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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?

Reader’s Guide: THE BURGESS BOYS by Elizabeth Strout

Monday, April 7th, 2014

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

Questions for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giveaway Opportunity: SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE by Lauren Graham

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Graham_SomedaySomedayMaybeLauren Graham is known widely and beloved by her fans for her roles on Gilmore Girls and Parenthood. Now, the actress adds another line to her long list of talents- author!

This witty, charming, and hilariously relatable debut novel is about a struggling young actress trying to get ahead―and keep it together―in New York City. The trade paperback just hit bookshelves, but enter here for your chance to be a lucky winner!

It’s January 1995, and Franny Banks has just six months left of the three-year deadline she set for herself when she came to New York, dreaming of Broadway and doing “important” work. But all she has to show for her efforts so far is a part in an ad for ugly Christmas sweaters, and a gig waiting tables at a comedy club. Her roommates―her best friend Jane, and Dan, an aspiring sci-fi writer―are supportive, yet Franny knows a two-person fan club doesn’t exactly count as success. Everyone tells her she needs a backup plan, and though she can almost picture moving back home and settling down with her perfectly nice ex-boyfriend, she’s not ready to give up on her goal of having a career like her idols Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. Not just yet. But while she dreams of filling their shoes, in the meantime, she’d happily settle for a speaking part in almost anything—and finding a hair product combination that works.

Everything is riding on the upcoming showcase for her acting class, where she’ll finally have a chance to perform for people who could actually hire her. And she can’t let herself be distracted by James Franklin, a notorious flirt and the most successful actor in her class, even though he’s suddenly started paying attention. Meanwhile, her bank account is rapidly dwindling, her father wants her to come home, and her agent doesn’t return her calls. But for some reason, she keeps believing that she just might get what she came for.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is a story about hopes and dreams, being young in a city, and wanting something deeply, madly, desperately. It’s about finding love, finding yourself, and perhaps most difficult of all in New York City, finding an acting job.

Enter the giveaway here.

“Warm and funny, charming and smart.”—Diane Keaton, New York Times bestselling author of Then Again

Stay connected with Lauren Graham on Twitter!

A Conversation between Joanna Hershon and Joshua Henkin

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Hershon_Dual Inheritance Joanna Hershon, author of A Dual Inheritance, sits down with Joshua Henkin to discuss her novel, the characters, her influences, and more!

A Conversation Between Joanna Hershon and Joshua Henkin

Joshua Henkin: A Dual Inheritance has been praised as a novel of ideas and as a book that explores big themes of class, privilege, and ethnicity. Yet one of the things that strike me most about the book is how deeply it is about character. Could you say something about the relationship between character and theme in this novel? Because it seems to me that a writer as good as you can’t think too much about theme without making her characters a whole lot more schematic than these characters are.

Joanna Hershon: While I certainly set out to address certain issues in this book, the themes evolved from the characters’ individual journeys, and how those journeys intersected or very often chafed against each other. I think I’m inherently a writer who pays close attention to characters’ interior worlds, and I’m fascinated by small gestures and a generally intimate scope. With that starting place, this book was particularly exciting because it did spiral out of the more familiar, domestic realm into the larger, global one. As I understood the characters on a deeper level with each successive draft, the themes you mention became more pronounced and articulated.

Henkin: Details magazine called A Dual Inheritance “the best book about male friendship written this young century.” Certainly many of the female characters (Rebecca and Vivi come to mind) are as vivid as the males, but the men do feel front and center in this book. On the other hand, you are a woman. This, of course, is the novelist’s task: to imagine characters who are different from herself. Is writing across gender any more of a challenge (or less of a challenge) than writing across race, class, temperament, or anything else?

