Tag Archives: 2005

The Author’s Perspective

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.)

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A Hazy Shade of Winter

So Much for That: A Novel by Lionel Shriver (Harper; $25.99; 433 pages)

“…the biggest tipoff that she was not in as much denial as she feigned was that Glynis had no interest in the future.   That left everyone pretty much stumped.   When you weren’t interested in the future you weren’t interested in the present either.   Which left the past, and she really wasn’t interested in that.”

This is a fictional tale of two American families in 2005.   They are typical, yet atypical in that they are both being worn and ground down by the twin pressures of a fiscal recession and deadly diseases.   The primary family, the Knackers, is composed of Glynis, sculptress, wife and mother and mesothelioma victim (a form of cancer that is killing her quickly); Shep, the ever dutiful husband who is a millionaire on paper; their absent college age daughter Amelia; and their clueless teenage son Zach.   Their friends, presumably Jewish, are Jackson and Carol Burdina.   Jackson is an angry co-worker of Shep’s who is insecure about being married to the ever-beautiful Carol.   They have two daughters, Flicka, who was born with Familial Dysautonomia (FD) – which will likely kill her by the time she is 30 – and Heather, their healthy overeating daughter who is growing larger by the hour.

Shep Knacker’s longtime dream is to cash in on his home improvement business in order to live what he calls The Afterlife on an island.   However, just as he sells his business for a cool $1 million, Glynis is diagnosed with the cancer that gives her a little over a year to live.   The longer Glynis lives, the more Shep’s Merrill Lynch account will be drawn down.   Shep quickly learns that a million dollars does not last long in a world where an aspirin costs $300 and a regimen of chemotherapy goes for $30,000.

“That had been one revelation, insofar as there was any: everything was equal.   There were no big things and little things anymore.   Aside from pain, which had assumed an elevated position… all matters were of the same importance.   So there was no longer any such thing as importance.”

One of the ironies of this tale is that while 51-year-old Glynis fights to hang on to life to the point where she becomes a near madwoman, young Flicka looks forward to the day – at 18 – when she can end her own.   And while they trouble themselves with such basic issues, Jackson becomes obsessed with penis enlargement surgery – something he presumes will please his attractive spouse.

“(It was) a world where oblivion was nirvana, where one was never allowed the hope of no pain but only of less.”

Glynis eventually becomes angry as her supposed friends either treat her like a woman already dead, or fail to follow through on their original promises to be there for her when the going gets rough.   Yet, she stubbornly refuses to ever accept a fatal diagnosis, even while undergoing a year-long regimen of toxic chemo.   She begins to view herself as a marathon runner who never seems to be able to complete the 26th and final mile.

Shep is a man who has prided himself on being responsible his entire life.   He’s the man who has always paid his own way and played by the rules.   But others tell him that he’s a responsible taxpaying sucker especially when Medicaid won’t buy Glynis even a single aspirin for her pain.   He’s not sure what to do until, surprisingly, his ever raging and thought-to-be-dense friend Jackson sends him a message.

This is a work about human values and morals in the face of impending financial ruin and death.   What would we do – any of us – in order to keep our health and our homes for an extra day, week, month or year?   In this weighty and timely fictional tale you will find an answer.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   So Much for That is also available as an unabridged audio book and as a Kindle Edition download.

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