July 2005

Lee Bob Black

features

An Interview with Edwin John Wintle

Edwin John Wintle is the author of Breakfast with Tiffany: An Uncle’s Memoir. In this interview, he discusses having his teenage niece live with him in New York City, being a first-time memoirist, finally being able to tap into his unconscious, whether parents should lie to their children, the integral roles that gay people play in their families, the spiritual hum of a group of writers working in a room, fighting for writer’s rights as an agent for Curtis Brown, dickey dads, Hans Blix, and exploitation.

Why a memoir as your first book?

My niece inspired me to start writing again. My initial instinct was to write a novel based on our story, and in my initial draft of the book, every third chapter was written from her point of view. But then I kept finding the reality of what happened between us to be so rich that I didn’t want to detour from them because they were so meaningful. And then my agents, who are your counselors, said they thought it would have a better chance of selling if it were a true story, which, in some instances, is more marketable, more unique, more resonant.

Part of me thinks it was easier because I didn’t have to come up with a whole plot, and then part of me thinks it was harder because I felt constrained to stick with the truth or pretty close to the truth. It was sometimes painful to tell the truth.

Do you see yourself in the future not writing something that is so marketable? Because you just gave the impression that you were motivated to write something that is "bestseller-ish," rather than primarily writing something you just wanted to write.

I very much wanted to write this. It burst forth out of me. I was referring to which format it was going to take. But I had to absolutely write this book from the heart, from my own passion. It wasn’t like, "Let me think... now this might be marketable." It was more like, "Which form would be better to get a deal?" Because, number one, I’m in the business, I’m an agent, and I work with literary material. Number two, I know myself. Here I was, a single guy with a 14-year-old girl under my care, a fulltime job. I knew I was not going to be pump out a manuscript unless I had a deal and a deadline. I work best under pressure. I would have been happy with a $5,000 advance. But in the business, you have to sit down and say, "Many books are not bought, even for $1." We had to think what has a better chance of selling.

In some correspondence while you were revising your book, I suggested that you "write toward vulnerability" (which I sourced from Anne Lamott), and you responded, “I have been. I've never felt more vulnerable.” What was going on for you then?

One of the stories in the book is the ripping open of my heart, which is a journey toward vulnerability. The whole thing was about having this teenager come to me and turn me inside-out. In the book I mention that I feel like I’m a bundle of jagged nerves, I’m an open wound. So, if anything, it was trying to do the opposite, it was trying to keep a lid on some of the vulnerability. I felt vulnerable the entire time writing the memoir, because I was going inward, I was plumbing the depths of my past, journey, and struggles.

Is your book more about you or your niece?

It’s more about me. My goal was to use her coming to live with me in Manhattan as a way to tell my story.

What are your fears about writing?

Oh God, they’re legion. My fears about writing? That I suck. I know there are going to be people who will not like my writing -- we live in New York, everyone has an über-opinion, you must have a strong opinion about everything.

Another is that every time I sit down to write there will be nothing, that the well is dry. I think that’s a healthy fear. It’s just so funny to me, because it’s only my first book. Maybe because when you finish writing for the day, you feel exhilarated, but also spent, like you’ve shot your wad. I don’t know to trust, yet, that there’s more where that came from. I’m hopeful now that I can have the life of a writer, and so a fear is that I won’t be able to.

When your fears are quashed, when the well is full or overflowing, how is that feeling?

It’s like being in a trance. It’s such a personal, private, joyous space. I always thought that great painters like Pollock painted from their subconscious. I dabbled in art in college and high school, and I never felt I tapped into my subconscious. But now I understand what that is, because it really is like a process starts within you, and it feels divine, like something else is at work. When it’s flowing and you’re in that space, and you don’t have to even think that your writing is great, just the fact that one thing leads to the next, one passage inspires the next, it becomes an incredibly exciting, soothing, nurturing experience.

