Joy Fielding - Sometimes Pretending can Make it Real
It's a rare experience for me to read a book that stays with me days after finishing it. It's an even more unique experience when the book is an unexpected joy, when the story line or characters are ones I wouldn't have thought I'd enjoy. But such is the power of certain authors and certain books. Such was the power of Joy Fielding and The First Time, a novel featuring not only a difficult premise, but difficult characters as well. After all, would you want to read a book in which you know the heroine dies at the end? A book in which you know the hero has been unfaithful to the heroine throughout their 16-year marriage? A book in which the lead characters seem like nothing more than spoiled and vain Yuppies?
Last week I was heading out the door, ready for my afternoon of driving my daughter to various after-school activities when the UPS man rang the bell and dropped a box on my doorstep. I saw that it was from Simon & Schuster and grabbed it on the way out, knowing I had two hours worth of sitting on my hands. I read the dust jacket, realized I'd never heard of the author, and silently scolded myself for being so impulsive. Why had I taken this book that would never appeal to me in a million years rather than grabbing something else when I had two full hours of waiting to look forward to? Too late to do anything about it, I sighed, and while waiting for my daughter to finish her first activity, I started to read about Mattie and Jake.
As I said in the opening of my Desert Isle Keeper Review of The First Time, I had an inkling of how powerful this book was when, after driving my daughter to her second appointment and waiting for her to change her socks for jazz, she yelled at me and I burst out into tears, right there in the mini-van, right there in front of all the other moms. Well, the crying didn't stop - it got worse when I finished the book. I truly cried so hard that I scared Bob, our cat.
Many times I will read an emotional book and the feelings evoked will last but a short while. Even if they last longer, my heart's more engaged than my mind. In this instance, however, I was still thinking about the book, the plot, the characters, and was still feeling those emotions for several days. That's when I got on the phone, called the publisher, and arranged an interview.
It's definitely strange to pick up the phone and call someone you've never met and begin to ask her questions about her life and her writing, particularly when that writing is so very intimate. I certainly felt odd relaying to Joy how her book had affected me, but talking with her was one of those hours of "connection," when, as a reader, I felt connected to another person through their words. This hasn't happened all that often in my interviewing career, but when it does, it's special.
I hope you'll enjoy the Q&A that resulted from my recent conversation with Joy Fielding.
--Laurie Likes Books
When you wrote this book, did you know what an emotional wallop it would pack? As you were writing the book, how were your own emotions effected?
You never know for sure what kind of an emotional impact a book will have on other people. I thought if I did it right, that it would have a fairly profound impact because it made me cry as I was writing it. There were times when I would get very teary and I thought, well, if I'm reacting like this, and I know how everything is going to happen, and it's effecting me this way, then hopefully it'll effect other people similarly.
It's an interesting process when you create characters because the whole act of creating them is an act of love. You love them and want good things for them, and when you know that you've created a character who's going to really suffer and be unhappy for a large part of the book, it hurts. Parts of it were very difficult; I had to fight myself at times to keep from giving it a really happy ending, which would have been impossible. I thought it was as happy and hopeful an ending as I could make it, but it was difficult. There were times that I felt I was losing a friend. There were incidents that I wrote where I was really moved because I could get outside the characters and watch them as if I had nothing to do with their creation.
Which scenes in particular were the most emotional for you, and how much of this, when you sat down to write it, did you know other than that she was going to have to die at the end?
Probably the scene that affected me the most is the scene at the airport between Mattie and Jake near the end of the book. It's a very romantic scene; what you really want to happen for them. That scene always affects me. The scene with Mattie and her mother just before the end of the book always gets me. The whole idea of dying and having a daughter - since I have daughters - always gets me.
All the scenes you mentioned were triggers for me as well, but my first major trigger was that scene when Mattie tells Jake she doesn't want him to stay at the house unless he can pretend to love her. That whole pretending thing is the catalyst for the remainder of the book.
