Cassia’s aunt Yin reinforces a San Francisco connection established with Cassia’s uncle Dimitri and his companion, Graham. In time, it’s one Cassia herself comes to experience, so far from her native Indiana, as I relate as early as the third chapter of my new novel, What’s Left.
A single visit to the Golden Gate city put it high on my scale. I’d return in a flash, given the opportunity. These days, living a hour from Boston, I’m near another great center with many valued connections to the world. And, yes, I still miss Baltimore.
What’s your favorite city? What would you urge people to do when they get there?
In her family, her great-grandparents would have known scenes like this.
My final revisions of my new novel, What’s Left, heightened the role of her best friend forever and first-cousin, Sandra – short for Cassandra. She’s now active from age 11 on (rather than being central to the final chapter alone) and provides some punchy counterpoint to Cassia’s discoveries and questions during their adolescence.
Some vital exchanges occur when Cassia is railing to be in a “normal” family, unlike theirs, and Sandra points out her own struggles fitting in – her mother’s Japanese-American from San Francisco, after all, rather than from Indiana where she and Cassia live.
Sandra also has a heated perspective on their three great-aunts that Cassia doesn’t quite understand. As for their Barbie dolls? You’ll just have to see.
In my new novel, What’s Left, she’s grown up taking much of her family and its restaurant enterprise for granted. After all, every kid in her extended close-knit family has had to work shifts there. After the death of her father – her Baba – when she’s 11, she uncovers what had attracted him to the home she’s known.
Early on, his input into the expansion of the restaurant must have felt invigorating. Beyond its pure financial calculations came some intense consideration of spiritual values, growing culinary awareness, and out-and-out-sensory delight. Could you put these together as an artistic experience? That kind of thinking.
Among her mother’s male ancestors in my new novel, What’s Left, my personal favorite is clearly Ilias the Cypriot, even if I might hope to be less obvious in my telling. Ari, Perry, and Stavros all have their better qualities, but I doubt I’d get along with any of them for long. There are reasons, though, that Ilias is also known as the Philosopher, even when he’s become a successful construction contractor in Chicago before he and his wife relocate in what they erroneously assume will be semi-retirement.
He’s gentle, curious, generous, and instills in grandson Dimitri and granddaughter Nita, at least, qualities they ride to success in their own fields.
If only he’d been present to comfort Cassia in her grief after her father vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe – we would have had a different novel. Is there a point where the elderly are simply too weak to lend comfort or guidance, even when they’re still breathing? In the novel, unlike some of the more dramatic deaths, Ilias and Maria simply fade into a past. I imagine them going off arm in arm, smiling, but leave that to the reader’s discretion.
Think of the circles around you. Who do you look to as your favorite male authority figure?
Admittedly, in my new novel, What’s Left, her family has a lot of good luck – accompanied by enough bad things for balance.
In the early drafts, I liked the fairy-tale, larger-than-life tone – as befits the “best movie ever” or “best novel ever” lists of upwards of ten thousands of listings that I hear from younger voices around me. Still, I’m a bit too Aristotelian to allow more than one as the best of anything, and I’m not referring to Cassia’s great-grandfather Ari here, either.
No, I’m thinking of the fact she’s in a close-knit extended family that’s prospered. In this case we have three brothers who’ve worked tightly together. A more common example in today’s society would be the three brothers who will never again speak to each other after their mother’s estate is settled. And that’s before we get to their children, the cousins who barely know each other, unlike Cassia’s.
There’s her aunt Nita, who’s negotiated a contract to assure she owns her daily newspaper column.
The adults who’ve joined in the family get along well together, something that’s never a given.
And Cassia herself lays claim to a rare happy childhood, up to the point when tragedy strikes when she’s 11.
I never intended this optimism when starting out on this work – it’s just where the narrative wanted to go. If the novel originated, as I think it did, in revisiting the aspirations of the hippie experience, what follows fits well as a foil to directions American society has since taken.
By the way, I do love fairy tales, especially in their more ominous, early, unrefined versions. The kind where Rapunzel’s pregnant or Cinderella’s stepsisters lose their feet.
There are a few of those touches in Cassia’s tale, too, just in case you wonder.
Put yourself in the story. Or have Cassia stop in your neighborhood for a visit. Where would you want to dine with her? Create something imaginary, if you want, or simply take her (and us) to one of your favorites. (For some of our neighbor girls, it would definitely be the Creperie.)