Wendy Gordon is the author of the new novel Wrong Highway. A longtime journalist, she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Wrong Highway, and for your main character, Erica?
A: I’d written several short stories, and they all seemed to be, in some fashion, about wayward teenagers and drugs. So I decided I was going to write a story about adults. I wrote the first draft of a story about two (adult) sisters who had a good girl/bad girl dynamic going on.
The “bad” sister, however, was more spirited and ultimately a better survivor than the passive “good” sister. I envisioned the bad girl interfering with the good girl’s life in an attempt to rescue her from her dangerous passivity, an attempt with unintended consequences. I wondered if one flawed individual could save another flawed individual’s life, or if they should even try.
I gave the good girl a teenage son (Jared), the plot took off, and I ended up writing about…wayward teenagers and drugs, but also another one of my subconscious themes, the wavering line where adolescence ends and adulthood begins.
I’m a believer in writing what you know, in spirit if not necessarily in fact. Having been a stay-at-home mother of three young children in a Long Island suburb, I knew that milieu and that job intimately. Erica became an alter ego of sorts during the time I inhabited her character.
The title “Wrong Highway” was inspired by the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” which to me is the iconic ‘80s song.
Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in the 1980s, and why did you also include a prologue set in 1964?
A: I am fascinated by the 1980s. There was something about that decade that made me feel like an observer even while I was living through it. It was a very singular time, unlike the decade that preceded it, and unlike any that followed.
There was so much artifice, in the fashions, in the music, in its very essence. At the same time, there existed a cheesy optimism, a wide-open sense of possibility. I felt like I was going along for the ride—very much present—yet all that time awaiting the inevitable moment when the whole wild ride would self-destruct. Which happened, right on schedule.
Plot-wise, I included the prologue to introduce the dichotomy of Erica and Debbie’s characters. My parents took me to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and it made a huge impression. What a whole big shiny future!
That summer, I read about two young boys who ran away from home and lived for three days at the fair, paying for food with coins they fished from the fountains. I write very visually, and one of the images I had from the start was Erica, looking at all that colored light through a curtain of water.
Q: Did you need to do a lot of research to recreate the music and culture of the '80s in such detail?
A: I didn’t do any research at all. I just wrote, and then fact-checked. I checked to make sure the songs I referenced had indeed been released by 1986, and I verified my baseball details.
I researched the domestic violence laws in New York in 1986, and ran the police procedural details by a retired cop who was in my writing critique group. I verified the medical effects of Coumadin.
I read several first-person accounts of “boot camps” for wayward teenagers, and to my shock, they were way worse than I’d imagined! So I adjusted my description of the Pritima Center to reflect that reality.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?
A: As I mentioned, I write visually. I had an image in my mind of baby Sophia escaping her stroller and petting all the dogs. I wanted an ambiguous ending. I did not want a pat ending, whether it be heartwarming or tragic.
I wanted a degree of redemption for Erica. I wanted her to be a survivor. But I did not want her to get a “comeuppance” or experience some huge epiphany, so she could be safely packaged away in the reader’s mind. I left it to the reader’s speculation what the future might bring, because that is real life.
So I knew how the novel would start (Erica, in the fountain) and how it would end (Erica, with Sophia and the dogs). The big challenge was getting from here to there. I made many changes along the way. It was a twisty highway, with plenty of side trips.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a novel set in the very near future, in California, where virtually every action in the world is done through a technological interface, and the documentation of every moment of existence has become even more pervasive than it is now.
I see it on the model of Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, in that while it’s speculative fiction, the personal drama is way more important than the technological details. Again, I have a 30-something mother as a protagonist, and again I deal with the lure of both safety and danger.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland! I’ve been a political junkie all my life and have definitely heard your father on the news. I’ve probably read your articles too. Thank you for including me in your blog.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb