Thursday, September 30, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
Joan Leegant, author of An Hour in Paradise, won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish-American fiction and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Her brilliant, evocative novel, Wherever You Go asks how far someone is willing to go for something he or she believes in. I'm honored Joan allowed me to pepper her with questions. Thank you so much, Joan.
How far do you personally think we should go in the name of a cause? And do you think violence is ever justified?
That said, I also believe in acting to uphold certain fundamental principles. It seems funny or maybe pretentious to write it on a blog about a novel, but the Bill of Rights, for example, matters a lot to me. Freedom of religion, the right to assembly, to free speech, a free press, separation of church and state. These feel very immediate; I don't take them for granted. In the late 1970s, when I was a young lawyer, I wrote what I thought was a polite letter to the town selectmen (like the mayor) of the Massachusetts town where I was living to ask them to reconsider their placement of a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. I suggested it might be a violation of the separation of church and state. Unbeknownst to me, the selectmen read the letter aloud at a meeting, and a local reporter worked up a front page article about it for the county paper. The two-person law office where I was working got nasty phone calls. I received threats at my apartment and moved out for a few weeks. Some clerks at the local courthouse snubbed me. I had no idea. I was naive. I wasn't looking to stir up trouble. I just thought there was a violation of an important principle here and that someone ought to say something. So sometimes you have to speak up, even though it might impact your job or personal comfort.
But I'm suspicious of violence in the name of a cause. Too often when violence is involved, the so-called devotion to the cause is laden with emotional baggage. I saw this as a college student in the late 1960s. The Days of Rage, the Weathermen, SDS, protests on university campuses: there were a lot of very angry post-adolescents in those movements. Many needed to lash out against authority, and the politics gave them the framework and opportunity, the cover. Even if their positions were sometimes justifiable - protesting the Vietnam War, for instance - their tactics often were not.
How did this book come about? What sparked it? And what was the writing process like?
In 2001, I signed a 2-book contract with W.W. Norton: they published my short story collection ("An Hour in Paradise," Norton, 2003) and asked for an as-yet unwritten novel. At the time, I was just beginning work on a book about a recluse in New York City. It was slow going. I was renting a writing room attached to a large Victorian ten minutes from my house that had been a former dental office, and each day I went there was like pulling teeth. Finally, about ten months into it, I was visiting my son who was on a semester-long high school program in Jerusalem when the recluse story seemed to lift off my chest and sail away. In its place, the story of a group of young American women in Jerusalem rushed in. I wrote feverishly all night in the guest house where I was staying, about 70 handwritten pages. That was the beginning, the seed. The original Jerusalem story fell away and another one took its place, but that's where and how it got started.
I'm not one of those writers who works the material out in my head, or plots anything in advance, or writes outlines. I don't work from themes, saying I want to explore this or that idea. Rather, I conceived of these characters and wrote their stories to find out who they were and what was bothering them and what they might do. From that, the plot emerged.
All I knew when I started the book was that I wanted to write a novel about Israel, and about Americans in Israel, because this interests me a great deal. I lived in Israel for 3 years in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and again, since 2007, for five months a year while I teach at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. In the intervening 25 years, I have been deeply preoccupied with the country - taking trips, sometimes for month-long stays; reading; visiting friends; arguing and debating; worrying, you name it.
The book took 6 or 7 years to write. I can't remember how many drafts because I revised continually. I'm a night person and do most of my writing between 10 pm and 5 am. Very inconvenient for having a normal life. But what can you do. There were numerous personal challenges along the way. I lost vision in one eye at one point due to a medical problem, and I put the work aside for 8 months. During final revisions, my 23-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer, and my husband and I went to Los Angeles to be with him through treatment. All this helps to keep the externals of the writing life (publishing, worrying about reviews, etc.) in perspective.
The truth can be a lot harder to take than romanticized or incomplete renderings of history or life. It's much more complicated and complex and gray. It puts us on shakier ground, doesn't lend itself to easy answers or validate what we already believe or want to believe.