Hershon: I like the way you put this—the novelist’s task is to imagine characters that are different—because it seems that readers (including me, sometimes) often expect a novel’s protagonist to be a version of the writer. And of course this expectation makes sense—all our characters come from us, they are some version (however subconscious) of ourselves—but it seems to me that we all contain multitudes of selves. For instance, the character of Ed Cantowitz: Who would have known that a short, aggressive, blue-collar-raised, financial wizard of a man (I am, as far as I know, none of these things) would be one of the most natural characters for me to inhabit? I loved writing his character, and it never felt like a stretch for me to create his point of view. I’ve always written from a male perspective as well as a female one, and this doesn’t seem particularly notable. I’ve always had close relationships with men—my father, several friends, former boyfriends, my husband, my young sons—with all of them offering up their thoughts and feelings over the years. I think writing across race and class can be trickier. I fear being presumptuous; I wish I didn’t fear this, but I do.

Henkin: A number of people have compared A Dual Inheritance to the big social novels of the nineteenth century. Were there particular novels that influenced your writing of this book, whether nineteenth-century social novels or others?

Hershon: I really was not aware of any novels influencing this one, but of course I’ve been influenced by a lifetime of reading and I do love the big sprawl of a nineteenth-century story. Favorites include Anna Karenina, The Portrait of a Lady, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth.

Henkin: Significant portions of A Dual Inheritance take place before you were born and in places that, I’m guessing, you may not have spent a lot of time. Cambridge, Ethiopia, New York City, Tanzania, Haiti, Fishers Island: Did you have to do research to write about these places or are you simply very well traveled? Can you talk about the role research played in your writing of this book?

Hershon: I did a tremendous amount of research, which mostly took the form of conversation. I sought out people, asked nosy questions, and listened to their (often remarkable) stories. I ended up conducting my own crackpot anthropology project, and it was both challenging and extremely enjoyable.

Henkin: Could you talk a little about the role of coincidence in fiction generally, and in this book particularly? I’m thinking, in this instance, of the fact that Ed and Hugh, who were close friends in college, have daughters who end up in the same prep school and become close friends themselves despite not knowing of their fathers’ friendship. In lesser hands, this coincidence would seem convenient and contrived, yet I was convinced. When people say “truth is stranger than fiction,” what they’re also pointing to, whether they realize it or not, is that fiction is held to a stricter standard of truth than reality. The only standard for reality is whether it actually happened, whereas fiction has to be both plausible and convincing. Did you struggle with the coincidences in this novel?

Hershon: I understand that it might seem contrived to some readers that the daughters meet in prep school, but I feel strongly that it isn’t contrived, because it’s rooted in very real motivations that are thematically tied to the larger story. Also, in an intuitive way—at the risk of being too simplistic—it just felt right. From Hugh’s point of view, he never imagined sending any child of his to the boarding school he attended with great misery, but he chose to raise his daughter in locations with limited educational resources and, at the end of the day, where would his daughter beg him to send her? Where would it be easiest for her to gain acceptance? I’ve seen that story play out more than enough times in one way or another and I’m fascinated by how—try as Hugh might—he can never quite outrun his background; there ’s a magnetic pull. And, across the globe, where would Ed think to send his own daughter to boarding school? What school would he deem the best? Even if it irked him to think it? Coincidence is a fact of life. Sometimes, at its best, a coincidence can feel magical, even if there are perfectly good reasons for it. My personal life has always been full of ridiculous coincidences, so maybe I’m more susceptible to a bit of magical thinking than most, but if that’s the case, so be it.

Henkin: I was particularly impressed by the dialogue in A Dual Inheritance, by how well and how deeply it characterizes. Can you talk about the writing of dialogue and its place in this novel and in your work in general?

Hershon: I imagine that my background in theater probably helps with writing dialogue. I loved doing improvisation in drama camp and acting school, and it’s probably my favorite part of writing, though, having tried my hand at playwriting and screenwriting, I realize it’s the shifting back and forth between a character’s words and his interior life, the ability to reveal and conceal by writing sensually alongside the dialogue— that’s what I love most, and it’s where I seem to thrive.

Henkin: A Dual Inheritance is a long and rich book, with many different strands. Did you map the novel out in advance and, if you didn’t, how much did you know before you started and how much did you discover as you went along? To the extent that the book was a discovery for you, what was the biggest surprise?

