You may want to grab a copy of a few favorites of mine from 2018; all of these great books left me thinking and wanting to discuss.
White Houses by Amy Bloom, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her lover, The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya, about a young girl who escaped the Rwandan Massacre, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, about two young men who journey toward their truth and His Favorites by Kate Walbert about teenage vulnerability.
There are so many books to read, sometimes it can be overwhelming to decide what to choose. For money conscious bookclubs and for those who prefer an actual book over a kindle, it is nice to choose titles that are available in paperback – less expensive and lighter to carry.
Prepare for the fall and pick up a few great reads to have on your nightstand.
Jenna Bush Hager, news personality, author, journalist, daughter of George W. and Laura Bush and co host of Today (the fourth hour of NBC’s news program), and actress, producer and entrepreneur, Reese Witherspoon have had a wonderful impact on the success of so many books by choosing them for their reading lists.
The sought after publicity is golden for authors, and monthly recommendations come fast a furious for us readers…not always so easy to keep up!
Colts quarterback, Andrew Luck may be walking off the field, but he is sure to keep busy with his book club that has been going on for several years.
The Andrew Luck Book Club encourages younger and older folks, he calls them rookies and veterans, to read each month, and with over 15,000 followers on instagram, #ALbookclub is accomplishing its mission!
Here are some of these book gurus’ recommendations:
Oliver Sacks, the bestselling author and professor of neurology wrote many books about his patients, his own disorders and nature, including the notable, Awakenings. In his final compilation of essays, Everything In Its Place, he talked about a myriad of topics, from his love of libraries, to how cold temperatures stop the growth of cancer, from dreams and near death experiences to medical case studies and a town where everyone has Tourette’s Syndrome. He was a true, deep thinker and scientist who studied the past.
Oliver swam every day, was severely shy and suffered from prosopagnosia (was unable to recognize faces). He was celibate for 40 years and was private regarding his sexuality. He passed away in 2015 at 82 years old from cancer. Everything In Its Place consists of his essays that were configured into this book and released post mortem.
Sacks lived alone, focusing on his work most of his life, but in his seventies he fell in love and enjoyed a wonderful 8 years with author and photographer, Bill Hayes. Bill wrote the must-read memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, along with 3 other non-fiction books, and a book of photography called How New York Breaks Your Heart. My book club and I had the incredible opportunity to meet with Bill and we discussed his unsurpassable relationship with the brilliant neurologist and learned about their interests and the wonderful friendship and love they shared.
Conversation with Bill Hayes:
Oliver grew up in a Jewish home and left England at 27 years old. He lived at the hospital where Awakenings patients were being housed and he put all his efforts into his job as a physician and neurologist. Oliver had no romantic relationships for most of his life while he concentrated on his work.
Bill Hayes lived in San Francisco for 25 years. He wrote a trilogy about medical history and the human body, and he studied anatomy at UCSF. At 48 years old, in the spring of 2009, Bill moved to NYC to reinvent himself after the devastating loss of Steve, his long time partner of 17 years, passed away suddenly. Previously, Bill had written to Oliver Sacks about one of his books, and coincidently, once in NYC, they ran into each other in the west village and they developed an intellectual and romantic kinship.
Oliver enjoyed the new found companionship with Bill, savoring the time they spent together making dinner and everyday chores like loading the dishwasher. According to Bill, the two men had a deep connection despite their 30 year age difference. They were kindred spirits, and both had been through a lot. Bill says Oliver was “chronically quotable, hilarious, eccentric and philosophical”.
Oliver had prosopagnosia, and discussed it in his books, bringing this condition to the surface. He was not able to easily recognize faces, something he deemed a “neurological hiccup”. He studied how people adapt to different conditions including bipolar, Alzheimers, dementia, Tourette’s and autism, and wrote about them.
Bill told us Oliver mastered the art of writing. It came easily and fluidly. He wrote longhand with a fountain pen on yellow lined paper. He used no technology, no wifi, and no computer. He had two assistants in his office and they transcribed what he wrote. He composed in his head and generally there were not a lot of revisions.
Oliver insisted Bill keep a journal and six months after he passed away, Bill felt free to write. Using conversations he recorded in his journal, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, was released in 2015. Today it is being made into a film.
