Book club webchat with Ellen Feldman
It tells the story of Babe, Millie and Grace, three childhood friends in Massachusetts whose men go off to war. By the time peace returns, the women have experienced changes that move them in directions they never dreamed possible.
As their lives change, so does America - from a country in which people know their place in the social hierarchy to a world in which women's rights, the Civil Rights movement and technological innovations present new possibilities and uncertainties.
TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
Ellen Feldman: I think I'd say that if you don't have to write, don't. By that I mean if the need to put words to paper and tell stories is not a driving force of your life, if you can go for weeks without writing, don't let yourself in for all the disappointment and heartbreak of writing. If, however, you begin to feel anxious when you go for a period of time without writing, go to it. When the writing is going well, few things in life are better.
CountrySlicker: Which came first, the characters or the setting? Did Babe, Millie, and Grace grow out of your research on this era or were you looking for a backdrop to set them and their lives against?
Ellen: Ah, the chicken-and-egg question. I had wanted to write about this period for a long time because I consider it my heritage. I grew up on these stories and Millie and Grace were based on real characters, as was Mac, the doctor. But I'm a fiction writer and once I start writing the characters become my own.
GerMom7: How do you find the editing process? Did you work with the same editor for both books and build a relationship with him/her? And with the publishing process, do you feel that the book is taken out of your hands somewhat?
Ellen: I had published the previous three books with the same editor, but for Next To Love I moved to a different publishing house and a different editor, both of whom I adore. I also adore Picador, my UK publisher.
Both my old editor and my current one are very respectful of writers and their work. I never felt I was being browbeaten in any way. That said, publishing is a difficult business undergoing great change and I've been around for enough books to know that I don't have a lot of control over marketing, publicity etc. I've also been around long enough to know they know more about these matters than I do.
Champagnesupernova: The woman on the cover is beautiful but I, for one, was very glad I was reading on a Kindle and didn't actually attribute the face to the characters I was reading.
Ellen: A writer has little to say about the covers of her books. But I think publishers, market people and art directors perhaps have a better sense of what works than I do.
NYmomma: Did you know everything that was going to happen before you started the book? For example, did you know that Claude and Babe wouldn't have children and that Babe would become an activist? Did you know what Jack would do at the end of the book? Did you know how Amy would turn out?
Ellen: I knew some of the things you mention, but not all. I knew how Amy would turn out, and Jack too, and had some ideas about Babe, but not that they wouldn't have children or some other details. I wasn't sure whether Grace would have an affair with Mac or not until I got to know her. I think that's the writing process. We don't really know our characters when we start out, and we only plumb their depths as we write.
Whereismywine: Were there any 'endings' that you wrestled with or that nearly went another way? I was rooting for certain people to end up together. I did really enjoy the scope of the story though in terms of time.
Ellen: I wrestled with all the endings (I wrestle with everything I write), especially how the two children Amy and Jack would turn out, but also how Babe would survive. When you say you were rooting for certain people to end up together, I assume you mean Grace and Mac. Other readers have said the same thing and, to tell the truth ,I wanted them to as well, but I knew Grace would never divorce her husband or run off with another man. It just wasn't in her character, in terms of the era in which she lived.
GerMom7: Had you read something in particular which inspired you to write about the war? Did you have a story in mind that you wanted to tell, or did the story evolve while you researched the era?
Ellen: It wasn't so much reading stories about the war, though I did read a lot when I started working on the book, but I grew up with stories about the war. It was my heritage.
Typicalvirgo: How do you research a character? Are they based on people you know (although I understand you might not like to admit that) or are they made up as the story progresses?
Ellen: In my earlier books, such as Scottsboro, I had to do quite a bit of research because the characters were based on real people, so this involved secondary sources about them, letters, memoirs, and contemporary newspaper accounts.
Millie and Grace in Next To Love were based originally on two women - one I knew as a child and the other, the mother of a friend, I only heard about. They both lost husbands in the war, and they reacted in diametrically opposed ways. One never got over mourning her husband, though she did remarry (unhappily, as it turned out). The other was determined to get on with her life and remarried immediately. I'm not suggesting she didn't grieve, but she was a fierce survivor.
That said, once I started to write the characters became entirely my own and ended up bearing little resemblance to those two women. The third woman in the book, Babe, just sidled up to me one afternoon as I was struggling with the prologue, said "I'll deliver those telegrams for you" and refused to go away. I have no idea where she came from, but characters who won't leave you alone are one of the joys of the writing life.
Beachhutbetty: I had no idea that the Jews suffered so much suspicion and discrimination in post-war America. Obviously, I know about racial segregation but this was something new to learn, along with the points system to decide the order in which people were sent home. Did you take inspiration from anyone in your family who has fought in a conflict? Or did you obtain information from archives?
