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Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction’

Reader’s Guide: & SONS by David Gilbert

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Gilbert_AndSons Wouldn’t it be great if David Gilbert, author of & Sons, could join your book club meeting? With these Random House Reader’s Circle discussion questions written by David, it feels like he is there chatting about the book with you! So, if you are planning the next book club discussion then have no fear- David Gilbert has expert questions and topics to facilitate what is sure to be a robust meeting!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. First of all, thank you for reading the book. Want to get that out of the way. A big thanks. One of the scariest things a person can tell me is “Oh, hey, I’m reading your book.” It makes me want to crawl directly into the nearest hole. Funny choice of career. Here I’ve published a book with a big-time publisher—dream come true— and the knowledge that someone might actually read my book makes me cringe to the point of splitting in two. I’m cringing now. The other scary thing you can tell me is “Oh, hey, I read your book,” particularly if you tweak the verb with a raised eyebrow, like a hairy umlaut. I might smile in return and say, Oh Great, that’s great, but in reality I’m performing a private Seppuku ceremony, a thousand doubts the blade. Anyway, discuss vis-à-vis A. N. Dyer and ask yourself, “Why would anyone want to be a writer?”

2. It took me six years to write this book, which seems a ridiculous amount of time. I mean, it’s a kind of a long book, but six years long? At best three years, maybe three and a half while also maintaining a full-time gig with Doctors Without Borders. Now A. N. Dyer hasn’t written a truly new book in something like twenty years (forgive the vagueness, but it’s been a year since I actually read this book). Why do you think he’s stopped writing? I have my ideas, obviously. I think it has something to do with the breakup of his marriage—duh—but also with the birth of his third son, the young Andy. Has this boy perhaps taken on the role of fiction? What is Andy’s relationship with fiction in terms of his relationship with his father? Did I just answer my own question? I don’t think I’m very good at this.

3. You know when you go to the theater and you read the Playbill and there are those bios for the actors and the director and the playwright (I love reading those bios)? Did you know that those bios are actually written by the actors and the director and the playwright? You probably did, but for some reason I didn’t, or not until maybe ten years ago. I just assumed there was a national bio database, very official, probably housed in a suburb of D.C., that fact-checked and sourced and confirmed all this professional information. Yes, yes, Patty St. John did indeed play Fastrada in the Tacoma Players’ 2007 production of Pippin. It wasn’t until I started seeing those personalized messages that suddenly became popular—“Ms. St. John would like to express her gratitude to her Chihuahua Chekhov for teach- ing her how to be human”—that I realized, Wait a sec, these things are actually self-constructed. At first I was shocked. It seemed dubious. And kind of braggy too. How much of this is truly true? But then I found myself digging into these credits, not only to suss out a career but also to suss out a person, and suddenly a deeper appreciation began to emerge from those handmade bios. A trajectory. I mean, how do we compose our lives for public consumption? What do we say? And where are the divergences, the betraying tells? Who is composing who? Or is it whom? And does David Gilbert live in New York City or does he live in Brooklyn or in Queens? Is that a question?

4. I don’t normally like books about writers. A writer writing about a writer writing, well, that sentence alone is tedious. I want to read about someone who does something. Like I wish someone would write the great American novel about scuba diving. That would be cool. Shipwrecks. Sharks. Those giant clams and your foot is suddenly caught. There has to be treasure too. We as a nation deserve a fabulous piece of scuba diving literature. But another book about a writer? And an old privileged white male writer at that? I almost feel as if I should apologize. That said, what interested me was the tension between fiction and life and how we twist our own stories to suit our will. I remember in fifth-grade English class the teacher mentioning in Huck Finn the theme of Appearance Versus Reality, underlined twice on the chalkboard, and I was blown away by the notion—yes, yes, appearance versus reality! It was my Matrix moment. My teenage anthem. Like Jake with Chinatown, it explained all things without explaining a thing. It is, after all, the mother of all themes and introduces by far the most interesting element of any decent piece of writing, the subtext. So: What is the subtext of & Sons? Sorry, that’s a terrible question.

5. Okay, how about this: Who is telling the story? And how is he telling the story? Is this an act of autobiography or an act of fiction, and is there a difference between the two? I mean, we have the one narrator and then we have each chapter divided into three separate character-driven parts (and here I have to acknowledge Richard Powers since I essentially stole that structure from him—a really useful structure by the way, if you’re ever looking for structure— and Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books in the way Zuckerman jumps into other people’s heads yet always remains distinctly individual). I guess the question is: How good a writer is Philip Topping? Also, a follow-up: What writer is the biographer of your life? (For me, it’s Charles Schulz.)

