Summer Reading

Paperback $14.00

May 20, 2008 | 288 Pages

Ebook $9.99

May 22, 2007

  • Paperback $14.00

    May 20, 2008 | 288 Pages

  • Ebook $9.99

    May 22, 2007

Praise

“Summer Reading is a joy from start to finish; a wonderful book for any season.”
–Jane Hamilton

Praise for Hilma Wolitzer’s The Doctor’s Daughter

“Triumphant . . . a fast-paced novel so well written you want to linger over it.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“Packs an emotional wallop . . . Wolitzer’s evocation of Alice’s first-person narration is nuanced, sensitive, keenly observant, her prose measured, polished, nimble.”
–The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The Doctor’s Daughter reminds us what novels can do. Wolitzer takes a simple, touching, human situation and enlarges it into a heartbreaking and permanent story of loss and renewal.”
–Adam Gopnik

“A beautiful tale of coming apart and reconciliation.”
–A. M. Homes


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

Interview with Hilma Wolitzer author of Summer Reading

Question:How did you come up with the list of books included in the summer book club, the Page Turners, that is at the heart of your new novel? Since so many of the plot elements of those books are paralleled or inverted or otherwise echoed in the events of Summer Reading, I wondered if you picked the books to suit the plot, or the plot to suit the books?

Hilma Wolitzer:I started re-reading several books I’d loved before I began writing Summer Reading, or even had any real notions about the plot, except that it would involve a book club. The characters had been gathering in my head, though, and when I imagined them reading the same books, given the circumstances of their various lives, their own stories evolved.

Q:With three main characters, and more strong secondary characters, Summer Reading features a large number of plot threads that weave in and out . . . yet never tangle. Did you plot everything out before sitting down to write, or did the novel’s plot take shape more organically, developing as you wrote?

HW:It seems sensible and less risky to plot out novels in advance, especially when they’re complex, but I’ve never done it, because I want to be surprised as I write, the way I am when I read.

Q:The novel made me think of that famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “The rich are different from you and me.” It sometimes seems that the women in Summer Reading are not merely of different classes but almost of different species.

HW:I believe that all experience, from social class to education to family life, influences the person you become, but I also believe that everyone has an independent and complex interior life. That’s one of the reasons I write novels–to imagine being someone else.

Q:What do you think is behind the current popularity of reading groups, especially among women?

HW:People, especially women, have gathered together socially throughout history, for sewing bees and card games and potluck suppers. My friends and I have always discussed books we’ve enjoyed, urging them on one another, talking about the characters as if we know them; it’s one of the extended pleasures of reading. Book clubs are just a more organized, naturally evolving version of that pleasure.

Q:Tell us a little about the three main characters: Alyssa “Lissy” Snyder; Michelle Cutty; and Angela Graves–three very different women.

HW:I tend to be fond of and protective of my characters–I brought them into the world, in a way. But I have to resist that maternal impulse in order to fully reveal them, including the darker side of their personalities. Lissy sees the Page Turners as a way into East Hampton Society. Her longing for social status probably stems from her shaky status in her original family (absent father, rejecting mother), where everything begins. She’s pretty shallow, but also genuinely needy and not without deeper aspirations–she wants to be better. But her preoccupation with material wealth and her dyslexia impair her ability to get as much as the other women from the books she struggles to read. Michelle, who works as Lissy’s housecleaner, has the least economic advantages of the three protagonists, but the most self-confidence (or at least bravado), the strongest sense of humor, and the greatest propensity for change. Her relationship to her dogs rescues her from less satisfactory human dealings, and reading more directly affects her life than it does the members of the book group. Angela, the leader of the Page Turners, is the most isolated of the three women, the one who lives inside books as much as possible. Fictional heroines have as much presence for her as her neighbors. She thinks of herself as self-sufficient rather than lonely, but she, too, has yearnings and, of course, a personal history, one that she deeply regrets and wishes she could repair. The three women are very different from one another, and their lives might never have crossed without the existence of the book club.

Q:At one point, Angela tells her students that the reason to read literature is to learn how to live. Do you agree?

HW:Angela’s thoughts about literature reflect Henry James’s statement that “the purpose of fiction is to help the heart of man to know itself.” She also wonders at one point if life itself teaches you the same thing. I subscribe to both of these premises. Reading, that glimpse into someone else’s heart and head, definitely enhances our understanding of how we live, and characters make moral choices we can emulate (or not). But books aren’t a substitute for experience; they’re an integral part of it.

