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Posts Tagged ‘reading groups’

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with David Gilbert and Curtis Sittenfeld

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 1.22.15 PM New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld sat down with David Gilbert to discuss & Sons, a wonderful work of literary fiction on sale in paperback this month. Together, these two authors discuss the characters, plot twists, the novel’s title, and more in this Random House Reader’s Circle Q&A for you and your book club.

“In terms of sheer reading pleasure, my favorite book this year was & Sons, David Gilbert’s big, intelligent, richly textured novel about fathers, sons, friendship, and legacies. . . . From [A. N.] Dyer’s slacker sons to a J. Crew-wearing young seductress, every member of Gilbert’s cast of characters is perfectly drawn.”—Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of four novels, Sisterland, American Wife, The Man of My Dreams, and Prep. Her books have been translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.

Curtis Sittenfeld: The narrator of & Sons is a peripheral character. I love this choice, but it’s also surprising. What made you select the narrator you did rather than going with a more central character or just using a third-person omniscient point of view?

David Gilbert: I always knew I wanted to write the book in the first person but, in a tricky way, a sort of omniscient first person who by dint of his omniscience is unreliable. That’s Philip Topping. I have a soft spot for unreliable narrators, in the subtext they can generate, in the extra work the reader has to do in order to glean the “truth” of the story, in the pure fun of their uncertain claims; I also have a soft spot for outsiders peeking in through the glass, seeing a world they’re desperate to inhabit. In this book I wanted to have this question hang in the air: Who is the author of this story? Is Philip Topping truly in control? Does he have the artistic chops? If not him, then who? I wanted a certain kind of narrative shimmer, if that makes sense.

CS: Given that the focus of the novel shifts among a few characters, I’m wondering if you have a special fondness for anyone. In many books, the author’s favorite is obvious, but you’re very even-handed in making everyone flawed yet endearing.

DG: A. N. Dyer was a favorite, mainly because of his crankiness, which was enjoyable and perhaps all too natural to inhabit. Intelligence unhinged is always interesting and allows for particular flights of fancy through time. Plus it was fun to create all those unwritten novels, three hundred pages condensed into a paragraph or a line. The Andy sections were also a blast, what with the straight-ahead definition of his desire and the riff-like quality of his mind. And at the end of the day we’re both seventeen, only I’m wearing the mask of a forty-six-year-old.

CS: Although the book is primarily about fathers and sons, I admired your believable and well-rounded female characters, especially Jeanie Spokes. Do you have any favorite female characters created by either male or female novelists?

DG: I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Lily Bart and Isabel Archer, which is appropriate since their creators had such a deep friendship. I also love Matilda, especially from reading the book to my girls. And there’s Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. And Emily Dickinson, who seems like a character of her own creation. And all the women in Housekeeping. And . . .

CS: The novel includes a few dramatic plot twists, especially one at the end. Did you always know what was coming or did you surprise yourself as you were writing?

DG: I had things pretty well mapped out when I started and understood the route of the plot, the ups and downs and sharp turns. But there were smaller moments that surprised me, like when Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk in Central Park, suddenly flew into the book, as did a poem about an owl, and a certain statue at 70th and Fifth Avenue, and the Von Trapp Family Singers, and how much a pretzel resembles an ampersand, which resembles a strand of DNA, and the prologue and the epilogue—those small moments of discovery can be quite novel-affirming, an unexpected detail that opens up the story and confirms you are on the right track (forgive the pun).

CS: A. N. Dyer reveals a bombshell to his adult sons, who don’t entirely believe him. Do you want readers to believe Dyer’s claim, or did you intentionally leave it open to interpretation?

DG: Hmm, how to answer this, Curtis? I certainly have my opinion, though I do want it to remain open to interpretation, but since whoever is reading this has likely read the book (and by the way, thank you, and if you are skimming the back in your local bookstore, I highly recommend The Flamethrowers and Black Swan Green and Skippy Dies and Sisterland too). I can say that I think A. N. Dyer is quite unstable at this point and he is merely weaving another tale, another piece of fiction that he hopes somehow will bring his family back together and forgive his past and ease his future. He is a professional storyteller, after all.

CS: I can’t resist asking: What’s your opinion of J. D. Salinger in general and The Catcher in the Rye specifically?

DG: The thing about J. D. Salinger—the weird thing, once you’ve read the short stories and The Catcher in the Rye—is that he sort of becomes part of you, maybe because of the age in which you access his writing, those late teen years when you yourself struggle between the poles of public and private, which often invert, so that you can feel alone among friends or totally in touch with the pulse of the world locked up in your room, and Salinger writes to this, hears our call, and also fulfills our own immature dream of mammoth success followed by the fantasy of dying while still alive, of being present at our own funeral (hello, Tom Sawyer), of feeling beloved from a self-imposed distance, without the complications of actual contact and possible compromise—Salinger is adolescence, and reading him today is like watching a home movie as directed by a master: it is artful, often wonderful, but sometimes I have to look away, sometimes the sentiment is too awkward, too trapped in a sense of self-absorbed unfairness. Did I really look that way back then? I think the lack of material has done Salinger a favor. That said, I reread The Catcher in the Rye every few years, mainly to see how I have aged.

CS: Another reason I admired this book is that the New York it evokes simultaneously feels authentic and insiderish but not off-puttingly smug. (I say this having never lived there.) I believe you grew up in New York and live there currently, and I’m curious about your relationship with the city. Have you lived elsewhere? Did you worry at all that non–New York readers might miss some of the book’s references?

DG: I have a strange relationship with New York. It is my hometown. I have lived in other places for stretches of a few years, but I always seem to find myself back in New York. I married a New Yorker. I am raising little New Yorkers. I still live on the Magic Mountain that is Manhattan, unable to escape even to Brooklyn. I am doomed. And New York has changed from the New York of my youth. (Wait a sec while I put on my Old Crank hat.) New York oozes with money now, like an infected open wound. Oh, there has always been money flowing through the bloodstream of this city, but today it feels different, today it feels stifling, apocalyptic even, the walking dead of the rich. That said, there are still the museums (though art nowadays is equated with cash), and there is the theater (which on average costs around $100 per seat), and many movie houses (mostly playing blockbusters) and great restaurants (don’t get me started). Still, there is a surviving culture here, and by that I mean the culture of the street and the subway, the park, the packed-in people, the blunt edge of close inhabitation mixed with the collective cause of being trapped and toughened and oddly dependent on one another to remain cool, i.e., New Yorkers. There remains a self-generating energy, a great grand orgy of everyday desire. I could only leave New York for Berlin or Paris or Rome, Madrid maybe, but I don’t speak those languages. I speak New York. And I hope in this novel, no matter where you’re from, you can understand the words.

