Abby Plesser

Mark and Karen Breakstone could be any other mid-40s couple. They met through a setup by mutual friends, fell in love easily and quickly, and are slowly checking the boxes toward domestic bliss: marriage, financial security and then, finally, a baby. But this is a story from “Mad Men” creator and writer Matthew Weiner, and fans of his iconic TV show know it can’t be that simple. Spoiler alert: It isn’t.

Mark’s career takes off in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and the Breakstones find themselves quite wealthy, establishing a posh lifestyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After leaving her career to care for the baby, Karen finds herself resenting her husband, his success and little things about their marriage. Thankfully, Heather is an angelic, easy baby, and she grows into a caring, intuitive and beautiful young woman. She is both the glue that keeps her family together and the thing that might tear them apart, each parent vying for her attention and affection, even at the peril of their own relationship. And when Heather catches the eye of Bobby Klasky, a construction worker renovating their apartment building, things take a dark turn.

Bobby is a career criminal with a tragic past and a misanthropic present. Weiner tells Bobby’s story in parallel to the Breakstones’, switching back and forth between both narratives at an almost breathless pace. The novel seems to be building toward an inevitable, brutal end, and it is—just not in the way you might think.

Heather, the Totality is a sharp, slim page-turner, though much simmers underneath the surface of Weiner’s deft prose. In his portrait of an American family in crisis, Weiner makes us question ourselves, our motivations and just how far we would go for the people we love.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Mark and Karen Breakstone could be any other mid-40s couple. But this is a story from “Mad Men” creator and writer Matthew Weiner, and fans of his iconic TV show know it can’t be that simple. Spoiler alert: It isn’t.

The fierce, creative women at the heart of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut, The Animators, are impossible to forget. Mel and Sharon meet in college, where they share an outsider status thanks to their shared Southern roots. Both are talented artists, and their combined genius brings them together in a life-changing creative partnership and friendship.

We asked Whitaker a few questions about this page-turner of a first novel.

Mel and Sharon are an incredible illustration of deep and true friendship. What do you think drew Mel to Sharon and Sharon to Mel?
I think Sharon’s and Mel’s friendship began like a lot of friendships begin: They saw themselves in each other, and felt at home with one another, but they also saw in the other traits to which they aspired. We have Sharon, who is drawn to Mel initially because of Mel’s work, which she thinks is brilliant. But she probably stays because Mel is, in large part, exciting to be around—flamboyant and impulsive and funny. And charismatic as all hell. The insidious aspect of charisma, however, is how well it can conceal absolutely fatal flaws, which sets Sharon and Mel both up for some interesting problems later on. It’s more difficult to see what drew Mel to Sharon, and that’s largely because Sharon is our narrator, and an unreliable one at that. Sharon is the one of the partnership who sees the future the most clearly, has the ability to take a vision and give it roots in the real world. It’s potent enough to create the two-person universe in which they live.

How did you decide to make Sharon and Mel animators? Do you have personal experience with animation, or did research inform your writing about their work?
I knew pretty solidly that Sharon and Mel were cartoonists. I knew for sure they weren’t writers. Imagine telling these women, “Use your words.” You’d be sorry you did. But they see everything, and in bright, bright color. I knew their shared tastes and cultural education dictated that cartoons would play a large role in how they processed their world. Animation began by making sense to their story, and ended by becoming their story, and it was exciting, as a writer, to experience that development.

“Imagine telling these women, ‘Use your words.’ You’d be sorry you did. But they see everything, and in bright, bright color.”

I can’t draw. It’s my big secret. I wish I could. I’m probably an enormous fan due, in part, to my lack of visual talent. I’ve always loved comics and animation—two different mediums that, for me, have always seemed linked. Some of my earliest habits were to curl up with a gigantic pile of Calvin and Hobbes collections, or volumes of Peanuts, and read and eat candy. I was a very unhappy kid, and my reading habits, coupled with my viewing habits—I adored “The Simpsons,” “Beavis and Butthead,” “Liquid Television,” “Ren and Stimpy”—became a source of happiness, my safe place. And while a lot of kids stop watching cartoons as they mature, I never did. I took a more scholarly interest in the cultural impact of cartoons later on and made it an object of study—my senior thesis in college was The Image of the Hillbilly in Cartoon Animation (I’m originally from Eastern Kentucky and had a minor in Appalachian Studies), and I actually delivered an undergrad lecture deconstructing “Squidbillies.” 

