From Little Women to Huckleberry Finn, from A Member of the Wedding to The Catcher in the Rye, American authors have developed a remarkable body of literature about the challenges and exhilarations of growing up. This tradition is now further enriched by the publication of Dear Zoe, a sensitive and insightful coming-of-age novel by Pittsburgh attorney Philip Beard. Related as a series of letters from the main character to her deceased little sister Zoe, the novel reveals the mind, heart, and emotional struggles of fifteen-year-old Tess DeNunzio. At first, Tess writes simply to re-create a bond with her sister. As time goes by, however, her letters become a comprehensive and thoughtful chronicle of her efforts to understand herself, her family, and the world around her. Without a trace of literary pretension, Tess writes with both humor and eloquence. With pensive candor, she speaks not only for herself but also for anyone who has known the loneliness, fears, and frustrations of coming of age in contemporary America.
Although Tess’s angst and insecurities will quickly resonate with the typical reader, her personal plight is anything but typical, and if she elicits sympathy, she neither claims it nor feels that she deserves it. To the contrary, her inner sufferings are rooted in almost unbearable self-condemnation.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Tess was entrusted with looking after three-year-old Zoe. Distracted by the horrible news blaring from her mother’s television, Tess turned away from her task just long enough for Zoe’s fatal accident to occur. Not able to feel at home with her grief-stricken mother, her emotionally enigmatic stepfather, and her surviving half sister, Tess abruptly moves across town to live with her hapless biological father. There, in a neighborhood rife with crime and drug use, she meets Jimmy Freeze, an amiable boy with a delinquent past. Jimmy has all the looks of someone who might make Tess’s troubles even worse, but he may also be able to give her the support and perspective she needs to start living again.
Striking in its characterizations and brilliantly precise in its dissections of both adolescence and human nature, Dear Zoe deftly juxtaposes a national catastrophe with personal tragedy. While acknowledging mass suffering, it also reaffirms the need of individuals to give and receive love. In his precociously wise but profoundly vulnerable narrator, Philip Beard creates a character of superb nuance and unusual depth. Dear Zoe is both a realistic portrait of troubled youth and a work of artistic and philosophical significance.
Philip Beard is a recovering attorney who still practices law part time in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. Dear Zoe was a Book Sense Pick, a Borders Original Voices Selection, and was chosen as one of the ten best first novels of 2005.
You are an attorney as well as a novelist. Both occupations demand excellence in writing, though the kinds of writing required are very different. Legal writing is formal and deductive, and it can be ruined by ambiguity. Novelistic writing has fewer rules and can thrive on ambiguity. In writing Dear Zoe, did you find it challenging to make the transition from one set of writing conventions and aesthetics to another?
No. Writing is writing. In both genres, you define your conflicts early, let them play out against one another, and then hope that you have made your case eloquently enough to convince your audience. I’ve read plenty of novels that have put me to sleep, and more than a few judges’ opinions that have made me envious as a writer. The greatest legal conflicts in history, issues like women’s suffrage, segregation, abortion, aren’t really legal conflicts at all but moral and emotional ones. The skill set required to make those kinds of arguments is also the novelist’s skill set. Certainly the two writers’ goals are the same: We’re trying to make someone believe in a reality we’ve created, to care about it enough to stay with us until the end, and, if we’re really lucky, to make them remember it.
I did receive one particularly good piece of advice from an old judge who taught trial tactics that has served me well and probably explains why my first novel is such a short one. On the first day of class, he looked down from his bench, his glass eye wide and white, his good eye sharp and squinting, and instructed us that we would all do well to “be brief, be brief, be brief, because you’re probably f—ing up anyway.”
Dear Zoe invites readers to think a great deal about causal relations between events. Strictly speaking, Zoe is not a victim of the 9/11 terrorists, and she would have been alive if the attacks had not taken place. Indeed, as Tess astutely points out, Zoe’s death is caused by an endless series of events, including the first meeting of her parents. We begin to get the feeling that “cause” is a pretty slippery concept, one that might or might not be related to responsibility and fault. It is also one that Tess has powerful motives for wanting to fudge. In your view, is there any way to talk about the cause of Zoe’s death that brings us closer to understanding it?
No. There is no understanding tragedy. If you’re lucky enough to have profound religious or spiritual convictions, maybe acceptance comes more easily, but there’s no real understanding that’s possible. So, in that sense, to suggest that Tess might be “fudging” the concept of cause is unfair. She’s doing what people who decide to keep living after tragedy do: She’s coming to terms with a new reality, with her role in having brought it about, and she’s deciding that trying to live in that new reality as best she can is better than the alternative.
Dear Zoe is powerfully reminiscent of The Catcher in the Rye. Both novels are narrated by disaffected teenagers who claim to have poor vocabularies, who consider themselves less gifted than their siblings, and whose lives have been drastically altered by the death of a younger family member. What do you think of comparisons between your work and J. D. Salinger’s?
