Synopses & Reviews
Friendship, loyalty, and love lie at the heart of Meg Waite Claytons beautifully written, poignant, and sweeping novel of five women who, over the course of four decades, come to redefine what it means to be family.
For thirty-five years, Frankie, Linda, Kath, Brett, and Ally have met every Wednesday at the park near their homes in Palo Alto, California. Defined when they first meet by what their husbands do, the young homemakers and mothers are far removed from the Summer of Love that has enveloped most of the Bay Area in 1967. These “Wednesday Sisters” seem to have little in common: Frankie is a timid transplant from Chicago, brutally blunt Linda is a remarkable athlete, Kath is a Kentucky debutante, quiet Ally has a secret, and quirky, ultra-intelligent Brett wears little white gloves with her miniskirts. But they are bonded by a shared love of both literature–Fitzgerald, Eliot, Austen, du Maurier, Plath, and Dickens–and the Miss America Pageant, which they watch together every year.
As the years roll on and their children grow, the quintet forms a writers circle to express their hopes and dreams through poems, stories, and, eventually, books. Along the way, they experience history in the making: Vietnam, the race for the moon, and a womens movement that challenges everything they have ever thought about themselves, while at the same time supporting one another through changes in their personal lives brought on by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success.
Humorous and moving, The Wednesday Sisters is a literary feast for book lovers that earns a place among those popular works that honor the joyful, mysterious, unbreakable bonds between friends.
"Richly intelligent, deeply felt and incandescently original, Clayton's book is a rhapsodic story of female friendship set against wildly changing times and mores. Not only is the book heartbreaking, funny, and undeniably smart, but truly, this is the kind of book you don't just want to pass on to all your friends. You have to." Caroline Leavitt, author of Girls in Trouble
About the Author
Meg Waite Clayton is the author of The Language of Light, a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Runners World, Writers Digest, and literary magazines. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference. She lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband and their two sons.
An Interview with Meg Waite Clayton
Question: Tell us a little bit about The Wednesday Sisters. Maybe you could start with that evocative title!
Meg Waite Clayton: The Wednesday Sisters was actually nothing but a title for a long time. I can’t even honestly tell you where it came from, some juxtaposition of words I saw someplace, I suppose. I opened a file on my computer and called it “The Wednesday Sisters,” and it sat there as a blank file for a long time. The story itself started more than a year later, with a single nameless, faceless, character–just a character trait, really: white gloves. I had no idea who wore them or why she might be a Wednesday Sister.
My first journal entry for the book–the day after the white gloves attached themselves to the title without explaining themselves–begins: “Feeling incredibly well-run-dry today . . . I don’t have anything. . . . Not a character yet. Not any idea where it will go, or even where it will start.” It makes me laugh every time I read it, because a minute later a woman with a long blond braid sticking out of her Stanford cap walked across the patio where I sat, and though she was gone in seconds–I never even saw her face–already that braid was not a real braid in my mind and the character who would be Linda was bearing down on me, leaving me wondering if I could possibly get her story into words before it was lost. By the time I looked up again, maybe two hours later, I had the guts of Linda’s story–and of Kath’s, Ally’s, Frankie’s, and Brett’s. I had the idea for the first paragraph, which turns out to be two paragraphs, and the last line of them. And I knew the story would be about their friendship, about getting each other through the bad times, and celebrating the good.
Q: Are these five characters based on real people, or are they aspects of yourself?
MWC: Three friendships in particular–with my friend Jenn DuChene, with my husband, Mac Clayton, and with my long-term writing pal, Brenda Rickman Vantrease–really provide the emotional heart of this book; I could not have written The Wednesday Sisters without them. The bond between Linda, Kath, Ally, Frankie, and Brett was also inspired by my mom and the friends she has had over the years; she and I came of age on opposite sides of the women’s movement, and the difference that chance of timing made to women’s lives is certainly something I was interested in exploring in the novel. But none of the Wednesday Sisters are based in any direct way on any of them.