I took my research seriously in learning how Sharon and Mel would work. I spent a lot of hours looking up equipment—Cintiqs, drafting boards—and read as much as I could about technique. YouTube has made learning about craft a really lovely, immersive experience, because you have a lot of practitioners who post step-by-step videos detailing their process, and you get that visual and aural sense of the work as well. Of course, you never want your research to overshadow the central story, but I did want to honor what Mel and Sharon live for. What they make, and how they make it, is important to who they are.

How did you come up with the concepts for Mel and Sharon’s films, Nashville Combat and Irrefutable Love?
A lot of young writers and artists begin their body of work by writing about themselves. It made sense, to me, that Sharon and Mel would follow this pattern (if anything, because their respective pasts have been so volatile). I wanted to track them through that process—how do they make decisions? How do they generate material? Does recreating trauma in art have implications on their lives as artists and as people? For Mel—Nashville Combat almost certainly started out as a serious of sort-of-jokingly-told stories from her life that were so good, Sharon wheedled her into combining them into a cohesive narrative. But push all those jokes together and the amalgamation creates a life picture that is dark, to say the least, which is the tipoff to Mel’s difficult journey throughout the book. She makes herself miserable with what she makes, and I wanted to investigate that.

For Sharon, I see Irrefutable Love as the hurdle she jumps over in order to begin making work that is not about herself. It is her attempt to work past the boundaries that have contained her. It’s also her way of claiming her own voice, an issue of struggle for Sharon, who often feels as if she has no agency. I can see Sharon’s real happy ending occurring about five years after Irrefutable Love, when she creates something that may begin with the self, but moves outward into the world.

Both Sharon and Mel have complicated relationships with their mothers. How do you think these relationships shaped the women they would become?
I think we can assume that Sharon’s mother, and Mel’s mother, are difficult women in part because they’ve lived difficult lives from which they would like to protect their daughters. There is so much about being a woman that deals in fear, and anger, and limitation. How do you strike the balance, as a parent, between giving your daughter a fair warning about a world that will more or less try to consume her, and encouraging her to be brave—to go out into that same world and fight for her identity? But for all the trouble childhood upheaval and conflict causes both Sharon and Mel, it also has a real edifying effect on both of them. It makes them incredibly steely, which protects them as both artists and women. They don’t apologize for their lives. We see them at this wonderful stage in which they don’t care to be everyone’s favorite girl. They see that kind of validation for what it is: an immense waste of time. These are rare qualities in women. We still live in a world in which young girls are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that the best thing they can be is accommodating to those around them. It’s worth it to ask what happens to these women, their lives, when they are taught that their full potential is to be an accessory?

Why do you think Sharon changed her mind about making Irrefutable Love? What was the turning point?
Sharon hitting bottom is where the book turns the corner and heads for its final destination. She hit bottom in the way that addicts hit bottom: she realized that if she didn’t change her mode of living—in her case, lying to herself, and insulating herself from the lies by living this fantasy world in her own head, constructing elaborate stories and understandings that helped her to survive—she was going to consume herself. She hid past trauma from both the world and herself, perhaps for fear that confronting these awful events was a heavier burden than she could manage. She hit her thirties and realized that the old tricks weren’t working anymore. I think making a decision to not be your own worst enemy is one of the bravest things a person can do. Sharon throwing herself into making Irrefutable Love, a task that requires her to become incredibly honest and incredibly uncomfortable, is a victory. It made me love her more.

“I think making a decision to not be your own worst enemy is one of the bravest things a person can do.”

Mel’s final project is a haunting one. Do you think she intended to split up with Sharon, or were her sketches just the next project for the two of them?
Personal opinion? I think Mel was preparing to leave. But I’m of the mind that once the world of the book is in motion, the author sort of steps away, so my opinion may be as valid as the next reader’s. Sharon and Mel’s partnership has existed since they were both 18 years old. Partnerships only work, however, when both sides are driven, decisive creators with the potential for independent work, and the natural, eventual end to that dynamic is a split. Divergence would be natural and healthy for both of them. I think both Sharon and Mel would have realized this and parted ways—if anything, to save the friendship.

Sharon and Mel are true creative partners—so much so that Sharon isn’t sure she can create without Mel. Have you ever had a similar partnership or strong creative influence?
I haven’t. I’ve worked with others in the past and enjoyed it, but I’ve never been in a partnership as intense as Sharon and Mel’s. One aspect of writing The Animators that I’ll miss is that vicarious experience of being part of a team. No—if you are going to be a writer, you have to be comfortable with being alone a big chunk of the time. And I am, for the most part. It is solitary work.

