About the Author
Bill Clegg is a literary agent in New York and the author of the bestselling memoirs Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days. He has written for The New York Times, Esquire, New York magazine, The Guardian, and Harper’s Bazaar.
Q: As someone who has been both an author and a literary agent, do you have any advice for aspiring novelists? Is there anything you wish you had been told at the start of your career?
A: Write!! And then write more. And keep it to yourself for as long as you can before sharing with others. The real writing comes in solving the problems that come up after you’ve been at it a while. I flopped around for over a year transcribing notes I’d email to myself all with “Novel” in the subject line, and took even longer taking stabs at how to tell the story that I only sensed I wanted to tell but had no clue as to the specifics. Take your time but don’t dawdle. You have to get comfortable with experimenting and getting it wrong and also staring at the computer screen with nothing to type. All this discomfort and doubt and frustration in the beginning is just what you have to go through to get to the place where something begins to take shape. Sometimes this period can last a long time. Sometimes not. Either way, it’s just as necessary as the days where you feel like you’re transcribing something that already exists and your fingers can’t move fast enough to put down the words that flow so easily (these days are fun and worth waiting for).
Q: Although you’ve written memoirs, Did You Ever Have a Family is your first novel. Did the experience of writing a novel differ? How?
A: The experience of writing this novel was more joyful than writing the memoir. It was exhilarating to discover these characters—their pasts, their particularities. For a long time, I would sit down with more questions about them than answers. With memoir there is a lot to be learned when you sit down to re-occupy and transcribe your past, but the events you remember are only the events that can actually be remembered and the characters, too. What I found so liberating about writing fiction is that the world you are creating, while you are creating it, can be changed and shaped. At a certain point, however, it becomes almost as fixed and real as your own past and allows for only so much adjustment.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Did You Ever Have a Family is intricately plotted, and the tragedy that begins the novel affects characters well beyond the town of Wells. When you began writing did you know how the story would end?
A: I knew the last scene with Lydia and June in the first few months of writing and even wrote what I thought for a long time would be the last words, but I had no idea how to get there. And those words changed, by the way. At the very end of writing this draft, that scene in Room 6 at the Moonstone expanded and involved more description of Lydia than I had initially imagined. Silas, the boy whose chapter opens the story, was the joker in the deck of writing this book. He started out as a minor character and became more crucial as I wrote. Part of this might have to do with the fact that I enjoyed writing his sections. They are the most autobiographical (I worked as a gardener at the end of high school and all through the summers in college).
Q: You describe life in Wells and Moclips so vividly. Where the locations based on any in your life?
A: Wells is a hybrid of several towns in Litchfield County, Connecticut, where I grew up, and Dutchess County, New York, where I spend time now. Moclips, though it is a real town on the Washington State coast, is more imagined and based on visits to Washington State and the Oregon coast—the moodiness and beauty of that area made a deep impression on me.
Q: Elinor Lipman praised Did You Ever Have a Family “I marveled my way through…at not just the masterful writing and storytelling, but the emotional authenticities of every persuasion.” In fact, many of the characters in your novel are flawed in some way and, while some of their actions seem unforgivable, they all seem deeply human. How were you able to flesh out your characters? Could you identify with their choices?
A: I love each of these characters—even and maybe most especially the ones who appear unlovable. I tried to imagine each of their experiences leading up to and including the period described in the novel and through that I could begin to feel compassion for them and see what would cause them to make some of the choices they make. This is something I try to do in life when I am bewildered or upset by the things people do and say. And, of course, this is something I have hoped people would do when my own actions and words bewilder and upset them. I have wanted forgiveness for things I have done and said and, because of this, I think I am now much more likely to forgive—or at least have developed a muscle for seeing beyond how people affect me to where they are coming from. There was something I heard years ago which I later wrote down in the first notebook I started for this novel: Forgiveness is the price of admission for any relationship—family, spouse, friend, colleague—all require at some point the capacity to forgive and the need to be forgiven.
Q: Did You Ever Have a Family is told from multiple points of view. Why did you choose to structure the story in that way? Was it difficult to switch between both the voices of your characters and from first-person narration to omniscient narration as you were writing? Did you write the characters’ sections consecutively?
A: Further to the answer to the prior question, forgiveness requires the ability to imagine into someone’s life enough to see how they might have arrived at the choices they’ve made. To do that is to see outside ones’ own experience. In a story that explores the power of forgiving and being forgiven, it seemed critical to occupy the perspectives of all the major characters—and even a few minor ones as well—to be able to see more clearly the world where these lives happen. I think the question is about structure, which is not directly answered here.
Q: As Did You Ever Have a Family ends, it is unclear what will happen to June and Lydia and where they will go. What would you like readers to take away from the friendship between the two women?
A: I didn’t want to involve a forecast of what would happen next because what is happening in that last scene between Lydia and June is so long-in-the-coming, so hard-won. What matters is that they are now not alone, as they have been from our first glimpse at them at the start of the novel. They have found each other again and they will figure somehow in each others’ futures, wherever that may be.
Q: Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
A: I am working on a story about a family (again!) but in this case it centers on an older man with the beginning stages of dementia who refuses to surrender his independence. He won’t give up his driver’s license or consider help of any kind. His children struggle with respecting his wishes while also trying to protect him and possibly others from harm caused by an accident. It is a situation I am familiar with in my own family and many of my friends’ families. It is heartbreaking on the one hand to see someone have to lose autonomy in their later years but on the other hand it is potentially lethal to have someone driving a car who shouldn’t be on the road. It is into this struggle that I am writing, with more questions than answers for now.
Photo © Brigitte Lacombe