An Interview with Gwendolen Gross, author of When She Was Gone
Mary: Full disclosure: my husband and I are avid watchers of shows about missing people. We watch every episode of A&E’s First 48: Missing and ID’s Disappeared. There’s something in both of us that believes (unbelievably!) that we can get involved in the show and figure out what happened. We feel this way at the beginning of every show. Missing cases really bother us and we think about them long after we watch the episodes. I’m fascinated by the “turn” in any mystery, the clue that works like a click-clack to unravel the whole story. I’m also fascinated by how different law enforcement agencies handle missing cases. Many we’ve seen refuse to even assist friends and family until 48 hours have passed. The more progressive agencies realize that the “first 48” is the most crucial period of time for any case. It’s difficult to watch the toll these cases take on loved ones. It’s such a harrowing, frustrating and mysterious situation, truly life suspended. What inspired you to write a story about a missing girl and the effect she had on her community?
Gwendolen: It’s odd—I don’t think I’m focused on the idea of missing people at all, but then it keeps returning in my books. In my first novel, Professor Goode goes missing and of course in this book Linsey’s disappearance is the keystone to the whole fallen arch. But for me the idea that everything and everyone fits into place in a community—that we can’t bear the idea or reality of a pulled-out stone, while we don’t necessarily pay attention to the individual people themselves or know all that much about them—is what drove the book. I am a very character-driven writer and love the idea that you get to know character in a way you never can when you are just a person living in the world. When you invent the people of a world—even if you base the people on real people, you are allowed to imagine more depth (or less!) and more motivation, and all the secrets and strangenesses and losses and desires that drive each walk down the path to collect the paper in the morning (when we used to collect newspapers).
Mary: Over the first day or two of the novel, you introduce the characters in the neighborhood and none of them know immediately that someone they know is missing; they’re all floating in a kind of innocence, a luxury of their own obsessions and life-arranging, a kind of borrowed time. Can you talk about working on this section of the story and how you felt as you were in this space as a writer, knowing your characters are going to get hit by a new reality soon?
Gwendolen: What an interesting observation, Mary. In some ways it was the most expansive time for the characters—I was able to explore who each was in regards to the world of the book. But at the same time, what you read it only a part of what I explored; each character had a lot more background, a lot more story, and I tried to winnow it down to what I thought mattered, what shaped the story of the neighborhood. Sometimes, though, I like to tell the story slant, not looking directly into the sun. It’s boring to give the reader a straight shot; the details should build on each other not simply color by numbers.
Mary: The missing girl’s mother, Abigail, is a character of possibilities; she’s in a life transition stage, considering going back to work. How did you create her life around a missing story? Did you start the book with her character or any particular character?
Gwendolen: I started the book not with Linsey in mind but with Mr. Leonard. In fact, the first few pages were the first few pages I wrote with very few changes (which is not to say there weren’t myriad changes in the rest of the book; I am a revisionist!). Mr. Leonard is a lynchpin for everything we want to say, everything we regret and wish and do say. He’s a strange voice and a loud one and a silenced one all at the same time. And then there’s Geo who is an unfiltered voice. He knows what not to say in some contexts like school, but he doesn’t filter himself in the rest of the world. He’s a very innocent soul.
Mary: The missing girl’s babysitter, Reeva, feels like the sexual vortex of the book. The complication to this is that she’s an aging woman and her lover is a young man. Reeva’s a vortex in other ways: she’s very conflicted about her sexuality, her family, her marriage, her standing in the neighborhood, her image of perfection. She’s very unsettled. She seems moved by outside factors more than her inner will. In the book she seems unconsciously pulled into a friendship with Abigal. Both characters are “in trouble.” It reminds me of the opposite types of mothers in your book The Other Mother. What inspires you to connect women characters together who are such opposing archetypes?
Gwendolen: Sometimes I wonder “how could she do that to herself?” when I hear about things women (or men, for that matter) do to garner attention. It’s not that I think women are pathetic for wanting love, for wanting to be important, sexual, powerful, etc.; it’s that I’m surprised when it seems to be a sub-current, something that has to be under the skin instead of on the surface. But then I realize that our culture, the upper middle class culture that is, is so fraught with wants, beyond needs, that we get confused about who we are. Generally, I’m not all that interested in gossip which might seem odd, given that I write about invented people and their invented emergencies but I think fiction is a chance to explore what really matters. If what really matters is exorcised—or exercised—in the realm of ordinary mistakes, well, at least I can make the details interesting.
Mary: My absolute favorite character was the 11-year old Geo. I loved being in his world; it was so creative. I loved all the details of his yard and room. How do you approach bringing a character (or setting) alive with their particular details?
