by Patricia Grandjean
Jan 19, 2013
01:59 PMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: Ann Leary
(page 4 of 4)
When you sit down to write a book, what kind of developmental process do you go through? You said you don't really research . . .
The Good House didn't need much research, but I'm working on another book now that's set in Washington, Conn., near a lake. And I have done a lot of research about that part of Connecticut.
I know a lot about Massachusetts history because when you go through middle school at Marblehead, you just naturally learn it. Also, every time we moved or visited a place, one thing my parents did was have us read everything about it. Marblehead has a fascinating history, with the Revolutionary War and witches and ghosts, pirates and sea merchants. So I just knew a lot of stuff about that part of New England, but this area I didn't know as much about. And this new book, without saying too much, is about a very different type of New Englander. It's about an old-money, WASP family, the kind people might run into in the Northwest corner of Connecticut. There's actually a house that's the center of this book, too. There's an architect up here, Eric Rossiter, who's very famous, so I've been researching the Rossiter houses and the people who inhabited these so-called cottages that we now think of as mansions. The sort of New York money that came up here in the 19th century and sort of built these wonderful summer cottages on the lakes. So I'm right now in the midst of researching this new book.
But when I am writing, so much of my writing is done in my car as I'm driving, because I think my best when I'm driving. I do a lot of working out scenes, and I'm somehow able to remember them, and then when I get home, quickly write them down. If I'm having trouble with a book, I will often take a drive. I know that in writing television, Denis is the same. If we drive to the city together, it is a silent ride, because we're both mulling over plots. He'll often say, "Quick, send me this text," and I'll have to text him something he's thinking because he's driving. And then I'll say, "Stop interrupting me because I'm thinking about my book." [laughs]
That sounds like a common process for writers. Even on an article I'll get stuck, then I'll get up and "bang!' the answer appears to me. But I've never written a novel, though I hear those often take on a life of their own . . . as you said, with this book, you had a plan and then Hildy took over.
It took me a long time to write The Good House, because originally I was writing a different book. Once I did understand that it was Hildy's story, it just suddenly came to me and was a much easier book to write. But I have had the experience myself of, you're floundering at the beginning—and for me, it's not so much with the story but the tone. Who's telling the story, and how am I going to tell it in a way that's really compelling? To me, that's what makes a good book. I'm not a person who reads a lot of best-sellers through to the end, but I always want to read the first few pages and see if I like the writing. Once I have the book's tone, it's easier to write.
Do you ever share what you're writing with Denis?
Not really. I didn't show him The Good House until I had a full draft of the book. This one was was really different than my other books. My first book, which was a memoir [An Innocent, A Broad] about the birth of my son—I was so excited, because I sold the book on three or four chapters and an outline. I was so excited to have this book deal, I literally wept almost every day with joy. I'd print every chapter out in a font that looked like the font of a book. I'd do all kinds of crazy stuff so I could fantasize about seeing it in a book. This time—I don't know whether it's because the ink cartridges run out so fast, and I live so far from a Staples— I don't know what it is, but I never printed this book out. And I didn't sell it until I finished a draft of it, which was a first.
So, finally, my editor, after she finished the first edit, printed it out. And I went in to meet her, and she put this big stack of paper on her desk with all these red marks on it. I was blown away, because up till then I just couldn't stop writing long enough to print it out. That was kind of a nice shift for me—I just really wanted to tell this story. And it was partly laziness—I don't want to drive to Staples for ink cartridges. [laughs]
I wanted to ask you about your radio show, too. When we talked two years ago, you had a show on WHDD, but there have clearly been new developments . . .
Yes. I was doing this show, "In House," by myself—which was more about the homes of creative people—I think what happened was, I basically visited all of those I wanted to. At least the ones of people I knew personally, and then I was sort of at a loss. Actually, it wasn't so much that, but I decided that with a couple of friends—Laura Zigman, a Boston novelist who wrote Animal Husbandry, and Julie Klam, who wrote You Had Me at Woof and Love at First Bark, she's a very funny writer and essayist—I wanted to do something else. WHDD, Robin Hood Radio, is the smallest NPR station in the nation, and it's right here in Sharon. It doesn't have a huge broadcasting range, but many people are able to listen to the shows on the Internet. Our show is called "Hash Hags," a play on the fact that we all met on Twitter, which is now as embarrassing as meeting your husband at a bar.
So you can listen to any of the shows by going to HashHags.com. Basically we just have authors on who we want to have discussions with, because we don't get paid to do the show and it requires quite a lot of work. We decided early on that we just wanted to have guests we were really interested in chatting with. So we've had Susan Orlean, Meg Wolitzer, Alice Hoffman, and many other wonderful authors. It's been really fun—we're kind of hiatus right now and they're repeating shows.
We never plan ahead what we're going to talk about. I'm always broadcasting from the studio at Sharon, Laura's in Boston and Julie's in New York via Skype, and then the author calls in. So there's four people, and amazingly, we don't end up talking over each other—it usually ends up being a really fun conversation.
Is there any author you've talked to who's a hero of yours?
I've always loved Susan Orlean's writing. I love non-fiction, and for anyone who doesn't know, Susan Orlean has written for The New Yorker for years. She's written wonderful essays; she wrote The Orchid Thief which became the movie Adaptation. I was thrilled to have her on the show. We had this great guest not long ago, Jon Ronson, who wrote this fabulous book called The Psychopath Test. It's a nonfiction book, he's an English author; it's hysterically funny. H started researching this "psychopath test," that has some kind of psychiatrist's name attached to it, and once he took it, it was like this phenomenon where you read the symptoms of a disease and then you have the disease. So he started seeing psychopaths everywhere in our culture. Actually, the most prominent people in most cultures have psychopathic traits: CEOs, major celebrities. They have the narcissism and self-centeredness. Then Ronson himself realized he had many of these traits. Anyway, it's just a really funny book.
Some of the people I least expected to be fun were really fun on the show. We're always thinking of new people to have on.
My last question, from the days when I visited your blog and watched the videos more regularly: Do you still have your four dogs?
It's so funny, I haven't done a video for so long; but for awhile—I think it was while I was working on The Good House—whenever I ran into a roadblock, I'd do a funny video. They're silly, but I do like to video my animals.
Right now, our pack consists of Daphne, a Labradoodle, who is 8 or 9 years old; then there's Lulu, a rescue who's half St. Bernard, half Airedale. Then we have a Leonberger, which is a big breed; a family we were friendly with had to move from this area to a place that wasn't as dog-friendly and couldn't take him, so we took on Gomer, who's this nut. He weighs 125 pounds and is gorgeous, but he's a lot of dog. He loves to swim, and he hauls my kayak all over. He'll swim the length of Lake Waramaug with my kayak; he's that kind of dog. And then I have my beloved little Holly, who's this little terrier mutt who's always, always attached to me.
Has she learned to balance on the ball yet?
She still works on her tricks, she has lots of them. We don't keep up with them, so when she tries to show off, sometimes she's not as good. My new thing is I want to get her to stand on my horse Mark, but Mark doesn't love Holly. He's a cat horse, so he'll let any cat walk on him, but dogs not so much. It's beneath his dignity, really.