Katherine Wyrick

It’s a first for both of us—Joe Blair’s first time being interviewed and my first time calling an author at a John Deere assembly plant. (Well, technically in the parking lot, where Blair has retreated to his truck because it’s quieter.)

Blair, a writer and HVAC repairman, is, at the time of our conversation, on a job in Waterloo, Iowa, but has taken a break to discuss his new memoir, By the Iowa Sea. Asked if his co-workers know about his double life, he says, “I certainly don’t brag about it. . . . I’m not ashamed or anything, I just don’t talk about it much.” (Though he did inspire one fellow pipefitter to start journaling.)

Blair is plainspoken, modest about his success and seems genuinely surprised by his publishing deal, which came about after he wrote a “Modern Love” essay for the New York Times. He compiled the book, in part, from his writings over the years, a process he describes as a “frickin’ nightmare.” “There was no arc,” he says. “I had to create one.” The arc he created carries him on an Odyssean journey across tumultuous seas both real and metaphorical.

As a kid, Blair was always drawn to journeys and journeymen. He would contemplate the Easy Rider poster on his wall and entertain fantasies of the open road. As a carefree young man in his early 20s, he set out on his bike, his new bride Deb on the back, never dreaming that the trip would end with them settling in Iowa, starting a family and embarking on the conventional path he’d once eschewed. Fifteen years later, Blair finds himself working as an air-conditioning repairman and spending his free time caring for his old house and four children (including one with special needs), and considering (and ultimately engaging in) marital infidelity. All of these stresses are compounded by the unique challenges of parenting Michael, who has a severe form of autism. Blair feels stuck in place, trapped under the oppressive weight of his many responsibilities. Until, that is, the water rises, bringing with it an awakening that upends life as he knows it.

“Before the flood hit, it felt to me like I had no choice left,” Blair recalls. “I had my own business, we had this house, we had this family. And I remember thinking, this is it. We can’t move, can’t do anything.”

Though the 2008 Iowa flood provides a convenient metaphor for the unraveling of Blair’s marriage and the rebirth that follows, he says it was more than that. “I never really considered the size of that notion until we went through it. And then you realize it’s not just a metaphor, it does change everything. When you’re paddling a canoe through your old neighborhood, over the fence you built, and the whole neighborhood is just roofs and tree limbs, it changes you.”

The flood provides a metaphor for the unraveling of Blair's marriage and the rebirth that follows.

In a sense, the floodwaters loosened him from an inertia that had set in years before. “Until we came to the time of the flood, for instance, I wasn’t equipped to deal with Michael, with my relationship with Michael, on the page because I wasn’t ready to deal with it in real life,” Blair says. “At the time of the flood, I was ready to do it. Just like I was ready to face up to my relationship with my wife. I had to confront many of my deficits, and they expressed themselves in all their glory.”

“Genuine” and “honest” are adjectives often applied to Blair’s narrative voice, and with good reason. There’s a rawness and emotional authenticity to his writing that many have likened to the work of Rick Bragg. Blair, however, isn’t entirely comfortable with this kind of praise. “I have a knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘honesty’ because of going through the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa.” (He attended the workshop for three years in the early ’90s.) “There, ‘honesty’ is a word everyone sneers at.” That said, it’s a quality he strives for in his writing, and he’s found a process for achieving it that works well for him. Each morning, he meets with a longtime writing partner; the two set up their computers, tap away for an hour or more, and then read their work aloud. “When I’ve written something, I don’t think of the writing as good or bad; it’s either closer to the truth or farther away,” Blair says. “And when I veer from the truth, I know it when I read it out loud.”

It’s an intimate act, this kind of sharing, as Blair discovered when he began meeting with fellow writer Pamela Bell. The two eventually had an affair, which he recounts with remarkable candor in the book. “It’s a very personal thing and to do it you have to make sure your heart’s in the right place, and with Pamela, my heart didn’t know where it was, so it was easy to fall into infidelity.”

On how Deb felt about Blair laying bare the most private, painful parts of their marriage, he concedes, “Some versions of the book she hated. She’d say, ‘I hate these people.’ It really made her angry. Every time she read it, it was like getting beaten up, again and again.” The book went through countless revisions as Blair struggled to “get her right.”

Though the memoir deals with many things—the trials of middle age, parenting a disabled child, life in the Midwest, marital hardship—the book is at its heart a combination love story and coming-of-age story. Readers will discover opalescent truths on every page.