Oliver published 16 books and Bill suggested we read Gratitude (4 essays about death that appeared in the NYTimes), and The Island of the Colorblind, which he described as most lyrical.
Oliver’s writing includes medical case histories, essays on human behavior, nature, swimming, and other interests. When compiling this collection, Bill fought hard to include the Why we Need Gardens essay in the book and it was added 6 weeks before Everything In Its Placewent to press.
Our book group was luck enough to see Oliver’s apartment via FaceTime and we asked Bill a few personal questions about himself. He told us he is currently single and dating, although the bar was set high once he met Oliver Sacks. He also willingly shared the important significance of his five tattoos: the end of one life and the beginning of another, I am my own anchor, a Joni Mitchell song, his five sisters and Oliver’s middle name, Wolf.
I highly recommend reading some of Oliver Sacks’ work, and Bill Hayes’ memoir, Insomniac City. Both men are fascinating and a wealth of knowledge, compassion and creativity.
Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, was a British neurologist residing in the United States, who has written popular books about his patients, the most famous of which is Awakenings, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. CLICK HERE FOR MORE.
Having someone read to you is a joy we come to appreciate as a child and recently I indulged and listened to Dear Wife by Kimberly Belle. Easy to follow, full of suspense with cliffhanger moments at the end of each chapter…I was addicted from the very beginning!
Beth has been planning an escape from her abusive husband for a long time. We go on the journey with her as she escapes the danger and runs away, fighting for survival, trying to create a new identity while at the same time hoping to leave bogus clues to lead the man she fears far away from her.
Sabine is missing when her husband Jeffrey arrives home from work. He can’t imagine where she might be; her personal belongings are still intact and he is distraught over her disappearance.
Marriage may not be easy and Marcus the detective takes a good hard look at Jeffrey and Sabine’s history as he is investigating the case of her disappearance. Told from three points of view, Author Kimberly Belle creates unbearable tension as she reveals clues every step of the way to help us piece together what really happened; Is Beth really Sabine? Did Jeffrey kill his wife? What secrets are they hiding?
Nothing like a fast paced mystery to listen to as you walk at the beach! Loved listening to Dear Wife and recommend it if you are looking for a fun escape that keeps you guessing!
Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of five novels, including the domestic suspense, Dear Wife (June 2019). Her third novel, The Marriage Lie, was a semifinalist in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller, and her work has been translated into a dozen languages. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Belle divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.
Lila Bennett’s life is not run of the mill. She is a young, upwardly mobile criminal defense lawyer, has had the challenging experience of defending the guilty on more than one occasion, and has stepped on some toes along the way to achieve her success. Questions regarding her moral and ethical decisions plague her psyche when it comes to her job and her past personal life choices, and to add to her confusion, conflicting emotions when it comes to her best friend’s husband has lead her to make some recent choices that could jeopardize her own marriage.
Lila’s life could go in two different directions…and in The Two Lila Bennetts, and in Sliding Doors fashion, they do! In one case, Lila leaves her office at night, gets captured and held hostage by a masked assailant in an undisclosed location, while being forced to repent for her bad choices. In another case she is being followed and emotionally tortured with hints and clues about her checkered past as they slowly become public.
Authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke take us on an emotional and thrilling ride, following through with Lila’s parallel lives; we are faced with unexpected twists and turns every step of the way as the anticipation builds. Lila must re-evaluate her choices and figure out who is out to get her before it is too late…and even if she does, can she return to her life as it once was?
Q: You have said that writing Girls’ Night Out Together practically ended your partnership and The Two Lila Bennetts brought you back together. Can you explain?
The edit of GNO was very challenging and we found ourselves at an impasse. For so many years we had been on cruise control, not really discussing the particulars of how we do things. And that worked until we were pushed to the limit with that edit. (We rewrote a large portion of the book FOUR times!)
But ultimately, hitting rock bottom was the best thing that could have happened. It gave us an opportunity to start fresh and understand each other and our work processes better. Lila was a joy to write and edit, and it felt like a fresh start.
Q: I am curious about your process…how did you split up the writing? Did one of you write Lila captured and the other write Lila free?
A: One of the lessons we learned from Girls’ Night Out was that we both need to be fully invested in every narrative and/or timeline. So because of that, we would alternate which one of us would begin a free or captured chapter. Then we would pass the chapter back and forth, editing until we were both happy.
