See my earlier review of The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate. Recently Melissa took the time to answer these questions for me.
MELISSA SENATE [MS]: I moved to Maine from New York City (where I’d lived since 1989) in 2004 and I can clearly see every day that Maine is a beautiful, easy place to live. But five years later, it still doesn’t feel like home. I think I sent my main character to Maine to find what I know is here (the beauty, the quaint, the lack of traffic and honking, the quirky), but haven’t really appreciated on any kind of level (except where it concerns my young son; Maine is made for kids). I think I made Maine and Wiscasset sound dreamy because I know it is and wanted to help myself see it. It did work a little. But for me, a lighthouse will never compare to Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace with its Angel of Waters statue.
AS: How do the differences between and urban and then a more serene, rural setting advance or influence the story?
MS: It’s interesting to me that New York seems like the bad guy in the story. It’s where Rebecca can’t find herself, can’t breathe, gets her worst news, feels trapped by her own . . . rut. And Maine is where everything opens for her.
[writer’s note: I’m an urbanite but I would, if I could afford to, have a country house in The Berkshires, Maine or Vermont]
AS: Many TV shows and films, place the urban woman in the middle-of-nowhere town where hilarity ensues. You definitely took a different approach with Rebecca. Why? Have you had some experience in this with your own move from NY to Maine?
MS: I’m a sucker for those fish out of water movies, even ones starring Renee Zellweger. But being in a very different environment wasn’t at all a driving force in the novel. Granted, the setting created its own world, but at its heart, this story could have been told with basing Joy in the East Village of Manhattan. Would have sounded different, sure, but the “middle of nowhere” aspect for The Secret of Joy was really to send Rebecca off to a place that in itself would be comforting. A comforting, sweet backdrop so that when she felt most alone, her surroundings would be like a hug. One of my favorite blurbs for The Secret of Joy said it was “a warm hug of a book.” I love that.
AS: How realistic do you think it is that Rebecca fits in so quickly in the town?
MS: When I first moved to Maine, to a small town with one (unnecessary) traffic light, I felt like I fit in right away. One neighbor knocked on the door the first day with vegetables from her garden. Another invited me to a book club meeting. Fitting in can often depend on how you feel about where you are. The people Rebecca meets (and the people I met) are not very different than she is, really. More down jackets and fewer pointy high heels, maybe.
AS: How did you come up with the idea of the letters unsent, kept in the box?
MS: Much of The Secret of Joy is based on what I wish I knew about my own biological father, who I haven’t seen or heard from since I was eight. I have always known that, as the result of his own affair, I have a half-sibling who was born when I was seven, a half-sibling I’d never seen or heard from until I was in my thirties when I received an email that said: I think you might be my half sister…. The story isn’t at all autobiographical; just that nugget of half-siblings connecting as adults is based from real life, but there are certain things I wish were true. One is that my biological father wrote a stash of letters explaining himself—and in a way that would bring closure. That’s one of the most wonderful things about writing fiction that you can change whatever you want to fix in your own life.
[writer’s note: I “re-connected” with my father as an adult (I too had not seen him since I was about 10) and he published a magazine in L.A. and I’m a writer. How perfect. Well, he blew it again and again. We agreed I’d write for him. He’d pay me a small amount. The check bounced. Same dead beat dad. And after all that time, what hurt the most was that his daughter he hadn’t seen in 20 years was there and he could have re-established a relationship and he chose not too.]
AS: Why sisters? What is it about the bond between sisters that usually makes for a compelling story?
MS: What I love about the dynamic between sisters is the potential. You should be best friends, first best friends from the tiniest of tot hood, but oftentimes sisters are not best friends, not friends at all because of what parents do their children, whether meaning to or not, or because the sisters are just very different people. What’s possible, what should be, is what I find so beautiful and love delving into.
AS: What do you think The Secret of Joy can tell people about family dynamics?
MS: What was reinforced for me during the writing of this book is that sometimes (and key word is sometimes) there’s no real bad guy when it comes to family dysfunction, that all involved feel differently about things depending on their point of view and personalities. I’m a happy person because of this way of thinking.
AS: Why did you choose the travel group as a career for Joy and the paralegal at a mediation firm for Rebecca?
MS: I wanted to give Rebecca a career that made endings a good thing, which is a bad thing for her. And I wanted to give Joy a career that made beginnings, and the open road, a necessity. Rebecca’s job is so bad for her that it helps her be in a place where she wants to flee. And Joy is right where she needs to be, with a foot firmly on the brake that slowly lifts up.
[writer’s note: Very clever. I never thought of that in reading it but now I see it and adore that idea–delightful!]
AS: What is your favorite aspect of the novel?
MS: What I love most is the spirit I think is there. There are a lot of stuck people in the novel, and at the end, they’re all on the way to finding the secret of joy for themselves. No one’s found it, of course, but they’re seeking it instead of doing absolutely nothing or remaining status quo or stuck in a rut. The seeking is everything.
AS: What do you find to be the greatest challenge about writing?
MS: Finding my main character’s heart and soul and putting voice to that. It takes me a good one hundred pages until I feel like I know her inside and out and can really tell her story. The fun part of that is then I can go back through those first 100 pages and color what’s black and white.
AS: How did you create the character of Michael—he’s like my ex-boyfriend and usually the type of guy I’m attracted to- successful but controlling?
MS: Yup, know the type! I’m not attracted to controlling, but I’ve had controlling boyfriends and I know how easy it is to lose yourself to their voice, their opinion, especially when you don’t know what you want or where you should be. For Rebecca, leaving controlling Michael, leaving her job, leaving her home would take something very big, something that was all hers and meant nothing to anyone else but her. That something presented itself in the form of a half-sister, a total stranger. And she reaches out for it. Michael calls her constantly in Maine, comes after her, never really listening to her from the beginning. He seems supportive, full of hugs and hot chocolate and wine and “their future,” but what he actually says is rat poison.
AS: What kind of research went into The Secret of Joy? as it is unusual for an adult to find her sister after the death of her parent.
MS: Eight years ago, I received an email that said: I think you might be my half-sister. Can you imagine getting that email out of the blue? The I think itself floored me. I took the nugget of that and created an entirely fictional premise and plot and characters, but the emotional impact, the emotions, period, all very real. That was my research!
AS: Why was Rebecca so desperate for a family that she didn’t even know in Maine. What attracted her so much to Maine?
MS: I don’t think she was desperate for a family; I think she was given this wisp of a huge thing (a secret half-sister) by her dying father and that it felt like a lifeline to her. A connection to herself, when she felt she had none—no family, no sense of herself or where she belonged. What she was desperate for was what was possible.
AS: Why the title The Secret of Joy?
MS: My editor came up with that perfect title, which now seems like such a no-brainer. (I’d originally called it The Love Bus, but the art department had big trouble designing the cover with such an odd title.) The main character’s secret half sister is named Joy, but what the title means for me is that the secret of joy is individual for every character in the book and they’re all finally looking for it. As I said, I think the seeking is everything.
AS: Thank you Melissa. I enjoyed The Secret of Joy and really enjoyed See Jane Date too which I read when it first came out.
MS: Thank you! I loved all your in-depth, insightful, and interesting questions!
[writer’s note: You are one of my new favorite author-friends! If I can be so bold to say that.]