Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Q&A with Juliette Fay




Juliette Fay is the author of the new novel The Half of It. Her other books include Catch Us When We Fall. She lives in Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write The Half of It, and how did you create your characters Helen and Cal?


A: The idea came to me during the first months of the pandemic when we were more or less in lockdown. Many people talked about taking this pause in the general busyness of life to reflect: Is this job right for me? Is this partner a good match? Is the town or city I really want to live in?


I wondered what it might be like to do that deep dive into self-reflection and come up with some unhappy answers. What if you realized that your life had really gotten off track? Especially as an older person, you’d have less time to make a course correction.


The main theme of The Half of It is regret. Helen Spencer realizes that her life has gone awry one little wrong decision at a time, a domino effect that spiraled into the wrong work, the wrong husband, the wrong city. I wanted her to be older, to have to sit with those choices and have no idea of what to do about them.


I chose 58 because that’s how old I was when I wrote it, and I figured if we were going to delve into Helen’s adolescent years, it would be fun to revisit my own! (I am not Helen, however. I’m very grateful for my career, husband, and community.)


Then I thought, what if you could, in a sense, go back, revisit those decisions, sort them out, and make new choices? So I put her on a collision course with the guy she was with when everything took a hard left turn. And of course Cal has his own story, his own path with unfortunate decisions in its wake.


They need each other to understand exactly what happened and to untangle that mess. Then they find themselves in the strange situation of helping each other figure out where to go from here.


Q: The writer Laurie Frankel said of the novel, “Juliette Fay gives us a heartfelt novel where hard-earned wisdom and long-awaited grace provide their own romance, passion, heartbreak, and, ultimately, hope.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I love it, first because Laurie Frankel is an author I deeply admire. I was beyond thrilled to get such kind words from her.


I also think it’s an interesting way to put it. Helen’s and Cal’s wisdom is definitely hard-earned; they both had to wade through any number of lapses in judgment before the truth started coming clear to them. They both have their moments of wondering, “How did I not see … X?”

And then that long-awaited grace allows them finally to confront each other and ultimately challenge each other to do better—for themselves and for others.


Q: You tell the story along two timelines, one in the present and one during Helen and Cal’s high school years. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one timeline before turning to the other?


A: I wrote it as it flows in the book. It was a little tricky to go back and forth like that, but I wanted what was happening in the present to line up with the events of their past, and each timeline affects the writing of the other.


I’m not someone who has every detail plotted out ahead of time. I like the freedom to see where the story takes me within the structure of a loose arc of events and themes that I’ve developed ahead of time.


Also, this is the story of a friendship that was severed and resumes 40 years later, so you have two relationships, really, with trajectories that mirror each other in many ways.


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


A: The book’s title comes from the phrase, “You don’t know the half of it,” meaning you think you have the gist of a particular situation, but there’s way more going on than you have any idea of.


I’m always amazed at how much we don’t know about people. We see their outer persona, how they live their lives, a little about their pasts, and we think we know them. But there are layers upon layers, stories upon stories, and it takes a long time to really understand what a person has gone through, what they struggle with, what means the most to them.


I’ve always wanted to write a reunion story in which two people who were close a long time ago meet up again. I’ve always imagined using the phrase, “So this is how you turned out,” which both Helen and Cal think when they see each other for the first time. But they really know nothing, and it’s going to take a whole novel for them to learn.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a story about three people who have all lost their person. Charlie is an older man whose wife has died; Marianne’s beloved (and now ex-) husband refuses to deal with his mental health issues; and Doug’s girlfriend has a dire traumatic brain injury. They’re all struggling with loneliness, feeling unable to connect with and commit to others, and yet they find ways to show up for each other.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Well, I’m a huge fan of book clubs, and I like to let people know that if their book club chooses one of my novels, I’ll do my best to chat with them by Zoom. It’s a lot of fun for me to hear people’s reactions to the stories, and readers seem to really appreciate the chance to ask questions or make comments to the author.


Book clubs are welcome to reach out through my website at www.juliettefay.com and we’ll find a mutually convenient time.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Juliette Fay.

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