What if you pop through a portal and enter another life with a sexy lover, more exciting career, even ditch the kids? That's the premise of Ellen Meister's clever and engaging third novel The Other Life. But, of course, even escaping into an alternate universe has a few catches... Here's more from Ellen:
Jennifer Haupt: I love the idea of a suburban mom who not only dreams of the path untaken, but has a way to access that other life. Do you think most women have a "woulda shoulda coulda" secret desire?
Ellen Meister: Thanks, Jennifer. Judging from the emails I'm getting from early readers, that's a big yes. I've been hearing from women who have been opening their hearts about the roads not taken. And truly, I think it's human nature to wonder about what might have been. I believe it can be an effective coping strategy for when things get particularly stressful.
JH: If you could choose to have another life to escape into like Quinn, would you? Why or why not?
EM: I do have another life to escape into! It's calling fiction-writing.
Seriously, I think the idea of escaping into my own writing was exactly what sparked the idea for THE OTHER LIFE. I was sitting alone in the quiet house, ready to slip through my metaphorical escape hatch, when I wondered what would happen if a married, suburban mom like me had an actual portal that led her to the life she would have had if she never got married and had kids. The idea gave me such a rush that I knew right away it had the potential to become a book.
As far as my own reaction to this, I think I'm very much like Quinn in that I love my family too much to ever want to leave them-through a magic portal or anything else. And that's why I needed to find such a powerful emotional catalyst for Quinn. She had to be rocked to her core before she was considered exploring that other life.
JH: Okay, if you had to step through that portal into another life, what would it look like?
EM: I suppose it would be the opposite of my busy, suburban child-centered life. But instead of Quinn's high drama single life in Manhattan, I have a romantic vision of The Writer's Life that includes a small house in the woods somewhere in New England. I'd live alone and have a big dog, a few cats, a wood-burning stove and several well-worn cardigans.
JH: In this novel, Quinn's alternate universe includes her mother Nan who committed suicide and was bipolar. Did you do any research about bipolar disorder for this book?
EM: I sure did. I've known several people with bipolar disorder, so I started out with a layperson's familiarity. But a trip to the library yielded an armful of books that were extremely helpful and illuminating.
JH: Some people believe there's a thin line between mental disorders and the real existence of parallel universes. Do you have any thoughts on this?
EM: I actually hold fast to the idea that parallel universes are fictional, even though I know that quantum physicists have a "multiple worlds" theory of the universe, positing that every possibility actually occurs because it can't NOT occur. There's a thought experiment called Schrodinger's Cat that's meant to explore the paradox, though I can't quite bend my mind that far. (Clearly, quantum physics is a bit beyond my scope!)
JH: Nan and Quinn have a mother-daughter relationship that rings very true: both loving and tumultuous. Do you think Nan is in any way jealous of her daughter's life, and her ability to live in an alternate universe when things get tough?
EM: Thanks. I'm glad you think it rings true. It always felt very real to me.
To answer your question, I think that in the throes of depression, Nan might have envied the ability to escape her life. But she's very smart and highly intuitive, and I think she understands that it can be more of a curse than a blessing.
JH: What is your writing day like?
EM: When my children were small, I got in the habit of rising at 5 am so I could write for two hours before the family awoke. Now they're all teenagers and there are chunks of time when I'm alone to write, but I still get up that early, as I find that I'm most creative in the wee hours. A little caffeine helps, of course!
JH: Can you tell us a bit about your next novel?
EM: I'd love to! The working title is Farewell Dorothy Parker, and it's about a timid woman movie critic who undergoes an important transformation when the ghost of Dorothy Parker takes up residence in her home. It will probably be published in 2012.
Ellen Meister is the author of three novels, as well as numerous short stories. She currently curates for DimeStories, a literary podcast program, and runs an online group for women authors. Ellen lives on Long Island with her husband and three children and is at work on her fourth novel.