Sunday, May 22, 2016
The fabulous Ann Leary talks about THE CHILDREN, the weirdness of weddings, being reclusive, writing, her movie (!) and so much more
I first met Ann Leary at Japonica restaurant in Union Square. We came for lunch and stayed for the stories we were telling--FOUR HOURS OF THEM. I had the best time ever. So besides loving Ann, I love her work and I'm thrilled to be celebrating THE CHILDREN. It already has a starred Kirkus, which is notoriously difficult to get, (They call it "deeply satisfying...with shards of dark humor..) and she's going to be reading this Tuesday at the Barnes and Noble on East 86th! (I will be at the JBC auditions otherwise I would be there).
She's the author of An Innocent, A Broad; Scenes From a Marriage, and The Good House, and all are wonderful. And so is she.
Thanks, Ann for gracing my blog!
Of course, I want to know, what sparked this novel? What drove you to write it? And how did it change from what you originally envisioned to what it became?
I wanted to write about the often-complicated relationships that develop between siblings, stepsiblings and parents in blended families. My parents divorced in the 1970s. I don’t know if it’s statistically true, but I think the people of my parent’s generation engaged in a sort of unprecedented mass uncoupling. By the time I got to college, I had very few friends whose parents weren’t divorced. So I knew many who shared my experience of straddling two nests, but having no real home after a divorce. After my parents remarried, my mother lived in her husband’s house. When I came home from college, I was a guest there. My father lived in another state, with his wife – a woman I barely knew, and her young children. There, too, I was a guest. My parents had divided loyalties between their new spouses, their biological children and their stepchildren. This was difficult for everybody.
I remember visiting my father when I was a teen and being surprised at the person he was in his new family, which was very different than the one he had been in our family. His stepsons were younger than we were, and they really loved my dad. They thought he was hilarious and teased him good-naturedly. They had goofy nicknames for him, and he took no offense. He got such a kick out of them. My siblings and I - his biological kids - had a much more fraught, uneasy, formal relationship with him. At the same time, my younger sister, who lived at home with my mother and stepfather for a while, had a very good relationship with our stepfather. They just adored each other; they had a fun, easy-going rapport. He seemed to be a little less relaxed with his own kids. Now, as an adult, I recognize that the fathers probably had some guilt about their own kids and worried about the type of people they would become. They didn’t have this burden with their stepchildren; they were able to just enjoy them for who they were. If the stepchildren grew up to become sociopaths, addicts or career criminals, it wasn’t really a reflection on them. Their own children, though, had better watch their step, they had the same last name, the same genes. In some ways this worked out, as we all turned out okay. Not one of us is a career criminal. And now, because of death and divorce, I’m no longer related to any of the people who were once my stepsiblings. But I do see them on occasion and it’s so interesting to me the way that we all experienced our families in such different ways. I know this is also true of families whose parents stayed married. Everyone who grows up with a sibling, experiences the family from a unique perspective, but we each tend to assume that our siblings experienced the family in exactly the same way we did.
I think that the setting in any novel is as important as the characters. The place has to be as authentic as the characters, so I like to write about places where I’ve lived and the characters are drawn from the types of people who live in those places. My last novel, THE GOOD HOUSE, was set on Boston’s north shore, where I lived as a teen. THE CHILDREN is set in northwestern Connecticut, which is still New England, but a very different New England. The novel is set on a lake similar to one near our home, where we’ve lived for the past eighteen years. There is a particular breed of New England WASP – the good old-fashioned, blue-blooded Yankee – that just never ceases to fascinate me and there are still quite a few around here. So I decided that the parents in THE CHILDREN, Whit and Joan Whitman, would be this type.
And they are a “type.” The type who have many millions in old stock-holdings, but drive ancient, rusty station wagons and delight in clipping coupons out of the Sunday papers to save a few cents. They often live in rambling “cottages” (with 8 or more bedrooms and staff quarters) that were built by their ancestors, but have been rather let go over the years. The kitchens have failing appliances that were installed in the 1970s. There’s a coffee table in the living room that has deep gouges made by the teeth of a puppy who grew old and died decades ago. You’ll find antique beads that belonged to a flapper aunt in one bedroom, a 1960s lava lamp in another. A macramé plant holder containing a dead fern hangs in the library. These are people who only turn the thermostats up high enough to keep the pipes from freezing and wouldn’t dream of installing central air-conditioning; who thrill at finding a penny on the street; who still bemoan a loan of 12 dollars to a school friend in the 1960s, who – well, why go on? They’re, as I said, a “type.” I really enjoyed immersing myself in the eccentric Whitman/Maynard family while writing this book.
