e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (November 2004)
Stephanie Gertler writes novels that squeeze the heart, from her debut in Jimmy's Girl through Drifting and The Puzzle Bark Tree to her latest, The Windmill. This author tosses tough issues into her characters' lives, and then shows us how they cope, usually with strong support from those closest to them. She gives her readers out of the ordinary, suspenseful accounts of introspection and pain, resilience and hope.
Q: A central theme in your novels so far is to make your characters face unresolved issues in their lives - a woman resents the mother who deserted her in Drifting; another has to cope with parental suicide in The Puzzle Bark Tree, and both husband and wife in The Windmill have old issues to face. What draws you to this topic?
A: Mid-life, forties and fifties, is certainly one of those times in life where we "take stock." I believe we do this more in those decades than in previous decades when distractions are greater: in our youth, we feel immortal; in our twenties we are embarking on careers and marriage and children; in our thirties, we're dealing with marriage and careers and children ... and then come the mid-forties and into our mid-fifties, there is a lull in the distraction. My characters are typically in their forties and fifties, concomitant with my life, my age, the people I know ... I feel this is the time in our lives when that which is often unresolved, repressed, ignored or denied may suddenly loom large - and it is with careful alacrity that we must take ownership of our "demons," exorcise them or at least make our peace with them ... and continue to move forward with a sense of reality and self-awareness.
Q: Symbols are important to your novels - the Puzzle Bark Tree seems to stand for the protagonist's arid life in the story of that title, and Livi's lost love gave her a windmill in your latest book. When you sit down to write, does the story come first to your mind or the symbol?
A: The story comes first. It is while I am researching the story that I am often struck by a symbol, and come to realize that the reason the symbol has impacted me is because of the story I am writing. For example, with The Puzzle Bark Tree, the story was solidly in place as I was researching an island in the middle of Lake George, and the man who was giving me the "tour," pointed out a "puzzle bark tree," and explained the reason why the bark grew in such an odd horizontal pattern - because the tree survived and grew, but grew at a deficit because of its place high on the island, and its desperation for nutrients that other trees get more typically caused its bark to form in an odd way. It was at that moment that I felt that Grace, my protagonist, was so much like that tree - and the tree became not only a symbol but the book's title.
With The Windmill, I felt a sense of being unsettled - both with the characters and my own life at the time, as though a wind was whipping through all, and I needed to brace myself (and my characters) against the wind's force. I began to read about the wind, and more about the power of the wind both from the point of view of Physics and Native American lore ... and so I arrived at both a symbol and a title, once again.
Q: Family connections are strong and important in your books. Is a strong, supportive family in your own background?
A: A strong supportive family is in my foreground. I have a strong sense of family ties. Nothing on earth means more to me than my family and my home. I believe that although every family has its dysfunction and skeletons, and although we take many detours, that what brings us back home and grounds us are family bonds and family history.
Q: Sisters, in particular are very caring in your novels; do you have a sister?
A: I do, although we are estranged - perhaps the reason why I create the relationships between sisters in my books to satisfy that loss in my life. My closest friend, however, is a sister to me - and it is upon that relationship that I base the relationship between sisters in my books. Additionally, my three children -- two boys and a girl -- are so close and the ability to write about the closeness of siblings come easily in that respect. I also have a brother who is one of my dearest friends and confidantes.
Q: I loved your comment in Drifting about raising kids: 'They don't tell you this stuff when they're born ... They don't tell you not to blink.' Do you have children, and if so did you blink?
A: I have three children -- 17, 20, and 21 -- and I made it a point NOT to blink! I look back, however, and realize how quickly time has flown -- and though I tried, I probably did blink sometimes ... As my youngest prepares applications to colleges, it's hard to fathom that when we moved into this house, he was two -- and when I look back it feels like yesterday and I can't believe how quickly the time flew by. But truly, I tell friends of mine with younger children, and those I know who are just having babies - to savor every moment and try to remember every little nuance because it's so precious. And don't push time - it comes around fast enough. The strange thing is, and the beauty is, that when my three are together now (the older two are in college so "together" times are less frequent), the dynamic among them is much the same in some ways, and yet spiritually fraught with such caring and devotion for one another and a strong sense of "remember when."
Q: In The Windmill, you portray a family member with Alzheimer's very realistically; have you seen such a situation at close hand?
A: My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's - he succumbed shortly after my grandmother died. I used to visit him every Sunday with my two oldest children (the youngest wasn't born yet), and I watched him deteriorate. I also watched the delight he took with the visits, the solace I felt he had with what was often delusion ... and I always remembered the man he had been. When he died, it was most painful for me.In many ways, the character of Henry Hughes was a tribute to my grandfather.
Q: Though your characters face extremely tough times, things generally work out for them; would you describe yourself as an optimistic person?
A: I don't know that I am optimistic as much as I am fatalistic. I believe that everything happens in life for a reason. If I didn't believe that, I don't think I would make it through some days. The beauty of fiction is that we authors can create the endings. Now, in Jimmy's Girl, the ending was bittersweet - as it was in The Puzzle Bark Tree: dissolution of a marriage is not a good thing, yet in The Puzzle Bark Tree - falling in love with Luke Keegan certainly ameliorated the pain. In Drifting, the ending is a form of acceptance and self-awareness. The Windmill does have a happy ending: I guess in that book, I'd hoped the ending would augur real life ... In all the books, I don't think the endings are all necessarily "happy" or "optimistic," but they are endings that give resolution and redemption.
Q: Navajo legend ties in to The Windmill. Did you research this specifically for the novel, or is it a long-standing interest?
A: I did this research specifically for The Windmill - and once my Internet surfing led me to the Navajo's perception of the power of the wind, I couldn't stop reading on and on. There was also a song, an old song, that someone I used to know played a song for me twenty-five years ago called "Long Train Running" by the Doobie Brothers. One of my favorite lines was, "Give me the restless power of the wind" - something about that conjured up an imagery for me as I wrote The Windmill and I was so driven to investigate the wind ...
Q: Can you share with us your recipe for 'candied yams with bourbon', 'Southern cornbread' and 'oyster dressing', all mentioned in The Windmill?
A: Oh no! I took them from the Internet - from Southern Cooking magazine, I believe. I knew about the foods - that they were dishes indigenous to the South -- but had to look up the recipes! They're hardly my recipes - I wish I were that creative!
Q: Did you ever make 'garbage soup' (described in The Windmill) as a child? If so, did you taste it?
A: Indeed I did! Whenever my mother cooked, my brother and I would gather all the scraps -- potato peels and cores and seeds, and general garbage, and stir it up in a great big bowl with a wooden spoon. Fortunately, we never tasted it ... I don't think my mother allowed THAT!
Q: Are you working on another novel yet? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
A: Yes, I am. It's about a woman who was married for twenty-five years and suddenly finds herself alone, her children grown, when her husband leaves her for another woman. It is a story about how she takes stock of her life, and realizes that although she has spent the better part of her childhood and adult life trying to "fix" the world around her, she concludes that no one has the power to make such tremendous repairs ... and now embarks upon a journey where she must heal only herself.Stephanie Gertler lives with her family and four dogs in New York, and writes a monthly lifestyles column for two Connecticut newspapers. Find out more about the author, and her novels by visiting StephanieGertler.com.
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