April 2005

Wendy Anderson

features

An Interview with Jacquelyn Mitchard

To hear her tell it, author Jacquelyn Mitchard believes that if she lives long enough, she’ll write the kind of topnotch book she aspires to write. Every writer wants her next book to be her best book, she says -- even when her very first one was The Deep End of the Ocean, which sold like hotcakes and had the extra bonus of being the first-ever Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club selection. Yet Mitchard’s book came about amid great personal sorrow. She began writing it after her first husband died from cancer in 1993. She finished it two years to the day of his death. Not only did it sell in a grand fashion and become a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, but it was praised for its vivid storytelling and accurate depiction of tremendous grief.

Mitchard’s fifth adult novel, The Breakdown Lane, due out from Harper Collins on April 1, also chronicles a family’s persevering in the midst of personal anguish. It is leaner and more linear than her first book, says the author, as it tells the tale of Julieanne Gillis, an advice columnist for the Sheboygan, Wis., newspaper, whose husband of twenty years unexpectedly leaves her and their three kids to go off and find himself. If that’s not bad enough, she’s soon diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Like other Mitchard books, it is poignant and often funny. Barnes & Noble lists it as its early summer Book Club selection.

Mitchard, a native Chicagoan, lives near Madison, Wis., with her husband, six kids, and some horses, cats, and goats. A longtime journalist, she writes a syndicated column for Tribune Media Services; a collection of columns became the book The Rest of Us. She’s written a novella and children’s books, with more kids’ books in the works. She recently reflected on her life in writing.

Your characters are real -- wonderful and flawed, pained and sometimes heartbreaking. Where do they come from?

I have a passion to have my books be like life. In real life, you can’t tell all the time who the good guys and bad guys are, and a lot of times people are a mixture of both things. Either they are very flawed people who have moments of extraordinary grace, or they’re very good people who have moments of self-centered or self-destructive behavior. I think that’s what I try to portray in my books, because readers can relate to somebody who is not either perfect or the perfect villain.

Tell me about the main characters in The Breakdown Lane.

They are great examples. Julie is a person you’d want to have for a friend. She’s funny but she’s also to the manor born, and she’s very proud. And when she’s sick, she does some pretty unkind things. And Leo, he does something that is absolutely unconscionable -- you can’t stand him -- but there’s also a certain measure of pity for his foolishness because he’s all too human. I think about his treatment of her as "millennial dumping"; it’s sort of the new way to dump your wife. You used to just dump her, but now you dump her because you’re trying to realize yourself and seek your passion. Leo is a real victim of his own lack of understanding of himself. So is Julie. She’s an advice columnist, and she does a wonderful job of not taking her own advice.

Did you know what these characters were going to end up doing before you started?

Absolutely. I always have a plan. I don’t start out to drive to Minneapolis without a map. After I’ve done my research, before I ever sit down to write, I know who these characters are, how they look, what they weigh, how tall they are; and all those things are carefully chosen. There’s a reason for them to look and act the way they do and have the height they do.

Do they lead you a little bit as you are writing?

Not at all. All my [writer] friends' characters do. My friends say that while they’re away from their computers, their characters come up with these brilliant new directions in which to take the story. Not mine. They’ve had hot dogs and some Doritos and just sat there until I’ve gotten back. Until I start the engine again, they don’t do anything.

I have a rule that I never write myself out. I always leave myself at a place where there’s someplace to go in a chapter, so that when I come back to it, I’m in the middle of something instead of having to start anew: I’m going to write until she gets to the restaurant or until she gets to the delivery room or until she gets to the fire station. Then I force myself to stop with something yet to be done.

Are you doing a tour for this new book?

Yes, thirteen or fourteen cities. [A list of places and dates appears on her Web site, www.jackiemitchard.com.] Some are bookstores, some are events. Every tour sends me to different places. But book publishing is changing; everything is different from how it used to be. It’s no big deal for a reader to have ordered your books online, and they don’t come to see you unless they want to shake hands or get an autograph. It used to be when an author came to town, that was a big deal. Now there’s an author every night at every bookstore, and sometimes two.

But not every writer gains your stature; they would aspire to be you, a lot of them.

Well, I aspire to be me! The Breakdown Lane is the closest I’ve come thus far to writing the kind of book I want to write. Some of my books have had too many digressions; some have been overstuffed. This book is leaner and goes in a more linear fashion to where it needs to go. I’m striving for that, and as I do strive for that it becomes more of a way of life. I’m not as frightened of writing as I used to be.

