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Discussion Questions: Remember Me Like This

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Remember Me Like This TR coverFour years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.

Here are some discussion questions below to guide your book club,

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

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

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

4. The novel takes place during a humid summer in South Texas, and Johnston asks the reader to pay a lot of attention to the heat and weather. How does this setting relate to the themes of the book?

5. Early in the novel, the reader learns that Cecil believes love can be shown through not disclosing what you know. Do you agree with him? What role do secrets play in the book?

6. Are Eric and Laura good parents? In what ways do their actions support or undermine each other’s? What would you have done differently in their shoes?

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

8. Most of the novel takes place in Southport, a small coastal town with a tightly knit community. How does that sense of closeness and isolation play into the story? How does the realization that, geographically, Justin was never that far away affect the Campbells?

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

10. In your own family, do you think you’re more like Eric or more like Laura?

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

12. Do you think Buford’s father is being honest with Cecil about just wanting one last day on the water with his family? Why or why not?

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

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

Q&A: Bret Anthony Johnston and Elizabeth McCracken

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Remember Me Like This TR cover

Four years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.

Then, one afternoon, the impossible happens. The police call to report that Justin has been found only miles away, in the neighboring town, and, most important, he appears to be fine. Though the reunion is a miracle, Justin’s homecoming exposes the deep rifts that have diminished his family, the wounds they all carry that may never fully heal. Trying to return to normal, his parents do their best to ease Justin back into his old life. But as thick summer heat takes hold, violent storms churn in the Gulf and in the Campbells’ hearts. When a reversal of fortune lays bare the family’s greatest fears—and offers perhaps the only hope for recovery—each of them must fight to keep the ties that bind them from permanently tearing apart. Read a Q&A between author of Remember Me Like This, Bret Anthony Johnston and author of Thunderstruck, Elizabeth McCracken.

Elizabeth McCracken: In Remember Me Like This you write beautifully about Corpus Christi, your hometown. How did you manage to evoke a place you knew so well without becoming overwhelmed with details and memories?

Bret Anthony Johnston: As a reader and writer, I’m interested in stories that can only happen in a specific place. If I can imagine a story taking place anywhere else than the place I’m writing or reading about, then something feels off. In some ways, for me, place is the story.

The only thing I knew was that the heat would be relentless, inescapable. Chekhov advised writers to make sad stories cold, and I wanted to flip that logic. I wanted the summer heat of South Texas to exact the kind of pressure on my characters that the Russian winters exacted on his. Beyond that, I waded into the story with nothing more than curiosity. I didn’t aim to render a landscape that I know well, but rather to dismiss what I know and perceive the place solely through the senses of the Campbell family.

In each subsequent draft of the novel, the setting insisted itself in a more significant way and I worked hard to empathize with the characters, to see the place as only they would. A mother who feels estranged from her family will view a barrier island differently than a boy who was kidnapped and living within forty miles of his parents. They will both view the bay, the green-gray water that would have been visible from their respective windows every day of the ordeal, through revelatory lenses. Getting the place right mattered far less to me than making it interesting. Any resemblance to the actual geography of the area is almost coincidental.

EM: The switching point of view in Remember Me Like This is so intimate with each character, while never seeming claustrophobic or narrow. Was there one character who came easier, whom you were gladder to be with?

BAJ: I knew the novel needed multiple perspectives, knew that it had to be refracted through different consciousnesses, if I had any hope of rendering the story in a way that rewarded the reader’s attention. The characters needed to have blind spots and secrets, and I wanted the reader to feel both part of the family and estranged, which is how they feel toward each other and toward Justin. What characters notice and don’t notice is endlessly interesting to me, and regardless of what’s included or neglected, I see point of view as an invitation. I wanted the reader to care for these characters, to empathize with them. I wanted them to see that the characters were facing choices where no answer was clearly right, and I wanted them to embrace the characters after they’d made a decision that was clearly wrong.

None of the characters were easy to inhabit, not even close, but the one I enjoyed and identified with the most is Cecil. That I have so much in common with a widowed grandfather who hides a pistol under the seat of his truck was news to me. But I really did cotton to him. We’re both methodical and patient to a sometimes infuriating degree, and while I was writing the novel, I came to have very real compassion for him. I wouldn’t have handled all of the trouble the way he does, but I understand his reasoning. When I was working on his chapters and scenes, I felt a sense of following around an older, braver, and more desperate version of myself. In a complicated way, I might have even looked up to him.

