I get a lot of suggestions from friends, or other critics and editors about what I should read next. I always take the suggestions because there's nothing more thrilling than a wonderful read. Ann Bauer's The Forever Marriage was suggested to me and it's a knockout. What I so deeply admire is that Bauer takes Carmen, a character who is by no means perfect--She's prickly. She's not altogether honest with herself and others--and slowly reveals her transformation as she begins to explore what she thought was her loveless marriage. The Forever Marriage was named one of the Best Books of the Week by PW, and boy, is it ever.
Thanks so much, Ann for letting me pester you with questions!
What I loved so much about The Forever Marriage is the character of Carmen. At first, I didn’t know how I felt about her because she was so prickly, so relieved about her husband’s death. But then, as she begins to look at their shared pasts, and her own choices in life, she begins to transform and take new responsibility for what her marriage was like. And as she transforms, so does they way she sees their shared past. And I fell in love with her. Was it difficult writing the earlier Carmen when she wasn’t so instantly sympathetic? What were the challenges for you?
I started this book in 2007 because I had a very close friend who was facing Carmen’s dilemma: She had a husband she never really loved who’d been slowly dying of cancer for 9 years. The truth is, I was struggling with my friend’s situation. I was watching this woman I adored become frustrated and bitter because her husband just kept hanging on. It was so uncomfortable. I sympathized with her but I was also really horrified that a marriage could turn so empty. That a man could die with his wife at his side, rooting for him to go.
So I already loved Carmen despite all her sharp edges. The biggest hurdle for me was the actual death of the husband so I started there. I think I was faking myself out, trying to get through the worst of it and imagine what had not yet happened (my friend’s husband would actually live for another three years). I needed to get through that scene in order to work through the rest of the story. But it means that readers meet Carmen when she’s behaving pretty unforgivably, when she’s the least likable. Then my job, as the writer, was to make people see who Carmen really is and come to understand her and fall in love with her over the course of the book.
Without giving away too much, I think my biggest challenge was her husband, Jobe. He’s based in part on my own very sweet husband—this quiet, brilliant mathematician. So I kept wanting to make him perfect but, of course, he couldn’t be. No interesting character is... It was really deep into the writing of this novel that I finally “found” Jobe’s weaknesses and flaws and that’s what I think makes his character more believable, while also redeeming Carmen. You see that their relationship wasn’t black and white. She wasn’t the only one in the marriage who made mistakes.
In the book, Carmen isn’t just battling the end of her marriage, she’s battling breast cancer, which puts everything into sharper focus--her past and her future. Her body, in a way, influences her mind. Can you talk a bit about this?
This novel is all about uncertainty. It’s about that point you reach (usually in your early 40s….at least that’s when it happened to me) when you look back and say, “What was I thinking when I made those decisions? I calculated so poorly. Nothing turned out the way I thought.” I knew that was going to happen to Carmen in a big way and the breast cancer was this stopping force. She thought she would have a blissful independent life after Jobe died and suddenly she found herself ill and scared and strangely unhappy to be alone.
Even before she’s diagnosed with cancer, Carmen has odd moments of missing this man she’s been wishing dead. So her mind is betraying her, getting in the way of her imagined freedom. Then her body betrays her, too, and everything she took for granted—her looks, her sexuality, her good health—becomes tenuous. This is what it takes for Carmen to examine herself and her choices honestly.
And in some sense, the cancer gives her a way to forgive herself. Because as tough as readers are on Carmen, she’s even tougher on herself. When she goes through treatment, she’s humbled by the experience. At one point she even thinks of chemotherapy as penance. The situation means her relationships become more defined—with her mother-in-law, Olive; her lover, Danny; and her best friend, Jana—and through these people, Carmen realizes some really hard clear truths about her marriage to Jobe.
The novel is so intricately plotted, with so many unexpected swerves in the road, that it moves to a resolution I never really saw coming. Which brings me to one of my obsessive questions. Do you plot this all out in advance--as much as you can? Do you know where you’re going in a novel, or do you simply see what happens and follow that?