You wouldn’t want to think that your next book is not going to be your best book. You’re striving to re-create the melody you heard in your head when you first thought of the story.

Can I take you back to The Deep End of the Ocean? Did that book really change your life?

Oh, yeah. I mean, sort of. [Mitchard nearly snorts here.] But I was the last one to catch on. After the Oprah Winfrey Book Club thing happened, I just went back to my job writing speeches and public relations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, until my boss finally said to me, "You know, kiddo, people whose books have sold this many copies and are being made into movies don’t have this part-time job." I was so terrified. I can still vividly remember being a widow and trying to think of different ways to make life and peanut butter, and worrying about how we were going to pay the mortgage or fix the floor. It was a terrifying time that gave rise to The Deep End of the Ocean, and that’s why I think the grief that people identify with in the book was authentic -- I was grieving for my husband and the loss of the life we thought we had planned.

I was going to ask where the idea for the book came from.

I dreamed it. I had just been to my fifteenth high school reunion, so the memories of that were vivid in my mind. I dreamed of a woman whose son wandered away from her in the hotel lobby while everyone was congregating for the reunion; she had her children with her, and I guess her in-laws were going to watch them. I told the story to a friend of mine who is a novelist, and she said you should try to write that as a book. I said, "I think that’s as likely as my doing a solo for the Joffrey ballet at this point in my life. I don’t have any money, and I have three young, grieving kids and no time, and my car is a [old, out of service] police car that looks like it’s been painted with house paint. You think that maybe this isn’t a time for me to embark on a career as a creative writer?" And my friend said, "Those are really good excuses. But they are excuses."

And so I tried it, and someone bought it, and that was a big shock. And some people read it, and that was a bigger shock. And when Oprah Winfrey decided to start her book club, even the publisher said, "Well, Jack, if there’s no second Oprah book, you’ll always have been the first." But people latched onto the idea. For some of them that was the first book they’d given themselves permission to read since high school. They went bonkers over the fact that you could read a so-called "good book" for enjoyment just as easily as you could a mystery or romance -- those are good books, too. People realized they could be fulfilled talking about a book like that and other club books that followed. They began to trust Oprah’s judgment. Of course I’m forever in her debt. She did set the gate a little higher for me than it’s set for most first novelists. I feel like it’s taken me nine years to catch up with myself.

How long does it take you to write a book?

About a year. If the book has been cooking in my brain for some time, then maybe a little less. The way publishing is now, if you write books that don’t have a serial character and you want to ride the fence between commercial and literary fiction, then the only way to succeed is to write one every year. That’s becoming the trend for people who didn’t used to write one every year. It’s becoming the trend for everybody -- next year’s book. People don’t really want anymore to wait five years for the next book.

I wanted to ask about the columns you continue to write.

Why do I do that? I think because I like to remain connected to my journalism self. And there are few things that have happened to other people that haven’t happened to me. I think that my experience is pretty common -- good times, bad times, sad times, lean times. Frustration and exultations. Everyone goes through these things. That’s why it’s [column and book of columns] called The Rest of Us. For some people it’s like seeing their own life mirrored.

Lots of times the things that I write infuriate people, and they write to me and say "You dumb bag of hair," and I write back to them, and we have a discussion, After a while they seem to come around and say "Maybe you’re not such a dumb bag of hair. I just disagree with that one thing." I’ve gotten some of my most enduring readership that way.

Are you working on anything new?

The first draft of my next novel is already finished. It is a departure from what I’ve done before. It is written less like The Deep End of the Ocean, but the subject matter is more like The Deep End of the Ocean than anything I’ve written since, in that it’s shocking, initially. It’s a book about vengeance and moral choices.

What is your favorite book?

It’s a tie: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I named my daughter Francie Nolan from that book. I think Frank McCourt is a fine fellow and everything, but as far as portraying the Irish immigrant experience in America, that book [Tree, published fifty years ago] knocks the stuffing out of Angela’s Ashes -- far more gritty, far more frightening and realistic about poverty and prejudice; and it’s absolutely lyrical. I’ve forced all my kids to read it. In fact, one of them I had to pay to read it, but they ended up saying that indeed it was a good book.

Does In Cold Blood bring out the journalist-you?

I admire the meticulousness of the research and the meticulous simplicity of the words. There are two distinct camps in writing; one is if you can use the word "nacreous" instead of "translucent," then you’re a better writer. But Truman Capote did not do that. He chose the right word, and often it was a simple word, to convey the most staggering of emotions. Sometimes it’s harder to be simple than to use twelve adjectives where one would do. I’m in the "simple" camp.

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