Yet, of necessity, we all construct varying narratives to help us navigate and understand our world: narratives about history, politics, religion, war, plus narratives about our own families and our own existences. Our task, I think, is to be willing to continually update and revise those narratives, to hold them up to scrutiny and see how they bear up as time goes on. It's the old axiom about the unexamined life. But this is hard to do. It's disorienting and tiring and disturbing to constantly be checking in with your old assumptions. And it can be threatening to what you've become attached to.
Fiction writers have an opportunity to make it possible for people to absorb some of the more difficult truths about life, be they personal or political or historical, through the vehicle of story. We can make the experience of looking at the more troubling human truths rewarding, and even uplifting, by creating work that's as good as we can make it -- work that is artful, that reaches for both heart and mind, that respects the reader, and that elevates the reader. This is a great gift to writers. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this with my life.
Writing a novel, when I was doing it, felt more difficult than writing short stories, but now writing stories again feels more difficult than writing a novel. It seems to me, now anyway, to be a question of scope: stories are like a hot, burning fire. Everything is very intense and lit and urgent, and it's going to burn itself up if I don't get it right. The premise, the situation, the characters all have to share that urgency. Working on a novel, on the other hand, allows for a less overtly breathless set of elements, though the pay-off had better be there eventually. And the reader needs to feel that urgency in both forms; otherwise you're wasting their time and they won't turn the pages.
In the final stretches of working on this book, I came to love the structural challenges of putting it together. The novel alternates among three third-person voices, and I loved the almost symphonic orchestration required. The arranging of the overall composition so the different parts echoed one another and advanced the story while at the same time gave the reader an absorbing and moving and artful experience. I also loved working with plot. Which surprised me; I had no idea. In short stories, plot can really be secondary; you can get away with very little of that in short fiction. But a good novel, for me, needs a good plot. And I found I loved working with that, creating what readers are now telling me is a page-turner. I shouldn't have been so surprised. I've always read for plot. But as a first-time novelist, you never know what you can pull off.
What’s obsessing you now?
I'm looking forward to spending time on a new story I began in California during my son's medical treatment. I worked on it in the Santa Monica Public Library, but it's set in central Massachusetts. Age is also much on my mind. I turned 60 this year, which feels sort of shocking - what? 60? when did that happen? - and it's definitely influencing my work. But in a good way. I don't have time to horse around. And I feel a certain courage to say what I have to say. I'm old enough, finally.
What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?
Monday, September 20, 2010
Well, first of all, I love the short story format. I'm crazy for Jean Toomer, Flannery O'Conner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Denis Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Amy Hempel, Annie Proulx, Jimmy Baldwin, Ellen Gilchrist, Aimee Bender, Carson McCullers, Langston Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I wish more publishers would take on short story collections and actively promote them.
Writing short stories definitely taught me how to be concise, how to cut out the clutter, and sharpen a scene, how to get to the meat of the story. But I started finding recurring characters and themes in my shorter work, and that was my first hint that I had a longer story to tell.
I had no idea what to expect because I never tried it before, but I sort of fell in love with the form. Writing a novel is so freeing. There's room to slow down, to go deeper, and to take some side journeys. I could make the setting one of my characters. I could give minor characters their own arcs. And I liked that I could just stick a detail here or there that seemed incidental— a coin collection, an apple, an abandoned swimming pool—and later you'd find it had taken on more importance. Best of all, I could really get to the gloriously complicated nature of these characters, and I found that so satisfying.
Imagination plays a huge part in Up From the Blue. Tillie’s creating story out of her life both saves her and keeps her from the truth. Can you talk about the way story both makes sense of our lives and blurs reality?
I loved playing with this concept in the novel because I think every family, every marriage, every friendship has seen this happen, where two people experience the same event and have wildly different interpretations of it. Because there's what's physically happening, and then there's your filter—how your fears and desires change what you see, or what you'll let yourself believe. And there's also what each individual will create out of the gaps in information.
Tillie is someone who believed in certain truths and believed in certain people, and those beliefs, though she had many of them wrong, gave her hope. I think it's a self-preserving instinct, and some of the biggest fights in the book are when other characters wants to take those life-saving beliefs and overpower them with their own way of seeing things. That's a very painful process when you tamper with someone's reality.
