April 10, 2008

4Q with Rebecca Flowers (Yes. Four.)

Rebecca Flowers can’t count, but Lord knows she can write. I unabashedly LOVED her debut novel, NICE TO COME HOME TO,, enough to say so on the cover, on this blog, and recently in a bookstore to a browsing stranger.

Rebecca very sweetly came out to an event while I was touring for THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING, and she was as delightful in person as her prose is on the page. Look, this is us:
JJ: What writers influenced your work and how and why?
RF: When I first decided to write a novel, I read something that saved my life. Some big important writer, like John Irving or someone like that, said, Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, with your first novel. Just take a book you love and follow its plot. Don’t worry, your book will be your book. But you need a sort of road map to follow, your first time up at bat.
I decided to try my hand at updating Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, mostly because Pride and Prejudice had been done to death.
I was interested in how two sisters with different approaches to life – she of the head and she of the heart – fall in love. Whereas the Dashwood sisters become “unmarriageable” when they lose their dowry, the Whistler sisters are up against comparable modern-day forces: Pru is entering her late 30’s, and Patsy is the single parent of a young daughter. The men they fall in love with both seem too good to be true – and with good reason. The book follows the sisters as they try to put their lives together again, after true love wreaks its usual havoc.
Although I went in different directions with my ending for both of the sisters, I have to say, as I slogged my way through that sloggity first draft, thank HEAVENS I had such an excellent road map.
Austen is just a master at creating likeable, complex characters. I admire that incredibly.
Also, I kept a copy of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy always in reach, while I wrote this book. I also very much love Elinor Lipman, Melissa Bank, and Larry McMurtry.
JJ: Tell us about your own experience with LOVE… TWOO LOVE!

RF: My earliest readers had a hard time with Pru. One of them, a determinedly-single gal herself, had a violent reaction to Pru’s desire to settle down and get married, even if it meant forsaking some kind of great love. It really took me off-guard, I must say. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, that by the time I reached 35 I was in a similar frame of mind.

A writer named Lori Gottleib wrote about “settling” in the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly. She actually encourages women to do it, while they’re in their early thirties and optimally attractive. She thinks too many women wait for “true love,” which, according to Gottleib, doesn’t exist.

By the time I was 35 I knew I wanted to marry and have children. I’d been working my keister off, and I was ready to do something that seemed like it would give me something back. I wanted to be nestled safe and secure in the bosom of my family.

But I was with a guy I did not love. I didn’t know what to do – marry him, because at least he loved me, and would happily father some children? Or hold out for quote-unquote true love? Which I hadn’t experienced since the fourth grade? (Oh Danny Oliveri, you heartbreaker you!)

Well, the decision was made for me. I was dumped by my “safety”! I mean, what the?

It was the best thing he ever did for me. I owe that man like a case of Lowenbraus. Because that was when -- humbled, ashamed -- I met my husband. We were set up on a date by his brother, a good friend of mine.

We were supposed to meet for afternoon coffee; I didn’t get home until after one in the morning. I smashed into a table umbrella while walking toward him at dinner; he didn’t get the critical plot point of The Matrix. And – this will sound familiar – he wasn’t exactly available to me. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t, because I was totally in love with him by the end of the first date, when he asked me why Neo had to be resuscitated after being pulled out of that gooey human pod thingy.

Luckily, he made a decision that let us be together. I wrote NICE TO COME HOME TO about what would have happened if he hadn’t.

For the record, say I: hold out for true love. ‘Cause it’s just too hard to live with someone, under any other circumstance. And because yes, yes, YES!, it exists. It’s not what Lori Gottleib seems to think it is, however. True love is NOT the thing that gets you what you want out of life – a house, a baby, a family, perfect and unerring happiness. True love is the thing that complicates life, that makes it messy. And wonderful. And joyous. And profound. But will it get you what you’ve always wanted? Certainly not. Certainly, certainly not. It’s just like prayer, you know.


RF: In NICE TO COME HOME TO, our heroine, Pru, finds herself responsible for her ex-boyfriend’s very bad, very nasty cat, Big Whoop. Whoop seems intent on destroying the things Pru most cares about. But she’s stuck with him. (My husband likes to say that Big Whoop represents Pru’s libido. Hmm…)

I, too, was the victim of a bad, nasty cat who came to live with me. It’s a good story, but starts out sad.

I was introduced to my husband by his younger brother, Gil, who ran the writing workshop I belonged to in D.C. Andrew was going through a divorce at the time, and I had just been dumped in a manner readers of my book will find familiar. Gil set us up on a date, saying not to expect anything of each other.

Well, we had to go and fall in love with each other. Then, about six weeks after Andrew and I started dating, a shocking thing happened -- Gil was diagnosed with primary liver cancer. It’s the kind of cancer old men get, after lives of hard drinking. It was totally random and unfair and horrible, and six months later, shortly after his daughter’s first birthday, Gil died. I think he was about 35.

