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Author Podcast: Sara Lewis

abstract:

BookBuffet interviews Sara Lewis, author of The Best of Good, is a story of Tom Good, a talented musician struggling with depression and losing his grip on life, who upon discovering that a decade old romance produced a son he never knew existed, becomes motivated to transform himself into a person his son will want to love. Sara writes like a female Nick Hornby.

article:

January 15, 2004
Sara Lewis lives in San Diego and likes to set her novels there. The Best of Good is her fifth and finest work. When her first novel was optioned for a movie, Sara had high hopes. As a former aspiring actor turned writer, the opportunity seemed like the realization of a dream. But as projects often go in Hollywood, that one didn't transpire, and so she has been working and writing and developing her craft, using pieces and elements from her own life experiences as resonating source material for modern domestic drama.  

Having worked and lived among musicians in New York city she understands the creative imperative and identity wrapped up in the expression of their craft. Tom's story of loss and grief has become a shroud and his music can be used as an isolationist crutch or becomes the channel to re-connect to the world, a place beyond self and ambition.

Interview

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Writing from the male perspective

BB: I really enjoyed The Best of Good, Sara. This is your sixth book. Your first is a series of short stories and the rest are novels, but this is the first work narrated by a male in the voice of Tom Good. I wonder how you deal with that, writing in a male voice?

 

SL: Well, this was my first experience with that, and it was something that just came to me and that I wanted to try. Often the characters—for non-writers this is probably a little difficult to understand, but you’ve probably heard from other authors—the characters seem to come to you, as if you have no choice in the matter. They sort of move in and make themselves at home and it’s your job to sort of go with them. So it was Tom Good who moved in as my next character and I was apprehensive about doing a male character. But not completely because I think writing fiction is sort of like acting. You’re kind of taking on the character in your head. You’re thinking like the character and everything is sort of filtered through that character’s eyes. So it wasn’t that hard.

 

BB: So it wasn’t as difficult as one would think.

 

SL: No, and I think people do make a big deal when a main character is the opposite sex of the author. But it’s not that different from adopting the personae of an old character or a very young character—somebody who is different from you in some other way.

 

BB: But do you have to base it on somebody? Your characterizations are very good. You depict elderly people so well. In this novel Jeanette’s [an elderly neighbor] perspective on life and interactions with the people around her are very believable, and very touching actually.

 

SL: Well thank you. 

 

BB: I remember reading a paper on how they devised a computer program to determine the sexual orientation of an author, which is reported to have 80% success rate of proving that men and women speak differently. Men use determinates such as “it,” “as,” and “the” while women use personal pronouns such as “I” and “me”. As I was reading your book, I was thinking about that paper, but I also did get the feeling of a male voice from Tom because of his perspective and actions.

 

SL: So you felt that was he was convincing as a male voice, well that’s good!  Maybe I should have read that paper that you’re talking about!

 

[Both laugh]

 

I don’t really know how I take on a character. But as you’ll probably know from looking at my website, I originally wanted to be an actor. And it’s really the same process. You get into this other state of mind that seems to be another person; you walk like them, you talk like them, you think like them. And that is what happens in novels as well as acting. Well, it doesn’t just “happen” because it takes a really long time to write a book, but I think that it is a matter of taking on this other personae as you’re writing—you’re kind of in an altered state. When you see actors doing improv they might have a whole other walk, other gestures, etc.

 

A book about transformation:Discovering the biologic imperative

BB: It’s as though a transformation occurs, and that is actually the word that I want to use for this book, because I found that there is a transformation occurring in several of the characters. The introduction I have used for The Best of Good on the website describes the book as having “pull yourself up by the bootstraps kind of charm,” which makes it a good book for the New Year. Tom has been living in this funk for years and everyone around him seems to grasp his arrested state of development, and have almost given up hope that he can change. Then his sudden realization that he is a father to a boy of ten allows him to achieve that which has eluded him all along—and he is able to change.

 

SL: Discovering that he has a child is one of the things that act as a catalyst to his change. But I think that a series of events start the process in motion. There are a number of other events that help that process along.

 

BB: I find the character, Tom, very interesting and when I try to visualize him I get this mental picture of a combination between John Cusack in High Fidelity (Nick Hornby) and Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman). There’s the ongoing references to music with songs having specific meaning and evoking emotions in Tom, and then there’s the neurotic behavior and inability to cope publicly which Nicolas Cage’s character displays. That [neurosis] comes out so well in Tom; his anxiety attacks and the profuse sweating, you can almost feel it dripping off the steering wheel in that scene in the car! Your honors degree in psychology is put to use very well in your books.

 

SL: Well I’m really interested in the psychology of my characters and of people in general. It’s really fascinating to me how particular life experiences can manifest themselves into the unique, quirky ways that we each develop. In Tom, it is particularly extreme, he doesn’t like change of any kind, but I think we can all relate to that. We’re kind of all in a little rut. We really don’t want anything to upset that. 

 

Lately, the supermarket strike [here in Southern California] has so bothered me and [the fact] that I can’t go to VONS, my normal store, see my normal checkers, get my normal stuff…  I think we all really have that tendency to sort of dig in and find ourselves that cozy little rut.

