Questions posted on or before 9/16 have been forwarded to the author for response. We will post her answers as soon as we have them. This section is closed for new questions now. Thank you!
Join Date: 10/15/10
Join Date: 09/11/11
Q. How did you learn so much about art and what prompted you to write a novel revolving around art and artists?
A. I grew up outside of Chicago, and when I was little, my mother and I would often take the train into the city to see the ballet, or to visit the Art Institute. I was fascinated with the space there—the soaring ceilings, the maze of rooms—and by how quiet it was. Closer to home, our local library had a special lending program for reproductions of paintings; we had a different piece of art hanging on our walls every month. My parents spent a lot of time in local galleries whenever we traveled or vacationed anywhere. So, though I can barely draw a straight line myself, I grew up having a great appreciation for art, and have always been interested in artists, and they way they see the world. Any knowledge of art I’ve gained while writing the book is entirely attributable to research.
I don’t think I necessarily knew art was going to play such a central role in the novel when I started out. In my earliest inklings of the story, there was a Stephen-like character who worked at an auction house. He was the one person in the company without any real connections, until he met an older professor, who had stumbled upon something quite rare.
Join Date: 10/16/10
Q. Why did you opt to leave Natalie's voice out of the novel? Also, many people here had a very negative reaction to Natalie. What reaction to this character were you striving for? Is she unforgivably vile, or did you see some goodness in her?
A. Both Natalie and Thomas struck me as being similar sorts of characters—agents of their own destruction to a certain degree, through selfishness and their inability to form meaningful relationships, although I believe neither of them planned to live without love. I think I was more interested in the people circling within their orbit, and how those individuals were impacted by that behavior. That’s why I opted to tell the story from the points of view of Alice, Finch and Stephen.
It’s good to hear people have a strong reaction to Natalie. There’s been a lot of discussion lately—both within and outside of the writing community—about female characters and their “likability,” with interesting volleys lobbed back and forth from both sides of the debate. (Google Claire Messud and Jennifer Weiner if you want to read more.) But my response to whether or not Natalie is unforgivably vile would be, "I hope not." I’d like to think she’s more complex than that.
Natalie does things that are unforgiveable, but I didn’t want her to be a complete villain. As is the case with Alice, Natalie is forced to deal with a lot of pain and anguish in her life, mental if not physical. I tried to stand in her shoes during those moments when she had a choice to make. Whether you attribute her decisions to fear or anger, to jealously or loneliness, or to some nightmarish combination of these, her actions seem justifiable to her in that particular situation and at that particular moment. And then it becomes a question of whether or not she’s able to undo what she’s done. I think there are points in the story when she comes close to trying to make amends, but isn’t able to, perhaps because it would require her to acknowledge the incalculable pain she’s caused.
I think each of us, at some point in our lives, has probably done something we deeply regretted, made a wrong or bad decision, or exposed parts of our small, petty selves we wish we’d kept hidden. (Or is that just me?) It makes us human. I find "unlikable" characters fascinating for just that reason, and every bit as worthy of space on the page as the characters we immediately relate to, sympathize with, and cheer for. It’s easy enough to say, "Oh, I’d never do that." And in most cases, thankfully, that’s probably true. But I wonder whether any of us really know what we’re capable of until we find ourselves in an unthinkable situation, and are forced to act.
Join Date: 10/16/10
Q. Why did you choose rheumatoid arthritis as the disease that cripples Alice? Do you have personal experience with it, or did the disease fit the character you were creating best?
A. My knowledge of rheumatoid arthritis is based on research and anecdotal evidence, as opposed to any personal experience, although I do know people who have the disease. RA affects some 1.3 million Americans, and, according to the Arthritis Foundation, juvenile arthritis affects nearly 294,000 children under the age of 18—it is one of the most common childhood diseases in this country. I chose RA for a number of reasons: it has a wide range of symptoms; numerous and varied treatments are available, but it is a disease that has been around for a long period of time; response to treatment is extremely varied—different things work (or don’t) for different people; and there is a broad spectrum of severity.
I have to admit I felt awful giving Alice any disease. But one of the themes I wanted to explore in the novel was human resilience, and the ways in which people are disappointed in life, yet manage to rise above that disappointment and find new ways to be in the world. Having RA forces Alice to modify her dreams, to find a different way to make her life work, and after a great deal of struggle, she finally reaches a point where she does just that.
