Annie Barrows once again evokes the charm and eccentricity of a small town filled with extraordinary characters. Her new novel, The Truth According to Us, brings to life an inquisitive young girl, her beloved aunt, and the alluring visitor who changes the course of their destiny forever.
In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom. But once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is drawn into their complex world and soon discovers that the truth of the town is entangled in the thorny past of the Romeyn dynasty.
At the Romeyn house, twelve-year-old Willa is desperate to learn everything in her quest to acquire her favorite virtues of ferocity and devotion—a search that leads her into a thicket of mysteries, including the questionable business that occupies her charismatic father and the reason her adored aunt Jottie remains unmarried. Layla’s arrival strikes a match to the family veneer, bringing to light buried secrets that will tell a new tale about the Romeyns. As Willa peels back the layers of her family’s past, and Layla delves deeper into town legend, everyone involved is transformed—and their personal histories completely rewritten.
Praise for The Truth According to Us
“As delightfully eccentric as Guernsey yet refreshingly different . . . an epic but intimate family novel with richly imagined characters . . . Willa’s indomitable spirit, keen sense of adventure and innate intelligence reminded me of two other motherless girls in literature: Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley’s big-hearted British mystery series.”—The Washington Post
“The Truth According to Us has all the characteristics of a great summer read: A plot that makes you want to keep turning the pages; a setting that makes you feel like you’re inhabiting another time and place; and characters who become people you’re sad to leave behind—and thus who always stay with you.”—Miami Herald
“It takes a brave author to make the heroine of a new novel an observant and feisty girl . . . like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. . . . But Barrows . . . has created a believable and touching character in Willa.”—USA Today
“[A] heartwarming coming-of-age novel [that] sparkles with folksy depictions of a tight-knit family and life in a small town . . . full of richly drawn, memorable characters.”—The Seattle Times
“A big, juicy family saga with warm humor and tragic twists . . . The story gets more and more absorbing as it moves briskly along.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Annie Barrows leaves no doubt that she is a storyteller of rare caliber, with wisdom and insight to spare. Every page rings like a bell.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 24, 1962
Place of Birth:San Diego, CA
Education:University of California at Berkeley, B.A. in Medieval History; Mills College, M.F.A. in Creative Writing
Read an Excerpt
In 1938, the year I was twelve, my hometown of Macedonia, West Virginia, celebrated its sesquicentennial, a word I thought had to do with fruit for the longest time. In school, we commemorated the occasion as we commemorated most occasions, with tableaux, one for each of the major events in Macedonia’s history. There weren’t many, hardly enough to stretch out across eight grades, but the teachers eked them out the best they could. If it hadn’t been for the War Between the States, I don’t know what they would have done. When Virginia seceded from the Union, western Virginia got mad and seceded right back into it, all except four little counties, one of them ours, that stuck out their tongues at West Virginia and declared themselves part of the Confederacy, a piece of sass with long consequences in the way of road-paving and school desks.
Tucked up in a crook between the Potomac and the Shenandoah, Macedonia was a junction for generals and railroads alike, and by the time Lee hung up his sword at Appomattox, the town had changed hands forty-seven times, six of them in one day. Our teachers dearly loved to get up a scene of the townspeople stuffing their Confederate flags up the chimney as the Union troops marched in and yanking them back down again as the troops departed. The fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders got the war scenes, and the seventh- and eighth-graders got the short end of the stick, because not a thing happened in Macedonia after 1865, except the roundhouse blowing up and the American Everlasting Hosiery Company opening its doors. Half the town worked in that mill and the other half wished it did, but there was not much about the American Everlasting Hosiery Company that looked good in a tableau. Sometimes the teachers gave up and killed two birds with one stone by making the seventh-graders march across the stage, waving socks, while the eighth-graders sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” behind them. In 1938, though, the eighth grade hit pay dirt, because Mrs. Roosevelt drove through town. She stopped at the square, took a drink from our sulfur-spring water fountain, made a face, and drove away. That was plenty for a tableau, except that instead of making a face, the eighth-grade Mrs. Roosevelt said, “The people of Macedonia are lucky to receive the benefits of healthful mineral water.” My sister Bird and I laughed so hard we got sent into the hall.