Oh, this is such an excellent question! Because I’m obsessed with it, too. The answer is no. I don’t plot anything out in advance. I start writing at the beginning and I plow through straight toward the end. Only I don’t know where the end is and in the case of this book I was completely taken by surprise.
It’s odd, because I’m a kind of logical person. I’m a list maker and all that. But I do feel like there’s some sort of magic that happens when a character emerges and starts behaving in unexpected ways. The scene where Jobe dances, for instance. It was a tiny thing—his precise, metrical style that so delights Carmen—but what amazes me is that it came out of nowhere. I was writing that scene and I had no idea where it was going, only that Jobe and Carmen got into a car together on a hot Baltimore night. Then, suddenly, they’re at a club and he’s the one everyone is watching on the dance floor. I’ve never seen anyone dance like that but it felt like the only possible thing Jobe could do.
Now I should say, this method of writing leads to some wrong turns. I remember at one point sending pages to my agent and he wrote back about a really dramatic plot point and said “Ann this is too much. Please rethink.” So I did and of course he was right. I’d thrown in something wild because I didn’t know where the story was going; so I ripped that out and started over.
Good readers are critical—I’m really lucky that I have two: my agent, Esmond, and a writer I’ve known for a dozen years. But they’re particularly important if you’re not following an outline because you can so easily go off in some crazy direction. The secret is to write organically but also slowly and carefully enough that you unearth a whole, cohesive story. It’s painstaking but soooo satisfying when it works.
Is there such a thing as a forever marriage? And what do you think that really means, for both Carmen and for anyone in a relationship? What’s obsessing you now and why?
Caroline, I think that’s what my whole book was about. I mean, it’s about regret and wanting what you can’t have and forgiving yourself for things you can’t change…But it’s also about that whole ideal of a marriage, the union that both transcends and sort of “roots” you to the world. That’s what I craved for Carmen and Jobe and spent a whole novel trying to help her find. It’s also what I crave for myself.
I’ve been divorced…and I am my sweet, lovely husband’s third wife, so it’s clear to me that not every marriage is forever. Sometimes, to be honest, I feel like a bit of a fraud. Because I have no idea how to stay married! What I do know is this: I’m a nicer, saner, calmer person with this man and he’s a warmer, more adventuresome, more joyful person with me. Beyond that, I know that neither of us is perfect. I’ve seen his flaws and, God help me, he’s seen plenty of mine. I can be really sharp and mean, just like Carmen. But there’s something real and quiet that makes me think, “Oooh, this feels real, like it was meant to be.” It’s a little like that rightness you get when a story works.
Yes, I really do think there’s such a thing as a forever marriage. And though I’m not sure what I believe about God and heaven, I think a really wonderful connected marriage might not stop with death.
As a writer (please forgive me) I can’t say what’s obsessing me right now. There are two paradoxical things consuming me—one a bizarre historical event and the other a religious doctrine—but I need some quiet time to figure out what they have to do with each other.
Before writing The Forever Marriage, I worked for two years on a book that I discussed with too many people. The novel had other problems, too—it just never came together—so eventually I put it aside. But I learned a huge amount during those couple of years, about how to conceive and plot a novel. So when I was writing this book, I spoke to no one about it except my agent, my reader and the friend on whom Carmen was based.
Personally, though, I can tell you exactly what I’m obsessing about. My youngest child leaves for college in 11 days. I had my first baby at 21, so this will be my first-ever adult experience of living without a child in my home. Frankly, I’m terrified. Also curious as to what I will do….
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
The question no one has asked is, what is the significance of the math in the novel? Why was Bernhard Riemann’s story so important? And my answer would be that I think mathematicians and physicists are really wrestling with the fundamental questions. Why are we here? What’s our purpose? How does this universe—our planet, human life—make sense? I was particularly interested in the concept of time and whether it really exists. If time is a fiction (as Einstein said) then Carmen could still go back and fix things with Jobe, maybe even fall in love with him…I wanted to create a world in which the past could be accessed and the future contained literally infinite possibilities. There is something so hopeful to me about the premise of infinity: If the numbers never stop, we have an unassailable model for “Forever.” So in Jobe’s mathematical sphere, there is no end and love is never done.