CS: The title of this novel is simultaneously perfect and kind of awkward, especially to say aloud. Did you have reservations about giving your book an unwieldy title?

DG: It was always going to contain an ampersand. The title kind of dropped in fully formed. And I twisted much of the novel around that shape, in the obvious narcissistic reflection in A. N. Dyer’s name, and in his first novel, Ampersand; even in the titles of his subsequent books, there is a hint of an ampersand. Growing up I also remember seeing old ghostly advertisements on the sides of building, often with only an “& Sons” visible, the father faint and undecipherable. So I was totally committed to the title and its lack of a solid foundation.

CS: Did you use any particular strategy for writing the sections of the book that are “excerpts” of A. N. Dyer’s novels? Did you feel pressure, given that these novels are supposed to be iconic?

DG: Like I said before, that was actually fun. I could write a whole novel in a snippet without the hassle of plot and character development and pages and pages of actual painstaking writing. It was different with Ampersand since there’s a large chunk of that novel contained within the book, and it’s so beloved and acclaimed by its readership (it won a Pulitzer, after all). I just kind of held my breath (and at times my nose) and dove in. I had the whole internal novel pretty well mapped out, to the point where it seems like I’ve written it. But it does set up as an easy target: This is meant to be great? Yeah, right. But I understood that going into the project, that there was that danger, and to be honest, it was thrilling to take on the challenge.

CS: This is your third book. What do you know now about writing and publishing that you didn’t know before your first?

DG: Unfortunately, not a lot. The first blank page is always a mystery. Maybe when I first started writing I disparaged plot, thinking it a hack’s course, but nowadays, we novelists have to compete with so many other easier (and frankly wonderful) entertainments, we need to remember the basics of story and plot and forward momentum and character and, most important, the pleasures to be found on that once blank page. We need to prove ourselves worthy of the most precious commodity: time.

Mother’s Day Special: Gift Giving Suggestions from Our Reading Circle

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Quindlen_Still LifeWell, Mother’s Day is closer than around the corner now…

If you haven’t gotten a gift for that special someone in your life in honor of Mother’s Day then have no fear! Members of the Random House team have some stellar suggestions to set your mind at ease:

Leigh Marchant, who is a big fan of Anna Quindlen, recommends her latest bestselling novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs. She also loves and recommends Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple.

Maggie Oberrender’s mother loves literary and historical fiction, so she selects The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman and Paris by Edward Rutherfurd. Both titles went on sale this spring!

Selby McRae loves recommending books to her mother because she has explorative tastes and always has a book with her. This year, she’ll wrap two favorites that have stuck with her from the first read: Rachel Joyce’s Perfect and Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys.

Susana Zialcita is thrilled to recommend Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Ruth Reichl’s Delicious for her mother this year.
Reichl_Delicious

Like Leigh’s mother, Max Minckler’s mother is also a fan of Anna Quindlen! She has not read Still Life with Bread Crumbs yet, though, so Max plans to wrap it up alongside Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

Rick Gingrich was excited to discover Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole for his mother because it’s a novel that fits the reading bill!

Jessica Bonet looks forward to gifting two books to her mother: Jamie Ford’s latest bestseller Songs of Willow Frost and Domenica Ruta’s heart-wrenching debut memoir, With or Without You.

And for you foodies out there: Pooja Lynch’s mother recently adopted a Paleo-esque lifestyle with her daughter, so this year Pooja would like to give her Paleo Cooking from Elana’s Pantry.

We hope these suggestions help your last minute shopping panic or simply inform your reading lists! As always, feel free to share your thoughts or any other suggestions with us on our Facebook page. We love hearing from you!

Happy Mother’s Day from Our Reading Circle to Yours!

Reader’s Guide: SISTERLAND by Curtis Sittenfeld

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Sittenfeld_Sisterland Curtis Sittenfeld’s mesmerizing novel, Sisterland, covers a lot of bases: family and identity, loyalty and deception, and the delicate line between truth and belief. We’ve been raving about it amongst ourselves here since the hardcover came out last year. Today, the trade paperback hits bookshelves and we could not be more excited to continue sharing this book with you.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times raves, “Sisterland is a testament to [Curtis Sittenfeld’s] growing depth and assurance as a writer.”

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 indefi- nitely?

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?

Connect with Curtis Sittenfeld on Twitter and tell her what you’re reading with your book club!

Reader’s Guide: LETTERS FROM SKYE by Jessica Brockmole

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Brockmole_Letters from Skye

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What elements does telling this novel through letters add to the story? How would a conventional narrative style have changed your reading experience?

2. Fear is a prevalent theme throughout the novel. How are the characters restrained by their fears? When and how do the characters overcome them?

3. On page 46, Elspeth touches on the idea of female empowerment and suffrage ideology. Do you see any changes in the behavior of the female characters between the World War I correspondences and those during World War II?

4. How is Margaret similar to Elspeth? How is she different? Do you think the same thing could happen to Margaret and Paul that happened to Elspeth and Iain? Why or why not?

5. What is your opinion on long-­distance relationships? Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with someone you’ve never met, or stay in love with someone who lives continents away?

6. Elspeth loves Davey and Iain simultaneously, but differently. Can you love two people at once? What is different between ­Elspeth and Davey’s relationship and Elspeth and Iain’s?

7. Do you think that Elspeth and Davey’s letters could be considered cheating? If not initially, when did it become a threat to ­Elspeth’s marriage? How would it be considered in today’s world? Do you agree with Elspeth when she says “we can’t help who we love?”

8. On page 216, Margaret explains the idea of true love as “a given, a constant, an expectation.” Do you agree with her interpretation? Have you ever experienced this type of constant?

9. Books provide immense comfort for both Elspeth and Davey throughout the novel, and sharing books with each other brings them closer. Do you have any books in your life that provide comfort like Davey’s Huck Finn?

10. Describe Harry and Davey’s relationship. What is the significance of exchanging their socks? How does their friendship grow? Does Elspeth have somebody in her life equivalent to Harry?

11. The characters are often concerned with meeting the expectations of their family, friends, and community. How does this affect their behavior? Does it change over time?

