Tara Conklin Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tara Conklin
Photo: Mary Grace Long

Tara Conklin

An interview with Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin discusses the inspiration behind her novels, The House Girl and The Last Romantics

What was the inspiration behind The Last Romantics?

The original inspiration for this book came from a family tragedy that happened many years ago. As details emerged over the weeks and months following the event, I found myself asking so many questions about why and how the tragedy had unfolded. These questions--about all the big things like family, loss, success and love--lodged themselves in the back of my brain. It took about 10 years before I sat down to explore these issues with the fictional Skinner family. By that point in time, I also wanted to investigate some of my own concerns about women, care-giving, marriage, children and career, and the three Skinner sisters were a perfect vehicle. But the core happening at the center of the book is true to the real event.

The story is told from the future and narrated by the 102-year-old poet Fiona Skinner. Why did you select this narrative format?

I wanted to write a story that spanned the characters' lifetimes, but I also wanted to examine my generation--the choices that I've made and my friends have made about family. These seemed like two conflicting narratives goals. I needed a certain degree of distance and omniscience to make the family epic work, but this felt inappropriate for a modern-day story. I wrote three full complete drafts of this novel using different points of view and techniques. It was only after the second full manuscript that I had an a-ha moment: What if Fiona is talking to us from the future? With that perspective, I could have my omniscience and my contemporary relevance. Plus, I had never read a story told in this way. Dystopian or science fiction narratives tend to be about the future world, but my future sections serve primarily as frames for the larger, contemporary story.

I'm really happy with the way it turned out. There's a certain nostalgia in the narrative that now feels natural. And it drives home one of the big themes of the book, which is that these everyday choices we make about who and how to love are what matters. This is what, when we're 100 years old and looking back on life, we'll talk about. This is what we'll remember.

What is it about the relationship between siblings that interests you as a writer?

As one of three sisters and the mother of three, I find sibling relationships fascinating. For some, siblings are the most supportive people in their lives; for others, a sibling is a stranger or even an adversary. Either way, sibling relationships are (for the most part) hugely significant in a person's life, but I think are examined far less in fiction than parent-child, romantic or even friend relationships. I also find it so interesting that the same family experience can be felt and remembered so differently among siblings. I see this among my own sisters: my youngest sister remembers arguments that we had years ago as important in our relationship, but I simply don't recall them at all.

Watching the process of my children growing into themselves, marking their differences, bouncing off each other, is constantly thought-provoking and entertaining. I tried to bring to the novel some of that wonder about how people develop into themselves.

Fiona talks about "the failures of love" as she embarks on her story. Is The Last Romantics a love story?

I think it is a love story. Years ago, I read a quote from Cheryl Strayed in which she called her mother "the love of her life." That really moved me. The phrase "love of your life" is generally used to describe a romantic love, a partner, but I think just as often the most enduring, most influential love relationships involve family.

The siblings--three sisters and a brother--process grief very differently. What role is grief meant to play in Joe's life choices?

I think Joe (and his sisters, too) are burdened with a lot of unprocessed grief over the death of their father when they were so young. All four of them were forced to focus on survival in those first years, and so they never had a chance to mourn, to be comforted, to come to terms with their father's absence. For Joe, this is compounded by the pressure imposed upon him as the only boy. He feels the need to be strong and protective, to not show emotion, to be tough and athletic, to step into this conventional role of "man" rather than just be himself. His sisters have more opportunity to express emotion, but Joe locks it all up.

Their mother, Noni, instills feminist ideals in her daughters, to varying degrees of success. Why didn't she do the same with her son?

This is a question that I've thought about a lot regarding my generation. As a mother of one daughter and two sons, I am very conscious of teaching feminist principles (which are really just about equality) to all of my kids. Noni doesn't think Joe needs to know about feminism because he won't be affected by gender discrimination. But, of course, he does need to know about it, and we see the kinds of problems that arise for Joe because he's pretty oblivious to gender-related issues. I think that for my generation, "feminism" was seen as a woman's concern and a woman's problem. We were educated in what was right, what we should expect and what to fight for while boys and men were basically left out of the discussion.

