Random House Readers Circle
Right Curve
Sidebar topper
Divider
Divider
Divider
Divider

Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

Reader’s Guide: TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

Monday, May 13th, 2013

RifkaBrunt_Tell the WolvesTell the Wolves I’m Home, A Novel by Carol Rifka Brunt

A Reader’s Guide

A Conversation with Elin Hilderbrand and Carol Rifka Brunt

ELIN HILDERBRAND lives on Nantucket with her husband and their three young children. She grew up in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and traveled extensively before settling on Nantucket, which has been the setting for her eight previous novels. Hilderbrand is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the graduate fiction workshop at the University of Iowa.

Elin Hilderbrand: I am always asked at the start of every interview where I get my inspiration for each novel I write. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a beautiful, haunting story about a young girl dealing with the death of her uncle from AIDS. What was the seed of thought that got you started?

Carol Rifka Brunt: I’ve found over the years that if I’m truly immersed in writing fiction—even if it’s a story that isn’t working at all—the subconscious starts to offer up its secrets. I was working on some short stories when the image of a dying uncle (I had no idea it was AIDS at the time) painting a final portrait of his niece came to me. I could see the apartment; I could sense the reluctance of the niece. I could also sense that there was a much bigger story behind what I understood initially. Usually, if a scene or idea keeps coming back to me over the course of months (or sometimes even years) there’s something there. There’s something nagging to be worked out. That was very much the case with this idea. I had several unsuccessful shots at writing the scene, until one day June’s voice was there and I knew I had my way in: I’d hit on the heart of the story.

EH: It’s not unusual for an author’s debut to be a coming-of-age novel—and yet it’s also hard to make this kind of story fresh and original. Were you conscious of this as you wrote? What is your favorite coming-of-age novel and how did that book influence you?

CRB: I actually didn’t think of this as a coming-of-age story for a long time. I saw it more as an unlikely friendship story between June and Toby. Since June is fourteen, and the events of the novel are life-changing, the novel automatically becomes a coming-of-age story. In fact, it seems every novel with a teen narrator is labeled coming-of-age, and I’m not sure if I fully agree with that. It has the effect of ghettoizing all teen-narrated stories. If the same events happened to a slightly older narrator, the book would just be called fiction. I actually had to go back and make the coming-of-age element more apparent because it really wasn’t a big part of my way of thinking about this novel.

June’s voice was there right from the start, so I always knew it would be narrated by a teen. To use a teen as the lens to see AIDS in the eighties wasn’t something I’d seen before, so I didn’t worry so much about freshness or originality. If you always see your characters and their places and concerns as individual and specific, then I think you will always end up with something unique. As soon as you start thinking about the work and characters in terms of labels—such as “teen” or “coming-of-age”—that’s when you risk slipping into more stereotypical territory.

After all of that, I have to admit that a lot of my favorite books are coming-of-age stories. I love Skellig by David Almond, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I always say that every book I’ve ever read influences my writing in one way or another. I really hoped to create a book with emotional resonance, something readers would connect to, and the novels I’ve mentioned all do that very well. They were a real inspiration in that way.

EH: One of my favorite things about Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the setting in time and place—-New York City and its bedroom communities in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Your details are keenly observed. What kind of research did you do?

CRB: The one thing I didn’t want to do was write an autobiographical first novel. Let alone an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Such a cliché! And yet, as I started writing, the gravitational pull of my own place, my own time, seemed to become irresistible. I started with an idea that was entirely not autobiographical and inch by inch it dragged me back to Westchester in the eighties—the place I grew up, the place I lived when I was June’s age. So, to answer your question, I didn’t do very much research at all into time and place. Writing can sometimes work like a time machine. You think you don’t remember the fine details of a place from your past, but as you write the most surprising things come out. Things like a Fred Flintstone grape jelly jar drinking glass or Bonne Bell lip gloss. Things you never knew you still stored in your brain.

Once I understood that AIDS was the illness Finn had, New York in the eighties felt like the best place I could set it. Once I came to terms with writing about a place I knew, it became such a liberating thing. I was able to really inhabit the setting in a way that allowed it to be a seamless part of the whole story.

EH: One of the most interesting relationships in this novel is the one between June and her sister Greta. The sister relationship is nearly always an emotional tango—complicated and lovely. Can you talk a little bit about how this relationship developed for you over the course of writing the book?

