Q: What felt important about linking Jane Haus from The Body is Water to Adrienne Haus in The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls?
It was a motivator to me, linking the two books. The Body Is Water came out in 1995, and in the years since then I’ve often thought about what might have happened to Jane Haus, my main character, and the baby born at the end of the novel. The Unbearable Book Club gave me a chance to find out, and to think about this mother-daughter pair 15 years later. It also made me realize that a number of my characters suffer the same brand of insecurity: the feeling that they’re in charge of creating a self, an identity—and they’re not sure how to go about it.
Q: When did the title become apparent to you?
Well, the original title was The Literary Enslavement Society for Irresponsible Girls—because that was one of CeeCee’s nicknames for the reading group. But my editor pointed out that “enslavement” has an unsavory whiff of prostitution about it, which I didn’t want to suggest. So I experimented and played around with a long list of titles until settling on the final version.
Q: Did you participate in a mother-daughter book club? Was it a disastrous experience for you or your daughter(s)?
No, oddly, I could never convince either of my two daughters that they wanted to be in a book club with their mother. And our literary tastes were very different, from the time they were small: they accused me of loving sad books (The Tenth Good Thing About Barney—I *do* love that book); while they wanted series I didn’t particularly care for (The Boxcar Children—horrid!) or fantasy fiction, which I don’t generally read.
Q: Are the books referenced in Unbearable favorites of yours, books you might have read in a book club, or did they come to you as books your characters would have found interesting?
I wanted to come up with a list of books by women, because the book club members in my novel are all women and girls. And I didn’t want to concentrate on books that contemporary readers might already have read, so I went back to the classics, starting with a long list, and re-reading the books to try to figure out which ones would intersect in amusing ways with the lives of my characters. I considered—and ultimately rejected—Ethan Frome, Helen Keller’s My Life, and a number of others.
Q: Your books feel so close to the bone. Is that a result of editing and revision or do you write that way from thorough experience?
I try to invest myself emotionally with my characters—that’s what’s powerful and compelling to me when I read, so that’s what I want to create for readers when I write. Though the subject matter and plot in my novels is generally 90% fiction, the characters’ emotions—no matter their life circumstances—are close to my own.
Q: Do you develop an affinity for a particular character in the book or do you have an equal feeling for all four of the girls.
I have a fondness and a sort of literary intimacy, I think, with each of my characters, or I wouldn’t be able to spend so much time with them. That said, I was very fond of both Adrienne and CeeCee in this book. I think it would be easy to label CeeCee as a snob and a delinquent, but there’s something good in her, something that strives and doesn’t want to settle for fulfilling others’ views of her. And I identify with Adrienne’s feeling that, while everyone else on the planet has a firm sense of self, she’s the intangible, the one who isn’t sure who she’s supposed to be. I felt like that for about 25 years.
Q: Book club members have already asked me, “What happens to Wallis?” “Why didn’t she finish that part of the book?” Can you give us a peek into your decision about Wallis’ story?
Wallis. I wanted her to remain a cipher. I was thinking a lot about Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Adrienne’s mother’s favorite book) while creating and making decisions about her character. Adrienne, being an imaginative sort, comes to certain odd conclusions about Wallis; later on, she tells Wallis she’s sorry for having concocted those odd conclusions. And Wallis… doesn’t laugh or deny Adrienne’s wacky ideas about her; in fact, in the final lines, she seems possibly to confirm them. Is Wallis’s life truly odd and inexplicable? Or is Adrienne over-imaginative? I wanted to leave the reader with that question—because life, like a good book, is more often open-ended than not.