12. How do Elspeth and Margaret’s lives reflect the emerging globalization of the twentieth century?

13. Imagine that instead of letters, Elspeth and Davey conversed through email, instant messaging, or Facebook. Could this story still have happened in the twenty-­first century? Has new technology surpassed the romance and intimacy of snail mail?

14. Of all the themes in this novel—­devotion, war, betrayal, family, etc.—­which resonated the strongest with you?

Author Spotlight: Piper Kerman, author of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, on Mother’s Day

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Kerman_Orange is the New Black_Netflix Tie In May is officially here and that means Mother’s Day is right around the corner. In her memoir, Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman reflects on Mother’s Day during her time in prison. Enjoy the excerpt below!

“Mothers and Daughters”

Mother’s Day was off the chain at the Camp. From the moment we awoke, every woman wished another “Happy Mother’s Day” . . . repeatedly. I quickly gave up explaining that I had no children and just said, “Happy Mother’s Day to you!” About eighty percent of the women in U.S. prisons have children, so odds were I was right.

A lot of women had crocheted long-stem red roses for their “prison mamas” or friends. Some women organized themselves into somewhat formalized “family” relationships with other prisoners, especially mother-daughter pairs. There were a lot of little clans at Danbury. The younger women relied on their “moms” for advice, attention, food, commissary loans, affection, guidance, even discipline. If one of the young ones was misbehaving, she might get directed by another irritated prisoner, “Go talk to your mama and work your shit out!” Or if the kid was really out of control with her mouth or her radio or whatever, the mama might get the request, “You need to talk to your daughter, ’cause if she don’t get some act-right, I’ma knock her out!”

My de facto prison “family” revolved around Pop. It exemplified the complex ways that family trees grow behind bars, like topiaries trained into very odd shapes. My immediate “sibling” was Toni, the new town driver who had replaced Nina as Pop’s bunkie. By automatic extension Rosemarie, Toni’s best buddy, was another sibling—I thought of them as the Italian Twins. But Pop had many other “children,” including Big Boo Clemmons, the even bigger Angelina Lewis, and Yvonne who worked with Pop in the kitchen. I took a particular liking to Yvonne; we called each other “the sister I never wanted.” All of Pop’s black “daughters” called her Mama. All of the white ones called her Pop. She didn’t have any Spanish daughters, though she did have Spanish pals from her own peer group.

Motherhood in prison was revered but also complicated by separation, guilt, and shame. To my eye, my fellow prisoners were mostly ordinary poor or middle-class mommies, grandmas, and even great-grandmothers, and yet some of them were serving very long sentences—five years, seven years, twelve years, fifteen years. I knew that, by virtue of being in the minimum-security Camp, they were unlikely to have been convicted of violent crimes. As I watched my neighbors, young women who lacked even a high school education, with their children in the visiting room, I found myself asking again and again (in my head), What could she possibly have done to warrant being locked up here for so long? Criminal masterminds they were not.

In the three months since my arrival in Danbury I had seen a number of pregnant women become mothers; in February young Doris was the vessel of my first prison nativity. I had never seen a woman in labor before and was both mesmerized and horrified to watch Doris enter a zone in which her body and her baby were taking over, regardless of surroundings. To my fascination, the population of the Camp snapped to attention and stepped in to help her as much
as anyone could. She had a half-dozen surrogate midwives hovering over her at any given moment, checking to see what she needed, coaching her on how to get more comfortable, relating stories of their own labors, and reporting on her progress to an anxious audience of prisoners. The staff certainly wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening; prison births were no big deal to them.

It was Doris’s first child, and all she wanted to do was curl up in her bunk, which apparently was not a good thing for her or the baby struggling to be born. Older women took turns walking with her up and down the long main hall of the Camp, talking to her gently, telling stories, and cracking jokes. Observing keenly was Doris’s roommate, also heavy with her first child and due any day. They both looked scared.

The next morning, as the contractions were growing closer, Doris was taken off to the hospital in handcuffs. In many places in the United States pregnant female prisoners are kept chained in shackles during their deliveries, a brutal and barbaric practice, though this was not the case for poor Doris. After many hours of labor she gave birth to a nine-pound baby boy in Danbury Hospital and was brought back to prison immediately, pale and drawn and sad. Her mother took the baby back to the rural outpost where she lived, eight hours away. There wasn’t much chance that the new arrival would see his father anytime soon— Doris told me that her baby’s daddy had just been picked up on three outstanding warrants. Fortunately she was due to go home within the year.

I hadn’t witnessed anything at Danbury to allay my fear of childbirth, but for the first time I had some tiny insight on the motherchild relationship. The single most reliable way to get another prisoner to smile was to ask her about her children. There were always families in the visiting room; this was both the best and the worst thing about the many hours I spent there. Young children were growing up while their mothers did time, trying to have a relationship via fifteen-minute phone calls and the hours spent in visitation. I never saw these women look happier than when they were with their children, playing with the small collection of plastic toys kept in the corner and sharing Fritos and Raisinets from the vending machine. When visiting hours were over, it was gut-wrenching to watch the goodbyes. In one year a child could change from a squirming baby to a boisterous talkative toddler and mothers would watch football championships and prom nights come and go from the distant sidelines, along with their children’s graduations, wedding days, and funerals.

As tough as it could be for a prisoner to visit with her children, it was also hard for parents to see their babies locked up. There were so many young girls among us, eighteen and nineteen years old. Some of these kids had been heading to a place like Danbury for some time, but one bad decision could suddenly land a young woman in a merciless and inflexible system. A lack of priors and a history of general good conduct didn’t matter at all— federal mandatory minimums dictated sentences, and if you were pleading guilty (the vast majority of us did), the only person with real leeway in determining what kind of time you would do was your prosecutor, not your judge. Consequently there were sad-looking parents visiting their kids— though not mine. My mother was like a ray of sunshine in that
room.

For our visits every week my mother was always dressed immaculately in soft, cheerful colors, with her blond hair carefully styled, her makeup perfectly applied, wearing a piece of jewelry that I had given her for a distant Christmas or birthday. We would talk for hours about my brother, her students, my uncles and aunts, the family dog. I would fill her in on whatever new electrician’s skill I’d learned that week. She always seemed perfectly comfortable in the visiting room, and every time she visited, I got comments from other prisoners afterward. “Your mama is so nice, you’re a lucky girl,” or “That’s your mother? Get out! I thought it was your sister!” I had been hearing that one most of my adult life. People would often say it to her as well, and even though she had received that compliment approximately three thousand times before, it always made her glow. In the past, this familiar exchange made me feel resentful. Do I look like I’m in my late forties or fifties? But now I enjoyed watching her pleasure when people drew a close comparison between us. Even with this disaster I had dragged us all into, she was still proud to be my mother. It occurred to me that I had never seen my mother defeated, even when life presented difficulties and disappointments. I hoped that our resemblance extended beyond our blue eyes.