The very fact that every book narrated by a disaffected teenager is “compared” to The Catcher in the Rye is proof that there is no comparison. But thank you.
It’s quite a tall order for a grown man to think his way into the mind of a teenage girl. However, Tess DeNunzio is a remarkably convincing persona. How were you able to construct such a detailed and sympathetic portrait?
Tess wouldn’t exist without my stepdaughter Cali, although they are very different people. Watching her go through those middle teen years, listening to her with an ear that was part father, part student, learning from my mistakes with her how I might better parent my younger daughters—all of these things helped bring Tess to life. Beyond that, for some reason I have always been able to hear voices. Some writers have a talent for constructing intricate plots, creating a vivid sense of place, or manipulating prose as if it were poetry. Writers I admire—Richard Russo, Ian McEwan, T.C. Boyle, Frederick Busch, Lewis Nordan, Kent Haruf, Susan Minot—seem, miraculously, to be equally good at all three. So far, the only part of writing that comes naturally to me is voice. Stripped to its most essential elements, Dear Zoe is all dialogue. It’s Tess speaking to Zoe. If that has somehow revealed Tess to readers, I could hope for nothing more.
Your novel has interesting things to say about the incantatory power of language, either real or imagined. Tess talks about the “magic words” recited by priests as they dispense the Eucharist. Tess, Em, and her mother all attach an almost magical significance to the naming of Zoe, but of course her name fails to protect her. Does Tess lose her faith in language or does her belief in it merely acquire a different shape as the novel progresses?
That’s a good question, and one I couldn’t even pretend to answer for her. My hope would be that Tess’s faith in language isn’t lost, but strengthened by her ability to come to terms with her tragedy through it. No, there are no “magic words,” and even someone like Pip in Great Expectations, who exercised almost godlike power by daring to name himself on the first page, couldn’t protect himself from tragedy. Still, Tess told her story, and that is the ultimate affirmation of the power of language, whether she realizes it or not.
The contrasts and symmetries in your work are intriguing. Tess has two fathers who seem to be polar opposites but who infuse the novel with a delicate sense of balance. Tess’s sister Em, with whom Tess is implicitly compared, is “Me” spelled backward. What are your thoughts about these and other balancing elements in your novel?
Wow. Maybe if I had spent a little more time in writers’ workshops I’d have an answer for that one. Maybe I’d even think about things like “balance” while I was writing. As it is, I just try to create characters I care about enough to want to spend a year or so with them, and then watch to see what they might do. Usually, I’m as surprised as any reader by what they decide. Whatever balance that comes out of that process is, I suppose, the balance that naturally exists in the story of anyone’s life. So, no, Em isn’t “Me,” at least not on purpose. It’s just short for Emily. And yes, that is “Y-lime” spelled backward, but I swear that doesn’t mean anything.
Tess doesn’t have a lot of patience with people who write emotional poems about September 11 and make pilgrimages to Ground Zero even though they lost no one in the attacks. Your novel raises issues, in general, about the proper scope of grief and who has a right to what emotions. Do you share Tess’s ideas about commemoration and grieving, either generally or with regard to September 11 in particular?
I think the important distinction is between grief and fear. People have a right to their emotions, but sometimes they mischaracterize them. Grief is intensely private; fear can be very public and shared with everyone else who is similarly situated. We all have the right to be afraid after September 11, but grief is reserved for those who have suffered a real loss. The amount and immediacy of the media coverage had a lot to do with the blurring of that line. We all felt as if we were there; we lived through that day together. And the stories that were told that day and in the weeks that followed created such empathy between viewer and victim that it was possible to grieve, briefly at least, with families we had never met. But the emotion connected with that day that still remains in those outside the circle of loss is, I think, more properly characterized as fear. As a member of that day’s circle of loss, Tess is understandably more emotional about the distinction and becomes almost territorial about her grief. Whether you agree with her or not, it’s hard to blame her for that.
Dear Zoe presents itself as an epistolary novel; that is, a series of letters from one character to another. However, this formal device is complicated by the fact that the supposed recipient of these letters is dead. Moreover, Tess uses these letters to discuss matters that an older sister would be unlikely to share with a preschool-age sibling, including drug use and sex. Why did you have Tess adopt the fiction of writing to Zoe?
Again, I’m going to have to plead innocence on the conscious use of formal devices. Tess speaks directly to Zoe because that’s what she wanted to do from the very beginning. And I found myself following her instincts because they seemed right to me. Why would she want to tell you or me about her feelings? Who are we to her? And these don’t have to be “letters” in the formal sense, so it doesn’t matter that there’s no one to physically receive them. Maybe she’s not even writing all of this down. Maybe she’s talking to Zoe. Maybe she’s just thinking, remembering, praying; it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that she has created a confidante for herself. We are merely eavesdropping.
