“Kennedy is such a nimble storyteller... the pages fly.”—Entertainment Weekly
From the New York Times bestselling author of Leaving the World comes the compelling story of a woman whose one choice, made decades ago, comes back to haunt her.
America in the 1960s was an era of radical upheaval–of civil rights protests and anti-war marches; of sexual liberation and hallucinogenic drugs. More tellingly, it was a time when you weren’t supposed to trust anyone over the age of thirty; when, if you were young, you rebelled against your parents and their conservative values.
But not Hannah Buchan.
Hannah is a great disappointment to her famous radical father and painter mother. Instead of mounting the barricades and embracing this age of profound social change, she wants nothing more than to marry her doctor boyfriend and raise a family in a small town.
Hannah gets her wish. But once installed as the doctor’s wife in a nowhere corner of Maine, boredom sets in... until an unforeseen moment of personal rebellion changes everything. Especially as Hannah is forced into breaking the law.
For decades, this one transgression in an otherwise faultless life remains buried. But then, in the charged atmosphere of America after 9/11, her secret comes out and her life goes into freefall.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
AFTER HE WAS arrested, my father became famous.
It was 1966 – and Dad (or John Winthrop Latham, as he was known to everyone except his only child) was the first professor at the University of Vermont to speak out against the war in Vietnam. That spring, he headed a campus-wide protest that resulted in a sit-down demonstration outside the Administration Building. My dad led three hundred students as they peacefully blocked the entrance for thirty-six hours, bringing university executive business to a standstill. The police and National Guard were finally called. The protestors refused to move, and Dad was shown on national television being hauled off to jail.
It was big news at the time. Dad had instigated one of the first major exercises in student civil disobedience against the war and the image of this lone, venerable Yankee in a tweed jacket and a button-down Oxford blue shirt, being lifted off the ground by a couple of Vermont state troopers, made it on to newscasts around the country.
‘Your dad’s so cool!’ everybody told me at high school the morning after his arrest. Two years later, when I started my freshman year at the University of Vermont, even mentioning that I was Professor Latham’s daughter provoked the same response.
‘Your dad’s so cool!’ And I’d nod and smile tightly, and say, ‘Yeah, he’s the best.’
Don’t get me wrong, I adore my father. Always have, always will. But when you’re eighteen – as I was in ’69 – and you’re desperately trying to establish just the smallest sort of identity for yourself, and your dad has turned into the Tom Paine of both your home town and your college, you can easily find yourself dwarfed by his lanky, virtuous shadow.
I could have escaped his high moral profile by transferring to another school. Instead, in the middle of my sophomore year, I did the next best thing: I fell in love.
Dan Buchan was nothing like my father. Whereas Dad had the heavy-duty WASP credentials – Choate, Princeton, then Harvard for his doctorate – Dan was from a nowhere town in upstate New York called Glens Falls. His father was a maintenance man in the local school system, his late mother had run a little manicure shop in town and Dan was the first member of his family to go to college at all, let alone medical school.
He was also one shy guy. He never dominated a conversation, never imposed himself on a situation. But he was a great listener – always far more interested in what you had to say. I liked this. And I found his gentle reticence to be curiously attractive. He was serious – and unlike everyone else I met at college back then, he knew exactly where he was going. On our second date he told me over a beer or two that he really didn’t want to get into some big ambitious field like neurosurgery. And there was no way that he was going to ‘pull a major cop out’ and choose a big bucks specialty like dermatology. No, he had his sights set on Family Medicine.
‘I want to be a small country doctor, nothing more,’ he said.
First year med students worked thirteen-hour days, and Dan studied non-stop. The contrast between us couldn’t have been more marked. I was an English major, thinking about teaching school when I graduated. But it was the early seventies, and unless you were going through the grind of med or law school, the last thing anyone had on their mind was ‘the future’.
Dan was twenty-four when I met him, but the five-year age gap wasn’t huge. From the outset, I liked the fact that he seemed far more focused and adult than any of the guys I had been seeing before him.
