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Next To Love Q&A with Ellen Feldman

Next To LoveNext To Love was our book club choice for January 2012. Ellen Feldman answered questions about anti-Semitism after World War Two, happy endings and her favourite character.

Ellen enjoyed the questions: "Thank you all for your generous words and enthusiasm about Next To Love. We writers spend so much of our lives alone that it’s a thrill to connect with readers. And now on to the questions...."

Q: I've got a question for Ellen Feldman about Morris - won't say too much as other Gransnetters are still reading it. I found his character quite sinister and the reader is left to decipher what has been going on when he joins the family. How did you come to create this character, and what did you intend the reader to feel about him? Carol

A: Interesting point, Carol, though I was surprised that both you and another reader found Morris sinister. He was inspired by a man I knew in my childhood who was extremely sweet tempered. But as with all characters, once I begin writing them, they become my own, not the person I once glimpsed. What I was really driving at here was that I felt sorry for Morris, who may have been gay or perhaps only uninterested in sex, but was trapped in an era when he not only couldn’t "come out", but may not have recognized his real proclivities. Returning to the point of his being sinister, the Morris I created really did want a family. After all, he did his best, within his limits, to be good to Grace and Amy.

Q: So many (indeed most) books tie all the ends up neatly with a happy ending - one of the things I loved most about this is that it didn't feel the need for a saccharine finish. I found many of the characters likeable and would have been tempted to give them a little more joy. Were you ever tempted to do so? rosiemus

A: I am ashamed to say, rosiemus, that I wasn’t tempted to give them more joy, but not because I am a sadist. I dream of happiness as much as anyone. But I was trying to explore the effect of war and its aftermath on those who live through it, and that is rarely a happy story. The two women who inspired the book – and again, once I began writing, the characters were no longer those two women, but my own characters -- certainly did not go on to live happily ever after. Similarly, the man who inspired the character of Mac, the doctor, came to a tragic end.

Q: Loved your book! When are they going to make it into a film? I thought the story brought out the catastrophic ripple effects of grief very well indeed. War exacerbates this even more, is this something you or your family have experienced? I felt the story could easily be transferred to soldiers' wives of today. Is this something you agree with? chazmax

A: You put your finger on the inspiration for this book, chazmax. Although some have described it as historical fiction, I think of it as reminiscent fiction. This is my heritage. These are the stories I grew up on. But I was also writing about the horror and lasting effects of all wars. I’m so glad you feel the book is relevant to today’s military and their spouses, because that was what I was striving for. There is movie talk, but nothing concrete yet.

Q: I hadn't realised that anti-semitism was such a problem in the USA at that time - I'd thought of it as a haven that people fled to rather than a place where people suffered for their faith. I'm interested to know more about this and your research. jakesgran

A: I’m sorry to say, Jakesgran, that anti-Semitism was very much a part of America before, during, and after the war. I did not have to do too much research on this, because once again, it’s part of my heritage. Before and immediately after the war, there were neighbourhoods where people refused to sell property to Jews. Pete’s machinations to buy the house are based on more than one story I heard. Clubs and hotels also refused to admit Jews. Colleges had quotas. Even after the war there were demonstrations and investigations at Columbia College in New York City because so many Jews were being turned down. And there really were signs saying "No dogs or Jews".

That said, every war changes the society that fights it, and WWII transformed America dramatically. More than half a million young Jewish men served in the war. Some of them met with tremendous prejudice and had to fight battles in the barracks before they even got to the front. But the young men who went off to war as G.I. Jews came home G.I. Joes. Never again would they settle for second class citizenship in the country they had fought and lost buddies for.

