READERS GUIDE

A Conversation with Emily Giffin

Random House Reader’s Circle: What was your inspiration for The One & Only?

Emily Giffin: I’ve always been fascinated by complicated, unconventional relationships. I think, if we’re honest, many of us have a rather narrow definition of romantic love and have a tendency to dismiss, or at least feel uncomfortable with, anything that falls outside those parameters. In this story, I wanted to explore the idea of what happens when you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t. Can true love really conquer all, especially in the face of judgment and scrutiny from those outside of it? There are always several inspirations for any story, but that was one of the first seeds.

RHRC: Tell us about Shea. What made you want to tell her story?

EG: In many ways, Shea is a fairly typical woman in her early thirties. She’s single, living in her small hometown in Texas, and arriving at that moment in her life when she asks herself: Am I really living the life I’m meant to be living? I think many of us can relate to that moment of introspection, in which we consider whether we’re really meeting our destinies or simply living lives of convenience, comfort, or safety, perhaps more worried about conforming to the expectations of others than being true to ourselves. Loyalty to the people we love is one thing, but succumbing to their judgment is quite another—and sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference. Shea grapples with these questions in The One & Only, and has to decide what matters most to her. Since my first novel, Something Borrowed, this theme has really resonated with me—the idea of taking a risk, following your passion, and really trying to pursue an authentic life.

RHRC: The intricacies of female friendship are something else you write about, and The One & Only is no exception. Did you find yourself taking sides with Lucy or Shea?

EG: I usually find myself siding with my protagonist, or at least seeing things more from her point of view, particularly when I’m writing in the first person. So I certainly felt compassion for Shea and was rooting for her happiness. But I really understood Lucy’s feelings, too, and think I would have reacted exactly as she did. Bottom line, I had a lot of respect for Shea and Lucy’s very genuine and long-standing friendship, which made the stakes that much higher and caused quite a bit of angst for me as I wrote certain scenes. I tried to keep in mind that even the closest relationships can experience turbulence, and in some ways, the simple, straightforward ones aren’t the deepest or most worthwhile.

RHRC: Do you think your readers were surprised that you wrote a book with a sports backdrop? What made you choose this setting?

EG: I’m sure that some of my readers were surprised by the sports backdrop, but those who know me certainly are not. I have been passionate about college sports since I was a child, and even worked as the men’s basketball manager at Wake Forest during the Tim Duncan era. It was a colorful, intense experience that really defined my college years in a way that went far beyond the actual games played. The coaches, players, and staff were like a family to me, and remain an integral part of my life today. So I’ve always wanted to write a book that highlights the bonds and relationships that make the world of college athletics so special. That said, The One & Only isn’t really a sports book. At its core, it’s about a young woman dealing with difficult, important life choices and learning to follow her passion—themes that could be richly explored in a sports setting.

RHRC: Why Texas?

EG: What is bigger, bolder, and more synonymous with football than Texas? Nothing! Plus, I thoroughly enjoyed my “research” in Dallas. If I’m going to write about steakhouses, margaritas, sports bars, and football in Texas, I need to sample them firsthand, right?

RHRC: Did you do any other research for the book?

EG: I gave the manuscript to several college coaches, including Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim of Syracuse University, who has just endured a lengthy and emotional NCAA investigation. I was so pleased when Coach Boeheim read the book and felt that I had created an authentic character in Coach Carr, while also capturing the feel of a big–time college program under scrutiny. Interestingly, though, Boeheim and I spent more time dissecting Shea and Lucy’s friendship than we did on the NCAA subplot or any coaching dynamics. I think this underscores the point that sports stories don’t belong solely to men any more than relationship stories belong only to women.

RHRC: Your novels often include cameos by past characters. Are there any surprise appearances in The One & Only?

EG: Yes, although this one is so subtle that only the most discerning readers (of Heart of the Matter, hint!) have recognized him. I love including past characters and giving readers updates on their lives without writing a whole sequel. Plus, I think it shows just how small the world can be.

RHRC: Your book deals with the subject of domestic abuse, particularly as it’s handled in the world of competitive sports. This is a subject that’s been in the news recently, with the NFL coming under scrutiny for its domestic violence policy. How challenging was it to write those scenes and why did you decide to include them in the story?

EG: The subject was very emotional and challenging for me, particularly as I wrote early drafts and really got to know the characters. I obviously abhor domestic violence of any kind and am so relieved to see that the issue, particularly as it relates to college and professional athletes, is being given the serious attention it deserves. Frankly, I also found it a bit eerie, though not surprising, that so many of the recent well-publicized cases happened after the book was published. However, I never tell stories as a way of imparting a moral message, and it is important to remember that the plot of this book, specifically whether or not Ryan is guilty of the most serious charges against him, does not reflect my feelings on any other case or the greater societal problem. In many ways, the question of Ryan’s past innocence—and whether the characters in the story believed him and reacted properly—helped me raise other questions about love, loyalty, and forgiveness. I have my opinion as the writer, but I want readers to make those decisions for themselves.

RHRC: Tell us about your writing process. Did you know how The One & Only would end before you started writing it?

EG: I really didn’t. My writing process has always been organic and character-driven. I have a very general sense of beginning, middle, and end, but I never follow an outline and my stories nearly always take unexpected turns as I get to know the characters and they form relationships with one another. It can be an inefficient way to write a book, but I enjoy the surprises along the way. With The One & Only, the ending was far from clear-cut for me, and I was conflicted until the very end, right along with my characters. I like to think this means that my stories aren’t predictable. At least, I can’t predict them!

