I received an advanced copy of Leaving Lucy Pear last spring and fell in love with this novel. Set in 1920s New England, Leaving Lucy Pear is the story of two women who are both mothers to the same unforgettable and indomitable girl, Lucy Pear. This was, hands-down, one of my favorite books this year and so I was so fortunate to host Anna Solomon at our bookstore this summer for an author event. Our conversation began that summer afternoon and then continued over email:
EL: Lucy Pear is so expansive in its themes – from motherhood to marriage, familial relationships, the effects of past choices, and seemingly at the core, shame and judgment kept secret. What was the first seed of inspiration for Lucy Pear?
AS: I grew up on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where Leaving Lucy Pear is set. Down below our house was a field with a few pear trees in it, and for a few years during my childhood, just when the pears were almost ripe, they would suddenly disappear—we would just wake up one morning and they’d be gone. My dad liked to joke about giraffes coming in the night, but he also had an idea about a family, one who must have needed those pears, for food, or to sell.
The mystery of that stayed with me. And then a few years ago I picked up this old history book called The Saga of Cape Ann, and in it was an anecdote about a wealthy Boston woman who was summering on Cape Ann. She was suffering from a “nervous ailment,” and there was this new whistle buoy in the water that was driving her crazy. So this woman used her connections with the Secretary of the Navy to get the buoy taken out.
The following year, it was reported, she had gotten married, was feeling much better, and allowed the buoy to be put back in the water. A lot of things about this scenario compelled me: the nervous ailment, the suggestion that getting married fixed it (ha?!), but also, on a plot level, this whistle buoy. What if, during the time the whistle buoy was out of the water, there was a consequence? A disaster? One that this woman would be responsible for?
This got my wheels churning, and somehow in my mind it met up with the pear trees—along with an alcoholic drink called perry, which I was introduced to a long time ago in England—and Lucy Pear’s story began to take root.
EL: You did such an amazing job fleshing out both Bea and Emma and their motivations. These two characters have such seemingly disparate lives to start that the way they intertwine, first through Lucy and then later through a remarkable sequence of events that link them again — I can’t help but wonder, which character came first, Bea or Emma? Or was it Lucy?
AS: I think it was Bea, though it’s hard to know for sure. I mean, certain parts of the writing process I remember very precisely, but most of it I lose track of—probably because it’s so hard! It’s like giving birth; you have to forget if you’re ever going to do it again. But I do believe it was Bea who came to me first, inspired by that woman with the “nervous disorder.” I knew she was very bright, and sensitive, and also troubled. The trick was figuring out her troubles.
EL: Leaving Lucy Pear is so lyrical and expansive – the story spins and weaves, flows and builds in such a beautiful and coherent way, what is your writing process? Do you tend to write linearly – from beginning to end – or do you hop around within the story a bit once you have built a strong outline?
AS: I write linearly. I always tell myself I’ll hop around—that sounds fun, at least in theory—but it turns out I like to work from beginning to end. I take a lot of notes, of course, on future scenes, and often I’ll note down some dialogue or another bit of description that I think I want to include later on. And of course some scenes get moved around, in revision. But for the most part, when it comes to fully fleshed scenes, I start at the beginning and end at the end.
EL: Were you ever surprised where the story took you?
AS: I was surprised on every page, but the surprises were pretty quiet. The big plot points didn’t change, but the relationships did. The relationship between Lucy Pear and her adoptive father, Roland, for instance, and the one between Bea and her gay husband, Albert—once I had written into the book it became clear that those dynamics were far more complex than I had at first understood them to be, and so I had to adjust to that, and adapt the story, so that it would be true to those characters. I also didn’t know, when I started writing, what role the public history of that summer (specifically Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, and the surrounding strikes and protests) would play in the story. That developed as I wrote, and rewrote.
EL: One of the characters that most surprisingly shifted for me was Bea’s mother, Lillian, who at the beginning of the story, I saw her as the villain with a capital V (along with Roland) – a super simplistic impression – but as the story continues you give her such nuance and understanding that my first impression really lifted and allowed a change in how I perceived her, a softening of sorts. Would you mind speaking a bit about Lillian and how you saw her, how she evolved as character?
AS: Lillian may be my favorite character. She definitely changed for me, as I wrote. She was based loosely on my maternal grandmother, or at least on my ideas about my maternal grandmother (I was only three when she died), and most of what I knew was that she was a terrible mother. But as I wrote her, and then as I began to explore her point-of-view (much of which didn’t actually go into the finished book), I came to understand her, and really feel for her. All the awful things she did and said made sense to me then. I felt great empathy for her, and I wanted my readers to feel that, too, even though they could also see that she was a terrible mother. This is one of the essential beauties of fiction, I think: to provoke empathy.
EL: I am always so curious by what authors read. What are you reading right now? Which books are you most excited to read in the next few months? Is there one book that you find yourself turning to again and again for inspiration?
AS: At this particular moment I’m reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. It’s a graphic memoir, and it’s brilliant and hilarious and so sad, too. I think everyone in the world has already read it, but not me! I’ve also been reading The Book of Esther, by Emily Barton, and loving that. I’m excited to read the new Emma Donoghue book, The Wonder, and The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. There are many authors I return to again and again. Alice Munro is one of those. John Cheever. James Baldwin. Grace Paley. Right now I’ve been rereading The Hours by Michael Cunningham for probably the tenth time.
EL: Would you be willing to offer a sneak peak of your next project?
AS: Okay, but there are no guarantees here. The new novel is actually why I’ve been rereading The Hours, for structural help. I’m writing about a woman in ancient Persia who is writing the biblical Book of Esther, and another woman in 1970s Washington D.C. who’s being banished (like the first queen in the Book of Esther), and another woman in contemporary Brooklyn who is the second wife, like Esther herself. The Hours is helping me (maybe?!) figure out how to make the braid between the three stories as clear and tight as can be.