Interview: February 23, 2012
Pamela Redmond’s new novel, THE POSSIBILITY OF YOU, tells the intertwining stories of Billie, Bridget and Cait. These women’s lives intersect across generations, and all must face critical, life-altering decisions. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Alexis Burling, Redmond describes the process of creating the three different main characters’ unique stories. She also shares a traumatic personal experience that helped shape the novel, discusses her passion for names and naming characters, and explains how she balances motherhood with her multi-faceted career.
Bookreporter.com: THE POSSIBILITY OF YOU is composed of three interlinked stories of three related women. How did you decide which story to begin with? Why did you make that choice?
Pamela Redmond: In an earlier draft I began with Bridget, the 1916 character, which makes sense for a chronological perspective, but the forward motion in the story really belongs to my contemporary character Cait: It's her situation that's unfolding in the real time of the book and that's impacted by her discovery, or at least illuminated by the reader's discovery, of what happened in the past.
BRC: Did you start with one character and write each of her chapters back to back, or did you mix it up? If so, was it difficult to switch from one character’s perspective to another?
PR: I actually wrote it both ways! Originally, I wrote the book from beginning to end, switching from one character's viewpoint to the next with each chapter. I'd guess most novelists would tell you that that's a pleasurable way to work, because it keeps things interesting. But then on the suggestion of my fellow novelist Christina Baker Kline, I did a draft where I wrote all the Cait chapters in order, then the Billie chapters, then the Bridget chapters, which helped me to keep each character's voice and story consistent and helped to spotlight any holes in their individual arcs. And I repeated that process a couple of times.
BRC: As their author, do you identify with any specific character the most, to the point where she (or he) was stuck in your head even when you weren’t writing?
PR: Well, my characters are always stuck in my head when I'm not writing, which is why I think it's best to write every day. You want to keep those voices talking and those people alive. The character I identified with the most was probably Billie. While her situation is very different from mine, I moved to New York in 1976 and was a young woman on my own in the city in that pivotal era. I'm glad I never had to face the difficult choices Billie did, but I came close. And I related to her idealism and her blend of innocence and independence.
BRC: In all three interlinked stories in the book, your characters either talk about or are faced with a contentious decision: abortion vs. adoption vs. keeping the baby. What made you choose such hotbed topics as subjects for your novel?
PR: This book started with Bridget's story. Researching New York in that important World War I decade, I came upon the news story of Margaret Sanger's first birth control clinic opening and being shut down by the police --- birth control was illegal --- 10 days later. In the context of that first wave of feminism and of the class consciousness that was rising at that time, this seemed an important and now-forgotten event that I really wanted to write about. And it made sense that Bridget, torn between Maude and George, might live through a visit to the clinic and deal with the aftermath. I did discover, through genealogical research, that my grandmother was pregnant when she got married, and that she had the baby, but I know struggled after her husband left her. There was nowhere for mothers to leave children so they could work at that time, and no way for them to support their children.
Having this situation play out again for Billie and for Cait was not so much a desire to deal with a hotbed topic as to have Bridget's situation and her decisions around it reverberate across the generations. And while abortion is seen by some as the "easy" solution from the early ’70s and the time of Roe v. Wade, I wanted to talk about how the reality of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy is rarely easy --- it wasn't when I was a young woman in the 1970s and it isn't now.
BRC: As a mother of three, what inspired you to write a book about these controversial decisions many women face? How did you get yourself into the mindset of someone who was considering an abortion or giving her baby up for adoption? A mother helping her adopted daughter search for her birth mother?
PR: When I was in my early 20s, I thought I was pregnant at one terrible juncture and felt horribly torn. I knew I did not want to have the baby, yet I also did not want to have an abortion. My situation had a movie resolution --- a second doctor-administered pregnancy test a few days after the first was negative --- but the experience really shook me. What if I had been pregnant? What would I have done, and how would I have felt about it? Every woman who has thought she was pregnant, been pregnant, and/or had a child has thought about these issues.
I do not have personal experience with adoption, but I have close friends who are adoptive parents and others who are adoptees themselves. Like abortion and unplanned pregnancy, this seems to me like a situation that is rife with difficult emotions and choices with no clear-cut resolutions.
BRC: On Cait’s birth certificate, her parents are listed as Sally and Vern, the couple who adopted her. This is the way it was under New York’s “closed system” adoption process. For those readers who aren’t aware, what does that mean exactly?
PR: I was surprised to learn when I was researching this book that it's STILL this way in New York and other states under closed adoptions, where the birth mother's identity is hidden from both the adoptive parents and the child. A new birth certificate is issued listing the adoptive parents as simply the parents; the original birth certificate is sealed and usually cannot be opened, even if the grownup child petitions. The only way an adopted child can find out that he or she is adopted is if his parents choose to tell him, and the only way he can reconnect with his birth parents is if both write letters asking for contact to the adoption registry...or by hiring a detective who does the kind of work as Frank in my book.
BRC: In one of Cait’s chapters in the book, Cait agrees to attend a luncheon thrown by her secret one-night-stand and his wife at the time, at their home. What prompted this delicious plot twist?
PR: Ha! That was a very controversial chapter, with some readers (usually married women) saying it was unrealistic and I should take it out, while others (usually single women!) saying it was their favorite chapter in the book. Let's just say it's based on a story a friend told me....