Not that I knew that much about men. There had been a high-school boyfriend named Jared – who was bookish and kind of arty and totally adored me, until he got into the University of Chicago, and it was clear that neither of us wanted to sustain a long distance thing. Then, during my first semester at college, I had my one short flirtation with freakdom when I started seeing Charlie. Like Jared, he was very sweet, very well read, a good talker, and ‘creative’ (which, for Charlie, meant writing a lot of what was – even to my impressionable eighteen-year-old eyes – really turgid poetry). He was heavily into dope – one of those guys who was usually smoking a joint with their breakfast coffee. For a while, this didn’t bother me – even though I was never really into his scene. Still, in retrospect, I needed this brief descent into bacchanalia. It was ’69 – and bacchanalia was in. But after three weeks of putting up with the mattress on the floor of the crash pad where Charlie lived – and his increasingly obtuse, stoned monologues from deepest Spacey Outer – there was an evening when I came over to find him sitting around with three friends, passing around a humungous joint while blaring The Grateful Dead on the hi-fi.
‘Hey …’ he said to me, then lapsed into silence. When I asked him over the din of the music if he wanted to head out to a movie, he just said ‘Hey’ again, though he kept nodding his head sagely, as if he had just revealed to me some great deep karmic secret about life’s hidden mysteries.
I didn’t hang around – but instead retreated back to campus and ended up nursing a beer by myself in the Union, while tearing into a pack of Viceroy cigarettes. Somewhere during the third cigarette, Margy showed up. She was my best friend – a thin, reedy Manhattan smartass with a big shock of black curly hair. She’d been raised on Central Park West and went to the right school (Nightingale Bamford), and was super-smart. But, by her own admission, she had ‘fucked up so badly when it came to opening a book’ that she ended up at a state university in Vermont. ‘And I’m not even into skiing.’
‘You looked pissed off,’ she said, sitting down, then tapping a Viceroy out of my pack and lighting it up with the book of matches on the table. ‘Fun night with Charlie?’
‘The usual freak show over at that commune of his?’ she asked.
‘Well, I guess the fact he’s cute makes up for …’
She stopped herself in mid-phrase, taking a deep pull off her cigarette.
‘Go on,’ I said, ‘finish the sentence.’
Another long, thoughtful drag on her cigarette.
‘The guy is high every moment of the day. Which kind of doesn’t do much good for his use of words with more than one syllable, does it?’
I found myself laughing because in true New York style Margy had cut right through the crap. She was also ruthlessly straight about what she saw as her own limitations … and why, three months into our freshman year, she was still without a boyfriend.
‘All the guys here are either ski bums – which, in my Thesaurus, is a synonym for Blah… or they’re the sort of dope heads who have turned their brains into Swiss cheese.’
‘Hey, it’s not for life,’ I said defensively.
‘I’m not talking about your Mr Personality, hon. I’m just making a general observation.’
‘You think he’d be devastated if I dumped him?’
‘Oh, please. I think he’d take three hits off that stupid bong of his, and get over it before he exhaled the second time.’
It still took me another couple of weeks to break it off. I hate displeasing people and I always want to be liked. This is something that my mother, Dorothy, used to chide me about – because also being a New Yorker (and being my mom), she was similarly no-nonsense when it came to telling me what she thought.
‘You know, you don’t always have to be Little Miss Popularity,’ she once said when I was a junior in high school, and complained about not winning a place on the Student Council. ‘And not fitting in with the cheerleading crowd seems cool to me. Because it’s really okay to be smart.’
‘A B- average isn’t smart,’ I said. ‘It’s mediocre.’
‘I had a B- average in high school,’ Mom said. ‘And I thought that was pretty good. And, like you, I only had a couple of friends, and didn’t make the cheerleading squad.’
‘Mom, they didn’t have cheerleaders at your school.’
‘All right, so I didn’t make the chess team. My point is: the popular girls in high school are usually the least interesting ones … and they always end up marrying orthodontists. And it’s not like either your father or I think you’re inadequate. On the contrary, you’re our star.’
‘I know that,’ I lied. Because I didn’t feel like a star. My dad was a star – the great craggy radical hero – and my mom could tell stories about hanging out with de Kooning and Johns and Rauschenberg and Pollock and all those other New York school bigwigs after the war. She’d exhibited in Paris, and still spoke French, and taught part time in the university art department, and just seemed so damn accomplished and sure of herself. Whereas I really didn’t have any talent, let alone the sort of passion that drove my parents through life.
‘Will you give yourself a break?’ my mother would say. ‘You haven’t even begun to live, let alone find out what you’re good at.’
And then she’d hurry off for a meeting of Vermont Artists Against the War, of which she was, naturally, the spokesperson.
