READERS GUIDEEleven Questions I Wish Someone Would Ask Me:
A Hypothetical Interview with Annie Barrows
1. What would you say The Truth According to Us is about?
I like the idea that authors don’t fully know what their books are about, and it’s up to readers to excavate the true meaning of a work. On the other hand, I, like every other author in the world, had intentions. In my opinion, The Truth According to Us is about:
1. the fictional nature of history
2. the perils attendant upon insisting, instead, that
history is factual and fixed
3. how families—-at least some families—-create their identities by the stories they tell about themselves
4. small–town America during the Depression
5. three stages of women’s lives
6. sock manufacturing
7. the non–glamorous aspects of the Federal Writers’ Project
8. what class and privilege in small–town America looked like in the early twentieth century
9. indirectly, the way novels of the 1930s were built,
as opposed to those written now.
(I’m kidding about the sock manufacturing.)
2. How do you choose what you’re going to write?
I think I agree with Martin Amis, who says it begins with “an act of recognition on the writer’s part.” I encounter ideas or events—-tiny ones, nothing complete—-and there’s a sort of nod, oh yes, I could write about that, that’s one of my subjects. When I have one of these encounters, I try to pin it down by scribbling a note to myself, which invariably reads, when I come upon it later, like a telegram from the French Resistance. (I was looking through an old notebook the other day and found one that read: “Mr. Robinson. A–ha.” I actually do know what I meant by that.) For me, the originating moment is so brief and fragmented that it’s almost visual, and it’s certainly not shaped like a story; that is, there’s no movement through time. It’s just a character, a scene, a feeling, even a word that seems, in some unaccountable way, to bear more weight than it appears to. In my notebook, the originating idea for The Truth According to Us is documented as “the coloratura at the beach.” There is no coloratura and no beach in The Truth According to Us.
3. You’ve mentioned that you wrote dozens and dozens of drafts of The Truth According to Us, some vastly different from the finished book. Do you now regret any of the lost elements? Which ones?
Most of the lost elements deserved to die. One or two should never have seen the light of day in the first place. But I do regret a few of the lost stories about Jottie, Felix, and Vause as children and teenagers. There are some in the book, there are plenty in the book, and yet—-when I flip through the pages, I still expect to find the bit about Vause getting a black eye. More than anything, though, I miss St. Clair Romeyn, Felix and Jottie’s father. He was a very full, very American character to me, and I was quite fond of him. There was a story about him at an American Everlasting picnic in 1917 that I mourn, though I know in my heart it had no real place in the larger story I was trying to tell.
And speaking of regrets, there’s one thing I failed to write that I would now like to repair: Emmett is fine. Quite a few readers have been distressed by Emmett’s condition at the end of the book, and I want to reassure everyone that he’s actually going to be fine. His shoulder’s going to hurt when it rains, that’s all. It won’t keep him from having a long and happy life. In fact, he outlives all the other Romeyn siblings, probably because he doesn’t smoke.
4. What’s the biggest difference between writing for children and writing for adults?
All stories have the same general shape (a mountain), even if an author gets tricky and runs the story backwards or from the middle out (in which case it’s shaped like a volcano, still a mountain). So you could say that geometrically, writing for kids is similar to writing for adults.
You could say that, but it would be a fraud, because that’s the only similarity. Everything else is different. The differences come in various sizes: small, medium, and large. For example, word choice. I consider this to be small, as problems go. I can’t use the word “cuspidor” in a kids’ book. So what? I’d probably think twice before I’d use it in a book for grownups, too. But the issue of word choice really means—-watch the small difference become medium–sized—-that I have to consider, when writing for kids, how much my audience knows, which is less, usually, than I know. And now the medium–sized difference grows large: the essential, inescapable fact is that when I write for kids, I am writing for someone I no longer am. I can’t write about things as I think about them; I’m obliged to translate into the language of children. But not everything is translatable, and some words and ideas are deemed inappropriate for translation by the parents and teachers who determine what children are allowed and/or encouraged to read. (This, too, is a difference: the person who reads kids’ books is not the person who decides to buy them.)
