Library Journal compares her to Anne Tyler, and in The Sweetheart Deal, Polly Dugan has crafted an unforgettable story of grief loss and love. I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Polly!
I always have to ask, what sparked this book? What was the question or image that was haunting you that led to the novel?
In early 2013, I queried my now agent, Wendy Sherman, with my story collection and early in our discussions she asked me if I was working on a novel. My answer wasn’t so much No as it was No, why would you ask me such an outlandish question I’m a short story writer. But I knew the answer she was hoping for was yes. I swear the idea came via the grace of the muse because when Wendy brought it up, writing a novel was the furthest thing from my mind.
A long time ago, in 2000 I think, my best friend from college came to visit my husband, Patrick, and me in Portland. During that visit, because she and I are so much alike and because she and my husband are friends in their own right, the three of us somehow came up with the very morbid joke that if I died, she had to marry Patrick. I have a lot of anxiety about death and dying as people close to me know well, including this friend, and my fear is fair game for people who love me and it really was just very silly, like, Sorry you’ll be dead, Polly, but Patrick won’t not only be alone, he’ll be with someone you love and approve of.
For the three of us, that joke didn’t extend much past that visit but for whatever reason I remembered it when I realized I’d better come up with an idea for a novel in order to maximize the possibility for a book deal.
Because of my obsession with death, it’s invariably the foundation, or part of the foundation, of all my writing. And relationships—between men and women, families and friendships—they’re interesting to me, so I keep banging on those over and over too. So when I recalled this joke in my own life, I wondered, what if it came up between two men and one seriously asked of his friend the favor to marry his wife if he died, and then the guy did die? The premise was compelling to me on all kinds of levels because of the opportunities for potential conflicts it offered—both the interpersonal and intrapersonal ones. And, ultimately, the idea sounded like a book I’d want to read myself, so that alone justified going with it.
This is your first novel after an acclaimed short story collection. What was it like moving from one form to another? (I was nauseous and anxious when I moved from short stories to a novel!) What surprised you about the whole process?
My God, I was anxious too. The idea was very intimidating and I felt like a fraud even thinking and especially sharing with anyone, I’m writing a novel. It seemed like such a lofty and unattainable goal for me, but something other writers, no question, were capable of accomplishing. I didn’t think it was easy for other writers—I knew it wasn’t—I just thought it was an achievement that wasn’t meant for me.
So what I ended up doing—I thought this at the time and in hindsight it seems pretty accurate—I sort of snuck up on writing the novel by approaching all the various elements of the book like I would have the short form. I knew each character’s blueprint and their story arc, so wrote what I knew about each one first, all the ‘big rocks’—one son’s obsession with a friend’s mother, his brother’s night terrors, another’s getting in trouble at school; the back story of the friendship between Leo and Garrett; the story of Audrey and Leo; the intimacy between Audrey and her best friend; the insular quality of the firefighter culture that challenges Garrett; the development and tensions in Audrey and Garrett’s relationship. By taking on all of these smaller narratives, which seemed manageable, I felt like I tricked myself into generating a viable volume of work and by then connecting the narratives and making them a cohesive larger whole no longer seemed insurmountable. It was a great relief to stop feeling like an imposter when I told people I was writing a novel.
What made you decide to tell the story in different points of view? (It works really well, but I was wondering if you knew that this was the way you wanted to tell the story right away, or if it came through trial and error.)
Thank you for saying so! I wrote the first 20 pages, the beginning of the book, from Leo’s first person POV. It was my initial instinct, and it felt authentic and effective so I stayed with it for the other characters, but I was open to making changes if they seemed like better choices to serve the story. I actually wrote several sections in close third to see if the change made them stronger and I didn’t think it did—although it created a different dynamic—and it was interesting to notice the effect of changing the POV, as it always is when I play around with it. When I compared the two, first seemed like the obvious way to go for all the characters, for them to all ‘have their say.’
Ultimately I decided on the different first person points of view for two non-negotiable—technical or creative?—reasons: first, by putting myself as much as I could in all the characters’ skins, each narrative felt like I was telling ‘my’ story about ‘myself’ (times five plus Leo) rather than ‘their stories’ (times five). Even when I wrote with the greatest care and compassion I could, close third had an unavoidable element of distance, which blunted the emotions I wanted to honestly portray; I couldn’t overcome the sense that I was an outsider intrusively reporting on a struggling group of ‘them.’ The second reason is that although the five characters are all grieving the loss of Leo—they are in the same boat if you will—but despite that commonality, each person’s grief is private and isolating; their shared circumstance doesn’t unify them. I thought the POV choice accentuated that isolation, made it more acute and conveyed that to the reader.
The Sweetheart Deal says so much about how and why we love and how we grieve. Could you talk a bit about that please?
My God, these are such vast, elusive and complicated topics. Love and grief are at the center of many of my own deepest questions, or experiences really, since there aren’t ready, easy answers to the hows and whys of both those things. At least I haven’t found them yet and I’ve been pondering them for a long time.