Much as I’d like to pin the Wednesday Sisters’ shortcomings on someone else, the truth is they do in some way all contain aspects of me: Linda’s fear–for her children and for herself–is definitely my fear: my mom is a breast cancer survivor, and my grandmother did not survive. Brett’s tortured relationship with her “unfeminine intellect” draws its emotional roots from my own discomfort as a girl who was talented at math when girls weren’t supposed to be. Kath’s darkest moments draw from a relationship of mine that did not end well. Frankie’s self-doubt and her chubby phases are mine, as is her experience with her first novel. And Ally is me in her middle-of-the-night journey back to the neonatal intensive care unit, where her daughter Hope is tethered to life by the same tubes and wires my own son once was. Yet I don’t think of them as representations of me, either.
When I’m creating characters, I tend to start with things that have moved me deeply–things that have happened to me or to friends or family or to people I’ve only read about or heard of–and I try to use that as a sort of launching pad. I ask myself what if . . . ? what if . . . ? what if . . . ? over and over–in my journal and in the character sketches I develop and in the writing of the novel–trying to explore the world beyond myself.
One of the ways I do that is through research. For the Sisters, I pored through magazines and newspapers from the late 1960s, picking out clothes and hairstyles they would wear and trying to imagine which articles they might read and what they would think of them. I went through bestseller and top-forty lists and watched old movies. (It was a great excuse to watch old movies!) I got the kind and patient staff at the library to drag out files on Palo Alto history for me. I looked at a million photos. And for the things I hadn’t personally experienced, I relished opportunities to touch base with someone who had. I love research because it not only illuminates the things I don’t know, but also leads me to new launching pads. Ally’s meddling mother-in-law, for example, was truly a gift from my friend Manjiri Subash, who was kind enough to share with me some of the pleasures and pressures being part of an Indian family can provide as we walked our dogs together one afternoon.
I had the great, great fortune to study with Tim O’Brien at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference a few years ago, and he said something in workshop about what we should all be shooting for in our writing, the gist of which, if I remember it correctly (why didn’t I write down his exact words?!), was to use the extraordinary (in your characters’ actions) to illuminate the ordinary (emotions we all experience). That advice had a huge impact on me, and is what I now try to do.
Q: Of the five Sisters, Frankie is the closest to a “main” character. Is she also the closest to your heart and personal history?
MWC: Frankie is Midwestern and Catholic and an only daughter, like me, and she wants to be a writer, of course. She shares my shyness about meeting new people. And she loves her kids to death, and her husband, too, as I do. But she is different from me in some very important ways. For starters, her parents and her upbringing are more traditional than mine: Where Frankie’s parents didn’t encourage her education, mine supported my attending any college I chose. My mom is not–and my dad will certainly confirm this–a woman who bows to the demands of her husband when they disagree, and my dad is not a man who would want his wife to bow to him. And while Frankie spent her whole childhood in the same place, with the same friends, I lived in eight different houses by the time I was twelve, and went to six different grade schools. And yet Frankie dares to write as a young adult, which I never did.
I don’t know, really, which of the Sisters is closest to my heart or my personal history. It’s a bit like asking a parent which child is his or her favorite: I love them all.
Q: On your website, you list your favorite classic and contemporary novels, some of which, like The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird, play a part in The Wednesday Sisters. Is there a common thread in your favorite works of fiction? Do you try to model your own work in any way on the novels you most admire?
MWC: I suppose I like well-written books that dig right into my heart. If an author makes me weep, I am theirs–though why so many of us like books that make us cry puzzles me to no end. If he or she makes me laugh and cry at the same time, I will buy their books again and again, for myself and for friends. I have this idea that I lean heavily toward women writers and strong women characters, but I’m not sure my favorites list supports that. I like to get recommendations from booksellers and others; that gets me to books like Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful Middlesex, which I might not otherwise pick up.
While I didn’t model The Wednesday Sisters on any particular novel, I do often look back at books I’ve read to see how an author has done something I am trying to do, so in that way what I’ve read directly influences what I write. And when I first started writing seriously, I took one of my favorite novels, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, and tore it apart trying to figure out how she did it. I’ve done the same with Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy. And I reread and reread. So much to learn!