I think that's changing now, but Harvey Weinstein, the Kavanaugh hearing and the #metoo movement show how insidious these problems truly are. Men of my generation (and older) know what to say, they know the buzzwords, they might wear the right t-shirt or donate money to the right cause, but I don't think they truly get it. And I don't mean to suggest that every man is a potential Weinstein. But men need to be educated about these issues and then proactively engage with them and fight for them alongside their wives, sisters, daughters, mothers. Gender equality is ultimately about fairness and allowing every individual to achieve their full potential--everyone should be working toward those goals.

This interview by Shahina Piyarali first ran in Shelf Awareness and is reproduced with permission.

What inspired you to write The House Girl?

I was reading a biography of Virginia Woolf and came across the term "slave doctor" used to describe one of her long-lost relations. Those words caught my imagination. I thought about the circumstances that would drive a person to occupy such a conflicted role—to be a healer, but one whose patients were destined only for more hardship and pain. As I thought about this slave doctor, an image popped into my head of a man on a horse, holding his hand out to a young woman, a slave, and pulling her up onto the horse. That was the beginning of The House Girl—those words and the image they evoked.

In the novel, you use two very interesting angles to help tell the story—a reparations lawsuit and the unveiling of a controversial art exhibit. Why did you decide to use these events?

I had already written the historical narratives of Caleb Harper, Dorothea Rounds and Josephine Bell before either the art exhibit or reparations lawsuit entered into the story. After finishing their sections, I put the entire project aside due to family and work commitments. But I couldn't stop thinking about the characters—. I didn't feel that their stories were complete. A contemporary counterpart seemed the only way to bring some closure to what they had experienced and endured. The reparations idea was fairly straightforward for me—throughout my legal education and career, I've always been interested in how the law has been used to address large-scale atrocities, with international tribunals, truth commissions and the like. I had never studied reparations within the American context, however, so it was exciting to research and learn about this new angle.

The art component evolved organically in the story. From the very beginning, I knew that Josephine was an artist but I questioned how, as a slave, she would have the resources, time and space to create art. These practical concerns influenced the development of her relationship with her mistress Missus Lu and from there came the idea of the authorship controversy. It also seemed a fitting metaphor for some larger themes in the book – of forgotten history and the importance of truth-telling.

You were born in St. Croix, the US Virgin Islands and grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. How has growing up in these two vastly different environments influenced you personally, and as a writer?

My parents left St. Croix when I was still a baby, so I don't remember much. The stories that they told about St. Croix—their experiences working in a local school, the island's history of slavery—were vivid and compelling and stayed with me over the years. Still, I don't think I realized their place in my imagination until I started writing Josephine's story. Stockbridge is a very small, old New England town full of history and art (Norman Rockwell lived and painted there). Freed slaves were buried in our town graveyard and I remember learning about the Underground Railroad in elementary school. Those stories had such an immediacy for me as a child but, again, I don't think I realized how much they had stayed with me until I started writing

What was the research process like for this book? Did you come across any information that surprised you?

As I was writing, I read a number of slave narratives, histories of American slavery and novels set during the time period. At a certain point, though, I had to stop reading—the stories and statistics were so overwhelming that I felt nearly paralyzed by them. Who was I to try to write about American slavery? So I focused instead on this one person, on Josephine Bell, and I tried to tell her story as honestly as I could. What surprised me most in my research was the lack of information and resources available about the experiences of individual slaves. I was surprised that today no national museum of slavery exists and no national monument dedicated to those who lived and died as slaves.

The House Girl follows the lives of two young women separated by more than a century and who lead very different lives, one as a slave the other a lawyer in New York City. Did you find it difficult to write from these two very different perspectives? Were there any similarities between the two women?

I found each challenging for different reasons. On paper, Lina is certainly similar to me—she's a lawyer, from the northeast, white. I felt comfortable writing the details of her life—how her law firm operated, what she ate for lunch—but it was much more difficult for me to figure out what she wanted. Why was she so intent on uncovering Josephine's story? Josephine was difficult for different reasons—the extrinsic details were totally foreign to me, but I felt that I knew her character on a more basic level. I think there are a lot of similarities between the two women: Lina and Josephine are both strong-willed, tenacious, intelligent women. They both want to know the truth about their own personal histories but are also afraid of what they might find. And they are both searching for a sense of home and a sense of freedom.

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.

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