A Stranger Like You
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“An intense, provocative thriller…” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Hedda Chase is a top-flight executive producer at Gladiator Films, fast-tracked in the business since she graduated from Yale. An aggressive businesswoman, she recently pulled the plug on a film project initiated by one of her predecessors. The screenwriter on the project was Hugh Waters, a wannabe with a dead-end marriage and a day job at an insurance company. This script was his ticket out-until Hedda tampered with his plans, claiming his violence was over the top, his premise not credible, and his ending implausible. Hugh decides to prove otherwise by staging his script’s ending and casting Hedda Chase as the victim. He flies to Los Angeles and finds Hedda, kidnaps her, and locks her in the trunk of her vintage BMW in the parking lot at LAX. He leaves the keys in the ignition, the parking ticket on the dash, and lets “destiny” take its course.
This is the set-up for a troubling, smart, deadly look at women and images of women, at media as a high-stakes game and the selling of a war as theatre. (One key character is an Iraq veteran, and one of Hedda’s projects is a film about women in Iraq). Brundage’s Los Angeles is a casual battleground that trades carelessly in lives and dreams. As always, her characters are complicated, surprising, and intense in this high velocity, provocative novel.
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“In this intense, provocative thriller about power, war, and the portrayal of women in film…. Brundage brilliantly shifts back and forth between Hugh, Hedda, and Denny, an injured Iraq war veteran, who plays a key role in Hedda’s fate. The action culminates in illuminating revelations about the intersection of theater with reality.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Hollywood looks a lot different from inside the trunk of a car, which is where Hedda Chase, “one of the most powerful women in town,” finds herself in Elizabeth Brundage’s painfully intimate novel of psychological suspense…about the limitations imposed on women in male-dominated societies. – Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
“Brundage excels at pushing her characters to their limits and then reflecting on the consequences of their behavior.” —Booklist
“Brundage is an astonishing writer — some passages are as claustrophobic as Chase’s imprisonment. This is the best novel I’ve read about the underbelly of Hollywood since “The Day of the Locust.” Grade: A” —Les Roberts, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“‘People are ugly and cruel. They are relentless. They will stop at nothing to get what they want.’” Like The Player, A Stranger Like You tests this hard-boiled lemma against the beautiful, nasty backdrop of Hollywood. Elizabeth Brundage delivers a pithy, ironic L.A. noir full of broken dreams and snappy repartee.” —Stewart O’Nan, author of Songs for the Missing
“Elizabeth Brundage is the real thing – an ambitious, serious novelist. Not for her, small bites. She uses Dickensian coincidence and the Russians’ sense of tragic destiny, all while observing modern life with a biting acuity and a throwaway hipness – and she dares you to care for characters whose self-contempt, earnest longings, and sad ingratiation are uncomfortably unalloyed. Brundage imbues Hollywood with a mystical super-reality, and scrubs it of anything stock. I couldn’t stop turning the pages of this action-packed, poetic, large-souled novel. And I closed it with a pounding heart.” —Sheila Weller, bestselling author of Girls Like Us
“A Stranger Like You is a disturbingly believable thriller that catches you in a spider web of blind ambition, karma, and cinema dreams. Elizabeth Brundage perfectly captures the laid-back perniciousness of L.A. and the dark heart of the movie biz. It’s a 21st-century ‘noir’ that takes you on a journey that leaves you fearful for yourself. Brundage is a singular talent.” —Dirk Wittenborn, author of Pharmakon, or The Story of a Happy Family
“I’m pulling out all the best adjectives here: quirky, dark, full of unexpected surprises, and oh yes, a wonderful, thorny portrait of Hollywood. ” —Caroline Leavitt
“The characters are so well developed that their tragic struggles and emotional success resonates with you long after you close the book.” —Bookin’ with Bingo
“Elizabeth Brundage is a wonderful storyteller who digs into those secret little corners of lives and personalities and lays bare the thoughts and emotions that reside therein. You know the ones of which I’m speaking; I think we all lay awake at night at some point in our lives and think, Am I the only one who feels like this? Brundage not only exposes these but also sets them free. The result is a wild ride of first impression…
Brundage is not exactly known for her noir fiction, yet A Stranger Like You so perfectly captures the modern vacuum of the soul of southern California that it is worth rereading this work just to take notes on how she does it. I was reminded by turns of John Barth, Raymond Chandler and Walker Percy, though the book is like nothing any of those gentlemen wrote. No, this one is all Brundage, all the time. And that makes the wait between her books worth it.” —Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter
“Required reading.” —New York Post
“A Stranger Like You operates at the highest tension point… But truer words were never spoken than when Hedda, at a critical point, wonders, ‘they say if you think about something enough you are actually channelling the universe to make it happen. What was once ‘too violent,’ it turns out, is nowhere near violent enough, as fantasy and reality blur even more.” —L.A. Times
“… the characterization was rich and the ideas that were explored were troubling and timely… there are certainly timely questions, sharp observations, and great writing. I will, without a doubt, continue to read every book Elizabeth Brundage writes.” —My Friend Amy
“Brundage’s novel is a brilliant surprise, the plot a perfect combination of pulp thriller and literary suspense. In Hollywood, where the manufacture of ideas is time-consuming and costly, the author’s damaged protagonists battle it out on the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles, the hot, white sands of the Middle-East, and the barren deserts of Nevada, where the final devastating denouement comes at a violent price.” —Curled Up
“Reminiscent of the movie Crash, Brundage weaves narratives by Waters, Chase, a teenage runaway and a troubled young soldier just home from Iraq and working as a parking lot attendant at LAX. While you hold your breath waiting to find out Hedda’s fate, Hugh insinuates himself into her life and social circle…The novel explodes when the characters intersect in this terrific and quirky thriller. I’ll definitely be reading Brundage’s previous books.” —Monarch Book Reviews
“A Stranger Like You could not be better written; it is a showcase of clever plotting, memorable characters and dialogue that reads as if it were overheard.” —Jesse Kornbluth, Headbutler
“It’s a study in human nature, and you’ll have to work your way through it. But I guarantee, you’ll enjoy the ride. The characters — all who move masterfully through their arcs of development — will haunt you long after you finish A Stranger Like You.” —Murder By 4
