Deborah Carol Gang Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Deborah Carol Gang

Deborah Carol Gang

An interview with Deborah Carol Gang

Deborah Carol Gang discusses her debut novel, The Half-Life of Everything, in which she takes on the challenging topics of Alzheimer's disease and polyamory.

This Q&A contains plot-spoilers


What was your inspiration for The Half-Life of Everything?

Some years ago, I heard a top-of-the-news-hour tidbit on NPR about the results of yet another research study for an Alzheimer's drug. This treatment sounded like it might actually be the one, and while I knew that wasn't likely, I did start to think: What if? What if there could be a treatment? What if people could come back?

Why did you want to write The Half-Life of Everything? What are some of the main ideas that you want readers to take away from this novel?

When I was a kid, I loved old movies about a husband or wife long thought dead (in that era, usually from a shipwreck) who returns to find their spouse has remarried. At first I just wanted to conjecture about what could happen if a person came back from a catastrophic illness of the mind. I didn't decide until fairly far into the novel what David would do. Or what any of them would do. When I started, I didn't realize what a key figure Kate would turn out to be. So I wrote partly outof curiosity to learn how this unlikely but interesting problem could be solved.

What was the hardest part about writing The Half-Life of Everything?

The hardest part was definitely getting started. It's one thing to have an idea, but that's an ocean away from getting those first chapters on paper. It's a frightening feeling to have basically no idea what words are going to show up on the page. I created some artificial deadlines for myself and also took several online fiction workshops with Stanford, and these provided real deadlines and great feedback from the teachers and other writers. Later, if I had been away from the project for a length of time, it was difficult to come back to the manuscript. I was worried I wouldn't like the writing or the characters and I would have to force myself to enter their world again. Luckily, I became drawn in again each time–-even though there were, of course, many things to improve.

Despite both being in love with the same man, Jane and Kate never seem to be competing with one another. How did you manage to keep Jane and Kate on equal footing and avoid turning The Half-Life of Everything into a glorified love triangle?

Jane, from the first time she meets David, defers to the legal and emotional bonds of his marriage to Kate. Even when David is ready to move on from being a "married widower," Jane maintainsthat his history with Kate and the loss of his marriage need to be topics they can talk about and share. Later, Jane is resolute that she won't lie and cheat to be with David. Her ex-husband was unfaithful to her in particularly cruel ways and she won't inflict that on anyone else. Kate first seems tempted to "pull rank" and maintain her own status as the wife. But as she realizes the impact of her absence and the strength of David and Jane's bond, she finds herself unable to accept David's attempt to go back in time and resume their version of normal. She finds that she's only capable of seeing Jane as a person in her own right and not as an intruder.

Additionally, although David is essentially dating two women at once, I never found myself hating him. How did you manage to keep David likable?

David is so driven by his desire to be a good man, a good teacher, a good husband and father that we want to cut him some slack. His narcissist parents did little to provide him with a secure identity; he made himself into a person he could respect. Despite working in a university setting, ripe with temptations, affairs and divorce, David kept his sights on loving Kate forever and on not ruining their lives over one of the many attractions, crushes, and even obsessions that most adults experience sometime during their married lives. We believe how completely out of character his new situation is for him–-and how tormented he is. Perhaps we want him to find a way to be both good and happy.

If you had to pick one, whowould you say is your favorite character in The Half-Life of Everything? Why?

That's a hard one because your characters become your family. And when you're writing a book that's not about serial killers or people who always behave badly, you've got a pretty good family that you've created. I'm probably partial to David because the book is mostly in his close third point-of-view. I get to have him say a lot of things I believe––that women share too much personal information, that people hug too much., that men also think about aging and about how they look.I like it when he realizes some of the ways he was self-centered during the "before" part of his marriage. I enjoyed his bewilderment at being loved by two women.

Okay, now who is the character that is most like you? Why?

Even though I used to be a therapist, I relate more to Kate than Jane, but really only to the degree that we're both organized and like a well-run household. And we like to socialize. We're conversant in science. And use a lot of Post-it notes. But that's about it. I can't imagine myself making the offer that Kate makes to David and Jane. But as Kate says: People never know ahead of time how they'll handle something new.I relate most to David as he tries to balance his enjoyment of life with his innate pessimism. Or realism. Sometimes pessimists get a bad rap––when they're actually just realists."

