Interview: April 11, 2008
April 11, 2008
Elizabeth Noble is the bestselling author of THE READING GROUP, THE FRIENDSHIP TEST, ALPHABET WEEKENDS and the newly released THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Kathy Weissman, Noble discusses what inspired her latest novel --- which she describes as a love letter to her children --- and explains which elements from her own life and how those close to her fueled the plot of her story. She also gives insight into how her characters are formed, shares her thoughts on ideas of feminism in today's society and reveals details about her next writing project.
Bookreporter.com: THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW is a great title that any mother would identify with, expressing our desire to pass on whatever wisdom we can (and spare our kids our mistakes!). You have two daughters. How is this book inspired by your hopes or fears for them?
Elizabeth Noble: Of all my novels, this is the one that comes most from my heart. It was easy enough for me to imagine myself and my daughters in the situations my characters faced, and I admit that I sobbed over the computer more than once while I wrote it. The relationship between a mother and her daughter is one of the most complex and strongest that you have in your life. It was a joy to explore it. My last book, ALPHABET WEEKENDS, was a romantic love story, so I wanted to take a change in direction.
BRC: Is this novel at all autobiographical in the sense of having survived the death or illness of someone close to you? Why did you choose to focus on that?
EN: I am ridiculously lucky (typing while touching wood) --- death and serious illness haven’t come too near to me, so the novel isn’t really autobiographical in that sense. My mother lost her own mother to breast cancer when she was only 24, though, and that loss definitely resonated with me as a child and as and adult, and very much informed my mum’s parenting. And I have friends who have been through similar experiences, who were generous enough to share their stories and emotions with me, which was tremendously helpful.
BRC: Do you have sisters? How did that background affect how you portray the four sisters in THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW?
EN: I have one sister --- Kate. She’s 18 months older than I am. We’re very different, in almost every way (same nose, though!), and fought a lot as children. We grew apart as young adults (she was a nurse and I thought she was dull and staid, I was a student and she thought I was lazy and wacky), and have found much more common ground as mothers, and in our late 30s (she isn’t dull at all. Okay, I may still be lacking in discipline). We’re the classic case of sisters who have always loved each other and “been there” when it counts, though. I definitely used that element of our relationship when I created the characters of Lisa, Jennifer, Amanda and Hannah --- they’re all very different and drive each other crazy, but the ties between them are strong, and they find that out when they lose their mother.
BRC: How did you come up with Barbara’s journal as a connective device? Do you keep a journal, and if so, is it something you hope your daughters will read eventually, or is it purely private?
EN: I don’t keep a journal. I never have. See earlier remarks about lack of discipline. But I think I’m lucky that my novels will exist --- my daughters, and their children, will be able to see lots of me in the pages of them. Particularly this one. It’s a love letter to them. A journal was an essential tool when trying to literally bring to life, on the pages, a lead character who has died before the novel opens. I needed to make her vivid and real, and the diary was the perfect way to do that. It enabled Barbara to define herself rather than rely on the recollections of others.
BRC: This novel focuses on “blended” families. Why is this an important theme for you?
EN: I belong to one! I have a stepson, William. We met when he was 13, and I’m closer in age to him than to his father. That has made for interesting times. Instant teenager! When I was in my 20s, I sometimes resented him --- I was probably jealous, on some level. I wanted my new boyfriend all to myself. The minute I had my own baby, I “got” how his father felt about him, and that changed everything. Now, 14 years on, it’s great. He has little sisters, they have a big brother to idolize, and we really enjoy the time we get to spend together. Modern, blended families are definitely more complicated, which makes them rich veins for a novelist.
BRC: Although THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW is by no means a doleful book, it does follow, month by month, nearly a year of mourning. You give a rich sense of the various ways people grieve. Could you comment on what you wanted to convey by structuring the book this way?
EN: The novel opens with Barbara’s funeral, but then I largely leave the family alone to grieve for six months, with the real action of the story starting the following Christmas. I think people who have suffered that sort of loss do put their lives on hold for a time --- necessarily. So I didn’t want to start throwing new events and twists at them until they’d had some time to just cry and feel sorry for themselves, and concentrate on getting through the days.
BRC: It’s nice to read a book in which the mother is charming, creative, sensible, loving and high-spirited --- and not perfect. When and how do you think children become more realistic about their parents --- knowing they’re flawed but still loving them?
EN: Seeing your parents as real, flawed people is, to me, one of the real definers of adulthood. It’s a bit of a roller coaster --- it can be discombobulating at first to have these idols taken off their pedestals --- but eventually your relationship can be much richer.
BRC: There’s a big emphasis on friendship in your novel THE FRIENDSHIP TEST, and even ALPHABET WEEKENDS is built around a male/female friendship that evolves into a romance. Why is this your focus? What has it meant in your own life?
EN: I think I have two strong focuses running through my fiction --- familial ties and friendships. Who can cope without one or the other? The really lucky ones amongst us have both.
BRC: Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how would you define your approach to women’s lives, rights, sensibilities?
EN: “Feminist” is such a complex term. I was born in the late ’60s, and had the benefit of a great education and a career in a female-dominated profession (publishing) where the glass ceiling was smashed a couple decades ago, so I have never personally needed to be militant about my gender. I think now is a great time to be a woman. We have choices, but the crushing pressure to “have it all” is possibly behind us. I know more and more women who are at peace with their decision, either to work outside the home, but with a proper support network behind them, or to step away from the career track and be at home with their children when they are small. That said, motherhood = guilt!
BRC: You’ve lived in the UK and the US. How has this dual-country life influenced and enriched your fiction?
EN: I lived in Canada and Australia for periods of time while I was a child, so I know what a wonderful opportunity it is for kids to expose them to different cultures and experiences. We’re having a ball in the US, although we miss friends and family in the UK very much. All life is copy, don’t they say?
BRC: It’s charming and a little ironic that your first novel, THE READING GROUP, was both about a book group and presumably taken up by them. What do you think of reading groups, and are you now or have you ever been in one?
EN: I love reading groups! I have belonged to one in England for years --- its members are amongst my dearest friends, and I still “go” once a month, if I can, via the magic of the Internet and Skype. I have recently joined one in New York, full of great women, but reading groups are a little like shoes --- they take a little wearing in before they’re comfortable.
BRC: Each one of your novels has shifting points of view, sometimes a lot of them. How do you juggle these? Do you actually chart them out? How do you make sure the different voices are distinct?
EN: I live and breathe a novel while I’m writing it, so the characters become very real to me. Sounds weird, I know, and maybe a little pretentious, but trust me, it’s a good thing. I know what they look like, how they dress, what music is on their iPod...I have notes about that. They kind of germinate into people who live in my head. And yes, I talk to myself in Central Park. Who doesn’t?! Then it’s easy to know who is “speaking” and what they’d say in any given situation. It’s the best feeling when you sit down at the screen and they all pour out.
BRC: How important is a sense of humor to you --- in life and in your writing?
EN: Essential. I like to laugh. And when I write, I definitely see the need for “light relief” in heavy storylines.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
EN: My fifth novel. And, hopefully, sometime in 2009. This one is the story of several relationships (romantic and otherwise!) happening in an apartment building somewhere on the Upper West Side.