A Conversation with Ann Pearlman, Author of The Christmas Cookie Club
What inspired you to write this novel, your first work of fiction?
I’ve been working on fiction for some years and a few of my short stories have won literary awards. I imagined this novel in 2000, when I first attended a cookie exchange and realized it would be a fabulous setting for a story about a party and the importance of women’s friendships. I set it aside to write a non-fiction book. And when I got back to it, I wrote it with a complete sense of joy.
How different was the process of writing The Christmas Cookie Club from that of your nonfiction works?
You invent the characters and story when you write a novel. With non-fiction, I do a lot of research either to make sure my memory is correct or to gather information for added texture. In biography, there’s an attempt to see the world from another person’s eyes. So nonfiction contains more circling back. I use fictive techniques (dialogue, scene setting, etc.) in both.
Which do you prefer?
I like both. I particularly enjoy writing (and reading) books in which actual people, events, or places are mixed in with the fictional. Thus, I used Ann Arbor and its stores, restaurants, parks, events as settings for scenes in the Christmas Cookie Club.
How did you choose the cookie recipes to include? Do they have a special meaning for you?
I chose my favorites. The pecan butter balls have special meaning because that is my grandmother’s recipe and I remember baking them with her. A girl friend mentioned that almost all of them contain nuts. I love nuts. I also picked cookies to carry the plot forward. The fortune cookies are an example of this, and Allie’s Chanukah cookies and Ramadan cookies.
You mention that some characters were based on real women from your cookie club. How close are your depictions to your friends and how much of the characterizations came from your imagination?
The acknowledgements detail exactly what I borrowed from my real friends. For example, Marybeth (who is the hostess of the cookie party) does have gorgeous white hair but no daughters. I imagined all the rest.
Is there a character that you yourself particularly identify with in the novel?
I think I’m most like Allie, but my kids laugh when I say that and tell me there are elements of me in all the characters. That makes enormous sense to me because I think the narrative dream is similar to any other dream and the characters are projections of various aspects of the writer/dreamer’s unconscious. And so we all cannibalize our own lives, fantasies, and interests as we write. I do yoga, for example.
Infidelity is one of the recurring elements in the lives of your characters in The Christmas Cookie Club. How has your own experience, as well as the experience of writing Infidelity: A Love Story, affected your perspective on how marital betrayal affects others?
I’m aware of how very common and how very scarring infidelity is both in my own life and the lives of people I know. Most marriages will struggle with it and it’s implicated in the majority of divorces. I’m aware of what a challenge it presents to the couple and how much the entire family is impacted.
How do you think your writing is affected by your work as a psychotherapist?
I read somewhere that writers and therapists are very similar, the difference is that therapists believe they can help people change. As a therapist I am involved in transformation, and am continually impressed with resilience and people’s eagerness for life and happiness. What helps people to have the courage to change and the determination to struggle is a fascinating topic to me. The gift of being a therapist is that we hear and witness lives and histories. We see the elements and the stories that coalesce to form personality. I understand the complications of people’s lives. It seems to me, none of us get out unscathed. That sense that all of us have problems at some point, and it’s how we survive, interpret and deal that define us along with my interest in transformation and maintaining joy in life are themes in my books.
Are there any authors who have been inspirational to your work?
E.L. Doctorow because he was the first person to mix the real with the imagined. Truman Capote for using fictive techniques in non fiction and changing the face of non fiction. Jodi Picoult because you fall in love with her characters even though they’re flawed and can’t stop reading. Philip Roth because of his examination of sexuality and his amazing growth in his perception and understanding of it as well as portraying America. Margaret Atwood because of her entwining of tale and politics.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists hoping to also draw from real life experiences?
We’re told to write what we know and we know our own lives best, yet distilling what the STORY is in our lives that may be interesting to others is not easy. So much of what we experience is exquisite because it’s ours: our baby’s first smile, falling in love, the death of a dear friend. Making that particular have universal appeal requires digging deep and ferreting telling detail and language.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
Marybeth Bayer and I are finishing up How to Have Your Own Cookie Party, a workbook chock full of recipes and ideas for cookie exchanges. It should be out sometime in 2010. I’m writing a novel that is a sequel of the Christmas Cookie Club with Sky and Tara as the main characters. I am loving writing it.