A Conversation with Liza Gyllenhaal
Q. Where did you get the idea for A Place for Us?
A. A few years ago I heard a news story on our local public radio station in Massachusetts about a married couple who were being arraigned under the Social Host Liability law. Two teenagers had been seriously injured in a car crash after drinking with the couple’s son at a party in the family’s basement. Though the parents had been asleep upstairs and unaware of the underage drinking, one of the injured teenager’s family was bringing a law suit against the couple. Understandably, the rural community where the accident occurred was upset about the incident — but also divided about where the responsibility rested. As someone who loves writing about families and small towns, the story couldn’t help but capture my imagination.
I began to think about how I might turn this basic premise into a convincing work of fiction. I let the idea simmer while I finished my most recent novel So Near, but then started to outline a plot and flesh out the characters. Coincidentally, as I began writing the novel, a very similar incident took place in a town not far from us in the Berkshires. In this case, tragically, one of the teenagers involved in it was killed. This senseless death brought home to me how serious and pertinent the problem of underage drinking remains.
Q. The story is told from the different points of view of four main characters. Was that hard to pull off?
A. Both of my last novels Local Knowledge and So Near were written in the first person, though in So Near it was a husband and wife who, alternately, told their stories. I thought it would be interesting to try more points of view with this novel, but I also realized that using four different first person voices would probably drive me — and readers — crazy. So I decided to write the novel in what is sometimes called the close third person which means that the story is being told by “he” or “she” rather than “I” but, hopefully, from pretty deep inside the head of the character in question.
In the first person, you can write “I did this” or “I felt that” which gives the story an automatic believability. For me, the third person —which puts readers a little more at a distance — is more of a challenge. I think that to write convincing fiction you have to be able to empathize with your characters. You need to know them deep down. You have to believe in them. But you also need to step back and give them breathing room to be themselves and make their own choices. It’s very tempting when you’re writing in the third person to manipulate your characters and force them to do what the story line dictates. But I think readers can always tell when a character is acting and talking — well … out of character. The most important thing I learned from writing this novel in the third person is that if something doesn’t seem to be working, it probably isn’t the fault of the character — instead, there’s something wrong with the plot.
Q. Two of your main characters are teenagers. How did you manage to empathize with them?
A. Though I don’t have children myself, I am lucky to have a number of wonderful teenage nieces and nephews in my life. I listen hard to what they say — and, perhaps more importantly, wonder about what they keep to themselves. But, as I started to write the first chapter from Phoebe’s point of view, I remembered a relationship I had when I was about her age. It was with a boy who, like Liam, was going through a very hard time. He also happened to be the most popular boy in our class and, when it became obvious to everyone that we were spending a lot of time together after school, it was assumed that I was his new girlfriend. So I suddenly became very popular, too! But, in truth, all we were doing together was talking. Actually, he was talking and I was listening. More than anything else, I think I drew from that memory to create the strong bond that Phoebe and Liam share.
Q. Is there an underlying theme in A Place for Us?
A. Yes — and it’s right there in the title. It’s the age-old yearning to fit in and be accepted. In my novel Local Knowledge, I wrote about a woman raised in a small town who is befriended — and ultimately betrayed — by a wealthy female weekender whom she longs to emulate. My character Maddie wanted to be accepted by this glamorous new friend so much that, as a result, she ended up sacrificing everything truly important in her life.
The natural human desire for acceptance has always interested me as a writer. We’ve all felt that longing at some point, and very often the power of it has made us act in ways that we later regret. In A Place for Us I decided to turn the tables on the social situation I’d set up in Local Knowledge and have my character Brook be a very wealthy transplant from New York City who longs to fit into the small town where her husband was raised and to which her family relocates after 9/11. Brook’s struggle to fit in as well as her son Liam’s yearning for acceptance propels the story along and acts as the novel’s thematic underpinning.
Q. What sort of research did you do in writing the novel?
A. I spent a lot of time on the internet reading up on the Social Host Liability law and the many cases in Massachusetts that have resulted from the law’s passage. The more time I spent researching different stories and exploring various sites, the more the name Richard P. Campbell kept cropping up. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that Mr. Campbell is the founder of a prestigious law firm in Boston, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and a driving force behind Social Host Liability legislation. He created a multi-media program, Be A Parent, Not A Pal, to educate students, parents, teachers, and members of the community about the Social Host Liability law. It’s a first-rate tutorial on the subject. For more information, please see: http://www.socialhostliability.org/programs/beaparent.php.
I was very lucky to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Campbell by phone one afternoon. He had agreed to a one-hour session, but we ended up talking for much longer than that. He was outspoken and full of great anecdotes. And he was tremendously helpful, clarifying many complicated legal issues for me. He was also a passionate spokesperson for a cause he obviously believes in very deeply. At the end of the conversation, he said: “whatever else your novel does, please have it make a case for how deadly underage drinking can be.” I hope I’ve done that!
Q. What authors do you like — and would like to recommend?
A. I read a lot — poetry, fiction, history, memoir. I spent last winter in 18th century Russia with Robert Massie’s fascinating biography of Catherine the Great. This spring, I relived the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable early achievements as President via Robert Caro’s latest installment of Johnson’s life. I loved Anne Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder and Edith Pearlman’s collection of short stories Binocular Vision. I’m thinking about trying my hand at writing something that revolves around a mystery, so I recently reread all my favorite P.D. James novels and I’m currently working my way through Agatha Christie. After Nora Ephron’s death, I read everything she wrote in book form — and laughed out loud for a couple of days.
Q. Do you have a set writing routine?
A. I usually wake up early and reread whatever I’ve been working on. I revise constantly on the computer. (It continues to amaze me how Tolstoy could have written War and Peace in longhand!) Then I let the demands of daily life intervene for several hours and pick up again in the afternoon. Most days, I don’t hit my stride until three o’clock or so, and then if I’m lucky get two or three good, productive hours in. I think a lot about what I’m working on when I’m not actually writing. When I’m running, for instance, or driving in the car back and forth between the city and our weekend place in Massachusetts. I try to work out problems — a scene I can’t get off the ground, a character who refuses to behave— during that two-and-a-half hour stretch.
A. In the city, I usually write in a beautiful old Eames chair that I commandeered from my husband. But 16 years ago, we brought a place in the beautiful Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. It included a small farmhouse and an old horse stable which became my “writing studio.” It still has the old iron stall feeders and leather harnesses on the walls. It remains permeated by a wonderful smell of animal and old hay.
When we’re in the country, I wake up early and reread and rewrite on my laptop in the house, but in the afternoon I go out to the studio, bolt the door, and start the hard work of writing the next new word, sentence, paragraph, chapter. In the winter I have a fire going in the Jotul stove, in the summer I have all the windows open and can hear the seasonal brook and birdsong. This summer, I watched a family of wild turkeys — 17 in all — parading up and down in the old paddock. Other sightings: woodchuck, coyote, fox, and early last spring, when the trees were just greening out, a big black bear.
Q. Are you working on anything new?
A. As I mentioned earlier, I’m interested in trying to write something with a mystery at its heart. I don’t think it will be a traditional police procedural, though someone will be murdered and the story will explore the reasons why — and probably end with the discovery of who did it. But I’m hoping the novel will be more about the characters and the small New England community where they live. I’m an avid amateur gardener and I loved writing about gardening in So Near and talking about my garden on my blog, so I’m pretty sure I want my main character to be a landscape architect/professional gardener. I also know who gets killed — and when. But that’s all I really have figured out so far. A lot of the joy of writing — just as it is in reading — is discovering what’s going to happen next.