That was the thing about my mom – she was always busy. And she certainly wasn’t the type to share casserole recipes and bake Girl Scout cookies and sew costumes for Christmas pageants. In fact, Mom was the worst cook of all time. She really couldn’t care less if the spaghetti came out of the pot half-stiff, or if the breakfast oatmeal was a mess of hardened lumps. And when it came to house-work… well, put it this way, from the age of thirteen onwards, I decided it was easier to do it myself. I changed the sheets on all the beds, did everyone’s laundry, and ordered the weekly groceries. I didn’t mind coordinating everything. It gave me a sense of responsibility. And anyway, I enjoyed being organized.
‘You really like to play house, don’t you?’ Mom once said when I popped over from college to clean the kitchen.
‘Hey, be grateful someone around here does.’
Still, my parents never set curfews, never told me what I couldn’t wear, never made me tidy my room. But perhaps they didn’t have to. I never stayed out all that late, I never did the flower child clothes thing (I preferred short skirts), and I was one hell of a lot tidier than they were.
Even when I started smoking cigarettes at seventeen, they didn’t raise hell.
‘I read an article in The Atlantic saying they might cause cancer,’ my mother said when she found me sneaking a butt on the back porch of our house. ‘But they’re your lungs, kiddo.’
My friends envied me such non-controlling parents. They dug their radical politics and the fact that our New England red clapboard house was filled with my mom’s weird abstract paintings. But the price I paid for such freedom was my mom’s non-stop sarcasm.
‘Prince Not So Bright,’ she said the day after my parents met Charlie.
‘I’m sure it’s just a passing thing,’ my dad said.
‘I hope so.’
‘Everyone needs at least one goof-ball romance,’ he said, giving Mom an amused smile.
‘De Kooning was no goof-ball.’
‘He was perpetually vague.’
‘It wasn’t a romance. It was just a two-week thing…’
‘Hey, you know I am in the room,’ I said, not amazed how they had somehow managed to blank me out, but just a little astonished to learn that Mom had once been Willem de Kooning’s lover.
‘We are aware of that, Hannah,’ my mom said calmly. ‘It’s just that, for around a minute, the conversation turned away from you.’
Ouch. That was classic Mom. My dad winked at me, as if to say, ‘You know she doesn’t mean it.’ But the thing was, she really did. And being a Good Girl, I didn’t storm out in adolescent rage. I just took it on the chin – per usual.
When it came to encouraging my independence Mom urged me to attend college away from Burlington – and gave me a hard time for being a real little homebody when I decided to go to the University of Vermont. She insisted that I live in a dorm on campus. ‘It’s about time you were ejected from the nest,’ she said.
One of the things Margy and I shared was a confused background –WASPy dads and difficult Jewish moms who seemed to always find us wanting.
‘At least your mom gets off her tukkus and does the art thing,’ said Margy. ‘For my mom, getting a manicure is a major personal achievement.’
‘You ever worry you’re not really good at anything?’ I suddenly said.
‘Like only all the time. I mean, my mom keeps reminding me how I was groomed for Vassar and ended up in Vermont. And I know that the thing I do best is bum cigarettes and dress like Janis Joplin … so I’m not exactly Little Miss Bursting With Confidence. But what has you soul searching?’
‘Sometimes I think my parents look on me as some separate self-governing state … and a massive disappointment.’
‘They tell you this?’
‘Not directly. But I know I’m not their idea of a success story.’
‘Hey, you’re eighteen. You’re supposed to be a fuck-up … not that I’m calling you that.’
‘I’ve got to get focused.’
Margy coughed out a lungful of smoke.
‘Oh, please,’ she said.
But I was determined to get my act together – to win my parents’ interest and show them that I was a serious person. So, for starters, I began to get serious as a student. I stayed in the library most nights until ten, and did a lot of extra reading – especially for a course called Landmarks of Nineteenth Century Fiction. We were reading Dickens and Thackeray and Hawthorne and Melville and even George Eliot. But of all the assigned books in that first semester course, the one that really grabbed me was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
‘But it’s so goddamn depressing,’ Margy said.
‘Isn’t that the point?’ I said. ‘Anyway, the reason it’s depressing is because it’s so real.’
‘You call all that romantic stupidity she gets into real? I mean, she’s kind of a schnook, isn’t she? Marrying that dull-ass guy, moving to a dull-ass town, then throwing herself at that smarmy soldier, who just sees her as a mattress, nothing more.’
