Leonore, how did you hit upon writing a fiction book?
I've been an admirer of good fiction for as long as I can remember. Fiction authors always seemed a bit like gods to me: creators of worlds whose beauties and terrors could move me at least as strongly as anything in the real world around me. To write a novel peopled with characters who could elicit from the reader real love or hatred or pity was always one of my greatest dreams.
What is Apart from You about?
Sometime in my early 30s, I began to think a great deal about the large theme of bad relationships, of the myriad ways in which people hurt one another - out of cruelty, neglect, selfishness, dishonesty, the unwillingness or inability to express one's true feelings, or any of a dozen other vices or weaknesses. I began to look back at my own life up to that point, to take stock of all the ways in which I had been hurt by others, and all the ways in which I had hurt others.
I thought long and hard about all the relationships that should bring us our greatest joy, but which all too often bring us our greatest pain: relations between parents and children, spouses, siblings, lovers, and friends. Realizing that I had neither the desire nor the necessary knowledge to write some sort of sociological tome on the subject of failed relationships, I decided that I would attempt to write a (mostly) fictional piece about at least some of the ways in which people, often to their own horror and deep regret, manage to alienate themselves from one another.
Hence my eventual title, Apart from You. I meant for the title to express a shared culpability: I may drive you away, or vice versa. You may withdraw from me, or vice versa. Who is to say exactly whose fault the resulting estrangement is?
Do you regard Apart from You as a women's novel?
No, I don't. The emotional themes of my book are universal ones, and many of the scenes, even several of the sex scenes, are written at least partly from a man's point of view. I consider Brian, the main male character, at least as important a figure as Elizabeth, the duplicitous young woman with whom he has a brief affair while she is temporarily separated from Alan, her fiancé. A common reaction from readers has been strong disapproval of her actions and considerable sympathy with Brian. That was just what I had hoped for.
Brian is no maltreated saint. He's not immune to prejudice, he's maddeningly neat, and he's fatally na�ve. But of all the major characters in the book, he's the one who elicits the most affection from readers. He's also the one whose fate I myself came to care the most about. It's unlikely to happen, but if I ever write a sequel to Apart from You, Brian will almost surely be that second novel's central character.
It was some 23 years from the book's conception to its publication. Did your plan for the book change over time? Given that you started the book when you were still fairly young and ended it when you were in your 50s, some changes seem all but inevitable.
It's important to note that I did not have a very detailed plot laid out at the beginning of the writing process. I had only the general themes of separation, alienation, and miscommunication in mind. I had a few starting characters in mind - Elizabeth and her birth family, Alan and his birth family, Brian - but not many others. Some of the material for the starting chapters was drawn from my own life, some from the lives of others whom I have known, and some was pure fiction. I give more details about fiction vs. nonfiction in Apart from You in a piece of the same name that's on my website. To read that, click here.
Writing the scenes depicting the corrosive sibling rivalry between Elizabeth and her younger sister Clara felt much like long-delayed therapy, and I wrote some of those pages with tears pouring down my face. As the novel progressed and I matured, I still felt plenty of genuine emotion as I created my various characters and worked to communicate their views, but I became acutely aware that there was a lot more creation going on all the time and less and less re-shaping of events from my own past. More and more characters were introduced who were completely or almost completely fictional, as were the scenes in which they appeared. Being aware of that process and of my own maturing as a creative writer brought me tremendous satisfaction.
Also, in the mid to late 1990s, when I working to finish the book, I was able to look back at the decades of my adolescence and young adulthood - the 1960s and 70s - with much more objectivity than before. I was able to see and assess anew some of the most significant social trends, problems, and breakthroughs of those decades in the United States and elsewhere in the world: things like women's liberation, the gay rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the concept of free love.
As I said above, I had no desire to try to write any kind of straight sociological commentary. I would never pretend to that degree of expertise. But it seemed perfectly natural to have certain of my characters be touched by these important trends, even to exemplify them. As I wrote my middle and later chapters, I found it immensely satisfying to think that I might be succeeding at integrating the real with the fictional in a way that could perhaps make at least some readers of my own generation say to themselves, "Yes, I knew such people. I was such a person. I knew and lived much of this."
What kind of woman is Elizabeth Nye, loving two men at the same time and yet still claiming fidelity?
