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Interview: September 19, 2003

September 19, 2003 reviewer Roberta O'Hara interviews Molly Moynahan, whose second novel STONE GARDEN centers on the sudden death of a teenage boy. Moynahan talks about her inspiration for STONE GARDEN, recalls the difficulties she experienced when she tried to have her first novel published, and speaks lovingly about the influence her father has had on her writing.

BRC: What was the genesis of STONE GARDEN?

MM: There were two unresolved memories of my childhood that started the book. One was the disappearance of a boy I knew and had a bit of a crush on. He disappeared our junior year, rather like Matthew. The other was having someone point to a visiting prisoner at our high school and say, "He killed my babysitter." I never told anyone about the information. It just remained in my consciousness and emerged when I began to think about writing a new novel.

BRC: The love that Alice expressed for Matthew seemed very mature for a teenager. In your opinion, can teenagers experience love as profoundly as you’ve portrayed in STONE GARDEN? Have you personally ever witnessed such a connection?

MM: Well, this is a very difficult question. Like most writers I have been very influenced by what I read. I loved WUTHERING HEIGHTS and that idea of the perfect match who also might destroy you. Teenagers are magical thinkers like younger children. They might not expect to fly but they do believe in ideal love. That's why I wanted an older generation to balance out the irrational narcissism of their attachment.

BRC: Why do we only meet Matthew Swan in recollections? In other words, why did you choose to introduce him as a memory?

MM: Because it's the memory that haunts the living. When people die, we tend to see them as perfect. It's Matthew's imperfection that allows Alice to let him go and really love him as he actually was.

BRC: Grief and the process of grieving are recurring themes in the book. The characters worked through their grief in their own way. Did personal memories of grief influence your writing, or did you research this portion of the book?

MM: I don't think you can research grief. It's something that you are inside and it's inside you and when it is truly present, you don't have much distance. My eldest sister was killed by a drunk driver when she was thirty-two and the mother of a young child. She was very important to many people and I was devastated. I also lost my best friend in a car crash when we were both twenty-one. Sometimes I'd prefer not to understand this subject at all. I had to wait eight years to write my first novel, which was about an older sister dying. It wasn't something I planned. It just happened.

BRC: You are a high school teacher. Does teaching high school help you understand and communicate the mindset of teenagers? As a teacher, do you find yourself in the role of guidance counselor or therapist often?

MM: I think I help my students by being a strong person who is teaching them about literature, creative writing and journalism. This is my gift to them. They know I care about them deeply and will help them succeed or work through problems, but I don't take on the role of a therapist. That's ego in my opinion. I have a Masters in English and I am, in all modesty, a good teacher. Teachers are professionals and so are counselors and therapists. I am the mother of a young child and need to do that job completely. My students have definitely informed the voice of Alice. Their voices helped make her sound real.

BRC: The teens portrayed in the book were dealing with fractured families, serious illness, alcoholism, murder and other complicated life issues. Looking at these influences, could you picture yourself as a teen in today's world? If so, which STONE GARDEN character would you relate most to?

MM: I was born in 1957 and came of age in one of the most turbulent times in American history. The Vietnam War was on television every night, I saw both Kennedys assassinated on television, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the riots in Washington, the Chicago Democratic Convention. At the same time, families were torn apart by drugs, politics and racism. Honestly, I wrote a great deal of this from my own knowledge of being a teenager. But I also had wonderful times and generally would be closest to Alice.

BRC: Your father is an author, critic and teacher. What influence did he have on you as a writer?

MM: My father is a phenomenal writer. I read his books growing up and learned about how to construct a novel from him and the writers he wrote about: Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Dickens and many others. He influenced me by being so funny and so incredibly well informed and, hopefully, I inherited some of his brain. He is a brilliant teacher and watching him read was to witness bliss on some level. It's hard to explain.

BRC: You wrote a semi-autobiographical book thirteen years ago. Why so many years between books?

MM: My first foray into publishing was not so positive. In the late eighties there were a whole bunch of changes in publishing and my first novel was quickly orphaned several times. (The editors kept leaving.) I wrote another novel and it was only published in England and the Commonwealth. Then I met my ex-husband, married, had a baby and moved from New York to London, Dallas and then Chicago. I kept arriving in new places without a job and with a little baby and no friends. I wrote but it was hard to feel that anything I had to say mattered. My ex-husband is an important journalist and I sort of lost my way.

BRC: What are you working on now? When can we expect to see it?

MM: It's a novel about someone living in Dallas with a little baby and a troubled marriage. Imagine that! It's not really tragic and it's not focused on teenagers but I'm excited about it! If I get back to work maybe it will be ready to show to the agent/editor (both fabulous!) by spring. I am still teaching albeit part-time and my son is now nine.