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A former journalist in the UK and a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York, Jane Green has written many novels (including Jemima J, The Beach House, Falling, and The Sunshine Sisters), most of which have been New York Times bestsellers, and one cookbook, Good Taste. Her novels are published in more than twenty-five languages, and she has over ten million books in print worldwide. She lives in Westport, Connecticut, with her husband and a small army of children and animals.
Q. Where did you find your inspiration for this particular book? Is Nan based on anyone in your own life?
When I first moved into my tiny cottage by the beach the summer of my divorce, I found myself falling slowly in love with my landlord (we now live together, in a bigger house a couple of blocks away). Part of our courtship involved long walks by the beach at midnight, and there was a fabulously glamorous woman of a certain age whom we used to see riding her bike, cigarette in hand, at one or two in the morning. I was fascinated by her, and certainly held that image of her while I was creating Nan.
Q. Throughout your work, you’ve created a number of memorable heroines. Is it possible to read Nan as an older version of any of the younger heroines you’ve written about in earlier books? Are there any different considerations necessary when writing about an older character?
I think my characters all share similar sensibilities, and perhaps the only real difference with Nan is that age has given her a wisdom and an acceptance that some of the younger characters might not have. I don’t ever stop to analyze whether something makes sense—when I’m writing characters, and particularly someone as vivid as Nan, they become their own people, and I allow them, as pretentious as it may sound, to dictate their own behavior.
Q. The women in The Beach House could be seen as existing on the same plane of female experience but at different points in their lives: daughters, mistresses, wives, single parents, widows. What connections, if any, did you intend the reader to draw between these characters?
I’m not sure I intend my readers to draw connections between the characters, but more to draw connections between each of the characters and their own lives. While we may not have been mistresses, widows, single parents, etc., my hope is always that their truths resonate with us—that we are able to understand their plight because it could so easily be ours.
Q. At Windermere, the characters are able to be true to themselves in ways that their former lives didn’t permit, for in order to be good spouses, parents, or employees, it is often necessary to suppress or sacrifice aspects of one’s identity. Has this ever been true in your own life?
Ah yes. I was married at thirty, and very much shoehorned myself into who I thought I was expected to be. Like many women, I am something of a chameleon, but as I have grown older I have come to realize that it is necessary to be all things at all times, and that when we try to suppress a part of ourselves for any length of time, it can only lead to unhappiness. I played a part during my marriage, revealing only the side of my character that fitted in with the role I was expected to play, and it is only now, post-divorce, with a new love, that I am able to be fully myself.
Q. The issue of infidelity appears repeatedly in the novel, and from a number of different perspectives. Why did you decide to use that as a recurring theme? As an author, how did you manage to stay sympathetic to both the victims and guilty parties involved in the affairs?
I have always been fascinated by the notion of infidelity, by what makes people commit this ultimate betrayal, by how so many seem to be able to compartmentalize their lives. On the one hand, they have families, children, people they love, and on the other, they are able to sleep with other people, believing it to be just physical, or somehow quite separate from their family life. I have been around infidelity, and I suspect keep writing about it in a quest for some understanding.
Q. You are known for presenting romance in a realistic light, flaws and all. Why is that important to you? Is it difficult to present realistic romantic relationships while maintaining optimism and enthusiasm? How do you believe the storybook images of romance presented in books and films today affect women’s expectations of love?
My answer today is very different from my answer of ten years ago. Ten years ago I didn’t believe in storybook romance, confused lust and passion with love, had no real understanding of what it meant, and consequently settled for less than I deserved. Ten years on, I now know what love is—that it is, as I wrote in my first novel, Straight Talking, passion, admiration, and respect. But that it is also kindness, consideration, and peace. I absolutely believe that romance is alive and thriving and that it is absolutely possible to have the great relationships we see in movies, but that they may not come in the form we expect.
Q. You created a large cast of characters in The Beach House—which character is your favorite?
I think I probably adore Nan most of all—her love of life and acceptance of life on life’s terms, but Daniel is also close to my heart. He was perhaps the most frightening to write—his story, after all, is clearly not mine—but I love his journey and seeing him find himself.
Q. The Beach House moves through a number of characters’ plot lines and yet the narrative is always clear and the stories blend seamlessly. What are some of the difficulties specific to managing multiple narratives? How do you keep all the characters’ stories clear during the writing process?
Whoever your inspiration, whatever you have drawn upon to create their characters, when you get it right they very quickly become their own people, with distinctive voices, quirks, and actions. I so often feel like I am watching a movie in my head, simply putting down on the page what I see my characters do, with no conscious direction from me.
Q. As a writer, what is it about the female experience you find so intriguing and rich in material? Would you ever consider writing a novel entirely from a male perspective?