Q: One of the startling aspects of the novel is just how profound an effect the women’s movement has had on American culture and society. In some ways, the world in which the Wednesday Sisters live is a foreign country compared to the United States today. Did you experience any kind of culture shock in writing the novel, revisiting that past, at once so distant yet still containing the seeds that grew into our present?
MWC: Absolutely. I came of age just after the start of the women’s movement, on the other side of the cusp from Linda, Kath, Frankie, Ally, and Brett–and my own mother. Looking back on it, I see that even coming of age after the movement had started I owe a lot to my parents for instilling in me this idea that I could be anything, never mind that I was a girl, because the idea that girls could do anything wasn’t quite there in society as a whole yet. That was most apparent in sports: Title IX passed while I was in school, but enforcement didn’t really start until I was in college. So although I loved baseball as a kid, for example, I couldn’t play little league because that was just for boys. The closest I could get was keeping score for the team my dad coached. In my freshman-year high school yearbook, there are thirty-four pages devoted to boys’ sports and eight to girls’. No girls’ track. I was completely shocked when I looked back and saw that, and yet I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. It was just the way things always had been.
I have this recollection from law school: a friend–I think it was Liza Yntema–took me into a room somewhere in Hutchins Hall to show me some old Michigan Law School class photos she’d found, to show me how few women there were in classes not many years before us. It was definitely an “aha” moment for me. I don’t think I had a clue what a difference the women’s movement had made in my life before that. That is definitely something I wanted to explore here: the shift the movement provoked in the way women–many women or maybe even all women, not just those who would call themselves feminists–think of themselves. That is part of the reason why I set the novel in the late 1960s and chose to have my characters pretty well settled in more traditional women’s roles when the women’s movement really became visible. It was a way to point up the real differences now in our lives: We run marathons. We attend colleges where the doors used to be closed to us. We can support ourselves financially; no one is requiring us to leave our positions because we’ve gotten married or had children. I think a lot of young women coming of age today, and even those of us who aren’t so young, don’t know this, or have lost sight of it.
But part of why I wanted to explore this is because I think how we judge ourselves as women still has some way to go. For example, although we don’t gather around the television to watch the Miss America Pageant in anywhere near the numbers we used to, the media image of how women are supposed to look seems only to have gotten thinner and more airbrushed and unrealistic. And leadership roles still elude women.
I remember thinking when Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court that that was really cool, but I wasn’t emotionally overwhelmed by the moment. I thought it was something that ought to happen and so of course it had. The same with Sally Ride going into space. I was a lot younger then. By contrast, I teared up as I watched Katie Couric take her place in that CBS anchor chair, and I was basically bawling my eyes out as Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker of the House, because that next round of barrier-breaking seemed to me to take such a long time to come that I’d begun to wonder if it would happen before my own children came of age. I don’t have daughters, but I’d like my sons to grow up in a time and a place where women can be and are everything men can be. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at the possibility of having a woman president; that will be a real-life moment that will definitely leave me laughing and weeping at the same time.
Q: Being in a writing group seems almost to force your characters to face the most challenging aspects of their lives and, sometimes despite themselves, to grow and evolve. Do you think there is an essentially therapeutic quality to the act of writing? And if so, does it conflict with the goal of publication?
MWC: I don’t know if writing is therapeutic for every writer; I suppose that might depend on what and how you write. I do know that I have come to understand myself better through writing, and that has been an enormously positive thing for me. And I think my own best writing comes from going to the places that evoke great emotion in me–good or bad–and exploring them.
That having been said, there are certainly events in my life or in the lives of those close to me that I am not prepared to put out in public. That is definitely part of the reason I prefer fiction. There is great comfort in allowing the real to evolve into something imagined that, one hopes, delivers the truth more completely than the real facts would.
Q: You were a lawyer before turning to writing. It seems that many lawyers harbor literary ambitions and talents. How did you make the career change?
MWC: I’d been practicing law for almost seven years when my husband, who was the first person since I was a teenager to whom I’d admitted my dream of writing novels, gave me a great big push. He said, basically, “Your dream, Meg. How will you ever know unless you try?”
Q: I see that you are a competitive runner. This may seem like an odd question, but does running help you in your writing?