“Yeah, I’m crushing because I’m deep in love with her novel set in Hollywood, but this is no chick lit, but a thriller with a wickedly delicious premise every writer can relate to. A Stranger Like You is what happens when a writer almost grabs the brass ring and it’s taken away from him.” —The Boomer Muse
The story is cleverly structured and the prose is oftentimes breathtaking and quite vivid (hardly a trademark of most thrillers). It’s dark, to be sure, but there are many illuminating passages to light the reader’s way, like this one: “Ten minutes to five and it’s still dark, as if the sky’s been filled in with pencil. A strange time, he thinks, neither day nor night, but somewhere in between. Like the way he feels in his life an awful lot of the time. Like he’s waiting, been waiting a long time.” — Bonnie Crisalli, Babes in Bookland
“While my husband has never been great with words, I am always looking for explanations of what it felt like to be blown up. Brundage’s description of Rios’ injury paints a vivid picture of that moment: “They tell you it’s going to hurt, but this was a medieval pain, this was the pain of the rack, stretching your flesh into something else. It was like nothing he‘d ever experienced. You couldn’t compare it to anything. Maybe like a train running into you. Something to that effect.” Rios ends up being the unlikely hero in the story. There were many times while reading Rios’ words, tears pricked my eyes. I could feel his pain, the feeling of being lost, not fitting in.” —Wife of a Wounded Soldier
It begins in late September, when you first see the car. It is raining and you are happy for the rain because you have grown irritable with so much sun and the rain soothes you somehow and reinforces the fact that you were not born in this sun-bleached emotional wasteland, but back east where people are moodier and unapologetically disenchanted. The sky is grim, the air cool, and you are driving home from the studio as on most afternoons around this time, only today is different because of the rain, the long line of traffic down Los Feliz Boulevard. The car is parked on a grassy corner, adjacent to one of those prehistoric mansions, an enormous, mushroom-colored Spanish Colonial entrapped in vines. It is a blue BMW, an older model, a For Sale sign taped on the windshield. You think of stopping, but in truth you are not the sort of person who buys things from strangers—you have come to rely on the expertise of people you trust for getting you what you need, when you need it, and you are not really comfortable pursuing things on your own. For the several weeks that follow, you notice the car as you pass by, as the grass grows up around it, dappled with fluffy dandelions, and you begin to dream about owning it, driving home in it, showing it to your colleagues at the studio, your small collection of important friends.
Then, days later, again on your way home from work, you happen to notice a van parked in the driveway. It is raining again, the clouds hauntingly black, a yellow fluorescence to the light as if the sky, the air, is sick. The driveway runs up off of Delacroix Avenue, a side street off the boulevard. The van is black with gold lettering: COUNTY CORONER. Instinctively, you take your foot off the accelerator and turn onto Delacroix, pulling up alongside the curb with the car idling. They are bringing a body out. It is covered with a black water-repellent sheet. It is an eerie thing to witness and you watch with apologetic fascination as they load it into the van. You have felt the same uncertain empathy whenever you pass an accident on the freeway—that morbid anticipation—you can’t help thinking of the famous scene in Weekend, the Godard film, a ten-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam caused by an accident—or when you are behind an ambulance and can see inside, the EMT’s diligent face, his solemn concentration as he works on the patient. It is an expression reserved for the saving of a life, and it is rare, and fine. As a filmmaker, you have come to know about expressions and there are certain expressions that are not for everyone and that are difficult to duplicate for the camera. You have come to realize that both saviors and executioners wear the same expression and there is, of course, a heady irony in that.
The rain begins to fall harder and you see a woman come outside with an umbrella. She is Mexican, in a housekeeping dress, holding the umbrella over the coroner’s head. At one point he takes her hand and guides the umbrella over her head, and she smiles gratefully. It is a brief and touching exchange and you make a mental note to work it into a movie. Thinking about the car, the strange dark house, the alarming appearance of the body, you drive home to your rented bungalow. Death is something you fear and you can never gauge its proximity. Sometimes you sense it encroaching upon you like some thief in the night, looking into your windows. Sometimes you lay in bed, brittle, waiting for evil to find you. Images sprawl through your mind, arbitrary scraps of terror that have become all too ordinary. To some degree, you have been nurtured on fear.
Stopped at a traffic light you review the facts of your life: You have achieved so much, and yet your heart is empty. It is the truth; it is something you know. You have come to a point in your life—success has garnered certain privileges—you are grossly overpaid, and yet you are overworked; you are rarely alone, and yet you are intensely lonesome; you have accomplished what you set out to, and yet you feel your ideals have been compromised. When all is said and done, you feel a weary sense of ambivalence.
You are forty, which in Hollywood is not a good thing. Not that you are actually old, because of course you are not, but you have begun to feel slightly invisible at meetings with certain people, the younger directors for example, most of them men, who grow impatient with your lengthy discussions of character and plot—your questions about context and rationale—and your desire to tell stories that resonate in the hearts and minds of the American public—yes, it is true, your ambitions are lofty—and some of them actually rush you through lunch. In a town like this, where passive aggression is something of an art form, you have invented your own special version of subliminal espionage. In order to survive as a female you are forced to behave like someone with a personality disorder, limiting your range of expression to a deadpan grimace. The smile, that old-fashioned symbol of genuine assurance, has become obsolete, replaced by its nasty cousin the smirk which, when coupled with the cruel but effective once-over, conveys to its recipient that he or she is a complete waste of time. The only time people sustain a genuine smile is when they are certain you can make them money. On your way up you had acquired your own battle scars. And even now—even with all your success—you are besieged with doubt. You have not entirely outgrown the need for approval, the lavishing praise of an expert. Doubt is your compass. It prevents you from feeling happy. Your unhappiness is a strategic part of the mechanism that drives you, the feverish self-loathing that shoves you forward, toward that shimmering light of your destiny.
1. One of Brundage’s many narrative techniques involves the shifting of verb tenses. Some chapters are related in the present tense, whereas others are told in the past tense. How does Brundage subtly control her story’s effect on the reader by using this device?
