I get pitched a lot of books. Earlier this summer, I decided my stack was getting too big, and I determined to not accept any more. But the pitch for Emily Giffin’s latest novel Where We Belong (linked to my review with giveaway) included the first chapter, which ends with 36-year-old Marian confronting on her doorstep the daughter she gave up for adoption 18 years earlier, and told no one about. I was hooked, and requested the book. Although Emily Giffin is the best-selling author of novels such as Something Borrowed, Something Blue, and Love the One You’re With, this was my first time reading one of her books. It won’t be the last!
I recently had the chance to interview Emily on writing, balancing aspects of life, and, most importantly to me, a small detail in the story that had a character turning out the wrong age. I loved her answer! (See question 2 to know what I’m talking about)
1. I really enjoyed “Where We Belong” and I found the premise intriguing–that of a life built on secrets and an exposure which begins when a baby Marian gave away and told no one about shows up on her doorstep 18 years later. Did a certain event, maybe someone you know or something you read, spark the idea? What was your inspiration?
At its heart, the book is about secrets and what happens to us and to those closest to us when we keep them. I’ve always been intrigued by the power of secrets. When is it justifiable to keep them from the ones we love? And does keeping them irrevocably change who we are? Adoption (under the secretive circumstances in Where We Belong) seemed to be a great way to explore some of the broader themes. In addition, I have always been interested in adoption. There are so many perspectives to explore—so much rich, emotional terrain.
2. My oldest son was born in 1995, the year of the Chicago heat wave when Kirby was conceived, so I knew right away that Kirby couldn’t be 18 yet, in 2012, since Elliot just turned 17. I read your comments on this in the prologue. Why was that specific heat wave important for you?
In part because I remember it so well. But more because I built the whole book, chronology, Marian’s pregnancy, and even pop culture references around it—and did not discover until the very end that I had done my basic math incorrectly. (My husband actually read the draft and pointed out my error; he is great at catching such details!). At that point, I had two choices-make it a random heat wave and tinker with some of the references or make Kirby sixteen. Neither was acceptable to me—so instead I simply pointed out my mistake in the acknowledgements to prevent a barrage of emails from readers!
3. When you write a novel, do you know exactly where you’re going with things? Do your characters sometimes surprise you?
I never outline my novels before I write. I have a vague sense of beginning, middle and end, but for me, it is a very character-driven process. As I get to know my characters, and the relationships between them form, the plot evolves accordingly. Although this method of writing can be inefficient, and I sometimes have to scrap whole chapters if I don’t like the direction the story is unfolding, I love being surprised in the writing process.
4. In “Where We Belong,” the voice goes back and forth between Marian and Kirby, as well as between 2012 and 1995. Was it difficult writing in a teenager’s voice? Did you write all of one person’s story and then the other story and splice them together, or did you write them in the order they appear in the book?
I have always been drawn to coming-of-age stories and books and movies featuring compelling young characters. My favorite movie of all-time is Stand By Me, and I still reread my favorite young adult books often. In fact, the first novel I ever wrote (before Something Borrowed) was a young adult book—but I was never able to get it published. As for difficulty with capturing Kirby’s voice, I was nervous in the beginning because I am forty and high school is becoming a distant memory. But I read old journals as well as some current teen blogs to get started, and once I began, her voice felt very natural to me. In some ways, I think she is wiser than the adults in the book. And yes, I always write the chapters in order!
5. I know you practiced law for a time before becoming a full-time writer. How does that aspect of your education and past life contribute to your writing, or does it?
Although I enjoyed law school, I loathed the actual practice of law—at least the big firm culture. But I discovered that misery can be quite motivating. So very early on, I devised a plan to pay off my law school loans and then write full-time. I often wonder if I would have chased my dream had I been more content with my career. In other words, sometimes a lukewarm existence is the most dangerous one. Beyond that, I don’t think being a lawyer helps with my writing, but I think any life experience—both good and bad—is helpful in a writer’s life.
6. Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you deal with it? What is the hardest part of being a writer?
Yes—pretty much every day is filled with at least a few moments of frustration in which I’m staring at a blank screen (or a screen filled with sentences I loathe). To me, writing is about overcoming those moments, fighting through them, getting to the other side. More than anything, I write for that feeling of accomplishment and relief. I remember my publicist once saying to me, about another writer, “She only had one book in her.” That is always my fear—that I’ve reached my limit. But I’ve discovered that nearly every author—no matter how accomplished—has this feeling on occasion. And ultimately, I believe that writing is mostly about hard work, perseverance, keeping faith in yourself—which, I believe, is true of most things in life worth pursuing.
7. Like any other working mother, how do you integrate family life and work?
It is really difficult, especially during a book tour or when I’m nearing a deadline. I think it’s all about finding that balance and acknowledging that there is no such thing as “having it all.” You always have to make sacrifices and compromises in life and accept the fact that perfection isn’t achievable—as a mother or writer.
8. When you’re in the middle of writing a novel, do you make time to read? Do you find other books a distraction or an inspiration at that point? Also, who are some of your favorite authors?
I love books from all genres, except science fiction and horror. Some of my favorite authors include Ann Patchett, Alice Munro, Elinor Lipman, Sue Miller, Jane Smiley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth Strout, and Anne Lamott. I generally like female authors who write about relationships (go figure!).
9. What’s next?
Another book! I already have an idea but haven’t begun writing it yet. That will come after my book tour. The first page is always terrifying, but I look forward to getting to know my characters. It really is like making new friends—although sometimes we spend way too much time together!