The Bookshelf: A Family Confronts its Past in Elisabeth Hyde's 'Go Ask Fannie'

May 25, 2018

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR, novelist Elisabeth Hyde discusses her new novel, Go Ask Fannie. 

In this novel, Murray Blair and his three adult children are gathering at his home in northern New Hampshire. His kids bicker almost non-stop, and the drama that the youngest, Lizzie, carries is enough to drive all of them to worry and judge.

Underneath all their interactions is the hum of the memory of an accident that killed their mother and wife, Lillian, and brother three decades earlier. Hyde spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about the book. Scroll down to read a transcript of the interview and a top five list of Hyde's reading recommendations. 

Elisabeth Hyde’s Top Five Reading Recommendations

 1.   Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris. “Broad in scope, historically, from the Spanish Inquisition to modern-day New Mexico, this fascinating story is about the hidden or crypto-Jews who resettled in the dry, hardscrabble land of rock and pinon. I’m halfway through and absolutely loving it – the characters are so diverse (ranging from the Jewish translator for Christopher Columbus to a 15-year-old boy with a souped up car), and each one is richly portrayed with a sympathetic stroke of the pen. The story moves deftly between time periods, always within sight of the questions: Who are we, and where did we come from? (Full disclosure: the author wrote an advance comment for Go Ask Fannie.”)

  2.   Tin Man by Sarah Winman. “This heartbreaking (and uplifting, if that makes sense) novel is about love and loss, and what you make of your life when your dreams are cut short. Set in working-class Oxford, two boys, Ellis and Michael form a close bond, which deepens as they grow older. But nothing is simple. The book moves around in time as Ellis grieves for his wife Annie and the three-way friendship, in writing that is both elegant and poetic.”

 3.   Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy. “A daughter hosts her step-father (by birth her uncle, and a convicted felon), for a weeklong visit in Paris, and on each day she gives him a Father’s Day gift that symbolizes a particular meaningful event that he would recognize. This is a quietly powerful book about love and redemption, and how the bonds of family not only never go away, but can be strengthened in the most unlikely ways.”

 4.   This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. “Just fun – and funny.  Really funny.  Somehow it skipped my radar when it came out years ago, and I started reading everything by the author. Guy walks into a bedroom and finds his wife in flagrante delicto, and the shit hits the fan, especially after his father dies and his mother calls all the siblings home to sit shiva for the week.  A rollicking family drama at its best.”

 5.   The Blue Hour by Laura Pritchett. “Pritchett has been nominated for a Colorado Book Award for this haunting, lyrical novel of related short stories. The residents of this small Colorado mountain community are shaken up by the suicide of one of their neighbors. Each chapter/story takes you into the life of one of its residents as the author delves into all manner of love – conjugal, passionate, unrequited. And yes, it’s incredibly sensual.”
 

The "Fannie" in the title of your novel refers to The Fannie Farmer cookbook that belonged to Lillian, the mother and wife in the novel. Lillian was an aspiring fiction writer, and when she was cooking for her children and got a story idea, she’d write it down in a code that only she could decipher in margins of the book, as a reminder for what she wanted to write later. Her children really treasured this book later in life and they wondered about their mother’s inner-life. I wanted to ask you, how did this idea come to you?

Well, the cookbook actually exists. I was home visiting my dad who lives in northern New Hampshire, but he’s actually 97, and I was going through this shelf of my mother’s old cookbooks and came across this old ‘Fannie Farmer’ edition, it’s 1945, and it’s following apart at the spine and the pages are all grease splattered, and there are some of my mother’s old notes in it, but they are pretty mundane notes. You know, double recipe or add a can of mushroom soup, something like that.

But it got me to thinking: What if a housewife were to have other aspirations and having an idea pop into her head and having no other place to go and explore that idea she just jots the idea down in a cookbook? These ideas build up and then she takes the cookbook up to her third-story bedroom and makes the story out of it that she was conceiving of earlier.

Lillian in the book does manage to write some of her stories down, but she never lives to see the successful publication. She gets hints of one before she died. Let me ask you about you, personally, because you mentioned on your author website that children and your writing always seem to coincide at about the same time.

They did. My first novel came out within weeks of our son being born and they followed in line. There was a big gap when I had three small children, three children in diapers, and at that point I wasn’t doing a whole lot of writing. I had a novel going and in progress, but it took several years for that one to actually make it into any state where it was in decent of shape to show somebody. It was really only the first two books that kind of went hand-in-hand with children.

