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Interview: July 12, 2002

July 12, 2002

Author Stephanie Gertler's new book THE PUZZLE BARK TREE exposes a family secret that has devasted a family for decades. In an interview with Roberta O'Hara Gertler shares what inspired her storyline, the importance of pacing to the writing process, and her views on the morality of adultery.

BRC: Was there a true-life story that inspired you to write about the Hammonds' loss and subsequent reclusion? If not, how did the story come to you?

SG: There was not a true life story. I knew that I wanted to write about denial --- a theme that I feel runs through so many families. Additionally, I wanted to write about loss and how we cope with loss within the confines of a family especially when children are involved --- and taking all this a step further, how our past defines us and affects our adult lives. Quite an embroidery, I suppose, but families weave multi-faceted tales. For months, I grappled with how these themes could be presented. One morning I awakened and it just came to me. I was in the Adirondacks at the time ---the setting for the book --- and had no paper (an oddity for me). But we had bought groceries the day before and two grocery store bags were folded up in the kitchenette. I opened the bags and wrote the synopsis on them. When I got home and transcribed the synopsis, it came to 42 pages.

BRC: When I was reading THE PUZZLE BARK TREE, I was dying to get to the "secret." I'm curious to know how you go about writing a story like this. Do you have the secret already in mind when you begin to write, or does the ending "write itself" as you develop the characters?

SG: I had the secret in mind from the beginning. Everything was in the synopsis. Although I had the skeletal version of the story written, the characters certainly carried the story as it evolved. In that sense, the characters write the story as the author goes along....a notion that made me wonder before I wrote my first novel but is quite real and true. As for the ending, I knew the ending from the beginning although, despite the synopsis, there were some detours along the way.

BRC: Adultery is a key part of the story, and yet, as a reader, I couldn't condemn Grace. What are your thoughts on the subject of adultery? Why did you make Grace's sin of passion seem almost justifiable?

SG: I don't know that I was really writing about adultery as much as I was writing about monogamy in a loveless and unsatisfying marriage. Although one could argue (and many do) that the moral route to take would be to leave the marriage before one is unfaithful, I believe that's not always possible. Passion is not always rational. I firmly believe that an adulterous relationship should never be used as a weapon ("kiss and tell" to be vindictive) nor confessed to assuage one's own guilt and seek forgiveness. As for Grace, I don't feel that she "sinned." Her marriage to Adam had deteriorated and was such a sham --- that was her sin. Her adulterous affair with Luke was clearly a relationship that was meant to be --- thus the justification. Besides, in my book (!), her marriage was over....

BRC: Luke and Grace's husband, Adam, couldn't be more different. Was it important to the plot development that they be such emotional opposites?

SG: Certainly Grace wouldn't be attracted to a man like Adam once again! Self-centered, narcissistic, emotionally vacant.... She'd have to be mad! Honestly? I never analyzed it in terms of plot development --- it was a natural. Luke was sensitive and handsome and intelligent and loving.

BRC: Is it okay to keep a secret in your opinion? Are there some secrets that should be shared?

SG: Oh my. Of course, we all have secrets. I think it's acceptable to keep our own secrets and share our secrets (with discretion). But when a secret affects an entire family (especially when it's about an entire family) and has the potential to offer explanation and understanding if exposed, keeping it hidden can be most destructive. The secret kept by Grace's parents was an omission of truth that evolved into a commission of deceit and brought on even greater tragedy.

BRC: Pacing is important so as not to give away too much too soon. How do you keep up the momentum without revealing the secret prematurely? (You did a great job teasing us with Luke's many offerings that he'll tell Grace everything soon enough.)

SG: Thanks! I suppose that when I write, I tell a story the way I would if I were sitting in my living room and had friends or family or my children gathered around me. There are so many details and memories that make up a tale. Just think about the telling of a story --- how far more dramatic it is and how we have an insight into a character if we describe the way, for example, an older woman might peel off a short white glove or someone blots their lips after drinking hot tea.... Little nuances that make us feel we're "there." Pacing comes naturally if we don't jump ahead and omit the subtle details that make up the story. Additionally, there has to be a great deal of interaction between the characters as well as a point of view that reveals the private thoughts of the characters. Luke revealed the secret less than a week after he met Grace but there was so much to tell (as the writer) about Grace's history and the week in Sabbath Landing before the climax. It's just old-fashioned storytelling....

BRC: I've heard writers say before that they "live" with their characters when they are in the middle of writing a book. Would you say you do this?

SG: Oh, absolutely. Not only do I live with them as I write them, but I miss them when the book is finished. I get to know them as I write: I despised Adam! I loved Melanie and Jemma and, strangely, warmed up to Grace as I wrote her. Grace took me longer to befriend. Luke was my fantasy --- I once found myself daydreaming about him when I was driving in my car and once when my husband and I had an argument, my husband said, "Oh, you'd like a guy like Luke Keegan, I suppose." Then we started laughing because I said it wasn't fair to throw figments of my imagination in my face!

BRC: THE PUZZLE BARK TREE is your second book. How different was this experience from writing and promoting JIMMY'S GIRL?

SG: VERY different. Primarily, it's third person and that was liberating. Description, especially character description, holds greater freedom when there's an objective narration. Then there was the aspect of only writing a book – when I wrote JIMMY'S GIRL, I was still freelancing for magazines and newspapers so I had to write in the middle of the night. Sometimes, and this is true, I had to darken the room and simulate midnight to set the mood (wore my pajamas a lot, too)! As for promotion, we've done a lot more Internet promotion for THE PUZZLE BARK TREE.

BRC: What are you working on now?

SG: I'm working on my third novel and still writing a monthly lifestyles column for The Greenwich Time and The Stamford Advocate. The novel is a bit of a mystery although I would say it's really about marriage and motherhood. It's the story of a woman, Claire, whose second and last child, a daughter, has gone off to college and she is left with an empty nest and the sudden reality of being alone with husband. Unlike Grace and Emily (JIMMY'S GIRL), Claire has a good marriage to a good man. There's a twist in the plot, however, when another man turns up in her life....and he is all too reminiscent of her late father who raised her alone. Stay tuned......