Cara Wall Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Cara Wall
Photo: Ken Hamm

Cara Wall

An interview with Cara Wall

Author Cara Wall discusses the research and writing process behind her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Dearly Beloved, describing how she brought New York City in the 1960s to life on the page.

Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, The Dearly Beloved. You've told us that you started this novel when your daughter was born, and she's now fourteen years old. What was it like to work on this project for almost fifteen years? What, if any, challenges did that pose? What opportunities did it present?

I didn't work on the book continuously for fifteen years! I worked off and on, in between long stretches where I put my energy into teaching and parenting—sometimes because I wanted to, and sometimes because it was absolutely necessary for me to earn a living or be fully present for my daughter. Often, I felt quite a bit of shame about not writing faster, or not having enough discipline to write for three hours a day, every day, as we were told was the key to success at Iowa. There were many people in my life who had no idea I was writing a book because, at some point, I completely stopped talking about it—I decided that if I wasn't actually, physically writing, I couldn't call myself a writer.

It's always agonizingly difficult for me to sit down, open a notebook to a blank page, and put pen to paper. Something about that moment terrifies me. I can spend days wandering around the house doing all the chores I hate most, just to avoid writing. It really is just one moment, but I'm as afraid of it as I would be of jumping out of an airplane. It's ridiculous, because as soon as I start writing, I feel glorious. I love the shape and feel of words on the page, the rhythms they make, the emotions they can elicit. I love the feeling I get when I finally crack the code of a scene or a paragraph—when I reread it and know I've managed to express exactly what I wanted to say.

A friend of mine helped me reframe why it took so long to finish this book. Soon after she enrolled in her first personal essay writing class, she met me for lunch and said, "How do you keep your real life running at all while you are writing? It stirs so much up in me that I can't concentrate on anything else—I just realized I haven't taken my kid to get his braces tightened for eight months!" I let go of all my guilt at that moment, because she was right—writing is a fully immersive experience. To write well, you have to feel what your characters are feeling, which makes you much too sensitive to small angers and everyday annoyances. For me, trying to write and parent and teach all at once was simply too overwhelming.

The turning point came when my daughter was old enough to go to summer camp, because that gave me long stretches every summer to do nothing but write. The first summer, I reread everything I had—every scrap of paper and random margin note—and put them in an order that resembled a story. Then I sent it to a few people to read and told them they had a year to get back to me. The next summer, I read their comments and dove back in, turning a 140-page manuscript into a 360-page one. The next summer, I poked at it like a dentist, looking for soft spots and rough edges ... and so on and so on.

One benefit to the process was that I could read with really fresh eyes every year, and it was easy to tell what stood the test of time and what didn't. If I got goose bumps while I was reading, I kept that part in. If a passage felt like a deflated balloon, I got rid of it or figured out how to make it float again. Another gift was that I got to know these characters over time as one gets to know best friends. They lived in me patiently, and the more life experiences I encountered, the more I learned about each character—almost as if I was evaluating my real life through their eyes as well as my own point of view. I feel very enriched for having lived with Charles and Lily and James and Nan for so long—they have made me much wiser and more compassionate than I would have been without them.

Your parents moved to Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and you still live in New York City today. In fact, you've said that much of The Dearly Beloved was written in coffee shops in the city! What was it like to write about the city where you live, especially as it has undergone so many changes over the time that you've lived there?

I love New York so much. I left it for long stretches to live in London, San Francisco, and Iowa, and while each have their own elegance and breathtaking beauty, none of them has the energy and possibility of New York. New York is a place where the best of everything—museums, theater, restaurants—rubs up against the worst of everything—crime, poverty, injustice, pollution. You can't float around in a bubble in New York; you're always challenged to notice, engage, take risks, be better, and do more. Every time we walk through Washington Square Park, I make my daughter stop and look at what's going on—banjo players, free tango lessons, a girl riding a unicycle, the guy talking to the flock of pigeons on his head, the woman talking to the flock of crocheted pigeons she made herself. Where else in the world can you find this many people doing crazy things without anyone batting an eye?

The Dearly Beloved is set in the New York my parents encountered when they moved here in 1965. Greenwich Village really felt like a village then. Teachers, firefighters, NYU professors, cab drivers, and struggling artists could still afford rent in the neighborhood, and they all chose to live there because it felt free of the social constraints under which many of them had been raised. That's the New York Lily falls in love with—the one that is changing at light speed, inspiring everyone to be whoever they want to be. It was fun to write those passages, because Lily and I agree that New York is the most incredible place in the world.