At the time of his diagnosis, Gil and Andrew and I were all living a few blocks from each other in Washington, DC. So when this all went down Andrew and I decided we would essentially live together, to make his apartment available to their parents, who lived in western Massachusetts, during Gil’s illness

So, a mere two months after our first date, Andrew moved in with me, bringing his two cats along with him. Although I’d only recently vowed to myself never to live with someone again until I was married, I was secretly thrilled. Like I said, I dug this guy. In a big way. It didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice, I must confess. And it felt good to be able to do something useful for the family.

But Zoe the cat was not a happy boy. He didn’t understand why he was in this lady’s apartment. He didn’t understand why she was feeding him, instead of Andrew. Furthermore, it smelled like other cats, even though other cats weren’t living there. It needed to be marked as Zoe the cat’s territory. It needed sprayed, and sprayed good.

I won’t go until too much detail here, but read the book. It’s all in there. Just like Pru, I was driven to take the boy to therapy. And guess what? It worked. Within, I don’t know, two weeks, he was a different cat. Less “anxious”. Happier. NOT SPRAYING MY THINGS. It was exactly as I’ve written it in the book – this therapist stood there telling me everything I was doing was wrong. I was to give Zoe everything a big fat old cat could ever want: space. Games. Petting. Food on demand. His choice of litter. And it worked! I had to swallow every bit of animosity I’d built up for that cat and learn to ACCEPT THE CAT FOR WHO HE WAS. I had to stop fighting, and start loving. It was very enlightening. Very Zen.

Zoe and I were never achieved pet-owner Nirvana, but we did manage to live together for a long time. Zoe taught me great lessons in tolerance, and opening to that which we think we can’t accept, and enzymatic cat urine removers. We shall never forget him.

JJ: I know you are a blogger, too. Why do you blog and does it feed you or take energy from you?

RF: I blog for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I need the contact with people. Okay, make that FEEDBACK. VALIDATION. LOVE . Whatever you want to call it, I need it, baby!

Writing – like bathing – is a lonely business. It’s a lot of hours sitting there thinking up thoughts inside your head. The blog lets me get things out quickly and get back some o’ the love – or whatever it happens to be that day – just as fast.

I have to laugh -- many, many times a day -- and I find the blog great for that. My friends are some of the funniest people in the world, I do believe. So when I find something that sets me off, I have to share it, immediately.

I love to check in there while I’m working. Sometimes someone will have left a comment while I wasn’t looking. It’s like getting a note passed to you in Social Studies class.

Posted by joshilyn at April 10, 2008 6:43 PM

Thanks for the 4Q, the book looks interesting!

Posted by: JulieB at April 10, 2008 7:37 PM

And thank God for Twooooo wuv and enzymatic cat urine removers -- both of which work, one of which can be bought.

Posted by: rams at April 10, 2008 7:56 PM

The book sounds so good. And I love hearing about how couples met.

Posted by: Alison at April 10, 2008 8:12 PM

Jeez, what a sad story about Gil! And BTW, the Zen thing that Rebecca did with the cat... I may have to try that with my three-year-old. Yelling and time-outs certainly aren't working.

The book sounds good. I will pick it up at some point (it's in my amazon cart.)

Posted by: jenn at April 11, 2008 12:49 AM

Perhaps the cat was nasty because he was a boy named Zoe. He had identity issues... >.>

The book sounds interesting, and as a writer, I have to admit... that idea sounds refreshing. I need to work on my plot and structure more than anything, and this sounds like it might be helpful to me, so thank you for the advice. :)

Posted by: Jess at April 11, 2008 10:45 AM

The book sounds great -- I have stuff languishing in my amazon cart, and this may just prompt me to add something new and BUY it already.

FWIW, my husband and I used a similar technique when we wrote our first comedy screenplay. We took a comedy that had a similar feel to what we were aiming for (a fish-out-of-water comedy) and studied it, then used it as a sort of template. We deviated from the story in some major ways, in the end, but it helped make the whole thing more accessible.

Posted by: Aimee at April 11, 2008 10:51 AM

I looooves me some Jane Austen, so I'm going to have to check this book out!

PS...Why, Ms. Jackson, is that a COLOR I see around your neck in that photo??? :-) (It looks very nice on you and I love that jacket.)

Posted by: DebR at April 11, 2008 10:26 PM

I may just have to go run out and buy this book, if only so I can gaze at the girl in the window on the cover. She seems so perfectly fitted fit the title. ::sigh of longing:: Being a hermit is not without its hazards.

Posted by: David at April 13, 2008 1:03 PM

And remember, always preview before you post. ::banging head on keyboard::

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