by Patricia Grandjean
Jan 19, 2013
01:59 PMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: Ann Leary
The last time we spoke with author Ann Leary—two years ago—she was involved with Literacy Volunteers of Greater Waterbury, moonlighting as an EMT and staying engrossed with her blog/website, annleary.com, on which she'd posted some of the most charming videos of her pets we'd ever seen. She'd also finished a draft of her latest novel, The Good House (published by St. Martin's Press Jan. 15), which draws upon her background in Marblehead, Mass., her current community in the Litchfield Hills, and her personal past with alcoholism. Leary will be doing book appearances and signings at R.J. Julia in Madison Jan. 25 and the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Feb. 9. By the way, she's also married to actor/producer Denis Leary, and co-hosts a talk show on NPR, Hash Hags.
Let's start with the obvious question: What prompted you to write The Good House?
I've been wanting to write a book set in a small New England town for a long time. I moved to Marblehead, Mass., when I was 14, and if you come from New England, you know that unless you're born in a New England town, you're not really "from" there. I grew up moving around all the time as a child, and mostly in the Midwest. So when we moved to Marblehead, which is a very charming, historic town on Boston's North Shore, I was really taken aback by the New England personalities, which were quite different from what I had known prior to that.
I also grew up with the idea that if you were born in a place and grew up there, you would have this automatic sense of being accepted and belonging—which I now know isn't true, having had many friends who grew up in one town and struggled with those feelings. But I thought that way as a child, and I really envied my classmates in Marblehead for their shared background; many who had grown up there had parents and grandparents who also grew up there. In Marblehead, there still are citizens from its earliest families: There's a Peaches Point and Dolliber Cove, and there were Peachs and Dollibers in my class. Their ancestors were the first setllers in the 1600s. So my imagination was always running wild about how fabulous it would be to be like them—to have that kind of heritage. Now, as you know, I live in another small New England town, and I've gotten to know a lot of wonderful people here, and their families have been from this area for many generations. Again, I'm an outsider here—we've lived here for about 15 years.
So I had this idea of writing a book that would explore the theme of New England townie vs. newcomer, but also I wanted to write about a scandal. Originally, the book was going to be about a scandal I read about in a newspaper, concerning a psychiatrist and patient. But that ended up being a subplot. Because once I started writing the book, I discovered that the narrator I chose, Hildy Good, actually had a more compelling story to offer.
I don't personally know Marblehead, though I've traveled to similar points in Massachusetts. But when you talk in the book about the Hickory Stick Toyshop, obviously I recognized the Litchfield County reference right away. I actually could picture the spot where the Hickory Stick Bookshop sits in Washington, across from that funky pizza place and Grape in the Shade, the vintage shop.
Absolutely. Well, you know the book is set in the town of Wendover, Mass., and that's fictitious—but it really was drawn from my memories of the Ipswich-Essex areas of Massachusetts, which are a little north of Marblehead and a little more rural. Though I never lived in that area, I often drove through it. I actually used to take riding lessons up there and really loved it—I fantasized about how fabulous it would be to live there.
But because I live here, a lot of the geographical specifics are drawn from my part of Connecticut rather than Massachusetts. People from the area will recognize names of streets that I find charming: Hat Shop Hill Road in Bridgewater, for example. My friend Fran Kilty owns the Hickory Stick Bookshop, which everybody in this area loves and knows is a treasure. I just wanted to be able to throw in fun things that I love, from near and far.
And I did that with characters in the book, too. One of them is the Frank Getchell character. When I finished the first draft . . . I always send my first drafts to two people. One was my sister, Meg, and another was a friend of mine, here in town. After Meg read the book, she called me and said, "I love it, but I really think you need to change the specifics about the Frank Getchell character," and then she mentioned a guy we went to high school with who actually was a descendent of one of the earliest Marblehead families. He's a great guy, but I didn't even know he's now the fix-it guy, the garbageman, he's got this whole business. And then my local friend, Jane, called me the same week, saying, "Look, I think the book's great, but you've got to change the specifics of The Frank Getchell character," and then she named this guy who lived in my town who I did think some people might figure was the Getchell character. She said, "I just think he might be embarrassed." I finally said, "You know what? This is great, because I now know there's one in every town." None of the characters are based on any specific person, but of course I draw on people I know or have observed in my community, and communities I've lived in elsewhere.