Once the curtain had clunked down on our tableaux and we’d been herded back into our classrooms, I supposed that Macedonia’s sesquicentennial festivities were concluded. Hadn’t we just covered one hundred and fifty years of history in twenty-three minutes flat? We had. But not a week later came the Decoration Day parade, and that, I realized later, was the real beginning of the sesquicentennial. Later still, I realized that everything began that day. Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind. I have since wondered, of course, how my life—and my father’s and my aunt Jottie’s, too—would have been different if I’d decided to stay at home that morning. This is what’s called the enigma of history, and it can drive you out of your mind if you let it.
Jottie and I were packed tight on the sidewalk, together with everyone else in town, to watch the parade. Usually it wasn’t much, the Decoration Day parade, just a matter of assorted veterans looking grim and the high school marching band. But this year, in honor of the sesquicentennial, we’d been promised an extra-fancy show, a real spectacle. And that was what we got: The United Daughters of the Confederacy flounced out first, with the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic hot on their heels. Then the Rotary band struck up with patriotic tunes, which was a lot to manage on four trumpets and had a terrible effect on the pony brigade. The veterans marched along, a pair of girls in skimpy outfits flung batons in the air, just exactly like a movie parade, except that only one of them could catch. We even had a float, The Apple Princess and Her Blossoms, smiling on the back of a truck. Out came the mayor, waving from his big green car, and behind him was Mr. Parker Davies, who had got himself up in a sword and knee pants to look like General Magnus Hamilton, the founder of Macedonia, which put me in mind of a question I had always wanted to ask. I nudged my aunt Jottie. “How come he called it Macedonia?”
She tilted her dark eyes down to mine. “The General was a great admirer of the Macedonian virtues.”
“Huh.” That was news to me. “What are they, the Macedonian virtues?”
“Don’t say huh. Ferocity and devotion.” The Apple Princess joggled by. It was Elsie Averill in a white dress. A lady standing just behind me leaned forward for a better look, and a big whiff of Jungle Gardenia went up my nose.
I squeezed closer to Jottie. “Did he have them?” I asked.
Jottie’s eyes followed Elsie for a bit. “Did he have what?” she murmured.
“Jottie!” I recalled her. “Did General Hamilton have the Macedonian virtues?”
“The General?” She lifted one eyebrow. “The General once chopped off a soldier’s toes to keep the poor man from deserting. You tell me, Willa: Is that ferocity, devotion, or just plain crazy?”
I eyed Mr. Parker Davies, imagining his bloodied sword raised high, a little toe speared on the point. That was ferocity, I was pretty sure. “Do I have them?” I asked hopefully.
Jottie smiled. “Ferocity and devotion? You want those?”
“They’re virtues, aren’t they?” I asked.
“They surely are. Ferocity, devotion, and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee at the Pickus Café.” I made a face at her, and she laughed. The parade passed by, turned around on itself, and straggled back up Prince Street.
I thought maybe I had a chance at devotion.
Now the Macedonia Chamber of Commerce made the turn and marched by, eight men in identical tan hats and overcoats. They looked like a set of matching boy dolls, only embarrassed. Jottie chuckled and flapped her little flag. “Hooray!” she cheered. “Hooray for our brave boys in the Chamber of Commerce!”
They pretended they didn’t hear, all except one. “Jottie?” he said, swiveling around. Jottie drew in a sharp breath, and I saw two spots of pink appear on her cheeks. She started to put up her hand, let it drop, and then changed her mind and lifted it in a little wave. That set him up; now he started smiling like crazy, and even though the parade was moving again, he called out to her, “I was hoping I might see you today, Jottie, I was thinking I might—”
A man behind bumped into him then, and he had to walk on, but he kept turning around to wave at her as he went.
“Who was that?” I asked. Nothing happened, so I gave her a poke. “Who was that, Jottie?”
“Sol,” she said. “Sol McKubin.” She opened her purse and rummaged inside. “I had a handkerchief in here this morning.”
And that would have been that, if I hadn’t heard a low laugh behind me. It was Mrs. Jungle Gardenia. “Shoo-oo, good thing old Felix ain’t here,” she hooted softly to herself.
What? I whirled around, wondering who she was and how she knew my father.
She didn’t look like someone he would know. She was wearing a young lady’s dress, even though she wasn’t a young lady, and her face was white with powder. She caught my stare and wiggled her drawn-on eyebrows at me. I turned back to Jottie quick.
“Jottie,” I said, giving her another poke. “Who’s Sol McKubin?”
