Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Susan Isaacs.
The New York Times bestselling author of thirteen novels, Ms. Isaacs’s fiction has been translated into thirty languages. She adapted her first book, Compromising Positions, for film and also wrote the screenplay for Hello Again (1987). Isaacs is a recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award. A past president of Mystery Writers of America, she currently serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers. Isaacs makes her home on Long Island with her husband.
The author’s latest, Goldberg Variations (Scribner, $26.00), was released in October. Publishers Weekly offered, “Prolific veteran Isaacs…creates a deliciously wicked tale of family dysfunction…time spent with this cheeky and unruly crew is anything but wasted.” Further, Library Journal noted, “Told from the varying viewpoints of every member of the family, Isaacs’s latest is full of sharp observations on its relationships. Fans of her previous novels…and of comparable authors such as Nancy Thayer will enjoy the comic wit of Isaacs’s latest.”
From the publisher:
Imagine King Lear as a comedy . . .
Elegant, amusing, and profoundly nasty tycoon Gloria Garrison, née Goldberg, has a kingdom to bequeath to one of the grandchildren she barely knows. They’re all twentysomethings who foolishly believe money isn’t everything. Just shy of eighty, Gloria doesn’t wish to watch the minutes tick by while the three dither over the issues of their generation—love, meaning, identity. She has summoned them all from New York for a weekend at her palatial home in Santa Fe. She has a single question to ask them: “Which one of you most deserves to inherit my business?” Gloria never anticipates the answer will be “not interested” times three. She created a brilliant, booming beauty business, Glory, Inc., that not only does well, but does good. And they say “no”? What’s so grand about their lives that they would reject such a kingdom?
Daisy Goldberg is not only mad for movies, she’s part of the film industry: East Coast story editor for one of the biggest studios. Her brother, Matt, the über–sports buff, has a great job in public relations with Major League Baseball. And their cousin Raquel Goldberg, half-Latina, all Catholic, is a Legal Aid lawyer. They may like their work, but do they really like their lives? Would they be so foolish as to hold against their grandmother the pain she inflicted on every member of the family? As far as Gloria is concerned, this isn’t about tender feelings. It’s about millions of dollars; it’s about living a life the ninety-nine percent dream of and the one percent know.
The weekend is full of surprises, not only for Daisy, Matt, and Raquel but also for Gloria. Memories have a way of intruding at the most inopportune times. And is Gloria’s tough hide as impenetrable as she has always believed? Susan Isaacs is at her formidable best in Goldberg Variations, a novel that is both wickedly witty and a deeply moving tale of family and reconciliation.
Now, Ms. Isaacs takes readers between the lines of her new book…
1) What inspired the idea for GOLDBERG VARIATIONS?
I was listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations for about ninety seconds when I got distracted by the title scrolling along the screen of my iPod. I thought: Wouldn’t that make a great title for someone’s novel? And within a week or two, there they were, three twentysomethings and their grandmother, Gloria Goldberg Garrison, teetering on the brink of eighty. Well, “there they were” sounds magical, but they were just names – Daisy, Matt, Raquel – attached to one or two characteristics. Giving them life took another 2 ½ years.
2) In addition to the family matriarch, Gloria, the book features a cast of twentysomethings. How do you keep your pulse on vein of this generation – and what are the benefits (and drawbacks) of having children in that age group to draw upon?
Well, my kids are in their 30s and 40s now. But I had a bunch of cousins, adorable tykes, who grew into a delightful and substantive twentysomethings, and I’ve stayed close with them.
It’s a fascinating generation because it’s really the first group of adults who grew up in a more multicultural and tolerant society than I did. So many of the old “shouldn’ts” and “don’ts” no longer apply, and they seem to be pretty kind as a group, and more generous of spirit. I admit I still haven’t determined how deep this goes, but superficially? I find it enormously appealing.
Also, because of film, TV, video games, and the computer, they’re far more visual and less verbal than my generation was. They see things I don’t see. However, they’re often stupefied by style and wowed by celebrity. Despite all the kindness, they have a more easy cruelty when it comes to mocking someone’s looks… Well, at least those of a public someone. But it’s such fun to take three different people in their 20s, see through their eyes, and write in their voices.
3) How have your experiences with the film industry, law and politics influenced your writing? Do you find that having worked on film adaptations of your books changes how you visualize or conceptualize scenes?
I suppose I am more tuned in to politics of all sorts: sexual, family, workplace. Who’s pushing to reach a goal, who’s getting stepped on, who’s savvy enough to see two steps ahead. I notice power plays because they speak not only to a character’s strength, but to how he or she reaches an objective. Politics is a style of observation, the way someone interested in interior design would focus in on what furniture says about an individual.
The worst you can do as a novelist is to visualize a movie. Film is a collaboration: writer, director, actors, cinematographer, art direction, costume design… so many people are essential to the process. When you’re writing fiction, you’re on your own, a god creating a universe. (Note that is “god” with a lowercase g.) You do everything from giving the characters their looks, personalities, ethics, humor or lack of it, political and religious leanings. You create every object in that particular cosmos. It’s your responsibility to make that world as rich and meaningful as possible without throwing in the random flowerpot or meteorological cataclysm that does nothing to enrich the characters or further the story.
4) You began your career writing mysteries. What elements from those books have you transferred to your general fiction titles – and how do you feel that such a background benefits your current storytelling?
A mystery needs a clean narrative line running right through it. No meandering in fields of daisies à la the Victorian novel: the question “Whodundit?” is what propels the characters actions and the plot. That obligation to get on with it, not to meander, has stayed with me whether I’m writing espionage fiction, mysteries, or general fiction. That doesn’t give me license to rush, just to have respect for both plot and character. Ideally, they should be equal partners, each helping to determine the other. In Goldberg Variations, I certainly go into each of the four main characters’ backgrounds, but it’s all to make their actions in the novel more meaningful. Look, here’s the big secret of the fiction biz: the author is writing the novel she most wants to read. I’m the first reader, and I want to be kept interested, just as all my later readers do. Extraneous detail is… well, extraneous.
5) Leave is with a bit of suspense: what can readers expect next?
Right now, I have three characters who were waiting for me to finish my book tour and make Thanksgiving dinner before they set forth their demands. One seems more assertive than the others. She’s grown up privileged…and rootless, with too much traveling, too much excitement. All her life, she wanted to belong somewhere, lead a lovely, normal, slightly boring existence. Well, she has that now, but boredom isn’t as great as it’s cracked up to be. What happens next is a mystery, both as a genre and to me.
With thanks to Susan Isaacs for her generous contribution of time and thought and to Laura Rossi, President of Laura Rossi Public Relations, and the fine folks at Tandem Literacy for helping to facilitate this interview.