1. This is your first novel in the midst of a full design career—what, finally, prompted you to sit down and write? Especially given that you knew just how dangerous that path could be?
The writing never felt dangerous. It was like a warm swimming pool. But the next step—letting it out into the world—THAT was terrifying.
For some reason, I had this cockamamie idea that I would write and it would be like weekend painting; perfectly fulfilling and something no one else would ever have to see.
But you can’t live with Frank and get away with that. Not if you have a shred of talent. Talent is his religion. You respect it. You honor it. And you spend every bit of your life trying to be worthy of it. So—there’s the dangerous path.
We had every possible kind of argument about letting it ‘out’. And I lost. Even when I thought I’d won, he never let up. And the next thing I knew, I had an agent who loved the book as much as Frank did—and the jig was up.
2. So many authors are asked what books and authors influenced them the most....I want to know what tale-tellers in your life influenced you the most, the storytellers from your nursery to your present day.
What a great question. Very Katherine! No short answer:
My very WASPy parents were, I realize now, against all cultural odds, great story tellers. They would, if they were here—and don’t I wish they were here to meet you—they would tell you that they had no choice; I was born asking questions. Tell me what it was like when you were a boy. Tell me about your mother. When you were my age, what did you want to be when you grew up?
My father was an engineer and a contractor whose work expanded to become international. And whether he was talking about energy conservation (he died in 1981) or American arrogance in negotiation (he worked with the UN on establishing international business practices), I think, in a way, he was always teaching. Funny thing though, it never felt heavy-handed. He told stories, always peppered with direction. They always had a point—even if it took you a while to figure out the fact that his very entertaining tale was designed to get you to see things another way. To laugh at yourself – or open up your head (or your heart) to a different way of looking at things.
At my mother’s memorial service a number of her friends came up to me and said things like, “She never had a bad word to say about anyone,” And I’d think, “Hmmmm. She didn’t trust you.” And there weren’t many she did trust. But if you were on the inside, she was terribly smart, wicked, funny, clever, full of insight and wit. But also, like her public image – she was forgiving and gentle and gracious and ever the lady. Few of us knew that her sharp insight made her kindness even more gracious, even more generous. And her stories suggested all of that.
My maternal great-grandmother and her son-in-law, my grandfather, were my day to day caretakers until I was about thirteen. My manners (and my manner), therefore, were learned from people born in 1878 and 1898, respectively. Their stories and lessons to me were full of Old New York and the codes of behavior of a world they didn’t really believe had passed. A lot of that world lives on in me.
My father’s father was the most important deep-sea diver in the world, who became an author and a media personality in the retelling of his adventures. He was bigger than life in every way; a kind of aggressively-mythical self-made-man, pushing at the edges of our more careful world of privilege. He died when I was five, but there seems to have been an active promotion of “fun” about him, that must have been appreciated for it to have survived so fully in our family stories. He was a character, not interested in conforming to a kind of behavior he saw as elitist, or, perhaps, he realized that his exaggerated persona was part of what made him valuable to his important friends and fans. He clearly was a marketer, and his greatest product was himself.
How could I not tell stories in one form or another?
3. Given that, how did your childhood and your present-day life wend their way into this book?
Bernadette, is in her seventies when we meet her—and she is not only vital—but, more than anyone else, the character we find ushering in The New.
Her wisdom is what moves Joy to her greatest insights. Her example paves the way, historically and every day, for the women (and – I’d suggest the men) who follow in her footsteps within the Amherst programs she creates, and the books she produced that define the role of women within our culture.
I’m sure this idea of vitality in age comes from being raised by people so much older than parents—and having their knowledge and wisdom so very respected.
My mother also worked with some of the greatest decorators and museums in the world, and taught legions of women (for the most part) how to create painted finishes and crafts. The industry of “domestic design”/and style was a part of our daily lives. I saw it treasured—and I saw it dismissed by men—until or unless the articles became “made valuable” by their interpretation through history or provenance.
