Recently, I had the pleasure of interacting with a group of retired psychologist, all heterosexual men, who chose Molly: House on Fire as the subject for their reading group. It is my understanding that they enjoy taking a book apart and fleshing out the behaviors, analyzing the characters and themes in great detail. I wish I had been a fly on the wall during the weeks, (yes, they spent weeks,) they discussed this book. Imagine my delight at the comments shared with me from this group of professional behaviorists: "Well told story - Attention to detail excellent - Engaging characters - Funny, balanced, moving, evocative, well paced - Well researched - Sound psychological profiles - Good character development and evolution." I was beyond happy with this assessment from a demographic I hardly expected to read this novel. Molly crossed into territory I could not have imagined and passed the test. For that, I am humbled and extremely proud.
I happily volunteered to answer questions from the group. It became apparent right away that these men saw things in Molly's story I thought only I knew. The following is most of that question/answer session. Some parts were excluded from this blog, because... well, because a girl has to have some mystery. So here goes my session on the virtual couch:
1. What led you to the decision to take the risk and write something that was obviously so personal?
The ten-year-old girl you find in the prologue led me by the hand into this book. Writing those first pages triggered a reaction in me that I was not expecting. I had no idea what that little girl was going to say and do when I sat down at the keyboard that day. I had an inkling of what Molly had lived through, but not the whole story until she told me. I wrote the scene dry-eyed and focused. I then turned to my wife and read it to her. I reached the part where the child says goodbye to Sam and I broke. I could not read aloud anymore. I had no idea where all that emotion was coming from. It took me a few minutes to gather myself and then it hit me. There is a small child in all of us that remains unhealed and hurt. Be they big or small injustices, to that child… well, she remembers. I was unaware of how this book would influence me and the soul searching it would evoke. In a way, as you seem to have noticed, I cleaned my own closets right along with Molly. While the circumstances of my birth and my two-parent, middle class home were in no way comparable to Molly's dysfunctional beginnings, I discovered I still had some childhood issues to work through. What I found most intriguing during the process was that Molly helped me, and not the other way around. Empathy is a strong emotion and what I think drove this book.
2. This book clearly was a test for your readers? Was the question...How many of you are paying attention? How much do I risk revealing? or something else?
I play the “Are you paying attention?” game with readers all the time. I admit to peppering my novels with true emotions and experiences. The game is in detecting which ones are real. To quote a favorite movie line, "The secret's in the sauce."
In this case, I feel a connection with Molly that is stronger than all my other characters. She was my inside joke, my little surprise, popping up in all my novels. That said, I felt a responsibility to her to tell her story in a believable setting. I really knew nothing about her other than the few things I’d written in the other stories. I had to ask myself, who is Molly Kincaid? I looked at what she said and did in those novels and, like the actor I once was, questioned everything. Why did she say the things she said and react the way she did? How the hell did she get all that money? Why is she alone?
"Why is she alone," became the clear through-line to follow. I wanted to write a happy little romance, but that just didn’t ring true, not with the clues I had to Molly’s behavior. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the writing process that I knew I was sharing more with Molly than I thought. Love is love and pain is pain, so I fell back on my acting skills and empathy. I didn’t have to live that life to understand the emotions Molly was experiencing. I simply had to use the “magic if” of my method acting days. (Stella Adler be praised.) My quest was an honest portrayal of a woman who knew how to get up when she got knocked down. I wanted Molly to find the peace I found. I wanted Molly to know that somewhere out there was the person she could trust with her heart, baggage and all. After all, my true story has a happy ending. Molly deserved nothing less. It took some distance from the material to realize how cathartic this book was.
3. Besides Leslie, what was Molly's motivation to change? What led her to be ready now?
The answer to this question lies partially in the novel Before It Stains, (published before House on Fire,) which examines Molly’s relationship with her first love. That interaction had to have caused Molly to reevaluate the way she was living her life. She’s approaching forty and looking back a bit. With all that going on, she was required to go back to her roots in this book. Molly is forced to examine the choices she made and put some things to rest. Leslie came along at just the right time. If you noticed, Leslie holds a mirror up, forcing Molly to see what she sees. Molly also has to break before she can mend. Leslie is there to see it all and she doesn’t run away. Learning she can be weak and survive, is just as important as Molly knowing she overcame great obstacles to become the woman she is. Part of her growth is recognizing she can trust someone and Leslie is that person.
4. What do you think it would take to expand your audience? What is the feedback you have gotten from the heterosexual community?
The few interactions I’ve had with heterosexual readers, outside of this group, have been positive. I have been asked if I would change my characters to heterosexuals in order to go mainstream. Here’s my take on that. I write about life. My main characters happen to be lesbians. I include doing the laundry, cooking breakfast, and other details of normal human interaction, because I think it’s important that readers see that homosexual relationships are like any other. I read heterosexual novels and think nothing of the sexuality of the characters. I wish for the day when sexuality is not as important as what the author has to say. Until that day, I’ll continue to write lesbian fiction in this small genre. It’s what I know. The only drawback I’ve found with writing lesbian fiction is constantly having to say, “No, I don’t write porn or erotica.” Stereotypes die hard.
5. How do you think your books differ from others in the genre? From our perspective, they are inclusive of all readers; this is not what we get from other books that have a lesbian theme.
My life is full of all kinds of people, so the characters in my books deal with them too. Again, I hope that I’m just showing life as it is, all inclusive, beyond our personal differences. The difference I see in my books and others in the genre lies mainly in the labeling itself. In this small niche, you will find lumped together everything from hard-core porn to wonderful stories with no sex at all. It’s hard for readers to sift through the muck to find the kinds of stories they want to read. Each reader is unique, with different opinions on what they like. I’ve been criticized for the descriptive passages of the landscapes and detail in my novels. On the other hand, that is also the #1 compliment I get from readers. Some like that the sex is not graphic, some don’t like the fade to black and want all the details. I guess what I’m saying is, the genre is so varied, it’s hard to say I’m different, just maybe mislabeled, as many are. In the end, I just want to write and let the labels take care of themselves.
6. How would you have written this book differently 10 years ago? How would you/ Do you think you would write it differently 10 years from now?
Oh Lord, ten years ago that would have been a very different book. I’m sure there would have been much more anger expressed and a bit of, "Why me?" I’m older and wiser now, and I don’t need anti-anxiety meds anymore. That should tell you something.
Ten years from now, who knows? I think I got it right. I’m happy with who Molly turned out to be.
7. What led you to choose this theme for the book?
Righting wrongs, facing the truth, making peace with your past… If you mean those themes, then it was Molly’s character that suggested them. From the time she appeared on the page of my first novel, Molly was a champion. Champions rise above… out of the ashes, so to speak.