But the biggest difference, the gaping chasm, between writing for these two audiences is what they want when they pick up a book. Kids don’t want anything. At least, they don’t want anything specific from the book. They might want to get their parents off their backs about reading, but they don’t expect the book to be a certain way (unless it’s part of a series) or to fit into a known category. Most kids haven’t had enough reading experience to separate books into categories, much less to determine the category they prefer and judge a book on the basis of whether it succeeds or fails to properly inhabit the category they anticipated. They don’t, until they’re around eleven (girls) or sixteen (boys), conceive of books as emblems of self, shorthand for their characteristics and aspirations. Little kids are the great practitioners of negative capability—-not only can they live in uncertainties, most of them can’t live anywhere else because they don’t command sufficient information, either about themselves or the world, to demand conformity with expectations. Lucky them. Lucky them, except this is precisely why reading is hard for kids: every time they pick up a book, it could be anything. Every time, the learning curve is perpendicular (unless it’s part of a series—-which explains the popularity of kids’ series).
Grownups have learned a number of tricks to help them avoid this kind of labor: they select books by authors whose previous works they’ve enjoyed; they peruse the reviews on the back cover and the tempting flap copy; they assess the picture on the cover and the photo of the author on the back flap; without necessarily knowing it, they are allured (or not) by the typeface of the title. If, after all this, the book still remains opaque, the potential reader can break down and read the first page. Instead of having to read the book to know what it’s about, grownups often have to know what it’s about before they decide to read it. That way they know what to expect. And that, right there, is the problem. After all their detective work, adults are outraged if the book turns out to be different than they expected. In some cases, their criterion for judging the book is whether it conformed to their expectations, which is really quite odd when you think about it, and quite beside the point. If you extend the argument, you realize, in fact, that knowing how you’ll experience a story before it begins is antithetical to the purpose of story–telling.
5. Whom or what do you find most inspiring as a writer? Why?
Funny you should ask. This has changed a lot over time. When I was young, I was inspired by beautiful writing. You know, exquisite, luminous, original writing. To which I now say, Feh. Now, I admire writing that keeps itself close to the vest, that is so fully engaged and working so hard that the reader doesn’t notice it. What I look for now is writing that fully deploys the language and plays with it, but isn’t in love with itself. Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell, is an example of writing that impresses me this way. I respect anyone who goes to the bother of creating a real character, since so many writers don’t, and if the plot is actually a function of character instead of psychosis or crime (both of which bore me to tears), I’m in. In terms of material, I am very, very interested in time, and I’m seriously engaged by anyone who is trying to tear apart the role of time in story without sacrificing story itself, as do Kate Atkinson in Life After Life, David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, and Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Obviously, I’m also quite absorbed in the search for lost time, so I get pretty irritable about cheap historicity—-one hoop skirt does not a Victorian make—-and pretty impressed (and jealous) when I find someone who’s done the work necessary to imagine a historical period in full. Hilary Mantel is the gold standard in this regard, but her imagination has something almost otherworldly about it. Maybe she time–travels at night. I wish I did.
6. Do you think the Federal Writers’ Project was a good idea?
It is almost unbelievable now to think of the federal government of the United States funding a program to employ writers. Its mere unfathomability makes it moving. It’s also moving because in some ways the project was the Conservation Corps of ideas, and it preserved voices and stories that would otherwise have disappeared, such as the narratives of former slaves and the oral histories of immigrants and laboring people. In truth, this preservation work was probably more valuable than the State Guides, which the project conceived as its major endeavor, but those guides, too, are amazing time capsules of the conditions and beliefs that prevailed in the forty–eight states in the late thirties and very early forties. They are fascinating documents of a now almost entirely lost regionalism.
That’s the positive outcome. What’s the downside? The writers who worked for the project fulminated against it incessantly, as writers are apt to do when someone tells them what, when, and how to write. But I think that most of them remembered it gratefully later, and in my opinion, it’s not damaging for writers to do some hack work in their youth. It keeps them from being precious about themselves in later life.
