She's the author of Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, The Obituary Writer, The Knitting Circle, Knitting Yarns: Writers on Writing (editor), Comfort, The Red Thread, The Ornithologist's Guide to Life. She's also won two Pushcart Prizes, two Best American Food Writing Awards, Best American Spiritual Writing and Travel Writing Awards, and a Boston Public Library Literary Light Award. Publisher's Weekly calls her new novel, The Book That Matters Most "gripping and multifaceted," Library Journal calls it "Effortlessly readable," and even the sometimes cranky Kirkus raves, "She has a knack for dramatic revelation that feels natural, possibly because she is so skilled at knowing what to leave out. Whether or not they think of themselves as bookish, readers of all stripes will enjoy cycling through these characters' lives and discovering their shared, mysterious past." About how we navigate life, loss, and the ties that are important to us, The Book that Matters Most--truly matters most.
Thank you, Ann for being here!
You’re so prolific and you’ve written so many wonderful books that I want to ask, how was writing this novel different from any of the others you’ve written? Did anything surprise you about it?
This was one of the toughest novels I've ever written. If you can believe it, the original manuscript was over 700 pages! A lot of the revision was sharpening the scenes. I cut characters, changed the size and make up of the book club, changed the selections they read. And I read and reread a couple dozen novels so that I could both select the ones that best mirrored my plot and so that I could write a book club discussion about each.
Every novel I write surprises me in some way. I plan out the story pretty thoroughly but still I find surprises. There's always a point where I say: Oh! So that's not going to happen that way!
How did you go about choosing the books that were going to change your characters’ lives—and which came first, the book or the character? And did the book change as the characters changed?
I wrote the novel over five years, and for the first year or so anyone who had the misfortune of coming over to my house for dinner got asked what book mattered most to him or her and why. I was surprised by the consistency of the responses. From that master list I read all those novels and winnowed down to the ones in The Book That Matters Most. Two changed as I wrote. I dropped Atlas Shrugged for Slaughter House Five because I'd originally imagined the character as a kind of shut down business guy and he evolved into a sweet widower trying to get through grief. And I tried to fit in a Paulo Coelho novel but opted for One Hundred Years of Solitude instead. But Ava's choice came before I even began to write, and remained the same. Her story line never veered from what I thought at the start.
This novel is so much about the power and sustenance of real friendship, the kind that sits beside you and hands you a tissue for your tears—and the kind that celebrates something wonderful with you. And it’s all presented so effortlessly. It’s clear that you love your characters, but how does that love get born?
I have been blessed with true friends, which for the person who was the weird outcast for most of my childhood never ceases to delight me. I think a writer must find the flaws in her characters in order to love them. Often I start there.
The book That Matters Most is also about secrets and how sometimes we can read—or write—them much better than we tell them. So, I’m curious, have you ever written a novel for someone in your life, a novel that was particular and personal to that person and that might have changed that person’s life?
Wow! I don't know. I haven't intentionally started out to do that but certainly little crumbs of people I love at sprinkled throughout.
Which book matters most to you, Ann?
As one of the characters in the novel points out, different books matter most at different times in our lives. So I'll cheat and say Little Women, Marjorie Morningstar, The Great Gatsby, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Book clubs! I have a challenge to visit 60 between pub date and December 9 (my 60th birthday). Do you know any?