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LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER
A Novel

A CONVERSATION WITH GEORGE BISHOP JR

Random House Reader’s Circle: What led you to write this story? Was there a particular event or person that triggered the idea for a novel?

George Bishop: The inspiration for this story came to me in a dream, strangely enough. A few years ago I was in India on a teaching fellowship. At the end of my stay there I went on a camel safari in Rajasthan. I was actually working on another novel at the time, and I wasn’t thinking anything at all about mothers or daughters. But I went to sleep in a tent in the desert, and when I woke up the next morning, I knew the whole story, beginning to end. I jotted down notes in my journal, and that became the basis for the novel I worked on over the next year and a half.

The curious thing is that I don’t know anyone quite like Laura, the narrator. She’s not modeled after anyone in real life. Many of her opinions align with mine, but her voice and experiences certainly aren’t mine.

RHRC: You currently live in New Orleans. Are you familiar with Zachary? Why did you decide to set your story between there and Baton Rouge?

GB: I actually grew up in a small town near Zachary—Jackson, Louisiana. The Zachary in my novel isn’t completely true to life; there’s no shopping mall or movie theater in the real Zachary. But I wanted the teenage Laura to live in a small town that was a bus ride away from the big city of Baton Rouge. This serves not only the plot of the story, but also helps thematically, with the country-city divide mirroring Laura’s growing distance from her parents.

RHRC: When you first started writing, did you know that you wanted to present this story in an epistolary format, or did you try writing it in other styles?

GB: I knew from the beginning that the story would be in the form of a letter that Laura writes to her daughter. This didn’t worry me especially; the epistolary form has been around long time. (There’s the Bible, and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, to name just a few of the more famous examples). The form does set up a few constraints, however. The story has to be told in the first person, with limited access to other characters’ points of view. And in the case of my novel, which is meant to be a letter written over something like twenty hours, it couldn’t be very long.

The relatively short length of Letter to My Daughter is a little unusual for a novel these days. In fact, initially I thought I was writing a novella. I still wouldn’t mind calling it that, except that nobody reads novellas anymore. So, just for the record, it’s not a novella. It’s an epistolary novel.

RHRC: As Laura is writing this letter to Liz, we get a very good sense of her character, yet Liz remains more of a mystery, seen only through her mother’s eyes. What impression of Liz did you want to leave with the reader?

GB: I actually drafted the whole background story for Elizabeth, but then left it out of the novel. Too much information seemed to clutter the story. I think what remains are the essentials, and everything we really need to know about Liz: that she’s apparently facing the same sort of problems that her mother faced at her age, and that, just like her own mother did, she’s beginning to grow distant from her parents.

RHRC: One of Laura’s reasons for writing this letter to her daughter is to try not to repeat some of the same mistakes she felt that her mother made with her. Do you think Laura will succeed in having a better relationship with her daughter than her mother did with her?

GB: Definitely. I think her letter shows that. She’s much more open, more understanding than her own mother seemed to have been. Of course, a letter won’t solve all the problems between Laura and Liz; they still have some serious work to do on their relationship, obviously. But as Laura says about her letter, “it’s a start at least.”

RHRC: Laura recognizes that her behavior towards her parents when she was a teenager closely mirrors Liz’s current behavior towards her and her husband. Do you think this is a necessary, universal part of growing up, or particular to their situations?

GB: I think it must be particular to their situations. I know plenty of parents who have better relationships with their children than Laura’s parents did with her, or she does with Liz. Of course, I suppose parents and children will always have disagreements—that’s universal. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is with the characters in this story.

RHRC: It’s remarkable how well you portray the dynamics between Laura and Liz, and between Laura and her own mother. Did you find it difficult to write from this female perspective?

GB: Not especially. In fact, I was surprised how easy it was for me to write from Laura’s point of view. What I learned in the course of writing this novel was that, first of all, simple mannerisms of voice can go a long way towards creating convincing gender for a character. Also, I came to see that the larger feelings and concerns people have, things like love, hate, jealousy, and fear, aren’t based on gender at all. I’m convinced that everyone experiences these feelings the same. So whether you’re a mother, a daughter, a father, a son, or rickshaw driver in India, you know loss, you know love, you know regret.

The challenge for me was getting the particulars right. What does a teenage girl see when she looks at a boy she admires, for instance? That kind of thing took some creative imagination. It probably didn’t hurt, either, that I grew up with three very talkative sisters.

RHRC: You depict Laura’s coming of age in Louisiana in 1969 extremely vividly. What sort of background research did you need to do, if any, to capture this time and place so clearly?

GB: I grew up in Louisiana around that same time, so I didn’t have to do too much research for the mood and setting of the story. The research I did do, I quite enjoyed—things like looking at photos and listening to songs from the era.