MWC: I like to think of myself as a runner, but I am definitely NOT competitive. I do run road races occasionally, but mostly to set goals for myself. I am slow slow slow. Running does help me with my writing, though, especially when I’m running alone. Something about having my body working hard frees my mind to wander in a way that works well for me creatively. Even when I’m not consciously thinking about writing, ideas come to me as I run. I sometimes run with a little golf/library pencil and folded piece of paper in my pocket so I can jot ideas down.
Q: What’s it like for you in the aftermath of writing a novel? Is there a kind of post-partum experience? Or do you jump right back in and start working on something new?
MWC: I have a love-hate relationship with being “done.” I absolutely love writing–I feel blessed to have the life I have–but my least favorite part of it by far is facing the blank page. I’m happiest with a draft to revise. The minute I turn to something new, I long to go back to my old friends.
Right now I’m trying to crank out a first draft, and I know it’s probably all drivel but I’m trying not to worry about that yet. I’m still at the cocktail party stage: I’m not sure yet if I want to stay here and talk with these new folks, or if I’d rather work up my nerve to move on to some other party where I don’t yet know a soul, or even where the door is to get in. At this point, the strong temptation is to flee to my comfy chair by the fire and curl up with a great book I only wish I could write.
So I’m running a lot. I’m playing bridge with my family every chance they give me. I’m eating too much chocolate. And reading a lot. But I am also doing what I always do, which is to sit down every morning at my computer or with journal and pen in hand (two thousand words or two o’clock is my rule when I’m writing first draft), because I just never know when the next woman in a Stanford cap will come by, and I figure that if I just keep putting myself in a position to see her, she’ll show up eventually.
Q: Do you have a writing group of your own? What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
MWC: I had the most wonderful writing group in the world when I lived in Nashville. We met once a week–at coffee shops rather than in a park, though I have done my share of writing on picnic tables while my children played. We took each other’s work home and read it, and commented on it the next week. The group went through several iterations as people moved out of town and we added new writers to replace them. Of the final four members (the group that was together the longest), although none of us had published much of anything when we started meeting, three of us now have books published or forthcoming, the fourth has an agent representing his work, and all of us have stories, articles, and poems published. Maybe that’s just an unusual clustering of talent, but that seems improbable to me; I think our successes are due in large part to the support we give each other to keep writing. And we definitely celebrate each other’s successes the way the Wednesday Sisters do, even now that we are scattered across the country.
That group worked so well that I still turn to them–long-distance now–for critique. Since I’ve moved to Palo Alto, though, I’ve found a great support network of Bay Area women writers who meet once a month in each other’s homes to share dinner and writing talk; we don’t critique each other’s work on a formal basis, but we do turn to each other for manuscript reads, and we certainly help each other through the good times and the bad. I also have a less formal group of writers with whom I have occasional “write and lunch” outings; we meet at a local coffee house/restaurant to write–sharing tables or not as people prefer–and then to talk about writing over lunch afterward.
As for advice, the best advice I have for aspiring writers is just to start writing however you can, and then to keep writing. If you have access to a good class, by all means take it; you might learn something (I do think a lot of writing can be learned), and at any rate you will connect with other people trying to do what you’re doing. There was, for me at least, great comfort in that. And do read the best examples you can find of the kind of writing you aspire to. Then start submitting, and keep submitting. I know very few writers who couldn’t wallpaper that entire mansion in the Wednesday Sisters’ park with rejection slips, including myself. The only thing you have to lose by trying is a little pride, and that’s a small price to pay for a shot at your dream.
A Conversation Between Meg Waite Clayton and Brenda Rickman Vantrease
Meg Waite Clayton and Brenda Rickman Vantrease, author of The Mercy Seller, have been writing partners and close friends for more than a decade. They first met at an open writing group that gathered monthly at a Nashville library, but they really came to know each other as part of a more closely focused splinter group much like the Wednesday Sisters. Their small group met weekly at local coffee shops, commenting on one another’s work and improving as a result, and eventually all four members published articles, essays, and stories. Seven years after this writing group formed, Meg sold her first novel, The Language of Light, and a year later Brenda sold The Illuminator. Although they now live nearly a continent apart, Meg and Brenda continue to critique each other’s work, and the friendship that began in that first tentative sharing of manuscript pages now encompasses every aspect of their lives. Brenda and Meg enjoyed reminiscing about their early work together, reflecting on how friendship inspires writing, and exploring how much of The Wednesday Sisters is drawn from real life.
