“In this surging epic, a veritable decathlon of the spirit, Kennedy incisively dramatizes the enigma of chance, petty cruelty, and catastrophic evil, ‘unalloyed grief,’ and the tensile strength concealed beneath our obvious vulnerability.” —Booklist (starred review)
On the night of her thirteenth birthday, Jane Howard made a vow to her warring parents: she would never get married, and she would never have children.
But life, as Jane comes to discover, is a profoundly random business. Many years and many lives later, she is a professor in Boston, in love with a brilliant, erratic man named Theo. And then Jane becomes pregnant. Motherhood turns out to be a great welcome surprise—but when a devastating turn of events tears her existence apart she has no choice but to flee all she knows and leave the world.
Just when she has renounced life itself, the disappearance of a young girl pulls her back from the edge and into an obsessive search for some sort of personal redemption. Convinced that she knows more about the case than the police do, she is forced to make a decision—stay hidden or bring to light a shattering truth.
Leaving the World is a riveting portrait of a brilliant woman that reflects the way we live now, of the many routes we follow in the course of a single life, and of the arbitrary nature of destiny. A critically acclaimed international bestseller, it is also a compulsive read and one that speaks volumes about the dilemmas we face in trying to navigate our way through all that fate throws in our path.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
WHERE TO START? Where to begin? That’s the big question looming over all narrative structures, and something we analyzed ceaselessly in graduate school. What is the point of departure for a story? Unless you’re writing a big cradle-to-grave saga—“To begin my life at the beginning of my life”—a story usually commences at a moment well into the life of the central character. As such, from the outset you’re traveling forward with this individual through his tale, yet you are simultaneously discovering, bit by bit, the forces and events that shaped him in the past. As David Henry, my doctoral adviser, was fond of reminding his students in his lectures on literary theory: “All novels are about a crisis and how an individual—or a set of individuals—negotiates said crisis. More than that, when we first meet a character in a narrative, we are dealing with him in the present moment. But he has a back story, just like the rest of us. Whether it’s in real life or on the page, you never understand somebody until you understand their back story.”
David Henry. Maybe that’s a good point of departure. Because the accidental set of circumstances that landed David Henry in my life sent it down a path I would never have thought possible. Then again, we can never predict where a particle will go…
David Henry. Back at the start of the 1970s, when he was a young professor at the university, he’d written a study of the American novel, Toward a New World, that was noted immediately for its accessibility and its critical originality. Around the same time, he also published a novel about growing up in a Minnesota backwater that immediately saw him acclaimed as a modern-day Sherwood Anderson, alive to the contradictions of small-town American life.
“Alive” was the word everyone used about David Henry back then. Toward a New World won the 1972 National Book Award for Nonfiction. His novel had been short listed that same year for the NBA in Fiction (a rare double honor) and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The photos of him around that time show just why he was such a media star, as he had (to use a line from an Esquire profile of him) “classic square-jawed American good looks and a serious sense of cool: Clark Gable Goes to Harvard.”
He was everywhere back then: appearing on talk shows; writing learned, witty essays for the New York Review of Books; debating right-wing hawks in public forums. What’s more, though he dressed with a certain Lou Reed Élan (black T-shirts, black jeans), he never jumped on the radical-chic bandwagon. Yes, he did publicly denounce “the Babbitt-like conformism that so dominates one corner of the American psyche,” but he also wrote articles in defense of America’s cultural complexity. One of them, “Our Necessary Contradictions,” became something of a talking point when published in the Atlantic in 1976, as it was one of the first critical explications of what David called “the two facets of the American psyche that rub up against each other like tectonic plates.” I first discovered this essay while a freshman in college when a friend recommended David Henry’s collection of journalist pieces, Left-Handed Writing. And I was so taken with it that I must have foisted it on half a dozen friends, telling them that it explained, with brilliant clarity, what it meant to be an American who doubted so much about the state of the country today.
So I was in love with David Henry before I was in love with David Henry. When I applied to the doctoral program at Harvard, the essay that accompanied my application talked among other things about how much his approach to American literature and thought had influenced my own nascent academic work, and how the thesis I was hoping to write—“The Infernal Duality: Obedience and Defiance in American Literature”—was so David Henry. Granted, I knew I was taking a risk in letting it be known—even before I had been accepted by Harvard—that I already had a preferred thesis adviser in my sights. But I was so determined to work with him. As I was coming out of Smith summa cum laude with very strong recommendations from my English professors there, I was willing to be assertive.