At the end of our conversation, Blair shares this insight about his son, Michael: “We can’t fix him and neither can anyone else, so what we need to do is to love him. Just like we need to love our other children and each other. And I think that’s what coming of age is. It’s learning how to love. This life, it’s a beautiful thing. And I think it’s a chance for us to have grace. To be a light in the world rather than a shadow.”

It’s a first for both of us—Joe Blair’s first time being interviewed and my first time calling an author at a John Deere assembly plant. (Well, technically in the parking lot, where Blair has retreated to his truck because it’s quieter.) Blair, a writer and HVAC repairman, is, at the time of our conversation, on […]

It’s a call that changes everything. Not the one to author Thrity Umrigar’s home in Cleveland—where she is associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University—but the one her character Armaiti makes in her compelling new novel, The World We Found. It’s a call across continents that launches a group of friends on a transformative journey.

The story begins when Armaiti, divorced and living in America, reaches out to her college friends after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Her last wish is to be reunited with Laleh, Kavita and Nishta, all still in Bombay. During the late 1970s, as idealistic students and Communists, they’d been inseparable, but have since lost touch. The women are as diverse as India itself. There is Kavita, a successful architect, who struggles to live openly as a lesbian; Laleh, married to Adish (a Parsi) and a mother of two, who enjoys a life of privilege at odds with her activist past; and Nishta, whom none of them have heard from in years. When they finally find her, Nishta is clad in a burqa and living in a strict, impoverished Muslim neighborhood. It soon becomes clear that Nishta’s husband, Iqbal, a fellow university idealist turned fundamentalist, will be the biggest obstacle to fulfilling Armaiti’s final request.

Umrigar’s new novel tells the powerful story of a friendship that transcends politics and religion.

Now far from the exotic locale of her birth, Bombay, Umrigar explains how a chance meeting with an old friend became the genesis of the novel. “I spent a few months in India in 2008 and while there, ran into a friend whom I had not seen in 25 years. During our conversation, she mentioned how the Hindu-Muslim riots that occurred in Bombay in 1992-93 changed her forever. She realized the limits of political activism, after that event, and turned inward,” the author recalls. “The accidental meeting and conversation lingered with me, and it reminded me of what a seminal event those riots were.” 

Umrigar returned to her life in the U.S., ruminating on political and religious fundamentalism and how the young are particularly susceptible to it.

Born to an affluent and close-knit Parsi family, Umrigar herself was a student at a time of political and social upheaval and remembers a different Bombay. “In the Bombay that I grew up in the ’70s, it was a beautiful time. It was very secular, very intellectually challenging; it was a good time to be a Bombayite. There was a lot of good energy. The Hindu-Muslim riots ended that for many of us.” 

Spurred by the memory of those events, Umrigar hoped to write about fundamentalism from the perspective of her homeland. “In the West, we often conflate Islamic fundamentalism with terrorism,” she says. “I wanted to write a novel that spoke of religious conservatism from a non-American, non-9/11 perspective, but one that still captured the anxieties of our age.”

She does just that in The World We Found, exploring a divided India with great insight and tracing those fissions through history. 

Umrigar came to the U.S. in 1983 at the age of 21 to attend Ohio State University, where she received a master’s degree in journalism. She spent 17 years working as a journalist, first at a small newspaper near Cleveland and later at the Akron Beacon Journal. After winning a Nieman fellowship in 2000, she completed her first novel, Bombay Time, and has since written three more critically acclaimed novels about the experiences of Indians and Indian-Americans, including The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven, as well as a memoir of her childhood in India, First Darling of the Morning.

Her new novel, The World We Found, is above all else a character-driven narrative, the story of friendship that transcends politics and religion. Though some aspects of the novel are uniquely Indian, many others are universal—the intimacies between couples, the vagaries of youth, the love of a mother for her child. 

Umrigar says, if that’s the case, she has succeeded. “I always share this advice with my writing students: Tell the story of one person so deeply and completely, that in the act of going deep into that one person, something magical happens, and it becomes a universal story.”

Take Iqbal, for instance. It would have been easy to paint him one-dimensionally as an oppressive Muslim husband, but Umrigar portrays him as both deeply flawed and sympathetic. “[Iqbal] happens to be Muslim in this book. He could have been anything—Parsi, Christian—and the same forces might have worked on somebody else,” she says. “For me as a writer, the most important thing is to get the emotional life of a character right and to make it as true to form as possible.” 