The novel is structured so that it moves from the present to the past and back again, from the child Tillie to the adult about to have a child of her own. How did you decide on this structure and what do you think it says about what we choose to remember?
This was my editor's biggest influence, and I think it's just brilliant—I never would have thought of it on my own. When HarperCollins bought the book, the entire story was narrated by eight-year-old Tillie. And my editor said to me, I think there are questions the reader has that Tillie is too young to understand or communicate. And so she wondered if I could have someone narrate a frame story and show what's become of Tillie some years down the road.
That's all the direction she gave me. That, and the fact that this frame story had to have its own separate plot. I went to bed with no ideas at all but thrilled with the leeway I'd been given and thrilled because, rather than simply tightening up the book, I could really say much more about memory, about love, about the impact of a tragedy, about how a person carves out a sense of security and hope.
And it gave me a lovely opportunity to give the book two endings—one that a little girl holds to, and one that takes in the full weight of the truth.
I was very curious why, given her childhood, Tillie was going to have a child of her own. Where did that bravery come from?
I think I was the one who wanted her to have a child of her own. Sometimes kids grow up feeling damaged and don't believe in their capacity to create their own future. I think I believed in her more than she did, and wanted her to step over that fear that she would be inadequate. But honestly, I wasn't sure, as I was writing the ending, if she'd be up to the task. We were discovering that together—how much fear or others doubting her would get in the way. Together we saw whether the instinct to attach was there.
What’s obsessing you now in your writing work?
I'm obsessed with this social pressure to stay young and beautiful. I think there were seeds of this obsession in UP FROM THE BLUE—the mother who wouldn't let herself be photographed in sunlight, and the boy who got his tooth fixed and found it sort of emphasized all of the other things he didn't like about his face. But now this meshing of vanity and self-hatred is at the core of my work, and it's really fun to have a brand new set of characters and begin to get to know them.
What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?
Nothing about your questions felt mortifying. I was thinking, in fact, how brilliant and thrilling they are, and how nice it is to talk with someone who's such a close reader.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
Friday, September 10, 2010
I first picked up Room when I was at BEA. I've read and loved Emma Donoghue's work before, (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits, The Sealed Letter, Landing, and more) but this particular book was life-changing. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who lives in a single room with his Ma and has never been outside, and like the best novels, it makes you see and experience the world differently. To say I loved this book with a passion is putting it mildly, but I refuse to loan it out because I feel the need for it to be right where it is--in my writing office where I can reread it.
Emma's website not only lets you explore the world of Room, but you can also download a pdf of the floorplan, watch the haunting book trailer, and find lots of other special extras. Thank you so, so much Emma for letting me pepper you with questions. I'm honored to have you here.
What’s so unsettling about ROOM is its unique and surprising perspective. While there has been coverage of people held as sexual captives, I don’t think we’ve ever been let inside this situation from the viewpoint of a child born into that captivity—and a happy, seemingly well-adjusted boy, at that. What sparked your desire to tell the story from his point of view?
I would never have told this story any other way. Ma telling her own tale of kidnap, endless rape, and unassisted birth would have been too obviously poignant (and hideous) a proposition. What I glimpsed when the idea for ROOM first came to me is that Jack could tell us a whole other story that would have elements of comedy, parent-child love story, science fiction and fairy tale.
What was the research like for you? How much is true and how much is imagined?
None of it is true in the sense of being closely based on any one kidnap case; although the headlines about the Fritzls were what gave me the idea in the first place, I was careful to steer my scenario away from theirs and any others I read about. (And Jaycee Dugard wasn't discovered, as it happens, until my novel was finished.) But all of it is true in the sense of being as plausible as I could make it: I read extensively not just on kidnapping but on children raised in peculiar or neglectful settings, adults in solitary confinement, healthy family dynamics, the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder...
Reading Room was intense and riveting and unsettling. Were there any points in writing the novel where you were unsure if you could complete the book?
No, This one was easy. I've never had such certainty about every aspect of a book, from point of view, to the opening and closing scenes, to how much time to cover.
I’m obsessed by process, so could you talk a bit about how you wrote this book and what were the particular challenges?
