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Posts Tagged ‘discussion questions’

Reader’s Guide: THE TELLING ROOM by Michael Paterniti

Monday, May 12th, 2014

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

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Guide: THE BURGESS BOYS by Elizabeth Strout

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Strout_BurgessBoys Tomorrow is a big day! Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys hits bookshelves in paperback. We are so excited to continue sharing her writing with you and your book club. Happy discussing!

Questions for Discussion

1. How did the narrator’s introduction telegraph your expectations about the Burgess family?

2. Jim and Bob Burgess both left Shirley Falls for New York City. Why there, when they could have gone anywhere? And why did Susan stay behind?

3. The Burgess siblings have lived with a childhood trauma their whole lives. How has each one compensated for this in his or her personal and professional adult life?

4. Which Burgess brother, Jim or Bob, did you find more sympathetic? Did you find yourself changing your mind as the story unfolded?

5. To many readers, Jim may seem more competent than Bob in dealing with Zach’s “prank.” Do you agree? If not, why not?

6. What did you learn about the Somali population in Shirley Falls? How do you see this as a particularly American story, if you do? And if not, why not? Initially, each of the Burgess siblings reacts uniquely to the Somali population. What do you think causes each individual response, and how do you see it change?

7. When Jim reveals his own childhood secret, what journey does Bob have to take to first separate from and then return to his brother, Jim? What about their relationship has changed? What, if anything, remains the same?

8. What do you think compelled Zach to throw the pig’s head into the mosque?

9. Both Burgess brothers are lawyers. How do their inner lives reflect their very different professional choices?

10. How do Helen and Susan’s roles as mothers define them?

11. How does the Burgess family’s multigenerational history in Shirley Falls add to the siblings’ emotional challenges?

Want more? Stay up to date with Elizabeth on her website and via Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: A DUAL INHERITANCE by Joanna Hershon

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Hershon_Dual Inheritance For readers of Rules of Civility and The Marriage Plot, Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is an engrossing novel of passion, friendship, betrayal, and class—and their reverberations across generations.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Compare the changes in Murray Cantowitz’s neighborhood and in Fishers Island throughout the four parts of the novel. Why is this difference important? How does this dichotomy relate to larger themes of the book?

2. Discuss Connie’s role in the novel. What does she symbolize for Ed? Why is she important?

3. How are Rebecca and Vivi similar to their parents? How are they different? Does their resemblance to their parents remind you of anyone in your life?

4. Photography is a recurring theme throughout the novel. How does it connect the characters? What else connects the characters throughout the generations in the story?

5. Why is the scene where Hugh cuts o! his “ngers so striking for Rebecca? What do you think about their relationship?

6. There are a few points throughout the novel where Ed realizes that, depending on his actions, his entire life could have evolved differently. What are these points? Do life-changing moments exist in your life?

7. On page 33, the president of the club tells Hugh “man is tribal.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

8. For years, Ed continues to love Helen despite all odds. Do you think this type of prolonged unrequited love is possible? What does it mean that Ed is able to cut Hugh out of his life, but not his love for Helen?

9. At the end of the novel, we learn that Rebecca and Vivi have found out about Ed and Helen’s relationship. Do you think that Hugh ever learns the truth?

10. How different are Hugh and Ed from the beginning to the end of the novel? How do they change, if at all?

11. If you had to write a sequel, what would happen next?

12. Of all the themes in the novel— friendship, upbringing, family, love, etc.— which resonates the most with you? Why?

13. After reading this novel, how important do you think inheritance is? What are your thoughts on dual inheritance theory? Have Ed and Hugh challenged your understanding?

Stay connected with Joanna on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Horan_Under the Wide and Starry Sky Nancy Horan has had a big week. Her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, went on sale January 21st. The Today Show selected it as their Book Club Pick. And she has kicked off a great book tour!