The novel’s essence is perhaps best captured in a conversation between the dying Armaiti and her college-aged daughter, Diane. Armaiti tells her daughter, “These women gave me something. A sense of belonging to the world, but more than that. A sense that the world belonged to me. Do you understand? A belief that it was my world—our world. To shape it as we wanted.” Asked if she still believes she can change the world, Armaiti responds, “I don’t know if the world we dreamed of is an illusion . . . but I do know this—that my desire for that world was true. It was the truest thing I’ve ever felt, as true as my love for you. And—and I’d like to believe that means something.”

Umrigar muses, “In a sense, Armaiti is trying to connect with the friends from her past, but she’s also trying to reconnect with that part of herself—that in some ways was the best part of her, was the best part of all of them. I don’t know if nostalgia’s the right word, but there’s this real yearning to go back to that pure self.” 

Each woman plots her own course in that search as she readies herself for the trip to America, and all arrive at life-changing revelations. In her melodious voice, Umrigar says, “This book is about journey. It’s about process. It’s not about destination. [At the book’s end] the revolution has already happened. The reunion has already occurred.”

It’s a call that changes everything. Not the one to author Thrity Umrigar’s home in Cleveland—where she is associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University—but the one her character Armaiti makes in her compelling new novel, The World We Found. It’s a call across continents that launches a group of friends on a […]

After chronicling her African childhood in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller turns to the adventurous and sometimes tragic lives of her parents in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

What compelled you to return to the subject of your parents’ lives in Africa?

In the decade since I wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, I think age has worn me down a little and I am both kinder and less judgmental. For one thing, I have made plenty of messy mistakes with my life—it’s not easy to have dreams of your own and to make room for the dreams of your children and spouse, I see that now. If someone were to make a memoir out of my life and to focus on the messy parts, instead of the dreams that inspired the mess, I can see how hurtful that would be.

Now, with a little wisdom and time on my side, I can see that my parents’ dreams became inextricably tangled in their culture and with their core values and beliefs (many of which I don’t share—but many of which I admire). That was what drove them, and if it got us into the occasional tragedy or mess, it certainly wasn’t their intention. In that way, it seemed remiss—given the hindsight I now have—not to write another book that explored my parents’ story from their point of view: their childhoods, dreams, aspirations and beliefs.

Your mother often refers to your first memoir as “The Awful Book.” What does she think of this one?

It’s never easy to read about yourself. You think, “Well, yes, I said something like that, but that wasn’t the whole context, truth, intention of what I meant. . . .” So I can understand Mum’s hesitation at being too enthusiastic about this book, although she does seem to prefer it to Dogs about which she was initially furious!

How did you go about learning more about your parents’ younger selves? Did they cooperate in the research and writing of this book?

Mum was so cross about the first memoir. She said, “You really know nothing about me. You have no idea why I did the things I did.” And it was true—I knew very little about her family or childhood beyond the conversations that she would have with my grandmother or the things my grandmother had told me about Scotland and Kenya. So I offered to hear Mum’s side of the story and the result was a marathon multi-day interview which I taped in 2002 in Scotland.

When I got home, I put the tapes in my office and didn’t listen to them until 2009 when I had whooping cough and was in bed for 100 days, too sick to read much, and bored of the radio. So, over the course of that illness, I lay in my bed with a slight fever, eyes closed, and listened to Mum’s voice for hours and hours and gradually the shape of this book took place. I began to write it while I was still recovering from whooping cough, and then I realized that I needed Dad’s side of the story too. So a few months later, we met in South Africa and my parents talked to me for a week—again, I taped the conversations—and their story was just so much more poignant and wonderful told in their inimitable voices than I ever could have imagined.

Subsequently, as I was writing and rewriting the book, if I had questions or problems, Mum was very good at answering the phone and clarifying. I gave them the finished manuscript and they read it and were able to make objections and corrections. Mostly, though, I think they feel the book is “all right.” But I know it’s hard for them to revisit some of the very painful material—and I know Dad would prefer that wasn’t part of the book. He likes “nice” books with “happy stories,” he says.

Did you learn anything about your parents that surprised you?

I don’t think I was surprised by what they told me—some of these stories are the old standards that come out at dinner parties—but what I was surprised by was how much they have lived. “Never a dull moment,” as Dad often says.