How did your experience growing up in Kentucky influence your depictions in the novel?
Kentuckians—maybe Southerners in general, or Appalachian Southerners—are loud and excellent storytellers. I’ve been eavesdropping my whole life. When I started writing fiction, and hunkering down to read and study fiction and how it works, dialogue was the element I saw, and—I think—produced with the most clarity. To this day, characters always occur to me voice-first. Sharon’s family, in particular, is a real voice-driven crowd. They’re loud as all hell, so they’re not that hard to hear. I’ve read, and seen, some godawful depictions of Southerners and Kentuckians/West Virginians specifically in the media. It’s always deeply insulting when a human being is boiled down to a trite stereotype, but it’s also, for the purposes of fiction, extremely uninteresting. I can’t say that wasn’t an impetus to write complex, nuanced characters from this part of the country. Representation matters, wherever you are and whoever you are.

Do you see any of yourself in Mel or Sharon? Why or why not?
I probably had Mel’s impulsiveness when I was younger. I don’t have it any more, thankfully. I do share Sharon’s solitary nature, to a degree. I understand her need to seclude herself. But I’m glad I don’t have their lives. Their lives are very complicated. What became the most apparent to me after writing this book was how much I admired, and wished for myself, Sharon’s and Mel’s autonomy, their lack of a need to please others. I think most women, at some point, realize just how substantial a part of their lives has been conditioning to be a “good” girl or woman—to be inoffensive, to be a balm to others even when one’s sense of self is snuffed out. Here’s something it took me 30 years to learn: no one else cares if your sense of self is snuffed out. You’re going to have to step in and rally your boundaries for yourself. The world will not do it for you. Sharon and Mel’s unapologetic service to themselves is the exact opposite of what is encouraged for women. I envy them that.

Your novel covers so much ground—what’s one thing you’d like your readers to take away from it?
It’s a large book in which a lot happens, that’s true. But I’ve been very happy every time someone has brought up the Bechdel Test in discussing this book. There’s a surprising number of books, movies—stories being told, out there—that still fail, on a monumental level, by refusing to tell stories about the way real female lives are lived—that is, with values and goals and focus that don’t always involve, or are dependent upon, men. It’s 2017 and female redemption is still usually portrayed by the female character, in question, finding love with a man, or having a baby. Sharon and Mel’s stories are about themselves. Their values don’t always align with those of the world around them, but they persist in living within the framework of those values. I love that story. I hope that story is told more frequently in the future.

What writers or artists inspire you?
I’ll always be drawn to Southern writers and Appalachian writers. Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Harry Crews, Breece D’J Pancake. But my tastes overall are pretty varied. Of current stuff, I really like Nell Zink, Maggie Nelson and Lindsay Hunter. I like George Saunders—I’m beginning to suspect everyone does. There’s this copy of Lincoln in the Bardo roosting in my house, my carrot at the end of the stick for when I finish this project I’m working on. I’m a huge Stephen King fan and I’m not afraid to admit it. Those books propel you forward in a stunning way. He is a master of plot momentum. I like weird, and my standard for weird is probably, in large part, informed by being 13 and reading The Stand while inhaling a bag of circus peanuts.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book that, in large part, involves rabies. I’ve got a stack of books on my desk about infectious disease and plague. It’s fun, but it’s also keeping me from sleeping at night.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Animators

The fierce, creative women at the heart of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut, The Animators, are impossible to forget. Mel and Sharon meet in college, where they share an outsider status thanks to their shared Southern roots. Both are talented artists, and their combined genius brings them together in a life-changing creative partnership and friendship. We asked Whitaker a few questions about this page-turner of a first novel.

When we first meet college freshman Sharon Kisses, she’s a shy, uneasy scholarship kid from Kentucky. But then she meets Mel Vaught in sketch class—and her world is blown wide open. Confident and unapologetic, Mel recognizes and encourages Sharon’s artistic talent in a way no one has before. Like Sharon, Mel has come from humble and broken beginnings, and together they channel their personal pain into art.

Ten years later, Mel and Sharon are finding success as working cartoonists. Their first animated feature film—based on Mel’s childhood—is getting a good deal of attention. But then Mel gets disturbing news from home, Sharon has a health crisis and their work is put on hold. Once Mel discovers something Sharon has been hiding from her for years, things get even more complicated.

The Animators is a big, sprawling novel about art, love, family and loss. Kayla Rae Whitaker writes breathlessly and beautifully about the power of deep, true friendship and the ways in which people—and friendships—change over the years. She tackles the big questions, creating a novel that manages to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking. And while the plot occasionally dips into minutiae and melodrama, Whitaker’s deft writing keeps the pages turning.

