I happen to know that you love stories of maroonment, if that’s a word, and that you read Robinson Crusoe and the Bounty Trilogy multiple times as a kid. Oh, and Swiss Family Robinson, which was made into a Disney movie back in the day, this family shipwrecked and alone, all those trips back out to the wreck to collect the stuff they’d need to make their new life in a tree house. And that book Sand you loved in college, from Japan. So claustrophobic, that guy who lived in a house at the bottom of a sand pit? And that girl falls in one day, no great improvement for him? Were any of these in the back of your head as you approached The Remedy for Love?
Bill: Yes, yes, I do love those stories. That moment Crusoe sees the footprint in the sand and realizes he’s not alone. And that story “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad. I think you’d call it a novella now, a long story based on the author’s own experience. This kid goes to sea on a coal boat and somewhere in the far southern ocean the coal in the hold catches fire, and eventually the boat. But that’s just half the adventure—the rest is getting back to England, which the protagonist manages, much as Conrad did. You can’t rest for a second reading that thing. And that’s just what I was going for, but boiled down to a simple snowstorm situation—nothing unusual for Maine—that spirals out of control. Add a woman, as in Sand. And maybe not a footprint, but a moment like that, where everything changes, and one stranded soul realizes he’s not alone. And light the coal on fire, sink that boat. At first, The Remedy for Love is just about one person trying to help another as snow starts falling, and then it’s a disaster. Yet it’s a disaster with certain comforts.
Okay, you’ve got this lonely small-town lawyer, who decides he’s going to help an apparently homeless girl as this huge snowstorm bears down. Sounds like a typical male rescue fantasy to me.
Ouch, no way! I don’t think Eric ever really meant to rescue anyone, just to help a little. Danielle is in so much trouble, and doesn’t realize it. But Eric, as it turns out, is in a whole lot of trouble, too, and might need rescuing himself. The remedy for love and all that! Any fantasies he may have had, meanwhile, are long dashed. And whatever you think of Eric in relation to Danielle, it bears remembering (as some reviewers have not) that I CREATED DANIELLE, TOO!”
Okay, that’s enough shouting. It echoes in here. Now, that title. Why are all the Remedy for Love files in your computer in a folder called “Avalanche”?
Oh, that was an early working title. Way too specific, but it got me started. Then, the working title was Storm of the Century, and that’s the title on the contract, for example, and on all my early correspondence with the publisher, Algonquin. As it was getting close to production time, Kathy Pories, my editor, reported that people there thought Storm of the Century sounded too non-fiction-y. Plus, I’d given it a Google and someone named Stephen King had already used it. Gulp. We kept thinking and trying titles and falling half in love with one or another idea before rejecting it, even as time was running short. Then, middle of the last possible night, I remembered that my friend Liesel Litzenburger, who is a novelist herself (Now You Love Me, The Widower) and an all-around genius, is also a kind of title savant. You can tell her in a few words about your characters and story, and without skipping a beat or taking a breath she’ll calmly tell you your title. So, even though we hadn’t been in touch for a few years, I sent her a very brief description of the book via email, plus a title idea we’d gotten from Thoreau.
Not four minutes later she shot back a reply, mostly tongue in cheek, but not entirely: “Well… yes to Thoreau, but you have to get the word “love” in there to double your sales as you are male, so the HDT quote from his journals, after being shot down in a marriage proposal: ‘The only remedy for love is to love more.’ So then you have A Remedy for Love…” I knew that was it, and tried it on Kathy, and with a quick adjustment to the article, we were done. Thanks, Liesel!
Life Among Giants did so well, and got so many great reviews, not to mention an HBO deal. After all that, was it more difficult to write your next book? Or did that make it easier? Did you find that the whole process of writing the book was different somehow, and if so, how?
It was harder and easier both. Harder just because the new book was so different from the old, easier because I had the sense that there were readers out there… And of course these are my 8th and 9th books, respectively… The process for each book has been different, and each book very different from the last, I can’t explain it… I’m always trying to do the thing I can’t do, and just making it harder for myself. Life Among Giants was a big, sweeping narrative. The Remedy for Love is more intimate. Life Among Giants had dozens of characters operating over several decades, The Remedy for Love is two people, one location, a few days, though back story fills it out considerably… The thread that connects them is the language, I think, and the regard for human foibles…
What’s it been like writing the pilot script for HBO?
It’s a lot of fun, first figuring out how to fit the book properly into six or more seasons, then figuring out how much story the pilot should contain. I’m working with Mikko Alanne, who’s a TV and film pro, and a genius, especially with structure, that parceling out of story. We’re far along in a drafting process that involves turning in scripts, getting notes, and revising… The next big step when the script is done is to get the green light for shooting the pilot. Fingers crossed, of course, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in a great story. Can’t wait to see actors in these roles…
How about Remedy?
I see a movie in it, and maybe a play as well. There’s a lot of interest, but we’re biding our time, trying to get it right. But wouldn’t it be fun to see Eric and Danielle come to life on the screen!
You talk like they’re already alive. And in the book, it’s true, we really get to know those people, mostly via their conversation, which gradually brings forward their past and present lives in the outer world…
That’s true, and because of the small cast, the cabin and the storm itself become characters, locked in their own battle, as do a number of people offstage. And of course Maine becomes a focal point as well, a whole town emerging, again offstage. How do you know so much about small-town Maine?
Hey—who’s interviewing whom here?
Well, you seem quite intimate with the details here. So answer: How did you know what Maine is like?