And now with nearly 20 years of my own marriage to look back on, I am surprised—or maybe more impressed—by my parents’ unflagging commitment to one another and their support of each other nearly 50 years after they first met in Kenya. Given their lives—the death of children, war, the loss of so much, the occasional really bad decision—their continuing, dare I say deepening, love seems so miraculous.

This book is partly my parents’ love story; the way they have always been so delighted in one another, so deeply impressed by one another’s gifts, even as drought, war, madness, tragedy and bad luck ensued.

How did becoming a mother change the way you view your own childhood and see your parents?

I think I am kinder and certainly slower to judge my own parents now than I was before I had children. I also have more compassion for them: I can’t imagine surviving the loss of one of my children, let alone surviving the loss of three.

Your parents lived as expats in Africa; now you live as an expat in the United States. How are those experiences similar or different?

The whole point of Cocktail Hour is to show how my parents have made a decision to relinquish their expat status and live in Africa as Africans. This is essential: As long as they lived as expats and fought Africa (literally), their losses accumulated. Once Dad accepted that he was African (fundamentally, Mum has always been African), their lives took on something approaching peace.

I am not an expat here in the United States. I have become an American citizen. That being said, I don’t feel “American” (whatever that is), but also I don’t think living in the United States has forced me to relinquish the lessons and values I learned from my African childhood. Partly, this is because I am not an ethnic minority in this country: I am white so it is easy for me to fly under the radar as an “American.”

No one yells at me to “speak English” and no one insists that I “assimilate” because I already speak English and, at least on the surface, I appear to have assimilated just fine. In actual fact, I think I am still more African than American in my belief systems, but since “belief systems” rarely come up in casual conversation, I don’t often have to defend my values the way an obviously Hispanic or Asian or Arabic immigrant might have to.

My parents had to work at becoming African—their journey from expats to Africans is the major theme of the book. But I have not had to work at becoming an American nearly as hard. A lot of people question the place of whites in Africa but no one in America (except a wonderfully outspoken Lakota woman I met recently) has ever questioned my right to be in America as a white woman.

Of course, if I were Hispanic, or Asian, or Islamic or another obvious ethnic or religious minority, a lot of people (not just indigenous Americans) would question my right to be here. I think this is a major failing of the American culture, and one that has kept us arm-wrestling ourselves into an exhausted heap, even as the environment and the economy collapse around us.

Please tell us what animals you now have in your family—horses, dogs, hermit crabs?

I have had a tragic couple of years, so am reduced to two horses and a dog. It’s manageable, but I miss the chaos of all the animals.

You briefly allude to certain writers in your book—Isak Dinesen, Beryl Markham—how do you see yourself fitting in with this literary tradition, if at all?

I attempt to be the antidote to Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham: the white writer who refuses to swallow the nostalgic view that it was all so wonderful under colonialism. In that way, I would hope that my African work falls more under the tradition of writers like Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head and Chenjerai Hove.

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Review of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

After chronicling her African childhood in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller turns to the adventurous and sometimes tragic lives of her parents in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. What compelled you to return to the subject of your parents’ lives in Africa? In the decade since I wrote Don’t […]

Most parents are familiar with the figurative “landmines” of childhood: scraped knees, hurt feelings, unsuccessful playdates. But few, at least in the West, have to worry about actual ones. Landmines are but one of the hazards that Alexandra Fuller, author of the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), had to contend with while growing up in war-torn Rhodesia in the 1970s.

With her latest memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller returns to Africa and her endlessly fascinating family. In this follow-up, which easily stands alone, Fuller revisits familiar terrain, but with a vastly different perspective—that of someone a decade older who’s now a parent herself.

While her first memoir chronicled her Rhodesian childhood, this one focuses on the lives of her intrepid parents, Tim and Nicola Fuller, who resolved to make a life for themselves on their African farm despite personal heartbreak and political upheaval. At its core, however, Cocktail Hour is the story of Fuller’s dynamic mother, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she is sometimes known. Fuller recreates scenes of her mother bumping across treacherous terrain in a Land Rover, an Uzi lying across her lap, and striding across the land with an assortment of dogs in her wake. Fuller interviewed both her parents extensively for this book, especially Nicola, whose voice she has captured with remarkable precision.