Q: I love how there were hints of a double life when Lila free had unexplained soreness and dejavu. Did you add those references in the edit stage or right from the beginning?
A: They were there from the beginning! We thought it was important for Lila to subconsciously be aware of both lives.
Q: Who came up with the “Sliding Door” concept? (I never saw the movie but it is now on my list!)
A: Liz’s fourteen-year-old daughter! We were creatively depleted after the GNO edit and she tossed out taking the Sliding Doors concept (we’d forced her to watch the movie!), and creating a suspense novel. That’s why we dedicated the book to her.
Q: Without giving anything away, did you stick with a plan for each of your characters or did things change during the writing process?
A: We changed the kidnapper in edits. Both our agent and editor thought it was too obvious, and they were right!
Q: Being a lawyer that defends guilty people is defiantly a challenge and can wear on you morally. How did you come up with the idea for your title character?
A: We wanted Lila to have a career that had a lot of moral gray area to give her room to make questionable choices. She’s at a point in her life where she’s questioning many things, including her choice of career.
Q: Even though Lila wronged people in her life, she was still likable and I rooted for her until the end. How do you create a balance of good and evil but keep your heroine intact?
A: It’s really tough! The most important thing is to create interesting protagonists and to show the reader why they are the way they are. With Lila, she had made many bad choices, but that didn’t mean she was a terrible person, and it also gave room for growth in her arc.
Q: If this book were to become a movie, who would you want to play Lila, Ethan, Sam and Carrie?
A: For Lila–Krysten Ritter Carrie-Kate Hudson Ethan-Mark Ruffalo and Jay Hernandez for Sam
Q: What books do you have on your nightstand and what do you recommend?
A: Liz is reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean and Lisa just finished Ask Again, Yes. We have so many books on our TBR! Some include: This is Not How It Ends by Rochelle Weinstein, Love at First Like by Hannah Orenstein and Breathe In, Cash Out by Madeline Henry
Q: Can you tell me a little about your next book?
A: We’re switching things up a bit next summer with a dark love story! It’s called How To Save a Life, and it’s about a man named Dom that must figure out how to save the love of his life when she re-enters his life after a ten-year absence. Think Russian Doll meets One Day in December.
The McCarthy Era, NYC theater, and the Chelsea Hotel…Fiona Davis has treated us to another wonderful novel, The Chelsea Girls!
I love the historical setting of the Chelsea Hotel in NYC in the 1950s, with writers, actors and musicians in residence; what an interesting place to live during the McCarthy era when there was a threat of blacklisting.
Hazel is a playwright and upon her return from being on tour with the USO in Italy, and against her parents’ will, she moves out of her childhood home and into the Chelsea Hotel to work in theater. Soon after, she is reunited with Maxine, her actress pal from the tour, when she moves to NY and into the same hotel. Their friendship is strong and they end up working together on a play that is headed for Broadway just when the red scare casts a shadow over the theater industry. The hunt for communists becomes prevalent and causes fear and upheaval with the girls and their co-workers. These complicated times presented difficult challenges with friendships that threatened loyalties, and I was rooting for Hazel and Maxine to beat the odds. I found myself absorbed in each of the young women’s stories through the linear storytelling, and the deep dive into their friendship we learn through narration, conversation and diary entries. The Chelsea Girls was compelling, interesting, educational and satisfying.
The history Fiona Davis shines a light on is enlightening and google-worthy in all of her novels and The Chelsea Girls is no exception. Many notable people have lived in the Chelsea Hotel over time…including Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Dennis Hopper, Jane Fonda, Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Bette Midler, and due to the many deaths that occurred there, The Chelsea Hotel is known for its’ famous ghosts that are present.
A wonderful story that includes history, NYC and friendship, I highly recommend The Chelsea Girlsand all of Fiona’s other novels too (The Dollhouse – takes place at The Barbizon Hotel, The Address – takes place at the Dakota, and The Masterpiece – takes place at Grand Central Terminal)!
Q & A with Fiona Davis
Q: I love the setting of The Chelsea Hotel for your newest novel…how did you come across it and decide to use it as a backdrop for your book?
A: I knew I wanted to have the plot be about two women trying to mount a play on Broadway during the McCarthy era, and the hotel made the perfect location, as several of its residents were investigated by the FBI during that time, one was even imprisoned, and the place has been a political and artistic hotbed since it opened in 1884.
