Other books by Joy Fielding:
As every creative person knows, smooth sailing does not always promote pushing yourself to new heights. The occasional jolt can do wonders to get things moving again. The shape and texture of the jolt can vary sharply from artist to artist, but it's something you hear about all the time. The vacation that sparks a sonnet, the marriage breakup that results in a new body of paintings, the job change that ends with a novel. For Joy Fielding, author of 11 wellloved novels, the jolt came four years ago when she left her publisher of many years and moved to Pocket Books.
Financially secure, Fielding chose to use her publisherless period as a time of rediscovery. "And I thought: Well, I'm going to take a chance here. I have a nice little idea for a book and I'm just going to write it and if nobody wants it, fine. It was very liberating for me to do it that way. I could write it at my own speed and I didn't have any pressure and I wasn't trying to please anybody," says Fielding. The book she wrote was last year's The First Time. A novel quite different for Fielding and one that would pave the way for the recently published Grand Avenue, a more complex novel that Fielding reports is the most challenging book she's written thus far.
Probably best known for the 1991 novel that was made into a television movie in 1995, See Jane Run, that work is more typical of the kind of books that Fielding has published: tightly plotted psychological dramas with good dashes of suspense. Without the constraints of a publisher's expectations, however, Fielding felt freed to move her work into a slightly different area. And while Fielding's two most recent novels, The First Time and Grand Avenue both contain suspenseful elements, both books have a stronger focus on human relationships and how they play out over the fullness of time.
Despite a different thrust, Fielding fans should not despair: the author points out that there are many elements in her storytelling that have remained constant. "... one of the things that I can do -- and that I do -- is write page-turners. I think you want to keep just turning the pages to find out what is happening to these people. In that sense, it's similar [to my previous books] and it's about women and their problems and issues and certainly issues that are of concern to modern women."
Joy Fielding, 56, lives in Toronto and Palm Beach with her husband Richard.
Linda Richards: Your new book, Grand Avenue, has been out only briefly and a lot of people won't have had the chance to read it yet. Set it up for them a little bit.
Joy Fielding: Grand Avenue is the story of four women -- four friends -- through 20 years of marriage, motherhood and murder. It's unlike anything I've done before because it's a huge cast of characters and it's over a 23-year period. It's really just these women's lives and how they impact on one another and what happens to them. They basically meet because they live on the same street -- Grand Avenue -- and they each have a daughter around the age of two when they first meet. It's about mothers and daughters and friendship. And time.
One thing my novels have in common is that they are all page-turners and I think [Grand Avenue] is the same in that sense. I think once you've started -- and I don't mean to sound boastful [laughs] -- but I think that I'm fairly aware of my strengths as a novelist. And one of the things that I can do -- and that I do -- is write page-turners. I think you want to keep just turning the pages to find out what is happening to these people. In that sense, it's similar [to my previous books] and it's about women and their problems and issues and certainly issues that are of concern to modern women.
And it still has murder in there.
Yes. You definitely want to find out what happened. The beginning of the book is the introduction -- you can see it on the Web site, actually or in the paperback of The First Time. So you're introduced to one woman and you don't know which one she is. She's talking about these four women: she's watching a videotape of when they first met. Basically she says that, you know, here are the four friends. One, of course, turns out to be not a friend at all but they didn't realize it at the time and two of the women are now dead and one was murdered. So it sets up all this intrigue. You don't know, first of all, who the narrator is. You don't know which two women are left alive. You don't know which one has been murdered or by whom. So there are all of these questions and then you go back. You don't pick it up quite at the introduction -- which is when they first meet with their two-year-olds -- but you pick it up about four years later and it goes from 1982 to the present.
I think what it does is it really encompasses the tremendous changes in women's lives over the last couple of decades. I think that in the last 25 years women's lives have changed tremendously. And I think what this book does is give you a microcosm for all of those changes and it also deals with all the issues that women have been confronting on an ongoing basis.
Where is the book set?
It's set in Cincinnati.
Your books are usually not set in Cincinnati.
They're set all over the place. I really rarely stay in the same city.
Anyway, that's what the book is about. These women: their eyes are kind of the mirror of our souls. Having said all that, I also have had some wonderfully supportive positive comments from men. So I think men, for some reason, really relate to this book. [Laughs] They really like it, which always surprises me.
How many books have you written?
Somebody asked me that the other day and I have to go back and count them, but I think [this is] number 14.
When did The First Time come out in hardcover?
About this time last year. They want me to do a book a year.
Your fans are getting impatient.
