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Entering Normalby Anne Leclaire
Author Q & A
A Conversation with Anne LeClaire
Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of A Theory of Relativity and The Deep End of the Ocean, and Anne LeClaire have been friends for many years. They sat down recently to discuss the finer points of Entering Normal, among other things.
Jacquelyn Mitchard: Anne, you were the mistress of the sexy psychologi-cal thriller. I loved your last thriller, Sideshow, and Bill Clinton, a man who knows about sexy psychological thrillers (or so they say), said he couldn't put it down. So then, after more than five years, you came back with an entirely different kind of novel, a drama that roved from the backyard fence to the courtroom rail. Why the change? Sideshow was your strongest book, so why did you choose to fix what wasn't broken?
Anne LeClaire: I don't think the switch is that dramatic. At least, it doesn't seem so for me. The themes of all my novels are related, so there was no conscious decision, no day when I sat down and said, "Okay, I'm going to take off and alter the form." For me, the story's form is instinctive. It grows from the characters and their situations. The idea for a novel comes to me, often in the guise of a dream or a short story. Then, I usually sit with it for a while to see if its back is strong enough to support the weight of a novel. Any book I write centers on those characters. They are my focus, first and last. I try to listen and let them tell me their stories.
JM: Why did it take so long to "Enter Normal," if you will? What was incubating in your transformation as a writer?
AL: Well, mostly it was because between the publication of Sideshow and the publication of Entering Normal, I wrote another novel that never drew breath, if you will. Or, at least it hasn't yet. It ended up on a closet shelf--and a closet shelf in a spare bedroom. Also, at the same time, I was beginning a nonfiction project about exploring the practice of silence, and I am still working on that book, too. So, here I was, writing both these works, when I dreamed a short story that pushed them aside in my heart (at least for the time being) and insisted on becoming Entering Normal. The themes that I was exploring--grief, the power of friendship, motherhood--are present in all of my previous works. I guess you could say I went into a deeper understanding of them in Normal.
JM: You did that in spades. I know they were much on your mind, as you came to terms with the death of your husband's dearest friend, your sister's death long ago, and your own struggles with your growing children-- and come to think of it, hand-feeding me through my multiple setbacks and frustrations with my family.
AL: All that was at the forefront--Jack, you know better than anyone that to surround yourself with living creatures is to enter the realm of risk and hurt, as well as joy and adventure. When you love, you court the possibility of loss. But otherwise, how do you live?
JM: You're entirely correct. But I would rather have the adventure and skip the risk.
AL: Wouldn't we all . . . but you learn from each loss, the depth of your core strength increases.
JM: Speaking of shallow, both of us started as reporters. And long after we became fiction writers, we both remain reporters. Why do you do that? I think I have a fear of unemployment. What about you?
AL: I find the roles of reporter and novelist to be complementary. You know that. Think of the research. The fear you don't feel--as an academia-based novelist might--of making the dreaded cold call. The job of both is to uncover the story, to ask questions and seek truths. One necessitates going out into the world and the other requires bringing that back and going into the exploration of the inner world.
JM: Let's not give up so easily on the subject of death. Or shallowness. Or celebrity. Do you have ambivalent feelings about a movie option on any of your novels? Or are you eager for the inevitable attention to your work a film can bring?
AL: Are you kidding? Don't you remember the night we were at Ragdale and you'd just completed The Deep End of the Ocean and everyone was saying, "I'd never let Hollywood TOUCH my book," and you spoke up and told about how you asked your children to pray every night, "God bless Grandpa, God bless Mommy; and please let Mommy's book be made into a movie"? I'm right there with you, sister. I'm imploring the universe for my book to be transformed into a retelling on the big screen. And yes, I understand it won't be "my story," as I wrote it. But that gives me a comfortable detachment because I know it won't be a literal translation and I'm not expecting that. And I never play that game of mentally casting actors for the various roles. The characters are already too fully formed. They're actors themselves.
JM: Do you read the reviews? Do you grieve the cruel reviews and celebrate the positive ones? I avoid both. One negative review sent me to bed for a whole day, only my eyes showing. You recall the phone call.
AL: I do. I think the healthiest thing would be to adopt a Zen-like sense of calm and acceptance and avoid reading reviews entirely. However, I'm not that sane. But I do ask my agent and publicist to shield me from any negative ones.
JM: Cheater, cheater. Don't you learn anything from the negative reviews?
AL: Only what kind of day the critic had! Seriously, for constructive feedback I trust my editor, my agent, and my readers.
JM: Entering Normal is about redemption, the excruciating process of relinquishing grief, which I know--from writing about some of the same issues myself--is sometimes more harrowing than the mourning itself. Can Rose ever really recover from the grief of losing her entire family, as well as her home?
AL: Every one of us experiences grief in our lifetime, and grief isn't something we ever recover from. What we do is to incorporate it, and reach some kind of accommodation with it. And it has a beautiful purpose in our lives.
JM: No, it doesn't! Wouldn't you rather be shallow?
AL: Really, it does. It opens us to compassion. As Rose says, grief doesn't break a heart in half, it cracks it wide open. One of the quotes I taped to my computer during the time I was writing Entering Normal was from Oscar Wilde: "Where there is sorrow, there is sacred ground." His words helped me open to a wider view of the role grief can command in our lives.
