Thursday, February 02, 2006

Book Club Discussion Questions

A book club in Richmond, Virginia submitted the following questions to me regarding my novel Harvey & Eck. I invite club members, or any of my readers, to use the comment section on this page to ask me anything about my book or my writing in general.

What was the impetus for the book eight-plus years ago? Was it your becoming a mom?

I was filled with anxiety--even trepidation--when I became pregnant. But those emotions don't play in the usual New Mom script. Like my friend Maureen McHugh says, mothers and mothers-to-be are either all bad or all good. The good ones are selfless angels who give everything up for their kids and the bad ones are Mommy Dearest. I wanted to write about all the rest of us in between. I wanted to write about how I didn't want to completely trade in the life I had built for motherhood.

What was the genesis of your characters, specifically Harvey and Eck, but perhaps also Captain Crunch?

Harvey is entering what is billed as the happiest time in a woman's life. But here she is, beside herself and filled with confusion. Eck, on the other hand, is ready to close up shop. When he meets Harvey he undergoes an incubation of sorts. I really wanted Eck to represent growth/birth during Harvey's pregnancy. I hope I succeeded.
Many people get upset with Harvey because she is involved in an extramarital affair. The two men in Harvey's life are there to represent the Madonna/whore irony of motherhood. I don't believe the Crunch changes over the course of the book. Harvey does grow, and in the end, though, I truly have hope for Harvey and the Hub.

Writers are counseled to write what they know. Do you know an Eck? Was he pure fabrication or a conglomeration of people you know?

Although my husband Eric is nothing like Eck, the relationship between Eck and Kate is actually based on my husband and me. Eric was very shy and quiet when we met. His house was completely Spartan. There was nothing on the walls. I was a wild soul, living in a two-room apartment, which was brimming with weird stuff. I would have these insane parties, with seventy-plus people and tons of food and booze.
Like Kate and Eck, Eric and I both had our wounds and bruises, although we were a good deal younger than the characters. We met and fell in love. We've been married thirteen years.
Strangely enough, Eck started out as a clerk in a lonely bait shop at the end of a pier. But the fastidious component of his character, which could not be deleted because so much in the story depends on it, would not tolerate handling the fish and bait. So I put him in a nice library instead.
Everyone thinks Harvey is me. I regard her as a kid sister of sorts. But when I found out I was pregnant (which was admittedly stunning), I was amazed how pregnancy seemed to wash away my sexuality in the eyes of other people. I kept wanting to shout, "It was sex! Sex, I tell you! Sex is what got me into this situation!" Hence, my defiant mother-to-be was born. I love Harvey on the motorcycle and that she eschews all things baby. But she remains sympathetic to me because she has tremendous vulnerability and capacity for love.

Using letters is an interesting literary device, but severely limiting, I would think. Yet you pulled it off quite well. (Have you read Meg Cabot’s novels using only written documents, such as e-mail, shopping lists, jotted notes?) Why did you choose to use letters? In previous drafts, was it always written in letter form?

I was determined to write an epistolary novel. It is an exacting format and it either works or fails with no in-between. I started one and wrote close to 100 pages before determining that it was horrible. I tossed it.
Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman, which was originally released in 1967, is one of my favorite books (how funny, I just noticed that Kaufman's book costs exactly two cents less than mine over at Amazon--hers is $10.17). It was made into a great movie in 1970 starring Richard Benjamin and Carrie Snodgrass. In Kaufman's work, I saw how the epistolary format lent itself beautifully to confessional-style writing.
After I got my own "two pink lines," the first draft of the book pretty much fell out of me. I never considered any format other than the letters.
I was deep in the throes of trying to get the book published when Bridget Jones's Diary, which is also an epistolary book ($10.50 at Amazon), hit pay dirt. I bought and read Fielding's book and was in a foul mood for days. Here was my little book, every bit as good as "Bridget Jones," (if not better), floating in a sea of rejection, much of which was attributed to the epistolary format.

I am not familiar with Cabot's work. Perhaps I should be.

Are you – or were you before your blog – a big letter writer? A big reader of phone books?

I've always loved letters. There is no communication more personal than a handwritten letter, which I do not believe will ever go completely out of style. I send them vary rarely, however (my penmanship is atrocious).