My father, more than a thousand miles away, was able to come visit me when the academic year was over. His relief when he saw me was palpable. I have always been a daddy’s girl, and I could tell how it pained him to see his baby, even a baby in her thirties, in a place like this. We still enjoyed our time, eating peanut M&Ms while I spun all the intrigues of the place out for him to absorb. The difference between our weekly phone calls and an actual in-person conversation was like a text message versus a weekend-long visit. If there was one silver lining to this whole mess, it was the reminder of my family’s greatness.

I had a lovely visit with my mother that Mother’s Day— althoughthe visiting room was deranged. I had never seen it so crowded with large family groups. A lot of women in Danbury had families who lacked the resources to come and visit often, even though many of them lived in New York City. Tired grandmas and aunties, taking care of their daughter’s or sister’s children during their prison stays, had a very hard time marshaling toddlers and teenagers on the buses, trains,
and taxis necessary to get to Danbury— the trip could take four hours each way from the city and cost money. But Mother’s Day was special, and children of every age swarmed the place, and a cacophony of conversations flowed in many languages and accents. In the midst of all of it was my mother, smiling happily when she spotted me walking into the madness.

Season 2 of Orange is the New Black airs on Netflix June 6!

Reader’s Guide: THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Atkins_ThenandAlways The early feedback for THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins has been stellar! Readers and book clubs alike are flocking to this book. The suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat page after page, and the conclusion leaves plenty of room for book club discussions.

Here at Random House Reader’s Circle, we have the book club questions and topics for discussion to get your conversation going. Be sure to mark your calendars for May 20th- this is a read you won’t want to miss!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Three accidents seem to shape this novel. To what extent is Rachel’s future affected by events outside her control?

2. Why do you think Rachel feels so responsible for the outcome of the restaurant accident? Do you think she would feel differently if Matt had died in Jimmy’s place?

3. Would you feel differently about Rachel if the book began as she woke up in the hospital? Why do you think the author chose to begin the novel where she did?

4. What did you think really happened when Jimmy showed up in Rachel’s hospital room? Did you question your logic throughout the novel?

5. The characters encounter mirrors and reflections at several points during the story. Do you think the idea of mirror images relates to the way the author organizes the novel?

6. Which of Rachel’s relationships do you think is most im- portant to her in her personal life and in her career? Does that change over the course of the book?

7. How do you interpret the seeming intersection between fate and free will in this novel? Do you believe in fate? Or do you believe we control our own destinies?

8. Rachel has deep feelings for Jimmy even when she is with Matt. Do you think it’s possible to be in love with two people at the same time?

9. Despite their imperfections, did you feel any sympathy for Matt or Cathy by the end of the novel?

10. Were you surprised by the ending? Do you think there is more than one way to interpret the events at the end of the book?

11. Did you pick up on any of the specific clues in the novel that foreshadow the ending? What were some clues that
you noticed?

12. Did you ever come to a crossroads in your life when you felt the choice you made impacted your life in unimaginable ways? If you could go back, would you choose differently and why?

Join Dani Atkins on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Bill Dedman, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., and Patrick McCord

Friday, April 25th, 2014

Dedman_Empty Mansions

PATRICK MCCORD, OF THE EDITING COMPANY: What are the themes of Empty Mansions?

BILL DEDMAN: The main threads running through the lives of W. A. Clark and his daughter Huguette include the costs of ambition, the burdens of inherited wealth, the fragility of reputation, the folly of judging someone’s life from the outside, and the tension between engaging with the world, with all its risks, and keeping a safe distance from danger. Huguette chose a path that seemed to us to be embodied in the old French fable she memorized: “To live happily, live hidden.”

PM: Paul, how did you approach your conversations with Huguette? Did you tell her you were writing a book? Did you try to interview her, or just to have conversations between cousins?

PAUL CLARK NEWELL, JR.: My first letter to her told her that I was picking up my father’s unfulfilled hope of writing a book about W. A. Clark and the family. In our conversations by phone over the years—we spoke perhaps half a dozen times a year—I refrained from aggressive inquiries. I enjoyed these conversations and wanted them to continue, and was wary that any inquiries she might find threatening could easily leave me blocked without means of future contact. She had never given me her phone number. I would call her attorney, and she would call back ask Huguette, but not at the risk of losing access.

PM: Bill, what would you have liked to ask Huguette?

BD: I think Paul was wise not to quiz Huguette. Of course, I would have liked to hear her describe what it was like to move from Paris to New York at age four, growing up in the Clark mansion, the biggest house in the city, with 121 rooms for a family of four. How would she describe the personality, the temperament, of her father, so famous or infamous, and her mother, so lively in private and so distant in public? And Huguette’s view on money—how she used it to provide comfort, and privacy, and the role of her great generosity in her life. Her view on relationships— here was a woman who was reclusive, shy, yet she maintained friendships that lasted decades, including with her ex-husband Bill Gower and with her friend (and fiancé?) Etienne de Villermont in France. Everyone close to Huguette describes her as happy—not a sad person at all. She was clearly managing a social unease. How would she have explained her choices?

PM: Huguette dearly valued her privacy. Your reporting and writing have stripped that away from her. Do you feel guilty about that?

BD: Not if we’ve told her story honestly and fairly. Paul certainly has affection for his cousin, with whom he shared many conversations and a friendly correspondence. He found her to be elegant, intelligent, quite lucid, with a good sense of humor, a lovely member of the family—not at all the deficient person she had been presumed to be, even by most of her relatives. You can hear her personality in the audiobook, and see it in her correspondence, her collecting, and her painting. We have portrayed her in a positive light, not because we’re bending over backward to be kind, but because that is how we found her.

PCN: Bill’s initial articles for NBC News, bringing Huguette’s name to public attention, were a lark, a mystery of the unused mansions. But his further investigative series looked at a situation that seemed quite serious: a woman who had hidden herself away, whose property was being sold off quietly. It seemed reasonable to ask if this was a case of elder abuse, and it was a good thing that the district attorney stepped in to check on Huguette and her finances.

BD: As it worked out, the DA found no one to charge with any crime. One can certainly reach the conclusion that the gifts were excessive, but Huguette was writing the checks. No one was stealing from her. Nevertheless, whether or not one finds a fire, checking out the smoke is a public service.