Q:Hank, Michelle’s long-time boyfriend, is probably the strongest male presence in the novel, yet even he is only a secondary character. Though the focus is on the women’s world in Summer Reading, it seems ironic that so much of that world revolves around men . . . men who are either physically or emotionally absent.

HW:Men and women inevitably inhabit the same world, in fiction and in life. Although my focus in Summer Reading is on the three main female characters, the men in their lives: fathers, lovers, husbands–present and absent–are a strong force, as they are in the novels the book club reads. The “authentic” lives the women strive to achieve include the men they might choose to share them with.

Q:The mother/daughter dynamic is also very central to the novel.

HW:Mothers and daughters have always interested me, maybe because both roles have been so central to my own life. Every woman I know reflects on the influence of her mother, that first and essential other. Lissy’s bad mother and Michelle’s good one play a large role in how their daughters feel about themselves, and how capable they become of mothering.

Q:The Harry Potter books make a fleeting appearance in the novel, but there is an older fairy-tale more explicitly mentioned: “The King of the Golden Mountain,” from which a somewhat chilling line is taken–“My business is with your father, not with you.”–that comes to have great importance for Angela and, indeed, to cast a shadow over the other characters as well. That made me recognize how many fairy tale motifs are present in this novel. Could you talk a little bit about this aspect of the book?

HW:You’ve found me out! I love fairy tales and had a favored blue book as a child. The Grimms’ Tales, with all their dark truths, provided an auxiliary moral landscape for me. Good invariably triumphed over evil, but the choices were never easy, and there was always lots of suspense, romance, and blood. Lissy remembers having fairy tales read to her by her beloved grandmother and nanny and associates those first stories with rare feelings of comfort and love. Angela reads them for the examples of redemption they provide.

Q:Your daughter, Meg, is a successful writer as well. Is there a genetic basis to writing, or was there something about your family culture that encouraged two writers to emerge?

HW:Meg and I probably share a “writing” gene. She says that I was a role model for her, typing away in the kitchen at night, but I believe her talent is innate; you can only teach writing to writers.

Q:Have the two of you ever collaborated, or considered collaboration?

HW:We’ve never collaborated on anything; writing really is a solitary and private occupation. Back in the 90’s, when we had novels out in the same month, we went on a mother/daughter book tour. Our relationship survived, and we even had fun (I had to promise not to sew mother-and-daughter reading outfits for us), but we finally agreed that it’s best to keep the public part of our lives separate. We read each other’s work in progress, though, and offer suggestions and support.

Q:What are you working on next?

HW:My next project is a novel about the possibilities of late love.


From the Hardcover edition.

 

A Conversation with Hilma Wolitzer

ELINOR LIPMAN is the author of eight wry (her own understated adjective) novels, including Then She Found Me, The Inn at Lake Devine, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, and, most recently, the award-winning My Latest Grievance.

Elinor Lipman: Where were you born and brought up?

Hilma Wolitzer: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I’ve never lost my Brooklyn accent, or my interest in neighborhood life.

E.L. What were you like as a little girl?

H.W. A daydreamer, and the kind of kid who was always reading, from the back of the cereal box at breakfast to the label on the shampoo bottle in the bathtub at night. I was also a natural listener (or snoop) who liked to lie under the kitchen table and eavesdrop on the grown-ups (probably before I’d learned to read).

E.L. Were you a sullen or cheerful teen?

H.W. Like most teenagers, I was a monster of shifting moods. There were three of us, all girls, and my mother once said she would have been happy to have been somewhere else during our adolescence. When I had daughters myself, I understood what she meant.

E.L. Did you and your husband meet in a way that has worked its way into your fiction?

H.W. Not yet, perhaps because it doesn’t seem that interesting, at least from a fictional point of view. We were both invited to the same party and I forgot to go (still daydreaming, probably), and the hostess gave him my telephone number.

E.L. Your first published story was titled “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.” I’m trying to work that into a question just because I love it so much. Okay, how about: Take me back to that first acceptance letter.

H.W. It wasn’t a letter, actually. It was a phone call from my agent, saying that The Saturday Evening Post was going to buy a story. I think I went deaf for a moment, or maybe I was just screaming too much to properly hear her, because I had to call her right back and make her repeat the whole thing. It was especially thrilling because I was a late bloomer, already the mother of two, and sort of committed to a life of domesticity (hence that first title, maybe?).