Born “one million percent Highland Scottish” on the Isle of Skye and raised in Kenya during the 1950s, Nicola rode a donkey to school, where she endured harsh treatment at the hands of the nuns; became an accomplished equestrian at an early age; and married a dashing Englishman before settling down on a farm, first in Kenya, then Rhodesia, where the author and her sister Vanessa were born in the late 1960s. When a civil war broke out in the mid-1970s, Fuller’s tenacious parents decided to dig in rather than leave Africa. We follow the young Fullers as they traverse the continent, fleeing from war and unspeakable heartache, hopscotching from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia.

When the girls moved away as grownups (the author lives in Wyoming with her American husband, a river guide), their parents procured a fish and banana farm in Zambia, where they remain to this day. It is here that Fuller returns at the end of the book to sit under the legendary Tree of Forgetfulness, where, according to local lore, ancestors reside and villagers meet to resolve disputes.

Fuller brings Africa to life, both its natural splendor and the harsher realities of day-to-day existence, and sheds light on her parents in all their humanness—not a glaring sort of light, but the soft equatorial kind she so beautifully describes in this memoir. She renders this portrait of her family with both humor and compassion—from Nicola and Tim’s early years, awash in that fragrant Kenyan air, to their later ones in the Zambian valley where they seem to have finally found home.

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Interview with Alexandra Fuller for Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

Most parents are familiar with the figurative “landmines” of childhood: scraped knees, hurt feelings, unsuccessful playdates. But few, at least in the West, have to worry about actual ones. Landmines are but one of the hazards that Alexandra Fuller, author of the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), had to contend with while […]

We recently made a call to Ann Patchett at her favorite spot on the globe—the handsome red brick house she shares with her husband on a tree-lined street in Nashville. The first part of our conversation is taken up with talk of dogs; Rose, Patchett’s great love and the subject of several essays, is now 15 years old.

The author admits to carrying the dog in a baby sling on walks since the terrier mix lost the use of her back legs. “It makes me feel like an insane person, but I couldn’t do the stroller,” Patchett says with a laugh. We all have our limits. (Friend and fellow writer Donna Tartt, who has an ancient paraplegic pug, has been hugely supportive, offering empathy and advice on physical therapy.)

This world of charming homes and coddled pets could not be farther from the exotic one Patchett conjures up in her latest and possibly finest novel to date, State of Wonder.

A woman’s search for her mentor in the South American jungle leads to a shocking discovery.

Set deep in the heart of the Amazonian jungle, State of Wonder tells the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company dispatched to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson. The enigmatic and elusive Swenson, who has virtually disappeared while working on a potentially valuable new drug, does not, however, want to be found; the last person sent to look for her, Marina’s research partner and friend Anders Eckman, died in the process. Hoping to find clues about Anders’ death, Marina reluctantly sets out on a fact-finding mission that will alter the course of her life.

Patchett points out that she wrote State of Wonder “much, much more quickly” than any of her five previous novels. “When I finished Run, which was a book that took me for-bloody-ever, I didn’t have an idea for a book, and that’s really rare,” she says. A conversation with friends changed all that. In 2008, she and her husband were having dinner with Edgar Meyer, the acclaimed Nashville double bass player, and his wife. Patchett and Meyer were bemoaning the fact that they were spending too much time on the road and not enough time at the desk. Patchett recalls, “Edgar said, ‘You know, I had this revelation. I put a notebook at the door to my studio, and I clock in, and I clock out. I’ve discovered that the more hours I spend trying to write, the more I write.’ ” Patchett exclaims, with feigned amazement, “And I thought, wow! What a great idea! I’ve never done that . . . so I made a pledge to write every day and finished the book about a year later.”

At the outset, Patchett knew she wanted to explore a specific kind of relationship, though she wasn’t sure what it would look like. The jungle setting she opted for may be foreign, but relationships are familiar terrain for Patchett, an expert on the intimacies between people and the language of the heart. “I wanted to write about the relationship between a teacher and a student once they had grown up, a student who did everything in her life to please the teacher and to shape herself like the teacher, but the teacher has no idea who the student is, which is a very common scenario—it was a common scenario for me as a student and for me as a teacher. So that was the central relationship and then from there . . .”

