One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

Interview with Novelist Pamela Redmond Satran

Three women and their choices through three periods in History.

Pamela Redmond Satran’s new novel, The Possibility of You, has been described as The Hours meets It’s a Wonderful Life. Here’s more from Pam:

Jennifer Haupt: What books/movies inspired this imaginative story that follows three women through three different times in history?

Pamela Redmond Satran: The Hours side of the equation is a lot more accurate than the It’s a Wonderful Life side. I very consciously modeled the structure of the book after The Hours, which is one of my favorite books ever, and one that reveals new connections and complexities with each reading.

I adore It’s a Wonderful Life too but my novel doesn’t have that “what the world would be like if you’d never been born” element. It’s more, perhaps, like the underrated Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, in which you see or in the case of The Possibility of You imagine what the character’s life might have been like in alternate scenarios, if certain chance elements hadn’t played out the way they did.

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 A couple of nonfiction books influenced the characters and events of the novel. One was Century Girl by Lauren Redniss, a wonderful illustrated biography of the Ziegfeld Follies girl Doris Eaton, who inspired my character of Maude. Another was Dirt and Disease by the Yale medical history professor Naomi Rogers, which not only conveys the history of the 1916 polio epidemic but looks at the prejudices underlying people’s fears and perceptions of the illness, not so different from the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

JH: How much research did you do for this novel, and what were some of the challenges of incorporating the different time periods into one story line?

PS: I did a vast amount of research, and like many historical novelists, it’s hard to know where to stop. I was fairly ignorant about 1916 when I started, so I was pretty much starting from scratch in terms of everything from the clothes to the politics of the period.

Plus that year in particular was so rich. Besides the events such as the polio epidemic and the first birth control clinic opening which are dramatized in the book, there were other events I researched that either I didn’t use or that in the end are mentioned just in passing, such as the Easter Rebellion in Ireland and the first translation of Jung into English by the pioneering psychoanalyst Beatrice Hinkle.

Early drafts of the book included scenes based on real phenomena from the period such as a Baby Parade followed by a Beautiful Baby Contest, which of course Floyd won, and a séance, which were still in vogue at the time. I hated to let those go but sometimes, as wonderful as these historical details are, they simply don’t add enough to the human story.

The biggest challenge was creating a modern story whose outcome would be influenced by my contemporary character’s discovery of the events of the past. In earlier drafts, the contemporary character was little more than a listener to the earlier story; what happened in 1916 didn’t really impact what happened in 1976 or the present day. And that ultimately felt bloodless and unsatisfying; there needed to be more cause and effect.

JH: Does your nonfiction writing inform your fiction, or vice-versa?

PS: I’d say both, but more in the larger sense of becoming a more confident writer or being more willing to take risks than in learning any techniques that I then transport from one genre to the next.

About five years ago, I took several risks with my writing around the same time, walking away from my novel contract to undertake a deeper, more ambitious fiction project that became The Possibility of You and also working with my name book partner Linda Rosenkrantz to develop our website Nameberry and then creating the humor blog that turned into the New York Times bestseller How Not To Act Old. Each time I tried something I hadn’t done before and succeeded, I felt braver about trying something else new and stretching in another new direction. And even when I stumbled or failed, that made me more resilient, which is an important quality for a writer to have.

JH: Are fiction and nonfiction different parts of the brain for you? If so, how do you tap into one or the other?

PS: Interesting! Well, I write both in my living room, with my feet up, and tend to use my office more for the business-y parts of my work life.

I try to divide my day and write fiction early in the morning, before the world can intrude too much, and save nonfiction writing for the afternoon when emails are coming in and the phone is ringing and I’m taking more breaks to eat lunch and run to the grocery store or the post office. Fiction writing for me requires tapping into that intuitive, dream-like state, at least part of the time, while nonfiction-writing is more mathematical, maybe: What do you need to say and how most clearly and efficiently to say it in the prescribed number of words.

Nonfiction writing is so much easier!! The challenge is not to do it all the time, because the rewards of every kind, from execution to publication to payment, are so much more accessible.

JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from the characters in The Possibility of You?

PS: Wow, great question. I think it’s that what we do has repercussions over time for other people, even when they don’t know the facts of what happened. I was inspired to write this book by my grandmother, but ultimately I know very little about her life and almost everything is invented. But perhaps the truest thing in the book – as in my life – is that people tried to keep a lot of secrets that ultimately could not be kept, even if all the facts were never known.

My working title for this book for a long time was The White Lie, starting with Bridget’s white lie when she takes Floyd to Coney Island for the day and doesn’t tell Maude. While this is never stated explicitly in the book, the puddle where Floyd splashes ecstatically with the other children is the source of his polio. That polio could be communicated like that would not be discovered for many years and certainly Maude and even Bridget never realize that the child gets sick and dies because of that day at the beach, but that’s what happened.

I feel more self-conscious now about my own actions and the way they might impact my children, even if my children never know what I do or think. Like most children, they’re not very interested. Most of us only really want to know about our parents’ and grandparents’ lives when it’s too late to find out.

Pamela Redmond Satran is the New York Times bestselling author of the novel The Possibility of You, the new book with Glamour called 30 Things Every Woman Should Have & Should Know, and the forthcoming humor book Rabid: Are You Crazy About Your Dog or Just Crazy? A columnist for Glamour and a frequent contributor to More, The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post, Satran is also the co-creator of the million-visitor website Nameberry.com. Find out more about her work at pamelaredmondsatran.com.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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