If you and your book club are reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, then we have the discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Discussion Questions:

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any points in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and RLS enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. Take a look at John Singer Sargent’s painting “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885; currently in the Steve Wynn collection). What do you think of his portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does RLS do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does is not that of an artist. He tells her, “No one should be offended if it is said that he is not an artist. The only person who should be insulted by such an observation is an artist who supports his family with his work.” Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art? Do you agree with her views?

We can’t wait to hear what you think! Join the conversation with us on our Facebook page or with Nancy Horan.

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for THE DEEPEST SECRET by Carla Buckley

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Buckley_Deepest Secret Book clubs: get ready for this one! There is much to discuss with Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret (on sale February 4). We have the discussion questions for you and your book club to enjoy.

For fans of Jodi Picoult, Kim Edwards, and William Landay, The Deepest Secret is part intimate family drama, part gripping page-turner, exploring the profound power of the truths we’re scared to face . . . about our marriages, our children, and ourselves.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What did you think of Eve’s decision not to say anything the night of the accident? Do you think she made the best of a terrible situation, or that she should have confessed immediately? Do you think she might not have confessed if Melissa hadn’t been a suspect, and if Tyler hadn’t planted evidence framing Robbie?

2. Charlotte ultimately says to David that if it were “Tyler lying there and Amy who needed saving…If it were my Amy—I’d have done just what Eve did.” (421) What would you do in the face of such a situation?

3. Discuss the novel’s title, The Deepest Secret. How does it apply to the story? The author stresses that it is human nature to try and keep secrets. But do you think it’s true that all secrets will eventually come out, that it’s also in human nature to want to know—and, to a certain extent, want to confess?

4. The relationship between Tyler and Eve is the backbone of the novel, but it’s a complicated one. Describe the arc of their relationship from the beginning to the end. Were you surprised to find that they were ultimately quite similar in their drive to protect their family?

5. At one point, David reflects that, “Now he sees the grays, the blurry lines. He understands how loneliness might drive a person to make terrible choices.” (171) Do you agree with David’s assessment? What do you feel the novel says about loneliness and its impact on our actions?

6. Holly asks Tyler, “Do you think it’s better to have dreams and lose them, or not have dreams at all?” (178) How would you respond?

7. Throughout the book, there is the recurring idea that we can’t ever truly know what another person is capable of. Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

8. Tyler slips through the night, observing people when they believe they are alone, and is surprised by what he finds. Do you think, in the moments where we are unobserved, we are all different people? That we are more ourselves? How much of our personalities are defined by how others see us?

9. What did you think of the author’s portrayal of parenthood and parent/child relationships? Did it resonate with you?

10. How much of a factor did Eve’s age/experience play into your sympathies for her or lack thereof? If it had been Melissa who had hit Amy, would you have viewed the situation differently? If so, in what ways?

11. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?

12. Mourning and loss are themes of the book. How does loss—or the anticipation of loss—affect certain character’s decisions?

13. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?

Connect with Carla Buckley on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: THE AVIATOR’S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Benjamin_Aviator's WifeIn the spirit of Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, acclaimed novelist Melanie Benjamin pulls back the curtain on the marriage of one of America’s most extraordinary couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

“The history is exhilarating. . . . The Aviator’s Wife soars. . . . Anne Morrow Lindbergh narrates the story of the Lindberghs’ troubled marriage in all its triumph and tragedy.”—USA Today

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The epigraph for this novel is from Antoine de Saint- Exupéry who, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was both a celebrated
author and a noted aviator. Do you agree with his statement, “One must look with the heart”? What do you think that means? And do you think it means something different to an artist (author) as opposed to a scientist (aviator)?

2. One of the recurring themes is how Anne will choose to remember Charles. How do you think she concludes she’ll
remember him by the end? How does it change?

3. Anne’s father says, “And there’s Anne. Reliable Anne. You never change, my daughter.” (page 11) How does Anne change over the course of this novel? Or does she?

4. How does Anne’s nomadic lifestyle as the daughter of an ambassador later infl uence her concept of “home” with Charles? What do you think defines home?