Well, from there, let’s just say the narrative takes flight—like a big, scary and strangely beautiful insect you might find in the Amazon. The intricate plot lines twist and turn as the characters encounter poison arrows, anacondas and even a tribe of cannibals. The most threatening thing Singh confronts, however, might be Swenson herself—as formidable now in her 70s as she was during Singh’s student days at Johns Hopkins. The adventure reaches a fever pitch when she learns that Swenson’s initial assignment, to develop an antimalarial drug, has led to a discovery that could have a profound effect on Western society.

South America was also the setting for Bel Canto, Patchett’s most successful novel to date, which won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the UK’s Orange Prize in 2002 and has sold more than a million copies. Asked if that continent holds a certain allure for her, Patchett explains, “Malaria may be more obvious in Africa or India, but I couldn’t figure out a way to develop a drug in those places. I thought, oh, I can’t write another book set in South America because it would be seen as cashing in on Bel Canto. Then I thought, who cares? It’s a big continent. Plus, I never actually say in Bel Canto that it’s in South America.”

Her lush descriptions of the jungle are so finely wrought, you can almost feel the dense, humid air. Patchett says her research did lead her to visit part of South America—though not the area she recreates in the novel. She had planned to go to Manaus, where Singh lands before heading into the jungle, to see friend and celebrated soprano Renée Fleming perform at the opera house there, but the trip fell through when Fleming’s schedule changed. Instead she watched the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo “about 300 times” to familiarize herself with the Manaus opera house where a dramatic scene from the book takes place. In the movie, as in the novel, the opera house is “the only thing that’s keeping anybody sane,” she says.

Patchett writes so convincingly about the Lakashi, the tribe being studied by Dr. Swenson and her team, that one assumes they must actually exist. (They don’t. Elsewhere, Patchett has remarked that she named the tribe after her favorite cereal.) “People ask, where are the Lakashi? How did you find them? And I’m like, are you out of your mind?” she laughs.

Though many details in the book came from her own rich imaginings, Patchett did rely on her husband, Karl VanDevender, an internist, as well as other doctor friends, to make sure the pharmaceutical elements of the novel were scientifically accurate. “Karl and I talked about building that world . . . how can you be developing a drug and find another one in the process?” Patchett recalls. “That’s what we sit around and talk about in the evenings.”

Though the book is neither an indictment of the profit-driven drug industry nor a treatise on medical ethics, it raises profound questions about morality, life and death. Witnessing Swenson’s unorthodox approach and willingness to make extreme sacrifices in the name of science, Singh is forced to search her own heart for what truth lies there—as the reader is forced to recalibrate his or her own moral compass.

With these themes and narrative structure, comparisons to Heart of Darkness are inevitable. “It’s funny because when I wrote this book I was trying to do something modeled on The Ambassadors, my very favorite Henry James novel, which is about someone who goes to Paris to bring back the errant son of someone he works with,” Patchett says. “Somehow the lines crossed along the way, and I kept thinking, this is really seeming a lot more like Heart of Darkness than The Ambassadors. But you know, it’s one of those archetypal themes—character A is dispatched to bring back character B. . . . You’re going to find the other, but what you find is yourself.”

Of the book’s dramatic, somewhat cryptic conclusion, Patchett says, “One of my great goals in the book is to turn the reader out, to have an interactive story where you have to draw conclusions that will lead you forward. I want people to stretch.” Which is exactly what happens. This story lingers, uncoiling itself like a snake, its revelations coming days after the last page is turned. It is a journey into the heart of darkness, but one that offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.

Don't miss our video interview with Ann Patchett.

We recently made a call to Ann Patchett at her favorite spot on the globe—the handsome red brick house she shares with her husband on a tree-lined street in Nashville. The first part of our conversation is taken up with talk of dogs; Rose, Patchett’s great love and the subject of several essays, is now […]

Mary Higgins Clark and daughter Carol Higgins Clark have a way of finishing each other’s sentences—and not just when talking. Together they’ve written five holiday suspense novels, and separately they have written countless other bestsellers. 

The mother-daughter relationship is a complex one, sometimes fraught with frustrations, but not so for these two. As entertaining and titillating a story as that might be—creative differences, clashing egos, epic fights—Mary and Carol reserve that sort of thing for fiction. In contrast to the nefarious goings-on in their novels, the authors are gracious, grounded and just downright nice—and they get along swimmingly.

In a recent conversation divided between the Manhattan offices of Simon & Schuster and Mary’s home in New Jersey, the two Clarks are happy to discuss everything from the creative process to maintaining a positive outlook on life. 

