What inspired you to write about this subject?
When I got divorced twelve years ago, two weird things happened. First of all, women started spontaneously telling me their bad marriage stories, even women who I thought were perfectly happy. If you get divorced in a small town, you've screwed up in a very public way. All of a sudden you become the person it's okay to confess to and women were practically flagging me down in the supermarket, leaning over my cart and saying "You know, things aren't that great at home..." I became the repository of a hundred women's secrets, and the notes I kept from that period became the basis of Love in Mid Air. The stories were altered, of course, a loose amalgamation of what was happening to me and my friends. For so long I had thought it was just me who was unhappy but now I was being shown the whole spectrum, the oceanic quality of female discontent. I walked around for a year saying "Wow, isn't anybody happily married?"
The other thing I realized is that there were very few books that dealt with the subject of divorce in a realistic manner. Most of the books were about men leaving women, even thought it's more statistically likely for a woman to initiate divorce, especially after the age of 40. And there was often some sort of quick fix - the deserted woman ended up falling in love with her attorney or some hunky handyman who showed up to help at her new house. I resented this whole idea that divorce is about swapping one man for another - ideally as fast as possible - with little exploration of the affect a woman's divorce has on her friends and the whole social web. I knew that needed to make it into the story as well.
Is the material autobiographical? Are you Elyse?
I'm Elyse, but I'm also Kelly and Nancy and Lynn and Belinda and even Gerry and Phil and Jeff. For me, a novel is like a dream - all the characters are aspects of me, in dialogue with each other. But while the material isn't literally autobiographical, it's emotionally autobiographical. I've never been kissed by a stranger in the traveler's chapel of the Dallas airport, but it's the kind of thing I've wished would happen. It's not hard to imagine how it might feel.
How much did you know about what would happen to Elyse when you started this book? Did you have the entire book plotted or did it change as you wrote?
I'm still learning how to plot. For me, it's the toughest part of the novel writing process. I did have the ending when I started, or at least most of it. I knew Phil would hit Elyse, I just didn't know why. I knew she would end up living alone. On the other hand, some events evolved as I wrote. No one was more surprised than me when Lynn went back to her husband.
The book is set in the American suburbs, familiar terrain for many readers. Was it difficult to write about a setting that has been so often described in literature and, in some ways, so generic?
Most of my life I've earned my living as a travel writer and there are two basic types of articles. One is when you're writing about a place few people have been to - Korea, Lapland, South Africa, Nevis. Since your readers aren't starting with much information, you have to describe the place in detail, really layer it on. Other times you're writing about a place a lot of people have been to - Las Vegas, Paris, New York - and this requires something different. You try to give people that a jolt of recognition and memory, and for your descriptions to resonate on an emotional level. Writing about the suburbs is lot like that. You're describing a world that your readers have not only been to but that a large number of them are probably living in right now. There's always the chance people will say, "What are you talking about? It's nothing like that." I didn't put in a lot of place details, but I tried hard to get them right.
Did you ever consider a narrator other than Elyse?
It's always been Elyse's story, told from her point of view.
Elyse has an affair and is at times selfish and short-sighted. Did you worry that she might be an unsympathetic heroine?
Elyse has a bucketload of flaws but I've never seen her as unsympathetic. It goes back to the realism I was talking about earlier. People who are unhappily married - even the most sane and rational of people - often find themselves taking risks and exploding emotionally in ways they never would have predicted. A friend once told me "When you’re driving away from a marriage, there's no way to avoid going through Crazytown." And I think that's what Elyse is doing through the course of the book. She's a perfectly normal, likable woman who just happens to be driving through Crazytown.
Why did you decide to tell the story in the present tense? How would the story be different if it were told years after the events had taken place, and Elyse was looking back as an older woman?
This was something I did change as I revised. I started out using past tense verbs, which is the more traditional way to tell a story, but which also implies that the narrator is looking back in time, whether the events occurred five minutes ago or fifty years ago. Elyse is impulsive and out of control so I decided it would be more interesting to have her describing things as they were happening, to really get inside her head while she's having sex or breaking pots or tumbling down the church steps. Present tense also makes us worry more about her - she's not safely looking back on events from a rocker on the front porch of the nursing home, she's right in the middle of the mess. And one of my quirks is a writer is that I simply prefer present tense verbs. "Fly" is a stronger word to me than "flew."
Although the book is told from Elyse's point of view, the voices of the other women are a major part of the story. Are all the perspectives equally valid? How did you decide how to present these multiple and sometimes conflicting opinions about marriage and family life?
There had to be counterpoints to Elyse's opinions. There are lots of valid ways to view marriage and motherhood and sex and suburbia and I wanted to get at least four or five of them into the story.
Is that why you decided to put a book club in the book?
It was one way to get them all talking. As kind of a joke, I had them read two books about women having affairs - The Bridges of Madison County and Madame Bovary - so they could comment on Elyse's situation without knowing that they were commenting on Elyse's situation.
The novel has several fairly graphic sex scenes. What makes a sex scene work?
