Carolyn Parkhurst does not do things the easy way; breaking convention and surpassing expectations seem to be more of her forte. Ostensibly her first book, The Dogs of Babel, was about a husband grieving after his wife dies. But as the man works with the dog, the only possible witness to her death, he tries to teach it to speak.
As he struggles, the reader can’t help but be drawn into this wild, original premise and root for the man and the dog to communicate. It led to one of the more interesting book discussions I’ve attended.
In the interview below I ask Mrs. Parkhurst if she had any concern about using a reality show as part of the premise for her second book. I am sure I am not the only one who groaned upon learning that the plot involved a fictional reality show called Lost and Found, worried she had suffered from the dreaded sophomore slump that has done in many a novelist. The reality, though, is this book is also quite original in many ways.
Now I’ll let my questions and her answers speak for themselves.
This book is quite a departure from The Dogs of Babel. Was that an intentional choice to avoid getting classified as, say, a writer who specializes in novels about dogs?
Well, I suppose I did make a deliberate decision not to put any dogs in my second novel, but the differences between the two books are more a result of my wanting to try something new. I start to feel stuck if I revisit the same subject matter too often; challenging myself to do something different helps keep me excited about the process.
How much research did you do for this book as far as watching reality shows? And which came first, the watching of the shows so you can better create your book, or the realization that you can use the shows you watched to help structure a book?
When you’re talking about watching reality shows, “research” is a bit of an exaggeration. I’m a fan of TV in general, and I’ve certainly watched my share of reality shows, so that’s the piece that came first. Like a lot of people, I like the drama of reality shows — even though a lot of them aren’t very good, and there are questions about how “real” they really are, part of the fun lies in the idea that you’re watching events that might actually have an effect on someone’s life. I thought that the drama and structure of a reality show, along with the fact that I’d be placing my characters in an intense, pressure-cooker-type environment, would provide a good backbone for a novel.
One of the things I like most about both your books are the characters who are much more fleshed out than those of most novelists. You remind me – in a good way – of Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible when you alternate narration between characters, with each sounding realistic. Was that a difficult feat as a writer to have alternating narrators? Was that tough logistically when it came to structuring the story?
Well, first of all, thanks for the nice comparison. It was challenging to juggle the different narrators — there are seven of them — but I actually really enjoyed it. When I first started thinking about the book, I’d imagined that there would be only two narrators, the mother-daughter team of Laura and Cassie, and that everyone else would just be in the background. But when I started to write, I became interested in the stories of some of the supporting characters, and I decided I wanted to spend some time in their heads, as well. I like the idea that on reality shows, people are often cast because they seem to have a recognizable type — here are the Hollywood has-beens, for example, or here are the religious freaks — and I wanted to explore the complexity of these characters that wouldn’t necessarily come across in their TV personas.
I am probably not alone in having read Dogs of Babel as part of a book discussion group. Did knowing people were analyzing and discussing that book affect how you went about writing your next book?
I’ve visited both book groups and college classes where the participants have been discussing my work, and I have to say it’s a strange experience. I always have this sense of, “Uh oh, they’re talking about it like it’s a real book.” By which I mean, they’re discussing themes and symbolism and all kinds of things I’m not necessarily thinking about while I’m putting the story together. When people ask me questions in a situation like that, they’re not so much interested in the logistics of how I wrote the book, how the plot developed and why I made the choices I did; they want me to explain why a character behaved in a certain way, or what certain images mean. And since my writing process is much more intuitive than analytical, I don’t always have good answers for them. But no, I didn’t give any of that much thought while I was writing Lost and Found. I’ve found that worrying about how a book is going to be received can paralyze you; not that I don’t do it, but I try not to let it interfere with the writing.
Which comes first for you – the plot or the characters?
A little bit of each; neither one is fully formed at the outset. I usually start with a situation and a question. With The Dogs of Babel, it was an image of a grieving man and a question about how far he would go to find the answers he was so anxious to know. With Lost and Found, I started with the image of a mother and daughter thrust into the strange on-camera world of a reality show, while they’re both still reeling from the cataclysmic event of the daughter hiding her entire pregnancy from her mother. I had two questions: how are they ever going to repair their relationship, and what effect will being on this TV show have on them?
What made you decide to include the two characters of "Team Brimstone" who were resisting their sexual orientations? Did you always plan for those characters to develop the way that they did?
Since I originally thought that Laura and Cassie would be the only major characters, figuring out who the supporting cast would be was kind of a fill-in-the-blanks endeavor. I tried to imagine what kind of people would be chosen for a show like this one, and sticking an ex-gay married couple into the mix seemed like exactly the kind of stunt-casting reality TV producers might engage in. I’d read articles about the ex-gay movement, and I was interested in exploring what would make someone try to change something as fundamental as sexual orientation. The question of shame — where does it come from, how is it related to the things we keep hidden — comes up for several other characters in the book, and I thought that this married couple who are struggling so hard to keep their shame at bay would provide an interesting lens. I didn’t think they’d be particularly important or sympathetic characters, but the more I wrote about them, the more sympathy I felt for them. I think Abby may be my favorite character.
Which character is most like you?
It probably sounds like a cop-out, but each of my characters is like me in one way or another. The only way I can write about a character believably is if I can find some common ground to start from; then I can branch out from there. There’s almost never any literal autobiography to my writing—I’ve obviously, for example, never been a widowed male linguistic professor or a teenage girl who hides her entire pregnancy — but each of my characters reflects something about me. The way Abby thinks is probably closest to the way I think, but I gave Cassie some of my sense of humor, Laura some of my worries about being a good parent, and so on.
Were you concerned at all about writing a story about a reality show?
I was worried that potential readers might dismiss the book as being fluffy based on the premise alone, or that people who don’t like reality TV would assume the book wouldn’t be interesting for them. As much as I enjoyed writing the reality TV aspect of the book, it’s really just the skeleton that I hung the story on; the real substance of the story lies in the characters and the relationships between them. I faced the same issue with The Dogs of Babel; some people are fascinated by the idea of a man teaching a dog to talk, and some people think it sounds stupid, all before they’ve even picked up the book. But again, I tried not to think too much about hypothetical readers while I was working on the book; I just wrote about what interested me and hoped it would find its audience.