“Is that Miss Kissining there across the street?” Jottie squinted at the sidewalk opposite. “In that polka-dot dress?”
I looked. It wasn’t any more Miss Kissining than it was the Lindbergh baby. “You must be going blind, Jottie,” I began scornfully, but I was drowned out by the Rotary band giving their final honk on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The parade was over.
That was all right with me. My favorite part came after, anyway. I took hold of Jottie’s hand, and we sailed out into the wake of the marchers.
It was like a second parade, with all of Macedonia milling along Prince Street, busying themselves with the real entertainment of the day: calling out, stopping to chat, and gathering into little knots to deliver up their opinions about the ponies, the batons, the float, and the mayor’s car. I dearly loved to walk down a street with my aunt Jottie. When I went alone, I was a child, and grown-ups ignored me accordingly. Sometimes, of course, they’d stop me to offer improving advice like Tie your shoelaces before you trip and knock out those teeth of yours, but for the most part, I was a worm in mud. Beneath notice, as they say in books. When I walked with Jottie, it was a different matter. Grown-ups greeted me politely, and that was nice. That was real pleasant. But the best thing, the very best thing about walking through town with my arm through Jottie’s was listening to her recount the secret history of every man, woman, dog, and flower bed we passed, sideways out of the corner of her mouth so that only I could hear. Those were moments of purest satisfaction to me. Why? Because when she told me those secrets, Jottie made me something better than just a temporary grown-up. She made me her confidante.
We were strolling up the street when we came upon Mr. Tare Russell in his bath chair. He wasn’t real old, Mr. Russell, but there was something the matter with him, and he had to be rolled around town with a blanket over his knees. When he saw us, he yelped, “Jottie Romeyn, you just come over here and let me feast my eyes on you!” Then he waggled his fingers so that his Negro servant would push the bath chair faster. It didn’t seem right; that poor man looked a lot older and feebler than Mr. Russell.
“Tare!” said Jottie. “What brings you here? I’ve never known you to come to the parade before!”
“Civic duty,” said Mr. Russell. “What kind of a person would miss Macedonia’s sesquicentennial parade?”
Jottie grinned. “I’ve been asking myself that very question, Tare, all morning long. How’d you like The Apple Princess and Her Blossoms?”
He didn’t answer. In fact, he almost interrupted her, he spoke so quick. “I thought Felix would be marching with the veterans. But he wasn’t. I didn’t see him.”
“Felix is away on business,” said Jottie.
“He’s been gone all week,” I added helpfully.
“Business,” repeated Mr. Russell, bunching up his mouth. “Well. Felix works like an old mule, doesn’t he?” Suddenly, he swung around and glared at me. “Tell him, when he comes back, not to forget old friends. You just tell your daddy that, would you?” he snapped.
I took a step backward. “Yessir.”
Jottie’s little hand closed around mine. “Of course we will!” she said cheerily. “We’ll tell Felix first thing!”
Mr. Russell waggled his fingers again. “Take me on home,” he barked to his old Negro servant. “You trying to fry me like an egg?”
We watched him go, and Jottie’s hand squeezed mine. “Let’s go window-shopping,” she suggested. “Let’s pretend we’ve each got ten dollars, and we have to spend it this afternoon or we’ll lose it all.”
So we did, and we were wrangling away about whether I could borrow two of her imaginary dollars for a pink silk dress, when we ran up against Marjorie Lanz. She lived down the street from us, and she talked all the time. She started up before we could even see her. “How-you, Jottie?” she shouted from inside Vogel’s Shoes. “Look here at these sandals.” She came out, holding a big yellow shoe. “How’d you like the parade, I thought Elsie looked real pretty, the Rotary could use some new blood, don’t you think? Where’s Mae and Minerva? Oh hi, honey,” she said, catching sight of me. “Aren’t you just cute as a button?”
I was too old to be cute as a button, but I nodded, being polite.
Now she was swinging the shoe back and forth. Mr. Vogel was standing nervously in his doorway, waiting to grab her if she walked away with his sandal. Marjorie gabbled on, “I heard you’re getting yourself a new boarder, Jottie, that’s nice, with all those extra rooms you got.” I shot a look at Jottie. First I’d heard of any new boarder. “Who-all you going to get, Jottie? Hope it’s someone with more starch in him than Tremendous Wilson, I don’t know how you stood that man, is it someone nice?” She paused and looked at Jottie expectantly. So did Mr. Vogel. So did I.
