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Discussion Questions: Secrets She Keeps by Deb Caletti

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiFrom bestselling author Deb Caletti comes a beautiful and profound novel of three women coming to terms with love and marriage—sure to move and delight fans of Kristin Hannah, Liane Moriarty, and Anna Quindlen.
“You don’t grow up on a divorce ranch and not learn to take a vow seriously.”

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club…

1. Imagine you were doing a six–week stint at one of the divorce ranches of yesteryear. If you could choose which women (past or present) you stayed on with, who would they be and why? Who’s your favorite of the characters at Tamarosa Ranch under Nash’s watch?

2. Of course, the divorce ranches weren’t all fun and games for women seeking quickie divorces, but as in The Secrets She Keeps, there’s a definite spirit of liberation, indulgence, spunk, and camaraderie underlying it all. What part of checking into a divorce ranch could you get used to, if you had to? What would be the hardest thing about it? How are these pros and cons addressed in the novel?

3. The notion of home plays a major role throughout the book. Callie loved her house so much that she’d “put up with almost anything if it meant not losing that brick pathway [she’d] planted with perennials.” Veronica, on the other hand, doesn’t know where she’ll call home once she’s officially divorced Gus. What does home mean or come to mean for each of the characters? Discuss the larger statement the novel might be making about home when human nature seeks both permanence and change.

4. At one point, Callie wonders, “What heedless actions would you change if you could read the future,” going on to say, “I don’t have the answer to that even now.” By the end of the novel, do you think Callie should want to change any of her “heedless actions”? Would you wish for the opportunity to edit your own life in such a way, or like Callie and Nash, do you believe in fate instead?

5. Callie and Shaye find it hard to believe that Nash never got married. Why do you think Nash never joined the ranks of married women? Would it have changed your impression of her if she ever had?

6. Jack tells Nash that seeing the wild horses changes a person; that it’s a message from nature that leaves you transformed. How does seeing the horses change Nash and Callie in fundamental ways? Can you describe a similar event in your own life that had the same effect on you?

7. Shaye’s love life, with its many conquests and questionable “dark storm clouds,” is completely at odds with Callie’s enduring marriage and domesticity. But they’ve both ended up at a crossroad in their lives and relationships, where they seem to be searching for the same thing. What is that thing and have they each managed to find it by the end of the novel? What lessons did they learn from each other’s disparate experiences and approaches to love that they might not have realized on their own?

8. How did it affect your read to have Callie’s marital issues set against the interwoven stories of the divorcees at Tamarosa Ranch? Did you see her problems as more trivial in comparison to those experiences or tantamount? How might you have seen her and the book in general differently if this were Callie’s story alone?

9. “Every person must come full circle to his or her rightful life, Nash knows. Sometimes, you have to make that same trip more than once.” Discuss how this sentiment applies to the journeys undertaken by the central characters.

10. One of the major things Callie grapples with is the expansiveness of life and its endless possibilities. At one point, she remarks that being in the desert “was a whole slice of life I knew nothing about, which makes you realize just how many such slices there are.” Later, she says, “There were so many possible lives to lead. Every day, you chose your life, even if you could forget that.” Do you think Callie finds this position liberating or maddening? Does the limitlessness she sees before her actually stunt her in some ways? On the flip side, why did she have to step outside of her little slice in order to be satisfied with it, and what made her choose that life in the end?

11. Did you realize all along that Callie was undergoing a legitimate midlife crisis or did this come as much as a surprise to you as it did to her? Why do you think she was able to hide it from herself for so long? Was it easier to see Thomas’s actions as more indicative of a midlife crisis for some reason?

12. Nash offers such comic relief to the story, even though she’s the one facing her own mortality. Do you think her clear–eyed, straight–shooting nature is a result of her nearing the end of her life, or do you see glimmers of that personality from her earlier years? What was your favorite life lesson learned from Nash? Does she remind you of anyone you know?

13. What did you make of Jack as a character? Nash says she fancied the idea of him rather than the man himself. Did you get the sense while reading that he functions more as an idea for her than a man? Or as a means to some

14. “When it comes to sisters, it seems that one stays and one goes, one remains bound and the other is set free. [Nash] is who she is in good part because of who Gloria isn’t. In order to be herself, in order to be different from her sister, she had to take what was left over, the opposite, unchosen road.” Compare the sister relationships in the book. Does this statement hold true in all cases? Does it apply to your relationship with your own siblings?