I am intrigued by our chameleon-like qualities, by our people-pleasing, by our intuition and strength. I haven’t yet wanted to write a novel from a male point of view, but who knows what will happen.
Q. What experience or emotions do you hope your readers take away from The Beach House? Do you have a particular message or lesson at the core of your novels?
When I look back over the novels I wrote during my marriage, I realize how many of my female protagonists were married and unhappy, or lonely, or searching. From Sam in Babyville to Amber in Swapping Lives, I think those women were reflective of where I was, but couldn’t face. I have written for a long time about women on a journey to find happiness. But I realized only recently that happiness comes in the form of peace, and now, at the core of my novels, I would say is the quest for peace, for home.
Q. Your novels are very popular both in the U.S. and in the U.K., you have very loyal fans, and you maintain an active Web site. What are some of the most surprising, touching, or memorable responses you’ve had to your work so far?
My readers continue to astound me with extraordinary and heartfelt letters. Writing is such a solitary life, and every one of those letters touches me and inspires me to carry on.
Jane Green is the author of more than fifteen bestselling novels, including The Beach House and Dune Road. Her most recent novel, The Sunshine Sisters, tells the story of aging and terminally ill Hollywood starlet Ronni Sunshine and her fraught relationship with her now-estranged daughters.
When Ronni learns she has ALS, she decides she wants to die on her own terms, and she wants her three daughters to return home to help her do it. Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy hardly talk to each other, much less their mother. But Ronni sounds desperate, and so the three sisters reunite in their hometown of Westport, Connecticut to help their mother.
We spoke with Jane Green via e-mail to ask her about her long and successful writing career, and what was different about writing The Sunshine Sisters.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: You write in the acknowledgements that you feel like you’re back to your old self with The Sunshine Sisters. Can you talk a bit about why that is?
JANE GREEN:I moved to a different publisher and found myself working with an editor who, whilst very talented, really wanted more plot and higher concept books. I loved the experience, but in hindsight realized that rather than writing the books I was known for and the books I wanted to write – more gentle, character-driven books – I was so busy focusing on the plot and its various twists and turns, I had lost sight of my characters. The Sunshine Sisters was the first book in years I wrote entirely on my own with no editorial input until I had finished, and being given that freedom, allowed me to find my voice again.
PRH: The Sunshine sisters each have a talent of their own—Meredith is an artist (if a reluctant one), Lizzy is a chef, and Nell is a dedicated farmer. Did their talents stem from your own?
JG: My obsessions have a habit of making their way into all of my books. I am an art-school dropout, a passionate chef, a nurturer, and a gardener. Oddly enough, I have never written about a doctor or a lawyer. I suspect my own love for the things I write about shines through.
PRH: Did you have a favorite Sunshine sister to write? (We won’t tell.)
JG: I have a soft spot for Lizzy, because while vaguely horrific in her selfishness and outspokenness, she was so fun, so fizzy, she was a joy to write. I also loved writing Nell, and particularly watching her unfold into the woman she had been suppressing for so long.
PRH: The premise of this novel is a heavy one—the once-famous actress Ronni Sunshine beckons her estranged daughters home to ask them to help her die on her own terms. What was your research into the world of euthanasia like?
JG: I read numerous books and articles, including some transformative memoirs, but I realized at a certain point that this book isn’t about euthanasia. I didn’t want to get embroiled in the right-to-die argument, because the truth is, this is a book about mothers and daughters, and if anything, Ronni’s decision to take her life is merely the device to bring her daughters home.
PRH: Ronni’s relationship with her daughters is fraught, to say the least. Do you think the perfect mother-daughter relationship exists?
JG: I certainly know women who idolize their mothers, and particularly those whose mothers died before their time. Most women I know have issues, which, when we are lucky, smooth out as we grow up and have children of our own, and other places to expend our energy.
PRH: Where is your absolute favorite place to write?
JG: Right now I am in the midst of creating a co-working office space in my town, and I have a seat at a desk by a window, overlooking the water, in a room that I have decorated to feel much like my home. It is heaven, both being somewhere beautiful, and being out of my house so I not only have a routine, but am not dying of isolation and loneliness.
PRH: As the author of many a New York Times bestselling novel, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
JG: Don’t think about it, dream about it, talk about it, or take endless workshops…the key to getting a book done, is simply to do it. Writing requires tremendous discipline, and that is the single biggest different between me and the many, many people I meet who have started a book, or thought about starting a book, but haven’t managed to finish it.
PRH: What’s next for you?
JG: I am consulting on the movie of The Beach House, writing my twentieth (twentieth!!) novel, and thinking about doing something a little different next. I might take a little more of a break and try my hand at historical fiction… We shall see, but life feels good right now.
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