Jottie gazed at Marjorie Lanz for a moment, and then she leaned close. “My new boarder is a representative of the United States government,” she murmured. She looked suspiciously at Mr. Vogel. “That’s all I can say.”
“Ooooh.” Marjorie clutched the sandal tight. “It’s a secret?”
Jottie nodded regretfully, like she wished she could tell more, and turned toward Mr. Vogel. “That’s a nice sandal you have there, Mr. Vogel. Does it come in blue?” He shook his head no. “That’s too bad. Well, Marjorie, Willa and I had better be getting along. We have to clean out that new boarder’s room. The United States government doesn’t like a lot of clutter.” She looked at me. “They like it neat as a pin. Don’t they, Willa?”
Out of pure loyalty, I nodded, and then I waited until we were three storefronts away from Vogel’s Shoes before I asked, “Are we really getting a new boarder?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Jottie.
“Is he really part of the government?”
She smiled. “No. ’Cause it’s not a he.”
“Yes. A lady.”
“A lady in the government?”
Jottie raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like you don’t believe a word I said.”
“I do,” I said slowly. “But how come I didn’t know about it?”
She reached out to brush my hair away from my face. “I thought you did know. Didn’t you see me move all those things out of the closet? You were sitting right there on the bed.”
I tried to remember but I couldn’t. I’d probably been reading.
I was usually reading.
Reading Group Guide
Eleven Questions I Wish Someone Would Ask Me:
A Hypothetical Interview with Annie Barrows
1. What would you say The Truth According to Us is about?
I like the idea that authors don’t fully know what their books are about, and it’s up to readers to excavate the true meaning of a work. On the other hand, I, like every other author in the world, had intentions. In my opinion, The Truth According to Us is about:
1. the fictional nature of history
2. the perils attendant upon insisting, instead, that history is factual and fixed
3. how families—-at least some families—-create their identities by the stories they tell about themselves
4. smalltown America during the Depression
5. three stages of women’s lives
6. sock manufacturing
7. the nonglamorous aspects of the Federal Writers’ Project
8. what class and privilege in smalltown America looked like in the early twentieth century
9. indirectly, the way novels of the 1930s were built,
as opposed to those written now.
(I’m kidding about the sock manufacturing.)
2. How do you choose what you’re going to write?
I think I agree with Martin Amis, who says it begins with “an act of recognition on the writer’s part.” I encounter ideas or events—-tiny ones, nothing complete—-and there’s a sort of nod, oh yes, I could write about that, that’s one of my subjects. When I have one of these encounters, I try to pin it down by scribbling a note to myself, which invariably reads, when I come upon it later, like a telegram from the French Resistance. (I was looking through an old notebook the other day and found one that read: “Mr. Robinson. Aha.” I actually do know what I meant by that.) For me, the originating moment is so brief and fragmented that it’s almost visual, and it’s certainly not shaped like a story; that is, there’s no movement through time. It’s just a character, a scene, a feeling, even a word that seems, in some unaccountable way, to bear more weight than it appears to. In my notebook, the originating idea for The Truth According to Us is documented as “the coloratura at the beach.” There is no coloratura and no beach in The Truth According to Us.
3. You’ve mentioned that you wrote dozens and dozens of drafts of The Truth According to Us, some vastly different from the finished book. Do you now regret any of the lost elements? Which ones?
Most of the lost elements deserved to die. One or two should never have seen the light of day in the first place. But I do regret a few of the lost stories about Jottie, Felix, and Vause as children and teenagers. There are some in the book, there are plenty in the book, and yet—-when I flip through the pages, I still expect to find the bit about Vause getting a black eye. More than anything, though, I miss St. Clair Romeyn, Felix and Jottie’s father. He was a very full, very American character to me, and I was quite fond of him. There was a story about him at an American Everlasting picnic in 1917 that I mourn, though I know in my heart it had no real place in the larger story I was trying to tell.
And speaking of regrets, there’s one thing I failed to write that I would now like to repair: Emmett is fine. Quite a few readers have been distressed by Emmett’s condition at the end of the book, and I want to reassure everyone that he’s actually going to be fine. His shoulder’s going to hurt when it rains, that’s all. It won’t keep him from having a long and happy life. In fact, he outlives all the other Romeyn siblings, probably because he doesn’t smoke.
