A Conversation with Deb Caletti Random House Reader’s Circle:
You’ve written many popular teen novels, but He’s Gone
is your first novel for adults. What was the inspiration for your adult debut? Did you have the idea long before you began writing it? And how was the writing process different?
You never know how—or when—the idea for a book will appear. This one came right when I needed it, shortly after we’d begun discussing the possibility of me writing an adult novel. The inspiration arrived in much the same way that He’s Gone
begins. I was lying in bed, trying to determine if my husband was home or not. I was doing that thing you do, where you listen for the sound of footsteps, or the toaster lever being pushed down, or coffee being made. And then, rather handily and helpfully, came the thought: What if you woke up one morning and found that your husband had vanished? The idea of writing the book as a confession came quickly afterward, as did the decision to explore the subjects of guilt and marriage, wrongdoing, and the way those old, treacherous voices from childhood can continue to haunt us. I began work on the book as soon as I could, just after finishing The Story of Us
. Sometimes you have an idea that makes you feel like a kid on Halloween night. Can we just skip dinner, so we can go? I wanted to go. I couldn’t wait to start this one.
The writing process wasn’t all that different from my other books. My previous nine young adult novels are full length and fairly complex and character driven, and my readers are already a mixed bag of ages, falling generally in the older teens to adult range. There is always a teen protagonist, but my books also feature adult characters of varying ages—mothers and daughters both struggling with screwed-up love lives, for example, or generations of women with something to say about relationships, family, and identity. I tend to try to push the boundaries of YA, offering more thought-provoking mate- rial than readers of that age might be used to, along with a slower, more literary pace. So writing a book for adults wasn’t a great leap. The only real difference I found was that the boundaries I always try to push didn’t exist anymore. There were no more fences for me to stay in or out of. It was very freeing. I found that, for me, writing within those boundaries is actually in many ways more challenging. RHRC: He’s Gone
takes place in Seattle, where you also live. Do you feel that your life in the city inspired or influenced the novel? If so, how? D.C.:
Setting has always played a huge part in my books, and I have no doubt that’s because I live in such an evocative place. I like to approach setting as if it were character, with a character’s traits and quirks and moods. Seattle—and the San Juan Islands, and the towns of the mountain foothills that I’ve previously written about—all have so much character, it’s hard to cross a street without seeing something to include in a book. We are bombarded with setting here, which is a lucky thing for a writer, I think. It offers itself. He’s Gone
primarily takes place in a particularly eccentric and picturesque part of our city—the houseboat community around Lake Union, where I once lived part-time. It seemed an especially fitting setting for the book. First, there is water everywhere, and these characters are, well, literally drowning in guilt. But even more than that, the houseboats and their docks are a little off kilter. Yes, they’re charming and shingled and dripping with gorgeous flowers. Ducks paddle by, and so do friendly kayakers. Sailboats swoop out to the lake on a glorious day. But, too, the houses and boats are rocking and clanging. The old piers sway and creak. On a rainy day, it’s a little spooky. On any day, it’s all slightly deranged. RHRC:
Though the story begins when Ian vanishes, he feels like a fully evolved character by the time we reach the ending. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges of fleshing out a character who is mostly “offscreen”? D.C.:
I like the idea of this, the “off screen” character. I also have one in my book The Story of Us. That character, Janssen Tucker, is totally absent until he appears for his one line at the very end of the book. The idea appeals to me because there are a lot of “offscreen” people in our own lives. You can come to know your partner’s ex or their deceased parent in a very real way, even if you’ve never met them. You can come to have very strong feelings about them, an understanding of them, a full picture, just from what you hear. In writing, the challenge to make a character come alive even when he’s not on the scene is met in the same ways it happens in real life. You hear stories about the person. Your partner tells you about his ex, but so does his best friend, and so does his mother. Maybe you see a photo or hear a rumor. Maybe you hear a voice on an answering machine.
Ian, in He’s Gone,
needed to be much closer to the reader than Janssen Tucker did in The Story of Us
. Aside from Dani, Ian is the most important character in the book. It’s crucial to feel him right there, even though he’s missing—to feel the press of his control, to even feel his breath on her face during that picnic. He needs to be so well known that we understand both his complicated emotions and the bind those emotions have put Dani in. Dani’s own flashbacks serve this purpose (we actually “see” Ian during those times), but Nathan’s accounts of their relationship flesh out Ian’s character, as do Isabel’s and Abby’s. What we see of his relationship with his children and Mary and especially his father hopefully fill Ian in further. What I also felt helped bring Ian close were the times that Dani heard him speak in her head. That’s about as close in as you can bring someone. RHRC:
Dani has a compelling narrative voice, and it’s easy to take her version of the truth for reality. Ultimately, though, we find out that she’s not a reliable narrator. What made you decide to go this route?