Like you, I live in exactly that part of Maine, and while we’ve not yet had a storm of quite that magnitude, every winter several old barns collapse under the weight of snow, and porches get torn off, and, at my house, a shed falls down. And I just love nothing more than a couple of feet of snow and a high wind whipping across the fields below the house, just obscuring everything. Here, the snow that falls in November is still there come April. By May, the ground appears, and things you’ve forgotten about, like barbecue grills and picnic tables, slowly emerging. So–it was great fun to set a story in a storm.
It’s so fascinating and really fun, bringing my characters into a new medium and a new reality with the help and full collaboration of some really brilliant people. I hadn’t watched much TV at all in life, and never any of these great premium cable dramas. So I did my homework, which was watching complete sets of all the great shows. I was really impressed with some of them, stuff everyone I know had already seen years before, like The Sopranos. It’s not uniformly great, but much of it is great indeed. I found myself saying, This is where narrative has gone to live! And it’s where people go—the masses, I mean—for their daily human requirement of stories. Who knew? My hope is to make a great show. We just finished the pilot script. Of course there are many more hurdles to leap, such as, will HBO actually order the pilot. We shall see. I’m feeling awfully good about it, and hopeful. But I haven’t quit my day job, which is writing novels.
Both Eric and Danielle are so distinct and fascinating. They never act as anticipated, and they have so many layers to them. How do you go about building a character?
Really, truly, I just write. I start with a thin premise, get the people moving and talking, talking, and pretty soon they begin having deep reality, real presence, and whole complex lives, nothing to do with me, certainly to do with all I know about the world, but characters have their own lives, and often I’ll have to do research, both formal and conversational. Making a character is like meeting someone new and gradually getting to know them as you draft. By the end of a rough first go, you know enough to go back and get all the early stuff right.
Did your characters surprise you?
I was surprised writing these two people, for sure. They found ways to reveal depths I hadn’t known about when I started in. I kept having to revise to catch up with them. Several times I had to stop and do several days of research, just to know what Danielle knew, or to understand her experience. Eric, same, though his revelations are quieter. I was also surprised by the way the storm in my story kept growing. Ten years ago, I don’t think anyone would have believed in this storm, least of all myself. But after Katrina and Sandy and all the typhoons that have wreaked havoc in Asia recently, and after recent winters in Maine, well, we’re all just waiting for it to happen.
Will you be touring? Where can people see you?
I’m on the road as I write. I was a finalist for the $50,000 Kirkus Fiction Prize, and started my travels yesterday with a trip to Austin. I didn’t win (our friend Lily King, also from Maine, took the honors, hooray!), but I’ll always be a finalist! They can’t take that away from me! On to Minneapolis! Anyway, Here’s my tour schedule, with warm thanks to Algonquin, the best publisher in the world, for putting it together. And if your readers come see me and mention your name (and give the secret handshake, like this), they will get a valuable free prize. Or at least a drink at the nearest watering hole (I list the events gone by just to give the full picture):
Tuesday, October 14th, 7 p.m: Longfellow Books, Portland, Maine
Thursday, October 16th, 7 p.m: Jesup Library, Bar Harbor, Maine
Friday, October 17th, 7 p.m: Emery Center, UMF, Farmington, Maine
Wednesday, October 22, Noon: Portland Public Library
Thursday, October 23, 6:00 p.m. Kirkus Prize ceremony, Austin Texas.
Friday, October 24th, 7 p.m: Magers and Quinn Books, Minneapolis, MN [A Whiskey Tour event!]
Saturday, October 25th and 26th, Texas Book Festival, Austin, TX [A Whiskey Tour event!]
Monday, October 27th, 8 p.m: Books and Books,Coral Gables, FL [A Whiskey Tour event!]
Thursday, October 30th, 6 p.m: Watermark Books, Wichita Kansas
Saturday, November 1st, 2 p.m: Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, Denver, CO
Monday, November 3rd, noon, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO
Tuesday, November 4th, 7:30 p.m: Book Bar, Denver, CO
Wednesday, November 5th, 7:30 p.m: Booksmith, San Francisco, CA
Thursday, November 6th, 7 p.m: Rakestraw Books, Danville, CA
Monday, November 10th, 7:30 PM: Powell’s Books (Hawthorne), Portland, OR 97214
Tuesday, November 11th, 6 p.m: University Books, Bellevue, WA
Monday, November 17th, 7:00 p.m: Talking Leaves Books, Buffalo, NY
Tuesday, November 18th, 7:00 p.m: RiverRun Books, Portsmouth, NH 03801
Wednesday, November 19th, 12:00 noon, Lithgow Public Library, Augusta, Maine: public book group discussion.
Wednesday, November 19th, 7:00 p.m., Vile Arboretum (with Lithgow Library): public talk and reading, both Life Among Giants and The Remedy for Love
Monday, November 24th, 7:15 p.m: Georgia Center for the Book at DeKalb County Public Library
Tuesday, November 25th, 7:00 p.m: Politics and Prose Washington, DC
What’s a Whiskey Tour event?
Algonquin has arranged with local distilleries in these places to provide tastings of their product. And we put on a game show, basically, several Algonquin authors engaged with the audience in some and with the whiskey in some of the best independent bookstores in the country to produce a literary party you won’t soon forget!
Or perhaps remember at all!
BILL ROORBACH is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O’Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend; Into Woods; Temple Stream; the bestselling Life Among Giants; and most recently The Remedy For Love. The 10th anniversary edition of his craft book, Writing Life Stories, is used in writing programs around the world. His work has been published in Harper’s, theAtlantic Monthly, Playboy, the New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York, and dozens of other magazines and journals. Life Among Giants was an Editor’s Pick for Amazon’s Best 2012, a Shelf Awareness Top Ten Best Fiction for 2012, and a winner of the Maine Literary Award for Fiction.