Brenda Rickman Vantrease: There is so much I love about The Wednesday Sisters–I mean, it’s a beautifully written novel about writing and about friendship, which is as necessary to the human experience as breath. So what is not to love, right? But being a writer of historical fiction, I especially admire the way you integrate the historical setting with the lives of your characters. This story, these characters, could not exist apart from their time and place. That’s not an easy thing to do. What drew you to that time and place? Why the late 1960s? Why California?
Meg Waite Clayton: I wanted to write a novel about women who have dreams for themselves that they are struggling to reach for, that they don’t really begin to reach for until their friends urge them to. I originally set out to write a contemporary story, but I worried that women coming of age today have no great excuse for hesitating to reach for their dreams. We still do hesitate–it’s a scary thing to reach for a dream, because what do you do if you come away emptyhanded?– but women today are open to the charge that we’re just cowards, and it’s hard to make a coward a sympathetic character. If you put those same women in the 1960s, though, when there were real societal barriers to women reaching for dreams . . .
The answer to “Why California?” starts with the fact that I live just a few blocks from the park the Wednesday Sisters meet in, so it was a short walk to see what, for example, the trees look like when I needed to describe them. And the more I poked around, the more I came to realize that Palo Alto in the 1960s was, as a community, divided in a way that paralleled the divide in the country as a whole: it was a fairly conservative community set next to a college with a liberal student body, a dynamic point of contact between the old world and the new. The city council minutes from the time are full of wonderful gnashing of teeth over the hippies taking over the streets, and the newspaper was full of photos and stories about student occupations of university buildings and bombings of local bookstores, and ideas about how the community should be dealing with the chaos. I didn’t have to concoct some scheme to drag the Sisters to a women’s rights demonstration elsewhere because the women’s rights gathering described in the book actually occurred right on University Avenue.
Brenda: Since Kath, Linda, Brett, Ally, and Frankie are in traditional roles as wives and mothers, they are slower to recognize and embrace the evolution in women’s lives that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For example, they are reluctant to let go of the Miss America Pageant, and they harbor secret ambitions for which they seem almost ashamed–like Brett’s desire to be an astronaut. They have to be pushed by Linda to attend the feminist rally, sort of tiptoeing into the water as they walk on the fringes of a peace march. We see them being changed by the times, not trying to change the times themselves. Was that a deliberate choice on your part? Did you ever consider including an unmarried woman in the group or a strident, card-carrying feminist?
Meg: The choice of five traditional women was a deliberate one that I think comes out of an “aha” moment I had at Michigan Law School, when my friend Liza Yntema dragged me to see some old class photos in Hutchins Hall, to show me how few women there were in classes not many years before us. I don’t think I had a clue what a difference the women’s movement had made in my life before that. That was definitely something I became more and more interested in exploring as I wrote The Wednesday Sisters: the shift the movement provoked in the way women–many women or maybe even all women, not just those who would call themselves feminists– think of themselves. I wanted to have my characters pretty well settled in more traditional women’s roles when the women’s movement really became visible in part to spotlight the real differences in our lives now: We run marathons. We attend colleges where the doors used to be closed to us. We can support ourselves financially; no one is requiring us to leave our jobs because we’ve gotten married or had children. I think a lot of young women coming of age today–and even those of us who aren’t so young–don’t fully realize how much more restricted women’s lives used to be, or have lost sight of that. I’m guilty of that myself: I remember thinking when Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court that it was really cool, but I wasn’t emotionally overwhelmed by the moment. I thought it was something that ought to happen and so of course it had. The same with Sally Ride going into space. I was a lot younger then, and considerably more naïve about how quickly the world changes. By contrast, by the time Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker of the House, I was basically bawling my eyes out, because that next round of barrier-breaking seemed to take such a long time. I was also interested in exploring the extent to which the way we judge ourselves as women still has some distance to go.