With much justification, she could be seen as selfish and weak. At the same time, she and Alan did indeed have a mutual agreement - not all that uncommon among college students and others in the 1960s in America - that they would allow each other to have other sexual partners while they were separated for so long. Thus, when Elizabeth goes to bed with Brian, she is not in fact breaking any vow, just the rules of more conventional morality. By not telling Brian the truth from the beginning, Elizabeth ends up hurting him deeply, but that does not cancel out the genuine love that she feels for him. She wounds and angers Alan, too, but in the end, she stays with him, is ultimately faithful to him.
One of my aims in writing the story from more than one point of view was to give readers the chance to decide for themselves whether they agree with Elizabeth and Alan's liberal sexual morality or with Brian's more conservative views. In the end, what Elizabeth and Alan thought would work for them turns out to be fraught with many more difficulties than they have foreseen. Presumably, in their unwritten fictional future, they will avoid further such unwise self-indulgence. Or perhaps not. There too, readers are free to decide and imagine for themselves. As much as religious moralists might prefer there to be moral absolutes, the fact is that what works for most does not work for all, in the sexual realm or in any other.
Do you think women like Elizabeth exist outside of books, in real life?
Yes, of course. I used to be like her in many respects. And now, at the age of 60 and vastly more reticent regarding details of my past personal life than I used to be, I have no intention of revealing exactly what respects those are.
As the climax approaches, you seem to throw the reader into a conflict over whether to hail Elizabeth or to sympathize with Brian. Which side do you, as a person, stand on?
I sympathize more with Brian. While he has his flaws, he's basically a good man who is taken advantage of by a selfish younger woman. When she finally tells him the truth about her engagement to Alan, I find his anger at her quite justified. The fact that he can then work so hard to help her move out of her apartment, and the fact that he can essentially forgive her and come to feel, at the end of the book, that he's better off for having lived with her for five weeks even though he's lost her, are further proofs of what a generous spirit he has.
Reactions of readers to the character and actions of Brian have varied considerably. While some middle-aged readers have laughed at him and called him a wimp, one younger, unmarried female reader of my acquaintance seemed overcome with genuine sympathy and affection for him, and practically wailed to me, "I would have married him!" I wish she could have. He deserved a good woman, one who would be faithful to him.
Apart from You appears to approve of homosexuality. Is that right?
I "approve" of homosexuality in exactly the same way that I "approve" of heterosexuality. Just like heterosexuals, homosexuals are homosexual by nature, not by choice. That statement is supported by both modern science and by logic. As my husband has pointed out, why would anyone choose to be a member of a social group which has been hated, feared, reviled, and often brutally persecuted in most places throughout most of history? It should be obvious that a homosexual's self-acceptance and then coming out to his or her family, friends, and then the rest of society must take enormous courage. Even today, I'm sad to say, the results of such honesty can often be tragic. In far too many parts of the world and this nation, intolerance of those in small minorities is alive and well. Its consequences are often brutal and even deadly.
Throughout my life, I've known many homosexuals, primarily gay men, who were and are among the finest and kindest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting and calling my friends. For close to 20 years, now, my best friend in the world, other than my husband, has been a gay man many years my junior. In my novel, I wanted to pay tribute to some of those brave and kind people in my past life by making a few of my characters homosexual. Those characters' words, appearance, and actions are an amalgam of fact and fiction. I have no wish to be an irritating tease, but once again, I need to state that I have no intention of revealing exactly which details are based on fact and which are fiction. To do so would be a betrayal of several now vanished but unforgotten friends.
Does your philosophy of relationships lie in harmony with that of your novel's heroine? Please explain both.
That question can't be answered with a simple yes or no. In the novel, Elizabeth has relationships of various sorts with many different people: family members, family friends, neighbors, lovers, college professors, and more. When she has direct dealings with them, she treats some of those people well and others shabbily, and she sees herself as having been treated well or poorly by them. Through Brian's words and the accounts of his positive and negative memories, as well as through Alan's words and the account of his very poor relationship with his parents, we have portraits of two other people's complicated interactions with their own family members and others around them. A great many of these separate interactions are sad and troubled, but such is life - or so it can be. I certainly don't believe that I portrayed any relationship that is outside the realm of possibility in real life.
