A Conversation with Lisa Gabriele, author of THE ALMOST ARCHER SISTERS
Q: In THE ALMOST ARCHER SISTERS you explore the divergent relationship of sisters, Peachy & Beth Archer. What attracts you to the bond of sisterhood? LG: I’ve always loved the idea that two girls raised under the same roof could grow up to be completely different women. That has been the case with my sister and me, and my mother and her sister, too. Being a sister to my sister was the first real “role” I remember holding. Since my mother was fiercely intolerant of any cruelty between siblings, we have a classically close relationship. She’s my best friend and first reader, and though she lives in a different city, we speak a few times a week. Not quite the stuff of novels.
However, my mother and her sister had a rocky relationship and could go months without speaking to each other. I loved eavesdropping on their phone conversations/fights. Now those two were interesting. I think one of my mother’s greatest achievements was making sure our relationship did not mirror theirs. But I must admit to mining the darker parts of their relationship for the book—not the infidelity, but certainly the intimacy and volatility.
Q: How would you say that being a native of Canada, with experience living in New York, has shaped your portrayal of the two main setting of this novel? Is Peachy’s view of America, and her experience of crossing the border, representative of other Canadians’? LG: I lived in New York and in Washington, D.C. for years but my literary dual citizenship is really a result of growing up in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. I grew up watching the skyline change and rise, and crossing the border for shopping and partying. We watched American TV, followed American politics, used American spelling, ate American fast food, and read American newspapers. I really never felt like a Canadian until I left Windsor and moved to Toronto for university.
Peachy is representative of a lot of Windsorites who cross a rather fluid border on an almost daily basis, but she’s not necessarily representative of other Canadians. For better or worse, Windsor is a little pocket of America in Canada. But you never realize how un-American Windsor and its environs are until you actually go to the United States. They are different worlds and I wanted Peachy to convey that.
Q: From the volatile mother/daughter relationship in Tempting Faith DiNapoli to the seething (and loving) relationship between the Archer sisters, your writing deftly describes dysfunctional families that are so familiar and endearing. Have you always been interested in writing about families? Where does the inspiration come from? LG: There’s that word: volatile. I’m not sure what else there is to write about. Families are where everything interesting percolates, where our characters are hatched and often formed—at least until we’re fit for other company. I’m also close to my family and the gems come fast and furious when we’re together. We’re a funny, complicated lot. As a writer I’m never at a loss for material. And everyone’s pretty blithe about the fact that it’s all material when I’m around.
Q: As a contributor to Babble.com, you have written about being a non-breeder/mother. Was it challenging to write from the point of view of a mother? How attached do you get to your characters? LG: Writing from the point of view of a mother was a huge challenge. But necessary. I had already written a semi-autobiographical novel and really didn’t want to write another one. THE ALMOST ARCHER SISTERS was originally written from Beth’s perspective, arguably one with which I’d be more apt to identify: being single, childless, and living in the big city. But I ran out of steam a third of the way through the writing process.
The idea of writing from the viewpoint of not only a mother but a happily married woman terrified me but I decided to trust the character and process and I felt carried. Plus, my sister gave me great advice about the difference between five and eight-year old boys and how often a mother would call her kids during her first weekend away from them. And through the writing process I did grow attached to Sam and Jake. I have only written two books but I cried at the end of each. This time, I had a particularly hard time letting go of the boys. Hopefully, they’ll live on in the readers’ minds, too.
Q: The Archer sister’s mother—in both life and death—lingers behind the scenes of the novel. What makes motherhood (and the absence of it) such a dominant force in a story of sisterhood? LG: My own mother “made” my relationship with my sister. As I mentioned, she didn’t want us to repeat the tumultuousness of her and her sister’s relationship. She forced us to apologize to each other when we fought. She insisted my sister take me to the movies with her friends when I didn’t have plans of my own. She didn’t tolerate jealousies, pettiness, or gossip between us. She wasn’t just teaching us how to treat each other but how to later treat our female friends. At the time the tactics felt manipulative but they worked. After she died, my sister and I got closer. We’re both real girls’ girls.
With the Archer sisters, however, their mother, Nell’s death marked the beginning of their divergence. In a way, Nell’s death allowed them to really become who they were meant to be, without having to rinse it through a mother’s filter. And Lou, their father, was ideal for that kind of blossoming. You can’t get anymore laissez-faire than an ageing hippy 12-stepper. You could also argue that the sisters were, in fact, better mothered by Lou than Nell.
Q: The ongoing and nerve-racking illness of Peachy’s eldest son, Sam, plays a significant role in her life, and eventually in her sister’s. Where did the concept for his illness, and in particular epilepsy, come from? LG: I have an old friend whose son has a chronic illness. I just don’t know how you cope with that kind of cloud hanging over you. When I watched her parent on a day to day basis, I saw how a child’s illness defines the life of the whole family—holding it hostage. It affected her career choices and the way she parented her other child. I patterned Peachy after my friend. She is the kind of woman who could survive a pile-up of those kinds of challenges and pull it off with almost no self-pity. My friend has two boys, too, and I took a great snap shot of them, the younger one clutching the older boy as he looked about to take off. That photo also inspired Sam and Jake’s characters.
As for the epilepsy, there’s a daily tyranny about the illness that suited Peachy’s story. I was also really inspired by a Lorrie Moore short story called, People Like That Are The Only People Here. There was an unforgettable ferocity about Moore’s protagonist, a directness and black humor to the mother that I really responded to.
Q: True to life—your writing contains sexy, blunt, and mature content. Have you ever had to censor your work? If you had to, would you? LG: I would never censor my work. I have a cheese ball radar when it comes to writing sex scenes—it’s like I’m writing in a small corridor with porn as the ceiling and corniness as the carpet. I try really hard to stay somewhere in the middle: where people talk during sex, laugh, and sometimes cringe. I also like to capture that actor-like quality that sometimes takes over us when we become self-conscious and try to expose what goes on in a character’s minds—like when Peachy tries to get Beau to spank her. She’s only half serious. Peachy likes sex. She really likes sex with her husband.
You can see how a woman like that, one who has made peace with her body, who doesn’t expect perfection and knows a thing or two about vulnerability, would appeal to a city lawyer like Marcus. He’s probably only dated overly self-involved, self-centered women like Beth. Peachy is real. Beth still struggles with authenticity. Peachy accepts that she’s flawed. Beth hasn’t. Yet.
Q: Are you working on anything else? If so, can you share a bit about it with us? LG: I am. I think it’s about how a single woman finds her sense of permanency and home, beyond snagging a man and a ring. Virginia Wolff used to write about those ideas, back when they were exotic. I think they’re still exotic choices, because I don’t think the many women who are single and childless really choose to be single and childless. I want to write about one who does. That’s all I can say right now because I tend to jinx stories when I talk about them too much. A border crossing will probably figure in there somewhere. I can’t seem to get away from that theme.