Hershon: I took all kinds of notes for months before writing, which did amount to an outline, but it took writing the first couple of chapters and getting a handle on the characters in order to really map out the book. It’s honestly difficult to remember when I knew what and when because now it all feels so inevitable, but I’d say the biggest surprise was the nuanced relationship between Rebecca and Hugh. When I mapped it out, their relationship seemed to invite a will they or won’t they kind of question, but as I wrote their scenes, and as the characters and their chemistry felt utterly real to me, I realized, happily, that it was a far more nuanced situation than a simple question of exploring a taboo. And not only was it nuanced, but the subtlety of their relationship felt more complicated and heated than I’d expected.

Henkin: Another process question. Which character or section of the book came most easily to you and which character or section posed the greatest difficulty, and why?

Hershon: As I mentioned previously, the character of Ed came naturally. The end of Part One—Ed goes to East Hampton and comes home to find Helen waiting for him—was thrilling to write. Another section that came without much difficulty and with some exhilaration was the chapter in which the Shipleys take Rebecca to Anguilla. I identify with that giddy sense of being young and entering another world—realizing that there are all kinds of plausible ways to live and that there are also dark sides to most glittery situations. Conversely, the chapter set in China was a beast in terms of research. Writing about Shenzen, China, in the late 1980s felt almost like writing my last book, which was set in the American Wild West during the mid-1800s. There were few reliable sources and much was based on hearsay and scraps of articles and a heavy dose of imagination.

Henkin: Could you speak about your revision process? Kurt Vonnegut once said that writers are either swoopers or bashers. “Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one.” Are you more of a basher or a swooper?

Hershon: I’m more of a basher, though sometimes—out of sheer drive and necessity—I become a swooper. For instance, I was heavily invested in figuring out what Hugh did career-wise. I was stuck on learning the minutiae of various professions in the developing world, convinced I couldn’t move on with the story until I really understood the details of several career paths so I could make informed choices for his character. Finally I realized I knew the emotional beats of what needed to happen in each relevant chapter, and so I forced myself to write “swooper style ” and then return to the chapters after I’d learned more. Working this way was difficult but it was also a revelation. The chapters were rough but they worked, and they helped me understand where I truly needed to focus my attention in terms of research.

Henkin: I often think of novels as being like relationships: One is a re-bound from the next. Is this true for you too? If so, how was A Dual Inheritance a response to the experience of having written your previous novel, The German Bride, and how is it leading to future projects? Which may just be another way of saying, What’s next for you?

Hershon: After my first two novels, for which I did little to no research, I wanted to write a book that would require me to learn a tremendous amount of concrete information. The urge to research, in other words, came first. What happened through that process was that I found the research somehow freeing up my writing, or at least that was the way it felt. Entering into truly unknown worlds enabled me to be more daring, and my prose gained more confidence. A Dual Inheritance was born out of wanting to write a contemporary, multi-generational, sprawling story with a larger cast of characters to play with. I followed my interests and my anxieties and they all made their way into the story. Right now, I’m not sure what’s next but I have the initial spark and it’s decidedly contemporary. I’m not sure I’ll ever shake the research bug, but I’d like to pare down next time. We’ll see.

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book; Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book; and, most recently, The World Without You, which was named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and is the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for dis- tinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College.

Stay up to date with Joanna on Facebook, Twitter, and through her website.

A Q&A with Yiyun Li and Mona Simpson

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Li_Kinder Than Solitude Yiyun Li is the author of Kinder Than Solitude, a profound mystery about three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed. She is joined in conversation by Mona Simpson, author of Casebook, a powerful new novel about a young boy’s quest to uncover the mysteries of his unraveling family.

Simpson_Casebook

A Conversation Between Mona Simpson and Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li: The central plot of your new novel, Casebook, is a love mystery and a detective story. I wonder if there’s mystery in the kernel of every love.

