The Bookshelf: Novelist Yona Zeldis McDonough

Aug 19, 2016

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.  This week, The Bookshelf features author Yona Zeldis McDonough. In her new novel, The House on Primrose Pond, Susannah Gilmore is a novelist living and writing from her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when the unthinkable happens: her beloved husband, Charlie, is killed in a bicycle accident. After his death, Susannah and her two children move to New Hampshire, to a house Susannah’s mother lived in for years before she died. In her grief, Susannah discovers things about her mother’s romantic life and her extra-marital affairs that turns Susannah’s understanding of her own life on its head.  Scroll down to read Yona Zeldis McDonough's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of her conversation with Peter Biello. 

Yona's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. "Mordantly funny, achingly sad, one of the most beautiful stories of unrequited and impossible love ever written."

2.   Of Mice and Men​ by John Steinbeck. "Perfect illustration of how character gives rise to plot. Steinbeck shows us who Lenny is, and who George is; this determines the their relationship and the whole arc of the novel."

3.   The Bird Catcher by Laura Jacobson. "No one writes better about how the artistic process is ignited and how artists come into being and assume their own majestic power."

4.   A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. "The new order (Stanley Kowalski) cannot understand and must therefore destroy the old (Blanche Dubois) : inevitable, tragic and heartbreaking."

5.   A Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett. "Riches to rags to riches again. I recently re-read this and the story of Sara Crewe moved me to tears all over again. Best lines? 'You are not kind, Miss Minchin. And this is not a home.'"

This book strikes me as primarily a book about grief. There were many beautifully-rendered moments where Susannah is trying to move forward with her life, in this new place, the fictional town of Eastwood, New Hampshire, but she’s also pulled back by memories of her dead husband, Charlie. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about those moments and how they fit into this book.

I don’t think it’s possible to write a widow who doesn’t think of the man who died. She’s going to think of him. And this is a fairly fresh wound for her. It’s just a little over a year since her husband died and she’s picking up her life and moving it somewhere else, so he’s going to come back again from time to time.

What seems to me in my own experience in life is that trying to deal with grief is not a straight line, where you begin in one place and move away from it. It’s more like a spiral. It comes back around again, you know? You do eventually move past it, but every now and then something will just take you unawares and you’ll be right back in it, fresh as it was the day it happened, and I think she has to contend with that.

There’s one moment where she’s ice skating, and she’s with a man she’s interested in and she’s also with her children—one of her children.

Yes, the other one won’t go.

Yeah, she’s being difficult for her own grieving reasons. So she’s on the pond and having a beautiful moment and it spirals like you said. It just hits her. And it struck me as entirely believable, even though I’m not a widow or widower. I was there with her, I could feel it as she was feeling it.

Well, that’s nice. I’m glad it affected you in that way. That’s my experience about grief about anything. It’s that—it’s going to come back. It’s just going to come back.

Susannah also finds that she has to reconfigure how she understands herself when she starts learning things about her mother’s past and about her father as well. And that seems to—I don’t want to give away spoilers here, because it is a great mystery in this book, trying to figure out this book—but it does complicate her grieving in that she has to figure out how she understands her own life.

Yes, in a way, it mucks it up, because she can’t just focus on her husband and the life that they had together. But now she’s thinking about her parents and, you know, having to re-evaluate what their marriage was like and things that she observed while they were alive that are now seen in a new light, perhaps, and she has to see herself in a new way vis-à-vis what she learns about them.

And we shouldn’t say that this is an autobiographical novel. Your husband is very much alive.

Yes he is, I’m glad to say. But he doesn’t wear his bicycle helmet. I hope you’re listening, darling. It’s a frequent refrain in our house.

But you know, people ask that about autobiography in novels, and I’d like to say it’s all true and none of it is true. I wrote it, so it’s got to come from me somewhere and something in my experience. It’s just not a literal kind of matching where, oh, yes, this happened to me and therefore I’m going to write about it in this way. It comes out in a more indirect way, a surprising way. Something you felt or something that’s happened to you will have its own way of coming out in your novel.

While Susannah, your protagonist, is in New Hampshire—I should mention she’s a historical novelist and hunting for a new subject—she learns about a woman named Ruth Blay who was alive in the 18th century. Tell us about Ruth Blay.

Ruth was a fascinating discovery for me because I didn’t know anything about her when I started this project. I had decided to set this book in New Hampshire. My other books were set in New York and I was tired of that. I picked New Hampshire because of my husband and my association with the place and I have a lot of feeling for it.

Your husband is from Portsmouth.

Yes, he is from Portsmouth, a real Portsmouth boy, and he has lots of family there. Just a lot of connection. And we’ve been coming up to New Hampshire to this place my sister-in-law found on Jenness Pond for about 20 years. So I felt like I could write about the place. But I wanted something else to kind of animate this story or to fill this story out. I had the characters, I had the place, so I typed into Google “New Hampshire tragedy” and I came up with a book called Hanging Ruth Blay: An 18th Century New Hampshire Tragedy. And I thought, “What is this?” I ordered it and once I read it, I decided I was absolutely going to use this material.

Ruth Blay is a young woman who lived in Portsmouth with her mother. She was a seamstress and a teacher. As her family dispersed, she and her mother were left just to themselves. She found herself pregnant and without a husband in early 1768 and this was a problem. So she went up to Salisbury to have this baby by herself, which is something that I thought about a lot, both as a woman who has had babies and as a novelist. Like, how is that going to work—having a baby by yourself in a place where you don’t know anyone and have no one to soothe you or comfort you as you were going through this? This baby died. She was accused of murdering the baby. That was not actually proved, but what she was convicted of and hanged for was concealing the birth of an illegitimate child. This all unfolded in June of 1768. She was brought back to Portsmouth and put in jail for the summer. There was a trial in September. [She was] found guilty very quickly. There were two reprieves, but Governor Wentworth finally decided to go forth with this execution and she was hanged in South Cemetery on December 31, 1768.

We can’t give away too much about this because the story that Susannah writes about Ruth Blay dovetails nicely with the actual story, the thing that Susannah is living through. But I did want to ask—this was one of the things that gave this book a nice New Hampshire feel. What was it like writing about New Hampshire, a rural setting, after writing about urban New York.

I loved it. I was happy to get out of Brooklyn for awhile. I sort of reconnected with how much I feel for this place. I kind of know inchoately but writing it made it very vivid to me. I really feel a lot of connection to this state and this house. I like to tell my children that my ashes are to be scattered on Jenness Pond when that time has come. So I feel a lot for this place and so I really liked writing about it and getting to externalize that.