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
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
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.