I went this route because we are all unreliable narrators, not just in the way we tell our stories to others, but how we tell them to ourselves. Maybe especially how we tell them to ourselves. All of us create our own versions of an event, of our lives, even, not because we’re liars, necessarily, but because we can only see and understand the truth from our own viewpoint, and a shifting viewpoint at that. Facing the truth is a messy business. You’ve got denial, and pride, and the fact that understanding takes time; you’ve got perspective (or lack of it) and the pesky fact that we can only face the truth we can stand to face at any given moment. I didn’t see Dani as being willfully deceitful in the way she tells her story. I saw her as struggling with a hard truth that she hadn’t even entirely admitted to herself yet. It’s one of the toughest human being jobs, I think, being utterly and completely honest with yourself.
One aspect of He’s Gone
that really stuck with us is the imagery involving butterflies. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration there? D.C.:
My first marriage was an abusive one, and long after I left it, a very good friend, someone who knew me well, reflected on that time. He said, “You were like a butterfly, caught in a net.” I never forgot those words. Butterflies became personally symbolic to me. I knew I wanted to one day use this symbolism in my writing—the fragility, the strength, the capture, the escape. Because, yes, there is the helplessness of being trapped, but there is also what happens when the butterfly manages to get free.
Did you know how He’s Gone
would end before you began writing it? If not, can you tell us a bit about some of the other endings you considered, and why you ultimately chose this one?
I always say that, for me, writing a book is like a wacky Greyhound bus trip—I know where I’m starting and where I’ll end up, but I have no idea what will happen along the way. He’s Gone
was different, though. I didn’t know how the book would end. I struggled with it. I wanted to write the novel as a confession, and so this meant considering the obvious possibility that Dani had indeed harmed Ian. I felt this was the wrong route, though. It would have turned the book into a clichéd abused-woman-kills-husband story, and that felt cheap to me. It would have been a dishonest choice, a disservice, even, to anyone who’d actually been in a similar relationship. In reality, we know who usually ends up being harmed in situations like that, and it isn’t the perpetrator. Perhaps more important, though, in terms of my vision for the book, if Dani had been guilty of harming Ian, the story would have become about a violent act and not about what I wanted it to be about—the complexity and impossibility of assigning guilt; the million gray areas of culpability, which can sit right next to our very black-and-white feelings of shame.
After my father read the book, he handed it back to me and said, “I was really glad she didn’t do it.” And maybe that was the biggest reason that I chose the ending I did. I was really glad she didn’t do it, too.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Pollux, Dani’s dog, and Isabel, Dani’s eccentric mother, bring moments of comic relief to He’s Gone, even in the midst of all the dark moments and drama. Do you think this adds to the narrative? Why or why not?
2. Whenever someone in He’s Gone looks for rescue or validation in the form of another person, they end up disappointed— whether it’s Dani having an affair with Ian to escape her abusive marriage or Ian attempting to connect with his father. What do you make of this?
3. “Brief moments of goodness are shockingly persistent. You’re in the dark, darker, darkest, and yet there’s a dog sitting beside you, on his best behavior for a dropped crust, and there’s an industrious line of ducks paddling past, and there’s a grilled cheese maestro. Life insists.” Discuss how this passage exemplifies the broader themes of the novel.
4. Dani thinks Ian is having an affair with Desiree, but it turns out that Desiree is just jealous of Dani and Ian and covetous of the life they share together. From the outside looking in, their relationship seems ideal to her. Discuss how all of the characters in He’s Gone tend to misconstrue situations due to their imperfect perception. What’s the author trying to tell us?
5. How did you feel about Ian after reading about the dinner that he and Dani shared with Paul Hartley Keller? Did it make you like him more? Less?
6. There’s a ceramic bust of Ian that looks exactly like Paul Hartley Keller—so much so that Dani mistakenly assumes he was the model for it. Why can Dani see the resemblance between the two men only in this one inanimate object? What’s the significance of what ultimately happens to the bust?
7. Dani often seems to feel physically threatened by Ian’s daughters, particularly the taciturn Bethy. Do you think this threat is real or imagined? What does it say about violence as a legacy?
8. Did your feelings about Mary change when you finally met her in the present-day narrative? How do you think your initial impressions of her were colored by the fact that He’s Gone is told from Dani’s point of view?
9. He’s Gone is written as Dani’s confession, and much of the book focuses on how guilt (both warranted and unwarranted) colors our lives. How do our experiences dictate what we feel guilty for and what we don’t? What must we do to be able to forgive ourselves and others? Near the end of the story, Dani holds her confession in her arms “like a baby, like my own child.” Why do you think the author chose these words?
10. For most of the novel, Ian seems like a buttoned-up, perfectly controlled person, whose biggest failing is his desire for perfection in everyone around him. Toward the end of the novel we finally find out that he is just as capable of abusive violence as Dani’s first husband. Do you think this revelation has more impact because it’s withheld for so long? What were your feelings about Ian before you found out the full story of the fateful picnic he took with Dani? What were they like after it?
11. Were you surprised to learn that Ian’s affair with Dani wasn’t his first? Why or why not?
12. Did you ever believe that Dani was responsible for Ian’s disappearance? Discuss.