It worked. I was called down to Cambridge for an interview with the department chairman. At the last minute I was told by his secretary that the interview would be handled by someone else in the department.
And that’s how I found myself face-to-face with David Henry.
The year was 1995. He was now in his early fifties, but still retained the craggy movie-star aura—though I immediately noticed that his eyes were marked by dark crescent moons hinting at a certain sadness within. I knew that he had continued to write essays for publications like Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, though not with such prolific regularity as before. From a piece I read about him in the Boston Globe I also found out that there had been no second novel and that his long-commissioned biography of Melville remained unfinished. But the article did say that, though his profile as a writer and a public intellectual had faded, he was still a hugely respected teacher whose undergraduate classes were always oversubscribed and who was one of the most sought-after doctoral advisers in the university.
I liked him immediately because he saw how hard I was trying to mask my nervousness, and he quickly put me at my ease.
“Now why on earth would you want to go into something as archaic and badly paid as university teaching when you could be out there cashing in on all the material bounty being offered in this, our new Gilded Age?”
“Not everyone wants to be a robber baron,” I said.
David smiled. “‘Robber baron.’ Very Theodore Dreiser.”
“I remember your chapter on Dreiser in The American Novel and a piece you wrote on the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Sister Carrie in the Atlantic.”
“So you said in your application essay. But let me ask you something: do you rate Sister Carrie?”
“More than you do. I do take your point that there is a terrible leadenness to much of Dreiser’s prose. But that’s something he shares with Zola—a need to sledgehammer a point home and a certain psychological primitivism. And yes, I do like the point you make about Dreiser’s prolixity being bound up with the fact that he was one of the first novelists to use a typewriter. But to dismiss Dreiser as—what was the phrase you used?—‘a portentous purveyor of penny dreadfuls’… With respect, you missed the point—and also used a lot of Ps in one sentence.”
As soon as I heard that line come out of my mouth, I thought: What the hell are you saying here? But David wasn’t offended or put off by my directness. On the contrary, he liked it.
“Well, Ms. Howard, it’s good to see that you are anything but a brownnose.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure I’ve really overstepped the mark.”
“Why think that? I mean, you’re going to be in the doctoral English program at Harvard, which means that you are going to be expected to display a considerable amount of independent thinking. And as I won’t work with anyone who’s a suck-up…”
David didn’t finish the sentence. Instead he just smiled, enjoying the bemused look that had fixed itself on my face.
“Professor, you said: ‘You’re going to be in the doctoral English program at Harvard.’ But my application hasn’t been approved as yet.”
“Take it from me—you’re in.”
“But you do know that I will be applying for financial aid?”
“Yes, I saw that—and I spoke with our department chairman about utilizing a fund we have. It was set up by one of the Rockefellers and is granted to one incoming doctoral candidate every year. Now, I see on your application that your father is a mining executive, based in Chile.”
“Was a mining executive,” I said. “He lost his job around five years ago.”
He nodded, as if to say: So that’s why money is so tight.
I could have added how I could never, ever rely on my father for anything. But I always worried about burdening anybody (even my boyfriend) with the more unpleasant facets of my childhood. And I certainly wasn’t going to start gabbing about them during my interview with David Henry. So I simply said: “My father told his last boss to go have sex with himself. And since he refused to accept any job below that of the president of a company—and was also known as something of a hothead in his industry—his employment prospects dried up. He’s been ‘consulting’ since then but makes hardly enough to keep himself going. So…”
And I’d just revealed more than I intended to. David must have sensed this, as he simply smiled and nodded his head and said, “Well, your winning a full postgraduate scholarship to Harvard will surely please him.”
“I doubt it,” I said quietly.
I was wrong about that. I wrote my dad a letter two months before my graduation from Smith, telling him how much I’d like him to be at the ceremony and also informing him about my all-expenses-paid scholarship to Harvard. Usually it took him around a month to write back to me—but this time a letter arrived within ten days. Clipped to it was a hundred-dollar bill. The letter was twenty-one words long:
I am so proud of you!
Sorry I can’t be at your graduation.
Buy yourself something nice with this.
Within moments of opening it, I was in floods of tears. I had never cried when Dad left us. I had never cried when he had to cancel so many of our planned weekends in the city after he’d relocated down there. I had never cried when he moved to Chile and kept telling me that, next year, he’d fly me down for a few weeks and never got around to it. I had never cried when his response to my straight As at Smith, my election to Phi Beta Kappa—all that damn striving to please him—was silence. And in an attempt to get some sort of recognition from him I wrote that letter. All it did was make me face the looming truth I never wanted to confront: my father always distanced himself from me. Buy yourself something nice. A hundred bucks and a five-line note to assuage his guilt… that is, if he even had any guilt. Yet again, he was brushing me aside—but this time, I couldn’t respond by trying to shrug off his detachment. This time all I could do was cry.
