If Morning Ever Comes?

AT: My essential concern with family has not changed, but much about my approach to the act of writing is very different now. In the early days, I used to think that novels were somehow less authentic if they were revised in any way. They should be spontaneous, I figured—-tossed off without a second thought. These days, I revise and revise; I love revising. I always feel I begin by writing a bad book and then I stretch it and add layers and texture to it so that gradually, over its many incarnations, it grows into a better book.

To my earlier self I would like to say, “Relax. The story will come in due time. Trust your characters. Let them tell you what happens next.”

AQ: I would assume that at this point your routine is set to music. (Is it, literally? I listen to music while I write, but many of my fellow writers say they find that impossible.) Could you talk a bit about time of day, length of stay, size of desk, method of composition?

AT: You must have amazing strength of character! The one time I tried writing to music I fell subject to a wave of sentimentality; I couldn’t seem to separate myself from the music’s influence.

What I do like listening to as I write is the sound of ordinary life out in the street—-children playing and workmen talking. I write at a bare white desk beneath a window that I keep wide open whenever the weather allows. As soon as I’ve finished my morning walk I settle there, whether or not I feel I have anything to say. If nothing comes to mind, I might putter around with notes and such but I don’t push it, and I give up after an hour or so. If something does come, I write it down on unruled white paper with a Pilot P–500 black gel pen—-that part is nonnegotiable. I don’t even want to admit how many dozens of those pens I keep in stock in case they’re discontinued someday.

Whenever I feel stuck—-when I come to a moment in a chapter where the characters simply refuse to go another step forward—-I’ve learned that I should just turn back a few pages and start copying those pages onto fresh paper, and eventually the fork where I made a wrong turn will become apparent. It seems merely reading something over allows mistakes to slide past me; actually forming the words again makes the mistakes all at once stand out.

I always feel I’m knitting a novel; it’s practically a handicraft, which is why I need to do it in longhand. If my right hand ever developed arthritis, I’d probably have to change careers.

My writing mind clicks off at about 1:00 p.m. at the latest, which is earlier than it used to be, but I take comfort in the thought that I seem to get more done in the time I do have. Then I put my work completely out of my thoughts and go on with the rest of my life. That’s something I feel most women writers are exceptionally good at—-partitioning—-because many have had to do it so often back when they had young children.

AQ: You are not a writer who has a Twitter account or a Facebook page, who goes on book tour or the Today show. Eudora Welty once said, “Writing fiction is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be put down little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address.” I know Welty is an influence on your work, and I wonder if that sentiment was an influence on your decision to keep a private address.

AT: I hadn’t heard that Eudora Welty said that, although it certainly makes sense to me. But my choice to stay as private as possible hasn’t been so much a conscious decision as a matter of personal temperament: I’m shy out in public, and nervous with audiences.

In recent years, as writers have been pressed to play more of a part in publicizing their books, I’ve undergone more interviews than I used to, and what I’ve learned from those experiences is that whenever I talk about writing, I can’t do any writing for some time afterward. I think it makes me too conscious of the gears creaking behind the curtain.

AQ: Some of your best-known colleagues have retired in recent years—-Philip Roth, Alice Munro. A BBC interview suggested that this would be your last novel. Say it ain’t so!

AT: I think that story got started because people misunderstood me when I said I planned never to finish A Spool of Blue Thread. But in fact there’s already a next novel, because the Vintage Hogarth Shakespeare series will be publishing my modern–day version of The Taming of the Shrew in 2016. I’m really not sure how I’d keep myself occupied if I didn’t have a pen in my hand.

A Conversation Between Julia Glass and Sara Novic

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Girl at War_TP_NovicFor readers of The Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See comes Girl at War by Sara Novic, a powerful debut novel about a girl’s coming of age—and how her sense of family, friendship, love, and belonging is profoundly shaped by war.

Julia Glass: It is electrifying to see the words girl and war together in a title–and terrifying, too, of course. Equally chilling is the heroine’s statement “There is no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia. There is only a child with a gun.” That made such an impact on me. Because Ana’s point of view is so intimate and her everyday life as a child and then a young woman so palpable, I’m sure that every reader’s first question is this: How autobiographical is Girl at War? Did Sara Novic live a version of Ana’s nightmare herself? Of her escape and recovery?

If not—and I note, from your biography in the book, that you were half Ana’s age when that war began–was your family living in Zagreb? What are your earliest memories of the war or its effects on your daily life? The details of day-to-day living are so poignant and vivid in the book’s earliest chapters: the way school and jobs and even the rituals of children at play persist despite the threat of sudden violence, the way parents try to maintain a sense of normalcy. Where did those details come from if not your own experience?

Sara Nović: First, thank you, Julia, for reading the book and asking me these interesting questions. Having grown up in the States myself, the short answer is that Girl at War isn’t autobiographical. Ana’s story isn’t my experience, or any one person’s. The genesis of the novel came about when I went to live with some family and friends in Zagreb after I graduated high school. I think because I represented a kind of “middleman” to them—American, but still family—they were eager to share their experiences with me. This was in 2005, so the war had been over for a few years, and people were feeling disillusioned by the (lack of) intervention and aid from the West, and the new democratic government that was shaping up to be corrupted just as the old one had been. There was a sense of urgency in these stories, and a feeling that people wanted their voices heard. I’ve always been an avid journaller, so I recorded a lot of the anecdotes people told me right away. The opening scene with the cigarettes, for example, was an experience that happened to a friend of mine pretty much exactly as Ana experiences it.

Later when I went back to the US and started college, I was shocked to find that most of my peers didn’t know where Croatia was, never mind what had happened there. So I started writing a short story about the war for a creative writing class in which I had accidentally enrolled. My professor encouraged me to expand on the topic, so I kept writing out in all directions, and that story lies pretty much in-tact at the end of part one of the novel now. Along the way I continued to ask a lot of questions of my friends and family back in Croatia—two of them were very good readers for me throughout the process of writing this book—and that, alongside with a lot of more “traditional” research, was how I made sure the details were accurate, which, even though the book is fiction, was important to me given the gravity of the conflict.