JM: You've been called a writer with a strong sense of magic, even New Age spiritualism. Is this the reason for Opal's obsession with signs, charms, and crystals? And what are her dolls? Are they intended to be Opal's children, or souls she calls forth?
AL: Like Opal, I believe we are surrounded by mystery to which we do, or must, largely remain blind. I love your idea of Opal's dolls as souls she calls forth. She sees in them personality as a mother would see in a child. I saw her dolls, also, as her specific mode of expression. They gave her the power of creativity, which, as we know, is transformative.
JM: It's transformative all right, for good or for ill. Still on the subject of the life within, let me ask you about something not very many people know. Twice a month, you keep silence. Are these your best days for creativity regeneration? Or are they a retreat from "the shop"?
AL: I do write on Silent Days. Often those days are my most productive. Silence is restorative. It rejuvenates me and enhances my concentration and fertilizes the deep place inside that is the creative prairie. It is the spring that feeds that place. It also has taught me to listen with greater focus.
JM: You are an active listener. In fact, you are the most patient listener I know. But I know sometimes it's difficult not to reach out, to cry out. Writing is the loneliest craft. It doesn't even make any noise. How do you militate against the loneliness? Can writers, who must compete in an increasingly tighter and more narrow marketplace, actually work together, offering each other support with a generous spirit? Or do you have to hold back, even with your sister writers?
AL: Publishing is competitive and we are raised to believe that in a competitive model, only one can win. I have had to learn another model. While it might run the economic system, competition is a straitjacket for artists. I know we've talked a lot about this. I remember one time when we were taking about this subject with our husbands and your Chris said, borrowing from a TV character, "To compare is to despair." I know from experience it's true. It also robs you of the fellowship of writing, and it is my friendship with you and other writers that sustains me and alleviates the loneliness. There are a few people who are always, always, on my side.
JM: What if Manette or I or another friend then blows you off the bookshelf? (I have this experience quite frequently with my dear friend Jane in Wisconsin.) What do you do with suffering? Or do you refuse to waste time on envy?
AL: I think it was Cynthia Ozick who called envy "the wasting disease." I usually feel the bite. I'm human. But only for a day, maybe two, and then I come back to something I read, written by a Buddhist monk. He wrote that when we fall deep into envy we have lost faith in our own lives. That has a profound ring of truth for me. I don't think faith in one's own path and envy for another's path can exist in the same space. To remind myself of this is the best antidote to envy I've ever encountered. I've tutored myself to hold firm to my belief in my own path, which is good practice. In writing and in life.
JM: But I want you with me. I want us both to be at the top, not practicing getting over envy. Don't you, secretly?
AL: Only secretly. But truly, some of the best readings I've ever given were the times our publishers let us read together, even though we theoretically were competing. That was so affirming . . . of everything.
JM: What is the process of writing about for you? Why bother with something so painful and difficult unless you're going to learn something as well as teach? What do you learn?
AL: The most painful parts of writing for me are the periods of self-doubt when the gremlins who live in my head whisper ugly stuff, fears that pollute my mind and silence me. But I think in writing we are in the act of constantly facing our own demons and penetrating the deep regions. It is the great gift writing gives us, and the aspect that makes it the most difficult.
JM: Are you at your peak as a storyteller? Or do you aspire? What do you need to learn, and are you learning it in your upcoming novel? I heard you had trouble deciding in which direction this book would go, quiet reminiscence or scintillating coming-of-age saga with mysterious twists? How did you decide?
AL: My aspirations always exceed my grasp--or what's a heaven for, huh? But, really, I think that's a good thing for a writer. The best thing I can do for myself is to get out of my own way and trust the truth of the story. And then write to that truth with as much insight, honesty, and heart as I am capable of giving.
JM: What other cul-de-sacs and mazes of human experience do you hope to explore? Who leads, you or the characters?
AL: I'll probably revisit familiar terrain: the ties of family, the things that bind us--one to another and to nature--the contradictions and complexities of the human heart, the pain of loss, how hate is born, the hold our dreams have on us, whether forgiveness must be earned, the redemptive power of friendship and love. Arriving at some understanding of these and conveying that to readers is the lifework of writers. And preachers, for that matter. Musicians and poets, too.
JM: It's a mouthful. It's a life-ful.
AL: No doubt. I'll never achieve it to the degree I wish I could.
JM: I don't believe it when fictionalists insist that characters become "real" to them. Are yours "real" to you?
AL: They are completely. I experience totally their sorrows and joys, their ambitions and yearnings, their disappointments and hopes, in the same way I would those of a friend. There were days when Rose's grief for Todd weighed so heavily in my heart I actually couldn't eat. So, in that way, the characters do live for me. Sometimes I wonder how they are getting on with their lives, in that parallel universe. However, I don't think about getting the phone and ringing them up, if that's what you mean.
JM: The dead child, Todd, remains a character throughout the novel. Does his mother, in a sense, find a way to take him with her when she leaves her life behind?
AL: Yes, because her love for him remains alive in her despite her paralyzing grief, and in spite of additional loss and disappointment. That is the triumph of love. It endures beyond the grave, and because of that, Todd--and your Dan, and my sister--will always be there, with us, as with Rose. Another of the quotes I had taped to the computer during the years I was working on the book was Patsy Cline's epitaph: "Death cannot kill what never dies."
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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