Q: How did you come up with the idea for your first novel, Mail, in which the heroine falls in love with her mailman?
A: I was a short story writer for a long time and used to send my stories out in self-addressed stamped manila envelopes. One day my mailman rang my doorbell. “Can I ask you a question?” he ventured. “Why do you keep getting these manila envelopes addressed to you in the same hand with your own return address?” When I explained that they were my rejected stories being sent back to me, he looked so so sad. “Maybe some day, I’ll bring you an acceptance with a big fat check,” he said. When I went back inside, I thought, who is the most important man in a writer’s life?’ Well, the mailman of course. So that was a start. The book has a long history—was optioned for ten years by the director and producer of the first Bridget Jones Diary (we even went to the premiere!) and Wendy Wasserstein wrote the screenplay. Then Wendy died and the movie people lost interest. It’s now been optioned for a potential TV series. Not optimistic about it’s ever getting to the screen, big or small, but think longingly of the new life the novel might have, reissued with a celebrity’s face on the cover.
Q: Your books take place in New England--most of them in Cambridge, Mass. What makes Cambridge such a good location for humorous novels?
A: I live in Cambridge (am originally from Maine) and have lived in Cambridge since 1964, and am still an outsider. I’ve always been interested in writing about class ( a dirty word in the USA) and Cambridge is quite the microcosm with a diverse population and distinct geographical markers. Then add to this, the issues of town and gown and--Voila!--a rich lode to mine. I always thought I might run out of restaurants in which to place my characters—but new ones keep cropping up faster than I can set scenes inside them.
Q: Your most recent novel, Of Men and Their Mothers, deals with a difficult relationship between the main character and her former mother-in-law. On your website, you ask people for their mother-in-law stories. What are some of the best ones you've heard?
A: You can go to my website and read all of them. But, by far, my favorite is the new bride who received a beautifully wrapped box from her mother-in-law. Inside were a pair of cut apron strings.
Q: Do you keep thinking about your characters once you're finished writing about them? Do you plan to write sequels to any of your novels, or will you continue to have characters make cameo appearances in a new novel the way your character Seamus O'Toole did?
A: Every so often I’ll give a character a cameo in another of my novels. Lots of fun to do this and a sort of wink to my readers. But when a book is finished, it’s finished. Many readers have written and asked me what happened to the characters‘ lives beyond the final page. You tell me, I always answer. Or they ask if I plan to write a sequel. No, the story is over. I’m on to the next. In fact I’ve never reread a single book of mine once it’s been published. (Probably out of fear and a sense that I would start rewriting.)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve finished another novel about a woman who takes up the trapeze on a significant birthday. And now I’m trying something different—a series of essays on the (VERY) eccentric members of my family with illustrations of the objects that defined them.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I always try to make a case for comedy in fiction. If something’s funny, a lot of people dismiss this as “lite.” But I feel we comic writers deal with everything the big guys deal with--love and loss, death and anxiety, the way we live now--simply with a humorous twist. And it’s just as hard to write funny as it is to write with impressive gravitas. As Trollope said, easy reading takes hard writing. There is something lovely an satisfying about entertaining a reader and distracting someone from an illness, a hard day, tough times.
Interview with Deborah Kalb