JG: During the years of the Yugoslavian Civil War, I was in my mid-thirties, and news coverage of the atrocities against Muslims and other civilians was prominent in the New York Times and other western papers. As an American, I felt a sense of futile rage over the lack of intervention by European and American powers–but I also felt confused. I did not feel I could fully grasp the complex hostilities and ethnic biases fueling the war, which was clearly about more than disputed territory. Do you think most westerners understood the war? What might it surprise us most to learn about that conflict? What misconceptions do we have?

SN: I don’t think most Westerners understood the war in Yugoslavia—the conflict was really complex and to grasp it fully would require a nuance that the mainstream media rarely provides. One of the big misconceptions about the conflict is the idea that it was an entirely ethnic-fueled war. On the one hand, it was about ethnicity, because there were territories that contained ethnic majorities; however, like any war, this one was mainly about power and money. For example, one big point of contention was road construction—the capital of Yugoslavia was in Belgrade (Serbia) so most of the country’s money went toward building roads horizontally so Serbs could get to the Adriatic Sea, while travel vertically within Croatia and Bosnia was very difficult and nothing was being done about it. It sounds mundane, but I think that kind of thing was at least as much of a factor in the split as the ethnic tensions were, though the media only focused on the latter part because it made an easier and more sensational story.

JG: In Girl at War, there is a clear before and after–with devastating heartbreak and danger in the middle. Some readers would call it a “loss of innocence story” as much as a “war story.” (Or maybe that’s true of all war stories.) Certainly, I would call it a story about how human beings endure, even find a way to thrive, in the face of inconsolable loss; that’s what all the best fiction shows us. Do you still have family in Croatia or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia? Do you return there now, and how do people say their lives have changed? Is it ever possible to feel safe in a place where formerly peaceful neighbors turned on one another so violently?

SN: I still have family and friends there and I try to go back in the summers, though I’ve missed this year. Croatia is now a very popular hotspot for tourists from around the world, particularly because of the Game of Thrones craze (they film some of the show there). The coast of the Adriatic is so beautiful; it’s sometimes hard to believe that a war took place there so recently. Overall I don’t think people really feel unsafe in the way that they fear their neighbors—you probably couldn’t get on with your daily life if you thought about that too much. But there are times when tensions flare up—for example when Russia recently vetoed the UN resolution to commemorate the murder of over 8,000 civilians at Srebrenica as a genocide. In many respects it’s still a time of transition. They’re still counting and documenting the names of the missing and dead. They’re still demining the more rural areas, removing undetonated cluster bombs. I think the way in which these wars get written about in the history books for the upcoming generation will really dictate a lot about the future of all the ex-Yugo countries.

JG: Along with her reluctant testimonial at the U.N., Ana’s experience of living in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York takes her back to her war experiences, and it seems as if she feels even more estranged from her adoptive country as a result. I love the passage where she reflects, “The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans–that I–could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept.” Can you talk about what it means to you to be an American at this moment in time? Do you feel a sense of obligation to write about that?

SN: Americans have the privilege of distancing themselves from war, which is of course due in large part to our physical distance from everybody else. Because of that, I think the natural tendency of a lot of people is to actively avoid talking about wars “over there”—it seems like the average American feels like it doesn’t concern him or her. But that wouldn’t make sense for a character like Ana; not when war is on her mind constantly, and the differences between experiencing war in Croatia and in America are so striking. When I workshopped a draft of this manuscript during the MFA program, I remember someone questioning whether I was “allowed” to write about 9/11. That floored me—wouldn’t it be way worse to have a character who had experienced a war in childhood, and was then in New York City on September 11th, and say nothing about it? I think I do feel a sense of obligation to write about these things, in this case for the purpose of making Ana a full and complex character. But in general it’d be beneficial if more Americans wrote about what it means to be an American today—that would require an examination of our personal and collective actions, which is always a good thing.

JG: I have also been confronted with the illogical notion that fiction writers are somehow forbidden to write about current events as cataclysmic as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But if this is the stuff of our own lives—or even if we have merely imagined what it would be like to experience such a crisis—of course it belongs in our stories! In fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of powerful “war fiction” is being published these days–some of it by young veterans, even spouses of veterans, but some of it also by writers whose only “qualification” is an astute imagination. You have to wonder if this literary trend is in part a reaction to the national tendency to avoid talking about these distant wars, even when they are of our making. Never mind that newspaper headlines are relentlessly dominated by wars all around the world: civil wars, wars on terror, wars fought in part by children, wars where “allies” and “enemies” are not at all clearcut. Just to name a few powerful recent books, I’m thinking of To the End of the LandWhat Is the What, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime WalkYou Know When the Men Are GoneYellow Birds, and Redeployment. Extraordinary new stories are also being written about past wars: NostalgiaMatterhornThe Sojourn. I’m just scratching the surface. Can I ask if you feel like a part of this wave–and if you’ve read a lot of fiction about contemporary conflicts? What other fiction writers, in general, have made the greatest impression on you?

SN: I didn’t really think of how I fit into a particular category while I was writing the book, in part because I was just so focused on Ana’s individual story, and in part because I didn’t really think of myself as “a writer,” or consider that this was a thing I’d try to publish, until I’d written well over half of it. That said, like Ana, I was lucky to have a couple professors at college who fed me books, so I’d read Hemon and Ugrešić in the early days of writing this manuscript. Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor, a nonfiction account of the conflict in Bosnia, and Ishmael Beah’s memoir about child soldierdom in Sierra Leone also influenced this project early on, as did some authors of Holocaust literature like Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski. And of course Rebecca West and Sebald play big part in Ana’s development, as they did for me as a reader and writer.

One of my favorite writers unrelated to this project is probably Zadie Smith—I admire and envy how she weaves together such big stories with so many moving parts, and is simultaneously clever and funny. And lately I’ve loved Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—now there’s a woman who knows her way around a narrative!

