Paperback $13.95

Feb 28, 2006 | 352 Pages

Ebook $9.99

Dec 18, 2008 | 352 Pages

  • Paperback $13.95

    Feb 28, 2006 | 352 Pages

  • Ebook $9.99

    Dec 18, 2008 | 352 Pages

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Elizabeth Nunez

Q: Elizabeth, you are a professor and you teach at an urban public college in New York. In Grace Justin Peters is a professor and he teaches at an urban public college. Is Justin Peters you?

EN: Well, in the first place, Justin is a man. But, yes, there are some similarities between my life and Justin’s experiences.

Q: But you decided to tell this story from the point of view of a man. Why?

EN: I was curious. I am always curious about lives that are different from mine. Yes, there are some experiences I share with Justin Peters, but I have experienced life as a woman, not as a man, and I was curious to find out how a man would react. This is not the first time I have written a novel from the point of view of a man. My previous novel, Discretion, is told in the first person, from the point of view of a man. It is a novel about adultery, and, of course, as a woman who was once a wife, I have very strong feelings about husbands who cheat on their wives. It was uncharted territory for me to get into the mind of a man who commits adultery. I found the experience interesting and challenging. I learned a lot, so I thought I’d try it again. Of course, Grace is not about a man who commits adultery. In fact, it is the man who suspects his wife is having an affair. For me the excitement in writing comes from all that I learn and discover in the process of writing.

Q: You say that there are similarities between your life and Justin Peters’s life. What was there to discover?

EN: When I began writing this novel, I didn’t know what there was to discover. That’s the wonderful part about writing. You find yourself in places where you had not planned to go and you discover things you did not know before, even things you did not know you wanted to know. All I was aware of as I began to write Grace was that I wanted to tell a story about a marriage in trouble. I knew the husband was going to be a professor, who though he has a Ph.D. from Harvard, (my Ph.D. is not from Harvard) teaches at an urban public college. Some of the issues that Justin deals with at that college are issues I have had to deal with: whether it makes sense to teach the so-called great books to students who must confront the daily challenges of survival in a city; whether an academic, who has the responsibility of transmitting knowledge, should also be willing to deal with a student ’s emotional problems.

Q: Should he or she? What is a professor’s responsibility when she is faced with a student who is obviously depressed, like Mark Sandler in Grace, for example?

EN: That’s just the point. I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question. I mean I have had students, one student in particular, who I knew had emotional problems. He was a student very much like Mark Sandler. He called me one day to tell me that he was videotaping himself in a mirror. He sounded very sad, suicidal even.

Q: What did you do?

EN: What I did is not important here. The point for me in Grace was: What would Justin Peters do? The situation for Justin is complicated by the fact that he is having problems of his own. He is afraid that his marriage is falling apart. He is worried about the future of his four-year-old daughter. I mean, professors are people too. They have feelings; they have wor­ries. How do you put aside your problems to deal with the challenging task of motivating students to get interested in learning, particularly when they do not see the value of the subject you are teaching.

Q: And what subject is that?

EN: Literature. Students come to college to earn a degree so that they can get a job and make money. They don’t see literature as advancing their marketability. But that’s another topic. I was talking about the professor who has to be an entertainer in the classroom as well as a teacher, while coping with her own personal problems. Then the professor notices that there is a student in her class who is obviously in emotional pain. What does she do? What does Justin Peters do?

Q: Just a minute, Elizabeth, I thought you said you had set out to write a novel about a marriage in trouble.

EN: That’s just it. What a writer sets out to do may not be what she ends up doing. Once Justin Peters began to take shape and come into his own, I had to deal with his whole life, not part of his life. So the story of his marriage to Sally runs alongside the story of his life as a professor. Justin teaches literature. Here, I want to touch for a moment on the point I made earlier about students not seeing the relevance of literature to their marketability. Literature allows us to explore questions about the human condition and the human dilemma in a relatively safe space. Justin Peters is teaching Shakespeare ’s Hamlet at a time when he is convinced that his wife is having an affair. What does he do? Should he act or not act? In Discretion, the novel I wrote before Grace, the wife is faced with the same question. She decides not to act. She chooses to pretend that her husband is not having an affair. Many of my readers think that the wife in Discretion made the right decision, for, in the end, she kept her husband.

Q: I notice that the students in Grace have different opinions as to what Hamlet should do.

EN: Yes. Actually, that is what is so exciting about teaching at a public college.

Q: Where do you teach?

EN: At Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. The students in Justin’s class give the answers that my students give. For some students, Hamlet is a coward for hesitating to take revenge. After all, he is pretty certain that his uncle, who is now married to his mother, murdered his father. For other students, especially my religious students, Hamlet is correct to hesitate. They quote to me from the Bible: Vengeance is mine . . . saith the Lord. Then there was that one student. He is the student who says to Justin Peters that he works as a prison guard at Riker’s Island. I still remember that day when he stood up in my class and warned the other students about the perils of acting on passion.

