Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Conversation with Meg Waite Clayton

In just five days, you'll be able to read Meg Waite Clayton's newest novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells. Her previous book, The Wednesday Sisters, took Kepler's by storm. Our very own Nancy Salmon (who, I'm almost convinced, can pick out which books will win widespread devotion before anyone else on the West Coast) called it "a literary feast for book lovers that earns a place among those popular works that honor the joyful, mysterious, unbreakable bonds between friends."

A resident of Palo Alto, Meg is one of our favorite local authors. She often stops by Kepler's and sometimes attends our monthly Fiction Book Club. Along with being a novelist, Meg is also a lawyer. Her experiences from law school and the friendships she made there, are part of the basis for her new book, which explores the lives of four women against the background of law, law school, Chesapeake Bay, and past secrets.

FOR YOUR CALENDARS: Meg Waite Clayton will be coming to Kepler's to celebrate the release of The Four Ms. Bradwells on Tuesday, March 22nd, at 7:00 PM. 

Megan Kurashige: The Four Ms. Bradwells is your third novel, after the much-loved The Wednesday Sisters. Was the experience of writing this book, or of having it come out, any different from your previous work?

Meg Waite Clayton: The Four Ms. Bradwells is a friendship story, much like The Wednesday Sisters. But it’s more clearly a mystery than anything I’ve written before. Four law school roommates gather 30 years later at a Chesapeake Bay summer home, on the eve of Betts’s appointment to the Supreme Court, only to have a skeleton fall out of their collective closet. It involves a secret they’ve kept in some ways even from each other, which now threatens not just Betts’s appointment, but their friendship, their reputations, and more. The result is a higher-stakes story than anything I’ve written – a new challenge for me.

The writing was quite a different experience in other ways too. Among other things, I worked with editors from the get-go. Anika Streitfeld brainstormed with me to finalize the proposal she then acquired. And as I wrote it, I could call up my now-editor, Caitlin Alexander, and bounce ideas off her. Once I had a decent draft, rather than sticking it in a drawer for a month or more until I could see what it needed, I sent it to her and had incredibly insightful comments just days later. Rewash, rinse, spin, and repeat as needed until it’s a nice, clean manuscript. I love love love working with Caitlin.

MK: What inspired you to write this particular story?

MWC: I shy away from the concept of “inspiration.” For me, writing is more like going on a mad hunt in the hopes of uncovering something that I can beat on until it makes some small yelp that might turn into words on the page. I read and research endlessly in the never-ending quest for material to shape into story.

I did so enjoy writing The Wednesday Sisters – a story more about my mom’s generation than my own – that the idea of wrapping myself up in the warmth of my own real-life friendships for the long slog through a new book was really appealing. I have such wonderful friends from my law school days, and it seemed our generation and the challenges women of our generation faced – some of which were probably unique to being in the first wave of women entering the professional world in substantial numbers, but most of which turn out to be pretty universal – seemed a good place to start my little hunt.

MK: As a lawyer yourself, what was it like to explore the world of law from a fictional perspective?

MWC: One of the things that never ceases to surprise me is the different paths lawyers take. That’s especially true of women lawyers. In The Four Ms. Bradwells, Betts goes on to teach law at University of Michigan, where the four went to law school together (and, not coincidentally, my alma mater), and Laney goes into politics – not so far afield for law grads. But Mia becomes a journalist and Ginger writes poetry and teaches yoga. Seems a bit odd until you look at my law school housemates: Jenn runs a preschool; Darby raises children and helps revitalize a neighborhood of beautiful old Los Angeles homes that have seen hard times; I write fiction; Sherri is the only one of us who still practices law.

It was also interesting to explore the kinds of things we’ve all experienced since law school, the kinds of things all women – professional and not – have to deal with, from the vantage point of some years later. Lord, we were young and na├»ve. Or at least I was.

Your past two novels have featured strong friendships between women. What do you find compelling about these particular relationships? Do you feel like you’ve explored different aspects of friendship in the two books?

MWC: It can be such a hard thing to believe that you can do things beyond the ordinary. Having supportive friends can help us find the courage to reach for things we don’t always believe we can do. If we fail, well, our friends will still be there. It’s a great luxury to have that kind of support. So I guess in one way I’m trying through my novels to pay the support my own friends have given me forward to a broader audience.

The friendships in the two books are similar in their strength, but different in other ways. In part, that’s generational: the Wednesday Sisters come of age before the second wave of the women’s movement, and have their home lives relatively settled when they meet; the four Ms. Bradwells come of age more than a decade later, leaving them with different expectations and different challenges. Among other things they have to work out the jealousies that arise as they compete for the same honors, the same jobs, and even the same men.

But probably more importantly, the friendship in The Four Ms. Bradwells is tainted in a way the one in The Wednesday Sisters is not. They’ve experienced something awful that for complicated reasons they’ve left undiscussed. The result is a lot of scar tissue building up in the intervening thirty years: bad choices and misunderstandings. So The Four Ms. Bradwells explores a different set of challenges friendship can bring.

The Four Ms. Bradwells is also – this was the biggest surprise to me – more about motherhood than The Wednesday Sisters is, even though the Wednesday Sisters spend most of their daily hours as mothers while the Ms. Bradwells go off to jobs. A bit ironic, isn’t it?

MK: How can stories change the world?

MWC: Oh my … that’s a big question. And of course I’ve brought it on myself by using the Ghandi quote for the epigraph: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Part of the answer, I think, is that through stories we can experience other people’s struggles, and loves, and lives; when we read, we imagine we are the characters we’re reading about. Surely understanding each other better helps provoke change. Look at the differences books like The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird made.

But perhaps as importantly, it’s through stories that we often first realize that we aren’t alone in our own struggles. Coming to understand that others grapple with similar doubts, injustices, emotions, and dreams allows us some sense of company, and knowing others feel what we feel allows for the possibility that if we band together we can provoke change. 

You can visit Meg online.


Julie Hedlund said...

Great interview! I can't wait to read the Four Ms. Bradwells.

Kepler's said...

Thanks, Julie! Yes... The 22nd is going to be an exciting day!