JG: I’m glad you brought up Sebald. When we meet Ana in New York, where she’s studying literature at NYU, you mention Austerlitz, along with other writing on the subject of “displaced persons.” Do you see yourself as “displaced”? Was writing Girl at War a way of trying to find your place?

SN: I think that writing Girl at War was me trying to find my place in the way that an eighteen-year-old (when I wrote that first story) writing anything is doing it to better understand his or herself. I do identify with Ana in feeling “in-between,” though for me this comes more from falling between Deaf and hearing worlds and languages. I lipread well and can often pass in the hearing world, but I feel more comfortable in the Deaf world, where I can access 100% of what’s being said via American Sign Language (ASL). However, at the same time, I spend so much time immersed in English—speaking, writing, and teaching—that it’s often the language in which I have my more complex thoughts, and on the bad days, this feels more like having no intellectual home than having two.

JG: Your editor did mention to me that you lost your hearing at a very young age. Speaking from my own experience, I know that the ways in which I listen to and hear the world around me–and I’m not just talking about dialogue–feel indispensable to my relationship with language and even to my imagination. Would you talk about how, if at all, you think you write differently from hearing writers?

SN: I think I probably do write differently than hearing writers, though I suppose I can’t know exactly how, because I don’t know what I don’t know—if that makes any sense. I’d venture to guess that I pay closer attention to small visual details; I’ve gotten comments from a lot of readers that Girl at War is “cinematic,” and I think this has to do with all the action and movement, and the way in which I take in the world visually. David and I were talking about this once, and he commented on the fact that it was odd how, though I’m Deaf, my writing on the sentence-level has a strong rhythm. But I think that’s because of my deafness—rhythm is the component of sound I still access just as much, or more, than a hearing person.

JG: When you sit down to write, what is your favorite part of getting down your stories? Do you have any special rituals or routines? I’m not a planner, so I think my favorite part of writing is the moment when I get to see what a character will do next. And I don’t mean that in a wishy-washy, “a character takes on a life of her own and I just sit back and watch” kind of way, because writing is hard work, not magic. It’s more about the moment when a character is developed to the point where her actions and the subsequent narrative become inevitable.

SN: In terms of routine and ritual, I write by hand, and usually in a public place. I wrote a lot of Girl at War on the NJ Transit train when I was commuting between Philadelphia and Columbia in NYC. Trains are great because you can’t go anywhere and procrastinate, so you have to keep your butt in the seat and work. On rare occasions when I am writing at home, it usually turns into me cleaning the kitchen, or pacing around the apartment with my baseball glove. (Like Ana, I grew up a giant tomboy.) These moments don’t look like writing, but I sometimes find that the more fully I can craft an idea in my head, the less chance there is to hit writer’s block when I sit down to put it on paper.

JG: Those of us who loved this book are eager to know what you’re working on now. Do you think you will revisit the subjects and themes of Girl at War?

SN: Thank you. I’ve only just started working on a new project, so I don’t know much about it, but it follows several characters at a boarding school for the deaf in Boston. It’s been presenting me with all kinds of questions, like how to represent ASL on the page, which has been an exciting and frustrating challenge. I think writing about the Yugoslav Civil war, and about the region in general, will always interest me, but I’m looking forward to seeing what these new, American characters will get up to as well.  And looking forward to reading your next book, Julia.

Julia Glass is the author of the novels And the Dark Sacred NightThe Widower’s TaleThe Whole World Over, and the National Book Award–winning Three Junes, as well as the Kindle Single “Chairs in the Rafters.” Her third book, I See You Everywhere, a collection of linked stories, won the 2009 SUNY John Gardner Fiction Award. She has also won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her essays have been widely anthologized, most recently in Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, edited by Sean Manning, and in Labor DayTrue Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. She is a cofounder and literary director of the arts festival Twenty Summers, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and has taught writing workshops at programs ranging from the Fine Arts Work Center to the M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College, Julia lives with her two sons and their father on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

A Conversation between Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Berg

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

The Dream Lover_BergElizabeth Berg is the author of The Dream Lover, a lush historical novel based on the sensuous Parisian life of the nineteenth-century writer, George Sands.

Nancy Horan is the bestselling author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky.

NANCY HORAN: I know you were strongly drawn to George Sand’s story but you resisted writing a novel about her at first. What made you jump in and go for it?

ELIZABETH BERG: Well, the real answer, as you may recall, is that you wouldn’t! One day I read a little about George Sand on The Writer’s Almanac, and I got very excited about learning more. I especially wanted to know the “good stuff,” which is to say, deeply personal things about her character as well as her thoughts and feelings, even if those things were largely conjecture. I thought you would be the perfect person to write a novel about her; I so admired the way you provided intimate access into the character of Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank. So I called you to beg you to write about George Sand. I believe when you answered the phone I said, “Nancy! You have to write about George Sand! She’s so interesting!” You had just finished Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and you weren’t ready to begin another huge undertaking. And, of course, I assume you are like most writers and want to pick your own subjects, not have them thrust upon you. At any rate, you said, “You write it!” I told you I couldn’t possibly. But then the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I plunged in, buoyed up by the last words you said to me: “Oh, of course you can write it. It will be fabulous!”

NH: I think creating a voice for a real historical figure, particularly for someone who lived nearly two hundred years ago, is rather tricky. How did you arrive at the voice you used for George Sand? Did you pull expressions from her letters to integrate into the dialogue? Did you stick to language as it was used at the time, or did you feel free to use more contemporary expressions?

EB: You know, it is a tricky thing, and I did try hard to stay away from contemporary expressions, which, when you’re reading historical fiction, can take you right out of the story. In the end, I think the way the language thing worked for me was the way my other books have worked best: the less predetermined—-the less conscious—-things are, the better.

When I was nine years old, my family lived in Texas for a while. It took me about thirty–five seconds to develop a Southern accent, to incorporate “y’all” quite naturally into my speech. I came in one night and told my parents my friend and I had to stop playing because Sherry was “fixing to eat.” My parents exchanged amused glances, and I thought, What? What’s funny?