 

BB: Yes, we fear change! But it’s interesting that Tom isn’t the only person in The Best of Good who makes the transformation, his sister Ellen also goes through a change. She is the older sibling, first born and accustomed to forging ahead. She’s a successful lawyer and a very independent, responsible person. But her life is not fulfilling and through witnessing Tom’s change, [she] is inspired to pick up her interests and find fulfillment; as opposed to just making a life she wants to live it.

 

SL: The thing that I like about Ellen is that she gives Tom this advice and then she suddenly realizes—hey, that works for me too!  I’ve had that experience myself; realizing something as you say it yourself. So she changes. All the main characters in the book change. This is [a quality] in all of my novels; I require my characters to undergo some sort of transformation as a result of things that happen in the book. 

Music and acting and writing serving as muse and a source of identity:

BB: I like that the plot is not always straightforward and this keeps it realistic. Tom’s relationships with his newfound son, Jack, and the mother, Diana, are difficult. He is really more aligned emotionally—and by his interests as well—to Mike, the little boy in the apartment above him, whom he is obviously going to have a fatherly relationship with. But the fact that his biological son Jack has no interest or affinity to music and has quite different views and so on, is something that occurs in life. And I thought that was a good point.

 

SL: I think we assume that our offspring are going to be carbon copies. Often in fiction and art, movies, and so on, they are that.  But that’s not realistic to expect. I think that it’s much more realistic to have parents and children who don’t overlap in their interests, they may overlap a little in some areas.

BB: You mention on your website that you spent some time during your aspiring acting career period employed in a New York city music club and I’m thinking that you have a good take on the musician’s life.

 

SL:  I have a lot of knowledge of that. I worked at The Bottom Line [a famous night club] in New York for three years and I’m a big music fan. I have known a lot of musicians and performers. So, yes, I do have quite a bit of knowledge of the musician’s life and just a perpetual fascination for it. I’m a big music fan. So that’s been something consistent through my life since I was a kid. And I think, well, recently I was having a conversation over dinner with my daughter and I mentioned to her—this is one of those moments where you think about something after you say it.  And I said to her that the Beatles were at least as important an influence on my life as my parents. 

 

BB: Really!

 

SL: And my daughter, who is fifteen, just nodded knowingly because music is just as important to her too—pop music. I think that pop music has the potential to shape us, to even change us in ways that we don’t necessarily acknowledge.  And other parts of our culture probably do the same thing for other people: movies, books, etc.

 

BB: Yes I think it’s true that you can identify somebody’s character and personality to some extent through what they love. 

 

SL: Well, that’s the real Nick Hornby thing [in his novel High Fidelity], classifying people by their music. But I think that for people who find music this important in their life it’s much more that just a soundtrack to their life. It kind of determines directions you go and the way that you think. All those important things that indicate for other people their parental values.

 

BB: Tom uses music as his security blanket, whenever he’s upset he retreats into his room with his music and guitar. But it’s also the thing that pulls him out of his funk when he gets his next hit, which he turns over to the band.

 

SL: Yes, and even before that, his literal “coming out of the closet” is set into motion by his relationship to Mike, which is the first time that he actually plays his music for another person, and this takes place outside of the house in the back yard. Which is the first time he’s been outside playing for a long, long time. So he is gradually taking these baby steps out of this really confined space that he has created for himself. 

 

BB: And everyone around him responds to this—from Ellen to Robyn to the kids. 

 

SL: So it’s kind of that domino effect, or when you think of the environment; just changing one little element, changes everything around it. So I think that’s what you see in the book—just moving one thing from one place to another, like Tom playing his guitar outside of his closet becomes [the catalyst for everything else].

The thing about San Diego:

BB: You live in San Diego [California] and there are references in your book about “New Age Affirmation Institutes” in contrast with the computer, infotech, and biotech industries. It’s kind of interesting to compare and contrast the different influences that are around you in your own environment and how they come through in your books.

 

[Authors post script note: "New Age Affirmation Institutes,"  this is actually a reference to a fictional school that appears in a couple of my other books. It's called “The Institute of Affirmation”, and it's the central location of The Answer Is Yes.]

 

SL: Well there’s a lot of computers and biotech. It’s much more that than anything else. But there is a strong arts community here. There are a lot of plays, a lot of music; it’s culturally diverse. So, I purposely have set my last several books in San Diego, partly because I live here, and it’s easy to get details right. But also, I don’t think there’s a lot of San Diego fiction. There’s a lot of fiction set in New York city, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, but San Diego is kind of uncharted territory, so I’ve kind of taken it on as my own.

Connecting to book groups

BB: You mention that you are available to book groups to either come participate in their discussions or perhaps online, teleconferencing, and so forth. What has the response been to that?

 

SL: Well I’ve done a lot of book groups, especially in the San Diego area, but other places too. And I just love going to book groups, it’s the greatest thing. As opposed to doing a signing in a bookstore, you have a whole group of people who have already read the book and can discuss it on a completely different level. And I think book groups are just the greatest things. So I’ve done a lot of book groups in this area and when they’re located further afield I’ve [used] speaker phone. You may have seen photos of these groups on my website. 

