Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Q&A with Lisa Gornick


Photo by Sigrid Estrada



Lisa Gornick is the author of the new novel Ana Turns. Her other books include the novel The Peacock Feast. She was a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst for many years, and she lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Ana Turns, and how did you create your character Ana?


A: I started with a set of seemingly unrelated ideas: a woman begins her 60th birthday crushed by the actions of her mother; her childhood best friend dies of opiate addiction; she’s struggling with anxiety about her adult child’s choices; she learns the story of the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.


It took me a long time to see the common thread embedded in these ideas: for Ana, the protagonist in my book, to understand herself or any of these situations, she needs to see the world through others’ eyes.


I never feel as though I am creating a character. Rather, I have a glimpse of a person, as you might with a new neighbor, and slowly get to know their many facets.


There’s an aphorism I often repeat: our personal histories start with our grandparents’ memories.


For me, that meant in order to understand Ana, I needed to know her grandparents too: how they met at 15 on a boat from Rotterdam to New York City, each traveling alone from rural Swedish villages, and married the evening they landed, their wedding night spent on the benches in the old Penn Station.


I needed to know what Ana looked like as a child and about her first sexual experience and her intellectual development and the way she feels now about her body. I needed to know how she talks with her friends and how she responds when her nieces come to her for help.


And I needed to know her physical surroundings so I could see her moving through the rooms of her apartment and walking to her yoga class.


Bit by bit, history emerges that sheds light on how a person became who they are now and actions unfold that reveal character in the deepest and most moral sense.

Q: The writer Helen Simonson called the book an “exquisitely written love letter to what it means to be a grown-up woman.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love that description! 


With Ana, I learned a good deal about what it means to be a grown woman—most particularly, letting go of childhood resentments and the wish to be mothered; choosing generosity over fairness, the evolution of relationships over the decades, how the most intimate interactions are grounded in shared sensibilities, often revealed in humor.


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


A: At one point, I considered Ana Turns Sixty, but I rejected this longer version as too on the nose—and perhaps erroneously sending a signal that this was a book primarily for mature women.


While the book does, indeed, take place on Ana’s 60th birthday and I do hope mature women will find it rewarding, I’ve been gratified to hear from women in their 20s that it speaks to them as well.


With Ana Turns, I like the many possible meanings: turns towards, turns away, turns around, turns back – and also the hint, if that s floats from the end of the second word to the end of the first that it is Ana’s turn.


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


A: The novel has been called a modern Mrs. Dalloway—which pleases me immensely since Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite novels, but I would never have been bold enough to attempt a new version of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece.


That said, the day-long frame of the novel was inspired by Mrs. Dalloway, with Ana’s day, like Clarissa’s, culminating in a party attended by the most central people in her life.


The last line came to me a good while into the writing, but once I had it, I knew it was the landing point for the book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am deep into a new novel, but I’m one of those writers who does best keeping the process hermetic and not saying much until I’ve achieved a draft that’s gone as far as I can on my own.


Once I’ve reached that point, I desperately need feedback and lean heavily on a handful of cherished writer-friends. To seriously read a book-length draft takes many many hours, and I’m always very grateful and take the feedback very seriously.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There are several real persons—Kayla Greenwood, Kenneth Williams, and Mullah Mohammed Omar—in the novel who might not be familiar to readers.


I came across the story of Kayla Greenwood and Kenneth Williams while researching what was going on in the world at large on the day the novel takes place. In an act of extraordinary generosity, Kayla Greenwood made a plea to the governor of Arkansas that the execution of Kenneth Williams, the man who killed her father, be stayed.


The interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar that Ana’s lover shows Ana, with the aim of explaining from the Mullah’s point of view the decision to dynamite the Bamiyan Buddhas, was published by rediff.com on April 12, 2004.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lisa Gornick.

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