10 November 2009
Dear Book Club members,
First, thank you for choosing Broken for You as your book club selection. There are so many marvelous books out there, and the fact that you've chosen Broken when a multitude of other worthy works are clamoring for your attention means a great deal to me.
You know, I hope, that I adore you. All of my published author friends adore you. We feel eternally beholden to y'all for your dedication to and love of books, and for the ongoing ways in which you support the artistry of reading. (And reading is an art; if you have any doubts about that, well, I'll address those in a future essay.) If books and independent bookstores and authors are to survive in these technologically-accelerating times, it will be thanks in no small part to you.
I though you might find it interesting to have a section of the website where you could view responses to questions about Broken for You that have been posed to me over the years.
Enjoy! And again, thanks so much for your support and your artistry.
1. Is there an actual person, or persons you used as a model for Margaret Hughes? How and why does the brevity of life sweeten the plot of the story? I believe that laughter is essential to a full life and that this is increasingly necessary as we age. Would Margaret subscribe to that philosophy?
Margaret, like all of the characters in Broken for You, is an admixture of many components, both real and imagined. Parts of her are indeed owed to actual people - her physical appearance was suggested by an unnamed stranger I spotted one Saturday years ago at a Tully’s on Queen Anne; her speaking voice is modeled on that of a medical transcriptionist co-worker; she is named for the eccentric mother-in-law of a dear friend; and her unique, almost holy relationship with objects was inspired by my mother.
I expect many writers build characters on some foundation of “reality,” but in my experience anyway, after a time whatever real person served as the model for a character is eventually supplanted. In the end, characters hopefully stand on their own; they’re unique and fully realized and different from the actual people who inspired them.
Humor is indeed extremely important in life; a significant part of Margaret’s evolution in the book is that she rediscovers her levity. Related to that, my years in the theatre taught me that really great dramatic playwrights – from Shakespeare to Chekov to Wilder to Odets to Gibson to Kushner – understand that to engage the full range of an audience’s emotions, you must allow them to laugh. Emotions are emotions. If you touch that pool of laughter you simultaneously touch the pool of tears. My feeling is this: if I don’t create space and opportunities for readers to laugh, it’s hardly fair of me to expect them to cry.
2. Is this book about me? I realize that Broken for You is fiction, but I relate in so many ways. The real question is, how did you ever come up with those characters? I, too, have had to deal with an elderly person whose loving personality had changed. And I too have the name of Schultz. Are you sure this isn’t about me?
I’m delighted that you felt such a strong kinship to the characters and saw yourself reflected in their situations! I’d have to say that one of the greatest rewards of being a writer is receiving comments like yours; a book only takes on a life of its own inasmuch as its characters resonate with the real experiences of its readers.
The writing process for me involves several things: cultivating a benign form of schizophrenia, indulging an insatiable curiosity about human beings, and channeling the spirits, if you will. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Bharati Mukherjee: “There are just thousands of people inside my head, and if they’re ghosts, they sure shriek real loud. All waiting to tell me their stories. I just transcribe. At my best I’m a transcriber of those eerie voices.”
I find that I am always “looking” for characters – characters I’m currently working on as well as characters I’ve yet to meet. My training as an actor instilled in me a love of observation; nothing entertains me more than noting the relevant, often random bits of inspiration that come my way, scanning headlines, studying strangers, pumping friends for family stories, eavesdropping at cafes and airports. As an example, when I was in England this past summer I saw a headline in a local newspaper, “’Drug Gives Blind Groom a Brief Glimpse of Bride.” I immediately scissored the article out of the paper and brought it home (it’s posted to the left of my writing desk as I type this) sensing that it would somehow figure into the fictional life of a blind piano tuner who plays an important role in my next book.
I think one walks a fine line between adhering to what one knows about the characters and what editor/teacher Gordon Lish describes as being “open for business.” Characters – like readers – will not thrive if they are micro-managed; one needs to allow them to go their own direction at times, to reveal themselves in ways that may not have been written into the outline. It’s tricky. When I find that a character is resisting a scene I’m trying to write, I often write them a letter and ask them what’s up. (Talk about benign schizophrenia!)
At our best, as Ms. Mukherjee says, I think we are meant to be the vessels for stories, for other people’s stories. The character of Irma was a complete surprise; she very forcefully inserted herself into the novel when I was probably three years into the writing process and had no idea of how the connections made at the need of the book would come about. (I did not work from a detailed outline when I wrote Broken, which is part of the reason it took seven years to write! Lesson learned.) Irma visited me in a dream. I believe as much as I believe anything that she is a real person who was fishing around for someone to tell her story. After Irma’s appearance, the book took on an entirely new imperative. I had to stop whining about what a bad writer I was, how boring the book was, how I’d never finish it, etc. I’m not sure I would have finished the book without her, and I’ve always been grateful to Irma for giving me that kick in the rear.