Anne Lamott is one of my greatest influences for spirituality, the doggedness required for a writing life, the messiness of being a human being living among other human beings, forgiveness, so many things. There’s a story in one of her books, I think one of the ones on faith, where she talks about her son Sam, whom she raised as a single mom, and his friend, also named Sam, whom I believe, if I’m remembering correctly, because of a birth defect, was born with only one arm. Anyway, she writes about overhearing the boys talking to each other in the unabashed, guileless way of children and her Sam asks the other Sam, “Where’s you arm?” and friend Sam answers, “I don’t know. Where’s your dad?”
What struck me when I read that piece the first time was how we are all without something, or multiple somethings, in our lives at different times, or throughout our lives, and those various losses, whatever they are, and certainly the death of a loved one, have the potential to make us all so much kinder and more empathetic to each other than we typically are. Like, sorry about your arm. Yeah, sorry about your dad—everyone is missing something. And losses always make us capable of greater love, of loving better, because they remind us not to take anyone, anything important to us, for granted.
I have only one sibling, my sister Nancy, who is disabled. As a result I have always—since childhood—been hungry for a sibling relationship I never had. My best friend growing up was one of six kids and I loved spending time at her house to get that sibling fix. Of course the very thing that drew me to her house was what drove her crazy and pissed her off the way brothers and sisters will. Yet, her mother was raising her six kids on her own after her husband left them, so my friend had all these siblings but no father, and back at my house, I had both my parents but was lacking in the sibling-as-peer department. The story of the two Sams remind me of my friend and me.
As far as love goes, there are so many different kinds—romantic, familial, between friends—and they’re all in the book. One of the things about all these relationships that I’ve found to be true, and didn’t fully understand or believe as a younger person, is that when we love someone, that love has to account for all the parts of a person—the flaws as well as the fabulous parts that got our attention in the first place. And, in any kind of relationship, we don’t get to discover the flaws until a certain level of intimacy is reached. Most of us go through the world in a certain public persona way, but the people closest to us know the entire list of best and worst and love us anyway. I would never assume to give people relationship advice, but in the book I really put my characters through the 360-degree paces of love. You can’t just take what you want—the good stuff—and leave the rest.
I always want to know about craft, so tell us what kind of writer are you? Do you outline or use Post-its (my fave!) or do you wait and see what happens and let the characters lead you?
I wrote the novel in a completely different way than I wrote the story collection, which I wrote over several years, and what I discovered in the process during the year I wrote it is that I’m a binge writer. At my luckiest, after I’ve sat down to write and I’ve started the story rolling, if things are working at all optimal levels, the characters will take over and I’ll feel like I have to keep up with them in the way of William Faulkner’s famous quote about trotting along behind his characters once they stand up and move around to not miss anything they say and do. When this happens it’s the greatest gift I’ve experienced from writing, but when those characters show up in all their three-dimensional glory when I’m not at the computer, it’s a challenge to strive to not miss something.
The times that happens—in the car, when I’m cooking, picking up my kids at school, at a friend’s house—I must jot the idea, lines of dialogue, whatever, on a Post-it, or scrap of paper, or put it in my notes app on my phone or write it on my hand to not lose the thought. (If you like I can email pictures of my pile of ‘material’ that when I was working on the final drafts, as I incorporated, or rejected, each piece of information into the larger project, they systematically got recycled. It was very cathartic and effective and a genuinely physical aspect of writing I hadn’t expected.)
I admire writers who outline and I wish I could because it seems like a wonderful tool for them. I wrote a piece for Medium.com about never having been good at understanding and creating and using outlines from my earliest experiences in school. But in the early stages of writing “The Sweetheart Deal,” there was one morning that I had so many ideas coming to me all at once that I jotted down a diagram, a drawing really, to not forget any of the intricacies that were swirling, and I followed it like a road map to write the novel. It seemed like such a simple thing at the time, just a mess of words and arrows and lists of emotions and conflicts for each character and what I envisioned happening during the course of the book, but I needed that diagram, and I couldn’t have written the book without it. (I can send a photo of this too.)
What’s obsessing you now and why?
As far as work goes, how to fully envision and commit to writing the next book. In “Legacies,” one of the stories from my collection, Joan Cavanaugh, a character I love, is dying and shares a revelation with Peter, her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, whom she’s asked to come visit just before Christmas. The story is told from Peter’s point of view, and without realizing it at the time, although the story stands alone, the conclusion leaves a door ajar for Joan’s side of the story, more of the story, and a secret that she takes to her grave. Decades later, in Portland, because of two women who are the closest of friends and next-door neighbors, Joan’s family uncovers her secret.
No surprise, death again. And secrets are another obsession I have; along with death, a secret comprises the backbone of this story. And, I don’t know if this occurs in other cities, but I’m constantly intrigued by what a ‘small town’ Portland is, evidenced by how people’s lives overlap, and by extension, because of how mobile people have become, how small our country can seem, and the world, especially when uncanny connections or coincidences happen. All these elements are at play, wooing me toward the next book, trying to convince me they’ll work together to pull it off.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
They’ve all been so thorough and thoughtful, thank you, that it’s tough to come up with one. How about this: “If you had one wish for your books, what would it be?” My answer: “That my mom were alive to read them.”