Q: I liked all the women in the book. I wondered whether you had a particular favourite? (I confess I found myself batting for Babe). rosiemus

A: You’re not alone in your partiality to Babe, rosiemus. The funny thing is that Grace and Amy were based on two real women, one I knew as a child, the other the mother of a friend whose story I only heard. Both lost husbands in the war, and each reacted in a diametrically opposed way. The first canonized her husband. Though she ultimately remarried, the marriage was not happy. She never got over the loss of her first husband and spent her life mourning him. The other remarried immediately. I’m not suggesting she did not grieve, but she was determined to get on with her life. Her late husband became a dark secret. Her child never even knew what her father looked like until she stumbled across a photograph in her teens. But once again, these women were a jumping off point. They inspired two of the characters in the books, but the characters are my own fictional creations, as is Babe, and I have no idea where she came from. She simply elbowed up to me one day, said let me deliver the telegrams, and refused to go away. That is one of the joys of writing. And yes, she is my favourite too.

Q: I enjoyed your book very much, but I would have liked a bit more about Babe's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Over here we have all been reading and seeing The Help, and realising how little we know about the subject. Of course I realise you were not writing for a specifically British audience, but how long are memories in America? Do our contemporaries need reminding too? Ganja

A: I, too, am extremely interested in the history of racial injustice in America, Ganja, which is why I had Babe get involved in it. However, I did not want to go into too much detail for two reasons. That is not what Next To Love is about. And I had already addressed one aspect of the struggle in my previous book, Scottsboro, which concerns another heinous chapter in America’s recent history. But I do think we have to keep being reminded of the injustices of the past in order not to repeat them. And here’s an interesting footnote to racial problems in both the UK and the US. In 1958, the Notting Hill Riots broke out in London. When Governor Faubus of Arkansas, a dyed-in-the-wool southern bigot, sent a message to England saying, "We have sympathy for you," many English were incensed. Were they no better than the racists in the American South?

Q: Ellen covered the brutal effects of war on a generation of women, I was enthralled by all three women! I found leading up to the "day of the 16 telegrams" compelling reading, the remainder although well written seemed to loose a little for me, ie Babe and Civil Rights Movement. I also felt I needed more info on Morris - like Carol I found him sinister! glassortwo

A: As I said above, glassortwo, I didn’t intend Morris to come across as sinister, and I didn’t go into the civil rights issues in more detail intentionally. However, I do understand your feelings that the first part of the book was so much more dramatic. That, in fact, is part of the story. As awful as life was during the war, people lived it intensely.

Q: My initial reaction on finishing this book was frustration because I was not going to learn "what happens next". On reflection I feel that it was a perfectly crafted book keeping to the topic of love and war and providing a snapshot of a particular group of people during a particular time in history. A two part question for you: How detailed is your plan for a book? Is it a specific plan, or a rough draft which you allow to develop as you write? How do you keep to your plan/draft? Hankipanki

A: Your frustration makes me very happy, Hankipanki. I love it that you were so involved with the characters that you wanted to go on with them. They do go on living in my head, and one of the problems of starting a new book is that the characters from the last book keep trying to slip into the skins of those in the new book.

As far as the way I work, I start with an outline, but it’s never very detailed and it is never written in stone. When I taught, I used to tell my students that of course they had to have some sort of outline, even if only in their heads, but if the finished novel adheres closely to the original outline, they probably have a dead novel on their hands.
I often go off on tangents, but fortunately they usually end up on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, I try to give the characters enough freedom to change and grow. This is not just a figure of speech. The other day, in the novel I’m working on currently, the protagonist suddenly, when sparring with a man, said something I had not expected her to say when I started the scene. Like Babe’s shouldering up to me one day when I was writing, this is one of the joys of being a novelist.

Q: I would like to ask about your portrayal of the scene where Babe gets raped and what follows. I thought it was very well done, especially with the blame and guilt that she feels afterwards. Did you take inspiration from any other books for your portrayal of Babe's reaction to this scene or did you feel that you were "breaking new ground" as it were? I'd love to hear about other ways that sexual assault has been portrayed from this time period (sorry, that makes me sound very odd, doesn't it...) effblinder

A: Not odd, at all, Effblinder. I think most women are terrified of, therefore morbidly interested in, rape. I don’t know if I was breaking new ground in the book, but I was careful not to read other accounts of rape while I was writing it, because I didn’t want to be influenced.

