Marian Thurm is the author of the new novel The Good Life. Her other books include the story collection Today Is Not Your Day and the novel The Clairvoyant. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and she has taught creative writing at various institutions including Yale and Barnard.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this novel, and for your main characters, Stacy and Roger?
A: This happens to me frequently in life as a writer—somebody will tell me a little of something and I become very intrigued by it. That’s pretty much what happened here. That’s why writers are so curious about everything…
So I went on the Internet, I found out a little more about this particular tragedy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it…when you stumble across the right inspiration, you know it.
Q: So your characters are based on actual people?
A: No, the incident that inspired the novel—I didn’t know the people personally. They were characters I created. Inspiration just means you learn about something that happens and take it in your own direction.
Q: The novel opens with Roger buying a gun. Why did you decide to start this way?
A: It’s interesting because the very first page I wrote, I revealed on the first page what had happened. It was the paragraph that came to me. I was having problems as I was writing, and I showed it to a friend of mine.
She instinctively knew I had revealed way too much, and this was a big mistake. She was absolutely right. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes. I couldn’t let go of the darkness; it was the way I wanted to open the book. It seemed like a compromise to me.
I’d never done a blog post before, but the publisher asked me to write something—[handling a gun] was a traumatic experience for me. I will never forget it as long as I live. I will never understand it. I lost my appetite for lunch.
This was territory I’d never dealt with before. This book is very different—it reveals my dark philosophy of life.
Q: Yes, you’ve mentioned that this book was a departure from some of your past work. Did your writing process change for this novel?
A: One thing was different. I actually found myself, in two particular scenes…I had to reread and write over and over, and each time I felt sick, so terrible for my characters. It was a very visceral feeling…
I knew from the beginning where it was going—some writers say they don’t. The narrative arc was clear, but I allowed myself to forget how it would go. I was fooling myself.
Q: You switch back and forth between the present time and various other times in the characters’ lives. You knew the narrative arc, but did you make any changes as you went along?
A: My daughter is a social worker and a novelist. She and I did a Q&A together, and I was shocked when she told me she would write a chapter, write another chapter, and then fit it all together! I said, Are you kidding me? It turned out to be a good book, and she knew what she was doing!
A friend who’s a novelist…would write things on index cards and put them on the floor and mix it around. I don’t understand that!
Usually for me, I have a strong sense of where the narrative is going, and I would never start a book without fully understanding who the characters are. I always know how old they are, the year they were married, how old their children are.
When I ask my students, how old is this person, and they say they’re not sure—these are things I have to know! I know where the book is going to end. I start typing and I have an innate sense of things. I don’t have to refer to notes…
Q: How did you come up with the book’s title?
A: I wish I could have had a more original title, but I knew this was the best title. I felt the title was chosen with great irony…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: There is a fascinating answer to that question…Sometimes, astonishingly, things happen in life where you’ve written something and find out after 125 pages that it may have been the story of your life and you didn’t know it. Life is full of all kinds of surprises. I can’t really talk about it.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I guess it’s so interesting to me—I never imagined I would be writing a book that involved the purchase of a gun. I surprised myself in a good way that I was able to write something different. I always had a dark sensibility—I only wish it hadn’t been historic. Ultimately, I was compelled to make things a little lighter.
I wrote it very quickly. I knew the story I wanted to tell…it was easy to write from one day to the next. I couldn’t wait to go back to it. That’s always a good feeling for a writer. Even though I dreaded the narrative arc, it was a good feeling to get back to it.
Also, there is a lot of humor in the book, and I hope readers will see that…
--Interview with Deborah Kalb