Q: Elizabeth, it seems to me that you are saying that Justin’s story is very much based on your life.

EN: In some ways. But I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed. I mean, I have read Hamlet many times, but I never before noticed the curious juxtaposition of Hamlet ’s conclusion that he would leave his decision to God and the stage directions that follow. Hamlet says: "Let be." What follows are all the instruments that would lead to his death and the death of almost all the main characters. Now, I was faced with another question: Are they right, those who relinquish their future to the will of God? Justin must answer this question as it relates to his marriage. At a point in the novel, Justin has done all he knows how to do to save his marriage. Yet he feels he is still losing Sally. What next is there for him to do?

Q: Pray?

EN: Justin describes himself as an apostate. He has become an apostate because he believes that when he was a boy his prayers to have his parents return to him were unanswered.

Q: But he does pray. What makes him change his mind?

EN: Literature.

Q: Explain.

EN: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Again, I would not have made this connection if I were not writing this novel. I’ll tell you what happened to me. I was flying back to New York from Paris. The plane took off. As you know, we have to cross the Atlantic to get to New York, so the ascent was quite steep. I was sitting at a window near the wings of the plane and I could hear this grinding sound. The third time I heard it, I looked outside. Sure enough the flaps on the wings of the plane were still open and were having a hard time closing. The fourth time the grinding noise came, the pilot announced what I had feared. He told us that he had to dump all the fuel before we could return to Paris. In those fifteen minutes, as we circled in the air and I watched the fuel jetting out of the wings, it struck me that it would be only by the grace of God that we would be saved, that there was nothing anyone in the plane could do, in spite of their brilliance and knowledge, to save us. I may have been wrong, but that was what I thought. Then, teaching Oedipus Rex, I understood in a way I had not done before that Oedipus’s hubris was his total reliance on reason, his refusal to accept that human intelligence is limited. I mean, to what degree can we change our apparent destiny? So Justin has reached the same place where I was on that plane. He must pray.
Q: And his prayers are answered?

EN: He has no assurance that his prayers will be answered. They are answered because he is blessed with grace.

Q: Is that the meaning of the title of your novel?

EN: Grace is a gift. Like a gift, it comes to us whether we deserve it or not. It is the giver’s decision that we will get it.

Q: How do Mark Sandler’s emotional problems fit into this story of Justin’s troubled marriage?

EN: Justin learns about another definition of grace. Though Mark has problems of his own, he has the grace to care about Justin. I give several definitions of grace in the front of the novel. The first is that grace is a disposition to be generous or helpful.

Q: I wonder if you would talk about another resemblance between you and Justin Peters. Both of you are immigrants from Trinidad, and I believe you were also married to an African American. Is there a special reason that you gave Justin this background?

EN: Fortunately for me, my parents were not among those many parents who had to make the difficult decision of leaving their children behind as they sought work in the U.S. True, I was married to an African American. Our problems were not the same as Justin and Sally’s. However, I am very concerned about the relationship between immigrants of color and African Americans. I think too many immigrants forget that our pres­ence here is directly related to the civil rights struggle. The single barrier to the immigration of people of color to the U.S. was the country-of-origin quota system. That was struck down one year after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. You see, there was a connection. Sally and Justin are aware of the connection. How should appreciation, if not gratitude, be expressed given this history?

Q: Finally, I want to talk a little bit about your life as a writer. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

EN: My family has a running joke about me. They say that you should divide what I say in half. They don’t call me a liar, but they take all I say with a grain of salt. I suppose they are right to do so. Ever since I was a very young child, l always found myself adding color to the realities around me. I suppose that was one indication that I would be a writer. My imagination was always in overdrive. Even when I made an effort, I would still end up adding this or that to a factual story I was telling, I guess to make it more exciting. When I was around seven, a story I wrote was published in the "Tiny Tots" section of the local newspaper, so you could say I was bitten by the writing bug very early in my life. And I loved to read. I would get punished for reading, because I would always get lost in a book when I should be doing some chore.

Q: Which brings me to the question: Who are your favorite writers?

EN: Any writer of a good book. My taste in literature is eclectic. My criteria are beautiful language, vivid imagery, interesting characters, good story, and ideas to ponder about.

Q: Who are you reading lately?

EN: Recently, I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels. Ian McEwan and Percival Everett make me think. And I love the music Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez make with language.

Q: What do you want to accomplish with your novels?

EN: I want to achieve what any good book does for me. I want to entertain my readers, but I want to engage them in exploring the big questions about the human condition and the human dilemma, the questions that trouble me. I guess, ultimately, that is why I write: I am pursuing answers to questions that I find difficult to answer: What does it mean to be one ’s brother’s keeper. That’s the question that concerned me in Grace. How far should one go to help another in need?

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