Classic westerns like High
Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance begin with the arrival of
a mysterious stranger in a seemingly quiet 19th-century town, and from that
moment on, nothing will ever be the same again. Debra Ginsberg works a
satisfyingly modern variation on that classic plotline in her new novel The
Neighbors Are Watching (Crown, $23.99, 9780307463869/0307463869, November
16, 2010). Ginsberg's mysterious stranger is Diana Jones, a pregnant teenager.
The calendar reads July 2007 when Diana first enters Fuller Court, a sleepy
(but neat) cul-de-sac in San Diego: she does not ride into town but shows up on
foot (no boots, just funky flip-flops) with a battered suitcase and a whole lot
of attitude. Just as in those classic movies, it's hot and vaguely desolate,
although the once-Wild West setting has been replaced with tract house suburbs,
freeways and manicured lawns where there used to be scrub brush.
Thrown out of her single mother's
home in Las Vegas, Diana has come in search of the father she has never met.
Her father, Joe, is now married and his wife, Allison, is blissfully unaware
that he has a daughter. Diana's arrival sets off a tense confrontation between
Joe and Allison that threatens their once-solid relationship. The other
residents of Fuller Court will form their own opinions of Diana as her presence
and circumstances register. The novel, told in interior monologues that rotate
from the perspective of one neighbor to another, brings each of the residents
of Fuller Court up close and personal. There are no gunfights (although
tensions rise to levels that would bring out the guns in some other ZIP codes),
but the key precipitating event-- the autumn 2007 wildfire started during the
dreaded and devastating annual Santa Ana windstorms--sends various borderline
hysterics over the edge.
By way of
the briefest of personal introductions, Debra Ginsberg has been a regular book
reviewer for Shelf Awareness since September 2007. We always appreciate
her astute, lively and authoritative reviews. Her previous novel The Grift,
published in 2008, was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York
Times and was selected for the T.
Jefferson Parker Mystery Award by the Southern California Independent
Booksellers Association in 2009. She has also published three volumes of
memoirs (Waiting: The True Confessions of
a Waitress, Raising Blaze and About My Sisters) in addition to the novel Blind Submission.
midst of the other demands connected with promoting a new book, Debra took time
to respond to some of the questions that sprung to the mind of her fellow Shelf
Awareness reviewer John McFarland after he read (and loved) The
Neighbors Are Watching.
Diana's arrival proves to be a
lightning rod event for all the residents of Fuller Court, not just for her
father and his wife. You delineate her relationships with each household in
such distinct detail that she seems to change from one environment to another.
How did you come to see Diana as such a chameleon?
always been fascinated by the Rashomon effect--the ways in which different
people can perceive the same event (or person, in this case) in entirely
different ways. There is only the briefest glimpse inside Diana's head at the
very beginning of the novel and then it's all about how others see her in
relation to themselves. Is she really a chameleon? Or is it just that the
people around her believe what they want to believe about her? My intention
from the start was for Diana to remain a puzzle--and for the reader to figure
out who is the "real" Diana.
You show that the neighbors may
be watching, but they see a partial view: they then connect the dots to create
a story to explain the situation to their satisfaction, reflecting perhaps
their own circumstances as much as anything else. What inspired you to adopt
such a rich and complex approach to tell this story?
In all of
my novels (and in the memoirs, to some extent), I've explored the line between
truth and fiction, reality and illusion. I'm convinced that there is no such
thing as an objective reality, yet we all must carry on as if there is. This is
what all the neighbors on Fuller Court are doing; they are all very much
players in their own movies. It was fascinating for me to be able to combine
all of these different fictional realities and then ask the reader to figure
out which, if any, is the true one.
Round-robin monologues take us
deep into the minds of each of the residents and build our sympathy/empathy for
characters to whom we might not have warmed otherwise. I am thinking
particularly of Dorothy Werner, the tightly controlled nosy neighbor, who
became deeply affecting to me as I read her monologues. Did you feel a similar
sense of surprise as you gave your characters the stage to make their case?