2. The chapters of A Stranger Like You that are narrated from the viewpoint of Hedda Chase differ from all the others in that they are told from the grammatical standpoint of the second person; Hedda becomes “you.” What do you think Brundage intends to achieve through this grammatical sleight of hand? Does she succeed?
3. A Stranger Like You is not told in chronological fashion. What do you think Brundage gains or loses in breaking free from chronological order? Would you have chosen to narrate the story’s episodes in a different order? How might your treatment differ and why?
4. Brundage prefaces the main text of her novel with a page of capitalized, four-word plot premises similar to those her characters bandy back and forth in chapter nine. What do you think is the purpose of this page, and how does it relate to the remainder of the novel?
5. A relatively common technique in recent thriller novels is to conclude them with very short, rapid-fire chapters. In A Stranger Like You, the last third of the chapters account for just less than one seventh of the length of the novel. How does this pacing affect the reading of the end of the novel? What do you think of this technique and Brundage’s use of it?
6. We are given to understand that Hugh Waters, the villain of the novel, has homosexual leanings. Is there a purpose to this aspect of his character, or did you find it gratuitous? How does Brundage’s treatment of homosexual feelings compare with those in other thrillers you might have read, and what do you think of these treatments?
7. A Stranger Like You narrates the abduction of Hedda Chase twice: first from the perspective of her kidnapper (chapter one) and later from the viewpoint of the victim (chapter thirteen). What does the reader gain from the retelling that was not present the first time? How has the reader’s perspective on the crime been altered by the intervening chapters?
8. Characters in A Stranger Like You like Hedda Chase and Harold Unger (H. Unger) have names that suggest pursuit and unsatisfied desire. What are the characters in the novel looking for, and why does it prove so elusive?
9. How does Hedda’s trip to Abu Dhabi change her? What does she learn from her contact with a different culture?
10. We are given to understand that Hugh Waters’s screenplay for The Adjuster is vulgar, exploitative, and misogynistic. How does Elizabeth Brundage manage her novel, which is largely about that screenplay, in such a way as to keep it from being subject to the same criticisms?
11. Ironically, the screenplay that actually gets someone killed in A Stranger Like You is not Hugh’s, but Tom Foster’s more socially conscious script about the stoning of an Iraqi woman, which leads to the death of Fatima Kassim. Was Foster irresponsible in writing this film? Is Hedda right when she wonders what right Americans have to judge the practices of other cultures?
12. Imagine that you are a director filming the screen version of A Stranger Like You. Describe in detail how you would shoot a particular scene from the book.
13. Does Hugh Waters change over the course of the novel? If so, how does he change, and how does Brundage enable us to recognize these changes?
14. What, in your view, are the necessary qualities of a great thriller novel? Applying these criteria, how favorably do you rate A Stranger Like You?
BEHIND THE BOOK
This book began as a short story. When I finished the story I realized that its protagonist, Hugh Waters, a frustrated writer working in an insurance company, had a lot more to say. The novel focuses on Hugh and two other characters, a woman named Hedda Chase, a Hollywood film producer, and Denny Rios, an Iraq war veteran. Their lives come together unexpectedly, with dangerous consequences.
Like his name suggests, Hugh Waters is oddly transparent and yet nuanced with shadow. He is the kind of guy you may have worked with over the years. Attractive, yet enigmatic; squeamish around his superiors; distant, yet polite. At the office party, he lingers on the periphery. As passive as he appears, you can’t help thinking that, at some point, under the right circumstances, he will snap. Indifferent to his wife, Hugh’s only apparent pleasure is in watching movies in the basement of his suburban home. For Hugh, spending a few hours caught up in someone else’s troubles is a spectacular reprieve from the monotony of his own existence. Remarkably, he succeeds in selling a screenplay to Hollywood, but at the last minute the project is trashed by a new producer who rejects his blatant use of violence. For Hugh, it’s the last straw in a life already routine with disappointment, and he decides to take matters into his own hands. Reenacting scenes from his script, he becomes somebody else; empowered, devoid of pain and regret, removed from consequence.
With the proliferation of special effects and cyber imagery, we have become accustomed to watching the impossible. We are a culture of watchers. TV – our neighbors – the strangers in the street. Danger lurks. The world – our planet – seems unreliable; unsafe. This is the set up for an atmosphere of extremes.
The story is told from three perspectives – Hugh’s, Hedda’s, and a third character, Denny Rios. Each character is motivated by loss. For Hugh, his dream of becoming a Hollywood player has been interrupted; Hedda has compromised her ideals for the sake of money and power; and Denny has lost a part of himself – his soul – in the deserts of Iraq. They are each broken in some deeply personal way. Their dreams of a certain kind of life have been betrayed. I wanted to explore what would happen when these disparate characters are brought together in an extreme situation – how they would handle it, what they would teach one another, and who would survive.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Brundage on A Stranger Like You
Readers and critics have sometimes described your work as “feminist,” a word that is notoriously difficult to define and is also laden with lots of overdetermined meanings. How do you respond to the characterization of “feminist” and in what way might it be problematical as applied to your writing?
According to most dictionaries, feminism advocates equal political and economic rights for men and women, and, based on this definition, I am certainly a feminist. However, when it comes to my work, I don’t have much use for labels and I certainly wouldn’t want a reader to not read my novels based on assumptions about my political views. I’m interested in considering and perhaps challenging the assumptions we make based on gender. I fight for my male characters just as much as my female characters and try to explore and disrupt the various cultural nuances that attempt to define us as men and women.
Your previous novel, Somebody Else’s Daughter, was set in the Berkshires, a long way from the Hollywood backdrop of A Stranger Like You. How do you think geography influences the characters you write about?