15. Discuss how the past and present are contrasted in the book, both in terms of character foils and times, mind–sets, customs, etc., either changing or staying the same. Do you wish any of the old, forgotten ways as portrayed in this story were still preserved? Like Nash, do you think we’ve come light–years from the bygone era of divorce ranches, or like Shaye, do you think those days might not be as far in the past as we’d like to believe?

16. Nash and Lilly exchange books in an act that bonds them as friends. Have you spoken the love language of books with your friends, and which are the stories you’ve gifted? Which book would you have given Lilly if you were in Nash’s place? Which would you have given Nash?

17. The opening chapter told from Nash’s point of view establishes the expectation of “a doomed mission of the heart.” Did you have any preconceived ideas about what Nash’s mission entailed, and if so, were you surprised by the revelation of her actual secret in the end?

18. Nash says she doesn’t know if she believes in happy  endings but that the story goes on. Do you think this particular story has a happy ending, or that things are left open-ended? What do you hope for these characters if that’s the case?

A Letter from Deb Caletti

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiDeb Caletti, the author of The Secrets She Keeps, a beautiful novel about three women coming to terms with love and marriage, has written you, her readers a note. Read on…
Dear Reader –

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years from my many book events, it’s this: We readers understand each other.  We can come from different parts of the world and have varying life experiences, but get us into a room talking about our favorite reads, our stack of books turning into a nightstand, and we are all from the very same place.  Let me tell you, friends, we can get pretty heated about whether one should fold down the corner of the page to keep our place or not.  We are deliciously book-greedy, and we rant and gush and get choked up about the words that have moved us.

I am a reader even before I am a writer, so when I sat down to write The Secrets She Keeps, coming from Random House on July 7th, it was with a reader’s desires as well as a writer’s.  I wanted to create a book that you’d read a little slower to make it last longer (do you know that feeling? I love that feeling!), with lines that made you think, and characters you related to and rooted for as the pages turned.  I really wanted that satisfying sigh at the end.

The Secrets She Keeps is about two sisters with troubled marriages who gather at their aunt’s now crumbling Nevada “divorce ranch.” The story is told in alternating time periods – one summer at the present-day ranch, and the summer of 1951, a summer of secrets, when high-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such  ranches to establish residency and secure difficult-to-get divorces.  The Secrets She Keeps reflects contemporary life and marriage as we know it, yet it is also full of Mad Men-esque glamour, desert dust and wild mustangs, cowboys and majestic scenery.  More than those things, though, it is a book about the power of female friendships, about self-discovery, and resilience.  It’s a story about love – its timeless troubles, and its stubborn, enduring joys.

Thank you for being part of The Secrets She Keeps, dear fellow readers.  I’m excited to share this one with you.  I hope, hope, hope you sigh at the end.  And, for the record, please fold down any corner that you wish.


Deb Caletti

A Conversation with Deb Caletti

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiRandom House Reader’s Circle had a chance to chat with Deb Caletti about her new novel The Secrets She Keeps,a beautiful and profound novel of three women coming to terms with love and marriage on a divorce ranch in Nevada.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What gave you the idea to write a story centered on the “Reno cure” and divorce ranches of the mid–twentieth century? Your portrayal of
Tamarosa Ranch and the women who stayed there is so vivid, dazzling, and authentic. How did you go about bringing this place and this era to life, and from where did you draw your inspiration? Did you do anything specific to transport yourself into that world?

