Interview: January 28, 2011
Question: This is your first novel set outside New England, correct?
Elinor Lipman: It is, and it’s about time. Almost five years ago I became a part-time New Yorker, and I knew, even before I had a story, that it would be set in Manhattan and it would be something of a love letter to New York. At the same time, I wanted all references to be familiar. Hence, Zabar’s and Central Park as opposed to some insider-baseball places. I couldn’t resist Gracious Home, though, for the pure sound of it.
Q: Henry Archer is a gay male and you’re not. Where did he come from?
EL: He started out as a minor character in a first, moribund draft, which had a first-person female narrator. Suddenly, the first line of what was once chapter five, switched to third-person and put Henry in the center of everything. Soon I was very attached. When I worry that people might think being inside his head is presumptuous, I remind myself that I’m not a Latin teacher, florist, chef, plastic surgeon or college vice chancellor, but I did put myself in those shoes, too. And of course, this is third-person. First-person? Okay, that would be presumptuous.
Q: You’ve written before about people who have been lost to each other for decades…
EL: I know! I’d better give that a rest. But I enjoy the drama of their turning up ---characters from the past creating havoc for the good.
Q: Anything autobiographical there?
EL: Not in any big way: no fractured family, absent father, gay father, rich father or impossible mother. But in the details? Sure: My mother-in-law can often show up with a tray of baked apples --- and lots of them. Thalia’s wardrobe, definitely. I love vintage clothes. And my son, who has a large head, has shopped on www.bigdome.com.
Q: Tell us one thing that surprised you in the writing of this book?
EL: Actually, several things sneaked up on me. Todd comes to mind. He was going to be just a fix-up, one date to show that Henry had a social life. But as soon as he came on the scene, he took over. I had to tamp him down a bit because Henry is by nature more reserved. Another surprise was Albert Einstein, the greyhound. Denise simply showed up with him one day, which I think had to do with the fact I was trying to convince my husband --- unsuccessfully --- that we needed a dog.
Q: How would you describe Henry Archer?
EL: To me, salt of the earth. If I can pass on what an early reader said about him: “He’s the guy you’d want next to you in a foxhole.” I loved that. It meant I’d done right by Henry. And by his peers. Hence the title. I wanted it to say, He’s old-fashioned and decent. He’s the one with impeccable family values. I am from Massachusetts, after all.
Q: Do you know in advance that every Lipman novel will have a happy ending?
EL: I never know where the story is going, but I do feel an obligation to something an editor once said to someone who expressed disdain for happy endings: Isn’t the purpose of a novel to make you feel better when you finish than when you started?