BRC: Martin is an interesting man. What was going through your mind when shaping Martin’s character? Are you hoping your readers will feel a certain way about him?
PR: Hmmmm, not really. He's complicated but to me quite real, a nice guy who isn't really happily married --- nor is his wife --- yet isn't unhappy enough to leave. If Cait hadn't come along, I'm sure he would still be with his wife. He loves his kids, loves his home, he's not that adventurous. But he's hitting that wall of life, with not only his marriage but his job, where he's thinking, Is this all there is? That's what prompts him to go to New Hampshire to cover that story in the first place, so when he meets Cait he's primed to take a risk, to follow his desires vs. his obligations or his habits.
BRC: In contrast, some of your readers might get angry at Jupe for his treatment of Billie. But to be fair, doesn’t he have a point? And a right to his opinion?
PR: Well, I'm kind of in love with Jupe, so I'm biased. I totally sympathized with Jupe! Not that I wished Billie would follow his wishes, but I did think he had a point and that he was trying to be honest and fair to her in being clear about what he could and couldn't do as a partner and a parent.
BRC: Aha, Patti Smith! I loved her cameo appearance. Are you a fan?
PR: Mad crazy fan! She was a late-appearing character, after I read JUST KIDS, which of course I loved. I was so taken with the plain, straightforward way she talked about giving her own baby up for adoption. It made me think of Billie, and when I was writing about Billie wandering around in the Village, feeling lonely and looking for companionship with other young people who seemed afraid of her, I suddenly thought: Patti Smith would have been kind to her. And so I had to have them meet, if only for a second. And to make Patti a kind of apparition of a role model, reminding Billie that she is still a woman and an individual, that she has a life beyond society's expectations. Patti Smith continues to play this role for all of us, and I'm sure Billie, like me, is still listening to her music.
BRC: Most of your other books, both fiction and nonfiction, are hilariously funny. THE POSSIBILITY OF YOU isn’t in the slightest. What triggered the switch to serious?
PR: I've always written both funny and serious --- some of my other novels like YOUNGER are light, but they're not anything approaching hilarious --- and with THE POSSIBILITY OF YOU, I was working very hard to write a deeper, more complex, more ambitious novel. I'd rise up after writing a draft and think, I really should make this funnier!, but the score of the book was always an opera.
BRC: What role do your kids play in your career? Do they read your drafts or steer clear when you’re working?
PR: My daughter Rory, who is a wonderful writer herself, did read one or two earlier drafts of this book, but I don't think any of them have read the final version. I think that, when they're with me, they just pretty much want me to be mom, not a writer, and certainly not an Author.
BRC: In addition to being a bestselling writer of five novels and a nonfiction book entitled HOW NOT TO ACT OLD, you have also co-authored 10 baby-naming guides, including COOL NAMES FOR BABIES and THE BABY NAME BIBLE, and the baby-naming website Nameberry.com. What kind of research do you do when writing these books and writing blog posts? Do you have a favorite girl’s name and/or boy’s name from any of these collections? How about some of the more zany names you’ve heard of in recent years?
PR: Names are a very early interest of mine, a passion from childhood, and so it's always fun for me to research names, read about names, write name blogs, and interact with the million --- yes! --- visitors we have every month at Nameberry. My favorite names tend to be pretty consistent: I love Eliza and Susannah for girls and Tom and Joe (one of my son's names) for boys. Pretty plain, but it's like fashion editors always wearing black.
BRC: More to the point, do these name books help you name characters?
PR: Naming characters is more like naming babies. You have to let go of a lot of your theoretical tastes and preferences and think about who this person is, when they lived, what you're trying to convey with the name. You may not want a character to have a name that they like. Cait, for instance, is supposed to kind of bridle against her name Caitlin, a pretty white bread middlebrow name from the 1980s that doesn't really fit her. And Bridget's name is of course significant because so many of The Bridgets --- the original title for the book --- changed their names to Bea or Bertha.
Billie's name was for a long time Lily, but about midway through my long writing process, I made her younger and scrappier, and so she became Billie. I'm still debating that one, though I suppose it's too late!
BRC: Beyond books and blogs, you are also a columnist for Glamour, the creator of the online fictional world Ho Springs (HoSprings.com), and a contributor to the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. Seriously, just how do you do all that you do? What’s your secret? Yoga before bed? Running at 5 a.m.? Three chocolate bars before every time you sit down to write?
PR: Definitely much more chocolate than 5 a.m. running! I'm fast, I'm focused, and I don't hesitate very much --- there's little stutter between my mind and my fingers. And my kids are grown. I work all the time! Seriously. I'm at my computer usually 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and sometimes more, because I want to be. I love love love to work.
BRC: What are you working on now?
PR: I actually have a humor book coming out in September from Bloomsbury. It's called RABID: Are You Crazy About Your Dog or Just Crazy? I'm picking up work on another 1916 novel, set in the Adirondacks, that I set aside last year when I was working on the final revisions of POSSIBILITY. And then there's Nameberry and the magazine pieces. And I'm going on an actual book tour to the south for POSSIBILITY, stopping at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville and visiting several great independent bookstores around Charleston, South Carolina, thanks to my friend, the writer Dorothea Benton Frank. And buying myself a great dress to really enjoy the publication of THE POSSIBILITY OF YOU!