Deb Caletti: A few years ago, I came across a single line in a book that mentioned a “divorce ranch.” I’d never heard the term before, and out of curiosity, I looked it up. When I learned what they were, and understood the transformative experiences that were had there, I was intrigued. But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer–moments where your heart beats fast and you think: This. Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages supporting one another, and attempting to understand themselves and their relationships.
Bringing it to life, though, was trickier than I’d anticipated because of exactly what I’d found so thrilling—-how little there was out there about the ranches. Luckily, I discovered The Divorce Seekers, a stunning coffee table volume of photos and memories by a former dude wrangler at the famed Flying M. E. Ranch, Bill McGee. The images—-with their smoky, black–and–white, retro allure—-are what brought the time and place alive for me so that I could bring them to life in the novel. Not only was it an invaluable resource for information on day–to–day life on a divorce ranch, it also set the mood. I’d open the book to an image of two sleepy roommates in the middle of their Reno cure, wearing silky chemises, drinks in hand, or to a photo of one of “the gals” in her party–night finery, and I’d be just where I needed to be. Music of the time occasionally helped, too. As well, I researched the bestsellers of those years written by women, so I could get a feel for the female voices of the time. Sometimes I’d read a page or two in order to “get into character” so to speak.

RHRC: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about life on a divorce ranch?

D.C.: I was surprised how wild it all got on the ranches. When you think of that time period, you imagine a (literally) more buttoned–up experience, but no. The sex with cowboys, the drinking, the letting loose—-it all sounds a bit film–version–cliché but was very much the truth. Each generation thinks they’ve invented sex and rebellion, but we seem like over–sharing novices in comparison. Their experiences were not splayed out on every television and computer screen, and the language around it was discreet and even somewhat coy, but these were no trips to the convent.
What also surprised me—-and what became extraordinarily important thematically to the book—-was how timeless our struggles are in terms of love. I could see the story lines repeating over the generations. We battle the same old things they did—-bad choices, infidelity, abuse, career–versus–marriage conflicts, intruding parents. We move on too fast after a breakup; they’d go from the courthouse to the marriage chapel. We’re intrigued and tempted by a life not like ours; they’d buy ranch wear and try to bring home a cowboy. We’ve been taken (or we take); we’re endlessly hopeful (or fed up and jaded); we fall for the wrong person (or, finally, the right one). And so it was then. It was this baseline that led me, in part, to using the mirror images that begin and end each chapter. Hopefully, those brief repetitions underscore the idea that here we are, all over again.

RHRC: The Secrets She Keeps stars a true ensemble cast of women, each startlingly unique but all equally real. Was it difficult to create so many different, dynamic personalities and have them all sharing space, or did they come to you and interact with one another naturally?

D.C.: Ensemble casts are something I like to do as a writer. It’s a challenge, and I think the varying perspectives bring layers to a story. I had an ensemble cast in two of my young–adult novels, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart (in which a young girl and her mother go on a road trip with a group of old people to reunite a pair of geriatric lovers) and The Secret Life of Prince Charming (in which a young woman and her sisters return objects their father has stolen to every woman he’s ever been in love with). So I’ve had experience managing those numbers before. Essentially, a character must sound like him– or herself, and this is true whether you’re writing one or twenty. I don’t find this to be particularly difficult. If you think about your extended family all sitting around a dinner table, you realize how different each individual sounds. In addition to what they say and how they say it, Mom and Aunt So–and–so dress like opposites, and while the uncles are both hardheaded, one still wears his class ring, and the other has that weird beard and bad habit of interrupting.

RHRC: Can you speak to the experience of writing a dual narrative that has one foot in the past and one in the present? What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of that process? Was it ever hard to switch gears from one story line to the next?

D.C.: The switching itself was rewarding—-going back and forth brings a freshness and energy to the work. It’s similar to the experience of reading alternating chapters, where you’re disappointed to leave the first set of characters but are eager to see what’s happened with the others since you last left off. I write chronologically, so sometimes that means waiting to write a big scene I’m looking forward to, or, in this case, waiting to get back to that exciting event in the past or present. Switching can provide tension and momentum for a reader, but it can do the same for a writer. And natural momentum makes a book a joy to write.
In terms of challenge, the past/present switching made for a ton of research. It was akin to writing a research–heavy contemporary novel and a historical one. When you go back into the past, every little thing must be considered and checked—-each item of clothing, every phrase, every piece of furniture and automobile. Kitchen supplies! Hair products! Restaurants in a city! Music! What kind of gun would they have had at the ranch then? When did cars first get radios? Was a certain slang expression used yet? Which hat did a man wear for work and which for dress? This brings us back to the rewards, though, because I learned about divorce laws through time, and obstetric practices, and the fact that ambulances were still not commonplace in rural areas then. I played virtual dress–up with the many beautiful outfits I discovered and drooled (or cringed) over the food of the time period. I am still seriously curious about those greengage plums packed in sugar–sweetened brandy.

