Interview with Jane GreenPosted by Goodreads on March 3, 2014
In her fifteenth novel, Green continues to explore the stages of a woman's life—this time in the form of a fortysomething's midlife crisis. Tempting Fate tells the story of Gabby, a happily married mother of two who begins to feel invisible in her life. When a handsome younger man's attention inspires an awakening, Gabby has to tread carefully or risk losing her family. Interviewer Regan Stephens spoke with Jane Green on behalf of Goodreads about charting her own journey, giving old furniture new life, and her biggest temptations.
Tempting Fate and its heroine, Gabby. Did you go through a midlife crisis yourself?
Jane Green: There were a couple of inspirations. One of the things I always do when I'm thinking about a new book is, I look at the themes in my life, I look at what's going on around me, and often there's something that everyone's talking about or that seems to be happening to a lot of people. And I realized here I am in my mid-forties, living in suburbia, and I became aware of a number of women my age who suddenly announced, out of the blue, that they've been unhappy for years. I know these women and I know their husbands, and they all have great husbands, but "their husband is the devil" or he "didn't understand them," and they've "made a terrible mistake," this "wasn't the life they were supposed to be living," and they would blow up their lives.
By the way, these women all started to look fantastic—I mean, they all suddenly lost tons of weight and they looked glamorous, and invariably you would find out very soon afterward that they were having an affair. And of course the mitigating circumstances in their head were always, Well, this isn't just an affair. This is my soul mate. This is actually the man I'm supposed to be with. Of course, nine times out of ten, a year goes by or two years, and it reaches a point where they realize they've made a terrible mistake. So I was really interested in exploring women's infidelity.
I had always presumed that in order for an affair to take place there has to be a fundamental problem in the marriage. A couple of years ago I did this event with a guy I had met who was a lot younger than me. Very cute. After this event he started sending me emails that were definitely flirtatious, and I realized for the first time, "Oh, this is how these things happen." Because it's not about how happily married you are. It has nothing to do with your marriage. You take a woman of a certain age, and it really happens after you cross 40—something happens to women in their forties when we really start to realize that we're invisible. And I think that if somebody comes along and pays attention to us—and it doesn't have to be any reflection about how we feel about anything in our lives—but that attention is very seductive. And I realized just how easily these things can happen, and that was how I came up with Gabby.
GR: How do you go about making Gabby—or any character who has made socially unacceptable choices—sympathetic?
JG: I don't think I'm deliberate about it. I think what I'm trying to portray in all of my characters is the human condition, that we're all flawed, that we all make mistakes and we all screw up. All of the time. We are each fallible. Recognizing that vulnerability in other people is how we connect. It's what we're here for. What I aspire to is to show people a slice of human nature in a way that will make them understand. As you pointed out, Gabby does a terrible thing and causes a tremendous amount of pain, and yet I would like to think that we understand how she got there and why she did it and are able to forgive her. And in doing so, perhaps make us look at humanity a little bit differently.
GR: Like you, Gabby comes from London but lives in Connecticut. In what, if any, other ways do you identify with your protagonist?
JG: I think my main identification was really with her homesickness, which I haven't experienced before. I've lived here for 13 years, and I love living here, and I very rarely think about home. But I'm noticing the older I get, the more I miss my first home. I'm an American citizen, my kids are American, husband is American, but I think that kind of nostalgia was poured into this book. Even now, when I go back and read bits of it, those are the bits that I think, "Oh, yes, that's really me."
GR: You have a wonderful passage in the book in which Gabby describes all the things she misses about home—the cabdrivers, the café culture. What do you miss most about London?
JG: All of the above! Also, I really miss Europe. I miss hopping on the train to Paris for the weekend or hopping over to Italy, which is what we all do growing up in London.
GR: Gabby's midlife crisis is, at least in part, caused by her feeling marginalized and invisible. What propelled you to write about this theme?
JG: I remember very clearly being all dressed up to go to a night out in Manhattan, and I got the train to Grand Central. And walking along Park Avenue in rush hour, there's a sea of men walking toward me in suits. And they were men of every age, and I realized that not a single man was looking at me. On my left there was a 23-year-old brunette in a mini skirt and boots, and on my right there was a 24-year-old blond. And I thought, Oh, my God, I'm there. I'm at the age where the only men making eye contact with me are 70. And at least they are looking at me. It really struck me, because none of us ever feel our age. We think we're young. I was immediately struck by the fact that I had hit middle age. I recognize that any kind of attention is like manna from heaven. We all feel insecure, and aging obviously exacerbates that, and to get some kind of validation, however superficial it is, becomes really important. When you're feeling dowdy and frumpy, to have somebody pay attention is really validating.
GR: You paint a sharp picture for every character—some in just a few sentences (namely the women in Gabby's support group and Trish's children). Are your characters based on people you know?
JG: They're either an amalgam of various people or they're entirely fictitious. Often what I'll do is use a visual as a picture, so I'll use somebody I've seen or somebody I know vaguely as my visual picture, and from there I imbue them with whatever characteristics they develop on their own. In the early days, when I first started writing, I definitely had more of a propensity to pull from my real life, but what I realized is that you might think you're basing this character on your next-door neighbor and they might share some of the physical characteristics, but within two or three pages they're completely their own person.
GR: Your novels could ostensibly follow the arc of a woman's life: She's single and dating, she gets married, becomes a mother, experiences a midlife crisis. Would you ever reverse course and revisit earlier themes? Could you imagine going back and having a protagonist in her twenties?