Mona Simpson: Love is an experience of yearning. I don’t know if it’s possible to feel completely in love at the same time you feel thoroughly comprehended. And yet, it’s everyone’s dream to be known. Yiyun, the organization of both your novels (The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude) emanates from a central dramatic event, a mystery of sorts. The structure is almost a wheel, with spokes coming out. It occurs to me that your novels are structured the way a classic short story is said to be, more than your stories are.

YL: You are right that novels and stories start differently for me: a novel starts with a situation, and a story starts with a character or a set of characters more than a situation. Indeed both novels open with a death that the characters have to deal with. Kinder Than Solitude, for instance, started with a woman who was poisoned, yet who lived in a prolonged state of unnecessary misery for twenty-three years. Who was this woman? Who were the people involved in the case? Why did the case remain unresolved? And what happened when the woman finally died? These questions from that central situation were all mysteries to me when I started the novel. Time in a novel works a little differently: the space provided by a novel allows a writer not only to collapse time—twenty or thirty years in a scene, a century or two in one sentence—but also to dissect a moment without letting anyone off the hook. Perhaps this is the rippling effect you talk about: time can be brief or expansive. I also like to imagine that a novel is like an accordion: when Ruyu in the novel plays the accordion, we see the motion of something being opened and closed, and we wait to hear what kind of tune is produced.

In Casebook, the grownups endeavor to treat the breaking-up of families as normal. That makes the disruption more poignant.

MS: When Henry James published What Maisy Knew (his novel about a contentious divorce) in 1897, the divorce rate in the United States was seven percent. Now, it’s closer to fifty percent. And “normal” is little more than common practice with a bit of moral sugar sprinkled on.

For the most part, legally, we declare divorce “no fault.” We’ve changed the way we live, we’ve changed our laws and so our art changes too. Marriage is no longer until death do us part, and fictionally, there’s no way to make that feel exactly right. What we’ve lost is permanence, the simple happy ending. The forever after of fairytales. If a man sleeps with a young woman in Shakespeare or Cervantes, you can bet by the end of the story, they will have been tricked into marrying each other. The complex reality of marriage enters the novel as early as Middlemarch, a book a friend once told me he loved because the two best people don’t end up together. They not only don’t end up together, they meet many times and aren’t even interested in each other. Dorothea makes a disastrous marriage and when her author lets her off the hook (by killing off her husband), we’re meant to believe that she eventually finds some kind of happiness with Will. And yet, there’s a deflation in the ending. Dorothea and Will are like a couple one grudgingly admits to be happy but doesn’t envy.

We all know that divorce is sometimes unavoidable. Yet for ourselves and our children, we don’t want divorce. We don’t want even that weird modern almost-oxymoron, a good divorce. We don’t hope to be Dorothea and Will. We want a Jane Austen love. We want permanence. We want rightness. But even no fault divorces leave victims. Somewhere in that disparity, between what we still wish for and what we can’t avoid, fiction grows.

YL: This is the first time you have a teenage boy as a first person narrator. His observations come from a place where the tenderness of a boy is not yet replaced by man’s half-heartedness. For instance: “We come into the world whole, all of us, but we don’t know that, don’t know that life will be taking large chunk out of us.” Or: “Love ruined people’s lives, the way our parents said drugs would.”

I would like to know how you’re able to come so close to a young man’s thoughts and feelings and how you’re able to reconstruct them in the exact words.

MS: I have a boy, I love a boy, and though in most of the central parts of this novel, he’s not represented, I’ve used his lingo, his friends’ diction and slang and some of the games they played. The boy I’ve created is, in some ways, a mother’s fantasy. Only a mother could dream up a boy who is obsessed with… his parents. This book started for me with the boy’s vantage. I thought of it as a door open only one small wedge. I wanted to limit the love story, to set it within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness.

I’m curious about how you reconstructed Beijing in Kinder Than Solitude. The city is almost a character in the novel. It’s a palpable presence. I’ve visited China and spent a week in Beijing, and yet my own sensory impressions of it are far less vivid. Your Beijing has replaced mine. What is it like writing about Beijing in English for an English speaking audience?

