Friday, April 30, 2010

Author Interview -Diane Meier, 'The Season of Second Chances'

On Wednesday I reviewed a wonderful book by Diane Meier called 'The Season of Second Chances'. I am very grateful to her for agreeing to answer all of my questions about her, the book, and her future. Hope you enjoy it!

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself:

A little bit about myself – hmmm. It’s the ‘little bit’ that makes this question so intriguing….. I’m tempted to write “I like civilized men, German dogs and American literature” – and call it a day. But your readers can find out so much more (waaaay too much, if you ask me) at www.dianemeier.com.

2. What's it like to get your first novel published:

Just terrifying. For some reason, I thought that I could keep this writing thing a kind of secret; you know, like a weekend painter.

My work in marketing has always been on the other side of the narrative, making sure a brand or a client’s story was clear and true. My professional success was based in measurable objectives (sales, traffic, response, etc). And if an ad got some creative attention or won an award, that might be the icing on the cake, but it wasn’t my brief. Conversely, if someone (a co-worker, a friend, my mother – even the client) didn’t like a headline or an image, I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t take it seriously either; they weren’t the end-users. Much as I might have loved the way something I made looked or read or sounded, the target customer’s “opinion” of an ad was not as critical as whether they walked into a shop and bought the lipstick or the crystal bowl I was advertising. That was my objective. I was paid to make sure that “it” worked.

A novel is a whole other ball of wax. For one thing, reviews are encouraged. Eeeeek! Early on, the publishers explained that they were going to send out Advanced Reader Editions for Amazon Vine’s early reviewers. But they were concerned, they said, because the early readers on Amazon tended to be difficult. Kind of like temple dogs who thought their function was to guard the entrance to Amazon by being overly critical. “Good grief!” I said, “don’t send it!” But they did.

I was lucky, most of our Vine reviewers loved it. Phew. Except for one fellow who claimed that his “Chick-Lit-Loving Wife Hated the Book” – That’s like blaming steak for not being ice cream, I said. No one told you this was Chick-Lit. More on that, another time.

But still – the whole idea of opening yourself up to other people’s opinions is just plain scary; let’s face it. And unlike marketing – this IS the exercise. I must care whether you like the novel. It’s not designed to do anything else but please you, and make you want to tell your friends, and share the news, and look for the next one from me.

I’m getting more and more used to the idea that a really good book can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Like a great brand, it is probably defined as much by the people who don’t ‘get it’ as those who do. So, Like Joy – Old Dog. New tricks. Scary or not.

3. Joy Harkness can be such a frustrating character because she was so sad and closed off for most of her life. I loved that her moving to Amherst really taught her how to live her life fully. Why was it that you felt Joy's story was the one you wanted to tell?

Ironically, I set out to tell Teddy’s story, and thought I would use Joy to do so. More about that in Question Number 6.

As for Joy, I wanted a character from whom we’d find Teddy’s story and a character the reader would be ahead of. And most of all, I wanted to show how a life kept apart from authentic self-expression was likely to be unbalanced and seriously paralyzed.

I’m a New Yorker. Born and bred. And I know first hand that there are no more generous neighbors than those of us crowded on this tiny island of Manhattan. Just stand on a street corner with a map and ask for help. But conversely, if you want to walk up Park Avenue naked and painted blue, or if you want to stay locked up in your apartment and not talk to us – we’re likely to let you do just that. Because we live on top of one another, we’re very supportive of the “live and let live” theory. And for someone like Joy, who is in long-standing and deep-seeded pain, with a real fear of emotional engagement, that kind of environment is likely to become a tomb.

Amherst stands in for the kind of contagious and close hotbed of a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. A college town can certainly be like this; everyone draws from the same well, there is no place to hide.

And the challenge of a house-renovation that requires personal introspection and a community that breeds scrutiny and intrusion, could become the perfect storm for breaking down Joy’s walls. They weren’t likely to come down any other way, were they.

One point though, I think that by accepting the job in Amherst, especially at her age, Joy was already actively allowing/encouraging change. Each step, choosing the house in the first place; showing up at Josie’s for brunch and appreciating, if guarded, what she saw and felt; tackling the aesthetic, not just the systems or engineered challenges of the house with Teddy – all of these show us, regardless of how many times she professes otherwise – that Joy’s change was internal, not external. She was ready to face change long before she knew she was. And somehow, I knew that she believed that it was probably her last good chance.

4. One of my favorite aspects of the book was the theme of restoring a house and also how it can help restore a person's sense of self. Can you talk a little bit about that.

Making a house a home requires – demands – that you understand how you want to live. You need to know how you want to feel in the house. You must know how you want the house to behave, and how you want the house to reflect your taste. And most of all, you need to understand how you want your house to become the personally reflective home that will help you live an authentic and expressive life.