And yes, I voraciously read phone books (whenever I'm not roaring and tearing them in half, that is).

A club member who e-mailed to say she loved the book (and we *never* disclose before a meeting our thoughts on a book) says, “I'm struck with how the story is written almost as a conversation, but Eck ‘hears’ both sides and his growth comes from his self-revelation spurred on by Harvey's narrative. Harvey grows as her narrative unfolds, but without benefit of Eck's comments. What was it like writing both a two-sided conversation (from Eck's standpoint) and a one-sided conversation (from Harvey's standpoint)? Was it ever challenging to maintain Harvey's ‘ignorance’ of Eck's thoughts?”

The writing of this book was very specific. It was easy to keep Harvey in the dark about what was going on with Eck because I wrote all of her letters and then all of Eck's. Hence, the two characters were completely separate. Throughout the project, I had rules that applied to each character. Harvey could swear and use contractions, Eck could not. Eck's grammar and vocabulary are very formal. Harvey was allowed to lose control.
I also planned the whole book with the arc of pregnancy as my frame. The idea of a "gestation period" drove Eck's development as well as Harvey's downward spiral. I loved the irony of the two characters.

Our member also notes, “There's a line near the end that I'll need to incorporate (properly credited, of course) in some of my couple's counseling information, and I may even need to cross stitch it for my office - shall we have a contest to figure out ‘what's my line?’” Erin, any guesses?
You bet. I think the line my good reader is apt to quote appears on page 197: "Successful marriages aren't made up of perfect people, but of people who have learned to deal with each other's imperfections. That learning isn't easy or painless."

Does Harvey have any friends? If you were in Harvey’s boat, would you confide your deepest, darkest thoughts to a friend, or to a journal, or to a stranger?

Harvey does have friends. And I surely struggled with the fact that they do not play into the book. No matter what I did, stuff like, "My friend Wanda says that I should …" always came off as chatty and superfluous. It was awful no matter what I did. Hence the friends didn't make it into the final draft. I simply could not find a way to include them as an organic part of the story.

As far as my own confessions go. I have a terrible time keeping a secret. Just take a look around this blog.

We often ask at book club which character in that month’s book we would ask to join our book club. Which would you invite and why?

My knee jerk reaction is Eck because he is a librarian and an avid reader. But I think Harvey would be much more fun. She would be funny and bawdy and would add a little hot sauce to the enchilada. She would also tell it like it is regardless of an author's or book's reputation. No pompous academic drivel with our girl Harvey.

What book are you reading right now?

As usual, I am up to my armpits in the manuscripts of my fellow writers such as Grant Bailie. The two books I purchased most recently are The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar and Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link.
Although I haven't started either book, I know both of these women on the page as well as personally. Fabulous people, brilliant writers.


PDD said...

How ironic. I was just going to ask you several other questions as part of my glamorous interview.

1) How much has Cleveland Ohio influenced you as a writer?

2) What do you love most about Cleveland Ohio?

3) What do you hate most about Cleveland Ohio?

4) What is your greatest fear?

5) Do you ever write at those quaint little cafes?

6) Do you ever take bubble baths?

7) What day of the week do you find most enjoyable to write?

8) How many... really? (I wont hold it against you if you use my past suggestion).

9) If you had to choose one place in America other than Cleveland, where would you live?

10) If you had to choose one place in Europe to live where would it be?

11) If you had to choose one place in the world to live where would it be?

And now I morph into James Lipton.

12) What sound or noise do you love?

13) What sound or noise do you hate?

14) What word turns you on?

15) What word turns you off?

16) What is your favorite curse word?

17) What profession other than writing would you like to attempt?

18) What profession would you least like to attempt?

Garrett said...

If you were poop, what kind of poop would you be?

kellywalters said...

good mother of god that was a large amount to read..


and by the way..

you are a genius

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks, Roximoon.

PDD: I shall get to these. Just give me time.

Oh yeah, and your question too, garrett

bon said...

You just answered my question... it explains why this book does NOT fall on it's epistolary face (aside from the great writing in general). Now I know that first you wrote all of the Harvy letters! Ha! I wondered how the heck you kept it all straight.

good show!

garrett said...


I haven't finished the book yet. (Or my review.)