A Conversation with Clyde Edgerton
Q: Many writers would balk at the idea of writing about a nursing home. Why did you decide it was a worthy setting for a novel and, given the topics of many bestsellers, was this risky?
A: Nursing homes house extreme loneliness and pain (think about how much better our culture cares for some old Thoroughbreds than some old people) but also humor and heroism—from clients, workers, and caretakers. While some low-paid aides are lax, some are saints. Sometimes clients’ families, especially middle-aged and older children, suffer from despair but are reluctant to talk about that despair. That’s probably a consequence of guilt, some justified, some not. I didn’t feel the subject was risky. My parents were relatively old when I was born, I was an only child, and I had over twenty aunts and uncles, many of whom were like grandparents to me. They all made me feel secure, and I felt at home with them. I learned that their stories tended to have a kind of final—and thus more poignant—drama than the drama of many young people’s
stories. So, rather than risky, it seemed like a worthy subject.
Q: Were there any specific incidents that got you started on the book?
A: In 1996 my aunt was in a nursing home and I was writing at the time, didn’t have a “day job,” so I could visit her at eleven in the morning or three in the afternoon. One afternoon I was cutting her toenails. She looked over at her roommate Ernestine and said, “Don’t you wish you had a nephew who’d come in and do for you like this one does for me?” Ernestine said, “I got two nephews.
They both work.” I knew a scene like that belonged in a book.
Q: Was it a difficult book to write?
A: Yes. I had to write many drafts because I was too close to it. I don’t have good perspective as a writer when I’m too close to my story. I need distance because distance gives me perspective and that brings some objectivity and then I can write. When you’re coming out of a relationship you are often still too close to it to write about it. You don’t have the distance you need. There are several ways to get the distance you need to write about a situation: You can move to another country or another state; you can take notes and wait a long time; you can write through it. This one I wrote through and that was difficult.
Q: Are the characters in the novel based on anyone in particular?
A: They’re pretty much composites. In my mind I have a wall with a window in it, and there are real people on one side and imaginary people on the other. Sometimes I reach through the window from the fiction side and get characteristics to give to the people in my stories. So the characters
I end up with in my stories sometimes resemble people I know in the way cousins or neighbors may resemble one I another. But I never feel like I’m writing about real people, and readers who assume so are wrong.
Q: What do you hope the reader will take away from
Lunch at the Piccadilly?
A: Certainly a pleasurable experience. I try to avoid consciously writing about messages, although it’s fun to watch L. Ray Flowers preach his messages. But I do distinguish his messages from mine. I think the idea of Nurch is a good idea and it’s fun to let him run with it. I don’t like to be
openly and harshly critical of organized religion and I don’t like to hear anyone else do it, because organized religion is too complicated to bash in general. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church where the adults were like aunts and uncles to me. I felt totally safe and secure in that environment.
Though, on the other hand, I do believe that some fundamentalists would like a state-based fundamentalist religion where people who sinned would be punished. I’m glad America was founded in part to keep things such as that from happening. I’d also like the reader to come away with an awareness of the responsibilities of the caretaker. No one is ever prepared for that responsibility and there is so much guilt involved. It’s one of those things you don’t want to prepare for. Like being in the army. You don’t want to prepare to be in the army. You get in the army and it’s so bad that when it’s over you don’t want to talk about it because it was so awful.
Usually the caretaker is a son or a daughter and usually they are so ashamed of their negative feelings about it, they don’t talk about it. That’s a very traumatic time for many people, and when it’s over you don’t talk about it because it’s over. So I hope that perhaps those who haven’t experienced it might use this book as a starting place for conversations.
Q: How was your experience in taking care of an aunt and
your mother similar or dissimilar to Carl’s?
A: My experience was similar to Carl’s in that I kept visualizing my aunt’s apartment (that I associated with her) as empty and my sitting on the floor with my back against the wall. This was easier to visualize than visualizing me without her. My experience is different than Carl’s because I
had a different job than he did, was married with children, and was a good bit older. But I used some of my own emotions in describing his.
Q: Can you tell us about your inspiration for the character L. Ray Flowers and perhaps a little background on some of his “prayers” and “sermons”?
A: The inspiration came from any number of evangelists I have read about or known. In early drafts of the novel the convalescent center had a voice of its own and some of those voices were made into sermons. I wanted L. Ray to be very lively and different from most evangelists. He was retired, after all, and also didn’t have a specific congregation that he was bound to keep happy. So he was free to preach whatever was on his mind. I allowed myself to be very creative with his
prayers and sermons, and I hope readers realize that characters in fiction are supposed to be like characters in real life— that is, they can think and say anything imaginable and what they think may or may not be what the author thinks.
Q: How did you do research for this novel?
A: My experience as caretaker for two aunts and my mother over a span of eleven years or so was my research in the main, although I hasten that much of my caretaking was enjoyable and not as stressful as what many people experience. I also had more help than some people have. A
cousin of mine, Ola King, lived with my mother for the last two years of her life, cooked for her, and took care of her during serious illnesses. I was lucky to have her. It was important for me not to make fun of old people who are victims in my novel. So I edited carefully for passages that might come across that way, and the four elderly women who are the main characters in the novel are anything but victims. Like my mother and aunts—they enjoyed seeing the funny side of life, and they enjoyed talking and telling stories.
Q: Do you have any specific concerns about getting old?
A: A good friend, Lex Matthews, once told me that there are four stages of life: spring, summer, fall, and winter. He said the ability to live each stage well (for example, with
laughter and grace) depended very much on how the stage before it was lived. And I think he was right about that. I think having a few good friends at any stage in life is important
for mental health—very important. And one of the saddest things about getting into the winter stage of life is that we begin losing some of our best friends.
Q: What do you hope readers get from your novel?
A: I hope that readers with aging parents get a little notion of what is likely to come in their lives, and I hope those experiencing hardships realize that they are not alone— that others are having similar experiences. I would hope that they seek help when they feel tired and hopeless—
whether the help is from a preacher, counselor, friend, or one of many groups of people who meet to talk about aging issues. I hope they will realize that it is okay to be angry and to feel guilty and to be upset about their predicament, that this is human, and that talking about their feelings is okay and often a good thing.
Q: How do you feel about novels that are written to convey messages?
A: Messages are for preachers and essayists. Stories are for novelists. Sometimes stories have messages, intended or not. Some people are born to be preachers. They should preach. Some are born to write essays and that’s what they should do. My bent is telling stories, and I hope to not confuse that role with the first two, because we all offer something different and, likewise, I think people like to listen to sermons of one sort or another, to read essays about life, and also to read made-up stories about made-up people, because all three can be sources of humor, insight, and
pleasure. Writing Lunch at the Piccadilly was one way that I took the experience of caretaker in my own life and made something new out of it, something that I hope will come alive for readers—at least long enough for them to forget their troubles and remember gifts they’ve received over the
years from friends and family. And perhaps remind them of the humor in their own lives. But I try to avoid thinking about passing on specific messages as I write stories, because that can get in the way of the story, and the book then ends up with characters who mouth the beliefs of the