Emily Chenoweth Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Emily Chenoweth

Emily Chenoweth

An interview with Emily Chenoweth

Emily Chenoweth discusses her. first novel, Hello Goodbye, which was inspired by a week that her family and parents' friends spent in a New Hampshire resort to say goodbye to her dying mother

Can you talk about the real-life event that inspired Hello Goodbye?

My mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during my first year of college. The following summer, my father arranged a family trip to the Mount Washington Hotel, a big, old fashioned resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, so that my parents and their East Coast friends could spend some time together before my mother died. I have a handful of pictures from that week, which I looked at a lot as I began to write the book. I kept a journal back then, too, but I lost it a long time ago. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know. Right now, if someone asked me to write down what I actually remember about that week at the hotel, I could do it in ten pages or less. I'm not sure if it's because I have a terrible memory, or if it's because not remembering is part of some psychic defense mechanism.

Your circumstances back then sound very much like Abby's—but this isn't a memoir?

No, not by a long shot. I had originally thought I'd write a memoir (I'd sold it on proposal as such), but then I ran into the problem above: How do you try to tell the truth about an experience you barely can recall? You can interview everyone who shared that experience with you, but then your book ends up feeling like a piece of reportage. Or you can go out on a limb and make a bunch of things up. And then maybe, like James Frey, you get into trouble for it. Deciding to make the book a novel freed me in many ways. I could explore the feelings and experiences that I did remember, but I could also craft a story that had a different arc than my own (and a more satisfying arc, I hope, since real life rarely has neat beginnings, middles, and ends).

What are some elements that you changed for the story?

I gave Abby—the character closest, obviously, to myself—a sort of romantic plotline to explore, for example, as a way to contrast her coming-of-age with her mother's decline. I also made Abby an only child, though I have a younger brother whom I adore, who wasn't at the hotel with us that week. I spent many months trying to build a story line for him, one in which he remained at home, befriended a juvenile delinquent named Vic Libby, and built a shed in the backyard that became a kind of memorial to Helen. The brother plotline didn't work, though, so—guiltily at first, because I didn't want to deny my brother's experience—I made Abby an only child. But I kept the character of Vic, and I moved him to the hotel, where he could be a bridge between Abby and her mother. I also changed the friends who come to the hotel, and I made up Alex, the semi-charming, semi-silly waiter. ... The list of what I changed is much longer than the list of what I didn't.

Does fictionalizing a real experience change your recollection of it?

Yes, mine—and maybe even everyone else's. Here's a small and sort of silly example: The Mount Washington Hotel doesn't have a peacock, but the Presidential Hotel in my book does. So about a year ago, my father said something about how he remembered feeding the peacock. And I said, "Dad, there was no peacock at the Mount Washington." He bet me fifty dollars that there was, and he was so certain that he made me doubt myself—had I just thought I made up the peacock? So I wrote to one of my parents' friends, the one who my father said would have the most reliable memory, and she sided with me. There was no peacock. Dad still owes me that fifty dollars. Which is not to say that my memory is so infallible. For instance, I remembered the hotel as a very grand and fancy place. "Are you kidding?" my dad said when I mentioned it. "It was a dump." I was highly skeptical about this until, in doing research for the novel, I learned that the Mount Washington had been in foreclosure when we were staying there. So while it probably wasn't a dump, it probably wasn't as nice as I remember it. (It's been gussied up a lot since.) But it would have hardly served the novel for the Hansen family to be staying at a hotel on the brink of financial collapse—it wouldn't provide the necessary sense of escape.

Why did you choose to write a semiautobiographical novel?

In a way, this is a story I'd been trying to tell for years. I wrote a number of short stories that danced around the subjects of grief and loss, as well as the strange connections a person can forge in times of distress. So I guess in the end it seemed that it was time to tell it closer to how it happened. It's still an act of the imagination, of course. Even an attempt at faithful transcription of past events and conversations—which, as we've already established, Hello Goodbye is not—involves imagination, creativity, shaping, and editing. And I think that one's imagination isn't necessarily put to greater use when it's focused on the fanciful or the outlandish or the unfamiliar. Looking deep into what you know, or think you know, about yourself can be a strange and surprising experience.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
Sign up, win books!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    Mrs. Hemingway
    by Naomi Wood
    Naomi Wood's latest novel, Mrs. Hemingway, is a fictionalized biography covering in turn writer...
  • Book Jacket
    The Stranger on the Train
    by Abbie Taylor
    The opening chapter of Abbie Taylor's debut novel, The Stranger on the Train, took me right back to ...
  • Book Jacket
    Night Film
    by Marisha Pessl
    One of the central tenets of Hinduism states that the world as we know it is just an illusion –...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

Tomlinson Hill
by Chris Tomlinson

Published Jul. 2014

Join the discussion!

  1.  158The City:
    Dean Koontz

All Discussions

Win this book!
Win The Angel of Losses

The Angel of Losses

"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist


Word Play

Solve this clue:

E C H A Silver L

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.