Both women have books coming out this spring, Mary’s I’ll Walk Alone and Carol’s Mobbed, her 14th Regan Reilly mystery. In her new book, Mary tackles the subject of identity theft with the story of Zan Moreland, a talented New York interior designer who discovers that someone has not only stolen her identity, but has also taken on her appearance. It’s a chilling, and timely, doppelganger drama sure to thrill fans. Carol’s latest, Mobbed, involves a stalked starlet and a deadly garage sale—but to say more would spoil the fun.

Asked what she thinks of Carol’s latest mystery, Mary says definitively, “It’s a very funny book.” A genuinely flattered Carol responds, “Thanks, Mom!” 

Even when not collaborating, Carol and Mary read each other’s work in progress, but, says Mary, “This time Carol was so busy with her own that she didn’t see mine, and now that I finished mine, I’ve been reading Carol’s in progress. Other years it will start the other way.”

From her mother’s house in New Jersey, Carol chimes in, “Sometimes we’ll fax each other pages as we’re working on our own books and say, ‘What do you think?’ It’s just nice to get feedback and encouragement.” 

In such a symbiotic relationship, however, one wonders if it’s ever a challenge not to take the feedback personally. “It doesn’t ever feel like criticism. That’s the difference,” Carol explains. “We just want to help each other tell a better story . . .  and that’s why we can write books together.” She laughs, “It’s really a good working relationship we have.” 

Carol and Mary long ago established a comfortable writing routine. Mary recreates a typical scene: “We sit next to each other. Carol works on a laptop, and I always work at my desk.” She laughs, “So she’s the fingas on it.” (That’s “fingers” in Mary’s charming New Yawkese.) Carol describes an average day as follows: “We sit on the couch with our legs outstretched and sometimes move out onto the porch for a change of scene.” Mary adds, “Every few hours when we’re working together we’ll say, ‘We’ve sucked up all the energy in this room, let’s move.’ ” 

Their working relationship began when Carol was a co-ed and took on the task of typing her mother’s manuscripts. “I started typing her books when I was in college, before computers, when she was working full time,” Carol says. “I had to get her manuscripts in to her agent, and that was great because it got us into being able to work together.” Carol credits this partnership with saving the life of Mary’s beloved character Alvirah Sheehan, the lottery winner and amateur detective who appears in the Christmas books and in I’ll Walk Alone. “I saved Alvirah’s life,” Carol proclaims, taking due credit. “My mother had killed her off in a book, and I begged for her life, and she finally relented. I just thought Alvirah was so funny.”

While studying acting and helping her mother, Carol met a producer who encouraged her to write her own book, advising her, “You should write a part you can possibly play.” Carol says, “If I hadn’t typed the books, it would have been much harder to start because I had seen the process she goes through and how it evolves, which was very helpful.”

Growing up in a large Irish-Catholic family with Mary at its head also provided fertile ground for Carol’s creativity to flourish. Asked what she was like as a child, Mary says, “Carol was always a good kid. She was a funny kid, and hardworking—because I worked. You know her father died when she was eight. She was always a big help and had a great sense of humor. Carol was a straight A student in high school and grammar school and always just fun to be around.” Carol, again says, “Thanks, Mom.” 

Mary honed her skill, in part, out of necessity. After her husband died, she had to find a way to support her young family and would get up at 5:00 a.m. each day to write before corralling the kids for school. She says with typical humility, “People think that’s so valiant, but, you know, people get up early to do yoga or to jog, or whatever . . .” Or write 30-plus best-selling books.

Asked to share the best advice that her mother ever gave her, Carol jokes, “The best advice my mother ever gave me about writing is that if someone’s mean to you, make them a victim in your next book! But, no, my mother’s always had a positive outlook on life and is such an optimist. She works hard; she looks at the positive.”

Mary agrees, “I have always been an optimist. And I have always felt that you should give back when you’ve been blessed. I think much is expected of those to whom much has been given.”

Listening to these two talk, it’s easy to detect their ease with each other and their mutual admiration. So it’s no mystery why Mary and Carol Higgins Clark make such a winning team—in life and literature.

Mary Higgins Clark and daughter Carol Higgins Clark have a way of finishing each other’s sentences—and not just when talking. Together they’ve written five holiday suspense novels, and separately they have written countless other bestsellers.  The mother-daughter relationship is a complex one, sometimes fraught with frustrations, but not so for these two. As entertaining and […]

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