EM: What was the earliest inspiration, the earliest glimmer, of the book?

: When I was much younger, living in South Texas, I volunteered to help rehabilitate a beached dolphin, exactly as Laura does in the novel. I always wanted to volunteer for one of the overnight shifts, but despite the rescue coordinator saying how difficult they were to fill, none were ever available. This really made an impression on me, and for years I wondered who was volunteering for these notoriously hard shifts. Little by little, the character crystallized in my imagination. I thought of a woman with insomnia, a woman who wanted to volunteer when no one would see her, a woman who longed to serve in private.

But I didn’t know why she couldn’t sleep, what was keeping her up, and I started thinking about a beach ball that someone had brought in for my dolphin when I was volunteering. I realized that this character that I’d been imagining for decades would be the kind of woman who’d bring in a beach ball for the dolphin. The problem was that I associate beach balls with children, and in all the years of thinking of Laura, I’d never conceived of her having children. That’s when it clicked. I realized that her son was missing—in my mind, though certainly not in hers—and it was his beach ball. It was his breath inside of it, not hers, and she was trying to save the dolphin because she thought she’d failed to save him. Suddenly, I knew I had a book. I never wanted to write a book about kidnapping or being lost, but through the writing, I realized that I was very interested in the complexities of a story about being found.

EM: When you were writing this book, did you have a clear vision of how everything would unfold, or were there moments when the characters surprised you?

BAJ: I’m a writer—and a reader—who craves surprise. I write toward it. If I know how a story will unfold, let alone how it will end, I can’t bring myself to start writing it. For me to enter a story, I have to sense the potential for discovery, for illumination, for surprise. I want stories to be smarter than I am. I want them to know more than I do, as both a reader and a writer. I want them to lead me toward revelation. I fear all of that sounds fancy and highfalutin, but practically speaking, it translates to countless hours of writing and rewriting and hundreds of pages being discarded.

But, yes, Remember Me Like This surprised me at almost every turn. I had no idea how the book would end, or what roles the characters would play in how everything unfolds. I was as surprised by the characters’ potential for violence as I was by their potential for grace and compassion. Each surprise felt like a gift to me, even when it required months of rewriting, and I hope the readers feel equally rewarded.

EM: The only character whose point of view we don’t see is Justin’s. What informed your choice to focus on the other family members?

BAJ: A few critics, bless their hearts, have very kindly suggested that I avoided Justin’s point of view (and thus the raw, firsthand descriptions of what he endured) to intensify the reading experience—the idea being that, by leaving out his perspective and the details of his abuse, I would force readers to imagine what happened to him, and what they could imagine would be far worse, far more terrifying and disturbing, than what actually happened. I don’t think there’s a shred of truth to this line of thinking. What happened to Justin is infinitely worse than most of us could ever conceive. But, like his family, the reader is trapped in the not-knowing, which is its own particular kind of menace. They aren’t allowed to ask him the questions they want to, aren’t allowed access to his thoughts and feelings, so neither are we. I wanted the reader to occupy the same space that his parents and grandfather and brother do. I aimed to initiate the reader into that community.

And, speaking of surprises, I will say that when I first started writing the book, I assumed Justin would get a POV. I thought he would be in the mix, but it soon became clear that he wasn’t ready to talk about what had happened. He wasn’t offering anything of that nature to anyone except Griff, and I didn’t want to pry. I refused to invade his privacy. He’s been through enough already.

EM: Griff and Justin are both skateboarders, and I know that you have been a serious skateboarder for over twenty years. What was it like to bring a culture you know so well onto the page?