PM: What might Huguette have thought of the legal settlement, which gave more than $30 million of her estate to her relatives and even took back $5 million from her nurse?

BD: Huguette told her best friend, Suzanne Pierre, that her relatives were out to get her money, and it turned out she was right. Based on her stubbornness and fierce protection of her privacy, it wouldn’t be surprising if she would be upset that her will was being questioned, that her nurse didn’t get what she had promised her, and that most of her relatives were telling the world that she was mentally ill and incompetent.

Perhaps a settlement was inevitable, as both sides had disabilities. The relatives found no evidence to support their claim that Huguette was incompetent. Moreover, the first edition of this book was out on the eve of trial, allowing the jurors to see Huguette’s paintings, to learn of her generosity, even to hear her voice in the audiobook. Her purported last will and testament, on the other hand, was being represented by an accountant who was a felon, and by a lawyer who had hardly met his client. Her nurse would be grilled on the huge gifts she received. And the hospital’s scheming for donations would be a liability, although there was no evidence that it influenced the will. The long trial would have been bare-knuckled and expensive. As the trial date approached, consultants for the proponents of the will met with mock juries, presenting each side’s case in brief. Two out of three test juries decided in favor of the will, but the wise course was to settle. And as we point out in the book, a settlement is the only way to be sure all the lawyers get paid.
Some solace for Huguette might have come from the fact that the settlement, in the end, followed the will in one major detail: creating an arts foundation at her beloved Bellosguardo, the Clark summer home in Santa Barbara.

PM: Bill, were you concerned about teaming up with a relative, who might naturally try to protect the reputation of his cousin, Huguette, or of the famous man in the family, her father, W.A.?

BD: First, Paul was not financially conflicted—as a cousin, not a nephew, he didn’t stand to gain from any inheritance; he was not a party to the legal action—so that wasn’t a concern. More broadly, I was impressed from the start by Paul’s devotion to the truth, to getting the story right, even when it led into uncomfortable family history. Our goal was not to wallpaper over W.A.’s political scandal, nor the effect of his mining on the environment. People should hear, for example, Mark Twain’s memorable denunciation of W.A. as “a shame to the American nation.” And they should hear of Twain’s own financial conflict when it comes to W. A. Clark and copper.

PM: Paul, how do you view the political scandals of Senator W. A. Clark, your great-uncle?

PCN: We agreed that our narrative should be based solidly on facts, and that the behavior of the Clarks should be viewed contextually, in the times and culture in which they lived. In our young country’s early days, corruption and violence were endemic, especially in the lawless territories on the western frontier. Clark and his arch enemy, Marcus Daly, held the money and power to influence political processes. Both were accused of blatant bribery. To this day the very wealthy can purchase public office, or influence the public to elect, but the means are ostensibly legal, including massive TV campaigns. Whatever this is, it’s not democracy at work.

PM: How did you reconstruct so many details of the family life—for instance, the houses and the clothes?

BD: We soaked up every detail from old photos and new, including family photos from Huguette’s albums and old snapshots she sent to Paul. We sat with a professor of art history to discuss Huguette’s paintings and the role of women painters in the early twentieth century. We hired a landscape designer in Southern California to identify trees and plants in modern photos of Bellosguardo from the estate. A professor of the history of fashion helped us get the details right on a hobble skirt, a cloche hat. These details helped us try to re-create the world of the Clarks in the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age.

We also had the documents, in overwhelming numbers: twenty years of Huguette’s medical records and nurses’ notes; the testimony of her inner circle among fifty witnesses in the estate trial; thousands of pages of correspondence found in her apartment after she died, including four thousand pages that we had to have translated from French. Without these documents, we wouldn’t have known of her longtime friendship and correspondence with her ex-husband Bill, or her long-distance love letters to Etienne in France. Often the documents and the photos worked together to illuminate a detail. One small example: Her correspondence showed the auction lot numbers for two antique French dolls she bought, for $14,000 apiece, leading us to a Sotheby’s catalog from London with photos and descriptions of those dolls.
Details emerge from public records that help us understand character. For example, Ancestry.com has ships’ registries listing passengers, and old passport applications. W.A. was said by his children to be no taller than five feet five inches, maybe five feet six with his boots on. But his passport applications show that he listed himself as five feet eight, even five feet ten, as his political power and wealth grew.

PM: Can we talk about your writing process? Did you do the research first, and then write?

BD: The research never stopped. Even late in the editing, we had a graduate student searching Paris for records on Huguette’s friend Etienne, documenting that he had not been a marquis, as he had been called in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.

Our method in reporting was to explore every side street, enjoying where it led us. Huguette and her family were being revealed to us, too, in those details. If we don’t go to her hospital room, long after she died, we don’t get the photo of the desolate view from her window. Another small example: If we hadn’t found a book about the company that made the magnificent pipe organ in the old Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue— the one bought for $120,000 (in 1910 dollars)—we would never have found the story about that pipe organ being sold, when the Clark man- sion was demolished in 1927, for the price of one good cigar.

Our approach to the writing was to try to be clear, to let the story tell itself. The main obstacle was to balance the twin stories of W.A. and Huguette, to deal with the fact that our protagonist was off the stage, not yet born, during most of her father’s colorful business and political career.

PM: Many writers of historical nonfiction “assist the storytelling” by inventing situations or even dialogue that seem logical. Why not make up a few scenes to link up the deep factual reporting of this family epic?

BD: We believe that nonfiction should contain only information that’s true. Journalists and nonfiction authors can’t know what a person thinks or feels or believes—they know only what the person says and writes and does. If an author tells you someone’s inner thoughts, move that book to the fiction shelf. We didn’t put any thoughts into anyone’s heads, we didn’t psychoanalyze. If a word or action suggests what Huguette or another character might have thought, the reader doesn’t need us to point that out. Although we did offer in the epilogue a summary of Huguette’s life, “a life of integrity,” we tried to give readers plenty of room to make up their own minds about the motives and ethics and feelings of Senator Clark, his younger wife, Anna, and their daughters, Andrée and Huguette, as well as the relatives seeking Huguette’s fortune, the hospital and doctors, and the $31 million nurse.

PM: Bill, the book begins with your family’s quest for a house, during which you discover Huguette’s $24 million Connecticut estate, unused since the 1950s. We never hear how that turned out. Did your family buy a house?

