Down Under, her new novel, is about a famous actor's fall from grace and the long-lost love he pines for. Sonia has also written for The New York Times, the New York Observer, Psychology Today, and The Huffington Post.
I can't tell you how thrilled I am to host Sonia here. Thank you, thank you, Sonia, for this and for so many other graces.
I always want to know what sparks a particular book. What’s the question this book is asking that has been haunting you? And did you get the answer you expected? I’m always wondering about which is better – wild, passionate love (the kind that can burn in both good and bad senses), or long-term, reliable commitment. I explore these options in Down Under, seeing each possibility through to its conclusion. And no, I didn’t get the answer I expected! As a matter of fact, I was surprised nearly all the way through. Even after writing the last page of the novel, I got up and added another ending – a surprise one that I’ve kept.
You’ve described Down Under as seriocomic—which is very much is!—and I’d like to know how difficult it was to sustain the tone. Was there ever a moment when you felt yourself veering more towards serious or comic?
The writers I like best (and the people I like best) can be both poignant and playful. Usually not at the same time. But there are moments when a bit of each ingredient, shaken together, combine to make the best cocktail. I grew up in a fairly dramatic household (my parents were war-tossed immigrants, Holocaust survivors), so the ability to see the humor in even the most serious conversations saved us all from gloom. Humor gave us a perspective and a say – even as my family and I stumbled through our growing years together. We all stumble. I agree with Shakespeare, who has Puck blurt, in the middle of Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” We poor mortals can’t help being foolish – especially in matters of love and family -- and it’s OK to revel in that fact. So in the case of Down Under, there are several scenes that are deeply serious – such as when the main characters, Judy and Collum, meet at teenagers and fall deeply in love, or when they eventually face each other, decades later. But at the same time, their Quixotic journey (like Quixote himself) is often quite comical.
You’ve also said that a character in the book, Collum, is loosely based on Mel Gibson, which I find fascinating. (How does a beloved movie star hide his anti-Semitism for so long?) Since writing characters involves so much psychological understanding, did you discover that any of your feelings about Gibson, or people like him, changed as you were writing?
I have always loved Mel Gibson, and there even was a span of a few years where he made not one but two movies on my very block. Yes, the “Sexiest Man Alive” and I were breathing the same air, sort of. Naturally, as a child of Holocaust survivors, I was hurt when my idol seemed to spout concepts I’d heard mentioned in the most fearful ways by my parents. But I believe that to understand is to forgive. When you write a book, you not only come to understand your characters, but you forgive their foibles -- and end up loving them all the more. Believe it or not, I developed a sense of kinship with Mel while writing fictionally about Collum – a boy raised by a frightening, autocratic father. In my book, Collum’s heart is broken by a Jewish girl, just before he’s whisked off to Australia. It’s broken in so many pieces that even stardom can’t save him, and that’s why, years later, he feels driven to find her again. Who wouldn’t love a braveheart like that?
Down Under is so much about the persistence of love. Why do you think young love is so often dismissed, and yet it can (as it is here), one of the most powerful forces in our lives? Why does the past impact us so much? Young hearts are true. I adore the innocent faith of children, and there is a lot of the child, still, in the young adult. They feel everything intensely; they love with all their souls; their trust in life’s wisdom is complete, so they take heady chances. Furthermore, their emotional “clay” in some sense, is not only blank but wet, unset – so imprints made on them are lasting. Writers, at best, try to keep that susceptible part of themselves alive. When I write, I feel like a beginner with a pure, untrammeled heart. I lay out the wet clay and let events impact me. I wander, I explore, I take chances, and I learn – right along with the most foolish of my characters. Each book I write leaves an imprint on me, and I hope it does the same for the reader.
I think the title, Down Under, is really a great one because it operates on a few levels. Can you talk about that, please?
The first level, of course, is that Collum is born in upstate New York, and is taken to Australia – the land “down under” -- in his teens. But the better meaning of the title is “what lies beneath.” Down under, below our daily routines, what do we actually yearn for? What do we hunger for? Who is it we’re looking for? On another level, of course, “down under” suggests a sexy sense of secrets that are concealed and revealed.
What’s obsessing you now and why?Now that Down Under is coming out, I’m beginning to be obsessed about writing a sequel to it. I hate absolute endings in life and in books, and always feel that characters keep growing, even after the final acts or pages. How I’d love to read a truly rendered sequel to “Cinderella!” Is there one? Maybe I ought to write it. There would be lots of opportunity there for the “seriocomic” after that whirlwind romance. (How long did they know each other? A few hours?) On the other hand, to write about their romance growing – instead of growing stale -- would be the most wonderful challenge. I’m a romantic, and I want love to last.
I’m also consumed by the notion that women get old. We don’t “get” old; we “grow” older. Like that lifelong romance (that no one’s written), a woman’s life is a process, an experiential pact, growing richer by the years. Ideally, we develop, we ripen, we deepen, unfurl. It’s hard to keep this in mind when the Western ideal (bombarding us day and night) is that we stay young, tinny-voiced and untouched forever. The older I become – the more years I attain -- the more I see enormous potential in time. We women have a lifelong capacity for the kind of beauty and grace that cannot fade. (It comes to the foreground as illusions fall away.) I also see a growing potential in our society to recognize that kind of beauty.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Caroline Leavitt, why didn’t you ask what makes a writer great? I have the answer. Two things – the ability to write, and a heart as big as the Sequoia National Forest. Can you think of anyone who satisfies both these requirements? Can you think of someone, anyone, who writes best-sellers AND invites other authors to answer great questions on her blog? I can.