I did a couple months of research first, almost entirely on the Internet, which is a first for me. That was often skin-crawling and occasionally made me burst into tears. Then I had to work out Jack's voice: for this I analysed my five-year-old son's speech like a linguist, then came up with a form of English which is actually halfway between adult and child, so readers would believe in his youth without being enraged by his rambling. The drafting itself I did in six months while my daughter was in part-time daycare, and all I sweated over were subtle details, such as whether their captor would allow them to have a pair of scissors, and the balance between the grim and the happy at each point.
The voice of Jack is one of the real pleasures of the book—he’ a captive, but he doesn’t know or understand it, and instead is a happy, loving, loved child that we, the reader, also come to adore. His curiosity makes us look at the world of the room differently. Without giving away the ending, do you think it’s possible for Jack, and/or children like Jack, to ever be able to be fully okay in the world?
He'll be grand: there seems to be almost no limit to what a five-year-old can adapt to, especially if they've been parented well. Ma is another story, because adults hold onto their pain.
What is obsessing you now?
The peculiar effects of publicity. I've always considered it 'no bother', as we say in Ireland, but these days I'm doing so much more of it (ten phone interviews in a row, the other day!) that I feel intellectually vacuous!
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Ah, Here's where I'm particularly vacuous at the moment: can't think of any.
When I was writing Pictures of You, an amazing thing happened. This boy appeared: ten-years-old, severely asthmatic and I resisted. The last thing I wanted to write about was asthma!
Although I am virtually fine now, I grew up with horrible asthma. I was in and out of ERs and hospitals, and deeply shamed about the whole experience. I never talked about it to anyone (if pressed, I said I had pleurisy or consumption, words culled from the books I read while everyone else was outside playing), I hid my inhalers or deliberately lost them, and even when I was seventeen and in the flush of first love, the only way I could tell my boyfriend why I had to sometimes vanish (to take my inhaler) was to write him a letter about my asthma and my shame and grief about it, and then have him burn it.
But I found the more I wrote about this young boy with terrible asthma, the better I felt. I began taking less and less medication and then nearly none at all, until I was sure I had healed my asthma. I hadn't, of course, but what I did heal, by giving my character compassion and love, was my own guilt, shame and grief about the disease. I started thinking more and more about how writing can heal us.
That's where Henry comes in. Henry Ehrlich is co-author of Asthma Allergies Children: a Parent’s Guide and author or co-author of a number of other books. He edits AsthmaAllergiesChildren.com. He is also a speechwriter and blogs occasionally about business for newgeography.com. Henry and I began having lots of incredible email conversations about asthma, among other things, and I asked Henry if he would write a guest blog for me about how storytelling can help give a narrative to illness and make it seem more manageable. Thanks, Henry!
Storytelling and Health Care
I’m not a doctor but I play one on the internet. I am co-author of a new book called Asthma Allergies Children: a Parent’s Guide, which is why I “met” Caroline. She wound up on my Amazon author’s page because of her upcoming book and the rest is history—or it will be at the end of next week when I post her wrenching reminiscence of her own battles with asthma on the website AsthmaAllergiesChildren.com, which I edit. When I saw that she has written a novel with asthma as a theme, I felt I had come full circle. If I know my co-authors, and believe me I do, all three of us are going to learn things about asthma from Caroline’s new book that we never knew before. The overlap between storytelling and medicine was part of our project from the beginning.
My co-authors, pediatric allergists Dr. Paul Ehrlich (my first cousin) and Dr. Larry Chiaramonte are both great storytellers, and they are also great clinical healers, a combination that frequently gets lost in the 11-minutes-and-out of contemporary medical practice. One of the things I insisted on as we wrote our book, and now in the website, was that we stay away from the medical journalese that permeates so much medical writing and carry every point with an anecdote, a metaphor, a joke—some element from the storyteller’s toolkit.