Geography influences my characters a great deal. A sense of place is important in my work, as it is important to me in my life. To some degree, where we live, how we live, defines us in some way—not that it has to be permanent, but it may inform one’s perspective at the time. InSomebody Else’s Daughter, the Berkshires were meaningful because the characters, for the most part, had chosen to live there—to pursue what they hoped would be an ideal life based on their fantasies of what that might mean. Hollywood is a place that attracts people who are seeking a different version of an idealized fantasy—the tantalizing possibility of fame and fortune—and it’s a place that can also make people desperate. Back in New Jersey, Hugh Waters is probably considered a pretty reasonable guy, but when his dreams get trampled (to borrow from Yeats—tread softly because you tread on my dreams) it revives a bitter longing from someplace deep and he can’t let it go. Having lived in Los Angeles, I wanted to re-create a city that is at once seedy and elegant, gloriously deceptive, brutally dispassionate.
The topic of Judaism has surfaced more than once in your novels. What is your personal relation to Judaism, and how does it inspire you?
As a Jew, the idea of faith interests me. Faith requires a suspension of disbelief in the same way that movies do—you must submit to the journey and be open to what comes next. I thought this was an interesting parallel to explore in the novel. Although she was raised in a Jewish home, Hedda is a non-believer. She is somewhat literal in her thinking, not the sort of person who can trust abstractions, and so the notion that there is a God confounds her. In her profession as a producer she has learned to rely on the facts, the numbers, the bottom line—in her business dreams are for amateurs—and yet she wants desperately to believe in something. I think many of us want to believe in something . . . but this crosses into the novel on many levels. When she buys the car from the bereaved magician, there is a suggestion of magic in the transaction—the magic is presented, but you must believe in the possibility. If you believe, for example, that the lingering scent of roses in the car indicates the presence of the man’s dead wife, then you may also believe that there is something else—God—that decides our destiny. We live in complicated times and religion—the commitment to faith—has become, for many, an obscure pursuit. For some it brings solace and comfort, for others guilt and confusion. From the beginning of time, religion has instigated war; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the “unrest” in Israel are no exception. Religion is about devotion, passion. But it’s also, and always has been, about territory.
In America, the idea of passion, of being passionate, has lost some of its charm. I think a kind of emotional anemia has tainted our cultural blood flow—passion, believing in something so intensely that you’re willing to stake your life on it—has somehow become almost naïve. In these hard-line economic times, we have learned, in the way abused children learn, not to expect anything, not even love. To believe in something means you will most likely be betrayed. And these are some of the realities I wanted to explore in this novel.
The literary genre of the thriller is not traditionally known for its enlightened attitudes regarding gender. What were the challenges in using this genre to tell what is, fundamentally, a pro-woman story?
Having lived and worked in Los Angeles, first as a film student and then in a variety of industry jobs, I caught a heady whiff of sexism. I thought it would be interesting to write about a female producer who has sacrificed her passion to garner success. When an opportunity arises to make an important film about an Iraqi woman who is accused of adultery and sentenced to death, Hedda decides to take on the project, but it’s not because she’s getting in touch with her feminist side. On the contrary, she’s in love with the film’s screenwriter, Tom Foster, who reminds her of who she once was—a filmmaker fueled by conviction and the desire to tell the truth. Hedda Chase is a woman who has grown accustomed to getting her way—she is strong and powerful—and yet she soon discovers that her freedom is more vulnerable than she ever imagined. Freedom is a gift and, as Americans, we take it for granted (as we should). But the rest of the world doesn’t function by our rules. I wanted to draw a parallel between what happens to Hedda, trapped and at the mercy of her captor or God ,and the women in countries like Iraq, where the idea of being free, a free, woman, is elusive and ignored.
Do you think it makes sense to read Hedda’s imprisonment in the trunk of her car as a metaphor for the other entrapments in her life?
I think Hedda’s imprisonment is a metaphor for what it feels like to have your rights taken away.
How fully do you plot a book before you write it? Are you yourself ever surprised by the direction one of your stories takes?
I am often surprised by the choices my characters make and these, to a large degree, decide the plot. I hate that word “plot” because it sounds like a hole in the ground where you put a dead person, but it is a good idea to have a sense of direction when you write. It’s funny because as a kid I had a lousy sense of direction and my parents would criticize me when a two-hour drive became six hours of “touring”– we didn’t have MapQuest back then—but I like to think, as a novelist, that my sense of direction is strategic. If you know your characters well before you begin, then your instincts will lead you. Instinct, in fact, is an important aspect of writing. You must sense your characters—your instinct is your compass.
When writing a first draft, I like to be surprised. Usually, if I go too far in one direction, my character will tap me on the shoulder and turn me around. Sometimes research will help to inform the direction a book takes. While writing the first draft of A Stranger Like You, I wasn’t sure who would steal the car once Hedda was inside the trunk. I had only an inkling of Denny at that point and had decided he was a veteran with PTSD, and then I thought it might be interesting to have him work at an airport parking lot because the gatehouse reminded me of the tight quarters inside a tank. Once you know your characters well they begin to tell you things, and take you to places you never thought you’d go.
Like Hugh Waters, you have taken your turns at scriptwriting. How did your experiences in that kind of writing influence your work on A Stranger Like You?
In college I began studying film and directed my first 16mm films, which were pretty weird. I have always been interested in images and how images convey meaning, and film is an intriguing medium in which to explore these interests. I wrote my first feature screenplay in my senior year at Hampshire College and that script earned my acceptance to the American Film Institute as a screenwriting fellow. In the novel, the “conservatory” is based on AFI—a really special place for young filmmakers, and an extraordinary opportunity for me at the time. Screenplays are highly structured inventions, and it was there that I learned how to tell a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end, a structure that is deceptively simple. Screenwriting classes differ from fiction-writing classes in that they stress the architecture of a story over anything else—an underlying premise is played out over time. A character confronts a problem and has to deal with it and in doing so experiences a change. In fiction, the focus is on character. What I try to do in my novels is to combine these two elements; strong characterization within a structure that has a sort of domino effect progression—one scene pushing through to the next toward an inevitable resolution.
After AFI, I continued to write screenplays. One day I met with an agent who had liked one of my scripts. She looked at me curiously and asked if I’d ever written fiction. I had tried writing prose in college, but not much had come of it. At her suggestion, I went home and wrote my first short story, and that was the beginning of my life as a fiction writer.