I knew that scene was going to be there because there had to be a scene where things do suddenly shift. The marriage is in bad shape, Jake leaves, he comes back because he thinks it's the right thing to do, but he still has the girlfriend. He basically has come back because he knows it's for a limited time, and it's very important to him that he appear to be the good guy - he's seen as the knight in shining armor in court. Of course, he grew up hearing how bad he was. All these things make it very important to him that he seem to be doing the right thing.
He comes back thinking he can do it on the surface - the way he's always done it. He was going to come back and basically only do as much as he had to do and keep his "other life" going. There was going to have to be something that happened that actually started this couple back on the road to healing and to loving one another. That moment starts when Mattie tells him that this is not enough for her.
That scene, and his decision to stay, and their going up to bed and him snuggling with her really got me. As a happily married woman, I can't imagine anything worse than knowing I was going to die in a year or two except to know that I was going to die without ever being cuddled again at night. It reminded me of my mom, who lost her husband, my dad, when she was in her mid-50's. That was nearly 15 years ago and she's never dated and I don't think ever will. That, more than anything, makes me sad, to know she'll never be hugged in bed again.
You obviously set it up like that - this couple had always had a good sex life, but no real intimacy. They were completely closed off from one another.
When you got the idea for the book, what was the actual idea? What was your premise?
The idea was a couple on the verge of divorce. They separate, she finds out she has a terminal illness, and he decides to move back and make the last year a happy one. It came to me because a friend of mine was dating a man who had gone through a similar experience. He and his wife had been about to divorce, he discovered she was terminally ill, and he moved back home. I knew nothing else about the relationship, but when I heard that, I thought, "that's an interesting man." What would make a man make that decision? What would he do once he went home? What was the relationship like? What was she like?
Once I started to think about him, then I started to think about her, and that's how these characters evolved.
Did they ever take you in a different direction than you planned?
Some books write themselves more than others. This one was different not only because it was a little different than my earlier books, but because I didn't do the kind of detailed outline I normally do. I really only did half a page with the basic story - and then I just decided that it needed to be told from the three points of view, from Mattie, Jake, and Kim. I had to have each character grow.
I knew the beginning and the end and I knew a few signposts along the way. Every day when you sit down to write, you're never quite sure what's going to come out of it. At the beginning of the book, you're always a little more in control of your characters than you are as the book progresses, because then they really do become like children. At a certain point they stop listening to what you tell them; they decide they're going to do what they want to do.
That's the point when it really gets interesting as a writer because you have the luxury of watching these people that you've created suddenly become distinct beings. They tell you what they're going to say and do. There are moments that are full of surprises, things that you don't expect, characters that suddenly become bigger than you'd originally intended, developments that you hadn't planned on getting into. . .you know, Mattie's whole childhood was a revelation to me. I only knew that she was estranged from her mother and hadn't been terribly happy, and that certainly evolved as I was going along. Jake as well, although I had a more detailed sense of Jake's family from the beginning.
Kim was probably the biggest surprise. She was the character who changed the most in terms of my original idea
I thought what you did with Mattie and her mother will resonate for so many women, but I thought some of what Kim endured too - obvious, for want of a better word.
People do react in certain ways. With Kim, you've got a kid about to be 16, it's a difficult time anyway. . . You're discovering your own sexuality, all the changes that are occurring with adolescence, and that's a difficult enough time when everything is perfect at home. So when suddenly here she is, her parents aren't getting along, her father leaves, then her father comes back, and he's got a girlfriend, and her mother's dying, this is an awful lot for this kid to deal with. Kim has no control over her life whatsoever, and her relationship with Mattie, as Jake says at one point, is really the marriage. He's always felt like the other woman. Kim is now the jilted wife. She feels, as many kids do, that the only way she can control her life at this point is by what she eats and what she does. That's her way of changing the focus because suddenly, then, it's all about her
You mentioned that this book was a departure for you, and I know your other titles have been suspense novels. How and why this transition?
I never set out to really write in any one genre and I never set out to be a suspense novelist. If you want to categorize them, my books have always been more the psychological thrillers or the relationship novel.