YL: When I was working on the first draft of Kinder Than Solitude, I wrote to a friend and said that this novel was also going to be my love letter to Beijing. I have given my fondest memories of Beijing to the three teenage characters, not only the tourist sites where Boyang and Moran took Ruyu (and where visitors go today), but also the fabric of everyday life: old men sitting under a tree and expecting a fresh and forgettable story from Ruyu; Boyang and Moran on bicycles, free as Mongolian children on horsebacks; puddles after the rain; watermelon rinds rotting by the roadside.

Several Westerners living in Beijing have commented to me that the city I write about is mostly gone, but its people haven’t changed much. Human nature evolves much more slower than a city, which is heartening, as that’s why I love to read Jane Austen and Dickens. So writing about Beijing in English is like writing about California in English: the landscapes are characters that interact with the people.

Casebook comments on many issues about contemporary life, yet it does not have the self-consciousness that some books do, striving to point out to readers how they are socially aware, for instance. Can you talk about the balance of writing about a society without feeling constrained by the society?

MS: I’ve always written perhaps a little from the inside out, and so I hope the reader will glean all kinds of context that I don’t always overtly provide. I’m extremely interested, though, in what it feels like to be in all the different places on America’s economic spectrum, and how that pinch is felt inside the body and the sensibility.

Yiyun, you’ve cited William Trevor as your primary teacher. Which seems most significant to you—your national history, or your literary legacy?

YL: I often think of one’s national history as one’s genes: something given, something predetermined. Literary legacy is, at least in my case, a choice. I only started writing in my late 20s, and by then I could decide whom to include in my literary genes. Writers I’ve been rereading in the past few years while working on the novel: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, and of course William Trevor who, as you mentioned, is a primary influence. So my literary legacy comes from Irish literature and Russian literature.

MS: You’ve recently become a US citizen. It’s hard to imagine either Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized.

YL: I became a citizen in August, 2012. It’s interesting that you say it’s hard to imagine Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized: I think I knew the immigration status of both characters, and yet I refrained from making it too obvious in the novel. They have both become American citizens (Ruyu needs an American passport and a Chinese visa to return to Beijing). For Moran, her American citizenship offers psychological shelter from the violence she does not understand; for Ruyu, the citizenship is, like everything else in her life, something she accepts and can discard without a second thought. In a deeper sense, however, both of them are so bound to the past that it is hard to imagine that being American citizens would change them in any fundamental way.

Stay connected with Yiyun Li on Twitter and with Mona Simpson on Facebook!

Reader’s Guide: EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Goodman_Eighty Days “A fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure . . . the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose

Random House Readers Circle: How did the idea for Eighty Days originate?

Matthew Goodman: My previous book, The Sun and the Moon, had featured only male characters, so when I began looking around for a new book topic I knew that I wanted the next one to be about a woman. Then one day, during my book explorations, I stumbled across a reference to Nellie Bly; I recognized that name (in part because there used to be a Nellie Bly Amusement Park not far from where I live in Brooklyn), but I didn’t know much about her beyond the fact that she had been a journalist. I began to read more about her, and as I did, I discovered that she wasn’t just any journalist—she was this amazing journalist, who had feigned madness to expose the inner workings of an insane asylum, and so forth. I mean, in an era when the vast majority of female journalists were writing for the women’s pages of newspapers, she was an undercover investigative reporter for the most widely read newspaper of her time.

So I kept on reading, and when I read about how Nellie Bly had undertaken a race around the world in 1889, I knew right away that this was the story I wanted to tell. I thought it was absolutely remarkable that a young woman, unaccompanied and carrying only a single bag, would be daring enough to race around the world, through Europe and the Middle East and Far East, during the Victorian era—and do it faster than anyone ever had before her. (Frankly, I found it almost equally remarkable that no one had written a book about the race before.) I was thrilled to have found such a compelling main character, but as a writer, I was also thrilled by the prospect of being able to write about all those exotic locales. But then, as I continued my research, I discovered something even more astonishing: that in fact Nellie Bly was competing against another young female journalist, by the name of Elizabeth Bisland—a detail that is almost never included in the historical record. I was captivated by the notion of these two young women racing each other around the world, one traveling east, the other west.

