Why such sad stories?
They’re sometimes sad in that life is sometimes 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, 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 in the world do people love 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 and when my books show up in curricula. 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?
The book I wish I had written is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s about love and doom and life and art and everything that survives. His talent is genius and mine is not but I’m thrilled that I can meet him on the steps and shake hands.
Do you think the losses in your life have shaped your fiction?
Of course, they must have. If I’d hadn’t already lost my mother when my husband died of cancer at a very young age, if I’d had protection from fate (financial security) when he died, or protection from the criminal who stole all my money 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 of 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 Leo Tolstoy, Betty Smith, Scott Fitzgerald and Charlotte Bronte, and they didn’t have any formal training either. It was like a dare: You can’t jump that fence. And of course, inside, I had to think, I can, of course! Watch me! I guess I have a renegade heart in some ways.
How do you write with nine children?
I don’t know how I did it when they were very young. It was a kind of trance state. They were very far apart in age, and some are grown up now, to be honest, and those that are still at home are in high school. They understand how to forage for their own food. In seriousness, of course, my kids are my top priority, of course (and what else would I say publicly?) Still, it’s true. Although I have gotten the occasional lacerating guilt trip from my kids (“You would know that if you paid attention …”) they are in general very tolerant of me, and tolerant of my work. They know that I love them more than writing, and they feel loved, so if it comes second only to them, it must be important. A family needs all the time you can give — even the time when the mother is nothing more than furniture but is there, that’s important too. So I make a big effort to be just there — there cooking, there reading — even if it means driving fours hours to get home at 3 a.m. so that I’ll be there at 7 a.m. 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 ‘70s 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.
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. These stories do not come from events in my life or my family; but they seem to reflect things that 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. They were beautifully turned out, in stunning, costly clothes and physically very delicate and small, like five feet tall, although they must have been 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. The Good Son began when I was at a writer’s conference in a big hotel in Chicago and met a woman in the coffee line who told me she stayed here every weekend to visit her son, who was in prison nearby for his role in the death of the only girl he ever loved — a crime he couldn’t even remember because he was so messed up on drugs. He was only nineteen. She said to me, “People ask me if I still love him. And they’re surprised when I say, of course I still love him.” That was the part that broke my heart. I couldn’t turn away. That story turned in my mind for years, until I finally found a way to write it.
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 Oprah 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. Like so many of her book club choices, it was only deceptively “popular” fiction. It’s not Cormac McCarthy; and I don’t want to be Cormac McCarthy. It probably made sense to end the book club when Oprah Winfrey decided to move on. She has a grand and exalted sixth sense of pace. But I think it had an epic run. I believe it made some readers feel part of something big and galvanized some people into reading. I think that hearing people say, “I really don’t read” is a puzzling, tragic sentence, like hearing a woman say, “I’m not a feminist.”
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 simple and elegant it is. It’s just 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 not a character in fiction but definitely is a character.
What are your hobbies?
What’s your favorite thing to do?
I love to go snorkeling but not in the Atlantic (only in tourmaline-green sparking seas, which I don’t see very much! For years, I taught at the Maui Writers Conference (now no longer in operation) and those were the best years of my life. I went snorkeling with my little sister Pam every morning before class, then ate pineapples and mangos truly worthy of the name with my coffee. In my next novel, I’m writing about a woman who takes pictures underwater, and that is probably aspirational … Oh gosh, my favorite thing to do is reading. I love play poker and board games. A real live wire.
What do you think the greatest invention of the century is?
In-vitro fertilization and hair-styling paste. And the printing press. Was 1450 AD the last century? It seems like a while.
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. And this great moment when I learned that The Deep End of the Ocean was on the New York Times bestseller list. I was driving in a highway construction zone in Chicago and I jumped up and down in the seat and yelled. The construction workers must have thought that I was really attracted to them.
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, so peaceful and busy, flying in a darkened, spangled world of their own.
What makes you cry?
Kirkus reviews and Claire de Lune. For different reasons.
What makes you laugh?
The Trip films with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I’m absolutely helpless, even though I’ve seen each of them four times easily.
What is your truest gift?
I know the words to every song I’ve ever heard — and I know them accurately. Pop, folk, musical theater … from about 1900 on. You play music trivia games with me at your peril.