Three aspects of the issue were in the back of my mind as I was writing. Rape is always a part of war, and though I was writing about the homefront, I wanted to make that clear. Moreover, in reading about women who had followed their husbands and sweethearts to camps around the country, I often found warnings to beware of rape. As for Babe’s guilt about the matter, I fear that is still a part of our sexist society. Too often women are taught to believe that when men commit sexual violence against them, they were "asking for it."

Q: If the book leaves the characters mid-life, and doesn't finish the stories of what ultimately happened to them - do you, who created them, know in your own mind what happened? Where do you think they were 20, 30 years later? Even now, when their lives are presumably ended/ending. In your own head, have you finished their life stories, or were you satisfied to just leave them at the book's ending? (And if you do know, will you share?) Ljny

A: I think I do know what happened to most of the characters, though I shouldn’t say as much, because readers probably have their own after-stories. The one character whose future I continue to think about a lot is Amy. She has a hard fight ahead of her, but I know one thing. She will come through with flags flying, if perhaps somewhat tattered. I still worry about Jack in Vietnam. I’m not joking about this. By the time you finish a book, you have been living with the characters for a long time. I had to send Jack to Vietnam, because that is what happened to so many young men who grew up idealizing their fathers’ war experiences. But most of them were disillusioned there, and too many of them died.

Q: To the poster above who didn't know there was anti-Semitism in the US - yes, there was. Also in Britain. My (Jewish) father grew up in Detroit, by the time of the Race Riots he would have been away in uni or the navy. But he once let down his guard and told us of snowballs being thrown on the way home from school - typical schoolboy behaviour, but because he was Jewish, the snowballs thrown at him had rocks in the middle. I know it also affected his career at a few points in the 1950s, but of course, after the war, anti-Semitism became rather bad taste and was driven somewhat underground. Rather like racism was several decades later. It's not as blatant - but it's still there, still occasionally shows through the social veneer, and you're left wondering how much of that anti-humanity still bubbles beneath the surface of every-day life, ready to burst out again into violence if it ever gets the chance.Which is only, I take it, a small aspect of this book. Sorry. ljny

A: No need to be sorry, ljny. You make a good point. Anti-Semitism and racism did become more socially unacceptable after the war, but that did not mean it went away. It still cracks through the veneer of social politesse. Even now, most of the Jews and African-Americans I know have stories of at least one, and often more, incidents of prejudice that range from physical violence to inadvertent slurs.

Q: The thing I liked most about this book was the graceful way you dealt with the characters, who led quite unfashionable lives from the point of view of a 21st century reader - mostly through their men and their houses. And yet, although there was no criticism implied of that, the book feels strongly feminist. I wondered if you'd set out to strike that balance, and how difficult it was to think yourself into the minds of women in the 1940s and 1950s? getmehrt

A: An excellent point, getmehrt, and one few readers have picked up on. The book is feminist, but I tried hard not to judge or condescend to the women who, unlike Babe, did not question the values and mores of the period. They were products of their times. Unfortunately, it was not at all difficult to think myself into the minds of those women, because those women were my mother, my aunts, and their friends, and they did their best to instill those values in me, not because they wanted to thwart me in any way, but because they thought that was what being a woman was all about.

Q: I just wanted to say that I loved the book and couldn't put it down. It captured the period so beautifully and I wondered what made you choose it rather than say a more modern day setting? kittyp

A: "Couldn’t put it down" is music to my ears, kittyp. As far as why I chose this period, I think I was unconsciously preparing to write this story for a long time. As I said, these are the tales I grew up on; they are my heritage. The book is, in a way, though I did not realize it as I was writing it, my tribute to some of the people I knew who lived through the war.

Q: I am intrigued by the way that most contemporary novels that aspire to be at all literary seem to be written in the present tense. Was the tense a difficult decision for you? Why - given that it's a historical novel - did you choose it? boudoirbabe

A: I’m not sure that I can remember my reasons, boudoirbabe. I do know that I went through various drafts in the beginning, as I do with every book I write, and one day, after tossing out a great deal of work, I started writing in the present tense and couldn’t stop. It felt so much more real to me. There’s no doubt that tense, like voice, varies from book to book. I’m currently working in the past tense.