BD: Yes, though not in Madame Clark’s price range. Somehow we’ve been able to manage without fifty-two acres and a room for drying the draperies.

PM: Your book is filled with incredible stories. When you are asked to pick one, what is your favorite to tell?

PCN: Though the stories of Huguette’s eccentricity and lavish spending are fascinating, her generosity is more surprising. This shy artist, a recluse occupied with her dolls and castles, was relentless in her charity to friends and strangers.

Think of the home health aide Gwendolyn Jenkins, who never met Huguette but who had taken care of someone Huguette knew. Gwendolyn was surprised at home by a lawyer bearing a beautiful card. As she said, “I was telling my daughter that night, I couldn’t believe how this woman, an older woman she was, had written such a nice card, a proper note….And she included a ‘little gift,’ she said—a check for three hundred dollars! I couldn’t believe it. I was going to tell them all about it at Bible study. I’ve been blessed! And my daughter, she said, ‘You’d better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!’ ”

BD: Huguette lived a life of many charities, down to having an account at the corner grocery in Normandy so she could send telegrams ordering treats for her friends. The book raises many questions for the reader to ponder, but a central one is “If I had been born with the same advantages and disabilities, would I have lived the same way that she did?” Few of us would make the same choices she did—it’s easy to see that we would travel more, would choose a beautiful view, would wear those jewels and fine clothes. But would we also be as generous as Huguette was?

Going Through Old Papers, an Essay by Elizabeth Strout

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Strout_BurgessBoysGoing Through Old Papers

Recently I was going through drafts of old manuscripts, and this is what I found: a scene of the Burgess family emerging from the middle of Abide with Me. I was surprised to see it there. Clearly, I had been thinking about these boys—these Burgess children—for many years, before they finally landed in a book of their own. Abide with Me was my second novel; it took me seven years to write it, and it was published eight years after my first novel, Amy and Isabelle, appeared in 1998. Olive Kitteridge was my third book, published in 2008. After that I sat down and began, or thought I began, The Burgess Boys. So to discover this scene of the Burgess family, sketched out so many years earlier, indicated to me the tenacity of their hold on my imagination. I had no memory of having written anything about the Burgess family that long ago. But now, on notebook paper, in blue ink, here was a scene in which Polly Burgess—who later became Barbara Burgess— seeks out the large-hearted Reverend Tyler Caskey to see if he will perform her husband’s funeral. She sits behind the wheel of her car in the man’s driveway, three small children with her, and Tyler comes to realize that something is very wrong. Polly Burgess is understandably agitated, but Tyler has no way of knowing that one of the children is responsible for the family tragedy. He asks Polly, out of concern and politeness, if she has a church of her own. Polly takes umbrage, interpreting his question as one of castigation, and drives off, one of the boys looking out the rear window. Tyler is haunted by the image.

As it happens, Tyler and the Burgesses are never to meet again.

The two storylines were ultimately separated: Tyler Caskey had his own book, Abide with Me, and the Burgess kids grew up and are with you now. It is always hard for me to clarify and properly remember how a book got its start, but coming across this scene reminded me of just how long images or thoughts can linger in my mind before reaching the final page. And it gave me some clue as to what I had first been drawn to in writing The Burgess Boys, part of which is how different cultures deal with distress. And this has to do, quite naturally, with time and place. Had the Burgess kids been born into an affluent family of today’s New York City, there is a good chance that all three, along with their mother, would have had extensive therapy after the accident that comes to determine so much of the rest of their lives. Or friends might have talked openly about their own pasts, and how they dealt with childhood traumas. But the Burgesses grew up half a century ago in northern New England, where a person’s inner life was traditionally not something for common discussion. “Grit your teeth and bear it” was, and perhaps still is, the maxim children heard as they grew up in this part of the world.

And that’s what the Burgess kids did. They gritted their teeth and went forward, which is actually what most people do in most parts of the world. Surprisingly—surprising to me, anyway—most people bear ostensibly unbearable things. It is the particularities of bearing life that make us distinct and singular. The Burgess siblings each grew in different ways, according to who they were and who they thought they were. The country grew as well. A Somali community emerged in the whitest state of the Union, and people responded to this, as people have responded for years to immigrant populations everywhere. We know that some people carry a strong fear of the unfamiliar. Others are moved to immediately defend a vulnerable population. Most people, I think, fall somewhere in between, balancing their fears with a desire to be decent. And what this means, really, is that change takes time. It takes time, for example, for a town that has traditionally been all white to accept that their high school soccer team has become one mostly of dark-skinned people, to see in the stands women wearing hijabs as they cheer their sons and brothers on. Time is needed to learn that our view of the world is exactly that: our view, and not a view belonging to someone else. And our view is, and should be, continually open to change.

Books help. They help by allowing us to imagine the realities of another person’s inner—and outer—life. Bernard Malamud said that we value man by describing him. So when I describe Jim Burgess, I am aware of—and honor—the anxiety and pain he has lived with his whole life. When I describe Susan Olson, I am aware of the quotidian bravery she maintains. I am aware of Bob Burgess’s steadfast heart, which keeps beating in spite of the cigarettes he smokes. When I describe Abdikarim, I respect and value the terrible violence and disruptions of his history. But I am the writer. Being aware of these aspects of character is my job. That Zachary Olson is only half aware of the severity of his actions seems in keeping with the idea that many of us—as we live our lives without such writerlike examination—are only half aware of what our actions mean. This is where the conversation between reader and writer comes in. Readers can more clearly see aspects of themselves and of others if the writer has been scrupulous in crafting a fictional truth. It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives. To present this in the form of fiction helps make our humanness more acceptable to the reader; this is my wish.

The Burgesses’ story is an American story. We are a country built on the continuing influx of a variety of cultures, and we are also a country in which the dream of reinventing ourselves continues to thrive. Running away—especially to a city—has long been attractive to those who want to leap from their pasts. Our American, and changing, sense of family reflects confusion about what the individual is entitled to, and what our responsibilities may or may not be to those we leave behind. In a different culture, in a different time, these confusions would play out another way, or not even be confusing at all: For example, there was a time in rural New England when children were expected not to leave but instead to marry and remain nearby, helping with the family farm, or perhaps the family business. There was a time when a child grew up and worked in the same textile mill that his father and mother had worked in. But most of those mills are now gone. The mill that the Burgess father worked in has long been closed. And so this story belongs to the Burgess boys. It belongs to their sister as well, but it is the boys who have attempted, with desperation and arguably some success, to get ahead of that determinative sunny day when they were small children in the town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

I wrote the story, but you will bring to it your own experience of life, and some other reader will do the same, and it will become a different story with each reader. I believe that even the time in your life when you read the book will determine how you receive it. Our lives are changing constantly, and therefore not even our own story is always what we think it is. The mutability of life—our losses, our loves, our fears—can at times be overwhelming. I hope that reading The Burgess Boys makes this changeability become, if even only for a few moments, more manageable. No one is alone in wondering: How did that happen? How did I get to this place right now? History, our own and the world’s, continues to be made, and the accuracy of history continues to be questioned. As the Burgess kids discover, we are what we remember—and what we don’t remember, too. But in the complementary acts of writing a book and reading a book, you and I share the commemoration of lives, each in our own way construed.