What I had to research more carefully were the Vietnam episodes in the novel. Growing up, I didn’t know anybody who fought in that war; as with Laura before she met Tim, the Vietnam War was just background noise for me. In researching the war, some of the best resources I found were websites maintained by veterans of various units who fought in Vietnam. Sites like the ones by veterans of the Army Security Agency and the 8th Radio Research Field Station gave me an idea of what daily life might have been like for a boy like Tim. I also relied on books of collected letters, like Bill Adler’s Letters from Vietnam and Bernard Edelman’s Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam.

RHRC: Laura’s story covers a tumultuous period of U.S. history, and touches on many issues of the time, including school segregation and the Vietnam War. The often complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, however, is a timeless story. How did you decide to balance the personal and political elements of the novel?

GB: I wanted the historical and political elements to be background to the personal story. The novel isn’t meant to be a book about racism, or integration, or war. That said, I do like the way the personal and the political dovetail in this story; I think the themes intersect nicely. Also, there was never really an issue of forcing the political elements into the story. Since I chose to set Laura’s high school story in that place and time—Louisiana in the late sixties and early seventies—those were the realities that she would have encountered.

RHRC: Laura and Tim have an intense, if somewhat tortured, love affair, further complicated by their separation. Do you think Laura would have married Tim if he had returned from Vietnam, or did her exposure to a world larger than Zachary make it impossible for her to remain with him?

GB: I hope my opinion of this doesn’t spoil what readers might imagine, but I think Laura and Tim would have gotten back together. It’s Tim’s last letter that would have done it. In that letter, he shows himself to be a surprisingly thoughtful, mature, realistic young man. Laura and Tim might not have ended up in Zachary, and they might not have gotten married right away, but I do think they would have reunited. Call me a romantic.

RHRC: Liz is named after poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and this tribute to Laura’s secret letter exchange with Tim is a delightful touch. Why did you choose to reference this particular poet? Are there any other writers that you would consider influences on your own writing?

GB: When I began writing the novel, I didn’t know what Laura’s tattoo would say. I only knew that she had one, and that it had to have something to do with her relationship with Tim. I spent quite a lot of time trying to find just the right couple of lines for her tattoo. The key came in thinking about what sort of literature Laura might have been exposed to at a Catholic girls school, and, more specifically, what Sister Mary Margaret, an unabashed romantic, might have taught her students: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, of course. Luckily, that couplet at the end of Browning’s famous poem fit the story well.

That poem, Sonnet 43, “How do I love thee,” is such a cliché of romanticism that I almost hesitated to use it. Probably like a lot of people, I tended to dismiss Browning as a writer just because of this poem. But I came to appreciate her more after reading her other sonnets. And in fact, after reading and rereading that one sonnet, I realized it’s famous for a reason—it’s good.

As far as my other literary influences go, I read pretty widely. At the time I was writing Letter to My Daughter, I remember, I was reading both Graham Greene and Herman Melville and loving them both, even though they’re radically different writers.

RHRC: You have spent many years as a teacher. How did this experience influence your creation of Sister Mary Margaret?

GB: A greater influence on the character of Sister Mary Margaret might be teachers that I’ve had. I went to Catholic schools myself, from junior high school all the way through college, and I had Catholic brothers, sisters, and priests as teachers. Some of them were as bad as any other teachers, but overall I admired them. Sister Mary Margaret is a composite of the best of them.

My own experience as a teacher did show me one thing that might be relevant to this story, which is how difficult it is to “just teach” and not have some emotional stake in the lives of your students. Sister Mary Margaret feels this to the extent that she arguably becomes more involved in Laura’s personal life than she should.

RHRC: Letter to My Daughter is your first novel. Was there anything that particularly surprised you about the process? What are you working on next?

GB: This is the first novel I’ve published, but it’s actually the fifth one that I’ve written. Nevertheless, a couple of things surprised me about the process for this novel. One was how quickly I was able to write it. Letter to My Daughter is short, that’s true, but the writing also came more easily because I had such a clear idea of the story before going into it (that lucky dream again). Also, I was surprised at how pleasant the whole editing and publishing experience was. My editors at Random House, Jane von Mehren and Anika Streitfeld, were great readers; they edited with a light touch, and their suggestions were usually right on the mark. And then getting to see the artwork, the galleys, and the advance copies of the book was exciting, of course.

The novel I’m working on now shares roughly the same time and setting as Letter to My Daughter—southern Louisiana in the early seventies. This one is more of a father-son story, though. He’s a junior high school science teacher, his son is his student, and the backdrop is the imminent appearance of Comet Kohoutek—“the comet of the century” that will blaze through their lives and change them forever.

That’s the plan, anyway. I haven’t had any dream for this novel, not yet, but it seems to be taking shape. I feel it’s just now getting to the point where the story is beginning to dictate the writing. I think that’s what every writer lives for—when the story finally takes off and you’re able to hitch yourself to it and let it carry you to the end.