As far as the primary love and sexual relationships in the novel are concerned, I would have to say that my own attitudes have gradually evolved. Today, at 60, I have different and more traditional views of what constitutes proper behavior within a serious relationship or marriage than the views I held as a sexually active and sometimes reckless 20-year-old. This may not be a universal phenomenon, but I think that young people, with their generally high sex drives, are often much more apt than older people to have rather flexible ideas of what is permissible within even serious relationships.
Nowadays in this and many other societies, for both men and women, almost any degree of freedom in relationships is acceptable before one is engaged or married. Indeed, many people see having a wide variety of sexual experiences when one is young and unattached as something desirable and even admirable. The general expectation is that one will "settle down" after marrying, that committed love, family life, and emotional security will eventually become more important than having an endless variety of sexual adventures. This has certainly been the case for me and my husband of almost 40 years.
But even marriage, as we all know, is no guarantee of fidelity. Some people stray only once within a long and generally happy marriage; the level of guilt they feel over that temporary weakness, as well as the reaction of their spouse to the infidelity, determines whether or not the marriage lasts. But studies have shown that most marriages survive the rare infidelity. Other people find that they genuinely want to stay married, but they feel a strong and persistent need for sexual and emotional variety. Those people either take lovers or visit prostitutes. Still others practice what is sometimes called "serial monogamy." One man of my acquaintance has been married and divorced no fewer than seven times. It seems that he wants to commit, but cannot. His is a sad case indeed.
It would almost seem that voluntary and truly satisfied fidelity is the exception rather than the rule among human beings. But to me, as to many others, it remains a shining ideal. With the right person as one's partner or spouse, that ideal is easy and natural to live up to.
Did you receive any unusual responses from readers regarding the case of love and trust in your novel? Were there any disputes, objections, etc. that you got from any reader of the novel?
Actually, I've received relatively few comments on my novel. I mentioned a few reactions above. Some of the other comments were quite unexpected, some were unpleasantly critical, and some were amusing. Here are a few that I can remember.
Members of a book club, the same women who called Brian a wimp, also had harsh words for Elizabeth, calling her a selfish bitch. I don't remember that any members of that group were ready to defend her conduct.
A young male reader seemed to see the speed and ease with which Elizabeth starts her affair with Brian as improbable. More specifically, he said he doubted that real people could come to such a liberal agreement as the one that Elizabeth and Alan reached prior to their separation. All I could do was assure the letter writer that I knew from personal experience that such an agreement was indeed possible.
One very conservative older woman called my book "trash" and made sure I knew she had read it purely as a personal favor to me. (Gosh, thanks a lot!)
Other people chose to comment on much-appreciated plot details that had nothing to do with the central characters and their relationships. One older man was particularly impressed by my account of the bombing of Dresden in World War Two.
A gay friend gave me the best commentary I could ever have hoped for after he read the scene in which Elizabeth has sex with her not entirely gay friend Stevie. My friend read the scene from a manuscript of the book when we were both attending a meeting of our local French conversation group. He read it with rapt attention, then sat back in his chair and pretended to wipe his sweating brow. "Whew!" he said. "I think I need a cigarette!" I burst out laughing, and still smile whenever I remember that day and my friend's funny, flattering pantomime.
On the other side of the scale: Many of my relatives were bitterly critical of the parts of the book that had to do with Elizabeth's relationship with her family. They saw those parts as excessively biographical, as insufficiently fictional. Their interpretation of the first few chapters of my story caused a lot of pain on both their side and mine even before the book was published. I made the mistake of sending several family members manuscript copies of the novel. In return, I received dozens of harshly critical, very angry letters for months on end. They attacked, I tried to defend myself, and none of us was willing to give an inch. Their outrage never let up, and I refused to alter one word of the book in order to soothe anyone's hurt feelings.
In the intervening years, we've managed as a family to at least sweep all that under the rug, if not to completely forgive one another. But with a great deal of sadness, I have to confess that this one novel, of which I was and am so proud, drove an emotional wedge between me and the rest of my birth family that I think will never decay completely. I have to keep reminding myself of the witty and sympathetic words of a fellow writer. Dean (the horror writer C. Dean Andersson) opines that "there must be some kind of rule that one's family will object to one's novels." Then, wisely and more seriously, he counseled me to ignore my family's criticism as best I could and to remain true to my own artistic vision. We both agreed that people who have never written fiction of their own can never really understand how the whole process works, how often the writer virtually has to combine fictional elements with his or her own life experiences.
