A Discussion on The Sunshine When She’s Gone
Q&A with Thea Goodman and Amor Towles, bestselling author of Rules of Civility
Amor: While parenting is the central context of your novel, it seems to really be a story about a married relationship at risk. Both the husband and wife propel crises, which ultimately help them reestablish a stronger footing in their marriage. Do you think crisis is a necessary means by which lovers reconnect?
Thea: I suppose crisis is a route to reconnection among lovers, or can be, though I wasn’t necessarily conscious of that when writing the book. Now that I think of it, the together-crisis-reconnection pattern is a classic narrative arc. It’s also romantic. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn must like each other then hate each other before they can really love each other.
Amor: Your characters both have a keen sense of how parenthood has divided their lives into a before and after. As a young parent yourself, did you experience this? What were your befores and afters?
Thea: My first week home from the hospital after I had my first child, I realized that I would most definitely not be catching up on the sleep I’d already lost. And then there was one day at five thirty in the afternoon when I was feeding the baby and realized we’d been invited to a cocktail party from six to eight, an exhibition. I had to laugh at the preposterousness of the notion. Six to eight was the witching hour, the period every early evening when the baby went nuts. Sleep and cocktail parties belonged to before. Feeding a baby who went nuts between six and eight was after. I was sure I’d never sleep or go to a party again.
Amor: Your book captures the way in which the roles of men and women in society have been changing. Statistically speaking, men are more active in domestic affairs while women are more active in the workforce, and, for better or worse, both parents are more involved in their children’s lives. Do you think of the book as a contemporary parable to some degree?
Thea: I do think John and Veronica are emblematic of their time. Although professionally ambitious and hardworking, until they have a baby their sacrifices have been few. They’ve never faced the work of war, for example. They were raised to self-actualize above all else, so, although people have been having babies forever, for this college-educated, twenty first-century, two-career couple, having a baby is a monumental change. Also their style of involvement with their daughter—and, in some cases, overinvolvement—feels like a twenty first-century phenomenon. Our dads, generally speaking, didn’t carry us in cloth snuggly things on their chests for walks, and our moms, by in large, had no prior life of freedom before having children. So, yes, it is a contemporary parable.
Amor: Your two central characters both flee their circumstances either literally or figuratively. Can you talk about the desire for flight, its benefits and risks?
Thea: I have enormous compassion for these two characters, for their feeling of entrapment and its counter desire, flight. The desire to flee difficult circumstances is natural! What’s fictional is not the desire, but that they do flee. The stakes of doing the things John and Veronica do are very high; they risk their marriage and their daughter’s safety. But there are some benefits to risk taking too: for example, gaining perspective, appreciating your own reality. Taking a risk is cathartic, as are fictional narratives. This is a story about what would happen if . . .
Amor: You and I were raised in a generation where gender differences were downplayed, or even brushed aside by the academy. Under stress, your characters seem to retreat to friends of the same sex for understanding, like boxers returning to their respective corners. Do you think that parenting sets in relief the gender differences we were taught to ignore?
Thea: Having a child makes it abundantly clear what sex you are! In my own experience, my husband and I existed on pretty equal footing and then fell into some pretty defined gender roles once our first child was born because my husband was still working and I wasn’t. John and Veronica do seek counsel from their same-sex friends, but Veronica also really connects with a male friend, Arthur. That said, when it comes to giving birth, only another woman will truly get it.
Amor: You depict how a day of romance can fly by, while a day of single parenting can feel endless. Can you talk about the role of time in your book more generally?
Thea: The book takes place over three days, but through flashback we’re able to see much more of the characters’ lives. Time is an amazingly elastic thing in a novel, and in this one you might spend twenty minutes in real time watching Veronica get dressed, and you might spend five minutes reading about John’s relationship to his father, which actually took place over many years. I wanted to write a short, fast-paced book that gives the reader a whole impression—or several impressions—at once. I’ve always loved the nonlinear quality of a great painting, the way the work, different aspects of it, come to you in one hit. Books by nature are linear, so I was lucky to discover a propulsive plot that has a domino effect but also an alternating structure which lets a reader see Veronica and John almost simultaneously.
Amor: As I read your book, I found myself thinking of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, books in which events are filtered through an acute psychological state. Do you think that early parenthood is such a state—one that can suddenly subsume our navigation of events and relationships?
Thea: Yes, that is so well put. I do think early parenthood is almost like wearing a set of goggles through which you see the world. The emotional world of my characters does distort all their actions. I wanted to convey the consciousness of people in this demented and often euphoric state.