‘Sounds pretty real to me. Anyway, the whole point of the novel is how someone uses romance as a way of escaping from the boredom of her life.’
‘So what else is new?’ she said.
My dad, on the other hand, seemed interested in my take on the book. We were having one of our very occasional lunches off-campus (as much as I adored him, I didn’t want to be seen eating with my father at the Union), slurping clam chowder at a little diner near the university. I told him how much I loved the book, and how I thought Emma Bovary was ‘a real victim of society’.
‘In what way?’ he asked.
‘Well, the way she lets herself get trapped in a life she doesn’t want, and how she thinks falling in love with someone else will solve her problems.’
He smiled at me and said, ‘That’s very good. Spot on.’
‘What I don’t get is why she had to choose suicide as a way out; why she just didn’t run away to Paris or something.’
‘But you’re seeing Emma from the perspective of an American woman in the late 1960s, not as someone trapped by the conventions of her time. You’ve read The Scarlet Letter, right?’
‘Well, nowadays we might wonder why Hester Prynne put up with walking around Boston with a big letter A on her chest, and lived with constant threats from the Puritan elders about taking her child away. We could ask: why didn’t she just grab her daughter and flee elsewhere? But in her mind, the question would have been: where can I go? To her, there was no escape from her punishment – which she almost considered to be her destiny. It’s the same thing with Emma. She knows if she flees to Paris, she’ll end up, at best, working as a seamstress or in some other depressing petit bourgeois job – because nineteenth-century society was very unforgiving about a married woman who’d run away from her responsibilities.’
‘Does this lecture last long?’ I asked, laughing. ‘Because I’ve got a class at two.’
‘I’m just getting to the point,’ Dad said with a smile. ‘And the point is, personal happiness didn’t count for anything. Flaubert was the first great novelist to understand that we all have to grapple with the prison which we create for ourselves.’
‘Even you, Dad?’ I asked, surprised to hear him make this admission. He smiled another of his rueful smiles and stared down into his bowl of chowder.
‘Everyone gets bored from time to time,’ he said. Then he changed the subject.
It wasn’t the first time my father had implied that things weren’t exactly perfect with my mom. I knew they fought. My mom was Brooklyn Loud, and tended to fly off the handle when something pissed her off. My dad – true to his Boston roots – hated public confrontation (unless it involved adoring crowds and the threat of arrest). So as soon as Mom was in one of her flipped-out moods, he tended to run for cover.
When I was younger, these fights disturbed me. But, as I got older, I began to understand that my parents fundamentally got along – that theirs was a weirdly volatile relationship which just somehow worked, perhaps because they were such fantastic polar opposites. And though I probably would have liked them around more as I was growing up, one thing I did learn from their sometimes stormy, independent-minded marriage was that two people didn’t have to crowd each other to make a relationship work. But when Dad hinted at a certain level of domestic boredom I realized something else: you never know what’s going on with two people … you can only speculate.
Just as you can only speculate about why a woman like Emma Bovary so believed that love would be the answer to all her problems.
‘Because the vast majority of women are idiots, that’s why,’ my mother said when I made the mistake of asking her opinion about Flaubert’s novel. ‘And do you know why they’re idiots? Because they put their entire faith in a man. Wrong move. Got that? Always.’
‘I’m not stupid, Mom,’ I said.
‘We’ll see about that.’
© 2005 Douglas Kennedy
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for State of the Union includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
While many American college students in the 1960s are marching in protests, using hallucinogenic drugs, and practicing free love, Hannah Latham, the daughter of a famous radical father and a painter mother, wants nothing more than to marry her doctor boyfriend and raise a family in a small town. Hannah gets her wish and settles in rural Maine with her husband, Dan, and their baby son, but she soon finds herself bored and isolated. One night an old acquaintance shows up at Hannah’s door . . . and she makes a decision that will force her into breaking the law and will change her life forever.
Over the next three decades, Hannah’s transgression remains a deeply buried secret, until a frightening incident involving her daughter, Lizzie, suddenly brings the past to light. As Hannah’s life spins out of control, she is faced with the possibility of losing everything—and everyone—she has ever loved.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How does Kennedy build suspense during the first part of the novel? Were you drawn into the story quickly?
2. How did Hannah’s forced apology to her mother after their argument at Thanksgiving foreshadow future events in the novel?