5. Anne seems to think of herself as an outsider—someone too shy and insular to make a big impression. Do you agree, or do you think Anne misevaluates herself? Do you think this insularity made Anne appealing to Charles, or do you think he was drawn to her because he saw past it? Is Charles an insular character himself, whether by nature or because he was forced into a “celebrity bubble”?

6. “Had there ever been a hero like him, in all of history?” (page 16) Anne starts her description of Charles with hero worship, comparing him to Columbus and Marco Polo. How does her opinion evolve as she comes to know him better? How did your opinion of Charles Lindbergh evolve throughout Anne’s story?

7. The title of this book is, of course, The Aviator’s Wife. Do you think that’s how Anne views herself upon marrying Charles? Do you think she sees that as a role she’s playing, or as a defi ning characteristic of who she is? Does it change over the course of the book?

8. Have you ever been up in a biplane? Do you think you would ever go, even with an expert aviator at the controls?

9. Compare the relationships Anne has with the men in her life: her brother, Dwight; her father; and Charles.

10. What right to privacy do you think a public figure should have? Can a public fi gure decide what parts of his or her life stay private?

11. Have you ever met someone famous? Did he/she live up to your expectations?

12. Do you think Charles and Anne were in love? Why or why not? Did that change over time?

13. Do you think you could keep the secrets that Anne keeps from her children? Why or why not?

14. What do you think fl ying represents to Anne? How does it compare with writing? Which do you think is more important to Anne?

15. Do you think Charles Lindbergh was a good husband in any ways? What do you think makes for a good partner?

16. Is Anne a hero? Why or why not?

17. If you could ask Anne one question, what would it be?

18. How does Anne’s relationship with her family change after she marries Charles?

19. How would you react to the scrutiny by the press that Anne and Charles endured? Would you want to be famous if it
meant being constantly under the microscope? Would you answer differently if there weren’t social media outlets but
the same type of newspapers and newsreels from Anne and Charles’s lifetime?

Stay connected with Melanie on Facebook and Twitter.

Discussion Questions: ZEALOT by Reza Aslan

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Aslan_Zealot Read the book everyone is buzzing about for your next book club discussion! Reza Aslan, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book Zealot, prepared these discussion questions for you and your book club.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What is the difference in the ancient mind between Fact and Truth?

2. Discuss the Jewish definition of Messiah. Was this a religious or political office, or both?

3. Define the roles of the Jewish priestly hierarchy in Judea. How would a typical Galilean family like Jesus’ view this group?

4. How did Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth lead him to a deeper understanding of social justice?

5. Discuss the Roman occupation? How did this political context shape Jesus’ outlook and actions?

6. What role did the Temple of Jerusalem play in the lives of the Jews in Jesus’ time?

7. With the above questions in mind, how do the words of the Gospels reflect Jesus’ relationship with both the Romans and the Jewish hierarchy and his call for social justice?

8. After Jesus’ death, his followers formed two separate camps based on two competing interpretations of his teachings. What are your thoughts on James and Paul?

9. How did James’ and Paul’s differences form the Christian church we know today? Why do you think Paul’s interpretation flourished?

Learn more about Zealot
Join the conversation with the author on Twitter

Discussion Questions: A THOUSAND PARDONS by Jonathan Dee

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Dee_A Thousand PardonsIf you or your book club is planning a discussion of Jonathan Dee’s novel A Thousand Pardons, then we have some questions to kickstart the meeting!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Scandals seem to be perennially topical. Did you see any parallels in the novel with real-life events?

2. Jonathan Dee’s novels are often described as social critiques. Do you think A Thousand Pardons should be interpreted that way? If so, what is the author criticizing?

3. Helen has a special gift for making powerful men apologize. Why do people respond the way they do to these apologies?

4. Why is Sara drawn to Cutter? Does it have anything to do with why Helen was drawn to Hamilton?

5. Hamilton asks Helen for forgiveness but she thinks, “His whole life was a Method performance, a dream within a dream, but whatever he wanted from her, however preposterous, she was not free to refuse him.” What transaction is being completed when she kisses him?

6. How did Sara’s relationships with each of her parents change throughout the course of the book? Did you find Sara to be sympathetic?

