October 09, 2018

Lou Berney

“I started trusting myself more, doubting less, and letting the characters take the story where they wanted to take it.”

In the new novel from Lou Berney, two people fleeing from their previous lives—a man running from a hitman after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and a mom escaping a bad husband—meet on Route 66. We spoke with Berney about November Road, memories of Route 66 and JFK.

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In the new novel from Lou Berney, two people fleeing from their previous lives—a man running from a hitman after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and a mom escaping a bad husband—meet on Route 66. We spoke with Berney about November Road, memories of Route 66 and JFK.

You mention in the foreword how your mother traveled Route 66 from Oklahoma to California and shared those memories with you. Have you been able to make that trek yourself? How did it compare to her stories?
I’ve driven from Oklahoma to California (and back again) many times. My mother’s stories about her travels are still so vivid in my mind, it’s always as if I’m seeing the landscape through her eyes: the lonely Texas/New Mexico border where her family’s car broke down (they had to spend the night in the car); the Painted Desert, which my mother always said was a great disappointment since the colors were far less bold than the billboard advertisements; the wreck by the side of the road they came upon once, two shattered cars in the desert, some little girl’s doll peeking out from the wreckage. Every time I drive that route, I feel especially close to my mother.

Why did you choose to set this story against the backdrop of Kennedy’s assassination? How much research did you undertake?
My family was Catholic, and both of my parents had been deeply shaken by the Kennedy assassination. Every summer my father, mother and I drove down from Oklahoma City to Arlington to see a Texas Rangers baseball game. Every summer my father would detour through Dallas and follow the route that the president’s motorcade had taken.

I did a lot—a lot—of research about the assassination. And then—wisely, I hope—I left most of it out of my novel. I wanted the focus of November Road to be on the characters, their journeys. The assassination plays an important role, both thematically and in plot terms, but that’s not what the novel is really about. It’s about two people who are on the run from the past, toward the future.

Author Ivy Pochoda describes November Road as a novel that defies categorization—as part love story, part gangster story, part cross-country adventure. How would you describe it?
I love Ivy’s description of November Road. I didn’t set out to write a novel with so many different elements, but I know I’m drawn—as reader and writer—to stories that have a lot going on, a lot of layers, a lot of characters colliding with each other. I used to worry that was a weakness of mine, as a writer, but now I just kind of embrace it. There’s a quote, I think it’s from Don Quixote, I love: It’s better to lose by a card too many than a card too few.

Your hero, Frank Guidry, isn’t exactly a good guy. How did you tackle making him a person that readers could ultimately root for?
Frank Guidry is definitely not a good guy. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be likable and engaging and complicated, so I worked hard to make him all that. Most importantly, though, I needed to make him capable of change. I didn’t know until I wrote his last chapter if Frank actually would change, but I really wanted him to—and so I hope that meant that readers would want that, too.

How did writing November Road compare to writing your previous novels? Was it easier or more difficult? In what way?
November Road was tough to write. I made so many false starts and wrong turns you wouldn’t believe it. Originally, for example, the entire novel was going to be set in Charlotte’s small Oklahoma hometown, which turned out to be a disaster. And originally Frank Guidry wasn’t even a character. Basically, from initial proposal to final draft, I ended up changing the main character, the setting, the plot and the theme. That’s all. But the good thing about writing a novel, and having a patient editor, is that you can go back and fix your mistakes.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
My big wish is that readers finish the book feeling both entertained and moved. I can’t say if I succeeded or not, but I wanted to write a book that was both hard to put down and hard to forget.

November Road is a book about discovery, about what’s important and about being the person you were meant to be. What did you discover about yourself in writing it?
I really like that description of what November Road is about. And I think a similar thing happened to me while I was writing it. I started trusting myself more, doubting less, and letting the characters take the story where they wanted to take it. Like I said earlier, the process was a lot bouncier than I’d anticipated. But it was also liberating in a way I’d never experienced before.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of November Road.

Get the Book

November Road

November Road

By Lou Berney
Morrow
ISBN 9780062663849

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