Q: The acting and theater challenges Maxine and Hazel faced were authentic and believable. How has your background impacted how you wrote about them?
A: I think maybe my background offered specificity when it comes to the details of putting a show up on Broadway, and I have no doubt that having read a lot of plays helped me when it came to writing dialogue. When I acted in a theater company when I first came to New York, we did everything behind the scenes – from costume design to selling tickets – so it was a crash course in how a play gets mounted as well as the many obstacles involved in producing.
Q: The age of McCarthy and the witch hunt for communists took a toll on the people in the entertainment business in the Chelsea Girls- can you tell me a little about what happened during that time period in real life?
A: One of the best books to read on the subject is Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time. She describes the initial reaction that the witch hunt as a joke. They figured since they were innocent of anything illegal, it would all disappear in time. Instead, the circus grew stranger and stranger and more threatening, and her account of testifying before Congress will send a shiver up your spine.
Q: I love the how the chapters alternate between the two main characters. Did you write them in the order they appear in the book? Why did you choose to have only Maxine keep a diary?
A: I wrote the book in order, going back and forth between Hazel’s perspective and Maxine’s. I liked the way that their perspectives offered up a different viewpoint as to what was going on, depending on their own opinions and backgrounds. I wanted to have only Maxine keep a diary so we could get deep into her head, and have a recorded account of the events.
Q: Hazel and Maxine had struggles and I enjoyed both of them so much! Even though there was deceit, their friendship was powerful and necessary in order to sustain composure during those times. Who do you identify with most?
A: I think I identify with Hazel most, as while I loved acting, it wasn’t suited to my more introspective nature. She feels the same way, and finds herself by writing plays just as I discovered so much joy in writing books.
Q: Do you see hints of McCarthy era parallels in reverse today with accusations toward our president of having Russian connections? Is it equally as damaging?
A: It’s amazing how history repeats itself, but I think the way that people are bandying about the term “McCarthyism” today requires a hard look at what really happened, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write about it in the first place. Back then, politicians were trying to find an “other” to demonize, a way to find a common enemy and thereby consolidate their power. My hope is by taking a close look at the past, we can avoid going down the same road again.
A: I’m hard at work on the next book, which is called The Lions of Fifth Avenue and set in the New York Public Library. It’s a big endeavor but I’m enjoying it immensely.
Q: What is on your nightstand to read next?
A: I have two books that are coming out next year to read: Red Letter Days by Sarah-Jane Stratford (which is also about the blacklist, I like to think I started a trend, although I’m sure she’s been working on it for years), and The Girls in White Gloves by Kerri Maher.
Fiona Davis is the nationally bestselling author of THE MASTERPIECE, THE DOLLHOUSE and THE ADDRESS. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theater. After getting a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School, she fell in love with writing, leapfrogging from editor to freelance journalist before finally settling down as an author of historical fiction. Visit her at www.fionadavis.net, facebook.com/FionaDavisAuthor/ and on Instagram and Twitter @fionajdavis.
Decades after Carrie Bradshaw, a young and hopeful writer for a NYC newspaper, and her girlfriends took on the challenges of sex and dating in the big city, author Candace Bushnell re-examines life in her new book, Is There Still Sex in the City?with a new group of female friends as they navigate the highs and lows of middle age today, along with the challenges of mating.
Twenty years ago, Candace Bushnell reshaped the landscape of pop culture, first as a reporter for the New York Observer and then with her book Sex and the City. It became a huge tv hit and spawned two movies, developing a loyal, female following. She published nine books in total, including The Carrie Diaries, a prequel to Sex and the City, and Lipstick Jungle, about successful business women friends and their lives with challenges, perks and sacrifices, both of which were popular tv shows.
Is There Still Sex in the City? is inspired by real happenings, based on Bushnell’s and her friends’ escapades with men, their female friendships and the ups and downs of midlife. A keen social observer, her stories are delivered with distinct style and humor.
I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Candace Bushnell on the eve of the release of her latest book, Is There Still Sex in the City? at the Westport Library in Westport CT in front of a crowd of more than 300 people and we learned how her new book came about and some of her findings when researching middle age dating trends!