RHRC: You went on a book tour in the United States and Canada when The One & Only was released. What was it like interacting with readers on the road? Did anything surprise you about their reaction to the novel?

EG: For the most part writing is such a solitary endeavor, so I enjoy the opportunity to interact with readers on my book tours and have face-to-face dialogue about my characters and stories. That has been a very meaningful experience for me—which is why I also appreciate certain aspects of social media. As to readers’ reactions to The One & Only, I was not surprised that some had a difficult time accepting Shea’s choices. My books explore the gray areas of life and often feature characters making unsympathetic choices, and it’s always interesting to see how readers respond. Of course I would prefer that they find empathy and compassion for my characters rather than judgment or scorn, but that is ultimately out of my control. I think that is a powerful thing to remember in fiction and life—people aren’t always going to agree with us or like us, and that is okay. I just hope that the story as a whole resonates with my readers and perhaps helps them to analyze their own relationships, beliefs, and lives.

RHRC: When dealing with a sensitive topic, how do you approach a character whose actions you don’t necessarily agree with?

EG: As a writer, it can be tempting to try to dictate morality or happy endings, but ultimately, I think those stories feel less realistic and compelling. So I do my best to stay true to the characters I’ve created and really try to determine what they would do in certain situations, not what I would do or what we wish for them to do. In that way, fiction can sometimes feel like motherhood and friendship. We want the best for the people we love, but we can’t always control those outcomes, and sometimes it can be difficult to even know what the best outcome really is. Life can be morally ambiguous and relationships can be messy, and I like exploring this nuanced terrain. I believe most people are good at heart and sincerely trying to do the right thing. Yet we are all capable of missteps and hurting the people we love, and we must grapple with the guilt and regret that come from these mistakes and weaknesses. In the end, I think it all comes down to empathy and forgiveness. I can’t imagine writing a book without those themes.

RHRC: Talk about the evolution of your books. How do you think they have changed since you published your first novel in 2004?

EG: A lot has changed in my life since I wrote my first book. When I quit my job as a lawyer to write full time, I was in my twenties, living in London, unpublished, unmarried, and childless. Now I’m in my early forties, married with three children, and living a relatively suburban existence with an established writing career. I think in many ways my characters have grown up with me, and I like to think that there is more depth to my books as I mature as a person and writer. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy writing about younger characters and won’t continue to do so. In fact, I have always gravitated to coming-of-age stories in both fiction and film.

RHRC: Do you think you’ll ever write a different kind of book?

EG: It depends on what you mean by “a different kind of book.” I’ll never write a legal thriller (particularly because my experience with the law was decidedly mundane!) or a fantasy or really any genre other than mainstream fiction. That said, I think all my books are different, just as all my protagonists are different. The one thing my novels all have in common—and will always have in common—is their focus on relationships. Relationships fascinate me—whether between sisters, brothers, parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and lovers. We have our passions and professions, but at the end of the day, nothing is more important than our relationships. I believe that they really define who we are as people and what we want from our lives.

RHRC: What’s next for you professionally?

EG: I’m involved in several book-to-film projects and hope to see The One & Only on the big or small screen. But professionally speaking, writing novels will remain my focus. Although the writing process can be frustrating and daunting, I truly love what I do and feel that it is my calling. I am so grateful that there are readers out there who connect with my characters and stories, and hope that happens for a long time to come.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1.

Have you ever fallen in love with someone your family or friends did not approve of?

2. Lucy asks Shea to choose between their friendship and her relationship with Coach Carr. Have you ever been faced with a choice between two people you care about?

3. One of the themes of The One & Only is forgiveness. Discuss some examples of characters who ask for forgiveness. In each instance, is forgiveness given? Is it earned?

4. Were you surprised by the relationship that develops between Coach Carr and Shea? Did you root for them to end up together?

5. Coach Carr texts Shea that “the best things in life only seem simple.” What do you think this means? Do you agree or disagree?

6. How does Connie’s death affect Shea? Compare and contrast Shea’s view of Connie to her relationship with her own mother.

7. Do you see Shea as an active or passive character? How does that change or develop over the course of the novel?

8. Do you think Shea was right to take the job reporting on Walker, even with her strong allegiances to the school? Where do you imagine her career takes her after the book is finished?

9. What would you do if you received a call like the one Shea receives from Blakeslee? Would you have confronted Ryan about Blakeslee’s accusations?

10. Shea lies about Miller being at the bar to avoid upsetting Ryan, and she and Coach Carr avoid telling Lucy about their romance for the same reason. Are these secrets justified? Do you think the final outcome in either situation would have been different if the people involved had been more honest?

11. Do you believe that Ryan did the things he was accused of? Do you see him as a good person? Do you think he, or people generally, can change?

12. Do you think Coach Carr acted appropriately when Ryan’s college girlfriend, Tish, told him Ryan had attacked her? Why do you think he responded the way he did? If you disagree with his handling of the situation, can you forgive him? Do you agree with how Shea handled things with Ryan? Should she have done more?

13. Another major theme in the book is the idea of following your passion. When is it good policy to base major life decisions around your passions? Does that strategy ever become misguided? Can you find examples of both in the book?

14. “It’s about loyalty,” Coach Carr tells Shea. “It’s about commitment to the people you love. Your wife. Your family. Your friends. Your team.” Discuss the concept of loyalty throughout the book. How is loyalty toward a person or relationship depicted as the same or different from loyalty toward a team? How do different characters react when their loyalties are in conflict?

15. Over the course of the novel, Shea learns to follow her heart, both in the romantic sense and as a broader approach to life. Can you think of a time you followed your heart even when it wasn’t necessarily the safe or easy decision?

 
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