This was a natural with Dr. Ehrlich. I don’t know anything about biology or chemistry, but we got our voice from the same place: our fathers. His was a pediatrician and mine a teacher and author, but we heard the same stories about the old neighborhood and jokes growing up. Dr. Chiaramonte’s father was a barber at Yale, which led to a scholarship for Larry. Between the two of them, there are over 70 years of stories about seminal research, great characters in academic medicine, and thousands of children and anxious parents to draw on. Both love their patients. Both have the same fascination with the drama of an immune system gone wild that constitutes the basis of allergic medicine. Both have the investigative skills that are essential to taking a good medical history and finding the solution that eludes the harried general practitioner. It’s not very different ultimately from the kind of investigation that a good novelist often does. Every case is a mystery that needs to be solved. (I won’t name names, but I’m reading a book about a girl who gets pregnant by a certain author who could have been a superb diagnostician.) As we point out in the book, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a Dr. before he was a Sir, and the model for Sherlock Holmes was his professor Dr. Joseph Bell whose keen eye for detail almost passed for telepathy.
Does it work? Only the royalty checks will tell. But Dr. Lisa Sanders, author of Every Patient Tells a Story, and whose NY Times column Diagnosis inspired “House M.D” zeroed in on our approach: “It is full of the kind of great stories that teach both patients and doctors more than mere facts.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Where did the idea for Chosen come from and why did you feel compelled to write about it?
I have always been fascinated by adoption--the possibility that a family can be created in such a unique way. Writing has been a constant in my life as well--I wrote my first novella at age five. In college I was studying English and getting my degree in social work when an opportunity came up for me to work abroad in an orphanage. This particular story, "CHOSEN", grew out of three defining experiences: the first of which was this time in Romania, post-Revolution as an aide worker in the infamous Orphanage Number One. It was overwhelming—I was given fifty infants my first day—but inspiring to see the human spirit surviving in spite of the bleakness. Romania led me to the second experience, a job in the United States as the director of the domestic adoption program for a private agency, the sole caseworker managing birth and adoptive parents. My goal was to create happy endings, everything I hadn’t been able to do in Bucharest. But I quickly learned that there was another side to this, the business side, and that it was very difficult to meet the needs of everyone in the adoption triangle. I left the adoption world when I became a mother myself—my skin had become predictably thin.
This was the final defining point that shaped this novel: our first son's birth and diagnosis with Pierre Robin Syndrome, nearly losing him as an infant the week of September 11th as the world fell apart around us. As a new mother to a child with huge medical hurdles, I pondered some of the deeper issues that form the backbone of Chosen: How does parenthood change you? How will the challenges you face shape you as a couple? What happens when your expectations of parenthood are so far from the reality? What makes a good parent? A good person? What happens when you get what you thought you wanted?
The story is fiction-characters and settings and scenarios are as though I took a handful of experiences, threw in a well-marinated childhood paranoia about abduction, seasoned them with the salt of my vivid imagination, put them all in a bag and shook it up. But the themes are real, straight from my own life and from those I have been privileged to witness.
As someone who explored open adoption for a year and wrote a novel about it, I’m fascinated by a novel being told from the point of view of a caseworker. You speak about the caseworker “playing God” and making families, but isn’t that only in international adoptions? In domestic, isn’t it more of a dance between birth parents and adoptive ones?
Chloe is certainly the central voice of the novel, but I also step into some other shoes throughout--tackling some other points of view in the adoption triangle. But what I meant by this is that in adoption there is this illusion of control, especially in a small agency where the caseworker is representing both sets of parents-- you meet the birth family, and then like some crazy yenta you go home and think, who would be the right people for her? Which family will she fall in love with, which adoption will go through, which will fall apart? It's an illusion, this idea that you're making the matches. Of course everyone sees every eligible portfolio.
What do you think about movies like Juno, which simplify the adoption process (and show no real scars in any of the parties)?
I probably shouldn't answer this one literally as I've never seen the movie. I haven't seen any movies in... years. When I am in writing mode, I feel like movies are time wasted, and the only reason we even have TV is so my kids can watch 'Tom and Jerry' if I have to catch a little writing time in the day.
But thank you for mentioning the complexity of adoption; that's the very word I keep coming back to. I wrote this in part to shine a light on how complicated it can be, how challenging it was for me as an idealistic young social worker trying to navigate such intense, emotionally charged situations. What I kept bumping up against was this notion that adoption walks the razor edge between intense joy and heartache, often right in the same day. The scene where Heather is breastfeeding her son while his adoptive mother looked on for the first and last time was one of those moments.