BAJ: Extremely difficult! The skateboarding sections were shockingly hard to write for exactly that reason—because I know that culture so well. In one draft, I would have pages of unnecessary (but awesome) descriptions of skating; I would get drunk on the language and material and just throw in everything I knew, things that the reader would neither understand nor enjoy. It was indulgent and digressive. In the next draft, I’d cut the sections down to the bone, so that even if the reader didn’t have this lifelong history as a skater, the scenes would still make sense. Finding the balance was one of the biggest chores of the book. And yet I always knew that skating would play a part in the boys’ lives. Depending on where you are in the book, skateboarding serves as an escape hatch or a source of confusion, a place to take shelter or a source of pain. It’s also, of course, a solitary endeavor. There are no teams in the typical sense, so you’re fundamentally on your own when you’re learning tricks or choosing whether to get back on your board after a hard fall. To some degree, there’s still a stigma attached to being a skater, too. You are, especially in places like Southport, still viewed as an outcast or misfit, someone who doesn’t fit into normal society. All of these things resonated with me in light of what the family has survived. A number of really savvy readers have pointed out that the book pays a fair amount of attention to the coping at the top of the Teepee Motel pool. In reality, pool coping is the row of cement blocks that form the lip around the uppermost edge of the bowl; it’s what you hold on to as you pull yourself out of the pool after swimming. But in the book, according to certain readers, the word “coping” takes on a more nuanced definition. It’s a word I’ve heard all my life as a skater—coping, coping, coping—but the novel was almost done before I started hearing that piece of language as it would apply to Griff and Justin and their family. Who knew? Not me. I couldn’t have planned something like that. I wouldn’t want to. I’d rather wait for the book to surprise me, to change the way I view—and hear—the life around me.

EM: What surprised you most about the book, both writing and afterward?

BAJ: There were a lot surprises while I was writing Remember Me Like This. The characters surprised me often, which was exhilarating and comforting, and the ending of the novel was a huge surprise. I absolutely thought the book would end differently. I’d been writing toward a different conclusion, and when the book went in another (and altogether better) direction, I felt that rare and beautiful rush of surprise that comes when you think you’ve been lost but realize you’ve been on the right path all along.

Maybe the biggest surprise, though, has come from the reaction of the booksellers, reviewers, and early readers. People have been so incredibly supportive and, well, interested in the book. I’ve always been enormously grateful to the people who’ve read my work, but I would never risk the dream of such an enthusiastic response for the novel. I’m always surprised to have any readership at all, so to have so many people, so early, support the book in this way feels outlandish. For all the years that I was working on the book, my only goal was to write the book that I’d want to read. That so many others seem to want read the same book isn’t just surprising, it’s humbling. It’s the kind of response that makes you feel less alone in the world, and I’m not sure we can ask our books—the ones we write and the ones we read—for anything more.

A new book club gem: Melanie Benjamin’s Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

978-0-385-34415-9IN HER NATIONAL BESTSELLER ALICE I HAVE BEEN, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength. Full of history and intriguing relationships, this book is perfect for book clubs, so here is a handy Reading Group Guide to help move along the discussion.

Also, be sure to check out Kathy Patrick’s Beauty and the Book chat with author Melanie Benjamin for more about the novel:

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin: Reading Group Guide Questions

1. What are the parallels between Vinnie’s celebrity and the definition of celebrity today?

2. Why did Vinnie determine to only communicate her optimism – what was she trying to hide behind, or hide from herself, by choosing not to dwell on the many obstacles in her way?

3. Why did Vinnie go along with Barnum’s humbug concerning the infant?

4. Which is the true love story of the book – the story of Vinnie and Barnum, Vinnie and Charles, Vinnie and Minnie, or Vinnie and the public?

5. Why do you think the notion of the Tom Thumb wedding so swept the nation that, even today, there are reenactments with children?

6. What was the most interesting historical fact in the book for you?  Which was the most startling?

7. Sylvia points out a photograph in the window of a store.  It’s of PT Barnum.  “Really?”  I was surprised and, I confess, a little disappointed; the man in the photograph looked so very…ordinary.  Curly hair parted on the side, a wide forehead, a somewhat bulbous nose, an unremarkable smile.  He resembled any man I might have passed in the street; he certainly did not resemble a world-famous impresario.  Colonel Wood, I had to admit, looked much more the part than did this man (p. 88). Vinnie is used to people making immediate assumptions about her based on her appearance.  What assumptions, though, does Vinnie make about people for the same reasons?  Are pre-conceived notions about people something that is ingrained in us?

8. What do you think it means to live one’s life in the public eye, as Vinnie and Charles did?  How would you react to being scrutinized by the press for your every action?  Compare how you may have felt in Vinnie’s day compared to today’s twenty-four hour news and gossip cycle.