RHRC: The mustangs play a huge role in the book, not only in terms of their sheer majesty but also their plight and the need to preserve and protect the land they inhabit. Are these larger issues something you already had a vested interest in exploring when you set out to write this book, or did that interest develop as you dug deeper into your research? Have you ever seen the mustangs running, yourself?

D.C.: This may sound hugely disappointing and unromantic, but like Callie, I have no experience with horses. I’ve never really ridden one and, prior to this book, knew little about them. I’ve never been to a ranch and have only been to Nevada once, in the backseat of the car with my parents when I was seven. As a writer, I often think about Lilly Tuck’s speech at the National Book Awards the year she won (and the year I was a finalist for Honey, Baby, Sweetheart). Her book was The News from Paraguay, and she began her speech by saying that she had never been to Paraguay, didn’t know much about Paraguay, and didn’t even really care to visit Paraguay. While I’d love to spend time on a ranch and was fascinated by all I learned, I understand what she meant. The adage urges writers to “Write what you know,” but if we did, there’d be many novels about us sitting home alone, pecking at the keyboard. Or else reading online reviews and becoming crippled with self–doubt.
That said, when searching for the story line, themes, and symbols that would bridge the two narratives, the mustangs were a natural choice. Campaigns to save the mustang began just before the book does, in 1950, when Velma Bronn Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) of Washoe County became involved in the campaign to save the wild horses after following a truck loaded with horses and dripping blood on its way to a slaughterhouse. (Yes, a certain scene in the book is a nod to her.) In 1951, photographer Gus Bundy also began shooting images that became instrumental in changing gathers by airplane. But in addition to lending historic accuracy, the horses are a physical representation of love itself: passionate, messy, unpredictable, and stunning. The complicated questions that surround them, the lack of clear answers, were also symbolically on the mark.
I may not have known anything about the mustangs before I began, but I developed a great respect for them and for the individuals on both sides of the question, particularly the land managers who must consider every corner of the issue. I was astounded at the care they take to balance the interests of the land (and the other living things on it) with the some fifty thousand wild horses and burros currently living in the western states.

RHRC: Callie is awed and humbled by her interactions with nature while exploring the Washoe Lake area, which lends such perspective to her life in Seattle. Living in Seattle yourself, do you find this reflects your own experience in any way? Do you prefer a city existence or the “of–the–land” lifestyle that Kit leads, or do you strive for more of a balance?

D.C.: Callie’s observations are mostly part of her personal process, where she eventually learns that you sometimes need to get out of your daily existence to appreciate the beauty of your daily existence. Still, I think there’s some truth to the differences she notices, in terms of the biking techies and hipster baristas and self–aware food versus “life like that—-the one going on right here right now, with men in cowboy hats, men with silver belt buckles, men with horses and guns.” We are very connected to nature and the outdoors here, too, but sometimes there’s an affected quality to it, a persona that’s worn along with all the right clothing from REI. Ranch life seems more straightforward, and the relationship to the land more pragmatic. That said, it’s also true that you’ll find some of the most stunning, breathtaking parts of this country in the Northwest, and we who live here do our best to appreciate that fact.
The city–or–not dilemma has always been large for me. The idea of sprawling acres of land and a small town has huge appeal. I used to live in a house on a salmon–running creek at the foot of a mountain before moving to the city when I remarried. I loved being near water, trees, and creatures. (Though I could’ve passed on the bear and the cougars.) I adored bumping my Jeep along the rugged dirt road, reveled in the awareness of seasons and the perspective nature brings. I still long for miles of windswept dunes, or a herd of cattle with room to roam, or a dock on a remote lake. But there is also the matter of little–black–dress literary parties, great restaurants, and the need for the nearness of a library. The perfect life would be a pair of old work boots next to the heels.

RHRC: Hadley keeps a saucer of foil–wrapped confections by her typewriter to “tempt the muse.” As a writer, do you have any habits, processes, or, like Hadley, treats that get your creative juices flowing?