Nan would have preferred to be on the Upper East Side, where neighborhoods were quieter and more restrained, but I knew James would have gone insane living uptown—that seemingly unresolvable issue actually inspired the idea of the manse. Who knew a small cramped house could be a plot point? Nan's desperation for a home was one of the struggles that helped me understand her, to recognize what depth and wisdom she would bring to the book, and to see how she and Lily would be each other's foils. That's why I gave Lily her own, entirely different house—a quintessentially Greenwich Village brownstone, which gave me the chance to describe another pocket of domestic life in New York.

New York has changed exponentially in my lifetime. In the seventies, Greenwich Village was full of white roller skates with rainbow laces and the exuberance of disco clubs, but it was also financially broke and falling apart. Over the summer of 1976, my parents got letter after letter from my school, P.S. 3, saying the administration was cutting art, then music, then recess. I was mugged twice before I was nine. I was once standing on a street corner with my friend Laurie when a man walked by us, picked her up, and carried her off down the block. She bit him, he let her go, and we went to school like nothing happened. I still can't believe the Meatpacking District in now a shopping mecca—it was a literal meatpacking district even well after I graduated from college, with sawdust and blood in every gutter. And I'm always awed by how beautiful the Hudson River Promenade is—it used to be a derelict place I was never allowed to go.

So, much of the change in New York has been for the better, but for the past decade, the city has been losing much of its charm. In 2008, a small clause in a big federal housing bill made it legal for residential buildings to charge as much as they want for their ground-floor retail spaces. So instead of the small stores that sold dollhouse furniture and sheet music, we have banks and coffee chains on every single corner. One of the losses that broke my heart was the closing of Dean and Deluca on the corner of 11th Street and University Place. I wrote almost all of The Dearly Beloved there. It felt like a Parisian café—it had high ceilings, marble floors, bentwood chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows. My parents and friends knew that was the best place to find me, so they would walk by and stop in for impromptu chats. I wish we could preserve more of those places.

That's why I'm so grateful this book gave me the chance to pay homage to the First Presbyterian Church. I worked incredibly hard on the descriptions of that building, trying to accurately capture its gravitas and warmth. It was a true icon of my childhood, the place that felt most like home to me, and I'm glad I was able to write about it while it's still standing, full of life and congregation, on a corner that hasn't changed in one hundred years.

In the prologue, Nan admits that she and Lily are complete opposites. Did these characters come to you fully formed, or did you purposefully make them foils of each other? Additionally, you've said that Lily's character was slightly more difficult for you to write. Why?

These four characters came to me fully formed. That's how all of my writing starts—characters knock on my door and wait patiently for me to tell their stories. There's a very long line in my waiting room at this point, since I was tied up with this book for so long.

I knew instantly that the women were very different from each other, but I didn't realize how acrid Lily's reaction to Nan would be. I couldn't understand it at first. I knew she would be cold and aloof to Nan—that's just who Lily is—but I was surprised by her anger. It took me a long while to understand that Nan's warmth triggered Lily's grief, that Lily deeply distrusted affection and that she never, ever wanted to be the subject of anyone's pity. To be fair to her, I don't think she ever meant to be so mean to Nan right at the beginning. I think she went into that Chinese dinner with the best of intentions. But she knew immediately that Nan wanted a friend, and that any attempt for them to become friends would end in disaster—and she was right.

Nan was easier to write because her life is simpler and more straightforward than Lily's. She has clear reactions to events, and she isn't guarded. She keeps secrets from other characters, but she doesn't keep secrets from herself—she understands her own mind and heart. That's the wisdom she has to offer the people around her. Lily is so intricately guarded—there are moats and iron spikes and huge locked doors between her and everyone else. Some readers really dislike her for that. But my overwhelming sensation of Lily, when I put myself in her skin, is that of pain. She has a constant, gnawing pain in the pit of her stomach, and she is always terrified that it will overwhelm her—that if she relaxes at all, she will have to feel the grief of her parent's deaths all over again. Her dismissiveness of others is self-preservation. That was hard to write, because it's complex.