6. Why all the Wizard of Oz allusions? Seriously. I think a lot of readers assume that the writer has relative control of his/her text, but I can tell you that that simply is not true. I mean, that’s not true either, and no need to bring up Derrida or any of the deconstructionists, please God no, though during the eighties I used to say Paul-De-Man instead of You’re Da Man (and got just as many laughs), but in all seriousness, I wrote a draft of this book and looked over it and saw all of these Wizard of Oz references, which I then burnished since it seemed so odd and unexpected and must mean something. So tell me about Dorothy. And Kansas and Oz. Who is the Wicked Witch?

7. Is this tedious?

8. Why did I write this book? Finally, a question for me. I wrote this book because I have a son and a father and I myself am a son and a father and this funhouse mirror effect has been interesting, to say the least. Raising children is an act of love as well as an act of fiction in which the characters slowly free themselves from the supposed author. I remember being scared about having a boy. There seemed so much pressure involved. How would I teach someone how to be a man when I had no idea how to be a man myself? My own father is a wonderful guy, very impressive, an intimidating figure to me when I was growing up, as well as bit distant. He himself was the product of a strict family, raised by a stepfather after his own father’s early death. Anyway, my dad had a successful career in banking, and I remember when I was in my early thirties and just starting my own family, I was at an event and my father had to get up and say a few words and he was as always confident and charming, a commanding presence, and this old friend of his was sitting next to me and she leaned over and said, “It really is amazing, seeing your dad in these situations, so comfortable and at ease, considering how painfully shy he was as a boy. I mean, he could barely look you in the eye and had a bit of stammer. Amazing, the transformation.” Now this surprised me. I’ve always known him as a reserved and self-contained man, a bit unknowable, but never as a shy and awkward boy, and so I remember imagining: What if I could meet him when he was younger, say seventeen? How would my impressions change? That was the impetus behind & Sons. Hence this follow-up question: What if you could meet your father when he was five, or ten, or fifteen, at the height of his vulnerability? How would your feelings for the man change? We all reinvent ourselves with our children.

9. Let’s talk about the book within the book, Ampersand. Go ahead, I’m listening.

10. Okay, the women in the book—I know, what women? But hey, the book’s called & Sons, what did you expect? That said, there are women, in particular Isabel Dyer and Eleanor Topping, and they do play their part. How do these women function within this world of boys (notice I didn’t use the word men)? Does it ring true? I really wanted to make Richard’s wife, Candy, a bigger character and there was a scene in an early outline where she bonded with A. N. Dyer (much to the frustration of Richard), but I couldn’t quite find the narrative space for its inclusion. I’m curious, did I get away with my impersonation of Alice Munro in that Isabel chapter? I’m a fan of her stories and I loved trying to write in her particular style, not just overtly but covertly (and setting some action on a train). That said, is there a deeper purpose to my impersonation? What does it say about the fluid nature of authorship?

11. The novel has a prologue and an epilogue, though thankfully not tagged as prologue and epilogue since I myself always skip prologues and epilogues. I’ve never understood their purpose. Just start the book and end the book. I’ve never read a prologue and said, “Wow, now that’s a great prologue.” And an epilogue is like that awkward encounter with a friend after you say goodbye and depart down the street in the same direction. “Oh, yeah, hey [awkward laugh].” That said, I am guilty of writing a prologue and epilogue (italicized, no less). For me to stoop to this shame, there must be a reason . . . I hope.

12. Does Phillip Topping work as a narrator? I mean, yeah, he’s kind of unreliable, (unreliable narrator is like Subtext 101), but do you believe him? I know, I know, I just said he’s unreliable, but how much of what he says is believable? The same with A. N. Dyer. I know, I know, A. N. Dyer is being filtered through Phillip, his big- gest fan, who at the same time is trying to channel A. N. Dyer—so many layers of fiction. I guess the question is: Who is the dog and who is the tail?

13. Do you like the letters? Regardless, they look great. The Random House interior designers did an incredible job to create that sense of reality. That was very important to me, to maintain a tight grip on the real, just like all the locations in New York and beyond are very real places, the same with the schools. That reality was key. Why do you think I cared so much? Sometimes I think of A. N. Dyer as a spider who has spun his web in the corner of these realities, a beautiful and intricate construction, lovely to behold, and not once does he think of the poor creatures who blindly fly into these traps and find themselves stuck and immobilized, a sudden character in one of his dramas. What stories do you tell yourself about your own life that you know are untrue, those exaggerations that have become fact? How much of who we are is what we steal? And if fiction can bring a family together, do we care about the truth?

