I can't remember where or when I started to know Larry Baker, only that I'm glad that I do. Maybe we grew up together in an alternative reality, because it really feels that way. And I'm thrilled to host him here for his gripping new novel FROM A DISTANCE. Larry's the author of The Education of Nancy Adams, Love and Other Delusions, A Good Man and Athens, America.
I'm so jazzed you are here! Thank you, Larry!
Q: What’s FROM A DISTANCE about?
A: Love, Sex, and Death? The usual trifecta of life. Not just love, but insane obsession. Not just sex, but illicit and sometimes violent sex. Not just death, but the voice of a dead woman. Alternating chapters tell the story of a 30-year affair between a man and woman who met as children in Charleston. From different social classes. Bobby was a pampered only child. Ellie was a sexually abused step-daughter. She lies to him, but he finds out about her brutal home life, and he tries to rescue her, only to be left beaten and physically scarred for life. His father has her institutionalized, and Bobby flees to New York City. But they never stop loving each other. She remains his secret, even though she comes to live with him in the mythic Windsor Building in NYC. It is left to Bobby’s assistant editor Sally to uncover the truth as she reads the thousands of journal and diary pages that Ellie has written over her life. At the end, it is also left to Sally to literally write the final chapter of Bobby and Ellie’s story.
Q: What compelled you to write FROM A DISTANCE?
A: I’ve always wanted to do a story about the publishing business. Not the writing business. Writers are not the main characters in this book. Hell, writers as characters show up too much in modern fiction anyway. Mine is a story about an editor, the most famous editor in America, a dying man with a secret. And I make no claim about my story being a realistic view of publishing. It is pure myth. Publishing as a noble pursuit. (My writer friends laugh when I tell them this.) I lived through the German takeover of Random House, and that is the backdrop for my story. Adding to that impulse was another long-time interest of mine...a clash of cultures. Specifically, Northern Commerce versus Southern Gentility. Finally, my writer fascination with how point of view can be used to both reveal and conceal the truth about characters. Half the book is written from the point of view of a totally unreliable narrator, but her “voice” is the most compelling thing I have ever written.
Q: And the title? Where did that come from?
A: The original title was Windsor House, based on the name of the publishing company. But, as I was literally writing one of the last chapters from Ellie, I realized that she had provided the best title. She was trying to explain to Bobby how she had arrived at some final wisdom about their relationship, and she referred to the song by that same title. They had always been too wrapped up in the passion and drama of the moment, that they had failed to truly see themselves. Time had finally become the distance they needed. And it was too late.
Q: I know you have said that this was your most difficult book to write. Why?
A: This was definitely my most difficult book to write, and the final version is a stark contrast to the first draft. I gave up on that first version and set it aside for five years. As you know, the story is set in alternating chapters, opening with the first person pov of a dead woman, which then alternates with the third person pov of the story of a her lover’s public life. For most of the story, that dead woman is not part of her lover’s life. But as her private story starts to parallel the man’s public life, everything the reader knew before has to be re-interpreted with this new knowledge. Finally, in the last few chapters, the two versions come together and a reader has to figure out which version of reality is actually true---the public or the private.
The problem? I was happy with the public story, but the private story---the tale as told by a dead insane woman---simply did not work. It was a mess. And the woman eventually became totally incompatible as a character to fit with the male character. I had to create a new love affair that would still work with the “public” half of the book. If you think you are confused now, imagine how confused I was as the writer. And it took five years to have one of those “light-bulb” moments. And the light-bulb illuminated a thirteen year old girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Charleston who is caught stealing books by a Southern blue-blood boy who grows up to be an editor in New York City. Knowing his public story, I was able to write Ellie’s story to mesh with his...finally.
Q: Critics have commented about how you seem to write intriguing and memorable female characters. Alice Kite, in The Flamingo Rising as well as A Good Man, and Nancy Adams, from The Education of Nancy Adams, are remarkable. How would you describe Ellie and Sally as compared to your other female characters?
A: Of all my characters, in all my books, Ellie was the most interesting one for me to create. She is the only character for which I had to do some real research...into the mental issues related to sexual abuse, compounded by schizophrenia and border-line bi-polarism. I talked to counselors and people who had to deal with such issues in their real life. And I also had to write from the point of view of a voice that begins at age thirteen and ends at age 40-something. She must have a child’s voice that slowly grows into an adult voice over time. The result? A very few early readers hate her and stop reading. The overwhelming majority are drawn into her mind, as I intended, and stay. So, an insane thirteen year-old girl grows into an insane 40-year old woman. The expression of that insanity becomes more coherent over time, and often profoundly insightful. Which leads to my goal for the Sally character, the ever faithful assistant to Bobby, who has never understood why her love for him has never been reciprocated. Reading Ellie’s version of her life with Bobby, Sally finds herself wishing she had been Ellie, with all her baggage, if she could have experienced the love that Bobby felt for Ellie. All in all, I think Ellie and Sally are the best female characters I have ever written.
Q: Any interest from Hollywood about this new book. As I recall, your first was a Hallmark movie in 2001.
A: I wish. And so do my children. All I know for sure is that this is definitely not Hallmark material.
Q: What’s obsessing you now, and why?
A: Well, my first grandchild is at the top of that list. An incredible experience, and more and more (happily) time consuming for me. But as for my writing, I think I have one more good book in me. Almost a Biblical saga, set in the South in 2016, mixing politics and murder. The story of a family that took root in Florida in the 1860s but which, by 2016, has devolved into jealous factions. Two cousins, each pushing 70, one the patriarch of the town, the other the Sheriff, and each thinks he knows a secret about the other. Their wives were sisters. One disappeared forty years earlier; the other died in a bizarre accident about the same time. I have always wanted to do a Cain and Abel story. This is my attempt.