Breakfast With Tiffany sold to Bertelsmann in Germany after the Frankfurt Book Fair, and then to Simon and Schuster in England. How does it feel to have your little Greenwich Village-based tale of your niece and you reaching readers on the other side of the world, and translated into languages you’ll never be able to read?

It happened so fast it was difficult to process. When I see my book in a language I can’t read, that’ll be a really cool moment. But certainly the idea of it coming out in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa -- it’s so hard to describe, it’s a blessing. When I get the first email, maybe, from someone who read it in Perth, that’ll be an interesting moment, that’ll make it more real. Now it’s sort of still theoretical.

Your relationship with your father is one of the throughlines of Breakfast With Tiffany. Has he read it?

I sent the manuscript to my mom, and he intercepted it. Literally it had to have been within two or three hours of getting it, and his voice was shaking, and he told me, "I just read your book. Well I actually skimmed it. You’ve written a beautiful love story. It’s really something." Just like in the book when we’re looking at the stars, and he says about me being his son, looking at the constellation that he’d shown my mother [when they were young], he said it again [to me], "It’s really something." I said, "What parts? I don’t get it -- skimming?" He said, "I can’t talk right now. I’m all full up."

The throughline of the relationship with my dad evolved as I wrote. The touchstone moments between us that are beautiful, tender moments, I hope the reader also understands that they’re special because of how difficult the relationship otherwise was growing up. We are so formed by our relationships with our parents. But my relationship with my father is the more complicated, more booby-trapped relationship; difficult communication, difficult to understand each other. So that is more grist for the writing mill.

Has your sister read it?

Most of it. She has not tried to say anything was a lie. It’s painful and embarrassing to feel that her quote unquote dirty laundry is being aired, and I feel badly about it. At the same time, I wish that it would give her a little impetus to maybe work harder on changing her life.

Several of Tiffany’s letters and poems are excerpted in the memoir. I had the feeling that they are hardly, if at all, edited.

They are very slightly edited. Her poems were much longer, so I got her approval on the truncated versions. One of them she actually wanted me to add a few stanzas back in, and I did, and I think it works really well.

What are your thoughts and feelings on the possibilities of your niece being confronted with the scrutiny caused by your book? Aren’t teenager’s lives difficult enough without a trusted guardian revealing all of their little spats with teachers, drug experimentation, etc.?

I think her story -- I hope I’ve written her very specifically -- I think her teenage story is fairly universal, or at least very identifiable to a lot of people. So I would think that people would enjoy her character or appreciate her difficulties because they identify with her. So I don’t anticipate people judging her negatively. If anything, she comes across as bright and promising, and definitely a lot of baggage and things she has to work out. But overall, funny, smart, talented.

She may be promoting the book with me, maybe even reading with me. But the plan is to introduce her as Tiffany, and not reveal her name. But I think on college applications she can say she’s a published writer. Having a book written about her, which includes her material, could prove helpful to her. In the future, it’s going to be great for her to have this book, this testament to our love. But it might complicate things now; she’s a drama queen, as am I. I’d almost rather her life be a little full with the drama from this book than the kind of drama she creates.

I was regularly aware of double standards when it came to your and Tiffany’s drug use. When young, you experimented with every drug under the sun. But while Tiffany was around the age of 14 and under your care, you were adamant that she was not to go beyond pot.

How do you treat your child’s experimentation when you did all those things? Is it hypocritical to say, "You cannot do these things"? Should you lie when they ask outright, "Have you done these things?" Those are all questions I grapple with in the story, about my own hypocrisy, about doing the right thing by her by telling her no. And don’t forget, I was picking up the reins mid-race. She was 13 when she moved here. I felt I couldn’t say, "Do not do any of these things," when she had already been doing them. Hopefully in the book it comes across that there’s an element of winging it. And for better or worse, I chose to not make a big deal about her smoking pot or drinking a bit with friends, because I just felt like saying she absolutely could not do it wouldn't work.

I was trying to get her to not want to experiment like I did, to help her choose to do things differently from how I did them. I don’t see that as a double standard; I see it as trying to help your kid not make your mistakes.