14. If you called someone up and told them to come find you in front of your favorite work of art, where would you be standing?

15. With Richard in the beginning, when he’s at the movie studio and feels as if his dreams are about to come true, Richard playing the fantasy forward and then discovering, too late for his ego, that he has misread the situation, can you relate to this mortifying situation? I certainly can. I once thought a girl was madly in love with me but actually she was in love with my best friend— wait, is that me or a movie I saw? How much of our memory is collage? games interest you? If they do, play on.

17. When I started & Sons I wrote a single word on a Post-it note and stuck it to the wall in front of my desk. What was that word? Five dollars to anyone who guesses right.

Have more to say about the book? Connect with David Gilbert on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Johnston_ THIS ONE_ RMLTBret Anthony Johnston is the author of the award-winning Corpus Christi: Stories. This month, his debut novel, Remember Me Like This, hits bookshelves and this is one you must read! This gripping novel has the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels. It introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today.

Random House Reader’s Circle has exclusive book club discussion questions to share with you today! If you and your book club are planning a discussion of this novel, be sure to take a look at the below! And, stay up to date with the author on his Facebook page.

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. Remember Me Like This is rendered through the perspectives of various characters, but never Justin’s. Why do you think Johnston decided not to include his point-of-view? What did 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. Which character did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

3. Johnston alludes to the abuse that Justin endured during his “away life,” but a definitive answer of what he suffered is never offered. Why would he leave that information out?

4. The novel takes place over a hot summer in South Texas and Johnston asks the reader to pay a lot of attention to the heat and weather. How might these choices relate to the themes of the book?

5. What are the themes of Remember Me Like This?

6. Most of the characters have at least one significant secret in the novel. What role do secrets play in the book? 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?

7. Are Eric and Laura good parents? Why or why not?

8. Each of the Campbells seeks different kinds of shelter in the book: Eric is involved in an extra-marital 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 them? What do the shelters reveal about the characters? Do the shelters hold up?

9. Most of the novel takes place in Southport, a small coastal town, and on Mustang Island. Discuss the role of place in the story? Does the isolation of the landscape relate in any way to the characters? If so, how?

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

11. If you are a parent, which parent most resembles you in the novel?

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

13. Do you think Buford’s father was being honest with Cecil about just wanting one last day on the water with his family?

14. 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?

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

Sweepstakes Opportunity: Enter for a Chance to Win THE DINNER by Herman Koch

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Koch_The Dinner Certain appetites run in the family.

Since its publication last year, THE DINNER has become an internationally bestselling phenomenon. It’s the darkly suspenseful, highly controversial tale of two families struggling to make the hardest decision of their lives over the course of one meal—and it’s out now in paperback.

On a summer’s evening in Amsterdam, two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. At first, the conversation is a gentle hum of small talk—the banality of work, the latest movies they’ve seen. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act, one that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children, and as civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love. Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator, this novel reveals the dark side of genteel society and asks what each of us would do in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

The New York Times Book Review calls THE DINNER “a clever, dark confection,” and Gillian Flynn raves, “The Dinner begins with drinks and dark satire, and goes stealthily and hauntingly from there. It’s chilling, nasty, smart, shocking and unputdownable.”

Reading Guide: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Erich Maria Remarque

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Remarque_AllQuiet This month we are revisiting one of the greatest war novels of all time. Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front, is reissued in trade paperback. If you or your book club are looking for great literary fiction this fall, then look no further because Random House Reader’s Circle has the exclusive book club materials to get your discussion going.

“The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.”—The New York Times Book Review

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Kantorek the schoolmaster convinced Paul Bäumer and all his schoolmates to enlist, but Paul’s actual wartime experiences prove to be very different than expected. What effect do you think this had on Paul’s faith in the adult world?

2. As their comrade Kemmerich lies dying in the infirmary, Paul and the other soldiers gather around him to offer encouragement and comfort. But they’re also very concerned about who will get Kemmerich’s boots once he dies. What is the significance of this?

3. Paul muses: We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. What makes this so poignant?

4. What did you make of Himmelstoss’s treatment of the soldiers, and vice versa? How did Paul’s opinion of him change over time?

5. Paul imagines that even being back in the time and place of his happiest memories would be like gazing at the photograph of a dead comrade. Those are his features, it is his face, and the days we spend together take on a mournful life in memory; but the man himself it is not. What did you make of his alienation?

6. When Paul is caught in a trench with a soldier from the other side, he wants to help the man’s family after the war. But later, back among his comrades, he says: “It was only because I had to lie there with him so long . . . After all, war is war.” What does he mean by this?