But what about Sneakers? Is he based on your cat Sneakers?
Yes, Sneakers is the only character who has a real life counterpart. He's no longer with us, I'm afraid! But we have two new fabulous cats. I loved putting Sneakers in the book, because I'm really a dog person. But the cats that I've had—and we've had cats all my life—their personalities have stayed with me all my life.
In the press release for the book, you mention being a real-estate junkie.
How did that inform the story?
Well, I did make Hildy Good the narrator, and she is a real estate broker. And she's kind of a holdout; she runs a private company and is losing business. A few years back—the book is set in the present day—she was the top broker in her area. Now her business is being taken away by corporate real estate: The Sothebys, the Coldwell Bankers. And so are the businesses in her town; the local grocer is now owned by Stop & Shop. That's another theme of the book: what's happened in small towns in order to make it convenient for some of the newcomers who move there for the charm. The charm is actually removed from the town.
There are many reasons to have her be a real estate agent. I am fascinated by real estate. We're never really in the market, but I just love to look at real estate sites online. But another reason to make Hildy a real estate agent is because as a narrator, I needed her to be very knowledgable about the people in her town. Hildy is that, for many reasons: One is, as a broker, she says at the beginning of the book, she can walk through a house once and know more about the people than a shrink can tell you in a year of sessions. And that's actually a line I stole from a contractor I know, who I did a walk-through with once. That fascinated me.
It's interesting, because Hildy made me think of Litchfield County's Caroline Klemm.
Yes! But I know Caroline, and anyone who knows her will know this character couldn't be less like her.
I've known quite a few women in my life who have reminded me of Hildy. They're real New Englanders, in the best sense of the word: real Yankees, hard-working, resilient, people who do not necessarily like to be hugged. They have big hearts, they just don't want anyone to know it. That's the way I envisioned Hildy's personality; she and her love interest Frank Getchell are really these wonderful Yankee personalities. And this is something I've found to be true in the towns I've known—these Yankees really care a lot about their communities. They really do care about their neighbors, but they'd die before letting anyone know. If they help other people, they definitely don't want attention for that. They'd rather people think they couldn't be less interested.
But Hildy kind of straddles two worlds, unlike Frank, who has quite a lot of wealth—although people look at him as though he's poor because his house is falling apart and he has all kinds of junk on his lawn—because he owns a ton of waterfront real estate that's become quite valuable; it's been in his family forever. And Hildy, who makes money on real estate, thinks he should sell it; she should sell it for him, and make them both a lot of money. She wants to sell it to these hedge-funders. He doesn't understand that—he has no need for the money but he has need for the land; he likes to fish there. He values things differently than many others; he's actually quite satisfied with what he has. That's what I really liked about him.
Hildy likes to think of herself as unemotional about her past. She doesn't understand when people attach sentiment to a childhood home. She prides herself in not being sentimental that way. That's one thing about Hildy: She's often telling the reader she's a certain way, but my goal as the writer was to have the reader come to understand that sometimes, Hildy might not have the most accurate perceptions of herself. She certainly is when it comes to other people because she's quite intuitive, but she doesn't know herself as well as she should.
Her perceptions of others change based on her drinking, too.
Right. I'm glad you picked up on that; that was definitely deliberate. You know, I have gone public that I am an alcoholic and I have struggled with drinking myself. So I know how your personality changes when you drink. Even social drinkers feel better when they drink. But for Hildy, after one drink she rather likes a person; maybe after two drinks, she really likes them and after three or four she absolutely loves them, and they have to kind of peel her off of them. [laughs] When sober, she's quite judgmental and very defensive, especially around her family and for good reason: Her daughters have staged an intervention for her, when she knew she didn't have a drinking problem. She was quite successful in her career, and everybody, as far as she knew, admired and respected her. So she was blindsided by this intervention, as many people are when their families do this. So she's quite angry and bitter toward them, though she doesn't want them to know that. But when she drinks, she's able to experience her loving feelings for them and everybody else.