 

BB: This is a feature we will be announcing soon on BookBuffet—a connection between authors and book groups, trying to match them up, so we will keep you in mind for that. Who is writing your reading group discussion guides?

 

SL: I write them all. I haven’t done it yet for this book, but I plan to very soon. It’s actually a pretty good experience. You think of things that might not have occurred to you even as you were writing it.

 

BB: That sort of critical analysis…

 

SL: Somebody just commented that Jeanette, the upstairs neighbor, was her favorite character. And she thought that she was Tom Good’s guide and the person who kept him on track, and when he started to get his life organized for himself, he no longer needed her and that’s when she died. That hadn’t occurred to me and it seems totally plausible.

 

BB: You almost sounded a little emotional there when you mentioned Jeanette dying.

 

SL: Isn’t it funny! It just comes on you gradually. At first she’s this cranky, irritating woman and then you become so fond of her.

 

BB: Yes and it’s because Tom’s reaction changes. He begins to see the value of the people around him. It’s really a Miracle on 34th Street kind of inspirational story depicting the strength and value of our humanity. I’m going to put it in as one of my Holiday Picks [this past Christmas]. 

 

SL: Oh, that’s really nice to hear, and I’m really honored to be compared to Miracle on 34th Street.

Experiencing loss: recovering from grief—nationally & personally

BB: Right at the end of your book you tie in the events of 9-11 and I was just wondering if this is your memorial to that event or just why you include it there?

 

SL: Okay this is a really big, interesting thing that happened while I was writing this book. As I said before, I don’t really know where I’m going when I start a novel, I rather find myself going along with it.  It came to me at some point, that this book was [predominantly] about grief and this character’s grief. And just at the point when I had figured that out was just at the beginning of September—and then 9/11 occurred. And then just after that, my ex-husband died.  Then George Harrison died. I went to a writer’s conference and I spoke to a friend there, who is also a writer, and she said to me “Have you been able to write anything since 9-11?” and I had, since I’d been working on this book. And it occurred to me that of all the loss I’d experienced, and this huge loss that we all experienced on top of that, that I wanted to include it in the book. It was a while ago. Initially my agent didn’t want to include it, but it was already too much a part of the book and luckily my editor agreed, and so it stayed.

 

BB: Well I’m glad it did remain [in the book] because the grief that is there otherwise is all Tom’s and what it achieves is a sort of reflection of grief for all of us—we can all remember where we were and what we were doing and how we felt with something as significant and devastating as 9-11. 

 

SL: And that is an important theme that I would like to discuss with book groups—when you experience grief, does it ever go away or fade in any way, or does it remain with you? 

 

BB: And become something that you live with and learn to deal with?

 

SL: Right, and also, how do we go on? What happens to us to enable us to continue? And also how do these big events and losses, that we experience collectively, affect our personal loss? Because I think it does. The collective grief always does affect the personal loss. I think that grief never fades; it just gets pushed to the side and there can be events that kind of bring it all back—full force.  But there is some process that you are able to put it to the side and go on, and Tom has this experience in the book. And I want readers to think about what the vehicle is that enabled him to go ahead with his life, to make all these changes and end up a happy person. 

The final message:

BB: So there is your final message. 

 

SL: He begins to experience a primal connection with the kids, his nurturing of Mike, who allows him to fall in love with Robyn, and that positive movement continues even more strongly. As he experiences love in these different forms throughout the book, his healing starts to occur, and his change starts to occur, and his transformation is able to happen.

 

BB: And there is that point where he mentions in the book that he couldn’t have brought up the subject of his brother’s death until he could overcome that psychological level of development where [as a teenager] he blamed himself, internalized everything around him. 

 

SL: Right. And he maintains that guilt right through to adulthood until he reaches that critical point.

 

BB: These are all the different layers that I think make The Best of Good such a strong book. Have you ever thought of pitching it to the psychiatric societies? 

 

SL: Oh no I haven’t.

 

BB: It seems to me it would be a good book for people who are…

 

BB/SL together:  … grieving. 

 

SL: It is something that I never would have set out to write a book about—grief. 

 

BB: But it’s not a sad book! It’s very uplifting. 

 

SL: Yes, when I put this book out to people like you I don’t want to introduce it as a book about grief… sounds like such a bummer. But it turns out like most of my work; very optimistic, and just kind of hopeful and more encouraging and uplifting than anything else.

 

BB: Well, this has been fabulous. I’ve enjoyed this and look forward to posting this interview and watching how the book does. 

 

SL: Oh great. Well I am certainly available to any book groups who would like to have input into their meetings. And of course any of the BookBuffet moderators who are interested—I got a call from one already, actually, so that’s great.

To contact Sara Lewis for a book group visit, or teleconference, please visit her website, http://www.saralewis.com. And don’t forget to log in and participate in the January/February Moderator-Led Discussion forum of The Best of Good hosted by Leslye Lyons.

 

 

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