D.C.: Hmm. Wonder where I got that? I confess that I’ve gone beyond the saucer to an actual drawer. Occasionally, a little self–bribery is useful. I usually start the writing morning with strong coffee and a shortbread cookie, the kind in the red plaid box that are all butter, glorious butter. Other treats in the drawer—-Red Vines, Hot Tamales, chewy butterscotch, a bit of good chocolate. Full disclosure: I considered lying when answering this question.

RHRC: Nash and Lilly bond through the trading of beloved books. In that moment, Lilly asks, “Don’t you wish you could live inside a book sometimes?” What book(s) would you live inside if you could?

D.C.: A Moveable Feast would work nicely. Paris in the 1920s, with Ernest Hemingway and pals like James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein . . . F. Scott Fitzgerald reading Hemingway the first draft of The Great Gatsby at their neighborhood café, La Closerie des Lilas . . . Ahh. I’m also drawn to books like Under the Tuscan Sun, where a woman goes to a foreign country, remodels some crumbling villa, makes friends with villagers while walking her charming dog, all the while eating fabulous food.

RHRC: Of all the women you’ve brought to life in this novel, which would you say most resembles yourself? Or who would you most like to resemble? Who would be your partner in crime if you were to spend time at the Tamarosa Ranch?

D.C.: Almost every character has a bit (or more) of the author in them, I think. Callie and Shaye reflect my own yin/yang: settled and restless, steady and unsteady, cautious and occasionally heedless. I have the aspirations of Hadley, and I’ve had (past tense) the naïveté of Ellen’s and Lilly’s unfortunate taste in men. I have Nash’s leanings toward solitude and open air, her book love, and her appetite. I’d most like to take on her realistic, calm worldview, though, and the strength she’s developed over her years. Veronica is least like me and, therefore, probably the one I’d want as a partner in crime. During a six–week cure, you’d need a Veronica to encourage a little mischief. And to push you toward the life that’s truly yours.

Author Spotlight: Sugar Cookies from Deb Caletti, author of HE’S GONE

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Caletti_He's GoneToday, Deb Caletti, author of He’s Gone, shares a special family sugar cookie recipe with us. We are hungry just reading the recipe, and you will be, too! This seems like a perfect sweet treat to have around throughout the holidays as guests come and go. Thanks for sharing, Deb!

While these are a favorite cookie of ours for the holidays, whenever you’re in dire need of five gajillion instantly-satisfying fat calories, these are the cookies for you. This recipe has been quelling cookie longing in my family for many years – the original is written in my grandmother’s handwriting on the back of an envelope, which is now frail and taped together and thoroughly splotched with ingredients as a good recipe should be. Unless you want to be eating dough and making cookies all day (and we do have those days), then I’d suggest halving the recipe. Snitching a few of these with a cup of coffee on Thanksgiving morning will start the day off right. Deb Caletti Author Photo-final

Mom’s Sugar Cookies

Cream together:

1C. powdered sugar
1C. granulated sugar
1C. butter

1C. oil
2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. vanilla
5 C. flour
1tsp. soda
1tsp. cream of tartar
¼ tsp. salt

Roll into small balls. Press with cookie press or fancy glass bottom dipped in sugar. Sprinkle sugar on top. Bake in 350 degree oven for 10-12 min.

Stay tuned throughout the week for more recipes from our authors. Next up: Lisa Van Allen!

If you have a special recipe to share of your own, let us know on our Facebook page.

Deb Caletti on Her Love for the Library

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Caletti_He's Gone Deb Caletti, National Book Award Finalist and author of numerous young adult novels, is the author of HE’S GONE, a trade paperback original on sale next Tuesday, May 14th. Below, Deb shares her life-long love for one of her favorite places: the library.

One of the most constant and sustaining truths of my life has been this: I love the library. It’s a love that’s been steadfast and unwavering since I was about six years old. I understood right from the start that every set of library doors were the sort of magic portals that lead to other lands. My God, right within reach there were dinosaurs and planets and presidents and girl detectives! It was a blissful mismatch of promises, the very sort I required: adventure and escape all in a setting of order and safety.