CRB: I’m very much an organic writer in that I don’t know a lot about how the story will develop until I get there. Greta started off as the cruel older sister. I really enjoyed writing her mean, quippy -dialogue, but I didn’t know if or how she would redeem herself over the course of the book. Getting Greta’s storyline right was actually one of the most difficult aspects of writing this novel. She’s self-destructive, mean, and—although talented and successful in so many ways—clearly struggling with herself. I always knew I wanted to avoid a big “Ta-da!” moment where Greta revealed some external reason for being such a tortured soul. I didn’t think this novel could take an announcement of pregnancy or an affair with a teacher (quite a few readers have said they wondered about Greta and her drama teacher) or any other “big issue” kind of rationale for her behavior. There was no way there could be enough room in this book to do anything like that with the depth and justice it would deserve, and it would have swung the story too far away from the one I wanted to tell. What I did remember so clearly from when I was a teen was how the smallest of problems could seem hugely magnified. So, rather than one big reason for her behavior, I wanted Greta to suffer from a slow mounting of smaller situations. More erosion than explosion.

Although Greta always knows more than June, I think June is the wiser one. She despises Greta at times, but underneath it we still see how much she cares for her. At times it’s frustrating to see. I think as a reader you want to tell her to give up on Greta, but she can never quite do it.

EH: I love how June’s parents are reminiscent of the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons—they are a bit like wonky voices heard from offscreen for most of the book. June and Greta are left to largely raise themselves. And yet, at the end of the novel, we learn more about how June’s mother was emotionally tied to her brother. She struggles with accepting Finn’s homosexuality, lifestyle, and love for Toby. What was it like to write from the point of view of a character who is initially so intolerant?

CRB: I’ve had feedback from readers who have said that they really disliked Danni. That they thought she was responsible for all the hurt in the story. I never felt that way about her. I loved all of the characters in Tell the Wolves. Danni’s jealousy never felt anything but human to me, something that anyone could feel. This may not come across fully in the novel, but I never thought Danni really had a problem with Finn’s homosexuality. In my mind, she used that as a way to hurt him, to redress the sense of abandonment she felt when Finn left her behind all those years ago. By forcing him to exclude Toby from his relationship with Greta and June (on the pretense of not wanting to expose her daughters to that kind of “lifestyle”) she’s able to wield a small amount of power over him. To me, it always felt like a sad and desperate thing to do, rather than a fully cruel thing. “You can’t have everything,” she says in the book, and she wants to make that true for Finn, the way she felt he had made it true for her. Unfortunately for Toby, he ends up as a pawn in all of this. He’s the one who ends up hurt the most by her actions.

EH: Your use of Finn’s painting, and the ways the girls amend, are nothing short of brilliant. What is your background in art? How did you get the idea to use the painting as a form of dialogue between people who couldn’t speak to one another honestly face-to-face?

CRB: I always wish I had a better answer to questions like this, but, again, the whole idea of the painting being visited by the two girls was such an organic thing. As a writer, you’re always asking, “What if?” I knew as soon as Greta was handed the other key to the safety deposit box and dismissively said she’d never visit that she wasn’t telling the truth. What if they’re both going down to see the painting? What if they’re both trying to leave their mark there? The idea of using the portrait as a way for the girls to “speak” to each other sprung from those initial thoughts. The portrait almost functions like a continuing version of Finn—a beautiful and beloved thing that both pulls the sisters together and tears them apart.

I also wanted to give the book a slightly magical feel. The portrait and its vault, like the basement space in Finn’s apartment building, and the woods at night, all have a little bit of that sense. They are places and objects that are real in the story but function a little bit outside the world of true realism.

As for my background in art, I can’t really claim much beyond spectator status. I took as much art as I could in high school, but I can’t say I was very good. The idea of negative space is something I remember from my high school art teacher, actually. While writing Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I made several trips to the National Portrait Gallery in London just to look and get a sense of where the power comes from in the best portraits.

EH: Who are your favorite authors? What are your reading habits?

CRB: I seem to have about seven or eight books on the go at any one time. Of those, I might finish two or three. Favorites are always shifting and changing, but over the last few years it seems that a lot of my favorite books have been nonfiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, to name a few.

EH: Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a triumph. I love being excited by an author’s debut work, because most times the writing only gets deeper and richer. Are you working on something new?

