DNA testing and the often surprising results it reveals has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion. There used to be a more negative connotation with the ever popular Maury Povich asking women who slept with multiple men while their boyfriends were in jail, “Who’s the Father?” Today though, it seems like everyone has an interest in their family tree, where they come from and who their long lost ancestors are. Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Inheritance, brought to light the power of the ancestral knowledge and the life-changing impact it might have. In The Sweeney Sisters, author Lian Dolan incorporates genetic testing in her storytelling, just as a casual thing people do out of curiosity. It is a story that represents current times, and I found it very enjoyable.
The Sweeney Sisters, a lighthearted humorous story of sisterhood, is about Maggie, Liza and Tricia, a close knit threesome, redheaded sisters who although are very different, have learned to navigate their relationships and enjoy each other as adults. They return to their family home in Southport, Connecticut to settle matters after their beloved, famous father, Bill Sweeney passes away. Their father’s lawyer reveals to them some surprising news: he has another they don’t know about, and he has written a possibly revealing memoir.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC, genetic testing led journalist and only child, Serena Tucker, to discover the identity of her biological father, and it was not a simple matter. Her mother’s secret affair years ago with the Connecticut next door neighbor, literary genius and college professor, Bill Sweeney, led to the birth of a baby girl. Growing up on the same street as the Sweeney sisters, seeing their bond and now realizing she is one of them is important information in understanding who she really is, and Serena chooses to make the effort to connect with her sisters and learn more about what kind of man her father had been.
Maggie, Liza and Tricia come together at their family home to mourn the father they thought they knew, but with the news of Serena and the discovery of the memoir, they are forced to tackle the truth of their past and appreciate the true meaning of family. Bringing together three young women and their “new” older sibling doesn’t come without messiness and ups and downs. Emotions, old boyfriends and memories amidst this heartfelt reunion of sisters creates author Lian Dolan’s wonderful story of family.
In The Sweeney Sisters, the family home is located in Southport, CT and I couldn’t help but love all the accurate local references, from Garelick & Herbs to Fortuna’s to the Pequot Library. The loss of a literary legend, a secret sibling and a hidden memoir contribute to this meaningful story of family and sisterhood. I enjoyed the lighthearted humor and recommend this book for a day at the beach or a day in quarantine! Book will be published April 28th, 2020.
Q & A with Lian Dolan
Q: DNA testing has become a popular thing to do and the results can bring big joys and deep sorrows, depending on where it leads. What made you decide to incorporate this into your story?
A: I knew I wanted to write a story about sisterhood and how complicated and fulfilling that relationship can be. I’ve been writing and talking about family relationships for twenty years on my podcast and in other non-fiction writing and it seemed like the times was right for me to explore what family means in fiction. But as a novelist, you’re always looking for a way into a story, a hook that launches the characters journey. For this book, I found that on Facebook! I read a post from a friend about her newly discovered sibling thanks to a DNA test and how great it was to have him in her life. And, while I gave the post the old thumbs up, I thought about what a game changer that would be. As your question says, big joys and deep sorrows. It seemed like the perfect way to explore sisterhood and family.
Q: The relationships between the Sweeney sisters are complex, yet the girls seem to know how to communicate effectively with each other. How did you tap into those dynamics? Did you have to do any research?
A: My research is pretty personal! I have four real sisters and have been talking, laughing, fighting and supporting them for decades. We have the same parents but different lives and that’s an important part of the Sweeney sisters as well. In addition, my sisters and I have worked together for twenty years producing a radio show and then a podcast. One of the aspects of working with my sisters that I really appreciate is how we’ve been able to improve our communication personally and professionally over the years. It’s a great lesson because a lot of siblings never break out of childhood roles, but we’ve been able to see each other as adults, despite our shared history. The Sweeney sisters move towards that in the book, creating new pathways of communicating. While still mocking each other about the past!
Q: Is Bill Sweeney, a famous author with a houseful of daughters modeled after anyone specific?