7. Do you think Hamilton will ever find out the truth about what hap- pened to Bettina? Why does Helen hope that he never will?

8. By end of the book, Ben and Helen find themselves back where they started, at the house on Meadow Close. Have they come full circle? How have they grown or changed over the course of the novel?

9. Do you think Sara orchestrated her parents’ reunion? If not, what brought Ben and Helen back together?

10. Do the characters in the novel deserve to be forgiven for their vari- ous transgressions?

11. Was the ending satisfying? What do you think will happen next?

12. Is there anyone in your life who should issue a public apology? Or to whom you’d like to apologize?

Discussion Questions: SISTERLAND by Curtis Sittenfeld

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Sittenfeld_Sisterland“A smart and sophisticated portrait . . . Sittenfeld has an astonishing gift for creating characters that take up residence in readers’ heads.”—The Washington Post

Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel SISTERLAND goes on sale June 25, 2013 but we have an exclusive sneak peek into the novel with discussion questions for you and your book club. Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Do Kate and Jeremy have a good marriage?

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

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

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

THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE by Ellen Sussman, a Reader’s Guide

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Sussman_The Paradise Guest House_TPA Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Michelle Richmond
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog and No One You Know and the founder of Fiction Attic Press. She lives in Northern California. Her new novel is forthcoming from Bantam.

Michelle Richmond: The Paradise Guest House is loosely based on terrorist bombings that rocked Bali in 2002. So often, we hear about these tragic events, they linger briefly on the edge of our consciousness, and then, very quickly, we forget. What was it about the Indonesia attacks that compelled you to write this story?

Ellen Sussman: My husband and I visited Bali right after the terrorist attacks. Friends suggested we cancel our trip but we were determined to see the country. In some ways it was the best of times and the worst of times. There were very few tourists—-great for us, lousy for Bali. The landscape is astonishingly beautiful but it felt haunted by the horror of those bombings. The Balinese themselves, famous for their smiles and for their peaceful outlook on life, were clearly suffering. The country was struggling to understand what had happened to them and to learn how to move on.

It was the plight of the Balinese that captured my attention. Unlike the rest of us, they couldn’t forget what had happened to their lovely country. They’re still struggling with the consequences of those terrible acts of violence ten years later. In writing The Paradise Guest House, I wanted to take a closer look at terrorism and how it affects us. I also wanted to examine our notion of paradise and why we’re so drawn to places like Bali. There’s a wild disconnect between that act of terrorism and the beauty of Bali. As difficult as it was, I wanted to live there in my imagination.

MR: You spent time in Bali with survivors and family members of the victims. How did your conversations and relationships with these people shape your story? Are any of the characters in your book directly inspired by real–life persons?

ES: When I returned to Bali years later I contacted an organization called YKIP. They arranged the interviews, and a lovely young woman, Ida (Sri Damayanti), accompanied me as interpreter. I could not have written The Paradise Guest House without that experience. I got a chance to talk to many survivors and family members of the victims. One woman took me into her one–room house, held her baby in her lap, and described her struggle to survive after she was severely burned in the bombing. Another woman talked about waiting for her husband to come home the night of the bombings—-many years had passed, but she could still barely tell the story. Her young daughter stepped in and, holding her mother’s hand, described the way the village took care of them for the weeks after her father was killed when he drove his motorcycle by the clubs that night. The stories I heard made the event real for me—-they put a very personal face on the tragedy. I’m so appreciative to all of those brave people who shared their stories with me.

It’s odd—-none of those people directly inspired the creation of my fictional characters, and yet all of them did. They whispered to me every day as I wrote, urging me on.

MR: In your bestselling novel, French Lessons, you explored the magical city of Paris. Bali holds a different kind of magic—-a lush green landscape that, for all its beauty, cannot help but remind Jamie of the tragedy she witnessed there. What role has travel played in your life, and how have your experiences abroad made you a better writer?

