Interview with Barbara DelinskyPosted by Goodreads on June 4, 2013
In the last decade, with more than 30 million copies of her books in print, Delinsky has transitioned to mainstream women's fiction, with popular titles such as Escape, Not My Daughter, and A Woman's Place, which was made into a Lifetime movie with Lorraine Bracco. After Delinsky successfully battled breast cancer, she edited Uplift: Secrets from the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors, a 2001 collection of woman-to-woman advice from hundreds of survivors. Her new book, Sweet Salt Air, touches on some of her favorite subjects: the tests of friendship as well as the strain that illness can put on a marriage. She discussed with interviewer Margaret Wappler the specific challenges of writing about multiple sclerosis in her latest work.
Join us on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, for a special discussion with Barbara Delinsky! Post your questions for her now!
Sweet Salt Air, Nicole and Charlotte, are old friends now in their mid-thirties. Is there something about that age for women that particularly interested you?
Barbara Delinsky: Yes, in many ways. I had my kids in my early twenties when we were young and stupid. But for a lot of women now, their early- to mid-thirties is a time for saying, "OK, is this the career I want? Or should I be heading in another direction?" In Nicole's case, she's built a whole career, but it's about to take off in a different way because of her contract to write a cookbook. Charlotte, on the other hand, is just not sure if she's 100 percent satisfied. I think it's a vulnerable time for a lot of women. You haven't gotten so stuck in what you're doing that you can't change. I like to have growth in my books. That's the one thing I want for all of my characters.
GR: You've returned to coastal Maine, a setting you've used in many of your novels. What's the allure of that landscape?
BD: This is going to sound very selfish, but I am my quintessential reader. If I don't love where I am when I'm writing a book, then I can't write it. When things are really hectic, I love nothing more than to be able to go and stand by the water. The North Atlantic coast is a bit wild and there's a rocky shoreline, but there is something very romantic about it.
GR: Nicole's husband has MS. How does this impact their lives?
BD: Nicole's husband is a doctor who works in neonatal cardiac surgery. This requires such careful handwork, and suddenly his hands shake. He is hoping that there is some kind of cure. He's done a lot of research, being a doctor, and he knows that there might be some things on the horizon, such as umbilical cord blood transplants, but he also knows that everything is experimental. He wants to preserve his future, and to do that he needs to be very secretive. He doesn't tell anyone that he has MS—and that means Nicole can't tell anyone either.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 to 19 years ago, I didn't tell anybody except for close family and very close friends. Honestly, I didn't want publishers in New York to think I'd be dead in five years and not bother pushing my books. That's the blunt bottom line. For that reason, I perfectly understand why he didn't want to say anything.
GR: What are some of the other dynamics at play in their relationship?
BD: Nicole doesn't have a parallel career to him. My husband and I have parallel careers—he's a lawyer and I'm a writer, but we both have as much clout in the marriage. For me, my career has given me a kind of courage to speak up when I needed to, even though I was married at a time when marriages were much more conventional. To this day, my husband has never changed a diaper, but my sons all change diapers and they cook. It's a different world now, but in some ways Nicole and Julian have a more traditional marriage.
GR: Goodreads member Crystal asks, "What made you decide to include MS in your story line? I myself have MS, and I feel that it doesn't always get the spotlight attention. It meant so much to me to see one of my favorite authors talk about something that affects me so much."
BD: That's very sweet. I just hope that I covered it in the right way. I did a lot of research online and spoke with people who have MS about what it's like to live with. And then I took a summary of everything I learned and created something that would work within the story. I do feel very sensitive to people like Crystal. I have something in the back of the book, in the acknowledgements, that says that if I got anything wrong in describing MS, I apologize. But I did do a lot of research, and one of the things I discovered is that people respond so differently to the disease and to the special forms of treatment that are available now.
GR: Your characters Charlotte and Nicole are collaborating on a cookbook in this novel. Are you much of a whiz in the kitchen?
BD: No, I'm not. Isn't that hysterical? I was just talking with my publicist about why I chose to discuss the farm-to-table movement. The reason I did is because I like to deal with things that are current and in the news. Also, as a breast cancer survivor, I wonder about environmental factors. I'm glad all four granddaughters of mine were raised on organic milk. But back to your question: This posed a problem, because the publisher asked if I had any recipes I could share. I had to say no.
GR: So the dark secret of Barbara Delinsky is that she hates to cook?
BD: That is the dark secret! I love reading cookbooks, and I love eating out, but I don't like cooking. I buy a lot of stuff ready made—dinner tonight is chicken cacciatore from Whole Foods.
GR: You've written traditional romance novels as well as contemporary women's fiction. Are those genres closer than we think? What are the differences?