A: Bill Sweeney, the literary lion, is a John Irving meets John Cheever kind of guy. Handsome and charismatic like Irving but with the demons and celebrity of Cheever. I wanted to go back to the days when writers were rock stars, in the Seventies and Eighties. I grew up in Connecticut, where the book is set and have very vivid memories of seeing Robert Ludlum, a local superstar writer, walking on the beach in black socks and sandals. For sure, there is a touch of Ludlum plus dog in Bill Sweeney.
Q: You made some choices with your characters that help to wrap everything up in nice bow by the end. Did you know the ending before you started?
A: Not all the endings specific to each character. I had the sense that I wanted the sisters to reach some kind of emotional détente and move forward with this new configuration of sisters. But some of the characters, like Tim, started out in the book as a one-off mention and turned into a key character in Maggie’s storyline. I did feel the story built to the end and that’s the way it felt as I was writing it.
Q: The girls decide not to sell the family home and two of them end up living there. Do you think returning to your roots means you are living in the past?
A: Oh! I like this question. When I was younger, I would have thought that moving into your childhood home was just giving up, the least adventurous way to lead your life. But as I’ve aged, I understand the longing for history and familiarity. I think you can stay put physically and still move forward emotionally. Maybe that’s why I went back to write a book set in my hometown even though I’ve been away for decades.
Q: What was your writing process? Do you do an outline? Develop the characters and explore each relationship before you start the story? How do you ensure that each person/issue/conflict is completed and resolved by the end?
A: This book came together very quickly. I put together a two-page outline in a day and had a twenty-page synopsis a week later. When it sold, I had a quick timeline so I started right in with a scene-by-scene outline that took about two weeks to write and then I plunged in. I had the major plot points sets and a general idea of the character arcs. But I needed some reworking of the structure after the first draft. Once I got the right structure in place, it made it easier to resolve the arcs and the plotlines. Most were in place from the beginning, but some were happy discoveries along the way.
Q: You refer to lots of local places in Southport, Westport and Fairfield, and it warmed my heart each time you mentioned a place I recognized. What is your connection to Fairfield County and did you visit while you were working on the book?
A: I grew up in Southport/Fairfield and lived there until I went I graduated from college. It was a great place to grow up, right on the water, close to New York City. My friends and family are still in the area and I’ve been back many times since for reunions, weddings, book tours and funerals. I did make one visit to specifically scout locations for the book because it’s amazing what you forget over the years like the names of roads or what stores are still open. But what you don’t forget in the overall feeling of the place, the sense of community and propriety. And the beauty. I did have a handful of current residents read the book before it went to print to make sure that I had captured the essence of the place as it is now. They assured me I had!
Q: What have you read during this period of social distancing and what do you recommend?
A: I loved The Ancestors by Danielle Trussoni. Great storytelling with a Gothic vibe set in Italy. Not my usually fair, but it took me away and kept me turning the pages. For pure fun, laughs and inventive plot lines, I recommend We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry about a field hockey team that uses witchcraft to insure a winning season. Set in 1989 in Salem, Massachusetts so wicked good pop culture references. I loved it.
About the Author:
Lian Dolan is a writer and talker. She’s the author of two Los Angeles Timesbest-selling novels, Helen of Pasadena and Elizabeth the First Wife published by Prospect Park Books. Her next novel, The Sweeney Sisters, will be published in 2020 by William Morrow. She’s a regular humor columnist for Pasadena Magazine and has previously written monthly columns for O, The Oprah Magazine and Working Mother Magazine. She’s also written for TV, radio and websites.
Lian is the producer and host of Satellite Sisters, the award-winning talk show she created with her four real sisters. On Satellite Sisters, she’s interviewed everyone from Nora Ephron to Madeleine Albright to Big Bird. Satellite Sistersbegan life as a syndicated radio show and is now a top-rated podcast for women. The recent book by the Satellite Sisters, You’re the Best: A Celebration of Friendship, is popular with book clubs.
A popular speaker who combines humor and heart, Lian has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Sunday Morning and The Today Show and many local TV stations. She’s been a featured speaker at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Santa Barbara Celebrity Authors Lunch, the Literary Guild of Orange County Festival of Women Authors and dozens of other events at libraries, book stores, schools and women’s organizations across the country. In 2020, she’ll be on the faculty of the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop.
Lian graduated from Pomona College with a degree in Classics. She lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, two sons and a big German shepherd.