Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Jacquelyn Mitchard

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels for adults and teenagers, and the recipient of Great Britain’s Talkabout prize, The Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards, and named to the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the inaugural selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, with more than 3 million copies in print in 34 languages. It was later adapted into a major feature film starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Mitchard's new novel is The Good Son.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

It should do a great deal of work but I don’t think that the title does that work, in this case, with The Good Son. That title is controversial, both for me and others, because it’s been “inhabited,” as they say, so many times, most famously for a movie with Macaulay Culkin as a child. It’s meant to be ironic or at least ambivalent for my book, but it was not the title I would have chosen as I tend to want more lyrical titles. Indeed, if the title of my first and best-known novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, had been as literal as this one is, it would have been something like Yikes, My Son was Kidnapped and Now Here He is! Or You Can’t Go Home Again, They Moved. In any case, I didn’t think the world needed another book called The Good Son (or The Good Daughter).

What's in a name?

I’m very, very picky about character names, and while I’m not like Dickens with Mrs. Gradgrind or Martin Chuzzlewit, I do want the name to comprise some essence of the character. In this story, the main character, Thea, even discusses with her best friend what her name means (it means “gift of God” in Greek). The name of the son is Stefan, which means “victorious,” or, in Greek, “garland,” and in the second meaning, referred to his love for plants and botany and also his eventual triumph. The name also has to “sound” like the character: For example, Stefan’s father is a football coach, and though his real name is John Paul, he’s called “Jep,” which I think of as a sporty name. One of the most important elements for me in naming characters is that the names sound very different from each other. They shouldn’t have the same number of syllables for start with the same letters, for example. I wouldn’t call two friends “Kathy” and “Kailey” or “Ramona” and “Rebecca.” And even further, I don’t like to have any names from previous books show up in a current book, so, if I keep this up, eventually people are going to be named “Sabina” and “Ignatz."

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would not be surprised at all by this story because she was as drawn to mayhem as I am, maybe more so.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I put a great deal of work into beginnings and endings, much more than “shows” in the book. Of course, the work that a writer puts in to a story shouldn’t be obvious or evident, which is why I can have trouble with elaborate, tricksy sentences such as the kind that Jonathan Franzen sometimes writes. In my mind, the ideal story sets forth almost everything the reader needs to know in the first pages and the rest of the book is letting the reader see why all those things are important so that there comes this huge shock of recognition at the end (“Oh! That’s why she always carried an umbrella …”) The beginning is the opening door, convincing the reader to take your hand and come with you on this adventure because reading a book is a substantial investment of time and patience. It’s not as cheesy as just being a “grabber,” but it has to be that as well. Whereas an ending is not just the end of the story, which is painful for the reader, but the beginning of the world after the book. The reader is going to think about that ending long after he or she is finished reading the story. I’m pretty appalled by the sort of post-modern technique of just having a book stop, without drawing together all the threads from the previous chapters.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I am every one of them and every one of them is I — at least some aspect of my character. At least emotionally, I have to be able to inhabit that character through empathy, experience, world view, speech. And yet each of them is different from each other. A friend, writing to me the other day about something I told her I believed, said, are you speaking for all your personalities?

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Storytelling, music, events in the news … and definitely my own relationships with other people. For example, one of the main characters in one of my best-known books, although it’s a woman, has my brother’s personality and way of speaking. I listen to the way other people speak and commit those patterns to memory, like song lyrics.
Visit Jacquelyn Mitchard's website.

My Book, the Movie: Two If by Sea.

The Page 69 Test: Two If by Sea.

The Page 69 Test: The Good Son.

--Marshal Zeringue