What inspired you to write a companion novel to The Scarlet Letter?
I think it goes back further than even I might have suspected when I started this project. It surely began with my odd fixation with all things Puritan. I was a Pilgrim for Halloween when I was in elementary school, which was not exactly a common costume. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. By the time I reached my senior year in high school, I had read about the Puritans so extensively that I was able to write a major term paper about them off the top of my head, using extensive facts in support of my thesis, but faking my bibliography because I didn't want to dig through books to get page numbers. (I still occasionally have nightmares that my high school diploma is revoked when my former English teacher discovers my perfidy. I am then forced to simultaneously teach and retake Composition for the College Bound). In college, I showed up at the annual Halloween Mall-Crawl in Boulder, Colorado attired as the world's toughest English major, wearing street gang attire. The back of my jacket proclaimed me a member of “The Scarlet Letters.” Nobody got it.
Hands-down, my favorite class to teach is American Literature. My favorite unit? The Puritans. My favorite lecture? Calvinism. (How pathetic is that? I have a favorite lecture. And it's on Calvinism.) My favorite book? Well, it's not a part of the Puritan unit; it's in the Romantics, but can you guess it? That's right. I hand out copies of Hawthorne's classic work and tell the kids that they must do their best to love it as much as I do. Barring that, they must pretend to. Recently I had student come up and tell me that I had taught her mother twenty years ago. She said that her mother would forever associate me with The Scarlet Letter, which had become one of her favorite books. A colleague once told me that whenever she thought of Hester, she pictured me, and my dark-haired, dark-eyed daughter as the mischievous Pearl. (For the record, my daughter was always much better behaved.)
My first published novel, Into His Arms, is a romance novel. The heroine, Faith, is a Puritan, and she falls in love with an atheist. An atheist pirate, actually. Hey, it's a romance novel.
You can see where this is all leading.
But why another novel about Hester? Wasn't The Scarlet Letter enough?
No, no, no. You see, as wonderful as the original work is, with its effusive, rich, and vivid prose, its compelling characters (specifically Hester and Roger), and its timeless moral (you should have been in my class the year I taught this and the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit), it is marked by Hawthorne's great affliction. That is to say, it is a romance with a strong and vibrant heroine and a dud as a hero. (If you doubt that this is a pervasive Hawthornean flaw, read “The Minister's Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” and “Rappaccini's Daughter.”)
For pity's sake. What did Hester Prynne ever see in Arthur Dimmesdale? After all, Roger is no peach, but he is a serious scholar who dabbles in black magic. That, at least, is interesting, but Arthur is a dishonest man who cares more for his image than his character, though he doesn't have the strength to just accept that about himself. He isn't even intellectually rigorous, Hawthorne tells us. His only virtues are his gifts for empathy and public speaking—not usually the sexiest traits, but don't tell high school speech kids that. This is a relationship that needs further explanation if the reader is to believe that Hester has a modicum of self-respect.
There is also that big gap in the novel, those years between when Hester and Pearl depart from New England and when Hester returns alone. For a reader who has invested her heart in Hester, it is a gap that begs filling. She is such a magnificent creation, and she gets such a raw deal. Enter my affinity for a happy ending. Now, I would never dream of changing the destiny Hawthorne had given Hester. She is, after all, his creation, but it seemed to me that it was not exactly blasphemous to tweak the way that ending feels. And what about Pearl? After an entire novel in which this child is nothing but a symbol, Hawthorne breaks the spell and sets her free to be a real human being, then tells us nothing of her life. What sort of woman would Hester Prynne raise? How would Pearl look back on her one-dimensional, symbol-of-sin years? So many questions left unanswered…
Will you be writing other novels based on classic literary works?
Who knows? In a day and age when authors are counseled to stick with a formula that works for them, I have the problem of getting bored doing the same thing. Besides, off-hand I can't think of another work that I feel compelled to expand upon, and I have learned that if I do not feel a driving need to write something, it doesn't work out well for me.
Have you left behind romance as a genre?