After her unexpected divorce, Candace left New York to take some time away and she retreated to CT where she had a house. When Tina Brown asked her to come back to the city and write about middle aged dating she refused, but soon after she received an email from a young woman reporter begging her to help. All of this young woman’s friends were on Tinder and they were unhappy – they needed Ms. Bushnell to jump in and find out what was going on. And so she did.
Back and forth between NYC and the Hamptons, Candace and her middle aged friends were the source of information on how things go over 50. Parents die, kids leave home, people get divorced, jobs are lost and opportunities for reinvention are created during the tumultuous time for women which Ms. Bushnell calls Middle Aged Madness.
She read a funny excerpt from the book about how she was peer pressured into going out on a date with a former Ivy League football star who said he was in his late 60s but turned out to be 75, closer to her dad’s age, and all he wanted was sex.
We talked about technology and its impact on dating today, and Candace referenced her book when saying how there is a whole group of young men in their 20s and 30s who are interested in dating women 30 plus years their senior – this trend is called Cubbing and it can happen to the most unsuspecting of middle aged women!
In her book, she says, “Society colludes to tell men they’re a little bit better than they actually are while it tells women they’re a little bit worse.” She agreed that the MeToo movement has allowed women to stand up for themselves more than before but believes men and women both feel the pressure to stay youthful. There are special surgeries and luxurious creams available to keep women looking and feeling young, but ultimately everyone has to make choices on what they want to invest in based on their own personal comfort level.
We talked about how in the 1990s working for The New York Observer, she was asked to investigate Jeffrey Epstein due to some suspicions about a private plane and models, but was warned by someone close to him to stay away and stop asking questions.
Around the same time Charlie Rose asked her which was more important to her, writing or a relationship and back then her answer was writing. Candace Bushnell’s priorities still stand, as she is passionate about her work and disciplined to accomplish her goals every day. She enjoys spending time with her current boyfriend but they maintain their own residences and alternate time together and time apart.
If you loved Sex and the City and the dating adventures of the iconic women friends in NYC, you will love Candace Bushnell’s new book that is a satirical tale based on her life after divorce and how she and her single, divorced and widowed friends tried to get back in the game in middle age.
Earlier this year the WSJ came out with an article about the new rules of middle age and Bushnell was quoted as saying “We are not going to do our 50s the way everyone is telling us we’re supposed to.” She believes after our reproductive years we are reinventing ourselves, starting new ventures and taking chances and learning new things more than ever before.
Recently the NYT published an article about Bushnell’s Sunday routine which included snuggling with and walking her standard poodles, surfing the internet, writing, exercising and eating. Maybe not what you expected from an ex-party girl, Candace admits to wearing the same pair of pants all the time and going out in NYC without makeup.
When asked which reality show is her favorite, she enthusiastically answered “Married at First Sight“. She believes it is beneficial to have therapists meeting with the couples to give them tips on relationships and coaching throughout the early weeks of marriage.
Filled with heartbreaking and humorous anecdotes revealing adventures and challenges, Bushnell tells it like it is, sex and dating over 50 in all its glory and ugliness… she introduces us to labels she developed to categorize types of men, like the Hot Drop, Bicycle Boy and the Spouse-Child. And of course there are the well preserved Super Middles (middle aged people that are like they were before, only better)… and then everyone else. It’s not easy looking for love and Candace Bushnell keeps up chuckling through disappointments as she and her friends face the challenges of new hopeful romantic relationships and the settling for status quo companionships. Do the vibrant and experienced women over 50 today have strong relationships and good sex in their future?
When asked if there is still sex in the city, Candace says Yes, but probably a lot less. And is the sex good? She says it’s probably the same as it was before – if you enjoyed sex when you were younger you would feel the same over 50.
Hooray for us loyal fans… the fascinating conversation about women and dating over 50 will be played out on the big screen in the future – Paramount Television has picked up the rights to turn this one into a show!
It was a joy to learn more about Candace Bushnell, her life, career and new book, Is There Still Sex in the City? Pick up a copy today for tips and insights about life, love and sex after 50, and enjoy some good laughs!
Candace Bushnell is the critically acclaimed, international best-selling author of Killing Monica, Sex and the City, Summer and the City, The Carrie Diaries, One Fifth Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and Four Blondes. Sex and the City, published in 1996, was the basis for the HBO hit series and two subsequent blockbuster movies. Lipstick Jungle became a popular television series on NBC, as did The Carrie Diaries on the CW.