ES: I lived abroad for five years, something I’d recommend to absolutely everyone! The experience changes you—-it helps you understand who you are in a way that you can’t quite grasp if you’ve never left your home country. And it gives you a perspective on the world—-how big it is, how diverse, how complicated—-that we Americans, especially, often fail to appreciate.

I was in my early thirties when I lived in Paris for five years—-since then I’ve traveled a great deal. I’ve spent time in Bhutan, Thailand, Argentina, Italy, Morocco, Peru, Spain, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, and many other wonderful places. I travel to learn the world and to learn myself. I travel so that my eyes are always wide open.

It’s funny—-a writer has to have a kind of split personality. We live our lives and take notes on our experiences, watching it even as it happens. (I once read that Philip Roth took notes at his grandmother’s funeral!) Traveling strengthens that ability for me. My senses are heightened in foreign lands, my attention is sharp. Even as I’m having a grand time, part of me is observing, tucking images and memories away for use in my fiction. And it’s not always a grand time—-we come up against all kinds of obstacles in unfamiliar places. That’s rich material for me.

I leave tomorrow for a hiking trip in the Pyrenees. In January I’m headed to Chile. What am I searching for? More. More of the world, more rich experiences, more insight into myself. I need it for every novel I write.

MR: Do you travel to places that you want to write about, or do you write about places to which you have traveled?

ES:
Both. I didn’t know that I’d write about Bali when I first traveled there. I had the idea for the novel by the time my vacation ended—-and that idea wouldn’t let go. Years later I went back to spend a month there so that I could learn Bali as well as I could.

When I’m traveling I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to return to that country for a longer research trip!

MR: A few years ago, you edited the well–received anthology Bad Girls. There’s a nod to that book in The Paradise Guest House, when Jamie goes swimming with the niece of her host and a posse of “Indonesian bad girls.” While Jamie’s acts in the immediate aftermath of the bombing are heroic, in the days that follow, she does not exactly follow the “good girl” path. I thought it was brave of you to have Jamie respond in a way that, in its realism and complexity, might cast her, for some readers, in a negative light. What inspired you to write Jamie’s relationship with Gabe in the way that you did?

ES: I’m so glad you asked that question—-I’m sure this will be a controversial issue for many readers. As far as my “bad girl” inclinations, it’s true that I’m willing to break rules or to take chances in my fiction that might displease some readers. I believe Jamie’s actions in the days after the bombing. I also believe that when two people meet each other during chaos or tragedy their connection can run very deep. It might move them to surprising actions. (I’m trying not to give anything away here! Please read the novel before you read this interview!)

But I will say this: I read that more babies were born in Manhattan nine months after 9/11 than at any other time.

Sometime it’s our ability to connect deeply with another person that saves us.

MR: In a previously published autobiographical essay, you write about jumping naked into the ocean as your first husband and his shocked colleagues looked on. In The Paradise Guest House, Jamie dives into the sea. For a moment she considers disrobing, but she recalls that she is a foreigner in Bali, and she isn’t a teenager anymore. Are you, like Jamie, particularly drawn to water? Beyond that, how much of yourself do you find in the character of Jamie, and in what ways do you differ?

ES: Funny that you picked up on that! I put together a collection of short stories when I was in high school and I only noticed after I read it as a whole that swimming featured in every story! (And skinny–dipping was pretty common.) I’m not a great swimmer, but I love hot tubs and baths and floating in the pool. And yes, I prefer all of that without my clothes on. (Note to neighbors: our fences are very high.) There’s something so sensual about the water, and so soothing.

As for Jamie and me—-well, she might be a version of who I wish I had been at her age. She’s more independent than I am—-tougher, scrappier, and even more athletic. I’m probably just as competitive, though! If I could start over, I’d love to be an adventure guide, traveling the world.

MR: The book has a beautiful economy. As a writer, I’m very curious how many pages or chapters were left on the editing–room floor. How different is the finished novel from the first draft? Did you lose any characters or scenes that, at some point in the writing of the book, seemed essential?