Gwendolen: Geo is one of those characters who drives a book all by himself. I have pages and pages of Geo that didn’t make it into the book. I just started writing him and he was very real. In some ways he came directly from me, even though he’s male, black of white parents, and far younger than I am. Still, some of his observations, some of the way he sees the world, come from what I can’t forget about being a child. I think writers are always observing, always looking. We’re not spies exactly but we want to know the insides of things—the way children do. I also feel parental toward him; he is innocent in the best of ways, and yet he is also driven by his own need to be understood.
Mary: Since we move a lot, I think often about neighbors and new neighborhoods. How I connect or fail to connect with them. In both When She Was Gone and The Other Mother, I felt you were doing an interesting study on neighbors. In When She Was Gone, this extended to the relationships between neighbors in an entire neighborhood. Would you say this is one of your themes? Does this come from experiences of being a neighbor yourself?
Gwendolen: Like you, I used to move a lot. I counted it up once and I think until my thirties I’d moved on average at least every eighteen months. But now I’ve lived in the same house, with my husband and two kids who were born in this town and into this house, for fifteen years. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere and I can feel both taproots and the thick water-seekers dug deep into New Jersey soil. I have close friendships with some of my neighbors and some I hardly know, and yet in an emergency I know we’d help each other. Still, there are always things you don’t know about your neighbors—everyone has their sorrows and their joys and their long backstories with both of those histories like long bones under the skin, and they live behind the walls of the houses and you hardly ever hear the stories. Sometimes you do, but then you become friends not just neighbors. Sometimes it takes the emergencies to make the friendships.
Mary: The neighbors all have an interesting paradox about them: they’re all voyeurs and they all have their own secrets to some extent, or they suffer being voyeurs of their neighbors but never want to get involved (Mr. Leonard, some of the parents), or they’re voyeurs and want to get involved but feel excluded (Geo), or they’re in need of help from neighbors but do not want their privacy invaded (Abigail). Almost every neighbor has a secret, many relating to the missing girl. But they don’t want to or feel uncomfortable with disclosing their secrets. This seems to be a modern dilemma in neighborhoods: how close or private should we be? We’re a lot more transient now and so neighborhoods are in a state of flux; we are over-worked and over-played so we don’t have much time for making new friends; we’re less trusting of others (we might run into one of those weird neighbors like we see on TV). Do you feel these struggles as a neighbor yourself and how do you deal with them?
Gwendolen: That is a beautifully written question, and I think I’m just going to leave it at that. Yes, perhaps. And by sticking the landing. Oh, and making cookies when new people move in or when there are storms.
Mary: The novel recaps an earlier neighborhood tragedy and we learn, “It was strangely political, all these personal and private tortures.” Modern life also seems much more politically polarizing than I remember it being in the 1970s and 1980s. Is this something that keeps neighbors at bay with each other? I thought the characterization you brought out of the vigil for the missing girl was fascinating—far from comforting the family, we see the vigil’s selfishness and narcissism. This made me see vigils in a new way. Again, this seems to be a problem of modern life & narcissism: internalizing an external tragedy. Why did you decide to depict the vigil this way and do you get material from any news events?
Gwendolen: I loved writing about the vigil, wearing my Hat of Irony and Sorrow. There have been plenty of political and personal tragedies in my town, and yours no doubt. There have been acts of kindness and acts of narcissism surrounding them and sometimes both wrapped around each other like the flavors in a candy cane. It’s complicated how we internalize external tragedy, just as you said. Sometimes I grit my teeth when my kids are asked to wear a particular color to school and bring a dollar to benefit something—because they don’t understand it or because they do, because the dollar doesn’t mean anything, or because it won’t help anyone, or if it does, because it might not ever get there. I’m not saying the organized mourning doesn’t help people and the organized benefits most certainly do, but there is a whole lot of other material in the way. It’s like trying to get a vaccination through sixteen layers of wool and a folded blanket. You’re not sure you make it through to the skin let alone muscle.
I loved writing about the pies, about the complication between intent and, as you said, narcissism. I have a preteen and a teenager and we talk often about how people are both always thinking about themselves and yet they might think of you kindly or only in reference to themselves but not unkindly, and how complicated all of that might be. Ultimately, sometimes a pie is only a pie and you just have to say thank you.
Mary: I enjoyed Mr. Leonard’s back story. His mother dies at Tanglewood amphitheater. I saw my first Tom Jones concert there! Do you have many memories there?