Anyway, what I mean to say is that things rub off on me. I have a tendency to imitate, to pretend, to dramatize, as I believe many fiction writers do. So when I read (i.e., “listen to”) a lot of a person, as I did when I read George Sand’s thousand–plus–page autobiography, Story of My Life, that person’s ways of thinking and speaking rub off. George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream of her; then, I thought, to dream like her. I know that might sound arrogant or at least unlikely. But I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.

NH: I find the foreignness of the past attractive territory to explore. Modern lives seem more daunting to portray in a fresh way, since so much is familiar terrain. Do you agree? Can you talk a bit about the different challenges and attractions of portraying modern lives versus historical lives?

EB: I agree that the past is wonderful to explore: evocative—-thrilling, really—-and quite necessary, when you’re writing historical fiction. But I find it much more difficult to write about the past than the present. I move through pages very quickly and easily when I write about modern times. When I’m trying to re–create something from so long ago, the pressure bears down upon me. So much to find out about, and to be responsible for! Clothes, language, the sounds of the streets, what bathrooms were like, how lamb was served, the tone of the newspapers, where one bought soap, the feel of a carriage ride over cobblestones. I spent a long time with my chin in my hands writing this book, wondering if I really should go on with it.

NH: George was considered a scandalous woman for her time. What do you think was particularly unusual about her? Do you think her reputation affected—-helped or hindered—-her career as a writer? How did it feel to write a novel about such a controversial figure?

EB: Henry James described coming up with the idea for a novel as creating a big “to do” around a character. When you write about someone real who was so controversial, the “to do” comes built in. But I am always interested in the backstory—-when someone is described as being scandalous, or out of order, or different, or demanding, especially when that someone is a woman—-and I am full of questions. What made her that way? What kind of vulnerability is behind great strength? What kind of sadness lives inside a person believed to be joyful? Or, conversely, what gaiety is there in someone viewed as being very serious? One of the things I learned in writing this novel is that the esteemed Russian writer Ivan Turgenev loved being silly. He was quite the party animal, as opposed to another of Sand’s close friends, Gustave Flaubert, who was like Eeyore the donkey in his depressive outlook.

I think what was unusual about Sand was the way her male and female qualities existed side by side, the way she was fluid about assuming the character of a man or a woman, sometimes simultaneously. Also, she was a mass of contradictions: she advocated strongly for women but didn’t like being around them all that much (with one notable exception). She was called bold but in fact was very shy. Her strongest desire was for love, but she had a pattern of having (or making) relationships disintegrate. In her time and even now, she was both reviled and adulated. She created her own god, renouncing the ideas found in organized religion, yet in her youth she wanted to be a nun.

Her reputation may have helped her as a writer, but I think it was mostly her great talent. And in any case, her reputation changed. In her own small hometown of Nohant, she went from being disapproved of—-even reviled—-to being called “The Good Woman of Nohant,” and she was deeply mourned by everyone from peasants to princes after her death.

As to how it felt writing about her, one phrase will do: challenging but exhilarating.

NH: George’s relationships with women, especially the women in her family, were very complicated. What connections do you see between George’s relationship with her mother, Sophie, and George’s subsequent relationship with her own daughter, Solange? With other people? With the actress Marie Dorval? Chopin? What might these relationships say about George herself?

EB: This is a very complicated question with a simple, two–part answer, as I see it. If you do not get the love you so desperately need early in your life, you search for it ever after. And whatever your experience of love was in those young and vulnerable years, you tend to reenact it in future relationships. Sand’s mother was by turns loving and cruel, or at least indifferent; so Sand was with her own daughter. In Sand’s relationships with men, she tended to go quickly from being passionate to being maternal, because she felt that if men needed her, they would not leave her. For Marie, she served as a man who loved with the intensity and devotion and sensitivity of a woman. I think it takes an enormous amount of insight and hard work to make yourself step out of or away from dangerous patterns that you adopt unconsciously early in life, but it can be done. That George Sand was happy and at peace with herself in her later years (after so many years of experiencing deep depressions and suicidal ideation) attests to that.

NH: Was it daunting to write about another writer? Did you reach any new understandings about the art of writing by studying Sand’s works and her comments on the subject? Do you see yourself any differently, as a writer, now that you’ve written this book?

EB: It wasn’t daunting to write about another writer, but it was daunting to write about someone so fiercely intelligent, and whose prose was so startlingly lucid and precise. I didn’t reach any new understandings about the writing process; rather, I had my own methods validated. Sand did not plot, she was wildly prolific, and she wrote from the heart. I can, as they say, relate to that.

NH: You re–create so wonderfully life in Paris in the 1820s and ’30s, and in the French countryside near Sand’s family’s estate at Nohant. What did you find about these places, this era, that inspired you? Was it liberating to write about an era different from your own?

EB: It was great fun to imagine how the sights and sounds of the city of nineteenth–century Paris would collide with the pastoral life Sand lived at Nohant. My challenge was to present the charms and allure of both lives. Sand loved and needed the intellectual and artistic and political life she had in Paris, but she needed equally the gifts of nature that she found in Nohant.

I was inspired by all the revolutionary goings–on in Paris at that time, and the way that roles of women were challenged, the way that socialism kept trying to assert itself, the way that artists—-writers, musicians, painters, poets—-gathered together in salons for entertainment that was the opposite of virtual reality. Would that we had such salons today! I wanted to be there in those salons, and one of the joys in writing this book is that I was.

As for the scenes of nature, I’m a nature and bird lover myself, so all of that came pretty easily.

NH: What do you hope that your readers will take away from this book, and from George herself? What do you feel is most important about her relevance today?

EB: George Sand’s struggle to become and stay herself, in all her permutations, was of paramount importance, and that idea is still relevant today, whether you’re a man or a woman. How is it that we find our deepest truths? What directions in life serve to move us toward our highest purposes? How do we accommodate and respect changes in ourselves? What do we owe the earth, and each other? How can we focus on appreciating the small gifts we are offered daily, for free, and relieve ourselves of the never–ending quest for more, more, more? How can we honor (and use!) what makes us different from others, rather than be ashamed of it? What is the best way to love and be loved?