It changes so quickly, too: One minute she's talking about Frank Getchell as if he's wonderful youthful lover and the next, she's looking down on him as the garbage man.
That was interesting for me to explore: the way she devalues Frank. She's most harshly critical when she wants a drink and feels that he's in her way. But then she's able to soften toward him with alcohol; that's what it does for her. It fills a void—she's able to understand that to a certain extent. She sees nothing wrong with filling a void. Basically, what she does in the book is drink by herself: She loves what she calls her "party of one." Even if she doesn't remember going to bed, who did she hurt? Nobody.
It's a great, believable portrayal of denial.
I think it's really hard for people who have relationships with people who have drinking problems. It's hard for them to understand the denial. And that was one of the things I wanted to do with this book—to show the mindset of someone in complete denial. Hildy is often confused and angry because she judges herself by her intentions, which are usually good; she really does have a good heart. But others judge her by her actions, and she often doesn't remember what she does when she's drunk. Like all alcoholics and addicts, she's built up this fortress of denial that she doesn't want anyone to break down for her. So she likes to constantly remind herself and her readers how successful she is, and that really the problem is not her, it's her daughters. Or the real estate market . . .
It's even her dogs.
The dogs, yeah. It's funny, because my other two books had no animals in them—though I blog all the time about my animals and I'm a big animal lover. This book is filled with animals. Hildy's dogs were quite fun to write, because they kind of are her drinking buddies, but they also represent these two contrasting aspects of her personality: The little terrier is quite snippy, it bites; and the collie mix is almost too affable, it approaches you with its whole body wagging. Hildy is extremely annoyed by the collie, especially, because the neediness of that kind of dog—she hates that in others. She won't allow herself access to needing to love, or be loved. She sees that as a kind of weakness. So I thought it was interesting to have the dogs be her "familiars," as they used to say about witches' dogs.
What does the book say about alcoholism in women? Because it seems to be more a source of shame for women than men.
I think that's true; I think there's much more of a stigma still for women alcoholics, and for a number of reasons: I think primarily it's often because women are often mothers and grandmothers. So I think it's often seen as dangerous; and just as not how a good mother behaves, getting drunk and not remembering what she does. But also, for young women, it's quite dangerous to be drunk in public, much more than for men. I think a lot of women, as a result, do drink alone. It's one thing to come home after work and have a couple of glasses of wine, or to drink wine with dinner, but then to drink after the kids are in bed, or to drink on into a drunken state—which is part of my personal history—is not a healthy thing to do.
But if you're a "good" alcoholic, you can convince yourself that it's not really that big a deal, because no one else sees it.
Of course, then Hildy gets into a relationship with Rebecca, and one of the things that makes her happy about that is that they can drink together.
Rebecca is a newcomer to the town, who doesn't know all the undercurrents going on, which Hildy feels everyone else does. She thinks everyone in town knows she went to Hazelden, and everyone in town knows she doesn't drink. She's thrilled to learn that Rebecca, who she sold a house to from out of town—a very wealthy, beautiful young woman—never heard this this about her. Rebecca's not that interested in town gossip. She's got her own thing going on, So Hildy's thrilled to leran that Rebecca doesn't know she's an alcoholic, and then when she tells Rebecca over a couple of drinks that, "Guess what, my crazy daughters had this intervention," Rebecca thinks it's nothing because all her friends went to rehab and they all drink now. There's such an intimacy that frms between them just because Hildy's able to drink again with another person, which is much nicer than drinking alone if you love to drink.
Even though the reader sees the characters through Hildy's eyes, they still have a life of their own. You can imagine them separate from Hildy.