7. What do you think Paul and his friends hoped to gain on their visits to the French women across the canal? Why is he so disappointed when he realizes that his brunette companion is unimpressed by the fact that she’ll never see him again?

8. Paul’s descriptions of the Russian prisoners of war show evidence of compassion. How have Paul’s attitudes towards the enemy changed over the course of the book?

9. What did you think of the ending?

10. Remarque’s second novel, The Road Back, is about veterans in postwar Germany. If Paul had not died, how do you imagine he would have dealt with the postwar world?

11. A hundred years after WWI, what has changed? What has stayed the same?

12. What do you think Remarque was ultimately trying to say about war?

Giveaway Opportunity: A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Dee_A Thousand Pardons “A Thousand Pardons is that rare thing: a genuine literary thriller. Eerily suspenseful and packed with dramatic event, it also offers a trenchant, hilarious portrait of our collective longing for authenticity in these overmediated times.”—Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

In this sharply observed tale of self-invention and public scandal, Dee raises a trenchant question: what do we really want when we ask for forgiveness?

Once a privileged and loving couple, the Armsteads have now reached a breaking point. Ben, a partner in a prestigious law firm, has become unpredictable at work and withdrawn at home—a change that weighs heavily on his wife, Helen, and their preteen daughter, Sara. Then, in one afternoon, Ben’s recklessness takes an alarming turn, and everything the Armsteads have built together unravels, swiftly and spectacularly.

Thrust back into the working world, Helen finds a job in public relations and relocates with Sara from their home in upstate New York to an apartment in Manhattan. There, Helen discovers she has a rare gift, indispensable in the world of image control: She can convince arrogant men to admit their mistakes, spinning crises into second chances. Yet redemption is more easily granted in her professional life than in her personal one.

As she is confronted with the biggest case of her career, the fallout from her marriage, and Sara’s increasingly distant behavior, Helen must face the limits of accountability and her own capacity for forgiveness.

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Discussion Questions: THE SOLITARY HOUSE by Lynn Shepherd

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Shepherd_The Solitary HouseThe Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd hit bookshelves in paperback on July 30th and we have discussion questions for you and your book club. Don’t forget to check the back of your copy for more exclusive content from Random House Reader’s Circle.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Did the author’s rendering of London remind you of any other city you’ve been in? What do you think defines a city? What qualities do you attach to cities?

2. In reading The Solitary House, how do you see the separation of the classes playing into the story? Do you think there are similarities in how people of different income brackets are divided today?

3. What image that the author uses to describe the streets of London strikes you as being the most vivid?

4. When we first meet Charles Maddox, the author describes him as a “sentimental young man.” Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

5. Is detection a science? What methods do Charles Maddox and Maddox use that would lead you to believe that it may or may not be?

6. What qualities do you associate with a book being “Dickensian”? Do you think The Solitary House, beyond using characters created by Charles Dickens, is a Dickensian thriller?

7. Compare and contrast Charles Maddox with the detectives of contemporary mysteries.

8. How do the multiple narrative viewpoints influence your reading of this mystery? Is there any one viewpoint more reliable than the others?

9. Explore the role that notes play in this novel. How does it compare with today’s use of technology, from email to tweets, as a method of communication? Of danger?

10. Discuss the many meanings of the term “solitary house.”

11. How does the author work the concept of discovery into this novel? For example, one of the ways is in chapter four, when Charles listens to the lecture on “A Scientific Journey through Africa.” How do you see the various characters exploring this ever-growing understanding of their world? Compare it to today, when the Internet has made it possible to “explore” previously undiscovered realms.

12. Explore the ways in which the author references both Bleak House and The Woman in White.

13. Why do you think Charles rejected following his father into medicine and instead followed his uncle into detection?

14. Discuss the relationship of Charles Maddox and his uncle. Is it the traditional mentor /mentee relationship? Does Maddox have anything to learn f rom his protégé, or is the training one way?

15. What qualities do you think a good detective has? Why do you think Tulkinghorn hires Charles, and does Charles meet or exceed Tulkinghorn’s expectations? How?

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?

Reading Guide: A THOUSAND PARDONS by Jonathan Dee

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Dee_A Thousand PardonsHappy Monday, Book Clubbers!

Jonathan Dee’s latest novel, A Thousand Pardons, goes on sale August 6 and we’ve got an excerpt from the exclusive Random House Reader’s Circle materials in the back of the book for you to enjoy.