I've come under some fire for not celebrating the joy of adoption more in this novel, and all I can say about that is, the story was informed by my experience. There were many happy endings and joyful moments and I do feel honored to have been a part of the creation of families in this way, but every adoption ended with someone leaving the hospital without a baby that at some point, however briefly, they considered theirs, and I thought this was a part of the story worth exploring as well.
You’ve worked in both international adoption and domestic, which you left when you had a child of your own. What would you say the difficulties of each are? And when you became a parent, how did your views on adoption and all the players involved change?
I was only an aide worker in Romania--not actually negotiating adoptions, but there is a story on my website about a little boy I got attached to, and how things fell apart for me there, and why I left. What was so eye-opening for me about Romania and is true of several international situations are the social factors that have created kids eligible for adoption who are not technically 'orphans'. I think it is important to know this when you're looking into international adoption, and to research how children are regarded in that country.
When I became a parent, it was a baptism by fire. Our son was born unable to breathe or eat on his own, with all of these potential problems and so many unknowns. My husband and I were young when we got pregnant, and we had this attitude that parenthood wasn't going to change our lifestyle or slow us down, how we weren't going to let something so small as a baby mess with our agenda. Before he was born, we had made tickets to go windsurfing in Bahamas two weeks after my due date--which we obviously rescheduled because Hayden was still in the NICU then. When Hayden arrived and our vision of what parenthood would be like was so far from the reality, it took me about a week, and almost losing Hayden on the operating table, to make peace with this, to 'get over myself' as my mother-in-law would say, to get on board with this new situation. And you know who I thought of? All of those adoptive parents who called me in the weeks after their adoption, experiencing what I can only describe as a let-down effect. I'm not saying this happened every time, but for some of these families, the quest for THE BABY had been years long, full of hardship. When the baby finally came to them, whether through adoption or because they overcame infertility, there would sometimes be this period where they had to resolve the disparity between reality and fantasy, and before I was a mother, I was hard on these people. Not in person, but in my head. After Hayden, I was more sensitive to how challenging this can be. I'm not saying they didn't love their babies or that I didn't love Hayden, but there was an adjustment period before I identified him as 'mine'.
This was when I started thinking about this novel--I consider adoption to be the backdrop, the extortion story line to be the juicy plot, but the heart of CHOSEN is parenthood and this question of 'what happens when you get what you thought you wanted'? For everyone--there were plenty of birth parents who thought relinquishment would be easier than it was, or adoptive parents who experienced that let down I was talking about, or new parents who went through the everyday adjustment to life with a newborn. This was what I wanted to explore. There is a certain amount of surrender inherent in parenthood--a giving up of yourself and life as you knew it, however parenthood comes to you. I hoped to capture some of the struggle of this, but hopefully the ultimate beauty of the letting go in the arc of my character's development.
How do you balance being a mother and a writer? What’s your day like? What’s your writing process like?
It's a juggling act for sure. I try to get up before they do and catch a few solid hours in the morning, and then I leave my computer out on the kitchen counter to jot down a line here and there throughout the day. When I need to wrap my arms around something big, to look at a novel as a whole, I book a hotel room overnight. Writer's block is never a problem for me--having three little kids and lots of needy pets makes me grateful to escape for a few moments into a world where I have a semblance of control.
What’s obsessing you now?
I'm homeschooling my kids (ages 8, 5 and 3) this year so that we can go on book tour as a family and make some memories. I'm getting into poetry with them--which has never been my strong suit--and we're having fun exploring Greek mythology, harvesting from our gardens and US geography. I don't know if this is the beginning of a long term lifestyle change, or if this is a one year adventure. I'm curious to see how this year goes, but I love the way deciding that you are 'homeschooling' reframes your parenting, how suddenly everything becomes a learning opportunity. In reality, every good parent is homeschooling.
What are you working on now?
After a two month break from writing to focus on launching CHOSEN, I'm now in the final revisions on my next novel, set in Boulder, Colorado. The four word summary is 'infidelity with a twist', but I also touch on themes of physical beauty and morality, the importance of female friendships, and some truths about marriage and self worth.