CRB: Thank you very much. Tell the Wolves started out as a very short story. As soon as I finished I knew there was a lot more to tell. Right now I’m working on a number of short pieces, one of which feels like it’s headed in the same direction. It seems I need to trick my brain into writing a novel. I wish I were the type of writer who could come up with a solid outline and write from there, but it seems I’m the sort who needs to make many, many false starts before finding the real story. It’s a pretty slow process, but along the way there are so many unbelievably satisfying “Aha!” moments: wonderful little epiphanies when a character’s motivation becomes achingly clear, when a line of dialogue becomes suddenly loaded with meaning, when my conscious mind realizes what my unconscious was doing all along—that I’m not sure I’d really want to do it any other way.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Toby initiates a relationship with June that necessarily involves secrets kept from her parents. Can this ever be right? Is it ever okay for an adult to have a secret relationship with a child, even if it’s formed out of the best of intentions?

2. Every relationship in the book is tinged with jealousy and/or envy. How is this played out in each of the relationships? Can jealousy ever be a positive thing? Does loving someone too much always lead to jealousy?

3. How do you feel about Danni, June’s mother? How much is she to blame for the events in the book?

4. What did you make of June’s special feelings for Finn? Have you ever felt the wrong kind of love for someone in your own life?

5. “The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible” (page 233). How does this speak to the events in Tell the Wolves I’m Home? Can terrible things like AIDS result in good?

6. “You get into habits. Ways of being with certain people” (page 206). Toby says this to June when they’re talking about her relationship with Greta. Many sisters (and brothers) have fractious relationships as teenagers, then grow up to be friends. Do you think that will be the case with Greta and June? Have you had an experience like this with your own sibling(s)?

7. If you remember the late eighties, do you remember anything about your perception of AIDS and the fear surrounding the disease?

8. How has society’s reaction to homosexuality changed over the last twenty–five years? How would this story have been different if it took place in 2012?

9. Greta is older, savvier, and knows more than June, but June sometimes seems wiser than her sister. How is this so? Does knowledge equal wisdom?

10. Do you think June will ever show Greta the secret basement room and the stash of Finn’s paintings, or will she always keep this to herself?

11. Do you blame June for what happens to Toby toward the end of the book? Do you think June will ever forgive herself for what happened that night?

12. Do you think the portrait was more beautiful before or after it was restored to its original state? Can a work of art be improved by external additions, or is the artist’s vision and intention the most important aspects of art?

13. June would like to escape to the Middle Ages. All her favorite places are escapist in nature. Would June actually be happy if her wish of time travel were granted? How does that wish change over the course of the story? Is escapism ever valuable? How do you escape?

14. Of all the themes in the novel (love, loss, regret, family relationships, etc.), which one do you think is the most important and why?

Vaclav & Lena: A Reader’s Guide to Haley Tanner’s novel

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Vaclav&LenaVaclav and Lena seem destined for each other. They meet as children in an ESL class in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Vaclav is precocious and verbal. Lena, struggling with English, takes comfort in the safety of his adoration, his noisy, loving home, and the care of Rasia, his big-hearted mother. Vaclav imagines their story unfolding like a fairy tale, or the perfect illusion from his treasured Magician’s Almanac. But one day, Lena does not show up for school. She has disappeared from Vaclav and his family’s lives as if by a cruel sleight of hand. For the next seven years, Vaclav says goodnight to Lena without fail, wondering if she is doing the same somewhere. On the eve of Lena’s seventeenth birthday he finds out. In Vaclav & Lena, Haley Tanner has created two unforgettable young protagonists who evoke the joy, the confusion, and the passion of having a profound, everlasting connection.

1. Discuss the relationships between storytelling, lies, and magic in Vaclav & Lena. How do these concepts interact in the novel’s climax?

2. Lena’s disappearance is a sore point between Vaclav and Rasia. Do you think Rasia made the right choice by remaining silent about it?

3. Early in the book, Vaclav has a tremendous amount of confidence in himself and in his future as a magician. Do you think this is merely naïveté, or is it a necessary attribute for someone to make their dreams come true?

4. Discuss the challenges of immigration in the book. How does language play a role in assimilation for Vaclav and Lena? How does Rasia try to connect with her Americanized son?

5. Rasia and her husband, Oleg, seem to have had very different experiences in immigrating to America. What factors have contributed to this difference in their experience?

6. How would you describe the dynamics of Vaclav and Lena’s relationship at the start of the novel? How do those dynamics shift when Lena becomes friends with the popular crowd and Vaclav volunteers to do her homework for her? How do they shift again when Vaclav and Lena reconnect as teenagers?