From the Random House Reader’s Circle extra content.

Join the conversation with Liz Strout on her Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: Katherine Boo in Conversation with Kate Medina

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Boo_Behind the Beautiful Forevers Katherine Boo, author of the Pulitzer prize winning BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, sits down with her Random House editor, Kate Medina, to discuss her inspiration for exploring the distribution of poverty in India, gaining the trust at Annawadi, choosing the stories to tell in her book, and what she hopes you- the readers- will take away from your reading. The paperback went on sale April 8th, and we are so excited to share this interview with you.

KATE MEDINA: For two decades, and currently at The New Yorker, you’ve written about the distribution of opportunity, and the means by which people might get out of poverty, in America. What inspired you to start asking the same kinds of questions in India?

KATE BOO: My husband is an Indian citizen, and since we met in 2001, I’ve been watching the landscape of his country transform as its economy grows. Some of the change is staggeringly obvious, like the skyscraping luxury condominiums with stirring views of other skyscraping luxury condominiums. But I couldn’t quite make out what had and hadn’t changed in historically poor communities. I generally find issues of poverty, opportunity, and global development to be over-theorized and under-reported. And it seemed to me that in India, as in the U.S., some of the experts most ready to describe how lower-income people are faring weren’t spending much time with those people.

KM: What made you focus your reporting on Mumbai?

KB: It’s the city in which I’ve spent most time, for one. But I also found the Mumbai of film and book to be a slightly lopsided cosmos. For all the lush and brilliant depictions of wild festivals, megalomaniacal gangsters, and soulful prostitutes, I felt stinted of some everyday truths. I wanted to know more about the domestic lives of women and girls, about improvisational labor in a temp-job city, about the educational options available to the poor—stuff like that. Economic growth had brought unprecedented opportunities for the less privileged, officially. But I longed for a fuller sense of how those on-the-books opportunities were being experienced on the ground.

Over the years I’d find myself sighing as I read descriptions of the spicy Mumbai air—the cardamom and saffron that’s supposedly wafting everywhere. Sure, why not? But to me a signature smell of Mumbai is the same as that in many other developing cities. It’s the smell of sweat—of people hustling and maneuvering to find a niche in the global economy. Of course a writer’s senses will gravitate to the un- usual, the aberrant. But a preoccupation with the exotic can also blind you to what is more universal.

KM: Speaking of aberrant: You stood out, working at Annawadi. How did you earn the trust of Annawadians, and get close enough to them to be able to portray them with such intimacy and precision?

KB: Never trust a person who tells you with certainty why other people came to trust her! I cringe to imagine how Annawadians sized me up behind my back. I was just relieved that we all managed to adjust to one another after a while. Many people were game to let me hang around if I didn’t get in the way of their ability to make a living, but in the beginning I was too much of a freak attraction to practice the unobtrusive, watch-and-listen style of reporting I prefer. As I walked through the airport slums, crowds of people would follow, some of them looking concerned and shouting, “Hyatt! Intercontinental!” They imagined I’d lost my way while going from the international airport to one of the luxury hotels.

KM: Was there a particular moment when you felt that you could do the kind of reporting you prefer to do? That people had become comfortable with your presence?

KB: I knew the novelty of my presence had worn off one night when Annawadi boys started mocking kids from another slum who got excited when they spied me sitting in Abdul’s storeroom. The Annawadi boys were so used to having a journalist taping and transcribing what they said that they couldn’t imagine why other kids would find it interesting.

KM: What was it about the stories you tell in this book that appealed to you more than other stories you saw or heard in Annawadi? How did you choose the people you would write about?

KB: When I start a project, I follow as many people as I can—go where they go, do what they do, whether they’re stealing or teaching kindergarten or running a household. The larger the pool of people I get to know, the better I can distinguish between anomalous experiences and shared ones. I’m not looking for the most flamboyant tales, or for the most virtuous and super-talented people. I’m looking for resonant stories—stories that might illuminate something about the structure of a society. And it’s difficult to predict in the beginning which individuals’ experiences, months or years later, will come to shed that light.

For instance, when I first began hanging out with Abdul, I had no idea that his story would have anything to do with questions of criminality or justice. I was simply intrigued that the excesses of the city and a surging global demand for recyclables had helped turn his stigmatized work profitable. It was something I didn’t know, hadn’t read about. I was also struck by his watchfulness, and his silence. I often find, in my reporting life and outside it, that the people most worth knowing are hard work to know.

KM: Did the Annawadians want to know about you, too?

KB: They were more curious about my Indian husband. In the months before they got to know him, they were whispering about how he must not love me, since he was permitting me to hang out alone in a slum in the middle of the night.

KM: Did your presence ever change the events you write about? Or the people you write about?

KB: A reporter’s presence is bound to change things. My efforts to understand Annawadians’ views of the world probably made some of them more introspective. And Abdul suspects that my frequent appearances at the juvenile detention facility contributed to his being released on probation—that justice officials didn’t want me poking around there. It’s not always easy to pinpoint how one’s presence alters events, though. There’s no control group.

KM: You used thousands of official documents to supplement your taped and written notes. What did those documents bring to the narrative?

KB: The documents helped me describe particular incidents, of course, but they also helped more generally. For instance, after finding false causes of death tagged to several poor people at Annawadi, I started investigating more broadly, comparing deaths that I could document in several slums with official records I secured through the Indian Right to Information Act (which is not unlike the U.S. Freedom of Information Act). The reader won’t see that or my other research obsessions in the book, but the document work allowed me to write certain passages with a conviction I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

KM: Are there audiotapes or videotapes you found yourself returning to again and again as you wrote?