ES: Oh, you can’t imagine the cutting–room floor on this one! Gabe had a new wife and a baby—-poor things got trashed along with an offer of marriage by Nyoman. The mistakes I made! The drafts that no one will ever see! After one draft I started over completely—-without even looking at the previous draft. It’s never easy. We writers think we learn how novels get written and then the next novel changes all the rules of the game. Grrrr. But I suppose that’s best—-it’s learning how to write each new novel that keeps us fresh and creative.

MR: There is an incredibly harrowing scene in which you describe the bombings and the immediate aftermath. What kind of research did you do to write this scene? Also, when you’ve written an emotionally exhausting scene such as this one, how do you step out of your writing mindset and reenter your life with family and friends? Do residual emotions from the fictional world you’re so immersed in linger as you go about your day?

ES: I did a great deal of research about the bombings in Bali in 2002. In addition to my conversations with survivors, I read many firsthand accounts that I found in books, articles, and on the Internet. I looked at horrifying photos, mostly on the Internet. And yes, it haunted me day in and day out. When I went to visit the memorial site in Bali, I was as shocked as Jamie on her visit: I expected to see the scenes of those clubs ravaged and burned.

I’m the kind of person who works hard and lives hard. At the end of a writing day, I put the project aside and immerse myself in my daily life with family and friends. But during the writing of The Paradise Guest House, I did have my share of nightmares. I felt a little like Jamie, unable to tuck the experience away.

MR: This novel is coming out soon after the publication of French Lessons. Do you work on more than one book at a time, or do you completely finish a book before moving on to the next?

ES: I can work on only one book at a time. I immerse myself so thoroughly in the world of the novel that it would be impossible for me to switch gears. But I do like to know what my next project is—-so that it’s brewing somewhere in the back of my mind. That way, when one is done I’m ready to dive into the next. (I’m happiest when I’m writing. Really.)

I’m able to write quickly because I’m a very disciplined writer. I write every day, five or six days a week. I produce one thousand words a day, and I move through a first draft pretty steadily. I love living in the world of that first draft. I turn off the noise of my critical brain and just luxuriate in the storytelling. It’s the many rewrites that are grueling for me.

MR: We all want to know: What’s your next destination, and what’s your next book?

ES: I’m back to France, though this time I’ve landed in the south of France. It’s too soon to say much about the novel. I’m really in the discovery phase—-who are these people? What will happen to them? What draws me into their circle? But I’ll say this much: There’s a wedding. And there’s mayhem.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Jamie works as an adventure guide, but her experiences in Bali left her with panic attacks and a fear of crowds. If you were Jamie, would you have been able to go back to Bali? Have you ever had to return to the scene of some difficulty in your life?

2. What do you think helped Jamie more—-coming back to the site of her trauma for healing or searching for the man who helped save her life?

3. Jamie gives Bambang a chance even after the wallet–stealing incident. What does that say about Jamie?

4. Nyoman tells Jamie, “I will be your Ganesh,” referring to the statue in his garden of the Hindu deity with the head of an elephant, who is said to protect his believers from demons. In what ways did Nyoman protect Jamie? And how did her presence at the Paradise Guest House change him?

5. Jamie sees her boss, Larson, as a father figure of sorts. What does she see in him that she doesn’t see in her biological father?

6. What did you make of Jamie’s rejection of Miguel’s proposal?

7. How might Jamie and Gabe’s shared experiences in the bombing have changed their feelings for each other? Do you think they would have felt the same way if they had met under different circumstances? Do you think that a relationship that is created during a traumatic event might have a deeper bond?

8. Do you see Gabe’s time in Bali as his way of running from what happened in Boston with his son, Ethan, or as his running to something unknown and new? Or both?

9. How did Gabe’s response to the bombing differ from Jamie’s? How did it differ from that of the residents of Bali?

10. What did you think of the structure of the book? How did the alternating sections from 2002 and 2003 work to advance the narrative in unusual or unexpected ways?

11. There are many themes in this novel—-love, healing, second chances. What struck you as the most important theme? What do you think was ultimately the book’s lesson?

12. What do you imagine happens after the end of the novel?

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