A few years after the publication of your novel, you wrote a nonfiction book called Why I'm Glad I Had Breast Cancer. How do you weigh the two books against each other?
They are quite different books, and I'm proud of both of them. Here are a few obvious points of contrast between my novel and my breast cancer book. The former is largely fiction, while the latter is purely nonfiction. The novel was started when I was in my early 30s and took almost 23 years to complete, while the breast cancer book was written in a matter of months when I was in my mid-50s. (I was 52 when I had breast cancer and a left-side mastectomy.) The cover of the novel features a work by the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, while a photo that I took in Germany in 1988 is on the cover of the breast cancer book. I've received many gratifying compliments on the beauty and appropriateness of the photo.
Although neither book has sold spectacularly well, the breast cancer book has received considerably more attention. Thus far, I've had the opportunity to speak to several large audiences: members of two different national breast cancer organizations, attendees at bookstore readings and signings, and members of graduate-level university writing classes, to name just a few. I've even been on a TV interview program on Channel 9 here in Denver. The book has also garnered me numerous appreciative letters from readers in several different countries. Many of them have written with deeply moving stories of their own breast cancer experiences or those of their loved ones, some of whom died from the disease. I feel honored to receive such letters, and I try to answer all of them at length. Also, while my novel has never been translated into another language and probably never will be, the breast cancer book has been translated into Spanish. The talented translator, who did a wonderful job of capturing the tone as well as the messages of my book, is Gloria López of Lexicon Communication here in Denver. (Updating note from 2016: The breast cancer book was expanded and retitled Another Chance at Life: A Breast Cancer Survivor's Journey. The most recent edition was published in e-book and print in 2012. The Spanish edition was also published in 2012; its title is Una nueva oportunidad a la vida: El camino de una sobreviviente de cáncer de seno. Both books are available on Amazon and multiple other online buying sites. Please click here for purchasing links.)
Would you like to write another fiction book in the coming years?
They say that one should "never say never," but at this point in my life, I doubt very much that I will ever again write a novel, as opposed to shorter pieces. As opposed to my husband, David Dvorkin, who has 17 published books to his credit and several more novels either in progress or in his head, I simply have no more good ideas for such long works. Years ago, I thought that I might write a sequel to Apart from You, essentially ignoring the Elizabeth and Alan characters, and instead taking up the further lives of Brian, Donnie, and some others in the book. That plot, too, was shaping up to be a rather dark one. Then I simply lost interest in writing a novel on those themes, which were marital discord, the different things that men and women typically expect and then get out of life as the years tick by, more rampant self-indulgence and sex, and even child abuse as perpetrated by Brian's frustrated, deeply unhappy wife - who was not going to be his beloved Donnie, as readers of Apart from You might assume and/or hope, depending on their degree of emotional involvement with these fictional characters.
I do still have in mind at least one dark story which would center around the character of Stevie and a new lover of his. Years ago, I did some research into an historical character whose name that lover would bear. I came up with a title for the story, came up with a vivid picture in my mind of the gruesome way it would end, and even started writing it. But I never get very far with it, and now don't know when or if I will ever complete it.
That's not to say that I'm doing no writing these days. Quite the contrary! Anyone who has ever corresponded with me knows that I'm a prolific writer of e-mail letters. I've also been writing two lengthy series of 900-word articles for a small Denver publication called Community News. Those articles are on the subjects of weight training and the basics of Spanish. I work more than full-time as a tutor of Spanish, German, and English, and also teach weight training classes in my home, so such articles are naturals for me. I also write language instruction materials for my many students, most often pages in English and Spanish for the students in the two English classes for Spanish speakers that I teach. And I recently wrote my first article for posting on our website; that's in support of Colorado's new ban on indoor smoking. So I spend many hours a month at my computer, and wish that I could spend many more.
As gratifying as it is to write the things listed above, I have to admit that no writing I have ever done has brought me the satisfaction that writing fiction did. It alone allowed me to fall into another world, a world of my own creation, and to be swept up emotionally into the lives of those fictional characters, who became astonishingly real to me. Sometimes I miss that escape very deeply. I do hope that someday I will be less busy with my teaching work than I am now, and also filled with a renewed desire to create more fiction. When that day arrives, I know I will feel reconnected at last with an important part of myself, a part that now feels lost to me. With luck and the right words, I will also be able to connect with both old and new readers. And that, after all, is why writers write.