Interview: July 20, 2007
July 20, 2007
Jonathan Tropper is the author of PLAN B, THE BOOK OF JOE, EVERYTHING CHANGES and the newly published HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Alexis Burling, Tropper shares the rather dark thoughts that inspired this novel and discusses its mix of humor and heavy subject matter. He also elaborates on the different facets of grief and loss his characters experience and gives his two cents on the phrase "Time heals all wounds."
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to write HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER?
Jonathan Tropper: My wife and some girlfriends went on a trip to LA. That night I was out with one of the other husbands, and I had this morbid thought that if that plane went down, you'd have three widowers on the same block. So I began writing a book about three widowers, but in the end, only Doug Parker really seemed to be working for me. So, I started from scratch and gave him the whole book.
BRC: While HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER is hilarious at times, the subject matter is quite dark. Did you find it difficult to blend these two emotions? People often say that humor is the best medicine for tragedy. Would you agree?
JT: Well, the humor really comes from Doug's voice, and he can't help it. Even in his darkest moments, his sarcasm is his defense mechanism of choice. So while the book itself is funny, because it's in Doug's voice, Doug himself is not laughing.
BRC: You hold nothing back when describing Doug's various stages of grief, his anger, his "irresponsible" behavior and his vulnerability. How did Doug's character affect your own emotional state?
JT: I don't think he affected me at all. I think we'd all like a free pass to be as irresponsible as Doug is, at least from time to time, to act with no regard for consequences. But, of course, none of us want the circumstances that would normally free us up to behave that way.
BRC: You write, "No one wants to believe that it's all completely random, that the direction of our lives is nothing more than a complex series of accidents, little nuclear mushroom clouds, and we're just living in the fallout." Do you agree with this sentiment, or do you believe that everything happens for a reason?
JT: I go back and forth on that, myself. But certainly, a man who has lost his wife to a seemingly senseless and random tragedy is going to find it offensive if you tell him that it happened for a reason.
BRC: At first glance, many readers might describe the Parkers as a dysfunctional family, yet in critical times they are each there for one another. What influenced you to create such a challenging dynamic for this family?
JT: I don't think the Parkers are any more or less dysfunctional than any other family. They love and resent the hell out of each other. I just made them a bit more vocal about it.
BRC: Doug's father is a fascinating character. We learn that because of his dementia, he is not lucid all the time but always seems to retain a sense of love for his family. There are other moments when his memory comes back crystal clear. How does Stanley's character contrast Doug's, who can't seem to live outside his memories?
JT: That's an interesting question. For me, Stanley's illness was really more about Doug's mother, who is mourning the loss of her husband every bit as much as Doug is mourning the loss of his wife, but hers is a recurring loss since he's still with her every day, slipping in and out of awareness. It was meant to illustrate that there's more than one way to lose someone, and to mourn.
BRC: Doug's agent gets on his case for not wanting to promote his column in M Magazine, to write a memoir and to snag an Oprah interview. Why do you think Doug isn't interested in any of this? Is it that he doesn't want to capitalize on his own grief? What are your personal opinions on this issue?
JT: I think Doug is worried that any success he has from writing about Hailey's death will mean that her death was actually good for him. He's terrified of allowing something positive to come from her death, because he feels that would be a betrayal.
BRC: What does Doug Parker look like in your head? Did your image of him change from when you first began writing the book to the end?
JT: No. Doug always looked to me like a skinny guy with messy hair and a somewhat lost look in his eyes.
BRC: Do you believe in the expression "time heals all wounds"? Do you think that this is what happens to Doug?
JT: I don't think Doug is healed, not by a long shot. But over time, the other parts of your mind and body reassert themselves. You can only hold yourself in stasis for so long. Eventually, you're going to need to laugh, talk, love and touch again, even if you don't think you want to.
BRC: How would the book be different if it was set in New York City or some other large urban environment? Why the suburbs?
JT: In the city, Doug could have remained anonymous, could have disappeared into his grief and hidden from the world. In a small suburb, where everyone knows you and knows what you're going through, it's much harder to do that. Your grief is on display for all to see, which makes it that much harder to go through.
BRC: In each of your books, you have dealt with some sort of tragedy. Do you ever toy with writing a lighthearted comedy?
JT: Some would say I do write lighthearted comedies.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
JT: I'm quite behind on my next book. My process is to get halfway through and then realize I hate it and start again. All I'll say is I'm writing a novel about divorce in suburbia, and so far it seems to be pretty funny.