4. What’s the biggest difference between writing for children and writing for adults?
All stories have the same general shape (a mountain), even if an author gets tricky and runs the story backwards or from the middle out (in which case it’s shaped like a volcano, still a mountain). So you could say that geometrically, writing for kids is similar to writing for adults.
You could say that, but it would be a fraud, because that’s the only similarity. Everything else is different. The differences come in various sizes: small, medium, and large. For example, word choice. I consider this to be small, as problems go. I can’t use the word “cuspidor” in a kids’ book. So what? I’d probably think twice before I’d use it in a book for grownups, too. But the issue of word choice really means—-watch the small difference become mediumsized—-that I have to consider, when writing for kids, how much my audience knows, which is less, usually, than I know. And now the mediumsized difference grows large: the essential, inescapable fact is that when I write for kids, I am writing for someone I no longer am. I can’t write about things as I think about them; I’m obliged to translate into the language of children. But not everything is translatable, and some words and ideas are deemed inappropriate for translation by the parents and teachers who determine what children are allowed and/or encouraged to read. (This, too, is a difference: the person who reads kids’ books is not the person who decides to buy them.)
But the biggest difference, the gaping chasm, between writing for these two audiences is what they want when they pick up a book. Kids don’t want anything. At least, they don’t want anything specific from the book. They might want to get their parents off their backs about reading, but they don’t expect the book to be a certain way (unless it’s part of a series) or to fit into a known category. Most kids haven’t had enough reading experience to separate books into categories, much less to determine the category they prefer and judge a book on the basis of whether it succeeds or fails to properly inhabit the category they anticipated. They don’t, until they’re around eleven (girls) or sixteen (boys), conceive of books as emblems of self, shorthand for their characteristics and aspirations. Little kids are the great practitioners of negative capability—-not only can they live in uncertainties, most of them can’t live anywhere else because they don’t command sufficient information, either about themselves or the world, to demand conformity with expectations. Lucky them. Lucky them, except this is precisely why reading is hard for kids: every time they pick up a book, it could be anything. Every time, the learning curve is perpendicular (unless it’s part of a series—-which explains the popularity of kids’ series).
Grownups have learned a number of tricks to help them avoid this kind of labor: they select books by authors whose previous works they’ve enjoyed; they peruse the reviews on the back cover and the tempting flap copy; they assess the picture on the cover and the photo of the author on the back flap; without necessarily knowing it, they are allured (or not) by the typeface of the title. If, after all this, the book still remains opaque, the potential reader can break down and read the first page. Instead of having to read the book to know what it’s about, grownups often have to know what it’s about before they decide to read it. That way they know what to expect. And that, right there, is the problem. After all their detective work, adults are outraged if the book turns out to be different than they expected. In some cases, their criterion for judging the book is whether it conformed to their expectations, which is really quite odd when you think about it, and quite beside the point. If you extend the argument, you realize, in fact, that knowing how you’ll experience a story before it begins is antithetical to the purpose of storytelling.
5. Whom or what do you find most inspiring as a writer? Why?
Funny you should ask. This has changed a lot over time. When I was young, I was inspired by beautiful writing. You know, exquisite, luminous, original writing. To which I now say, Feh. Now, I admire writing that keeps itself close to the vest, that is so fully engaged and working so hard that the reader doesn’t notice it. What I look for now is writing that fully deploys the language and plays with it, but isn’t in love with itself. Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell, is an example of writing that impresses me this way. I respect anyone who goes to the bother of creating a real character, since so many writers don’t, and if the plot is actually a function of character instead of psychosis or crime (both of which bore me to tears), I’m in. In terms of material, I am very, very interested in time, and I’m seriously engaged by anyone who is trying to tear apart the role of time in story without sacrificing story itself, as do Kate Atkinson in Life After Life, David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, and Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Obviously, I’m also quite absorbed in the search for lost time, so I get pretty irritable about cheap historicity—-one hoop skirt does not a Victorian make—-and pretty impressed (and jealous) when I find someone who’s done the work necessary to imagine a historical period in full. Hilary Mantel is the gold standard in this regard, but her imagination has something almost otherworldly about it. Maybe she timetravels at night. I wish I did.
