Interview: June 1, 2012
Melanie Gideon’s debut novel for adults, WIFE 22, follows Alice Buckle, who has been married for 20 years and decides to participate in an anonymous online marriage study. But when she gets assigned to Researcher 101, she makes a compelling new connection that will challenge everything she knows about her life. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Norah Piehl, Gideon explains her inspiration for Alice’s character. She also shares her opinions about marriage, social media and friendship, and gives a glimpse into her next book.
Bookreporter.com: WIFE 22 seems to touch on several of the same themes as in your memoir, THE SLIPPERY YEAR. Why did you choose to revisit these issues but in a fictional format? Was there another inspiration for your novel?
Melanie Gideon: I felt there was so much more to explore on the themes of marriage and motherhood. Also, after publishing THE SLIPPERY YEAR, people started confessing things to me about their relationships. I became a sort of ad hoc marriage counselor! And the material was so interesting, so juicy --- I had to find a use for it.
BRC: Alice quickly becomes intrigued by the questions posed by Researcher 101. The reader only sees the answers and thus can guess the questions, which appear at the end of the book. Did you plan that from the beginning? And if so, can you tell us more about that?
MG: I did plan it that way. You don’t really need the questions. In fact, I think it’s more interesting and fun to imagine the questions for yourself. Yes, the questions are in the back of the book, but in some ways I hope the reader never finds them.
BRC: In WIFE 22, Alice, who lost her mother when she was a teenager, struggles with what she calls her "tipping point" year --- the point at which she becomes older than her mother ever lived to be. Have you found this to be a very real challenge among people who lose their parents at a young age?
MG: Well, I haven’t lost my mother, so I can’t speak to this personally, but in the research I did about motherless daughters, I found this to be a trend and a big topic of conversation. Also, one of my jobs as a novelist is to be able to imagine myself in all sorts of situations, and as a mother and a daughter, the idea of a tipping point year felt so true to me.
BRC: Similarly, one of Alice's friends proposes that Alice's intimate involvement in her children's lives might stem from her early loss of her own mother. What are some other ways in which Alice's ongoing grief and loss color her adult feelings and behaviors?
MG: Because of the loss of her mother when she was a teenager, I think Alice is more anxious than most people. More vigilant. Waiting for the catastrophe to happen. Also, I think she lives in extremes. She either keeps her distance from those she loves or she’s too enmeshed. Both approaches are safety mechanisms. I have a lot of compassion for her.
BRC: Alice finds it so difficult to talk with her husband about her desires and fears. Have you found this to be true of many women?
MG: Having been married almost 20 years myself, what I can say about this is that when you are in a long relationship, you learn not to depend on each other for everything. I have a wonderful group of friends in whom I confide as well as my husband. But when I’m at my most broken, it’s my husband that I turn to. He’s known me since my mid-20s. He holds all my history and I hold his. This is invaluable, and this is the gold --- what you get after putting in all the hard work in the marriage trenches. Alice and William are going through a period of estrangement, as many couples in long marriages do. I think that’s normal and something that can be worked through.
BRC: One theme of the novel involves Alice turning to online friends and acquaintances (including Researcher 101) instead of engaging with real life. How do you see the rise of sites like Facebook changing marriage, friendships and parenthood? While people focus on the negatives from these sites, do you think there are benefits to talking anonymously or not face to face with people?
MG: Well, the truth is we live a big part of our lives online now. I do think that anonymity can be liberating, if used for good. It can help us become more whole. Anonymity gives us the opportunity to reveal parts of ourselves we might not be willing to reveal in real life for fear of repercussions. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen many examples of anonymity leading to cruelty and bullying. My rule of thumb is don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to that person face-to-face --- including people you don’t know! That seems very obvious to me, but given some of the vitriol I see on the Internet, I may be in the minority on that.
BRC: WIFE 22 vividly illustrates the challenges facing couples who have been together for a while, so focused on kids and career that they forget each other. What would be your biggest piece of advice for readers who find themselves acting like Alice and William?
MG: If there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with your relationship except the wear and tear of life --- kids, jobs, in-laws, etc. --- you should count yourself extremely lucky. I don’t know who it was that said this, but I think it’s brilliant advice: “Act like a woman in love, become a woman in love.” Sometimes we just need a reminder to be grateful.
BRC: I hear that WIFE 22 is in development as a film. Which actress would you want to see play Alice? Are you involved in the screen adaptation process at all?
MG: Okay, here’s my dream list for Alice: Kate Winslet. Julianne Moore. Sandra Bullock. Cate Blanchett. Do I dare even say those names out loud? Don’t want to jinx it. And no, I’m not involved at all (other than hoping and dreaming from afar) in the adaptation process.
BRC: Your book is drawing a lot of comparisons to other watershed books for women like BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY and I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT. How do you feel about that? What other books would you recommend to people who love yours?
MG: I feel honored to be included in the same canon as those books, are you kidding me? Some of my favorite authors who are working the same sort of material as me --- motherhood, parenting, marriage and love --- are Cathleen Schine, Meg Wolitzer, Elin Hilderbrand, Meg Waite Clayton, Carol Edgarian, Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby, to name just a few.
BRC: Can you compare the process of writing a memoir to writing a novel? Which did you find more challenging?
MG: Writing a novel is much more challenging! My memoir felt like it wrote itself. WIFE 22 was a narrative high-wire act; I was spent when I was done, although I loved every minute of the journey. That’s the way it should be, I think. Utter exhaustion at the end.
BRC: You've also written for young adults. What do you enjoy about writing for that audience?
MG: Everything! I love YA books. I love the passion in the YA community, and there’s a slew of the most original, amazing books coming out all the time. I still read a lot of YA. I’m a big sci-fi and fantasy fan as well.
BRC: Your writing career has been so varied thus far. What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?
MG: My next book is another novel for adults called POP. It has a technology element as well. It’s going to be a fun book! I should be done writing it next summer, so hopefully it will be published two years from now in 2014.