One must believe absolutely in the existence of one’s characters in order to write them truthfully. Someone (I don’t know who) once said that as a writer you have to feel as though you are telling a story which has already happened.
That has certainly been true for me.
So, the short answer to your question is twofold:
No, the book isn’t about you, and
Yes, the book is absolutely about you.
3. Is Margaret’s tumor a catalyst to the consequent taking in of Wanda – and the saving surrender of defenses with which she is encircled by attitude and home?
There’s nothing like a dire diagnosis to launch a story. It’s a completely unoriginal beginning – there must be thousands of “Movie-of-the-Week”s which start this way – but a reliable one, and as a first-time novelist, I felt the need to rely on at least one surefire plot device. So yes, giving Margaret the bad news about her tumor in the first sentence is the inciting event which sets everything in motion.
The dessert café scene between Margaret and Nose Ring in the first chapter is crucial. I’ve found in my own life that the most profound and memorable exchanges can occur between total strangers; this truth gave me the idea for the scene: given Margaret’s isolation when we first meet her, a profound encounter with a total stranger is the only kind of exchange she could have.
When Nose Ring answers Margaret’s self-described “trite” question (about what she’d do if she found out she only had a year or two to live) by saying, “I’d do the opposite of what I’ve always done, relationship-wise. I’d try to break all my old bad habits,” Margaret has no trouble translating that bit of advice, applying it to her own situation. That exchange launches Margaret directly into writing the “Room for Rent” ad which summons Wanda; and from then on then there’s a kind of rolling snowball effect as more and more people are drawn into the community of the house by the powerful force of Margaret’s generosity and benevolence.
“What would you do if you found out you only had a year or two to live?” is a question for all of us, of course. My hope is that readers will consider what kind of answer they’d give to that question as well, how breaking bad habits might allow them to live more richly and adventurously.
4. I’m in a book club at my church and we read Broken for You several months ago. It’s a book that has stayed with me. I happen to be an antique glass collector and I have to say that when the glass started breaking, I could hardly continue reading. I understand the metaphor, but how did you ever come up with breaking all that priceless crystal and china? And do you, the author, own any “priceless crystal or china?”
You are not alone! I attended a large book club event last summer incognito; when the moderator launched the discussion by asking for general responses to Broken, one woman spoke up and said, “I have to say that I just HATED this book! When they started breaking the china, well…I just thought that was AWFUL! I have a set of my grandmother’s china and I could never in a MILLION YEARS break it! It was COMPLETELY unbelievable to me!”
One of the most affecting bits of advice I’ve ever heard about novel-writing came from David Guterson; he said something like, “A novel shouldn’t answer questions; it should ask them.” I’m hoping that readers can remain open-minded enough to be curious about their reactions to the breaking, especially if those reactions are negative.
My other hope about the breaking scenes is first that readers can get beyond any strong initial reaction and consider the context: of course you would never break your grandmother’s china; but what if the china was stolen from people that your grandmother had murdered?
In the theatre, one way in which actors imaginatively connect with the inner lives of characters with whom they share little or no common ground is to ask the question, “What if…?” It’s a powerful question, a great way to open imaginative doors which might otherwise remain stuck.
Yes, there are certainly more rational ways in which Margaret could have disposed of her collection. She could have sold it, she could have donated it to a museum. But would that have incited the same kinds of questions? Would rational behaviors result in exclamatory discussions? I think not. My husband said something wonderfully insightful awhile back on this subject: whenever people gather around a table which is beautifully set with matching china, it is the flawed or chipped piece which attracts our notice; after all, it’s the piece with a story to tell. The rest of the pieces, for all their perfection, are anonymous, undifferentiated. They have nothing to say. They’re boring.
I don’t own any priceless crystal or china; if I did, I’m sure I’d find it impossible to willfully break it. (In the interest of research, I did acquire a good deal of china from Value Village and spent many hours smashing it in our garage; my neighbors thought I was mad.) However, I do have a much-beloved collection of Italian painted pottery, most of which has been acquired from thrift stores and is chipped, cracked, or otherwise flawed. The most I’ve ever paid for a one of my pieces of pottery is thirty dollars.*
This is not to say that I wouldn’t be devastated if it anything in my collection was broken. However, when the occasional accident occurs (and it does, it has, I have two young rambunctious children and an equally lively Labrador retriever at home) I dry my tears, take the broken piece out to the back patio, shatter it further, and then put the pieces into one of the twenty or so lidded plastic tubs where the rest of the “research” is filed. I probably have enough smashed crockery to mosaic the walls of my study. Perhaps I’ll take that on one day…
5. I read and really like your book. I am sure it inspired others, as it did me, to do the things that are really important to me while there is time. I launched a project to build a labyrinth walk in a park under construction near my home. What has your book inspired others to do?