Brenda: You evoke the 1960s so well. Would you say something about your research methods? (You can’t be old enough to remember Johnny Carson!)
Meg: Alas, I was in law school when Johnny retired from hosting The Tonight Show; I used to try to finish studying in time to catch his monologue. The lunar landing happened when I was eleven, so I remember it, too–although admittedly not well enough to deliver the lunar landing scene even after being steeped in the 1960s as a history major at the University of Michigan. I did a lot of research on the particulars, turning to 1960s bestseller lists and fashion photos, articles on the state of medicine, the Olympics, and women’s marches, and Miss America photos and quotes. I read old magazines and talked to people and–this part was really fun–watched the footage of the lunar landing, and old clips of The Tonight Show from the days when Johnny Carson was the host.
What I discovered was that women’s lives were even more limited than I’d imagined: even Stanford had no women’s track team; new mothers were often required to forfeit their jobs; want ads were separated by gender; there were actually men’s-only flights; and my own high school yearbook, when I was a freshman–1972–listed only six girls’ sports teams (no track there, either!), all after the many, many pages of the many, many boys’ teams. I think of myself as coming of age on the other side of the women’s movement from the Wednesday Sisters, but I see in retrospect how long it has taken–and is still taking– for the world to change.
Brenda: While the Wednesday Sisters are women of their time, there is universality in their experiences that transcends the time in which they live, like the love they have for their children, Linda’s breast cancer, Kath’s struggle with her husband’s infidelity, Ally’s desire for children, their awareness of body flaws such as small breasts or big feet. In what ways do you see yourself as different from the Wednesday Sisters? In what ways are you similar?
Meg: Women of the Wednesday Sisters’ generation–my mom’s generation– certainly had more limited choices than women of my generation did, despite the few years between us. It’s one thing to go to law school, as I did, with a substantial number of women students, and another thing entirely to decide you’re going to law school when most schools don’t even admit women and those that do have no more than a handful in each class. Similarly, women just a few years younger than I am, who came of age after Title IX was fully imple- mented, take things for granted that I didn’t: playing soccer, for example, or being able to attend Ivy League colleges and become engineers. But even among our different generations, there are experiences that are universal. We still care deeply about our children: it’s interesting to see how many young women today choose to leave careers to have families. We choose perhaps as badly as we ever have in love, and stay with unfaithful husbands even when we have the financial freedom to leave. Beyond these universal issues, there are other ways in which I am individually very similar to the Wednesday Sisters, little pieces of me embedded in each of them: Linda’s fear–for her children and for herself–is definitely my fear: my mom is a breast cancer survivor and my grandma didn’t survive. Brett’s tortured relationship with her “unfeminine intellect” draws its emotional roots from my inner math-science geek. Kath’s darkest moments draw from a relationship of mine that didn’t end well. Frankie’s self-doubt and her chubby phases are mine, as is her experience with her first novel. Even quiet Ally is me in her middle-of-the-night journey back to the neonatal intensive care unit, where her daughter, Hope, is tethered to life by the same tubes and wires my own son Nick once was.
Brenda: There was one scene–I think I told you this the first time I read it–that was hard for me to read. I can better understand the Kath on the freeway than the Kath who begs her philandering husband for affection. It was painful to watch her humiliation. Was there any scene that was particularly hard for you to write?
Meg: That’s the one scene I point parents to when they ask if the book would be appropriate for their teenage daughters, not because it’s graphic, but because it presents a level of humiliation that I hate to imagine young readers knowing might exist. That was definitely one of the hardest scenes to write, although for me there are at least two scenes that were emotionally harder to write: the scene where Ally goes to the hospital in the middle of the night–because that is drawn from real life–and the scene where Linda tells her children she is going into the hospital, because I suppose my greatest fear is dying before my children could survive my death relatively unscarred.
Brenda: I know you’ve said that the story of The Wednesday Sisters emerged from an image of a woman with a blond ponytail who walked across your field of vision one day. She would later become Linda. How did you birth the other characters? Did anybody else come as easily as Linda?
Meg: All five characters came to me that same morning. I’ve told this story so many times, but I was quite seriously having a pity party for myself and the impending death of my writing career when that woman walked by; then within hours I had the guts of The Wednesday Sisters mapped out in my journal. They really came to me in a gang, all five of them, with Frankie telling their stories.