6. Do you think the Federal Writers’ Project was a good idea?
It is almost unbelievable now to think of the federal government of the United States funding a program to employ writers. Its mere unfathomability makes it moving. It’s also moving because in some ways the project was the Conservation Corps of ideas, and it preserved voices and stories that would otherwise have disappeared, such as the narratives of former slaves and the oral histories of immigrants and laboring people. In truth, this preservation work was probably more valuable than the State Guides, which the project conceived as its major endeavor, but those guides, too, are amazing time capsules of the conditions and beliefs that prevailed in the fortyeight states in the late thirties and very early forties. They are fascinating documents of a now almost entirely lost regionalism.
That’s the positive outcome. What’s the downside? The writers who worked for the project fulminated against it incessantly, as writers are apt to do when someone tells them what, when, and how to write. But I think that most of them remembered it gratefully later, and in my opinion, it’s not damaging for writers to do some hack work in their youth. It keeps them from being precious about themselves in later life.
Other negatives: it’s possible that the world did not benefit from publications like The Albanian Struggle in the Old World and New, but it’s not possible that the world was made worse by them. It’s probable that the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was correct in suspecting that the Federal Writers’ Project hired Communists. But it’s also demonstrable that this fact was totally immaterial to the fate of the world.
7. In the Romeyn family tree at the front of The Truth According to Us, the reader learns that the first Romeyn child, a boy, died as an infant. This child is never mentioned in the book; why was it necessary to record his presence at all?
What a good question! I documented the brief life of the first Romeyn son in order to explain more fully the development of the second. Why is Felix the way he is? Why does he believe he has the right to require fealty from the people he loves? Why is he incapable of acknowledging weakness? These qualities of his have complicated origins, but I wanted to hint that one of the tributaries was a mother who believed that his existence was both infinitely precarious and her deliverance. Bad combo.
8. One of the persistent themes of The Truth According to Us is that all narrators recast history to suit their own purposes. Did you do this, too? That is, did you knowingly alter any facts in the service of story?
Yep. I did. I’m quite proud of some of my fake history. Since Macedonia is an imaginary town, its history is necessarily imaginary, as is its geography. But its imaginary location is consistent; I didn’t move it around to suit my own convenience (and believe me, I was pretty tempted along about Chapter 45). Likewise, though the larger historical events that occurred in Macedonia are fictional, I tried to accommodate them to actual events. For example, the KnockPie Trail that Layla describes in Chapter 32 is my own creation, but I entertained myself by fitting it into a real timeline: General Robert S. Garnett actually was shuffling around in the mountains west of the Shenandoah on June 30, 1861, and General George McClellan actually was leading twentytwo thousand fresh troops south out of Ohio at the same time. In truth, the two armies didn’t meet up until some days later, but it would be just like McClellan to be scared by pie pans.
These are what I consider fabrications. Falsifications are another species entirely, and I’m not at all proud of the three I knowingly kept in the book. They all have to do with movies.
1. Love Finds Andy Hardy wasn’t released until July 22, 1938, but Jottie and Sol see it on July 12.
2. Algiers wasn’t released until August 5, 1938, but Jottie and Sol see it on July 21.
3. In smalltown theaters in West Virginia in 1938, white people did not sit in the balcony.
I hate all of these, but I hate the third one most, because it’s not just a date, but a behavior—-a piece of social history—-I’m misrepresenting. I needed them to sit up there for plot and characterization purposes, but I don’t like it.
9. Your first book was published when you were in your late thirties. If you were allowed a redo, would you start writing earlier?
Yes. In my perfect life, I subtract 1992, which gets me started writing a year earlier. I also don’t do a really stupid thing I did in 1994, which saves me another year. So now I’m two years younger when I start writing. That’s not enough. Maybe I subtract 1985, too. Nothing good happened in 1985.
I could have saved a lot of time if I had just learned everything faster.
10. Do you think that your experience as a book editor has had an effect on your writing career?
Sure. My very first editorial job was on a newspaper, where I was taught to regard text in pretty much the same way a plumber regards a pipe: pragmatically, as in how many inches do I have to write to fill the hole on page 6? This destroyed my reverent view of the Writer as Transcendent Being, which was probably a good thing. My second job, as a copy editor, taught me how to rip apart a sentence and put it back together again. That’s a handy skill for a writer. After a few years working in the salt mines of textbook publishing, I went to work for a publisher specializing in illustrated books, where I was both an acquiring editor and the managing editor, in charge of scheduling for the entire house. This means that I was on both the acquisition and the production sides of publishing, which provided me with a very broad education. I think this has given me some advantages over many writers to whom publishing is a monolithic mystery. One major advantage is that I’m aware of the ineffable and subjective nature of the editorial endeavor, so I don’t automatically believe my editors know more than I do. I’m perfectly willing to argue with them.
