Thursday, January 28, 2016

Yona Zeldis McDonough talks about The House on Primrose Pond, writing poems, and why she has dogs in her novel!

After suffering a sudden, traumatic loss, historical novelist Susannah Gilmore decides to uproot her life—and the lives of her two children—and leave their beloved Brooklyn for the little town of Eastwood, New Hampshire.  While the trio adjusts to their new surroundings, Susannah is captivated by an unexpected find in her late parents’ home: an unsigned love note addressed to her mother, in handwriting that is most definitely not her father’s.

Reeling from the thought that she never really knew her mother, Susannah finds mysteries everywhere she looks: in her daughter’s friendship with an older neighbor, in a charismatic local man to whom she’s powerfully drawn, and in an eighteenth century crime she’s researching for her next book. Compelled to dig into her mother’s past, Susannah discovers even more secrets, ones that surpass any fiction she could ever put to paper…

I'm thrilled to host Yona on the blog today. Thank you, Yona! And Yona will be at Book Court in Brooklyn to launch her novel, February 2!

Q:  Why did you choose New Hampshire as the location for your novel?

A: I have set my past six novels in and around New York City. This was less an active decision and more of a default position.  Setting in a novel should function almost as a “character”, and to make that “character” come alive, you have to know it well—the sights, sounds and smells of a place.  Since I was raised in New York and have lived here for most of my life, writing a New York setting came effortlessly to me.  But recently I began to chafe at that very ease and wanted to push my own boundaries. I turned to New Hampshire because it’s a state I have come to love.  My husband is from Portsmouth, NH and we have visited and spent time there during the course of our marriage.  And for many years, we rented a cottage in an enchanted, lakeside spot and that is where I chose to set The House on Primrose Pond.  I knew the place intimately, and so I could write about it with confidence and with passion. I wanted the place to come alive to the reader, and in order to make that happen, it had to be fully, gloriously alive to me.

 Q: The story is mainly told from a single point of view, with one exception.  Care to comment?

A: The story is mostly Susannah’s: how she copes when she loses her husband in a bicycle accident, how she feels as she attempts to rebuild her life in a new place.  But the character of Alice, the elderly neighbor who at first offers friendship but later seems almost a threat, needed some greater explanation and I could only do that if I wrote a couple of chapters from her point of view.  Without a glimpse into her heart and soul, Alice’s behavior toward Susannah and more importantly her daughter Calista, could seem questionable, and even malign.  I did not want that, so it was necessary to go inside the character and bring the reader in with me.

Q:   Can you talk about the novel-within-the-novel structure?

A:  That was another first for me, and presented me with new challenges but new joys too. Susannah is a writer of small, historical fictions for a publisher called Out of the Past Press.  So she’s a genre writer essentially, and has enjoyed her modest success in this niche.  Her subjects have all been from Europe, and she saw no reason to change that.  But after her husband dies, everything about her life seems wrong and off, and she is having trouble with her current project—a novel about Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII.  She begins to wonder if she might not have better luck with an American subject, and since she’s in New Hampshire, a New Hampshire subject at that.  After a little digging in a local library, she stumbles on the story of Ruth Blay, who in 1768 was the last woman hanged in the state.  Blay was accused of murdering her newborn daughter though that was never proved.But she was convicted of concealing the birth of an illegitimate child—an offense punishable by death.

I wanted to show how and why Susannah was drawn to the story, and a bit about her working process. So I decided to include the reader in her process, and delineate how she came to make certain choices.  The historical sections are interspersed throughout the novel, and do not appear clustered together.  Again, I thought this would be a good way to reveal her process, since the shaping and writing of a novel does not happen all at once, but is a gradual thing, an evolution.  All told, there are about fifty pages of Susannah’s novel-in-progress that appear within the larger framework of the contemporary story. I loved writing every single word of them.  

Q: What kind of research did you do for the historical parts

 A: My initial introduction the subject was the excellent book, Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth Century New Hampshire Tragedy by Carolyn Marvin. I also visited the state archives in Concord, NH, where I was able to handle original documents pertaining to the trial, the Portsmouth Historical Society, and the cemetery in Portsmouth where, along with my intrepid sister-in-law Roni Brown, I traipsed around on a hot September day until we were able to locate the grim spot of the hanging.

Q: There are several poems in the novel.  Did you find it hard to write them?

A: I have to say right off that I adore poetry, read it avidly and have made a habit of memorizing poems from time to time (I might have 50-60 in my current repertoire and will perform them at parties, my one and only parlor trick!)  And yet I cannot write poetry. Can. Not.  I tried, unsuccessfully, when I was young and was so discouraged by my limitations that I gave up trying.  So actually having to write poems—there are three in the novel—was a huge challenge for me.  But my character was an amateur poet, and through his poems, he is trying to woo a married woman.  They are poems that have a job to do: to develop his character and move the plot along.  So I tried to keep those goals in mind as I wrote.  Also, he is an amateur poet, not W.B. Yeats.  That made it easier too. I was not struggling to write great, immortal verse. I only had to write the kinds of poems he would have been capable of: earnest, not brilliant, heartfelt, not epic and enduring. And being released of the aspiration to be great gave me a lot of room to experiment.  I started out with dread, and I ended up loving the process. I’m glad I pushed myself to do it.

Q: What's obsessing you now and why?

A: The year city of New Orleans in the year 1917. I’ve got an idea for a novel I want to set there.  I visited New Orleans years ago and loved it, so this is a good reason to go back—research!

Q: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

A: About the dogs in the novel!  I am an avowed dog lover but came to this position only in mid-life.  Before that, I really didn’t get the dog thing, and I did not get the affection people had for their dogs. Now I know.  And of all the dogs out there, Pomeranians are my favorites; I presently have two.  They are small, fluffy, with foxy faces, and plume-like tails. They are also very yappy.   But in this novel, it is a black standard poodle named Emma that takes center stage and I consider her a significant supporting character. There’s also a cameo role for a Pom near the end.  I have this need to include a Pom in every book that I write—it’s become a kind of signature for me.

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