It’s rare to find a novel that so accurately explores the creative process and the hold art can have over those who create it and those who consume it. Mel and Sharon jump off the page as real, fully formed characters, and spending time with them is total treat from beginning to end.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When we first meet college freshman Sharon Kisses, she’s a shy, uneasy scholarship kid from Kentucky. But then she meets Mel Vaught in sketch class—and her world is blown wide open. Confident and unapologetic, Mel recognizes and encourages Sharon’s artistic talent in a way no one has before. Like Sharon, Mel has come from humble and broken beginnings, and together they channel their personal pain into art.

When Pat Conroy died in March at the age of 70, the literary community lost one of its most prolific and beloved voices. Perhaps best known for The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, Conroy was the author of six novels, four memoirs and one cookbook—all written with great heart, an insatiable curiosity about human nature and a deep reverence for the South that raised him.

But Conroy wasn’t satisfied with 11 books under his belt. Just two years before his death, he reflected, “I believe I’ve got two long novels and three short ones still in me. But my health has to cooperate, and I need to pay more attention to my health. It is not long life I wish for—it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age.”

As heartbreaking as it is to know that Conroy didn’t get to share those stories with the world, his unmistakable voice comes through loud and clear in A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life. A charming collection of Conroy’s letters, interviews, magazine articles and speeches, A Lowcountry Heart is a true gift to his legions of fans. 

Conroy speaks directly to his readers in a series of reproduced blog posts, always opening with “Hey, out there” and ending with “Great love.” He writes about books he’s reading, writers he admires, the big things going on in his life (including a 70th birthday celebration thrown by the University of South Carolina) and the little things on his mind (trying to get in shape). The Conroy that emerges from these pages is the one we’ve read and admired for decades: honest, effusive, passionate, funny and downright lovable. And that’s precisely the man he was.  


Pat Conroy in his final author photo.

Speaking from her home in Beaufort, South Carolina, Conroy’s widow, Cassandra King, explains, “Pat is the friendliest person who’s ever lived. He just had such charisma, and he was one of these folks that you felt like you’d known your whole life. Even if you met him for a few minutes, he was so personable and so easy to talk to. . . . And I swear to god, he talked exactly the way he wrote. I think that’s why so many of us felt like we knew him. His books were just him.” 

A novelist herself and Conroy’s wife of 20 years, King was one of the driving forces behind A Lowcountry Heart. “After Pat died, it really began to hit us that this was it, and there weren’t going to be any more of these beautiful, wonderful books. And you know, it broke my heart,” she recalls. “It still breaks my heart that he didn’t finish the book he was working on. So it sort of became a mission to collect any of his handwritten notes to see what was left and where.” 

Conroy handwrote everything—a pretty amazing feat considering the length of some of his more popular works. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February, he was 200 pages into a new novel. Set in the 1960s, the novel is based on four young men teaching high school and forming lifelong friendships. King says with a laugh, “I take full credit for this book. Not really, I’m teasing. [But] over the years [Pat] would tell me these great stories. Right out of college, he taught at Beaufort High School . . . with three other young men. He would tell me that none of them knew what they were doing and they would sneak down to each other’s rooms and say, ‘Hey, you got any lesson plans?’ Every time he would tell me one of these stories, I would say, ‘Pat, you’ve got to make that into a book. This is your male friendship book.’ ”

In a note at the beginning of the new collection, Conroy’s longtime editor, Nan A. Talese, writes, “We are still searching his journals for more on this novel, and at some point we may have something to share with you.” In the meantime, Conroy readers can find a different, more personal side of the author in A Lowcountry Heart

“[It] brings me some comfort to know that this book is out there,” his widow says, sure that Conroy would be proud of the work done to assemble the collection.

Conroy would also be proud of the efforts by King and friends to open The Pat Conroy Literary Center, a “passionate and inclusive reading and writing community” in Beaufort that will honor one of the greatest joys of Conroy’s life: championing other writers. As King explains, “We’re doing this as a living legacy to Pat. . . . He was so encouraging to other writers. He got involved with Story River Books [an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press] and he loved doing that. So I’d just want anyone who has ever loved Pat Conroy’s writings to come see this once we get running. Hopefully it will be the beginning of [next] year.”