I still think it’s a double standard, though a workable one.

A lot of parents argue it’s absolutely okay to tell your kid that they cannot do stuff you did, and it’s absolutely okay to lie to your kid and say you didn’t do it. If my parents hadn’t been strict in saying no, I could have gone a lot further. You want to provide those barriers and deterrents to the child doing certain behaviors.

There is also a potential sexual double standard in the book. Whereas it’s okay for you to have a huge porn collection, have sex as much as humanly possible, and have anonymous wanks at trashy bookstores, the book gave me the impression that you were not so willing to allow Tiffany to express her sexuality how she wanted to. At one stage you even tell her, “Think of it as me having been a whore so you don’t have to.”

I never told her, "Don’t do any of these things." The thing in the book about the boy living downstairs, and me wondering if after school they were hanging out in the apartment -- you don’t want to make it easy for them. But, I’m an adult, and she’s not. I’ve had twenty odd years of adult sex life, so of course there’s a double standard. My approach around sex was to be honest with her, to not paint myself as some saintly person in that department.

Any adult is uncomfortable when a kid expresses their sexuality around them. Sometimes you get the feeling that kids want to shock you. Like that scene where she’s telling me all those crazy sexual terms; donkey punch, Polish dump truck. I cut her off because she was joking about it, trying to shock me. I thought her attitude toward the conversation was not appropriate to what I wanted to talk about with her.

And of course there’s the double standard that girls face that boys don’t, which I talk about in the book.

The slut versus stud paradox.

Exactly. Girls still [can be] labeled sluts if they’re sexually free, whereas boys aren’t. And I tried to bring those things up with her; I don’t know if they had any impact.

Teenage libido.

What are you going to do? Gorgeous girl. Big libido.

I cried when reading about your being HIV positive. You revealed this, not on the cover and not at the beginning of the book, but about 90 percent through. This allows the reader to experience you and your life in one context, and then, in a sense, to recontextualize everything upon learning of your status.

I hoped it wasn’t too confusing that it shines light on some of my decisions over the prior fifteen years. About going to law school, going to write in the Hamptons, quitting the law firm, spending time in the psychiatric ward of a hospital -- you get all of that without knowing that I’m HIV positive.

So here’s the thing, you hit it right on the head, I wanted to let the reader get to know me. It wasn’t as though I tried to keep a secret, although I was definitely not letting Tiffany know, so I wanted the reader to be in her position, of seeing me take handfuls of pills. And I mention in the book how Tiffany was trying to sort out my maladies by process of elimination.

The penny didn’t drop for me then.

Right. Good. And obviously it hadn’t for her when I thought it had. I wanted the memoir not to be about someone who is HIV positive. Being a gay man is definitely a core part of the relationship between Tiffany and I, but being HIV positive is not. I wanted the reader to get to know me first, and then you find out this very sad and difficult thing that Uncle Eddy, I, have faced in my life. If people knew going in -- you don’t want this labeled a HIV book, or an AIDS story -- it becomes a downer. The mainstream’s not going to want to read that. I wanted them sucked into the story, and then they find out that this is someone who has been living with HIV for 15 years.

There are millions of us out there who are not sick, but are HIV positive, and we don’t really have a voice in the mainstream. You know Magic Johnson’s positive, but who else other than some niche writers?

I wanted to be a voice of us out there who are living our lives. Being positive has lead me to not settle, to keep changing, to take on new challenges -- because there’s always the sense that you want to accomplish or get your voice heard, in case your time is limited. I hope my story is inspiring, because it’s someone who has struggled with various things, depression, HIV, even being gay is quite often a struggle, certainly in growing up, and has always tried to come through it, and managed to go on to the next thing.

I’m hesitant to include anything about your HIV status in the published version of this interview, because that will impact the experience for those who buy the book after reading the interview. But I also want to include it, because it’s so crucial to understanding where you’re coming from.