7. Discuss the novel’s settings. How does the Russian émigré community of Brighton Beach have an effect on Vaclav and Lena? How does the fantastical world of Coney Island?

8. How would you describe the nature of Rasia’s relationship with Lena?

9. In reporting Lena’s situation to the authorities, is Rasia acting solely in Lena’s best interest, or might she be acting to protect her son?

10. Why do you think Vaclav, at seventeen, resists sex with his girlfriend?

11. Discuss the chapter headings. How do they interact with the rest of the text?

12. How does Lena’s trauma manifest itself when she is a child? A teenager? Do you think her wounds can be healed?

13. Ekaterina tells Vaclav that she did the best she could for Lena. Do you think this is true?

Alexandra Fuller on writing her African childhood: “I am African by accident”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogsfuller_alexandraThis week memoirist Alexandra Fuller publishes Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she returns to sub-Saharan Africa and the story of her unforgettable family that she first introduced to readers ten years ago in her stunning memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a book The New Yorker called “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring…hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling.” Below is an essay she wrote upon the publication of that book.

**

My Africa

I am African by accident, not by birth. So while soul, heart, and the bent of my mind are African, my skin blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white. And while I insist on my Africanness (if such a singular thing can exist on such a vast and varied continent), I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realized in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.

My mother—hard-living, glamorous, intemperate, intelligent, racist—introduced my siblings and me to Shakespeare before we could walk (my sister maintains that her existing horror of reading stems from having Troilus and Cressida recited to her when she was still in utero). My father—taciturn and capable—sat outside on hot summer nights with a glass of brandy and sang us Bizet’s Carmen and explained to us the story of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The cannons of the piece (crackling on vinyl records over the throb of a diesel generator) blasted into the heat-thick night and Dad raised his brandy to the sky. “Bloody marvelous,” he shouted, and far away beyond the river the hyenas shrieked their reply. Vanessa, my sister, taught me the survival skill of self- reliance. We occasionally pottered away the long hours of a yellow summer afternoon pasting old magazine pictures of the British royal family into scrapbooks or holding pretend (if very proper) tea parties for the dogs.

Fuller title page photoWe were poor and we had a knack for picking bad-luck patches of land on which to farm, but (and this was supposedly to our advantage) we were of very particular British stock. My maternal grandmother maintained that we held a better pedigree than the English queen (who is German, after all, while we were part highland Scot), and my mother frequently reminded my sister and me that we were “well bred.” “Well bred” ensured buckled noses, high-arched feet, a predisposition to madness, and an innate knowledge that it is more polite to say “napkin” than “serviette.” “Well bred” assumed a working knowledge of the construction of a decent Irish coffee, the appropriate handling of difficult horses, and a pathological love of dogs. “Well bred” meant, most specifically,an innate belief in our own unquestioning superiority. This archaic way of thinking coupled with Africa’s tumultuous history may make for wonderful literature, but it also made for chaotic living.

By the time I came to Rhodesia in 1972, Africa—Kenya, in particular—had been home to three generations of my family. With the exception of a great-uncle who had shocked his relations and scandalized the European community by going to live with the Nandi people of Kenya (and who became the first person to document their language in the written form), my people were the sort of European stock who brandished their culture before them like some devastating scythe.

In spite of this, Africa—as an idea—dawned on me gradually. I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Africa, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me. As the land and people around me began to make sense, I was like a snake itching off the excess of an extra skin in the dry season and finding myself milky-eyed, and dangerously blind, in the rarefied, free air of the new order in Africa. From Ghana to Mozambique to Angola, independence had rippled down Africa’s spine, and now it had come to us—to Rhodesia. Whatever happened next, I knew that I had to be either a part of this new world—a working, active, feature of it—or forever apart from it. I could either celebrate the new opportunity we as Africans had been given at independence, at the birth of Zimbabwe, or forever lament the loss of Empire. I would either fight for a new world of political equality or become a servant to the regimes that had assumed the strangling mantle of colonialism.

*

When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with an American (he had come to Zambia as a river guide), and I went with him to live in North America after our marriage and the birth of our first child. I mourned Africa daily (I still do) with something like a physical ache even while I luxuriated in the relative security and peace of a Rocky Mountain life. And it was here, in the high bright air of a Wyoming winter, that the need to write my life became overwhelming for me.

