Family defines us in ways that we cannot even begin to suspect. In Tracy Barone’s debut novel ‘Happy Family, the author introduces readers to Cheri Matzner, a former NYPD cop turned academic whose unapologetic and intricate persona lead her to a difficult crossroad in her life while attempting to figure out who or what she really wants to be.
Cheri, abandoned in a hospital as a baby by the young girl who gave birth to her, never had a true and open relationship with her adoptive parents. Her father Solomon at best ignored her, and conversely her mother Cici constantly suffocated her with affection; this polarity is a huge influence on Cheri’s own personal relationships , even if this fact is somewhat unbeknownst to her at times.
Happy Family is not a book to be read in a quick sitting while lazing around on the beach or between lunch breaks. Barone’s distinctive and well-crafted narrative demands careful attention due to the several flashback sequences that explain the past of several characters in the novel, while simultaneously giving us a glimpse into their complicated lives. How does family affect our perception of who we are now and maybe who we will be in the future? Can we break away from destructive family patterns in order to do things differently and better? I asked Tracy Barone several questions about the topics explored in Happy Family and particularly about the novel’s main character Cheri Matzner.
You’ve worked as a playwright and a screenwriter. How is the process of writing a screenplay different than writing a novel?
It’s quite a different process. Dramatic writing is all about scenes and “show don’t tell.” Dialogue is crucial and, with screenwriting, the writing needs to be highly visual as a template for moving images. Plays and screenplays are created where the written word is not the be all and end all. They are meant not just to be read but to be performed. The novel gives more freedom as a writer without the boundaries inherent in dramatic writing forms: you can jump decades, tell backstory (judiciously or not), take more time developing characters, play more with language. Writing a novel is a greatly liberating and fearsome thing. Plays and screenplays are more or less of a certain length. While all writing is rewriting, at least for me, taking on a novel was more daunting.
How did you first get the idea for Happy Family?
I wanted to tell a multi-generational family story from different vantage points to unravel the fictional narratives that pass down as truths. I heard the voices of my characters like in an opera and each had a specific intonation, theme, chord variation. The question that kept gnawing at me was: can we ever truly know our parents outside of their roles as our parents? Do we want to? And if we do, would that help in forgiving the secrets and lies we both know about and don’t know about as children that then go on to shape us and our children? I had this large piece of music in mind and at its center was Cheri, a fiercely independent woman desperately seeking connection with the relationships in her life yet pushing them away at the same time.
Cheri Matzner is a complex multi-layered character. It’s difficult to like her at times but she has such magnetic personality, intelligence and wit that we can’t dislike her either. Was this your intention when you were writing the book, to have Cheri come across as a likeable/unlikeable character?
Oh the likeable question! I don’t really think about a character’s likeability when I’m creating them. I want to get to their truth, to understand them, peel off layers. The characters I like the most and relate to in fiction aren’t as much always likeable as always interesting. My intention with Cheri was to create a character full of dichotomies, varying shades of grey. I didn’t want to shy away from the good, the bad or the ugly of her.
Cheri’s life choices (the good and the bad) seem to be a product of her complicated relationship with her parents. Did she rebel in an attempt to be as different as she could be from her adoptive parents and the mother who abandoned her?
I think part of leaving home and our parents kingdom – at whatever age we do this – is an act of rebellion, a declaration of our independence. It’s heightened in Cheri’s case because she’s adopted and never felt she belonged in her parent’s world – fostered by her complicated relationship with her adoptive father. She is defiant as a teenager and this attitude follows her with authority figures as an adult although she chooses to be part of hierarchical structures both as a cop and in academia. She’s looking to find another kind of family (one that fits her better) when she chooses to become a cop and this is definitely a huge differentiating stance from her adoptive parents. Cheri doesn’t know anything about her birth mother but as she’s trying to have a child herself she considers if she might have inherited the propensity to abandon her young.
Cheri falls in love with men who ultimately disappoint her. Is her relationship to men in tandem with the relationship that she has with her father? Why does she choose to marry a man who evidently has nothing in common with her?
There is resonance with Cheri’s relationship with her father and her choices in men in her life. Although when Cheri met and married Michael, her husband, they shared things in common (save for their stances on handguns) and had a real spark. In the present time of the novel their marriage has become strained and their connection frayed so it’s hard to see how they were once bonded. There are glimpses of this that resurface at the most unexpected time so hopefully Michael is more of a mixed bag.
Why make Cheri an academic when she abandons her career as a cop? Academia and law enforcement seem such opposing paths for her
Cheri is intellectually curious. She loves studying comparative mythology and religion in college. While they are very different career paths, each is founded in an aspect of her personality from an early age. Being a cop is a very external kind of detective work while translating ancient texts is linguistic detective work. There’s a secret around why she abandons the NYPD, a heartbreak. Cheri retreats back to Graduate School and ultimately to the Ivory Tower of academia.
Cheri comes across as a poor communicator with her parents and her husband. Would you say this is accurate?
I think this may be accurate regarding her parents, but this is largely shaped by her rebellion as a teenager and the secrets and lies in her family of origin. I think Cheri does her best to communicate with her husband but there are a lot of misconnections. He’s not the easiest person to live with and their journey is to come to a greater understanding, and ultimately, forgiveness with each other.
What or who was your inspiration for Cheri?
I had a friend in college who became a cop in the housing projects in the Lower East Side of NYC instead of going to grad school. We were all shocked. I heard that she later went back to grad school. Cheri is fictional, but this dichotomy was the spark.
You chose to finish the novel with a semi open ending, leaving many questions as to how Cheri will handle family and personal relationships from now on. Did you know how you were going to end Cheri’s story when you began Happy Family?
I always knew the beginning and ending of the novel. In between was a lot of discovery. I didn’t want to tie everything up, but Cheri is a much different person by the epilogue and will surely handle her relationships differently.
What other projects are on the horizon? Another novel anytime soon?
I am at work on a new novel. I’m also in discussions for a tv series based on Happy Family and writing another pilot. I started a community project, Happy Family Posts, where people can share – anonymously – their family secrets. It’s a safe space to explore the question of how well do we every really know the people closest to us and if learning our family secrets helps provide an avenue for healing.
Photo of Tracy Barone used by permission of the author.