The driving force for my new novel, What’s Left, is her struggle to recover her father after he vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe when she’s 11. It’s a tall order, even when it’s self-imposed.
She would say he’s not a typical father. He comes from mainstream roots in Iowa, becomes a professional photographer and starts practicing Tibetan Buddhism before marrying into her mother’s close-knit extended household, one based on running a family-owned restaurant where Cassia and her cousins all wind up working from an early age.
The crucial twist comes through her aunt Nita, who guides Cassia into a long, patient investigation of the photos her father left in disarray in his studio. Bit by bit, the focus shifts to Cassia’s discovery of her own nature, dreams, and destiny – one where her extended family plays a big role.
The close-knit extended family of Cassia’s childhood is quite different from her father’s. Hers is the one he leaped into when he married her mother. What was he escaping? And what was he embracing in the act?
As my newest novel, What’s Left, unfolds, hers is a family with a mission and a place in the world. Everything her father accomplishes in the ensuing years is enabled by their enterprise and unity.
For Cassia, her brothers, and her beloved cousins, the big question becomes: Will this be too confining for their personal ambitions and dreams? Or will it assure them a secure future if they settle in and stay put?
Do they ever think of themselves more as a tribe than as individuals? We follow our elders in decisions and wisdom?
A family business is full of peril. How will they choose?
In a passage I cut from the final edition, the family’s spiritual practices are considered. On one hand there’s the Orthodox Christianity; on the other, Tibetan Buddhism.
Well, you could also see it as a refuge for my family. As a calming influence guiding us through some turbulent times. Through it, our eyes returned to the greater good in our shared mission. We were given a vocabulary and fresh ways of thinking about the eternal elements of life. We accepted its reliable foundation in teaching these to our children – including me.
Well, that could be one uniting factor. I see another family that’s held together by its emphasis on sports and sports medicine. As for others?
What holds your family together? How far does it extend?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her father teams up as the photographer when her uncle Barney, the top cook at the family restaurant, tries his hand at writing a cookbook. Well, a whole series, I suppose.
Their first volume is all soups, inspired by the grandmothers’ daily special bowls and wild chili concoctions – the ones he’s advanced.
I never get around to titling the book when I mention the project.
Now it’s your turn to get creative. What would you call a cookbook about soups?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her aunt Yin has her helping book rock bands rather than working in the restaurant. For Cassia, it’s a welcome break. She can be cool and hang with her cousin Sakis’ scene.
While her mother’s a skilled violinist, Cassia herself is not a musician. In one explanation that didn’t make it to the final revision, she explains:
When it came to music, I wanted to play drums but was shunted to piano, which I hated. It just wasn’t me.
Are you part of a band? Do you sing in a choir? Play an instrument? Was there one you wanted to study but told otherwise? Do you sympathize with Cassia here?
Central to my new novel, What’s Left, is a painful awareness that something crucial is missing from her life. In her case, it’s the physical loss of her father when she’s 11. For others, that sense could be prompted by a divorce – which also figures in my novel – or the rejection by a lover, as happens much earlier to her father. Or even drive one to suicide or self-destructive behavior. (No suicides in the story, in case you’re wondering.)
A comment by one woman whose father had died when she was about Cassia’s age prompted a key change in the voice of my novel in its ninth revision. “I still talk to him,” she said, nearly 40 years after his passing. That perspective opened a whole new dimension for me in developing Cassia and her relationships. It’s changed the voice and tone of the book, resulting in far more intimate dialogue, I’d say. Just take a look at the finished novel.
This didn’t quite fit on the platter:
What Baba and Manoula shared is an awareness of some loss or suffering the illusory surface we view might be masking. For Baba, the ultimate rejection by Diz opened a pit for him to fall into – nothing he’d assumed quite held, either, as far as he could see. (Never mind Nita’s role – he wanted a lover.) For Manoula, the fatal crash of her parents did something similar. From a Greek perspective, suicide makes perfect sense – as does, I might guess, sin. The convolutions only thicken the engagement with life itself.
Well, this was an early stab at the issue. In the finished novel, we never get around to asking if Manoula winds up frequently talking to her deceased parents, the way Cassia does throughout the story. Or whether her husband, Cassia’s Baba, somehow fills the void.
For me, the conversation’s often invoked certain long-gone lovers.
Do you find yourself talking to someone who’s not present? Have you ever felt a loss like Cassia’s? Has one of your close friends? What insight would you have?
The once grand dame of an apartment house turned shabby that I describe in my novel Daffodil Uprising was real, though situated in Upstate New York rather than southern Indiana. A little bit more poetic license, if you will, in my relocating the blocky building.
I use the past tense, because satellite searches inform me the structure has been demolished, no doubt because of some of the health and safety issues the story relates. Bringing everything up to code would have cost a fortune.
Well, maybe a fire did it in. That, too, feels quite plausible.
When Kenzie and his two buddies flee their dorm, they have such high expectations. So did I, in what was supposed to be a haven after college. Look, this was what a professional journalist could afford – slum housing.
Still, the moldy manse was memorable and possibly haunted. I certainly heard rumors to that effect.