How do you get your ideas?
Most of them come from real life, of course, just as the novels of Tolstoy and Flaubert came from newspaper clippings. Unlike other authors, the stories do not come from events in my life or my family; but they seem to reflect things that do or have happened in my life. Sometimes, eerily, they turn out to be things that later happen in my life, which makes it seem sometimes that stories aren’t just healing, they’re predictive. Usually, books start with an image, or a sentence. Once, in a fancy restaurant, I sat next to a lovely couple in their 80s. All of a sudden, the woman slammed down her fork and napkin and said to the man, “Don’t be ridiculous! I’ve always honored your marriage.” They’d been having the same argument for fifty years! Once, I saw a man in a business suit, with an open umbrella, fall into a hotel swimming pool. I thought it was a stunt. But he was just terribly distraught. If I can’t forget it, it often finds its way into a story.
Why such sad stories?
I don’t think they’re sad. They’re challenging. They’re about ordinary people under pressure of extraordinary circumstance. Those pressures reveal people. They reveal character in a way that a great vacation at the beach (unless there is a shark) doesn’t. So while I don’t think I will always write sad stories (in fact, Two if By Sea, while it’s a heartfelt meditation on family and loss, is also a big, sweeping adventure story) there would be no stories if there were no pain. I write about the spaces and what fills up the spaces, the connections between people, people thrust out of their comfort zones, pity, honor, love, terror (Did I just make that up?)
Where do people “crave” your books?
New York City, Australia, and Iowa! I knock ‘em dead in places like Des Moines! Minnesota is also a love fest, and, increasingly, Brooklyn. Clergy are also very drawn to my books, although I’m not conventionally religious. I’m surprised and thrilled when I hear from readers in college. I think that I’m writing for a person like me – a person so nutty for stories that she reads a page at stoplights.
What’s your dream book?
A great ghost story. I used to say that I was going to write one before I die – or shortly thereafter. But now I think that I have written one. We’ll see what my publisher says.
Do you think the losses in your life have shaped your fiction?
Well, sure. If I’d had a mother when I lost my husband, or protection from fate (financial security) when my husband died, or protection from the criminal who stole all my money just a few years ago, writing might not have been such an urgent haven for me. I have felt such a need to write to save my life … creatively and sometimes, I think, literally. I’ve always taken risks to stay sane.. I’ve always been interested in doing things that people said were going to be impossible for me. Writing a novel with no formal training was one of those risks.
None? No formal training?
A semester in Creative Writing, the freshman elective, at the University of Illinois… so I wasn’t to the page born. My family told many stories; but I’m the first person on either side of my family to graduate high school. I’m not sending out my papers to Princeton. I was 50 years old before I went to grad school, and then, it was just like college – on a scholarship. There was no better teacher than the university of good books, however. My teachers were Betty Smith and Charlotte Bronte, and they didn’t have any formal training either. I guess I have a renegade heart in some ways.
How do you write with nine children?
I neglect them. They now understand this and have begun to forage for their own food. In seriousness, of course, my kids are my top priority: five of them are still at home, two teens and three youngers, and i have a daughter in college. All of the older kids, including my oldest, who’s 31 now, have made repeat appearances in the basement between jobs, and I believe they don’t think I notice. In general, although I get the occasional lacerating guilt trip from my kids (“You would know that if you were ever around …”) my kids are very tolerant of me, and tolerant of my work. They know that I love them more than my work, and they feel loved, so it’s clear that what I do is important, too. With raising a family, there’s no such thing as the myth of “quality time.” Kids need all the time — the boring time, the staring-into-space time, the time when the mother is nothing more than furniture but is there. So I make a big effort to be just there — there cooking, there reading — even if it means finishing a speech and driving three hours home at eleven at night because I do want to be there, and not just to make a good impression on them. I like my solitude, but it gets old quickly. Sitting outside in my brother’s driveway in Chicago, with my kids playing basketball, telling stories about being kids in the ‘60s on the west side of Chicago, that’s the best fun I ever have. My brother is the real storyteller in the family. And he knows it.
You were open about having an investment theft.
Yes, I was, simply because so many people believe that if they are careful enough, nothing like this could happen to them. It was a financial advisor who stole a whole lot of money.
Other than that, you have a pretty ordinary life.
It’s less than ordinary. It’s dull. I love dullness. I don’t even know how to turn on the TV – although, in my own defense, turning on the TV these days is like turning on a nuclear reactor. It would be boring if I didn’t escape to stir up the lives of imaginary people.
What do you think of the Oprah experience?
Because I was the first one, my experience was different. I didn’t know it was going to be this huge, number-one bestseller, although I knew that Miss Winfrey could transform people into vegetarians with a sentence! And so, for me it was even more of a gift, a surprise and a delight, to meet people for whom The Deep End of the Ocean was the first book they’d read since high school, for example. It touched my heart that this book changed their lives. They call it the first of Oprah Winfrey’s ‘inspirational women’ stories; but The Deep End of the Ocean was filled with troubled and deeply ambivalent characters. It’s not Cormac McCarthy; and I don’t want to be Cormac McCarthy.
Who do you want to be?
Andrea Barrett. Not smart enough, though.
What’s your all-time favorite novel?
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It’s always thought of as a teen book; but it’s filled with truly gritty accounts of the immigrant experience, from death by alcoholism to the molestation of a child. How simply and elegant it is. It’s just simply amazing what she did. In fact, my daughter’s name is Francie Nolan.
Who’s your favorite male character?
Atticus Finch. I must say, the original Atticus Finch. Hey I have a kid named that, too! (Atticus Stuart Brent).
How about a female character?
Charlotte A. Cavatica.
Are all your children named after characters in fiction?
They are, except for my first son, who’s named after my brother, who’s only a character.
What are your hobbies?
What’s your favorite thing to do?
I love to snorkel and SCUBA dive, and I love to go fishing and play poker and board games. A real live wire.
What do you think the greatest invention of the century is?
In-vitro fertilization and styling paste.
Why have you begun writing fiction for young adults? Isn’t one genre enough?
It wasn’t for the money, that’s for sure! I love the chances I can take, the ways I can go dark and light. The borders aren’t so visible.
If you could change one thing with a snap of your fingers, what would it be?
If you could relive one moment, what would it be?
The moment I saw each of my children for the first time.
If you could come back as anything other than a person, what would it be?
A whale. I just know they’re having fun, because things are much better down where it’s wetter. I feel comforted knowing whales are out there.
What makes you cry?
Kirkus reviews and hearing my son Marty sing, but for different reasons.
What makes you laugh?
Hearing all the other kids sing Marty’s musical theatre songs.