The last few pages of A Lowcountry Heart are remembrances from friends, who describe Conroy’s passion, wisdom and devotion to the people he loved. As King notes, “He was certainly larger than life. Everything about him. He came into a room and he filled up the room, he had that charisma. So when he loved, he loved—his friends and their kids, they were the greatest, they were the best in the world.” 

Laughing, she adds, “His whole life was hyperbole. If he didn’t like you, you were the most horrible person that ever lived. It worked both ways.” 

King says Conroy truly loved writing, and because he wrote everything by hand, he took the time to think things through before he put pen to paper. She says, “There’s a great picture of him where he’s sitting thinking at the [writing] desk, and that’s how I think about him. He was so often just absorbed in what he was doing.”

It seems that’s how we should all remember the great Conroy—immersed in the worlds he was creating for his devoted readers, writing the stories he was born to tell. 

 

This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When Pat Conroy died in March at the age of 70, the literary community lost one of its most prolific and beloved voices. Perhaps best known for The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, Conroy was the author of six novels, four memoirs and one cookbook—all written with great heart, an insatiable curiosity about human nature and a deep reverence for the South that raised him.

When Nica Baker, a gorgeous, popular 16-year-old, is found dead on the campus of her prestigious private high school, her family, friends and community are shocked and devastated. While the case is closed neatly and quickly—an awkward classmate with an unrequited crush and a bad temper—Nica’s older sister Grace has the sick suspicion that the obvious answer is not always the right one. She goes on a quest to find out what really happened to Nica—and ends up discovering far more than she ever wanted to know about her family, her friends and herself.

Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms is an impressive, haunting debut. Her writing is fast-paced and decisive, her characters rich and nuanced. And while the bones of her story are familiar—a beautiful girl murdered in a seemingly safe community—its plot twists and turns are anything but. Could Jamie, Nica’s rich and charming on-again, off-again boyfriend, be her killer? Or what about Damon, a troubled student with an unusual connection to Nica? Or maybe it’s someone even closer to home—someone who knows both girls better than anyone. As she gets closer to solving her sister’s murder, Grace gets farther and farther away from the life she thought she knew.

Dark Rooms is at once a crime novel and a high school drama, with shades of both Gillian Flynn and Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a story of life and death, perception and reality, and how to go on when your world shatters before your eyes. With complex characters and a multilayered narrative, it can be hard at times to know whom to root for; thankfully it’s equally difficult to put this stunning debut down.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When Nica Baker, a gorgeous, popular 16-year-old, is found dead on the campus of her prestigious private high school, her family, friends and community are shocked and devastated. While the case is closed neatly and quickly—an awkward classmate with an unrequited crush and a bad temper—Nica’s older sister Grace has the sick suspicion that the obvious answer is not always the right one. She goes on a quest to find out what really happened to Nica—and ends up discovering far more than she ever wanted to know about her family, her friends and herself.

Genetics professor Don Tillman is a man of science. His days are meticulously scheduled, his weekly meals pre-planned for maximum nutritional value and his choices made in logical consideration of best possible outcomes. So when he decides it’s time to find a suitable life partner, he does what any rational scientist would do—he creates an extensive dating questionnaire and embarks on “The Wife Project.” The results, of course, are not quite what Don expects, and that’s the fun of reading Australian author Graeme Simsion’s charming debut novel.

When Don meets Rosie Jarman, a gorgeous, free-spirited bartender searching for her biological father, he doesn’t need a questionnaire to tell him that they are not a match—she smokes, drinks and has a serious issue with punctuality. But Rosie is intriguing, and despite his better judgment, Don puts “The Wife Project” aside to embark on a quest to find Rosie’s father.

As Rosie and Don dig through her mother’s past, Don starts to have a little non-scheduled fun—eating meals outside his weekly menu plans, staying out late and talking over drinks, and even bending university rules to use the genetics lab after hours. Before Rosie, no woman had ever seemed to understand Don or appreciate his unique point of view. But with Rosie, things are just different, and whether it’s fate or science, Don finds himself falling for the most unlikely of women.

With The Rosie Project, Simsion has created a wacky, wonderful love story that is just plain fun to read. The ways in which Don and Rosie challenge and complement each other is downright inspiring—not to mention hilarious. Simsion writes with humor and heart, and his story is both original and endearing. The Rosie Project teaches us that it’s never too late to discover who we are, and empowers us to find the people who will love us—quirks and all.

Genetics professor Don Tillman is a man of science. His days are meticulously scheduled, his weekly meals pre-planned for maximum nutritional value and his choices made in logical consideration of best possible outcomes. So when he decides it’s time to find a suitable life partner, he does what any rational scientist would do—he creates an […]

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