To open the 2012-2013 season of All But True: The Musehouse Fiction Series, two talented writers will share their recent novels that focus on family secrets. Kelly Simmons will read from The Bird House (Washington Square Press, 2011) and Paul Elwork from The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Berkley, 2012). In advance of the Musehouse reading, they agreed to an email interview with Doug Gordon, the host of the series. Here is a transcript:
Doug: Kelly and Paul, we’ve billed your joint reading as “a night of family secrets,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to a theme shared by your novels. In Paul’s book, 13-year-old twins Emily and Michael play at being spiritualists, convincing neighbors that they can summon the dead. It starts as a game, but this is just after World War I, and the dead carry painful memories that the children don’t know about. Eventually, too, secrets about their own family start to emerge.
In Kelly’s novel, septuagenarian Ann Biddle begins to focus on her past because of her granddaughter’s school assignment–a family history. In the process of satisfying the child’s curiosity, both old secrets and new come to light, including love affairs and a tragic death.
So what impelled you to make family secrets the hidden core of a novel–and to conceive a plot in which children instigate the revelations?
Kelly: My book was partly inspired by an actual school assignment my daughter’s class did in 4th grade. It involved interviewing grandparents and finding common hobbies, interests, etc., that thread through the generations. After ascertaining that the only commonalities in our family involved riding horses, I had the idea that this assignment could really blow up in the hands of a forthcoming grandparent and a curious child–what if they were a family of drunks? Or criminals or cheats?
Children have always been obsessed with secrets because so much of the adult world remains hidden from them. Even in an era of reality television and confessional blogs and way too much non-news passing as news, there is much of the world that is not available to children. When they catch glimpses of the adult world, whether it’s on the Internet, or whispered behind closed doors, they don’t understand it. So it’s still a mystery to them. And adult readers want to protect young characters from this world, just as they would in real life. My whole novel hinges on the tension of the reader fearing that the grandmother will tell the granddaughter too much.
Paul: I chose children as my main characters because the Fox sisters–the real-life inspiration for my novel–were children when they started deceiving people about contacting the dead. The idea of children leading adults to belief, rather than the other way around, fascinated me. And I knew I wanted to make a distinction between how the children and adults would come to believe in the game–how the kids would be naturally quicker to believe it, but the adults would need it more. The role of secrets and regrets grew out of these other dynamics, even though at the outset I don’t think I realized what a role they would play in the story. As things went along, the haunted past took on a central importance, as did the notion of children uncovering things adults had tried to hide even from themselves.
Doug: I’m realizing now that both books explore several different layers of buried past. The top layer is what the adults remember well and make a conscious decision not to talk about. But down further, there’s more painful stuff that they themselves have tried to forget. And of course it’s the revelation of those deeper secrets that helps build the climax. Near the end of her tale, Ann Biddle says about the “heavy burden” of secrets: “the longer you held them, the larger they grew, the more people they entangled.” For the reader, that’s the pleasure and intrigue of these stories, seeing how the people tangle themselves up and then try to find their way out.
To delve into the past, you both use time shifts, but in different ways. The Bird House blends diary entries from the present with old ones from the 1960s. The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead has occasional chapters that jump back 40 to 50 years. Can you describe how you decided on, or discovered, the best technique to use–the how, why, and when to shift to a different time?
Kelly: In The Bird House, the diaries from 40 years ago are essential to inform the reader, because the present-day voice of Ann, tinged with dementia, is unreliable. We don’t know if she is remembering the events, her guilt, her culpability, accurately. So there are two perspectives offered from the same person, and they are sometimes different, and sometimes precisely alike.
Paul: When I started the novel, I interwove the time shifts as regular chapters and ended up cutting much of that stuff out for the first version of the story, published as The Tea House. When Amy Einhorn picked up the book for re-release in an expanded edition, I brought the family backstory back in–rewritten from the earlier cut stuff, because in between the characters and story had grown and changed. When I put a lot of backstory sections back in, it felt like they should occur as interlude chapters, sort of outside of real time in the story sense. The rest of the novel is written so close to Emily’s consciousness, experienced through her senses and feelings, but these chapters could travel back to her family’s past and allow the reader a dramatic view of things she would never truly see unfold, no matter what she uncovered. For the timing of the shifts, I sort of followed my nose to pace the revelations for the reader and try to interweave these direct views of the past with the pieces Emily is putting together. It took some moving around of things before I was happy with the arrangement, for sure.
Kelly: Oh my god, arranging chapters and weaving back and forth was very very hard for me with my novel, too. It’s really a little game of chess.
Paul: Yes, it’s like chess using trial and error–intricate and subtle but without rules.
Kelly: Yes, all the strategy of chess but lots of mulligans!