I've always rebelled against being put in a particular niche because my focus has always been on the people, the characters. If I write a thriller, the thriller aspect is not particularly important. Don't Cry Now was more of a mystery novel; as far as I'm concerned, the mystery its the least interesting aspect.
I am much more interested in the characters and how they evolve and deal with one another. Somebody once said to me, "You're a very dangerous novelist. On the surface your books seem to be about one thing - only that's not what they're about at all." There are things that I want to say about people and relationships between men and women and mothers and daughters - that's what's important to me. The relationship is always what's important to me. So that the suspense format has worked for me because sometimes you can get a good, strong plot and then it lets me do what I want to do within those confines.
This time I wanted to write a love story. And, to me, it wasn't that big a stretch. All it did was take the focus away from the plot a little bit and put it more on the characters and their emotional growth.
What do you like to read?
I don't read a lot of suspense writers. Generally I'm kind of let down; I find that there's usually something that bothers me. Either the characters aren't fully drawn or there are too many holes in the plot. I've started more books than I can tell you, and I put most of them down halfway through. I've become more demanding as a reader as I'm getting older.
I know what you mean, although for me it's that I read so many books. There's a point after you've read so many hundreds of books where a book has to truly be phenomenal to capture your imagination.
What books and authors have you liked in recent years?
The author that I always like is Phillip Roth; he's my favorite. I think American Pastoral and The Human Stain are among the great books. I loved Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-prize winning The Hours. I liked Elizabeth Berg's last book - Open House. This last one wasn't depressing, and she writes very well. I like Carl Hiaassen and usually like John Irving.
When did you fall in love with books?
Interestingly, not until quite late. I always knew I wanted to write, so I've been writing since I was a child, but I almost never read anything until I got to university. I read what I had to read in school, but it wasn't until college - I majored in English - that I was really exposed to the novel in a major way.
How do you explain that contradiction? Usually the people who write love words and are drawn to reading at an early age. You're the first author I've talked to who wasn't a "bookie" from childhood
It's not so much that I love words, it's that I love to tell a story. That may explain why I'm not a "literary author." I don't have to play with the language; what I want to do is play with the characters. I always had a great flair for the theatrical and for drama. I played with my cutout dolls for hours and hours as a child. I played with these dolls until I was 14! I had always written stories and it never occurred to me that to be a writer, you had to be a reader.
Obviously, something in my subconscious knew that I was going to have to do this, because I went into English language and literature in university, reading as far back as the Middle Ages. And that's when I really learned how to write - how to organize - my imagination.
Let's get back to The First Time. Mattie didn't know Jake and he never revealed himself to her during their marriage. He seemed to have some level of intimacy with his girlfriend - she called him Jason, after all - but my sense is that he wasn't really all that sharing of himself with her either.
I guess that leads me into the whole question of Jake. Had this been a romance novel, he'd be the villain or the ex-husband. He's such a "player" that there would have been no possibility of a second chance. How did you manage to work his redemption?
You're right about Jake and intimacy - he really never let anyone in. As for his redemption - it actually took quite a bit of work. Initially, even though in my mind I wanted him to be ultimately a good guy, he wasn't coming across that way when I first started writing the book. Even as I wanted him to be growing, it wasn't until I really started to show Jake in a less passive role, until I really started to show him acting, being, doing, that the reader begins to identify with him. When you see him in court, see what a good lawyer he is, you get into his head and see how trapped he's always felt. You understand how he's never felt appreciated and he's never been loved.
This is somebody who grew up hearing that he was a bad boy - it goes through his mind his entire life. He's never felt love, he's never felt that he's deserved to be loved. One of the reasons he's taken on all these lost causes is to prove to himself that he is a good guy.
You kind of start to see Jake, start to feel a little more empathy for him when you see him struggling to be good and yet, it never quite works for him - particularly in his relationship with his daughter. You see him try to reach out to her and to be a good father, and her rejecting him all the time. That enables you to feel sorry for Jake a little bit and then to like him a little bit, reluctantly, in spite of yourself.
