Interview: May 14, 2010
Emily Giffin is the author of five novels, including SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLUE, BABY PROOF and LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Norah Piehl, Giffin recalls the event that inspired her latest work of fiction, HEART OF THE MATTER, and describes the appeal of creating flawed but sympathetic characters. She also discusses the ways in which her work has evolved over the years, reveals her most and least memorable experiences on tour, and shares details about her involvement with big-screen adaptations of her books.
Bookreporter.com: I live in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where your new novel takes place. What made you decide to set HEART OF THE MATTER here? Are you familiar with the town?
Emily Giffin: One of my best friends from law school lives in Wellesley, so I’m somewhat familiar with the town from visiting her --- and I always make it a stop on my book tour. I also knew I’d have a resource for questions that arose about the town and Boston. Beyond that, I wanted a beautiful, affluent community with a lot of stay-at-home mothers near a major city. I considered Atlanta, where I currently reside, but I set my last book, LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH, in Buckhead (an upscale area of Atlanta) and received a bit of criticism from some natives who thought I was painting the South in an unflattering light. I think there is a tendency to confuse first-person narratives with an autobiographical account. In any event, setting this story in Boston felt safer!
BRC: Your earlier novels have dealt with dating, weddings, pregnancy…and now HEART OF THE MATTER focuses on challenges facing young families. Do you find that the focus of your writing has changed as you yourself have matured and entered new stages of life?
EG: Absolutely. I think my characters have grown up as I’ve grown up, and some of the issues they are facing have changed and evolved. But in many ways, I think my books have remained the same, and I certainly don’t see HEART OF THE MATTER as a radical departure despite the fact that it is more serious in tone. Broadly speaking, I focus on the complexity of relationships, and it’s amazing how universal certain themes falling under that umbrella are, such as whether there are deal breakers when it comes to true love (BABY PROOF); the idealization of a past relationship and a fixation on the “the one who got away” (LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH); or complicated, if not downright toxic, female friendships (SOMETHING BORROWED). It is always so satisfying to write a book and discover how much it resonates with readers of all ages, worldwide, regardless of their stage of life.
BRC: All books originate with an idea. What was the point where this story began?
EG: My books are character-driven. I first conjure a character, then get to know her, then put her in a relatable dilemma. The plot follows as I go along. HEART OF THE MATTER is no exception, although the first seed was planted after a woman I met at a charity function spoke passionately of her son, his birth defect, and the doctor who first came to them hours after he was born. This became the genesis for Valerie’s story as I began to think about the powerful connection you’d feel to a person who literally and emotionally saved your child.
BRC: Your new novel focuses on Tessa and Valerie, two very different women. Did you find one character easier to write about than the other? Is there one who you related to more closely?
EG: None of my books is remotely autobiographical, but I always find things in common with my protagonists. Although I’ve never faced the challenges that Tessa and Valerie deal with in HEART OF THE MATTER, I can certainly relate to the overwhelming worry and fear that plague you when you become a mother. Having a child changes everything --- and not in the obvious ways I was warned. Beyond the sleep deprivation and time constraints, your emotional freedom is instantly gone, and from what I understand, never fully regained, even when your children are grown. Tessa and Valerie have little in common with one another, at least on paper, but they are both fiercely devoted mothers. This can be a powerful bond --- just as any intense shared emotional experience can bring people together.
BRC: HEART OF THE MATTER deals with the topic of infidelity, something you’ve addressed in earlier novels as well. Is it challenging to make your characters sympathetic, even when they’re engaging in morally questionable behaviors? How do you do it?
EG: I find flawed characters much more interesting than perfect ones and enjoy the challenge of making readers root for them in spite of their unsympathetic path and destructive choices. Life is about the gray areas. Things are seldom black and white, even when we wish they were and think they should be, and I like exploring this nuanced terrain. I believe most people are good at heart and sincerely try to do the right thing. Yet, we are all capable of missteps and of hurting the people we love --- and we all have had to grapple with the guilt and regret that come from these mistakes and weaknesses.
Infidelity encapsulates this theme. It is viewed as a black–and-white issue in our society and is vehemently frowned upon, yet there are some very good people who, despite their best attempts to be faithful, fall prey to it. I believe Nick Russo is such a man. He has always been a good husband and father, a person with principles and great moral fiber, and yet circumstances converge in such a way that he finds himself in love with another woman. I never attempt to justify infidelity or any of my characters’ shortcomings, but rather understand their decisions and make sense of the tumultuous aftermath. The judgment of friends and society, the notion of forgiveness and trust and second chances all fascinate me. Not all affairs are created equal, and nobody can truly understand the inner workings of another marriage or the circumstances that go into its demise or fragile repair.
BRC: Both Tessa and Valerie struggle with career choices, particularly Tessa, who has given up a prestigious position to care for her children. How do you balance work and family in your own life?