That having been said, Kath and Linda came more easily than the others. And I had a struggle with Ally and Brett. Even after I sold the novel, my editor suggested merging them into a single character because they were bleeding together. I think–hope–they seem to be very different personalities in the final book, because I put a lot of work into making them distinct. I revised and brainstormed and revised some more. And more. And more. One of the things that I think helped was adding Ally’s mother-in-law, which was a suggestion of a friend of mine from India. I remember reading somewhere that one of the best ways to characterize someone is to show them through another character’s eyes.
Brenda: Let’s talk about friendship and writers. There are probably more examples in literary history of friends who have fallen out over writing than friendships that are strengthened because of it. Our love of writing was the shared interest that brought us together. The Wednesday Sisters seem to discover their common interest in writing after they become friends. They are initially brought together by their loneliness and their children. The discussion about books is more of a conversation opener for Frankie than a desire to form a reading or writing group. Do you think friendship has a positive or negative influence on the kind of feedback writers get from one another in a work group setting?
Meg: I think true friendship is a huge positive for writers. True friends really care about each other, and if you really care about someone, you’re going to do everything you can for them. If they want to improve as writers, what you can do for them is tell them what you honestly think. True friends will speak gently, because they love, but they will also make sure they are heard–again, because they love. And then they will step back and let their writer-friend make his or her own choices, because another crucial element of true friendship is respect.
Brenda: When you’re speaking “gently,” that’s the time I really listen because I know that desire not to hurt comes not just from friendship but a real concern about a problem with the writing.
Meg: I feel the same way. I think those fallings out seem to happen mostly as a result of jealousy, don’t you? You and I–as much as we might envy each other’s successes–have stayed so close because we have been able to draw inspiration from them. I remember when your ad for The Illuminator appeared in The New York Times Book Review. Have I ever told you this? I taped it onto the glass on a framed photo hanging on the wall of my office right beside my desk. I still have the ad, although I’ve moved it to my middle desk drawer now. But I used to look at it and think, Dang, Brenda can do it and I know she’s only human, so maybe I can, too.
Brenda: I felt the same way when you were the first to sell a novel. I was a little jealous–okay, a lot jealous–but at the same time I was so happy for you. I knew how hard you’d worked on that book, writing and rewriting to get it just right. You’d worked harder than any of us, and you deserved to be the first. And when I held that book in my hand, I teared up with a fierce pride not only in you but in us. It was a shot of mental adrenaline. I was determined that you might be the first, but you wouldn’t be the only.
Meg: It still kind of amazes me that our books sit together on my bookshelf–and with Leslie’s book now, too [Leslie Lytle, Brenda and Meg’s fellow writing group member]. One of the nicest afternoons I’ve ever spent was that day we visited Nashville bookstores together and signed our books.
Brenda: We used to meet over coffee each week and faithfully exchange manuscripts and ideas with a seriousness that would indicate we thought we would someday actually write something that somebody else would not only want to read but pay to read. I’ll confess it all seemed like an impossible dream to me, but I was enjoying the process and the dream. However, I always had the sense that you were sure it was going to happen. Was that true? Where did that confidence come from?
Meg: Don’t tell my poker gang, but I bluff well in poker, too. Honestly, I don’t know that I was any surer it would happen than you were, Brenda. What I was sure of was that if it didn’t ever happen, it wasn’t going to be because I hadn’t tried as hard as I could. I actually went through a period–inspired by Scott Adams, who draws the Dilbert cartoons–where I would write in my journal “I will get my novel published” not just once, but fifteen times every day. It was good for me, because it kept me focused on the future, on the possibility that I could reach that dream. Almost everyone I know who has been published–including you!–has a long history of sticking to it when no sane person would continue to do so.
Brenda: Now that that dream has come true what has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned? What have you learned that you wish you had known when we were so earnestly swapping pages and picking one another’s brains for tips on the most effective query letter, the best kind of opening line, the appropriate point of view?