You see his passion for the law, and you see him evolve. You see how, once he moves back, he tries to do the right thing. When Mattie gives him the ultimatum and forces him to pretend, then as he pretends to be this other person, he in fact becomes this other person. It's a slow process, but we see the transformation as he is forced to share of himself. There's that scene in which Mattie asks him how he got the scar on his hand and he figures, what the hell, he's got nothing to lose, and tells her. The more he starts to reveal, the more capable he is of letting people in, and the more he relates to Mattie's suffering. It's very subtle and the steps are very small.
It's that pretending thing that has me hooked. I can remember working on a behavioral problem with my daughter and telling her that if she pretended to act in a certain way long enough, it would eventually be second nature to her and she would no longer need to pretend.
But you made it really tough for Jake. When he's promised to take Mattie to France and then the possible partnership is wangled in front of him if he goes to the conference at the same time as their trip, I found myself getting so upset. You put him through the ringer on that one, and me too!
Well, I had to - he had to have something at stake. He had to have something to lose. Otherwise it's too easy. It showed Jake that he couldn't really pretend. If, in fact, he never has really anything at risk - and that's what wins you over - he has to take the risk. It can never be easy for him. He's going to have to choose and the situation is going to get to a point where he is forced to choose
When you're writing a book where death is a foregone conclusion, it can be difficult to engage the reader. American Beauty worked as a movie because of its cynicism and our voyeurism in wanting to see this man's life explode. The First Time is completely different - but were you concerned about readers looking at the plot and dismissing it because of the way it had to end
I did worry about that. It was very important that this not be a book about a disease. Who wants to get into that - we have enough hassles in our lives. What I was thinking more was that I really wanted to tell a story about two people falling in love.
There are a tremendous number of reunion romances out there, and they rarely work for me. I think the reason this book resonated was that they weren't in love before. They had been married, but never in love.
So many non-romances, so many books marketed for women work off the same theme: husband cheats on wife, husband and wife divorce, wife goes on and eventually has a better life with a different man. Your book didn't work off of any theme I'd come across before.
Speaking of marriage, tell me about your own, and about your husband. What does he think about your writing? What did he think about this book?
I've been married for 26 years. My husband has read all of my books. He's very proud of the writing and likes what I write. He thought that Jake was very believable, which was a concern for me because it was the first time I'd written from the male point of view. I wanted to make sure he didn't sound like a woman wearing a man's clothes.
My husband has always been supportive of my writing. When we first got married, I was not making a living at all, and he took care of the whole thing. He was always positive, though, and told me I'd be a star one day. He told me not to let anyone tell me what to do - he told me not to worry about what other people think. He always encouraged me to do my own thing. Whenever I've had creative crises or problems with publishers, he's always been very much on my side, encouraging me to be true to myself. He's more accepting than I am of what you can't control.
Because this book is different from your earlier ones, do you have more concerns about it, about whether your readers will follow you? Are you looking for a different audience?
I'm getting better and not so nervous any more. It certainly is a concern and you wonder if you're going to lose your audience or build on it and attract more readers. But I can't do a whole lot about that. Having written the book, I've got to trust my publisher to market it. We made sure the cover suggested a change, but I have to leave it to the publisher and readers to get the word out.
I think your publisher deserves kudos on this. They sent it without our requesting it, which is unusual for hardcover releases. I think it was a good move for them to expand their distribution on this because it deserves to be read by a whole new audience for you.
I feel very good about this publisher and their plan. But you have to take a chance or you'll end up writing the same book over and over.
What's up next for you?
I'm halfway through another book which is again, a little different. It's hard to categorize, but it's the story of 20 years in the lives of four women through marriage, motherhood, and murder. That book might be out as early as next fall.
One last question - why did Jake never know that Mattie knew about his affairs, even though he pretty much left it out in plain site with the receipts and so forth?
Oh well, because, that's what they're like. I think because she never confronted him with it and he was not consciously leaving clues - he was just careless. He really thought, as a lot of men do, that he was getting away with it. A lot of men who cheat have no idea that their wives have been on to them for a long time. And, a lot of women bury their heads in the sand.