Well, they write me these letters, the fans: Thank God your book finally came out. You'd been gone for so long I thought you'd died. And I thought: Oh, boy. It had only been three years, it wasn't like it was that long. But I had been doing a book every two years and then I changed publishers so I was a year behind. But, basically, the publishing industry has really changed and readers want a book a year from their favorite authors and publishers want a book a year because then they can build on the success of the paperback. But it puts a tremendous stress on the writer. Especially if you want a life. [Laughs] And I've always had quite an active life apart from being a writer. Now I'm writing all the time so The First Time was out in paperback [just before] Grand Avenue came out in hardcover and I'm almost finished [with] a new book I'm working on for next year. But I'm going to be away a lot this year: I have a lot of traveling to do, both professionally and personally, and I keep thinking: when am I going to write this? When am I going to do this other one? Oh my God, you just can't get a break! [Laughs]
Aside from the obvious time constraints, is it difficult coming up with a fresh, new idea every year?
You feel a pressure to come up with something much [more quickly]. Before I always thought: OK, I have about a year to write the book and I have a year in between where I can just let ideas come and go and cook and now I don't have that year. I'm thinking about other ideas -- and it's not even a question of the ideas. You get lots of ideas, it's what to do with the ideas that's the problem because I get characters or I get an interesting theme or a situation. But to put together a whole book can take years of thought and just tinkering and they don't always come all that quickly. I find that while I'm writing the book I'm working on now, I'm very busy juggling all sorts of other ideas for the book I have to start as soon as I finish this one. [Laughs] And I feel like I haven't really been able to enjoy each individual book in the same way. You know, I don't get to sit and kind of have the afterglow with the book that's just out because I'm already [working on the new one].
Do you keep a notebook of ideas?
I write a sentence or two at this point, if I'm not really ready to go further. And I have lots of ideas and what happens is sometimes they combine. Or I get an idea and it'll take really quite a long time before it's ready to go. The one I'm working on right now I had the idea for maybe 25 years ago. Now, obviously, I haven't been working on it for 25 years but I've come back to it every so often because it was a good idea but it would have been a very different book 25 years ago. But, now, because it was a good idea, every time it was time to write a new book I thought: Well, what about that idea. And so now it was finally ready. It finally said: Yes, my turn. So that's what I've done. And I have a number of ideas right now that I know are future books but I don't think they'll be my next book because they're not quite ready.
The book you're working on now -- the one you originally conceived 25 years ago -- is it titled?
Well, it's tentatively titled The Whispering of the Leaves. But one never knows.
How does a 25-year-old idea evolve over time and still be timely?
[Laughs] Well, this idea is suspense. And I think if you have a good suspense idea you adapt it to whatever time you're in. It's about a 40-year-old woman who rents this small cottage beside her home to this serious young woman and nothing is as it seems. So that doesn't matter if I did it 25 years ago.
They would just have had different shoes and accessories.
That's right. [Laughs] So in that case, it's fine. As I say, it's probably quite a different book than it would have been, but certain things are still the same.
Though you spend part of the year in Florida, I know that you're a Canadian writer. Do you ever think about setting a book in Canada? The last time I interviewed you, you said your then publisher was against the idea as your audience is largely in other places.
I think I could set a book in Canada at this point, but I do find that the American landscape seems to suit my themes a bit better. Themes of isolation and, I don't know, I just find them a little more conducive to characters getting lost. So that's what I do: I just pick an American city I'm relatively comfortable with. I think because they have such a clear definition of the city core and the suburbs and then I can set them in the suburbs and have them into the city. Where if I were to set a book in Toronto -- although we're getting more suburbs now -- it's different. I mean, the locale has never been all that important to me. I'm much more interested in the characters. And I like Cincinnati. I've been there a number of times on my book tours.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I'm very disciplined, yes.
Do you write working hours, or when the muse attacks?
[Laughs] No. If you wait for the muse to attack you might never write. I work basically every day. And I write preferably all morning. But, because I'm trying now to do more and we're away a lot, I basically write much more than I used to. But I'll start say at nine o'clock and I'll work until two and sometimes I'll work right through until four. But, normally, about four hours is really optimum concentration. I find that if I go too much over four hours whatever I write is garbage and I spend the next day rewriting it because your brain just isn't functioning after about four hours. So if I can get four hours in I'm happy. But once you're more than half way, the book kind of starts writing itself, it gets a certain momentum. So the last part of a book is usually much faster than the first half. And I'm pretty quick. Generally I know my story but, you know, part of it you never know what's going to come out. You get a character you thought of as a minor character [who] turns into quite a key player in the story. That's always the fun part: being surprised.
Does that happen a lot?