Tom tried to console me. He kept telling me that my father didn’t deserve such a great daughter, that he would come to regret his dismissal of me, that my success undoubtedly unnerved him, because he himself had failed so badly in everything he had ever undertaken.
“Of course he’s going to push you away,” Tom said. “How else is he going to handle your brilliance?”
“Stop flattering me,” I told him.
“You’re resistant to flattery,” he said.
“Because I don’t merit it.”
“No—because you have convinced yourself that your idiot father is right: why should you merit your success?”
But my sadness wasn’t just bound up in my father’s brush-off of me. It was also rooted in the fact that Tom and I were about to part. The terrible thing about this split was, we didn’t want to break up. But I was heading to Harvard and Tom was off to Trinity College Dublin for postgraduate work. Though neither of us wanted to admit it, we knew that once we were separated by the Atlantic, we’d be finished. What made this knowledge even more agonizing was that Tom had been accepted by Harvard to do his master’s in History. But he had decided to take the offer of a place in Dublin—reassuring me that it would only be a year and then he’d join me at Harvard for his doctorate.
“You can come over for Thanksgiving,” he said. “I’ll come back for Christmas, we’ll spend Easter together knocking around Europe… and the year will pass before we both know it.”
I wanted to believe his protestations. Just as I decided that I wouldn’t force his hand or use the sort of emotional blackmail (“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t leave me”) that I had heard my mother use against my father in the years leading up to his departure.
“Of course I don’t want you to go,” I told him after he informed me that he was putting Harvard on hold and heading to Dublin. “Of course I’m not going to stop you.”
That’s when the reassurances began. The more he uttered them, the more I knew he wanted to cut and run. On the day that my dad’s five-line letter arrived—and Tom tried so hard to comfort me—I blurted out the uncomfortable truth: “As soon as you get to Dublin, we’re finished.”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said. “I’ve never intimated that—”
“But it’s going to happen, because—”
“It is not going to happen,” Tom said, getting vehement. “I value you—us—far too much. And I understand exactly why you’re feeling so vulnerable right now, but…”
But what you don’t understand is what I understand: men vanish when threatened.
Well, he did head off to Dublin—and we did promise each other that love would see us through and all the other usual romantic clichÉs. The rupture happened right before Thanksgiving. He was due to come back to the States, with me then meeting him in Paris for Christmas. Fair play to Tom—he didn’t feed me a lie or keep me dangling while he said that, to unforeseen circumstances, he wouldn’t be landing in Boston on November 21st. Instead he phoned me and came straight out with “I’ve met somebody else.”
I didn’t ask for much in the way of details—I’m no masochist—and he didn’t supply too many, except to say that she was Irish, a medical student at Trinity, and that it was “serious.” When he started saying: “It really did take me completely by surprise,” I just said, “I’m sure it did.”
A long silence followed.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“So am I.”
And that was that. The big central relationship of my life to date was suddenly no more. I took the news badly, withdrawing from everyone for around a week, cutting the lectures and thesis meetings I had at Harvard, and basically moping in my tiny studio flat in Somerville. It surprised me how deeply upset I was. We seemed so right for each other. But timing is everything and ours simply didn’t work out.
Tom never returned to the States. He married his Irish medical student. He stayed on to get his doctorate at Trinity and eventually got a job at the university in Galway. We never saw each other after we broke up. Though I presumed he came home regularly to visit his parents, he didn’t look me up during the years I was living in Cambridge. There was only one communiquÉ from him: a Christmas card that arrived just a few years later, showing Tom and his wife, MairÉad, and their three very young sons—Conor, Fintan, and Sean. They were standing in front of what looked like a suburban bungalow. The photo amazed me, as Tom was so adamant—like me—about never wanting children and always vowed never to live in the burbs. I didn’t feel a residual stab of sadness when I saw this photograph. Rather, all I could do was marvel at the way the narrative of life inexorably moves on—and how, having been so intensely involved with someone else, you can then simply vanish from each other’s lives. We lose things and then we choose things. Wasn’t that a fragment of a song I heard somewhere? Perhaps with Tom? Or maybe with David? And didn’t David tell me—shortly after we became lovers—that everything is just one big continual coming-and-going?