“A Thousand Pardons is that rare thing: a genuine literary thriller. Eerily suspenseful and packed with dramatic event, it also offers a trenchant, hilarious portrait of our collective longing for authenticity in these overmediated times.”—Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Conversation with Jonathan Dee and Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta is the author of three novels: Lightning Field; Eat the Document, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award and a recipient of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Stone Arabia, which was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. Spiotta has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and the Rome Prize in Literature. She is an assistant professor in the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program.

Dana Spiotta: Helen’s apology wrangling is described as a gift, a vocation, and an accidental specialty. It is mysterious to her exactly why, yet her idea of “total submission” works. This process strikes me as almost religious.

Jonathan Dee: I’m not interested in current events per se, but I am interested in how certain aspects of social or public life that might seem ultra-contemporary actually take their place in a long American continuum. If you look at the practice of “crisis management,” and maybe squint at it a little, you can make out in the corners of your vision the ghosts or the vestiges of a much older, but still thoroughly American, form of public life, one centered not on public opinion but on religion. The theater of press conferences, Oprah sit-downs, et cetera is like an old, sacred vessel into which all this contemporary, pro- fane content gets poured. To me, A Thousand Pardons is a book not about spin or scandal or PR or even forgiveness, but about religious heritage. But I wanted the story itself to have a smooth surface, and to wear its ideas lightly.

DS: A Thousand Pardons has a breakneck pace. Events propel the characters forward, and as soon as they react to one event, another event happens. It’s hard to resist the momentum, and then the reader wants to go back and read it all again, more slowly. Tell me why pace was so important in this book?

JD: It would be going way too far to say I wanted the novel to be a par- able, but I wanted it to have some of the formal aspects of a parable or a religious tale. Parables are short and sweet; they move only forward, from event to event, as you say; they don’t contain flashbacks or other devices for re-ordering time; and there’s no pause in them for reflection or commentary or explorations of meaning. Those things exist outside the story, to be provoked by it.

DS: Helen believes abjection and confession are transformative. But why doesn’t Ben’s abject apology toward the beginning of the book work on Helen? Does he need to atone as well as apologize?

JD: She’s too angry, at that point, to accept it. And she stays angry with him for a long time; she’s been wronged and humiliated by him, so she can’t bring to his case the same sort of objectivity she brings to the dilemmas of her clients. As for Ben, being a lawyer I think he understands too well the negotiability of words; he knows that the road back for him will be about repenting not in speech but in service. He just has to hang around long enough to learn what that service will be.

DS: Public relations has cynicism built into it. It is brilliant and slightly perverse to posit such a sincere person as a public relations savant. Where did the idea come from?

JD: In order to describe a particular subculture, you might want to portray people who are typical or representative of that subculture; but to dramatize it, to make it an interesting setting for a story, you want to bring someone anomalous into that setting, to see how she conforms to it, and it to her.

DS: Did you read a lot of tabloids when you decided to write about crisis management? Public scandal is now so performed and mediated—did the machinations behind these events fascinate you? How do you know so much about it?

JD: What I read, mostly, were memoirs, first-person accounts written by veterans of the crisis-management industry. That’s always the most productive research—research into tone, into voice. Facts are nice too, but facts are more raw material than creative inspiration.

“A page turner . . . What a triumph.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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

Monday, May 13th, 2013

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

A Reader’s Guide

A Conversation with Elin Hilderbrand and Carol Rifka Brunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giveaway Opportunity: THE HOPE FACTORY by Lavanya Sankaran

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Sankaran_The Hope Factory Book clubs and readers are raving about The Hope Factory by debut novelist Lavanya Sankaran:

“I will definitely recommend it to my book club.” -Wanda T.

“The storytelling is first rate. I hated to see the book end.” -Barbara B.

“The writing is lovely.” -Betty M.

“The Hope Factory contains everything on my literary wish list.” -GoodReads

With humor, intelligence, and masterly prose, Lavanya Sankaran’s debut novel brilliantly captures the vitality and danger of a newly industrialized city and how it shapes the dreams and aspirations of two very different families.

Anand is a Bangalore success story: successful, well married, rich. At least, that’s how he appears. But if his little factory is to grow, he needs land and money, and, in the New India, neither of these is easy to find.

Kamala, Anand’s family’s maid, lives perilously close to the edge of disaster. She and her clever teenage son have almost nothing, and their small hopes for self-betterment depend on the contentment of Anand’s wife: a woman to whom whims come easily.

But Kamala’s son keeps bad company, and Anand’s marriage is in trouble. The murky world where crime and land and politics meet is a dangerous place for a good man, particularly one on whom the well-being of so many depends.

Rich with irony and compassion, Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory affirms her gifts as a born storyteller with remarkable prowess, originality, and wisdom.

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