The idea of how we determine what is valuable within the culture has been largely determined by men, and women continue to buy into it. Reframing the value of women’s work or insight was at the heart of this book. And I learned it at home.
4. What was the most delicious part of writing this book?
The fact that, in writing, one can return—so vividly, so completely—to places and people you miss or want to spend time with. In this book, I went back to Amherst, where Frank and I produced two BBC documentaries on Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I loved our time together there. It was a magical few days—for many reasons. Even more importantly—I brought back my beloved German Shorthaired Pointer. I saw her turn her head, in that distinctive, and dismissive way. I saw her stretch and heard her make the “Out” noise. And she was right there with me, in the form of the dog-character, Henry James. I so loved spending time with her again.
5. This is a tale about style—how does an author ensure that style is taken seriously as a subject?
The sad answer is, you don’t.
Last week, at the first Empire State Book Festival, in Albany, the moderator of our panel, a wonderful Lizzie Skurnick, gestured to my book, and suggested that the “flowers on the cover” alone would be likely to keep it from serious reviews and any options of prizes. Really? Flowers? I don’t doubt her—and that’s a terrible indictment of what’s going on in Women’s Fiction.
The heart of The Season of Second Chances presents a point that style—personal, authentic, unique, individual style—is a vital part of the texture of life, and the most visible expression of self. In the case of this book, the flowers are contextual, taken from William Morris, whose designs inform some of the restoration of an old house within the story. And the cover is beautiful, it’s not a cheap, cheesy cover designed to telegraph a cheap and cheesy tale. It presents, I think, a great test case for the diminishing of status on a book’s positioning as being of interest to women. In other words—of interest to women, and therefore, ’less than.'
The case for genre literature doesn’t need to be made by me. From Mysteries and Thrillers to the somewhat more difficult-to-peg category we used to call Beach Books, these are stories meant to be enjoyed – inhaled and let go. But what about the domestic Anne Tyler? Anna Quindlen? Ian McEwan? Willa Cather? Eudora Welty? Muriel Sparks?
John Colapinto, New Yorker writer and author of As Nature Made Him, was a real champion of my book. He came to it when the name of the book was Teddy Hennessy. And he cautioned me again and again not to allow the publishers to over feminize the name or the cover—because men, he said, wouldn’t read the book, and they’d be missing something. And because the industry, he warned, wouldn’t take it seriously.
I listened to Holt’s concerns about a book named Teddy Hennessy, when the audience didn’t know Teddy from Diane Meier. I could understand the point of avoiding confusion. And I actually think the cover art is terrific. We mined the V&A for references and books on Morris’ design, and the art department at Holt was more than cooperative. But I was left with a book that looked, I suppose, more feminine than masculine.
Can you imagine, I asked my staff, that men might not buy this book because of its flowers, when we know of so many men who have especially loved the content? They shook their heads. And what does it say about criticism that the look of a feminine cover might not be taken as seriously as the look of a masculine book? Or that we live in a moment when women writers would feel compelled to write dark, grim, violent stories to separate their work from anything that might be called “Women’s Fiction” (see The Orange Prize).
This is not about Chick-Lit. This is about the way Chick-Lit has been used to denigrate a wider swath of books about contemporary life, written by women. This is about the fact that issues of things domestic, if not presented with violence, are suspect as being “in the domain of women”, and therefore, by definition, of less value.
There is Women’s Literature—as opposed to what, Literature? There is the Orange Prize—well meaning, no doubt, in an attempt to offer appeasement for the short-change in status our culture allows women writers. But for god’s sake, a prize for a Woman Writer, as opposed to a real writer? Is this what we want to say?
And even the darling sisterhood of SheWrites, I love you. I really do. I know the intention. But I worry.
As one of the characters in my book says about social justice—“They’ll be very happy to give your team a bus, but don’t imagine it will be in the fast lane.”
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