I did reply to Tom’s Christmas card by sending one of my own. I kept the message short:
You have a lovely family. I wish you every happiness for the coming year. All best…
Of course I wanted to ask him dozens of things: Are you happy? Do you like your work, your new country, your life? And do you ever sometimes think of me, us, and how the narrative of our now very separate lives would have been so profoundly different if… ?
“If.” The most charged word in the English language… especially when coupled with “only.”
As in: if only you hadn’t moved to Ireland, I wouldn’t have ended up for a while with David.
But I wanted to end up with David… even if I knew from the outset that it had no long-term future. Because ending up with David helped me end things with you.
Or, at least, that’s what I told myself at the time.
© 2009 DOUGLAS KENNEDY
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Leaving the World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
After another tension-filled dinner with her parents on her thirteenth birthday, only child Jane Howard makes an announcement: she vows never to marry or have children. The next day, her father leaves the family—something her mother attributes directly to Jane’s declaration. This guilt and abandonment forever impacts Jane and her interactions with other people. After years of academic study, she falls into a clandestine affair with her much-older and married professor. When he dies suddenly, she is bereft and drifts into a relationship and eventually has a child with a film anthologist. Soon after the birth of her child, reality sets in hard and despite her careful planning, her life is thrown into merciless tumult and she is tested in ways she could have never imagined.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. After a particularly tense birthday dinner, thirteen-year-old Jane Howard announces to her parents that she will never marry nor have children. After her father leaves the family the next day, Jane’s mother attributes his desertion to Jane’s statement. What does this tell us about Jane’s mother and her character? Do you think Jane’s statement actually influenced her father’s decision?
2. Early on in the novel, Jane states: “We can rarely tell others what we really think about them—not just because it would so wound them, but also because it would so wound ourselves. The gentle lie is often preferable to the bleak truth.” (p. 37) Do you find this to be true? Why can’t Jane tell her mother the truth as she sees it?
3. Early in their clandestine relationship, Jane tells David Henry, “If we lived together, . . . the letdown would be huge,” a point she felt was “decidedly romantic” because “I don’t have to find out whether or not you floss your teeth, or kick your dirty underwear under the bed . . .” (p. 40) Do you think she makes a salient point about “familiarity breeding contempt”? Do you think their romance would have become serious if it had been out in the open?
4. Given Jane’s feelings about the possibility of “wounding” people, why do you think she was still somewhat honest about her dislike of David’s novel? Why could she be honest with David and not with her mother?
5. After David’s death, Jane is reminded of something he once told her: “We try so hard to put our mark on things, we like to tell ourselves that what we do has import or will last. But the truth is, we’re all just passing through. So little survives us. And when we’re gone, it’s simply the memory of others that keeps our time here alive.” (p. 57) How does his musing differ from Jane’s theory that “words matter, words have import”? With whom do you agree more?
6. After the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, Jane comes to the conclusion that “when men are threatened, they vanish.” How does this prophecy manifest in Jane’s life?
7. Why do you think Jane takes the financial job at Freedom Mutual, given that it was the “anathema to all that [she] valued in . . . life”? (p.84) How is overbearing Trish the polar opposite of Jane?
8. How has Jane’s relationship (or lack thereof) with her father impacted her relationships with other people?
9. Why do you think Jane is worried about settling into domestic life with Theo, besides the obvious fear of turning into her parents? How does Theo’s behavior after Emily’s birth echo her early theory about men vanishing when they are threatened?
10. What do you think Jane means when she has the foreboding reflection of “never underestimate the need for self-sabotage when someone has finally gotten what they always wanted”? (p. 214) How can success be a problem?
11. How would you describe Jane’s relationship with her mother? What made her flee during her mother’s last hours?
12. After her mother’s death, Jane concludes, “if life teaches you anything, it’s this: you can never dispel another person’s illusions.” (p. 236) How is this true for Jane and her mother? In what way was Jane’s mother “deluded” about her marriage?
13. After the Fantastic Films debacle, Jane feels “I deserve all the bad stuff that is going to come down from this. Because . . . there is a part of me that always believes I deserve disaster.” (p. 248) Why do you think she is developed this skewed view of the world? Do you think she is angry with herself for ignoring her thirteen-year-old declaration?
14. How do you think Jane has dealt with the tumult in her life, the lawsuits brought on by Theo’s recklessness, and ultimately, Emily’s death? Why do you think she could not let friends like Christy or Professor Sanders be there for her?