Join Date: 10/25/12
Q. What occurred that gave you the spark for The Gravity of Birds? And how long did it take you to write this novel?
A. The Gravity of Birds started out as two short stories I couldn't finish; no matter how I tried, I just couldn't find a satisfactory conclusion for either of them. The first was a story about two sisters whose relationship changes when one is forced into the role of caregiver for the other. I wanted to explore how that shift would impact the dynamic between them. The second story involved a young man, recently graduated with a degree in the arts, who finds he is flailing in the working world. Instead of the meteoric rise he’d anticipated, he realizes his career is on a downward trajectory. What would that feel like, at a time when most of his peers were experiencing success?
I already cared about the characters in these stories, and didn't want to abandon them, so I set the stories aside, periodically resurrecting them to try again. During one of these repeated attempts, I was also getting ready to move. While packing up a portrait—an oil painting of my great, great, great grandmother and her two daughters—I recognized that those two daughters were also sisters. Why I'd been oblivious to their relationship as siblings up to that point, I don't know, but once I saw them in that light, I wondered if they might be the two sisters in one of my stories. The painting itself worked its way into the other story, and then I saw the potential connection between the two. After that, the rest of the story came together fairly quickly, over a period of about six months.
Join Date: 07/18/13
Q. I also would have liked to hear Natalie's voice. She seemed to carry a lot of burdens on her shoulders and hide much pain. is there another book coming that will let us in on her side of the story?
A. Well, I’ll never say "never." Now that I’ve told Alice's story, and Stephen's and Finch's, it might be interesting to take a closer look at Natalie and Thomas. But I think that’s something I’d be more comfortable tackling having a little time and space away from "The Gravity of Birds". I'm working on three new things at present, waiting for one of them to "out shout" the other two and move to the head of the line. I’m very interested in exploring the connection between people and the places they think of as being home; home in both its broadest sense—the environment we’re all living with, and within—and in its most specific sense—the intimate connections we have to the spaces we inhabit, and the ties to personal history and memory that those spaces hold for us.
Join Date: 06/16/11
Q. I would like to know your thoughts regarding the title of the book. Is it significant in some way?
A. The working title of the book was Triptych, but my agent wasn't enthused about that, and asked me to go back to the drawing board and come up with something else. (In retrospect, she was right.) I knew, by that time, that Alice wanted to be an ornithologist, so something relating to birds seemed appropriate, but I also had several titles in mind related more specifically to elements of drawing. I wanted the title to have a certain rhythm, a cadence…I could hear it in my mind. So I sat down at the kitchen table with my mother, who is my best sounding board, and began writing things out on a legal pad, then reading them to her. We looked at each other after I said "The Gravity of Birds," and we both nodded. In addition to having a sound I liked, and a tie to Alice's chosen profession, echoed in "gravity" is this idea of being bound to or weighed down by something, being unable to escape. For all the characters, I think it's their inability to escape their past.
Join Date: 10/16/10
Q. Were you involved in the design of the book jacket? Do you like it?
A. I had nothing to do with the design, but I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. Again, it’s the work of a very talented artist, in this case, someone at Simon and Schuster, who managed to translate the essence of the book into wonderful cover art.
Join Date: 04/15/12
Q. What were the central themes you tried to convey in the novel? I felt that you were focused on the pain of disconnection and isolation whether physical or emotional, the importance of strong family connections as the foundation for other relationships, and the need for love which often involves forgiveness for perceived and/or real injustices. What else were you trying to express?
A. In addition to the ideas you listed above, I wanted to examine resilience of spirit. When creating characters, I find that some of their most defining qualities lie at the intersection of what they most desired, and what they have ended up settling for. Certainly resilience is often seen in those dealing with chronic illness. However, as I got deeper into the novel, this ended up being a trait shared, to a greater or lesser extent, by all three of the main characters. In spite of numerous setbacks and frustrations, they continue to forge ahead. As tempting as it would be to give up, they keep trying to move forward: Stephen, attempting to find not only success, but his place in the world; Alice, coming to terms with her disease and the physical limitations it imposes; and Finch, learning how to live without his beloved wife.
I also wanted to dig deeper into the theme of "family"—not only the need for strong family connections as foundations for other relationships, as mentioned in the question above, but the idea that with our increasingly transient population, we seem so desirous of a familial bond that we often forge new families for ourselves, creating them from friends, co-workers, and neighbors, when our more traditional families break apart, die off or are separated from us because of distance. I love the idea of Alice making a new family for herself, peopled—initially—with individuals not related to her.
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