Oh, good! That's hard when you write in the first person. When I wrote about Rebecca, it had to be either through hearsay—because Hildy has to somehow come by this knowledge—or Hildy's own intuitions. Salem, Mass., is right near Marblehead, and today there's a lot of storefronts with these psychics, a lot more occult-seeking people then there were in the 1970s when I was growing up. If you walk through the town's historic district today, you'll see a lot of these mediums and psychics. So Hildy's aunt was one of these people who did readings, and Hildy and her cousin used to watch her. And they picked up what Hildy sees as tricks. Which is basically learning to read really subtle body language of others, and Hildy will still do it at parties—it really looks like she can read people's minds. She see what she does as "tricks,' but again, Hildy doesn't know herself that well, so she might be a little more intuitive than she thinks.
But towards the end, her drinking really starts to get out of control, and her perception of reality becomes really distorted. It's a little distorted always, as with all alcoholics and addicts, otherwise it's hard to keep doing what you're doing.
The book really becomes nightmarish.
And it truly is for alcoholics, blacking out and not remembering chunks of time. It's very frightening. So I wanted to show that, too, this experience of she's doing one thing—and then it's the next day. That's how Hildy experiences life: Everything's going along fine, she's having a drink, and then it's the next day. That is the blackout drinkers' big bummer. It's hard to explain away behavior that you can't even remember. It's almost a reflex to pretend you remembered. It's a lot of work [laughs].
The only experience I've had remotely similar to that is sleepwalking.
So imagine that, and imagine that you went to a party, and then it was the next day—and you went to two other parties, and went to the beach and swam. That's what a blackout drinker is like. Or people show up the next morning because you invited them for breakfast, and don't even remember doing so. I've had a number of personal experiences that informed me for this book.
It's interesting because this is one of my first interviews; this book doesn't come out till tomorrow. But I did do another interview the other day and the person said, "Weren't you mad at Hildy?" and I thought, "Wow, that's interesting." No, I never was mad at Hildy. I actually shared Hildy's rage at others for not understanding! Her just complete impatience with the rest of the world for being the way they are.
You know, it's funny as a writer: You imagine that the reader will understand the characters exactly as you wrote them. But of course, every reader brings their own experience and understanding to the book. What's interesting about that is the audiobook version of the story, read by Mary Beth Hurt. At the book-signing I'm doing at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Jan. 16, Mary Beth is going to be there to read from the book! Which is really cool, because my other two books—when I listen to the audio version—I felt really uncomfortable, because I thought, "That wasn't quite the voice I imagined." But this one, because Mary Beth is so frigging talented, and has such a wonderful voice for Hildy, the audiobook actually enhanced things. It made me think about how a book is actually half the writer's job, but also half the reader's job. I'm very excited—I've never actually heard someone red something I wrote while I was there. But I have heard her read parts of the audiobook, and it's really great.
By the end of the book, though Hildy is not someone who embraces sentiment, as you say, there's definitely a sentimental aura to things.
There is; I know! And I don't like sentiment either, so when I wrote the ending I was kind of cringing. I don't like it in writing, and I don't like it personally, though I do admire others who are able to run up and hug and show all sorts of emotion. But I did want to show a softening of Hildy's character a little bit. I hope that people will see that she's really not as stern and critical as she tries to make people think she is. I really wanted to show that while on the one hand, she's really dismissive of any sentimentality—to her, her community is just a business—there is this other side to her where she will help others, though she doesn't want notice for it.
It's something that I've noticed in real life, especially in this community. People don't want to be seen as needing or wanting help, they just quietly help others, which I really admire.
You've also had an upfront view of that as an EMT, right?
Right, and I really do still learn every day. I'm on both the Roxbury and Washington crews, and most of the people on my crews are much more experienced and able to go out on more crews than I am, so every time I go out on a call I learn a lot. And many of the people on these crews have parents who were on the volunteer fire department; they just were brought up with this sense of responsibility to the community. I'm not sure that responsibility is even the right word; they just feel that one should participate in making a community as good as it can be, and really helping out people who might need their help, and quietly so.
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.Q&A Exclusive: Ann Leary