Other negatives: it’s possible that the world did not benefit from publications like The Albanian Struggle in the Old World and New, but it’s not possible that the world was made worse by them. It’s probable that the House Un–American Activities Committee was correct in suspecting that the Federal Writers’ Project hired Communists. But it’s also demonstrable that this fact was totally immaterial to the fate of the world.
7. In the Romeyn family tree at the front of The Truth According to Us, the reader learns that the first Romeyn child, a boy, died as an infant. This child is never mentioned in the book; why was it necessary to record his presence at all?
What a good question! I documented the brief life of the first Romeyn son in order to explain more fully the development of the second. Why is Felix the way he is? Why does he believe he has the right to require fealty from the people he loves? Why is he incapable of acknowledging weakness? These qualities of his have complicated origins, but I wanted to hint that one of the tributaries was a mother who believed that his existence was both infinitely precarious and her deliverance. Bad combo.
8. One of the persistent themes of The Truth According to Us is that all narrators recast history to suit their own purposes. Did you do this, too? That is, did you knowingly alter any facts in the service of story?
Yep. I did. I’m quite proud of some of my fake history. Since Macedonia is an imaginary town, its history is necessarily imaginary, as is its geography. But its imaginary location is consistent; I didn’t move it around to suit my own convenience (and believe me, I was pretty tempted along about Chapter 45). Likewise, though the larger historical events that occurred in Macedonia are fictional, I tried to accommodate them to actual events. For example, the Knock–Pie Trail that Layla describes in Chapter 32 is my own creation, but I entertained myself by fitting it into a real timeline: General Robert S. Garnett actually was shuffling around in the mountains west of the Shenandoah on June 30, 1861, and General George McClellan actually was leading twenty–two thousand fresh troops south out of Ohio at the same time. In truth, the two armies didn’t meet up until some days later, but it would be just like McClellan to be scared by pie pans.
These are what I consider fabrications. Falsifications are another species entirely, and I’m not at all proud of the three I knowingly kept in the book. They all have to do with movies.
1. Love Finds Andy Hardy wasn’t released until July 22, 1938, but Jottie and Sol see it on July 12.
2. Algiers wasn’t released until August 5, 1938, but Jottie and Sol see it on July 21.
3. In small–town theaters in West Virginia in 1938, white people did not sit in the balcony.
I hate all of these, but I hate the third one most, because it’s not just a date, but a behavior—-a piece of social history—-I’m misrepresenting. I needed them to sit up there for plot and characterization purposes, but I don’t like it.
9. Your first book was published when you were in your late thirties. If you were allowed a redo, would you start writing earlier?
Yes. In my perfect life, I subtract 1992, which gets me started writing a year earlier. I also don’t do a really stupid thing I did in 1994, which saves me another year. So now I’m two years younger when I start writing. That’s not enough. Maybe I subtract 1985, too. Nothing good happened in 1985.
I could have saved a lot of time if I had just learned everything faster.
10. Do you think that your experience as a book editor has had an effect on your writing career?
Sure. My very first editorial job was on a newspaper, where I was taught to regard text in pretty much the same way a plumber regards a pipe: pragmatically, as in how many inches do I have to write to fill the hole on page 6? This destroyed my reverent view of the Writer as Transcendent Being, which was probably a good thing. My second job, as a copy editor, taught me how to rip apart a sentence and put it back together again. That’s a handy skill for a writer. After a few years working in the salt mines of textbook publishing, I went to work for a publisher specializing in illustrated books, where I was both an acquiring editor and the managing editor, in charge of scheduling for the entire house. This means that I was on both the acquisition and the production sides of publishing, which provided me with a very broad education. I think this has given me some advantages over many writers to whom publishing is a monolithic mystery. One major advantage is that I’m aware of the ineffable and subjective nature of the editorial endeavor, so I don’t automatically believe my editors know more than I do. I’m perfectly willing to argue with them.