Joy began to see herself reflected in that house – her books not stacked on the floors, but treated with the kind of affection and respect she’d actually felt for them all along; her family’s things displayed, giving her access to their stories – all locked inside of her – all those years; her taste becoming more assured, her idea of color and comfort and function teased-out and supported and validated. All of this gave her a mirror she could look into with a pride she’d never had before. This wasn’t an expression of a decorator or a model room. It wasn’t about anybody else’s idea of status or correctness or convention. This was the embodiment of Joy.

5. I also really related to the sense of community you created with the women in this book and how they all rallied around each other when someone would get hurt and how they all wanted to make friends with Joy when she first moved to town. Can you talk a little about the importance of female friendships and community?

When I began to develop this book, it seemed to me that we had so many books about women as wives and lovers and mothers, but very few stories about women as friends. The last few years has kind of changed that – so many books about friendships seemed to have all washed up on the shore at the same time.

And still, I think it is the over-riding fact of our lives, that women have the benefit of other women in a way that most men do not. For whatever reason – oppression, biology, cultural direction, we developed a domestic system of using women within social networks. And our lives are made more gentle and richer because of it. We haven’t been quite as good in using this skill in business, especially at the top. We’re better managers because we come to that kind of sharing naturally, but we don’t promote and get behind other women as we climb the ladders of power. Most of all, we don’t build kingdoms. And that’s the part of “friendship” we could learn from men.

6. Teddy Hennessy, Joy's handyman and boyfriend for part of the book, was such an interesting foil for Joy herself. Can you talk a little about Teddy and his role in the story?

Teddy was the character I started with. He is, in every respect, an unlikely hero. A character who would never be Hamlet. And yet, his small story, given his gifts should be just as compelling. We should want him to take a chance, step beyond his limits and move those considerable skills and sensibility into a life of larger purpose. And – I suppose, we should question ourselves for wanting this for him. Does everyone have to grow beyond a comfort level to or toward a realized potential? I know where I fall on the scale of answers, but it’s a worthy question.

I liked the idea of Joy cheering Teddy on, and most of all, of making him the center of the book. And I thought it could be especially interesting if Joy couldn’t see that many of the problems Teddy had were reflected in her own issues.

So – they’re both insulated. Both still reeling from a loss that not only took their brothers from them, but emotionally destroyed their families. They both hide out from living fully engaged lives. But Joy would never be able to tell you that about herself. She can only tell you about Teddy.

Since it is Joy’s story, in her words – I still feel the bit of humor in knowing that she believes this is a book about Teddy. If the book had been called “Teddy Hennessy” – which is what I wanted to call it originally, would you have been as drawn to it?

7. Do you have another book planned? If so, will it be about one of the characters we were introduced to in "The Season of Second Chances" or are you moving on to something new?

I do. It’s about Bernadette. Her whole life – from childhood until just before we meet her in SSC. I’m calling it “The Lowell Girl”. The title harkens back to her ancestors and the great American Labor Movement of the women mill-workers in the 19th Century, in the fabric mills of Lowell Mass, outside of Boston, who became known as The Lowell Girls, and whose serious intent on respect, dignity, advancement and connection were supported by one of the most responsible examples of enlightened capitalism in history.

Bernadette draws upon all of that value as she grows up and becomes what I think we recognize in SSC as a kind of Mother-of-us-all 20th Century Iconic-Feminist. And isn’t it interesting that in The Season of Second Chances – the one really ushering in The New – in a subject that is not based on gender -- is a 70-something year old woman? Probably the oldest character in the story? Well, you’ll see why….

8. And finally, what book(s) are you reading right now?

I am always reading two or three (or ten) things at once. But above all – this is the season for Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show, the latest novel by my husband, Frank Delaney.

I couldn’t recommend it more highly – it has everything -- . It’s a big book, full of romance, in huge doses; but most of all, it has sharp barbed and wonderful wit, based in serious insight, history, psychology, politics, and theater. There are villains and heroes, actors and politicians, fathers and sons, and a young man, if not a damsel, in distress. Underneath the story, there are rivers of change, as the Twentieth Century runs through a country small enough to fit into one of our American states – but mythic enough to show us how even here at home, democracy can be twisted to serve power.

So, I can hear you say something like, She would say that, wouldn’t she. And maybe, but I don’t actually think I would recommend a book I didn’t believe in with all my heart. But if it looks like a book too weighty for you – promise me one thing, pick up one of Frank’s audio books –Ireland or Shannon or Tipperary or Venetia (which has just won an audio award) – and let him read to you. You will be hooked. Just as I was. No kidding.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all of my questions!

4 comments:

  1. Thank you Amused for introducing us to this author and her work. And thank you Diane for an interview that has piqued my interest in reading the book. I'll be adding it to my list!

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  2. Great interview! I really enjoyed this book a lot.

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  3. Interesting! I haven't read this book yet, but I really enjoyed hearing her speak at the Empire State Book Festival. I'm intrigued about the next book, and I'll pay attention to that character as I read. Thanks!

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  4. Great interview! I guess Frank Delaney is civilized - his book is great.

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