Ellen: Everything in the book was researched carefully. I read letters from African-American GIs complaining about white soldiers with fewer points going home before them. Similarly, anti-Semitism was rife before, during and after the war. The interesting thing is that about half a million Jewish young men served in the war. They came from large ghetto-ised existences. Those boys who went off to war GI.Jews came home GI Joes (an American term), swearing they would never again be second-class citizens in the country they had fought and lost buddies for. They did much to fight anti-Semitism after the war.
Most of my information came from archives, letters, and memoirs, but my favourite uncle served as a surgeon in the war. He was the inspiration for Mac and, in fact, he never quite recovered from what he had been through at the front.
Beachhutbetty: As an army daughter and wife myself, I could really associate with the emotions of the wives and families. I read with interest the passage where Babe mentions the ability to send letters and photos but there is no 'V-mail' for transmitting voice. I often wonder whether our modern technology makes things harder for us when we are separated. I wonder if anyone else feels that we are sometimes presented with too much information these days, which can be sensationalised and worry people more, do you have an opinion on this?
Ellen: I do have an opinion, but as a military wife, you're the authority. However, I recently read about a chaplain in Afghanistan who, when personal problems between those in service and those at home get too rough, advises them not to phone or Skype or use any technical devises. Stop, think and write a letter, he urges.
Champagnesupernova: Did you intentionally try to make the war bits more vivid and heightened and the aftermath more messy, because that mirrored lots of people's experiences?
Ellen: "Mirrored their experiences" is a wonderful way to put it. Yes, I was trying to tell what really happened to the men and women who lived through the war and to the children upon whom the results were visited.
TillyBookClub: Whilst reading Next to Love I kept thinking 'I wish I'd had this book at school, then I would have understood the war and its aftermath far better'. Fiction worms its way into your head and sticks far better than textbooks. Do you get approached by history teachers/students saying the same thing? Do you teach/have you ever taught any subject?
Ellen: In reverse order, I have taught writing, which everyone knows cannot be taught. Historians are often suspicious of me because I'm a novelist, so with each book I've had to prove myself - that I've done the research, that I'm not misrepresenting or romanticising etc. But one of the great joys is when someone who has lived through what I've written about tells me I got it right. I've received lots of emails from wives who lived through the war thanking me for writing the book, and even a man who fought in it.
Similarly, with Scottsboro, an African-American lawyer told me he had always known about the case but he'd never really felt it in his blood. These are the things writers live for.
Southlondonlady: I found the part about the women following their men to the camps really interesting, I hadn't heard about this before. How did you research it, and was violence towards the women common? I found the rape scene almost unbearable to read.
Ellen: I found the rape scene almost unbearable to write, and I have a male friend who was undone by it. I'm not suggesting that America during the war was awash in sexual violence, but rape is, of course, very much a part of war - mostly in war zones, but you can't send millions of young men away from home, strip them of everything familiar and tell them they stand a good chance of dying without turning up some nasty behaviour.
In one of the memoirs I read, by a young woman who followed her husband to the camps (as many did, though the government asked them not to), she is warned by an older wife to be careful getting in taxis, or letting a strange man lead her to someplace where he says he knows she can find a room, because of rape.
NYmomma: I loved reading from each perspective - all three women are unique - but I wondered if you had a favourite or if you enjoyed writing from one perspective in particular?
Ellen: I suppose they're all my children, but I confess to falling more and more in love with Babe as the book went on. I admire and love Grace and Millie, but Babe and I are, I think, more alike.
TillyBookClub: Did you intentionally make Babe the non-widow because you didn't want her story with Claude to end? Had you played about with swapping alternative futures for each woman?
Ellen: The reason Babe was not widowed was because I wanted to explore the two extreme reactions to losing a husband, based on the women's stories I'd heard, and represented by Grace and Millie. I didn't want all three of them widowed, and I did want to explore what it was like for the men who came home.
Southlondonlady: What Babe goes through and also her character - she is the most modern thinker in many ways - serves to highlight how different the world was for women at that time. Was that intentional?
Ellen: It was entirely intentional. The war changed the lives of many women - gave them freedom, jobs, income - but after the war they were supposed to go back to their old lives. Some were happy to; others less so.
But the women who made the feminist revolution of the 1970s were the daughters of the women who went out to work in the 1940s. They just couldn't get the genii back in the bottle.
Icannotfly: I'm from Eastern Europe, where the effects of WWII are still present. I'm thinking about my grandmothers while reading it - I might like them more now. Thank you for that.