9. For Vinnie, what do you think was the best part of being famous?  What was the worst?

10. Toward the end of her stage career, Vinnie asks herself, “had I ever been simply Lavinia Warren Stratton?  To anyone—even myself?” (p. 385) Do you think Vinnie chose this life for herself, or did she essentially hop on a ride and couldn’t get off?  Was the price she had to pay for her fame and fortune her own chosen identity?

An interview with Monica McInerney, author of At Home with the Templetons

Friday, April 8th, 2011

At Home with TempletonsRandom House Reader’s Circle: How did you come up with the idea for this book? And how long did it take you to write it?

Monica McInerney: The starting point for the novel was the idea of life in a stately home tourist attraction—or more to the point, the idea of after- hours life there. I’ve always loved the idea of what goes on behind the scenes in places like restaurants and bed & breakfasts (as I wrote about in Greetings from Somewhere Else), or in hotels (The Alphabet Sisters), or even businesses like travel agencies (Family Baggage). What I love exploring is what happens when the public have gone home, when the polite facade is dropped, when reality takes over. And what could be more intriguing than a stately home run as a living museum by a family who appear to have arrived quite out of nowhere? In the early stages of writing, I visited a stately home in the north of England. As I toured the huge rooms with the rest of the group, I as struck by how little anyone listened to the guide. People seemed to be whispering to one another about what they’d had for breakfast, what they wanted for lunch, where they’d be going next, while the poor guide kept valiantly reciting facts and figures about the history of the house and the family who had lived in it for centuries. I remember thinking, That guide could be telling these people anything—making it up as he goes along, in fact—for all the attention they’re paying him. And so the idea for the rest of the novel was born. . . . I thought about the novel for more than six months before I started writing it, imagining my ideal stately home, deciding where to locate it, casting my characters, plotting my story. The actual writing took twelve months. I watched the four seasons pass by through my Dublin office window, looking out at a rainy Irish summer, a crisp, windy autumn, the low dark skies of winter—Ireland’s coldest in years—the streets outside covered in snow, me at my desk with a hot water bottle on my lap. Spring arrived as I was doing the final edits.

RHRC: By the end of At Home with the Templetons, the main characters are spread out around the world, living in places like Australia, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States. What is it that draws you to these locales? Do you do a lot of traveling yourself ? And is there much research involved?

MM: I’ve definitely drawn on my own travel experiences in At Home with the Templetons. I visited nearly all the McInerney_Monicaplaces featured in the book—some specifically for research (Yorkshire, Scotland, Sligo, the goldfields of Australia), others I’d been to for different reasons and then decided to use as locations. For example, I was in Chicago and Woodstock on a book tour in 2008 and knew within minutes of arriving in both places that I wanted to feature them as locations for this book. My research initially involves a lot of walking around, taking photos, talking to local people—general sightseeing on the surface, but there’s always another sound track playing in my mind, imagining my characters walking those same streets, seeing what I’m seeing, eating in the same restaurants, talking to the same people. . . . I rely on memory rather than photographs once I’m back at my desk writing, but then I go back to the photos and guidebooks during the editing process to make sure I have my facts right.

RHRC: You tend to write about large families. Did you grow up in a big family? And were there any similarities to the Templetons?

MM: I’m the middle child in a family of seven, and grew up in what I’d call a cauldron of words—there was always lots of action, drama, conversations, and laughter in our house. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my novels are always full of characters—as I know well, the more people there are, the more drama unfolds, often in very unexpected ways. Like the Templetons, I grew up in quite an unusual house—the railway stationmaster’s house in Clare, South Australia. It was a long way from being a stately home in the Victorian goldfields, but it was a beautiful, big house (it needed to be, for the nine of us), located on the edge of the town, up on a height, across from the railway station, beside the hills, with a large, rambling terraced garden. Living in a distinctive house definitely left its mark on me. I loved that it was special, that people knew it as “the railway house,” that it had so many quirks and architectural touches, with its high roof and carved veranda posts, ivy- covered walls, and tree- filled garden. A local person once confessed to my mother that she always used to hurry past our house on winter evenings, convinced it was a haunted house. “It is, but with kids, not ghosts,” Mum sighed. Apart from that, and the fact that there were lots of us, too, there are no real similarities between my family and the Templetons. I’m very careful to make my fictional families as different as possible from my real one!

Check out the rest of our interview with Monica McInerney in the back of the paperback.

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