Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Yona Zeldis McDonough.
Ms. McDonough is the author of “The House on Primrose Pond,” out today from NAL. Her previous novels include “You Were Meant for Me,” “Two of a Kind,” “A Wedding in Great Neck,” “Breaking the Bank,” “In Dahlia’s Wake,” and “The Four Temperaments.” She has also written nineteen books for children. Ms. McDonough is also the editor of two essay collections and is the Fiction Editor at Lilith magazine. Her award-winning short fiction, articles, and essays have been published in anthologies and in numerous magazines and newspapers. She makes her home in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children.
Early response to “The House on Primrose Pond” has been enthusiastic. RT Book Reviews awarded the title four stars, noting: “The House on Primrose Pond is essentially a story of a writer who tries to hold her family together after a tragedy, by happenstance, starts to unravel a long-held family secret. While somewhat simplistic in explanation, the story is anything but; it is detailed and layered. The characters are relatable. With a knack for astute observations, McDonough really nails the emotional aspect. A charming read that a reader can get lost in.” Further, New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt praised: “How well do we really know our own histories or those of the people we love? In a blazingly original novel, McDonough uncovers the mysteries of marriage, connection—and possible murder—and the tug of the past on the present. A gorgeous, sweeping read with a gloriously beating heart.”
From the publisher:
A compelling novel about one woman’s search for the truth from the author of You Were Meant For Me.
After suffering a sudden, traumatic loss, historical novelist Susannah Gilmore decides to uproot her life—and the lives of her two children—and leave their beloved Brooklyn for the little town of Eastwood, New Hampshire.
While the trio adjusts to their new surroundings, Susannah is captivated by an unexpected find in her late parents’ home: an unsigned love note addressed to her mother, in handwriting that is most definitely not her father’s.
Reeling from the thought that she never really knew her mother, Susannah finds mysteries everywhere she looks: in her daughter’s friendship with an older neighbor, in a charismatic local man to whom she’s powerfully drawn, and in an eighteenth century crime she’s researching for her next book. Compelled to dig into her mother’s past, Susannah discovers even more secrets, ones that surpass any fiction she could ever put to paper…
Now, Yona Zeldis McDonough invites readers to discover “The House on Primrose Pond” …
John Valeri: What first inspired you to write “The House on Primrose Pond”—and, after six previous novels, what about this particular premise struck you as fresh and resonant?
Yona Zeldis McDonough: In the past, writing a novel began when I heard a voice—a character that was speaking in my ear—and this one was no different. The first voices I heard belonged to Susannah Gilmore, and her elderly neighbor, Alice Renfew. Susannah’s voice was both sad and angry; she was widowed when her husband was killed in a bicycle accident (and not wearing a helmet, despite her frequent nagging) and she moves from her home in Brooklyn to New Hampshire with a good deal of resentment. Alice’s voice is also sad and angry though both these emotions are more muted as she has had more time to live with, and adjust to, her emotions.
But there were some new elements here, including the setting (more on this later), the idea of a novel-within-a-novel, and the inclusion of three poems that form an essential part of the narrative—and which I had to write myself. I felt that these formal components forced me to go both wider and deeper than I had in the past. It was hard, but it was ultimately very satisfying.
JV: Your protagonist, Susannah, is a novelist. How were you able to draw upon your own career experiences to achieve authenticity—and what, in your opinion, makes writers innately intriguing characters?
YZM: I think it’s hard to make a writer come alive on the page; most of what she or he does is quiet, interior, and utterly lacking in external drama. And yet, I wanted Susannah to be a novelist so she (and I) could tell the intertwined stories of both Ruth Blay and Betsey Pettingill, both of which are filled with drama. I certainly drew on my own experience as a novelist in creating Susannah’s character, though since she is a genre writer, we differ in some major ways. But showing her struggle to find that voice felt very real, and essential to me. Because that is always the struggle: voice determines so much of what happens in a novel, and it’s so important to feel you have gotten it right.
JV: Susannah is a city girl who moves to a small town following the loss of her husband. How does setting enhance narrative—and in what ways does this change of scenery promote both conflict and growth?
YZM: Setting can function almost like a character—it has to seem authentic and palpable to make a reader believe in it as a place for the story to unfold. In the past, I’d always set my novels in New York City. This was less a decision and more of a default position. New York was where I was raised and where I’ve lived pretty much my entire life, so setting a book there was easy for me. But I found myself chafing at that very ease, and I wanted, literally, to widen my horizons. So I settled on New Hampshire because it’s where my husband was raised and we’d spent a lot of time there; I knew I could make it come alive. But once I’d brought my central character there, I still felt I needed more, so I began researching historical events that happened in the states. I was looking for something major and catastrophic, like a flood, fire or blizzard. Instead, I found the story of Ruth Blay, who, in 1768, was the last woman hanged in the state. She was accused of killing her newborn daughter, a crime of which she was not convicted. But she was convicted of—and put to death for—concealing the birth of an illegitimate child. I was fascinated by this material and knew I had to weave it into my novel somehow. Susannah’s journey to New Hampshire, and her immersion into this chapter of New Hampshire’s history, change her in many ways, both professional and personal. The reader goes along on that journey with her.
JV: How does Susannah’s journey reflect the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction – and in what ways did you endeavor to balance old hurts with new hopes to achieve something that is ultimately uplifting?
YZM: The unsigned love note written to her mother is one of those change-your-life moments for Susannah, and it is indeed stranger than anything she could have come up with. Her discovery of her mother’s infidelity is very painful to her, but it also allows her to understand, and paradoxically feel closer to, both of her parents. And because Ruth Blay also was involved in what was most likely an adulterous affair, Susannah’s attempt fictionalize the story is informed and enriched by events in her own life.
JV: You incorporate elements of mystery, history, and romance. How would you classify this novel – and in what ways can categorization actually harm a book’s potential?
YZM: I love that you asked me this question because it speaks to an issue that really bugs me! I so dislike being categorized, as if the novel is a box of cereal and not a work of the imagination. I don’t think “The House on Primrose Pond’ fits easily into any of these categories, though it contains elements of all of them. And being stuffed into that small box can indeed hurt a book and by extension, its author. Categories or labels are useful to publishers and booksellers and much less so to writers whose daily task is one I would liken to spinning straw into gold. I am not interested in defining my work; I’m interested in having it break out of those narrow and confining definitions, and giving it the freedom to be what it wants and needs to be.
JV: You are a veteran author of children’s books. What is the importance of childhood literacy and how can we encourage that within kids so that they remain readers throughout their lives?
YZM: I started writing children’s books almost by accident and was not sure I even wanted to do it. Now I love this part of my work and feel so happy that I am able to commune with the nine year old who is alive and well in me in order to do it. I cannot say enough about literacy, or the transformative power that reading has on children. I read my favorites—“Anne of Green Gables,” “A Little Princess,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”—over and over. They felt like dear friends to whom I could return whenever I needed. I think in order to make readers out of kids, we need to reach them early, and this means picture books in which words and images achieve a delicate but perfect balance, one that is able to weave a spell over even the youngest child. That experience of sitting cuddled up with a beloved adult, turning the pages, hearing the story read aloud … pure magic. We should do more of it with the kids we love, each and every day.
With thanks to Yona Zeldis McDonough for her generosity of time and thought.