Being sort of reclusive myself, I loved the portrait of Charlotte and her other Internet life. Where did that come from? Are you reclusive at all? (You don't seem that way)
That’s funny, because you don’t seem reclusive, either, which is one of the things I was interested in exploring in this book. I think of you as a good friend that I’ve known for years. Yet, we’ve only met in real life a few times. We’re mostly online friends. I was interested in exploring the relatively new social dynamic that has been created by the Internet. We all think we see each other all the time. If somebody is a total recluse, as Charlotte is, most people are entirely unaware of it, because they see her on social media or chat with her online.
Charlotte’s reclusiveness did come partially from my own experiences. My social life has, in recent years, been conducted primarily on Facebook and Twitter. I write every day, so I’m on the computer a lot. I spend most of my time in Connecticut on our property. We live in a small town with no shops, one cozy little restaurant. We still don’t have cell-service in our area. I spend most of my time at home with my husband and our animals, which, for me, is heaven. I do like to see people in our community and in New York, but in recent years, when I go to social events, I’ve found that it sometimes takes me days to recover. I tend to overcompensate for my social anxiety by being very “on” when I see people face-to-face. Afterwards, I worry that what I considered “on,” might have been perceived by others as a state of full-blown mania. So, I ruminate a lot after socializing. “Why did I say that?” What must she have thought?” “Was that woman backing away from me because she didn’t get how funny my story about my noncancerous mole was? Or is she just a backer-upper type?” “Was that man offended when I made the joke about all the catheter commercials? What if he uses one? Why did I have to say that?”
You know, that kind of thing. It’s exhausting.
Charlotte’s reclusiveness is slightly more pathological; she really has become a shut-in. And she has an alternate persona on the Internet. Online, she’s married and has a wildly successful mommy blog. She’s snarky and fun and has loads of friends. In real life, she’s a childless 29-year-old who spends most of her time in the attic of her mother’s home. There was a trauma that happened to the children in this family and the novel is about how each carries the emotional scars caused by that incident, even now, when they are adults. They never talk about the thing that was so disruptive. Because, they’re WASPs, they never really talk about unpleasant things at all, so everything seems very pleasant, until it becomes very unpleasant.
Why do you think weddings always bring out secrets, surprise, and sometimes the worst in people?
You know, I really don’t like weddings. I’m told that my own wedding was wonderful but I was in sort of a dissociative state throughout. It made me very anxious – not the part about being married, but the whole ceremony and reception. Everybody was staring at us. This was a relatively casual wedding in my mother’s backyard, but I was a nervous wreck. Part of it was just my social anxiety, but part of it was the discord created by my parents divorce, which had happened many years prior. There were still hurt feelings, anger between the parents about money. But everybody had to look so happy.
In THE CHILDREN, I drew on my own experiences to a certain extent. A wedding is supposed to be a time of happiness and celebration. If there are old spites, anger and rifts in the family, of course they will start making their way to the surface, because everybody is forced to participate in the planning. Because it’s supposed to be a happy time, there is this strained civility in the days and weeks leading up to the wedding. You’re picking out flowers, but everybody’s shooting daggers.
So, your last genius novel, The Good House is going to be a movie with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep—with Michael Cunningham adapting the book into a script. Do you wake up every morning and have to reconvince yourself that this is indeed true? And are you getting a cameo?
You’re so sweet! Yes, that was very exciting when they announced the two leads! It’s still in development, they’re ironing out the script. I’ve heard they might start production this spring, but we shall see. There are so many moving parts involved in filmmaking. That’s why I love writing books, you really don’t have to worry that the main character has two other projects that they’ve committed to.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Where do I begin? I’m very obsessive. Fortunately, I am currently obsessed with this new novel that I’m writing. I can’t say much about it except that it’s loosely based on my grandmother and her real-life involvement with a very disturbing and corrupt organization in the 1920s.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You forgot to ask when we can meet up for sushi again! X