I guess in a perfect world I would like it out of the interview because I don’t want people to know going [into the book]. Yet that’s hypocritical because it’s an important part of the book and I want to discuss it in interviews. I think reviewers won’t put it in. I really predict that not a single reviewer will put in the HIV topic.

Really?

Yes. Because they understand that it’s something I specifically want people to experience in the book. But in interviews, I certainly want to talk about it. So it’s not barred by any means, because that implies I’m shamed of it, and that’s not the case -- well, I work on it not being the case.

I think reviewers will focus on it being a gay-man-with-HIV story.

We’ll see. I’m hoping it’s more focused on universal parenting told through the story of a gay man and his niece. That makes it interesting culturally, worlds colliding. The issues are not so much whether gay parents are good parents. I hope it’s more about, how do we handle teenagers going through hellish years. The gay thing made it more colorful and all the more challenging to suddenly have a kid. It’s not like I’m surrounded by friends with kids.

Gay parenting and marriages are currently hot buttons.

I’d like this book to fit into this discussion in this way: it’s not about gay parenting, it’s not about gay marriage, it’s about the integral roles gay people play in the families they already have. With all this discussion about should gay people be allowed to marry, it never comes up, especially in the conservative side, how often gay men and maybe lesbians as well, have the money that helps put nieces and nephews through college because they themselves aren’t married or have children. I can’t tell you how many gay men I know who take their widowed mothers to Europe, how many are the supervisor for the elderly parent’s medical care. That’s not discussed in the context of us trying to start our families. We grew up in a family like anybody else. I think that helps contextualize the fact that we want our own, and that doesn't seem part of the discussion. In my book, it’s about me helping a family member. And I don’t think gay people are often credited -- now that they’re no longer universally rejected by their families for being gay, like maybe twenty-five years ago.

Well, actually everything you just said isn’t really in your book. But your book can add to the dialogue.

It’s something I want people to come away with from the story. Maybe they’ll come away with that he’s a great uncle, and he’s gay.

A writer can’t bash his or her reader over the head: "This is what you must get from this book." In a literary sense, I felt your authorial voice sometimes coming over the top, saying, "This is what the emotion is. This is definitely what is being felt here."

You perceive that as a weakness?

No, I perceive it as a distinction between our writing. Then again, I write mainly fiction, I’m not writing memoirs.

In a novel, I’d have to be more careful. In a memoir, there’s a deal of exposition that has to go on. As a memoir, they wanted me to take the reader’s hand through it a bit more.

You wrote a personalized memoir about your entire life, which included your relationship with Tiffany, rather than globalizing it, so to speak, and writing chapter after chapter about the gay community, the AIDS pandemic, homophobia, or discrimination. In this sense, you rose above your circumstances, and wrote a book about what you have done with your circumstances.

Thank you. That’s exactly how I hope the memoir comes off, as a very personal story. I also don’t feel qualified to speak on these big issues, to hold forth as though an expert. All I’m an expert on is how I feel, and how I live.

I found it exciting to write about my view of the changing in Manhattan over the years, about how I realized that the HIV epidemic was our generation’s Vietnam, to include the way my little personal life fit into a context of world events. September 11 was a huge incident for me, and I barely talk about it, because that’s not what the book’s about, but yet it is there in the background of living with Tiffany, a mile from Ground Zero, under code orange alert. There’s this global impending doom while we’re sitting here struggling internally with each other.

You explore your religious faith in the memoir. Is there anything more you can say that you haven’t already written?

I could write an entire book about spirituality, possibly in the context of my own spiritual journey. I don’t regret putting any of that in, but I almost worry that people will think it’s too sketchy, that it could be a weakness of the book.

How was it scoring a six-figure advance for your first book?

I’m not going to lie, it felt like I won the lottery, like Cinderella at the ball, like sweet revenge. I was 42 when that happened, and I was an actor once, I was supposed to replace Matthew Broderick on Broadway and, after five callbacks, I didn’t get the part. This time, I got the fucking part. And even when it happened I kept thinking, "This is a mistake, I’m going to get hit by a bus." Now I can get hit by bus; the book’s written, it’s coming out. It was like having a public victory that says, "We think you have talent." I’d sort of given up on my own talents, so suddenly to have several publishers interested was one of the most fabulous feelings.