Q: I liked all the characters but Babe most of all. Was she your favourite? Sneetch

A: You, Sneetch, rosiemus above, and most readers who have written in, and I’m with all of you. I feel closest to Babe.

Q: Grace and Amy seemed to react to their situations in very different ways. I wondered if that reflected your research - and if you knew how many women came close to breakdowns after their husbands were killed? I was particularly moved by Grace's story, and the fact she was told that no man who really cared for her would try to take advantage of her - and so she ended up with Morris (who is gay, presumably?) I loved the delicate way you explored the double standards about sex - that women weren't supposed to acknowledge they had sexual needs. Do you think that women suffered a lot from this conspiracy of silence in the mid-20th century? frangipane

A: I have no statistics on how many women had breakdowns after their husbands were killed, frangipane. I have heard many anecdotes of women who were never able to get on with their lives.

I’m glad you were moved by the portrayal of the double standard. I didn’t want to be too obvious, but I did want to show that this imbalance was widespread, unjust, and debilitating. And it wasn’t just what women were not supposed to do; it was their sheer ignorance about sex. Correction: men and women both were in the dark, because while Grace believes King when he tells her men can’t control themselves, he believes it too. Men might have known more about the mechanics of sex, but they were still naive about the psychology of sex, not to mention what was thought of as the morality.

Q: I really liked Mac and I was unconvinced that he and Grace couldn't have saved each other. Were you tempted to let them get together? Very much enjoyed the book! granIT

A: I was indeed, granIT. And I agree, they might have helped each other a great deal. But that’s the tragedy of life. By the time Grace realized it, she was married to Morris, and Grace was not the kind of woman who would divorce for the elusive dream of happiness. Moreover, by marrying Morris, whose lack of sexual drive I think she intuited, and steering clear of Mac, she could remain true to the memory of Charlie.

Q: A couple of questions from GNHQ before we close this: Did you always want to be a writer, and what enabled you to get going? GNHQ

A: I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but I always thought I couldn’t do it, because writers were "special people". However, many years ago I was fired from a job in publishing – with cause; I was probably the worst publicist in the history of publishing – and an editor friend said that ever since he had known me, all I had wanted to do was write, so now was the time to try.

Other things you might like

Q: Publishing is obviously under a lot of pressure these days - publishers worried about the future of books, making less money etc. Has this made you think differently about writing and/or have your conversations with publishers been affected by any of this? GNHQ

A: You’re quite right that publishing is in a state of flux. Of course, I worry, but not too much. People may be reading in different formats in the future, but I think people will always want, and need, stories.

And some comments about the book:

"I am deep into Next To Love now and finding it one of the best books I have read for quite some time. It is written with exquisite attention to detail and the story of how some of the men don't return from war, contrasted with the harrowing experiences of those who do, and how it affects the families around them, is so well crafted. I don't want this book to end." Carol

"Over halfway through now, getting better all the time!" numberplease

"It soon will end for me, only 41 pages left! For someone who 'only reads thrillers', I’m finding it really engrossing." numberplease

"Only 30 pages in but if it continues they way its started it going to be a really good read." glassortwo

"I read it in one day as I found it hard to put down." goose1964

"Thank you very much Gransnet for Next to Love. I enjoyed it enormously, and have passed it on to the mother of one of my goddaughters, who will pass it on to her. That's three of us you have given great pleasure to." Ganja

"I read it last week and greatly enjoyed. It even inspired me to write a poem (not quite finished). I have to complain though that it did keep me awake most of one night because I couldn't put it down!"  JessM

"No questions but I had to say I just couldn't put it down." Iona

"Just finished the book and really enjoyed it. I think it probably appeals to women and their mothers who have lived through this era. I would have been interested to see how life turns out for Amy, conditioned by her upbringing but exposed to an ever changing world with new opportunities. A dichotomy betwen the true self and the socially constructed self. I can feel a question forming here but need to think about it a bit more." Hankipanki

Ellen said: "Thank you all so much for your generous praise. I’d say I’ll take the rest of the day off and rest on my laurels, but your comments make me want to get back to the new book and write, write, write."