Friday, February 5, 2021

Q&A with Elayne Klasson


Elayne Klasson is the author of the novel Love Is a Rebellious Bird. A psychologist, she has worked at San Jose State University. She lives near Santa Barbara, California.


Q: You write, "When you begin to get serious about your writing in late middle age, there is the sense that time is precious." How long did you work on this novel, and how long have you been writing fiction?


A: In my late 40s, 25 years ago, after a career in academia and raising my four kids (much of it on my own as a widowed single mother), I asked, “If not now, when?” Although I’d written a fair amount of academic material and some journalism, I had always been passionate about fiction and so began.


Early on, in my 40s, I got some encouragement: winning a few contests and awards and residencies. However, Love is a Rebellious Bird took root five years ago after attending a high school reunion in Chicago and becoming interested in how those high school relationships influence, but do not necessarily define, who we become.


Q: How did you come up with your characters Judith and Elliot, and how would you describe their relationship?


A: I soon realized that long-form fiction was where I was most comfortable. I like to tell a story over time and I like to develop a character’s backstory. Taking off from this high school reunion I attended, I wondered about this real boy/man Elliot, who had always been every girl’s crush.


What would happen if this extremely desirable and attractive person actually had and maintained a relationship with one of the more ordinary girls/women who adored him? What happens when a charismatic and beautiful man actually becomes involved with someone not quite of his stature? I was interested in the power balance of this relationship over time.


Q: You note of your decision to tell the story in second person, addressed from Judith to Elliot, "I wasn't happy with this being told to an anonymous audience." What do you think the second-person narration adds to the novel?


A: I hope it adds two things: honesty and intimacy. A contract of dishonesty existed between Elliot and Judith. She is the loyal friend. Even when they sleep together, she is not to openly admit her love for him. That admission would change everything. By addressing Elliot directly in this novel, Judith’s story becomes more honest. And because it is more honest, I hope it is more intimate.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way? 


A: I did not know how it would end when I began writing. I love books that go longitudinally, following the characters, or family, through time and maturation. I knew that I wanted Judith and Elliot to mature and go on with their lives, but stay engaged and connected with each other.  


I struggled to find an ending which was not sappy and sugary--yet not without joy and hope. I spent a great deal of time trying to find that ending: satisfying yet not soporific, for Judith and Elliot toward the end of their lives.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?  


A: I did a bit of research for the legal career of Elliot. I researched how one becomes a clerk to a Supreme Court justice—where one typically went to law school and what one typically accomplishes to be in the running for this honor.


Originally, I’d placed Elliot at Columbia and had him living near the Columbia campus until I learned that a great preponderance of Supreme Court clerks from the 20th century went to Harvard Law. So, off Elliot and his then-wife went to Boston and Harvard.


I also researched the career of a successful lawyer who specializes in antitrust cases. I looked at some important antitrust cases.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I struggled over this. I didn’t write this novel to depict any great social message. Some readers have seen a “Me Too” story in the book. But I was hopeful that through this novel, readers would look at their choices in finding love in their own lives. I start out with that question: “Why do we love the people we do?”


I hope readers will take away Judith’s courage in looking at her choices and what they cost her as well as what they gave her. As we age, I think this accounting and self-examination is important. I like that Judith is not a victim—she is stubborn, analytic, sarcastic—but she always takes responsibility for how she lived her life.


I also have learned that people respond in very different ways to the relationship between Judith and Elliot—some readers have been annoyed, even angry, with Judith because she stays with Elliot despite the relative inequality in their relationship.


More and more, I am hoping that readers will not judge others for the choices they make in relationships. I remind readers that this is not a self-help book. I am not advocating that all women follow Judith’s path—this is a personal choice—one I probably would not make.


I watched the recent Hilary Clinton four-part documentary on Netflix. I was touched at how Secretary Clinton responded again to questions about why she stayed with Bill after the scandals with women.


She replied (and I loosely paraphrase) that she had never loved anyone as much as she loved Bill. She decided to not leave him. She seemed utterly sincere and I decided to stop judging her for her decision, as I hope readers will not judge Judith. 


Q: Can you say more about how readers have responded to the novel?


A: I have been thrilled and surprised by the response. With my debut novel coming from a relatively small press, I did not know what to expect, fearing that my novel would be dropped into a deep, dark hole, never to see the light of day.


To my surprise, the book has been well received and sales respectable. For example, the day it hit Southern California’s Independent Book Seller’s Top Ten in Fiction, I was glowing and giddy beyond belief. I've won some amazing prizes I never expected.


But the response from readers at events has been the most heartwarming. I have loved going to book clubs and book events and hearing my characters, Judith and Elliot, being debated and discussed. They are real to me—and what a thrill to hear readers relate to them.


There have been some surprises—the biggest is how warmly the book has been accepted by the Jewish community. I wrote with what I suppose is considered a Jewish sensibility and voice—but I did not address specifically Jewish themes.


The question of who we chose to love is certainly not an exclusively Jewish question. But my greatest fans seem to come from the Jewish community. I asked my rabbi why she thought this was.


She replied that, besides the obvious answers of where the characters grew up and with what Jewish institutions they interacted, she thought the notion of compassion and caring was a theme of the book—and a Jewish theme.


I also have loved that people have related and told me their stories of their own particular “golden boy (or girl)". The novel has helped people remember that particular person in their past who was, as I put it in my novel, their “definition of what love is.” 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have an unpublished novel I finished before Love is a Rebellious Bird. It is called The Earthquake Child. Having an adopted child, I was terribly interested in the interplay of nature and nurture—especially when a child is adopted by a family culturally and economically different than his biological family. 


I have been reworking this novel, finding the question still feels compelling to me.

Again, following an adoptive child over decades, I tell his story from three voices. I am revising the novel and hope to publish it in 2021 or 2022.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: It is a thrill and surprise that I am publishing my debut novel at the age of 72! I have worked hard and always felt that when the work was good enough, it would be published. I feel excited and exhilarated to be talking about and touring with this novel and am treasuring the experience. As I said earlier, I feel every moment is precious and I don’t want to waste any of it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here’s a previous version of this Q&A. Elayne Klasson will be speaking virtually at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Feb. 9.

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