How do you find the editing process?

I’m very detail-oriented, so every time I open my document, I go back a few pages and rework. I tinker, tinker, tinker, tinker. I’m hoping with my next book to plow forward a bit more, and go back later.

Let your subconscious flow.

Right, and not be so obsessed with is the rhythm of that paragraph perfect, that sort of thing. But the editing process was terrifying. I mean, you’re looking at someone who has never turned in a thing to a publisher. The edits were pretty light. Just, you know, cutting paragraphs, we should move this around, this is a bit confusing. But when I got the manuscript, it looked like there were a thousand post-its on there, all with tiny writing by my editor. And you’re like, "Oh no, hours and hours alone, tormenting myself." But of course, it turns out pleasurable.

You’re a member of the Writers Room, which describes itself as an urban writers’ colony in New York City. How important is it to be in a community of writers?

I don’t feel it’s that important. I don’t belong to a writers group. The Writers Room is a quiet place to write, it’s a nurturing atmosphere, it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it’s reasonably priced. But to be honest, it’s more of a spiritual thing, like at the café where I write, most people are writing. It sounds New Agey, but there’s something special about people in a room concentrating. I feel that way in libraries. I always think of the Wim Wenders movie Wings Of Desire, the scene in the library -- over every person reading a book stands an angel in a trench-coat, you know, very German, very, you know, Wim Wenders, touching the shoulder of the person studying. In a way, I feel that when the Writers Room is packed with people being absolutely silent. The energy coming out of each of those brains, it’s spiritual, and it creates energy in the room. But as far as chitchatting with writers about the writing process, maybe later that will be important to me, but right now it’s almost too personal.

Most idle chatter is boring anyway.

Right. We’re in New York -- it’s kind of bitchy. Standing there talking with writers about their opinions about books is an exercise in mutual masturbation. It’s like everyone out-topping each other. Certainly if I leave the city, and I’m isolated somewhere, I’d love to have a writers group, either online or in the flesh. But now, it’s not important to me.

You write in various environments. How is writing in bustling Manhattan cafés, in spiritual places such as the Writers Room, and tranquil places such as weekend houses out of the city?

I find that it’s more important the frame of mind I’m in, than the place, to write. When I’m in a café, I’m taking a bath in humanity, the voices, the music, and you don’t hear any particular conversation, but you hear that sort of chitchat when you’re on the beach, lying with your eyes closed. That’s inspiring. But I love isolation too, when I’m writing, and nature. I took a couple of retreats while working on this book, one to Cape Cod. I rented a little cottage facing the marshes, and I just went into my own reverie for seven days. I talked to only a few people, saw maybe one, and really just dove in, and lived it. It showed me that I don’t need to have the humanity bath around me, it’s all in me.

As an agent for Curtis Brown you work as Ed Wintle. Why did you publish under Edwin John Wintle?

Mainly because I love the full name; Edwin is a bit more unusual and uncommon than Ed. And I’ve never felt like an Ed, I’ve felt like an Eddy. I’m not one of those people who wants to be super-casual. If my name were William, my book wouldn't say Billy. I think one’s full name should be used for accomplishments, that’s the simplest way to put it. My honors degree doesn’t say Ed Wintle.

I found one website which sells your book under Ed Wintle.

I don’t like that.

One blurb on a website identified you as a gay male writer. What kind of writer do you expect to be branded as?

I would love to be branded as a gay humorist, sure. I’d love to be grouped in with David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs... What, are you kidding me? That would be awesome.

The British book says right on the flap-copy, "When you’re a forty-something gay New Yorker..." I’m perfectly cool with that. I think the Miramax book will also say that, but it will be on the inside flap. One of my blurbs from Frances Mayes, God bless her, used the word "gay," and my publisher decided to take it out because it would be on the back of the book, and they thought it wasn’t necessary. I felt a little strange editing it. Of course, Frances said it was fine, whatever we wanted to do. But, obviously when you read the book, it’s totally from a gay male point of view. So yeah I have no worries about being labeled a gay writer.