JG: I've written in a younger voice—in Another Piece of My Heart [published in 2012] a lot of the book was from the 17-year-old's perspective. I definitely, sort of, regressed. But the themes I started writing about—being single, living in the city—it's just not where I am anymore. I just wouldn't write that kind of thing anymore. In that sense my books have always charted my own journey and where I am in my life, so I can't see myself going back and writing a twentysomething piece.
One of the things I've always wanted to do was write a sequel to Jemima J, and yet I know that the people who love JJ are really passionate about JJ. Even if I wrote a sequel, it wouldn't be as if you just left off the final page and you carried on in that light, rollicking, fun voice. My voice has changed, my writing voice and the way that I write, so it would be quite different, which is why I think I have been so reticent to do it.
GR: Yes, many Goodreads members love Jemima J and asked specifically if you would write a sequel for her.
JG: I still may do it! Out of all my characters, Jemima is the strongest one, Jemima is the one who is ever present. We'll see. There are other stories I need to tell before I revisit.
GR: I hate to ask who your favorite character was to write, but was there one who was more difficult to let go after you finished writing the novel?
JG: The two books that really came alive for me were Bookends and The Beach House. In some ways those books are very similar: They are both ensemble pieces with lots of characters. In both of them they felt like my friends; they felt so incredibly real to me. With Bookends—I wrote it years and years ago—I remember feeling completely bereft when I finished writing because I wouldn't be seeing those characters again. And the same in The Beach House. I loved all of those characters. Having gone in a slightly different direction, I think my books are a bit more serious and a bit darker now. I'm ready to do another ensemble now.
GR: Speaking of The Beach House, Goodreads member Ellie Chizmarova asks, "You described Nantucket as vividly as if it were the lead character in your story. Is it a place that is special to you? How do you decide where each story should take place?"
JG: I've spent quite a bit of time in Nantucket, but obviously the Nantucket that I see now is not the Nantucket that I wrote about in The Beach House. I'm very attached to the old, and I hate seeing how—even how my town has changed since I've lived here. I guess this is the English in me, but I'm always drawn to the old. The places I write about do tend to become characters in my book, particularly houses. I don't know where the next one will be; I suspect not Connecticut. Tempting Fate was obviously Westport, where I live. I need to do something a bit different next time.
GR: Gabby refinishes old furniture, making forgotten pieces beautiful and new again. Can you talk about your inspiration for including this hobby?
JG: It's something that I used to do a lot. My desk that I work at looks like this fantastic, Swedish, Gustavian, gorgeous, expensive desk, and it's actually a piece of crap from the consignment shop. It's nothing! I brought it home one day and decided I was going to strip it and paint it. One of the things that I still haven't adjusted to, living in this country for as long as I have, is paying other people to do things. I never go to the hairdresser, it would never occur to me to go get a massage, I don't go for facials.
GR: You don't go to the hairdresser?
JG: I go maybe twice a year. I'm really low maintenance. It would never occur to me to go to other people to do things for me, so if I see a piece of furniture, not only can I see what it's going to be, but I want to do it myself.
GR: Goodreads member Larc asks, "I love that your books cover both sides of the Atlantic. How much does being from Great Britain and then living in the States influence your characters' lives?"
JG: For a very long time I was too frightened to write books that were entirely American because my sensibility is still quite British. The Beach House was the first book I wrote that was entirely peopled by American characters, but I think I can never move too far away from my roots. What I love about Tempting Fate was having my English protagonist—and actually in my next book, the book I just finished, Saving Grace, I also have an English protagonist. I think it's increasingly important to me to have something English in each of my books. My heroine doesn't have to be English, but there has to be something English because that's who I am.
GR: In the book you describe dishes Gabby cooks for her family that evoke comfort and warmth. Do you have a favorite dish to cook for your own family?
JG: My go-to for comfort food that we usually have on a weekly basis is shepherd's pie. I make a wickedly good shepherd's pie. Actually in England we call it cottage pie.
GR: Goodreads member Rachel Blowes asks, "What is the biggest temptation that you have given into?"
JG: The temptation I struggle with the most is sugar. I have a really strong addiction, and I cut it out. Once I start, I can't stop. I have a counter on my phone, let me tell you how many days it's been—98 days without sugar, no sugar at all. You give me a box of chocolates on Valentine's Day, and I could eat the entire box because then, the next morning, I'm going to "start again."
GR: Can you describe your writing process? Is there a specific ritual you follow?
JG: Once my kids have gone to school, I take my laptop, I go to a little writer's room. I usually have headphones and music and just switch off for three hours. I have to take myself offline, because I can get horribly distracted. Now that I'm contracted to write two books a year, I go to a self-imposed writing retreat. So a couple of times a year I'll go off to a little inn somewhere and just hole myself away for five days with no WiFi and do nothing but write. I immerse myself in my book.
GR: You mentioned your next book. Are you finished with it or are you working on it now?
JG: I've just sent in my third round of edits, so please, God, I'm finished because I am so done with this book! [laughs] It's basically done. I'm ready to start writing the next one.
GR: I read that at the start of your career you were inspired to capture the perspective of the thirtysomething single woman after reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. Which other authors have influenced you?
JG: I think the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City books were books that have stayed in my heart that I carry around. He writes a lot about what I think of as family of choice—how you create your family—and that's something that I try to write about. Other than that, I read a tremendous amount, but I think I've reached a stage in my career where I'm not sure that I have influences. There are books that I love and authors I love.
GR: Have you read anything you've loved lately?
JG: What books have I read recently that I loved? I read The Goldfinch, which I loved. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is really good. I just read Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, which I loved. Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland was a really excellent book as well.
Interview by Regan Stephens for Goodreads. Regan lives in Brooklyn and currently contributes to People.com.
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