RHRC: What was the most fun in writing the story of this incredible journey? What do you hope readers take away from the book?

MG: To be honest, I don’t often experience writing as “fun” (usually there’s too much worry, doubt, and plain old hard work wrapped up in it for me to think of it in quite that way!), but certain scenes in Eighty Days were in fact a great deal of fun to write. I loved writing the story of Elizabeth Bisland’s wild train ride across Utah with Cyclone Bill Downing, for instance; and the scene where Nellie Bly gets to meet Jules and Honorine Verne in their Amiens estate was really fun, because they were all having so much fun with each other. And I took a lot of satisfaction from the pages that described the stokers shoveling coal down in their sweltering fire room; that was a section that I knew I wanted to write from the very beginning, because it was material that I felt very strongly about and hadn’t ever seen described in quite that way before.

Much of the fun that I had with Eighty Days came from the research for the book, from discovering things that I hadn’t known before (who could have ever guessed that Wisconsin used to have thirty-eight time zones?) and which I felt confident would help to make a better story. As you would expect, a lot of this research involved the lives of the two main characters, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, both of which proved to be more complicated and surprising than I had originally anticipated. Lots had already been written about Nellie Bly, of course—much of it, as it turns out, not entirely accurate—but very little was known about Elizabeth Bisland (no one had ever written a book about her before), and I very much enjoyed the process of ferreting out old books and other documents that contained odd bits of information that could add a piece to the puzzle, and help me come to know her across the decades. After the book was published I got an e-mail from Elizabeth Bisland’s grandnephew that said, in part, “Thank you so much for sharing Elizabeth with the public, since she was indeed so reticent to do that herself.” I found that incredibly gratifying.

And I guess—and this is a long way around to answering your question—what I most hope that readers take away from this book is a deeper understanding of these two remarkable women. Though they were very different from each other in many ways, they were both independent and committed to their work, and they were able to support themselves as writers at a time when that was very unusual for women. If by writing Eighty Days I can introduce a new generation of readers to Elizabeth Bisland, and reintroduce them to Nellie Bly, then I’ll be very pleased.

RHRC: As you unraveled their story, did you find yourself relating to (or rooting for!) either woman in particular?

MG: This is actually a question I hear a lot from readers—who was I rooting for to win the race? The thing is, unlike readers (or most of them, anyway), I knew right from the beginning who had won! So for me, it wasn’t really a question of rooting for either Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland to win the race; rather, when I began work on the book I was rooting for them to turn out to be characters as complex and as compelling as possible. And in that respect, both women ably fulfilled my wishes for them.

As I’ve met readers, at book events and so forth, it’s been enjoyable for me to hear about how some of them were rooting for Nellie Bly while others were rooting for Elizabeth Bisland. That’s very much what I wanted for Eighty Days; I certainly didn’t want to be writing a book about a race between a hero and a villain—then you’re verging on melodrama—or even a book in which one of the characters is clearly more sympathetic or more interesting than the other. So I’ve been pleased to discover that the audience’s sympathies have been pretty well divided. I think that’s because each woman had certain admirable qualities that the other tended not to have. Nellie Bly was physically courageous (her stint inside the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum made that very clear), independent, ambitious, socially concerned, and fully determined that as a female journalist she could do anything her male colleagues did; Elizabeth Bisland was erudite (the number of subjects about which she could write intelligently was truly astonishing), artistically inclined, sensitive, deeply curious about the world and its inhabitants. And they each had a number of flaws as well—among those flaws, certainly, a kind of reflexive, unconscious racism that was pretty endemic in the society of the time. So I think that a reader will tend to like one or the other woman depending on the particular set of qualities he or she tends to prefer generally.

RHRC: What was your research process like in preparing to write Eighty Days?