Yes. I work from an outline, depending on the book. For The First Time I only had a paragraph, so the whole book was a surprise, basically, except in my head. I knew in that paragraph the beginning, middle and end and that's what I know with all of my books. But I usually do an outline that's fairly detailed.
And that's for yourself?
That's for me. So I know the beginning, the middle and the end and then I know a few key points along the way. And then the rest is really just flushing it all out. The first half of the book is always harder because you're setting up all your ducks and you're building and developing your characters. And then, once they're formed, then it just starts to coast.
What's been your most successful book thus far?
Well probably See Jane Run is the one most people know. There have been certain milestones. Kiss Mommy Good-bye was the one that really kind of established me and See Jane Run was the one that took me to a different level. But each book seems to sell more [than the last] in hardcover, so it's hard to say which is the most successful because I could probably say: Well, I made the most money on this one and I sold the most copies on that one and this one is the most popular in Germany or wherever. So, they're popular for different reasons.
With Grand Avenue, I think it's my best book. So I'm hoping that readers will feel that way, as well.
Was it your most personally challenging book?
It presented all sorts of quite different challenges. The First Time was a very small canvas: three characters, for the most part. Three points of view. And that had its own challenges. One was the male point of view, which I hadn't tried before. But it was basically the husband, the wife and the daughter. Grand Avenue has the four main women, their husbands, their daughters, all the different situations that are going on. So it was a real juggling act: just the structure of Grand Avenue presented all different problems for me.
Each woman has her own section, but even within those sections it's not just one voice. That voice dominates, but you still hear from the other women, as well. So the challenge there was showing why these women would be friends -- why they came together -- and then bringing in all the elements of why it falls apart and what happens.
One of the big challenges there was to create four really distinctive voices so that the women are instantly recognizable. The minute one of them opens their mouth you can say: Oh, that's Chris. Or: That's Vicki. Each woman had her own definite sets of problems and each voice was quite unique. And that's hard, to create four different women and have the reader right away not be confused. Also because of the time span, you have to make sure that the reader is always with you. That [they're] not confused. So dividing the sections helped and also moving the story along. Making sure that you don't start over at the beginning each time with each character. You want to introduce each of the women and tell their story, but you want to make sure your story is progressing: that you're always building and that there's a point.
Was The First Time a warm up for Grand Avenue? Because The First Time was also very different for you in that it was also more relationship-driven and less...
Less suspense in the traditional sense. The suspense was about Maddie and what's going to be with the relationship with Jake and what's going to happen. But it was much more of a love story. When you get a good solid idea for the plot [of a suspense story] it's wonderful: you have this plot and you can concentrate on [that] and even though it's a character-driven plot, that frames it and that really focuses you.
With something like The First Time I didn't do an outline because there really wasn't an outline to do. I had a paragraph: This is what happens to Maddie. And Kim -- her daughter -- is going to have problems and Maddie and Jake are going to rediscover one another. And that was basically my idea. And then I had to create a story. But that was a wonderful experience for me because I had no pressure whatsoever because I had no publisher. It was great. [Laughs] I was lucky because financially I wasn't worried, otherwise it would have been horrible. But I had left my former publishers and I did not want anybody telling me what kind of book I could write or how to do it or what to do. And I thought: Well, I'm going to take a chance here. I have a nice little idea for a book and I'm just going to write it and if nobody wants it, fine. It was very liberating for me, to do it that way. I could write it at my own speed and I didn't have any pressure and I wasn't trying to please anybody and then, of course, once it was done I was like: Oh my God, is anybody going to like this? But while I was doing it, it was really nice.
Then I signed with Pocket, which is a division of Simon & Schuster, and then I was sort of thinking: What will my next book be? And I'd had the idea for Grand Avenue for a while and I thought: Well, that's the one that really excites me. I'd had the idea for Grand Avenue before I had the idea for The First Time, but -- again -- it wasn't quite ready. So I don't know that The First Time really was a stepping stone or however you put it, because it's very different, again. I think it was just important for me as a creative person not to repeat myself and not to do something I was less than enthusiastic about. I wanted to write a love story and then with Grand Avenue I wanted to do something I thought would have real relevance in women's lives. So I thought it thought it would be fun to tackle a multi-character kind of story. And probably I could have made four books out of Grand Avenue, if I'd wanted to.
Are you ever tempted to do that? To write a series of books?
I think if I were going to do that I'd have to know up front it was going to be a series of books. I have a tendency not to want to revisit my characters once I'm finished with them. It's like I've said everything that I want to say, they're fine and you like to think everything worked out. If you revisit them you have to create a whole bunch of new problems for them and I don't really want to do that. If it ends on a positive note I'd like it to stay positive. | October 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.