All of these questions percolated in me as I wrote about George Sand, and I would be happy to have people who read the book take away the idea that answering such questions is not only our duty but our great pleasure. I would also like readers to consider whether it is true that we owe it to ourselves, and to those we love, to live in truth, even when it’s hard—-perhaps especially when it’s hard. If I could wish for one more thing, it would be that George Sand’s prose would be appreciated again, and that she would be understood as someone who was a bit more than the ruthless cigar–smoking nymphomaniac she is often portrayed as.

Finally, honestly, I will tell you that I hope readers will finish the last sentence of The Dream Lover and think to themselves, Boy! That was a good read!

Discussion Questions: The Promise of Home by Darcie Chan

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

The Promise of Home_Chan1. The Promise of Home rotates among the perspectives of several different characters: Karen, Claudia, Emily, and Father O’Brien. Were you drawn to any one of their storylines more than the others? Why do you think that is?

2. A significant portion of the narrative includes flashbacks to Father O’Brien’s youth. Why do you think the author chose to include those flashbacks when the rest of the novel takes place in the present day? What would the novel be like without them? How might the other sections change?

3. “The very hands that rested on his knees, the hands that were suddenly unable to do what he wanted them to, had held a rifle and ended a man’s life. Up until now, he hadn’t allowed that realization to sink in. . . . The weight of it, regardless of the man’s actions toward his mother, was immense” (page 70). This quote is from the moment Michael O’Brien begins to process what he’s done. Do you think he is too hard on himself, considering the circumstances? How do you think you would react in a similar position?

4. After deciding that it’s best to conceal what happened with the intruder, Frank says to a young Father O’Brien, “This is one of those tough situations, Michael, where there are no good solutions. It isn’t possible to do something right without somebody else getting hurt or paying a price. These situations will come up every once in a while during your lifetime, and you need to recognize them and choose which solution does the least harm and who should suffer that harm” (page 197). Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

5. After reading one of the letters from the briefcase, Emily learns that Father O’Brien killed a man and ultimately finds his actions, under the circumstances, to be “perfectly justified and understandable” (page 148). How do you think some of the other characters would react to the news? Why?

6. When Claudia goes in for a wedding dress fitting, Pauline offers her this piece of advice: “Falsehoods and little white lies never lead to anything good. And be careful when you decide what’s false and what isn’t. Sometimes things and even people aren’t what they seem” (page 82). How is this advice relevant at different points throughout the novel? Are there any moments in The Promise of Home when you would disagree with it?

7. Mill River is clearly a unique place to live. Why do you think so many people are drawn to it from other places, and why do you think so many people return after years away?

8. When Emily first meets Matt, she is offended by his advances and pushes him away. Do you think she is too quick to judge him based on her past experiences, or is she justified in her reaction?

9. When Father O’Brien suspects the worst has happened to Karen, he rushes to find her, putting his own health at risk. Can you think of other times when he acted selflessly? In what way(s) is he a pillar of the community? Give examples.

10. Throughout the novel, Karen struggles with suicidal thoughts and even acts upon them, but she is ultimately given a second chance. In what way do you think some of the other characters were afforded second (if less obvious) chances?

11. Claudia tolerates Misty, the rude girlfriend of her future brother-in-law, with a smile on her face, and she even bites her tongue when she realizes Misty is making inappropriate passes at Kyle. Where do you think she finds the strength and faith to stay out of the situation? What do you think her silence on the matter says about her character and her relationship with Kyle? Could she have made her concerns known to Kyle in a constructive way?

12. Frank makes some difficult decisions to help spare Michael and Anna more pain and difficulty. Do you agree with his decision to tell them that Grace died as an infant? Given his opinion of orphanages, were there any other reasonable options for him at the time?

13. What do you think of the title, The Promise of Home? In your opinion, does it fit the novel? Why or why not?

A Conversation Between 
Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Thunderstruck_McCrackenElizabeth McCracken is the author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, The Giant’s House, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, and Niagara Falls All Over Again. A former public librarian, she is now a faculty member at the University of Texas, Austin, and has received grants and awards from numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Academy in Berlin. Elizabeth is married to the novelist and illustrator Edward Carey.

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain’s Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co–owner of Parnassus Books.

Ann and Elizabeth discuss Thunderstruck & Other Stories….

Ann Patchett: What did you want to be when you grew up? I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, but answer it anyway. When you were Gus’s age, Matilda’s age (Elizabeth’s children are, at this moment, eight and six), did you have any vision of yourself in the future?

Elizabeth McCracken: Do you know: I don’t think so.

I have a memory of my fourth–grade self wanting to be the first woman president of the United States, but I think that has a lot more to do with my love of world records and reference books than a love of serving my country. It seemed a goal I could attain: surely by the time I was old enough to run (2001), the country would be ready for a woman president. If I were the first, I would be in reference books forever.

I’ve always been absolutely appalling about the future, but I sort of think that was my childhood religion. We were future deniers. You did your best in the present, which was all around you.

AP: Being a big believer in the present would be especially beneficial to the short story writer, both in terms of the story itself, because stories tend to focus in on the moment in which everything changes—-I’m thinking of Helen’s accident in “Thunderstruck” or the murder in “Juliet”—-but also for the writer and the reader. Novels are so dependent on the future, they take so much time, but even if life is overwhelming a person can usually find time for a story, whether it’s to write one or to read one.

EM: Hmm. I’m turning this over in my mind and, yes, I think so, though I’m always a sucker for short stories that play with time in a novel–like way: that jump into the future or climb into the past. (I’m thinking of stories by Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones.) I certainly think that my short stories these days are fixated on the present, on happenstance, on event, in a way that my older stories weren’t: the plots of my older stories were mostly fixated on the past. This isn’t an artistic decision: my life these days, and for the past decade or so, has been more shaped by the present, by happenstance, and by event than it used to be. I definitely believe that the ends of short stories are about the future, and generally the ends of novels aren’t.

AP: Do you ever think, I want to write a story that takes place in real time or happens backwards or covers a huge amount of time? I think about the movement of time constantly when I write novels, I’m obsessed with it.

