Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Q&A with Jacquelyn Mitchard



Jacquelyn Mitchard is the author of the new novel A Very Inconvenient Scandal. Her many other books include the novel The Good Son. Also a journalist and professor, she lives on Cape Cod. 


Q: What inspired you to write A Very Inconvenient Scandal, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: It’s often said that I write about families, and I freely admit that nothing fascinates me more than the ways in which families influence the course of individual lives. As Tolstoy famously said, all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.


What Tolstoy did not say is that some families start out one way and end up the other way. That’s where I come in — that hinge in fate.


Of course, for many families, the struggle is simply to survive. In some families, where being a high achiever is prized, there is usually also a person who wants the people she loves to shine, even if it means putting herself last. 


In A Very Inconvenient Scandal, that was the mother, Beatrice, a gifted painter whose unexpected death from strep the previous year opens the story.


Although her children are not “children” (they are in their 20s), her death devastates everyone.


Mack Attleboro, a celebrated explorer and marine biologist, literally breaks down and can’t work; he never realized just how much he relied on his graceful wife. Frankie, her daughter, an underwater photographer whose work combines both parents’ passions, has lost her touchstone, her validator.


Some say that fiction is meant to correct real life or at least, to understand it. You may not be writing about actual events in your own life, but the most powerful emotional content will almost always have a personal inspiration.


I never had a close relationship with my father. My brother did. With me, he was distant and suspicious, a blue-collar guy who wasn’t really sure about girls being powerful and smart.


I wanted to write a story about a woman who grew up very close to her mother but who always yearned for her father’s respect and affection. That is Frankie Attleboro, named for a boy because her father so wanted a son. 


In the story, Mack explodes the whole family by falling in love with Frankie’s best friend, Ariel, who is 27 years old, the same age as his own daughter.


While Mack certainly met Ariel growing up, he barely noticed her. For 10 months of the year, he was off adventuring and lecturing about saving marine mammals and during brief periods at home, expected to be treated as the center of the universe.


Frankie’s mother Beatrice arranged for Ariel to run The Saltwater Foundation. When Beatrice died, Frankie was off traveling the world underwater. So it was Ariel, along with Frankie’s brother, Penn, who helped Mack survive that blow.


Now Frankie feels betrayed by both her father and her best friend: She, too, is about to be married and expecting a baby boy, and she secretly hoped that her father would cherish his new role. Instead, it seems that the child that Mack and Ariel are having could displace Frankie and her brother entirely.


That part, too, was distantly inspired by real life: My own father decided to marry a woman I went to high school with, the only mercy being that she was a couple of years older. Family entanglements can make for miserable living, but they often make for terrific fiction.


So right off the bat, the reader is introduced to a mysterious world, both above and below the surface — literally above and below the surface. 


Water, with all its attendant symbolism, seems to be a force in all the books I write. I live by the ocean, and, although I love to swim, give me a pool anytime. I’m terrified of dark water. I gave Frankie those same fears, so that she would be forced to overcome them in order to tell her stories in pictures. 


Finding an interesting profession for a character, even though the story isn’t about that, is a real challenge. Even though this isn’t the world I grew up in, you’d be shocked by how many female protagonists in books are bakers and veterinarians and how few are scientists and construction supervisors.


I pored over books of pictures taken by such eminent photographers as David Doublet and Brian Skerry, some of which are just crazy, such as one of Skerry standing on the ocean floor looking into the face of a massive killer whale, which I sort of adapted for one of the most exciting parts of my novel. 


So, there are these powerful characters clashing in a conflict that summons up all sorts of ghosts from the past. Despite how bright and driven they are, they cannot see themselves, a family that should be coming together but instead is coming apart. 

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: There was a long, long and sometimes tense process to arrive at this title  — and honestly, I’m not sure of everything it signifies to me, although the book does center around a scandal that affects a prominent family and their community.


I’d come up with so very many other titles for the novel before this one. Some of them didn’t suit the editor or the marketing department, and there were others that they came up with that I didn’t like. 


I’m picky about titles and generally, I’m very adept at making them up! In the business, I’ve thought up plenty of titles for other authors, many of them used to good effect. They’ve called me “The Titleist,” like the golf ball.


So the process with his one, about which there was so much push and pull, was a little unnerving. In other words, there were titles that the editor liked a great deal but just didn’t think were quite suitable.


I tended to go the more lyrical route (e.g. The Deep End of the Ocean wasn’t really about an ocean, it was about a family in the restaurant business in Chicago who lost a child to abduction …). The publisher leaned toward something much more concrete. 


Here are some of them that were contenders: 

Saltwater, Nautical Twilight, The Daughter of Earth and Water, A Family of Purpose and Means, Love Among the Sea Monsters, Here Below the Surface, How to Breathe Underwater, A Family in the Rip Tide, The Shifting Sea, What the Waves Tell Us About Love, and The Battle for Tall Trees.


All together, there were 87 different title choices. Some obviously were non-starters but others were difficult to give up. It’s a big process and an important process because, of course, the title of the book is the opening door, the first impression, and it has to do so much heavy lifting to attract the reader.


Authors are always told, if you can’t remember the title easily, or if you find yourself leaving out an article (a “The” or “A” in the title), you can bet readers are going to have the same problem. 


Q: In our previous interview, you said of A Very Inconvenient Scandal, “This book is a departure for me … I’ve never written anything resembling a ‘thriller,’ so … although this doesn’t have car chases and letter bombs, you definitely have no idea of ‘the truth’ until the very, very last pages.” Without giving anything away, did you know “the truth” early in your writing process, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I did know the truth at the outset. I always know what the “MacGuffin” will be and writing the whole rest of the book is, in a sense, the way that secret is revealed.


There are changes along the way, detours I didn’t necessarily anticipate, but, in general, I’ve thought so much about how the story will end that nothing interferes with that original vision.


What sets A Very Inconvenient Scandal apart is how the echoes of the past have very real and harrowing present consequences that not even those people most intimately involved know about or understand. And there definitely are dark forces at work (don’t you love dark forces?) that seem to be the very opposite. 


Reading a book is a substantial investment of time and money, so the reader really deserves all sorts of treats and surprises to make the journey worth the while. A reader needs to feel smart, included, “in on it,” whatever it happens to be.


Q: The writer Lan Samantha Chang said of the book, “A tale of family skeletons, community secrets, and the enduring power of friendship and love, this delightful novel shows that it is possible to recover from and even triumph after loss.” What do you think of that description?


A: I just love it! It goes right to the heart of this story in that it’s remarkable how events can take place in plain sight, and then, 10 years later, it’s as if everybody tacitly agreed to act as if they never happened and just go steady on, ignoring what kinds of impact those occurrences on the current crisis. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a story that has elements of true crime, loosely based on the first murder trial I covered as a young reporter, the story of a brilliant biology student who became a pricey call girl and stood accused of murdering her two most loyal clients.


She was convicted of murder and went to prison, but, here is the interesting part, after 12 years, she became eligible to apply for parole — and she has never even applied. So that was the question: Why would a very young woman, only 20 years old, willingly go to jail for life?


What I’m describing here is the real-life story. The fictional story inspired by it is about two women who grew up as neighbors. One was a fairly ordinary girl who grew up to be a writer for a big fashion magazine (something like Vogue) and one who was startlingly brilliant and beautiful, who ended up on trial for murder.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jacquelyn Mitchard.

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