On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to editors. They are a harassed group, living under a constant barrage of demands from art directors, marketers, salespeople, publishers, and their own profit and loss statements. Anyone who thinks editors spend their days reading manuscripts has never met an editor. Because I know the pressures they’re under, I try to take care of as much of the editorial work as I can myself, which, I hope, makes both of us happier. Finally, because I worked with illustrated books, I learned a good deal about design and production, which in turn gave me the ability to articulate my opinions about visual matters. It turns out that this is a fairly rare skill—-most authors and editors who work on textual books can’t say why they think what they think about a book’s cover or design. Being able to talk about the design of my books has allowed me to have more influence on my books’ visuals than most authors do, I believe.
11. What is your favorite color?
Why, thank you for asking! Orange.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Early in The Truth According to Us, Willa resolves to acquire the virtues of “ferocity and devotion.” Do you concur that these are actually virtues? Which characters in The Truth According to Us possess them? Do you know anyone who does?
2. Much of the story of The Truth According to Us revolves around events that occurred when Jottie, Felix, Vause, and Sol were children and teenagers. Do you think the author believes that character is essentially unchanging from childhood to adulthood? Do you agree? Have you changed in essence from your childhood self?
3. The Truth According to Us is set in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Have you ever lived in a situation like that? Would you find living in Macedonia appealing or stifling? With our multiple forms of instantaneous communication, it could be said that the entire world has become a small town. Do you agree? Do you think we live in a more or less anonymous world now?
4. Felix Romeyn is undoubtedly a flawed character. Sol McKubin is, by most standards, a far more honorable person. And yet Jottie speaks of “her growing certainty that if Sol had been in Felix’s place, he would, after a time, have come to believe that what he told her was the truth.” Do you agree? If so, which man is more honorable?
5. Of all the characters in The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck may be the one that changes the most. In her final letter to her father, she says that she’s learned that “ignoring the past is the act of a fool.” What is she referring to? Discuss how the lessons she’s learned are revealed in the differences between her relationships with Felix and with Emmett.
6. While The Truth According to Us is not an epistolary novel, many letters from Layla’s various correspondences are woven throughout the narrative. How did these letters contribute to your understanding of her character, and to the story as a whole? Are there any letters that really stand out in your memory? Why do you think that is?
7. Is Felix a good father? Why or why not?
8. Annie Barrows has said, with regard to setting her novel in 1938, “The Second World War looms so large in our perception of our individual selves—-and even larger in our perception of America’s identity—-that it takes a massive feat of imagination to remove it, or block it out, even very temporarily. To catch a glimpse of a small town in America, not ‘before the war,’ or even ‘before people realized war was inevitable,’ but without the inevitability—-well, it’s nearly impossible.” Discuss the historical events that have marked your time. Do you think that we, like the characters in The Truth According to Us, face a major pivot point in our national identity? What do you think it is?
9. At one point, Willa’s uncle Emmett advises her, “Don’t ask questions if you’re not going to like the answers.” He clarifies that she should ask herself whether the answer could endanger something that’s precious to her, and if so, refrain from asking. Willa ignores his advice entirely, but would it have been better—-for her and everyone else—-if she had taken it? Have you ever regretted your own curiosity?
10. The possibility of knowing the truth about the past is a central preoccupation of The Truth According to Us. Layla says that “if history were defined as only those stories that could be absolutely verified, we’d have no history at all.” Do you agree? Do you think that Layla still believes this at the end of the summer?
11. Of all the characters in The Truth According to Us, with whom do you most identify and why?
12. The sisterly bond between Jottie, Mae, and Minerva is intimate and powerful, with Mae and Minerva choosing to live under the same roof during the week, away from their husbands, because “the two of them can’t stand to be apart. . . . They found out they were miserable without each other.” In contrast, the relationship between the two Romeyn brothers is tense. What do you think of this distinction? How does the presence of strong feminine companionship impact this story? How does this model of loyalty and devotion affect the relationship between young Willa and Bird?
13. The Truth According to Us is broken up into multiple different perspectives, blending young and old voices with epistolary fragments and flashbacks. How do these varied viewpoints contribute to characterization and development in the story? How do they deepen our connection to these characters?