Lydia has a secret she needs to share with her closest friends when they gather for their annual “Bleak Midwinter Bash” at her Chicago home. Readers will quickly discover the secret, but that’s not the point. This quietly moving novel is about the power and significance of women’s friendships, and the regrets that we all face when we realize we’re approaching – or past – the halfway point of life. Lydia is an art teacher at a “godforsaken suburban community college” and a failed artist. She’s divorced, childless, and living with her elderly dog, Maxine. Her group of friends all met as employees at the college; none of them – with one exception – has achieved career success. Lydia’s Party raises interesting questions: How should we define success? How do our fears hold us back? What role does competition play into women’s friendships? What regrets will we have when we look back at our lives? These questions will inspire spirited discussions among book groups.
Our event took place at Jolly Good Fellows, a bakery across from our store that makes delicious muffins, scones, and pastries — perfect for a cold winter morning. The audience had many questions for Margaret, about her writing process, the road to publication, the characters in the novel, and more. I had a list of my own questions, but we ran out of time. So Margaret graciously agreed to answer my questions in writing.
Before becoming a novelist, you were an art critic. You also wrote a memoir. What led you to switch to fiction writing?
I’d written stories before but hadn’t done anything with them. Then I got the first sentence for Cats and Dogs in my head and had to write it down. After that I just kept going. That’s while I was still writing my art column, but I’d been feeling constricted by that form for some time, having to critique a show or shows every week for years, and I really wanted to break loose and use language differently. Frankly, I wanted to tell my own stories, not just comment on other people’s art.
As for the memoir, I wrote that while I was writing How to Survive a Natural Disaster. That was something I felt I had to do, a story that needed to be told about untreated mental illness and how help can be found even later in life. (My sister was 63 years old when she started getting better, while I was writing the book.) I was awed by the help that came my way just for the asking, after decades of secrecy and shame and fear. I figured lots of other people were in the same situation and I wanted share the good news – that healing, some at least, is always possible.
Absolutely. I’d love to write a whole book in a male voice. I don’t know if I could, effectively, but I’d like to try. I did write Craig in first person in How to Survive a Natural Disaster. Enjoyed it immensely and I feel like he taught me a few things about tolerating other points of view. Men and women are different, of course, but not that different.
Maxine, the dog, is important to Lydia’s Party. You might say she is a character. Dogs are significant in all three of your novels. Can you comment on that?
Dogs are significant in my life. Plus I think they are fascinating personalities who make life richer and sweeter. Their pure devotion makes a good contrast to some of the less attractive human qualities.
Lydia, like Roxanne in How to Survive a Natural Disaster, sees herself as a failed artist. Do you think a person who conceives of himself or herself as an artist, yet never attains “success” can find fulfillment? Or will that person always feel dissatisfied and frustrated?
I don’t think worldly success is necessarily a measure of quality in an artist or that it is the only way to attain fulfillment as an artist. I think a real artist is an artist no matter what the world says. Making good art is satisfying in its own right. Of course, it’s great if people notice and even better if they pay you, but success is a different thing than actually making art. Some very good artists never become “successful.” Some of them make peace with that, but it’s hard in our society. It has partly to do with money. If you’re comfortable and can make your art without worrying about how to make a living, life is easier than if you have to choose between the two.
What books/authors have helped you develop into the writer you are today?
One true answer: everything I’ve ever read. Also, as a young person, fourteen, fifteen, I loved Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s the one book I reread. Writing doesn’t get better than that. Also, I attended a Baptist church with my friend Deb and her family for seven years and we read the Bible. That made a big impact, too, not just the content but the style. Beautiful language always entrances me.
This is your third novel. What have you learned about fiction writing along the way? What didn’t you know when you wrote your first novel that you know now?
I didn’t know anyone would want to read my books. It really took me by surprise. I felt free to write anything in Cats and Dogs, break a lot of rules I assumed existed because I didn’t think anyone would read it. In terms of technique though, I haven’t learned much. I just start and trudge into the mess, drive in the dark the whole way. I’m not much of a planner.
What books have you read recently that you particularly enjoyed and would recommend?
In no particular order: My Education by Susan Choi, a fascinating portrait of obsessive love and how it changes over time. (Which, come to think of it, is how you could describe Lolita.) Arcadia by Lauren Groff, about a boy growing up in a commune. I’m reading Foxfire now by Joyce Carol Oates, about a girl gang. Wow. Isn’t she great? She does not shy away from rough stuff. In photographs she looks like this fragile little bird and then she writes this muscular, violent prose – I love that. This list is just off the top of my head. Oh, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – loved that. Also, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. I’m binging on fiction these days. My cousin Kate Kasten’s book about a farm family in Iowa, Better Days. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.
You’ve published four books in five years — that’s quite an accomplishment. What’s next? How many creative projects do you work on at a time?
I have two books in the works now, at very different stages. I never know though if my projects will see the light of day. I feel like someone planting a garden. I hope it will all grow and flower but if something dies there’s more where that came from. Remember, I got a late start, so I have a lot of material stored up!
As a writing teacher, what is the most important advice you give aspiring writers? Are there common misconceptions about writing that you notice among your students?
My most important advice to students: Write every day! And read! (Sometimes life intervenes and you can’t write everyday but I don’t say that. You should at least try, or feel guilty when you don’t!)
Most common misconception: Writing is fun.
As a Chicagoan, do you have any favorite places to go — parks, museums, restaurants?
I love Ravinia. The Art Institute, of course. Millennium Park. My dog park. Superdawg.The lake shore, from Hyde Park all the way north to the tip of Door County, though I guess that’s not Chicago anymore.
How do you like to spend your free time when you’re not writing (or reading)?
I like to be in nature and I do love hanging out with my dog though he’s a maniac now. Having a dog is a way to be in nature even if it’s just taking walks. I look forward to his mellow middle age, if I make it that far. I may not survive his robust youth.
Thank you, Margaret, for visiting Lake Forest and for taking the time to answer these questions!