Was there ever a time when you felt like giving up on The Half-Life of Everything?
The times when you don't know what is going to happen next are surprisingly frightening. It's tempting to procrastinate until great ideas come to you. Eventually, you learn to let the characters infiltrate your mind (and take notes when you can) and then sit down to a blank page and start writing (and using the delete key liberally). Sometimes you can compose usable sections in your mind. I wrote a fair amount when I should have been listening to the great classical music being performed ten rows away on the stage. But often you just have to sit down and write, even though you can't imagine it will be anything worthwhile.

What is your absolute favorite book, and how did it influence the process of writing of The Half-Life of Everything?

Favorite is just not a question I can answer. I can say that I recently loved Zadie Smith's, Swing Time. I'm in the middle of Eric Puchner's new collection of stories called Last Day on the Earth.These stories are stunning. You want to put the book in another reader's hand right away. While it's necessary to read a lot of good fiction from childhood on, if you want to write, I did attempt while writing this, to avoid reading people that I might unconsciously try to emulate. Plus, you don't usually have time to read novels while you're writing one. There was one exception: I did read the wonderful book, Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk, by Ben Fountain. I was avoiding writing physical descriptions of characters because I'd seen it done badly so many times. Awriter friend wanted me to see how Fountain did it. That was great advice.

Who is your favorite author and why? How have they influenced your writing?

I'd forgotten this story, but my husband reminded me recently that when we met many years ago, I apparently put an Anne Tyler book in his hands and virtually ordered him to read it. He was one of those people who didn't think fiction was real enough. I still don't remember doing this but it sounds plausible. Now he comes to me every few months for his next literary fiction assignment. He'll try anything that I recommend. The aforementioned Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk and Andy Mozina's Contrary Motionare two recent books that I've been most obnoxious about insisting people read. Occasionally I just mail a copy of a novel to someone if I feel certain that they'll enjoy it. People like getting gifts for no reason.

Do you have any special rituals when it comes to writing? Where did they come from?

Like many writers, I needed to write in the morning, though as the story became more compelling to me, I became more flexible about the time of day. I have to use a desktop computer so that anchors me to my home office. When I'm out, I've learned to put notes into my phone and email them to myself––because as we all know, if you don't write it down, it never existed. I have many 5x7 envelopes filled with notes for the novel. I can't imagine why I'm keeping them.

I have to ask: Did you ever consider an alternative ending to The Half-Life of Everything? Perhaps one where Kate relapses?

For me, the menace of her relapse is almost a character in the book and I thought it wasmore effective to maintain it as a threat. The story of three people trying to figure out happiness is the one that's most interesting to me.

In your opinion, what is the most emotional moment of The Half-Life of Everything?

The reunion when David visits Kate for the first time in some weeks always gets to me–that they could cry to the point of exhaustion and yet also find some humor in their situation seemed plausible for these two people. Readers tell me they cry at that scene. I know I have.

Is there a hero of The Half-Life of Everything? Who is it and why?

The way that Kate comes to understand her illness and recovery and the current life she's been handed is pivotal for me. I admire her self-esteem and self-confidence in knowing how she wanted to be loved and her determination that David not be forced into the role of the "good husband" martyr. I liked her willingness to stand up to her sons as well as to other people rather than return to a life that now felt false to her.

What did you learn from writing The Half-Life of Everything and how does this lesson appear in the novel?

My husband and I have small and not very close families, which of course makes other relationships so important. I've always understood the importance of friends, but writing this story helped me to consider some unconventional possibilities and depths to the word friendship. It's a lovely word when you think about it.

What about The Half-Life of Everything makes you proud? Is there a specific line, character, or scene you are most proud of?

The scenes between David and his friend, Ian, were a challenge because I was writing dialogue between two men whose private conversations are not witnessed by others who could help things along. I liked the challenge of creating Ian with a minimal of details and yet conveying his personality and humor and love for David. What was it like for David to have only one male friend who understood his pain and loss––and let him talk about it?

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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