Sunday, July 3, 2011

Gwendolen Gross talks about sisters, writing, obsessions and The Orphan Sister

 I've  known Wendy for quite a few years now. I don't remember how we met, exactly. I think we both had novels out at the same time, but we became instant friends. The Orphan Sister really struck home with me because it's about belonging and family ties and all the murky things I'm obsessed with. Yep,  I blurbed it, and I called it "breathtakingly original." And I meant it.  Thank you so much Wendy, for being here on my blog today and answering my pesty questions.

What is it about sisters that is so compelling?

Sisters! Well, first of all, I have three, one of whom has a different mother and who is 20 years younger than I. She was the first baby for whom I fell, completely; people asked if she was my first (thinking she was my baby), and I said, "No, I have two other sisters!"

Anyone who has sisters knows you share many things: frame of reference, in-jokes, adolescent contempt for parents, deep and sometimes jealous love of those same parents. Sisters give you a model, a mold, for many of life's relationships. Shared experience and competition, both. I think of my sisters daily, but viscerally, rather than intellectually. My son smells like my older sister, Claudia, when he wakes up (a wonderful smell, not morning breath). If I make an absurd nonsequiteur no one gets, I think: Becca would understand, or: I have to tell my friend Cindy (with whom I don't share parents or childhood, but somewhere, historically, we must share genes). Since so much of sisterhood is collective circumstance, adoptive sisters might have their own shared frame--but different matting or something. That could be another book!

What I loved about this novel was how different it seemed from your previous ones (not that I didn't love them, as well.) Did you feel that you were treading new ground and how terrifying was that to contemplate?

First, thank you so very much! As you know, someone who has read your book is someone you have loved, even if only a little, even if you'll never meet (though I've been lucky enough to meet you).
I think writers tend to have both infinite stories and finite truths--the truths emerge in the exploration of character, place, plot. With this book I hoped to make something as active and immediate and suspenseful as I might, while telling the slower truths of familial and romantic love that emerged from the story. I had the kernels: polyzygotic triplets, father with a secret life, one sister who feels separate, and I tried to balance the elements of a novel: dialogue, internal monologue, exposition, etc. I wanted to write a good read! I wanted to write a friend! A sister!

The book really probles the whole issue of who we are--and who we want to be.  Do you ever think the two can be one and the same?

Of course, it may take all the living and it may be that the getting there is the best--and only lasting--part. Nothing stops until we die (does it stop then?); we keep building our own stories of conversations, petted foreheads, mistakes, bike rides, tweets, births, meals, love.
(Caroline--you're inspiring philosophy!)

What's your writing life like?

My writing life is spackled between the bricks of parenthood, teaching, home, exercise, friendship, sleep. I write while my daughter's at gymnastics, while my son learns photoshop. I sneak away while they're in school and write at a cafe or bookstore with my laptop. I find scrappy notes of great importance (on the back of receipts) stuffed in the pocket of my riding breeches. The truth is, I don't know if I will be any more productive when my family needs me less immediately. I suppose I always need space and time to thing, but also chaos to control by making fiction.

What's obsessing you now?

Writing-wise: another family secret that isn't my own--and the fallout of secrets and lies.
Also: the way a piano owns fingers.
Also: horses.
Also, in reading: how authors make their narrators fallible but strong. I'm reading piles of YA and MG fiction because my kids want me to read what they love, and I'm staggered by some of the writing (The Underneath!) and trying to figure out whether storytelling for different ages really is any different.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? (I just read the answer and I'm blushing furiously.)

What have you recently learned from following the success story of the eloquent, dazzling, benevolent Caroline Leavitt? You have to put all those adjectives in!

Answer: Always, always, always be kind of fellow writers, who are also your best and most important readers. We mustn't ever think of writing as a competition; there's room for every story, and we do this not because it makes us famous or rich (though I wish that upon my favorites, at least the rich part), but because books, stories, have saved and enriched our lives. You are not only an extraordinary writer, Caroline, but a teacher and woman of patience, kindness, and generosity. Let us all aspire to the same!


Crystal Lee Patriarche said...

I just finished this novel and absolutely fell in love with it! My sister has triplets (they are all identical and just 7 years old) but they are fascinating to be around. I also have two sisters, so there's the 3 of us girls when I was growing up and even though we aren't multiples, I could relate to so many things in this story of sisterhood. Family. This is an amazing piece of literature and I highly recommend it!

Eleanor Brown said...

I just adore Wendy on Twitter and The Orphan Sister is the To Be Read Pile of Doom - thanks for visiting!

Portugal said...

This book pulls you right in with a family drama right on page 1! From there on, I just had to keep reading and turning pages. In the beginning of the book, I was a little miffed at Clementine and her mother. It seemed they either didn't want to deal with "issues" or were naive or something. Boy was I obtain an understanding while the story unfolds (especially Clementine) and of course, it all comes together.
Gwendolen Gross has an amazing talent to tell a story with characters you can't forget and want to know more about them and their lives. She writes is so beautifully. I really enjoyed that a good part of the story took place at Oberlin....loved the Ohio references.