3. When Hannah is campaigning for McGovern, she runs into a postman who tells her that “everyone’s a crook.” When she shares the story with Margy, Hannah says, “What else do we have except our integrity?” (p. 64). Discuss the theme of integrity in the novel. Is Hannah right? What is the relationship between integrity and truth?
4. When Hannah and Dan fight shortly before they conceive Jeff, Hannah tells Dan to give himself “an A+ for having the most monumental ego” (p. 57). Years later, Hannah tells Margy, “[Dan’s] a surgeon—of course he has an ego. The thing is, he always kept it under wraps. Until now—when I finally gave him the excuse to use it against me” (p. 444). Did Hannah’s perception of Dan change, or did she just not allow herself to see him as he was? Do you think she was ever truly happy with Dan or did she make herself believe that she was?
5. When Hannah is with Toby, she has a fleeting thought: “Why isn’t this man my husband? With that thought came a split-second reverie of a life with Toby . . . the fantastic conversations, the fantastic sex, the mutual respect, the sense of shared destiny . . . ” (p. 149). Do you think Toby was completely tricking Hannah from the beginning or was he at all sincere? Why do you think she falls for him so easily?
6. When Toby’s book is published, why do people seem to be more accepting of his crime than they are of Hannah’s alleged crime? What does this say about the way men and women are perceived by society?
7. Discuss the relationship between Hannah and her father. While he is the catalyst for the event that nearly ruins Hannah’s life, he is also her biggest supporter and loves her unconditionally. Did you agree with her decision to mend her relationship with him? What did you think about him as a character?
8. Throughout the novel, people remind Hannah to stop beating herself up so much. Why is she so hard on herself? Why are people often harder on themselves than they are on others?
9. What does Hannah’s experience after her secret is revealed to the public say about group-think mentality? Is it a comment on small town life? What does the incident say about the nature of the media?
10. After Toby’s appearance on The Jose Julia Show, a New York Times columnist writes: “The fact . . . that so many conservative pundits and religious fellow travelers took Tobias Judson’s story as the gospel truth . . . shows a fundamental lack of critical discernment, and a belief that, so long as someone professes their Christian faith, they must be telling the truth” (p. 464). What do you think about this passage? Does it relate to any particular current events in the news?
11. What is ironic about the progression of Hannah’s mother’s health?
12. Did you sympathize at all with Dan? Could you see where he was coming from at all, even if you didn’t sympathize with him?
13. Were you surprised by the outcome of Lizzie’s disappearance? If the necklace found by the police was hers, how might it have ended up where it did?
14. What did you think about Hannah’s decision at the end of the book? How do you think she evolved over the course of the novel? Did you like her as a narrator? Was there more that you wanted to learn about her?
15. If you’ve read other books by Douglas Kennedy, how did you think this one compared to his others? Are there other writers he is similar to? What do you think about his writing style?
16. Discuss any interesting quotes or passages you highlighted while reading the novel. What are some of the themes that resonated most strongly with you?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. In honor of Hannah and her father’s reverence for Paris, host a potluck supper with French dishes. Take a look at http://allrecipes.com/Recipes/World-Cuisine/Europe/France/Main.aspx or www.ffcook.com, or browse your local bookstore for French cookbooks.
2. Listen to some classic sixties protest music by artists such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and John Lennon. Make a mix CD of your favorites to listen to during your book club meeting.
3. Read a 2007 interview with Douglas Kennedy in which he discusses his background and his close ties with France: www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/interview-american-writer-douglas-kennedy-on-the-kennedy-theory-of-human-behaviour-454073.html.
A CONVERSATION WITH DOUGLAS KENNEDY
What are some of the most important elements you hope that people take away from State of the Union? How has its relevance increased over the years since it was first published?
This might be the most American of my novels, as the subject is the United States during the radical ferment of the 1960s and the same country in the post-9/11 world. It’s about left-wing extremism back then and the evangelical conservatism of the past decade and how the entire political debate has shifted in our country. But it is also a novel that examines the life of a woman who marries the wrong man as an act of rebellion against her parents—and finds herself trapped in a life she never wanted. The fact that this act of rebellion is an act of conservatism is one of the novel’s many ironies. But then, frustrated by her marriage, she makes an error of judgment that comes back to haunt her decades later. In many ways this is a novel that looks at the frontier between the private and the public in life, the huge gulf that can exist between parents and children (even if the parent has tried to do everything right), and the way you can never really shake yourself free of the past. But it is also a morality tale for our times, and one that looks at the way, in the relentless world of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, political dialogue in this country has become so shrill, so Manichean, and so vindictive.