From then on, I was the library-goer who needed the library. I was (am) a bit of an addict. The thrill of bringing home a stack of books so heavy you could barely carry them (I can take all these? For free? Really?) began then and has never left me. But even more, all the answers were in that place. I ate lunch in there sometimes when I was a teen and needed a reprieve from being a teen. As a young mother, I trolled the aisles dripping babies and book bags as I tried to learn how to be a writer. And later, I hid in Self Help as I tried to understand – and leave – my abusive marriage. That’s another thing: librarians keep your secrets. Between those walls and those covers there is all of life, the whole record of us poor old souls doing what we can to get through it, and librarians know this.

Every few weeks, I still make my pilgrimage, hauling around my too-full bag. And every time, I still can’t quite believe no one’s chasing me out as I make off with the goods. So, dear librarians, thank you for this greedy joy. Thank you, too, for the life-changing power of information. Your libraries have been my sanctuary and my sigh of relief, and I am ever grateful.

HE’S GONE by Deb Caletti goes on sale May 14, 2013
Join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, or visit Deb’s website for more information.

Reader’s Guide: HE’S GONE by Deb Caletti

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Caletti_He's Gone He’s Gone, A Novel by Deb Caletti

A Reader’s Guide
A Conversation with Deb Caletti

Random House Reader’s Circle: You’ve written many popular teen novels, but He’s Gone is your first novel for adults. What was the inspiration for your adult debut? Did you have the idea long before you began writing it? And how was the writing process different?

Deb Caletti: You never know how—or when—the idea for a book will appear. This one came right when I needed it, shortly after we’d begun discussing the possibility of me writing an adult novel. The inspiration arrived in much the same way that He’s Gone begins. I was lying in bed, trying to determine if my husband was home or not. I was doing that thing you do, where you listen for the sound of footsteps, or the toaster lever being pushed down, or coffee being made. And then, rather handily and helpfully, came the thought: What if you woke up one morning and found that your husband had vanished? The idea of writing the book as a confession came quickly after- ward, as did the decision to explore the subjects of guilt and marriage, wrongdoing, and the way those old, treacherous voices from childhood can continue to haunt us. I began work on the book as soon as I could, just after finishing The Story of Us. Sometimes you have an idea that makes you feel like a kid on Halloween night. Can we just skip dinner, so we can go? I wanted to go. I couldn’t wait to start this one.

The writing process wasn’t all that different from my other books. My previous nine young adult novels are full length and fairly complex and character driven, and my readers are already a mixed bag of ages, falling generally in the older teens to adult range. There is always a teen protagonist, but my books also feature adult characters of varying ages—mothers and daughters both struggling with screwed-up love lives, for example, or generations of women with something to say about relationships, family, and identity. I tend to try to push the boundaries of YA, offering more thought-provoking material than readers of that age might be used to, along with a slower, more literary pace. So writing a book for adults wasn’t a great leap. The only real difference I found was that the boundaries I always try to push didn’t exist anymore. There were no more fences for me to stay in or out of. It was very freeing. I found that, for me, writing within those boundaries is actually in many ways more challenging.

RHRC: He’s Gone takes place in Seattle, where you also live. Do you feel that your life in the city inspired or influenced the novel? If so, how?

D.C.: Setting has always played a huge part in my books, and I have no doubt that’s because I live in such an evocative place. I like to approach setting as if it were character, with a character’s traits and quirks and moods. Seattle—and the San Juan Islands, and the towns of the mountain foothills that I’ve pre- viously written about—all have so much character, it’s hard to cross a street without seeing something to include in a book. We are bombarded with setting here, which is a lucky thing for a writer, I think. It offers itself. He’s Gone primarily takes place in a particularly eccentric and picturesque part of our city—the houseboat community around Lake Union, where I once lived part-time. It seemed an especially fitting setting for the book. First, there is water everywhere, and these characters are, well, literally drowning in guilt. But even more than that, the houseboats and their docks are a little off kilter. Yes, they’re charming and shingled and dripping with gorgeous flowers. Ducks paddle by, and so do friendly kayakers. Sailboats swoop out to the lake on a glorious day. But, too, the houses and boats are rocking and clanging. The old piers sway and creak. On a rainy day, it’s a little spooky. On any day, it’s all slightly deranged.

