Thomas Wolfe would agree that perhaps you truly can never go home again. Even more so when home signifies painful family secrets and a past that is overshadowed by half-truths. In Alison McGhee’s new novel, Never Coming Back, the main character Clara Winter has made her home away from her native Old Forge in the rural Adirondacks. But she is forced to return to her hometown when her independent tough-as-nails mother Tamar, begins to show signs of premature Alzheimer’s.
What this will mean for Clara, is a new discovery of the place she came from and abandoned decades ago, and an opportunity to find herself once more. Her mother’s memory is slipping further away, and there is something Clara needs to know before her mother’s memories are shrouded with the fog of her mental illness, a secret that has kept them apart for years and threatens to take any possibility for reconciliation between them.
McGhee’s novels usually touch strongly on the family angle, and I discovered in my phone conversation with her, that she sees these ties as the driving nucleus of every other relationship. Therefore, it’s something that McGhee keeps circling back to time and time again, and this makes her stories appear rooted in a deeply personal level.
Comparing this to your previous novel, Shadow Baby, you deal a lot with the topics of familial relationships and also family secrets. What is it about that topic that’s so appealing to you?
It feels to me like family is the crucible of all experience in life, all that we live through and what we lived with growing up, affects how we approach relationships for the rest of out lives. That parent-child-sibling relationship, it seems, is an endless fodder for the mill.
My mother came from a family of secret keepers. They were survivors, immigrants, escapees from Russia, my great-grandfather fled his native Pyrenees at age sixteen and stowed away on a ship to New York. Once he got there, he jumped overboard at New York Harbor and swam to shore. Some of the secrets my family kept were ones of loss, depression and sorrow, which is very typical of many immigrant stories in our country. Growing up in this family, it seemed that this is the way it was. So in a lot of my books, perhaps unknowingly, I’ve explored that over and over again.
In the novel, the characters are trying to discover something about themselves and about their family. Clara, with her mother developing premature Alzheimer’s, feels like she has to unlock everything before her mother is “lost to her.”
Clara is locked up tight in many ways, and so is her mother Tamar. She realizes that she’s out of time and Tamar knows it too, and it’s this fierce, troubled relationship between them. They have to break down these walls, right? But how? It’s certainly not an easy thing.
Why did you decide on Early-onset Alzheimer’s as a subject to explore?
I did not intend it to be about that at all. But I’m a chaotic writer, and I don’t know the stories when I start writing them. In fact, the novel was originally about a father-son relationship, and then after a while of playing around, this voice just jumped in. I suddenly saw a scene where a young woman is dangling a carton of orange juice in front of another woman, older than her. Suddenly I realized: “That is Clara, that is Tamar and they’re twenty years older in their lives,” and the knowledge that Tamar had Alzheimer’s just came over me. I had to do a lot of medical research about it.
Clara starts this journey remembering an argument she had decades earlier with her mother, something that happened which she blames Tamar for. It’s quite agonizing to see the scenes where Tamar desperately tries to remember what she did to anger her daughter so much.
Honestly, I don’t think she would have told Clara even if she did remember. It was kind of a turning point, something terrible that happened and she knows her mother holds the key to that. It’s that one pivotal point that Clara feels that if she could finally unlock it, it would reveal a lot about her life as a whole.
How difficult was it to create that mother-daughter dialogue, particularly when Tamar’s mind truly starts slipping?
It wasn’t really, because for some reason, dialogue is not challenging for me. If the characters inhabit my heart and my mind, I can jump into it pretty fast. In fact, it’s hard for me to cut down on the dialogue, because these conversations kind of spiral out.
Asa, one of the characters from Clara’s past seems truly “there” even when he isn’t. His presence is so acute and strong throughout the novel. Did you want readers to feel him present, and not just as a memory of Clara’s?
Yes. Because I was working with a strange construction of time beginning in the present, but the back history and events have to be filled in. In order to do that I needed to tell the life of Asa and Tamar when she was young, and Clara when she was in high school So it was almost back-filling as you’re moving forward.
The identity of Clara’s father is somewhat of a mystery, he’s never identified by name.
Tamar was the victim of sexual assault when she was in college in Florida, and got pregnant as a consequence. It’s a painful story and hard for her to think about.
You mention quite a bit the game show host Alex Trebek and his show Jeopardy, which turns out to be a bit of comic relief in the story. In fact, the titles of your chapters are Jeopardy rounds. Are you a fan of the show?
Yes! I’m absolutely a fan (laughs). In fact my boyfriend and I sometimes cue up for about five shows in a row, and sit there with a cocktail and shout out answers. To be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with Alex Trebek, although I did grow to love him dearly. Some of his mannerisms and cutting contestants off used to drive me crazy! So I really hope I didn’t come across as too mean in the book because I really do love him and the show.
Was there a character that was particularly challenging for you?
Strangely, I think it was Clara. Only because I wanted to shake her sometimes and say, “Loosen up. Your mother is disappearing. You don’t have to hold these walls up anymore.” By the end, she had let them all down. It’s when the character of the bartender appears that she became easier to write because her trust in him softened her, and I was so happy to see that.
Asa and his father Ely where my favorite characters. I absolutely loved them both.
Did you have the ending planned?
Not right away, no. I was missing something in Tamar and I truly grieved for her because it seemed like her life had been so hard. She had done everything for her daughter even if she wasn’t a warm type of mother but she loved her daughter fiercely. So I wanted something soft and warm for her. I didn’t know what that would be for months, until I finally got the image of her in a photo with a soft look on her face, a look that even Clara herself didn’t associate with her mother. There had been love in her life, and I was glad that she had that.
What would you like readers to take away from the novel?
I feel a bit shy wanting readers to take away something besides what they will get on their own from reading the book. But if anything, that we can never know the whole story about each other, and that within almost all of us are these reserves of tenderness and hurt.
What future projects are you working on?
I just finished a new novel actually! It will come out in a couple of years and I also have a YA novel coming out next year. So I have quite a bit going on.
Can you give me a hint?
This novel is also set in upstate New York, and also Montana. It’s about a young woman who was assaulted, and all sorts of social issues start to swirl around the circumstances of her assault. That brings consequences for her, and for those around her. And that’s all I can say for now!