Doug: Hah, one of the great pleasures of writing–if you mess up you get to throw it all out and start over! Well, I was impressed with the skill of the time shifts in both books, and it’s good that trial and error plays a part, I think, rather than strategy alone. If you try to impose a theory of how the book ought to work, it might kill spontaneity. You get a novel that feels like a fleshed-out outline rather than an organic, living story, and there are too many of those around.
In that vein, since your characters do seem so much like real, unpredictable people, did they ever surprise you, taking the story where you didn’t know it was going to go?
Paul: I definitely agree about too much planning. Planning and strategy are fine things, provided a writer doesn’t get in the way when great stuff emerges in the process of writing–that stuff up from the unconscious, the sweet stuff that feels like real inspiration.
I love it when characters do things I hadn’t planned for before sitting down to write. It’s happened a lot over the years–again, I think the really great moments are in these unexpected turns–and one time comes to mind for The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead. I sat down planning to write a scene where the story’s central character, Emily Stewart, imagines that she meets the ghost of her great-aunt Regina, who died in an accident on the estate at sixteen. Emily doesn’t believe she sees Regina–she indulges in the ghostly idea of it. Anyway, I knew I was going to do that, but I didn’t know that Emily would imagine that Regina stepped into her and then go into her twin brother Michael’s room to frighten him awake. The result is one of the most important scenes in the early part of the book, and when I wrote it, it felt like Emily’s idea.
Kelly: I know some writers say, “Oh the characters took over and I let them do what they wanted!” as if the author is just a medium channeling the dead, but for me it’s a more specific process. It’s like putting the characters into therapy–figuring out what really makes them tick and what they could do that would be in their best or worst interests–and then choosing what works best for the premise of the book.
Characters drive my plots, but my premises create the characters. Kind of. I think. Oh I don’t know. Really. I know so little!
Paul: Oh, I plan–I make lots of notes and rough outlines and all of that. Sometimes the doodles in my notebook are of things from a story–does that count? I just think all of that planning is in a way theoretical and when the writing is cooking, all bets are off, or should be. Things just come out of that process, and I can’t shake the feeling of watching theoretical things take place on the ground, even though, of course, it’s all in my head. They’re coming to take me away, ha ha, hee hee…
I like the therapy notion. Maybe we just have our own personal metaphors for the same idea? Who the hell knows? We can try to be as intellectual as we like, but there’s so much about the whole thing that is mysterious.
Doug: Hmm, if I were a character, I’m not sure I’d want my therapist choosing my actions. The therapist knows too much! Seriously, though, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Give the character full rein to express his or her neuroses, but reserve to yourself the right of picking the best neurosis to pursue in this particular novel.
There’s another similarity in your books that I’ve been wondering about. In this era when social class seems increasingly prominent in American discourse–that is, in our worries about what’s happening to our society–it’s interesting that both of your novels deal with people who are well to do, or used to be. In The Bird House, Ann Biddle, true to her aristocratic name, is a Main Line matriarch who lives in a house full of antiques. Though her father ran off with most of the funds, Ann still belongs to a tennis club and keeps her family photos in leather-bound albums embossed with the family crest. In The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead, the twins live at Ravenwood, a gated estate on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, and the household includes a long-time family servant. Now, the protagonists in both novels are likeable and down-to-earth–there’s nothing snooty about them–but I’m curious about what drew you to these families of old-time wealth and privilege. Did it seem that such families would have more skeletons in the closet than the rest of us? Or more unusual skeletons?
Kelly: It’s not that wealthy people have more skeletons, but that they have a greater tendency to keep up appearances–and pretend that everything is hunky-dory.
And … I find the wealthy Main Line sensibility fascinating because I’m not from there…
Paul: I agree with Kelly about it being not so much more skeletons as more desire to cover things up … although the twins’ mother in my novel is tired of hiding from her own past and far beyond worrying much what the neighbors think. For me, it had more to do with the inspiration for my story’s location, the Glen Foerd estate on the outskirts of northeast Philadelphia. There is a garden house there that was converted to a playhouse and called the tea house. I lifted this little house whole from Glen Foerd and dropped it on my fictional Ravenwood estate. I knew I wanted the twins in my book to perform their first spirit-knocking sessions in this space, separate from the adults and in a world of play. I also really liked the potential isolation of a riverside estate like Glen Foerd, how I could make it an almost forgotten place with relatively few characters, even with neighbors taken into consideration.
Doug: Yes, Ravenwood does seem a world of its own, and the twins’ story has an almost fairy-tale quality sometimes. To me, in fact, both books have a kind of archetypal feel, even though they have plenty of well-observed details to anchor them in time and place. I think that’s a tribute to the quality of the writing–the sense that these stories rise from the reader’s own unconscious.
Thanks, Kelly and Paul, for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m looking forward to the readings and further discussion on September 15.
Kelly Simmons and Paul Elwork will read, sign, and discuss their novels on Saturday, September 15, at Musehouse, 7:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. For more on these authors, see their websites, http://www.bykellysimmons.com/ and http://www.paulelwork.com/.