by Patricia Grandjean
Jan 19, 2013
01:59 PM
Box Office

Q&A Exclusive: Ann Leary


(page 3 of 4)

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.

Q&A Exclusive: Ann Leary

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