15. After her failed attempt at taking her own life in Montana, Jane retreats from the world. She cancels her credit cards, quits her job, and heads north to Canada, for no reason in particular. What would you have done in Jane’s circumstances? What is the significance of the title, Leaving the World?
16. After fleeing Boston for a small coastal village in Canada, she reflects on “that oft-quoted pensée of Pascal about man’s unhappiness all coming down to his inability to sit alone in a small room and do nothing.” (p. 126) Given today’s never-ending barrage of data from cell phones, computers, and other mobile devices, do you agree?
17. Why do you think the case of missing girl Ivy MacIntyre so struck a chord in Jane? Why do you think she is convinced of George MacIntyre’s innocence?
18. This is the fourth novel in which author Douglas Kennedy writes from the point of view of a woman. How accurately does he capture a woman’s voice?
19. Given all that Jane has been through, what do you envision in her future?
Enhance Your Book Club
1) Leaving the World is a novel that has aspects of the picaresque tradition. What are some other books in this vein your group can read and discuss?
2) Jane has a very emotional reaction to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony when Vern recommends it to her. You can check online for a sample of this moving piece and see how it affects you and the members of your book club.
3) Many important parts of the novel take place in Canada. If your book club serves wine, why not serve some regional wines from the Great White North. You can learn more about the different varieties at http://www.winesofcanada.com/.
A Conversation with Douglas Kennedy
1. You were born in New York City but have lived in Europe for the last thirty years. How has living abroad informed your writing?
That description of an expatriate as being someone “at home abroad and abroad at home” doesn’t really apply to me. Yes I have spent thirty-three years living in such disparate cities as Dublin, London, Paris, and Berlin—but I never considered myself to be one of those Americans who turned his back on his country. On the contrary, America is everywhere in my novels because, to me, your country is like your family: the perpetual argument. Given that, three decades elsewhere has also played into one of the underlying themes in all my books: the need to run away. And it has also somewhat altered my world-view, in that I sense my inherent (and still active!) American need for optimism has been shaded by a European pessimism about the human condition. But I remain profoundly American in the belief that, even when life is profoundly unfair, we have to somehow move forward. And, by the way, I now live part of the year in Maine—so I have, in a sense, come home.
2. This is your fourth novel written from a female point of view, and you do an incredible job of capturing the female voice. Does writing from a feminine viewpoint pose a challenge? Do you approach it any differently than if you were writing from the male perspective?
I am asked constantly how I am able to write so convincingly as a woman—as I have done in The Pursuit of Happiness, A Special Relationship, State of the Union, and now Leaving the World. The simple answer is: when writing as a woman I have never thought “as a woman.” I have always thought as my narrator—and see the world through her eyes. As such I never pose dumb questions to myself along the lines of: “Now what would a woman think in a situation like this?” Rather, what would Jane (in the case of Leaving the World) think in this situation? I have always written novels in the first person—and, as such, see myself as an actor playing a role. At the same time, there is a strong feminist streak in all my books. Perhaps being the byproduct of a rather unhappy midcentury American marriage—with a highly educated mother who gave up her career to play housewife—had a certain impact on my world-view. Certainly what women readers tell me all the time is that I seem to “get it right” when it comes to dealing with the complexities of female identity in the modern world. To which all I can say in response is: thank you.
3. You have described your reading tastes as “very Catholic.” How so? Your writing has been compared to John Irving and, more recently, Claire Messud, and there are themes that are reminiscent of Dreiser, especially, the naturalistic style. Who are some of your favorite writers and why?
In 1992 I happened upon Richard Yates’s then-forgotten novel, Revolutionary Road and discovered a writer who wasn’t afraid of telling uncomfortable truths about the way we so often talk ourselves into lives that we don’t want—and the hellishness of quotidian domesticity as practiced in the postwar American suburbs. Though Yates died that same year a largely forgotten figure, it is wonderful to see how his literary star has risen again—and that he is now considered one of the giants of postwar American fiction. Or, at least, he is for me. Another writer who has enormously influenced me is Graham Greene—as here was a serious novelist who wasn’t afraid of being popular and accessible, and told great stories which also confronted the essential grayness of human morality and the way we all search for some sort of forgiveness in a most unforgiving world. Thanks to Greene I became a novelist who believes in the primacy of narrative drive—better known as making the reader want to turn the page—yet who also attempts to pose certain philosophical questions within the architecture of a “serious popular” novel (or a “popular serious” novel—take your pick).
4. Guilt plays a major part in the narrative of Leaving the World—Jane’s guilt over Emily, her father, her mother. What made you want to address a topic such as this?