RHRC: Though the story begins when Ian vanishes, he feels like a fully evolved character by the time we reach the ending. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges of fleshing out a character who is mostly “offscreen”?

D.C.: I like the idea of this, the “off screen” character. I also have one in my book The Story of Us. That character, Janssen Tucker, is totally absent until he appears for his one line at the very end of the book. The idea appeals to me because there are a lot of “offscreen” people in our own lives. You can come to know your partner’s ex or their deceased parent in a very real way, even if you’ve never met them. You can come to have very strong feelings about them, an understanding of them, a full picture, just from what you hear. In writing, the challenge to make a character come alive even when he’s not on the scene is met in the same ways it happens in real life. You hear stories about the person. Your partner tells you about his ex, but so does his best friend, and so does his mother. Maybe you see a photo or hear a rumor. Maybe you hear a voice on an answering machine.
Ian, in He’s Gone, needed to be much closer to the reader than Janssen Tucker did in The Story of Us. Aside from Dani, Ian is the most important character in the book. It’s crucial to feel him right there, even though he’s missing—to feel the press of his control, to even feel his breath on her face during that picnic. He needs to be so well known that we understand both his complicated emotions and the bind those emotions have put Dani in. Dani’s own flashbacks serve this purpose (we actually “see” Ian during those times), but Nathan’s accounts of their relationship flesh out Ian’s character, as do Isabel’s and Abby’s. What we see of his relationship with his children and Mary and especially his father hopefully fill Ian in further. What I also felt helped bring Ian close were the times that Dani heard him speak in her head. That’s about as close in as you can bring someone.

RHRC: Dani has a compelling narrative voice, and it’s easy to take her version of the truth for reality. Ultimately, though, we find out that she’s not a reliable narrator. What made you decide to go this route?

D.C.: I went this route because we are all unreliable narrators, not just in the way we tell our stories to others, but how we tell them to ourselves. Maybe especially how we tell them to ourselves. All of us create our own versions of an event, of our lives, even, not because we’re liars, necessarily, but because we can only see and understand the truth from our own viewpoint, and a shifting viewpoint at that. Facing the truth is a messy business. You’ve got denial, and pride, and the fact that understanding takes time; you’ve got perspective (or lack of it) and the pesky fact that we can only face the truth we can stand to face at any given moment. I didn’t see Dani as being willfully deceitful in the way she tells her story. I saw her as struggling with a hard truth that she hadn’t even entirely admitted to herself yet. It’s one of the toughest human being jobs, I think, being utterly and completely honest with yourself.

RHRC: One aspect of He’s Gone that really stuck with us is the imagery involving butterflies. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration there?

D.C.: My first marriage was an abusive one, and long after I left it, a very good friend, someone who knew me well, reflected on that time. He said, “You were like a butterfly, caught in a net.” I never forgot those words. Butterflies became personally symbolic to me. I knew I wanted to one day use this symbolism in my writing—the fragility, the strength, the capture, the escape. Because, yes, there is the helplessness of being trapped, but there is also what happens when the butterfly manages to get free.

RHRC: Did you know how He’s Gone would end before you began writing it? If not, can you tell us a bit about some of the other endings you considered, and why you ultimately chose this one?

D.C.: I always say that, for me, writing a book is like a wacky Greyhound bus trip—I know where I’m starting and where I’ll end up, but I have no idea what will happen along the way. He’s Gone was different, though. I didn’t know how the book would end. I struggled with it. I wanted to write the novel as a confession, and so this meant considering the obvious possibility that Dani had indeed harmed Ian. I felt this was the wrong route, though. It would have turned the book into a clichéd abused-woman-kills-husband story, and that felt cheap to me. It would have been a dishonest choice, a disservice, even, to anyone who’d actually been in a similar relationship. In reality, we know who usually ends up being harmed in situations like that, and it isn’t the perpetrator. Perhaps more important, though, in terms of my vision for the book, if Dani had been guilty of harming Ian, the story would have become about a violent act and not about what I wanted it to be about—the complexity and impossibility of assigning guilt; the million gray areas of culpability, which can sit right next to our very black-and-white feelings of shame.
After my father read the book, he handed it back to me and said, “I was really glad she didn’t do it.” And maybe that was the biggest reason that I chose the ending I did. I was really glad she didn’t do it, too.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Pollux, Dani’s dog, and Isabel, Dani’s eccentric mother, bring moments of comic relief to He’s Gone, even in the midst of all the dark moments and drama. Do you think this adds to the narrative? Why or why not?