A sex scene needs to do exactly what any other scene in a book does - advance the story and show you something new about the characters. People behave differently in bed than they do up and dressed and walking around, so sex scenes are a great way to show the sides of your characters that the reader might otherwise not see. I used the sex scenes between Gerry and Elyse to show what she wasn't getting out of the marriage - not just cuddling and affection and the complete focus of a man's attention, but the sort of uncensored, dreamy, very intimate conversations she has with Gerry. But it pleases me a little that, even though she is having an affair, the most bizarre and in some ways the hottest sex scene in the book happens between the woman and her husband.
Do you have a favorite character in the book?
My heart, of course, lies with Elyse and Kelly, but among the minor characters, I love Belinda. She starts out as someone who is easy for the other women to dismiss because she's younger, less educated, her kids are always getting hurt, and she wears those ridiculous sweaters. But I always had the idea of using her like the wise fool in a Shakespearean play, someone who might appear comic but whose take on events is actually pretty insightful. And Belinda certainly grows through the book. She's heroic at the end when she brings Elyse the casserole.
A favorite scene?
This book has gone through a lot of versions but one scene that stayed with me from the start was slow-motion time sequence near the end where Elyse is falling. For a long time I didn't know where she was or why she was falling but the emotional content of that chapter, including the leaps backward and forward in time and all the things she's noticing and thinking, pretty much stayed intact from the first draft. So I guess that's my favorite scene because everything else in the book flowed from it.
Is there a time in your life when you've relied on your friends in the way your characters do?
Every day. The most autobiographical line in the book is when Elyse says she lives and dies by her friends.
The book opens as Elyse is getting ready to turn 40 and she repeatedly says that "time's running out." Do you believe that there are certain pivotal years in a woman's life where she's more likely to make the sort of drastic changes Elyse makes?
I'm 54 and this is my first novel so I got a late start, largely because it took me a long time to find my subject matter. Now I know that the material I want to explore is the spiritual and sexual evolution of baby boomer women and yes, I certainly think there are a few key periods in a woman's life when everything comes to a head and that yes, certain birthdays trigger certain crises. The women are about to turn 40 in Love in Mid Air and the sequel, which is told from Kelly's point of view, will occur when they're about to turn 50. A whole different set of questions arises then.
Do you consider yourself a southern writer? Would this story still have worked if it was set in another part of the country?
I'm a writer and I'm from the south so I guess in the most basic sense of the phrase that yes, I'm a southern writer. When you consider the people like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy who are called "southern writers" then of course you'd love to have that term applied to you. You want to wear that t-shirt. But I honestly think that, with a few changes, this book could be set pretty much anywhere in America. You might have to pull out all the church references and maybe have them talk a little less. The non-stop chatter of my characters is probably the most southern thing in the book.
How did you come up with the novel's unique voice?
I take the literary term "voice" very literally. I read passages of the book out loud to myself over and over and over, making small changes until it sounded like human speech. Come to think of it, maybe that's another way in which the book is "southern" - it definitely comes out of the tradition of oral storytelling. I wanted it to sound very intimate, very confessional. Like a woman leaning over a cafe table talking to a friend.
Do you write every day? What is your writing process like?
I make my living writing non-fiction so I write every day, but I don't work on novels every day. I've tended to write on the novels in these short frenetic bursts when I'm capable of turning out something like 3000 words a day. Most of Love in Mid Air was written in these kinds of spurts, especially one summer when a friend arranged for me to have a house alone on the coast of Massachusetts.
Given that a work can feel different a day, a week, or years after it was written when did you know Love in Mid Air was finished? Had you thought so before that moment, and what was different about it this time around?
One of the hardest questions anyone can ask me is "How long did it take you to write this book?" I first started it right after my divorce which was over a decade ago. But the time wasn't right ... the experience was too fresh and I was under too much pressure to earn a living and it was all a big, rambling mess. So I put the book aside for five years and then picked it back up. The second time through I cut it down drastically - the characters dropped from 20 to about 10, the time frame from four years to nine months. I don't know that you ever think a book is "finished" because there's always this temptation to keep tinkering, to try and make it a little better. But there's a point where you're finished with it. You start thinking about the next story.
Coming out as a writer could be similar to a revealed love affair. Did it feel like exposure to write Love in Mid Air?
Absolutely. You write a novel hoping to sell it, hoping to publish it, hoping that someday somebody will read it and yet when those things actually happen if feels very strange. It's been hard for me to move from the private world of the writer, who spends 99% of her time alone, to the more public world of the author, who goes out and stand behind podiums and talks to people. I'm still adjusting.
What advice would you give other first-time novelists?
Make friends with other writers. (And by writers I mean people who are actually writing, not people who talk about how they're going to start writing soon.) Do whatever you have to do - go to conferences, workshops, readings, whatever. A lot of writers are loners by nature but this is a long process and you need confidants. You need to be able to network. You need somebody who can introduce you to his agent and tell you to drop the first twenty pages and blurb your book and listen to you vent.
Is it hard to let go of characters after spending so much time with them?
Letting go of things isn't exactly my forte. That's one reason I'm writing the sequel. That and the fact it's fun to be inside Kelly's head for a change, after viewing everything from the perspective of Elyse. That scene in the drive-in with the Brothers Pressley? It looked totally different from the back seat.
Will a chance encounter with a stranger completely wreck Elyse's safe but stale life? Intense, honest and sexy - an irresistible, smart and thought-provoking novel about a woman exploring what's missing in her marriage.