I can't answer that either. I love a love story, and I am still very fond of happily-ever-after. At the same time, the stories I feel compelled to write don't fit easily into the romance market. I like to take on issues of politics, religion, and sex. Actually, as you can see, I have all kinds of fun mixing those things together. (I'm not at all fit for polite conversation.) Unfortunately, the concoction seldom produces a conventional romance novel. Then again, maybe the time just isn't right. The unconventional may yet become fashionable, and then I'll dive back in.
Okay, so you love The Scarlet Letter. What other books are on your “favorite shelf”?
I have a passion for American writers. I love The Great Gatsby. When people ask me whether I dream of writing the great American novel, I explain that I can't, because Fitzgerald already did. It is the essence of America. Catcher in the Rye feels like an old friend every time I open its cover. Kate Chopin's The Awakening always moves me. Hemingway sucks me in, pisses me off, makes me think, no matter what the work. Twain makes me laugh and often nod my head in emphatic agreement, but I'm not terribly fond of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So sue me. A Pen Warmed-up in Hell rocks.
My tastes are not limited to classic American writers. My second favorite book of all time is by South Africa's Bryce Courtenay: The Power of One. There is a stalwart optimism trapped in those pages that speaks straight to my soul. England has produced many of my favorites, as well. The Bard goes without saying, but I include George Bernard Shaw and Terry Pratchett in my list of smart authors who always make me laugh. My heart broke when I heard of Pratchett's Alzheimer's. For long road trips with family, I recommend Douglas Adams audio books.
Obviously, I do not turn up my nose at commercial fiction. I like John Grisham (even his sports books, though I hate sports) and John Krakauer, and I have a ball reading Bill Bryson. I think everyone should read A Short History of Almost Everything.
It's beginning to dawn on me that it is easier to say what I don't like. I don't like mystery novels. I don't know why. They just aren't my cup of tea. I don't read horror. I think Stephen King is an excellent writer; I just can't read his stuff and sleep at night. For the life of me, I just can't get into fantasy. Not even Tolkien. When it comes to science fiction, I am picky. Orson Scott Card is my contemporary favorite, and I remain fond of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein. Other than those authors, I'm not inclined to partake. I loathe self-help books but certainly don't begrudge the genre to others.
What is your writing routine?
I added this question for the chuckle it gave me. Routine? Ha!
While I was on leave of absence, I wrote six hours a day, four days a week. One day, I would love to do that again. Now, my priorities are roughly: family, work, spiritual life, exercise, writing. This means that I write when I can. I may go weeks without writing a word. On vacation, if my kids are busy and my husband's at work, I can still put in hours and hours and hours. I try to write at least 30 pages a month, minimum. My critique group keeps me motivated to do that much. I had a student teacher part of the time I worked on Hester, and I put in a lot of work over a summer, so my wonderful group often accepted upwards of 40 pages at a time.
I seldom listen to music. For one thing, music with lyrics I know is highly distracting. I am compelled to sing, and then I can't possibly write a completely different set of words. Instrumental music fades from my awareness so quickly, it's not worth bothering. If my kids are playing Guitar Hero (which means songs that I know the words to playing very loudly), I pop in my iPod and listen to Gregorian chants or classical.
If I'm on a roll, I eat meals and write at the same time, but I don't tend to snack while writing. I do, however, consume copious amounts of tea, hot in winter, iced in summer. Black tea. None of the fruity or flowery stuff. I drink Darjeeling at writer's group.
I do much of my writing in the family room, amid my family members. When I'm in the zone, very little distracts me, but I like being with people. If that room has been overrun with noisy teenagers, I take my laptop to the living room. I have a desk in the bedroom that I never use. I need more light and space than that affords. Every single thing I need, my notes, my research, everything is in my laptop (with the exception of my teacup).
Are you working on anything now?
People ask me this all the time. The answer is always yes. I went five years between contracts, so people assumed I wasn't writing. Actually, I just wasn't selling. I have no idea whether what I'm currently working on has a market. I only know that I wanted to write it, so I am. At any rate, the answer is always yes; I am always working on something.