For the time being, at least, you’ve chosen novel writing over screenwriting. Why?
I like writing novels because you create an entire world on the page. As a kid, I used to play for hours down in our basement setting up “apartments” and creating lives and situations and problems with my dolls and stuffed animals. That sense of play is a natural way to work things out. Writing fiction is not all that different. For me, as a writer, I like to work out the knots with words. Fiction is a place where anything is possible. Novels take the reader into a landscape that is at once familiar and unique. I especially like the novel form as it allows for a deeper analysis of a character. I like the almost intimate relationship that occurs between writer and reader when two imaginations collide, when the reader “translates” the writer’s version of the story into his own.
Through the character of Denny Rios, you explore the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder. What was it like to research his character, and what did you learn?
Here’s how Denny came about. We were having trouble with our television reception and called DIRECTV for help. They sent someone over and when he got to the door I had just come out of the shower and had a towel on my head. I answered the door and apologized for my appearance and he made a comment that it was okay, he was used to “towel heads.” He had returned from his tour in Iraq a few months before and had a limp and hadn’t gotten his health benefits yet and was angry about it. Although most of the time he complained about his experience, it was obvious to me that he’d been an excellent soldier. He was fastidious in his way of working. I could see that, for a period of time, he was accustomed to going into a situation and dealing with it until it was resolved. It wasn’t until months later that I decided to base a character on him and regretted never getting his name. On another occasion when we were having a second TV installed, DIRECTV sent two other young men who had also been to Iraq. I noticed that all three had similar qualities. Something in their faces told me they’d see things they’d never fully be able to process. Thus, the character of Denny was born. I began to look for veterans to interview and was told about an organization called Soldier’s Heart in Troy, New York, that helps veterans cope with their experiences. They urged me to read a book called War and the Soul, by Edward Tick, which explores strategies for coping with posttraumatic stress disorder. Through Soldier’s Heart I met a young marine named Sean who had served in the first invasion in 2003 and who helped me to further understand the dynamics of being at war and the difficulties that often surface when coming home.
America’s involvement in Iraq exerts a powerful force over events in your novel, both through the character of Denny and through the film that Hedda makes in Abu Dhabi. Why did you choose to give so much attention to the Middle East in what is, in most respects, a Hollywood story?
War is a kind of theater. The invasion of Iraq was an enormous, high-budget production. I wanted to draw parallels between Iraq and Hollywood—the notion that conflict can be manufactured and managed by a select few. My research led me into various directions. I came upon a YouTube video that showed from beginning to end an Iraqi woman getting stoned to death. The fact that it is a rare occurrence condoned by religious extremists does not dismiss its significance, and the rationale that supports such condemnation seems to say something about the country’s overall regard for women. Through the character of Fatima Kassim I was able to address some of these issues and to consider how behavior like this speaks to the larger global community and why nothing is done to stop it. The why is what keeps me up at night. It’s why Hedda makes her movie and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book.
One of our favorite scenes in A Stranger Like You takes place in Chapter six, when Hedda tries to explain why she is offended by the rough sex scene in The Promise. What were your thoughts and motivations when you were writing that part of the novel?
In this country, women have fought hard for their rights, and we are still fighting. We have fought for the right to vote, the right to work, the right to fair pay, the right to govern our own bodies and yet, incredibly, we are continually facing new challenges. From a very young age, children are fed images of women, from the housewives in dish soap commercials to the slutty chicks in the jeans ads. Advertisements do more than sell products. They sell lifestyle; behavior. And so do movies. But of course movies are not real. They are manufactured representations and this is something I wanted to consider thematically in the novel as a whole.
I started thinking about how we watch and process behavior on the screen. Sex is right there for us to see, but is it an accurate representation of lovemaking? Do sex scenes in film reinforce and encourage a certain kind of expression in men and women? I started watching sex scenes more critically and realized that, for the most part, the scenes focus on the woman’s experience from a male perspective—the way the camera frames a woman teaches us how to perceive her, identifies what is attractive, sexy, encourages us to feast our eyes. She is there for the taking, so help yourself. Ultimately, on some level, this seeps into the collective unconscious. It raises certain questions. Back in the seventies and early eighties a conversation started about women and sex. The word pleasure came into the discussion. I can remember sitting around with my girlfriends talking about orgasms, masturbating, oral sex—all of those quiet subjects you didn’t discuss with your mother and still don’t—like “achieving” an orgasm, as if you were taking a test. And what if you’re not scoring As—of course it’s your own fault. Perhaps you’re not trying hard enough? Maybe it’s better not to talk about it. I guess my motivation with this scene was to get the conversation started again. I thought it presented an interesting counterpoint to Hedda’s work as a filmmaker, indicating a shift in her perspective. She begins to question her work, her life, her power as a woman in a male-dominated industry. When she travels to Abu Dhabi and discovers that many of the women are wearing abayas with sexy expensive underwear underneath, it gives her pause. She is told that the women are covered for their own protection, escorted by husbands or fathers in the streets, that what’s underneath is for their husband’s eyes only. What does this really mean? What does it mean that suicide bombers are promised virgins in the afterlife? What does it mean when rape is reduced to collateral damage during war? How do these realities determine the way we negotiate with other cultures on a global scale? These are some of the questions I wanted to raise in this novel.
Although the ending of A Stranger Like You could be a good deal bleaker than it is, it isn’t quite a happy ending, either. What made you choose such a dissonant tone for your final pages?
The ending of the novel is a bit mysterious, even to me. Hedda has been saved and is told she will be fine, but she too suffers from PTSD. She survived an ordeal that will not be easy to forget. It doesn’t just go away. The memories linger. The nurse tells her that she’ll be back to her old self in no time, but that phrase is elusive at best, not to mention patronizing. Hedda can’t remember who she was, not really she can’t. Something has been lost. I guess what I’m getting at is that we have become so accustomed to witnessing violence—on television, in movies and video games, in the news—that we’re somewhat desensitized to it, and I want to remind the reader that violence is not something you recover from. Yes, time passes and you learn to move on, but you don’t recover.