2. Whenever someone in He’s Gone looks for rescue or validation in the form of another person, they end up disappointed— whether it’s Dani having an affair with Ian to escape her abusive marriage or Ian attempting to connect with his father. What do you make of this?

3. “Brief moments of goodness are shockingly persistent. You’re in the dark, darker, darkest, and yet there’s a dog sitting beside you, on his best behavior for a dropped crust, and there’s an industrious line of ducks paddling past, and there’s a grilled- cheese maestro. Life insists.” Discuss how this passage exemplifies the broader themes of the novel.

4. Dani thinks Ian is having an affair with Desiree, but it turns out that Desiree is just jealous of Dani and Ian and covetous of the life they share together. From the outside looking in, their relationship seems ideal to her. Discuss how all of the characters in He’s Gone tend to misconstrue situations due to their imperfect perception. What’s the author trying to tell us?

5. How did you feel about Ian after reading about the dinner that he and Dani shared with Paul Hartley Keller? Did it make you like him more? Less?

6. There’s a ceramic bust of Ian that looks exactly like Paul Hartley Keller—so much so that Dani mistakenly assumes he was the model for it. Why can Dani see the resemblance between the two men only in this one inanimate object? What’s the significance of what ultimately happens to the bust?

7. Dani often seems to feel physically threatened by Ian’s daughters, particularly the taciturn Bethy. Do you think this threat is real or imagined? What does it say about violence as a legacy?

8. Did your feelings about Mary change when you finally met her in the present-day narrative? How do you think your initial impressions of her were colored by the fact that He’s Gone is told from Dani’s point of view?

9. He’s Gone is written as Dani’s confession, and much of the book focuses on how guilt (both warranted and unwarranted) colors our lives. How do our experiences dictate what we feel guilty for and what we don’t? What must we do to be able to forgive ourselves and others? Near the end of the story, Dani holds her confession in her arms “like a baby, like my own child.” Why do you think the author chose these words?

10. For most of the novel, Ian seems like a buttoned-up, perfectly controlled person, whose biggest failing is his desire for perfection in everyone around him. Toward the end of the novel we finally find out that he is just as capable of abusive violence as Dani’s first husband. Do you think this revelation has more impact because it’s withheld for so long? What were your feelings about Ian before you found out the full story of the fateful picnic he took with Dani? What were they like after it?

11. Were you surprised to learn that Ian’s affair with Dani wasn’t his first? Why or why not?

12. Did you ever believe that Dani was responsible for Ian’s disappearance? Discuss.

Giveaway Opportunity: HE’S GONE by Deb Caletti

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Caletti_He's Gone “One of the best books I’ve read all year.”—Barbara O’Neal, author of The Garden of Happy Endings

“What do you think happened to your husband, Mrs. Keller?”

The Sunday morning starts like any other, aside from the slight hangover. Dani Keller wakes up on her Seattle houseboat, a headache building behind her eyes from the wine she drank at a party the night before. But on this particular Sunday morning, she’s surprised to see that her husband, Ian, is not home. As the hours pass, Dani fills her day with small things. But still, Ian does not return. Irritation shifts to worry, worry slides almost imperceptibly into panic. And then, like a relentless blackness, the terrible realization hits Dani: He’s gone.

As the police work methodically through all the logical explanations—he’s hurt, he’s run off, he’s been killed—Dani searches frantically for a clue as to whether Ian is in fact dead or alive. And, slowly, she unpacks their relationship, holding each moment up to the light: from its intense, adulterous beginning, to the grandeur of their new love, to the difficulties of forever. She examines all the sins she can—and cannot—remember. As the days pass, Dani will plumb the depths of her conscience, turning over and revealing the darkest of her secrets in order to discover the hard truth—about herself, her husband, and their lives together.

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