The most challenging part was why she fell in love with Charles, why she decided to marry him, I had many, many conversations with Lily, directly, in my notebooks about that, and it came down to the idea that she trusted him, after all. Not that she would admit it—but she knew he was who he was. He jumped through hoops to prove that he could accept her aloofness, that he could acknowledge her pain without trying to heal it, that he could let her be the person she needed to be. Of course, over the years there were times when he couldn't accept all of those things, when he needed more from her, and that's when their marriage started to break down. But the interesting thing to me, about all lasting marriages—or any relationships, even friendships—is that by the time some bonds of trust break down others have been established, the way fishing nets are repaired every night, so that some ropes can break and yet the structure holds.

See? Complex. Lily didn't want to tell me all of that, but I had more than a decade to wear her down.

Entertainment Weekly calls The Dearly Beloved "the best book about faith in recent memory." Each of the four main characters—Charles, Lily, James, and Nan—have a very different type of faith: Charles's faith is academic and comforting; Lily rejects faith; James's is restless and oriented toward social justice; and Nan's faith is sweet and straightforward. What resources did you draw upon to so vividly describe what faith felt like to each character?

The exploration of faith has been one of the central pursuits of my life for more than twenty years. But I have never limited that exploration to one religion—I have read all sorts of spiritual works from writers across belief systems: the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, Byron Katie, Marianne Williamson, Eckhart Tolle, and many more. I believe there is so much about life that we don't yet understand, and I yearn to understand more about purpose and meaning and love. I am always searching for a deeper sense of peace and communion than I have at any given time.

I apportioned different aspects of my own faith, or lack thereof, to each character. Each of them holds a very personal aspect of my own existential angst. The sentence that describes Charles's first experience with faith, "He could not explain this new conclusion, except to say that when he put it away, it was agony, and when he brought it out, it was the most beautiful, deepest belief he'd ever known ..." is probably one of the truest sentences I've ever written about myself. When James expresses his frustration with religion as an esoteric pursuit, he is my conscience, reminding me to get out of books and into the physical world. Because I have never limited my spiritual life to Christianity, Nan's faith was somewhat harder to write than others. But not too hard, because I do often wish that I had a clear and certain faith—no equivocation, no doubt. Wouldn't that make life easier? I feel a little bit that way about Lily's atheism—that solid disbelief might be easier than constant wondering.

I think the aspect of faith—and no faith—that I gave to every character was a sense of longing. They all long for different things, but they all long for those things deeply. Sometimes, I think longing in its many forms is one of the aspects of the human experience that unites us all.

After the failed baby shower, Nan realizes that "soon all of these women [in her knitting circle] would be gone. All of the women ... who believed in baking and visiting, raising children, and long afternoons spent at home" (228). By contrast, Lily has a doctorate, teaches composition, and is paralyzed by the idea of stalling her career to raise children. "She wanted to keep teaching, to have summers off to read, to start a new school year and then another ..." (211). Do you think we've moved past the time where women have these concerns?

No way! I think the working mom/stay-at-home mom decision has remained very polarizing, unfortunately. I hate that women still worry about what others will think about their personal decision of work versus home life. Only a very small population in the US, approximately 18 percent, can afford to have one parent stay at home. So, for most of us the question is moot—we have to work outside the home to feed and clothe our children. Judging one another for choices that are often out of our control distracts us from the more important issues that are not being adequately addressed in our country: childcare, health care, and education. Oh boy, I could go on and on and on.

An important development in Part Three of The Dearly Beloved is Will's diagnosis. This leads to a search for any available information about his condition (of which there is little) and James learning about the practice of sending children with special needs away to homes. How did you learn what it was like for autistic children in the 1960s?

My parents had a friend whose youngest son was born in the sixties and was on the autism spectrum. His mother was a public school teacher, and she led the movement to integrate children with disabilities into New York City public schools. She founded a specialized public school for autistic children in First Presbyterian's church building—and it is still located there today.

Since I am very much like Charles, I didn't just lean on those facts to write about Will's life—I did a lot of research, including personal and family accounts of the homes to which children with disabilities were sent—including Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, which was finally closed in 1987. The institution that James and Marcus visit in The Dearly Beloved is luxurious compared to Willowbrook.

