A Conversation with Joanna Trollope, Author of The Other Family
This novel was originally published in the United Kingdom. How do you think it will translate to an American audience?
I think this novel will have the advantage of being comfortingly familiar to U.S. readers in its depiction of grief, and family relationships and rivalries, and the huge complications thrown up by the consequences of a will—and interestingly unfamiliar, even slightly exotic, in its depiction of England and Englishness. For example, if I’m reading, say, a book by Sue Monk Kidd or Jane Smiley or Barbara Kingsolver (all of whom I much admire), it is a definite plus for me that, although a lot of emotions and reactions are familiar to me as being universally human, the Americanness, or Southernness, of the settings and turns of phrase and food and climate gives the novels an exciting novelty that makes me look at the human situations afresh. I would hope that that is what U.S. readers of The Other Family might feel.
Why did you choose to begin the story with a death and revolve everything around a character that we never get to meet?
Richie’s death itself is not crucial to the narrative or themes of the book. It is the consequences of that death that I wanted to examine, so I’m afraid the poor man had to go before we could meet him. . . . And I wanted, too, as happens in real life, to show his character emerging from the points of view of all the people who loved or had loved him. Everyone has reason (except, possibly, Tamsin and Dilly) to feel he has let them down, yet everyone was affected by his easy charm and affectionate nature. He is deliberately shown as a bit elusive because he was that sort of man—and we all know men like that!—and because he is frustratingly dead and can’t answer the questions so many of his family are burning to ask him.
It’s becoming more common for people to have multiple families as their lives progress. Did this story draw inspiration from any real situations?
Not really. All the family situations in my novels, like all the characters in my novels, are made up of a kind of patchwork of my observation of real situations and real people. So these are all amalgams of real characters, and family complexities, but they are not drawn from a single real life family or situation. I would be very uneasy about the morality of ever doing that in any case.
This isn’t your first book that deals with broken families and stepfamilies. What about this subject do you find so interesting? What kind of research did you do?
I’m afraid that unalloyed happiness and success in human relationships, while both may make for a lovely and commendable life, do not make for very page-turning fiction! We read, partly at least, to see knots untied and dilemmas resolved—the tension of a story is what makes it absorbing, as well as its recognizable human truth.
I also want to reflect contemporary life, which has, these days, a great many family complications in it, including broken marriages and stepfamilies. (I do feel bound to point out that the nineteenth century was rife with stepfamilies too, though those were the result of death in childbirth rather than divorce.) And as I believe that the family is where we learn most of our early life skills—how to communicate, manipulate, gain control, lose it, and so on—obviously the complexities of modern family life are of immense importance in how we develop as we grow up. The crucible of our development is very different from that of earlier generations . . . so how could I not be fascinated by it as a topic and believe it to be other than hugely important?
The research varies from book to book, but it always includes talking to people who have known, or are in, the situation I am concerned with—in this case, bereavement and living with what seems an unjust will. People are wonderfully generous about talking to me—maybe because I’m not a journalist? — and often seem almost relieved to express their feelings openly. And, of course, this novel involved trips to Newcastle, a lot of walking round Highgate in North London, and listening to the whole of the Tony Bennett songbook!
The children of the two women are conflicted in many ways—dealing with parents’ lives while trying to live their own. How do you create balance for your characters in these types of stories, which can resonate so widely?
I suppose that what I do is to try to inhabit the head of my characters as I am writing about them—not necessarily always sympathetically but more trying to make them as true to themselves as they would be were they really living, as I can. So I am “being” each person and also trying to give each one a fair hearing, so that the reader has a good chance of making up his or her own mind about each character. The balance just seems to happen now—as, maybe it certainly should, after thirty years of writing!
How do you see the story playing out? Do the lives of Chrissie and Margaret—along with the children—turn out successfully?
I always hope each reader will take the story on, in his or her imagination, after the book is finished. That’s one of the reasons that I never tie up the endings too tightly—I feel that the readers and I have been in this together all along, so I want to leave them a little dreaming to do at the end. Personally, I think Margaret was going to find considerable work satisfaction with Bernie’s agency (and even the possibility of a relationship with Bernie himself, though she had far too much sturdy Northern independence and good sense to fall for him romantically) and equal emotional satisfaction in a slow-burning but strong relationship with Amy. Chrissie wasn’t going to fare so well or so quickly—there was as much for her to unlearn as to learn. She probably had an affair with the landlord of her flat, and then a few more brushes with the wrong men, before realizing, perhaps, that she had the strength not to need validating that way and could live happily alone. But I wouldn’t want to preclude any ideas that readers have about what happened—and they may need to end these stories quite differently!
Which character did you have the strongest connection with?
Margaret and Amy.
The book revolves around music—Richie and Margaret’s careers, the Steinway and Amy’s flute. Are you a musician? What drew you to adding that to the story?
I wish I were a musician! I was drawn to it as a subject because it is plain that music is another language, a very powerful language, and one that can often say what words fail to. So, as a believer in the inimitable power of words, I wanted to look at this extraordinary, often supremely emotional, form of expression and see what bonds it could create and how it could often be even more articulate than words in creating bonds between people who find precise language difficult—as between Scott and Amy.
How has being a teacher affected your writing?
I wonder. . . . Maybe in the preparation—that is, the research—for the novels, and in the feeling of great connectedness that I have with readers, as I once had with pupils?
You’ve worked under a pseudonym before. Why at times do you decide to write under an assumed name? How does that affect your writing?
My contemporary novels are written as Joanna Trollope—which is what I was born—and the historical ones are as Caroline Harvey, a name I arrived at from putting my Trollope grandparents’ first names together. The two names are just to differentiate the two genres—no more complicated than that!
What projects are you working on now?
I’m afraid I’m not very good at talking about work in progress. I have a superstitious fear of the energy of the subject leaking away if I discuss it. But I am halfway through writing the next book, and know the subject matter of the one after that, so there is plenty coming. . . .