EG: By doing everything not very well! All mothers --- and fathers for that matter ---make compromises and sacrifices --- working and stay-at-home alike. We have to give up things in order to get others. It truly is impossible to “have it all.” I wouldn’t trade my life or career, and love being a mother, but sometimes I long for a simpler, quieter life. I just try to remind myself when I’m stressed and exhausted that I am living my dream --- or at least following the path that I want to be on. I think it’s easy to lose focus of the things we should be most grateful for.
BRC: How did you conduct the medical research for this book?
EG: This is the first book that I’ve written (out of five) that really required a good bit of research due to all the medical detail in it. I read a lot about burn injuries and talked extensively with a burn surgeon. I’d send him relevant chapters and he’d give me edits and comments. At one point, I wrote a very detailed description of a skin graft for Charlie’s (six-year-old character) face. He told me the procedure would only ever be done for one’s hand, so I had to change his injury to incorporate a burned hand. I wasn’t willing to scrap all my hard work. I felt a little guilty for expanding Charlie’s injury for the sake of my own writing!
BRC: A couple of familiar characters play a minor role in HEART OF THE MATTER. Your earlier books, SOMETHING BORROWED and SOMETHING BLUE, were more closely linked, with overlapping characters. Have you ever considered revisiting those characters or others in a more intensive way?
EG: Maybe someday, although for now, I’m enjoying coming up with new characters and new stories. Cameos feel like a nice way of giving readers updates on characters without devoting a year of my life to their psyches!
BRC: Several of your previous novels have been optioned for film, and one is in production. Tell us what that process has been like. Are you excited to see your characters on the big screen?
EG: Beyond belief. It is thrilling and surreal to see a world that once only existed in my imagination come to life. I still can’t believe it’s in production right now --- that Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin and John Krasinki will be playing characters I created.
BRC: You’ve been involved with writing the screenplay for at least one of the films, correct? How would you compare working on a movie and writing a screenplay to working on a novel?
EG: I’ve been very involved with the SOMETHING BORROWED movie --- much more so than I thought I’d be at the outset with everything from the script to casting. It’s been a roller coaster --- mostly thrilling, sometimes frustrating (whereas writing a book is mostly frustrating, sometimes thrilling!). I’m also writing the screenplay for BABY PROOF with a close friend and fellow writer. I’ve loved the process. Writing novels is, for the most part, very solitary, and working on this screenplay --- and Something Borrowed --- has been utterly collaborative.
BRC: You have a pretty intense publicity campaign planned for HEART OF THE MATTER, with a major author tour. Can you share a favorite story or two from past tours?
EG: It really runs the gamut from glamorous to downright humiliating, mostly just the mundane mid-ground. One year in San Francisco, two people showed up, the bookstore owner called me Emily Griffin, and they ran the cappuccino machine while I tried to speak. On the other extreme, I had hundreds of readers show up in Toronto, one of my favorite stops on my tour. Barbara Walters had her memoir out at the same time, and for a minute, I thought I had showed up at her signing!
BRC: Do you have any male fans? What do you think men might get out of your work?
EG: Surprisingly given the pastel covers, yes! But again, the substance of the book --- the focus on relationships --- really appeals to both genders. I am also quite kind to my male characters --- and like to think that they are as multi-dimensional and sympathetic as my female characters. I actually have an all-male, very macho book club in Boston that always comes to my signings. I look forward to seeing them this year, and I wish more men would read my books.
BRC: You also spend time talking to book clubs. Many authors tell us that they have seen their work from a new perspective after talking to book clubs. Did this happen to you, and if so, can you share something that you learned about your work after talking to a book club?
EG: I’ve visited and talked on the phone to over a hundred book clubs. I love it just as I love meeting readers on the road or hearing from them via email. Writing can be very isolating and lonely, so it’s wonderful to connect, especially with people I consider my audience. I try to write about real women and issues that matter to them, so it’s important to stay connected. More specifically, I’ve learned that everyone has a Darcy (the character in SOMETHING BORROWED and SOMETHING BLUE) in her life --- in other words, a complicated friendship.
BRC: What other authors’ works do you enjoy? What are you reading now?
EG: I love Alice Munro, Anna Quindlen, Meg Wolitzer, Elinor Lipman, Jane Smiley, Melissa Bank --- and just so many more --- too many to name. I just finished OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout. In breathtaking, powerful prose, Strout writes a collection of linked tales of loneliness and despair, punctuated by moments of hope and beauty --- which, I think, is called “life” for most. I love reading books that fill me with envy --- that feeling of “God, I wish I could do that.”
BRC: Are you working on anything now? Can you share anything with us about it?
EG: I have begun my sixth novel, but the ideas are still simmering, the characters still gelling. It’s too soon to discuss it. I’m also collaborating with a friend on the screenplay for my third book, BABY PROOF.
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