EM: Your novels are all different timewise, aren’t they? And yet all page turners. I feel like I don’t understand time in novels, really. I bumble forward, is all. As far as stories go: I keep answering this question differently in my head—-Yes, No, and Who can remember? My old stories often took place over long periods of time, largely because in those days that’s what plot was to me: time passing. Even now I don’t think I could write a story in which the most important things all happened in a relatively short period of time: I need those trap doors to the past. I certainly feel like I can do things with point of view in stories—-point of view being, in some ways, just another way to bend time. Or to put it another way: it’s not that I wouldn’t do the same sorts of things with point of view in a novel, but before I started I would have to work out some sort of philosophy with point of view. In a short story, I do what I do. It does feel more elastic. Years ago, Bruce Holbert told me that coaching basketball was largely a matter of saying, “No, don’t stand like that—- Nice shot.” With technical things in short stories, that’s how I feel. I don’t care about formal perfection, or philosophy of form, or anything else.

That said, I am working on a story now which began because I wanted to write a story that was sort of inside out.

AP: The reason it’s good to have your friends conducting interviews—-

EM: Have we mentioned that we’re friends?

AP: No, we haven’t. This is all a fix. We’re old friends. But that’s helpful because friends know things that professional interviewers do not. For example, I know that three of the stories in this collection—-“Something Amazing,” “Some Terpsichore,” and “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”—-were once chapters in a novel you were working on. The novel didn’t work out, but you were able to go into the pages you had and make three very significant stories out of the characters and situations that were there. I think this is amazing. It’s as if the novel was burning down and you ran inside and rescued three stories. It took a lot of rewriting, and so I wonder, what was it like to rethink your own work in this way?

EM. It wasn’t that hard. Or at least, from this distance I don’t remember it being hard. I probably wept over the smoking wreckage of my novel the entire time.

What made it easier is that, for the first story, the wreckage was still smoking. I put away the novel at the very start of June 2005; a few days later Michael Ray, of Zoetrope: All–Story, e–mailed and asked if I had a story for his fall issue. Oh, I thought, somebody wants some writing of mine! I was in bad shape over having walked away from the novel so I clutched at this: when I’m in bad shape work is generally the only thing that makes me feel better. I took a piece of the novel and wrote a story from it. “Wrote a story” and not “turned it into a story” because I changed so much, including changing it from third to first person, which (as I tell students who blithely suggest narrator changes) is not minor surgery. I sent Michael “Some Terpsichore” on June 21; he accepted it the next day, and saved my sanity.

I think it took me another whole year to write another story from the ruins of the novel, and two more years for the third. I needed that much time between stories, I think: I couldn’t have done it all at once. I tried a fourth and it didn’t work; there’s still one plotline from the novel that I think about noodling around with, though if I did I probably wouldn’t actually look at what I already have written down.

Mostly, I think it’s a sign that the book wasn’t working as a novel. When I tell people there are three stories in Thunderstruck that were from the same wrecked novel, they want to guess what they are. Nobody has. There are no characters or timelines in common. They’re structured very differently. A good novel wouldn’t have pulled apart so easily.

AP: It would be a great parlor game, different teams making cases for which three McCracken stories had once shared the same novel. So now you’ve published two story collections, two novels, and a memoir, and as far as I can tell you’ve met with universal acclaim on all fronts. Is there one form that you think fits you particularly well? Has it changed over time, and do you think it could change again?

EM: Oh, not universal acclaim. I can remember every bit of whatever the opposite of acclaim is.

AP: Why do we always remember the bad reviews? I can’t remember anything from my good reviews, but I could do a very moving one–woman show reciting my bad reviews.

EM: I could probably quote verbatim the first review I ever got, from Kirkus. It was lukewarm and wounding.

Back to your question: now that I’ve been writing seriously for more than twenty–five years, I’m struck by how much does change: process, interests, habits. Fifteen years ago I thought I had mostly given up short story writing, but that’s because I’d come against the limits of what I knew about short stories. Fifteen years of reading and teaching, and I came up with some new things I could do. At the moment if you told me I’d never write another novel but I could continue writing and publishing short stories, I’d miss novels, but I’d find the trade–off acceptable. I think I would, anyhow. And if you told me I’d never write another memoir, I would embrace you warmly and say, “Yes, God keep me from memoirs,” because I would rather not have the material. You might feel the same way.

AP: I am nodding in passionate agreement here.

EM: If life gave me material for another memoir—-I hope it does not—-I’d probably write one. I certainly wrote that book [An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination] more quickly and with more confidence and with less revision than anything I’ve ever written. Sometimes I think of my pal Joshua Clover, who told me after I played a great game of pool when we were fellows at Fine Arts Work Center, “When a thing goes well, people usually see it as a sign to keep going, but sometimes it was their peak experience.”

Maybe someday I’ll write a novel with that level of confidence (by which I only mean, when I’d finished my memoir I knew for good or ill it had found its final form). Then I won’t write another novel.

So yes: it does change, and I bet it will change again.

AP: Fond memory: you and I were once thrown out of a bar for discussing Salinger’s Nine Stories. It was the winter of 1990 and we were fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. We’d stopped in for a drink and were discussing, very discreetly I thought, which of the nine stories was our favorite and how the book (a marvel of a book) was put together. The lounge singer told us over the microphone to take a hike. I loved that! The short story collection was so important you could get thrown out of a bar for even discussing it!

EM: Us getting kicked out of that bar—-I believe it was the Townhouse—-is one of my happiest Provincetown memories. My memory is that the lounge singer thanked us directly into the microphone for all the time it took us to leave: “Thank you, girls. Thank you. Thanks, girls.” You told me she was dressed like Julie London; I didn’t know who that was. I love that book. It’s the best short story writing manual I know.

And of course there’s a story in my first collection named after that night. We passed it one day and I said, “There’s the bar of our recent unhappiness,” and you said, “That would make a good title for something,” and we had a race to see who could write something for it first. That’s probably the only writing race I ever won against you, though admittedly I was writing stories then, and you were writing a novel for which it would have been a highly inappropriate title [The Patron Saint of Liars].