On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to editors. They are a harassed group, living under a constant barrage of demands from art directors, marketers, salespeople, publishers, and their own profit and loss statements. Anyone who thinks editors spend their days reading manuscripts has never met an editor. Because I know the pressures they’re under, I try to take care of as much of the editorial work as I can myself, which, I hope, makes both of us happier. Finally, because I worked with illustrated books, I learned a good deal about design and production, which in turn gave me the ability to articulate my opinions about visual matters. It turns out that this is a fairly rare skill—-most authors and editors who work on textual books can’t say why they think what they think about a book’s cover or design. Being able to talk about the design of my books has allowed me to have more influence on my books’ visuals than most authors do, I believe.
11. What is your favorite color?
Why, thank you for asking! Orange.
1. Early in The Truth According to Us, Willa resolves to acquire the virtues of “ferocity and devotion.” Do you concur that these are actually virtues? Which characters in The Truth According to Us possess them? Do you know anyone who does?
2. Much of the story of The Truth According to Us revolves around events that occurred when Jottie, Felix, Vause, and Sol were children and teenagers. Do you think the author believes that character is essentially unchanging from childhood to adulthood? Do you agree? Have you changed in essence from your childhood self?
3. The Truth According to Us is set in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Have you ever lived in a situation like that? Would you find living in Macedonia appealing or stifling? With our multiple forms of instantaneous communication, it could be said that the entire world has become a small town. Do you agree? Do you think we live in a more or less anonymous world now?
4. Felix Romeyn is undoubtedly a flawed character. Sol McKubin is, by most standards, a far more honorable person. And yet Jottie speaks of “her growing certainty that if Sol had been in Felix’s place, he would, after a time, have come to believe that what he told her was the truth.” Do you agree? If so, which man is more honorable?
5. Of all the characters in The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck may be the one that changes the most. In her final letter to her father, she says that she’s learned that “ignoring the past is the act of a fool.” What is she referring to? Discuss how the lessons she’s learned are revealed in the differences between her relationships with Felix and with Emmett.
6. While The Truth According to Us is not an epistolary novel, many letters from Layla’s various correspondences are woven throughout the narrative. How did these letters contribute to your understanding of her character, and to the story as a whole? Are there any letters that really stand out in your memory? Why do you think that is?
7. Is Felix a good father? Why or why not?
8. Annie Barrows has said, with regard to setting her novel in 1938, “The Second World War looms so large in our perception of our individual selves—-and even larger in our perception of America’s identity—-that it takes a massive feat of imagination to remove it, or block it out, even very temporarily. To catch a glimpse of a small town in America, not ‘before the war,’ or even ‘before people realized war was inevitable,’ but without the inevitability—-well, it’s nearly impossible.” Discuss the historical events that have marked your time. Do you think that we, like the characters in The Truth According to Us, face a major pivot point in our national identity? What do you think it is?
9. At one point, Willa’s uncle Emmett advises her, “Don’t ask questions if you’re not going to like the answers.” He clarifies that she should ask herself whether the answer could endanger something that’s precious to her, and if so, refrain from asking. Willa ignores his advice entirely, but would it have been better—-for her and everyone else—-if she had taken it? Have you ever regretted your own curiosity?
10. The possibility of knowing the truth about the past is a central preoccupation of The Truth According to Us. Layla says that “if history were defined as only those stories that could be absolutely verified, we’d have no history at all.” Do you agree? Do you think that Layla still believes this at the end of the summer?
11. Of all the characters in The Truth According to Us, with whom do you most identify and why?
12. The sisterly bond between Jottie, Mae, and Minerva is intimate and powerful, with Mae and Minerva choosing to live under the same roof during the week, away from their husbands, because “the two of them can’t stand to be apart. . . . They found out they were miserable without each other.” In contrast, the relationship between the two Romeyn brothers is tense. What do you think of this distinction? How does the presence of strong feminine companionship impact this story? How does this model of loyalty and devotion affect the relationship between young Willa and Bird?
13. The Truth According to Us is broken up into multiple different perspectives, blending young and old voices with epistolary fragments and flashbacks. How do these varied viewpoints contribute to characterization and development in the story? How do they deepen our connection to these characters?