A perfect combination of literary fiction and suspense, in Searching for Sylvie Lee, Jean Kwok lets us inside the minds of Chinese immigrant sisters Sylvie, Amy and their Ma. Smart, pretty and accomplished, Sylvie is the golden child in the family. Having grown up with her grandmother in the Netherlands, she felt compelled to return there when Grandma became ill. Younger sister, Amy, is shy and insecure. When Amy hears that Sylvie has mysteriously disappeared, she has to pull it together to be strong, and travel overseas to find out what happened to her beloved big sister.
Ma’s relationships with her daughters are complicated; she immigrated to NYC when she and Pa were young and she was pregnant. They were very poor and worked many jobs to stay afloat. Once Sylvie was born they sent her to the Netherlands to be cared for by Ma’s mother, as they thought it would be a better life for her. The feeling of rejection had a huge impact on Sylvie and her other relationships. She stayed in Amsterdam for more than 8 years, and when Ma and Pa had another daughter, Sylvie returned to NY, yet she felt she was called home to be a babysitter for her younger sister, Amy.
Communication barriers and lack of understanding add to the tension of this story and is often the case with immigrant families. The relationship with children can be strained and sacrificed when coming to a new country as the parents have a hard time learning the ways of the new home yet the kids haven’t lived any other way.
Ma’s communication skills are limited because she only speaks broken English, but her thoughts in Chinese are clear and strong. Sylvie spent her formative years in Dutch culture, feeling loved by her Grandma and cousin and on unsettled ground with her aunt and uncle, and Amy was from NY, had hard working, supportive parents but struggled with a stutter and had a hard time expressing herself.
Searching For Sylvie Lee is a story of love…the beauty and the pitfalls, the joy and the heartbreak. An unexpected disappearance becomes a full on mystery, and pain, confusion and misunderstandings are the results of buried family secrets – unintentional hurt is inflicted all around, but does the truth come out too late?
A Chinese immigrant experience in NY and Amsterdam, Searching For Sylvie Leeis full of suspense and wonderful writing. This is one of my favorite books of the year!
Q: What inspires you to write and how do you decide the format and genre?
A: I always write about issues that mean a great deal to me personally. Searching for Sylvie Lee was inspired by the real-life disappearance of my beloved and brilliant brother. I changed the main character to a woman, Sylvie, to escape the gravitational force of the true story, and Sylvie, her younger sister Amy and Ma indeed took on their own lives. However, since I did want to write about a disappearance and the ways in which we are hidden from each other by language and culture, it was natural to shape this book as a mystery surrounding a suspenseful immigrant family drama.
Q: The backdrop for Searching For Sylvie Lee is an immigration story about a family. How similar is your personal story?
A: Like Sylvie, I’m a first generation Chinese American immigrant and my family was also very poor when we first came to this country. Although I wasn’t sent away to be raised by my grandmother the way Sylvie was, I saw firsthand what it was like for every able-bodied person in my family to work day and night just to make ends meet. Even though I did end up going to Harvard and Columbia, I was never considered the golden child in my family – that role was reserved for my brother, the one who disappeared. I was too bad at being a Chinese girl: terrible housekeeper and cook, too opinionated and independent. So when he vanished, I had the same feeling that Amy did, of needing to pull myself together to try to figure out what had happened to my beloved sibling.
Q: The Grandmother took responsibility for Sylvie as a baby and in the end Sylvie felt it was important to be with her when she was ill. Typical family structure with traditional upbringing of the children by the parents was not the route this family took. How did you come up with this scenario? Can you tell us about your grandparents?
A: I actually never met any of my own grandparents because they were left behind in China when we emigrated. However, as the youngest of seven children, I often felt like my parents were in some ways my grandparents too, since they were the age of my friends’ grandparents. I also know many people who either needed to send their children back to their grandparents to be raised because they couldn’t afford to keep them or were sent back themselves as children. So the loving relationship between Sylvie and Grandma is something I understand deeply, even though I didn’t know my own grandparents. I watched my own parents grow older and more frail.
Q: I enjoyed all of the details that added to the richness of your story: the bike riding, the music lessons, the trip to Venice, the apple tart…where do you get your ideas?