Gwendolen: I have one grand Tanglewood memory—I’m so glad you asked! In elementary school and junior high I was part of a youth chorus—Youth Pro Musica (in high school my voice grew too operatic and I started voice lessons—which led to conservatory along with college, all part of Mr. Leonard’s voice, in a way). It was an extraordinary experience; we sang poems written by children in concentration camps, we sang such a range of music. I began to internalize both the music and the words that I carry with me—the rhythm of language. Anyway, one summer we went to Tanglewood along with several other choirs, Boston Boy’s Choir, a chorus from Lynn, Massachusetts, (I made a friend there who was deeply in love with the Pope), and we sang in Mahler’s 8th Symphony with the Boston Symphony conducted by Seiji Ozawa. What a feast! It was like being on the best, biggest team ever. And when he gave us notes, he gave them to all of us. I have always sought out that sense of belonging to something magical since—I’ve found it in being in the San Diego Opera and sometimes with a chorus here in New Jersey. But something about spilling out so much collective music across the lawns into the open ears of picnickers was pure and exceptional and had to find its way (always: slant) into a novel. I am very, very sorry for Mr. Leonard’s mother, though.
Mary: There was a lot of emotional anxiety in the book generated from having someone missing in some kind of way. Reeva deals with her son growing up and not needing her as much. She deals with separation anxiety when she breaks off with her lover. I thought the emotional trajectory Abigail goes through, the initial shock and aftermath of having a missing child, was compelling. Even the ex-boyfriend deals with teen emotions of separation just from his breakup with the missing girl. How did you assemble the more emotional aspects of what your characters were going through?
Gwendolen: I think most of us carry around some core truths—some fears, fear of being abandoned for example, or knowing there’s always the one parent you can trust, or whatever it is for you—that resonate whenever you read that in a story, be it fiction or the newspaper. I think fiction writers often tread the same ground in different shoes. I wrote each character at a different time, feeling through his or her story, his or her emergencies. For me it usually comes back to the sensory—the smells and the textures of what’s there and what’s missing—the e. e. cumming’s feeling is first.
Mary: Characters also struggle with their faith in the idea of fate. They all seem nervous about the future, unsure how it will all go. Except for Geo, who is the only one who seems comfortable inside his own skin, the only one who seems legitimately interested in those around him. Do you see Geo as a kind of heroic or moral center of the book? Or is there such a character for you in the book? How do you feel about your characters’ uncertainties about the future and the unknown?
Gwendolen: I think what happens is that Geo reflects the way I see the world more than any of the other characters—or at least the way I wish I could continue to see the world as an adult—and in that way he is sort of the gravitational center of the book, but not heroic or moral. I don’t think there’s anyone who is completely moral or heroic; even Geo has his own interests in mind, his own tunnel vision. I loved being able to do what I originally set out to do with this book; have each character walk around holding the frame of his or her point of view, allowing us to look with them and at them—not as directly as if they were first person narrators instead of third, but shifting from person to person—look! See what she sees? Look! Hear what he hears? And, as I said before, each person is ultimately thinking their own story, their own worries and fears, even if the storylines tangle and knit.
Mary: Like many missing person’s cases, the clues in the novel allow for various outcomes. Did you ever consider, without giving it away, some other resolution for Linsey, the missing girl?
Gwendolen: Actually, I wrote at least three different endings like trying on hats. And one version actually had Linsey narrating. I needed to know why she was missing and even if that might not seem like the most important part of the book when you’re done, it is at the core of why I wrote it. I can’t say too much more without, as you said, giving it away! This was the right ending though for everyone.
Mary: How does a novel for you get started? Do you have the proverbial notebook of ideas? What does a spark of inspiration look like to you?
Gwendolen: Sometimes it looks like a note like is it possible for triplets to be two identical and one fraternal? Or can two white parents have a black baby? These little details are kernels that wear away to a pearl in my mind. But elements of craft also are crucial to the start for me too—in The Other Mother, right after my son was born, people asked, because they do obsessively, are you going back to work? I thought, yes I am and no I am not, of course. I am both working and a stay-at-home mom, that I needed to write two first person narrators, one working and one stay at home mom, both sides of the same story.
Mary: Do you use extensive notes and plans or do you use more material that comes from writing without a net?
Mary: Can you describe what a good ending feels like?
Gwendolen: Like good sex.
Mary: How do you approach a title?
Gwendolen: I don’t think any of my books stuck with the working title. Field Guide was Professor Good. The Orphan Sister was The Orphan Spoon. And When She Was Gone (the title came from my agent I believe, and I loved it right away—I’ve had brainstorming sessions with my agent and editor many times around—I think Orphan Sister came from my editor) was originally "Kissing Random Boys." Titles are always something editors and agents help finalize and I don’t mind; they’re good at making books ready for market.
Mary: How did you come up with idea to name chapters as house addresses? Do you feel this had an effect on the characters?