In chapter nine of A Stranger Like You, guests at a party come up with four-word “X leads to Y” premises to describe movie plots and their lives. What is the four-word premise of your life so far and why?
Every screenplay has an underlying premise that promises some kind of progression—one condition leads to another. It is a way that screenwriters begin to think about the story they want to tell and one of the first things I learned in film school. For me, I suppose the premise of my life so far is: Hard work leads to success. Writing is hard work. There is just no way around it. You have to put in the hours. You have to think things through. You spend a lot of time in a little room at your desk getting the words down on the page. I think it’s easy to idealize the life of a writer, but there is absolutely nothing ideal about it. You think publishing will make it easier; it doesn’t. In fact, it makes it harder. Facing the blank page every day is at once a privilege and a misery. You just have to keep moving forward, one word at a time.
What, for you, is the best part of writing?
Writing is a solitary profession. Months may pass and you see few people outside of your family members; you may find yourself talking at length to your dog. The process of writing a novel from start to finish is long and difficult, but when you are finished there is no better feeling. You feel, well, released. You feel as if you have stated your case. You have done well by your characters. Perhaps you will be redeemed. There is a great sense of accomplishment. I would have to say that I love that feeling; it’s what keeps me doing it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Your first novel was The Doctor’s Wife, and in this book one of your main characters is the headmaster’s wife. What draws you to the stories of women whose lives are defined by their husband’s careers?
In our society, we are evaluated by several things: how we look, what we do, where we live, who we’re married to, how much money we make, what kind of home we live in, what kind of car we drive, where we went to college (if we did in fact go to college), what our religion is, and what our politics are. All of these considerations go into creating a character. To some degree, women are defined by their husband’s careers. In The Doctor’s Wife, I was interested in taking a critical look at what it meant for Annie Knowles to be married to a physician who began working at an abortion clinic. In this novel, Maggie Heath, the wife of a headmaster of a private day school, is a member of a prominent social echelon in their town. In both books I wanted to explore how the choices we make not only inform our own lives, but the lives of our family members as well. It is not only who we choose to marry that matters, but also what they do, who they come in contact with, the choices that they make that ultimately affect a family’s destiny. As headmaster, Maggie’s husband, Jack, is revered and admired. In the eyes of the Pioneer community, the Heath’s seem to be an ideal couple. They have been granted the ultimate form if admiration, trust with the minds of teenagers. On the surface, the school is a seemingly perfect place: both Jack and Maggie have Ivy League pedigrees; both are outstanding teachers; their daughter, Ada, is an excellent student. The Heaths are tirelessly committed to the school, to promoting what appears to be a seamless ideal. Maggie strains to live within the conventional parameters of traditional family values, placing extraordinary importance on proving to herself that staying married and living by the rules is the right thing to do, no matter how difficult it might be for her to endure. Maggie admits that her life has become “an elaborate fabrication,” and that what people see on the outside is a very different reality from her true life on the inside, with Jack. I wanted to explore how this tension fuels her growing sense of loss and defeat. Maggie is the worst kind of victim, not only because her husband abuses her and she cannot bring herself to tell anyone, but because her repression, ultimately, is her own doing. The worst betrayal for Maggie is when she comes to the realization that the house of cards she has so carefully constructed has in turn been dismantled, one card at a time, by her very own husband.
Maggie, to me, is someone who desperately wants to be good – to be a good wife, a good mother, a good teacher – to put these important aspects of her life first, before she even begins to address her own needs, which, in comparison, are far more complicated. Instead, she adapts to a rigid consensus of what and how women should behave. But in the end it only weakens her position, and she ultimately discovers that the trap she finds herself in with Jack is one that she designed herself.
Claire is a sculptor and each section opens with a description of one of her works. Why did you decide to make Claire’s sculptures such a vital part of the book?
For Claire, her sculptures are symbols of how women are perceived in society. Each sculpture represents a metaphorical aspect of the chapters that follow it. As an artist, Claire makes cultural statements with her work that attempt to inspire reflection in the viewer on a variety of complex social issues that concern women: domesticity, sexuality, power, fertility, femininity, loss.
Have you ever sculpted or worked in the visual arts? Did any particular artist inspire your depiction of Claire’s work?
I have studied painting and art history for many years; it is a passionate interest of mine. In my next life I’d like to come back as a painter. The best thing about being a writer is that you can live vicariously through your characters, whether they are painting a canvas, making a sculpture, or driving a foreign sports car in a high speed chase. The work that the character of Claire produces was inspired by many incredible and daring artists, including Kiki Smith, George Segal, Louise Bourgeois, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy and others.
In a discussion about feminism, Joe says “the word’s a relic.” Later, Claire wonders if feminism is passé. Do you think feminism is obsolete?
I’m not sure people understand what feminism means anymore. It may be harder for women who are under forty to fully embrace what their mothers, aunts and grandmothers went through to assure the protection of their rights and liberties. And with so many other urgent issues existing in our world, it’s sometimes difficult to think of our rights as taking precedence, but they do, they must. It always amazes me to reflect on our history as a country, the idea that women were granted the right to vote just eighty years ago, and the reality that in countries like Saudi Arabia, women’s lives are completely dictated by men. Although women have achieved a great deal over the course of the last century, it sometimes feels like four steps forward, five steps back, and certain political disruptions undermine our progress. I think it’s useful to look at the facts and numbers when trying to answer questions about equality and human rights, because, in general, the numbers speak for themselves. These are confusing times for women and men. It is always important to evaluate the strength of our rights and to elect people who are as equally determined to protect them.
The novel delves into the psyche of both adult and teens characters. Was it difficult to write from the perspective of a teenager?