A: Actually, all of the instances of flirtatious Dutch men on bicycles actually happened to me, which is not as fun as it sounds because my biking skills are even worse than Amy’s. When a huge Dutch guy swung himself onto the baggage rack of my little bicycle as I rode by, I lost control and we almost dove into a canal, which was terrifying because like Sylvie, I can’t swim! I like to use incidents from real life in my books and I also enjoy interviewing people and adding slices of their lives.
Q: I love that each of your main characters, Sylvie, Amy and Ma express their points of view in alternating chapters and yet the reader is the only one that sees the full picture. How did you decide to write it this way and what was your process? Did you have to make an outline or organize in any way before you started?
A: One of the questions that Searching for Sylvie Lee asks is, “How well do we truly know the people we love most?” In many immigrant families, the children adopt the dominant language of the country, English, while the parents still struggle with it, resulting in parents and children who no longer speak the same language fluently. I combined those two ideas by having the novel be told by three different narrators – Sylvie, Amy and Ma – all thinking in their own languages: Dutch, English and Chinese. Of course, the book’s written in English but since the inner dialogue is in each woman’s own mother tongue, we are able to get to know each of them in a way that the others can’t. So Ma thinking in Chinese is a much deeper, more complicated person than Amy, her own daughter, will ever know because Amy can only hear the Ma who speaks broken English.
I did outline the entire novel before I started writing. The release of information and clues is essential to the pacing of the book, so I had to figure out where to place the Facebook messages, newspaper articles, etc. to keep the reader turning the pages. Many details changed over the course of the novel but I was constantly backing up to check that the overall structure of the book was working well.
Q: Many of your characters have secrets and throughout the story you provide us with clues right up until we learn the truth. Did the clues appear naturally or did you add them in after you wrote the book?
A: I planned everything from the very beginning and I did know exactly how the book would end. I personally need to know the ending in advance because the progression of the entire novel is shaped by the ending. I always hope that my work will be both entertaining and enlightening, so I want the reader to enjoy the ride. I’m anticipating the reader experience throughout so that the ending is hopefully both surprising and yet earned.
Q: Sylvie is smart and pretty and looked upon as a being successful…Amy is insecure and lacks direction, but deep down, it seems these sisters are more alike than different. Can you give us some insight and tell us which one you relate to most?
A: I definitely relate to both of the sisters. I have the same perfectionist drive as Sylvie but am sadly not as talented, so I can identify with Amy who always felt like she was in Sylvie’s shadow as well. In my family, I was never considered smart or successful – that was my brother, and yet, my brother and I loved each other so much. He always took care of me and when we were very poor, he was the person who gave me a blank diary and said, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.” That was the beginning of my life as a writer. So the love that binds the two sisters is very real to me as well.
Q: How long did it take to write this book and did you have to make any majors changes during the revision process?
A: It took about three years to write this novel and it really seemed to flow seamlessly. I sketched out the story and started writing. There were minor revisions along the way but it almost seemed to write itself. I have a wonderful editor who helped me enhance the relationships, and she also let me know when the foreign languages needed to be pruned back a bit, that sort of thing, but basically, the book has remained unchanged from its initial conception.
Q: This book is a beautiful combination of compelling fiction with well developed characters, varied and descriptive background settings and an addictive mystery. Do you recommend any other books that have a similar storytelling or other authors that have accomplished the same?
A: Thank you for your kind words. I think that Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is a wonderful novel that is similar in that it’s a page-turner wrapped around an immigrant family. This novel about a murder trial involving a Korean immigrant family after their medical facility explodes is a suspenseful, deep read.
Q: Can we expect another page turner that takes us on a journey from you?
A: I’m working on a new novel right now and it’s about a young Chinese American immigrant woman who comes to the US to start a new life, but that fresh start is threatened when she gets involved with her white English teacher and he dies in a suspicious accident involving her. So indeed, I hope this will be another page turner that deals with deeper issues of immigration, culture, race and language.
Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling, award-winning author of Searching for Sylvie Lee, Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in eighteen countries and taught in universities, colleges, and high schools across the world. She has been selected for numerous honors, including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award international shortlist. She is trilingual, fluent in Dutch, Chinese, and English, and studied Latin for seven years. Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two boys and three cats.