Guilt is everywhere in life . . . and anyone who ever tells you they don’t feel guilty about something is either a liar or pathological or both. Guilt is such a fundamental human dilemma—and underscores so much that we grapple with, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Without guilt there would be no art. And there would certainly be no novels by Douglas Kennedy—because guilt is a fundamental theme which courses through my fiction. Just as it courses through everybody’s existence.
5. Many of the protagonists in your novels are on the run from something or are trying to escape the chaos in their lives. Why is this so prevalent in your work? Why do you think stories of flight and reinvention appeal to readers?
We all want to run away. We frequently believe that life is elsewhere. We all often wonder about the lives we could have lived if we had only chosen another path, another strategy, another way of looking at the world. We all rue the way we are so often the architects of our own cul-de-sac and have trapped ourselves in existences that we don’t really want. “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains,” noted Voltaire. But in modern western societies, the chains are so often self-imposed.
6. Were you ever worried, in the early stages of writing this novel that at some point an editor, an agent, a trusted reader would say to you “too bleak” in regards to all the difficulties that befall Jane?
Well, terrible things do happen to Jane. But, then again, terrible things do happen to most of us during the course of a lifetime. In fact I would posit the idea that nobody escapes the specter of tragedy. It’s part of the price we pay for being here—and this novel certainly reflects that.
7. Your novels have sold amazingly well worldwide and have been translated into twenty-two languages. Why do you think your books have such international appeal?
Perhaps because my novels are very much rooted in day-to-day existence—and the notion that there is no such thing as a firm foundation in life. It’s all a veneer which can so easily fracture. Or, to put it another way, my novels deal with modern anxiety—and we are all fascinated by the anxieties and nightmares of other people. They reassure us that we aren’t alone. And perhaps the other reason why I have such a large readership is because I believe in the primacy of a good story, in making you turn the page, yet also in posing complex moral questions throughout my novels . . . and never supplying any answers.
8. Despite dealing with some modern issues, Leaving the World has elements of a picaresque novel (albeit, darker ones), with Jane abandoning her old life and having one experience after another. Was this intentional or did the narrative just happen organically? Do you outline the plot before you begin writing?
All my novels are densely plotted, and I have never once planned out a novel in advance. I always start with the narrator, the basic trajectory of the story, the central dilemma, and (intriguingly) the novel’s last scene. Everything else happens during the course of writing the damn thing. And even after ten novels it’s a mystery to me why this methodology (or lack thereof) works. But it does—and I don’t question it.
9. You have two children. How difficult was it for you to write in such painful detail about the loss of a child?
Of course I was articulating my worst nightmare. And that was one of the more intriguing things about writing about such an unspeakable subject—how to make it “speakable,” how to examine one of the most appalling things imaginable, and how to watch my narrator, Jane, find a way through her agony. A word I truly despise is “closure” —because it gives lie to the idea that, in time, you can slam the door on something terrible and move forward. My preferred word is “accommodation” —and the notion that, in the wake of a tragedy, you learn how to coexist with its aftermath, but your life is inexorably altered by it. There is no closure. There is only accommodation.
10. In an interview with The Independent in 2007, you spoke of how you kept a Post-it note above your desk with the mantra, “It’s the Story, Stupid.” How did this come to be your motto?
When I decided that I wanted to be the sort of novelist who could be serious and popular at the same time . . . and when I also worked out that what I disliked in so much literary fiction was the abandonment of narrative drive, and what I disliked in so much popular fiction was a lack of nuance and shading when it came to character development, and a tendency to see the world in a simplistic, two-dimensional way. I have a very nineteenth-century view of the novel: it is, first and foremost, an entertainment . . . but one which can also speak volumes about the human condition.
11. While working at the library in Calgary, Ruth, one of Jane’s coworkers, comments: “. . . that’s the thing about other people’s lives. You scratch the surface, you discover all this dark stuff. We’ve all got it.” (p. 345) Do you think this is why people love to read stories about other people’s struggles?
During the course of a book-signing session in Paris recently, I was approached by a woman who told me: “In the course of reading your new novel I realized that I wasn’t alone . . . that my doubts, my fears, my griefs, were shared ones.” I informed this woman that this was the nicest compliment imaginable—because we all read to discover that we aren’t alone.
12. Can you tell us a little about your next project?
It’s a novel called The Moment. It’s a love story set in Berlin back when it was a divided city. And as I am in the middle of it right now, I think I won’t say anymore about it. Except: watch this space . . .