At the start, I tried to write my life as fiction. I wrote eight or nine spectacularly unsuccessful novels. I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth. I wrote and rewrote the characters of my childhood and I wrote the landscape I loved over and over again until the smells of the place burned on my palate. But the novels still felt like lies because in them I had tried to soften the voices of the whites I had known and to write into full life the voices of the black men, women, and children who had been silenced by years of oppression. These works of fiction, I eventually realized, were the writings of a woman who was scared to look the world in the face, and if there was one thing Africa had taught me, it was to shout above the sting of a dry-season wind loud enough to be heard from one end of a farm to another.

I made the decision, then, to write my life exactly as it had been: passionate, wonderful, troubled, oppressive, chaotic, beautiful. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the story that was born of that decision. It is not a political story or the story of Empire. It is the story of how one African came to terms with her family’s troubled history; it is a love story for the continent.

Alexandra Fuller
Jackson Hole
, Wyoming
August 2002

**
Buy the paperback
Buy the eBook

Discuss George Bishop’s debut novel LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Letter to My DaughterLetter to My Daughter is a heart-wrenching novel of mothers, daughters, and the lessons we all learn when we come of age. The below questions are intended to enhance your book group’s discussion of this absorbing and affirming debut novel.

1. Many readers have commented on the fact that the narrator of the story, Laura Jenkins, is a woman, but the author of the book, George Bishop, is a man.  Does this strike you as surprising?  How well do you think Bishop captures a woman’s voice?

2. Laura writes to her daughter that she wants to “write down in a letter everything I’ve always meant to tell you but never have.”  Do you think she’s wise to “tell it all”?  Or are there limits on how much parents should tell their children about their own childhood mistakes?

3. Letters play an important role in the novel.  There are the letters that Laura exchanges with Tim, there’s The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and, of course, there’s the letter that Laura writes to her daughter.  What is an important letter that you’ve written or received?  Do you agree with Laura that letter writing is an “archaic” practice?

4. How would you characterize Laura’s relationship with her daughter Elizabeth?  How well do you think she really knows her daughter?

5. Generally, do you find Laura to be a “reliable” narrator?  Are there times in her narration where you think she could be mistaken in her understanding of events?

6. Growing up in the South in the early 1970s, Laura confronts issues of race and class.  For example, her parents look down on both Cajuns and black people, and at Sacred Heart Academy, Laura feels like a “charity case” compared to her relatively well-off classmates.  Do you think Laura’s daughter Elizabeth is likely to face similar problems as a teenager?

7. While writing her letter, Laura draws parallels between the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq that she sees on TV.  What are the parallels she sees?  Do you think she’s justified in drawing these parallels?

8. Laura finds a sympathetic teacher at the school in Sister Mary Margaret. How is “Sister M&M” different from the other nuns?   Do you think she behaved appropriately in passing letters between Laura and Tim?

9. Laura describes her friends at Sacred Heart Academy as “the charity cases.”  Is this a fair description of them?  What makes them charity cases?

10. Laura writes that as adults, “We’re not a whole lot smarter than we were when we were fifteen . . .Often, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”  Do you agree?  Does the adult Laura seem wiser than she was at fifteen?

11. We only meet Laura’s husband occasionally in the novel. What can you tell about their relationship from their interactions?  Do you think theirs is a good marriage?  Why or why not?

12. Tattoos play an important part in the novel.  Take a survey of your reading group:  Do any of your members have tattoos?  What are the stories behind their tattoos?  Would you allow your children to tattoo their body? Do you feel tattoos are a legitamate form of personal expression?

13. Laura tries to understand her parents’ apparently racist and cruel behavior by saying, “Maybe they were doing the best they could.”  Considering the time, their age, and their environment, are her parents’ behaviors pardonable?  Or not?

14. We learn little about Laura’s life after high school.  With your group, try to imagine Laura’s life after high school.  What was she like as a college student?  How did she meet her husband?  Did she, or does she now, have a career?  If so, what is it?

15. Think of three questions you would ask Laura if she was a guest in your reading group.

16. Now, imagine Laura’s answers.

17. At the end of her letter, Laura writes, “We survived.  The scarred ones.  The lucky ones. What does she mean by this?

18. What happens, exactly, at the end of the novel?  Did you find the ending satisfactory? Why do you think the author chose to end the novel as he did? And what do you think happens immediately after the end of the novel?

Shoe
Bertelsmann Media Worldwide