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Interview: September 17, 2010

Writing on her own for the first time since 2004’s BET ME, bestselling author Jennifer Crusie pays homage to Henry James with her latest novel, MAYBE THIS TIME, which follows heroine Andie Miller as she tries to sever ties with her ex-husband, only to wind up in a haunted house with her jealous fiancé, two delinquent children and a truly horrible housekeeper. In this interview with’s Sarah Rachel Egelman, Crusie discusses the challenge of taking a solo stab at THE TURN OF THE SCREW, elaborating on the differences between her book and James’s novella, and the difficulty of writing ghost stories. She also speculates on the existence of supernatural powers, muses on the importance of communities and familial relationships, and sheds light on why the state of Ohio is the best place to set a novel. MAYBE THIS TIME is your first stand-alone novel since 2004’s BET ME. Why did you decide to write solo again, and what inspired your latest book?

Jennifer Crusie: I'd been wanting to write my version of THE TURN OF THE SCREW, but hadn't been sure how to do it. I'd finally worked it out just as Bob Mayer and I were finishing WILD RIDE, and he'd already started his next solo, so it was just time.

BRC: You have written that MAYBE THIS TIME started off as a “fixed” version of THE TURN OF THE SCREW where you could replace the naïve, unnamed governess with a strong character capable of saving the children. Once the book was finished, did you find it still in dialogue with Henry James’s work, or did it grow into something else?

JC: I love James's story, and I think it's one of the best ghost stories ever written. But I was intrigued by the premise, and I felt sorry for a protagonist who had so little in her life that her author denied her even a name. I used the first scene after the prologue --- the one with the governess and the guardian --- and the last scene as beginning and ending points and spun the story out between them, using key scenes along the way to anchor my novel to the original, such as the scene at the pond with Flora/Alice. You can certainly read MAYBE THIS TIME without having read James's novella, but I think the contrast between then and now, between an innocent twenty-something governess and an experienced thirty-something teacher, shows the timelessness of the story.

BRC: You have combined humor, romance, and even crime and the supernatural in the past. Is this your first ghost story?

JC: Yes. My interest in the supernatural is more about power, particularly women's power, than it is about the supernatural itself. I like witches and demons as heroines, women who may be underestimated but who come into their powers through the struggles in their stories. The ghosts don't fit into that at all, but you can't do THE TURN OF THE SCREW without ghosts.

BRC: There are a few types of ghosts in this book: ghosts of dead people and ghosts of relationships. Which kind was more fun to write about? Which was more difficult?

JC: The ghosts of relationships are in every book I write. I think they're just part of everyday living; who we have been informs who we are. The ghosts in MAYBE THIS TIME were a challenge until I realized that they were just people distilled down to an obsession, a need that wouldn't die, and then everything fell into place.

BRC: What kind of research, if any, did you do to write about the supernatural in this novel?

JC: I read parapsychology books because there's a parapsychologist in the novel, and I wanted to get his theories right. I read about the histories of séances because there's a medium in the book. I read about various hauntings, which weren't much help because they were all of the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night variety, the kind of thing people fake to get attention. And I had a long dinner with my friend Katherine Ramsland, ghost expert and author of GHOST: INVESTIGATING THE OTHER SIDE, which was hugely helpful not just because Katherine knows so much about ghosts, but because she's sure they're real --- I could ask her questions accepting that premise, the way Andie would ask questions. I don't know if ghosts are real or not --- I've had no experiences with them, but I'm certainly not willing to rule them out based on that --- but for the purposes of this book, I had to believe so that Andie could believe, and Katherine was a great help.

BRC: The protagonist of the book goes by Andie, but her full name is Andromeda. Is there significance in her name in the story? Or did you simply think it was the type of name her mother would’ve picked for her?

JC: She had a different name in the beginning --- I can't remember it now --- and it wasn't right, and then she became Andie and that was right; she became real to me with that name, and then I had to work back from that because Lydia would have referred to her by her full given name. So that's when I went back to Andie's mother and thought, "Would she name her Andrea? Amanda?" And it was obvious that Flo would have gone with Andromeda.

BRC: Much of this story is concerned with family and marriage dynamics, fertile ground for authors. What were some of the ideas from that vast arena that you wanted to explore?

JC: I'm really obsessed with community, and family and marriage are the bedrock of any society. The ludicrous insistence on protecting the institution of marriage from gay couples while heterosexual couples make a mockery of it every 15 minutes is pretty much an attempt to safeguard one kind of community from the encroachment of a culture it sees as so antithetical to itself that it must be resisted at all costs. People fear that if they don’t resist, then their community will change irrevocably, and that's not paranoia; that's true. So whatever you feel about the value of a society that resists equal rights for all human beings, you can't deny that their fears are real, that their world view is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that their children, the people that safeguard the future of their community, are less and less likely to protect their worldview. I think a lot of the conflict in the world comes down to just that: this is my society, these are our morals, and if I allow your society with its conflicting morals to exist alongside mine, my society will be damaged. So we try to legislate who can have official status in our culture, we try to limit who can raise the children who will determine our future, and while we're trying to codify community, community changes and grows and becomes what it will be. I think that this is played out in smaller communities every day.