A lot of gay writers write their first novel about what they know, and it’s often a coming out story. If it gets published at all, it’s generally in a small, quiet way. So I’m thrilled that I’ve written something that’s being embraced in a commercial way, even though it’s the story of a gay man and a heterosexual teenage girl. I’m thrilled that I’m not being squeezed into a niche market already.

While writing, do you visualize an audience?

No, when I’m writing, I’m the audience.

What are your all-time favorite books? What writers do you admire?

My favorite book of essays is Joan Didion’s The White Album, with Slouching Towards Bethlehem a close second. My favorite novel is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is interesting because it’s a lot of people’s favorite novel. It’s not like a particularly quirky choice. Short stories, I love Ethan Canin’s Emperor Of The Air. Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. David Leavitt’s Family Dancing. I love a lot of John Cheever’s short stories. And of course Raymond Carver’s short stories. It’s hard to say the number one book of short stories.

I admire the same writers I’ve always admired. Those writers have been the most important. And they’re in me. They stay with you, they become a part of you. I love to read new and current writers. I’ll read Chuck Palahniuk, and it’s great.

When I was writing the memoir, I was not reading memoirs. I’ve read a couple of memoirs since writing Breakfast With Tiffany, but I suspect that if I were writing fiction, I may be a little dubious reading fiction while writing it, because I want my own writing to be of a result of everything that’s been put into me, not of something that’s being put in currently. Because we are influenced by what we’ve read and what we like, but we have to also develop our own conglomeration of that, put in the blender and coming out from being poured out of you, so I don’t want one ingredient to override others.

What was it about Denis Johnson’s novel Jesus’ Son that you loved so much?

I loved its spareness, I love the images he chose -- which is really so much of what I think is good writing, is knowing where to focus your camera. What are those details that you tell that make your perspective on the planet particularly yours. I felt like Denis Johnson’s dark, oddly comic viewpoint was brilliantly shown by the details. I’ll never forget the scene with the rabbit fetuses and the truck. Whether he made those details up or whether they came from his real life is irrelevant. But the fact that he knew which details would be the centerpieces of a given story was what I admired.

A year before the book’s scheduled release, you registered EdwinJohnWintle.com and BreakfastWithTiffany.com. How are you with self-promotion? How do you go about promoting your book?

I’m not a shameless self-promoter; I am shamed by some things, therefore I won’t do them. But I’m not a shy writer. I’m also a showman, I was an actor, I’m definitely a people-person.

I’ve gone to a number of seminars about promoting books. There were things in those publicity seminars that horrified me. For example, someone said to find website chatrooms relating to your book. My book is about my niece and me. So what if I were to find chatrooms about parenting, parents having rap-sessions about their kids, and go into those and talk to people on a regular basis, and then at some point, when signing my name, have the automatic thing underneath it say, "author of Breakfast with Tiffany." And then people will write, "What does that mean?" It’s like infiltrating into different spheres of people.

Only to promote.

Right. Not because you’re interested to talk to them. You’re finding your target audience, but you’re insinuating yourself amongst them before letting your intention be known. And, for me, that’s just gross.

I’m happy that I have a big publisher and publicist behind me. I’m grateful that I’m not the one calling the magazines, TV shows, the radio shows. I’m very spoiled already. [Laughs.]

How has it been working as an agent in Curtis Brown’s film and television department since 1998?

What’s fantastic is that my circuitous professional life took me from acting to being a lawyer, and then back toward the arts, toward the world of words and books and screenplays. Coming back into that area enabled me to have access, when I wrote my own book, to an agent, the whole system. People spend years trying just to get an agent to read a manuscript.