AP: Which leads me to ask how you went about putting your collection together. Did you try it in several configurations? Was there a particular arc you were going for? I love the title story of this collection. Love it. It’s edging into novella country and certainly has novella heft. Stories that size are so hard to publish on their own. They really need a book. At what point in the process of putting this collection together did you write “Thunderstruck”? Did you want to have a longer story in the collection? I feel like it’s the book’s ballast, especially coming at the end. Did you ever read through the collection and think, What this is missing is X, and then sit down to write X?

EM: The fall of 2012 I had a semester’s leave, and I wrote hard and long and with intent. When I began the last thing, I knew it would be the title story, and I knew it would somehow be different than the others. The length of the story might just be because of the momentum of writing: I’d been well–exercised, and if it was the last story, if the spring semester was breathing down my neck, why save any compositional energy for later? At any rate, I knew less about that story than any other in the collection. Perhaps it was more like a novel in that way. Perhaps (for me) that’s the biggest difference between a story and a novel: how much I know ahead of time. It’s a bit unwieldy; I was thrilled that Story Quarterly agreed to take it.

AP: So what about the X factor?

EM: I don’t think I wrote stories consciously thinking, The book needs this, or that, but when I was selecting I was pretty merciless. I kicked one story out because it was too similar to another one in the collection—-there’s a lot of peril to children in the stories but there was a limit to how many children I actually wanted to harm in a single volume. Others just didn’t seem good enough. There’s a story in my first collection that I don’t think is particularly good. (I think you know which one.) I didn’t want to do that again.

AP: Honestly, I have no idea. I loved all those stories.

EM: In Thunderstruck I put the least realistic story first, since readers are the most open–minded in the first pages of a book, or at least their expectations are most plastic. After that, I arranged them so they would seem most various.

AP: I never thought about the fact that readers are their most open–minded in the first pages of a book! Such useful information, and it makes perfect sense. I once did a onstage conversation with Allan Gurganus (who was, at different times, a seminal and beloved teacher to both of us) and he said you should always put a color in the first sentence or two of a story or a novel because it encourages the reader to think visually. I said, Gosh, it would have been nice if you’d told me that when I was eighteen.

EM: Now I’m fascinated by the idea of Opening Pages Reader Hypnosis. Does this mean if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece in the opening pages, it’s even better if the gun is fuchsia?

AP: Exactly.

Your book recently won the Story Prize for the best collection of stories. It’s a wonderful award, and so well deserved. I love the fact that so many of the writers you adore, George Saunders, Steven Millhauser, Tobias Wolff, are among the previous winners. It’s the short story writers’ Hall of Fame. How do you feel about prizes? I know a lot of writers object to them, both to the competition and to the subjectiveness inherent in saying this book is better than that one, but as someone who owns a bookstore, I love awards. It gives me an excuse to put Thunderstruck back in the front window with a big sign that says, She won! Buy the book!

EM: Oh, prizes. I’m not sure any writer could say, Prizes are entirely terrible! Prizes are entirely great! I’ve just finished reading applications for the two MFA programs I teach in, and I’m so aware of how artificial it is to choose one piece of writing over another, how much one’s own feelings about a writer change with the weather, the time of day, the nearest meal. It’s all a lottery. Bad books get prizes and terrific books are overlooked and what wins the prize one year or even one day wouldn’t the next. There isn’t yet a machine that tests for literary quality. A good thing, too.

But I would be disingenuous in saying that the Story Prize didn’t mean a whole lot to me. This is my first published book of fiction in fourteen years. I felt that in publishing it, I was tossing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, without any real certainty that anything would happen after the initial kerplunk.

AP: A lot of good has happened. I feel like this is a book I needed to read.

A Conversation with Darcie Chan

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

The Promise of Home_ChanIn The Promise of Home, Darcie Chan, author of the Mill River Recluse, returns readers to Mill River, the charming town whose residents experience surprises and sorrows, witness acts of goodwill and kindness, embrace family love and friendship–and uncover age-old secrets and heartaches.

Random House Reader’s Circle: The fictional town of Mill River, Vermont, serves as the setting for all of your novels, and many characters overlap across all three books. What was the biggest challenge in creating and maintaining such an interconnected community?

Darcie Chan: Strangely, when I was writing the first Mill River book, I had no inkling that it would become the first of at least three novels with a common setting and many common characters. It was simply my first novel, one that I hoped would be published someday.

When it became clear that I would have the opportunity to write more books set in Mill River, I had to think carefully about how to proceed. Consistency is key. Characters who appear in more than one book must be consistent across, not just within, the books. At the same time, I think it’s vital that I continue to explore and develop those characters.

I also view the town of Mill River itself as a central character in my books, if not the heart of each story. It’s important to keep the details of the town consistent—-not only the physical details, such as the location of certain buildings and streets, and their positions in relation to others—-but also the town’s safe, cozy, and welcoming feel.

The residents of Mill River play a large part in achieving that latter goal. As I plan each story, I’m constantly focused on which of the townspeople should be involved, which would have some connection to or know about the events taking place, and what kinds of people I might like to meet were I to actually visit the town. Should I involve a character who is already known to my readers, or should I introduce someone new? What kinds of things might happen in a small town that would involve and intrigue the people there? And why would the people of Mill River want to live there in the first place?

In a way, building the Mill River series and maintaining its interconnectedness are much like trying to re–create the structure of a hurricane. The town itself, calm and peaceful, is at the center, with the actions and stories of the town residents swirling around. Everything is held together as part of a single, consistent system. And as with the path of a hurricane, what happens in a small town like Mill River can often be unexpected or unpredictable, as my readers well know.

RHRC: What is your writing process like? What helps you when you get stuck?

DC: Before I start writing a new book, I need to have the main characters and a central plot in mind. I must also know how the story will begin, how it will end, and a few “main events” that will take place in the middle. Unless I have that bare minimum of information, I don’t feel ready to put anything on paper (or my computer screen, as is more often the case).