Take the workplace, for example. One of the criteria for hiring is "Will this person fit in with the staff and become part of the team?" That's a criteria even if the person is hopelessly inept and the team is in crisis. Or look at the family. When a member brings home a potential significant other, one of the biggest criteria for acceptance is "Does he or she fit in?" This is why people so often bring home people who don't fit this criteria --- it's a great way to strike back at the family.

So in the case of MAYBE THIS TIME, Andie's mother looked at North and saw a cold lawyer, and North's mother looked at Andie and saw somebody who would never wear a suit, and they were both relieved when the marriage ended after a year. And the marriage ended because neither Andie nor North could let go of the values of the community they'd come from: Andie prioritized personal contact, living in the now, and North concentrated on financial stability for the family firm. They both thought they were doing what was best for the marriage, and in doing so they destroyed it. Ten years later, they're smarter but they're also not in thrall to the family, so this time when they come back together over the children, they can form a new community, a new family that has shared values and is elastic enough to include both her mother and his. Rather than destroying the old communities, they make a new one that absorbs the old, and there's enough at stake that the mothers agree to give up the old ways and take their remarriage as the center of a new family.

I think a key part of life is this evolution of community: the openness to letting the family, small town, office staff, whatever, continually grow and change. Those communities that don't evolve become marginalized and die. Community is as much a character in my work as the people who move through the pages because it's a living thing, and family and marriage are two of the most personal, emotional aspects I can explore.

BRC: Many writers are known for placing a number of their stories in a particular place, either real or fictional. Your novels are often set in Ohio. Besides your own familiarity with it, what does Ohio offer as a setting?

JC: Ohio is kind of a placeholder for the Midwest, right up there with Iowa as an instant reference to flyover country. You can drive through small town after small town and know there are families there that go back generations, and the thing that makes you wonder why anybody would stay in those little backwaters is the same thing that keeps them there: they know everybody, they know exactly how each day is going to go, and their lives and deaths will never go unnoticed. Attention will be paid. It's the St. Mary Mead microcosm of the world in the middle of nowhere that's actually the middle of average America. Not "real" America --- that's an obnoxious construction --- but a life that's more common than the exciting high life in the big cities. Also, Ohio is surprisingly large and varied. The metropolitan areas are huge, but the southeastern part of the state is rocky wilderness; plus we have a deep and rapid river that floods with disconcerting regularity, making for some nice dramatic moments. We've got the Mound Builders if you want Native American burial grounds, and the Underground Railroad if you want hidden rooms and secret passageways. And Cincinnati has an abandoned subway system under it if you're big on tunnels. Plus a lot of Presidents. Really, I don't understand why everybody doesn't set novels in Ohio.

BRC: You have a strong background in academia and have studied and written about feminist criticism, gender in storytelling and more. How does this color your writing of a novel such as MAYBE THIS TIME and your writing in general?

JC: I first came up with the idea for MAYBE THIS TIME while writing a journal entry for a feminist literature class, but I don't think that it's necessary to have a college degree to write fiction, although my MFA with Lee K. Abbott did have a huge impact on my work; he really taught me to write. I think the art degree and lit degrees gave me a good grounding in story and character and structure and craft, but I think the only thing that's absolutely essential to being a good writer is to be a good, voracious reader of everything: all genres of novels including graphic novels, screenplays, epics, short stories, essays, newspapers, etc. And the wonderful thing about today is that you can find it all on the Internet any time you want it. You really need to be the kind of person who inhales story and language, and a good solid liberal arts degree can give you that. As for the feminist criticism, gender studies, etc., they really haven't had a direct impact on my writing in general --- although they've pointed the way to stories, such as THE TURN OF THE SCREW leading to MAYBE THIS TIME, or my folklore studies leading to my own fairy tale, BET ME, or to a collaboration called FAIRY TALE LIES I'll be doing in the future, rewriting “Little Red Riding Hood” at 50. I draw on my education all the time.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JC: Ah, yes, my editor would like to know when she can expect to see it, too. In theory, I'm working on a series of four mystery novels about a ghostwriter --- as in someone who writes other people's stories, not stories about ghosts --- who returns to the small town she left at 18 and encounters four murders. The murders are still in there, but it's much more about the community: about what happens to communities as they age and regenerate, about the struggle between factions to define the community, about the impact of outsiders with power on the community, and above all, about what coming home means to my heroine --- how the town changes her and how she changes it. Plus murder. And romance. And there's a dog. The books in the series are LAVENDER’S BLUE, REST IN PINK, PEACHES AND SCREAMS and YELLOW BRICK ROADKILL.Then I have two interlocking solo novels planned after that, HAUNTING ALICE and STEALING NADINE. And the FAIRY TALE LIES collaboration. Lots of work ahead.

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