As the mother of two teenaged girls and a young son I relive my own anxious youth on a daily basis. When writing the character of Willa, I drew on my own memories of being seventeen and curious about my biological roots. For Willa, the mystery of her roots is her birthmark, as it was mine. The mystery inspires you, in a sense, to open doors, to keep searching for something – the truth. As Nate Gallagher says to Candace Golding, “It’s been my experience, Mrs. Golding, that teenagers seem to yearn for the truth in the same way that adults yearn to ignore it. If nothing else, it’s always liberating.” When you’re a teenager, you are trying to understand the world and your place in it. You are formulating your persona, your identity. I wanted to explore all of those disorienting and often disturbing feelings. With Teddy, I was interested in seeing the world from his perspective, how he thought about things like the war in Iraq, or Luther Grimm’s doomed Pit Bull. Or how he felt in school, fumbling through his classes without understanding why he wasn’t a good student, or what he could do about it. It interested me to explore how being academically disabled casts a sense of doubt over his entire life. Writing in the voice of a teenager allows a certain freedom to explore a variety of emotions and confusions, and I tried to do that with the teenaged characters in this book.
The beautiful but isolated landscape of the Berkshires forms the backdrop to your story. What about the region inspired you?
I’ve lived in and around the Berkshires for many years and it’s my favorite place to be, not only for its spectacular beauty, but because it attracts interesting people. Some of my favorite writers lived and worked here, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, among others. The Berkshires has good energy for writers and artists. It’s a beautiful place to be, an ideal environment, a culturally sophisticated place. It’s a place where people come to reinvent themselves – people have, “Utopian longings,” as Greer Harding says in the book, describing the school’s clientele. This intrigues me, the idea that people imagine they can leave behind one life and begin another one – that kind of freedom is particularly American. In writing about Joe and Candace Golding, I was able to explore this phenomenon, the sense that, with the right amount of money, you can machinate your happiness, even if it’s built on a foundation of lies. For the Goldings, when the truth finally creeps in it disrupts their dream. I’m interested in writing about people who seem to be living ideal lives, who are abruptly faced with certain difficulties that irrevocably change them, for better or worse – this is the meat and potatoes of my work as a writer.
Nearly every character in the book is transformed by sex, either redeemed or corrupted. What were you getting at here?
I like to write about sex because I think it’s an important subject. Sex matters to people, but not always for the reasons that the media suggests. I think if people were more relaxed about the subject, we’d have fewer problems. I think that, to some degree, people worry about sex. Monogamy is challenging for some people. Some can’t seem to commit, others fear that they will be betrayed. The idea of betrayal interests me because it is something people fear desperately and because it happens quite a lot. We are an “all or nothing” culture and the punishment for betrayal is usually divorce, which may not be the best choice, depending on the circumstances. I think that betrayal is about so much more than sex. It’s about longing. Loss. It’s a reflection on both partners, not just the one who does the philandering. When people go outside of a marriage or relationship, it is an independent act, a decision that is, for the moment, free of the obligations to one’s mate, a suspended period of time when one steps out of his or her life and is momentarily removed from its pressures. There is a heady sense of freedom in that, and, like the effects of a drug, it briefly masks the inevitable pain one causes because of it. In Joe’s case, his adultery comes out of a kind of fear that he’s not worthy somehow – because he sees his life as something of a compromise. His work, his marriage. I think his affair with Claire bumps him off track and makes him reevaluate his situation for the better. I wanted to show that, although damage has been done to his marriage and his relationship with his wife, they can still go on, they can still move forward. Marriage, like anything else in life, is a process and all too often we make judgments that cause us to sever the relationships with the people we love most.
Why did you decide to connect Joe to the pornography industry? Aside from the sharp contrast his job makes with Claire’s feminist art, what else drew you to the idea?
Pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. Many of the people I interviewed who are in the business like to keep how they earn a living a secret. Although we are comfortable as a society looking at images of pubescent girls in designer clothing, we still like to pretend that we’re not turned on by salacious imagery, and that good and honorable people don’t have roving eyes. In the novel Joe asserts that since porn “exists in our culture,” it must have a meaningful purpose. However, pornography is a means to an end. It is alarmingly superficial. It is not intimate or sensual. Yet, its very existence seems to say something about who we are. Joe argues, “Men need sex more than women.” This is a cultural stereotype that has been ingrained in us from the beginning of time – when poor Adam couldn’t resist Eve’s naughty apple – of course it was all Eve’s fault and women have been paying for it ever since. I wanted to make comparisons in this novel between pornography, teenaged sexuality, and Claire’s art. The use of the school uniform, which has long been a source of titillation in porn magazines, was an image that I felt tied all three of these aspects together.
We are accustomed to seeing the female body either in art, or in film, or on the pages of magazines. Seeing a woman naked is routine, yet seeing a man’s penis is still somewhat taboo. Although there have been films and even plays that show men naked, it is still less ubiquitous than seeing women naked. In the novel, Claire’s sculptures represent the ways in which society objectifies women, while Joe, as a manufacturer of pornography, is a promoter of the objectification of women. Meanwhile, their children, Willa and Teddy, are unwittingly indoctrinated into a system of courtship that sends mixed messages, resulting in feelings of confusion and doubt.
The book ends with Claire and Nate’s wedding and the sense that the characters, even Maggie, are moving in a positive direction. Was it important to you to have a happy ending?
It was important to me that each character felt resolved in some way by the end of the novel, and I do think that happens. I felt that Claire had been on her own for a long time, as had Nate, and that, somehow, they belonged together. So it wasn’t that I wanted a “happy” ending – but I felt that their relationship had reached a point where they were each ready, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to make a firm commitment to one another. For some reason, witnessing the union of two fine people makes us all incredibly happy. It fills us with a sense of promise. I think that speaks to our belief in the strength of love and the profound value of loyalty. It seems to assure us that, even in times like this, where daunting statistics claim that fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, there are still couples out there who are willing to take the chance
What attracts you to the genre of psychological drama? What are you working on next?
I love a fast paced thriller. Ever since I was about ten years old, when I happened to see Double Indemnity on the late show, I was hooked on thrillers. But I also love good literature, books where language is equally as important as the story they tell. My goal as a writer is to combine the two. In high school, I was obsessed with Russian literature. In college I studied film and became intrigued with film noir. I read everything ever written by James Cain and John Fante and Raymond Chandler and Dashille Hammet. In graduate school, I read books like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Dickens’ Great Expectations and Steinbeck’s East of Eden – which were really the first great psychological dramas. Even Madame Bovary can be seen as a psychological drama. I’m not interested in writing stories about people who live blissful, easy lives. Trouble interests me. I like stories about people who get pushed to their limits and are forced to make a decision, for better or worse, that significantly changes their lives.