MG: I spent eighteen months basically living in libraries before I wrote a single sentence of Eighty Days. In writing this book I wanted readers not just to know what had happened during the race, but to experience it as well—to feel like they were right there with Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland on the back of a rickshaw, or in the stateroom of a steamship during a storm, or walking along the Tanks in Aden in the moonlight. I needed the world in which they were living to be as vivid as possible in my mind, so that I could make it as vivid as possible on the page.

Not surprisingly, the first thing I did was to read the books that the two women wrote about the race: Nellie Bly’s Around the World in Seventy-two Days and Elizabeth Bisland’s A Flying Trip Around the World. It was a great boon to me that each wrote a book about the race, not only because it allowed me to hear their respective voices, but also because it gave me access to their internal worlds as well as the external world through which they were racing. From there I read everything else that they had ever written, or at least everything that I could get my hands on—books, essays, articles, reviews; this helped me to gain a clearer sense of what they cared about, how they thought, how they changed over the course of their lives. I immersed myself in the newspapers of the time. (Interestingly, I found that the most useful parts of the newspapers were not the news sections, but rather the advertisements.

Advertisements, after all, give a sense of the daily life of a society—they tell what people ate and wore, and what they read and how they furnished their house; they tell how much commodities cost; they tell the kinds of things people liked to do in their spare time.) I read biographies of the other significant characters in the book, such as Jules Verne and Joseph Pulitzer; I read everything I could about all the places that the two women visited during the race, including other travelers’ accounts, histories, guidebooks. Guidebooks are especially helpful, because they’re designed to acquaint the traveler with an unfamiliar destination—and a historian is very much like a traveler, except that you’re journeying through time as well as space.

For more of this Q&A plus questions and topics for your book club discussion, check out the paperback of EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman.

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Reader’s Guide: WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Domenica Ruta

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Ruta_With or Without You “A luminous, layered accomplishment.”—The New York Times Book Review

With or Without You is the story of Domenica Ruta’s unconventional coming of age—a darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth and the necessary and painful act of breaking away, and of overcoming her own addictions and demons in the process. In a brilliant stylistic feat, Ruta has written a powerful, inspiring, compulsively readable, and finally redemptive story about loving and leaving. We have discussion questions for you and your book club to enjoy.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Ruta begins her book with a scene from her childhood, when Kathi takes her along with her when she goes to destroy someone’s car. Why do you think Ruta chose to begin her book with that scene? What does it tell you about Kathi? How are the themes that it sets out subsequently explored throughout the rest of the book?

2. The dedication of With or Without You is “For Her.” Why do you think that is her dedication?

3. In her late twenties, Domenica worked for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “If only all battered wives could be so conveniently sympathetic,” Ruta writes. “The real picture is something more complicated, a prism that captures the full spectrum of good and evil and shatters it into fractured pieces of color and light” (p. 43). How does With or Without You explore this theme?

4. In a quietly momentous scene in the book, Domenica sees her sister lying on Carla’s stomach and whispers a single word. “It wasn’t until much later that I understood what had happened that day,” Ruta writes. “Inside me was someone new waiting to be born . . . someone who would devote her life to describing such moments in time” (p. 53). What does Ruta mean? Why is that moment so significant?

5. What do you consider Kathi’s biggest betrayal?

6. What would you consider Kathi’s best attribute?

7. What do Kathi and Domenica have in common?

8. The extended Ruta family is almost continuously burdened with debt. Explore the theme of debt, both literal and metaphoric, in the book. How do debts affect their relationships and hold them back?

9. Why does Domenica enjoy working in the dementia ward?

10. When Domenica is recovering, how does she find solace?

11. While in Austin, Domenica falls in love with another writer. “It was just as awful as my mother had said it would be,” Ruta writes. “It was even worse that she was right” (p. 145). What is Ruta referring to? What is the larger significance of Domenica’s realization?

12. Near the end of the book, Ruta wonders why she can’t have compassion for Kathi. Do you think that Kathi is deserving of Domenica’s compassion? Do you believe that Domenica does not have compassion for Kathi?

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