I love hearings stories like yours, and am glad to hear that Broken nudged you toward action! When I give readings, I frequently read an essay called, “How to Write your First Novel.” Aside from providing people with a non-traditional writer’s bio, its bigger purpose is to encourage people to make time for their creative passions. I think we have a responsibility in these often dark times to encourage one another in our life-affirming pursuits, whether they be tap dancing, knitting, baking, reading, writing, painting, hiking, ice skating, karaoke singing, whatever.
As for a specific answer to your question, I do know of at least one mother/daughter bookclub here in Seattle who smashed dishes after their discussion and then made mosaics.
6. The accolades and awards given to you and your book Broken for Broken for You are amazing. Do you worry that future works can’t match or top this effort? Which of your careers -theater, teaching, or being an author – has been the most challenging and why?
I expose myself as little as possible to accolades, and try not to dwell on awards. Praise is lovely, of course, and I’m extremely grateful for the positive attention Broken has received – my publisher, Grove/Atlantic, took a huge risk on this first-time novelist, and it’s wonderful to feel that their good faith in my work has been rewarded.
John Steinbeck said something about his books being dead to him once they’ve been published. That’s close to my experience; I’ve felt very little ownership of the book ever since I did my last creative work on it nearly three years ago.
I feel about the characters in Broken the way I imagine feeling about kids who are off at college or touring Europe: they’re good kids; they’re making good friends, good grades, responsible choices; they’re doing well, and I’m happy for them. I don’t feel the need to check in every day so that they can tell me what a wonderful mother I am.
Amy Tan wrote a great essay in her book, The Opposite of Fate called “Angst and the Second Novel.” She recounts hilariously her experiences in the wake of her first novel – which was wildly successful – and the throwaway comment she heard over and over again from friends and colleagues: that second novels are doomed, particularly if a first novel was a hit.
It makes sense. If a writer has only written one other book, there’s no other basis for comparison. I’m still building my body of work. Having only written two novels is probably a little like having two kids: it’s hard not to label one kid as “bad’ and the other kid as “good,” to polarize your creative efforts. My second book is different than my first, although it shares many of the same preoccupations. Will it be better than Broken? Or not as good? I’ll have to leave that to the reader. I’m extremely lucky in that I have a brilliant editor; whatever failures are in the first draft will be entirely my doing; whatever successes occur during the rewriting process will be hers.
All I can say is that I’m trying to be the very best writer that I can be; my best will hopefully improve with each book. Working on my second novel has been just as difficult, if not more difficult than writing Broken. As my craft has improved, my standards have become more stringent. Also, I’m the sort of person who’s hard-wired for guilt and thus far more likely to be found sitting at my desk than sitting on my laurels.
I’ve definitely brought just as much heart and soul to the process of writing the second book. Sing Them Home is about grief, and it’s been unexpectedly shadowed by the loss of both of my parents.
In a way, I’m hoping to escape the second-novel curse; for years I believed that Sing was the novel I’d write first. I’ve been keeping a file of notes on this book since 1996, and the original idea arose from a 1974 National Geographic photo which was taken in a tornado-ravaged field in Nebraska; they story behind that photo involves some dear friends of my family’s. I’ve been toting this book around in my head and my heart for a long time.
I’ve been powerfully affected by all my careers; my life in the theatre, although not a particularly successful one, has had a profound effect on my life as a writer, and continues to do so. As an only child and a person who thrives on being alone in a room, I’m certainly better temperamentally suited for the life of a writer; so in the sense that the theatre is such an intrinsically “clubby” and social profession made it challenging for me.
But writing is easily the hardest creative work I’ve ever done. And unbelievable as it seems, twenty years onstage as an actor in no way prepared me for the terrifying experience of my first reading. Speaking one’s own words is quite different from speaking someone else’s.
*Since I first responded to these questions, my rambunctious sons were carousing around the living room one day and knocked over the thirty-dollar vase. I was very upset. I moved the vase into the kitchen with the intent of putting it outside with all the other crockery accidents, and then retreated to my bedroom to mope and knit. Half an hour later, noting an odd stillness in the house, I came back into the kitchen to find my younger son repairing the vase with hot glue. It has been returned to its place of prominence on the mantelpiece, an homage to brokenness, and to the reparative power of love.