I actually moved the time line of diagnosis and education advocacy up in this novel. The word "autism" was first used in 1911, and Leo Kanner first used it to describe autism as a distinct syndrome in children in 1943. So the diagnostic word was in use in the 1960s, but many doctors still associated autism with schizophrenia and attributed its cause to "refrigerator mothers." Lily would absolutely have been suspected as the root of her son's condition. I found that idea deeply poignant—by the time Will is diagnosed, Lily has isolated herself from many people in her life, and is seen by many as cold and aloof, so the possibility cannot be rejected out of hand. For me, the scenes in the doctors' offices are some of the most meaningful in the book—it was hard to be present with Charles and Lily in those moments, feeling their beliefs about themselves and each other change so abruptly, worrying that they might turn away from each other permanently. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when Lily made the decision to advocate for Will, to change the whole system for him, if necessary. I think she accepted her grief in that moment and moved on from it. In finding the determination to change Will's life, she let her old life go.

I wanted this book to end in a place of hope, so I made the assumption that because Lily and Charles lived in New York, they would have access to excellent doctors and cutting-edge research. The Lovaas method mentioned in the book was still being developed in the 1960s, so Will would have been among the first cohort of autistic children to be educated (and studied) by teachers like Annelise. Of course, it is Charles's and Lily's financial privilege that made this possible. Though dedicated educators and activists like Dorothea Dix had been advocating for the rights of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities since the 1800s, children with any kind of disability were excluded from public schools until the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975.

I am not an expert in autism, and I know that I have merely scratched the surface of the experience of autistic children and their parents. A short personal account of the history of the education of children with disabilities can be found here: http://theconversation.com/how-children-with-disabilities-came-to-be-accepted-in-public-schools-50820. And a short overview of the historical diagnosis of autism can be found here: https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/evolution-autism-diagnosis-explained/. These are by no means exhaustive, but they are accessible entry points to further research, if you are interested.

Often, religion is categorized as a taboo topic and something that isn't appropriate to talk about, even with those we're close to. Why do you think this is? Do you feel comfortable talking about religion with your friends and family? Do you think there's a benefit to talking more openly about religion and spiritual experiences? What conversations—spiritual or otherwise—would you hope readers have after reading The Dearly Beloved?

I had an interesting experience in church just a few months ago. My daughter is a chorister in the Grace Church Choir, which has a very strong community of choir moms. Over the years, I have become close to many of those women—but as I sat in church that day, I realized I had never talked to a single one of them about their faith. I had no idea if they believed in God, if they prayed at home, if they shared their faith with their partners. I could guess which families were there primarily to support their children, rather than worship, but I really didn't know for sure. Isn't that strange?

In the months leading up to The Dearly Beloved's publication, I had the chance to talk to many editors, librarians, and booksellers, and I had the privilege to hear what I call people's "origin faith stories." I learned about their childhood churches, their minister uncles, their skeptical parents, and even then we hardly ever delved into what each of us believed personally.

It's hard for me to talk to other people about religion because my beliefs are sort of a hodgepodge. I believe in a universal energy that connects all of us to one another and to something larger than all of us, something so large that it can't possibly be contained in the tenets of just one religion. But I do believe that religion, in its kind and inclusive forms, gives us language to express the emotions we have for the ineffable universal force and traditions that help us connect to the deeper parts of ourselves and others. As I promoted the book, prepublication, I challenged myself to find a straightforward explanation of my own religious life that would make others feel comfortable sharing their beliefs with me, if they wanted to. It feels true, at this moment in my life, to say that my personal religion is centered in the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness, which I choose to express in the prayer: May all beings be peaceful, may all beings be happy, may all beings be safe, may all beings awaken to the light of their true nature, may all beings be free. That concrete statement has paved the way for fascinating discussions of religion with many friends and strangers—all of which have enriched my understanding of others and myself.

So, yes, I think there is a huge benefit to talking about religion with friends and family. But it's delicate. Many of us have great differences of opinion with our friends and family. Many of us have been excluded or abused by our religious community. Many of us embrace some aspects of religious experience and strongly reject others. So the conversation is hardly ever as simple as "I believe in God, do you?"

For those who want to wade into these waters, I've found that a good first question is, "Did you have a religious upbringing?" That allows people to say as much or as little as they'd like to about the subject. I've had people answer it with Nope; Yes, but I don't like to talk about it; and Oh, wait until you hear this! I've walked away from all of those answers feeling like I know something important about the person with whom I've been talking. And, without fail, once a person knows I'm willing to talk about religion, they seek me out to talk about it more.

Are you working on anything now? And, if so, can you tell us about it?

I am working on something new! It's a book about a painting and the people who want to excavate its history. It's another multicharacter saga that spans decades and continents and explores the way that the lost things of the world are found.

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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