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A Conversation with Elizabeth Brundage on The Doctor’s Wife
The obvious first question is this: Knowing that you are a doctor’s wife, how much of Annie is based on your own life?
Everybody always wants to know if the book is autobiographical, because there are similarities between Annie and me. And I think most writers do write about aspects of their lives. Your own life experience is the clay so to speak, which gets molded in the writer’s hands within the context of the story. But Annie is her own character. She happens to be married to a doctor, like I am, and we both share the difficulties of being married to men in medicine, which is a profession unlike any other, but she is a completely fictional character.
As a doctor, Michael is always taking care of problems, helping others to heal. Is there any point when he realizes that there are situations and people that can’t be saved or fixed?
I don’t think Michael comes to this realization until he’s down in Lydia’s father’s cellar and he realizes that he’s at the mercy of a completely insane woman. Feeling as though there is no way out, he reckons with his life and the decisions he made that led him to this point. I think he comes to terms with the mistakes he has made, always putting other people — strangers — first, because that’s a requirement of the profession, and the fact that, almost out of necessity, he took Annie for granted.
Annie is a teacher of writing. Have you ever taught? Did the experience of teaching help you in writing this book?
Yes, I have taught on the college level for over ten years, at various colleges and universities as an adjunct or visiting writer. I think teaching is an amazing experience for a writer. It brings you out of your own work, into the hearts and minds of other writers. You actually learn a lot about the way people see the world. I like teaching because I feel like I’m giving back what so many other wonderful teachers gave to me. Also, when you teach, it’s not just about the writing. It’s about breaking down a life — examining the various complex elements that make a person who he is. Looking at what motivates people, what motivates certain behavior. You become an intimate observer of life.
Simon Haas is a painter. You seem to know a lot about art. Do you paint?
I have always loved to make art and look at art. When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me on her art tours in New York, with all of her women friends. It was always an adventure. Her friends were terribly sophisticated, always dressed impeccably and smelling of mystery with their leather bags and Hermes scarves and perfumes. We’d wander through the museums and my mother would teach me about the painters. Seurat paints in dots I remember her saying. I have painted over the years, but I’m not very good at it. In my next life I’d like to be a painter.
Who are your favorite painters?
I absolutely love Lucien Freud and I imagine that Simon Haas paints like him. I love so many painters. I love Alice Neel. I love Pearlstein and Fischl and I love Julian Schnabel and I think he’s a good film director, too. There are so many incredibly gifted painters out there. Van Gogh is my favorite. And I love Mary Cassat, how she captured the beauty of mothering in her paintings.
In the book, Michael begins working at an abortion clinic. Was this a conscious decision on your part, to write about this political issue?
No, not really. I wanted to write about a doctor, and I began this book after the birth of my second daughter. My husband was a resident at the time, and I was incredibly frustrated with my life. I had two small children and a husband who was never ever home and when he WAS home he was absolutely useless. We were living in Rochester, New York, where he was training, and there was a very strong group of anti-abortion protestors up there and it made an impression on me. The story just kind of evolved from there. It took a long time for me to figure out what I was writing about.
How do you think people will react to the subject when they read this book?
Basically, I want people to understand that this is the story of a doctor who gets involved, for a variety of personal reasons, in working at an abortion clinic. This is a book about four separate characters who come together in a dangerous way. It’s a character-driven novel where the reader gets to witness the outcomes of the decisions the characters make. Michael gets caught up in something he believes in and everything in his life changes because of it. People make decisions that open doors to experiences they never anticipated. This happens to every character in this book. It happens to Annie, when she gets involved with Simon Haas. It happens with Lydia, when she gets swept up in the right-to-life rhetoric of Reverend Tim. And it happened to Simon Haas on the day when he saw his wife for the very first time, and then again, when he falls in love with Annie. We make our own decisions. The decisions we make change in our lives, for better or worse.
Why doesn’t Simon turn Lydia into the police earlier?
Two reasons. Simon’s guilt prevents him from turning Lydia in. Guilt is the prison we create for ourselves that keeps us from moving forward in life. He feels as though he “created” her, that she is the embodiment of his own madness, in a sense, and he takes the blame for what’s happened to her. Also, I believe that he still loves her on some very deep pathological level.
Lydia seems to be the ultimate victim. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
For me, I don’t really know why I’m writing the characters one way or another. They speak to me in a sense, and I write the stories they tell. It’s kind of like living with a multiple personality disorder. But I do see Lydia as a victim. On the one hand, she’s allowed herself to be controlled by others, first her father, then Simon Haas. This is her weakness and it comes from several things in her past. Her mother’s death, for example, I don’t think she ever got over it. Lydia sort of represents to me how women have been repressed throughout the centuries — and they’re still repressed, although more subtly these days. So subtle in fact that it is often misinterpreted as something else. As fashion, for instance. The contradictory ways in which society promotes and sells our role as women. But this is a huge subject.
Do you see this book as a feminist novel?
I see it as a book that considers feminist ideas. In Annie’s case, it’s a story about a woman who is trying to relearn her own language. To get back to the essential meaning of life. When Annie married Michael, she let go of certain aspects of herself that at one time were important to her. I think people do this when they get into a serious relationship. You have to acquiesce in a sense to the other person, and they to you, and in doing that you have to let go of little pieces of yourself. The characters are each struggling to feel in control of their lives. Annie is unhappy in her marriage and goes outside of it not out of malice or anger, specifically, but because she’s trying to find herself again — she feels lost. Simon Haas helps her to do that. I remember talking with my editor about the paradigm that we live by in our society — the notion of the nuclear family living a civilized, symmetrical existence, abiding to religious and moral covenants that were established zillions of years ago — and I wanted to show how this paradigm has become a precarious model to which few of us can actually adhere. I think it’s impossible for one person to fulfill all of your needs and desires — and that imagery has been stuffed down our throats forever. It gets complicated when you have kids. The truth is that out of fear, people close themselves off to new opportunities, to new growth.