E.L. Another favorite work-related phone call or letter?

H.W. It’s a toss-up between a fan letter from the novelist Richard Yates, and one from a child whose school I’d visited, who wrote to say that I’d “really expired” her.

E.L. In the last sentence of Summer Reading’s first chapter, you write (about Lissy): “But then she was ambushed by another stray thought—would she ever do anything that would require the forgiveness of strangers?—and felt a shivery thrill of prescience.” As you wrote that, did you yet know what Lissy was referring to? Which, of course, is my teasing you into telling “how much is outline and how much is intuition?”

H.W. I didn’t know what Lissy was going to do, because I write the way I read—to find out what happens to the characters. It’s that element of suspense that keeps me going through a long manuscript. It’s risky to write that way, because sometimes the story just peters out, but preparing an outline seems too rigid, too unexciting.

E.L. I read that during the long hiatus between Tunnel of Love and The Doctor’s Daughter, you’d go to the computer, “peck out a page or two,” hate what you’d written, and escape by falling asleep at the keyboard. That’s not writer’s block, is it?

H.W. It sounds more like narcolepsy, doesn’t it? But I do think falling asleep was just another way of avoiding the blankness during a very long—practically terminal—writer’s block. By definition, a writer is someone who writes, and squeezing out “a page or two” doesn’t really count if nothing ever follows.

E.L. Do you have any pet hates in a book you are reading (. . . or putting down)?

H.W. Well, I don’t like being told by the writer how to feel. The characters themselves have to raise my emotions. It’s a case of that old, but honorable, writing workshop saw: “Show, don’t tell.” To get lost in a book, the reader has to first lose awareness of the author, the wizard behind the curtain.

E.L. Guilty pleasure? (You can cop out with a fast-food item or a cheesy novel, but I’m hoping there’s an American Idol or All My Children to report.)

H.W. Quiz shows and New York Mets games (the entire season).

E.L. Can you tell us anything about the book (we hope) you are working on?

H.W. I’m writing about late love, and trying to do it from a male point of view. Men have been writing brilliantly about women for a long time, but I don’t think that women writers have been as successful with male protagonists. I think it has something to do with the fact that although men wear their genitalia on the outside of their bodies, they tend to keep their feelings hidden, and that women are precisely the opposite. It’s a real challenge to imagine the inner life of such a true “other.”

E.L. If you had to sum up the relationship between your novels and Hollywood in under ten words, what would you say?

H.W. Always an option, never a bride.

E.L. You’ve taught writing (famously, don’t be modest) and began writing in a fiction workshop taught by Anatole Broyard. Can you throw out some words that describe what good workshop leading takes?

H.W. A balance of honesty and charity pretty much sums it up. It’s scary to put your work out there for criticism, so there has to be some respect and compassion for the writer, but false praise doesn’t really help. I always tell a new group that the goal of a writing workshop is revision, not suicide.

E.L. The question you most hate to answer when hands go up at a bookstore reading?

H.W. “Where do you get your ideas?” If I knew, I’d run right out and get a fresh batch.

E.L. Who reads your works-in-progress?

H.W. My poor family. But I do lots of stuff for them, too.

E.L. Is there a book you’ve read more than twice?

H.W. Yes, there are a few of them, including To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West. I do it partly for renewed pleasure and partly to try to see how they’re made.

E.L. What mementos/photos/quotes/cartoons/awards/doodads are on display around your workspace?

H.W. Family photos, of course, and one of me and the Mets’ first baseman, Keith Hernandez (don’t ask!); a photo of Virginia Woolf and another of Colette; grandchildren’s artwork (inspiring!); a Maurice Sendak salute to Bill Clinton’s inauguration; and a few plaques.

E.L. Plaques? Discuss, please.

H.W. They’re awards for writing, and I’m proud of them or they wouldn’t be hanging up. But if you live long enough, you’re bound to gather a few laurels.

E.L. If you could have any famous people, living or dead, around your table for dinner next week, who would they be?

H.W. John and Abigail Adams, Jackie Robinson, Groucho Marx, and Julia Child.

E.L. What makes you feel satisfied at the end of the day?

H.W. Everyone I love home safe and sound, and a few good pages under my belt.

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