Today we’re conducting the first part of an interview with Maddie Dawson, author of the novel The Stuff That Never Happened. Kimberly Caldwell (KC) asks the questions in this stage of the interview.
1. KC: The Stuff That Never Happened is about a woman who weighs the allure of an old lover against the solid dependability of a marriage she seems to be outgrowing. Where did the idea for the novel come from? Is it autobiographical?
MD: I suppose in some senses, all novels have autobiographical elements in them. Authors are always using their own experiences as springboards for the torture we put our characters through. That being said, nothing specifically about Annabelle’s situation is anything like my life. But I was once in love with a man who, while not precisely married, had little children and a complicated life with the mother of those children… and we had a crazy, up and down relationship for a long time, with lots of drama and thrills and chills until the day we finally broke up for good. And then one day, fifteen years later, I got on a train and there he was, in a nearly empty train car, and we had a two-hour ride together. It seemed almost pre-designed by a kindly universe to give us a chance to look at what had been, to compare our lives – and to reflect about what it had all meant.
Frankly, it didn’t mean very much. (Real life can be so boring sometimes.) He was as impossible as I remembered, vague and noncommittal, and just as infuriating to talk to as he ever was. We parted, both of us grateful, I think, that things hadn’t worked out for us way back when. Still, it got me doing that thing I’ve been doing my whole life: thinking how much more interesting things might be if life was a novel. After that, it seemed everywhere I looked everybody had a what-if person tucked away, someone to think about when real life seemed unsatisfying.
And so the character of Annabelle was born, a woman who married too young to Grant, a man she barely knew, and who then fell in love with someone else during the first year of her marriage. After a time apart, Annabelle and Grant manage to reunite and go on to have a happy life together, raising children and creating a stable life and community in his home town in New Hampshire. They make a pact never to speak about Annabelle’s betrayal again, to pretend it just never happened so that they can go on.
What I was mostly interested in exploring in this novel was what came next for Annabelle and Grant: the stuff that came after the kids leave home, after their family responsibilities are over. It’s then that the cracks in their marriage really become apparent. Grant realizes the sacrifice he’d made in his career to stay married to Annabelle and feels compelled to catch up; Annabelle realizes that she’s stifled in a life that no longer seems to need her, and she senses Grant’s long, leftover anger.
But what is one to do? Are we just supposed to settle for living with past memories, or do we still have a life ahead of us to create? After twenty-eight years together, is it even possible to start over? To me, that’s when the story really begins: with Annabelle’s realization that she doesn’t know anymore what she owes herself and what she owes Grant and her children; what she will lose by remaining unhappy in her marriage, or by venturing out into the unknown, or traveling back to the past.
2. KC: How did you decide how to present the story? When you began did you know what Annabelle’s decision would be?
MD: Ha! What an interesting question! As it happens, I didn’t know what Annabelle’s decision would be. Sometimes I thought she would stay with her husband, but there were times I was sure that her old lover had been the right one for her. For a while, when I was writing, I thought maybe she’d end up with neither of them – a woman alone making her way through the world. I just kept writing, sure that one answer would emerge. And as happens in novels – unlike real life – things finally seemed to settle themselves clearly in one direction over the other. I’ve heard from lots of readers who have said they were so relieved at the way it turned out, but I have one dear friend who says she still wishes Annabelle had made the other decision.
As for the presentation of the story, I wrote it in two periods: the past, 1978-80, when Annabelle and Grant first met as students at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and impulsively married and moved to New York, and then in the present, 2005, when their lives are settled in New Hampshire and their children have left home. I wanted to tell it this way because both time periods were equally compelling to me. I didn’t want to simply tell the 1970s stuff in flashback, but to let the events unfold as part of the main story.
3. KC: What makes novels about other people’s relationships compelling?
MD: I think we’re all hungry for details of other people’s stories. And, let’s face it, romantic relationships carry an extra wallop of mystery to them. How many times do you look at couples you know and think, “What in the world can they possibly see in each other?” Perhaps we’re trying to answer that mystery at the heart of ourselves: why am I with this particular person? Will we be able to last? Do we have it better or worse than other people?
In novels, I think, relationships make sense. They have reason and nuance, and we can peek in other people’s insides and compare them to our own. I love riding around in someone else’s head for a while. It helps me to understand myself much better.
To be continued… (In the concluding section of this interview, we have four additional questions for Maddie to answer.)