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George Bishop, author of LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER, on writing from a woman’s point of view

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Letter to My DaughterDuring visits to bookstores and book clubs, I’ve often been asked by readers how I was able to write Letter to My Daughter from a woman’s point of view. Obviously, I’m not a woman, and I don’t even have a daughter. So how did I manage to get inside the narrator’s head and skin, both the adult Laura (who’s anxiously awaiting word from her runaway daughter) and the teenage Laura (who’s falling in love for the very first time)? How did I realistically portray what she felt and thought at two very different moments in her life?

First of all, I should admit that what I’ve done isn’t that unusual in fiction. Look at any novel written in the standard omniscient third person (he said, she said, they said), and you’ll see that the author likely speaks through a whole world of characters who do not share his or her gender, let alone age, nationality, race, or profession. James Patterson does this. Dan Brown does this. J. K. Rowling does this. (Stephanie Meyer doesn’t.)

Still, I understand how readers might wonder how a writer can pull off this kind of ventriloquist act. For me, the challenge lies not so much in capturing the larger emotions of a person or situation, but in rendering the smaller idiosyncratic thoughts and gestures of a character.

bishop_georgeThink of universal feelings such as hope, fear, fury, jealousy, love. I’m convinced that people everywhere, no matter their gender, no matter their environment, experience these feelings the same way. The frustration felt by a billionaire Wall Street banker unable to close a deal is the same as the frustration felt by a Mumbai rickshaw driver who’s stuck in traffic and can’t get to his fare. In Letter to My Daughter, it wasn’t that difficult for me to wiggle into these broader feelings that Laura has—her anguish, her regret, her joy. I know those feelings. We all do.

The hard part, though, is in getting the particulars right. What features, for example, does a fifteen-year-old girl notice when she looks at a boy she admires? I’m pretty sure they’re not the same features that a boy notices when he looks at a girl. Or how does a teenage girl react when she’s being grounded by her parents—her actions, her thoughts, her arguments—as opposed to how I might have reacted in a similar situation when I was a teenager?

This is where the real work of fiction writing comes in. For me, the only way to accomplish it is through deep and careful imagining. I try to put myself in that person’s skin and see, hear, and feel what they see, hear, and feel, from the inside out, as it were. The danger always, the lazy way to do it, is to write from the outside in—to sketch a generalized picture of “a teenage girl having a fight with her parents,” for instance, by using what we’ve all seen before in books or movies or on TV.

Of course, writing from the inside out of a character is still no guarantee that I, or any writer, will get the details right. But when, by happenstance and deep imagining, this kind of writing succeeds, the result is that we as readers forget for a moment who we are, who the writer is, and even where we are, and for a few blissful pages we’re able to disappear completely into a different body in a different world.

Discuss George Bishop’s debut novel LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Now, imagine Laura’s answers.

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

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

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