Ellen: If I can make you like your grandmothers (who obviously suffered through a great deal in Eastern Europe) better, I am one happy writer. Thank you.
Ellen: The party line during and after World War II was that the Rosie the Riveters, government girls and other women who took over men's jobs could not wait to hand them back to returning veterans and go home to their cooking, cleaning, and sewing. But at the war's end, many of the women were far from eager to relinquish their work. They had enjoyed making their own decisions and their own money. It was the World War Two riff on the First World War song, "How ya' gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree."
But 16 million men were taking off their uniforms and looking for work, and the dissatisfaction of the women was nothing compared to the possibility of mass unemployment and social unrest. However, a few industries that catered to women, such as fashion and food, recognised a problem and saw opportunity in the solution.
The fashion industry fired the first salvo. While the trousers and short skirts of wartime encouraged women to stride and reach, Dior's New Look was intended to keep them in place. Who could move in those tight bodices, cinched waists, and yards and yards of long full skirts?
The women's service magazines also got into the picture. During the war, women who were on an assembly line or in an office all day were still expected to get dinner on the table each evening. With that in mind, the March 1944 issue of Good Housekeeping featured recipes illustrated with twin clocks showing start and finish times. After the war, the idea was to keep a woman in the kitchen for as long as possible. A 1950 dinner recipe in the same magazine begins preparations right after breakfast. Similarly, the dish that opens Babe's eyes in the novel (which comes from an actual cookbook of the early postwar years) calls for 32 ingredients.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes wrought by the war was America's newfound prosperity. The huge industrial machine that had geared up to supply the war could now turn to making products for peacetime.
Meanwhile, the GI Bill made it possible for veterans who had never dreamed they'd own their own homes, or start their own businesses, or go to college, to do just that. Add to that the growth of unions and suddenly America had a burgeoning middle class with money and, starting in the fifties, credit cards in its pockets. Suddenly, America was awash in houses and cars and washing machines and dishwashers and televisions and cameras and pressure cookers and long-playing records and all sorts of things Americans never knew they needed. But were they happy? This leads to another post-war change.
Plastic surgery as a medical specialty began during World War One and came of age during World War Two. After the war, there was suddenly an army of well-trained surgeons with no patients. There was also a population with discretionary income. It was a marriage made in heaven. The war ended up transforming not only the way we live but the way we look.
JustineMumsnet: It struck me all the way through the book that it was very visual and would make a fab movie. Have you been approached/optioned? Or maybe Spielberg is already shooting?
Ellen: There's movie interest – there's always movie interest; Hollywood is always afraid it's going to miss something – but nothing concrete yet.
gailforce1: I loved Next to Love and I am half way through Scottsboro and I'm engrossed. I believe that you have written two other books - can you tell us a little about them please?
Ellen: Scottsboro is a fictional account of a heinous chapter in recent American history. Nine young African-American men were tried and sentenced to the electric chair, repeatedly, for rapes that never occurred. But one of the most interesting aspects of the case, and one that comes in some ways to dominate the book, is the story of the poor semi-literate white girl who cried rape, then recanted, then cried rape again, and recanted again, and so it went.
The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is about the aftermath of the Holocaust in America. It posits that Peter, the boy who was in the secret annex with Anne, survives, comes to America, realises the American dream, and is haunted by his secrets for the rest of his life. The odd thing is that after I wrote the book I found many people who had lived such a story.
Lucy, the story of Franklin Roosevelt and the great love of his life Lucy Mercer, has not yet been published in the UK, though I'm hoping it will be. BBC4 broadcast a short story connected to the novel.
Champagnesupernova: I hadn't read any of your work before, which book of yours should I read next?
Ellen: The two other books that are out in the UK are Scottsboro and The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank. I love them both - they're all my children - but I suppose Scottsboro, because that was the one that was shortlisted for the The Orange Prize.
TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
Ellen: I fell in love with the Betsy-Tacy novels by Maud Hart Lovelace early on and read them through more than once. Looking back now I realise that one of the reasons I adored the books was that Betsy was, from the age of five, a storyteller and writer in the making.
Vdelacruz: Could you recommend a book, something you've liked that you've read recently? I've recommended yours left and right for Christmas presents.
Ellen: I'm delighted you liked it and are recommending it to everyone. Writers have to live too. There is a book by Australian writer Madeleine St John, which was just re-released in the UK, called Women in Black. It's superb. I urge everyone to get their hands on a copy.
TillyBookClub: What you are working on right now?
Ellen: I'm working on a novel set against the cultural cold war of the 1950s and 60s. It's a story of a marriage and a country betrayed.
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