Was it difficult for family life and your life as a writer to coexist?

Well, let’s just say I did in fact string a rope across the stairs to prohibit the kids from coming down and bothering me while I was writing.

Which Lillian did.

Yes, Lillian did. That didn’t stop them though. They still came down. I had a nanny upstairs and the nanny was supposed to be taking care of them but sometimes I would be down in my office trying to work and I’d hear the pitter-patter of little feet on the stairs.

This book is written in the third person, so we get a chance to see the situations unfold from a variety of different perspectives. One of the perspectives is Ruth, the oldest daughter, who is a lawyer. You have training as a lawyer, and I’m learning now that you and Lillian may have identified on a level with respect to juggling family life and writing life. I was wondering which of these characters you feel you most identify with. I would guess it was a toss-up between Lillian and Ruth, but maybe that’s not correct.

No, you’re pretty much on point. I identify with Ruth because she likes everything to be organized and laid out and she doesn’t like to have things happen randomly, which is why she kind of gets upset with Lizzie for creating the chaos that Lizzie always creates whenever Ruth comes home to visit. It’s either the house next door blowing up with meth dealers or Lizzie getting in a bike accident, but things don’t go as planned and Ruth doesn’t like that. Ruth likes things to go as planned. In that sense, maybe I’m like Ruth, in that I don’t like surprises.

How do you think your training as a lawyer has influenced the kind of writing you do, if at all?

That’s a good question. It hasn’t influenced the style of writing or otherwise I would be writing, you know, thrillers and legal mysteries. But, it has influenced my writing habits and I can say that as soon as I left my job as a lawyer, which was back in 1982, I was really good about sitting down at a desk at 8 o’clock in the morning, and back then I had quota of five pages per day, and I wouldn’t let myself leave the office until I had written those five pages per day.

These days, it’s not five pages per day; it’s more like spend the time in the chair from 9 or 8, whatever, until usually one o’clock. I can’t conceive doing anything in the morning other than writing, so in that sense being a lawyer taught me to just sit down and actually do the work, rather than think ‘Oh, maybe I will get an idea if I go for a walk right now.’ I do take a lot of walks and I do get a lot of ideas walking, but like Ruth I have an organized time for walking and an organized time for working.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about Murray, because for Murray it seems like his world is changing in ways that he really doesn’t like. His youngest daughter, Lizzie, she’s in a sort of friends with benefits situation with a much older man, and he’s really uncomfortable with that, although he recognizes that kind of arrangement is more common among the younger generations. He can see that his memory is failing him, so his world isn’t as cohesive as it used to be. This book takes place in 2016, and he can see that, in ways maybe his children can’t, that Donald Trump is not quite just a passing thing that’s going to disappear. He can tell the world is changing and that’s a sense of, I don’t want to say fear, but it makes me really uncomfortable. I was wondering where that element of the novel came from.

That’s a really good insight into Murray, and I haven’t had people talk about that before, so I appreciate that. Murray is a political soul and he’s got a long history. He ran for Congress back in 1984 and ran as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican state, back then. I wanted him to be a person who goes against the grain. That was really important to me.

At this point in his life, he’s served in the New Hampshire legislature, so he has a good perspective on political issues. I think because of his age alone he’s seeing things come and go and does realize that Donald Trump is not going to be a passing phenomenon. I think it’s Murray who, when the kids are talking about the Nate Silver polls, and since this is taking place during 2016, before the election, the people in the story don’t know who is going to win the election and they think it’s overwhelmingly going to be Hillary, of course. But Murray is not so sure and you’re right, he sees himself as somebody who probably has a better perspective on things then his kids.

How do you manage family drama like this on the page?

I like doing conversation and when I’m in the zone, conversation comes pretty naturally to me. Of course, I edited too, but squabbling back and forth and having several conversations going on at the same time is something that I really like to read, and so I have really worked hard at trying to manage as a writer.

What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

Don’t be afraid to write stuff that you’re not happy with. It’s just paper, it’s just time. I would say to grow a really thick skin because you’re going to get rejected a lot and even once you get a novel published, you’re not guaranteed anything after that. I went through a period of writing after my fifth novel was out, In the Heart of the Canyon, I wrote two novels that I couldn’t make work. My agent and I both decided that they were going to be shelved and that was really hard because I kind of thought, “Well, I’ve written five novels, so anything I write now is going to be acceptable, and it wasn’t.