What did you most enjoy about writing this novel? Which parts were the most difficult?
It was fascinating for me to revisit the 1960s and to remember (I was thirteen in 1968) the immense edgy complexity of that time and the way it was both a period of personal liberation and communal upheaval, in which all societal strictures and values were challenged. And I was able to examine the way that conservative thought in the postsixties world has largely been a profound backlash against that period of radical turmoil. At heart, it’s also a novel about family—and postulates a difficult idea: you can do everything right for your children and they can still end up being strangers to you.
State of the Union was originally published in the UK and France in 2005. Along with several of your other novels it is now being published in the United States You make your home in all three of these countries. Why do you think your work resonates so strongly in these different cultures?
The French, bless them, seem to adore the fact that I write big novels that have a nineteenth-century sweep to them but also aren’t afraid to grapple with large existential concerns. The British appear to like the fact that I am one of those novelists who is both literary and popular—and, as such, writes the sort of novels that keep you reading well into the night but also talk up to the reader. I hope my emerging American readership will also see that I am a most serious writer who happens to like making you turn the page, and whose novels all engage with the question: What does it mean to be an American?
You’re particularly popular in France and have been called “the most French and the most popular of American authors.” What do you think makes you the “most French”? What do you love about France?
Well, I do speak French fluently! I think the French adopted me because my novels are so rooted in day-to-day life and ask all the big questions about how we entrap ourselves in lives we so often don’t want. The modern French novel has always been a theater of ideas—short on plot, big on philosophic musings, and always screaming to the world, “This is art!” My view of the novel goes back to Balzac and the Flaubert of Madame Bovary—the social novel that speaks volumes about the way we live now and isn’t afraid to engage with that huge concern: Why is happiness such a great, difficult pursuit?
What are you currently writing? Do you know what your next book will be about before you’ve finished the one you’re working on?
I’ve just finished my new novel, The Moment, which is a love story set in Berlin during the mid-1980s, when the city was a divided one. The first draft was a two-year venture, and I must say I am very pleased with it. And, yes, I always begin to think about the next novel as I finish work on the previous one. How—and why—ideas arrive at this juncture of the creative process baffles me. But it’s how it happens, and after ten novels I’m not going to question it.
Your books seem to cross many genres. How do you describe your work? Is it impossible to categorize?
I’ve never written the same novel. I’ve never tried to replicate any success from the past. I’ve always set a new challenge for me with every book. If there is a unifying idea behind all ten of my novels, it’s the belief in the primacy of narrative and creating stories that are a reflection of the modern anxieties with which we all grapple.
Who are some of your all-time favorite writers? Do you admire the work of any of your contemporaries?
Besides Balzac and Flaubert, I bend the knee in the direction of Dickens, Trollope, Graham Greene, Richard Yates—writers who were so engaged with their moments in time. As for my contemporaries, I greatly admire Ian McEwan and Richard Russo and Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore and Colum McCann—writers who also engage so brilliantly with the way we live now.
What are you currently reading?
Intriguingly—given the subject of this novel—I’m reading Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, which is a brilliant analysis of the creation of the culture wars that so dominate our national life now. It is the best sort of historical text—brilliantly written, brilliantly argued, and so eyeopening.
How do you enjoy spending your time when you’re not working?
I live between London, Paris, Berlin, and Maine, so I travel a great deal. I am also a culture vulture and am constantly at the theater, the concert hall, the cinema. Curiosity is an underrated virtue—and an essential component of an interesting life.
Your novels The Big Picture and The Woman in the Fifth have recently been made into films. How involved were you with these projects?
I wrote the screenplay for The Woman in the Fifth—and then stayed out of the entire filmmaking process. I read the screenplay to the French film version of The Big Picture—and then stayed out of the entire filmmaking process. I have yet to see the film of The Woman in the Fifth, but the film version of The Big Picture is just superb. The cinema is like the casino—the house odds are against you, but occasionally you get lucky and a talented director does something wonderful with one of your novels. But if the film is a dog, there are two compensations: (1) you cashed the check; and (2) you will always have your novel.
Do you have a favorite of your own novels? Do you ever go back and reread your own work?
I don’t have a favorite child, so I also don’t have a favorite novel. And the only time I reread my books is if I am adapting one of them for the cinema. Otherwise I am always preoccupied with the next novel—which is the only way to live as a writer.