Meg: I think the most surprising thing has been how much better I’ve come to know myself through my writing. And I wish I’d known to hold tightly to the story I wanted to tell. I’ve come to see that’s where my best writing comes from, but there were definitely times along the way where I was so intent on being published that I lost my center in trying to please.
And I suppose I wish I’d really understood that flawed characters are more compelling than perfect ones, that sometimes the most grammatically correct sentence isn’t the best one, and that point of view is richer and more complicated than I once thought.
Brenda: Speaking of point of view, this seems to be a real pitfall for some writers. I know you have experimented with other points of view but in the end chose to have Frankie narrate all of the Sisters’ stories. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose her point of view?
Meg: When I first began imagining the story, it came to me in Frankie’s voice. I spent a lot of time poking around looking at points of view in the early stages, though, because I had these five stories to tell, and Frankie wasn’t going to be, for example, in Kath’s and Lee’s bedroom; a traditional first-person point of view wasn’t exactly going to work. But maybe because my storytelling roots are in listening to my family tell stories on itself, I feel much more comfortable in first person. Honestly, even the third-person stories I’ve published have for the most part been written in first person and then converted to third. So I finally decided that, because it’s retrospective and because these are friends who are so close that they know one another’s stories well enough to tell them even if they weren’t there every moment, I could get away with Frankie narrating scenes she isn’t in–even that awful Kath bedroom scene. It allows me the benefit of one unifying narrative voice, and yet it also allows me to tell all the stories from a very intimate point of view.
Brenda: I have always envied your energy and discipline as a writer. Would you say something about your writing process, for instance, your typical routine?
Meg: Two thousand words or 2:00 p.m. when I’m writing a first draft. I sit down to write at 8:00 every morning, and if I’ve got 2,000 words by 9:30, I can do whatever I want for the rest of the day. But if I have 2,000 words even by 2:00, I’m reluctant to get up from that chair, because that’s a really good writing day.
I do sit down to write each weekday morning almost as surely as if I had to punch a clock. I figure what I lack in talent maybe I can make up in discipline.
Revision is the sweet spot of writing for me, where the awful cocktail party at which I know not a soul starts feeling more like a gathering of friends. I go through draft after draft. I’m only guessing, but I’d say at least twenty for The Wednesday Sisters. I did an entire draft focused on making Brett and Ally more memorable. I did a dialogue draft, looking only at dialogue to make sure each of the five characters’ voices is distinct. And each draft isn’t necessarily better than the last, either. At one point for this novel, I returned to a draft from six months earlier, did a redline of all the changes since and– starting from the earlier draft–picked the few good changes and left everything else on the cutting-room floor. I’d like to think there is a more efficient way to write, but it seems I sometimes have to go down a wrong road far enough to see it’s a dead end before I can find the open path.
Brenda: I’m almost as excited about your next book, The Ms. Bradwells, as I am about my own third novel. I wish you were here so we could workshop both of them over coffee the way we used to. I know your new one is a friendship story, too. Can you tell us a little about it?
Meg: I like to call The Ms. Bradwells my “law school story” to make my pals from law school nervous, though in fact it’s about four women who first meet at the University of Michigan Law School a few years before our class was there. I’m in the early stages, so I’m less articulate than I’d like to be on the subject of what it’s “about,” but my explanations tend to include the terms “friendship,” “motherhood,” “that first wave of women entering historically male professions in substantial numbers,” and “the consequences of the choices we make.” The four friends in the story–Betts, Lainey, Ginger, and Mia–come together years after their law school graduation, expecting to spend a long weekend celebrating Betts’s appointment to the D.C. Court of Appeals. But a question raised at her confirmation hearing about an unexplained death during their law school days sends them fleeing to an isolated Chesapeake Bay island family home Ginger has just inherited from her mom–the very place where the death occurred. Over the three days they spend together, the friends reconsider the truths they may have buried in the wake of that death. They also begin to make sense of the very different career and life choices each has made in the intervening years, the effects their mothers’ dreams and expectations have had on who they have become, and the world their daughters will inherit from them.
At least, that’s what I think it is going to be about. I do look forward to having you read it, though, as I always learn so much about what I’m really writing–as opposed to what I think I’m writing– from your critique!