The point of view was actually a focus of major contention during the submission process of the novel. It was rejected by a handful of publishing houses in its epistolary form, and I was advised by more than one industry expert to change the point of view to standard first person before having my agent, Jane Dystel, continue to submit to other editors. I strongly resisted the change but, I’m not proud to say, finally relented because I had already had one novel rejected by every major New York publisher. A few years of people telling you you’re not quite good enough can create enough doubt that you start listening to advice you might otherwise dismiss.
Anyway, I revised the manuscript, retitled it “Z,” literally cried when I sent it off that way, and watched it get rejected by twenty more editors. After a period of mourning, I decided to publish it myself and spent six months learning the business, hiring a cover designer, a publicist, a printer, a distributor, even getting my own ISBN number. It was actually great fun, except for the fact that I was committing a chunk of my children’s college fund to fulfilling my own pipedream. But I was in control of every aspect of the process, and that meant going back to the original epistolary point of view and title. One day, I handed a copy of the manuscript to John Towle, the owner of The Aspinwall Bookshop in my neighborhood. He passed it along to Jason Gobble, his Penguin sales rep, who gave it to Clare Ferraro, president of Viking Penguin, and Clare called me, quite literally, as I was having the final text files and cover mechanicals e-mailed to my printer. Ironically, one of the aspects of the book Clare liked most was the epistolary point of view. Go figure.
Adolescents naturally make critical judgments about the adult world. Tess is unusual in that her judgments are conditioned by the very harsh judgment she has made against herself. How has Tess’s self-imposed guilt affected her capacity and willingness to judge the people around her?
I don’t find Tess unusual at all in that regard. Teens are naturally judgmental because judgment is a relatively new skill for them, and they practice it on the easiest of targets, namely adults. Teens, for the most part, are better people than adults, and they know it. If anything, Tess’s guilt, which is primarily an adult emotion, makes her more tolerant of the adults in her life than the average teen. Her father, for example, is ripe for judgment, and although she makes observations about his lifestyle and his choices, she doesn’t judge him.
Tess admits that she is not good at “being what [she] could be,” that she is skilled only in being what she is. And yet doesn’t her future, as well as the outcome of your novel, depend on her ability to imagine and eventually become a new, hypothesized self? And isn’t it strange that we think negatively about teenagers who try to be something they aren’t while we urge them to be all they can be; i.e., something they have not yet become?
I don’t know what a “hypothesized self” is. Tess, like all of us, lives in the exact center of the duality of who she was and who she is becoming. None of us is very good at “being what [we] could be.” And the outcome of the novel doesn’t depend on anything other than what Tess becomes in the pages after the last page. My idea of what that might be is no better than yours. I know what I want for her, and I think that’s where parents get in the most trouble with teens. We’re always looking forward, because we think that’s our job, instead of celebrating who our kids are now. I’m not advocating leaving our kids entirely to their own devices. They need to be given responsibility and held accountable. We need to demand that they treat others with kindness and respect. Beyond that, our greatest demand should be that they listen to their instincts, follow their bliss, wherever that might lead. That kind of path might have a lot of stops and restarts—mine certainly has—but the result is more likely to be fulfilling than setting a path for them that they follow for too long before realizing it’s the wrong one.
Tess’s sexual initiation with Jimmy Freeze appears to open a floodgate of emotion for her; seemingly, it is the event that finally enables her to write specifically about the morning of Zoe’s death. It seems that, in your novel, carnal knowledge is not merely the knowledge of another person’s flesh. It can also signify a knowledge through the flesh of one’s own repressed memories and desires. Any thoughts?
That’s a fairly broad statement that, as a man, I can’t answer. I have been told enough times that intimacy is different for a woman than it is for a man that I have to believe it’s true—that the trust and acceptance necessary for a woman to give of herself in that way, especially the first time, is the ultimate vulnerability. For Tess, that vulnerability is magnified many times over by her loss and by the weight of her repressed guilt. When she opens herself to Jimmy Freeze, everything from her love for him to her own self-hatred comes rushing out at once. Ironically, she has been looking at Jimmy as her escape, and yet it’s when she finally gives herself to him completely that she is forced to face reality.
Dear Zoe has a lot of counterintuitive things to say about the nature of good and bad. Tess smokes pot, has sex, and is attracted to bad boys, but few readers are likely to see her as a bad person. Jimmy is described as “a really good guy who couldn’t help himself from screwing up.” Tess seems concerned about getting a handle on what good and bad really mean. Does she finally know? Do we?
It’s only counterintuitive if you try to apply rigid, archetypal concepts of good and bad to real people. But our heroes seldom survive scrutiny, and our villains’ lives, once rewound, almost always reveal forces that might have ruined any one of us. The only person in Tess’s life we might be tempted to call definitively bad is Travis, and we don’t see enough of him to pass judgment—who his parents were, what kind of loss or abuse he might have suffered that would explain the way he has turned out. So, does Tess finally know the meaning of good and bad? Of course not. But she knows something more important. And here for once I feel comfortable speaking for her because she is fairly direct about this: She knows who deserves her love, she knows from whom she can expect love in return, and she knows that they are all the same people. That’s pretty powerful knowledge.