KB: One set of recordings I go back to are from a night, not long after the Mumbai terror attacks, when Abdul suddenly starts talking about what sort of lives count. The boy to whom he makes this passionate speech isn’t the least bit interested, and all around him is the usual late-night music of Annawadi—fights between stoned thieves, the weeping of a woman who has just tried to hang herself, the organ music of a Tamil soap opera, and many agonized negotiations over garbage, the price of which had plummeted. The easy thing to say is that Abdul’s insight was unexpected in context. But I think the context creates such insights, and gives them their force.

KM: In the book there is such a remarkable juxtaposition between moments of hope and insight, and moments of desperation. Were some moments particularly painful to witness?

KB: Hundreds of moments—some of the losses of life and promise that are in this book, and other losses, too. When I talk to friends about Annawadi experiences that haunt me, they’ll sometimes ask, Why didn’t you write about that? But I was intent that this book not be some dolorous registry of the most terrible things that had ever happened at Annawadi. A book like that wouldn’t have done justice to what Annawadi felt like, day to day. Annawadi life was also about flagpole ring-toss and tell-all sessions with a best friend at the toilet and parents comforting and delighting in their children. It was Sunil and Sonu the Blinky Boy and the way they applied their rich imaginations to gathering trash and figuring out their place in the world.

Sunil and Sonu have tough, tough lives but if a reader comes away from this book thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I’ll have failed as a writer. They’re cool, interesting kids, and their partnership was an inspiring thing to be around. I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference rob people of opportunity—of the promise our societies squander—but if we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.

KM: Were there moments in your reporting when you felt a little too alone, or threatened?

KB: Sure. During a brutal eviction that I describe in Chapter 16, for one. But I was never as scared in Annawadi as I was in the Sahar Police Station. Though my experiences in the station were Ferris-wheel rides relative to the experiences of some Annawadians, I did come to understand in a deeper way what it feels like to be silenced and at the mercy of officials whose private agendas are very different than their public ones. Educational experiences, but ones I would have gladly foregone.

KM: You’ve left such “educational experiences” out of the book. Why?

KB: As a reader, I often find that the I character becomes the character—that the writer can’t quite resist trying to make the reader like him just a little better than anyone else in the book. And I think that impedes the reader’s ability to connect with people who might be more interesting than the writer, and whose stories are less familiar.

Which is not to say that the narrative without an I is a paragon of omniscience and objectivity. Does it still need saying that journalism is not a perfect mirror of reality, that narrative nonfiction is a selective art, and that I didn’t write this book while balanced on an Archimedean ethical point? My choices are reflected on every page, and I look forward to discussing with readers whether those choices were justifiable ones. But I long ago decided I didn’t want to be one of those nonfiction writers who go on about themselves. When you get to the last pages of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I don’t want you to think, even for a second, about me sitting beside Abdul in that little garbage truck. I want you to be thinking about Abdul.

KM: Do you see him, Manju, Sunil, Asha, and the other people you’re writing about as representative of other Indians, or other low-income people in the world?

KB: I’ve been waiting years to run into a representative person. Sadly, all I ever meet are individuals. But I do see an enormous amount of connective tissue among those individuals, qualities that transcend specificities of geography, culture, religion, or class.

I mean, I see so much of myself in the people I write about, whether it’s Fatima’s fury at being defined by a physical difference or Asha’s self-rationalizing or Abdul’s fear of losing what he has, which is so much stronger as an impulse than his fear of not getting what he wants. My hope, at the keyboard, is to portray these individuals in their complexity—allow them not to be Representative Poor Persons—so that readers might find some other point of emotional purchase, a connection more blooded than pity. Maybe somewhere in the book they might even start asking, What would I do, under these circumstances, if I were Asha or Sunil or Meena? That’s what I’m always asking myself.

KM: Is that sense of connection and compassion what you hope readers will take away from this book?

KB: I’m always thrilled when readers sense the connections and get drawn into the dilemmas faced by the people I write about, because in this age of high walls and security gates it’s pretty easy not to see and think about those people at all. But I’m interested in structures as well as stories, and as I report, I’m sometimes asking myself a set of questions inspired by the philosopher John Rawls: How would I design a society if I didn’t know where in its hierarchy I would be placed—if I didn’t know whether I would be a person of wealth and power, or a poor and vulnerable person? What system would I create that would be fair? I would be elated if a few readers of Behind the Beautiful Forevers were inclined to ask themselves similar questions.

In the end, though, I’m not a utopian. Most of the people I write about don’t have the leisure in which to think about how they might design an ideal society. They’re trying to survive and get ahead in manifestly unfair societies. I take that context very seriously. If we don’t have all the time in the world to make things perfect, we can still make incremental, and meaningful, improvements. And seeing what’s wrong—seeing it clearly—seems to me a crucial part of beginning to set it right.

For more information, visit Katherine’s website or stay connected with her on Facebook.

Reader’s Guide: NEVER SAY GOODBYE by Susan Lewis

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Lewis_Never Say Goodbye Susan Lewis delivers a deeply moving novel in Never Say Goodbye about finding friendship and love in the most unexpected of places. If you are a fan of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenjauf, or Elizabeth Flock then this just may be the perfect read for your book club. Below are the questions and topics for discussion.

For more information, stay up to date with Susan on her Facebook and Twitter.

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. How would Josie’s life have been different if she had been able to tell her family about her condition immediately? Do you think her life would have been better or worse if she had?

2. Have you ever had a secret you felt you had to keep from those closest to you in order to protect them? How did you deal with it?

3. Did you relate to one of the two main characters, Josie and Bel, more than the other? Which one, and why?

4. Why did Josie take her husband, Jeff, back after he cheated on her? Did he deserve it? Would you have done the same? Do you think he redeemed himself in the end?

5. Bel is upset when Nick and Kristina get married so soon after the death of her sister, which puts her off to a rocky start with Kristina. What brings Bel and Kristina together in the end?

6. Do you think Josie’s son, Ryan, actually committed the crime he was accused of?

7. Why does Bel push Harry away?

8. In what ways do Bel and Josie complement each other? Do you think they would have discovered a friendship if horrible circumstances hadn’t thrust them together? Has their friendship changed them by the end of the book?

9. Which of the many themes of the novel (friendship, family ties, love, and loss, among others) struck you as most important?

10. Were you surprised by the ending? What did you think would happen?

11. Did you learn anything you didn’t know before about breast cancer because of reading the novel? Did the book change your thinking in any way?

12. How did Bel’s volunteer work affect her life? Have you ever volunteered with or would you ever consider volunteer- ing with an organization like Breast Cancer Care?

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