Author Talk: February 9, 2007
February 9, 2007
Barbara Delinsky is the bestselling author of such novels as AN ACCIDENTAL WOMAN, FLIRTING WITH PETE, THE SUMMER I DARED and LOOKING FOR PEYTON PLACE. In this interview, Delinsky talks about the inspiration behind her latest work of fiction, FAMILY TREE, and its various themes, such as race relations and the concept of family. She also sheds light on the disparities between attitudes of today's generation and those that preceded it, and explains why she favors New England as the setting for many of her books.
Question: FAMILY TREE deals with issues close to the heart such as love and relationships. However, it also speaks to larger social issues of identity, race, and community. What served as inspiration for your story? Were you influenced by larger, social issues?
Barbara Delinsky: Interestingly, there was no single event or newspaper piece or personal experience that inspired FAMILY TREE. The book was inspired by the times we live in, with those larger social issues creeping into my consciousness and crying for expression. Interestingly too, I don't see the book as one about race. Basic identity, yes. Community, definitely. But the book is also about hypocrisy --- about those people who say one thing and do another, who wear one face in public and another in private, who want us to do as they say, not do as they do. We all know people like this, whether personally or in the news. Writing about them was a temptation I couldn't resist.
Q: The concept of family is central to FAMILY TREE. The book begins with Dana and Hugh Clarke's growing family on the eve of their daughter Lizzie's birth. In addition, FAMILY TREE is full of atypical families: Dana and her grandmother Ellie Jo; Dana and her long-lost father, Jack Kettyle; Hugh and his prominent ancestry that can be traced back to the Mayflower; Crystal's paternity case against he senator; and the knitting club, a group of women who care for each other as if they were a family. What do you see as the basic values that define a family?
BD: I would define a family as a unit that is linked by either genetics or love. Indeed, one of my goals in writing FAMILY TREE was to create discussion of what, indeed, constitutes a family. I personally consider a close and caring group of friends to be family, hence the knitting group. This is a family we choose. Those others, the ones that come with the territory of birth, marriage, and DNA, are more visceral. Here, the stakes are higher with regard to both joy and pain.
Q: Dana and Hugh's young family is almost torn apart because of Lizzie's unexpected African-American physical traits. Hugh, feeling pressure from his Caucasian New England family, begins to doubt Dana's fidelity and ultimately damages his relationship with his African-American friend, David. Is Hugh's mistrust from outside pressures? Or do his reactions reveal his real attitudes about race?
BD: That is a pivotal question in this book. Hugh is a lawyer who has, time and again, gone out on a limb defending minority clients. Yet suddenly, seeing that his own child has minority roots, he feels a qualm. Do I think he is racist? Absolutely not. I think he is stunned. He is frightened. He is savvy enough to know exactly what his bi-racial child will face in life. And, yes, he bows to outside pressures at the start. But he loves this baby from the get-go. She is the vehicle that enables him to honestly and realistically examine his attitudes about race.
Q: The notion of secrets resonates with every character and drives the plot of FAMILY TREE. Questions of paternity and infidelity branch across generations, leaving change in their wake. For instance, why does Ellie Jo keep her husband's secret?
BD: Ellie Jo is of a generation that found shame in certain things, her husband's secret being one of them. Times have changed; in the modern day, Earl's secret would be easily handled, with little shame involved. But Ellie Jo is not of the modern day. Goodness, my mother died of breast cancer when I was a child, yet I didn't learn it until I was nearly an adult. Why? My father couldn't say the word 'breast,' much less 'cancer,' and he was far from unique. His and Ellie Jo's may have been The Greatest Generation, but it was also one of the most silent ones.
Q: Both Eaton and Hugh Clarke struggle with the question of identity once they are forced to reexamine their past. How much do we shape our own identities apart from our families? Are Eaton and Hugh more alike than they think? What characteristics, good or bad, do they share?
BD: Here, too, the modern day differs from the past. We are a mobile society now. Families are dispersed geographically in ways they did not used to be. Many families see their younger generation doing things occupationally that are new and different. New locations, new occupations, new social liaisons --- all do shape identities to be different from those in the family nest. That said, though, some traits do carry over from one generation to the next. Physical traits do. Hugh and Eaton have the same stature and the same coloring. Emotionally, though, the two are definitely alike. Both are dogged in their chosen fields. Both are hard-headed. Both are also, at the core, compassionate people who do have the ability to change and to grow.
Q: Driven by Hugh to discover her ancestry, Dana delves into her ambiguous family past in order to learn about the father she never knew. Although he wants to develop a relationship once they've reconnected, why does Dana have a hard time opening up to her estranged father? As she learns about his life and his relationship with her mother, does her attitude towards her mother change? How does this alter her concept of family?
BD: Dana has grown up without a father and, perhaps by way of rationalization, prides herself in neither needing nor wanting one. She goes looking for the man solely for the sake of her daughter, but a part of her remains resentful he never cared enough to look for her. Why does she have trouble opening up to him? Fear of being hurt, perhaps? Fear of being seen as the illegitimate one, the intruder in a tight-knit family? One of the problems is that he is a really, really nice man. Liking him, for Dana, though, means believing his story, which in turn means finding fault with her mother. In time, she is able to set fault aside and be realistic about both of her parents. She sees that people are human and do make mistakes. This helps her understand her husband.
Q: Many of your books use New England as a setting. Massachusetts is the setting for FAMILY TREE. Did the location impact the story itself?
BD: As a lifelong New Englander, I know this region more than any other and, therefore, feel comfortable setting my books here. Massachusetts is the home of Plymouth Rock, the site of the Mayflower's first landing. In that Hugh Clarke's forebears were on that boat, the state is an appropriate setting for FAMILY TREE. Beyond that, though, the issues in FAMILY TREE are not region-specific. They are broad issues that impact readers wherever they live.