Gwendolen: The original idea for the book was what we see out our windows, each house peering out at the same neighborhood seeing a different view of the same actions—or inactions. I decided to use house numbers early on because while the characters themselves were important (and I did think of the chapters as “a Reeva chapter” and “a Geo chapter”), where they stood on the stage of my imaginary neighborhood mattered just as much.
Mary: Did you have any difficulties getting into the heads of such a wide variety of characters from young boys to teenage boys and girls to aging mothers?
Gwendolen: My agents recently asked me when I’m going to write a book from a child’s point of view. It surprised me because I used to write a lot from a child’s point of view, but she’d never mentioned it and I thought it was out of the blue; but of course, there was Geo and there was Toby. Sometimes when I am writing male characters I dream that I am male. It feels very natural to write different characters. In fact, the least natural character for me in this book was Reeva, but I wanted to write her to forgive her at least a little. (Oh no, aging mothers?!)
Mary: How do you decide which point of view will best serve your story? How did you come to use third person omniscient vs. first person?
Gwendolen: This is crucial and determines so much in a novel. We explore this a lot in workshops I teach. I think it’s one of the greatest freedoms and responsibilities for a novelist—because it determines how close you are to the story, how intimate your relationship with the reader. We’re more likely to be taken right in by a first-person narrator, but also to be bored by her. The great thing about writing is that you can write another one, or change the one you’re writing. But it’s a continuum—how close you’re standing to the storyteller and the story, what kind of lens you’re using.
Mary: Each chapter had quite the delectable cliffhanger at the end. Are these difficult to plan out? Is this a common structure for you to use?
Gwendolen: Thank you! While details and characters come easily, I have to work hard to make the plot pace suspenseful. I had the help of a terrific editor and agent on this book and it was always my goal to give each chapter that push to keep you reading. With multiple narrators, you do need something to keep you reading not only the next chapter but through to the next time you meet each character.
Mary: You have visually great websites for your novels. Do you work with your publisher to create websites for each book? Can you describe the process of how that comes together? Have you been able to connect with fans online with them?
Gwendolen: My webdesigner is a secret person who has nothing to do with my publisher and who has a very demanding day job, so he has to work on the websites at night and on the weekends and I bring him dinner and thank him profusely. It’s a hobby for him and a great delight for me. And yes! I’ve been very lucky and have heard from fans all over the world. Sometimes they send me hilarious or earnest notes or their own books or little gifts or wild questions. Someone wrote to me to tell me she was Clementine Lord—like my Orphan Sister, and I loved hearing from her as well.
From the Proust Questionnaire…
Mary: What is your favorite virtue?
Mary: What do you appreciate most in your friends?
Gwendolen: Kindness and humor.
Mary: Who is your favorite pop or rock singer (and why)?
Gwendolen: Paul Simon, because he’s a poet, and his commas mean as much as his words.
Mary: Who is your favorite fictional hero (and why)?
Gwendolen: Bilbo Baggins, because Dad read Tolkien to us when we were kids, and both those characters and sentences had a profound impact on my internal narrative.
Mary: How I wish to die (Proust answered “Improved—and loved.”):
Gwendolen: Not soon!
Mary: What are you working on now?
Gwendolen: I’m working on a novel about a composer, but since it’s summer I like to learn something new. I’ve been taking some online courses via MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses)—first I took a history of rock-and-roll course at University of Rochester, and now I’m tapping out rhythm and meter for a songwriting course at Berkelee College of Music. Originally, I was after a composition course. I went to Oberlin Conservatory, but it’s been quite a while so I wanted a refresher. The course I found doesn’t start until January so these other courses were something new and my mind always needs something new. I need beginner mind especially since I don’t move anymore (no boxing and unboxing! No reconfiguration of space! Sorry, Mary, I know you’re doing just that right now). Writing needs to feel new to me so I feel like I have something worth saying—if there’s no challenge in content, or in form, or in something, there’s little point to all that bloody effort. There are so many brilliant books, I don’t want to write unless I feel I have something to add. I remember working in an office, sitting in a production meeting, listening to the chattering and overlapping of voices, wondering if there was any reason we were all in the same room, if there was any reason all our bodies needed to be there at the same time. There might have been one important date to share in three hours of meeting, or maybe there were two concepts—either way, while art isn’t about efficiency, I do want to have a there there.
To Learn More About Gwendolen Gross
Mary: Where are the best online locations to purchase your two books?
Gwendolen: Amazon is always good—they do have the best prices. And of course if you’re not going to a local store in person, you can order from indiebound.org. All five of my books are available as ebooks via amazon or other venues—I love hearing that people are still reading them.
Mary: What is your preferred website?
Gwendolen: My beloved web designer has made a page for each book, and also updates www.gwendolengross.com. I also try to keep my Facebook author page updates with photos of adorable or odd animals reading my books—if I must advertise, this is my fun way to do it.