In fact, this novel began, for me, with Joe (who had never bothered to tell his
wife that he'd fathered a child 17 years earlier). I wanted to understand what
went on his head. How did he rationalize never having any contact with his
daughter? How did he justify never telling his wife? And then I wondered, what
if his chicken came home to roost--what would he do, how would he respond? I
tried very hard to build personalities and situations around these characters
that were unfamiliar to me so that I could crawl inside their heads and
understand them. It seems a cliché, but so often we dislike what we don't
understand because we fear "otherness." Once there is understanding,
there is also empathy because as humans we are all much more alike than not. If
readers come away with some of that empathy/understanding of these characters
then I've done my job.
On Fuller Court, households have
one child or teenager in residence, if any. In each of those households, the
relationship between parents and their child underscores the aspirations and
anxieties of the adults. Do you feel that the children in this book, aside from
their individual plights as the only child of these specific parents, represent
a different family experience from the one that those of us with siblings
although I didn't think about this at all while I was writing the novel. It was
really a matter of convenience rather than design that the children here ended
up being singletons. I have four siblings, and we're all very close. But my son
is an only child, so perhaps subconsciously I was worrying about the burden of
parental expectations and anxieties on children with no siblings.
The devastating fire that came out
of the Santa Ana winds of 2007 is a precipitating event in your novel. I
understand you lived close to the evacuation zone during that time. How did it
affect you personally?
live near the evacuation zone, I was in it, along with half a million
other San Diego residents. The fire was just massive and the sky was literally
raining ash. We packed up the photo albums, the laptops and the trinkets and
the entire family convened at my parents' house to wait it out. It was surreal
and, of course, incredibly stressful. Just like the holidays, but with fire! We
do have a fire season every year and they've been getting worse, but this was
something nobody had ever seen before. Not surprisingly, I guess, I did become
much closer with my own neighbors after this event. We shared evacuation
stories as we hosed the ash off our driveways and marveled at the fire. And now
we all look out for each other.
You worked as a waitress for many
years to finance your writing vocation. Did you develop a specific way of
seeing people through that experience? Could you spot the good tippers?
waiting tables prepared me very well for my writing career. Writers must do
much more than write now--we need to be very socially networked animals,
branding ourselves and promoting ourselves wherever and whenever possible. The
trouble is writers spend all day alone inside their own heads which does not
make them the most socially adept people. I spent 20 years trying to convince
people to like me so that they'd tip me--excellent prep for trying to get
people to "like" me on Facebook.
You have published both fiction
and nonfiction. Do you feel like a different writer when working in a different
genre? Do you wear different outfits? What are you, for example, wearing for
this e-mail interview?
is similar for both my fiction and nonfiction; conversational and concerned
with telling the story. I find writing memoir (and nonfiction in general)
easier than writing fiction simply because the structure is already there, the
story already exists, and the end has already been determined. With fiction, on
the other hand, everything has to be created out of whole cloth. In some ways
this is very freeing (one cannot as easily dictate the outcomes in one's own
life, after all), but it is certainly more difficult. But because writing is
writing is writing for me I do not change outfits depending on genre--I can
always be found in some variation of the jeans/black top combo.
Is there a question that you have
always wanted to be asked but have not been asked in an interview?
"What are you wearing?" is it!
Have you ever been tempted to
turn the tables on one of your interviewers and ask that rude, prying person a
certain question? If so, what is that?
Do you want me to answer that?
Interviewer Answers Interviewee's
Request: I am wearing stylish (that is, clean) black jeans and the official Shelf
Awareness T-shirt to show I mean business.
You are on record as an admirer
of the works of Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Joseph Conrad. If you were
inscribing a copy of The Neighbors Are Watching for them, what would you write to each on the flyleaf?
Because each of these incredible authors has been
an inspiration and, often, a reason for me to keep writing, I'd have just one
thing to say to all of them: Thank you.