BD: Length is the first. The romances I wrote were around 200 pages, as opposed to 400 manuscript pages. The other difference is scope. I wanted to deal with topics that were considered a little too serious for that form. Writing in the romance genre was always 80 percent romance, 20 percent something else, or at least my books were. When I moved into mainstream women's fiction, the equation was reversed. Actually, with Sweet Salt Air, at my publisher's request, it has more romance in it than the books I've written in the last 10 to 12 years. Writing contemporary women's fiction, I can divide the book as I want to, as opposed to being more restricted to the romance itself.
GR: That said, you have a lot of experience writing sex scenes. What's the key to writing a believable one?
BD: Emotion. If it's a pure physicality, at least for me, it doesn't work. If there's emotion involved and it's consistent with the emotion that's going on in the book, it can be a wonderful love scene. I don't do gratuitous sex scenes, meaning sex between characters I don't care about or just sex for the sake of sex. Every scene has to move the plot forward.
GR: Do you ever read them aloud to your husband?
BD: No. My husband doesn't read my books, but then I don't read his law briefs. He knows what every book of mine is about. He says that when he brings my books around to his friends or colleagues at the law firm, they'll go through and pick out the sex scenes. But with my husband, I don't take my notes in my own bed at night with him. He doesn't have to fear that I'm telling tales out of school here.
GR: I read that your first book took you three months to plan and draft. Are you always this fast?
BD: Try three weeks! That was one of the category romances and they were very short: 55,000 to 60,000 words. At the beginning I was that fast. For me, it was an escape. I had three young boys at home. We didn't have any money. My husband was a lawyer in public service at the time. With a house full of boys, it was noisy and dirty all the time, so I just wanted to escape. When I discovered writing, I would just spend every spare minute doing it. There were a couple of years early on where I wrote eight books in a year.
GR: You're a breast cancer survivor and you also wrote about it in your nonfiction book, Uplift: Secrets from the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors. Did you read Angelina Jolie's recent op-ed about her double mastectomy, and if so, what did you think?
BD: I totally respect and understand what she did. I have never regretted my bilateral mastectomy. I don't have to worry about dying from breast cancer now. The most important thing to come out of this is that people will realize that women in her situation, my situation, have very few choices. It's a shame. Maybe something will work to treat and eradicate breast cancer someday. But right now, if you have a severe risk, you don't have many choices.
GR: Goodreads member Merissa asks, "The challenges [your characters] face seem so realistic. Is there any conflict you would like to explore in a novel but for some reason you haven't yet (i.e. suicide, cancer, etc.)? What would you need to tackle that challenge?"
BD: I would need a lot more courage than I have. Cancer I don't want to do because I've lived through cancer. Suicide I don't want to do because it's so upsetting to me. It's kind of like when you asked me about the settings. I pick a setting that I want to be in for a year while I'm writing that book. Likewise, I have to pick a subject matter I want to deal with for a long time, and suicide is not it.
GR: Goodreads member Laurie asks, "Have you ever actually tried any of the livelihoods you have written about, such as winemaking or maple-sugaring? If you could choose a different profession, what would you like to do?"
BD: Oh, I have tried a lot of things like maple-sugaring for research, but not as an occupation. If I could do something else, I would sell cosmetics at Bloomingdale's. I could dress up and feel good, and I would work 9 to 5 or 10 to 6 each day. One of the drawbacks of being a writer is that it's 24/7. When I get toward the end of a book, I will wake up in a cold sweat about a character at three in the morning. I will sit there in the pitch black of night and write notes because that's the only way I'm going to get back to sleep. Writing is tough. It doesn't go away. You have to really be part of it until that book is done.
GR: How does research factor into the book you're currently writing?
BD: With the book I'm currently starting to write, I'm working with an architect. I'm working with other people in construction, things that have to do with this story. Will I actually go on the construction site? I don't need to. Part of my gift is learning a little bit and being able to communicate it back to the reader in a way that sounds authentic.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
BD: A typical day writing is probably 6 a.m. to 12 p.m., Monday through Friday. My office is pretty standard. It's a room above the garage; a nice, bright room with skylights. There's a sitting area. I've got tons of shelves and notes sitting out everywhere. Post-its are the best invention since sliced bread. I have them covering everything.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
BD: None, really. But I do read a very eclectic group of books. I'm in a book group that's been meeting for 26 years. I like to read what's new because it shows me what other writers are doing right now. We just read Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, and I found some of the characters very unlikable. Last weekend I reread The Great Gatsby in advance of the movie. We should be required to read it when we're grown because I got so much more out of it than in high school.
GR: What are you reading now?
BD: I'm actually reading Z by Therese Anne Fowler. Zelda Fitzgerald fascinates me. There are analogies between Zelda and Daisy Buchanan in the book and the movie. I also want to say that I loved the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Once you get past the sex, it's all about psychology. That's what really resonates with me.
Interview by Margaret Wappler for Goodreads. Margaret has written about arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer, Fader, NYLON, and other publications. Her fiction was recently anthologized in Joyland Retro, and she has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Clock, Facsimile, and Public Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.
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