Once I’ve planned out the basics, I try to do a brief chapter–by–chapter outline to serve as a roadmap. Some chapters start in that outline completely blank—-as was the case with my most recent novel—-and I end up filling them in as the plot unfolds and ideas come to me while I’m writing.

I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t yet had a serious case of writer’s block. I do two things to try to keep that from happening. First, I end each writing session knowing what it is that I’m going to write next. That’s hard to do sometimes—-stopping when I’m on a roll—-but knowing exactly how I’m going to start the next writing session makes doing it much easier. And second, before I start writing for the day, I read over and edit the pages I wrote the previous day. Doing so helps refine the draft and helps me to coast into writing whatever comes next in the story.

RHRC: Who was the first Mill River character you ever came up with? What was the inspiration behind him/her?

DC: Mary McAllister was the first character I developed, and she did indeed have a real–life inspiration.

In the 1940s, a Jewish gentleman named Sol Strauss fled Nazi Germany and settled with his mother in my hometown of Paoli, Indiana. There, he opened a dry goods store on the town square. Even though his business was successful, Mr. Strauss quietly lived alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population. Still, he considered Paoli his adopted community and its people his people. When Mr. Strauss died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it millions of dollars, which were to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the residents.

The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and additional 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 had Mr. Strauss in mind 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 be more special and loving than anyone could imagine. I liked the idea of an older woman peering down at a small town from her window and knowing that she was helping the people who lived there—-her people—-even though most of them knew little or nothing about her. This woman, of course, became the character Mary McAllister, and her life story became The Mill River Recluse.

RHRC: Do you have a favorite character? Why?

DC: I really love the character of Father O’Brien. Writing scenes involving his “spoon problem” are such fun! I also like the fact that he is an incredibly kind and gentle person, and that even at his advanced age, he’s an active and beloved member of the Mill River community.

I’m also fond of the character Emily DiSanti, first introduced in The Mill River Redemption. I suppose it’s because Emily shares some personal qualities with my youngest sister, Molly. Both love dogs—-Emily’s dog, Gus, is based on a dog my sister used to have. Molly has a degree in landscape architecture, so she’s very artsy and outdoorsy, with a skill set to match. I think it’s really cool that she can drive a dump truck and refinish furniture, and she has her own hip waders for trout fishing. Molly can also grow anything. She somehow managed to raise perfect artichokes during the short, cool summers in Green Bay, Wisconsin! I really admire my sister’s self–reliant, can–do attitude, and I wanted the character of Emily DiSanti to have that same state of mind.

(I should add that my other sister, Carrie, is also a fabulous person with her own set of unique talents . . . which might be borrowed for a future character!)

RHRC: Readers have met Father O’Brien before, but in The Promise of Home, they find out so much more about his backstory. When did you first start to think about the details of his personal history?

DC: Over the years, many readers have written to me wanting to know why it is that Father O’Brien is so obsessed with spoons. Once I was able to turn my attention to developing the plot for my third book, I realized that I wanted to give my readers an answer to that question. Gradually, a story took shape in my mind—-Father O’Brien’s story—-and it seemed it would make a good addition to the two Mill River books I’d already written. I wanted to let my readers see a bit of his childhood and learn what experiences shaped him into the priest they know. And, I wanted to contrast that historical portion of the book with events in the present to reveal how his past still had the ability to change his life.

I was fascinated by my research into living during the Great Depression. It was a time of struggle, when little was taken for granted. Children grew up much more quickly and were expected to do more at a much younger age. Father O’Brien, or Michael, as he was called back then, certainly would have experienced this, and I think that reality is borne out in this third book.

RHRC: How did you decide which Mill River residents you wanted to focus on in The Promise of Home?

DC: Once I came up with a story and plot for The Promise of Home, I knew that Father O’Brien, both as an elderly priest and as a teenager, would feature heavily. Since this book was to be crafted as the third in a series, I thought it was important to continue with certain previously established plotlines and characters. Kyle and Claudia appeared in the first two Mill River novels, and their relationship continues to evolve in this one. Both DiSanti sisters from The Mill River Redemption are put through an emotional wringer in that story, and I wanted to follow their journey—-especially -Emily’s—-in this new book.

Of course, I am always striving to further develop the town of Mill River itself. New characters help expand and enrich the fictional community and play important roles in this new story. And I always like to let established characters make cameos in new books, even if they’re not heavily involved in the plot. My readers like to find out how and what they’re doing, and so do I!

RHRC: Do you think of your novels as having any overarching messages or themes?

DC: Although I can see certain themes—-particularly emphases on the importance of kindness, family, and community—-in the finished books, I don’t sit down to write a new story with any particular message or theme in mind. Rather, they seem to take shape along with the story.

I’ve often wondered why these themes have emerged in my writing. Each of them is important to me personally. But I think the real reason is my feeling that our society has changed over the years, and is continuing to change, in a way that isn’t good. I think an argument can be made that in many places, kindness, family, and community are under siege. Crime and racial tensions are often in the news. Families of all kinds are struggling economically and socially. At school or neighborhood events, people who manage to leave work early to attend, and who might once have struck up conversations and gotten to know each other, now sit silently glued to their smartphones. For all the digital and electronic interconnectedness in our current society, I sometimes feel as if we’re actually disconnected from one another and from a focus on human qualities and in–person relationships. Even in Mill River, life is neither easy nor perfect, but an effort to be kind, to help families thrive, and to develop relationships that foster a strong sense of community could make life more meaningful and enjoyable for many people.

RHRC: What is your favorite thing about Mill River?

DC: My favorite thing about Mill River—-other than its wonderful residents—-is the way it offers a sense of safety, comfort, and community. If I close my eyes, I can easily picture its quaint houses and shops and its neat, quiet streets. I can imagine peering out the window of one of those houses, listening to crickets and tree frogs singing on a summer night or the howling wind of a blizzard during the winter. I would feel cozy and safe, surrounded by neighbors I knew in a community steeped in kindness and caring. Mill River really is the little town of my dreams, a place I wish existed in real life. I would move there in a heartbeat!

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