I like fighting for books I believe in, that would make great movies -- that’s my main function, to sell books for movies. However, there’s a very adversarial nature to it. You’re negotiating -- read fighting -- with lawyers, with producers who want something for as little money as they can. And you’re trying to sell things for as much money as you can, and protect your author’s rights and intellectual property over the long haul. And [lawyers, producers, etc.] want all those rights. It’s a battle. Hollywood can be a really tough business; it’s wearing on me, the constant battling. To negotiate one film deal, it probably averages six months to a year, because you have to take a deal-breaking position on almost every term. So it’s very, very stressful. And I don’t like me in that setting. It doesn’t bring out the best in me. It plays into my short temper, my vindictiveness, my desire for revenge, my impatience. I’d rather be writing and having the loving, the good parts of me used throughout the day.

Why are you always hot for Israelis?

[Laughs.] I didn’t even know you knew that. Israeli men are just stunning. They’re very sexy. Israel is a very passionate country. I’ve left many countries and I’ve thought, "I wish I lived there. What would it be like to live there?" Israel is the only country I left thinking, "I wish I was from there. What would it be like to be from there?" Because they had such a connection to their country, their community, it was inspiring. So maybe that helps create the mystique of Israel, around which comes the mystique of the men. Plus they all have to go in the army. So they’re all soldiers, or ex-soldiers, so that’s hot right there. There’s the Sephardic Jews and the non-Sephardic Jews. And they’re often dark and swarthy, dark eyed, or blue eyed, and dark hair. They’re just hot.

You’re considering buying a house in Costa Rica. How is that?

I have wanted to have a home in another country for quite sometime. I’m learning Spanish. I find being in cultures of other countries very expanding. Frances Mayes said something in Under the Tuscan Sun -- and she may have been paraphrasing someone else -- that people seek out change to increase the psychic space in which they live. Like bringing my niece in [to live with me], it increased the space in which my entire psyche was living. I suddenly had to think about a million things that I’d never thought about [before]. By having a home in another country, you are immediately opening up to new ways of thinking, new ways of being, new ways of looking at time, new ways of looking at yourself in relation to others. It increases you. It broadens your horizons, to use the old expression.

And there’s no jetlag to Costa Rica, and I’m a nature lover. I get a lot of nurturing and inspiration from nature, and I need to spend more time each year in a quiet place, surfing on the ocean, walking the beach, walking through the rainforest, I need listening to the wind in the trees, that’s a very important sound to me.

You went door-to-door in Pennsylvania during the 2004 US presidential election, ensuring people knew where to go to vote. How was that?

You’d be surprised how many people didn’t know where to go to vote. It was paid for by George Soros, but it was non-partisan, it was not sanctioned specifically by one party or the other. However we handed out information that said, "Seek change." [Laughs.] The minute anybody saw us, they knew we were stumping for Kerry. It was a way to help and not have sit at home, chewing my fingernails. It was way too little, way too late, but we won Pennsylvania.

There’s politics in my book. And I had to cut it way back. I thought that it was very important that the book was set in the winter leading up to the [Iraq] war. It was a record-breaking, freezing New York winter, on edge, code orange alert, the entire winter leading up to this possible war, and here’s this private drama in this little apartment. And so I wanted it anchored in things going on that winter. And I also thought it was fascinating having a teenager that you could inculcate with your own views. But my publisher thought it would immediately date the book if there was stuff about Hans Blix’s search for weapons of mass destruction. It’s a hard thing to find the line between something being dated, and something being set in a certain time period. It’s a weird definition.

I have a chapter called "Weapons of Mass Destruction." And I have one that’s a Pink Floyd quote, called "Mother Do You Think They’ll Drop the Bomb?" I think my politics may cut out some of my audience. I don’t talk about it on the first page, but my political views will be very clear to anyone who reads the book.

What have you learned from these interviews?

The most challenging question you posed was about whether this will complicate my niece’s life. It’s going to be a good thing to think about. People will say, "Do you feel you exploited her?" They could say, "So your niece isn’t with you anymore, and you’re publishing this big book, isn’t that great, and she’s back with her mom struggling with her demons." I have to prepare for questions like that.